From the very beginning of the NFL season, the New England Patriots seemed like a lock to either win the Super Bowl, or at least play in it. They started dropping meteorites on opponents, proverbially ending games in the third quarter against Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and others. They seemed unstoppable and there was virtually no point in betting on anyone else from the AFC.
Nothing’s changed, even after a brutal loss last Sunday to the Eagles in which mistakes plagued a usually disciplined New England team. The Pats are still the +200 favorite to win the AFC, the second-favorite in Super Bowl odds and are receiving nearly three-quarters of the backing this weekend for Sunday Night Football against Houston. Everybody is still behind Tom and Bill, and the universe seems as on track as it ever was.
There is – obviously – a big problem.
Teams that have clinched a playoff spot towards the end of the season have one of two choices to make: they can either keep things full throttle and continue to take care of business, or they can administer a conservative approach to afford some rest for their players. It’s a strange rendition of the “fight or flight” mechanism in response to the pressure of the playoffs.
Coasting in to the playoffs based on your early season success can be a serious mistake that most organizations make because they feel like their players are cybernetic organisms. The whole theory that players can just “flip a switch” on and off is semi-ludicrous. It also discredits the opposition in the playoffs, where everybody is pushing the envelope as hard as they possibly can. That’s why it’s vital to maintain a semblance of consistency throughout the entirety of the season. At most, you’re playing 20 games. Go full throttle or go home, right?
New England doesn’t have a choice but to rest their best players and hope that it doesn’t come back to haunt them. Denver is in the same boat with Peyton Manning disrupting any flow that Brock Osweiler establishes in his absence. Is Cincinnati really going to stop overachieving in the final month of the season if they lock up a bye week in the wild card? Are you really going to trust Andy Dalton in prime time during a playoff game regardless?
I don’t know about you, but all three of these situations makes me nervous as does the fourth one which results in either Indianapolis, Houston or Jacksonville making the playoffs.
So this is where things start to get interesting. Given the state at the top of the AFC, even with Brady getting a slew of offensive weaponry back in a week or more, aren’t the two best bets to win the conference the Pittsburgh Steelers (+500) and Kansas City Chiefs (+1000)?
I’m going to assume that you just said, “Alex Smith? Really?”
If we’re talking about Smith as boyfriend material, then he’s the nice guy in high school that’s the safe choice to date. You can bring him home, introduce him to your parents without fear, he’s going to do well at college (which he did) and go on to have a bountiful career that’s underscored by a general sense of mediocrity. Essentially, he’s always going to be overshadowed by the hyper successful, star quarterbacks of high school and the world. Everyone’s picking Philip Rivers, Tom Brady and the elites before they get to Alex Smith.
And why wouldn’t you? Alex Smith is ranked 17th in terms of passing yards, and has been sacked a league-leading 38 times. Amongst quarterbacks who have played in every single game this season, Smith has the fewest touchdown passes of any quarterback not named Teddy Bridgewater. The idea of Smith leaves you wanting more, but the reality of him might be more than you’d expect. He’s the conclusion of a romantic comedy after the final chase scene. C’mon, you know he is. With that haircut and facial hair? C’mon!
Kansas City’s season started off more like a tragedy. The Chiefs lumbered out to one of the worst starts in all of football at 1-5 SU and ATS, while posting just 21.2 points per game offensively. In the process, they lost Jamaal Charles. There was no way anyone was going to give this team any chance of disrupting the playoff picture.
Six games later, the Chiefs are 6-0 SU and ATS and knocking on the wild card door. They’ve increased their scoring output exponentially, dropping 32.3 points per game over that win streak. The defence is 7th with 20 points allowed, and at this point we can stop making fun of the way they got destroyed over the first month of the season.
The best part about the Chiefs is that they play San Diego, Baltimore, Cleveland and Oakland in their last four games of the season. Those aren’t just winnable games, they’re must-win, winnable games. If all continues to go right for Smith and his counterparts in red and white, they’re going to be staring at a 10-6 or 11-5 record and a playoff berth right behind the Broncos in the AFC West.
They’ll also be playing at full steam since they have no choice but to keep winning in order to stay ahead of the pack, which undoubtedly includes Pittsburgh.
I shouldn’t have to sell you on the Steelers. They’re everything that the Chiefs are, but with waaaaaaay more firepower on offence. The Bryant-Brown combination is perhaps he best pairing of any two wide receivers in the league, especially with Roethlisberger at the helm. The Steelers also lost their star running back, but were able to replace him admirably with DeAngelo Williams. In fact, if Alex Smith is that “nice guy from high school” in the above analogy, Roethlisberger is the stud quarterback who always steals his girl What’s that noise? A joke hitting to close to home for a quarterback with a troubled past? Got it. Moving on.
The AFC is a more wide open race than you want to believe. Pittsburgh and Kansas City have to play to their limit to stave off any competition at the wild card spots, namely from the Jets or Bills. Momentum is going to be in hand for these teams down the stretch and in to the playoffs, which can be the difference between a championship and an early playoff exit. Just ask the 2012 Baltimore Ravens.
The NFC is a bit more of an open-close situation because the team that everyone expected to repeat as the conference champion for the third time is starting to hit their stride. The Seattle Seahawks opened at -130 to win the NFC, and are now at +400.
Still, their destiny is up in the air. Depending on how things go for the Cardinals, the Seahawks might not even make the playoffs.
Arizona and Seattle’s fates are directly inter-linked. The Cardinals have a remaining schedule of Minnesota, Philadelphia, Green Bay and Seattle. Those are three playoff hopefuls and a team that can explode on you at any given moment. Despite what happened to Carson Palmer last year, and Chris Johnson this year, there’s no reason for Arizona to stop playing their best football. The bye week is crucial for an old team because it’s a defacto rest period instead of an optional one.
The Cardinals could also be the ruler of all things playoffs in Week 17 when they face Seattle. Nobody wants to face Seattle in the playoffs. Would Arizona be better served by resting in Week 17, or banishing the Seahawks from post-season consideration? You’d be an idiot to rest them, which is why it’s a good thing that two-time Coach of the Year, Bruce Arians, is at the helm. He’ll want to vanquish the Seahawks more than anyone else on the planet, instead of facing them a third time when things matter.
And as we hour glass this article towards it penultimate end, let’s talk quickly about the Carolina Panthers. Their bruising, smash mouth style of football has hardly ever proven to be sustainable for 19 straight games. Carolina had this problem last year, where they were so physical throughout the regular season that they couldn’t maintain pace in the playoffs. I don’t care if you think you love Cam Newton as much as I do, but it’s just too difficult to play their brand of football at a high level for that many games in a row.
That’s why the smart and logical choice is apparent for Carolina: screw the perfect season and get some extra rest. But as I said, that strategy rarely works out. If anyone does have that switch I talked about earlier, it’s Carolina. They’re perhaps the only team that could really ease up and cruise control their way in to the playoffs then turn whatever “it” is back on. Inversely, they could just continue to stomp the yard in to the playoffs and maintain a level of mystique and brutality that has defined them all year long. What would you do?
Betting the home stretch of NFL games is one of the hardest measures in the game for gamblers. Which teams care? Which teams don’t? In this case, you have to lean heavy on the teams that have everything to lose each and every week, while shading away from those that can afford to make a mistake in the win/loss column because of built-in insulation.
Some teams will elect to sit star players because they have to or need to. Others will continue to slam straight ahead and punch their tickets to the dance with the currency that put them in a position to earn a berth in the first place. Targeting the latter over the former is the difference between making money and leaving it on the table when it comes to NFL betting.
Win or go home. Fight or die. These are the mantras that we grow up hearing. In terms of betting the home stretch, and making long-term plays on futures, I’m going to invest in the teams that choose to rest when they’re dead in the water, and not a minute beforehand.