SharpClarke's Best NFL Wild Card Bet: LAC @ JAX Matchup Spotlight
I love the NFL playoffs. Not only do I enjoy standalone games with high stakes and the best teams facing off against each other, but I have enjoyed good betting profits over the last couple of seasons, particularly on Wild Card Weekend. I am hoping to keep that trend alive. I have also put together a three-game winning streak on these matchup spotlights. Hopefully, that can continue this week as I dive into the matchup of the weekend in my opinion between the Jaguars and the Chargers. The winner of this game will likely get the opportunity to face the Chiefs, but that's not why this game is so interesting. It is a playoff showdown between two quarterbacks who have the talent and ability to be truly elite quarterbacks in this league. What often separates the great ones from the good ones is playoff success, fair or not. With a spread under 3 points and some solid action in both directions, this should be a fun one. Let's dive in.
Every bet into a respected market (like NFL sides) should account for why the market is wrong. That's how you identify an angle. If you cannot articulate an angle, you don't have an edge. Here, the market is incorrectly priced because the data that most advanced modelers use to break down this matchup is flawed. This late in the season that is not often the case, but this season has been unique because of the way these two teams have experienced injuries, both on their own team and on their opponents'. Let me explain.
In EPA per play, one of the most respected (for good reason) metrics for quantifying team performance, the Jaguars' offense ranks eighth at +0.045 and the Chargers' offense ranks 16th at +0.007. Defensively, the Jaguars are 12th at -0.020 EPA/play allowed and the Chargers are 19th at +0.012 EPA/play allowed. The net difference between these two teams on the season is massive. There is essentially no way the Chargers should be favored here based on pure numbers.
Even when you adjust for opponent, the numbers don't really change much. Overall, the teams the Chargers have faced are below average in terms of both offensive and defensive EPA/play on the season. They faced the Chiefs twice and the 49ers once, but outside of that, it's been a fairly manageable schedule. The Jaguars faced the AFC West and NFC East, so they obviously did not have it any easier. Another respected metric that does account for opponent strength, DVOA, has the Jaguars 13th and the Chargers 18th.
Obviously, advanced betting models account for injuries. Nobody can make serious money blindly betting on statistics without looking at the context. But exactly how that context is accounted for creates room for disagreement among smart people. I see two sources of error relevant to this game that are causing betting models to spit out favorable numbers for Jacksonville when the Chargers are actually the better team.
Error #1: Compounding Injury Impact
When creating betting models that account for injuries, the easiest way to adjust expectations is by assigning value to specific players and weighting certain position groups according to their impact on the game. For example, a quarterback plays a bigger role in determining outcomes than an off-ball linebacker. And a quarterback like Patrick Mahomes is worth more points than a quarterback like Kirk Cousins. This is all fairly straightforward.
But this approach can fail to account for the significance of both cluster injuries and in-game injuries, both of which have plagued the Chargers this season, particularly on offense. Four key players have missed significant time this year (outside of Rashawn Slater, who likely will not be active this weekend): Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Corey Linsley, and Trey Pipkins. The Chargers have played only six games with three of those four players healthy for at least 80% of the snaps, and they are 6-0 in those games.
Both offensive line and wide receiver cluster injuries create a compounding effect on offense. When you miss one player, everyone else in the position group has to step up and take on new assignments. But when multiple players are missing, it creates massive holes that have ripple effects through the offense. Play design on pass routes becomes more limited when your alpha wide receiver is Josh Palmer and your number two receiver is a slot receiver or tight end. Run concepts become tighter with holes on both sides of the offensive line. Short-yardage and fourth-down decisions become less aggressive when you lack the confidence to win on the line or have a go-to guy in the passing game. Not surprisingly, the Chargers were 1-3 in games where both Williams and Allen missed time and 1-2 in games where both Pipkins and Linsley missed time.
Assuming Williams is healthy here, we will see the best version of the Chargers' offense. My confidence obviously takes a hit without Williams, but even then, they do not have a cluster injury and the receivers who have had to step up all year are ready. Defensively, they have missed players as well. If Joey Bosa is back, he not only makes a difference himself but takes some of the pressure off Khalil Mack.
Error #2: Situation-Specific Quality of Opponent
Another basic element of most betting models is strength of opponent. Every statistic much be schedule-adjusted. Rushing yards generated against the league's best run defense should be more valuable than those yards generated against the league's worst rushing defense. This, again, is straightforward.
But sometimes opponent-adjusted metrics fail to account for the relative state of that opponent when they played. The Jaguars have benefitted frequently from playing teams as their worst. They faced the Commanders with Carson Wentz, the Colts with all their receivers hurt (see above regarding the impact of cluster injuries), the Chargers with an injured Herbert as well as Allen, Pipkins, and Linsley, the Titans twice late in the season after the injuries had piled up (including one against Joshua Dobbs), the Texans after they had essentially packed in their season, and the Jets with Zach Wilson.
Meanwhile, the Chargers faced a lot of teams at their best, including the Dolphins with a healthy Tua Tagovailoa, the Cardinals with Kyler Murray, the Browns with Jacoby Brissett, and the Falcons with Marcus Mariota. Betting models that treat opponents as static entities will spit out incorrect values when adjusting each team's numbers for the quality of the opponent.
The game opened with the Chargers favored by just under 3 points. But in the opening 24 hours, bettors who use models like the ones I describe above hammered the Jaguars, who should be favored by most metrics. That brought the spread down to pick'em. Since then, starting around Wednesday, steady money has come in on the Chargers, bringing the spread back up to LAC -2.5 in most places. This is likely fueled by two things: One, playoff slates with fewer games tend to attract more money from casual bettors on each game, leading to a larger market impact by money from these casual bettors, particularly while limits are lower. Casual bettors no doubt favor Justin Herbert over Trevor Lawrence, particularly after his underwhelming performance against Tennessee in prime time. And two, other bettors who see this game the way I see it and see value on the Chargers getting less than a field goal with the better team and the better quarterback in a playoff game. I believe in the buy-back, although it's worth noting that moves between a pick'em and 2.5 are not huge indicators of influence. If it touches LAC -3, that signifies massive support for the Chargers.
The Jaguars' aggressive defense has capitalized against some bad quarterbacks who struggle under pressure. Justin Herbert thrives under pressure and has shown time and again that he performs at his best in the biggest spots. This is the biggest spot of his career, and I expect another sharp performance, moving the ball and hitting some downfield shots when the Jaguars get too aggressive. Trevor Lawrence also shows up well, as does the Jaguars' run game. They make it a close game but ultimately Herbert delivers in crunch time.
Final Score Prediction: LAC 31-27
LAC 2.5 (-110) (Widely available)
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