Some will say that the NFL playoffs are unpredictable, and others will point to the top seeds’ perpetually-solid % chances to advance and play in the Super Bowl.
As usual, the truth is right down the middle, between the 2 extreme opinions.
All kinds of favorites have a shot at success in the NFL postseason. Dozens of wide-open passing teams have won Super Bowls and NFC championships, along with dozens of conservative running teams, and dozens of teams with great defenses or special-teams units. As Bill Walsh put it, “12 and 4 is pretty good.” Once an NFL club has won 12 games in a season it’s not up to anyone to say they’re doing it wrong.
However, there are prerequisites that an underdog must possess in order to have a legitimate chance. All playoff bids are praised and hyped by tradition unless the club backed-into the bracket. It helps to wide-focus the lens a little bit and consider that while a Wild Card team might have a ton of talent, there are usually good reasons why the campaign did not produce a division title.
Ascendant Wild Card berths usually have the following in-common:
- The NFL club plays in an exceptionally-good division and just missed a division championship
- Temporary injury problems or a brief slump caused a modest W/L record to occur, not scattered poor performances throughout the year
- The team is able to create its own momentum when on the road
- Several dangerous weapons lurk in the team’s starting lineup
- Good coaching, at least a 90% healthy depth chart, and solid leadership are all in place
- The team’s offensive line is intact and cohesive
- Pass-rushing is a strong suit on defense
Wild Card seeds do not play each other in the modern NFL, instead, the 2 “weakest” division champions are called to play in the opening playoff round. New Orleans is a 13-win club and a popular wager to win the Lombardi Trophy, but Old Gold will be called to defend home turf against visiting Minnesota on Sunday. In the late-afternoon NFC kickoff to follow, the Seattle Seahawks must travel to Philadelphia to meet the winners of a weak NFC East.
The conditions above apply to Wild Card bids that have the best chance to arrive on Super Sunday. But obviously, you can’t win 3 elimination games in a row without winning the 1st.
With days to go before the NFC scrums begin, bettors dislike 1 Wild Card seed so much that their opponent have become a commanding favorite in less than 72 hours of gambling action. But the wagering public likes the other Wild Card so much that the visitors flipped from underdog to favorite in a similar span of time.
New Orleans Saints vs Minnesota Vikings
I wasn’t sure why Green Bay was being discounted as an NFC North contender a few weeks ago, and before considering all of the angles, I was also unsure why the Minnesota Vikings are touted as such a Wild Card loser. The Norsemen check most of the boxes for a strong WC-bid contender, having fought the Pack for the division title, having won at Jerry World and nearly at Arrowhead Stadium, and featuring a pass rush that punished Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers in late fall.
Yet the New Orleans Saints are (-420) and shrinking for the contest with Minnesota at the Superdome on Sunday.
Take note that a “Super Bowl QB” is not on WagerBop’s list of ingredients for a solid NFL playoff underdog. I’m definitely in the minority among handicappers here, but my opinion is that teams define quarterbacks more than quarterbacks define teams, even at the top level. Was Colin Kaepernick a good NFL QB? Yes, when he ran a 2019 Baltimore Ravens-style playbook that suited his skills, and when his supporting cast played well. When those 2 “ingredients” were lost Kaep’s effectiveness took a downturn. The player hadn’t changed, just the circumstances. The 49er offense flourished when it worked in harmony with Kaep’s skill set – what Kurt Warner refers to as “having success” with an 11-man unit.
Kirk Cousins has his believers and detractors, but looking at a passer through either lens can distort the handicapping eye. Minnesota’s QB is not “bad,” “flaky,” or a “choker” no matter how many Negative Nancy types chirp about it for attention. If there’s a solid reason to ignore the Vikings as a potential underdog moneyline bet, it’s that Cousins’ club backed-into the postseason with 2 straight losses after facing an inside track to the NFC North crown. That’s a team-wide deal, not just a quarterback deal. The starting signal-caller didn’t even play against the Bears in Wk 17.
But even in the real world where all NFL QBs’ talents are respected, it’s possible to imagine Drew Brees simply out-gunning Cousins in a wild (excuse the pun) game. When a pair of offenses are clicking the better QB usually prevails in the end, like Doug Flutie over Vinny Testeverde back in the day. Sunday’s odds don’t necessarily reflect weakness in the Vikings so much as the multiple ways New Orleans can win. If it’s a tight, defensive battle, New Orleans can win. If it’s a high-scoring track meet in the indoor setting? The Saints’ well-oiled offense will probably pull ahead by 2 or 3 touchdowns, beating the (-8) point spread easily.
Meanwhile, the Vikings must work to limit the Saints’ point-scoring somehow, and that begins with the edge rush. Minnesota defensive end Danielle Hunter has been a sack machine in 2019, though he’ll have the disadvantage of working against New Orleans OT Ryan Ramczyk without a friendly crowd to help.
The Over/Under total opened at (46) which was clearly too low. New Orleans’ defense is a strong unit which has intercepted 13 passes and held opponents to less than 6 yards per pass attempt. Moreover, Sunday’s host defense got the team through a section of the season in which the offense was missing Brees. But the Saints aren’t designed to shut-out competent clubs, just to occasionally gum-up the works and force a turnover from a QB. If the Vikings are held to less than 22 points and Cousins fumbles or is intercepted once, New Orleans probably wins, but the total would still most-likely go over 46. If each QB plays a good game then there’s no way it goes under 50 points. Gamblers have noticed, pushing the Las Vegas total up to (49.5) points since betting began.
New Orleans has at least a 60% chance to win by 10 points or more. That’s no negative assessment of Kirk Cousins. He’s a playoff veteran who’ll lead scoring drives, and maybe even take care of the ball. But in the Superdome with a lesser supporting cast on a losing streak, it won’t be enough to overcome Hurricane Drew.
Cousins has rarely been turnover-free in any of the Vikings’ wins over quality opponents in ’19, and his OL was unable to blow the Packers off the ball during a key home game in Week 16. Dalvin Cook’s return will help the Minnesota backfield but he can’t line up and block for himself there, let alone in the roaring din of Big Easy.
As Joel Buchsbaum used to say, imagine what happens if each team plays its game.
Pick: New Orleans ATS
Philadelphia Eagles vs Seattle Seahawks
Pete Carroll’s game-management skills are, in a word, flawed, at least when it comes to the final moments of the 4th quarter. That’s merely 1 reason why the Seattle Seahawks have been forced to travel to Philadelphia on Sunday as a Wild Card bid.
But is the popular narrative of Carroll as a goal-line gag artist leading gamblers astray at all? When the skipper allowed a delay-of-game penalty to back Russell Wilson’s offense away from the end zone in an NFC West title scrum with San Francisco, fans recalled the Seahawks’ infamous Super Bowl XLIX loss to the Patriots in which Carroll ignored an obvious run-option that would have given his team a late lead, instead calling for a pass that sealed Seattle’s ugly fate on an interception.
I never buy into the lowest-common-denominator smearing of players or coaches who supposedly have no brains. Leon Lett had a brain. So did Roy “Wrong Way” Reigels for that matter. Mike Singletary, legitimately the worst professional head football coach of all time, has a brain. Pete Carroll obviously knows a lot more about pigskin than the average bloke calling him a “dummy,” or the Seahawks wouldn’t be 2013-14 Super Bowl champions and playing in the NFL playoffs again this postseason.
Seattle’s head coach doesn’t have a problem with the goal-line per se. He’s got issues managing timeouts. In San Francisco, the Seahawks came up with the improvised (or accidental) tactic of trading a delay-of-game for an artificial timeout when the offense was winded. Carroll and his immediate assistants could have called for Wilson to spike or snap a play at any time, but the HC probably felt that running plays were taboo anyway. With 17 seconds left, a tackle by the 49ers on the field-of-play could all but end the contest and lose the division. If the Seahawks were bound to pass until the clock ran out, and the powerful San Francisco defense knew that, then passing from the 6-yard-line would present advantages in opening-up space for WRs, not to mention to bonus of a “timeout.”
All sound logic. But the entire scenario occurred because Carroll was careless with his timeouts. Seattle had used them all up already. It fits a pattern for the skipper going all the way back to USC vs Texas in the Rose Bowl, when the Trojans needed only a single timeout to preserve a chance after a Reggie Bush scamper across midfield, following Vince Young’s iconic dash for a go-ahead Longhorn TD. On the gridiron after the game, Carroll hemmed and hawed about burning his final precious timeout, which – like Seattle’s much-debated T/O in Week 16 of 2019 – was a decision made as the clock was stopped.
We can expect a tight game or at least a choppy one in Philly. The narrative around the Eagles right now is that Carson Wentz is an unproven commodity in the playoffs, but Philadelphia hasn’t been a bad club late in the season and Wentz has the skill-set to flourish in the postseason with a supporting cast playing up to par. However, both teams are a mess of injuries, with Rashaad Penny having gone down for the year just as he got rolling in Seattle and Philly dealing with wounds to star TE Zach Ertz and running back Miles Sanders. Attrition in the 2-deep depth chart plus a severe injury for DeSean Jackson and a lesser knee injury to Nelson Agholor puts pressure on the remaining playmakers around Wentz. Meanwhile, Wilson is considered a wily veteran who can vault a battle-tested club over the hump on the road, even though his team fails the Wild Card sleeper checklist with dozens of injuries piling up on IR and weekly doubtful/questionables.
As in the other NFC Wild Card contest, the potential QB’s duel has the betting public captivated. Odds have “flipped” for the pair of teams at Lincoln Financial Field as Seattle opened as an underdog but is now a (-2.5) point-spread favorite at Bovada. Many gamblers will wager on Sunday’s late kickoff ATS and on the moneyline, but I’ve got another market in mind with a better % chance of paying off than any of the above.
The scrum’s healthy, steady O/U total of (46) overlooks the Seahawks’ lower probability of scoring late in either half due to the timeout bug and the 1-track mind of Pete Carroll. Seattle takes things 1 step at a time on the field, which means the Seahawks’ game plan is always to score only the number of points necessary to win while keeping Wilson healthy for the long haul. Sunday’s visitors have made their living in close games because the club is uninterested in style points or practice-reps.
Seattle could easily win the game without any 2-minute-drill heroics. But if Carroll’s gut instinct is to kneel down and live to fight again (with no timeouts left, of course) at the :45 mark of the 1st half, he’ll do it even if analytics are telling him to try for points. If Seattle is losing by a TD with too-little time remaining, we can’t be sure Philadelphia won’t make a stop or just help the time run out before Seattle can score.
The Seahawks aren’t scared of the goal-line. But they’re not as likely to fire bombs at it if leading by a TD in the 4th quarter. Add in the fact that wind may be a factor on an otherwise temperate weekend in the northeast, and you’ve got a playoff game in which 2 quarterbacks may be called to hand-off and throw short often.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.