FOX Sports NFL Writer
The NFL’s divisional round is finally here! Four exciting matchups will take place over the weekend, including the Dallas Cowboys-San Francisco 49ers on FOX and the FOX sports app.
I ran my models to give you my favorite betting edges and predictions for every game in this weekend’s slate. My goal for this weekly column is to always provide you with nuggets you didn’t know before reading this piece.
Let’s take a look at my favorite edges of the week, with odds courtesy of FOX Bet.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Kansas City Chiefs (4:30 p.m. ET Saturday, NBC)
The Kansas City Chiefs have the NFL’s best offense, and there’s not even a remotely close second.
They gain a first down on 31% of their early-down plays. To lend some perspective, the third most efficient offense in that metric is closer to the league average than to the Chiefs.
The Chiefs also gain +0.10 EPA/play on early downs, which is also first in the NFL. The NFL average is -0.02. There is no other team above +0.04.
It’s also their most efficient offense since 2018.
And to add further context, the Chiefs offense has ranked this well despite facing the NFL’s seventh-toughest schedule of opposing defenses. On the season, the Chiefs have played 10 defenses that rank above average.
They’ve played just four games against teams with bottom-10 defenses. They’re 4-0 in those games, winning by an average final score of 33-20.
They face the 27th-ranked defense of the Jaguars.
While the Chiefs’ offense has earned their No. 1 the hard way, playing the seventh-toughest schedule, the Jaguars’ 27th-ranked defense had the good fortune of playing the third-easiest schedule of opposing offenses.
They’ve played just five offenses that ranked above average this year other than Kansas City:
- Lost 29-21 to No. 3 Philadelphia
- Lost 23-17 to No. 12 NY Giants
- Lost 40-14 to No. 6 Detroit
- Lost 27-17 to No. 1 Kansas City
- Won 40-34 vs. No. 14 Dallas
- Won 28-27 vs. No. 10 Baltimore
They trailed the Ravens in the fourth quarter 19-10 and then 27-20 before scoring with 14 seconds left and going for a two-point conversion to win the game.
They trailed the Cowboys 27-10 in the third quarter and 34-31 before scoring on the final play of regulation to tie the game at 34-34, and then returned an interception for a touchdown in overtime to win 40-34.
The bottom line – they allowed 31 points per game (PPG) in these games, they trailed at halftime in five of six by an average of nine PPG, and they trailed entering the fourth quarter in five of six by an average of 7 PPG.
Now that we know what the Chiefs have done vs. bottom-10 defenses (scored 33 PPG, went 4-0, won by 13 PPG) and what the Jaguars have done vs. top-15 offenses (allowed 31 PPG, would have gone 0-6, but for erasing multi-score deficits including scores with less than 15 seconds left in the game to either win or force overtime), let’s look at the matchup in more detail.
Trevor Lawrence has improved dramatically down the season’s stretch working with Doug Pederson. This year, Lawrence started off slowly under Pederson. Over the first half of the year, he ranked 23rd in YPA, 14th in EPA/att and 13th in success rate.
But since Week 9, Lawrence ranks in the top 10 in all three metrics, including second in EPA/att, immediately ahead of Patrick Mahomes.
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But one of the areas Lawrence has played so well in has been vs. man coverage. In fact, Lawrence is No. 1 in the NFL vs. man coverage over the second half of the season.
But while the Chiefs do play their share of man, they also play two-high shell at the fourth-highest rate in the NFL, and the highest rate of any team remaining in the playoffs. And Lawrence ranks No. 19 vs. two-high shell defense. Against non-two-high, he ranks third-best in EPA/att, but drops down to 19th over the second half of the season.
In their first meeting, his splits:
- vs. two-high: -0.24 EPA/att, 29% success, 4.7 YPA, 65% completions on 20 dropbacks
- vs. non-two-high: +0.35 EPA/att, 50% success, 7.8 YPA, 78% completions on 28 dropbacks
The Chiefs would be wise to reduce their rate of man coverage and lean more into two-high defense in this game.
Lawrence has large splits when he is pressured and the story was similar vs. the Chiefs in Week 10:
- Pressured: -0.52 EPA/att, 39% success, 6.8 YPA, 67% completions, 5 sacks on 13 dropbacks
- Clean: +0.33 EPA/att, 42% success, 6.4 YPA, 74% completions, 0 sacks on 35 dropbacks
Since that Week 10 game, the Chiefs’ defense ranks fourth in pressure rate.
And Lawrence still has issues dealing with pressure. Last week’s wild-card game:
- Pressured: -1.19 EPA/att, 17% success, 1.7 YPA, 22% completions, 2 sacks and 2 INTs
- Clean: +0.27 EPA/att, 55% success, 7.2 YPA, 68% completions, 0 sacks, 4 TDs, 2 INTs
On the other side of the ball, we’ve mentioned how efficient the Chiefs’ offense is in general. But where they should really try to focus on this game is attacking the Jaguars through the air and upping their play-action rate substantially.
The Jaguars are extremely weak vs. play action, ranking 26th in EPA/att and 31st in success rate vs. play action this year, and that’s grown even worse.
Since Week 10, the Jaguars rank dead last in EPA/att and success rate vs. play action on early downs in the game’s first three quarters:
- Vs. play action: +0.44 EPA/att (32nd), 64% success (32nd), 9.9 YPA (28th)
- No play action: -0.10 EPA/att (eighth), 43% success (13th), 5.4 YPA (fourth)
The Chiefs don’t use high rates of play action (20th in usage rate) because Mahomes doesn’t need it and ranks sixth in EPA/att without it.
But they should absolutely reduce their usage of RB runs and increase their usage of play action in this game. In their prior Week 10 meeting, Mahomes went:
- With play action: +0.72 EPA/att, 71% success, 11.7 YPA, 77% completions, 2:0 TD:INT on 14 attempts
- No play action: +0.42 EPA/att, 57% success, 8.1 YPA, 73% completions, 2:1 TD:INT on 26 attempts
The reason the Chiefs should reduce running runs is that the Jaguars’ run defense ranks 12th while their pass defense ranks 29th. And in their prior meeting in Week 10, Chiefs running back runs averaged -0.46 EPA/att and only 33% success, whereas passes averaged +0.53 EPA/att and 65% success.
I expect the Chiefs to have success scoring. This game will come down to how well the Jags start and if they can keep up, but the Chiefs do look good in a teaser.
New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles (8:15 p.m. ET Saturday, FOX and FOX Sports app)
Divisional meetings in the playoffs with a total of less than 49 have gone Over 17-7 (71%) since 2002 and 6-0 (100%) since 2020.
The New York Giants are a very different team than they were early in the season. It’s vital to understand that teams change over the course of the year. And that is particularly true when referring to a team with a brand-new coaching staff installing a new offense.
The Giants were trying to learn a new offense, and the staff was trying to learn the player’s strengths and weaknesses. The Giants were also dealing with injuries along the offensive line and to starting running back Saquon Barkley.
From Weeks 1-8, the Giants’ offense ranked 19th in early-down success efficiency, including 29th in yards/play on early downs and 25th in total offensive success.
But this Giants offense has come a long way since that first half of the season.
Since Week 9, the Giants’ offense ranks:
- Third in early-down success efficiency (bypassing third downs)
- Fifth in total offensive success
- Fifth in EPA/play
- Tenth in yards/play
And since Week 12, the Giants’ offense ranks second in early-down success efficiency, behind only the Kansas City Chiefs.
What is shockingly wild is that since Week 12, the Giants offense has played the NFL’s second-toughest schedule of opposing defenses.
- No. 2 Cowboys
- No. 5 Eagles (twice)
- No. 13 Commanders (twice)
- No. 14 Colts
- No. 25 Vikings
Even if you look at the difference between run and pass schedules, it’s been brutal for both. Since Week 12, the Giants have played the third-toughest schedule of pass defenses and the ninth-toughest schedule of run defenses.
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They played six of eight games to close the regular season vs. defenses that ranked top-14, including three games vs. top-5 defenses. They played the second-toughest schedule of defenses in the NFL in that span and yet still ranked second-best offensively in early-down efficiency.
So while the Giants didn’t win as many games down the stretch as they started out winning, they had less good luck go their way but played even better than they did to start the season. The Giants closed out the season with a 6-1 mark ATS but only won two of those seven games.
But one thing that is certain with the Giants, given their offensive improvement, is they have become a solid Over team.
With a below-average offense and offensive injuries, the Giants went under the total in seven of their first nine games.
But they are 7-1 to the Over in their last eight games if you removed the Week 18 game when they rested almost everyone.
No team has gone over the total at a higher rate since Week 11 than the Giants.
The Eagles have been Over machines as well, with Jalen Hurts at the helm. Excluding Week 18, when the Giants rested their starters, the Eagles went 9-5 to the Over.
But the important thing to realize with the Eagles during the regular season is that they frequently took their foot off the gas at halftime early in the season with huge leads.
Thus, their full game totals would go under the number more frequently. Such was the case in three of their first five games.
They scored 24 first-half points and led 24-7 at halftime vs. the Vikings in Week 3 and didn’t score another point in the game.
They scored 24 first-half points and led 24-0 at halftime vs. the Commanders in Week 4 and didn’t score another point in the game.
They scored 14 first-half points and led 14-10 vs. the Cardinals in Week 5 and scored just six more points in the game.
All three of those games went under the total and involved the Eagles voluntarily letting off the gas.
I don’t believe we will see the Eagles let their foot off the gas in a must-win game vs. the Giants, and thus I don’t think Under bettors will luck out with a really low-scoring second half.
Another interesting dynamic with the Eagles has been their performances at home vs. on the road.
Over the last two years, no team’s games have gone over the total more when playing at home than the Eagles.
Twelve of the Eagles’ 17 home games (71%) have gone over the total.
And if you excluded the Week 18 game when the Giants rested players and the Week 17 game when Hurts didn’t play, the Eagles have gone over the total at a 12-3 (80%) rate in home games since the start of 2021. This also includes one Under against the Vikings this season where, as stated above, up 24-7 at halftime, the Eagles essentially packed it in early in the second half and the game ended 24-7.
They averaged 28.3 PPG in those 15 games while surrendering 23.6 PPG.
The Eagles have been the seventh-fastest-paced team this year. And over the second half of the season, as the Giants have gotten better acquainted with the offense, they have been the fifth-fastest-paced team in the NFL.
I think both teams will have enough success offensively to clear this total. I like the Over.
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Cincinnati Bengals at Buffalo Bills (3 p.m. ET Sunday, CBS)
I expected the Cincinnati offense to struggle some vs. Baltimore last week. I documented how the Ravens have fared vs. this Bengals offense. In the first meeting of the year, they held the Bengals to just 17 points, and the Bengals punted four straight times to start the game. Even though the Ravens rested some players in the second meeting, they held the Bengals to just four drives (out of 13) to gain over 12 yards.
The bottom line was the Ravens knew the personnel of the Bengals extremely well and had already done a great job against them multiple weeks earlier in the season.
As a result, I didn’t expect a lot out of the Bengals‘ offense. I expected a closer game than most.
Although the score wasn’t lopsided, the Bengals exceeded expectations on their first five drives of the game. They drove 54 yards for a field goal, 60 yards for a touchdown, fumbled the ball on their third drive, ended the half with a one-play kneel down and took their first possession of the second half 88 yards and scored another touchdown.
Zero punts, three scores on four true drives for an average of 66 yards per drive. Nothing was easy, as expected, but the Bengals were efficient. On those five drives, Cincinnati averaged +0.19 EPA/play and a 55% success rate.
The Bengals then had their first three-and-out, tied 17-17, and after that insane fumble-return TD. The Bengals had two more offensive possessions and went extremely conservative, leading 24-17, and ended up punting the ball back to the Ravens on both drives. Had the Bengals trailed, I imagine they would have been much more aggressive.
The Bengals’ offense has played an absolutely brutal schedule of opposing defenses, particularly of late.
On the season, Cincinnati has the fourth-best offense despite playing the fourth-toughest schedule of opposing defenses.
Since Week 15, the Bengals have done nothing but play five straight games vs. top-10 defenses. Not that the No. 4 Bills defense offers a respite to those difficult defenses, but I do question how strong the Bills defense is given their injuries and recent schedule.
Since Week 9, the Bills have played seven games vs. bottom-10 offenses and only three games vs. top-10 offenses.
Their games vs. bottom-10 offense:
- L @ NYJ 17-20
- L vs. MIN 30-33
- W @ NE 24-10
- W vs. NYJ 20-12
- W @ CHI 35-13
- W vs. NE 35-23
- W vs. MIA 34-31 (Skylar Thompson)
They went 5-2, averaged 28 PPG and allowed 20 PPG.
Their games vs. top-10 offenses?
- W vs. CLE 31-23 (in Detroit) (Jacoby Brissett)
- W @ DET 28-25 (Jared Goff)
- W vs. MIA 32-29 (Tua Tagovailoa)
All three of those games saw 53 or more points scored, with the Bills averaging 30 PPG and allowing 26 PPG.
With the Bengals’ injuries to the offensive line and adjustments from defenses, they have thrown short and frequently.
Since Week 13, the Bengals rank 27th in percentage of passes to travel 10-plus yards downfield. And they’ve risen to the No. 1 most pass-heavy team in the NFL since, passing the ball on 68% of early downs in the first three quarters of games. That ranks 4% higher than the No. 2 team (Chargers) and well above the 53% NFL average.
Over that same span, 37% of Joe Burrow’s wide receiver targets have come within two seconds of the snap, and an NFL-high 72% have come in less than 2.5 seconds (average = 52%).
While the Bills have the NFL’s ninth-best pass defense, albeit untested of late, they are terrible at defending passes thrown quickly to wide receivers.
Look at the Bills splits on passes to wide receivers:
- Thrown after 2.9 seconds: second in EPA/att, eighth in success rate, seventh in YPA
- Thrown in less than 2.5 seconds: 25th in EPA/att, 28th in success rate, 29th in YPA
That’s a massive shift from top-10 to bottom-10 in these metrics.
And since Week 12, when Von Miller was injured, it’s become even more of a problem.
Buffalo ranks 30th in EPA/att, 29th in success rate, and 29th in YPA on WR passes thrown in less than 2.5 seconds.
Specifically, the Bills allow +0.37 EPA/att, 60% success and 8.2 YPA on these passes, while the NFL average is +0.13 EPA/att, 50% success and 6.8 YPA.
Keep in mind the Bills faced the ninth-easiest schedule of passing offenses during this span, facing the following quarterbacks:
- Skylar Thompson
- Justin Fields and Nathan Peterman
- Mac Jones x2
- Jacoby Brissett
- Jared Goff
- Joe Flacco and Mike White
- Tua Tagovailoa
Not only does Burrow throw these quick wide receiver passes more frequently than any other QB in the NFL, but he also ranks third in success rate and sixth in YPA when doing so.
Burrow will certainly need to pass early given the losses of three starters along the offensive line: La’el Collins, Alex Cappa and Jonah Williams.
But as mentioned, the Bills lost pass rusher Von Miller in Week 12.
Prior to his loss, Buffalo ranked fourth in pressure rate while blitzing at the fourth-lowest rate in the NFL.
Since his loss, the Bills rank 24th in pressure rate despite blitzing at the 13th-highest rate. And they rank 30th in pressure rate since Week 15.
All of these trending metrics for the Bills’ defense, despite the easy schedule of offenses, bode well for the Bengals’ offense.
But on the other side of the ball, there are reasons for hope for the Bills’ offense.
Josh Allen has struggled tremendously vs. the blitz this year. He ranks first this season in EPA/att when not blitzed but 25th when blitzed.
The good news, however, is the Bengals do not blitz very frequently. On the season, the Bengals blitz at the 21st-highest rate, and that dipped to 25th since Week 12.
Allen has also improved tremendously inside the red zone. Look at Allen’s efficiency splits inside the red zone out of 38 quarterbacks:
- Weeks 1-10: 34th in EPA/att, 36th in third-down conversion rate, 13th in success rate
- Since Week 11: third in EPA/att, fourth in third-down conversion rate, second in success rate
This game truly comes down to whether or not the Bengals can get the ball out without Burrow getting pressured too frequently, and it is a perfect live betting game once you see how his line is holding up.
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Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers (6:30 p.m. ET Sunday, FOX and FOX Sports app)
The word of the day when it comes to this massive NFC clash is “projection” because these teams truly have not been tested by prior opponents like they’re about to be tested on Sunday afternoon.
First, these teams haven’t met yet this year.
Second, when these teams met in the playoffs last year, it was with Jimmy Garoppolo nursing a badly injured thumb on his throwing hand that hurt him a ton. So Kyle Shanahan made massive adjustments, and the 49ers went an insane 70% run on early downs, despite the Cowboys loading the box on 88% of these plays. As expected, these runs didn’t go over well. But the 49ers still were able to hold on for a 23-17 win in Dallas. But considering the conditions surrounding that game, with the 49ers run rate and quarterback injury, it’s hard to take much of anything away from it.
Third, we’ve got an untested Brock Purdy against an aggressive Cowboys defense.
And fourth, we’ve got Dak Prescott playing against one of his only tough defensive challenges of the year.
Since Dak Prescott returned from injury in Week 7, the Cowboys offense has played the second-easiest schedule of opposing offenses. They played just two top-10 defenses in those 12 games but were extremely successful in both games:
- Dak went 27-of-35, averaged 9.9 YPA, +0.28 EPA/att and 57% success in a 40-34 win over the Eagles in Week 16.
- Dak went 25-of-33, averaged 9.2 YPA, +0.61 EPA/att and 59% success in a 31-14 win over the Bucs last week.
While that sounds great, there were a couple of clunkers along the way. Both were on the road. Prescott struggled in Green Bay, completing just 5.8 YPA and averaging -0.15 EPA/att vs. the Packers, and in the final game of the year, he averaged just 3.5 YPA with -0.42 EPA/att.
Now, Prescott is about to face the zone-heavy defense of the 49ers. San Francisco plays more zone (fourth-most) than any team remaining in the playoffs. Over the second half of the season, Dak has performed at a top-10 rate whether the defense has played man or zone. But one thing rings true about the 49ers’ secondary, and that is throwing deep on them is their key weak point.
San Francisco’s defense ranks first against the run.
San Francisco’s defense ranks first against passes thrown less than 15 yards.
But San Francisco’s defense ranks 31st against passes thrown 15-plus yards downfield, allowing +0.71 EPA and 54% success.
In the first three quarters of games (eliminating the fourth quarter due to game script), the Cowboys have the 14th-highest pass rate over the second half of the season. On early downs, that drops to 18th.
Instead, they throw between 1-5 air yards at the highest rate in the NFL. They will need to make an adjustment there if they want to have success vs. the 49ers.
Over the second half of the season, out of 33 quarterbacks, Dak ranked 15th in EPA/att, 11th in YPA and sixth in success rate when throwing 15-plus yards downfield.
So he’s shown he can succeed this season throwing vertically, and that’s how he will need to attack the 49ers.
Last week vs. the 49ers, Geno Smith only attempted eight passes 15-plus yards downfield, completing just three. Dak, meanwhile, completed 6-of-7 vs. the Bucs.
Then there is Purdy. Since starting his first game in Week 14, he’s 6-0 and has faced two of the above-average defenses that Prescott also faced (Tampa Bay and Washington). The 49ers scored 35 and 37 points in those two games, with Purdy averaging over 8.8 YPA in each contest.
Purdy played extremely aggressively last week, throwing 37% of his passes 20-plus yards downfield, the highest in the NFL.
Since taking over for Jimmy G, in the first three quarters of games, Purdy is throwing 10-plus yards downfield at the sixth-highest rate in the NFL and 20-plus yards at the eighth-highest rate.
He’s throwing 1-5 air yards at the 26th-highest rate and 1-9 air yards at the 25th-highest rate.
Compare that to Jimmy G, who threw 10-plus yards downfield at the 30th-highest rate and 1-9 air yards at the 14th-highest rate.
And that’s the reason why Purdy’s aDOT in the first three quarters ranks 18th while Jimmy G’s ranked 34th.
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This will be the first true test for Purdy, as the Cowboys have the only top-10 pass defense he’s faced, and since playing the Bucs in Week 14, Purdy has done nothing but face below-average pass defenses.
Dallas also brings a ton of pressure, ranking first in pressure rate by a mile and blitzing at a below-average rate.
If the Cowboys don’t blitz and don’t record pressure, Purdy will certainly tear them up, as he leads the NFL in a variety of metrics, including YPA and completion rate.
The wild thing about Purdy, which speaks to Shanahan, is natural pressure, the kind that Shanahan brings with consistency, doesn’t bother him at all.
He ranks fourth in EPA/att, fifth in success rate, and fifth in YPA when pressured but not blitzed.
But when pressured off of blitzes, that ranking drops to 18th in EPA/att, 26th in success rate, and 43rd in YPA out of 47 quarterbacks.
When kept clean, Purdy is top-5 if the defense isn’t blitzing and top-10 if the defense blitzes.
The bottom line is, Purdy is top-5 when the defense does not blitz, whether it generates pressure or not.
That ranking drops to top-10 if the defense blitzes but doesn’t generate pressure.
And it drops to below average if the defense blitzes and gets pressure.
If Prescott can hit on the deep balls and the Cowboys don’t increase their blitz rate, these teams likely can combine to clear this total, but I am skeptical.
Warren Sharp is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He is the founder of Sharp Football Analysis and has worked as a consultant for league franchises while also previously contributing to ESPN and The Ringer, among other outlets. He studied engineering before using his statistical acumen to create predictive football models. You can follow Warren on Twitter at @SharpFootball.
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