Remember when Aaron Rodgers told everyone to relax? It happened about 22 State Farm commercials, two girlfriends, one post-Bachelor controversy, and one broken collarbone ago. But at the time, Rodgers was right.
Relax, Packers fans. Settle down. We’re fine.
That’s how I feel about betting on the NFL playoffs. I wrote four Playoff Gambling Manifestos from 1998 through 2006 (here’s version 4.0), eventually abandoning its rules as the NFL got weirder and weirder. Well, are we SURE the NFL is still weird?
- From 2005 through 2012, the no. 1–ranked DVOA team made only one Super Bowl (it’s happened three times since); the 1-seeds met in only one Super Bowl (it’s happened three times since); seven played-in-all-four-rounds teams made the Super Bowl (that hasn’t happened since); and three teams won the Super Bowl without a home playoff game (that hasn’t happened since). Note: I’m not naming any of these teams because Giants fans and Steelers fans can go fuck themselves.
- From 2007 through 2011, a team beat a playoff opponent that won four-plus games more than it did an astonishing seven times, as captured in Jason Hehir’s unforgettable 30 for 30 documentary, Seven Teasers From Hell. And no, that hasn’t happened since.
- Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, and Mark Sanchez went 21-7 combined in the playoffs from 2007 to 2012, won three Super Bowls, and caused over 357,000 people to enter Gamblers Anonymous. Since then, they’re 1-2 … combined. This year, Flacco had almost the same QBR as Brett Hundley, Sanchez backed up Mike Glennon and Mitchell Trubisky, and Eli briefly lost his job to Geno Smith.
- From 2005 to 2012, the four Round 1 bye teams collectively finished the playoffs over .500 once (they’re 24-12 since); seven Round 2 underdogs of eight-plus points pulled off upset victories (hasn’t happened since); and six road teams pulled off upsets in the conference title game (hasn’t happened since). No wonder the Manifesto never worked: that eight-year stretch was more messed up than the marriage in Phantom Thread. WERE YOU SENT HERE TO RUIN MY EVENING AND POSSIBLY MY ENTIRE LIFE???
- My favorite 2005-to-2012 fact is that the following QBs won a Round 2 and/or Round 3 playoff game: Jake Plummer, Jay Cutler, Alex Smith, Matt Hasselbeck (twice), Rex Grossman (twice), Colin Kaepernick (twice), and Mark Sanchez (twice with nine exclamation points!!!!!!!!!). During that same stretch, the WTF Scale had to be recalibrated after (a) Flacco’s 4-0 run in 2012 ended up being superior statistically to anything Montana or Brady ever did, and (b) Eli went 8-0 and beat the Belichick-Brady Pats twice.
(Hold on, I’m trying to electrocute myself.)
Everything settled down over the next four years. Even the allegedly crazy 2017 regular season wasn’t so crazy, other than little stuff like “Jared Goff, Blake Bortles and Nick Foles are all hosting playoff games” and “Case Keenum is a legitimate MVP candidate.” After underdogs went 53-36-1 against the spread through six weeks, the favorites went on an epic run from Week 7 to Week 15: 78-43-3. Our top-three 2017 ATS teams were Minnesota (11-4-1), New England (11-5) and Philly (10-6). You could even trust … (gulp) … heavier favorites in teasers and parlays again.
Everything feels a little … familiar?
Like the old days?
Screw it, let’s go! It’s time for Playoff Gambling Manifesto 5.0! Please heed these rules wading into Round 1 and beyond.
RULE NO. 1: Beware of the “Looked a Little Too Good the Previous Round” team.
A Manifesto staple that, thankfully, holds up because everyone loves overreacting to the previous round.
Last year’s example: Aaron Rodgers looking invincible after two rounds, earning the moniker “Mega-Apex Rodgers” (fine, I wrote that), and single-handedly dropping the Falcons-Packers line below 7 as people said stuff like, “I’m tellin’ ya right now, Rodgers could win this title by himself!” Nope. If New Orleans destroys Carolina or the Rams destroy Atlanta, we’ll be in Looked a Little Too Good range for next week. Get ready.
RULE NO. 2: Don’t bet against God, puppies or gambling theories from Pakistan.
Just a friendly reminder of what happened with Kurt Warner in 2008. It may never happen again … but still.
RULE NO. 3: Don’t try to talk yourself into a “Nobody Believes In Us” team.
What a glorious run: the ’03 Panthers, ’05 Steelers, ’07 Giants, ’08 Cards, ’09 Jets, ’10 Packers, ’11 Giants and ’12 Ravens all pulling off upsets and screaming “NOBODY BELIEVED IN US BUT THE GUYS IN THIS LOCKER ROOM!,” peaking when Ray Lewis screamed it while covered in Deer Antler Gatorade.
Tragically, the Nobody Believes In Us team can’t hide out anymore; in the Hot Take Era, we have too many jackasses desperately angling to find the next one. Just wait until Round 2, when you’ll be reading and hearing whoppers like, “Maybe Nick Foles isn’t a typical Super Bowl QB, but maybe he doesn’t have to be” and “The Jaguars don’t need Blake Bortles to beat the Patriots, they need him to manage the game.”
Rest in peace, the Nobody Believes In Us theory. I miss you already. We’re replacing you with the Beware of a Distracted Team theory. Wait, what?
RULE NO. 4: Beware of any team that might use a major off-field distraction as a galvanizing force leading up to a big playoff game.
That’s right, we just took an original Manifesto rule and pulled a Costanza on it! Once upon a time, I called this rule “The Eugene Robinson Corollary” (shout-out to Eugene) and covered dong-photo scandals, PED scandals, sex scandals, locker-room fistfights, hooker/strip club scandals, vengeful-former-employee scandals and anything else that might submarine a team before a big game. But after Lewis’s deer-antler fiasco, Deflategate and Brady’s suspension produced THREE Lombardi Trophies, maybe annoying distractions and media overkill are more galvanizing for contenders than we thought?
(Important note: I already feel better about ESPN.com’s typically negative Brady vs. Belichick vs. Kraft piece, as well as the inevitable Alex Guerrero scandal later this month. Could this be the beginning of the end of a dynasty built around a 40-year-old QB, a 65-year-old coach and a 76-year-old owner? What a bold take, ESPN! Keep trying to distract my team! Go ahead! BRING IT ON!)
RULE NO. 5: Beware of the “Everybody Believes In Us” team.
After we finished the 1980s, this rule reared its ugly head every five to six years with the 1990 Bills, 1996 Broncos, 2001 Rams and Steelers, 2007 Pats and 2012 Broncos. You never want to be the Everybody Believes In Us team. Just remember I warned you when Jimmy Geezus and the Niners are making their 16-0 run next season.
By the way, if you’re buddies with any Patriots fans and want to see them genuinely conflicted for anywhere between 10 and 740 straight seconds, ask them this question: “Would you give up any chance of the Patriots winning this year’s Super Bowl to undo the Garoppolo trade?” Here’s what their face will look like:
RULE NO. 6: Never pick an underdog unless you genuinely believe that it has a chance to win.
Just a great rule of thumb. It doesn’t always play out this way, but last year, all 11 playoff winners also covered the spread.
RULE NO. 7: Beware of all dome teams playing outdoors, especially in cold weather.
Before Round 1 in January ’14, I thanked Chase Stuart for the following stat: “Dome teams are 3-22 in the playoffs when they’re outdoors and it’s 35 degrees or colder.” The next day, New Orleans won in Philly in 25-degree weather. Whoops. The following year, the Cowboys lost in 24-degree Lambeau weather to make it 4-23 overall. Tuck this stat away in case the Falcons or Saints travel to Philly next weekend.
(Here’s where I mention that, when I lived in Boston, I was one of those “never wear a heavy jacket and gloves unless it was ice-cold” guys, then moved to Los Angeles in 2002 and turned into a shivering, jacket-needy, gloves-wearing cold-weather wuss within about nine months. WARM WEATHER MAKES YOU SOFT. IT’S A FACT.)
RULE NO. 8: Beware of any and all aging QBs in cold weather unless they drink half their body weight in water every day, get 10 hours of sleep, master every conceivable pliability exercise, have lots of sex with a supermodel wife, don’t drink alcohol, don’t eat inflammatory foods, don’t smoke or do drugs, improbably become faster in their late 30s and basically behave like an alien.
(Don’t know if you noticed, but I had to tweak this rule.)
RULE NO. 9: Severely discount anything that happened in the first five to six weeks of the regular season.
I just created this fancy formula: (Lack of practice time + fewer scrimmages + the abandoned preseason) X (relentless roster turnover, fewer veterans and more undrafted rookies) = early-season chaos. Remember when we thought the Chiefs owned the Patriots? Remember when we were writing off Ben Roethlisberger? Remember when Alex Smith was the MVP favorite? Throw it in the gambling attic. Doesn’t matter.
If you want to find potential gambling nuggets from a 16-game schedule, these three questions don’t always strike oil … but sometimes they do.
Question 1: How many GOOD opposing quarterbacks did a team face?
For instance, the Titans played only five: Russell Wilson (27 points), Deshaun Watson (57 points), Roethlisberger (40 points), Jimmy Geezus (25 points) and Jared Goff (27 points). They finished only 9-7 and had the 21st-best defensive DVOA. That’s terrible. It’s the third-biggest reason NOT to take them +9 this week, just behind “They’re coached by Mike Mularkey” and “Their QB is Jake Locker with better PR.”
Question 2: Can they make five to six big plays per game? Can they extend leads and play from behind?
I became mildly obsessed with 20-plus-yard plays this season. Did you know New Orleans had 89 20-plus plays, or that its sixth-most-explosive player (Coby Fleener) had almost as many 20-plus plays (seven) as Christian McCaffrey (eight)? Imagine Carolina (only 56 20-plus plays, one less than Buffalo) trying to come back down 14 against New Orleans’s D. And … there’s another screen to McCaffrey ...
Question 3: Can you learn anything from how they fared against other playoff teams?
Always check just in case. For instance, the Falcons played seven playoff teams: Buffalo, New England, Minnesota, Carolina twice, and New Orleans twice. Their point totals: 17, 7, 9, 17, 22, 20, 13. They’re cracking 20 points in the Coliseum, outdoors, against a super-fast, super-hyped Rams team? Really?
RULE NO. 10: When in doubt, gravitate toward one pick that (a) would screw over the most gamblers and experts, and (b) would definitely go against the single worst gambler you know.
The good news: There’s no overwhelming consensus pick for Round 1.
The bad news: There’s a consensus three-team, 7-point teaser … Kansas City down to -2, Jacksonville down to -2 and New Orleans down to even. If all three cover a $100 bet, you’d win $150. Seems so easy, doesn’t it?
RULE NO. 11: Don’t ever talk yourself into a terrible QB, ever, for any reason.
This especially goes for backup QBs. For every T.J. Yates who pulled a playoff win out of his ass, there’s a Scott Zolak, Ryan Lindley, Todd Marinovich, Chris Simms, Todd Collins, Quincy Carter, Joe Webb, Kyle Orton, Kelly Holcomb, Tarvaris Jackson or A.J. McCarron. Last January, I backed Connor Cook and the Raiders +4 against Houston, thinking I played it smart by betting against Brock Osweiler. Early in the first quarter, Khalil Mack jogged by a clearly terrified Cook and offered him no words of encouragement, no ass slap, no helmet tap, nothing. Mack ignored him the same way you might ignore a malodorous person on the subway. I was done and I knew it. (And I was.)
Remember, every terrible/shaky/gawd-awful/stupid trait of a shaky QB ends up mushrooming in the playoffs. You’re getting the worst version of Connor Cook. You’re getting the worst version of Ryan Lindley. And you’re definitely getting the worst version of Nick Foles. (Cut to Eagles fans nodding sadly.)
RULE NO. 12: Beware of any team that celebrated the previous weekend’s victory like it had just won the Super Bowl.
I loved Buffalo breaking its playoff drought; I loved Andy Dalton finally making someone else’s playoff dreams come true; I loved Baltimore getting screwed over by strength of schedule because Cleveland (the city the team ditched) won zero games; I loved Kyle Williams’s kids; I loved all the awesome locker-room celebration videos; and I even loved celebrity Bills fans that I’ve never heard of (like the CBS anchor who went on Inside the NFL) taking their media victory laps.
Does 48 hours of congratulatory texts/emails/calls, interviews and celebrations bode well for an upcoming playoff game? NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Not at all!
And here’s where gambling trumps fandom. I know it’s more fun if the Bills keep filming their feel-good sports movie in Jacksonville on Sunday. There’s no better NFL story except for Minnesota potentially hosting its own Super Bowl. And yet …
The Bills are bad. They won their Super Bowl last weekend. Their best player has a bum ankle. They lost five of their past 10 games by double digits. Bet against them. It’s not personal. It’s business.
RULE NO. 13: Before you wager on a team, make sure “Marty Schottenheimer, Herm Edwards, Wade Phillips, Norv Turner, Andy Reid, Dan Quinn, John Fox, Jason Garrett, Anyone Named Mike, Anyone Described As Andy Reid’s Pupil and Anyone With the Last Name Mora” isn’t its head coach.
This rule aged like a fine wine. We added only three coaches in recent years: Garrett (because he’s The Clapper); Quinn (because he blew a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl by overseeing the biggest time-management–play-calling fiasco in recent football history); and Fox (because he died two years ago and the Bears were propping up his corpse during games).
To be clear, it doesn’t mean that you CAN’T bet on these coaches—just regard them the same way you’d regard a mysterious website that might give you a computer virus. Especially with teasers. Do you realize how badly Andy Reid wants to screw over your Chiefs teaser this week? The man lives for these moments! Speaking of Andy …
RULE NO. 14: Before every playoff game, rate the coaches and quarterbacks from 1 to 10, add up their scores, then make sure you’re OK backing a team with said score.
Our Round 1 matchups with everyone ranked from 1 to 10 based on the following scale: John Fox’s corpse and Nathan Peterman are minus-5s; Hue Jackson and DeShone Kizer are 1s; and Bill Belichick and Mega-Apex Rodgers are 10s. Got it? Here we go …
Chiefs: Playoff Andy (4), Alex Smith (6) … 10
Titans: Mike Mularkey (2), Marcus Mariota (3) … 5
(Why is this line Chiefs -9 again? Mularkey vs. Reid is going to be more frightening than the thought of Armie Hammer’s balls getting CGI’ed out of Call Me by Your Name. Don’t bet this game straight-up, don’t tease it, don’t mess with the under, nothing. Stay away. You hear me? YOU STAY AWAY!)
Saints: Sean Payton (7.5), Drew Brees (8.5) … 16
Panthers: Ron Rivera (6), 2016-17 Cam Newton (6) … 12
(Based on his play this season and last season, Cam’s 6 was generous as hell and I don’t feel good about it. At all. Let’s just move on.)
Rams: Sean McVay (8.5), Jared Goff (6) … 14.5
Falcons: Playoff Quinn (3), 2017 Matt Ryan (6.5) … 9.5
(Steve Sarkisian knocks Playoff Quinn’s score down by a point; Wade Phillips bumps McVay up by a point.)
Jaguars: Doug Marrone (7), Blake Bortles (3) … 10
Bills: Sean McDermott (4), Tyrod Taylor (3) … 7
(No Bortles/Taylor/Mariota fan is allowed to complain that their guy is better than the other two. Taylor got benched for Nathan Peterman. Mariota threw 13 TDs and 15 picks. Bortles has a parody Twitter account with nearly 60,000 followers. They’re all 3s. Sorry.)
RULE NO. 15: Don’t try to be a hero, just try to win money.
Take it from the guy who talked himself into Miami’s backup QB in Pittsburgh last January. My case included tidbits like “Could Adam Gase put himself on the map as this year’s Hot New Coach?” and “Could [Matt] Moore manage the game, avoid turnovers and make a couple of big throws?” before I ultimately and hilariously decided, “I’m grabbing the 10 points even if it violates about four different Playoff Manifesto rules.” The Dolphins lost 30-12. Don’t be a hero.
RULE NO. 16: Take one last look at the quarterbacks.
I don’t want to take Blake Bortles in Round 1. I really don’t. But let’s say you talk yourself into the Bills +9 on Sunday. It’s early in the fourth quarter, they’re trailing 16-3, LeSean McCoy’s bum ankle is getting treated in the Vico-Den, and Taylor is throwing to Banged-Up Benjamin, Zay Jones and two tight ends as the Jaguars keep bringing pressure. Would you want ANY part of this? That scenario is only missing O.J. staring grimly from the sideline like Arthur Blank at the end of Super Bowl LI.
RULE NO. 17: There’s plenty of time to bet against any QB or coach.
I know you want to bet against Blake Bortles.
I do, too.
I can’t wait.
It’s going to be glorious.
It doesn’t have to be this weekend.
Stick that anti-Bortles bet in the fridge for a week. Wrap it in tinfoil. Keep it nice and fresh. It will taste just as good next weekend. My picks for Round 1 …
(Home teams in CAPS.)
CHIEFS (-9) over Titans
I changed my mind 100 times, ultimately deciding that I couldn’t take a weaponless offense, a super-shaky QB and an exceptionally bad coach in Arrowhead—not even with Andy Reid on the other sideline. Here’s an actual quote from offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie after last week’s Jags game.
A couple times you look at Jacksonville last [week], golly, they probably had eight guys on the side of the ball where we were going to, you know? And we always had one guy, we just weren’t able to get to him [to block him]. So we’ve got to come up with something, as a staff. We sat down and talked about coming up with an idea to adjust to that, adjust to what they did.
I AM SUPPOSED TO TAKE THIS TEAM IN THE PLAYOFFS ON THE ROAD????? With DeMarco Murray out, they won’t be able to run the ball. (Sorry, Derrick Henry isn’t good.) With Mariota healthy, they won’t be able to throw the ball. Throw in the ghastly coaching and what am I getting with Tennessee? The hope for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to keep it a low-scoring game? Now I’m banking on an 80-year-old guy? No thanks. Meanwhile, this game gives us our last chance to hear Jon Gruden say nothing interesting, make no memorable points at all and have no chemistry whatsoever with Sean McDonough. I know, I’m sad, too. But everyone wins.
1. ESPN saves $7 million a year. The network could replace the Gruden Grinder with Bob, A Guy From Grindr on Monday Night Football next year and get the exact same rating.
2. We get to bet against Gruden next year—the guy who completely choked in the Tuck Rule Game (they had second-and-2 to win the game!), won a Super Bowl the following year with someone else’s loaded team, went .500 for the next six years, then spent the next nine as a completely forgettable TV color guy. In the words of James “Baby Doll” Dixon, I wish the Raiders a lot of luck. Same for anyone betting on this goofy Chiefs-Titans game. My pick that I’d never bet even 3 cents on because you’d be crazy to wager on this game …
The Pick: Chiefs 22, Titans 11
SAINTS (-7) over Panthers
Just a perfect matchup for New Orleans; we know this because we’ve already seen it twice. I thought this Charlotte Observer piece about Cam Newton’s uneven playoff performance was a little unfair, but check out this Cat Scratch Reader breakdown of Cam’s first eight incompletions last weekend. Nobody’s even close to open. This Sunday is going to be different? Check this out …
That’s every active Panthers receiver except for Devin Funchess, all available on DraftKings this weekend for the minimum price of 3 million. Damiere Byrd costs $400,000 more than those four and he’s out for the year. This seems like a problem. Meanwhile, nobody is better equipped to control the clock and extend leads than the 2017 Saints. Get ready for them to become Round 2’s “Beware of the ‘Looked a Little Too Good the Previous Round’” team, especially going into Philly (outdoors! Cold weather!) against an Eagles team desperate to revive the “Beware of the Nobody Believes In Us! team” rule. I’m already scared.
The Pick: Saints 36, Panthers 15
JAGUARS (-9) over Bills
A classic Gus Ramsey game: Namely, how many points will Buffalo actually score in this game with McCoy playing on one leg? Seven? Nine? Will Jacksonville’s defense outscore Buffalo’s offense? Will Bortles even have to throw 10 times? And Bills fans … be afraid of Playoff Fournette. Be very afraid.
The Pick: Jaguars 24, Bills 6
RAMS (-6) over Falcons
My favorite game on the board for the following reasons …
1. The Rams are better, faster, better coached and more explosive (on both ends) than people realize. They also love going for the jugular, running up the score and doing everything else you’d want from a 6-point favorite—just ask the Seahawks. Throw them on national TV on a Saturday night with 90,000 loud fans and they’ll be even faster. They have a higher level in them. I can feel it.
2. Conversely, the Falcons have looked sloppy as hell, they’re poorly coached (especially in the red zone), they’re playing outdoors (yikes) and their offense is so predictable that anyone who’s played Madden for more than 500 hours can literally yell out their next play once they line up.
4. The last time we saw a matchup more one-sided than Wade Phillips against Steve Sarkisian, Mike Tyson was fighting Marvis Frazier.
5. I’d describe Matt Ryan’s 2017 performance as “a little jittery.”
6. Miraculously, Atlanta became a chic Round 1 upset pick mainly because it’s a favorite-heavy weekend. Great! Please, keep telling me how the talented Falcons could finally put it together after they failed to do so for four solid months—I’d love to hear more!
7. RAM IT.
Only one person can kill the Rams in Round 1: It’s their more-than-shaky kicker, Sam Ficken, someone capable of blowing 9-10 points, killing their momentum and maybe even swinging a double-digit win toward an Atlanta cover. He’s my biggest fear with the Rams, by far; nothing else comes close. It’s a Super Bowl team with a CFL kicker. I don’t think we’ll have to worry about Sam Ficken this weekend. But next weekend in Minnesota? Gulp. Let’s hope he doesn’t end up with his own Playoff Manifesto rule.
The Pick: Rams 37, Falcons 19