With the additional week in the NFL regular season, we have to look at the Wild Card round with a slightly different perspective.
Given the extra, physically taxing week of games, rest disparities within certain matchups could be magnified.
Like any season, some teams needed wins during the final week of the regular season to lock up a spot in the postseason, while others were able to rest their starters with their status already decided.
Some teams needed consecutive wins over the past few weeks and might be running on fumes. Other teams played their starters during Week 18, but the balance of the game was neither in doubt, or a huge priority, and there were never high-stress situations.
When it comes to approaching any situation in life, whether it be handicapping an ultimately meaningless sporting event or navigating through a global pandemic, there’s never just one answer that solves everything.
But that’s what we want, isn’t it? How nice would that be?
If one way of thinking was correct and everything else was incorrect, we could conceivably find the correct answer to anything with blind guesses once we eliminated enough wrong answers.
Facebook comments sections would be barren because no one would have anything to argue over.
But it’s not that easy, is it?
Every situation requires us to at least slightly get out of our comfort zone. Every little change requires more context, applied thinking and nuance.
Not all teams who rested their starters last week have the same edge when matched up against a team who did play their starters. Just like not all teams who ended their season on a heater can simply ride that wave through Super Wild Card Weekend.
To put a bow on this: with the additional week in the regular season, I do think considering rest advantages and disadvantages is a good starting point for what should be a wonky weekend, especially when you consider the league-wide parity we’ve seen all season.
Something, something … Any given Sunday, or whatever.
But like any good starting point, it is just a starting point. And to quote the great Chris Berman, “That’s why they play the games.”
Raiders at Bengals, 2:30 p.m. Saturday
This game features teams on polar opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to rest. After upsetting the Chiefs and clinching the AFC North on Jan. 2, Cincinnati rested any impact player on their roster from quarterback Joe Burrow to kicker Evan McPherson.
By contrast, Las Vegas has been playing must-win games since Dec. 20, 2020. After a 48-9 drubbing at the hands of the Chiefs in Week 14, the Raiders were 6-7 and needed to run the table in order to make the playoffs. To their credit, they did just that (with the widest margin of victory being a four-point win over the Broncos).
After playing four consecutive high-leverage games in a row and barely scraping by, I am not sure how much Vegas has left in the tank. The Raiders now get a well-rested Bengals squad who have shown they can beat teams any way they need to, whether it be passing the ball, running the ball or with defense.
Pick: Bengals -5.5
Patriots at Bills, 6:15 p.m. Saturday
Recency bias will put a lot of people on the Bills. Buffalo bettors are 3-0 over the past three weeks depending on where you got certain numbers, with two of those covers being double-digit spreads and the other coming against these very Patriots. Bettors who got the Bills-Falcons line late probably pushed.
Nevertheless, Buffalo has been good and New England seems to have peaked too soon this season, but I think we get a close game here. The Pats were one fewer turnover and one third- or fourth-down stop away (and there were plenty of chances) from making Bills fans sweat out their last matchup. The 50-10 Patriots win over Jacksonville can be written off as, “But the Jags.” But the Jags did just beat the Colts in a must-win game for Indianapolis. New England’s recent dud is hard to explain, other than the fact that the Pats didn’t really need that game. Bill Belichick has been known to call objectively bad plays at times with the intent of skewing data points that other teams might use when studying his team. And what better time to do that than before facing one of the more analytically driven organizations in football?
Maybe I am giving Belichick too much credit, and maybe the Patriots just aren’t that great. But I’ll gladly pay to be wrong.
I’m also just going to leave this Josh Allen quote for you to consider. This is the Buffalo QB talking about his poor circulation that makes his feet go numb in cold temperatures.
“My toes get really cold and they go numb a little bit. So it’s keeping those suckers as warm and as dry as possible. As well as the hands. Obviously, that’s a big emphasis for quarterbacks. You need your hands to throw. Keeping those extremities as warm as possible.”
Pick: Patriots +3.5
Eagles at Buccaneers, 11 a.m. Sunday
The Eagles rested their starters last week and the Bucs played theirs, but I mentioned not all rest advantages are created equal. Tom Brady and the Tampa starters had three objectives last week: win, make sure certain skill players reach incentive-bonus milestones (extra money) and make sure Brady is on the same page with his pass catchers. They accomplished all three and for this game against Philly, I really wanted to make sure they had the latter somewhat figured out with the departure of Antonio Brown and season-ending injury to Chris Godwin. Even if the Bucs start slow, I trust their defense against this run-heavy Eagles offense since no one has been able to run on Todd Bowles’ defense.
Pick: Bucs -7.5
49ers at Cowboys, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
San Francisco, almost to the same degree as Las Vegas, has needed to win a series of do-or-die games to close out the season in order to lock up its low playoff seed. Well congrats to them; they did it.
The Niners get a Cowboys team that also played its starters last week, but the stress level couldn’t have been lower for Dak Prescott and company. Dallas’ blowout win against Philadelphia resembled more of a practice than a game. Rest advantage: Cowboys.
The other key to this game is going to be sand in the pants. The Rams don’t have it and we saw what happened. Dallas O-line has it, and that’s a problem for San Francisco. If the Niners can’t get pressure on the QB rushing four and dropping seven, Dak will torch them. If the Niners need to rush more than four to get in the offensive backfield, Dak will torch them.
I also wish Jimmy G the best of luck against Micah Parsons.
Pick: Cowboys -3.5
Steelers at Chiefs, 6:15 p.m. Sunday
Ugh. Anyone else a little Big Ben-ed out? Watching these two teams play a couple weeks ago made me physically ill. I think I’ll just take the under and watch Sunday night HBO shows. I can’t imagine this being half as exciting as the new season of Righteous Gemstones.
Pick: Under 46.5
Cardinals at Rams, 6:15 p.m. Monday
I don’t like either side in this matchup, either. The deficiencies of Matt Stafford playing quarterback for Los Angeles and the overall inconsistencies of Arizona as a whole creates too much variance, in my opinion.
I do like the total to go over. Sean McVay has never had trouble moving the ball against the Cardinals so I think the Rams get their points. Add in the fact that Los Angeles losing safety Jordan Fuller for the playoffs is a big blow. Within the Brandon Staley defense that the Rams have attempted to continue to run under Raheem Morris, safeties are actually critical to stopping the run. There will be an adjustment period for whoever ends up taking a majority of snaps in Fuller’s place.
Pick: Over 48.5