Nothing like a New Year for some fresh starts.
As you may have noticed, I have really been slacking these last couple of weeks and the reasons for that are numerous. Here is the most relevant one, however.
The biggest achievement of this site during the seventeen weeks of football was the creation of WORMS. This was never the intended purpose of the site, nor was it something that even seemed possible just a few short months ago.
Over the course of the season, however, WORMS has turned into the very lifeblood of this site, and the number one reason I see such a bright future for OEF.
In this, though, there comes a complicated relationship with the end of the season.
The last two weeks of the year represented a challenge for the Night Owl and myself as we tried to account for non-statistical elements of the games being played. Usually, if a player is injured or if there is a major shift in a team’s identity, we can provide WORMS, offer an explanation, and wait a week for the data to catch up.
This time, however, the last two weeks represented mass departures of starters, differing motivations, a million variations of playoff scenarios, and unmeasurable/intangible factors like contract incentives. All of these conspired to make WORMS a less reliable tool than it had been the previous month and a half.
So, with the lifeblood of the website needing a couple of weeks to gather data and wait out the storm of unquantifiable changes, as well as the business of the holidays, I let Owl Eats Football’s content die to a disappointing level.
But now we’re back, baby, and just in time for the playoffs.
Heading into Wild Card Weekend, it feels like we finally have a fresh beginning after the slog of finishing a full regular season. With only four games this weekend and with WORMS back in action, we are ready to get everyone into the green before we bet it all on the Super Bowl.
With that in mind, though, the playoffs will call for only one article. I will be aiming to get this out by Thursday each week and it will include WORMS, my picks, and plenty of analysis. Think of it as your one stop, all inclusive, gambling
So, without any more ado, welcome to the Owl Eats Football WORMS Playoff Pick Extravaganza:
BUF @ HOU
Vegas: HOU -2.5 WORMS: HOU -5.7 WORMS PICK: HOU -2.5 Owl’s Pick: BUF +2.5
Let’s jump right into it with the game I have the biggest disagreement with WORMS on.
With the Bills visiting Houston on Saturday, WORMS likes the Texans to win by about six and therefore liking them to cover the 2.5 point spread.
Personally, I think the value in this bet is with the Buffalo side. Although the Bills might not win this game outright, they have a defense that offers a lot of likelihood that this game will stay close.
But first, let’s go a little deeper on where WORMS is coming from here.
If we discount the Texans last game where they rested their starters against Tennessee, their last four results have been three wins against the Patriots, Bucs, and Titans with a loss to the Broncos thrown in there. Clearly, WORMS is seeing that against two playoff teams and an underachieving good team, the Texans held their own and won those three games outright.
Perhaps most surprising in that stretch was the fact that the Patriots, Titans, and Bucs averaged 21 points per contest. The Texans weren’t winning with their offense, their defense was what carried them at the end of the season.
Now heading into this matchup, they should be getting at least a partially healthy Will Fuller and JJ Watt back to boost both sides of the ball.
The Texans are uber-talented on the offensive side of the ball, coming together defensively, and playing at home.
But, as will be a theme in this article, I have learned that the playoffs is more about scheme, coaching, and game plan than the regular season. Last year the Seahawks lost to the Cowboys, not because they were a worse team, but because they refused to stop running the ball until the game was out of hand. The Chargers beat a better Ravens team in last year’s playoffs because they added an extra safety to the box to contain Lamar Jackson.
So, my human brain is picking against the dominant numbers of the Texans because I believe the Bills are a better team with the pieces to scheme a win against a suspectly coached Texans squad.
Taking out their last game where they rested starters, the Bills have scored 17 points in three straight games and have averaged just over 19 in their last five.
Despite that, they are 3-2 in the span (only losing to the Patriots and Ravens) because their defense has been otherworldly. Against the Broncos (who I remind you beat the Texans), Cowboys, Ravens, Steelers, and Patriots, the Bills have allowed a TOTAL of 76 points or just over 15 points per game. When your defense is not allowing more than five field goals a game, your offense doesn’t have to do much to win.
Heading into this matchup, the strongest and most consistent unit on the field will be Buffalo’s defense. It will be strength on strength against Houston’s offense, but with the coaching edge I give the nod to the Bills.
But even if you think that is a wash, then I would argue that the Bills still have the edge in the weaker of these team’s units.
Although Buffalo has not been scoring a lot of points, there are underlying metrics that suggest they are actually a good offense.
Josh Allen has run for 40 yards and/or a score in eight of Buffalo’s last nine (again excluding Week 17). He’s thrown a touchdown in each of the Bills last six games. He has three interceptions since September. As a team the Bills have run for at least 90 yards in all but one game since their Week 5 bye. They have maxed out at 243 in that span.
I bring up these statistics specifically because they play to Houston’s weaknesses.
Outside of the fluky Broncos loss, the Texans have most recently lost to the Ravens and the Colts. Both of those teams have mobile quarterbacks, strong offensive lines, successful run games, and defenses that can limit big plays.
You don’t have to believe in the Bills like I do, but it is clear that this is not an ideal matchup for the Texans.
Do what you want with the moneyline, but with Buffalo getting points and rolling into the playoffs with a defense that limits points and an offense that makes plays, I’ll take the Bills against the spread.
TEN @ NE
Vegas: NE -4.5 WORMS: NE -1.3 WORMS PICK: TEN +4.5 Owl’s Pick: NE -4.5
This isn’t like picking between my two children; this is like picking between the two sides of my brain.
The Titans have been a darling of this site and we were able to make plenty of money by hopping on them earlier than Vegas. The Patriots, however, have been a personal darling of mine for over two decades, which has obviously been rewarded handsomely.
But it is even more difficult than that simple set up. See the Titans play an exciting brand of football, and if they were to make a run to the Super Bowl, it would go down as one of the most unexpected and entertaining runs of all time. If the Patriots make it to the Super Bowl? It will undoubtedly be boring, unsexy, and feel inevitable.
So given my incredibly difficult choice and the implicit biases in my thinking, let’s start by examining where WORMS is finding its love for the Titans against the spread and the Patriots on the moneyline.
Essentially, WORMS is making this prediction based upon the stellar Patriots defense and the stellar Tennessee offense canceling each other out. The Patriots have won every game their opponent has scored 17 or less points and lost every game their opponent has gone over 17. WORMS thinks that the Titans will be right around that number and will push New England to their limit without being able to break it.
This thinking makes a lot of sense. Despite being seventh in the NFL with 26 points per game, New England has scored more than 24 just once since Halloween. Tennessee has topped that three times in the last four weeks alone.
So while the season long points per game may align, New England is actually facing an offense that is far more explosive than its own.
But what isn’t being talked about is the fact that the Patriots run game actually looks functional again. Over the last three games, they are sixth in the league with 151 rushing yards per game. The Titans are second at 185.7 (trailing Baltimore’s obscene 228) but the biggest difference is that Tennessee does it with splash plays. New England has rushed for those yards largely to control the ball and move the chain.
Due to this fact, WORMS is banking on the Patriots controlling the ball on offense while their defense is able to slow down the Titans offense. In doing this, WORMS is arguing that the spread is too large, but the dominance of the Patriots defense should be enough to squeak out a win.
From my perspective, though, the discussion is much simpler.
Tom Brady is at home in the playoffs. Josh McDaniels has shown a willingness to scheme opportunities for the offense to be successful. Bill Belichick is facing Ryan Tannehill in Foxboro in January. The Patriots are motivated by the growing negative perception of their chances.
Those are the elements that can swing a playoff game.
If, however, you are looking for more reasoned information to sway you, consider the fact that the Titans might be overrated.
They beat the Chiefs in Week 10 before going on a bye. Including that game and excluding their Week 17 game against Houston’s backups, Tennessee is 4-2 in its last six games. That is certainly a good record, and they were red hot in that stretch, but by looking at the competition, we can debunk their success a little.
Their two loses in that stretch were to Houston and New Orleans, two playoff teams. Their wins were against Jacksonville, Oakland, Indianapolis, and the aforementioned Chiefs – three teams that were cratering as the Titans faced them and a Kansas City team that was dealing with an injured Patrick Mahomes.
What is even more concerning for Titans fans is that if you wipe out the 41, 41, and 32 points they scored blowing out those three non-playoff teams, their points per game with Ryan Tannehill as starter is only about 25 points per game. That’s a full point less than the Patriots who supposedly have a sputtering offense.
On top of that, the Titans have only played three playoff teams with Tannehill as starter and they have gone 1-2 against those teams, with their last second Chiefs win as the only time they have beaten a contender.
So, in the end, I choose New England because they have several of the intangibles going their way and Tennessee has been slightly worse than their perception over the last two months.
If you want to bet against New England I can’t blame you, but in this case it seems like one final chance for the Patriots to play underneath their banners and remind everyone how they got them.
MIN @ NO
Vegas: NO -8 WORMS: NO -28.6 WORMS PICK: NO -8 Owl’s Pick: NO -8
Finally, we can save ourselves some work. Both WORMS and myself see New Orleans as the clearly superior team, enough to take them laying eight points to the Vikings.
A large portion of this comes from the fact that we saw Minnesota play one good game since the middle of November. Another large portion comes from the fact that New Orleans has lit the world on fire over that same span.
First, the Vikings. Despite having a point differential of +104 on the season (only 13 points less than the Saints) there is evidence that this number is misleading. The Vikings have five blowout wins that have totaled +101 in point differential. Those five wins came against the Chargers, Giants, Eagles, Lions, and Raiders – not exactly a who’s who of NFL powerhouses. Outside of that game, they have played their competition essentially to a draw going 5-6 in all other games with an 0-4 record against playoff teams.
All of this could be written off as circumstantial were it not for a couple of important factors. The most important one of these factors is that Kirk Cousins is known for underperforming in big games. Going 0-4 against playoff teams does not dispel this.
Another factor is how badly their offense line has played recently. When facing playoff teams, defensive lines and quarterback pressures can be a large part of stopping on offense. With Kirk Cousins on the road in the playoffs, the Vikings team will have to do better than the five sacks and 50 total rushing yards they posted against the Packers in Week 16.
Which is a perfect segue into why the Saints should be favored by so much in this game. On the season, New Orleans is third in the league in sacks per game. They are fourth in the league in rushing yards allowed per game. Over the last three games they’ve allowed 15 points per game, third best in the league.
Although the Saints offense is getting a lot of attention, their defense is the backbone of this team and it is a dream matchup against a banged up Vikings offensive line and shaky quarterback.
Beyond that, though, the Saints have been scoring. It’s been over a month since they scored under 34 points and it has been eight games since they scored under 24. On the season they have scored more than 30 points 11 times, and keep in mind they played without Drew Brees for five and a half games.
A lot of this can be chalked up to a stellar offensive line and some of the most dominant position players in the game. That means this offense can neutralize the Vikings defensive line, attack their weak secondary, and exploit their slow linebackers.
I like New Orleans in this game, in the next game, and in a coin flip NFC Championship. The numbers show that they are one of the best teams in the league and the matchup is primetime. After being denied Super Bowl appearances that last two years thanks to a Hail Mary and a blown call, this could be the year it all comes together for Drew Brees and Shawn Payton.
At the very least, this could be the game they take out all their frustrations.
SEA @ PHI
Vegas: SEA -1.5 WORMS: PHI -7.7 WORMS PICK: PH +1.5 Owl’s Pick: PHI +1.5
The majority of the time, I try to let my research dictate where I am going with my picks.
It can be easy to pick a game and then find the numbers to match your pick, but it is much more fruitful to research the game and let that dictate what you should pick.
In this case, however, there is no amount of research that could get me off of Philadelphia at home against Seattle. That is not to say I didn’t try, and that is not to say I am supremely confident in this pick, but it is to say that I know too much about these teams to see the outcome deviating from a Philly win.
Let me explain.
The largest factor in this belief is that point differential and record in one score games truly do matter. Sometimes the regression to the mean doesn’t come until a year or two later, but over time, playing in one score games lends itself to a close to .500 record while blowing out opponents and racking up point differential lends itself to much better records.
This season, the Seahawks have played in 12 one score games and won 10 of them. Both are by far the most in the league. Some of these are legit wins, but they also include wins on a missed field goal at the end of regulation (vs. Rams), two overtime wins (vs. TB and SF, the second coming with a missed field goal), and a one-point win at home against the Bengals. Any team would be lucky to split those games and the Seahawks won all four. Flip that one Rams game and the Seahawks miss the playoffs.
More to the point, though, the Seattle Seahawks are six games above .500 on the season and have a point differential of +7. That means they have 11 wins with an average margin of victory of .4 points per game. The only other playoff team without a double-digit positive point differential is Houston at -7 (!!!).
Like I said, this sometimes takes multiple seasons to balance out and is not always predictive of the next game, but picking with this in mind is a strategy that will bend towards profit over time.
As evidence that point differential matters, ten of the top 11 teams in point differential are in the playoffs with Seattle and Houston ranking 14th and 15th. But as evidence that sometimes coaching is involved, the team in the top 11 that didn’t make the playoffs is Dallas.
And so this becomes the question with Seattle. Are they a great team that wins games but is held back by scheme and coaching, or are they a mediocre team that wins close games because it is buoyed by coaching?
I lean towards the former.
Despite having Russell Wilson and a dwindling number of running backs, the Seahawks have refused to abandon the running game that they see as central to their identity. They have Russell Wilson, yet they rank 23rd in the league in passing plays per game. We have already established that they rarely blow teams out, so that means that in fairly neutral game scripts they run the ball.
This was less of a problem when Seattle had two healthy stud running backs in Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny, but both of them went down with season ending injuries and the fall out has been severe. Since losing Penny in Week 13 against the Vikings, the Seahawks played four games and went 1-3. This included losses to the Rams, the Cardinals, and the Niners with the lone win coming against the down and out Panthers (in, you guessed it, a one score game).
Despite changing circumstances and a shifting pool of talent, Seattle has shown little to prove that it can adapt. They are indicating that they will stick with a strategy of “run the ball until we’re down and rely on Russell Wilson to bail us out in a close game”.
But let’s stop bashing the Seahawks and talk about what Philly can do to outright win the game.
There are, at this point, a comical number of injuries to Eagles players. For many people, this is the thesis behind them losing – they just don’t have the man power.
While I certainly understand this, to me this cannot be a reason when it has been the M.O. for this team all season. The kid who looks big and tough gets knocked out in the school yard fight because he has never taken a punch; the kid always getting picked on gets back up because he’s used to it (disclaimer: don’t fight or bully or be mean…unless it’s towards the Seahawks).
The point being that Philadelphia is entering this game the same way they’ve entered them all: undermanned and looking to adapt.
Which doesn’t mean under-talented. One of the biggest reasons I like Philly here is that they have a defense that stops the run and has been improving against the pass.
In fact, when these two teams played in Week 12, Philly held Russell Wilson to 200 yards passing on just 13 completions. Uncharacteristically, their third ranked run D gave up 150 yards rushing to Rashaad Penny and Chris Carson, but this time around will be facing Marshawn Lynch and Travis Homer.
Since that game, Philly has also improved in the takeaway turnover margin. A defense that, at that time, was not making plays is now fifth in the league in turnover margin over the past month. Perhaps the competition plays a role, but Philadelphia’s defense is for real, holding seven of its last nine opponents to 17 or fewer points.
Bill Parcels famously once said that the key to beating a team is to make them “play left-handed” by taking away their right hand, or their dominant phase of the game. He also said that the key to being a winning team was being able to win with either hand. Seattle is a team with one route to victory (run until Wilson bails you out) while Philly can find many paths to victory.
My money is on the scrappier team that had to fight to get here as opposed to the team that was gifted a spot. Give me the junkyard dog over the poodle. Give me the Eagle over the Seahawk.
But because it’s the playoffs, we’re not done yet…
Big Money Parlays
You can’t keep old parlay fingers down for too long!
With four games on the slate, there are a limited number of parlays available but an unlimited amount of money available. My advice if you have a god feeling about a couple of games, throw them in a couple of parlays with differing sides of the games you don't like as much.
If that's not your cup of tea, then maybe it is time to reprise a teaser! This week I teased Buffalo (+9), the Buffalo-Houston over (38.5), Philly (+7.5), and New Orleans (-2) all of which made me feel better about each situation.
But however you want to get in on the action, here are three ways to link up some of the best bets we have. A reminder that these lines and odds came at various points during the week and may not still be available.
With all that out of the way, here are the Wild Card round parlays that can’t pay your rent but might just buy you a house:
PARLAY 1 - The 3 Hooter
PHI to win (+145)
NE to win (-230)
NO to win (-430)
$50 to win $140.11
PARLAY 2 - Fo' Fo' Fo'
PHI to win (+145)
NE to win (-230)
NO -8 (-110)
BUF to win (+125)
$90 to win $1,077.86
PARLAY 3 - The I don’t give a Hoot
PHI +2.5 (-105)
NE -4.5 (-110)
NO -8 (-115)
BUF +2.5 (-105)
BUF-HOU over 43.5 (-110)
SEA-PHI over 45.5 (-110)
MIN-NO under 49 (-110)
TEN-NE under 44 (-110)
$1 to win $179.92