Today's Free Picks for
Posted at 11:15 AM EST odds are subject to change.
Jacksonville +120 over L.A. Chargers
8:15 PM EST. Give the NFL credit for scheduling this one on Saturday night in prime time. These two QB’s are worthy of the best time slot in the entire Wild Card weekend.
Regular-season results are no foolproof indicator of playoff rematches. For the Chargers’ sake, the less similarities to their 38-10 home loss to the Jags back on September 25, the better. Jacksonville entered Inglewood having lost 18 straight as a visitor (not counting a win in London last season against the Dolphins) but proceeded to score on seven of 11 possessions, with Trevor Lawrence outplaying Justin Herbert and the Jags’ defensive front crumpling the Chargers’ forward wall, limiting the Bolts to just 26 yards rushing while Jags’ runners were churning for 151 yards of their own in a shocking 28-point romp. True, the Jags didn’t win again until November 6, but that subsequent W vs. the Raiders lit the fuse for a stretch drive in which Doug Pederson’s bunch won seven of its last nine (and its last five in a row). Though the offense struggled in the AFC South-clinching win over the Titans on Saturday night, it had been a buzzsaw down the stretch prior, with the ground game flourishing behind Travis Ettienne, Jr and Lawrence playing like a top-five quarterback, ranking third in passer rating (104.6) since the start of November and spreading the ball effectively to preferred targets Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, and TE Evan Engram, who combined for a whopping 239 catches and 17 TDs this term. And while Lawrence will be making his first playoff appearance, he is no stranger to big-game pressure, having competed in a pair of FBS title games (winning once, convincingly, as an underdog vs. ‘Bama) while at Clemson.
We would never underestimate Justin Herbert, who is going to present a much greater challenge to the Jacksonville stop unit than the succession of QBs the Jags have seen the past month including Davis Mills, Zach Wilson, Chris Streveler, and Joshua Dobbs. But forgive us for wondering if L.A.’s second-year HC Brandon Staley might actually be a hindrance, with a succession of baffling in-game decisions throughout the campaign including his decisions to play starters extended minutes last week in an otherwise meaningless regular-season finale at Denver, and losing stalwarts like WR Mike Williams and DE Joey Bosa, both forced from the game. Bosa will play but Williams will not but it's those sorts of moves that have kept the rumor mill whirring in L.A. that a quick playoff exit puts Staley on the hot seat (Sean Payton, who has been living recently in So Cal, is known to covet the Bolts job and the chance to coach Herbert). So, if this game is to be decided by coaching, we’d rather go with the crafty Pederson, who has a memorable Super Bowl win under his belt and in short order has put a rudderless Jags ship back on course, and reminding more than a few of another perennial loser with a top choice QB in his second season that suddenly caught fire -- last year’s Bengals.
Speaking of coaching, the Chargers, despite brandishing one of the most impressive quarterback arms of the last 20 years, are a short-pass offense under Joe Lombardi. It’s one of the most confounding examples we can remember of an offensive coordinator asserting his will over the talent of his team. Herbert’s 6.7 average intended air yards (per NFL Next Gen Stats) is the third-lowest total in the NFL, above only Matt Ryan and Daniel Jones. Williams is by far the most talented deep receiver the Chargers have, and non-Williams receivers have only a 46% success rate on deep targets. There are other reasons to doubt the Chargers here. Their defense improved down the stretch but outside of Tua they didn’t really face an offense that challenged them.
Essentially, Jacksonville has already played a playoff game, which occurred last week at home against Tennessee. It was a game in which the victor would move onto the Wild Card round while the loser would go home. It was also a game that was heavily bet with Vegas reporting a significant liability on the Jags. What that means is that a high majority of bettors ripped up their ticket and frankly never stood a chance of cashing it, as Tennessee led throughout until a very fortunate scoop and score late in the fourth quarter sent the Titans home. Point is, that weak performance had left a bad taste in the mouths of many, thus creating one of our classic cardinal sins of wagering --- the zig-zag. If you bet Jacksonville last week, you bought them when their stock was at its highest. That was a mistake. If you now fade Jacksonville because of last week’s performance, that, too, would not be the prudent choice. In what has to be considered a 50/50 proposition at worst for the Jags, means we’re getting some strong value in betting them at home as a pooch. Oh, and in case you need it, just remember - Trevor Lawrence hasn't actually lost on a Saturday since 2014.
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Jacksonville +120 (Risking 2 units - To Win: 2.40)