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October 31, 2014

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NFL playoffs by the odds: Vegas perspective and picks on divisional round

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

New Orleans Saints’ Mark Ingram (22) tries to break free of Philadelphia Eagles’ Cary Williams during the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, in Philadelphia.

The point spread lived up to its billing as the great equalizer during the first weekend of the NFL playoffs.

2014 Divisional Round Saturday

What's the best bet on Saturday?
Seahawks minus-8 — 29.6%
Colts plus-7.5 — 27.9%
Saints plus-8 — 24.9%
Patriots minus-7.5 — 17.6%

This poll is closed, see Full Results »

Note: This is not a scientific poll. The results reflect only the opinions of those who chose to participate.

2014 Divisional Round Sunday

What's the best bet on Sunday?
49ers minus-1 — 34.5%
Chargers plus-9.5 — 28.2%
Panthers plus-1 — 18.9%
Broncos minus-9.5 — 18.4%

This poll is closed, see Full Results »

Note: This is not a scientific poll. The results reflect only the opinions of those who chose to participate.

2013 NFL Playoffs

Of the four teams with first-round byes, which Super Bowl bet has the most value?
New England 7-to-1 — 28.9%
Denver 5-to-2 — 28.1%
Carolina 10-to-1 — 24.3%
Seattle 2-to-1 — 18.6%

This poll is closed, see Full Results »

Note: This is not a scientific poll. The results reflect only the opinions of those who chose to participate.

If the blog had been tasked with picking straight-up winners, an embarrassing 0-4 performance may have resulted. The Eagles were the only favorite I felt confident in. I thought the Chargers would play a close game and cover, but fold by the end against a Bengals team that was undefeated at home. The Packers and Chiefs, underdogs at the time, were the outright-upset leans.

None of those scenarios happened during a wacky wild-card weekend, but Talking Points still managed a profitable performance at 2-1-1 against the spread picking every game. No underdogs failed to cover, as the Packers eked out a plus-3 push to go with wins from the other three teams taking points by kickoff.

Could the odds possibly come into play that often again for the second straight weekend? It’s worth a look, so check out our Vegas divisional-round preview below.

New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks; 1:35 p.m. Saturday on Fox

The line: Seattle minus-8. Ask around town for thoughts on this line and expect to get more varied, non-decisive answers than any of the other three divisional-round games. That’s the sign of a sharp spread. Most sports books haven’t budged since opening at 8. The shops that have only went a half-point either way, to 7.5 or 8.5. Oddsmakers made a 1.5-point adjustment since week 13 when Seattle was minus-6 at CenturyLink Field against New Orleans. No one would decry that as unfair with the way Seahawks boatraced the Saints, 34-7.

The matchup: Overvaluing a single game, though, is one of the biggest and easiest mistakes a gambler can make. Same-season rematches rarely play out anything like the first meeting, as last week’s slate helped to illustrate. None of the three wild-card games featuring familiar opponents resembled their regular-season meeting.

Expand the scope, and the trend comes into even clearer focus. In 48 regular-season rematches this year, the team that failed to cover the first time came back to beat the spread in the second meeting 27 times. The revenge-minded teams went 25-23 straight-up in rematches.

One could argue that the extent of Seattle’s home-field advantage is beginning to become mythologized. Oddsmakers do rate it above any other team in the NFL, true, but the Seahawks went only 3-3 against the spread in their final six games there, with an outright loss to the Cardinals and escapes against the lowly Buccaneers and Titans. A dissenter could counter that Seattle had won 10 in a row there under quarterback Russell Wilson, covering in all but one, before those three games.

Seattle’s Saint smackdown last month could also be more than an outlier. It’s possible New Orleans is just an ideal matchup. Despite Mark Ingram’s sudden 97-yard outburst against the Eagles last week, the Saints remain a mediocre rushing team with a great passing attack. But Seattle has the best pass defense in the league by a wide margin, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, to test Drew Brees. The Seahawks boast a big, physical secondary — starring Richard Sherman — to contain the Saints’ best weapon in tight end Jimmy Graham.

Pick: Seahawks minus-8.

Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots; 5:15 p.m. Saturday on CBS

The line: Patriots minus-7.5. Welcome to Bizarro Las Vegas, where money is actually flowing in against Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Sports books posted the spread on this game as high as New England minus-9.5 on Sunday. Now it’s trending toward minus-7 everywhere against a team public bettors have gotten behind in the playoffs more than any other in the past decade. Saturday’s AFC matchup is the only game of the weekend that’s not a rematch, as these teams haven’t played since November 2012. The Patriots covered minus-10.5 with ease as Brady threw for 331 yards and three touchdowns in a 59-24 win.

The matchup: The Patriots are the lone team left in the playoffs that was unprofitable to bet on over the course of the season. They went 8-8 against the spread, only the second time in eight seasons the franchise finished .500 or worse versus the Vegas number. The first time, in the 2009-2010 season, Baltimore busted New England out of the playoffs as 3.5-point road underdogs.

The betting public, and therefore the market, sometimes tends to overvalue an injury to a specific player but undervalue the collective effect of several on the same team. That could partially explain the Patriots' underwhelming performance at the sports book this season. They’ve been tattered since the start of the year, and not even a first-round bye could save them from losing another key player. It came out a couple days ago that linebacker Brandon Spikes joined the corps of ailing Patriot defenders with a knee injury that would keep him out for the duration of the playoffs.

Of course, the Colts might be willing to start players with torn ligaments and gimpy ankles over their regulars on defense after last week’s fiasco. Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith targeted safeties Darius Butler and LaRon Landry and nearly bucked the Colts out of the playoffs with 378 yards and four touchdowns. The difference between Smith and Brady is like going from riding a baby farm steer to a professional rodeo bull.

The Colts are the worst overall team remaining, coming in at No. 16 on Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings. Andrew Luck has consistently made up for shortcomings in his two years as a starter, however, at 22-12 against the spread. His counterpart in Brady has almost that many games in the postseason alone but has gone just 10-13-1 versus the playoff number.

Pick: Colts plus-7.5.

San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers; 10:05 a.m. Sunday on Fox

Click to enlarge photo

San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh protests a non-call by the officials after a fourth down play during the second half of the NFL Super Bowl XLVII football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gene Puskar)

The line: Panthers plus-1. Wait, what? This number makes about as much sense as Jim Harbaugh’s timeout usage against Green Bay last week. The Panthers were the better team all season, and got a chance to prove it when they traveled to play the 49ers in Week 10. Carolina beat San Francisco 10-9 as six-point underdogs. Even with no adjustment to either teams’ power ratings, this game should be a pick’em in Carolina based on the first line. The power of perception, instead, influenced oddsmakers to go with San Francisco minus-2.5. Big bets on the Panthers have driven the spread down, but three out of every four tickets are on the 49ers.

The matchup: Make these two teams swap jerseys with each other and it’s bound to take a while before anyone notices something is off. That’s how similar the Panthers and 49ers look on paper. They both are led by hard-hitting defenses with young, mobile quarterbacks on the other side of the ball and an above-average run game.

Only, as alluded to above, the Panthers are ever-so-slightly more efficient. They long passed the 49ers in DVOA, currently ranking two spots ahead at No. 4. Carolina’s defense is significantly better at fifth in the league to San Francisco’s 11th. The Panthers also have a bigger-than-expected edge in rushing at fourth to the 49ers’ 14th. All of this manifested itself when the two teams played earlier this season.

Although it ended in just a one-point win, but Carolina out-gained San Francisco by a staggering 100 yards on the road. Panthers defensive stars Luke Kuechly and Charles Johnson outdueled the 49ers’ more recognizable duo of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.

Plenty of cases can be made for the 49ers winning this time, though. Joking aside, San Francisco has a boulder-size coaching advantage with Harbaugh to Carolina’s Ron Rivera. The 49ers have gotten better with the return of top receiver, Michael Crabtree. They’ve won seven in a row, going 4-2-1 against the spread. Colin Kaperenick is quietly the hottest quarterback in the league, tossing 10 touchdowns to one interception in that span. Although the 49ers don’t throw often, they are better when they do at fourth in DVOA to the Panthers’ 14th.

Pick: Panthers plus-1.

San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos; 1:40 p.m. Sunday on CBS

Click to enlarge photo

San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers tosses a pass to running back Danny Woodhead in the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014, in Cincinnati.

The line: Broncos minus-9.5. Congratulations, Chargers. It took 18 weeks and a 10-6-1 record against the spread, but the betting public is finally ready to get behind San Diego. In a big way. The Chargers are a popular upset pick this weekend. Just look at the way the line’s moved. Denver went up on betting boards at minus-10.5, before passing the key number to get to less than double digits. The Chargers are not only one below where they opened, but also getting a point less than they did in week 13’s trip to Sports Authority Field at Mile High when they stunned the Broncos 27-20.

The matchup: That upset over the Broncos, which came in the middle of the Chargers’ current five-game win streak with four covers, should have served as the moment of reckoning for how dangerous the team could become. Not last week’s win over the Bengals just because it came in the playoffs.

San Diego didn’t have to pull off anything extraordinary to beat Cincinnati. As outlined in this space, all it needed was to take advantage of a potential Andy Dalton implosion. Mission accomplished, as Dalton committed three of the Bengals’ four turnovers that benefited the Chargers immensely. The Chargers' offense never had to do much with Philip Rivers throwing for only 128 yards while the run game averaged just 3.5 yards per carry aside from one long run broken by Ronnie Brown, of all people.

Don’t let the victory obscure the fact that if the Chargers are to reach their second conference championship game in eight years, they’re going to need to ride their offense. The defense remains one of the worst in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders, and is going up against the best offense in Denver.

The matchup looked about that lopsided in the first meeting between the two teams, one that most seem to have forgotten, when the Broncos led 28-6 midway through the third quarter. Denver slowed its offense down and San Diego was able to punch in two scores to lose 28-20 but still not cover the 7-point spread. The Chargers are regarded as the streaking team, but it’s not as if the Broncos are stumbling into the playoffs. They won and covered in each of their final five games except for the Chargers loss.

Pick: Broncos minus-9.5.

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

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