NFL Playoff Predictions 2014: Picking Locks Against the Spread

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NFL Playoff Predictions 2014: Picking Locks Against the Spread
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
If Philip Rivers can solve the Bengals' defense, the Chargers can easily cover the spread.

It’s always tough to make NFL playoff predictions given the unpredictable nature of the league’s postseason, but there are some games that oddsmakers may have misjudged, making pontificating just a little bit easier.

Few teams in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs inspire much in the way of confidence, with some only locking up a playoff spot in the final week of the season and others limping to a lower seed than they expected. 

Most of the four matchups on Wild Card Weekend are very even ones, and that lends clarity to picking these games against the spread.

Here are all my picks against the spread for the opening round of the playoffs, highlighting two matchups that are particularly enticing. All lines courtesy of Vegasinsider.com.

 

Away Team Home Team Line Pick
Kansas City Chiefs Indianapolis Colts IND -2 IND
New Orleans Saints Philadelphia Eagles PHI -2.5 PHI
San Diego Chargers Cincinnati Bengals CIN -6.5 SD
San Francisco 49ers Green Bay Packers SF -2.5 GB

 

San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Andy Dalton's playoff issues could hurt the Bengals.

The bottom half of the AFC was a mess as the season reached its end, and this matchup is pretty indicative of the conference’s problems.

Neither the Chargers nor the Bengals were particularly consistent throughout the season, and each team has its fair share of flaws that will likely be exposed in the next round of the playoffs.

But in this matchup, Cincinnati is favored by 6.5 points over the Chargers. While the Bengals’ home-field advantage definitely warrants giving Cincinnati some benefit of the doubt, expecting them to win by a touchdown doesn’t seem particularly realistic.

The Bengals managed to eke out a 17-10 win on the back of their strong defense and running game when the teams met in Week 13, but things could easily be different for Cincinnati this time around.

Philip Rivers has been excellent this season and the Bengals’ defense has gotten more and more beat up as the year’s gone on. While the unit has been dealing with defensive tackle Geno Atkins’ injury for some time now, the team is also heading into the playoffs with cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and safety Chris Crocker questionable for this game.

If Rivers can take advantage of the defense, the Chargers should have no trouble covering the spread or even winning the game, as Rob Nelson of ESPN explains

Rivers’ play on third down has been a driving factor in the Chargers four straight wins since losing to the Bengals in Week 13. He has thrown six touchdowns and no interceptions on third down during the winning streak, the most such passing touchdowns since the start of Week 14. For the season, Rivers had the best completion percentage (65 percent) and the third best Total QBR (81.3) on third down. 

The Bengals held opposing quarterbacks to a Total QBR of 14.4 on third down this season, lowest in the NFL. They are the only team to pick off Rivers on third down in the Chargers last 11 games. On third down passing attempts against the Bengals, opponents converted 34 percent, fifth-lowest in the NFL. The Chargers on the other hand, converted on third down an NFL-best 49 percent of the time when Rivers attempted a pass.

By contrast, San Diego’s defense hasn’t exactly been great this season, but it might not have to be against Andy Dalton

He’s thrown four interceptions in his first two playoff games, and looked abysmal last week, throwing four picks against the Baltimore Ravens.

Dalton only threw for 190 yards against San Diego in the teams’ first matchup, and if Rivers can force the Bengals to throw the ball, the Chargers could easily take advantage of Dalton’s mediocrity.

If Cincinnati tries to counter with the running game, the Chargers should be up to the task; although the pass defense has been bad, San Diego is only allowing 108 yards on the ground per game, which is 12th best in the league.

The Bengals might be able to slow Rivers just enough to win this game, but the Chargers can undoubtedly make this game close and cover the spread, if not win outright.

 

New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles 

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Nick Foles could easily attack New Orleans' defense on the ground.

While a lot has been made about each of these teams’ offenses, the defenses probably have more to do with the outcome of this game than anything else. 

It’s very popular to talk about how Drew Brees will likely struggle in the cold weather, and while Philadelphia’s home-field advantage can’t be discounted in the cold weather, that’s not what gives the Eagles the edge in this one.

Instead, it’s the way that the Eagles should be able to take advantage of New Orleans’ porous run defense to control the pace of the game.

The Saints are allowing 111.6 yards on the ground per game, which could spell real trouble for Rob Ryan’s bunch against Chip Kelly’s offense.

If Nick Foles can successfully execute the read-option the way he has over the second half of the season, Philadelphia will easily handle the Saints, as Grantland’s Bill Barnwell explains.

Any team matched up against the Eagles has to worry about stopping the read-option. No team runs it more than Philly and it's not even close. 

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Philadelphia ran the ball using some sort of zone-read play 304 times, gaining 1,725 yards in the process, for a very impressive 5.7 yards per carry.

The Saints only saw 36 zone-read plays all year, and they didn't handle them very well: New Orleans allowed 5.6 yards per carry on those 36 plays. If the Eagles can manage it, they'll happily run the read-option 36 times against the Saints on Saturday night.

While Brees could easily take advantage of Philadelphia’s league-worst pass defense when he’s on the field, New Orleans has plenty of weak spots in the secondary as well.

Safety Kenny Vacaro’s season-ending injury in Week 16 forced Roman Harper into the starting lineup for the Saints, crippling what has otherwise been a very good pass defense.

Foles and the Eagles’ offensive line should also be able to neutralize the Saints’ formidable pass rush. New Orleans’ Junior Galette may have 12 sacks this year, but Foles has only been sacked 28 times this season, placing him No. 22 on the list of most sacked passers this year.

"I think the key to that is that we have to recognize as a team when they're trying to put pressure on,” Foles told ESPN. “As the quarterback, I have to recognize which coverage they want to play and what pressure (they're going to bring), and that's what this week of preparation is all about. We're trying to figure out what they're going to do, and I'm sure they'll have new things ready to go for us.”

If Foles can sidestep the Saints’ rush while attacking weak spots in the secondary like Harper, then Philadelphia will have no trouble winning this one.

Similarly, Rivers’ success will be key for the Chargers against the Bengals.

Overall, if both passers play up to their potentials, then these games will be big wins for each team.

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