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NFL Divisional-Round Playoff Picks Against the Spread

Will the top-seeded Ravens and 49ers be able to cover big spreads in their first games of this postseason? Will Chiefs-Bills be another classic? Here are the picks for the four games on the divisional-round slate.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Wild-card weekend was a bit of a dud, with five of the six games being decided by 14 points or more. On the bright side, we got to see young quarterbacks C.J. Stroud and Jordan Love emerge as stars, and the Lions rewarded their fans with their first home playoff victory in decades. We’ve got seven more NFL games left, including four this weekend in the divisional round. Who will stay alive and pull within one game of the Super Bowl? On to the picks!

Lines are from FanDuel as of Thursday morning. Stats are from TruMedia and Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.

Wild-card record: 2-4
Season record: 135-135-8

Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens (-9.5)

When the Texans have the ball: Incredible performance by Stroud and first-year offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik last week against the Browns. The Texans scored three touchdowns and a field goal on their first six possessions against the NFL’s second-ranked defense. As a reward, they now get to face the top-ranked defense in the divisional round!

One part of Slowik’s game plan from last week that I loved: The Texans were aggressive on early downs. On first and second downs, Stroud was 13-for-15 for 227 yards. Eight of those completions went for first downs. There have been times this season (see: Week 18 against the Colts) when it’s felt like the Texans have tried too hard to establish the run. You never want to be one-dimensional, but you also can’t afford to waste plays against great defenses. The Texans hit on some explosive runs last week, but in general this has been an inefficient running team (30th in DVOA). I’m really hoping they are willing to put this week’s game in Stroud’s hands early and often if the run game isn’t working.

The challenge against the Ravens defense is their malleability (it’s the playoffs; I thought I’d try out an SAT word). They are hard to game plan for because they’re capable of playing so many different ways. Man, zone, single-high safety, split safety. You name a coverage, and we’ve seen it on Baltimore’s film.

Two specific things I have my eye on here. One, can the Texans protect Stroud? He’s shown he can create and operate the offense under imperfect conditions, but Stroud will also take some sacks. His 6.8 percent sack rate ranks 22nd in the league this season. The Ravens’ 8.6 percent sack rate on defense ranks second. Houston has to avoid negative plays in this game.

Second, they have to find ways to create explosive plays. Stroud loves to push the ball downfield. His average pass in the regular season traveled 9.2 yards—fourth-highest among starters. But no defense is better against deep passes than the Ravens. They ranked first in DVOA during the regular season when opponents tried to throw downfield. The Browns defense was second, and the Texans did a good job of hitting shot plays on them last week. That will be critical once again in this matchup. It’s going to be tough to be methodical and string together long drives against Baltimore. The Texans are going to need some chunk plays.

Ravens RB Gus Edwards
Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

When the Ravens have the ball: The first season of the Todd Monken–Lamar Jackson pairing could not have gone any better. The Ravens finished fourth in offensive DVOA—fifth in passing and first in rushing. They can win in different ways: the run game, the in-rhythm passing game, Jackson creating out of structure.

On paper, the Ravens should be able to move the ball on the Texans, but the yards might not come easy. The run game is strength-on-strength. The Texans are a tough group up front and finished the regular season second in DVOA against the run. They have physical players who will challenge Baltimore.

Where it gets tricky is the passing game. Jackson was sixth in dropback success rate and 12th in expected points added (EPA) per pass play in the regular season. The Texans ranked 23rd against the pass. Houston is more of a “line up and play” defense than a “disguise” defense. They are zone-heavy, and Jackson has been excellent against zone, ranking fourth among starters in success rate. Keep an eye on the Ravens’ play-action game. They’re not a high-frequency play-action team, but when they do use it, Jackson shreds, ranking third in success rate. The Texans defense, meanwhile, ranks 30th in success rate against play-action passes.

Houston’s best hope is to win up front with guys like Will Anderson Jr. and Jonathan Greenard. Jackson is going to make plays, but if the Texans can keep Baltimore’s run game in check and force a turnover or two, that might be enough to give their offense a chance to steal the game.

How I see it: Things are set up well for the Ravens. Jackson and head coach John Harbaugh have referenced the 2019 season, when they went 14-2 but lost at home in the divisional round to the Titans. They know how hard it is to get to this point and don’t want to waste another opportunity to reach the Super Bowl. Jackson is about to pocket his second MVP, but he knows that quarterbacks are judged by what they do in the postseason.

A Ravens blowout would not surprise me. They have answered the call time and again this season against stiff competition and look like the best team in the NFL. They can win with offense, defense, or special teams, and they’re well-coached. But I can’t count Stroud out. He’s shown an ability to make high degree-of-difficulty throws against high-caliber opponents and seems to be at his best when the lights are brightest. The Texans, in games that Stroud has started, are 6-2 against the spread as underdogs. I think we get a competitive game here.

The pick: Texans (+9.5)

Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers (-9.5)

When the Packers have the ball: How good was Jordan Love’s performance last week against Dallas? In terms of EPA per pass play, it was the most efficient game for a quarterback this season—that’s out of a sample of 567 games! Love was 16-for-21 for 272 yards and three touchdowns. He did not take a sack or turn the ball over, and the Packers scored touchdowns on six of their first seven possessions. It was a great example of a play caller (Matt LaFleur) scheming things up and a quarterback playing at an elite level.

So, can they do it again? It’ll be strength-on-strength. The 49ers defense finished the regular season fourth in DVOA—fourth against the pass and 15th against the run. This is a spot in which Green Bay’s running game has to show up. The 49ers’ ideal game is one in which they get a lead and let their pass rush tee off. The Packers can’t let that happen. They opened last week’s game with a 12-play, 75-yard drive that took 7:52 off the clock. Those types of drives will be crucial in this matchup. The Packers offense needs to help their defense. They need to limit the number of possessions San Francisco gets. Running the ball will be a big deal, and it’s possible the Packers have a chance to be successful on the ground. San Francisco’s run defense in the regular season was mediocre, and the Packers rushing attack is different when Aaron Jones is healthy. Jones is fourth out of 49 backs in success rate. He looked good last week against Dallas and has a chance for a big game here.

49ers LB Fred Warner
Photo by Ryan Kang/Getty Images

The 49ers defense is built on talent more than scheme. They ranked first in DVOA against throws to the middle of the field in the regular season—in large part because linebacker Fred Warner is so good. They rush with four, dare you to try to block them, and force you to throw to the outside. The battle up front in pass protection will go a long way in determining the Packers’ success. Love generally does an excellent job of bouncing away from pressure and avoiding sacks. His 4.8 percent sack rate is third-lowest behind only Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. But the 49ers’ combination of Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead (assuming he’s healthy), Javon Hargrave, and Chase Young will be tough to deal with.

The 49ers don’t have any major defensive weaknesses, but they can be somewhat vulnerable at corner. If the Packers can protect (again, not easy!) or move the pocket for Love, Green Bay’s young wide receivers should have chances to make plays.

When the 49ers have the ball: I don’t know how much analysis you really need here. This is just a massive mismatch on paper. The 49ers have the best offense in the NFL, and the Packers defense is 27th in DVOA. For Green Bay, this isn’t about getting consistent stops or forcing three-and-outs and punts. That is unlikely to happen. It’s about creating enough negative plays (and maybe a turnover or two) to give the offense a chance.

The 49ers will use a number of different personnel groupings with Christian McCaffrey and the run game. I searched far and wide to see if there was a statistical category in which Brock Purdy has struggled. It doesn’t exist. Facing man, zone, split-safety, blitz, it doesn’t matter. The 49ers offense with Purdy has been elite against all of them. Purdy is aggressive in throwing the ball downfield, and San Francisco’s pass catchers are dynamic with the ball in their hands.

The Packers defense ranked 27th in DVOA against throws to the middle of the field—that’s precisely where Purdy feasts. Green Bay was 28th in DVOA on deep throws. Again, not an encouraging number against this 49ers offense.

So what’s the plan for Green Bay? The Packers need to get some wins up front with their pass rush. It’s OK to play a high-variance game in which you give up some big chunks but also create some negative plays. In fact, that’s probably their best chance to succeed.

How I see it: In some ways, I see these two Saturday games similarly. Like the Ravens, the 49ers have looked like a juggernaut for most of the season. A game in which they drop 40-plus and never have to punt is within the range of possible outcomes. I think it’s going to be a long day at the office for Green Bay’s defense.

But I can’t get Love’s performance from last week out of my head. And it wasn’t just last week. This offense has been clicking for a couple of months now. They can run the ball. LaFleur can scheme up explosive plays. And Love can find answers when things break down. It’s hard to overstate just how talented of a passer he is.

There’s a specific game script that positions Green Bay to steal this game. They run the ball. They sustain long drives. They shrink the number of possessions that San Francisco’s offense gets. And they try to steal points with a turnover or by gaining an edge on special teams (which has not been a strength of either team). I don’t know if it’s going to happen, but I’m too much of a believer in Love to predict a 49ers blowout.

The pick: Packers (+9.5)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Detroit Lions (-6.5)

When the Bucs have the ball: Good luck predicting what you’ll get from Tampa Bay’s offense. It looked terrible in Week 18 against the Panthers and then lit up the Eagles in the wild-card round.

The Bucs need to lean into their play-action game here. Detroit’s defense ranks 31st in success rate against play-action this season. There will be opportunities to create holes in the Lions’ coverages and hit on big plays. Baker Mayfield went hunting for big plays often when these two teams met in Week 6. It didn’t work out for him in that game—a 20-6 Lions win—but it’s not a bad idea. The Lions defense ranks 24th in DVOA against deep passes. There should be opportunities to push the ball downfield.

One thing the Bucs should not do: pound the rock. The Lions have the best run defense in the NFL. The Bucs are 28th in rushing DVOA. Weird things can happen in one-off matchups, but the most likely scenario is that the Lions will shut down the Bucs ground game. The Lions are gettable through the air; that’s where Tampa Bay should attack them early and often.

When the Lions have the ball: Bucs head coach Todd Bowles is a master of breaking down opponents’ protections with his blitz schemes. The Eagles experienced that firsthand in the wild-card round. Of course, the Eagles knew what was coming and still had no plan. That’s unlikely to be the case for the Lions. Quarterback Jared Goff ranks fourth in success rate against the blitz, and Detroit has the ability to gash the Bucs in the middle of the field if Tampa Bay gambles.

When these two teams played in Week 6, Goff went 30-for-44 for 353 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. The Lions couldn’t run the ball in that game (just 40 yards on 22 carries), but they didn’t have Jahmyr Gibbs available at the time.

Overall, this shouldn’t be too complicated of a game plan for the Lions. They just need a plan for Bowles’s pressure schemes. Other than that, they should be able to run their usual stuff and do damage as long as they don’t turn the ball over.

How I see it: Give the Bucs credit. I don’t remember anyone predicting before the season that they’d be playing in the divisional round. And they absolutely have a shot to win here. We’ve seen Mayfield get hot, and this Lions defense will give up chunk plays in the passing game.

But I’m rolling with Detroit. This offense has played consistently well—specifically at home—and I trust its offensive line to control the game. I also give Dan Campbell an edge over Todd Bowles when it comes to game management. Campbell will be aggressive, and he won’t coach scared. I think by the end of the weekend, the Lions will be one win away from the Super Bowl.

The pick: Lions (-6.5)

Kansas City Chiefs at Buffalo Bills (-2.5)

When the Chiefs have the ball: The Week 14 matchup between these two teams served as a microcosm of what the 2023 version of the Chiefs offense has become. Statistically? Not bad. The Chiefs actually produced their third-best success rate of the entire season in that game. But nothing came easy. Patrick Mahomes averaged just 6.3 yards per attempt. They scored two touchdowns on 10 possessions, and in the end, they made too many mistakes to win (the Bills went home with a 20-17 victory).

That’s life for this version of the Chiefs. It has to be methodical because it can’t be explosive. Mahomes’s average pass this season has traveled just 6.6 yards. The Chiefs produced 52 completions of 20-plus yards in the regular season; that tied for 14th leaguewide. But Mahomes is Mahomes, and Andy Reid is Andy Reid. The floor will only be so low. The Chiefs still finished the season ranked eighth in offensive DVOA. And if Kadarius Toney lined up correctly, they probably would have won that game in Week 14 against Buffalo.

So how will this game play out? Well, a lot could depend on which players the Bills have available on defense. Their win against the Steelers in the wild-card round was costly. Buffalo has been decimated by injuries at linebacker and corner. As of this writing, it’s unclear who will be on the field on Sunday.

This doesn’t feel like a spot where Sean McDermott will try to get creative schematically, especially given the injuries. In the middle of the season, this looked like one of the worst defenses in the NFL, but to McDermott’s credit, he figured out some answers, and the Bills finished a respectable 12th in defensive DVOA. If McDermott had more of his starters healthy, he might be tempted to try to cook up a special defensive game plan for Mahomes. After all, when he took over the defense from coordinator Leslie Frazier last offseason, it seemed like McDermott was doing so specifically for moments like this.

But now? The Bills’ best defensive plan might be to let the Chiefs beat themselves. Play zone. Rally and tackle on short completions. Win up front without blitzing. And see if the Chiefs can string together long drives and finish in the red zone. Can Kansas City go eight or nine plays without an offensive penalty or a dropped pass or a wide receiver reading the coverage differently than Mahomes? I don’t know. This version of the Chiefs hasn’t shown us it’s capable of that.

When the Bills have the ball: Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo had Josh Allen flustered in that Week 14 meeting. Allen finished 23-for-42 for 233 passing yards. He averaged just 5.5 YPA, took three sacks, and held the ball for an average of 3.33 seconds. When the Chiefs played zone (which they did on 27 of Allen’s dropbacks), it was especially ugly for the Bills. Allen’s 29.6 percent success rate against zone in that game was his worst of the season.

The idea that the Bills offense took off after Joe Brady replaced Ken Dorsey as offensive coordinator isn’t backed up by the numbers. See for yourself:

Bills Offensive Coordinators

Coordinator Success Rate EPA/Drive
Coordinator Success Rate EPA/Drive
Ken Dorsey 48.10% 0.52
Joe Brady 43.80% 0.39

The story of the Bills offense has been the same all along: When it doesn’t do stupid stuff, it’s one of the best units in the NFL. But it has a tendency to do stupid stuff.

I think the Bills will try to lean into their run game in this matchup. The Bills finished the regular season ranked seventh in rushing DVOA. The Chiefs’ run defense is 27th in DVOA. Last week in this space, I made the argument that the Dolphins might be able to run the ball on the Chiefs in the wild-card round. That didn’t happen. But Miami’s run game is perimeter-based and built on speed. The Bills have a physical, downhill attack. And they can mix in quarterback-inclusive runs with Allen when they need to.

The Chiefs’ strength is their pass defense. Stefon Diggs had just four catches for 24 yards on 11 targets in the first meeting. Running back James Cook was the Bills’ leading receiver in that game, with five catches for 83 yards and a touchdown on five targets. Allen can put his cape on and complete passes against anyone when he’s feeling it. But from a schematic perspective, Spagnuolo won the battle during the first meeting—specifically in the second half.

How I see it: Mahomes has never played a road game in the playoffs (not counting neutral Super Bowl sites). This will be a first. Historically, betting against Mahomes as an underdog has been one of the worst wagers in football. The Chiefs have been underdogs 10 times in his career. They are 8-1-1 against the spread in those games. The only time he didn’t cover? A Week 6 loss to the Bills in 2022.

I’m really tempted to take the Chiefs, given that history. This feels like a coin-flip game, and the Bills are banged up. Why not grab the points? Buffalo has been stacking wins, but it has played a lot of tight games. It’s not like this is a completely different team from the one we saw earlier in the season.

Having said that, I’ve been saying for weeks that I don’t think the Chiefs have it. Mahomes doesn’t trust his receivers, and they’re vulnerable at offensive tackle. The Bills aren’t perfect, but they’re always competitive—12-6 and no team has beaten them by more than six points. Before the playoffs started, I picked the Bills to win the Super Bowl, and I’m sticking with it. Let’s hope we get a classic here.

The pick: Bills (-2.5)