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July 30, 2016

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NFL Playoffs by the odds: Vegas picks and preview of wild-card weekend

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Ted Warren / AP

The Seattle Seahawks’ Doug Baldwin, left, heads in to score a touchdown as Pittsburgh Steelers Will Allen, right, and Arthur Moats defend Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015, in the second half of an NFL football game in Seattle.

Bookmakers have practically issued a two-week moratorium on the ubiquitous term “Super Bowl favorite.”

There’s no such thing this year. Welcome to the most wide-open playoffs in NFL history.

No team is given better than a 20 percent chance at winning the Lombardi Trophy by the latest future odds at the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook, but six are clustered into the 10 to 16 percent category. Two of them, the Seattle Seahawks at 5-to-1 to win the Super Bowl and Pittsburgh Steelers at 8-to-1, make their postseason debuts on the road in a historic wild card round this weekend.

For the first time ever, all four visiting teams are favored on the betting line in the opening games of the playoffs. The lines may not hold until kickoff of every game, but either way, the 2015-16 playoffs look unlike any that have ever come before.

It would be a major upset if the top two seeds advanced to the Super Bowl for the third straight year. NFC No. 1 seed Carolina joins New England and Arizona at 9-to-2 odds to win the title, while AFC No. 1 seed Denver rests with Seattle at 5-to-1.

Talking Points will continue analyzing and picking every game from a betting perspective after a successful 133-114-9 against the spread record in the regular season. Given all the evenly matched teams, we’re expecting a challenge to hit more than 50 percent — which is unprofitable but a fair aim given the inherent disadvantage of forcing a pick on every game — in the playoffs.

Read below for Talking Points’ wild card preview.

Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans, 1:20 p.m. Saturday on ESPN

The line: Chiefs minus-3. Adding insult to the 22-year drought Kansas City has endured without a playoff victory is the fact that the betting line has more often than not liked its chances to stop the streak. In seven postseason appearances since reaching the AFC Championship Game against the Bills in 1993, oddsmakers have favored the Chiefs three times with one pick’em. From the moment it became clear they’d likely play the AFC South champion in this year’s playoffs, the Chiefs were bound to lay points a fourth time. The only question was how many. Some sports books went with Kansas City minus-3.5, and a few have even stayed there, but 3 is the most widespread line. Kansas City closed as a 1-point favorite at Houston in Week 1 and romped to a 27-20 victory that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated. The rest of the season proved it was no fluke, as the Chiefs racked up a scoring margin nearly 100 points better than the Texans managed.

The matchup: The only reason this game doesn’t have the lowest over/under — currently sitting at 40.5 points — of the wild-card round is the guarantee of ideal conditions at Houston’s retractable-roof NRG Stadium. This is the best defensive showdown of the weekend. Going by Football Outsiders’ weighted DVOA ratings, a metric that emphasizes recent performance, these are two of the top four defenses in the league with Kansas City at No. 2 and Houston at No. 4.

The Chiefs have given up an average of only 13 points during a 10-game winning streak despite being without their best player for the latter half of the run. Edge rusher Justin Houston, one year removed from a 22-sack season, is expected back for the game against the Texans. Houston may have won the Defensive Player of the Year award last year if it wasn’t for the Texans’ J.J. Watt, who looks to poised to snag the accolade for a third time this season.

Watt has 76 tackles and 17.5 sacks despite opponents tailoring their entire game plans around him. Since the start of November, Houston actually has the stronger against the spread record, 8-2, than Kansas City, 7-3. The Texans aren’t as dynamic offensively, though. They finished the regular season tied for last at 4.9 yards per play. But they played a handful of games without now-healthy starting quarterback Brian Hoyer, who’s hovered around league average with a passer rating of 91.4. Kansas City counterpart Alex Smith is coming off a career year where his rating eclipsed 95 as his team ranked 12th in the NFL in gaining 5.5 yards per play.

The pick: Chiefs minus-3.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals, 5:15 p.m. Saturday on CBS

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Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback William Gay (22) celebrates after scoring a touchdown on an interception off Cincinnati Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron (not shown) in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Gary Landers)

The line: Steelers minus-3 Adjusting teams’ power ratings, and therefore point spreads, for a quarterback change is one of the more thankless tasks oddsmakers encounter during the NFL season. They appear to have acquitted themselves well in the case of the Bengals going from Andy Dalton, who broke his thumb a month ago, to A.J. McCarron. Cincinnati opened as a 2.5-point underdog over Pittsburgh in the playoffs and has stayed there at most shops, with only a few books jumping to the field goal. McCarron, one of the least experienced quarterbacks in playoff history, has gone 2-1 against the spread as a starter with every game falling within 3 points of the betting number.

The matchup: Cincinnati has been gambling gold all season at an AFC-best 12-3-1 against the spread. One of the only losses came in a 33-20 defeat against Pittsburgh in Week 14 when Dalton broke his thumb on the first drive of the game. McCarron was pressed into action and performed effectively, throwing for 280 yards on 22-for-32 passing, aside from two preventable interceptions. The rookie out of Alabama has used more preparation to his advantage ever since, failing to throw any interceptions in the last three games.

He’s gifted with both one of the NFL’s better offensive lines, led by Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth, and one of its stronger pair of targets in wide receiver A.J. Green and tight end Tyler Eifert. But perhaps more important for the Bengals to break their four-year streak of first-round playoff exits is a defense that’s handled the Steelers better than most. Pittsburgh gained 5.6 yards per play, well lower than its season average of 6.3, in two games against Cincinnati. The Bengals rank sixth in the NFL at giving up 6.2 yards per passing attempt, and were able to limit Steelers’ wide receiver Antonio Brown to 13 catches for 134 yards and a touchdown in the two meetings.

For all the praise he’s taken for directing the NFL’s highest-powered offense, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has thrown two interceptions in three straight games to bring his season total to 16. It’s the second most giveaways of Roethlisberger’s career despite the fact that he missed four games with an injury. Pittsburgh is 7-5 against the spread on the year with Roethlisberger, who’s 9-6 versus the number for his playoff career but has failed to cover in the last three.

The pick: Bengals plus-3.

Seattle Seahawks at Minnesota Vikings, 10:05 a.m. Sunday on NBC

The line: Seahawks minus-5. In a game that will be the coldest of the weekend, bettors have the hots for the Seahawks. More than 80 percent of the tickets and money at William Hill sports books is on the two-time defending NFC champions. William Hill had opened at Seattle minus-3.5 before flying to minus-5.5. Other shops pushed the spread all the way to 6 before getting buyback on the Vikings. It’s hard to fault the betting public for loading up on Seattle. The Seahawks made a mockery of the 2.5 points they gave on the point spread in a Week 13 game at TCF Bank Stadium, beating the Vikings 38-7.

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Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, top, lifted by Chicago Bears strong safety Ryan Mundy, left, prepares to fall into the end zone for a rushing touchdown Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015, during the second half of an NFL football game in Minneapolis.

The matchup: Minnesota may have used that hammering as an awakening. Following the loss to the Seahawks, the Vikings played their three best games of the season by DVOA and capped it off by defeating the Packers 20-13 as 3-point favorites for the franchise’s first NFC North title since 2009. They covered in all four games to emerge as the Bettors’ Champion for the regular season, going 13-3 against the spread for the best betting record any team has posted in 11 years.

Although Minnesota remains a run-first offensive team, a progression from second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has keyed last month’s run. Bridgewater has completed 67 percent of his passes for an average of 8.3 yards per attempt while throwing for six touchdowns to one interception. Those rates are going to prove hard to maintain against the Legion of Boom secondary that’s reverberating once again. The Seahawks have given up fewer than 5 yards per pass attempt over the last month to lead the NFL. Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas and DeShawn Shead have earned back their intimidating reputation that seemed to flounder during a 2-4 straight-up, 1-3-1 against-the-spread start to the season.

And the offense has been even better, zooming up to first in weighted DVOA. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson has made Bridgewater’s successes look measly. Wilson, who leads the league in passer rating, has 24 touchdowns to one interception over the last seven weeks. Both teams run the ball on more than 48 percent of their plays — the Vikings are third in the NFL in run play percentage and the Seahawks are fourth — which will be important on a day when the wind chill is expected to hold around negative-15. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson wrapped up his third regular-season rushing title but had only 18 yards on eight carries in the first game against the Seahawks. Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch is expected back for the first time in two months.

The pick: Seahawks minus-5.

Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins, 1:40 p.m. Sunday on Fox

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Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) looks for a receiver Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015, during the first half of an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears in Chicago.

The line: Packers minus-1. Bookmakers are playing table tennis with this line. They keep ping-ponging between which side is favored by a point, chopping at a pick’em for brief sets of time. Washington first surfaced as a 1-point favorite, but not a single book in Las Vegas has stayed situated there. Causing all the movement is an uncertainty from the betting market. This is the one wild card round game that’s received something resembling even action. While the road teams have gotten heavily bet in the first three games, Green Bay and Washington have split gambling attention.

The matchup: Dating back to the beginning of the season, Washington is the most unlikely participant in the playoffs. Only three teams had longer prices to reach the postseason — Jacksonville, Oakland and Tennessee — than Washington’s 7-to-1. Green Bay fittingly only had three teams at lower odds — Seattle, New England and Indianapolis — than its 1-to-6 price to get into the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season.

The odds of Washington laying points to Green Bay in the playoffs, or at least threatening to, would have been even more astronomical early in the season. The Packers were a chalky 6-to-5 favorite to win the NFC after starting the year 6-0 straight-up, 5-1 against the spread while the Redskins were sitting at 50-to-1 at 3-3 for both records. Since both teams’ byes in week 7, there’s no argument that Washington has been the better team. The Redskins are 6-3 straight-up and against the spread with a plus-20 point differential to the Packers’ 4-6 straight-up and against the spread with a minus-18 point differential. A reverse in the effectiveness of the teams’ pass offenses is the biggest single reason for the change. Green Bay has plummeted to 31st in the NFL with 6.1 yards per pass attempt behind an offensive line that’s in the league’s bottom 10 in pass protection by adjusted sack rate. Washington has risen to sixth in the league with 7.4 yards per pass attempt behind an offensive line that’s in the league’s top 10 in pass protection by adjusted sack rate.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is 7-4 against the spread in the playoffs, and some bettors surely can’t imagine backing the Redskins’ Kirk Cousins over him. Cousins will have the tougher test as Green Bay’s secondary, led by rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton Dix and ballhawking cornerback Sam Shields, ranks sixth in the league against the pass by DVOA while Washington sits at No. 19.

The pick: Redskins plus-1.

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or case.keefer@lasvegassun.com. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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