Another NFL regular season is in the books, and for fans of eighteen squads, it’s time to put one eye to the NFL Draft. After Houston’s phenomenal victory over Indianapolis on Sunday, the Chicago Bears will roll into the offseason with the first overall pick. It’s a nice place to be for a squad that is more or less bereft of talent around the transcendentally gifted Justin Fields, and depending on how some of the NFL’s QB-less organizations feel about Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, and the rest of the signal-caller crop, the Bears could be in a place to load up on picks in the 2023 and 2024 Drafts, with an eye on having a juggernaut in Fields’ fourth season.
The Bears aren’t the only fanbase that can go into the offseason excited. The Jets’ situation is the inverse of the Bears, a ridiculously talented roster with below-average quarterbacks, and will be an attractive destination for any veteran quarterbacks on the move. Mike Tomlin once again avoided a losing season in Pittsburgh, riding a four-game winning streak behind rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett to finish 9-8. And the Lions, despite the disappointment of missing the playoffs, have to feel a heck of a lot better about their squads than they did at 1-6.
There are a lot more fans with a lot to worry about heading into the offseason. In Houston, apparently no good deed goes unpunished, as Lovie Smith followed David Culley as a one-and-done head coach of the Texans despite their win on Sunday, which, for the second straight offseason, raises questions about what the expectations were for a team that has easily ranked 32nd in talent for the past two seasons. In Cleveland. fans have a long time to wonder if Deshaun Watson will look anything like the quarterback he was in Houston, rather than the train wreck he was this season, come Week 1 of 2023, when they will also have a new defensive coordinator after firing Joe Woods – but there will be plenty of time to examine that. With the playoff field set, let’s look at how the DraftKings odds stack up headed into Super Wild Card Weekend.
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AFC Set for Blowouts?
The Chargers-Jaguars matchup is the exception, but given that Tua Tagovailoa seems unlikely to return for the Dolphins this season, the Buffalo-Miami and Cincinnati-Baltimore games could easily turn into blowouts.
Week 3 was a long time ago, but Jacksonville’s 38-10 win over the Chargers in Los Angeles will give the Jaguars confidence they can repeat the feat at home, particularly with the Chargers coming off a season-ending loss to the Broncos that saw receiver Mike Williams narrowly avoid a significant injury. Los Angeles opens as a 1.5-point favorite on DraftKings, and the oddsmakers strongly prefer the Chargers (+1000 to win the AFC) to the Jaguars (+2200) to go on a run, but unlike the other favorites, the spread in the Los Angeles game indicates that this is essentially a coin-flip.
The equation would change if either the Ravens or Dolphins get their quarterback back on the field at peak form, but that’s a tall task as things stand, which is why the Bills are 10.5-point favorites and the Bengals are favored by 6.5 points. Assuming that Lamar Jackson can return to the lineup, he will step into an offense that is featuring Sammy Watkins as a primary target after the Packers cut the well-traveled veteran near the end of the season. Jackson does have a pair of receiving threats at tight end in Mark Andrews and Isaiah Likely, but with their current personnel, the Ravens probably need to depend on Jackson’s running ability to get anything going on offense, and Jackson may not be able to provide that given that his knee injury has prevented him from practicing for over a month.
The Chiefs, who get the first-round bye, are +175 to win the AFC. The Bills are +200, which, coupled with their 10.5-point edge this week, fits with the Dolphins sitting at +3000. Buffalo’s +200 odds relative to Kansas City’s +175 despite the Bills having to play on Super Wild Card Weekend suggests the oddsmakers see Buffalo’s win over Miami as a foregone conclusion.
The value may be on the Bengals, who sit at +450. Granted, Cincinnati would need to go through Buffalo in the Divisional Round, but it sure didn’t look like that would be a problem for Joe Burrow and the offense before their first game with the Bills was cut short in Week 17. The venues may not favor the Bengals, but they certainly appear to be right in Kansas City and Buffalo’s league talent-wise, which makes the +450 attractive. As Burrow was happy to remind us Sunday, Cincinnati’s Super Bowl window is his whole career, and a return trip to the Super Bowl is certainly in the cards.
Cowboys Join Chargers in the “L” Column
It was one of the odd storylines on Sunday – two teams, essentially locked into the fifth seed, playing their starters against a supposedly inferior opponent, only to blow the game.
Granted, the Cowboys had something to play for on Sunday, but while the Vikings and 49ers coasted to victories that rendered any potential Cowboys win moot, Dallas put on a ridiculously awful display against a Washington team starting rookie Sam Howell.
Perhaps we should have seen it coming after Taylor Heinicke, who was originally slated to return to the starting lineup, joined other players in a “Rudy” moment pushing for Howell to start (it does not seem that jerseys were involved, but it seems this actually happened, unlike the Hollywood story). Regardless, it’s difficult to see how any Cowboys fans can feel particularly comfortable ahead of next week’s trip to play Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. It’s been a dismal season in Tampa, but their 20-10 win over Dallas in Week 1 was one of two high points (the other being Mike Evans’ Week 17 performance), and the Buccaneers should be licking their chops after watching Dallas play on Sunday.
The Vikings and Giants offer another matchup, albeit one that was much more recent (Week 16) and much closer (the Vikings won on a 61-yard field goal as time expired). Minnesota rebounded from their Week 17 debacle in Green Bay to beat Nathan Peterman and the Bears in Week 18, but despite Minnesota’s 13-4 record and New York’s 9-7-1 finish, the Giants have a solid opportunity to upset Minnesota in the first round.
These four squads are clustered as the 3-6 spots on DraftKings’ NFC odds. The third-seeded Vikings come in with the fifth-best odds (+1200), while the fifth-seeded Cowboys sit in the third spot (+500) despite Sunday’s debacle. Tampa Bay (+1000) and the Giants (+2000) round out this group in the fourth and sixth spots, but like the AFC, there is a gap between 3-6 and the top two seeds.
Down to the Wire for Spot #14
It started in Seattle, where the Rams-Seahawks game went to overtime after Seahawks kicker Jason Myers put a potential game-winner off the upright as time expired. Things looked grim when Rams receiver Van Jefferson got some space on a deep corner, but Baker Mayfield left enough air under the ball for safety Quandre Diggs to make up ground from center field and pick off the pass, kicking off a drive that ended with redemption for Myers, who put it home from 32 yards to give Seattle hope if the Lions could beat the Packers.
That scenario played out, as Aaron Rodgers turned in a dismal performance that would have been worse if an interception wasn’t taken off the board by a penalty. Rodgers, who never really got back in rhythm after a season-best performance against the Cowboys, couldn’t get his offense in the endzone with any consistency, and that opened the door for the Lions to secure the late comeback to send Seattle to the playoffs.
That’s all for the right to play the 49ers, who saw Deebo Samuel return to give them their full complement of weapons in what turned out to be the best performance of Brock Purdy’s rookie season. Despite consistent pressure from J.J. Watt, who racked up two sacks in his final NFL game, Purdy went 15 of 20 for 3 touchdowns and 0 interceptions to round out one of the more unlikely rookie campaigns in memory. It’s a daunting task for the Seahawks, who the 49ers have defeated 27-7 and 21-13 this season, but an opportunity they’ll be happy to take, 10.5-point underdogs or not.
Seattle joins Miami with the longest odds to win either conference at +3000, while the 49ers (+200) sit just behind the Eagles (+175). The top three have a similar distribution to the AFC’s grouping of Kansas City (+170), Buffalo (+200), and Cincinnati (+450), but unlike the AFC, the third spot doesn’t necessarily feel like the value. It’s difficult to gauge if Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts will be more comfortable after playing through shoulder pain to secure the one seed, but if he is compromised, it’s starting to look like Brock Purdy, the last selection in the most recent NFL draft, could lead one of the more improbable stories in NFL history by guiding the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
Steven Clinton, better known as "The Professor", is a former D-1 Quality Control Assistant (Northwestern, Toledo) who holds a B.A. in Economics and M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University. He maintains an end-to-end NFL game projection model and is a film junkie who breaks down the tape of every NFL game.