The NFL action is heating up as we reach Wild Card Weekend. Mark Taylor breaks down the games in the AFC and NFC Wild Card games to help inform your NFL betting and find value.
Covid-19 has had a major impact on the NFL season.
Virtually every side has had player or staff outbreaks, disruption to their schedule, loss of bye weeks, and limited or no crowds at games.
The latter has impacted the home field advantage across the league, with a near identical split of home and away wins and the ever-present three points advantage enjoyed by the home sides shrinking to virtually zero.
That’s not to say home field advantage should be entirely ignored in the postseason, as climate and constant road games for the successful lower seeds could play a part.
Points scoring has also hit a high compared to historical values. Prior to the final Week 17 games an average of 49.4 points per game had been accumulated, although this points glut has cooled as the season has progressed. Six of the first nine weeks had an average of 50 or more total points per game, but only Week 15 has breached that level since.
Most significantly, the playoff format has been changed for the first time in nearly two decades to accommodate an extra seeded team in each of the two conferences. This has led to an extra Wild Card game in both the AFC and NFC, and deprived all but the top seeded side in each conference of a postseason bye week.
It’s going to be a hectic, six-game Wild Card weekend with 13 matches left before the Super Bowl winner is known.
The landscape and the structure of the current NFL season has changed, but passing and rushing efficiency, corrected for the quality of the opposition faced remains a potent weapon in evaluating the offensive and defensive matchups and how these will translate into likely margins of victory during the postseason.
Throughout the postseason, we will use season-long net yards gained per attempt, either on the ground or through the air, as a measure of team quality, while also evaluating the quality of defences faced.
A side may have achieved impressive raw passing efficiency figures, but if they have faced a raft of teams who have regularly allowed higher than average aerial yards per attempt, then their underlying abilities may not be as potent as they first appear.
For example: prior to Week 17, Tennessee (450 points scored) and Kansas City (452) had scored 30 and 30.1 points per game respectively, but the Titans had done so against defences that have allowed 25.7 points per game, whereas Kansas City had played against marginally stronger defences, who had conceded an average of 25.1 points per game.
AFC Wild Card Game of the Week
Indianapolis 11-5 (7) at Buffalo 13-3 (2)
Buffalo were just a game behind top-seeded Kansas City in the AFC, but they also tie with them as the NFL’s best passing team. They’ve thrown around a yard per attempt further than the defences they’ve faced have allowed.
They are only of average efficiency when running with the ball, but they’ve combined the two disciplines to score 5.5 more points per game than their opponents usually allow. On the defence, the Bills are merely average, being slightly above par through the air, but they struggle against the run.
Indianapolis manage an extra half a yard per passing attempt on offence compared to the quality of defences faced, but languish well outside the elite when running with the football.
Defensively, their passing defence only just sneaks into the top 16 and should prove an enticing target for the excellent Josh Allen, while their elite rushing defence, the best in the postseason, may have a few opportunities to shine.
Schedule adjusted scoring rates, a favourable passing match-up, and nominal home field advantage for Buffalo suggest a five-point margin of victory for the higher seeded hosts and the Bills’ passing edge should ensure the total points stretches to 55 points.
Remaining AFC Wild Card Games
Cleveland 11-5 (6) at Pittsburgh 12-4 (3)
A venue-reversed reprise of the Week 17 game won by Cleveland against a Pittsburgh side who rested key starters, including Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback.
Pittsburgh’s defence defines this game. The Steelers are underwhelming offensively, but Roethlisberger makes the most of his targets and they are an average scoring team.
Cleveland fail to rise much above par on either side of the ball and the match-up suggests a comfortable seven-point Pittsburgh win, with 49 total points.
Baltimore 11-5 (5) at Tennessee 11-5 (4)
Tennessee take the higher seed as divisional winners, but Baltimore are the more accomplished side.
Both teams put lots of points on the board, but the Ravens’ elite pass defence is more capable of reining in Tennessee’s above par aerial offense.
Take the visitors to win by five with 55 total points.
The NFC Wild Card Games.
Chicago 8-8 (7) at New Orleans 12-4 (2)
The expanded format will bring atypical mismatches in the postseason and first up, the Saints face a 0.500 Bears team.
Chicago’s strength is on the defensive side of the ball; they defend both the pass and the run with equal excellence and are a difficult team to score against.
25 points is the new benchmark number for points conceded in the more points laden NFL and the Bears have restricted opposition sides to below that figure on 10 occasions in the regular season.
But an offence that languishes amongst the NFL’s least potent has seen them lose four such games, even when the defence has proved to be elite. They are comfortably the least efficient passing side remaining in the postseason.
New Orleans isn’t quite the passing juggernaut of the past. They lost Drew Brees to injury for four matches in the second half of the regular season and they throw for half a yard more per attempt than their opponents usually allow.
Their running game has a similar level of above average efficiency, but matched against the Bear’s fearsome defence they will likely struggle to perform even to average levels at the weekend.
Chicago’s perennial problem is putting up scores of their own and a Saints win by seven points, with a relatively low 46 total points expected.
Remaining NFC Wild Card Games
LA Rams 10-6 (6) at Seattle 12-4 (3)
Another late season fixture reprise, as Seattle’s top five, well-balanced offence faces off against the Rams’ top three defence.
Seattle won the Week 16 game by 11 in a low scoring encounter, but the Rams are projected to keep it even closer in the postseason by more than stifling the Seahawks’ offence.
Seattle by three points with 47 total points scored.
Tampa Bay 11-5 (5) at Washington 7-9 (4)
Even without an expanded postseason, Washington would still take a losing record into the playoffs by winning the abject NFC East, where the four sides could muster just 23 wins, with Washington winning just three games outside of their division.
There are less efficient passers and running sides than Washington in the postseason, but none score fewer points per game once the quality of the opposing defences is allowed for.
They do possess an enviable defence, particularly against the pass and some, but not all, of their offensive frailty is regained on the other side of the ball.
Tampa has a similarly impressive and well balanced defense. Offensively though, they are above average when passing the ball, but well below par when carrying the football, but as befits a Tom Brady led scoring unit, their scoring efficiency is greater than the sum of their yardage efficiencies.
Tampa Bay has only lost to fellow postseason teams and given the weakness of the NFC East, along with more favourable match ups, the visitors are taken to win by nine points with a total of 45 points scored.