NFL playoffs: How to bet on the divisional round

ByKevin Pulsifer ESPN logo
Wednesday, January 17, 2024

I'm getting some much-needed time off next week -- my first vacation since before the NFL season started. You could almost call it a bye week.

The plan is to come back rested and ready to go with Super Bowl content, maybe some college basketball and whatever else the sports world provides.

But it doesn't always work like that. The first few days back from a vacation always require a bit of an adjustment period. Getting back on your normal sleep schedule, getting reintegrated into your traditional routine, putting off unpacking your suitcase for a few days because you decided to fly home the night before you go back to work (is that just me? Oh, OK).

Sports are often considered a microcosm of life, and just like we touched on during Week 18's motivation piece, we'll draw those parallels again here.

The San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens earned their time off by dominating in the regular season and both teams were actually able to rest key players in Week 18 as well. How will they respond to their first game action in three weeks? We won't truly know until Saturday.

My head is telling me to lay the points with Baltimore and San Francisco. My heart wants to see C.J. Stroud and Jordan Love continue to succeed. I'm sure many of you feel the same way.

But what does the data say about well-rested playoff teams coming off a bye?

Unfortunately, if you were expecting some dramatic reveal to answer that question, I don't have much for you. Since the NFL's expansion and realignment in 2002, playoff teams coming off a bye are a subpar 35-41-2 ATS. A 46% hit rate. A decent sample size that is unfortunately too close to .500 to turn into any actionable information.

Before you ask, I looked at the past five years, the past 10 years, the past 30 years and at no point did the result stray noticeably from 50-50 in either direction.

But that doesn't mean the rest vs. rust question is pointless or meaningless whatsoever. We already know for a fact that some teams struggle off of a bye, while others can use it to their advantage. Andy Reid has a stellar post-bye record that is far too one-sided to write off as random.

The problem in this scenario is that we don't know which bucket to put these teams in. You're likely to see people betting on the top seeds to say "the bye week helped them rest up and they'll be ready to go," while underdog backers will mention "it's very possible we see their opponent come out flat." One, both or neither can be true, yet we're not in the locker room with the players to know for sure.

I think you'll see a lot of both sides during the rest of the week as you consume betting content, and I urge you to remember how little we actually know sometimes. Simply being aware of our lack of knowledge is enough to look past our biases and focus on the games themselves.

The bets

Accountability is huge in the sports betting industry. If you're going to follow anybody's picks or trust their analysis, you should want them to be as transparent as possible about their successes or failures. I plan on doing a full synopsis of my thoughts and picks for the season to go over what we learned, but for now, here's a quick reminder of a few narratives I mentioned last week.

Trend to follow: Underdogs are good values ATS and outright (underdogs went 4-2 ATS and 3-3 outright, with the Rams losing by a single point)

Trend to fade: QBs in first career playoff starts struggle (they went 2-2 ATS and 2-2 outright, with the two wins coming in dominant fashion)

All things considered, it was a successful week of betting theory, one that we can hopefully continue to apply in the divisional round.

6-point teaser of the No. 1 seeds: BAL -2 and SF -2

The Ravens and 49ers might end up being a little stiff coming off the bye week, but anytime I can tease a heavy favorite through three of the most common win margins of three, six and seven points, I feel obligated to do it. We're getting clearly superior teams here, with coaches who understand how to win in the playoffs.

This version of Lamar Jackson isn't nearly as fallible as he has been previously (keep in mind it's been three years since we saw him in the playoffs), and I believe Green Bay thrived last week because Dallas was predictable on both sides of the ball; that's one thing you can count on Kyle Shanahan to avoid.

Rachaad White under 54.5 rushing yards (-115)

Wanna guess how many players got to 70 rushing yards against the Lions this season? Zero.

Wanna guess how many teams were less effective in the run game than the Buccaneers this season? Zero.

This line is set above the median for what the Lions allowed to starting RBs this season, and above the median of White's rushing output. It's the least efficient rushing team, as an underdog, on the road, against the league's best run defense. The math ain't mathing.

Josh Allen over 8.5 rush attempts (-135)

Since Joe Brady took over as Bills offensive coordinator, Buffalo has had three blowout wins, in which Allen has averaged six rushing attempts per game. In the other five games, he averaged 10 attempts, hitting the over on this number in all but one game. Early in the season, Allen was encouraged to play within himself, in an attempt to keep him under control. Brady has reshaped the offense to allow Allen to play the role of superman whenever necessary, but not put the weight of the world on his shoulders for a full 60 minutes. Allen should be expected to go all out in a playoff game against the Chiefs. It's also worth mentioning that he has hit double-digit rushing attempts in each of his past four games against Kansas City.

The best part about this bet is that it's immune to game script. If the Bills are trailing, we probably get more scrambles and more open-field running lanes in the fourth quarter. If Buffalo is leading, Allen likely had a hand in it, and we could end up getting a couple kneel-downs to help put us over this total as well.

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