Bleacher Report's Expert NFL Divisional Round Picks & Predictions
Since the 2017 NFL season, favorites are now just 4-8 straight-up and 1-11 against the spread on Wild Card Weekend. But the divisional round was a different story last January when all four faves won by at least six points.
That extra week to rest and prepare can really pay off.
Bleacher Report NFL analysts Gary Davenport, Brad Gagnon and Brent Sobleski wish they had an extra week to rest and prepare for this weekend's games. It hasn't been a kind season picking every game against the spread, and the gang had a poor showing in the wild-card round.
Here's how that crew has fared this year (last week's records in parentheses):
1. Brad Gagnon: 133-121-6 (0-3-1)
2. Brent Sobleski: 126-128-6 (2-1-1)
3. Gary Davenport: 125-129-6 (1-2-1)
Consensus picks: 123-131-6 (1-2-1)
Moneyline consensus: 166-92-2 (1-3)
And here's their attempt to recover with four fresh matchups.
Lines from Caesars as of 5 p.m. ET on Thursday, Jan. 9.
No. 6 Minnesota Vikings (11-6) at No. 1 San Francisco 49ers (13-3)
When: Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET
Where: Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara
Referee: Walt Anderson
Line: San Francisco -7
In a nutshell: The Vikings and maligned quarterback Kirk Cousins are looking to win multiple playoff games for the first time since 1987. The 49ers and inexperienced quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo are looking to prove that—unlike recent NFC breakouts like the Los Angeles Rams in 2017 and the Chicago Bears in 2018—they're ready to jump from bad to Super Bowl-caliber in a one-year span.
Injuries to watch: Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen is officially questionable after suffering an ankle injury in practice early in the week, while cornerback Mackensie Alexander (knee) is out. The 49ers benefited greatly from time off. Linebacker Kwon Alexander (pectoral) and Jaquiski Tartt (ribs) appear set to return after long absences, while key pass-rusher Dee Ford (hamstring) is probable. None of those three have played since at least Week 14.
Random tidbit: The all-time series between these teams is tied 23-23-1.
The Pick: Vikings +7
Following Minnesota's impressive road win Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, all three of our panelists are passionately backing the underdog with a touchdown in their back pocket.
"The 49ers are the slightly better team, but they haven't won a game by more than five points since November," Gagnon said. "And while I ultimately think the red-hot Jimmy Garoppolo will make enough plays against a bad pass defense to squeak out a home victory for the suddenly healthy 49ers, I also think a Vikings victory is about as likely as a San Francisco cover."
The key for Gagnon is Minnesota's defensive front, which consistently harassed Drew Brees last week. Top edge-rushers Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen are firing on all cylinders, and now they get to go up against a more vulnerable pass-protection unit. Garoppolo is playing well, but only four quarterbacks were sacked more than him in the second half of the regular season.
That could be a problem, especially when you consider that quarterbacks making their playoff debuts are 1-5 the last two years.
"Beyond that, I'm worried about the San Francisco defense," Gagnon added. "It's finally healthier, but it's all coming together in a rush as starters jump back into the lineup. That could be tough on a unit that surrendered 26.0 points per game in the second half of the year."
Meanwhile, Sobleski is taking it one step further. He has the Vikings winning a close game outright.
"This is an interesting matchup because the two teams are facing mirror images of one another," he said. "Both rely on a heavy zone ground attack that sets up the play-action passing game. Defensively, multiple different linemen can take over the game at any given time. The familiarity with these approaches gives the Vikings the best chance of pulling out a victory among this weekend's underdogs."
Davenport isn't going that far, but he wouldn't be surprised if the upset came to fruition.
"I'm not quite willing to go out on the limb my esteemed colleague has, but I get why he did. Road teams have been known to fare well in the divisional round, and that bye week teams spend all season chasing can be as much a curse as a blessing," he said. "I think a balanced, talented Niners team wins this game. But a Vikings team that's as healthy as it's been in a while, coming off arguably its best performance of the season, keeps it close.
"Here's a stat to ruminate on: Per Tom Fornelli of Sportsline, Mike Zimmer's Vikings are 18-18 ATS against the NFC North. They're 44-19-1 against everyone else."
Davenport: 49ers 27, Vikings 23
Gagnon: 49ers 27, Vikings 24
Sobleski: Vikings 21, 49ers 20
Consensus: Minnesota (+7)
Score Prediction: 49ers 24, Vikings 23
No. 6 Tennessee Titans (10-7) at No. 1 Baltimore Ravens (14-2)
When: Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET
Where: M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore
Referee: Bill Vinovich
Line: Baltimore -10
In a nutshell: It's a matchup between two of the best running teams in the NFL, as well as the league's two highest-rated passers dating back to Week 7. The perennially 9-7 Titans have nothing to lose after an upset victory over the New England Patriots, while the well-rested Ravens are Super Bowl favorites as the NFL's only two-loss team.
Injuries to watch: Lineback Jayon Brown (shoulder) and wide receiver Adam Humphries (ankle) have both been ruled out for Tennessee, while running back Mark Ingram II (calf) and tight end Mark Andrews (ankle) are both questionable for Baltimore.
Random tidbit: The Titans have the league's highest-rated passer, but the Ravens have the leader in QBR. The Titans have the league's top rusher, but the Ravens have the top-rated running game.
The Pick: Ravens -10
This time, despite a double-digit spread, our predictors are unanimously siding with the favorite. As hot as the Tennessee offense has been, the Ravens are even hotter, healthier, at home and a lot stronger on the defensive side of the ball.
"Due credit to the Titans for what they pulled off at Gillette last week," Davenport said. "But now the task gets that much taller for a team that was clinging like grim death to a one-point lead for a good portion of that win against the Patriots. It's going to take a lot more than 72 passing yards to keep the Titans in this game, especially considering they've had issues with running quarterbacks this season and the team's best linebacker (Brown) is out."
That Brown injury is critical. You can't afford to lose a high-quality starting linebacker against an offensive team like Baltimore.
And while the backdoor cover is always a risk with a line like this, it should be noted that the Ravens have made a habit of stepping on jugulars this season.
"The Ravens haven't lost a game since late September and have won eight of their last 10 by double digits," Davenport added. "This is a game that could easily go sideways early and get even more out of hand than I expect."
You can certainly envision the vicious cycle for Tennessee.
Baltimore should have a chance to pounce early in front of a hyped home crowd, and, as Gagnon points out: "That essentially limits the Titans' ability to really lean on Derrick Henry. The odds are stacked against him having a second consecutive monster game anyway, and if he can't get rolling, Ryan Tannehill might be in huge trouble against the league's fourth-ranked pass defense in terms of DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at Football Outsiders."
Sobleski believes Henry will find a way to factor in, but he still doesn't think Tennessee will stick around.
"Henry is good," he confessed. "Jackson and the entire Ravens offense is much better. Henry should get his, but he'll need a great complementary effort from Tannehill and the Titans defense for this game to even be close."
Davenport: Ravens 31, Titans 13
Gagnon: Ravens 31, Titans 20
Sobleski: Ravens 31, Titans 14
Consensus: Baltimore (-10)
Score Prediction: Ravens 31, Titans 14
No. 4 Houston Texans (11-6) at No. 2 Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)
When: Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET
Where: Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City
Referee: Shawn Hochuli
Line: Kansas City -10
In a nutshell: The surging Chiefs are heavily favored to get to the AFC Championship Game for the second consecutive year, but they're just 1-3 in home playoff games under head coach Andy Reid. The Texans are looking to make their first-ever conference title game appearance. They're 0-3 all-time in divisional playoff games, with all three losses coming on the road.
Injuries to watch: He was a close call last week, but Texans wide receiver Will Fuller V (groin) should have a better chance to play Sunday. They might also get tight end Jordan Akins back from a hamstring injury, and defensive end J.J. Watt (shoulder) and receiver Kenny Stills (knee) should be further along.
As for the Chiefs, defensive lineman Chris Jones (calf) and tight end Travis Kelce (knee) have been limited this week, but they should be good to go. Kansas City is damn healthy compared to earlier this season, although the team did just put rising safety Juan Thornhill on injured reserve with a knee injury.
Random tidbit: Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson and Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes were born three days apart in September 1995 and drafted two slots apart in April 2017. Watson, Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson are the only quarterbacks in NFL history with triple-digit passer ratings on at least 1,000 pass attempts.
The Pick: Texans +10
In 13 regular-season games against winning opponents since the start of 2018, the Chiefs have zero wins by more than 10 points. Meanwhile, Watson has just two losses by more than eight points in his NFL career.
So it's easy to understand why the majority of our experts are unwilling to lay 10 points with Kansas City.
"Of all my picks against the spread in the divisional round, this is the one I have the most confidence in—thus guaranteeing that the Chiefs will win by 40," Davenport said. "Don't get me wrong, I like the Chiefs to win—at least as much as any rational person can given the team's long and storied history of spitting the bit in the playoffs. But the Texans have J.J. Watt back. Houston might have Will Fuller V back too. The Texans have already shown they can beat the Chiefs in Arrowhead this year. And Houston is 6-2 ATS on the road this season. The spread's too big for my tastes."
But a lot has changed since the Texans beat the Chiefs by a touchdown at Arrowhead in Week 6. Mahomes appeared to be severely hampered at the time by an ankle injury, the offensive line was banged up, veteran receiver Sammy Watkins was inactive and Kansas City was without top defensive player Chris Jones.
Sobleski further touched on those differences in his explanation for why he took the Chiefs to win.
"Yes, the Chiefs lost when these two met during the regular season," he said. "But a big difference exists between now and then: Kansas City's defense found its way. The two teams previously played on Oct. 13. Since the Chiefs' Week 12 bye, Kansas City allowed 10 points per game and 276.4 yards per game while securing 13 sacks."
But the Chiefs defense didn't face any intimidating offenses during that stretch, and this could be a different ballgame in the playoffs. If Watson and DeAndre Hopkins are rolling, and if Fuller is back, the Texans should score enough points for this to be decided by a single-digit margin.
No unanimous consensus here, though, because Gagnon—who ran away with the picks standings in the regular season—figures Kansas City is as due for an impressive win over a good team as Houston is for a dud.
"That 13-game sample in which Kansas City has no wins by more than 10 points against winning teams? That excludes last year's playoff blowout over the Indianapolis Colts," he said. "And that stat about Watson having just two blowout losses in his career? Those both came in the second half of this season against Baltimore and the Denver Broncos. Plus, he lost to Indy by a 14-point margin in last year's playoffs. Throw in that Andy Reid is a killer with two weeks to prepare, and I've gotta lay the 10 points."
He's outnumbered, but it's worth noting that those picking against the majority as lone wolves are 80-65-3 this season.
Davenport: Chiefs 35, Texans 27
Gagnon: Chiefs 31, Texans 20
Sobleski: Chiefs 27, Texans 21
Consensus: Texans (+10)
Score Prediction: Chiefs 31, Texans 24
No. 5 Seattle Seahawks (12-5) at No. 2 Green Bay Packers (13-3)
When: Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET
Where: Lambeau Field, Green Bay
Referee: Clete Blakeman
Line: Green Bay -5
In a nutshell: It's a matchup between a so-so team that has consistently been carried by its great quarterback (Seattle), and a so-so quarterback who has uncharacteristically been carried by his great team (Green Bay). Yes, Aaron Rodgers has been so-so.
Injuries to watch: Seahawks offensive linemen Duane Brown (knee), Mike Iupati (neck) and George Fant (groin) had yet to practice this week entering Friday. Edge defender Ezekiel Ansah (neck) did not practice Thursday, while fellow pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney (core) and cornerback Tre Flowers (knee) were limited.
Now that Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga has cleared concussion protocol, the main concern in Green Bay regards defensive lineman Kenny Clark, who was limited in Thursday's practice with a back injury. "He was really limited," head coach Matt LaFleur said of Clark on Thursday, per the team, "but we’re hopeful he’ll be all right."
Random tidbit: Rodgers and Russell Wilson are the highest-rated qualified passers in NFL history. Wilson has won four of their seven matchups, including a comeback victory en route to Super Bowl XLIX in the 2014 playoffs. However, the former Badgers quarterback hasn't won in the state of Wisconsin since his college days. He's 0-3 with a 60.4 career passer rating at Lambeau Field.
The Pick: Packers -5
After gutting out a road playoff victory over the Philadelphia Eagles last week, do the banged-up Seattle Seahawks have anything left? It's always risky to count Seattle out, but under the current circumstances, the majority of our analysts are willing to drop five points with the healthier, better-rested Packers at home.
"The idea of a rebuilt Seattle offensive line facing the likes of Za'Darius, Smith, Preston Smith and Kenny Clark should send chills up the spines of Seahawks faithful," Sobleski said, "even with Wilson behind center."
Indeed, the Seahawks—who have been crushed by injuries on defense and in the offensive backfield already this year—are now dealing with three separate offensive line injuries. That could be tough to overcome against a stellar Green Bay pass rush, especially because the Packers have more talent in the secondary than a Philly team that was overwhelmed by DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and David Moore.
Wilson had his hands full in Philadelphia, but the Seattle offense was bailed out. Is that sustainable against a tougher opponent? When you consider that Seattle's soft run defense could enable Rodgers to let backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams do most of the work, it's fair to wonder if the Seahawks can actually keep this close against a team that has been preparing for two weeks for this game.
"If the spread in Kansas City is too big, then this one isn't big enough," Davenport said. "The Seahawks put up all of 17 points last week against the Zombie Eagles. Rodgers has started 95 games at Lambeau Field—and won 74 of them. The last time the Seahawks won in Wisconsin, Wilson was nine years old. Seattle has lost eight in a row there, including twice in the postseason. Plus, there's the whole matter of Green Bay's athletic secondary and formidable pass rush and the fact that Seattle ranked outside the top 20 in run defense in the regular season. Wilson is a magician—but he isn't a miracle worker."
But again, no unanimous consensus here because Gagnon isn't down with laying more than a field goal.
"I'd take the Packers -2.5," he said, "but I think this is a field-goal game because the Seahawks are a feisty team that won't go away. In the Wilson era, they're 9-2 against the spread when getting four or more points. Everything involving Seattle is close and wild, and I'd expect this game to be no different. I'll take the team with the much better quarterback with five points on my side, especially because Wilson is due to finally win at Lambeau."
Tread carefully to close out the week.
Davenport: Packers 24, Seahawks 13
Gagnon: Packers 24, Seahawks 21
Sobleski: Packers 28, Seahawks 17
Consensus: Green Bay (-5)
Score Prediction: Packers 26, Seahawks 17