Monday, August 6, 2018

“Propping” Up NFL Playoff Chances

By Ross Lancaster

Heading into any NFL season, we know that there will be a healthy amount of new playoff teams versus the previous season. Such is the case in a league with a hard salary cap with a four-month regular season where 20 of 32 teams don't make the playoffs each year.

Last year, a full two-thirds of the playoff field was new, with only the Patriots, Steelers, Chiefs and Falcons returning to the postseason from the 2016 season.

That's unlikely to happen again, but it's not uncommon at all for five or six playoff teams to be new.

With that level of volatility being a constant in the modern NFL, it's an August ritual to see predictions on what teams will jump into the postseason and which will be done with games at the end of the calendar year.

This is one of those kinds of articles — but with a twist. Since the Supreme Court effectively legalized non-Nevada sports betting in May, this will be the first NFL season you won't have to go to Nevada to make a legal bet. Even in the strict South, Mississippi recently started taking legal bets.

As any experienced sports bettor knows, there are tons of props to bet on before the start of a major sports season. I'll cover bets for five teams' playoff chances that I think might be worth a go, plus a couple longer-shot value plays.

All odds from 5Dimes as of Aug. 5.

Los Angeles Chargers
-140 to make playoffs, +160 to win AFC West

I think there's a strong argument to be made that the Chargers are the most complete team in the AFC. Bookmakers have latched onto that possibility, putting them as the third most likely team in the conference to make the playoffs behind only the stalwart Patriots and Steelers.

The value here, though, is in the AFC West odds. Every other team in the division has huge red flags, while the Chargers took steps to shore up their biggest weakness in run defense. Otherwise, the offense is dynamic, the pass rush is going to be borderline unstoppable, and covering receivers won't be an issue.

San Francisco 49ers
+165 to make playoffs

Count me as a big believer in one James Garoppolo. The way Jimmy G invigorated a team and an offense that was terrible to that point in the season was incredible to watch. And he'll have weapons like Pierre Garcon and Jerick Mckinnon to work with that he didn't last December when he beat three playoff teams.

Defense is a question mark, and is the reason I can't see them seriously competing with the Rams for the division title, but Richard Sherman and Malcolm Smith will undoubtedly bring some Seattle swagger to the locker room.

Green Bay Packers
+140 to miss playoffs, -170 for field (any other team) to win NFC North

Of course, Green Bay did not make the playoffs last year, despite starting 4-1. But the playoff odds currently have them implied as the fourth-best team in the NFC behind the Eagles, Vikings, and Rams. That's pretty absurd to me.

I get it, though. The -160 price for the Packers to make the playoffs tells me that the belief is that a healthy Aaron Rodgers equals 10 wins as a law of the universe. But Davante Adams is the one huge downfield weapon I see on this team, and that might not be enough. Jimmy Graham might help, but he seems more like a red zone-specific guy these days.

The defense still looks middling on paper, despite the overdue departure of Dom Capers as coordinator. The Vikings strike me as a better team in every way except quarterback, and yet Minnesota is +130 to win the NFC North while Green Bay is +150. Puzzling.

Oakland Raiders
-205 to miss playoffs

These are the shortest odds you'll see in this article, and it's again on a team that didn't make the playoffs but is considered to be in the mix based on the odds. Oakland's +173 number ranks as eighth-best in the AFC, ahead of both Tennessee and Denver, who I think are each better than the Raiders coming into the season, and ahead of Buffalo, who did make last year's playoffs.

Furthermore, the Khalil Mack holdout situation appears to be an unmitigated mess for a team that really, really needs an elite defensive weapon to suit up and be happy. And Jon Gruden, who I think is an overrated coach to begin with, appears intent on coaching like it's 2001 in his first season as a head coach in 10 years. The AFC West also appears to be the strongest division in the conference by some margin.

This all leads me to think Oakland will be closer to 5-11 than the 8-8 or 9-7 that the odds imply.

Jacksonville Jaguars
+115 to miss playoffs

I absolutely hate to go against a defense that appears to be a dominant group who should stay that way for several years to come. But I still don't trust the offense despite the good it showed in last year's playoffs.

Plus, the Jaguars got to 10 wins a year ago in large part by teeing off against the Texans' and Colts' injury struggles and the sad-sack AFC North. Young teams that got schedule luck in their breakout surprise seasons usually regress the next year. Plus, I think Houston is ready to compete, and Andrew Luck is back in Indy.

It's weird to want to bet against an up-and-coming team that frankly deserved be in the Super Bowl last year, but I think getting these odds for the Jags not repeating last year's success is a sharp play.

Value plays

Indianapolis Colts
+290 to make playoffs, +570 to win AFC South

Hear me out here. I don't think there's any doubt that, on paper, the Colts have the fourth-best team in the AFC South. But even being terrible on both sides of the ball, Indianapolis still lost six games by one possession or less in 2017, including two in OT.

When Luck is healthy, the Colts — even with significant roster deficiencies — have a track record of winning 10-plus games and winning the AFC South. If he's 90 percent of what he was (a big ask, I know), would that be good enough to get the Colts to the 25 points per game or so they'll need to win most of their games? I don't know, but it might be worth a shot at these longer prices.

Pittsburgh Steelers
+400 to miss playoffs, +225 for field (any other team) to win AFC North

I've saved the biggest hailmary for last. Again, I don't actually think this will happen because the offense will be too good for things to fall apart.

But the defense doesn't appear to be demonstrably better than the one that made Blake Bortles look like Dan Marino in January. And perhaps the offensive chemistry finally unravels with LeVeon Bell having one foot out the door and Ben Roethlisberger uncomfortably looking over his shoulder at Mason Rudolph.

It's a longer shot, but props like these are made for taking chances.

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