Hype Trap Bet: The NFL wild-card narratives to fade or follow

ByKevin Pulsifer ESPN logo
Wednesday, January 10, 2024

The NFL did an amazing job with the script for this season.

The most-hyped offseason storyline, Aaron Rodgers joining the New York Jets, lasted just four plays, but the drama lasted all year. Joe Flacco came back from the couch to lead the Cleveland Browns to the second-best record in the AFC. And this weekend's wild-card playoff matchups have narratives that abound everywhere you look:

  • Matthew Stafford returns to Detroit with a Super Bowl under his belt after being traded away three years ago this month. He'll likely be celebrated upon entering Ford Field, but don't overlook the motivation of Jared Goff, who has a chance to exact revenge on the team that let him go.
  • Tyreek Hill returns to Kansas City to face the Chiefs after leading the league in receiving yards ... it's not like K.C. could have used a star wide receiver this season, right?
  • Mike McCarthy, who coached the Packers to a Super Bowl victory a decade ago, welcomes Green Bay to Jerry World to face his Cowboys. A historic rivalry that McCarthy got the better of twice in the postseason, including (of course) the #DezCaughtIt game.
  • The Deshaun Watson Bowl, noticeably featuring zero Deshaun Watson. After a trade and contract that will live on in NFL infamy, the Houston Texans were supposed to need time to rebuild and the Browns couldn't figure out a viable injury replacement ... imagine if I told you in July that C.J. Stroud would face Joe Flacco in the playoffs.
  • Baker Mayfield and Jalen Hurts squaring off in a battle of Lincoln Riley-coached Oklahoma QBs separated by just two seasons.
  • A Bills-Steelers matchup that on the surface holds little "narrative" intrigue, but fear not: Opposing coaches Mike Tomlin and Sean McDermott were teammates at William & Mary.

These games should be appointment TV this weekend, but with the fantasy season over, fervent football fans flock to the sportsbooks with increased enthusiasm. How should you handle betting these wild-card games?

You're going to hear a lot of narratives and trends thrown around this week -- try not to blindly tail a stat that dates back to a different era of football, has a small sample size or needs more context. Let's dive in.

Trend or Trap

TREND: Underdogs are 20-10 in wild-card games since 2017, and 13-17 outright; at least one underdog has won outright in each season.

Analysis: This makes sense. The public has spent 18 weeks watching mediocre teams lose and fully expects the favorites to cruise, so lines may be pushed up artificially. But in many cases, the underdogs may have been in "playoff mode" for a while and are in good shape to pull an upset over a team that may have coasted to the playoffs but isn't running on all cylinders.

Where to look: The Browns finished the season 4-1, but Flacco beat the Jets, Chicago Bears, Jacksonville Jaguars with a hobbled Trevor Lawrence and a Texans team starting Case Keenum. The only playoff QB Flacco faced was Stafford in a 17-point loss to the Lions. The Eagles are favored by three despite limping to the finish line, literally and figuratively. The Lions are three-point favorites despite earning zero wins vs playoff teams since Week 6 (0-3 in that span).

NARRATIVE: It's hard to beat a team two times, or three times, in the same season; you have to account for the revenge factor.

Analysis: This is false. Since the 1970 merger, teams that swept two regular-season meetings and then hosted the third in the playoffs are 15-9 straight up and 12-11-1 ATS. Teams that are better will win more often, and while divisional games tend to be more competitive due to familiarity, it doesn't mean that the outcomes of previous meetings have any impact on the next matchup. The bigger factor surrounds the team's overall play and any potential changes to staffing, style of play, or personnel.

Where to look: There are three rematches from the regular season this weekend, including both 4 vs. 5 seed games where the No. 5 team won at the No. 4 team in the first meeting. Cleveland beat Houston by double digits, but the Texans had Keenum under center. Philly won at Tampa, but the Eagles are less healthy, have changed defensive coordinators and are largely not the same team anymore. The last one is intriguing to me, as the Chiefs beat the Dolphins by seven points in Germany, with Miami outgaining K.C. and the lone scoring edge being a fumble returned for a touchdown. However, the Dolphins have been decimated by injuries on both sides of the ball and now have to go on the road in frigid temperatures.

TREND: Quarterbacks making their first career playoff starts are 21-38 ATS since 2003 (past 20 postseasons).

Analysis: There's some merit to this, but I think it's largely a trap. First off, all three teams in this situation last year covered, including Skylar Thompson with the Dolphins. I think younger teams, newer coaches and less experience overall lends itself to struggling early, but good coaching and solid talent around a young quarterback can counteract this. Not to mention that this is "first career starts in the playoffs," which doesn't automatically mean young.

Where to look: C.J. Stroud, Jordan Love, Mason Rudolph and Tua Tagovailoa may struggle in their first career playoff games, but that may have more to do with each of them going up against top-notch defenses than their inexperience.Tagovailoa and Stroud both played (and put up great numbers) in the College Football Playoff, so they can handle the spotlight. Love and Rudolph were both on playoff rosters previously and are led by established coaches in Tomlin and Matt LaFleur. That should balance out some of the pressure these players face.

NARRATIVE: Teams that finish the season poorly are doomed in the playoffs; the Eagles won't advance far in the postseason.

Analysis: I don't necessarily disagree with that second statement, but it won't be simply because of the first one. This is a targeted narrative, not a broad one like the others, but this game carries the most unknowns in my eyes and is the game I have the worst handle on as a bettor and a fan. It's quite clear that the Eagles are not playing well, and there seems to be strife both on and off the field. Philly went 0-6 ATS to end the season, the first team to "accomplish" that feat and make the playoffs since the San Francisco 49ers failed to cover in eight straight games in 2002.

But fellow researcher extraordinaire Mackenzie Kraemer unearthed this nugget (and some of the others in this article): The Eagles are the sixth team in the Super Bowl era to enter the postseason on at least a six-game ATS losing streak. Each of the previous five won their first playoff game that season. So don't go sprinting to the window with your Bucs ML tickets just yet! Baker Mayfield is battling an injury, Tampa Bay has an ineffective running game, and the Bucs appeared lucky to have been given the Panthers as their opponent in a must-win Week 18 finale.

The bets

Buffalo Bills-Pittsburgh Steelers 6-point teaser: BUF -4 and over 30.5 Pts (-114)

I would prefer to get the Bills down to 2.5 points to cover the field goal, but I'm honestly not sure I'm going to need it. The Steelers are 1-10 outright without T.J. Watt in his career, allowing 25.8 PPG. Pittsburgh's coordinator change didn't result in massive improvement, and they have played with fire all season long. There's some bad weather potential in Buffalo this weekend, but five to seven total scores should be easy to manage.

Same Game Parlay+: Kansas City Chiefs ML and Under 50.5 (+104)

Simply too many trends lining up here to avoid. The Dolphins are 1-5 ATS against teams with winning records (9-2 ATS against teams with losing records). Miami has also lost 10 straight games (2-8 ATS) where the game-time temperature is 40 degrees or less; we're expecting single-digits with a negative wind chill on Saturday evening.

With the sheer number of injuries to overcome, coupled with L'Jarius Sneed limiting Tyreek Hill (and nearly every other alpha WR he faced this season), I have no problem banking on a Chiefs victory here. As for the total, the Chiefs had one game all season reach 50 points, and the Dolphins went under this mark in 10 of 17, including that international meeting that totaled 35 points with a defensive touchdown.

Mike Evans to have most playoff receiving yards (+2200)

The Eagles allowed the most fantasy points to wide receivers. They faced the most WR targets and receptions and allowed the second-most WR yards and touchdowns. They ranked bottom-five in targets, receptions and touchdowns allowed to perimeter WRs, and bottom five in targets and touchdowns allowed on deep passes.

Guess which WR led the league in touchdown catches and ranked third in receiving yards on deep passes? Mike Evans. I almost don't care what the line comes out at because I assume it will factor in team totals and season averages, not as much the matchup. Bet a half-unit on his receiving yard over, a half-unit on an anytime TD, a half-unit on an alternate receiving over (20-30 yards over his prop) and 0.2 units (if your normal bet is $10, bet $2) on the highest receiving yardage over you can find. He had 10 targets in the first meeting and the Bucs only ran 44 plays; he could push for 12-15 in this game.

Dallas Cowboys- Green Bay Packers: Total Pass TD over 3.5 (-125)

Dak Prescott led the league in passing TDs this season. I asked some colleagues who they thought finished second, and I believe I heard 12 incorrect guesses before revealing that the answer was Jordan Love.

Both teams have had ineffective running games all season long, especially in the red zone. Mike McCarthy isn't going to quit chucking the ball after all the success we saw this season, and Jordan Love is likely to be playing catch-up. If this game gets anywhere close to its total of 50.5 (-110), I'll be shocked if we don't reach over 3.5 Pass TD (-125) on the way there for practically the same juice.

Los Angeles Rams to win Super Bowl (50-1)

I had to throw a long shot futures bet in here. I think the Ravens and 49ers are a clear tier above the rest of the league, and factoring in the extra week of rest, should be expected to play in the Super Bowl. If one team were to play spoiler from each conference, it would be the Rams or the Bills.

  • ESPN Analytics has the Rams rated higher than the Lions (and now Sam LaPorta is injured).
  • The Rams took the Ravens to overtime in Baltimore (and only lost on a punt return touchdown).
  • The Rams played the 49ers to a one-score game without Cooper Kupp (despite losing the turnover battle 2-0).
  • The Rams have not lost in regulation since their Week 10 bye and only lost one game all season with a healthy Stafford, Kyren Williams and Kupp.

If you want to get extra spicy, you could try an exacta pick of Rams over Ravens (200-1) or Rams over Bills (300-1), but the thesis is this: Nearly every team in the playoffs has looked mortal at some point in the past month or two except for the No. 1 seeds and the sneaky No. 6 seed with a Super Bowl winning QB and a largely healthy roster. If I was doing a draft of Super Bowl teams, they would be much higher on the list than 10th, which is where their odds currently rank.

Related Video