The playoffs are here! Matchups are set for wild-card weekend, so we're looking at the key questions as the postseason gets underway and teams begin their march toward 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 second-seeded San Francisco 49ers (-9.5, 43) enter Saturday afternoon's NFC wild-card game against the Seattle Seahawks riding a 10-game win streak. Rookie Brock Purdy is 5-0 as the 49ers' starting QB and looks to add to his undefeated record in the postseason and help San Francisco secure a spot in the divisional round. Seattle has had trouble offensively in the previous two matchups between these teams in the regular season, averaging just 10 points per game. Will San Francisco cover the spread? What are your thoughts on the total, which is currently the lowest of wild-card weekend?
Kezirian: I would lay the 9.5 points. Seattle managed just one offensive touchdown in the first two meetings and I do not see any reason those struggles should change. Aside from a poor defensive performance in Las Vegas, the Niners have been very reliable over the past month. This run reached another gear when they handled the Seahawks in Seattle on a Thursday night. That game could have broken a different way if not for a dropped interception, but for the most part this matchup features one team reaching another gear and another that is limping to the finish line.
Fortenbaugh: I'm laying the points. San Francisco has won 10 straight games by an average of 16 points per game and is one of only two teams in the NFL (Philadelphia) that finished the regular season ranked in the top five in both offensive yards per play and defensive yards per play. The Niners also went 2-0 against the Seahawks this season, beating them by a grand total of 28 points. Seattle is a nice story, but the regular season is over and this is a big step up in class.
Dolan: Under play at 43. Unders have cashed 67% of the time in wild-card weekend since 2017. All six playoff games are rematches from the regular season, which means teams have data on how they play against each other. Both meetings this season between these two have gone under the total with an average of 34 combined points. I don't trust this Seahawks offense to put up a ton of points after averaging 18 points per game in its last five games and averaging 10 points per game against San Francisco this season. This Seahawks offense will go against a stout 49ers defense. The 49ers' defense leads the league in total yards per game, holding opponents to a league-best 16 points per game. While this is the lowest total on the board, I believe this will be an under game.
Moody: There is a good chance the 49ers will cover the spread. The Seahawks have scored 19 or fewer points in three of their past four games. The 49ers have been held under 35 points only once with Brock Purdy under center. In its past six playoff games, San Francisco has gone 5-1 against the spread. Additionally, the 49ers are 5-0 against the spread in their past five home games. Considering the total, I'm leaning toward the under. The under is 4-0 in the 49ers' past four playoff games. The 49ers should rely heavily on Christian McCaffrey, the running game and their defense with Purdy under center. On Dec. 15, these two NFC West rivals scored only 34 combined points. On Saturday, we might see a similar outcome. This season, the 49ers' defense has allowed 14.8 points per game at home. The Seahawks' offensive line, which ranks 21st in pass-block win rate over the last seven games of the season, will struggle against the 49ers' defensive line.
Marks: I have a small lean on the under in this matchup, considering it will be the third meeting this season and these teams know each other's tendencies better than most. The 49ers' defense is the best in the playoffs and sports the top turnover ratio at +13. The 49ers will run the ball and exploit a Seattle rush defense that is giving up close to five yards per carry. McCaffrey is averaging over 100 total yards per game, but I like the low total of rushing yards for Elijah Mitchell and will take the over at 36.5. Mitchell is fantastic in yards after contact, and the 49ers will want to pace both backs for the long haul, giving Mitchell opportunities to surpass that total.
Walder: I'm taking Seattle +9.5. As I look over the three large spread games this weekend, if there's one game that I think could get weird it's this one. Even after all the success the 49ers have had with Purdy, we're still talking about a rookie seventh-round pick at quarterback for a heavy favorite, facing a team that does have talent! Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf are an excellent receiving pair, Seattle's pass protection unit is solid and Tariq Woolen is a bit of a pick-magnet. Plus, this is the third time these teams are facing each other, which I think is a bit of an equalizer. I'll bet on the Seahawks and chaos.
Fulghum: I'm inclined to believe the 49ers are more likely to cover the game than not. Their offense is as dynamic as any in the league (Kansas City included) now that they are fully healthy. Deebo Samuel is back. Elijah Mitchell is the perfect complement to CMC. George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk have been balling. This team can score at will on anybody. That's why my favorite bet of the weekend is the 49ers team total over 26.5. San Francisco has cleared this threshold in all but one of Purdy's starts. In that span, the 49ers are averaging 33.5 PPG.
Snellings: I'll take the under. The 49ers have Seattle's number on defense, and I don't see that changing in their third meeting of the season. In addition, early weather forecasts suggest there could be heavy rain during game time that could further dampen the passing attack and keep scoring down.
The Jacksonville Jaguars will look to become just the third team in the common draft era (since 1967) to win a playoff game after having the No. 1 overall pick earlier that year. They face the resurgent Los Angeles Chargers (-1.5, 47.5), who finished the season winning five of their last seven games. This line opened with the Chargers as the 2.5-point favorite but moved down over the last couple of days. Can Trevor Lawrence and the Jags continue their worst-to-first turnaround or will Justin Herbert and the Chargers advance to the division round?
Fortenbaugh: I'm laying it with the Chargers. Only the Buccaneers throw the ball more than Los Angeles, which is bad news for a Jacksonville defense that struggles to defend the pass. Conversely, L.A.'s pass defense has gotten much better as the season progressed. Everybody is talking about Jacksonville's five-game winning streak, but only one of those victories came against a team with a winning record.
Marks: I have a small lean with the Chargers, considering health news is positive on Mike Williams and Joey Bosa playing this Saturday. I do like the over in this matchup. Travis Etienne Jr. and the Jags will be able to run the ball against a Chargers rush defense that is allowing 5.59 yards per carry, and Herbert will be able to exploit a Jags secondary that ranks bottom five in the league. The Chargers are the most-pass happy team, so give me Herbert over 37.5 passing attempts (-130) as one of my favorite bets in this matchup.
Fulghum: This might be the hardest game to handicap for the entire weekend. I tend to lean Chargers and the under. However, I agree with Anita that the most confident bet one can make in this game is to bet Herbert is going to drop back and throw it a ton. Herbert averaged 41.1 attempts per game this season, and especially with this game expected to be close on the scoreboard for all four quarters, I expect the Chargers to consistently lean into the advantage they have with Herbert throwing against Jacksonville's pass-funnel defense. Herbert over 37.5 passing attempts.
Schatz: I will go with the Jaguars in this game. Jacksonville finished the year slightly ahead of the Chargers in the Football Outsiders DVOA ratings, with the Jaguars 13th and the Chargers 18th. Add in home-field advantage and the Jags are a slight favorite. If I wanted to bet on the Chargers, I would be particularly worried about Mike Williams' back issues. When Williams was injured this year between Week 8 and Week 13, the Chargers' offensive DVOA dropped to -15.2%, which would have ranked 29th for the season.
Moody: I'm backing the underdog Jaguars. The Jaguars are peaking at the right time, and head coach Doug Pederson recently won a Super Bowl with the Eagles. Jacksonville has won five straight games. The Jaguars won 38-10 when these teams met back in Week 3. In that game, the Chargers were without Keenan Allen and Justin Herbert was dealing with a rib injury. There is no doubt that both teams have evolved throughout the season. In this game, the Chargers' defense might be their undoing. Throughout the season, the Los Angeles defense has given up a lot of big plays. When the Chargers allow 150 or more rushing yards, they are 4-6. This season, the Jaguars' defense has given up the fifth-most passing yards per game. These two teams should surpass 47.5 points.
Snellings: I would lay the points for the Chargers. The Chargers are better than they showed this season, with health as the primary limiting factor. They are getting healthier at the right time, and Herbert is one of the best in the league at getting the ball out of his hand quickly, and the Jaguars are one of the worst defenses in the league at defending quick throws. I like the Jaguars as a team on the way up, but I feel like the Chargers are about a year ahead of their development, and that will show on Saturday.
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The Buffalo Bills (-13, 43.5) kick off Sunday's slate in a rubber match with the Miami Dolphins. The last two regular-season matchups between these teams were decided by three points or less, but Miami QB Tua Tagovailoa played in both of those; he is out and backup Teddy Bridgewater may not play. Can the Dolphins cover the spread or will Josh Allen and the Bills cruise to the divisional round in this matchup?
Moody: The Bills are 5-2 against the spread in their last seven games and have won seven straight. I'm backing them against a Dolphins team who will start third-string rookie quarterback Skylar Thompson. The Bills are highly motivated by two things. Buffalo is looking to avenge last year's overtime loss to the Chiefs in the playoffs. Furthermore, the Bills would like to win for Damar Hamlin, who continues to recover after suffering cardiac arrest in a "Monday Night Football" game.
Marks: The Fins head north to face the Bills in freezing conditions with their third-string quarterback in Skylar Thompson. Many skilled position players on the Dolphins' offense (Raheem Mostert, Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle) are banged up from their previous game against the Jets. The Bills win, but I'm not certain they cover by two touchdowns. I'm going to play a same-game parlay: Daniel Knox anytime TD and Bills win at (+225). Knox has scored a touchdown in four consecutive games. The Dolphins' defense ranks 28th against tight ends this season, allowing an 80% catch rate and eight yards per target to the position. Josh Allen needs to cut down on his red zone turnovers, and Knox will benefit.
Schatz: Tagovailoa ranked second among qualifying quarterbacks in passing DVOA this season. If Bridgewater had enough attempts to qualify, he would have ranked 22nd. And if Skylar Thompson had enough attempts to qualify, he would have ranked 31st. Yuck. As great as Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle can be, it's a long way down from QB1 to QB3 in Miami. The Bills are an all-around strong team, only the seventh team since 1981 to rank in the top four in DVOA in all three phases of the game. They have home-field advantage and emotion on their side as they try to win a Super Bowl for Damar Hamlin. Add all that together and I'm happy to take Bills -13 in this one. I also like taking over 22.5 in the first half as both teams are better on defense and worse on offense after halftime.
Snellings: I'm laying the points to take the Bills. Without Tua, in Buffalo in January, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Bills run away with this one the way they did in their first-round matchup against the Patriots last season.
Two of the surprise teams of the year meet in Minnesota. The Vikings (-3, 48) surged to a 13-win season and face a New York Giants team that no one thought would be in the postseason. The Vikings won this battle three weeks ago on a 61-yard walk-off FG. Can they continue their magic or will the upstart Giants continue to surprise?
Kezirian: I am on the Giants because of two things. First, the Minnesota defense is pretty poor, ranking 21st in defensive efficiency. The Giants rank 22nd, but they will get some key pieces back and should be able to take advantage of a Vikings offensive line that is down two starters. I think New York's pass rush will live in the backfield and Kirk Cousins will be under pressure all game. The situation really favors New York, so I will grab the key number of three.
Fortenbaugh: Giants +3. Look at the first meeting between these two teams. The Giants were -2 in turnover differential and converted just three of 11 third down attempts and still only lost the game by three points. You can run on Minnesota, and that's exactly what this well-rested Giants offense will do, keeping Cousins & Co. on the sideline in the process.
Dolan: Giants +3. Underdogs have covered in 61% of all playoff games since 2017, including 16-8 ATS in wild-card weekend in that span. The Giants boast the best cover rate in the league at 13-4 ATS during the regular season. The Giants covered as a 4.5-point 'dog, but lost 27-24 to the Vikings on Christmas Eve. Remember that Minnesota needed 17 points in the fourth quarter to win. In the previous meeting, Daniel Jones had one of his best passing performances with 334 passing yards. Saquon Barkley had 14 carries for 84 rushing yards and eight receptions for 49 receiving yards with one touchdown. The main concern in this game is the Vikings' defense, which ranks 31st against the pass and 20th against the run. The Giants can get points again on this defense and keep it close. I want the points in my pocket with the Giants.
Moody: After having nothing to play for against the Eagles in the regular-season finale, the Giants enter this game well-rested. New York hopes to win its first playoff game since 2011 behind Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley. Having said that, I agree with Ms. Dolan and am recommending the underdog Giants. New York is 7-1 against the spread in its past eight road games. Because Minnesota gives up the second-most passing yards per game, it's easy to attack the Vikings' defense through the air. Although the Giants do not have a prolific passing game this season, Jones had a season-high 334 yards through the air in Week 16. Additionally, he is capable of gaining additional yards with his legs and has performed well as a passer when under pressure. The Giants' pass rush should have success disrupting the Vikings' passing game. In the past seven games, New York has ranked fourth in pass rush win rate, while Minnesota ranks 24th in pass block win rate. The Giants could surprise bettors in this game.
Marks: I love the Giants in this spot and will also play the money line at +140. The G-Men feel they got robbed in Week 16, losing to the Vikings 27-24 due to a Giants blocked punt and a Vikings 61 yard-field goal. This is a revenge game, and New York comes in rested after treating Week 18 as a bye week. Minnesota's defense ranks 30th in yards per play, 28th in opponent scoring rate and has allowed 73 plays of 20 yards or more. Daniel Jones passed for over 300 yards in Week 16 and should pick up where he left off. Cousins struggles against the blitz, which the Giants do most of any team in the league. New York sacked Cousins four times in their last game, so look for the Kayvon Thibodeaux sack prop bet to hit the board soon and jump on it.
Fulghum: I share similar enthusiasm for the underdog in this spot, but at the risk of sounding redundant, I'll add that I like this game to go over the total. What I really love, however, is another player prop. Giants QB Daniel Jones may not have the best weapons to work with, but he's got an incredible coaching staff developing a game plan against one of the worst pass defenses in the entire league. Jones lit the Vikings up for 334 yards on 42 attempts in their Week 16 matchup. I fully expect Brian Daboll and Jones to lean into a similar game plan this weekend. Jones over 32.5 passing attempts.
Schatz: Add me to the list of people taking Giants +3. I've written a ton about the Vikings this year; our DVOA ratings at Football Outsiders hate their season even more than all the other advanced metrics out there that say their real quality fell short of a 13-4 team. The teams are going in opposite directions, as the Giants move from 21st to 18th in our weighted ratings that give less strength to the early part of the season; the Vikings actually drop from 27th to 28th. In particular, the Giants' pass offense went from 15th through Week 9 to seventh in Weeks 10-18, while the Vikings' pass defense went from 17th to 29th in the same time period. I don't think the Giants will run away with this one, but even if the Vikings do win this game, isn't there a strong chance they win by only two or three?
The Cincinnati Bengals (-8.5, 40.5) and Baltimore Ravens meet for the second straight week, but this time the winner moves on and the loser goes home. Baltimore won the first meeting back in Week 5 on a Justin Tucker walk-off FG, while the Bengals dominated last week. Who do you like in this one?
Kezirian: I lean to Cincy -8.5 but I prefer to play them on a teaser, taking the Bengals to -2.5. Baltimore hung around in last week's game and John Harbaugh can rally his defense. Plus, he's not afraid to kick multiple field goals, which makes laying big numbers tough. In those situations, the defense plays to the scoreboard and protects the end zone, so Harbaugh will take the points and jeopardize the cover. That's how the Ravens covered last week's 11.5-point spread. So I would tease Cincy to the Giants or Bucs.
Dolan: Bengals first half (-4) and double result CIN/CIN. The Bengals have been profitable throughout the season (12-4 ATS), yet notice the Bengals have also been profitable in the first half as of late. Cincy is 4-1 ATS in the first half in its past five games overall and 5-0 ATS in the first half in its past five home games. In the first meeting between these teams, the Bengals and Ravens were tied at the half in Week 5. In the second meeting, the Bengals were up 17 points in the first half. The Bengals are a different team than that first meeting, while the Ravens are banged up and Lamar Jackson has been ruled out. Bengals go up in the first half.
Moody: I like the Bengals to cover. The Bengals are perfect against the spread over the past seven games. Even when Lamar Jackson was healthy, the Ravens were inconsistent. Baltimore has managed just four touchdowns in the five games without him. Additionally, the Ravens have averaged 12.5 points during that time. There is a lot of familiarity between these two teams. In their past eight divisional games, the Ravens have gone 1-6-1 against the spread. In Baltimore's past four games against the Bengals, it has gone 0-3-1 against the spread. The Ravens face an uphill battle against the Bengals, who are at full strength. In its last 10 games against the Ravens, Cincinnati is 6-3-1 against the spread.
Marks: As crazy as this sounds, I actually believe the Ravens are better starting Tyler Huntley over Jackson, considering Jackson has not practiced in five weeks and has not played since Dec. 4. The Bengals are the better team and will win, I'm just not certain they cover. Division rivals meeting for the third time this season is a tricky call. I will use the Bengals in a two-team, 6-point teaser (-2.5), and I also like the same-game parlay of Ja'Marr Chase anytime TD and the Bengals win (+130). Chase has double-digit targets in four straight games and is second in the league in red zone targets since Week 13.
What is your favorite player prop for wild-card weekend?
Kezirian: Geno Smith over 20.5 completions. In their previous meeting, Smith finished 31-of-44 passing. The stout San Francisco pass rush forced the quarterback to check down and get rid of the ball quickly. Nothing has changed since that. Plus, in games where Seattle is a sizable underdog, he typically surpasses this mark. It is virtually impossible to run against the Niners, so Smith will have to spread the ball around with underneath throws. I also expect Seattle to be trailing most of the game.
Moody: George Kittle over 42.5 receiving yards. There is no doubt that Kittle and Brock Purdy are calibrated. The veteran tight end caught four of five targets for 93 receiving yards against the Seahawks back in Week 15. In 10 career games against Seattle, Kittle has averaged 65.5 receiving yards per game. The Seahawks rely heavily on zone coverage and have struggled against tight ends all season. On Saturday afternoon, Kittle should play an active role against Seattle.
Walder: Nick Bosa under 0.25 sacks (+170 at DraftKings). I know, I know, this sounds ridiculous. And let me tell you, I have a terrible record betting against Bosa this year. I'm literally 1-7 betting against Bosa's sack unders. So why keep coming back? Value, value, value. My sack model, which has been profitable despite absorbing all those Bosa losses, gives the potential DPOY a 54% chance to record over 0.25 sacks Saturday. That 46% chance that he doesn't makes +170 a worthwhile payout.
Marks: Daniel Jones over 241.5 passing yards. Jones passed for 334 yards against the Vikings in Week 16. The Vikings' pass defense is one of the worst in the league and has allowed 73 plays of 20 yards or more. Jones won't need a ton of volume to go over this total.
Fulghum: Justin Herbert over 37.5 passing attempts. Herbert averaged 41.1 attempts per game this season and should be leaned on heavily in a game that is expected to be tight throughout against a pass-funnel defense.
Schatz: George Kittle over 42.5 receiving yards. The Seahawks rank 27th in DVOA against tight ends, and after adjusting for the quality of opponents, they allow a league-high 67 yards per game to opposing tight ends. Kittle played in only one of the two games against Seattle this year, but he had 93 yards and two touchdowns back in Week 15.
Snellings: Trenton Irwin over 7.5 receiving yards. Irwin is a name many don't know, but he has stepped up as a consistent fourth option with upside for the Bengals. He has at least 12 receiving yards in eight of his nine games this season, including last week's game against the Ravens. Plus, even though both were able to continue to play last week, both Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd had to leave the game briefly due to injury, and Irwin is primed to produce if he gets any more playing time.
What is your best bet for wild-card weekend?
Fortenbaugh: 49ers -9.5 over Seattle. This is a monster step up in class for a Seahawks team that is going to be overwhelmed on both sides of the ball. The Niners have won 10 straight games by an average of 16 points per game. Seattle went 3-5 over its final eight games, notching two wins against the Rams and another against the Jets.
Marks: My best bet is Giants +3, but I also love a three-team, 7-point teaser with the 49ers -2.5, Giants +10 and Bengals -1.5 at +130.
Fulghum: 49ers team total over 26.5. San Francisco is averaging 33.5 PPG since Brock Purdy took over the offense. This team is fully healthy and has five legitimate playmakers on the offense. The Niners should be able to run at will on Seattle and could possibly even score defensively against Geno Smith, whose play has tailed off precipitously the final months of the season.
Schatz: My best bet is Giants +3. It just feels like we are in line for another close game between two teams that each played a lot of close games this season.
Snellings: Bills -9.5. I just don't see how the Dolphins stay competitive in Buffalo without Tua. The Bills should put some major points on the board, and I don't think the Dolphins can stay with them.