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October 1, 2014

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

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Redskins defensive lineman Barry Cofiled (96), center, on ground, knocks the ball loose from Seahawks runningback Marshawn Lynch, center, on the one yard line and the Redskins recovered the fumble stopping Seattle’s opening drive in the third quarter during their NFL playoff football game, Sunday, Jan. 6, 2012, in Landover, Md. Seattle defeated Washington 24-14.

This weekend's lines

  • Ravens +9.5 at Broncos; over/under: 46
  • Packers +3 at 49ers; over/under: 44.5
  • Seahawks +2.5 at Falcons; over/under: 46.5
  • Texans +9.5 at Patriots; over/under: 47.5

Odds to win the Super Bowl

  • Broncos — 5-to-2
  • Patriots — 11-to-4
  • 49ers — 5-to-1
  • Packers — 6-to-1
  • Falcons — 7-to-1
  • Seahawks — 8-to-1
  • Texans — 20-to-1
  • Ravens — 25-to-1
  • Source: LVH Superbook

Odds to win the AFC

  • Broncos — Even
  • Patriots — 6-to-5
  • Texans — 9-to-1
  • Ravens — 11-to-1
  • Source: LVH Superbook

Odds to win the NFC

  • 49ers — 2-to-1
  • Falcons — 2-to-1
  • Packers — 3-to-1
  • Seahawks — 7-to-2
  • Source: LVH Superbook

Sports book directors gave their best imitation of action-movie heroes last weekend.

They found a graceful escape after what seemed like imminent danger. All four favorites of NFL wild card weekend covered the spread, the equivalent of a villainous army of hit men surrounding a protagonist.

But all four games going under the posted total worked as the bookmakers’ getaway car.

“All the unders coming in broke a lot of the parlays,” LVH Superbook boss Jay Kornegay said. “It was a small winner for us in the end.”

Kornegay, and his counterparts around town, will have identical rooting interests for this weekend’s divisional round: They’ll need the underdogs to cover with one exception.

The Green Bay Packers, who are +3 at San Francisco, were the only team taking points that Kornegay projected as the more popular bet.

The good news for the books is underdogs have traditionally cleaned up in the second weekend of the NFL playoffs. Since the NFL re-aligned 11 years ago, underdogs are 24-17 (.585) against the spread in the divisional round.

Only once in the last eight years — the 2009 playoffs — have the favorites covered more than the underdogs in this round.

Read below to find betting breakdowns of this weekend’s games as well as a pick for every contest.

Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos; 1:30 p.m. Saturday on CBS

The line: Denver -9.5. A rush of cash on the Broncos returned this number to where it started. Baltimore drew the initial action, as bettors drove the spread down to -8.5 Monday. But don’t expect this to trend in any direction other than Denver going forward. The Broncos were 3-point favorites when they traveled to Baltimore and won 34-17 a month ago. Even with the lopsided victory and Denver playing at home this time around, an adjustment of 6.5 points is rather large.

The matchup: Want to hear something borderline blasphemous? Joe Flacco is more dependable in the playoffs than Peyton Manning — for betting purposes. Flacco is 6-4 against the spread and straight-up in the playoffs while Manning is 9-10 in both categories.

Of course, that’s not exactly fair. Flacco’s not only been asked to do less in the playoffs, but he’s also had better pieces around him than Manning in the past, especially on defense. But that’s not true this season. Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings has Denver’s defense as the second-best in the league. Known quantities like defensive end Elvis Dumervil and linebacker Von Miller paired with breakout contributors like cornerbacks Chris Harris and Tracy Porter to give the Broncos a boost with that unit. Don’t be fooled by Baltimore’s shutdown of the lackluster Colts last week. The Ravens defense is average at absolute best, ranking 18th in Football Outsiders’ numbers.

They couldn’t stop the Broncos the first time around, notably surrendering 115 rushing yards to Knowshon Moreno and 133 receiving yards to Eric Decker, but Flacco had the game’s biggest gaffe. On first-and-goal from the Denver 4-yard line with seconds left in the first half, Flacco lobbed a pass right to Harris that he returned for a 98-yard touchdown. Suddenly, the halftime score was 17-0 instead of the 10-7 that looked likely right before.

Denver could easily blow out Baltimore again, but it’s more likely to be closer —and possibly low-scoring with the 11-degree wind chill. This game isn’t worth betting, but I’ll abide by the old rule of taking the points when in doubt.

Pick: Baltimore +9.5

Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers; 5 p.m. Saturday on Fox

The line: San Francisco -3. Bookmakers are confident with this spread. They don’t want to move it to less than a field goal despite strong early support on the underdog. That’s why books are charging extra vig on the Packers. Green Bay is listed at +3 (-120 or -125 all over town) with San Francisco coming back at -3 (Even or +105). The Packers were favored by 5.5 points at home against the 49ers in the teams’ first game of the season. San Francisco won outright, 30-22.

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San Francisco 49ers linebackers Patrick Willis, left, and NaVorro Bowman, right, celebrate after defeating the New Orleans Saints 36-32 to advance to the NFC Championship Game.

The matchup: In the divisional round of last year’s playoffs, the 49ers hosted the offensively surging New Orleans Saints. As a slight 2.5-point favorite, the Saints drew the bulk of the public-betting support. The game is remembered for the 49ers' dramatic comeback in the final seconds that gave them a 36-32 victory. But San Francisco led for nearly 90 percent of the game, including going up 17-0 at the start, and won in large part because of its physicality.

History could be repeating itself. The Packers possess advantages in the skill areas — most glaringly at quarterback with Aaron Rodgers and wide receiver with their arsenal of weapons — but are far behind the 49ers upfront on both sides of the ball. The left side of the 49ers offensive line, consisting of Pro Bowlers Mike Iuapati and Joe Staley, is probably the best in the NFL. They should push around a Packers defensive front, which DVOA ranks 14th in the NFL against the run, enough to create major openings for running back Frank Gore. The 49ers achieved great success with that during the first meeting with the Packers, as they ran the ball 32 times for 186 yards.

But now they’re even more poised to attack Green Bay’s weakness with mobile quarterback Colin Kaepernick at the helm instead of Alex Smith. The best argument against the 49ers is health. While Green Bay finally has all its players back, San Francisco is dealing with a significant injury to defensive end Justin Smith. The veteran has a torn bicep but may play against Green Bay. San Francisco needs Smith. Without him, Defensive Player of the Year Aldon Smith hasn’t recorded a sack. The result could hinge on the 49ers pressuring Rodgers.

Pick: San Francisco -3

Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons; 10 a.m. Sunday on Fox

The line: Atlanta -2.5. Both of the spreads in the NFC games have remained where they opened. Kornegay reported far more tickets on the Seahawks but bigger wagers on the Falcons. Splitting the public action, on the Seahawks in this case, and the sharp action, which has backed the Falcons so far, is ideal for sports books. Unlike the other three games, these teams did not meet earlier in the season. Had they played early in the season, however, oddsmakers would have favored Atlanta by as many as 6 points.

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Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson throws a pass during the second half of an NFL wild card playoff football game against the Washington Redskins in Landover, Md., Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013.

The matchup: One of two ridiculous myths about the NFL playoffs will take a hit with the outcome of this game. The other, unfortunately, will strengthen in the eyes of those who perpetuate it. Both Seattle and Atlanta have biases against them that they don’t deserve.

Let’s start with Atlanta. Throughout the Falcons' 13-3 season, pundits have reminded everyone how “Atlanta can’t win in the playoffs with quarterback Matt Ryan and coach Mike Smith.” Since the duo arrived in town, Atlanta is 0-3 in the postseason, which is an absurdly small sample size, for starters. But the disappointment is even more forgivable when looking closer at the circumstances. All three of the losses — last year to the Giants, in 2011 to the Packers and in 2009 to the Cardinals — came to the team that ultimately represented the NFC in the Super Bowl. Atlanta was an underdog against both New York and Arizona. The only home game was against Green Bay. The Falcons were 1-point favorites in the contest and were blown out 48-21, but the Packers went on to win Super Bowl. A few years worth of quick playoff exits doesn’t downgrade Ryan and Smith’s unbelievable 33-5 record in the Georgia Dome.

Seattle’s criticism is even more familiar: That teams can’t win in the postseason with rookie quarterbacks. The reason it’s admittedly rare is because most rookie quarterbacks who start are drafted early and stuck on poor teams. Russell Wilson is not. The Seahawks are exceptional in every area, and Wilson has made them even better. He’s presided over the offense Football Outsiders ranks as the best in the league. The strides Wilson made in the second half of the season are unlikely to magically dissipate in Atlanta. And if they do, it won’t be because the calendar changed from December to January.

Pick: Seattle +2.5

Houston Texans at New England Patriots; 4:30 Sunday on CBS

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Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson (80) is tackled by Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Adam Jones (24) during the third quarter of an NFL wild card playoff football game Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013, in Houston.

The line: New England -9.5. There’s not a lot of movement so far, but sports books will need the Texans. Finding a public gambler backing Houston will be as difficult as locating a sober roamer after midnight on the Strip. But the Texans aren’t a popular play among sharp bettors either. It was just five weeks ago that New England obliterated Houston 42-14 as 4-point favorites.

The matchup: By the score, Houston’s 19-13 win over Cincinnati last week was the closest wild card game. By the stats, it was the most lopsided. The Texans outgained the Bengals 420-198 and looked far superior all afternoon.

Numerous mistakes, headlined by a Matt Schaub interception that Leon Hall returned 21 yards for a touchdown, allowed Cincinnati to stay in contention. Those miscues won’t work against New England. There’s also reason to believe they won’t happen. Houston played like a team under immense pressure — if there was any doubt during the game, just look at how they celebrated afterwards — to validate the best season in franchise history with at least one playoff victory. They should play noticeably looser at Gillette Stadium, where not even their most dedicated fans expect them to win.

Houston undoubtedly stumbled down the stretch of the regular season, losing and failing to cover in 3 of 4 to fall out of their home-field advantage slot in the playoffs. But how a team finishes the regular season means less to forecasting playoff success than is commonly accepted. The 2009 New Orleans Saints are Exhibit A after they lost the final three games and went on to win the Super Bowl anyway. Put simply, a season’s worth of work is far more telling than a few recent weeks.

DVOA places Houston’s pass defense as the fourth best in the league. They’re capable of slowing Tom Brady just enough to make the game interesting. The Texans' other favorable matchup comes on offense where receiver Andre Johnson should challenge the Patriots' weakness in the secondary.

Pick: Houston +9.5

NFL Playoffs ATS record: 2-2

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

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