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Who'll feel the pain in Conference Championships?

There’s a bit of a false claim that circles professional sport – that nobody ever remembers the losers from a final.

That’s not true, nor is losing a final the cruelest fate in any sport.

Yes, watching your opposition win it all at your expense is a tough pill to swallow but to not take part in the biggest sporting showcase in the world is tougher to come to terms with than wondering what went wrong on the day.

Two teams are going to feel that pain this week – but who?

Tennessee Titans @ Kansas City Chiefs

You see, the only way to beat Patrick Mahomes is actually by confusing him.

Man coverage was a bold step from the Houston Texans, and look where it got them. It’s a very simple formula that people like to complicate.

The Chiefs’ wide receivers are phenomenal athletes, first and foremost. They’re all quick. Every single one of them. If, pre-snap, Patrick Mahomes sees that you’re in man coverage, which he does by putting someone in motion before the snap, then fires where his biggest mismatch it.

And on the off chance that you manage to contain the receivers, Travis Kelce is underneath against a linebacker or a safety. That’s almost automatic.

So what can the Titans actually do? They can avoid bringing edge pressure that’s been so popular for the last five years and focus on their strength – pressure up the middle.

This will make Mahomes throw from a tougher angle and it’s only then, against zone coverage, that his completion percentage will go down.

Tennessee, to counter, will have to throw the ball more because Steve Spagnuolo will try to set the edge to avoid Derrick Henry running through them.

Eventually, Ryan Tannehill will have to make a throw against zone coverage and he’ll struggle. His limited success to this point has been when teams bring pressure and he throws into single-man coverage. He won’t be afforded these chances in Kansas City and the Titans won’t be within two touchdowns coming into the final quarter.

Cloudbet Tip: Kansas City Chiefs (-7.0) – 1.87

Green Bay Packers @ San Francisco 49ers

For Green Bay, this comes down to whether or not Richard Sherman can keep up with Davante Adams. If he can, this one’s a total mismatch.

Matt LaFleur has been great for Aaron Rodgers. His touchdown to interception ratio is fantastic, his completions looks designed rather than his irrational improvisation from broken plays as used to be the case.

But the problem with this is – LaFleur’s offence seems to really struggle against Cover 3, and none of his play designs suit that defence. Bryan Bulaga’s health is also a major concern as Nick Bosa aims to cement his legacy as the dominant rookie pass rusher in recent times.

There are just very few ways in which you can see Green Bay not being embarrassed. A rookie head coach going up against the league’s best team in a pressure environment, on the road?

Take the hosts.

Cloudbet Tip: San Francisco 49ers (-7.5) – 1.96

Divisional Round Betting Tips

Well, that was fun wasn’t it?

Indeed, the Wild Card round has produced some epic encounters, but there’s a reason most people consider the Divisional Round to be the best weekend of football all year.

The big guns come out firing this time – the #1 and #2 seeds in each conference, with a week of rest in their back pockets – and they’ll be looking to avoid shocks and become this year’s laughing stock.

So, Kansas City, Baltimore, San Francisco and Green Bay – it’s time to take centre stage and try to replicate the performances that made you the best four teams by record in the NFL.

It’s never quite that straightforward though, is it?

Minnesota Vikings @ San Francisco 49ers

You can forget Kirk Cousins and his magic moment. You can forget Dalvin Cook and you can forget any idea you have of the Minnesota Vikings producing another miracle on the road.

It’s just not happening.

I could list one hundred clichés, but the bottom line is this – San Francisco are the best team in the NFL. They’re at home. They have an extra week’s rest in them and they’re welcoming back Kwon Alexander and Dee Ford.

Outside runs are the only reason Kirk Cousins looks functional because he can run bootlegs or play-action. The Niners have the best contain unit in the league and that’s just on one side of the ball.

On the other, you may think that Minnesota have favourable matchups because of Barr, Kendricks and Harrison Smith – but that’s assuming Kyle Shanahan gets into a chess match where he wants man coverage.

The Niners’ offence is the most sophisticated in the NFL and contains both man and zone beaters in most of their plays. This is why they’re putting up 30-plus points frequently when a lot of offences in the league are struggling to get into gear.

This is going to be a long night on the west coast with very few ‘Skol’ chants.

Cloudbet Tip: San Francisco 49ers (-7.0)

Tennessee Titans @ Baltimore Ravens

I trust Mike Vrabel.

I trust Mike Vrabel primarily because he knows how to manage games and he carries himself with enough swagger to turn over anyone.

The only reason teams lose when they shouldn’t is because they go conservative. Look at the three best teams in the NFL – the Niners, the Ravens and the Chiefs. What do they all have in common? They absolutely bomb the ball downfield three to four times a game.

This keeps defences honest. He’ll take his shots, too. Lamar Jackson still hasn’t thrown a deep out route, nor has he managed to complete a corner route. If you take away his seams, his sit routes and his fades, I’m really not sure he can make the throws to beat you. Tennessee’s problem is that they may actually get pressure on too fast for their own good.

An initial read from Lamar could easily launch him into a scramble and with linebackers who lack speed, they may need to send a spy. The problem with that? You need a defensive back and playing dime against this run game? Oh boy. Even still, this is a whole host of points and I can’t take any playoff team to beat another by 10 points.

Cloudbet Tip: Tennessee Titans (+9.5)

Houston Texans @ Kansas City Chiefs

Ah, the Texans won in Arrowhead this season, oddsmakers?

While I believe Steve Spagnuolo to be one of the better defensive minds in football, I’m not actually sure he can bridge a gap against a team where everything feels oh so random.

But one thing I definitely think that works in the Texans’ favour is Will Fuller. He could have played last week and reinjured his hamstring, but he sat it out in the hope that his playoff contribution wouldn’t be null.

It could well be significant and those Chiefs defensive backs are going to have to play deep and open up things underneath for a Texans offence that relies on check-downs and odd design.

Can Deshaun outshine Mahomes? Not a chance in hell. But he can definitely get within a hefty spread.

Cloudbet Tip: Houston Texans (+9.5)

Wild Card Weekend Betting Tips

And that’s the regular season put to bed. Thankfully, we now have the Playoffs to contend with, and let me tell you – this is where there are no blowouts; where every team has shown enough variation in play-calling and enough belief in analytics to genuinely have a chance of beating everyone.

Over the next three weeks, we’ll see twelve teams slug it out to try and book their place in history – to Super Bowl LIIV. That all starts with Wild Card weekend; where the so-called big-hitters can rest and obtain more film of their potential opponents.

But this is often the best week of the entire year – so let’s sink our teeth into the action.

Tennessee Titans @ New England Patriots

This line may go to five, so I can advise holding off until the day of the game if you want the value, but New England’s strength is in their secondary – and the only teams to have major success against them this season are units who run the ball when sealing the edge.

If you only counted Derrick Henry’s last six games of the season, he would have more rushing yards than the likes of Le’Veon Bell and Todd Gurley managed in their 16 outings this season. There’s no more sophisticated unit in the NFL.

But if they’re stuffed on first down, that’s a problem. Ryan Tannehill has been a godsend for this team that finally got sick of riding Marcus Mariota and now they’re reaping the rewards. The biggest issue for Tennessee is their depth at wideout. Adam Humphries and Tajae Sharp are subpar receivers, so to rely on his route-running on third down against Stephon Gilmore could be a stretch.

However, I believe, with them receiving the ball first – as New England almost always defer – they will be able to run the ball effectively; eating clock and feeding Henry.

Don’t be surprised if you’re surprised here.

Cloudbet Tip: Titans (+4.5) – 1.94

Minnesota Vikings @ New Orleans Saints

The Minnesota Vikings run entirely off play-action which means they give very little to teams who attempt it against them.

This is a big positive for a Minnesota unit who may actually be equipped to handle skill position players as well as anyone. Whether it’s Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr or Eric Kendricks – each of them have the size and speed to contend with Alvin Kamara.

They even match up well IQ-wise as well as physically against the Swiss army knife, Taysom Hill. Expect those plays to be at a minimum for once.

But, the big question is whether or not Trae Waynes can keep up with Michael Thomas, and the obvious answer is no.

The Vikings will play a lot of Cover 2 zone to try and double Thomas, but this could enable everything underneath to be open and eat up clock – something that Minnesota will no doubt want to be in control of, rather than surrendering that luxury.

As always, the big issue with Minnesota is that they’re very hard to read due to obscure play-calling. If you watch the Green Bay film, they could be picking in the top-five this year, but yet putting up 38 on Philadelphia and 39 on the Chargers suggests that once a gameplan is rolling, they belong at the top table.

I’d prefer to side with them here. Just.

Cloudbet Tip: Vikings (+7.5) – 1.91

Seattle Seahawks @ Philadelphia Eagles

This line is produced based off the fact that the Eagles won a terrible division, but I’d be quicker to point to the psychology of the regular season.

Philly never had to play above themselves to beat the Cowboys to the NFC East crown and maybe just got bogged down in the average-ness of it all. Carson Wentz’s play over the last few weeks has been MVP-calibre and if he carries that into the playoffs, he’ll be a top-end quarterback with a top-end roster to back him up.

If Russell Wilson is exposed like he was in Santa Clara last week, which this Eagles front seven is more than capable of replicating, this one is over by half-time, let alone with the Eagles getting two points at home.

As much as I believe in Wilson, I do not have any faith in a roster with no depth at playoff time. Philly’s roster, despite a weak overall record from the regular season, was built to compete deep into the postseason – and they will show that once again.

Cloudbet Tip: Eagles (+2.0) – 1.89

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About the Author
Andrew Cunneen

Andrew Cunneen

NFL Writer

Posted on 2020-01-16

Andrew is a data analyst for a Chicago-based sports analytics company, as well as a journalist in his hometown of Limerick, Ireland. He's one of very few NFL writers in the country, but has written about various sports across multiple national titles for a decade.

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