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

Saturday, 09 January 2021 15:06 EST

Note: NFLbets is writing this up on Sunday morning and so can never complain about bad beats or chase after losses – both plusses for the bankroll, no matter how Saturday went.

As with Saturday’s games, NFLbets is attempting to scope out some upsets. 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.

Yesterday, we tapped the underdog Los Angeles Rams as a good bet SU and ATS, so one or two more mathematically seem likely for Sunday (again, writing this before Saturday’s games…) – and o yes, we’ve found some good opportunities for betting beginning at the top with…

Baltimore Ravens -3½ at Tennessee Titans, over/under 54½ points

NFL bettors and general NFL fandom alike are taking for granted that this is a guaranteed barnburner and so pound away at the over – particularly as the sportsbooks have this point spread set the shorterst by a significant margin.

So how does the under hit here at all? Mike Vrabel’s Titans have played just three games against the Ravens, with an inconclusive 2-1 SU/ATS mark going into this game. The over has hit once, in the 30-24 overtime win of week 11 this season.  

No matter: The 2019 Tennessee Titans defense, which was good to excellent most of the year and dominant in their first two playoff games, evaporated at some point in August. What’s left is a New York Jets-level D that’s bottom-5 in overall DVOA, total yards allowed, opponent time of possession, first downs and nearly any passing statistic you can think of. As a result, overs are an incredible 12-3-1 in 2020 Titans games. About the only plus the Tennessee D is getting here is that the Ravens’ game plan is seriously straightforward: After all, only one team in the league outdid the otherworldly Derrick Henry & Co.

As for Baltimore on the defensive side, begin with their having seen the third-least number of runs all season. The Ravens with their multiple run formations, ridiculous run blocking and the craftiness of Lamar Jackson don’t so much score lightning-quick as score efficiently, ranking 9th in points per possession (and 2nd in the stat in the season’s second half) and 3rd in time of possession.

Now, getting to 55 points should require at least six touchdowns along with five field goals or seven TDs and two FGs. The latter seems more likely, but even both Henry and Jackson et al romping freely through helpless defenses may not be enough for this many scoring opportunities. Many are bandying about the tidbit these are 2020’s top 2 rushing offenses, but NFLbets is focused on how both offenses are bottom 3 in attempts – even these two mighty running teams average only about 1.5 rushing touchdowns per game apiece.

NFLbets’ conclusion: If you’re betting the over here, you may as well also bet on a prop like “Game Will Go into Overtime” or “Defensive/Special Teams TD by Either Team.” But we’re going counterintuitive and pro-math: Take the under on an O/U of 54½ points.

Chicago Bears +10 at New Orleans Saints, over/under 47½ points

Before beginning, let’s get one thing straight: When the sportsbooks establish a point spread like this in the wildcard round, they’re not fucking around. Just eight wildcard games have kicked off with a point spread of 9½ or higher; such a line hasn't been seen since Miami Dolphins +11 at Pittsburgh in 2017. 

In those nine games, underdogs are 1-8 SU/ATS. The sole exception was in none other than the Beast Mode Activated game when the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks upset the seemingly Super Bowl-bound New Orleans Saints (imagine that) in a 41-36 seat-edger. Note, too, that the Seahawks’ win represented the sole instance of a double-digit home underdog in the round ever.

So is it as simple as deducing that no Chicago player can work miracles like Marshawn Lynch and therefore bet Saints minus the points? After all, the Bears took New Orleans – including Alvin Kamara, who’s back after a week in Covid protocol – to overtime in week 6, right? And the Bears were just one of the six teams of .500 or worse record that the Saints played to within 6 points.

Additionally, NFLbets can’t be alone in bafflement at how exactly the 2020 New Orleans Saints got to 12-4 in the regular season – though their 10-1 mark against non-playoff teams certainly comprises much of this. These Saints, crippled by cap space, have been in whatever-it-takes gear most of this season; NFLbets is certainly not expecting a Bears upset, but we’ll be damned if we can guess a margin a victory. So try this: Take the New Orleans Saints to win by 13 points or less at +127.

Cleveland Browns +6½ at Pittsburgh Steelers, over/under 47½ points

Yes, the Steelers have been particular victims of the schedule-wreaking effects of Covid, at one point playing five games in 3½ weeks – but the fact that Pittsburgh’s starters have played two good quarters in the last six games is at least slightly disconcerting for would-be Steelers backers. In fact, about a month ago, this matchup would have been the vogue upset pick of this year’s first round.

But Cleveland not only played limply against the Pittsburgh second-string in week 17, the Browns are going into this game down two OL starters (not great news against a pass rush spearheaded by T.J. Watt) and a head coach; here’s Covid insanity tipped in the Steelers’ favor. As much as NFLbets distrusts the Saints, however, these Steelers are looking like the archetypical team who peaked too soon.

After starting out 11-0 SU/8-3 ATS, Pittsburgh enters the postseason on a 1-4 SU/2-3 ATS skid – fair enough, four of these games were against playoff teams, but the fifth was an ugly loss to Cincinnati in which Bengals QB Ryan Finley went for 73 yards. Asking a team with a long past of failure and a roster composed of mostly inexperienced guys to win their first playoff game without a head coach may be a big ask, but keeping things to within a touchdown when temperatures are in the low 30s? That’s probably doable. Take the Cleveland Browns +6½ at Pittsburgh and take the under on an O/U of 47½ points.

–written by Os Davis