John Halpin's Wild Card NFL Picks
With the lowest Wildcard Weekend spread being six points, we can be tempted to think it’ll be a boring quartet of games. Can any of the underdogs step up?
On to the picks, with selections being both straight up and against the spread unless noted otherwise. If you have any questions, catch me on Twitter (@jhalpin37).
(Home team in CAPS.)
Week 17 records: 10-6 SU, 10-6 ATS (OAK-PHI was a push)
Overall: 162-94 SU, 130-114 ATS
CHIEFS (-9) over Titans
I’ve been railing on the Titans all year. They had a three-game losing streak before a must win in Week 17 over the Jaguars. They haven’t really had a good victory since Week 9 (Ravens), and Football Outsiders’ DVOA rating has them ranked as the NFL’s 18th-best team (or 15th-worst, depending on how you look at things). They’re 3-5 on the road (both straight up and ATS), with two of those wins coming over the bad Colts and even worse Browns. QB Marcus Mariota threw 13 touchdowns against 15 interceptions, making a flop of his anticipated breakout season. Oh, and RB DeMarco Murray (knee) might not play this week.
But can we trust the bipolar Chiefs, who started the season 5-0, lost six of their next seven, and closed the year with four more wins? Can you really give nine points with a team like that?
Probably. In three December home wins, the Chiefs outscored their opponents by an 85-41 margin – the defense seems to be improving. They’re 6-2 at home (both straight up and ATS), with all the wins coming by seven or more points. I can’t say I’m fired up about this pick, but it’s better than the alternative.
The pick: Chiefs win and cover
RAMS (-6) over Falcons
The Falcons are difficult to figure. They closed the season with victories in seven of their final 10 games, losing only to fellow playoff participants (Panthers, Vikings, Saints). They also have that ugly home loss to the Dolphins on their resume, and there’s been a clear offensive decline from their record-setting 2016 season. But as the defending conference champs, they’re a threat.
However, this point spread doesn’t give the Rams enough credit, mainly because of their inexperience at head coach and quarterback. This team has been one of the NFL’s best on both sides of the ball, and led the NFL in points behind a diverse attack. On defense, DT Aaron Donald is a one-man wrecking crew, with Pro Football Focus saying that he “has a very good case to make as being the best player in the National Football League.”
One more thing: The Rams gave their best players a day off in Week 17, while the Falcons drew the short scheduling straw, getting a cross-country trip on a short week. The Falcons are pretty good, and capable of beating anyone, but the Rams are clearly the better team.
The pick: Rams win and cover
JAGUARS (-9) over Bills
The early money appears to be on the Bills. With the big spread, that’s understandable, right? I mean, they’re playing against BLAKE BORTLES.
(Actually, Bortles isn’t quite a laughingstock anymore, but I digress.)
There’s no way you can take the Bills here. The status of RB LeSean McCoy (ankle) looks like a gametime decision, and the Bills’ offense is terrible even when he’s healthy (302.6 ypg, 29th in the NFL). Their December playoff “push” included two wins over the Dolphins, and another against the Colts. They have a point differential of minus-57 for the season. In summary: They’re not good.
The Jags have arguably the league’s best defense (you can support the Vikings if you want), ranking second in points against, yards allowed, sacks and interceptions. They run very well – leading the league in both attempts and yards – while the Bills rank 29th versus the run (124.6 ypg). Jacksonville’s goal will be pound the ball down the Bills’ throats, and they’ll probably succeed while the defense gives up 10 points or less. A shutout is absolutely in play.
The pick: Jaguars win and cover (best bet)
SAINTS (-7) over Panthers
Do I need to pick an underdog? Is it a coincidence that I left the option open for my hometown Panthers? Is this the upset?
Maybe, but probably not. The Saints worked the Panthers over in both of their meetings this season, dominating in yards per game (381-284.5), time of possession (avg. 32:15) and on the scoreboard (65-31). Also, they held Cam Newton in check both times without the services of star rookie CB Marshon Lattimore.
However, it’s possible that the Panthers will win this one, or (more likely) keep it close. Their defense is pretty good, TE Greg Olsen wasn’t available in the previous Saints’ matchups, and Newton is always a big, broken play waiting to happen. Of the four road teams on the board this weekend, they’re the best one.
The Saints won just three of their final six games, and despite their Week 13 statistical edge over the Panthers, a couple of special teams turnovers factored heavily into the outcome. Maybe I’m being a homer, at least in terms of the point spread, but I see a competitive game.
The pick: Saints win, Panthers cover
Just to wrap things up, these picks went 13-4. That’s not awful, but it’s obviously no way to win a survivor pool.
If your pool has extended into the playoffs due to a tire of some other unusual circumstance, the Jaguars (who we haven’t yet used) are the best pick on the board.
Week 1: Bills (win)
Week 2: Ravens (win)
Week 3: Panthers (loss)
Week 4: Seahawks (win)
Week 5: Eagles (win)
Week 6: Broncos (loss)
Week 7: Rams (win)
Week 8: Bengals (win)
Week 9: Texans (loss)
Week 10: Lions (win)
Week 11: Chiefs (loss)
Week 12: Patriots (win)
Week 13: Chargers (win)
Week 14: Steelers (win)
Week 15: Saints (win)
Week 16: Redskins (win)
Week 17: Vikings (win)