There is nothing like playoff football. You will hear players struggle to articulate why the postseason is such a unique experience. The stakes, the preparation, and the intensity all play a significant role. There is one phrase the players always come back to: the speed of the game. The game moves faster and it has the greatest impact on the most important player on the field. Quarterbacks have to process information faster, make quicker decisions, and play with accuracy and poise despite the chaos surrounding them. A split second can be the difference between a perfectly placed touchdown pass or a back-breaking interception. Or more importantly, a winning or losing bet.
It's not just another week. Defensive coordinators are sleeping in the film room devising the most complex schemes. Opposing quarterbacks are going to see coverage disguises they have never seen in their careers.
It's no surprise that fading first-time playoff quarterbacks is a popular and profitable betting strategy. Per ClevAnalytics, quarterbacks are 14-32-1 ATS in their playoff debuts when facing an opposing quarterback with starting playoff experience. The trend covers the last 18 seasons and is relevant in three super wild-card weekend matchups.
Baker Mayfield proved last season that you shouldn't just auto-fade first-time quarterbacks. Valuable trends are best used to supplement the foundation of your handicap and shouldn't be the sole reason for making a wager. Let's take a look at all three first-time playoff quarterbacks and see if we can determine which one is most likely to bring home the money for bettors.
Philadelphia at Tampa Bay (-8.5)
Imagine drawing Tom Brady in your first postseason start. Jalen Hurts is not a stranger to adversity and most likely welcomes the challenge. That doesn't mean it's a solid bet. The Eagles' offense should find success running against Tampa's defense. The forecasted 20 mph winds will force Nick Sirianni to stick to the script and utilize Hurts more as a runner than a passer. The Eagles' offense will be fine, it's the other side of the ball that concerns me.
Tampa Bay averages 33.8 points at home and scored 38-plus in half of its home games this season. The Bucs' offense ranks third in EPA/Play, second in offensive success rate, and first in yards per play. That is a lot to handle for an Eagles defense that is bottom five in defensive success rate allowed. They have not faired well against top-end quarterbacks, so keep an eye on the forecast. The wind might be Philly's best bet in stopping the defending champs. Even this proud Eagles fan can't see this one as a solid bet.
Arizona at L.A. Rams (-4.5)
Give Kyler Murray his top wideout, DeAndre Hopkins, and meet me at the window. Unfortunately, that is very unlikely to happen. Without his No. 1 wide receiver, Murray has had to lean heavily on tight end Zach Ertz. The explosive offense that broke 30 points in six of the first seven games has only done so one time since Week 10.
Having an experienced head coach to help navigate you through your first playoff experience can be extremely advantageous for a young quarterback. Murray won't get that benefit. Arizona head coach Kliff Kingsbury will be baptized by the playoff gods right alongside his franchise quarterback on Monday night. While the experience will be a positive in the long-term for both coach and quarterback, it's hard for me to back the combination with my hard-earned money. Hard pass on Arizona.
New England (+4) at Buffalo
A rookie quarterback needs a support system that will help stabilize his emotions when the season comes down to just a few pivotal plays. You will be hard-pressed to name a better situation than Mac Jones has with the duo that developed the greatest postseason quarterback of all time. Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels give me great confidence that he will be prepared Saturday night for everything Leslie Frazier throws at him in Buffalo. But being the most prepared doesn't always translate to winning.
The Bills boast the No.1 pass defense in the NFL and allow the fewest yards per play. Jones struggled mightily in Buffalo's 33-21 win in Week 16, when he completed only 43% of his passes. He will make adjustments when the two teams complete the trilogy Saturday night. I am not convinced it will be enough to win, but 4.5 points are just too many to spot Belichick. This will only be the third game this season where New England is an underdog of more than 3.5 points. The Patriots covered both of the previous games. If there is a first-time playoff quarterback to bank on, put your money on Mac.
Stats provided by teamrankings.com, football outsiders and Ben Baldwin (based on 10/90 WP).