NFL: Play-offs Divisional Round
Fourteen teams entered the 2023/24 National Football League (NFL) post-season last week (with two taking a breather), and six were eliminated in the ‘wild card’ round last weekend. With those results, the divisional round combatants are set, following a collection of surprises, upsets and one major meltdown.
Contenders like the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs, the Buffalo Bills, and Detroit Lions were able to advance against lower seeds, but the other half of the games were laced with dramatic upsets.
The Houston Texans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers were JustBet home underdogs, but they both wrestled convincing victories over the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively, while the Green Bay Packers strode into AT&T Stadium as a number 7 seed and handed the Dallas Cowboys their (now) annual play-off loss — the first-ever number 7 seed to win a play-off game in NFL history.
The Texans and their rookie quarterback (QB) C J Stroud (274 passing yards, three touchdowns) were very impressive in their 45-14 take down of the Browns, entering the history book as the youngest starting QB to win a play-off game (22 years, 102 days). The Buccaneers, who somehow wriggled their way into the post-season, enjoyed an inspirational 32-9 score line over the Eagles, which was surprising, but not totally unexpected, since Philadelphia started the season 10-1 before losing six of the last seven games (including last weekend) and therefore the loss can be viewed as a continuation of their collapse.
However, the Cowboys, after leading the league in points, first downs and passing touchdowns this season, playing a wild card game against the youngest team in the league, riding a 16-game home win streak dating back to last season, and the best opportunity in the last 25 years to get to the Super Bowl, can expect very little sympathy following their unforgivable 32-48 choke. The 48 points allowed is the most ever by the Cowboys in a play-off game and the expectation is for something dramatic to happen in Dallas for next season. The exact drama is left to be seen.
On the immediate horizon is the mouth-watering matchups for this weekend. Over the past 10 years, home teams have gone 29-11 in the divisional round, the away team winning just over an average of one per year; therefore, it can reasonably be expected that there should be one from the four encounters this weekend.
First up are the Baltimore Ravens hosting the Texans tomorrow afternoon, and if there is any other team with comparable (low) play-off expectations to Dallas in the past few seasons, it is the Ravens led by QB Lamar Jackson. Since Jackson got the starting job, the Ravens have gone 1-3 in the play-offs and they kicked off as favourites in two of those three losses. For some strange reason, the Ravens’ offence has fluttered in their four play-off games with Jackson, averaging just 13 points per game in those matchups.
Houston’s QB Stroud is almost a shoo-in for the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, after throwing for 4,108 yards and 23 touchdowns this season, and also tied an NFL rookie record with three touchdown passes in the play-off game last weekend. The Texans played 10 games this season against teams that finished the year with a winning record, and they went 7-3, with Stroud averaging over 300 passing yards and throwing 21 touchdowns. One of those three losses did come against the Ravens, but that was in Week 1 where Stroud made the first start of his NFL career.
The Texans have never made it to a conference title game, and they have never won a road play-off game, but their social media team proudly captioned them, “Texas’ Team” following the demise of the Cowboys against the Packers — could this possibly be the one-in-four?
Tomorrow night, the Packers visit the San Francisco 49ers for a familiar post-season matchup. This will be the third time in five seasons that these two teams have faced each other in the play-offs, with San Francisco winning all three. The Packers were the only away team to win last weekend after shutting down the Dallas offence, but the 49ers had the third-most rushing yards in the NFL this season (mostly thanks to Christian McCaffrey) and the fourth-most passing yards, so a repeat is not expected.
The Green Bay defence overperformed last weekend, but if they have any weakness, it’s stopping the run. The Packers gave up the fifth-most rushing yards in the NFL during the regular season, and now they face the daunting task of containing McCaffrey, who led the league in rushing yards this year. Green Bay’s QB Jordan Love has been on fire over the past nine weeks, with 21 touchdowns (only one interception) and on the strength of that record, the Packers could certainly pull off an upset.
However, the 49ers have won five-straight play-off games at home and having rested many starters over the past few weeks, there is no good reason to bet against them in this encounter.
On Sunday afternoon, the Lions, who last weekend hosted their first play-off game in 30 years and achieved their first play-off win since 1992, will host the Buccaneers in their den. Thanks to the Packers, and result from their own emotion-filled matchup against the Los Angeles Rams last week, the Lions can treat their home fanbase to another action-packed three hours. The game will feature two QBs — Jared Goff and Baker Mayfield — who are making the best of a second chance and must have felt vindicated after advancing further than their former teams, with Goff actually defeating his former employer.
One of these two QBs will be playing in the National Football Conference (NFC) Championship game and the better bet would be on Goff. The Buccaneers gave up the fourth-most passing yards in the NFL during the regular season and Goff averaged 269.1 yards per game, which was second in the league behind Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa. Goff was even better at home, where he averaged 280 yards per game, throwing 19 of his 30 touchdown passes at Ford Field. Since the start of the Super Bowl era in 1966, the Lions have never won two play-off games in the same postseason. This could be the year.
The closer on Sunday night has been two years in the making, but there is finally a play-off rematch between the Bills and the Chiefs. The last time these two teams took the same field in the postseason was back in January 2022, when the Chiefs took exactly 13 seconds to send the entire “Bills Mafia” into deep depression. The big differences this time around is that the Chiefs are playing away — the first time in the play-off career of QB Patrick Mahomes — and Tyreek Hill is no longer with the team.
Buffalo have won three straight regular season games against Kansas City, but they have also lost two straight play-off games to the Chiefs. The best chance for a Buffalo victory is to fluster Mahomes as the Chiefs are 1-3 this year when Mahomes is sacked at least three times, and 2-6 when Mahomes’ passing completions are below 65 per cent. The Chiefs played last Saturday night and the Bills played on Monday, so rest could become a factor. JustBet offers the home team as favourites going into the weekend and the bookmakers may have it right, but never count out the craftiness of Mahomes…. Are you ready for some football?
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Super Bowl LVIII Champion
San Francisco 49ers 2.75
Baltimore Ravens 3.80
Buffalo Bills 6.00
Kansas City Chiefs 8.40
Detroit Lions 9.60
Green Bay Packers 27.00
Houston Texans 30.00
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30.00
*Note: Odds are subject to change