Not Every Playoff Contender is Created Equal

Last week in this column, we discussed teams to bet on down the stretch.

While conventional wisdom says that teams in the playoff hunt are more motivated and likely to cover than those who have been eliminated, the Rams were trending upwards entering week 14 and cashed tickets for their backers.

It is bad strategy to simply identify teams that are “playing for something” and assume they will perform well. This week, we look at teams in contention but playing poorly.

Winning enough games to be in the thick of the playoff chase does not mean you a team is playing well now. Take Arizona, for example. A lot of the Cardinals wins took place before Carson Palmer and Andre Ellington were injured and ruled out for the rest of the season. In the last three weeks, they suffered two decisive ATS defeats (against Seattle and Atlanta) and squeaked out a half-point ATS win (against Kansas City).

New Orleans is another prime example. The Saints control their own destiny in the NFC South, but they’ve only played well once during the past five weeks. With a chance to take the division lead last weekend, they played arguably their worst game of the season, losing 41-10 to Carolina.

While it would be nice to jump on this knowledge and bet against the Cardinals and Saints, it is obvious to sportsbooks – and casual observers – that Arizona is not the favorite that their record would seem to indicate, and the Saints are not the Super Bowl contender that they were a few years ago. As a result, their poor recent play is going to be factored into their next lines.

However, there are three teams who we can bet against and still get value.

(1) San Francisco

After getting blown out by the Seahawks on Thanksgiving, and following it up by laying an egg against crosstown rival Oakland, it is fairly apparent the Niners are far from special. But, just how bad is San Francisco? It is very possible they will end the year with just one win over a playoff team. Since week 6, the Niners are 3-4 with an overtime win in New Orleans, and one score victories against the lowly Giants and Redskins. Against good teams (Seattle and Denver), they’ve been blown out.

In a lot of ways, it seems as though the Niners have already quit on the season. Head coach Jim Harbaugh may be more worried about who his employer will be next season than the final three games this year, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they fail to win the rest of the way.  This week’s line (+10.5 at Seattle) may be a bit high for your taste, but keep an eye on next week’s game against the Chargers.

(2) Cleveland

Why did people like Cleveland at any point this year? Yes, they have seven wins on the season and are over .500. But three of those wins came against NFC South opponents and two more were against Tennessee and Oakland. The Browns did beat Cincinnati in week 10, but were the beneficiaries of Andy Dalton playing his worst game as a pro. That leaves only a week 6 victory against Pittsburgh (which, admittedly, still looks like a quality win).

Their only win during the last month was at Atlanta, a game in which outgoing QB Brian Hoyer threw three interceptions. Now Johnny Manziel takes over at quarterback for the Browns week 15 rematch with the Bengals. If the desperate Browns didn’t turn to him last week, how much confidence should we have that he is any better than a mediocre Brian Hoyer?

Manziel is going to make rookie mistakes, and he’s facing three contenders to wrap up the year. Against Cincy, Cleveland is either a one-point favorite or even at the moment (depending on where you look). While Cincy has been up-and-down this year, they seem like a better option than an overrated Browns squad with a first-time starter.

(3) Detroit

The vaunted Lions defense has faced just two of the top eight scoring teams in the NFL this year. While they held the Packers to seven points in week 3, the Patriots gashed them, 34-9, in week 12. In their last four, the Lions have home wins over two bad teams – Chicago and Tampa Bay – and bad road losses to contenders – Arizona and New England. They covered in the wins, and failed to cash in the losses.

In the two games before that, the Lions had to rally in the final seconds (against Atlanta in London and at home against Miami). Their strength of schedule is tied for 21st in the league. Footballoutsiders.com, which crunches advanced metrics and analyzes football teams the way Billy Beane looks at baseball, ranks Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford squarely between Alex Smith and Ryan Fitzpatrick among all NFL signal callers. Detroit may beat Minnesota and Chicago before traveling to Green Bay to end the year, but don’t be so sure they’ll cover the spread.

(Photo credit: Erik Drost (Flickr: Joe Haden) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo has been cropped from its original.)