One year after a third straight 7-9 season, the New Orleans Saints opened the 2017 season 0-2 ahead of a Week 3 visit to Carolina, where the 2-0 Panthers awaited. Since 1980, only five teams had reached the playoffs after starting 0-3. If the Saints didn’t become the sixth team, it’d be a fourth straight playoff whiff for a franchise that had four playoff appearances in the five previous seasons.
The Saints didn’t become the sixth team because they smashed Carolina in Week 3 to avoid an 0-3 start. Ten weeks later, the Saints beat the Panthers again en route to a division championship, which earned them a third meeting against their divisional rival. Since the league merger in 1970, 20 teams faced an opponent in the postseason after defeating that team twice in the regular season. The winner of the two regular-season games won the postseason game 13 times. The Saints won again, and there hasn’t been another 2-0 instance since then. Until Sunday, when the Saints, currently third in Super Bowl odds in online sports betting, host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after defeating them twice in the regular season.
Will the Saints win and cover? And 1,100 miles north in Green Bay, will Aaron Rodgers and the Packers win and cover against the Rams?
Odds and predictions for each NFC Divisional playoff game, and don't miss our odds and predictions for the AFC Divisional round as well.
Rams at Packers
Spread: Packers (-6.5)
In 12 years as the Packers’ starting quarterback, Aaron Rodgers has started 18 playoff games. Only six of those games have been at home, one of which was a 17-point loss to the New York Giants in 2011, the last (and only time) a Rodgers-led team was the No. 1 seed prior to this season. And on Saturday at Lambeau, in his seventh-ever home playoff game, Rodgers can clinch his first-ever home conference championship.
On the field and in the books, most numbers favor the Packers. They were 10-6 against the spread (5-3 at home) this season, rank second in DVOA (first in weighted DVOA), rank in the top five in most offensive areas (including yards per play, points per play, and red zone scoring), and went 5-2 against teams that finished the season with at or above .500.
Most numbers favor the Packers. Two significant numbers don’t, however. The Rams are a modest 5-4 against the spread on the road this season, but they’ve covered in three of their last four games, including last week’s +3 in Seattle. The Seattle line opened at +4.5, dropping 1.5 points in the week before kickoff, which put the Rams in a historically favorable position. Per Bet Labs Sports, since 2003, when a playoff line moves toward an underdog, the underdog has gone 39-12-2 against the spread. And Saturday’s line is moving toward the Rams, dropping from +7 to +6.5 as of Tuesday night.
I like the Packers to win, but those latter numbers and some lackluster second halves at home against inferior teams this season pushes the ATS play toward the Rams.
Prediction: Rams (+6.5)
Bucs at Saints
Spread: Saints (-3.5)
“It’s tough to beat a team three times.”
The origin of that repeatedly used proclamation is unclear. The validity of it, however, is very clear; beating any team in the playoffs is tough, obviously, but it has happened 67 percent of the time over five decades.
In Week 1, the Saints rode three turnovers and a pick-six to an 11-point home win in Tom Brady’s first start in a new offense after the most unconventional offseason in NFL history. In Week 9, the Saints demolished the Bucs, 38-3, thanks to three forced turnovers, third-down dominance on both sides of the ball, and constant pressure on Brady after a big lead literally eliminated the run game.
Those were two of the Bucs’ five regular-season losses. Four of the five came against teams that finished the regular season with a winning record, and the fifth was a one-point Thursday loss in Chicago in which they committed 11 penalties. Against teams who finished the regular season with a losing record, Tampa is 11-1, including last week’s win over Washington. Against winning teams, they went 1-4, and while the lone win was arguably the most impressive win in the NFL this season (38-10 over the Packers), Tampa was typically inept against good teams all season.
Four and a half or five points might be enough to balance the two regular-season losses and poor record against good teams. The hook is always a nice bonus, particularly in playoff games with a historically steep dropoff in games with a three-point margin of victory and four-point margin of victory, but it’s not enough to confidently bet the Bucs.
Bet the Saints and closely monitor the line up to kickoff.
Prediction: Saints (-3.5)
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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor by BetMGM, an NFL and college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else. He has written for Sports Illustrated, HERO Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @adoughty88.