It’s Rivalry Week in the AFC playoffs as all three games pit division rivals, former or current. The Ravens and Titans not only played each other in the divisional round last year, but they also squared off in the AFC Central for many years as well. The Colts and Bills used to play each other twice a year in the AFC East, and the Browns and Steelers — well, we know about that rivalry. The storylines are fun, the matchups are intriguing, and we get spoiled with the first six-game Super Wild-Card Weekend. The NFC schedule is not as appealing, if for no other reason than the NFC East is invited.
Week 17 was chalky, but the late window featured some exciting finishes and a Jaguars team that flirted with doing the unthinkable and undoing the Colts’ playoff aspirations. The Bills beat the Dolphins early, eliminating them and giving the Colts a “win and in” opportunity against the Jags. Now the Colts get to show their gratitude to the Bills with a chance to make them pay for their victory. We almost got a Music City Miracle rematch, but the Titans held off a game Texans team that clawed back before ultimately losing on a last-second field goal. Washington won the division in the final game of the regular season, cashing in as a 22-1 preseason underdog in a game that was not fun to watch and has been less fun to talk about. Week 17 was a delicious appetizer, but it is time to feast on the main course. Lets get to the picks.
Colts (+ 7.5) over Bills
On April 26, 2018, the Colts selected Quenton Nelson with the sixth pick in the NFL draft. One pick later, the Bills found their franchise quarterback in Josh Allen. Andrew Luck had just missed an entire season and would retire 15 months later. While Nelson is a tremendous player and it’s certainly nothing to criticize the Colts over, it’s likely a decision they wish they could do over. Buyer’s remorse is possibly the theme of this game, as the Bills had a chance to determine their opponent in this matchup. Beating the Dolphins would have eliminated the Colts and put the Dolphins back in Buffalo for Round 1. An hour before kickoff, the Bills announced that several starters were resting and reports leaked that Allen, who needed only 40 yards to break the Bills’ single-season passing record, would sit after claiming the record. The line swung from the Bills being favored by 3 to the Dolphins favored by as much as 3.5. At that moment it seemed likely that the Bills would lay down and allow the Dolphins in, leaving the Colts out of the playoff picture. Three Allen touchdown passes later, the Colts regained control of their fate and snuck in as the No. 7 seed. Those details are relevant because I believe the Colts will have a “house money” approach to this game, knowing they have nothing to lose and were fortunate to get in. The Bills will be playing their first home playoff game since 2000 and will do so in front of roughly 7,000 fans. They haven’t won a playoff game since ‘95 and will have all the pressure of following up a 13-3 season with at least one playoff victory. Last season they led the Texans 16-0 in the second half of the wild-card round before imploding and losing in overtime. Everyone will be picking the Bills, who are viewed by many as the best team in football at the moment thanks to their late-season rampage. I will buck the trend and take a well-balanced Colts team getting over a touchdown to go into a Buffalo on a 20-degree day to run the ball and defend well enough to stay within the number. Colts + 7.5.
Two-team Moneyline Parlay: Buccaneers-Seahawks -120
We can all relate to Tom Brady (well, sort of). As we get older, we need our sleep. The Bucs quarterback is famous for having a strict routine, with a focus on sleep and diet. Having said that, let’s take a look at the Bucs when they stay up past their bedtime. They played the Giants on Monday night, closing as 13-point favorites, and they failed to cover, winning by only two and were fortunate to do that. They got thrashed 38-3 as 4-point chalk against the Saints and lost 27-24 to the Rams, who were 4-point dogs. That trend is enough to keep me from laying the 9.5, but watching Alex Smith and Washington struggle to beat a tanking Eagles team has me dubious of their chances to get past the Bucs. At -400 on the moneyline, you can couple the Bucs with the Seahawks at -200 on the moneyline and get great value. The Rams quarterback situation is still in flux. I am not a believer in Jared Goff when he has two healthy thumbs, much less when he has one. Backup John Wolford showed an ability to move around and extend plays with his legs, but it was clear why his pro playing experience before Sunday was in the AAF, not the NFL. Still, I’m not totally comfortable laying the 4.5 as the Rams have the much better defense and a coach who’s done well in these head-to-head matchups. Coupling the Seahawks and Buccaneers to simply win on Saturday is the way to go.
Titans (+ 3.5) over Ravens
About a month ago I gave out Ravens + 1,400 to win the AFC on “My Guys in the Desert” and I bet it at that number as well. While I feel even better about that ticket now, this line seems a tick high, especially at such a key number. These teams have met twice in the last year. The Titans shocked the Ravens as double-digit dogs last January in one of the biggest playoff upsets of all time. They played again in the regular season, and the Titans won 30-24 in overtime as 6-point dogs. Both games were in Baltimore, while Sunday’s game will be in Tennessee. Establishing the lead will be crucial, as neither team plays as well as a drop-back passing team, both excel off play action. I’d make a large wager that whoever wins the coin toss will take the ball first to try to make the other team play from behind. The Ravens are playing incredibly well and lead the league in point differential, but they have feasted on the underbelly of the league recently. Blowing out the Jaguars, Bengals and Giants does not justify this high of a line over a Titans team that has had their number. Take the points in what could be another classic and maybe the best game of the weekend.