Wildcard Weekend: Rams Vastly Underrated By Vegas

Michael Salfino
January 8, 2024 3:52 PM

Wildcard Weekend is set.

Let’s use the most important most predictive stat in football yards per pass play for minus allowed to come up with a betting line based only on this one stat.

Why use just one stat to predict football?

Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, the team that wins the yards per pass play stat by any margin (in other words, every game counts) is the winner of the game 75% of the time.

You don’t need to look at anything else.

In other words, if you slept through the games and woke up on Monday and were only told who won the yards per pass play stat in the box score, you’d guess the winner 75% of the time.

No, of course, Vegas knows this. No stat is more weighted in a point spread than a team’s net yards per pass play (not just the offensive number but offense minus defense).

So converting this number into a point spread gives you something very close to the actual point spread in most cases. (A difference of 1.0 equals six points in expected strength.)

Half the games have a differential of 1.5 points or less, not much edge if any.

But the other games have significant variance between relative strength in this stat and the actual point spread.

We have to consider that these numbers assume average weather/scoring. Extreme conditions are something for which we have to adjust.

Ditto extreme injuries, except for the Rams where I’m noting their healthy numbers (games where their big four skill players – Matthew Stafford, Kyren Williams, Puca Nakoa, and Cooper Kupp were all active and starting).

For the full season, through Week 17, the Rams are 3.18 points better than a league-average team on a neutral field in the stat.

But the healthy Rams are 9.06 points better.

Also, stats are only through Week 17 since so many teams were not playing Week 18 legitimately.

This is just a minor difference but I’d rather not have any at all.

Here are the rankings, with the healthy Rams number.

TeamNY/A For Minus AllowedPoint Value
San Francisco 49ers3.0518.32
Baltimore Ravens2.3313.97
Miami Dolphins1.7810.68
Los Angeles Rams*1.519.06
Kansas City Chiefs1.488.91
Buffalo Bills1.287.71
Dallas Cowboys0.824.90
Cleveland Browns0.754.50
Philadelphia Eagles0.482.90
Minnesota Vikings0.382.30
New Orleans Saints0.372.22
Atlanta Falcons0.291.72
Seattle Seahawks0.21.22
Detroit Lions0.150.91
Green Bay Packers0.120.72
Jacksonville Jaguars-0.03-0.15
Tampa Bay Buccaneers-0.07-0.45
Indianapolis Colts-0.1-0.58
Houston Texans-0.14-0.82
Las Vegas Raiders-0.3-1.80
Pittsburgh Steelers-0.53-3.17
New England Patriots-0.54-3.24
Chicago Bears-0.59-3.52
Los Angeles Chargers-0.71-4.28
Denver Broncos-0.71-4.28
Tennessee Titans-0.75-4.49
New York Jets-0.88-5.30
Cincinnati Bengals-1.25-7.49
Washington Commanders-1.57-9.45
Arizona Cardinals-1.61-9.63
Carolina Panthers-1.68-10.07
New York Giants-1.94-11.64

Now of course there are other important stats, but they’re more descriptive than yards per pass play, meaning more random.

Turnovers, how you perform in the red zone, on third downs, sacks (which are factored into the plays and yards in our yards per pass play stat), penalties, missed field goals, bad calls.

But the bottom line is that if I told you today that come this weekend, Team A will beat Team B in yards per pass play, you should back Team A.

Full stop.

We’ll look at the games in order, losing our yards-per-pass-play line and the actual line and trying to explain the difference.

Saturday Wild Card Games

Browns at Texans

Our stat when we adjust 2.4 points for the home field has Browns by 2.92 and the actual opening line is Browns by 2.5.

I guess we could do a Flacco only stat if we believed that Flacco was a real thing and not a fluke.

I looked up other QBs who approached his 13 TDs in December, with a similar QB rating and success rate (where applicable).

It’s a decidedly mixed bag: “…he’s most similar to 2018 Baker Mayfield, 2006 Marc Bulger, 2007 Chris Redman, 2007 Kurt Warner, 2012 Tom Brady, 2004 Billy Volek, 2012 Eli Manning. Incredibly, only Tom Brady in 2012 made the postseason, going 1-1 and losing to, drum roll, Joe Flacco’s Ravens,” I noted at The Athletic.

But of course, the defense has a say in this stat, too, and the Browns are much better at defending the pass than the Texans. Is that defensive difference greater than the expected difference between Flacco and C.J. Stroud? Tough question.

You can see why this is projected to be a game decided by a field goal.

Dolphins At Chiefs:

Yards per pass play has the Chiefs as just a 0.63-point favorite but the actual line is Chiefs by 3.5.

My numbers have been much higher than the Chiefs than the market (KC is the No. 5 team).

But they’re also higher right now on the Dolphins than the market.

However, this game is expected to be played in extremely frigid weather.

And the Dolphins are all banged up on defense and could be without Jaylen Waddle on offense. At best, Waddle will try to play with a high ankle sprain.

Is that worth about three points?

Probably. It’s at least worth a couple.

Sunday Wild Card Games

Steelers At Bills

This game opened at Bills minus-9.5 and my numbers are Bills minus-13.28.

Conditions are expected to be brutal in Buffalo, with the over/under dropping already from 44.5 points to 35 in some places, that’s a 20% drop.

If I made the same adjustment with the point spread, the Bills would be expected now, based on yards per pass play alone, to win by just 10.62 points.

The line is already Bills’ minus-10 in some places so this is no difference, after adjusting for the expected weather.

Packers At Cowboys

The actual line is Cowboys by 7.5 and the passing-stat-only line is Cowboys by 6.58 points.

Little difference. Is this not fully factoring that Jordan Love seems much better now than he did in the first half?

Maybe.

Given his lack of experience, his growth could be more fact than fluke. It’s not like he’s Joe Flacco getting hot out of nowhere.

But the Cowboys probably have the biggest home-field advantage, relative to how they play on the road, in the NFL. They score three times for every punt at home, which is crazy.

Their defense is much better at home.

If we made the Cowboys’ home-field advantage 3.3 points instead of the generic 2.4, we’re right with the actual line. That seems pretty reasonable.

Rams At Lions

Now we’re cooking with gas. We’re going to go with the healthy Rams number in the chart and say the Rams should win this game by 5.95 points.

They’re getting three points. That’s a swing of nearly nine points. Just massive.

And the passing conditions are perfect and pure, indoors in Detroit. Plus the Lions are the more banged-up team.

The best thing about it is even if we give the full-season numbers, really unfair to the Rams, the game is still basically a pick ‘em (Lions by 0.13 points).

Things would need to go sideways for the Rams to lose by more than a field goal. The Lions are one of the more overrated teams by this metric, ranking 14th through Week 17.

Their strength is ball control but the Rams have the best back in success rate, Williams. Note that the Lions ranked 28th in the defensive yards allowed per pass play.

Expect Matthew Stafford to post a yards-per-pass play number in this game north of 9.0. Teams in 2023 are 36-3 when they hit that mark, irrespective of their defense.

The Rams hit that mark once and Detroit opponents hit it twice.

THE RAMS ARE THE YARDS-PER-PASS PLAY BEST BET.

Monday Night Wild Card Game

Eagles At Buccaneers

The stat has Eagles by 0.95 while the spread is Eagles by 2.5.

I’m surprised that something as dispassionate as the 17-week yards per pass play stats could be less optimistic about the fading Eagles than the public.

But here we are.

The truth is that the Bucs defense is 26th through Week 17 in yards allowed per pass play.

The Eagles aren’t being penalized for their terrible game in Week 18.

I get that. But the Bucs passing offense has hit the skids, too. I don’t see how anyone could forecast this game.

About the author

Michael Salfino writes about sports and the sport industry. His numbers-driven analysis began with a nationally syndicated newspaper column in 2004. H...

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