As the congested festive football period draws to a close in Europe, Nick Haynes from Form Labs looks to North America where the NFL post-season is just getting underway for his weekly Inside Edge analysis.
With the expansion of the playoffs from 12 teams to 14, only two sides will avoid the wildcard round this season with the Kansas City Chiefs seeded first in the AFC and the Green Bay Packers taking the spoils in the NFC. However, it’s not been as clear cut in either conference than one might have thought, and there may be some greater value to be plucked out of the wildcard round this weekend.
AFC – Value away from the Chiefs?
Unsurprisingly, the Chiefs (+225) go into the post-season as Super Bowl favourites needing to play a game less than most, though the fact that they haven’t won by more than six points since the beginning of November against the New York Jets is certainly cause for concern. Their 38-21 defeat at home to the LA Chargers shouldn’t have come as a surprise having rested the majority of their star players, though they’ll face a tricky run to their second Super Bowl in succession with the likes of the Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers capable of causing an upset.
Patrick Mahomes leads the post-season sides in passing yards which should come as no surprise and he’ll be the key for the Chiefs going forward, and when they click, there’s very little any side can do to stop them. They haven’t been at their scintillating best lately though and have been fragile defensively, conceding an average of 26.25 points per game in their last eight matches, so there’s currently little margin for error on offence and value should present itself further down in the market.
The Bills (+700) are the most likely challengers to the Chiefs, being one of two sides in the AFC that have outscored them in the regular season, while they also rank third in the NFL for passing yards. Josh Allan has come on leaps and bounds this year and ranks fifth for the passing yards this season. Should they beat the Ravens, their game against the Chiefs should be a real thriller.
The Steelers (+2200) have gone off the boil lately having been the longest undefeated side at the start of this season. Indeed, they’ve gone from winning 11 on the bounce to losing four of their last five outings, though in truth four of those five came against strong opposition who have made the playoffs, and their most recent two-point defeat against the Browns should be overturned in the Wildcard round when they field their strongest squad.
The one thing that works against them here is their defensive approach, which in recent years hasn’t served to yield Super Bowls with the last defence focussed outfit to win being the Denver Broncos back in 2015. They’ve got the luck of the draw as they’d avoid the Chiefs until the Championship round, but if they can find that early regular season form again, they’ll be a force and look well priced.
The Ravens (+1200) and Titans (+2800) have arguably the hardest runs in the entire bracket, facing off against each other before coming up against the Chiefs in the Divisional round, which leaves both (especially the Ravens) looking too short to go all the way. The Baltimore side are arguably the most in form team heading into this with five wins on the bounce, averaging a whopping 37.2 points over that run and with four of those outings seeing at least a 14-point winning margin, while they also led the league in rushing by going over the 3000-yard mark.
The Titans have scored the most touchdowns in the AFC this year, with their rush game arguably the strongest in the entire NFL, being responsible for 42% of their total TDs. That style could cause the Chiefs trouble should they get that far as it would limit the amount of time Mahomes has on the field, though it’s a tall ask for either of these sides to win three on the bounce against extremely difficult opposition.
NFC – Saints to trouble Packers?
The Green Bay Packers (+450) are the top seeded side the NFC and are looking in immense form coming into the post-season with six successive wins, scoring 30+ in five of them which made them the NFL’s top points scorers in the regular season. Aaron Rogers is certainly in the conversation when it comes to MVPs this year, and if he can fire his side all the way to the Super Bowl he has a serious claim to the award with only Deshaun Watson throwing more yards per attempt from players with 2000+ passing yards, while he’s only thrown five interceptions for the season.
Similarly to the Chiefs though, as they focus on offensive potency their defence has been suspect as they’ve conceded 30+ points on four occasions and ranked just 13th on scoring defence, and there are some strong NFC sides looking to pip them to the post this year.
The New Orleans Saints (+700) are the joint shortest side to feature in the Wildcard round. They’ve now won 11 of their last 13 matches, and have scored at least 20 points in every single game they’ve played. Their rushing game is arguably the best in the league as they’ve scored 51% of their touchdowns via that method, with their 30 rushing touchdowns the highest in the NFL. Alvina Kamara has been key for them this season and that’s not going to change in the playoffs either, with his 16 touchdowns so far carrying them through, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see them go all the way in a fairy-tale story for QB Drew Brees.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+1000) and Seattle Seahawks (+1300) certainly shouldn’t be ruled out either though. The Bucs have NFL legend Tom Brady calling the shots and going for his seventh Super Bowl, so experience is certainly on their side in that regard, while they look to be coming into form at just the right time. Four successive wins in the regular season scraped them into the playoffs, and Brady had a huge hand to play in that throwing a total of 1,333 yards in those four games with a 69% completion rate and a 12:1 TD to interception ratio, if he can keep that form up there’s very little anyone could do to hider Tampa Bay.
The Seahawks are in an all too familiar place having reached the post-season in eight of the last nine seasons now. They, too, come into this off the back of four successive victories, scoring at least 20 in each, including against the Rams themselves just two weeks ago. Seattle won the final three quarters in that game to take a comfortable 11-point victory, and their defence could pave the way for them again here and provide the platform for Russell Wilson to fire., so they’re certainly one to keep an eye on in the coming weeks.
FA Cup – Man Utd to bounce back from midweek disappointment?
A difficult League Cup semi-final encounter in midweek saw Man Utd (33/100) come up short against their local Manchester rivals. We wouldn’t be too alarmed by that though given the Citizens look to be coming into some form, while both their goals came from set-pieces.
Watford (10/1) on the other hand, have been ticking along nicely since their relegation from the Premier League last season, currently sitting in the play-off spots with 37 points from their 22 outings. However, just one win from their last four is cause for concern when you’re about to play a team joint-top of England’s top flight, and they could well be exposed.
The Red Devils have reached at least the quarters of this tournament in each of the last three seasons, finishing runner-up in 2018 and made the semis last season before bowing out to Chelsea. Interestingly, over their opening three rounds of the tournament over that period (Rounds 3, 4 & 5), they won nine of their 10 unbeaten outings, conceding just once across all of them.
The form is on the side of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men too, having won nine of their 11 unbeaten outings domestically prior to that recent defeat to Man City. That has seen them make a charge for the Premier League title now, but this competition will no doubt be of almost equal importance and they’re likely to put a strong team out.
Three straight league wins at Old Trafford against Leeds, Wolves and Aston Villa has proven their quality at this stadium, and in fact, having conceded just 10 goals from their last 11 games here across all competitions since mid-October, with nearly half of those being leaked in the Champions League, they’re starting to look extremely difficult to beat and score against.
They shut out all of Chelsea, Leipzig, West Brom, Man City and Wolves over this period here, and you’d expect that defence to hold up again against a much weaker side in Watford. Moreover, since the start of 2017/18 when Premier League teams have hosted Championship sides in this tournament, they’ve won to nil in 17 of 28 such matches, and that looks a big price to repeat itself in this one.
You only have to look at the Hornets’ away form to see that they’re in trouble. They’ve gone W1-D6-L5 on the road this term across all competitions, netting just seven goals and a maximum of one in each, and when considering that’s come against much weaker teams than what they’re up against this weekend, this looks like it can only go one way.
Stats of the day
- Over the past 10 seasons, Premier League and Championship sides have only won 41.8% of away matches in the FA Cup 3rd round when taking on a team in a lower division than themselves, and still only 43.8% when the gap between the teams was more than one division.
- Marine are only the second eighth-tier side to reach the FA Cup 3rd round after Chasetown in 2007/08, with their meeting against Tottenham the first competitive meeting of two teams separated by seven levels in the football pyramid.