Your weekly NFL picks brought to you by our staff retired gambler, LaCharles himself
Chiefs Fcous @ChiefsFocus Charles Robinson @CRob5769
In what was the longest season in NFL history, there were many highs and many lows for each and every NFL team and fanbase. 18 of the 32 teams fans are sitting at home concentrating mostly on what went wrong or why their team is not playing this weekend or next, or fixated on the NFL Draft. 14, however, have a continued hope and sense of excitement that nothing else in professional sports can quite duplicate. The NFL playoffs are the ultimate pro sports postseason experience, and I’m not just saying that as a self-proclaimed football guy. The NBA, MLB, and NHL all have their postseasons set up in a series format. The PGA Tour has 4 rounds to every major. The only comparison to the NFL playoffs is March Madness, which is right there with the NFL playoffs, but we’re talking pro sports here folks. I’ve proven with my track record of picks in the College Football Playoff (which sucks) that I cannot pick college sports. It’s impossible. Back on track – the NFL playoff format is win or go home. It’s all on the line this weekend for 12 teams, with the two 1 seeds (Tennessee and Green Bay) watching from home as the 2 through 7 seeds battle it out in efforts to blaze their own trails to Super Bowl 56.
It’s here. It’s finally here. It’s the first playoff Red Friday of the year, and we are officially one day away from the beginning of Wild Card Weekend. There are 12 fanbases across the country who are more than likely in need of some type of anxiety medication at this point. Some more than others, but even if you’re an overwhelming favorite there is no certainty when it comes to the NFL playoffs. It’s sudden death each and every round, and if you’re unprepared, looking past your opponent, or just off your game on a given Saturday or Sunday (or Monday this year – which is terrible) you’re setting tee times with your friends instead of marching deeper into the playoffs. As players, coaches, and as fans this is the most intense time of the year. This is truly where the rubber meets the road. Postgame press conferences do not include phrases like “We’ll watch the film, make adjustments, and try to be better next week.” There is no next week if you don’t show up this week.
Before we start this preview, let’s look back at the regular season that was from a picks perspective. We started this column in week 9 of the regular season, which is right around the time that I started writing for Chiefs Focus. 10 weeks worth of picks, self-deprecation, and disclaimers to not utilize my picks in any of your own personal gambling endeavors later, we have our final regular season tally. On the year your ol pal LaCharles finished 94-53 (63.95% accuracy) on straight up picks, and 86-60 (58.90%) against the spread. A strong 11-5/12-4 week 18 showing helped propel us to a very respectable end of year total. In hindsight you would have been fine to use these, but I will still advise you not to. The wheels could come off at literally any point.
In action this weekend will be a number of teams, and specifically quarterbacks, that aren’t very familiar with playing on Wild Card weekend. This will be the first wild card round start for Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who has had byes in his previous 3 playoff runs in the Wild Card round. Tom Brady only played in the wild card round 4 times in his 16 appearances with the New England Patriots, going 2-2 in that round including a 2020 loss to the Tennessee Titans, but will be playing in his second consecutive wild card round with the Buccaneers and 6th overall out of 18 playoff appearances in his career. Joe Burrow, Jalen Hurts, Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Kyler Murray all make their wild card (and for the most part outside of Jimmy G – playoff) debuts this weekend. Dak Prescott has been once and won, and Matthew Stafford has been 3 times as a member of the Detroit Lions and has a record of 0-3. Ben Roethlisberger leads this weekend’s QBs in Wild Card appearances with 7 in his career, where he holds a 3-4 record in the opening playoff round.
I spent a good bit of time contemplating whether to do a full playoff prediction blog, or to stick with the week to week format. With COVID, and injury possibilities in play over the course of the next few weeks, I decided to remain week to week. Player availability is more up in the air than ever, especially with COVID cases on the rise nationally, so I thought I’d try to protect my sterling reputation with our readers by being conservative.
Well that’s that. No sense in beating around the bush any further. Let’s dive right into the picks. We’ll be utilizing a little bit of a different format this week, and a longer form preview style as there are only 6 games to cover, and they mean a lot more than a mid-December Jags/Texans game. We’ll work our way from Saturday to Monday.
(5) Las Vegas Raiders 10-7 at (4) Cincinnati Bengals 10-7 – AFC – Saturday 3:30 CST; NBC
Bengals -5; Over/Under 48.5 Betway
There has been a lot of talk surrounding Joe Burrow and the Bengals over the course of the past few weeks, and who can blame the people talking? Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase particularly had been spectacular in the final two games that they played in to conclude the regular season. The Bengals rushing attack, led by Joe Mixon, has been one of the best in the league in 2021. Defensively, Cinci has excelled in stopping the run which has been instrumental in their attaining a division title in the AFC North where Baltimore, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh all like to run the football. There have been some stumbling points along the way, but for the most part this has been a breakout year two for Burrow and the young Bengals. But why are we ignoring what Derek Carr and the Raiders defense have done since Thanksgiving?
After 3 consecutive losses to the Giants, Bengals, and Chiefs, the Raiders went into AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX and outdueled the NFC East champion Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day. 2 losses followed – 1 to the Washington Football team in a pillow fight and one embarrassing loss to the Chiefs at Arrrowhead Stadium – but since then 4 consecutive wins to lock up the AFC’s 5 seed behind a defense that has clamped down on opponents.
The Raiders face an uphill battle Saturday against the Bengals in Cincinnati, but if there is a team in these playoffs that has fought up hill all season long, it’s Las Vegas. So what do they have to do to have a chance to win? It starts with pass rushers Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue. If the Raiders pass rush, the best aspect of their otherwise suspect defense, can get to Joe Burrow and not just pressure him, but take him down, the Raiders will make this a tight game to the end. The Bengals offensive line makes this a reality, ranking in the bottom third of the league in most major metrics from most major analysts. I don’t know how to say “they’re not great” in a more politically correct way. Offensively for the Raiders, with no real big play threat, they will need to take a dink and dunk approach to beating the Bengals underneath. They have the tools to do it, between Hunter Renfrow, Zay Jones, and Darren Waller mixed in with some strong running from Josh Jacobs. But will it be enough if…
Joe Burrow finds his stride? There are no signs pointing towards Burrow slowing down based on recent evidence. Even with help from the officials in the Chiefs game, the Bengals looked like an offense that way dialed in and in sync with one another. A week off to heal up some lingering ailments was likely good for Burrow, who was gimpy coming off of the field against KC before Brandon Allen took the final two kneels downs to set up the game winning 20 yard field goal. The weather was a concern for the Bengals high flying offense early in the week, but it now looks like it will be 31 and partly cloudy when the game starts. Cold, but wind gusts only up to 10mph. This should not impact the Bengals passing game as much as previously expected. On defense for the Bengals, they’re facing a Raiders team who was top 3 in the league in penalties, and a right tackle in Alex Leatherwood who led the NFL in false starts. If I recall correctly, Paul Brown Stadium got pretty loud a couple weeks back, and we were still in the regular season. Expect the Bengals defense to feast a little on the Raiders iffy offensive pass protection, and Cincinnati to move on to the next round and collect their first playoff win since 1991.
Cincinnati, 30 Las Vegas 21 (Bengals -4, Over 48.5)
(6) New England Patriots 10-7 at (3) Buffalo Bills 11-6 – AFC – Saturday 7:15 CST; CBS
Bills -4; Over/Under 44 Betway
Betway If you like scoring, this might not be your game. In a matchup between the league’s top two defensive units, New England heads to Buffalo Saturday night where the kickoff temperature (optimistically) will be around 8 degrees. Not 18, 8. That’s cold. There will not be the tornadic level winds in play that crippled the two teams week 13 snooze fest in Buffalo, but the frigid temps will undoubtedly play a factor in this rubber match between the top two teams in the AFC East. The Patriots are genuinely built for this type of game. With an offense that is predicated on running the football, and a defense that excels in confusing opposing offenses and taking the ball away, these conditions lend themselves a lot more to the Pats style of play than the Bills. But they have to play the game. How do the frigid temps impact the Bills, particularly Josh Allen?
Allen somehow has only played 5 games outdoors in his career where temperatures are below freezing. On the season he had a 63% completion percentage, threw for 259 yards per game, and sported a 2.4 to 1 TD to interception ratio. In cold weather games in his career? 50.3% completion percentage, 167 yards per game, and 6 touchdowns to 7 interceptions. You would think this would be a damning thing for the Bills offense, but they actually have come out of those 5 games ahead at 3-2. The x-factor with Josh Allen, and what makes the Bills offense so dangerous, if that he can kill you with his arms and his legs. The Patriots will have to account for Allen’s ability to run the football, and have the expectation that the Bills running game as a whole will be better than the first time they visited Orchard Park as Devin Singletary has come alive out of the backfield for the Bills in the latter part of the season.
This one is going to come down to experience. Mac Jones certainly doesn’t have as much experience in postseason play as Josh Allen, but the Patriots roster as a whole has mostly been there before. Guys like Devin McCourtey, David Andrews, Matthew Judon, Trent Brown, Damien Harris, Don’t’a Hightower, and Lawrence Guy have all been here before. Bill Belichick has more postseason wins and Super Bowls than any coach in the history of the NFL. And they’ve done it in just about every single way. The lynchpin will be Jones. Can he do just enough to get the Patriots a road playoff win in his first start? He has to avoid the big mistake, and he has to stay poised. Which, on the road in Buffalo, with Bills Mafia jumping through tables shirtless in the parking lot before coming in and rooting for the championship run they have been dreaming of for decades? I give the edge to Buffalo one, with the assist to the home crowd.
Buffalo 20, New England 17 (Patriots +3, Under 44)
(7) Philadelphia Eagles 9-8 at (2) Tampa Bay Buccaneers 13-4 – NFC – Sunday 12:00 CST; FOX
Buccaneers -8.5; Over/Under 46 Betway
When you think Tampa, you think 70 degree weather and sunny in the winter right? Not Sunday. This game is going to kickoff at 1 local time after about 12 consecutive hours of thunderstorms that will continue right through the game, and 20-30mph winds that will undoubtedly change plans for both offenses. But who benefits?
You would think Philly, who comes in sporting the league’s best rushing attack. But the answer here is Tampa, and here’s why. The Bucs defense isn’t necessarily built to stop teams like the Eagles, but they’re very good at it. Vita Vea and Devon White in the middle of the defense make it very difficult for opposing offenses to get much going on the ground. Tampa was the league’s third best rushing defense this season and only gave up about 92 yards per game to all opponents. They also have Lavonte David and Leonard Fournette coming off of injured reserve, which will help bolster their ability to stop the run and to run the football.
Let’s not write off the Eagles just yet, though. The Eagles running game is one thing, but their passing game has been methodical, particularly through and to tight end Dallas Goedart. Goedert has 5 or more catches in 4 of the Eagles last 6 games, and could be a problem underneath for a Buccaneers defense that plays a lot of Cover 3. But in looking at everything side by side, this is about the only real advantage I could find for the Eagles offense against a Bucs defense that might have to carry this team throughout the playoffs if they expect to make a deep run. Tampa corner Sean Murphy-Bunting is questionable with a hamstring injury, which is certainly something to watch and could make Devonta Smith a lot more dangerous than he already is.
I waited long enough, the key here is going to be Tom Brady’s ability to dissect the Eagles defense in bad conditions. And the Buccaneers, while missing Antonio Brown (cut) and Chris Godwin (knee), are still built to slice and dice you over the middle of the field in short chunks. Brady has been surgical in this offensive style in his career, particularly in his days with Rob Gronkowski. The Eagles defensive style will lend to this as well – the Eagles blitz less than any team in the NFL (19%), are third worst in sacks, and 7th worst in pressure. While they won’t clear the middle of the field out with the blitz and allow Brady to find wide open targets, they will give him time. And when you give Tom Brady time, you’re going to get hurt. I would expect heavy doses of Gronk, heavy doses of Leonard Fournette, and a lot of mesh/crossing patterns to Mike Evans with the weather being atrocious in Tampa on Sunday. The Bucs move on.
Tampa 27, Philadelphia 20 (Philadelphia +8.5; Over 46)
(6) San Francisco 49ers 10-7 at (3) Dallas Cowboys 12-5 – NFC – Sunday 12:00 CST; CBS
Cowboys -3; Over/Under 51 Betway
Without a doubt the toughest game of the weekend to call. Dallas comes in on fire, and when they’re hot they’re as good as anyone in the NFL. But I’ve said this multiple times over the course of the last 8 weeks, and I believe it- San Francisco has the best roster in the NFL outside of the quarterback position. Turns out, that’s a big one. But they’re literally good at everything – dangerous receivers, world class tight end, can run the football, can stop the run, can defend the pass, and good on special teams. The problem is, so are the Cowboys. The teams strengths are met with opposing strengths, and the weaknesses are essentially negated by the opposition’s own weaknesses.
The Cowboys, as we detailed in our Case For and Against every NFC team, have a propensity to give up the big play. Trevon Diggs is having a fantastic season from a takeaway perspective, but he and the Cowboys secondary are addicted to giving up big plays and committing penalties, keeping opponents drives alive. While the Niners could have luck in their receivers drawing penalties on the Cowboys secondary, there is little to no hope of Jimmy Garoppolo taking advantage of the Cowboys propensity to allow the big play, especially with an injured thumb. Conversely, San Francisco struggles when teams are able to limit or take away George Kittle. Turns out, Dallas is 21st in the league defending tight ends this season, so we have a wash there as well.
This game is going to be high scoring, and it’s going to be entertaining. Dallas plays well with a lead, but San Francisco has proven, as recently as last week, that they can mount a comeback. The keys to this game are going to be the ability of the Niners secondary to keep Amari Cooper and Ceedee Lamb from causing too much damage, and for the Cowboys sometimes suspect run defense to be able to contain not just the 49ers running backs, but also the threat of Deebo Samuel out of the backfield. Two huge x-factors to watch for San Francisco will be the play of Jauan Jennings, and the availability of Trent Williams. Jennings went off against the Rams last week to the tune of 6 catches for 94 yards and 2 TD. If he can come close to those numbers this week, Dallas might be in trouble. Micah Parsons and the Cowboys pass rush are arguably the most dangerous aspect of this defense, and if San Fran is again without the league’s best left tackle, it could be a long day for the 49ers.
Right now, with so many key players for San Francisco questionable to play Sunday (Williams, Elijah Mitchell, Jaquiski Tartt), I’m going to have to go with Dallas. I will not be surprised if either team wins, whether it’s close or a blowout. This is the toughest game I’ve had to pick this year.
Dallas 33, San Francisco 30 (Cowboys -3; Over 51)
(7) Pittsburgh Steelers 9-7-1 at (2) Kansas City Chiefs 12-5 – NFC – Sunday 7:15 CST; NBC
Chiefs -12.5; Over/Under 46 Betway
I’m going to make you guys wait for this one. I’ll have a full game preview for the Chiefs wild card matchup with the Steelers out tomorrow.
(5) Arizona Cardinals 11-6 at (4) Los Angeles Rams 12-5 – NFC – Monday 7:15 CST; ESPN/ABC
Rams -4; Over/Under 49.5 Betway
Selfishly, there is no non-KC team that I want to win more this weekend than the Arizona Cardinals. I love the way they play offense, their defense is very aggressive, and when Kyler Murray is on and healthy, he’s one of the most fun players to watch in the NFL.
But, as I mentioned in the NFC blog yesterday, the Cardinals are so, so banged up. News this morning is saying that JJ Watt is “trending towards” being able to play on Monday night, but what does that actually do for the Cardinals at this point other than provide depth? Markus Golden and Chandler Jones are better options on the edge than Watt at this point in his career. Depth is obviously important, and a player like JJ Watt can never be discounted, but as far as on the field product goes, I’m not sure that’s a needle mover against a Rams team that appears primed for make a somewhat deep run into the postseason.
But what if I’m wrong? The Cardinals were 8-1 on the road this season. They’re playing this game in Los Angeles. JJ Watt is historically one of the best defenders in league history. What if he has multiple sacks and causes a turnover or two, something that Matt Stafford is no stranger to. Sure, the Cardinals are missing Deandre Hopkins, but Christian Kirk and Rondale Moore have had great seasons, and the Cardinals still have Zach Ertz at tight end to make life difficult for newly re-signed 37 year old Rams safety Eric Weddle. James Connor and Chase Edmonds are questionable, but both expected to play to add to the Cardinals ability to be balanced offensively.
This game is going to come down to turnovers in my opinion. If Matthew Stafford can protect the football and stay upright, the Rams will likely come out victorious. If Jalen Ramsey, Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and the Rams defense can find ways to get to Kyler Murray and force bad decisions from the Arizona signal caller, the Rams will likely come out victorious. If the opposite is true in either case, or both cases, the Cardinals will take it. Another tough one, but I am taking the Rams to win this game and move on to the divisional round.
Los Angeles 27, Arizona 24 (Cardinals +3; Over 49.5) Betway
I was legitimately nervous writing up every single one of those previews. We’ll see how it goes – I’m not counting on my regular season batting average to hold up in the postseason, though. We’ll be back tomorrow morning with a full scale preview of the game you’re all waiting for – the Chiefs and Steelers. Until then, happy Red Friday Chiefs Kingdom!