NFL Wild Card weekend is here, and I have you covered with my best bets for the exciting slate. Saturday kicks off with two games, one from each conference, and both are sure to excite. I’ll be tracking my record throughout the postseason, and I’m hoping to produce a profitable playoff run for our followers. As always, feel free to reach out on Twitter for any questions about specific plays. Let’s get to work.
Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers are the hottest team in the NFL. After a troubling 3-4 start that included losses to the lowly Bears, Broncos, and Falcons, San Francisco has ripped off 10 straight wins on its way to the #2 seed in the NFC. Their average margin of victory over that ten game span has been 16.1 points – they’ve been utterly dominant.
I was highly skeptical of Brock Purdy after watching him at Iowa State in recent years, but Kyle Shanahan is a magician and he’s turned Mr. Irrelevant into a highly productive quarterback. Purdy has completed 67.1% of his passes with 13 touchdowns to just four interceptions and he has a 6-0 record as a starter.
Over that six-game span, the 49ers rank first in passing DVOA despite being without Deebo Samuel for much of it. The elite play of Christian McCaffrey, George Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk is a big reason why, but Purdy also deserves a ton of credit for his excellent play.
Purdy ranks fifth in EPA+CPOE over the last six weeks, ahead of elite passers like Trevor Lawrence, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, and Justin Herbert. It’s certainly worth noting that Purdy hasn’t faced a top-ten pass defense by DVOA over that stretch, and his opponents have averaged out to the 20th-ranked pass defense by DVOA.
There is no rookie to play in 2022 that has been more important to their teams success than 49ers Brock Purdy
Throws with a free rusher barreling down on him through the A gap and still completed a layered throw over two LBs at different depths pic.twitter.com/omZDE2KHx6
— Brad (@Graham_SFN) January 10, 2023
However, that brings us to Seattle. The Seahawks finished the year as the 17th-ranked pass defense by DVOA. They finished the year strong, ranking top-five in dropback EPA and success rate over the final six weeks, but more context is needed there. Outside of Purdy and Patrick Mahomes, they faced John Wolford, Sam Darnold, Mike White, and Baker Mayfield over that stretch.
It’s also worth noting that when the 49ers and Seahawks played in Week 15, Purdy was on a short week on the road and dealing with an oblique injury that resulted in him being a shell of himself physically.
One of the biggest weaknesses of this Seattle defense has been their tackling. They ranked just 21st in PFF’s tackling metric this year, and now linebacker Jordyn Brooks, their leading tackler with 161 stops, is out for the year with an ACL injury.
That makes this about the worst possible matchup for Seattle. Deebo Samuel, Christian McCaffrey, and Brandon Aiyuk all ranked inside the top ten for missed tackles forced in the receiving game this season, and they present all sorts of matchup issues for this overmatched defense.
McCaffrey will torch the Seahawks on the ground. What happens when you put the best running back in the league behind an offensive line that ranks fourth in adjusted line yards? You get a whole lot of production, particularly against a Seattle defense that ranked 25th in adjusted line yards and 24th in open field yards.
However, the best receiver on this team might be George Kittle, who leads the entire NFL with a 133.6 passer rating when targeted this season. Kittle had four catches for 93 yards and two touchdowns against the Seahawks in their most recent matchup, and Seattle allowed the most receiving yards to tight ends this season.
What a play call by @49ers HC Kyle Shanahan here! Well sold and executed by QB Brock Purdy to George Kittle which opened the scoring at the Seahawks. 49ers lead at the half 14-3. Brock Purdy 12/16 96 yds 1 TD. Started the game 11/11. @KPIXtv @gkittle46 #BrockPurdy13 pic.twitter.com/19bmYglD7q
— vernkpix (@vernKPIX) December 16, 2022
On offense, the Seahawks are overmatched as well. After a strong start to the season, Geno Smith has fallen back down to earth in recent weeks. Smith has completed just 62% of his passes and averaged 6.1 yards per attempt over the last three weeks, a far cry from his 71% completion rate and 7.7 YPA average over the first 14 weeks.
Smith also has a turnover issue lately. After just a 4.3% turnover-worthy play rate over the first 12 weeks of the season, he’s climbed to a 6.6% rate over the past five weeks. That includes three turnover-worthy plays against a banged up Rams’ secondary last week in a mistake-filled performance that almost cost his team a playoff spot.
Now, Smith’s attention turns to a 49ers’ defense that ranked first in EPA per play allowed and second in overall defensive DVOA over the final six weeks of the season. The one area where I believe the 49ers’ defense has some flaws is in its cornerback room outside of Charvarius Ward, but the Seahawks aren’t currently equipped to beat that.
Wide receiver Tyler Lockett has dealt with a shin injury and a broken hand down the stretch, and while he’s done his best to play through it and will continue to do so, he clearly hasn’t been at 100% health. Marquise Brown’s injury also leaves the inexperienced Cade Johnson in a key role as the team’s #3 wide receiver.
That puts a lot of pressure on D.K. Metcalf to win one-on-one against Ward, who ranks eighth in PFF’s coverage grades among cornerbacks with 300+ coverage snaps. He put Metcalf in a straightjacket this season, allowing him just 38 receiving yards on seven targets with two pass breakups.
The Seattle offensive line has also begun to atrophy in recent weeks, and the 49ers’ defensive line has won decisively against them twice this season. Nick Bosa has a whopping 13 pressures and three sacks in two games against them this year, and he had an absurd 38.5% pass-rush win rate in Week 15, per PFF.
Smith has been good under pressure all year behind an offensive line starting two rookie tackles, but he’s quite clearly due for some turnover regression. He has 29 turnover-worthy plays this year to just 11 interceptions. The 49ers’ opportunistic defense can take advantage.
The Seahawks have scored just three first-half points against the 49ers in their two matchups, and just 20 points overall, much of which came when the game was already out of reach. I simply have a difficult time seeing this Seattle offense generating points in this game outside of it getting to garbage time.
The spread for this game somehow opened at -6.5 at some books. That was a massive mistake, and you saw that number quickly get gobbled up. At the current number, I have a hard time laying the full ten points with San Francisco, especially with the knowledge that there was a much better number at one point.
I lean towards the under, especially given the weather forecast in Santa Clara – we’re projected to get a 100% chance of rain and 15 mph winds. However, a lower-scoring game makes it more difficult for a big favorite to cover. Instead, I found the most value in the player props department, and you can check out my official player props picks here.
Best Bets: Lean 49ers -10 and under 43, check out player props page for official picks
Los Angeles Chargers at Jacksonville Jaguars
In perhaps the most intriguing game of the first round of the playoffs, we’ll see the Chargers travel to Jacksonville to face the Jaguars as 1.5-point road favorites. The line opened with the Chargers as 2.5-point favorites, but there has been strong market support for the upstart Jaguars.
I believe there is a compelling case to be made for both teams in this game, and I’m trying something different here. I’m going to make the case for both the Chargers and Jaguars before telling you at the end who I’m riding with. Let’s start with the home team.
The Case for the Jaguars
Doug Pederson has transformed what was the laughingstock of the league last year into the AFC South champions. The former Super Bowl-winning head coach has made a massive, far-reaching impact in his first year, perhaps most notably with second-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
During the final nine weeks of the season, the Jaguars have gone 7-2 to surge into the playoffs, and Lawrence’s improved play has been the catalyst. Over that span, he’s thrown for 14 touchdowns to just two picks and ranked third in PFF passing grade, fourth in adjusted completion percentage, and third in passer rating among QBs with 100+ dropbacks.
— Clemson Sports (@ClemsonSports) December 18, 2022
Along with Lawrence, the Jaguars have seen career years from the likes of Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, and Evan Engram, and running back Travis Etienne has broken out in his second professional season after an injury sidelined him last year. They have all contributed to the Jaguars ranking sixth in passing DVOA.
While the pass defense has been excellent, it’s the run game that could lead the way here. Etienne was a home run waiting to happen this year as he forced 57 missed tackles, the fifth-most, and had a 40.3% breakaway run percentage, the sixth-highest among RBs per PFF. The Chargers allowed 5.4 YPC this year, the most in the NFL, so Etienne could eat.
The Jaguars defense hasn’t been as proficient, but they’ve been great against the run as they finished the year ranked sixth in rushing EPA allowed and 11th in run defense DVOA. Free agency signings Folorunso Fatukasi and Foyesade Oluokun have panned out while rookie linebackers Devin Lloyd and Chad Muma have been stout, as well.
The run defense showed up in a big way against the Titans’ Derrick Henry last week. Jacksonville held Tennessee to a 28.2% rushing success rate for the game as 23.1% of their runs were stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage.
To be fair to the Jaguars, however, their pass defense has been much better since they moved cornerback Darious Williams from the slot to the outside. Per Next Gen Stats, Williams has allowed 266 yards on 297 coverage snaps in the slot but just 131 yards on 216 coverage snaps on the perimeter.
Since moving Williams to the boundary, the Jaguars rank first in the NFL in overall defensive EPA and third in dropback EPA, specifically. While Williams has been great lately, Tyson Campbell has been the defense’s best corner as he ranks seventh among cornerbacks with 200+ coverage snaps in PFF’s coverage grading.
Tyson Campbell is one of the most underrated players in the entire league. This is DIFFICULT to keep eyes on the QB here. He has a legitimate argument to be the best CB in the NFL.
— Clay Harbor (@clayharbs82) January 8, 2023
The Chargers offense is also relatively easy to game plan against, despite Justin Herbert’s brilliance. It’s frustrating and puzzling, but it’s not changing. Herbert has an aDOT of 7.0 yards, which ranks 38th out of 41 qualified passers. It’s a career low for him, and just 9.7% of his passes have traveled 20+ air yards despite him having elite efficiency on downfield passing.
The absence of star left tackle Rashawn Slater for the Chargers has resulted in even more quick dump-offs and passes over the middle, and the Jaguars will be ready for it. Josh Allen and Arden Key have been great down the stretch, and they combined for 14 pressures in Week 18.
Jacksonville hasn’t exactly played a gauntlet of opponents, but the defense deserves a ton of credit for stepping up down the stretch. Under Pederson’s leadership, this team plays complementary football and has tons of young talent peaking at the right time.
The Case for the Chargers
The market could be telling you all you need to know about these teams. The Chargers are currently 11-1 to win the AFC on FanDuel while the Jaguars are 21-1. Those numbers indicate that the road team is significantly better in this game, at least in the sense of long-term competitiveness.
While the strength of the Jaguars’ defense is against the run, I’m not sure how much that matters against the Chargers, however, who pass at a 64.9% clip, the second-highest in the NFL. They have no problem abandoning the run when it’s not working, and Justin Herbert’s short-area passing serves as an extension of the ground game.
While Herbert’s low aDOT decreases the overall upside of the offense, it could play very well against this particular defense. The Jaguars had the worst pass defense in the NFL by DVOA in the short middle area of the field, where 21.2% of Herbert’s passes have come.
With Williams moving to the boundary, the Jags have been more vulnerable in the slot, and that will leave open space for Keenan Allen, Austin Ekeler, and Gerald Everett to work underneath, where Joe Lombardi loves to call plays. While Mike Williams might not be at 100%, he may not have been as big of a part of this specific game regardless.
Much will be made about the Chargers’ antics in playing starters in a meaningless Week 18 game, but I still have a lot of respect for Brandon Staley as a defensive coach. Despite a bundle of injuries on that side of the ball, the Chargers ranked third in pass defense DVOA over the final six weeks when they needed to buckle down to make the playoffs.
Now with Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack in tow, the Chargers have their elite pass rush tandem they were expecting to rely on this season. Lawrence could be in trouble against them as he ranked 33rd in PFF passing grade among 41 quarterbacks with 50+ dropbacks under pressure. His 7.7% turnover-worthy play rate under pressure was the fifth-highest.
Cam Robinson was lost for the season with an injury, and while second-year tackle Walker Little has done an admirable job filling in, he and fellow tackle Jawaan Taylor face their toughest test of the season against Bosa and Mack, arguably the best pass rushing tandem in the NFL when they’re fully healthy.
Yeah I think Joey Bosa is back pic.twitter.com/nSg4YIYKzl
— Ted Nguyen (@FB_FilmAnalysis) January 6, 2023
The Chargers also match up uniquely well against the Jaguars’ pass-catchers. Bryce Callahan is an excellent slot corner, and he’ll help slow down Christian Kirk. Derwin James is elite when asked to cover tight ends, and he could see a lot of Evan Engram.
Jacksonville of course beat this team 38-10 in Los Angeles in Week 3, but that result is a bit misleading. Justin Herbert had broken ribs and completed just 55.6% of his passes with two turnover-worthy plays while Keenan Allen, Corey Linsley, and Joey Bosa were all out.
The Chargers are a much healthier team now than they were at the start of the season, and everyone’s Super Bowl darling before the year much more closely resembles that than they have at any point this year. Top to bottom, they’re a better team than the Jaguars.
There are two plays I’m making official from this game. Ultimately, I like the Chargers to pull out a win here, but not with a wide margin – they have an average margin of victory this year of just +0.4 points. However, rather than sweat out a side in a game that could come down to the wire, I love the value of getting the Jaguars as a teaser piece.
While the line has moved off the opener of +2.5, you can still tease out a +1.5 spread to +7.5 points and secure a full touchdown of coverage on the spread. I’ll be pairing the Jaguars with the Bengals teased down to -1 on Sunday. You can also pair them with the Buccaneers teased out to +8.5 on Monday.
Best Bet: Jaguars teased to +7.5 paired with Bengals -1