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December 22, 2014

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

Three spreads of less than a field goal should bring compelling start to postseason

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Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers reacts after Packers’ wide receiver Jarrett Boykin picked up Rodgers’ fumble and ran into the end zone for a touchdown during the first half of a game against the Chicago Bears on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, in Chicago.

A wildly successful NFL regular season gives way to a particularly competitive postseason this weekend for Las Vegas sports books.

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.

Casinos cleaned up on the professional gridiron over the past 17 weeks, having one of their best seasons in the past several years with bettors struggling to consistently gain traction. The five most popular against-the-spread picks per week in the LVH Supercontest, which attracted a record 1,034 gamblers, went 37-47-1.

On a smaller scale, the records in the Las Vegas Sun’s sportswriters handicapping contest also regressed. I split the title with a mediocre 51-49-2 mark. Ray Brewer went 50-48-4; Taylor Bern finished 45-54-3.

Combined, those picks were solid losers with a winning percentage of .491 on the year. No matter, it’s time to lumber ahead with what looks like a promising playoff slate.

No spreads of more than a touchdown are on the board for Saturday and Sunday’s wild-card weekend. It’s only the third time that’s happened in 12 seasons, since the NFL realigned to its current structure.

The average first-round spread of 3.75 points in 2014 is more than two points lower than both the 2013 and 2012 playoffs. It would be nice if the bettors could take advantage and reclaim some of those season-long losses.

Talking Points will try to help the best it can with breakdowns and picks of all the playoff point spreads going forward. Blog picks went 5-5-1 in last year’s postseason.

Read below for the wild-card edition of the series.

Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts, 1:35 p.m. Saturday on NBC

The line: Indianapolis minus-2.5. Sports books may have opened the spread just an average Trent Richardson rushing attempt too high. In other words, it was just a marginal amount. While Colts minus-2.5 has stuck at a couple properties, most others have shifted either a point or a half-point towards the Chiefs. The adjustment did feel a little drastic considering the Chiefs were 7.5-point favorites when these teams met in Kansas City two weeks ago. Indianapolis rolled 23-7, but that shouldn’t be enough to precipitate a 10-point swing even when factoring in home-field advantage.

The matchup: The Chiefs looked as sloppy as Andrew Luck’s neck beard when they played the Colts in week 16. Despite only getting outgained by 59 yards, Kansas City had four turnovers. Indianapolis committed none.

It added to the season-long sample of Indianapolis raising its play against premier competition, as it went 4-2 straight-up and against the spread versus playoff teams despite being an underdog in all six instances. Luck’s success at Lucas Oil Stadium is well documented as he’s gone 13-3 straight-up, 12-4 against the spread in two seasons. He led the Colts to wins over the league’s two best teams — the Seahawks and Broncos — at home this season.

Luck is better than Kansas City counterpart Alex Smith by most statistical measures, but not by a wide margin. Smith, for example, posted the same number of touchdowns, fewer interceptions and a higher passing rating on the season. He gets back Kansas City’s best offensive lineman, left tackle Branden Albert, who was out in the first Indianapolis game. The Colts had five sacks to just one from the Chiefs, who were missing their best defensive player in outside linebacker Justin Houston. He also returns for the playoffs.

Pick: Chiefs plus-2.5.

New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles, 5:10 p.m. Saturday on NBC

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Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy celebrates his touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the Washington Redskins in Philadelphia on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013.

The line: Philadelphia minus-2.5. Nice job, oddsmakers. Nailed this one perfectly. The spread has wobbled less than a Drew Brees pass over the middle. Ninety percent of sports books posted the Eagles giving 2.5 points and left it there, seeing roughly equal action on both sides in the early going. The Saints might wind up with a slight edge in the ticket count, as the public might not be able to pass on seeing one of their favorite teams taking points.

The matchup: That would indicate bettors have a short memory, though, as the Saints have burned anyone betting on them as underdogs this season. They’ve taken points on three occasions — against the Patriots, Seahawks and Panthers — and failed to cover every time.

And as much as coach Sean Payton tries to make the light of the situation by beefing up the pregame macaroni-and-cheese and changing the Gatorade colors, New Orleans’ propensity for road stinkers is an issue. The stench becomes clearer through a Vegas filter. New Orleans is 1-7 against the spread away from the Superdome, with the only cover coming all the way back in Week 5 in a pick ’em game at Chicago. Philadelphia isn’t exactly roses in front of its unruly home fans, going 4-4 straight-up and 3-5 against the spread this season at Lincoln Financial Field.

But the Eagles are on a tear, winning seven of eight — 5-3 against the spread — since Nick Foles claimed the quarterback job for once and for all. Foles might somehow be underrated, as he’s the second-best quarterback in the league and leading the second-best offense according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Brees and the Saints counter with high marks at No. 4 and No. 5 in the rankings, respectively. These offenses have oddsmakers unconcerned about the winter storm currently blowing into the Northeast. New Orleans at Philadelphia has an over/under of 54 points, a touchdown higher than the rest of the games that share the same 46.5-point total.

Pick: Eagles minus-2.5.

San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals, 10:05 a.m. Sunday on CBS

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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 line: Cincinnati minus-7. Looks like another one the guys behind the betting counter got right from the beginning. A couple shops dabbled with Cincinnati minus-6.5 earlier in the week, but went right up to a touchdown. The Bengals beat the Chargers by that exact margin in a Week 13 game where they were favored by 2.5 points on the road. Based on that line, San Diego would project as more than a touchdown underdog at Cincinnati. But the Chargers have apparently gotten a boost in oddsmakers’ power ratings to limit how many points they take.

The matchup: The Chargers earned the spike in respect from sports books. After falling 17-10 to the Bengals, they had a 5-7 record with playoff odds of less than 10 percent. The LVH Superbook raised the Chargers’ Super Bowl price to 500-to-1.

They needed to win out and get some help to make the postseason, which is exactly what happened. San Diego also covered three straight before last weekend’s fortunate 27-24 escape as 14.5-point favorites against Kansas City’s backups. Chase Daniel and Kniles Davis sliced the Chargers up in that game to reinforce they have the biggest weakness of the 12 playoff teams. San Diego’s defense ranks dead last in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, finishing just barely out of reach of historical incompetence.

At No. 17, however, the Bengals have the weakest offense remaining. A performance like last weekend’s four-interception bonanza from Andy Dalton is exactly the kind of break San Diego’s defense could use. Dalton has rarely played that feebly at home, as the Bengals are undefeated straight-up and against the spread there this season. They haven’t won or covered in a playoff game, however, since 1990.

Pick: Chargers plus-7.

San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers, 1:40 p.m. Sunday on Fox

The line: Green Bay plus-3. Sports books might want to consider constructing some levees. That’s as effective a plan as any for something to stop the flood of San Francisco money already starting to drift in. Bookmakers will be hoping to attract some big wagers on the Packers to limit their liability on the publicly loved 49ers. Bettors aren’t as keen on the Packers if the way the spread jumped from 2.5 to 3 points is any indication. Oddsmakers will be stubborn and not move off of the key field-goal spread if at all possible.

The matchup: Hard to blame the pro-49er sentiment with the way the series has played out lately. San Francisco has always seemed one step ahead of Green Bay since coach John Harbaugh arrived, winning and covering in all three meetings over the past 15 months. The 49ers haven’t owned the Packers with their characteristically stout defense, either.

They’ve taken their lumps against Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but have always managed to outscore him, averaging 36 points per game to put all the matchups well over the total. Colin Kaepernick had a career day against Green Bay to open the season with 412 passing yards and three touchdowns, while Frank Gore ran for more than 100 yards in each of the two wins before that. The Packers defense looks ripe for the taking again, finishing the season ranking ahead of only the Chargers at No. 31 in the league according to Football Outsiders.

But oddsmakers’ point-value assessment of Rodgers, as detailed last week, continues to be too low. To get the Packers into the playoffs, Rodgers picked up his sixth cover in eight games (where he played more than a possession) this season against the Bears last week. Lifetime, Rodgers is an unbelievable 58-36-1 against the spread.

Pick: Packers plus-3.

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

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