If you’re looking for a monster preview of the divisional round in the NFL playoffs, then I have just the thing for you. I’ve stacked all the teams in descending order based on their odds to win Super Bowl LI. Need to know where and how to invest your money in the NFL futures market? I’ve got you covered.
In general, the numbers haven’t shifted all that much in terms of outright value. The Dallas Cowboys went from +150 as NFC Championships to +140, while the New England Patriots stayed at +180 as the reigning Super Bowl LI favorites (I mistakenly wrote +190 last week).
Later this week I’ll have my matchup breakdowns for the divisional round, but for now let’s take a look at the eight teams still standing after a chaotic 2016 campaign, and a wildly boring wild card weekend.
8. HOUSTON TEXANS
(+5000 To Win Super Bowl LI / +2800 to win AFC)
I’m going to make this quick. There are probably a few Texans fans reading this looking for some desperate straws to hang on to. To cut things short – there aren’t any. The only good news is that the odds for both outcomes are so sky high that you could throw a chip shot here for fun and not feel like an idiot. It’s the playoffs. Anything can happen. Some things are just really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really unlikely.
7. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
(+900 to win Super Bowl LI / +600 to win NFC)
Of all the underdogs this weekend, the most tempting is the Seattle Seahawks. Part of getting value out of an NFL Futures bet is the payout itself. A dime on the Seahawks to conquer the conference is going to pay back six times your original wager. And all they have to do to put your money on the doorstep is beat Atlanta.
I’ll be chiming in later this week with some thoughts about the actual matchups, but my main curiosity with the Seahawks has more to do with whether they’ve been playing possum for the regular season. They looked downright explosive while demolishing the Detroit Lions.
Getting Thomas Rawls fired up was key to everything, Rawls eviscerated the Lions for 161 yards on the ground, and there’s nothing to suggest that he can’t do the same to the Falcons, or anyone else remaining in the post season.
Rawls is the epitome of the Seahawks 2016 season, which has been a roller coaster to boot. He’s been battling injuries, slowly trying to get back in the swing of things and is now hitting a bit of a peak. You can tell by the way Seattle played against a decent Detroit team that the Seahawks are doing the same.
So I’ve come around on the Seahawks a bit. Their path to win Super Bowl LI is pretty clear: outpace the Falcons defence and then hope that Dallas just has one of “those games”. It’s not improbable and at 6/1 to win the NFC and 9/1 to take it all, there are few teams that pose as much value on the board.
Seattle is that annoying team is built to beat anyone. I hate admitting it because I despise their fan base, but it’s the truth.
6. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
(+900 to win Super Bowl LI / +425 to win AFC)
In my piece last week, I listed the Chiefs as the best hedge play to take the AFC. I’m still fairly high on Kansas City, but watching Pittsburgh play last weekend has me concerned. This is going to be tight.
The Chiefs are the steady-eddy of the whole playoffs. Their explosive offence is belied by the misconception that Alex Smith can’t throw the ball far. Listen, he doesn’t hurl a long ball as well as most of the other guys in this league, but he’s more than capable at the position. The Chiefs still outscored their points against by +4.9 points per game. A lot of people will look at the Week 4 tilt against Pittsburgh and point out that it was the Chiefs’ worst loss of the season. Using a game that is three months old as your primary gauge is fatal thinking.
Everything I noted about the Chiefs last week still applies. Unfortunately, we won’t know everything we want to be about Kansas City until after they play Pittsburgh. Still, they have all the elements you’d want in a contender…along with something that often goes unappreciated.
The most undersold element about the Chiefs is their big play ability. Tyreke Hill and Travis Kelce are homerun hitters. We know this. But Alex Smith can also whip up a 6-play, 90-second scoring drive when he needs to. We’ve seen him do it countless times this season.
I do not love this team to win the Super Bowl, but I like them a lot in general and I’m holding steady on them as an upset play to take the AFC. They’re a solid hedge play against the Patriots depending on how you rate the Steelers (who I’ll get to in a second).
5. ATLANTA FALCONS
(+900 to win Super Bowl LI / +240 to win NFC)
Matty Ice Cold. Those three words strike terror in to the hearts of Atlanta football fans. The high-scoring, MVP candidate has always commandeered flawed teams in to the post season, and the 2016 rendition of the Falcons is no different. This defence is as bad as it gets in the NFL playoffs. Anybody can score on them at will, which you sort of have to do against this Falcons team.
Try as I might, it’s hard to shake the stink of seasons passed. The Falcons always have this aura about them that they’re not going to win a big game. You want proof? The Falcons have gone to the playoffs four times in 9 seasons with Matt Ryan, and are 1-4 SU over 5 games. Here’s how he fared:
2008 – 199 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT, 72.6 RAT (lost 24-30 to Arizona)
2010 – 186 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, 69.0 RAT (lost 21-48 to Green Bay)
2011 – 199 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT, 71.1 RAT (lost 2-24 to NYG)
2012 – 250 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT, 93.8 RAT (won 30-28 to Seattle)
2012 – 396 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, 114.8 RAT (lost 24-28 to San Fran)
The good news is that the difference between Veteran Matt Ryan and Rookie Matt Ryan is apparent. He is undeniably great in terms of production, and leads arguably the best statistical offence in the playoffs. Their 33.8 points per game was tops in the NFL, and their overall yards per game was 415.8 which ranked second.
The most notable element about his playoff numbers is that he’s gotten better as time marches on. Sadly, the best game of his post-season career is the infamous Harry Douglas Game in the NFC Championship (that was the year Kaepernick exploded…yes it’s been that long).
The bad news is that it’s been four years since Matt Ryan’s even been to the post season. So there’s no telling how his team responds to the moment. Frankly, there’s no telling how he is going to respond.
I have been down on the Falcons all year long and a lot of my personal perception of them is built on the stereotype that they’re simply not a real contender. The easy way to beat them up is to run the ball on them without overthinking it. That keeps Ryan on the sidelines and withers a defence that typically plays on its heels all day long. Their secondary is a big weakness, but if you can chew up clock, then Ryan can’t do what he wants to. That’s the blueprint Philadelphia outlined in Week 10 and the rest of the NFC contenders can follow it to the letter.
Traditionally, I shade away from teams that can’t seem to stop anyone. I don’t like it when a team doesn’t have a smidgen of a defensive identity and that’s the Falcons defence in one word. Seattle, Green Bay and Dallas all have noteworthy defences that have a shot at mitigating the damage Matt Ryan can accomplish. And all of them have rushing attacks that can devour time in a quarter (the prowess of Green Bay’s run game is that defences have to account for Rodgers at all times, which is why Christine Michael is having an unpredictable renaissance).
But does Atlanta have a defence that can stop Aaron Rodgers, Ezekiel Elliott or Russell Wilson? Not at their best. That’s why I’m still down on Atlanta long term no matter the result against Seattle.
4. PITTSBURGH STEELERS
(+700 to win LI / +350 to win AFC)
Oh boy. If there’s any team that’s going to make me eat crow from last week, it’s the Pittsburgh Steelers. I noted prior to wild card weekend that I was not all that high on their defence, and I’m still not convinced that they’re a truly unbeatable team after they walloped Matt Moore. Sorry if beating up a Mr. Backup Quarterback doesn’t instill a sense of confidence.
I will say that I am a big believer in Ben Roethlisberger. Ever since he stormed the league back in 2005, the Steelers have been a ridiculously good playoff team. They’re 12-5 SU in 17 playoff appearances. This includes a record of 3-0-1 ATS in their last 4 games in the divisional round. That also includes a 1-3-2 ATS record in their last 6 playoff games.
Those trends encapsulate Roethlisberger in a nutshell. He’s a great quarterback; someone who has that “will to win” thing commentators yammer on about. His biggest detractors will note that Roethlisberger doesn’t haul massive numbers overall. He’s only been in the top-10 in passing yards five times over 13 seasons, and has only cracked the top-5 once when he co-led the league in 2014 alongside Drew Brees.
He’s a bit of a throwback quarterback. He’s Cam Newton with a much more precise arm. He’s Brett Favre without the bonehead throws. He’s what we thought Jeff George was going to be. He’s a white Steve McNair or an also-white (but way bigger) Steve Young. All in all, he’s a bit of a mixed bag, and the fact that he’s slightly injured makes me hesitant about the team overall.
The issue in discussing his historical relevance amongst “greats” is that Roethlisberger has almost always been surrounded by quality skill position guys. Pittsburgh should run a master class on how to draft talent. Think of all the big name fantasy players that have been in Roethlisberger’s arsenal: Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, Mike Wallace, Rashard Mendenhall, Willie Parker, Jermoe Bettis, Heath Miller, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are just a handful. It’s one of those chicken-and-egg arguments: are they great despite him or because of him? I’d say it’s a bit of both. Great players help make others great, and that’s the symbiotic type of relationship that Roethlisberger’s enjoyed.
I have no qualms about this offence. They’re going to score. Lots. What I’m more concerned about is how this defence can produce against the Chiefs and Patriots (sorry, Houston). It might not matter.
If you read everything I wrote about Atlanta, Pittsburgh isn’t much different; explosive rushing attack, big name threats in the passing game and a capable quarterback. They’re eerily similar. But the defence is notably better by comparison.
Pittsburgh ranked 10th in points allowed, generating a +4.5 point differential over the course of the season. However, this is slightly misleading. Pittsburgh notched a +0.9 point differential over their first 9 games of the season where they went 4-5 SU and ATS. That stretch concluded with a thrilling 30-35 loss to Dallas.
What Pittsburgh has managed to do in the second half is both incredible and misleading. They’ve ripped off an 8-0 SU and 6-1-1 ATS run with a +7.8 point differential (this includes last weekend against Miami). And even these numbers are a bit schizophrenic because those victories came against Cleveland, Indy, the Giants, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Miami. There’s maybe one bonafide contender in that bunch, and it’s not Miami.
Steelers fans know to ignore numbers. It’s just part of living with a quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger. He can post the worst QBR in the history of the Super Bowl and still win the damn game. That’s kind of the whole point of his existence, regardless of how good the talent around him is. If that’s your biggest bone to pick with Roethlisberger, then remember it works both ways. He doesn’t make his complementary talent any worse. If anything, he helps maximize their production.
This is the time to go all-in on believing in Roethlisberger. Just know that their stretch run of eight wins is suspect at best. But that’s’ why they call it a “leap of faith”, or as I like to call it…gambling.
3. GREEN BAY PACKERS
(+475 to win Super Bowl LI / +325 to win NFC)
If you love the Green Bay Packers you don’t need any further convincing. They steamrolled the Giants, but got a bit of luck in the process. That Hail Mary was ridiculous and completely turned the tide of the game. They were also able to whip the ball around without having to worry about Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who exited the game and never came back.
The Packers also lost Jordy Nelson to two fractured ribs and they’d be insane to try him against a Cowboys team that will be looking to knock him out of the game permanently. It’s just the way football works. Jordy won’t be able to run flat out, let alone play without the fear of puncturing his own goddamn lungs.
The lack of Jordy is a big concern, because he’s their home run hitter. Aaron Rodgers is so good that he can elevate players like Christine Michael and Davanta Adams, but I’m not sure there’s any inherent value in this team overall.
Keep in mind that the public factor with the Packers is enormous. The gang loves Aaron Rodgers. This team has fans all across the country. But they’re far from perfect. You can tell that the world is all in on Rodgers because over two-thirds of the money has come in on Green Bay as +4.5 underdogs against Dallas. Part of it is that game is designed to be tight.
Last week, I lumped the Packers in to an exact matchup bet with the Steelers at 20/1 and that’s still one of my favorite hedge plays despite everything I said about Pittsburgh up above. I don’t truthfully believe that the Packers can get past Dallas for reasons I’ll outline later this week but I’ll admit it’s completely possible.
As I said at the beginning, if you’re betting on Green Bay you’re betting on Green Bay. Good luck.
If you need convincing, then you’re better off investing your money elsewhere.
2. DALLAS COWBOYS
(+475 to win Super Bowl LI / +140 to win NFC)
As a gambler and handicapper, I like to have outs, and no team presents more insulation from catastrophe than Dallas. They played remarkably well without Dez Bryant. Zeke Elliott has weathered a full season while leading the league in rushing and he’s tough enough to take one-on-one hits, while his offensive line protects him from danger. Beyond that, if anything happens to Dak Prescott, they have Tony Romo waiting on the sidelines to seize the moment.
Dallas was my pick to win the NFC last week at +150 even though I threw a flier at the Giants to win Super Bowl LI at +1600. That hasn’t changed. If I want to chase more money with them, I can bet on the game line of the Super Bowl itself should they get that far.
The biggest problem is that their secondary is a bit questionable, but they have the best run defence and an incredible offensive attack overall. They ranked 5th in points for and against this season and that says enough about the quality of this team, which also went 10-6 ATS through the year.
This has been an absolutely bizarre year, and nothing would epitomize the zaniness of the season than a pair of rookies winning SB LI. I’m still as high on Dallas as I ever was, and if you felt the same going in to the playoffs, there’s no reason to pump the brakes just because you’re staring Aaron Rodgers in the face.
1. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
(+180 to win Super Bowl LI / -550 to win AFC)
It’s Tom Freaking Brady. What else am I supposed to say? The road to the Super Bowl for them has always been fairly simple, and they’re going to get the bloody remains of whomever survives the Chiefs-Steelers game. New England has opened up as the largest playoff favorite in nearly thirty years with a -16.5 point line against Houston. I have no concerns about them embarrassing the Texans.
It’s easy to poke holes in a no-name defence that traded away their best player during the season, and to lament the absence of Rob Gronkowski. You know what? It doesn’t matter. The Patriots scored 27.6 points per game (3rd) and had one of the best overall defences in the entire FNL. They ranked 1st in points against and 8th in total yards.
Fortunately, the Patriots have hung around at 9/2 (or +180) to win Super Bowl LI and are the hard lined favorites to dominate the AFC once again. They’ve been my favorite bet to win the Super Bowl all year long, and that hasn’t wavered in any way. As far as value goes in the AFC, you’re better off with a lob on the Chiefs or Steelers since New England is such a heavy money preference.
America’s Team winning the Super Bowl with rookies is one thing, but Tom Brady sticking it to Roger Goodell after all the hell he’s been put through for Deflategate would be the perfect middle finger gesture for the greatest quarterback of all time.
Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. I don’t have time to argue about it now. I think I’ve taken enough of your time already.