NFL WILD CARD SUNDAY PREVIEW
Wild Card Sunday features a matchup between two division rivals, a Week 8 rematch between NFC opponents, and a potential revenge game from a playoff rematch from last season. Questions and storylines to follow for Wild Card Sunday include: will former league MVP Lamar Jackson secure his first playoff victory, what will Derrick Henry’s follow up performance look like after securing a 2000 yard rushing season, which version of Mitch Trubisky will show up in New Orleans, is this the start of Drew Brees’ final playoff push of his career, can the Cleveland Browns overcome a covid outbreak to win in their first playoff appearance in nearly two decades, and can the Pittsburgh Steelers fix their problems to avoid an early playoff exit.
Ravens at Titans
Spread: Ravens -3 | Over/Under 54.5
The Baltimore Ravens are 6-0 ATS in their last six games. The Ravens are 12-2 straight up in their last 14 road games but are 2-4 straight up in their last 6 games against the Tennessee Titans. The total has gone UNDER in 6 of the Ravens’ last 8 games against AFC South opponents. The total has gone OVER in 7 of the Titans’ last 8 games. The Titans are 5-2 straight up in their last 7 games. The Titans are 3-9-1 ATS in their last 13 games against AFC North opponents.
Lamar Jackson enters the 2020 postseason with a 76.5-percent (No. 9) clean pocket completion percentage and the Tennessee Titans’ pass rush is a glaring issue of their defensive unit, generating pressure on only 17.3-percent (No. 31) of opposing quarterbacks’ dropbacks this season. On top of that, Jackson is a top-10 quarterback in red zone completion percentage (68.3-percent) and the Titans allow 45 touchdowns in the red zone (second-most) on 65 attempts (third-most). Tannehill, like Jackson, was one of the best quarterbacks in clean pocket completion percentage (79.4-percent, No. 5), but expect the Ravens’ defense to pressure Tannehill with more success than the Titans will against Jackson. In their previous game, Tannehill was hurried 11 times, which was a season-high for him. Tannehill’s accuracy was top-notch in 2020. Excluding, unpressured throwaways and drops by his wide receivers, Tannehill’s true completion percentage was 94.9-percent (No. 3). Another matchup to watch is Tannehill’s passing touchdowns. His 7.1-percent touchdown rate trailed only Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson this season. On the other side of the field, the Ravens allowed a passing touchdown rate of 3.7-percent, which trailed only the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks this season.
Week 11’s matchup with the Tennessee Titans started an active touchdown streak of 6 games for J.K. Dobbins that he’ll look to continue in his playoff debut. With Mark Ingram finally out of the picture, Dobbins can assert himself as a primary back. Good things happen when the ball is given to him, evidenced by his league-leading 8.2-percent breakaway run rate that measures the percent of carries that go for longer than 15 yards. The Ravens rushing offense leads the league with 3.4 yards before contact per attempt and 165 rushing first downs. With a 2000 yard rushing season under his belt, Derrick Henry looks to repeat his playoff performance against the Ravens last year where he ran 30 times for 195 scoreless yards. Henry was a one-man wrecking ball this past season as he averaged 2.51 yards (No. 2) created per touch while receiving little help from his offensive line. The Ravens run defense only allows 96 (sixth-fewest) rushing first downs; however, the 4.6 yards per carry was the seventh-highest allowed among defenses.
The Ravens’ passing offense features high ADOT passes of 8.4 (fourth-most) but remains a small-volume passing offense barely exceeding 400 pass attempts (406). Marquise Brown, fortunately, avoids Malcolm Butler’s side of the field for the majority of his snaps, lining up on the right side of the field 51-percent of the time pre-snap. He averages 1.72 yards per route run, while Adoree’ Jackson (lines up 45-percent on that side of the field) averages 1.55 yards per route covered. This is the second-highest allowed amount for cornerbacks playing this weekend. Both A.J. Brown and Corey Davis average more than 2.50 yards per route run. Brown draws the tougher matchup against Jimmy Smith this week, while Davis should primarily see Marcus Peters. Back in Week 11, Davis finished with 5/113/0 on 7 targets and Brown had 4/62/1 on 7 targets. Davis looks to be the preferred target of this receiver duo again this Wildcard weekend.
Mark Andrews enters Wildcard weekend as PFF’s highest-graded tight end playing in a game (81.7) and allows 2.00 yards per route run, while his primary coverage Kenny Vaccaro allows 0.70 yards per route covered and a catch allowed percentage of 77-percent. Jonnu Smith’s 9 touchdowns were the third-most among tight ends this season. He’ll face tough coverage from Chuck Clark, who’s allowing just 0.47 yards per route covered. Smith’s 0.45 fantasy points per route are second among tight ends this weekend, only trailing Mark Andrews (0.49).
Last year in the playoffs, the Tennessee Titans entered into the Baltimore Ravens home and embarrassed them 28-12. They exploited the weakness of the Ravens offense that year, which was that they weren’t built to play from behind. This season is different and the Titans’ glaring weakness at pass rush will be reverse the script this year. The Ravens are the more complete team with a massive defensive advantage and an unstoppable three-headed rushing attack of Lamar Jackson, J.K. Dobbins, and Gus Edwards. This game won’t be close during this Lamar Jackson revenge game. RAVENS 35-21.
Bears at Saints
Spread: Saints -10 | Over/Under 47
The total has gone OVER in 5 of the Chicago Bears’ last 6 games and 6 of their last 9 games played on the road. The Bears are 3-7 straight up in their last 10 games, but 0-6 straight up against the New Orleans Saints in their last 6 games. The Bears are 7-1 ATS in their last 8 games played against NFC South opponents but are 2-4 ATS in their last 6 games against the Saints. The Saints are 7-1-1 ATS in their last 9 games. The Saints are 11-2 straight up in their last 13 games and are 5-1 straight up against the Bears in their last 6 games played at home against them. The total has gone UNDER in 4 of the Saints’ last 6 games against the Bears.
Since regaining the starting quarterback role in Week 12, Mitch Trubisky has had an up and done six-game stretch. He’s had three top-10 weekly performances and three performances outside the top-20. Trubisky played three defenses that allowed top-6 fantasy points to quarterbacks, but only managed 13.3 fantasy points against one of them while finishing with two of his top-10 performances against the other defenses. He played the Green Bay Packers twice during the stretch. The Packers allowed the fifth-fewest fantasy points to quarterbacks per game. In those two games, Trubisky finished as QB9 and QB28. Which Trubisky shows up will determine how much of a fighting chance the Chicago Bears have at upsetting the New Orleans Saints.
Drew Brees’ last QB1 performance came against the Bears in Week 8 where he threw for 280 yards and 2 touchdowns. Since that performance, Brees suffered multiple rib fractures, missed some games, and came back to play in the final three games. He threw three interceptions during this 3-game stretch which matched the three interceptions he threw in the previous nine games that he played this season. The matchup to watch is Brees’ protection. His 88.4-percent protection rate is No. 9 among quarterbacks and he hasn’t been hurried much this season. When the pocket is clean, Brees completes 80.8-percent of his passes (No. 2). The Bears in week 8 hurried Brees 7 times, which was the second-most times in a game for Brees this season. On the season, the Bears are a bottom-10 team in quarterback hurries per dropback (8.5-percent). In three games since returning from injury, Brees has been hurried a combined eight times.
Over the final six games of the regular season, David Montgomery scored 20+ fantasy points in each game, totaled 824 yards from scrimmage, and scored 8 touchdowns. 59-percent of his fantasy production on the season came during this stretch as he went against five (he played against the Green Bay Packers twice) of the top-6 running back-friendly defenses in fantasy football. The New Orleans Saints defense allowed the lowest amount of fantasy points to the running back position (14.0) on the season, so the wildcard matchup between the two teams will be a nice measuring stick on Montgomery’s legitimacy as a fantasy running back for next season. Thanks to his six-touchdown performance in Week 16, Alvin Kamara finished as the top-scoring running back in fantasy football by averaging 25.2 fantasy points per game. Kamara had nearly 1700 yards from scrimmage in 15 games this season and led running backs in both receptions (83) and receiving yards (756). Even if Michael Thomas plays in the playoff game, Kamara will still be featured heavily in the passing offense.
Allen Robinson averaged 2.06 yards per route run this season and will face against Marshon Lattimore, who carries a well-known name to casual NFL fans, but hasn’t been as good this season as he has in the past. Lattimore is averaging 0.30 fantasy points allowed per route and has allowed a 78-percent completion rate to wide receivers. To put in perspective, only three cornerbacks playing this weekend have averaged more fantasy points allowed per route and only three have allowed a higher completion rate. The Chicago Bears’ defense allowed the eighth-lowest fantasy points to wide receivers in 2020 (20.9), so don’t expect a big performance from any wide receiver not named Michael Thomas. Thomas still averaged an impressive 2.22 yards per route run in an injury-plagued season and caught 97.6-percent of his targets that were deemed catchable. Monitor his availability (hamstring); if he plays he’s worth consideration in DFS lineups due to a lack of receiving competition in Emmanuel Sanders, Marquez Callaway, and Juwan Johnson.
Cole Kmet has played at least 80-percent of the Chicago Bears’ snaps in each of their last six games and has seen 6+ targets in four of those games. This has resulted in two top-20 weekly performances and one other top-8 weekly performance. The rookie has been able to generate target separation (1.75 yards, No. 9) on 44 (No. 32) targets on the season. He’ll face difficult coverage from PFF’s highest-graded (78.3) defender against tight ends for the weekend’s games in Demario Davis. Only the New York Jets allow more fantasy points per game to tight ends than the Chicago Bears. This is excellent news for Jared Cook and, to a lesser extent, Adam Trautman. Trautman is a sneaky under-the-radar player. He’s out-snapped Cook the past two weeks and has averaged more fantasy points per target (2.38) than Cook (2.12).
Is David Montgomery legit? That’s the question that will decide the Vegas implications of this matchup. The Saints are favored by 10 points, implying that on a neutral site they are a touchdown favorite over the Bears. The Bears’ defense is strong, but Mitch Trubisky has the ability to hand the game to the Saints this weekend with his still erratic play (24 interceptable passes in 10 games, No. 8). Drew Brees isn’t able to physically do what he used to be able to do, but the offense has never been designed to throw deep against defenses. You can trust Brees to make the right decisions at QB. 10 points is a big spread, but Trubisky gives me the confidence to take that spread. SAINTS 31-14.
Browns at Steelers
Spread: Steelers -6 | Over/Under 47.5
The Cleveland Browns are 3-8 ATS in their last 11 games and are 1-4 ATS in their last 5 games against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Browns are 4-1 straight up in their last 5 games on the road but are 0-10 straight up in their last 10 games playing the Steelers on the road. The total has gone OVER in 4 of the Browns’ last 6 games. The Steelers are 2-4 ATS in their last 6 games. They are 1-4 straight up in their last 5 games. The total has gone UNDER in 13 of the Steelers’ last 20 games against the Browns.
Baker Mayfield revealed on Thursday that he hadn’t thrown a football since last weekend and the Browns had their first practice for the wildcard game on Friday. Mayfield, when factoring out unpressured throwaways and drops by his receivers, has an 80.9-percent true completion percentage which is good for No. 8 among quarterbacks. This includes a 69.5-percent play-action completion percentage (No. 8) and 46.6-percent deep ball completion (No. 6). Mayfield’s success is directly related to the talented offensive line he has protecting him, making the loss of guard Joel Bitonio significant to Mayfield’s chances of success this weekend. The Pittsburgh Steelers allow the second-fewest fantasy points per game (14.2) to quarterbacks on the season. Ben Roethlisberger’s elbow is a concern going into this game. Before a Week 16 performance against the Indianapolis Colts, Roethlisberger had struggled during a five-game stretch to deliver the ball to his receivers and push the ball downfield. On the season, only the Washington Football Team allows a lower completed air yards per pass attempt than the Steelers (3.1).
Both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns defenses allowed 16 or fewer fantasy points to the running back position, putting them in the top-quarter of running back fantasy defenses. The big difference between the two defenses is that the Steelers allowed 94 rushing first downs on 414 attempts (No. 5), while the Browns allowed 116 rushing first downs on 412 attempts (No. 22). The Browns will be relying on Chubb on the ground to prevent the Steelers from exploiting their depleted cornerback depth. Chubb had success against the Steelers in Week 17, rushing 14 times for 108 yards and 1 touchdown. On the season, he finished with 100+ yards from scrimmage in 8 of his 12 games. I’d fade Kareem Hunt in this game. He totaled 98 yards from scrimmage against the Steelers this season, with one of the two games played without Chubb available back in Week 6. James Conner is a risky option this week too. Since testing positive for covid, Conner has only exceeded 10 touches in a game once and hasn’t topped 65 yards from scrimmage since the designation. Going against a stout run defense in the Browns, Conner is unlikely to have a notable performance in this wildcard game.
Jarvis Landry faces the most favorable of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ cornerbacks this week when he faces Mike Hilton in the slot. Landry averages 2.11 yards per route run and has a PFF grade of 84.1, while Hilton has allowed 1.27 yards per route covered and 0.27 fantasy points per route run. Hilton is the most targeted cornerback of the Steelers and sees a target on 17-percent of the routes that he covers. The Cleveland Browns, as of this writing, are possibly without four cornerbacks. Denzel Ward (covid), Kevin Johnson (covid), Terrance Mitchell (undisclosed), and M.J. Stewart (calf) are uncertain to play in the game. From a 10-day isolation time period, Ward should be eligible to return for the game. If he plays avoid Chase Claypool. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the safest play in the slot this week. M.J. Stewart is the projected primary coverage and he has allowed a 72-percent catch rate and averaged 1.27 yards per route covered. As mentioned earlier, he’s dealing with a calf injury, so Smith-Schuster will either face a hobbled defender or a backup in the playoff game.
Austin Hooper and the Cleveland Browns’ tight end group have a favorable coverage matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Vince Williams. Hooper has run 22, 43, and 25 routes in the Browns’ final three games of the season. 43 routes was a season-best for him in 2020 and he only had two other games this season where he ran more routes than the other two games. Hooper started the season slowly but finished as a top-8 tight end in each of his final three games of the season including a 4/37/1 stat line against the Steelers in Week 17. Eric Ebron faces favorable coverage this week against Jacob Phillips. Phillips has allowed 94% catch percentage to his coverage and averaged 1.39 yards per route covered. Wheels up for one of Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite red-zone targets (19, No. 4 among tight ends).
Unfortunately, the Browns have an unfair disadvantage in this game due to a covid breakout in their facility over the past two weeks. As much as I (along with many) will be rooting for the Cleveland Browns to win a playoff game in their first playoff appearance in 18 years, the fact that they will get only one practice on the field for a playoff game and not have their head coach and play-caller Kevin Stefanski can NOT go understated. The Pittsburgh Steelers are playoff experience, proper preparation time, and home-field advantage. The Browns’ depleted secondary will have their hands full stopping Diontae Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Chase Claypool. STEELERS 28-17.