The Divisional Round of the playoffs has arrived. It’s time to rejoice.
For a football fan, this is it. This is the big weekend of the postseason. Of course, the actual champion won’t be crowned for weeks, and we are months removed from the fanfare that is Opening Day. But, with the last surviving four teams from each conference all in action over a two-day span, we can look forward to the best possible football being played in the near future.
We won’t be disappointed. Even if we don’t have perfect matchups – rematches between the Saints and Cowboys and Eagles and Rams would have probably been a little more fun – we have most of the best offenses in the sport about to take the field.
We also have a strange trend that can create somewhat wild results. Dating back to the later rounds of last year’s playoffs, underdogs have absolutely dominated against-the-spread. This bodes well for our picks as a whole, since we tend to lean on the teams getting points, but it has also created a few discounts in other areas.
It also challenges those teams that secured the top-two seeds in their respective conferences to be able to remain as high as the expectations suggest. With that, we will either see some ‘statements’ made or the official changing-of-the-guard to the underdogs who continue to play at a high level.
Regardless, the action should be outstanding.
Below are predictions for each game against the spread. Spreads have been taken from various websites and are subject to change. The spread in parenthesis denotes the selected team. An asterisk denotes a confidence pick.
*Confidence Picks – 2018 Season: 61-48-4 (Last Week: 1-0)
(2017 Season: 53-48-4) (2016 Season: 53-67-3) (2015 Season: 69-45-2) (2014 Season: 61-46-2) (4-Year Total: 236-206-11)
All Picks Against Spread – 2018 Season: 132-116-12 (Last Week: 4-0)
(2017 Season: 137-119-11) (2016 Season: 123-136-8) (2015 Season: 143-117-7) (2014 Season: 149-114-4) (4-Year Total: 552-486-30)
Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots
It’s somewhat of a crazy proposition, but I like to prepare for future playoff matchups toward the second half of the regular season. Usually, it is in conjunction with a growing suggestion that one team is gaining momentum in the discussion for ‘Super Bowl favorite.’
An example of this would be the annual tradition of people somewhat discounting the New England Patriots over the course of 17 weeks, which would then lead me to question which – if any – matchups exist that would be troublesome for the Patriots. Normally, I find none, and the argument falls on deaf ears.
The more common example is the ‘hot team’ at a given time of the year, and the excitement that builds when, after wins, there appears to be no flaws. I laugh at how easy it is to fall in love with any squad that does nothing but win over a select span of time, and I then turn to the teams that would give said squads trouble. This example comes to fruition more often than the first one – about the Patriots – but the team that caught my attention the most was the Los Angeles Chargers.
The Chargers became ‘the team to beat’ in the league after they knocked off the Chiefs in Kansas City on national television and moved into a tie atop the AFC West in the process.
We are now 19 picks columns into the year. If you’ve read any of them, you shouldn’t need me to point out the holes in this theory.
I’ll do it anyway.
The fact that the Chargers beat a division team – where familiarity plays the biggest role – on national television – where more eyeballs move the perception – and only tied the Chiefs for the best record in the division – which means the Chargers had performed worse until that moment – combines enough factors for the aforementioned conclusion to be drawn by the majority of football fans. Everything about what happened looked good and, because it was all aesthetic, it was a facade. Were the Chargers a good team? Definitely. But, were they legitimate ‘Super Bowl favorites?’ Definitely not.
And one of the reasons was the road on which they would have to travel to get there.
In searching for how and why the Chargers would eventually see their season come to an end, the projecting I had done landed on the few most likely scenarios. Los Angeles would either need to travel to Kansas City, Houston, Pittsburgh – at the time, this was the projected AFC North winner – or New England. The Chargers beat the Chiefs and Steelers – on the road, too – and the Texans were constantly on my ‘Do Not Buy’ list. Which left only the Patriots.
Forget the history or the trends in the head-to-head matchups for a moment. Focus only on the path the Chargers need to travel, both through the playoffs and through their own rise from their prior position. Los Angeles was not even a playoff team in 2017, but put together a much better campaign the following year. Still, they couldn’t beat the Chiefs at home on Opening Day – as favorites – and were stuck chasing other teams in the conference until the end. They even went to Baltimore in the playoffs as underdogs.
The point is, the Chargers played their best brand of football in years and have relatively little to show for it. Their ‘reward’ is a trip to New England. It’s probably the worst circumstance for Los Angeles.
Now, we can add back in the history. The trends. The novice head coach Anthony Lynn against one of the most decorated coaches of all-time in Bill Belichick. The Chargers’ consistently average production – between 20 and 29 points scored in twelve games, including the playoffs – compared to the Patriots’ dominance at home in the playoffs – eight consecutive wins.
This is the reason why the Chargers should never have been the new ‘Super Bowl favorite.’ They were never designed to win a playoff game in New England.
The Patriots use a similar gameplan time-and-again by allowing other teams to move up-and-down the field, but not score. For other franchises, this would be an imbalance I would normally target. But New England allows this to happen. It traps opponents. And the Chargers can be trapped.
Earlier this year, Los Angeles traveled to London as large favorites, but came within a failed two-point conversion of losing to the Titans. Elsewhere, it barely beat the punchless 49ers. And the Bengals. The games to which most point as the evidence of a ‘contender’ were the wins against Pittsburgh and Kansas City, but both featured massive deficits that were overcome for wins. They were fortunate. And exposed the Chargers as unreliable.
For far too long, the Patriots were starting to fall out-of-favor in football circles, but the team still landed a first-round bye and has an outstanding matchup. It takes advantage with a ‘statement win,’ reasserting itself as one of the league’s best. New England wins by seventeen points and covers the spread.
Confidence Pick: New England Patriots (-4)
Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints
This fantastic weekend of action concludes with possibly the most interesting game of the playoffs. The New Orleans Saints will host the Philadelphia Eagles. But, it’s so much more than that.
Click here to sign up for Sporfolio to see the rest of Mario Mergola’s NFL picks against the point spread. Mergola finished with the highest total of correct NFL picks against the spread for 2015 and 2016 – tracked by NFLPickwatch, and finished 2015 with an accuracy of 60.53% for his confidence picks. His 4-year record for all NFL games against the spread is 552-486-30!