NFL

Saturday NFL Betting Preview: Will the Playoff Picture Get Cleared Up?

With only two weeks to go, each of Saturday's contests have massive playoff implications. Who can hold serve?

After a small Christmas preview of football, we get a three-pack of games on Saturday. And luckily for us as viewers, we are treated to what should be three ultra-competitive games across the board.

According to our schedule-adjusted metrics, we open with the largest mismatch of the day with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (#2) traveling to play the Detroit Lions (#30). Then, the real games begin as the San Francisco 49ers (#11) travel to face the Arizona Cardinals (#12) in an NFC West showdown, and for the nightcap, the Miami Dolphins (#10) travel to face the Las Vegas Raiders (#25).

Let's dive into what our model thinks could be some intriguing betting angles for these contests.

Detroit Lions vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

With some recent hiccups from the New Orleans Saints inside the NFC South, things have opened up for the Bucs to possibly claim a division title. One thing is for certain -- despite the veteran quarterback Tom Brady playing in his age-43 season, he has been a highly effective player, clocking in 0.20 Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back, which is well above the league average (0.13). That's a bit of a terrifying proposition for the Lions, who rank worst in pass D, per our metrics, which could lead to Tampa Bay clinching their first playoff berth in 13 years.

For the Lions to stay in this game, Matthew Stafford will need to continue to put up strong numbers. Despite a significant rib injury, Stafford passed for 252 yards and a score before the rout was on last week. But the most obvious bet here is the over, currently logged at 54 points. The Lions have allowed 30-plus points in four straight games, and the over has now hit six times in the last eight contests. To make matters worse, cornerback Mike Ford left last week's contest with an injury.

Per our oddsFire tool, the betting public is siding with the road team but ever-so-slightly: 56% of bets and 59% of cash have come in on the Bucs. The real money, however, is pouring in on that over at the FanDuel Sportsbook, and 62% of cash is siding on that over. Unfortunately, our algorithm doesn't love that over, as it predicts that the under will come in 71.75% of the time. Keep in mind that at Ford Field, the over has been clipped in 11 of the last 13 games, and the Tampa defense has been generously allowing 23-plus points in six of their last seven games.

-- Both teams have been mediocre against-the-spread (ATS) bets this year, with the Bucs posting a 7-7 ATS mark and the Lions rocking a 6-8 mark.
-- Against the Lions specifically, the Buccaneers have struggled, logging a 3-10 ATS mark in their last 13 games.
-- The over has hit in 20 of Tampa's last 28 games.

Arizona Cardinals vs. San Francisco 49ers

In what has become the home stadium for both of these teams due to local COVID-19 restrictions for San Francisco, the Cardinals will try and cement their status as a playoff team over their divisional rival on Amazon Prime Video.

This line has moved slightly, with the Cards beginning as 2.5-point favorites and sliding up slightly to 5.5-point favorites, and this should bode well for the home team, who has massive motivation to win this contest. They will face another NFC West opponent next week in the Los Angeles Rams and currently hold the last playoff spot.

Kyler Murray has been dynamic under center so far this season, and this paced-up offense ranks sixth, per our overall metrics. DeAndre Hopkins has been the apple of Murray's eye, racking up 1,324 receiving yards.

But the true surprise this year has been the improved play of the Arizona defense, which ranks third in quarterback pressures and sacked rookie Jalen Hurts six times a week ago.

Conversely, the 49ers have been riddled with injuries. Nick Mullens will start under center and has an unfortunate 12-12 touchdown-to-interception mark. Mullens has not escaped the injury bug, either, and is dealing with an ailment that will likely require surgery after the year on his elbow.

Per our oddsFire tool, money is slamming in on Arizona with 79% of bets and 91% of cash supporting the Cardinals. As far as our algorithm is concerned, it doesn't love the spread here, predicting a score of 28.45 to 23.46 for the home Cardinals. One bet it does like is the over/under of 48.5 points, expecting that to go over 58.95% of the time.

-- Both teams have been mediocre ATS bets this year, with the Cardinals posting a 7-7 ATS mark and the 49ers posting a 5-9 mark.
-- The 49ers have performed well as road dogs, They are 7-3 ATS in their last 10 games in this exact situation.
-- Conversely, Arizona has really struggled as home favorites, underperforming with a 2-6 ATS mark.
-- The over has hit in the last five home games for the Cardinals.

Las Vegas Raiders vs. Miami Dolphins

There have been some weird things going on in 2020, and perhaps nothing weirder is the ascent of the Dolphins to the role of a playoff contender. The 9-5 Dolphins have plenty to play for, and like Arizona, they hold on to the final playoff spot with many teams charging hard behind them.

While Tua Tagovailoa is 5-2 as a starter for Miami, the rookie hasn't exactly been sensational. He owns a Passing NEP per pass mark of 0.12, which is slightly below league average. To be fair, the southpaw has missed part of his offense with many skill players like Mike Gesicki, Jakeem Grant, and DeVante Parker missing time due to injury. But the real story is one of the league's best defensive units, led by Xavien Howard, ranking fourth overall in our schedule-adjusted metrics and forcing 26 turnovers this year.

Meanwhile, the Raiders, as politely as one can say, have been a bit up-and-down, to say the least. They are the opposite of the Dolphins -- they are in the bottom of the league in turnovers forced on defense -- but Derek Carr has been outstanding this year. However, Carr was injured last week with Marcus Mariota coming in relief, and Mariota performed solidly with 226 passing yards and a score paired with 88 rushing yards.

Per our oddsFire tool, money is rushing in on the Dolphins with 76% of bets and 88% of cash supporting them. As far as our algorithm is concerned, it could see a push happening with a 3.0-point spread favoring the Dolphins, but it gives them a 49.02% chance of covering the points. What our algorithm likes more is the under (47.5 points) -- it sees that hitting 53.91% of the time.

-- The Dolphins have been money in the bank for spread bettors, rocking an 11-3 ATS mark in 2020. The Raiders have been solid but unspectacular, posting a 7-7 ATS mark.
-- Despite the narrative that East Coast teams traveling to the West Coast struggle mightily, Miami is 5-0 ATS in their last five games.
-- The Raiders have been dreadful recently ATS. They haven't covered any of their last four games.