Looking for upsets on wildest wildcard weekend ever (Part I)

Quick show of hands: How many NFL bettors didn’t think we’d ever get to this weekend on time with all scheduled games intact? And now for the first time ever, the NFL playoffs features back-to-back tripleheaders to get things started. See: Year 2021 is already better than 2020.

Now, as we get the ball rolling on this newfangled sort of opening playoff weekend, NFLbets is weighing heavily upon determining upset specials. (After all, it’s called the wild card round for reason…) Since 2000, underdogs have gone a respectable enough 32-48 SU but are an excellent 43-36-1; in a 4-game wildcard round, that translates out to about 1½ SU and 2 ATS wins per year. Theoretically, in this year’s round of six, history says we’re looking at 2½ underdogs to win SU and ATS.

Erring on the side of caution, then, NFLbets is going to look for three underdogs ATS and, if possible, two to cover SU. With marginal teams like the Chicago Bears and Washington Football Team, one might figure for easy pickings in this year’s playoffs, but these lines are making things tougher than they look. At least this playoff opener is easy:

Indianapolis Colts -7 at Buffalo Bills, over/under 51½ points

Were the Bills actually helped by the lack of bye week? Whereas conventional wisdom holds that the first-week bye is invaluable in the playoffs, the red-hot Bills hosting in ice-cold Buffalo may not exactly mind eschewing the free time to keep the increasingly fearsome-looking snowball rolling apace.

And whoa, is Buffalo rolling. On their current 9-1 SU/8-2 ATS run, the Bills are winning by an average score of 35-21 – yet for some reason have only been favored by more than 7 points once: in week 7 against who else but the New York Jets. The Bills face the Colts, who earn accolades as the greatest no. 7 NFL playoff seed of all-time; though note their only competition is the 2020 Chicago Bears.

At 11-5, the Colts are certainly no slouches but two glaring stats make the road uphill narrow in the extreme: The fact that they faced three top-10 defenses all season – at Chicago, vs Baltimore, at Pittsburgh – and went 1-2 SU/ATS while scoring an average of 17.66 points in those games. Why? Primarily because Indianapolis is the lowest-scoring second-half team remaining in the AFC and Philip Rivers still brings the lowest QB rating in the final 30 minutes.

Yes, we should expect regress to the mean after eight straight ATS wins, but just look at the way these Bills are playing right now. The Colts aren’t snapping this streak yet. Take the Buffalo Bills -7 vs Indianapolis.

Los Angeles Rams +3½ at Seattle Seahawks, over/under 44 points

Ah, now this looks like some upset material. Ture, underdogs are 4-8 SU/ATS in intradvisional wildcard games since 2000, but since four of these losses came by the Cincinnati Bengals or Cleveland Browns in the 00s, we’ll call it dead even and say familiarity breeds, well, familiarity – in this case probably enough to keep things to within a score.

Living within the designated home-market area of the Los Angeles Rams, NFLbets cannot accept any argument that replacing Jared Goff will hurt the Rams chances in this game any; indeed, Goff is as of Friday still listed as questionable on injury reports, was limited in practices and was quoted as saying he’s “ready to go” “if needed.” So it’s John Wolford, who may have led the Rams to a win in which they set a record for broken plays.

But Seattle, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, look lumbering coming into this game as well as limited in weaponry. Sure, the Seahawks are on a 6-1 SU run, but are just 3-4 ATS in that span which included only two games against playoff teams: at Washington and vs these Rams.

While the offense has improved from sieve-level porous (would you believe 38.4 points per game surrendered over the first 8?), offensive production is shrinking as defenses learn to deal with D.K. Metcalf as a deep threat; in two games against Jalen Ramsey and the L.A. secondary in 2020, Metcalf managed just 28 and 59 yards.

NFLbets might throw a few moneys at the Los Angeles Rams money line (ML), thanks to very good odds of +145 to +150, but to be safe just take the Los Angeles Rams +3½ at Seattle and take the under on an O/U of 44 points, which really cannot go low enough after three straight Rams-Seahawks games of under 40 points total.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers -8½ at Washington Football Team, over/under 44½ points

Tom Brady mystique aside, the smart bet here is probably still on the chalk. Since 1990, favorites of 8 points or more in the wildcard round are a solid 16-3 SU/13-6 ATS, and there is little reason to suspect these Buccaneers would fall prey to what is likely the weakest playoff entry since at least the 2002 postseason.  

And if any team has gone out with a win yet appears to be backing in to the playoffs, it’s the 2020 Washington FT. While Tampa Bay was thanking schedule makers for a final month of vs Minnesota/at Atlanta/at Detroit/vs Atlanta, Washington first fought its way into the playoff hunt with four straight wins and then suited up a fourth starting quarterback and put up three games of 20 points or fewer to again resemble their true 7-9 form.

The only hesitance here is abstract. If a time traveler sent from a month in the future told NFLbets the Buccaneers were playing in Super Bowl LV, we’d believe it; we’d likewise believe that Bruce Arians’s guys got flustered early in their first-round game, dumb penalties mounted, and Brady, Favre-style, threw a pick-six to end Tampa’s season early, we’d believe that, too.

So we’re saying take the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -8½ at Washington, but look to hedge after (or in, even) a low-scoring first half and take the under in live game betting … and then Sunday we get to do it all again!

--written by Os Davis

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