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April 19, 2014

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NFL playoffs by the odds: Vegas picks and perspective on wild-card games

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Jim Prisching/AP

Packers QB Aaron Rodgers

Odds to win the Super Bowl

  • Patriots — 5-to-2
  • Broncos — 5-to-2
  • 49ers — 9-to-2
  • Falcons — 6-to-1
  • Packers — 9-to-1
  • Seahawks — 9-to-1
  • Texans — 20-to-1
  • Ravens — 25-to-1
  • Redskins — 25-to-1
  • Bengals — 50-to-1
  • Vikings — 80-to-1
  • Colts — 100-to-1
  • Source: LVH Superbook

Racecar drivers get a victory lap. Award winners get an acceptance speech.

So I felt inclined to get something out of my win in the first-ever Las Vegas Sun NFL handicapping contest, even after finishing with a solid-but-unspectacular 54-47-1 record against the spread. I somehow came up with a prize that involved work — making more picks.

Although it’s never a good idea to bet on every game, we’ll break down and pick all the NFL playoff games here on Talking Points over the next month. It all starts with wild-card weekend Saturday and Sunday.

Find a breakdown and picks of the first four NFL playoff games below.

Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans, 1:30 Saturday on NBC

The line: Houston -4.5. This spread has moved less than the Luxor Sky Beam. Virtually every sports book in town opened the Texans at -4.5 and kept it there. A couple reports indicated slightly more money on the Bengals, but not enough to move the number. Texans money should come before kickoff.

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Cincinnati Bengals outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict puts on his helmet during an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012, in Cincinnati.

The matchup: The Texans ended the season in direct contrast to how they started it. They’ve cost bettors money in three of the last four weeks, making a four-straight cover streak to start the year a distant memory. Houston appears to have regressed in every area, especially offense. Running back Arian Foster has averaged 72 yards per game in the final five contests, 34 yards less than in the first five games of the season, despite facing weaker rush defenses. Defensive end J.J. Watt continues to be a dark horse MVP candidate, but no one else on the defense has stood out.

Cincinnati, on the other hand, went 7-1 both straight up and against the spread in the final half of the season. It was a quiet surge, perhaps because the Bengals did it behind their defense. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall turned in All Pro-worthy seasons, while rookie Vontaze Burfict led the team in tackles and stuck it to the rest of the teams in the NFL for making him go undrafted.

Pick: Bengals +4.5

Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers, 5 Sunday on NBC

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Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson (28) takes a water break during warmups before the start of their NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012, in Minneapolis.

The line: Green Bay -7.5. Like sharks going after chum, big bettors immediately gobbled up the Vikings at +8 and +8.5 when sports books first posted the game. Although Green Bay was only 3-point favorites in a loss at Minnesota last week, this line makes sense. Lambeau Field is one of the few venues in the NFL that’s worth more than three points for home-field advantage. The Packers were also 7.5-point favorites when they hosted the Vikings earlier this year, a game they won 23-14.

The matchup: It’s not difficult to see why this game received primetime billing, what with Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson coming within nine yards of Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record set 29 years ago. Peterson improbably gained 19.5 percent of his 2,097 yards in two games against the Packers. Yes, the Vikings match up well against the Packers as they can attack their weakness for stopping the run.

But it took the best game of shaky quarterback Christian Ponder’s career to beat Green Bay last week, as he went 16-for-28 for 234 yards and three touchdowns. It’s doubtful Ponder can come close to that output when he moves from a friendly dome to a hostile tundra getting pelted with freezing rain. The Packers are more healthy than they’ve been all season. Aaron Rodgers, who led the league in passer rating for the third straight year, has his full complement of receivers. The defense is back to 100 percent with linebacker Clay Mathews not even on the injury report and cornerback Charles Woodson listed as probable.

The pick: Packers -7.5

Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens, 10:00 Sunday on CBS

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Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, right, encourages Sergio Brown during pratice at the Colts complex Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013, in Indianapolis. The Colts will play the Baltimore Ravens in a AFC Wild Card playoff game Sunday.

The line: Baltimore -7. Sports book directors report more tickets on the Colts, but more money on the Ravens. That happens when the public and professionals disagree on a game. Sure enough, the Ravens opened as a 6.5-point favorite and moved up despite the barrage of support on the Colts.

The matchup: The Colts finished 11-5 straight-up and against the spread despite getting outscored by 31 points for the season. Pythagorean expectation for the Colts was seven wins, according to Football Outsiders. The advanced statistics at Football Outsiders paint Indianapolis as the worst 11-5 team of the last 20 years as it ranked 25th in the website’s final DVOA rankings of the season. Indianapolis is clearly a weak No. 5 seed, but Baltimore isn’t exactly a strong No. 4 either.

The Ravens are the only team in the postseason with a losing against the spread record at 6-9-1. A dominant defense was their identity for years, but the unit slipped into mediocrity during the 2012-2013 season. Football Outsiders ranks Baltimore eighth overall, but 13th in defense. The Ravens do have one of the best running backs in the league, however, with Ray Rice. He should be able to rack up yards against the worst rushing defense in the playoffs. Many are backing the Colts because of the emotional lift brought on by coach Chuck Pagano returning from leukemia. But the Ravens have reason for motivation too with long-time leader Ray Lewis coming back from a torn biceps to play in this game. Lewis will retire after the year, so this is his last chance at the second Super Bowl ring he’s discussed for years.

Pick: Ravens -7

Seattle Seahawks at Washington Redskins, 1:30 Sunday on Fox

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Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III,center, and teammate Alfred Morris wait to be interviewed after an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012, in Landover, Md. The Redskins won 28-18 to win the NFC East.

The line: Seattle -3. While the other wild-card spreads were stagnant or at least calm, this one swung violently. The Seahawks went from a pick’em to a 3-point favorite in a matter of hours last Sunday night. The line has stayed at a field goal and won’t likely budge anymore.

The matchup: Seattle was the best team in the NFL in the second half of the season, finishing the year at the top of Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings and going 7-1 straight-up and 6-2 against the spread. But the Redskins one-upped them in the latter category. Washington went 7-1 both straight-up and against the spread down the stretch to take the NFC East title in unlikely fashion.

Seattle failed to pry the NFC West from San Francisco, which could be the Seahawks downfall. Despite their 11-6 against the spread record, the Seahawks went 4-4 versus the number on the road. They were far more dominant at home. All the buzz will deservedly revolve on rookie quarterbacks Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson, but other underrated pieces have done their part to get these teams to this spot. Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch had a career year with 1,500 rushing yards. That’s 113 less than Washington rookie Alfred Morris. Seattle’s defense rates fourth-best in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders. Washington’s defense overcame key injuries early in the year to steadily improve. It’s almost unprecedented to see a home underdog that’s won seven in a row in the NFL, let alone one getting a field goal.

Pick: Redskins +3

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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