Lombardi: A look ahead to NFL Wild Card weekend

January 14, 2023 06:40 AM
Joe_Burrow

I’ve enjoyed reading Ed Smith’s wonderful book called Making Decisions, Putting the Human Back in the Machine. Smith, a former cricket star and selector for England’s team, has written five books and has spent a great deal of time studying leadership, the value of luck in each game, and how to make better decisions. In an early part of the book, Smith writes: “Vision always follows from insight. The great sports coaches and strategists, before they address how to play in the upcoming matches, first find hidden truths in what has already happened.” With three first-time head coaches being in their first playoff game, and two coaching in their first as a head coach, looking back and understanding the hidden truths towards winning will be crucial.

This advice also applies to any handicapper, professional bettor, or causal fan looking to put some pizza money down on the games.  Looking back is one of the best things our Steve Makinen does.  In his column this week, Makinen gave an impressive betting trend not to be ignored.  In the last 62 Wild Card games, the outright winner was 54-7-1 against the spread—meaning the spread is 88% useless. Simply stated, pick the winner, and don’t worry about the spread.  But as we know from this NFL season, picking winners is not as easy as it sounds.

Picking the winners is the hard part, and Smith’s advice regarding the strategist finding the hidden truths is a helpful tool.  In this round, we have 12 head coaches: seven of them have playoff experience, and five do not.  We have three first-time head coaches in the game, Brian Daboll of the Giants, Kevin O’Connell of the Vikings, and Mike McDaniel of the Dolphins.  All the rookie coaches have been part of playoff teams—Super Bowl teams—providing them with the experience of understanding the difference between the regular season and the playoffs.  In addition to the experience of being in the game, these coaches must understand the difference between being aggressive and being stupid.  As my favorite philosopher Bruce Springsteen once wrote: “Sometimes, I can’t tell my courage from my desperation.”  Navigating that thin line is the difference between winning and losing in this round.

Frank Reich, formerly the head man of the Colts, entered the playoffs in 2020, with two playoff games under his belt as a head coach.  In 2018, he was 1-1 with Andrew Luck at quarterback, beating the Texans on the road and then losing to the Chiefs.  In 2020, with more experience as a playoff head coach. he took his team to Buffalo to face the number 2 seed Bills.  Reich acted like a desperate man, passing up points at the end of the half, which caused him to then chase points for the remainder of the game.  His reckless “in-game” decisions cost the Colts because in playoff games there is no next week. Therefore, what is decided in the first quarter impacts the fourth.  Collecting points matters.  Don’t believe me?  Ask Chiefs coach Andy Reid, a sure-fire Hall of Famer who last season turned down three points at the end of the half, which would have extended his lead to 24-10.  In the second half, the Chiefs only scored 3 points and lost in overtime, by three.  Had Reid kicked, the outcome might have been different.  In playoff games, take the easy points, because, in the fourth quarter of a close game, those points will be important. 

Both Chargers head man Brendon Staley and Jag’s Doug Pedersen have been known to be ultra-aggressive, not caring about field position and or understanding some of their risk/rewards decisions.  Yet, both have toned down their aggressive behavior over the course of the 2022 season. In 2021, Staley leads the NFL in conversions on fourth down, averaging 1.3 per game.  This season, he ranks fifth at 0.9 per game.  The Jags ranked 8th overall in fourth down conversions per game at 0.8.  However, in this game, with two elite quarterbacks facing one another, being aggressive might be needed.  Once the flow of the game is declared and whichever team’s defense can control the game, that should dictate the offensive aggressiveness.  If neither defense can stop the other, then expect a fourth-down game that lends itself to the OVER, which currently sits at 47.5.

Aggressive strategy isn’t limited to only fourth-down decisions.  It also applies to the play caller on both offense and defense.  The right time to take a chance is always the hardest variable in these games.  When a team is behind in the game—desperate to get back into the game—the play callers have no choice but to take high-level risks.  That’s an easy choice.  In close games, those gambles determine the outcome.  The best strategist/play caller in playoff games understands the moment presented during the game of when to put the game away for the win, saving their best calls for the best times. Who can make the right call, at the right time?   

Against the Packers last week, Ben Johnson of the Lions demonstrated this variable perfectly.  Facing a second-and-17 at the Packers' 31, with 2:12 remaining in the game, Johnson knew he couldn’t give the ball back to the Packers. He also knew kicking a field goal in this cold weather is risky.  The Lions needed one more first down to seal the game.  Johnson called a hook and ladder pass—which seemed risky but was well executed and practiced many times before the call.  That “right call” at the “right moment” appeared aggressive, but it worked.  Picking the winner in these games means endorsing the play caller who will make the right call at the right time. 

The offensive play caller is always getting praise and love from the television cameras for calling a big play that works.  The poor defensive coach who does the same thing, creating a negative play, or turnover is often not mentioned.  Wink Martindale of the Giants, DeMeco Ryans of the 49ers, and Lou Anarumo of the Bengals have proven over their careers to have that knack for making the right call at the most important moment.  When handicapping these games, don’t overlook the defensive coaches and how they handle their opponents. 

Combining Ed Smith’s views with Makinen's forces us to value the head coaches with experience and the ones we trust to call the game the right way—which should lead you to picking the winner and then not worrying about the spread.  Bet on those you trust the most, and remember, past performances often predict future achievement. 

QB Ratings

Since Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts are not playing in this round, I have removed them from the ratings for this week. 

1. Joe Burrow - His ability to move and avoid sacks has improved, and he understands how to protect the ball in these games.  Burrow is hard to bet against.

2. Justin Herbert - Last game against the Jags, his broken ribs affected his throws. That won’t happen this week.  Herbert will show all why he might become the best of the best soon. 

3. Josh Allen - Needs to play a clean game with no red zone mistakes.  When the Bills need a big play, look for Allen to use his feet.

4. Trevor Lawrence - Last week was his first playoff game. This week, he will need to play much better. 

5. Geno Smith - My comeback player of the year.  He can make throws against the 49ers’ secondary if his line gives him time. 

6. Tom Brady - Can the Bucs' offensive line give Brady enough time to work the ball down the field?  His 6.4 yards per attempt ranked 30th overall in the NFL this season.

7. Dak Prescott - All we read and hear is Dak turns the ball over too much, yet some of them are not his fault.  He will need to avoid the mistakes, and when the Boys have their running game working, Prescott is better.  If he has to throw the ball 40 times or more, the Boys won’t win. 

8. Kirk Cousins - Cousins needs protection to be great.  And with two starting offensive linemen out of the game, that might could be a problem for protecting Cousins. 

9. Daniel Jones. - Jones has played within the framework of the offense and has played a playoff style of football most of the year. 

10. Brock Purdy - In the three playoff games he has won, Kyle Shanahan has never attempted more than 20 passes.  Purdy will be making easy throws and handing the ball off. 

11. Tyler Huntley - With a bad shoulder, Huntley will be limited in the game, but the Ravens' offense is limited to running. 

12. Skylar Thompson - The rookie starter isn’t ideal for playing the Bills in Buffalo. 

Power Ratings of the Wild Card Teams

Buffalo

Dallas

Cincinnati

Baltimore

San Francisco

Chargers

Minnesota

Jacksonville

NY Giants

Miami

Tampa Bay

For me, the NFC is a three-team race, San Francisco, Dallas and Philadelphia.  I am not sold on Tampa being able to turn it on. The Eagles will be rooting for the Giants this week, which would mean they would host the Giants, and San Francisco would get the harder option of playing the Cowboys or Bucs.  If Minnesota wins, then the Birds will face either Dallas or Tampa and the 49ers host the Vikings. 

In the AFC, Kansas City, Buffalo, Cincinnati, and the Chargers all have great chances.  There is no easy path with four or five teams capable of winning, especially with the level of quarterbacking play in the AFC. 

Line of the Week

Baltimore knows they won’t have Lamar Jackson. They knew he wasn’t playing last week when the line on Thursday was the Bengals minus 7.5.  Now the line is between 9.5 and 10, which might indicate that this could be another Anthony Brown game at quarterback for the Ravens.  Last week, we saw the line move in the same direction, all due to Huntley’s shoulder.  If Brown is announced as the starter, this line will move closer to 13. 

Coordinator Battle of the Week

My favorite one this week, with many to choose from, is defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell of the Jags against Joe Lombardi of the Chargers. Caldwell is from the Todd Bowles school of defense, and Lombardi is from the Sean Payton school of offense, which faced each other twice a year in the NFC South games. Adding more fuel to this matchup is when Caldwell faced the Lions and Ben Johnson. That was another Payton/Bowles battle with the Lions amassing 330 yards passing and 40 points. Who has the edge? Who makes the right adjustments? For one, Lombardi will have to overcome the absence of Mike Williams, who has been ruled out with a back injury.

Enjoy the games and check back on Saturday morning for the picks.  I finished the season 34-25 and overall 139-101 for my career at VSIN.  I need to do better and dig deeper into Smith’s book. 

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