Wednesday, February 21, 2024

NFL divisional round, picks, tips: Top plays for this weekend’s games

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The playoffs are here! Matchups are set for division round, so we’re looking at the key questions as the postseason continues and teams attempt to inch one step closer to the Super Bowl.

What is worth looking at from a betting perspective? And which are the best plays to help you make smart wagering decisions?

Betting analysts Doug Kezirian, Tyler Fulghum, Joe Fortenbaugh, Anita Marks and Erin Dolan, fantasy and sports betting analysts Eric Moody and Andre Snellings, ESPN Stats & Information’s Seth Walder and Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz offer their insights into the games with tips and picks.

Note: Lines are from Caesars Sportsbook unless otherwise indicated.


The first matchup of the AFC division round features the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs (-8.5, 53) hosting the fourth-seeded Jacksonville Jaguars at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. The Jaguars are looking for their first AFC Championship Game appearance since 2017 while the Chiefs, favorites for their 14th straight playoff game, hope to make their fifth consecutive championship game. Kansas City won the first matchup by 10 points back in November. How do you like this matchup?

Fortenbaugh: My favorite play is to tease Kansas City down to -2.5 and pair it with Philadelphia -1.5, but I’d lay the points with the Chiefs as well. We all know about Andy Reid’s success when coming off a bye week, but the angle here is Patrick Mahomes and the high-flying Kansas City passing attack challenging one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL. This is a bad matchup for the Jaguars.

Fulghum: I agree with Joe that teasing the Chiefs down to -2.5 is a strong play. The Patrick Mahomes Tax is very real. The Chiefs, essentially, win 80% of their games but because the market respects Mahomes so much as the best QB in the NFL, Kansas City often has to cover slightly inflated numbers, especially at home. I’m not quite comfortable laying that big number with the Jags (eight outright wins as an underdog this season) and Doug Pederson (6-0 ATS as a playoff underdog) on the other side.

Dolan: I’m shying away from the spread. Jacksonville has gone 7-3 ATS down the stretch and Pederson’s playoff experience gives the Jags a chance to cover. Meanwhile, the Chiefs have not been profitable against the number this season, sporting a 3-5 ATS mark at home. If anything, take a look at Kansas City (-5) in the first half given the turnover debacle for Jacksonville against the Chargers. Plus, the Chiefs were up by 13 points at the half in the only meeting this season. This total continues to rise after opening at 51.5, so I am looking at the anytime touchdown scorer market. Jerick McKinnon stands out with at least one touchdown in six straight games, including eight receiving and one rushing in that stretch. Mahomes should light up this Jags defense through the air. He posted 331 passing yards on them in November. Shop around for the best lines for his passing yards. Overall, it’ll be a player prop game for me.

Schatz: I think this number is very close to what it should be but if I needed to pick a side, I would go with the Chiefs -8.5. The Kansas City offense is, of course, the best in the league. The Chiefs’ defense has improved over the course of the year, up to 15th in weighted DVOA, which gives less strength to early games, and the Jaguars’ defense has not improved (30th in pass defense DVOA). The Jaguars also have some specific weaknesses that suggest a Chiefs win; for example, Jacksonville had the worst defense in the league against tight ends this season and was the worst against passes in the “short middle” area of the field.

Snellings: I like over 53 points for the game, the Chiefs over 29 points, plus Mahomes over 310.5 yards passing and Mahomes over 2.5 passing touchdowns. The Jaguars’ passing defense is suspect, and Mahomes averaged 331.8 passing yards in the past 11 games, outside of the season finale when he had a light workload. Mahomes lit the Jaguars up for 331 yards passing and four touchdowns in their Week 10 meeting. The Jaguars’ offense is much improved of late with Trevor Lawrence on a run; it has averaged 27.2 PPG in its past five outings including the playoffs. Jacksonville should put enough points on the board for Mahomes and crew to have to keep scoring, pushing the Chiefs over their point total and the overall score over as well.

Moody: I’m gravitating toward the over in this matchup. The Chiefs rank among the top offenses in multiple statistical categories, including points per game (29.2). Pederson has had a tremendous impact with Lawrence and the Jaguars’ offense, averaging 24.2 points per game during the regular season. It is a matchup Reid is salivating over because Jacksonville’s secondary is one of the worst in the league. The over has been 4-0 in the Jaguars’ past four games against winning teams. This game will feature a lot of scoring.

The Philadelphia Eagles (-7.5, 48) and New York Giants meet for the third time this season with Philadelphia having swept the regular-season series. The Giants have covered 11 games as an underdog this season, but one of their non-covers was to the Eagles. Who do you like to advance to the NFC Championship Game?

Kezirian: The only concern I have is the health of Jalen Hurts. If he looked sharp in his Week 18 return, then I would love this play. Philly was favored by 7.5 at the Giants earlier this season and now you get the same spread at home. Given Hurts had another week off, I am going to play Philly and hope he looks that much better. I also doubt the Giants’ pass rush will be able to dominate the trenches like it did against Minnesota. The Vikings offensive line was banged up but the Eagles have a strong interior offensive line. I expect a decent number of points and Philly to win by at least two scores.

Fortenbaugh: I’d tease Philadelphia with Kansas City and would also lay the points with the Birds. Now that the fugazi Vikings have been eliminated from contention, it’s time to say goodbye to “Minnesota Light,” aka the Giants. New York is now 10-4-1 in one-score games this season and enters the 19th game of the season with a +1 point differential. Translation: This team isn’t as good as people think. Further, Philly was laying 7.5 points at New York back in mid-December. Now the Eagles are at home, off a bye and still laying 7.5? I see value in the Eagles.

Fulghum: I like the Eagles to beat the Giants for the third time this season and advance to the NFC Championship Game, but I’m a bit concerned about the halted momentum of the team heading into the postseason. There’s a lot to like about the Giants, on the other hand. They’re playing with house money. They are extraordinarily well-coached. They are 14-4 ATS this season, including 11-2 in the underdog role. This is team is legitimate in regard to exceeding market expectation, and I think it will do so again in this game with a competitive effort and a cover.

Schatz: I’ve been driving the Philadelphia Eagles bandwagon since the preseason and I’m not going to stop now, but I actually think Giants +7.5 makes for a better spread pick. The Eagles have declined a bit in recent weeks. Their pass defense, for example, ranked first in DVOA in Weeks 1-9 but just 14th in Weeks 10-18. At the same time, the Giants’ passing game is trending in the other direction: 15th through Week 9, then fifth in the league from Week 10 through the wild-card round. The Eagles’ passing game has also declined in recent weeks, even if you remove the Gardner Minshew games, but this is not matched by a similar improvement from the Giants defense. The Giants’ defense is awful, particularly against the run, and has been all year. This game features the No. 1 run offense DVOA (Eagles) and the No. 32 run defense DVOA (Giants). That’s a big reason why I think the Eagles will take the victory, but the quietly successful Giants passing game could keep it closer than expected.

Walder: I’m mildly wary of Hurts’ health, but think the Eagles are the far, far superior team in general. As a result, I’m looking at an alternate line such as Eagles -16 at +213: In a world where Hurts is uninhibited, I like Philadelphia’s chances to roll. I just can’t get over the quality of the Eagles roster. My recent exercise of ranking the 100 most valuable players in the NFL featured 12 members of the Eagles. Twelve! Philadelphia has the edge at quarterback, offensive weapons, secondary and in the trenches on both sides of the ball. The Giants have had a nice run but I think it may end ugly to a far superior team.

Moody: Being in the NFC East, the Giants and Eagles are very familiar with one another. As the top seed in the NFC, Philadelphia has a lot of pressure on it coming into this game and Hurts isn’t 100 percent because of a shoulder injury. Having said that, the Giants have played well on the road. New York is 10-1 against the spread in its past 11 road playoff games. Despite what people think, the Giants will keep this game close. New York was defeated by only six points by the Eagles in their most recent meeting.


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The Buffalo Bills (-5,48) and Cincinnati Bengals meet to decide who goes to the AFC Championship Game. The Bengals led 7-3 in the first quarter of their Week 17 matchup before the game was canceled because of Damar Hamlin’s injury. Both teams are coming off close wins (didn’t cover) in the wild-card round. Who do you like to come out on top?

Fulghum: I’m on the record saying I believe the Bengals are the superior football team at this point in the season to Buffalo. If you wager by adhering to how the markets move, the “sharp” side or the “right” side in this matchup is Buffalo. It opened as a 4-point favorite and money moved that a full point its way by midweek. This is going to be the stubborn IKBTY — I Know Better Than You (trademark pending) — bet on my card for the divisional round. I’m going to take the points with Cincinnati and sprinkle a little on the ML upset. If you think I’m crazy, I don’t blame you at all.

Dolan: Bengals with the points. The Bills have been bet up to -5.5 due to three six-figure wagers coming in at Caesars. The Bills have major turnover issues. Josh Allen‘s three turnovers were turned into 18 points for Miami. One could argue that both teams played poorly in the divisional round, failing to cover yet beating backup quarterbacks. I agree with that sentiment, but the Bengals have been profitable all season with a 12-5 ATS record. The Bengals have won nine straight games, beating tough opponents including the Chiefs. This is too many points for two great teams to go head-to-head.

Schatz: Although the Bills finished the year No. 1 in our DVOA ratings at Football Outsiders, I’m also going to take Bengals +5.5. The Bengals finished fifth in our ratings, and the gap between these teams is smaller than the line for this game, even after accounting for the offensive line injuries in Cincinnati. I’m expecting to see both teams with long, sustained drives, especially given that both offenses are very strong on third down and both defenses are stronger on first and second down than on third.

Snellings: Bengals +5.5. I believe the Bengals are the best team in the AFC this season, so getting points in the matchup is a bonus. But don’t take my word for it — the Bengals in this Burrow-led contending era are a team that very rarely loses by more than five points. This season, of 18 games (including the playoffs), they only lost by more than three points once. In fact, you can extend back to the late last season and Bengals +5.5 would be 26-1 in their past 27 games (including 5-0 in the playoffs).

Moody: I’m taking the Bengals and the points. Last week, it was surprising to see the Bills barely win against a Dolphins team with its third-string quarterback. In their past six playoff games, the Bengals are 4-1-1. Cincinnati is a very talented team that matches up well offensively and defensively with the Bills. The Bengals could outright win this game, but I believe it will close.

The final matchup of divisional round weekend is a rematch of last year’s wild-card game that saw the 49ers win. Both teams are coming off easy covers last week and San Francisco opened as a slight favorite over Dallas. Can Brock Purdy and the 49ers (-4, 46) keep rolling or will the Cowboys reach the NFC Championship Game for the first time since 1995?

Fortenbaugh: I’m laying it with the 49ers. They’ve got two extra days of rest, home-field advantage, a better defense and the ability to get their elite pass-catching unit into wide open space. Did you see how many wide receivers were running free in the Seattle game? Brock Purdy doesn’t need to be Joe Montana. He just needs to play clean football.

Fulghum: I’m also on record saying San Francisco is the best football team in the entire NFL. I’m going to lay the points with the 49ers. The 48-hour rest advantage, the dominant defense, the fully healthy and extremely dynamic playmakers on offense — this team is absolutely stacked. Dallas is, admittedly, dangerous. Dak Prescott played excellent football against Tampa Bay and Micah Parsons can wreck any game. The 49ers, though, are a superior roster with a superior scheme on offense. As long as they do not hurt themselves, they should be able to overwhelm Dallas like they have each of their past 11 opponents.

Schatz: San Francisco is the No. 1 team in weighted DVOA, which lowers the value of earlier games to get a better idea of how teams are playing now. The Cowboys rank seventh in that same metric. But, in particular, look at where the teams are trending in just the past few weeks. The 49ers offense ranks No. 1 in pass DVOA since Purdy took over at quarterback in Week 13. Meanwhile, the Cowboys pass defense was third in the league in Weeks 1-9 but ranks only 16th if we look at Weeks 10-19. (If you flip to the other side, both the 49ers’ pass defense and the Cowboys’ pass offense have improved in recent weeks.) Both teams rank in the top five in pass rush win rate, and so I expect things are going to get harder on these quarterbacks under pressure. When that happens, I have more trust in the 49ers to make sure Purdy can find open receivers. Add it all up, and I’m on 49ers -3.5.

Moody: I’m drawn to the total in this matchup. The 49ers’ offense is mauling its opponents. There has been only one game since Week 12 in which San Francisco failed to score 33 points or more. Neither the 49ers nor the Cowboys lack offensive playmakers. In San Francisco’s past four games, the over is 4-0, while in Dallas’ past six games following a win against the spread, the over is 5-1.

Marks: I’ll buy the 49ers down to -3. Give me Kyle Shanahan over Mike McCarthy seven days a week, and twice on Sunday night! The 49ers are rested (three extra days), yet the Cowboys have to travel for their fourth straight road game (five of past six). The 49ers have won 11 straight games by a point differential of +179, with Purdy at the helm for seven of them. Prescott looked good against the Bucs, but the 49ers are an entirely different animal. The Bucs rank 26th in the NFL in turnover rate while the 49ers rank third-best! Prescott tosses two picks in this game, the Cowboys lose, and Dallas fans spend the entire offseason debating if he is the guy.

Walder: I’m somewhat torn on the game and total, but I do like 49ers to win the first quarter (+103). If we look at the first-drive efficiency — when coaches often script plays — these two teams are wildly different: The 49ers EPA/P on those opening drives is 0.17, a very strong number. The Cowboys are at -0.05. And that’s a not a Cooper Rush problem: Dallas has actually been even worse on its opening drives with Prescott on the field.

What is your favorite player prop for the NFL divisional round?

Moody: Travis Kelce over 79.5 receiving yards. It would be surprising if Andy Reid didn’t try to exploit this matchup against the Jaguars, who have had trouble defending tight ends all season. Kelce led the Chiefs with 152 targets and will be busy Saturday afternoon against Jacksonville. He has averaged 78.7 receiving yards this season.

Marks: Mahomes over 2.5 passing TDs. Mahomes tossed four TDs in Week 10 against the Jags and Jacksonville’s red zone defense ranks 24th in the NFL while K.C.’s red zone TD rate is second-best at 70%.

Fulghum: Ezekiel Elliott under 34.5 rushing yards. Elliott is no longer the lead back in Dallas and the Cowboys staff (smartly) realizes it. Since the Cowboys’ Week 9 bye, Tony Pollard has out-snapped Elliott in six of the eight games they have played together — including the wild-card win in Tampa. Elliott is averaging a meager 2.6 YPC over his past 72 rushing attempts covering five games. Not only is Dallas a road underdog in danger of falling into a negative game script, but the 49ers also boast the league’s best run defense. This is an extremely adverse environment for Zeke to be productive and efficient.

Schatz: I want to go with Kelce’s over so badly. The Jaguars are terrible against tight ends. But 79.5 yards with -135 odds is too much. Instead, let’s take Jaguars running back Travis Etienne Jr. over 17.5 receiving yards. The Chiefs are 28th in DVOA against running backs in the passing game and 31st against passes in the short middle of the field. Let’s see some Texas routes and halfback choice, not just dump-offs and screens. Etienne has at least 17 receiving yards in four of his past five games and caught three passes for 28 yards when these teams played in Week 10.

Snellings: Christian McCaffrey over 105.5 total rush + receiving yards. McCaffrey is an electric back who is high-usage in both the running and passing games for the 49ers. He’s central to all they do. Not including the last game of the regular season, McCaffrey has at least 136 total yards in five of his past six games.

What is your best bet for the NFL division round?

Marks: Dallas Goedert over 47.5 receiving yards. The Giants are one of the most blitz-happy teams, which leaves them vulnerable in other areas. Defending TEs is one of them, and they allowed T.J. Hockenson to post 129 yards last week. The G-Men are 31st in cover rate, and have allowed 608 YAC to the position.

Schatz: 49ers -3.5 is my best bet. I just think the 49ers are too good on both sides of the ball right now. Some team might finally figure out how to cover those 49ers receivers so they aren’t so wide open. I don’t think the Cowboys are going to be that team.

Walder: Frank Clark over 0.25 sacks (+200 at FanDuel). Clark was decent in 2022: just 5.0 sacks but a 16% pass rush win rate at edge — right about average for a starter at the position. The key to finding value at this price — and my sack model makes the right number +130 — is the spread. The Chiefs being 8.5-point favorites means they are more likely to be ahead — and when opposing offenses are behind, they are forced into more frequent must-pass situations and into taking greater risks. That’s when sacks happen.

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