NFL Wildcard Picks

I remember being somewhat ambivalent when the NFL announced its new 14-team playoff format. But right now, I’m ecstatic. Six games on wildcard weekend? It’s going to be fun. Let’s dive right in with the picks. I’m putting at least one unit on each game, but I definitely like some more than others.

BAL -3 (-114) @ TEN (5 Units)

This is my favorite game of the weekend, and most confident play in several weeks. For my full write-up, see https://sharpclarkenfl.medium.com/wildcard-matchup-spotlight-bal-3-ten-85ee9ca9c854. This game has been bouncing between -3 and -3.5 all week, and I would put 5 units on either line because the line is too low regardless.

IND +7 (-115) @ BUF (3 Units)

The Bills are the hottest team in the NFL right now, winning their last 6 games by double digits. They are well coached and Josh Allen has taken such a huge step forward this year. They play with swagger and confidence and have all the pieces to make a Super Bowl run. But all that is reflected in this big line, which I don’t think gives the Colts enough credit. The blueprint for beating Buffalo is to slow the game down and keep Allen on the sidelines, and I think the Colts are good enough to do just that. The weather here may also keep the game slow and close, which favors the underdog. I give a slight edge to Frank Reich and Rivers with their experience in a big game, and I think if the Colts move the ball they will score enough touchdowns to keep this one from getting out of reach. I also love the chance at getting a backdoor cover or push with the 7 points, which I locked in before the line moved to 6.5. If you weren’t following me on Twitter and didn’t get the 7 points, I’d lower it to a 1 or 2 unit play at +6.5 (or wait for it to move back to 7, which it may do).

PIT -5.5 v. CLE (2 Units)

Both these teams have stumbled backwards into the playoffs, with the Steelers losing 4 of their last 5 and the Browns dealing with Covid (and other) issues. I wanted to take PIT -4 when the game opened, but as soon as Stefanski was ruled out with Covid I had to take -5.5 before it moves to -7 (which it almost certainly will). The Steelers’ offense has been wildly inconsistent, but the Browns have shown a lack of discipline all year on defense that lines up perfectly with the Steelers’ style. I think Big Ben will succeed on several big plays, leading to 3 or so touchdowns. And even with some major injuries, the Pittsburgh defense comes to play and may get a touchdown of their own. The Browns need to establish the run and protect Baker to be successful, and I don’t think they can here. I’ll back Mike Tomlin, a fiesty defense, and Big Ben with experience and talent, at home, to cover comfortably.

SEA -3.5 (-105) v. LAR (1 Unit)
Thursday Addition: O 42.5 (-105) (1 Unit)

I’m still not sure whether Jared Goff or John Wolford will be quarterbacking for the Rams. I’m not totally sure it matters. If Goff is active, this line may move down to -3, but I wouldn’t expect it to go further than that. I don’t mind locking in -3.5 here, because I think the Seahawks should win regardless. Russell Wilson has cooled off since his hot start this season, but he’s still one of the best quarterbacks in the league. The Seahawks are quietly riding a 4-game win streak into the playoffs on the strength of a surprising defense, which I think will continue to perform well here and limit the Rams to field goals. On the other side, Russell Wilson will find a way to combat the pass rush and will complete just enough big plays to keep them ahead. I don’t love it, but I‘ll back the far superior quarterback, at home, and I’ll lay the points.

Thursday Edit: I’m adding the Over on this game, partly as a hedge and partly because I think we are getting good value here. In my write-up I stated that I expect this to be a defensive game, but 42.5 points is a really low total for two offenses that can be explosive. The Rams are the kind of team that, when they move the ball, they move all the way down the field and score. And I expect the Seahawks to put the ball in Wilson’s hands enough to score a couple of explosive touchdowns. This bet is not so much about the offenses beating the defenses; but it’s about the nature of scoring drives being fast and not long, drawn-out drives. Ultimately I think these teams will get in the end zone enough to cover the low total. Over 42.5, 1 unit, also providing a little bit of cover in case Goff plays, looks healthy, and the Rams offense does come to play.

WAS +8.5 v. TB (1 Unit), Under 45.5 (1 Unit)

The narrative here is that Brady and the Bucs’ offense have finally put it all together. But that’s not what I’ve seen on the field. Brady has struggled against strong defensive fronts all year, and that’s because this offense is still committed to throwing deep early and often. The problem with that strategy is when the quarterback is pressured, there is no time for those routes to develop and a lot of balls are thrown into the dirt (if Brady doesn’t get hit). This would be a much bigger play, but the Bucs have started utilizing the short passing game much more in the last three weeks. If that continues, they may be able to protect against Chase Young and company. But I wouldn’t count on it, based on how stubborn Bruce Arians has been all year in this regard. Both teams might struggle for consistent offense and getting the ball in the endzone here, which is why I like the Under. And in a low-scoring game, give me the big underdog to keep it close. I’ll even call my shot here — Washington wins outright in the upset of the weekend.

NO -10 v. CHI (1 Unit)

I wish I had locked this in at -9.5 (or even -7.5 when it opened), but I wanted to be sure we would see Kamara and Michael Thomas in this game. Looks like we will. The Bears simply have no business being in this playoff field, and the Saints are the most complete team in the NFL when factoring in offense and defense. They should win this game easily, and I’ll happily lay 10 points.

That’s it for now! Good luck.

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