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NFL Wild Card Round Preview and Picks

The playoffs have arrived and bring us six games spread across Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Every game is a rematch from the regular season and three matchups are between teams in the same division. There is a lot to break down, let’s dive into these games.

All DVOA Rankings are via Football Outsiders

All betting lines are from FanDuel

Betting record

Last Week: +4.1 Units — Perfect week

Regular Season: -2.72 units

San Francisco 49ers vs. Seattle Seahawks

San Francisco DVOA Rankings

Overall – 2nd

Offense – 6th

Defense – 1st

Seattle DVOA Rankings

Overall – 10th

Offense – 14th

Defense – 21st

Previous Matchups

Week 2 — SF won 27-7 in SF

Week 15 — SF won 21-13 in SEA

KEY TO THE GAMESeattle OL vs. SF DL

The Seahawks have regressed in many different areas as the season has gone on. This is no surprise for a young team that relies on rookies at many key positions. No unit on the Seahawks has regressed more than the offensive line. Charles Cross, Abe Lucas, and the rest of this group has failed to protect Geno Smith over the last month of the season, causing a dip in offensive production.

Enter Nick Bosa and the rest of the 49ers’ pass rush. San Francisco has the best defense in the league in large part due to a relentless group up front that can heat up the quarterback without blitzing. If the Seahawks want to have a chance at pulling off the upset, they will need an all-time great performance from a struggling O-line.

Pick — 49ers (-9.5) 1.1 units to win 1

The Seahawks have the better QB. It can be hard to beat a divisional opponent three times in one season. The weather could potentially make this a weird game. But at the end of the day, the talent gap is just too wide. San Francisco is red-hot, littered with all-pro players, and possess the better coaching staff. Seattle’s defense just does not have the players necessary to make life tough on Brock Purdy, who will be distributing the ball to a healthy Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, George Kittle, and Christian McCaffrey.

San Francisco takes the lead early and the defense suffocates Seattle out of the playoffs. 49ers win comfortably and cover.

Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Los Angeles Chargers

Jacksonville DVOA Rankings

Overall – 13th

Offense – 9th

Defense – 26th

Los Angeles DVOA Rankings

Overall – 18th

Offense – 19th

Defense – 16th

Previous Matchup

Week 3 — Jax won 38-10 in LA

KEY TO THE GAME — Red Zone Execution

According to the betting markets, this is the closest matchup of the Wild Card round. Justin Herbert and Trevor Lawrence will make their playoff debuts in Jacksonville on Saturday night. This much we know. What will happen when the ball is in the air? That part could go in many different directions. When teams are as evenly matched as the Chargers and Jaguars appear to be, games will often be decided in the Red Zone. Both offenses should be able to move the ball in this game, but each have struggled at times converting Red Zone opportunities into touchdowns this year. The Chargers have been better in this department recently, but rank just 17th in the NFL in TD percentage in the red area at 54.10%. Jacksonville is 20th at 53.45%. Trevor Lawrence and his offense also had a handful of bad turnovers inside the opponent’s 20 throughout the year.

Over the past month the Chargers’ offense has been significantly better in the Red Zone, mostly due to health. At full strength, the Chargers can put a handful of large bodies on the field for Justin Herbert to target. The size of Mike Williams (who is questionable with a back injury), Gerald Everett, and Donald Parham Jr. make a huge difference when the field is condensed. As does the precision and quickness of Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler. Health and continuity along the OL has also helped the Chargers’ run game at the goal line.

While most of LA’s Red Zone problems stem from health issues, for Jacksonville the issue have mostly been execution. Trevor Lawrence has been fantastic in this breakout season, but he is still prone to missed throws and bad decisions when the field shrinks. Jacksonville has the weapons and the creative play calling necessary to convert in this part of the field, especially with the late-season surge from TE Evan Engram.

Doug Pederson is a brilliant play designer who knows how to set up plays and call them at the right time. Brandon Staley is one of the best game planners and defensive play callers in the sport. It will be fascinating to see who gets the better of who on Saturday, especially in the Red Zone.

Pick — Chargers (-2.5) Risking 1.1 units to win 1

This really could go in so many different directions. I could see a blowout on either side, I could see a shootout and I could see a slug fest. When push comes to shove I will side with the team with the better quarterback and the better defense, and that is the Chargers.

If Mike Williams is able to play at close to full strength, the Bolts’ offense will consistently move the ball. Keenan Allen has been terrific lately and should have a field day with Jacksonville’s secondary. And despite all of his flaws, Brandon Staley is a great game planner who should be able to throw enough wrinkles at Lawrence to force him into mistakes and negative plays. In that Week 3 matchup the Jags gashed the Chargers with a James Robinson-led power running attack. Jacksonville’s offense and personnel have changed significantly since that game, as has the Chargers’ run defense.

This is a better matchup for Herbert than it is for Lawrence, and I think that will ultimately be the difference in what might be the best game of the weekend.

Buffalo Bills vs. Miami Dolphins

Buffalo DVOA Rankings

Overall – 1st

Offense – 2nd

Defense – 4th

Miami DVOA Rankings

Overall – 8th

Offense – 7th

Defense – 15th

Previous Matchups

Week 3 — Miami won 21-19 in Miami

Week 16 — Buffalo won 32-29 in Buffalo

KEY TO THE GAME — Miami’s ability to run

If Skylar Thompson vs. Josh Allen in Buffalo is going to be a game, it will be because the Dolphins are able to run the ball and keep Allen on the sideline. Miami was 16th in rushing offense DVOA while the Bills were 3rd in the league against the run. The Dolphins have had some success recently on the ground with Raheem Mostert, although Mostert will be less than 100% with a thumb injury should he play. Miami has really struggled to find consistency through the air this year without Tua, but that won’t stop the Bills from devoting most of their attention in the direction of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle.

The likely game script and Buffalo’s dominance against the run make it hard to envision a game in which Miami is able to run the ball well enough to keep this one competitive, but they are going to need to try.

Pick — Buffalo (-13.5) Risking 1.05 units to win 1

This is a lot of points to lay in a divisional playoff matchup but I still lean Buffalo. Tre’Davious White has been better of late and Josh Allen will be ready to run wild now that it’s playoff time. How many points is Skylar Thompson really going to score in the home of Bills mafia in a playoff game? Give me Buffalo by 20 on Sunday.

Minnesota Vikings Vs. New York Giants

Minnesota DVOA Rankings

Overall – 27th

Offense – 20th

Defense – 27th

New York DVOA Rankings

Overall – 21st

Offense – 10th

Defense – 29th

Previous Matchup

Week 16 — Minnesota won 27-24 in Minnesota

KEY TO THE GAME — Justin Jefferson vs. NY Secondary

In that recent Week 16 matchup, Justin Jefferson had 12 catches for 133 yards and 1 TD… and the Vikings won on a long Greg Joseph field goal as time expired. It’s how the Vikings won games all year and it’s how the Vikings will try to win in the playoffs. New York has played better and has gotten healthier on defense over the past few weeks. The Giants know if they can contain Jefferson then they are in a great position, but can they do what few have done this year?

In Week 17 the Packers showed it’s at least possible to slow down Jefferson, although the Giants do not have a Jaire Alexander in their secondary. The strength of the Giants’ defense is the pass rush. Kayvon Thibodeaux and Dexter Lawrence have wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks late in the year, and it’s well known that Kirk Cousins can be rattled when the pocket starts to collapse. If the Giants can just contain Jefferson long enough to allow the pass rush and the frequent blitzes to get home against a shaky Vikings’ OL, then the Giants have a great shot at a road upset.

Pick — Giants (+3) Risking 1.08 units to win 1

This was a chaos game in Week 16 and it should be yet another chaos game on Sunday. The Vikings have won game after game after game in unserious fashion while the Giants are liable to do something crazy at any given moment. In a game where I don’t particularly trust either QB or either defense, I like the idea of taking the points and the better head coach, which I believe is Brian Daboll.

I’ll take the Giants to cover and win what promises to be a game decided by something absurd.

Cincinnati Bengals Vs. Baltimore Ravens

Cincinnati DVOA Rankings

Overall – 5th

Offense – 4th

Defense – 11th

Baltimore DVOA Rankings

Overall – 7th

Offense – 12th

Defense – 7th

Previous Matchups

Week 5 — Baltimore won 19-17 in BAL

Week 18 — Cincinnati won 27-16 in CIN

KEY TO THE GAME — Baltimore has to force turnovers

While this will be the third meeting between these two division rivals, it will be the first look for the Bengals at Tyler Huntley. Lamar Jackson was the QB when the Ravens won in Week 5, and it was Anthony Brown under center last week in Cincinnati. Huntley is dealing with shoulder and wrist injuries, but seems as if he will be ready to go come Sunday night. Without Lamar the Ravens are at a clear disadvantage at quarterback and on offense as a whole. If Baltimore is to make this a tight game in the fourth, it will have to be because the defense was dominant, which it has been against the Bengals at times.

Baltimore’s defense has been nothing short of spectacular since the addition of the newly-extended linebacker Roquan Smith. It’s also important to note that the Bengals’ OL is getting injured at the wrong point in the season. Right tackle La’el Collins tore his ACL in late december and right guard Alex Cappa is not expected to play after suffering an ankle injury last week. Combine these injuries with a decline in production from the Bengals’ run game and this offense is suddenly much easier to deal with. If Baltimore’s defense can contain Burrow and then force a few turnovers, setting up a short field for the offense, the Ravens have a shot. If Tyler Huntley is forced to put together long drives it’s hard to imagine Baltimore advancing to the next round.

Pick — Ravens (+9.5) Risking 1.04 to win 1

I am not willing to glance over the injuries on the Bengals’ offensive line. The Ravens have too good of a defense to be embarrassed by a one-dimensional offense that may struggle to protect its QB. The Ravens under Harbaugh have earned respect and I expect them to make this somewhat interesting despite the absence of Lamar Jackson. Joe Burrow finds a way to win in the end, but I like Baltimore to cover this number.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Vs. Dallas Cowboys

Tampa Bay DVOA Rankings

Overall – 17th

Offense – 16th

Defense – 13th

Dallas DVOA Rankings

Overall – 6th

Offense – 15th

Defense – 2nd

Previous Matchup

Week 1 — Tampa Bay won 19-3 in Dallas

KEY TO THE GAME — Dak taking care of the football

I apologize how obvious this key to the game is, but it’s the truth. Tampa’s offense has been bad all year, even worse than the numbers indicate. The Cowboys’ defense has the clear edge on that side of the ball and that advantage should be enough to get Dallas a win… if Dak protects the ball. Prescott has thrown 11 interceptions over the last 7 weeks and had a disastrous game last Sunday in Washington.

When Dak does protect the ball, the offense hums. And while the production certainly is not the same when Dallas is on the road — notably on grass — the Cowboys are still the better overall team by a considerable margin.

Pick — Cowboys (-2.5) Risking 1.15 to win 1

While Mike McCarthy is the reason many people are afraid to trust the Cowboys, Todd Bowles and the Tampa coaching staff have been much worse this season. The legend of Tom Brady and a few late season wins over the Cardinals and Panthers seem to have everyone forgetting that the Bucs are an 8-9 that has looked even worse than the record reflects. Tampa struggles mightily to run the ball and the Dallas pass rush will make it tough for Brady to sustain drives.

I don’t trust the Cowboys. There’s good reason not to. But I trust Todd Bowles and the 8-9 Buccaneers less, even with Brady. Give me Dallas to win and cover.

We made it. I hope everyone enjoys playoff football this weekend and good luck with your bets! Be sure to check out all the great NFL content at Apollo. Follow @ApolloTexans and @AaronLittleOB on Twitter for more.

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