Heading into the NFL’s wild card weekend — pardon me, Super Wild Card Weekend — the most popular stat for writers, podcasters, and others with inches or airtime to fill was the one about quarterbacks making their first NFL playoff start. If you inhaled any NFL content at all last week, you know it by heart:
Since 2002, quarterbacks making their first playoff start, when facing quarterbacks not making their first playoff start, had gone 18-36 straight up (SU) and 17-36-1 against the spread (ATS), including 0-3 SU and ATS last season.
In this year’s wild card round, seven of the 12 QBs in action were making their first playoff starts. Four of them faced fellow first-timers (Brock Purdy vs. Geno Smith, Trevor Lawrence vs. Justin Herbert), so those don’t count. But there were three games that fit the parameters of the stat du jour: Skylar Thompson and the Dolphins at the Bills, Daniel Jones and the Giants at the Vikings, and Tyler Huntley and the Ravens at the Bengals.
All three newbie QBs covered. Only one of them won SU, so that trend (18-36 coming in, 19-38 now) held up, but the other trend, 17-36-1 ATS, was fully bucked.
So what does this tell us? That some trends matter and some don’t, that some trends may help point you in the direction of winning wagers but no trends guarantee you a winner. A trend should not be confused for a glimpse into the future. It simply applies numbers to what has happened in the past.
Already, the trend talk for the divisional round is underway. So let’s quickly analyze how meaningful some of these stats are.
Doug Pederson is 6-0 ATS as a playoff underdog: Yes, thanks to that extraordinary comeback Saturday night, the coach who won the Super Bowl with the Eagles five years ago is still undefeated ATS as a playoff ‘dog and is 5-1 SU — and has actually only been favored once in his seven-game postseason career. He’s up against a coach with a spotty playoff track record (more on that in a second) and a team that consistently stinks ATS, so the stars are aligning to give this trend a solid chance of paying off. And if nothing else, Pederson’s players believe enough in him and themselves now to keep fighting even if they fall way behind in Kansas City. Verdict: highly meaningful.
The Jaguars are 8-5 SU as underdogs this season, including playoffs: The Jags beat some decent teams this season when they weren’t supposed to win — the Chargers twice, the Ravens with Lamar, the Titans with Tannehill, the Cowboys with Dak — but went 0-2 against the truly elite teams, losing by 8 points to the Eagles and by 10 to the Chiefs. K.C. ain’t much when it comes to covering big spreads, but Patrick Mahomes and company almost always do enough to win outright. Verdict: not especially meaningful.
Andy Reid loses almost as often as he wins in the playoffs, with a 19-16 lifetime record: It’s important to divide this stat up. Reid was 11-13 in the playoffs before Mahomes became his starting quarterback, and he’s 8-3 with Mahomes. Verdict: half meaningful.
The Eagles are 2-7 ATS all-time against divisional opponents in the postseason: Wanna know the last time Philly played a fellow NFC East team in the playoffs? That would be 2009, when the Cowboys beat them in the wild card round. This is one of those stats that is not at all about the current players or coaches and is strictly about the laundry. Verdict: Utterly meaningless.
The Giants are 14-4 ATS this season and 11-2 ATS as an underdog, including playoffs: These stats tell you exactly who the 2022-23 New York Football Giants are. They’re the team that gets no respect but is so well coached that they should never be written off. Subset of this stat, however: Head-to-head against the Eagles, the Giants are 0-2 SU and 1-1 ATS. The Week 18 meeting didn’t mean much because the G-Men had nothing to play for, but the Week 14 game, which the Eagles won 48-22, counted for plenty. Then again, Philly is a lot less healthy now than it was on Dec. 11. Verdict: Moderately meaningful.
In the wild card era, teams that beat a division rival twice in the regular season are 13-7 SU and 10-9-1 ATS facing them a third time: With the 49ers completing a three-game sweep of the Seahawks on Saturday, it’s worth pointing out this stat because it goes against the commonly repeated myth. We’ve all heard it a million times: “It’s hard to beat the same opponent three times in a season.” Reality says otherwise. The truth is, it’s harder to beat a team that is clearly better than you and/or has your number. Does that apply to Eagles-Giants III? Again, that Week 18 game barely counts. These teams may as well have squared off only once this season. Verdict: Closer to meaningless than meaningful.
The Bengals have covered eight straight games as an underdog dating back to last season, including playoffs: Unlike the Giants, the Bengals are not getting disrespected by the sportsbooks — they’re just plain playing well whenever they’re up against other good teams. So this is a meaningful trend that tells us something about Zac Taylor’s team. However, most of this eight-game streak was achieved with a fairly healthy offensive line, and Cincy could be down as many as three starting O-linemen Sunday in Buffalo. Verdict: Unless Joe Burrow gets at least one of his injured blockers back, not very meaningful.
Burrow is 3-0 ATS lifetime as a playoff underdog: Glass half-meaningful take: Burrow is a bad, bad man who can’t be rattled and is always going to be dangerous as an underdog. Glass half-meaningless take: This is all confined to a single magical postseason and is based on an extremely small sample size. Verdict: Not terribly meaningful, especially given that O-line situation.
The 49ers have gone 9-2 ATS while winning their last 11 games: News flash: The Niners are the hottest team in the NFL. But this winning streak also has a little something to do with the quality of opposition. San Francisco won six games against non-playoff teams, and the five wins against playoff teams came against the Chargers, Dolphins, Bucs, and Seahawks (twice) — each eliminated in the wild card round. The Cowboys will be the best team San Francisco has faced since a lopsided home loss to the Chiefs in October. Verdict: Meaningful, but not necessarily determinative.
The Cowboys are 24-12 ATS the last two seasons, the third-best record in the NFL: This stat is perhaps a tad surprising, since Dallas is viewed as a “public team” that may give an extra point sometimes and since these Cowboys have a reputation as underachievers. They can certainly be inconsistent and lay eggs from time to time. But perhaps they’re actually underrated? Verdict: Don’t ignore this one.
The Cowboys have won outright in five of their last eight playoff meetings with the 49ers: You should know by now how to feel about trends that are built around wholly different personnel. And besides, 5-3 isn’t lopsided enough to even qualify as a trend. Verdict: Pretend you never heard this.
Five of six wild card round games hit the over: Actually, it could have been 6-for-6 if Brett Maher had only missed three PATs instead of four. Regardless, the first four games of the weekend sailed over. There could be some flukiness to that, but it also could be the way the officiating crews are being instructed to call these playoff games and the league trying to give offenses every possible advantage. Verdict: Probably at least a little bit meaningful, plus it’s fun betting overs and rooting for points, so … why not?
With that, let’s take a look at the opening lines and other assorted betting odds and ends for the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.
The consensus lines
Most lines vary by half a point in either direction, with slightly different vigs from book to book, so it’s always advisable to price-shop at all the available mobile sportsbooks in your state. But here are the consensus (most commonly found) spreads for each of the four games in the divisional round:
Jaguars at Chiefs (-8.5)
Giants at Eagles (-7.5)
Bengals at Bills (-5)
Cowboys at 49ers (-4)
Line move to watch
Two of these have already moved. The Chiefs opened at -9.5 and it’s shortened by a point, whereas the Bills opened -4.5 and it’s ticked slightly wider — probably due to continued bad news about the Cincy offensive line.
Next predicted move: I’m guessing that Eagles-Giants line will shorten by half a point as bettors continue to marvel over Daniel Jones’ performance in Minnesota and wonder just how healthy Jalen Hurts and Lane Johnson will be.
Intriguing moneyline underdog to consider
Red Hot Rasky did it again! He gave you the Giants at +140 last week, meaning his underdog picks are up 5.4 units on the season, thus ballooning his ego to the point that he almost exclusively refers to himself in the third person. As for this week’s best moneyline value option:
Giants +290 (BetRivers, Unibet, Barstool, other Kambi books) at Eagles: RHR is an Eagles fan, so call this bet an emotional hedge if you want. But this is just too steep a price for a Giants team this well-coached against an Eagles team that has lost most of its momentum and may be rolling out compromised versions of Hurts and tackle Johnson — arguably the two most important players on the team. The Giants only need to have a 26% chance of winning for this moneyline to hold value. Even the numbers on rivals playing a third time in a season suggests New York has a better shot than that.
Textbook teaser candidates
Fans of the three-team (or more) teaser know what to look for: favorites of 6 or more who become very safe bets if you reduce the spread by about a touchdown. Here are this week’s options that fit the bill:
Chiefs: Can tease down to -2.5 or -1.5 hosting the comeback-kid Jaguars.
Eagles: Can tease down to -1.5 or -0.5 going for the three-game sweep against the Giants.
Those are the only two favorites you can tease this week without crossing zero. So you’re looking at -120 or so for just the pair at 6 points apiece. Worth it? Perhaps. At least, unlike last week’s three-team teaser, you run no risk of going 2-for-3.
Remember those before-the-season Buccaneers Super Bowl bets bookmakers were up in arms about? They can exhale now.
Quick angry rant: It’s absolute BS that Chiefs-Bills, if it happens, will be played on a neutral field, and Bengals-Ravens could have been, but Bills-Bengals won’t be. If the NFL wants to bend the rules in the alleged interest of fairness in the wake of an unprecedented cancellation, fine — but the league has to be consistent in its bending. If not for the Damar Hamlin injury, the Bengals would have had a chance at the same record as the Bills and the second seed. Cincinnati is getting screwed here, simple as that. But if you believe in the Bengals despite their offensive line woes, at least you’re getting them +5 in Buffalo instead of (probably) +3.5 in Atlanta or wherever.
Many books offer Super Bowl 57 MVP odds, and one name jumps out at me: Christian McCaffrey. If the 49ers win the Super Bowl (the third favorite, roughly +450 at most books), shouldn’t their superstar, do-it-all running back be almost as likely to be named MVP as their rookie quarterback? At DraftKings Sportsbook, Purdy is +750 and CMC is the shortest non-QB at +1400. That’s a gap, but not a massive one. But at FanDuel, Purdy is +750 and McCaffrey is way up at +2000. That’s an irresistible price on CMC. Oh, and here’s a wackier disparity: Bills running back Devin Singletary is a puzzlingly short +2000 for SB MVP at DraftKings and +13000 at FanDuel. Always, always shop around, people.
That’s a wrap on “Line It Up” this season — no sense writing the column next week when there are only two games to look ahead to. Thanks for reading all season long and turning Red Hot Rasky into Read Lots Rasky. (Sorry, had to give you one last unforgivable dad joke for the road.)
Photo: Denny Medley/USA TODAY