Baltimore Ravens Jadeveon Clowney linebacker (24) pressures Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) in the second quarter at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

AFC Divisional Playoffs: C.J. Stroud, Patrick Mahomes and inspired road dogs

OK, OK, C.J. Stroud, we get it. You’re not a rookie anymore.

Leading the Houston Texans to a rout of the Cleveland Browns, Stroud bucked all the rookie-QB-in-the-playoffs trends, and did so convincingly.

And this showing came the NFL’s league-leading defense in the regular season. Cleveland allowed a league-best 270 yards per game — almost 20 yards fewer than the next-best team.

Is that enough to forge a winning play in this matchup with the AFC No. 1 seed in Baltimore?

Read on for our main AFC play and a bonus bet along with a player prop.

THE HEADLINER

Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens
When: Saturday.
Time, TV: 4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC.
Odds: Ravens -9.5, total 43.5.

Reasons to bet the Texans against the AFC No. 1 seed Baltimore Ravens must include more than just the eye test.

The odds-on NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite, Stroud leads the Texans into this divisional round matchup as 9.5-point underdogs.

The Ravens are led by odds-on NFL MVP favorite Lamar Jackson, who is not infallible.

Over the past three seasons as a favorite of 3.5 points or more, he’s 6-16 ATS. It’s even worse when applying Saturday’s line.

Jackson is 1-8 ATS when leading a favorite of 7.5 points or more. Maybe he just enjoys a close game.

His playoff history is checkered, to put it kindly:

2018, lost to Chargers, 78.8 rating
2019, lost to Titans, 63.2 rating
2021, beat the Titans, 74.8 rating (Tennessee’s Ryan Tannehill posted an 83 rating)
2021, Lost to Bills, 61.5 rating
2022, Did not play, injured.

Jackson is a true talent — the league MVP again very likely — and his legs might prove the difference Saturday.

But his playoff stats are what they are: a 1-3 record with three touchdown passes, five interceptions and a 55.9 completion percentage.

So if you’re talking perceived pressure, it’s all on Jackson and the Ravens; Stroud and the Texans come in waving wads of house money.

Here come the supporting (if selective) statistics to back our position:

Home favorites are just 42 percent against the spread (ATS) during the divisional round according to Action Network numbers over the past 20 years.

The No. 1 seeds are 35% ATS, and, fitting our narrative, if narrowly, are 10-25-1 ATS (29 percent) when they are favored by 10 points or fewer.

The most comfortable fit among the trends favoring Houston, however, is the “we don’t know any better” angle.

The Texans missed last season’s playoffs.

The Texans are the road team.

The Texans are rolling.

Per Action Network: Road teams that missed last year’s playoffs are 27-13 ATS (68 percent) in the past 40 divisional round games.

The bet: Texans +9.5.

BONUS PLAY

Kansas City Chiefs at Buffalo Bills, Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET, CBS
(Consensus line: Bills -2.5)

Quarterback Josh Allen and the Bills have fought through must-win games for weeks. The mentality suits them well, as you can see by Buffalo hosting a division-round game.

Counterpart Patrick Mahomes has led a flawed offense most of the season and plays his first ever true road playoff game (no, Super Bowls don’t count).

This is not likely to be the aerial show of past iterations. We’re expecting more running plays and a tight contest. Mahomes has the stats to back up the oddsmakers’ number.

Mahomes is a guy who rarely needs extra fuel, but when his team is an underdog, watch out. He’s 7-3 when the Chiefs are the underdog, and 8-1-1 in those games against the spread.

He’s not likely to be on the short end of a blowout.

In their meeting earlier this season in Kansas City, the teams combined for 37 points.

Buffalo’s defense, dented by injury as a team can be, has actually performed better in recent weeks. We’ll allow that holding down the Steelers offense is no great accomplishment.

The Chiefs have been under the posted game totals in five of their past six games.

The bet: Tease two-leg parlay, Chiefs +7.5 with the under 51.5 (-125 a DraftKings).

PLAYER PROP

There’s no questioning the competitiveness of these QBs. They will exhaust every option Sunday, and will eagerly tuck it and run. Let’s exploit that fearlessness.

The bet: Two-leg parlay, Josh Allen 30 or more rushing yards with Patrick Mahomes 25 or more rushing yards (-110 at BetMGM).

–Field Level Media

Jan 14, 2023; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) talks with head coach Doug Pederson in the first half against the Los Angeles Chargers during a wild card game at TIAA Bank Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Jaguars intend to let ‘house money’ ride at Kansas City

Spoiler, underdog or longshot playing with house money, the Jacksonville Jaguars visit the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday unconcerned about the label they are receiving from the football world.

“House money or our money, we’re here now,” Jaguars coach Doug Pederson said on Tuesday.

The fourth-seeded Jaguars (10-8) rallied from a 27-point deficit to beat the Los Angeles Chargers in the wild-card round and immediately recalibrated to prepare for the top-seeded Chiefs (14-3). The teams collide Saturday in the AFC divisional playoffs at Arrowhead Stadium in a high-stakes remake of their Nov. 13 meeting in the same location.

That 27-17 verdict went the Chiefs’ favor, and Kansas City went 7-1 the rest of the regular season to post the best record in the conference. Jacksonville also is 7-1 since that day, including the confidence-catapulting rally to down the Chargers.

“They’ve got a lot of phenomenal players on that defense and they’re playing faster,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said of what stands out about the Jaguars over the past two months.

A slow start for the Jaguars spelled doom in the earlier visit to Kansas City, one of eight games in their last 10 in which they didn’t score a first-quarter touchdown. The Chiefs put up 20 first-half points, dictating the game plan for Pederson the rest of the way. Jacksonville converted only 28.6 percent of its third-down chances, all but spiking any comeback bid.

“I try to block out the best I can with the team,” Pederson said Tuesday. “You just block out the noise, you block out the negativity, whether it’s lack of respect or whatever. What we’ve done down the stretch, regardless of the mishaps, we’re here.”

Quarterback Trevor Lawrence was limited Tuesday due to a toe injury he dealt with for the past six weeks. Lawrence had four interceptions in the first half against the Chargers. He wound up with four touchdown passes, three of them in the second half, and the Jaguars aim to keep piling up positives on Saturday.

“We earned the position we’re in; we’re here now,” Jacksonville wide receiver Zay Jones said. “There are four teams remaining (in the AFC playoffs), and we’re here now.”

The Chiefs were off last week but are 4-2 in divisional playoff games under Reid.

Piloted by All-Pro quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs are accustomed to ending the regular season with a week off before shifting gears.

Mahomes, the MVP front-runner, tossed four of his 41 TD passes this season in the win over Jacksonville.

This is the fourth time in Mahomes’ five seasons as a starter that Kansas City dives into the playoffs after earning extra rest during the wild-card round. Last January, Mahomes ripped into the playoffs with five TD passes to sink the Pittsburgh Steelers in a wild-card game.

“You build up for this all season long,” Mahomes said. “They’re a fast, physical team. They’re a talented team, we knew that the first time. We know how much of a challenge it’s going to be for us.”

Considering the Jaguars’ 2-6 start, not many expected this January matchup. Jacksonville selected Lawrence No. 1 in 2021, hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2017 and went 10-39 combined the past three seasons.

“They fly around to the football,” Mahomes said of Jacksonville’s defense, which ranked 28th against the pass and 29th on third down. “We’re going to throw the ball down the field when we get opportunities to.”

Including regular-season bye weeks, Reid is 27-4 with two weeks to prepare for an opponent as a head coach. With Mahomes, Reid is 3-0 in divisional playoff games after a bye week.

“I’ll tell you, that’s the trick to it: to keep the balance to where the players stay sharp and coaches still can add a couple things into (the) mix and go from there,” Reid said.

Kansas City wouldn’t want to stare down Jacksonville’s offense without defensive end Frank Clark. Reid said Tuesday that Clark was limited with a groin injury but didn’t see any reason to fret about his gameday status. Wide receiver Mecole Hardman (pelvis) didn’t practice, but wide receiver Skyy Moore (hand) went through the full practice.

Pederson and Reid are more than familiar foes.

Pederson was a backup quarterback for the Packers when Reid worked in Green Bay as the quarterbacks coach under Mike Holmgren in 1998. When Reid was head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, Pederson joined his coaching staff. He was also offensive coordinator of the Chiefs from 2013-15 under Reid.

Pederson got his first shot at being a head coach with the Eagles, and he guided the franchise to its only Super Bowl title after the 2017 season.

In his first year with the Jaguars, he will try to bump past Reid on the way to another championship.

“It’s a great atmosphere,” Pederson said, looking ahead to Sunday in Kansas City. “We have to embrace it. No one expects us to do anything. So go play, have fun, enjoy the moment and let’s see what happens.”

–Field Level Media

Oct 4, 2021; Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) prepares to take the snap against the Las Vegas Raiders at SoFi Stadium. The Chargers defeated the Raiders 28-14. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Raiders, Chargers serve Week 18 nightcap playoff play-in style

Only one game remains Sunday when the afternoon slate of games is complete. The league can unofficially welcome the start of the playoffs, when the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders put the cap on the 2021 regular season in the nighttime finale.

A meeting of 9-7 AFC West rivals in the final game of the league’s first 17-game regular season includes this kicker: the winner earns a spot in the NFL playoffs.

“We know what’s at stake,” Chargers defensive lineman Justin Jones said.

Los Angeles arrives feeling fortunate to still be kicking on the heels of a humbling 41-29 defeat at lowly Houston in Week 16. The Chargers bounced back last week with a convincing 34-13 victory over the Denver Broncos.

Drama has met the Raiders at multiple turns this season and they, too, appeared to be left for dead following a 48-9 thrashing by the Kansas City Chiefs on Dec. 12. The Raiders were 6-7 with a schedule dominated by likely playoff teams. But they closed with three consecutive victories, including a 23-20 nail-biter last week at favored Indianapolis.

Aside from playoff implications, the quarterback showdown has its own intrigue. The Chargers’ Justin Herbert got the best of the more experienced Derek Carr of the Raiders in Week 4.

Herbert threw three first-half touchdowns against the Raiders but the Chargers had to scramble late to secure a 28-14 victory. Carr had two TD passes in the third quarter to make it interesting.

Yet all signs point to the Chargers running the ball Sunday. Austin Ekeler had a career-high 117 yards in the victory over the Raiders and the Los Angeles rushing attack has been improved of late with an average of 134.3 yards over the last four games.

“I feel like we’ve been able to establish some continuity here in the second half of the season,” Chargers head coach Brandon Staley said. “I think you’ve seen that in how we’ve run the football the last three, four games. That has been a strength of ours. It makes us a much more difficult offense to defend.”

Ekeler has rushed for at least 50 yards in 12 games this season. The Chargers are 9-3 in those contests.

In a tumultuous season, the Raiders have shown staying power. The last-second 33-yard field goal last week to give the Raiders a 23-20 victory over the Colts was Daniel Carlson’s fifth game-ending kick for a victory this season.

Through it all, the Raiders have overcome the resignation of head coach Jon Gruden, the tragedy of a deadly car crash involving former wide receiver Henry Ruggs III and the release of cornerback Damon Arnette following a video that included death threats. Cornerback Nate Hobbs was arrested on a misdemeanor DUI charge.

And last week, former Raiders head coaching legend John Madden passed away.

All eyes will be focused toward Carr on Sunday to see if he can get the Raiders through a win-or-go-home challenge.

After the Chargers’ victory over the Raiders earlier this season, star Los Angeles defensive end Joey Bosa said of the Raiders’ QB: “Great dude, great player … but we know once you get pressure on him, he kind of shuts down.”

Carr’s chance at a retort has arrived. He is just 72 passing yards away from breaking Rich Gannon’s single-season franchise record of 4,689 set in 2002.

“To be completely honest, I feel like that’s kind of been the feeling around our team and around my heart the last month,” Carr said about the do-or-die scenario. “… It’s exciting, it’s against a division team but nothing changes. I always say, if you have to change something in your preparation, you’re not playing the right way.”

Raiders running back Josh Jacobs (ribs) and tight end Darren Waller were limited in practice Wednesday, while defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins did not participate. Waller, defensive end Carl Nassib and guard Jordan Simmons were activated off the reserve/COVID list.

Chargers defensive lineman Joe Gaziano (ankle) and center Corey Linsley (back) did not participate, while linebacker Drue Tranquill (ankle) was limited.

–Field Level Media