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NFL playoffs by the odds: Vegas picks and preview of divisional round

Ravens-Steelers

Gene J. Puskar / AP

Baltimore Ravens running back Bernard Pierce gets past Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu for a touchdown in the second quarter of an NFL wild card playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens, Saturday, Jan. 3, 2015, in Pittsburgh.

Two favorites, two underdogs. Two overs, two unders.

Everything wound up balanced over the first weekend of the NFL playoffs in sports books, with the casinos appropriately getting two sides they needed while gamblers’ majority opinion claimed the other two. It was a win for the house overall, largely thanks to the only outright upset of the wild-card round.

The Baltimore Ravens knocking off the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-20 as 3- to 3.5-point underdogs was a major edge for the books as the latter was the most popularly bet team of the week. Talking Points enjoyed the result equally, as it propelled the blog to a 3-1 against the spread start to the playoffs and brought the total on the year to 135-121-4 predicting every game.

There are seven games left to go, with more than half of them taking place this weekend.

Check out the divisional round betting preview below.

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots; 1:35 p.m. Saturday on NBC

The line: Patriots minus-7. The Ravens have played the Patriots three times in the playoffs, all within the last five years, and taken points on every occasion. They’re also 3-0 against the spread in the meetings, winning two outright. That must have stuck in bettors’ minds judging on the reaction to the opening divisional-round lines. This number was a fast mover. New England posted as a 7.5-point favorite at most local shops but shifted down to a touchdown within a matter of hours. A couple sports books went with 7 from the beginning, including CG Technologies and William Hill, but they were in the minority. Most properties now have Baltimore juiced at minus-120 (risking $1.20 to win $1) on the 7-point spread with New England offered at Even money. A couple books, including South Point, have gone all the way to New England minus-6.5 as Baltimore establishes itself as the trendy midweek pick.

The matchup: If they’re to reward all the backing, the Ravens will again need to mask their shortcomings in the secondary with a destructive pass rush. Baltimore’s defensive backfield is dodgy and depleted. The Ravens were able to limit the amount of exposure on cornerbacks Rashaan Melvin and Lardarius Webb in last week’s 31-20 victory by hitting Ben Roethlisberger in nearly one of out every four drop backs. And that doesn’t include additional hurries. The good news is New England’s offensive line might be more penetrable, having given up 82 quarterback hits to Pittsburgh’s 63 on the season. The bad news is the Patriots boast one of the only passes offenses that’s just as explosive as the Steelers’. They’re fifth in the league throwing the ball, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA, with the league’s most dangerous tight end in Rob Gronkowski.

The Ravens are 20th in the league against opposing tight ends, according to DVOA. More all-encompassing numbers are beneficial to Baltimore. The Ravens have outgained the Patriots 5.7 yards per play to 5.5 on the year. The Baltimore defense is also marginally better at giving up 5.2 yards per play to New England’s 5.3. Statistics have always belied the rousing spread success of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, though. The coach has covered at a better clip than anyone in NFL history at 191-149 against the spread. But the pairing hasn’t been as profitable in the postseason as public perception would indicate, going 11-14-1 against the spread all-time.

The pick: Ravens plus-7

Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks; 5:15 p.m. Saturday on Fox

The line: Seahawks minus-11. During their run to the Lombardi Trophy last season, the Seahawks saw the immediate line movement go against them in all three playoff games. Make that a clean sweep in their last four playoff games. Seattle posted as an 11.5-point favorite over Carolina Sunday night before that number lasted about as long as a Marshawn Lynch post-game interview. The Seahawks got down to minus-10.5 before sports books attracted some buyback and added the extra half-point. Seattle typically draws the late money, especially during last year’s playoffs when it went 2-1 against the spread, meaning the spread could end up right back where it started.

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Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch scores the game-winning touchdown in overtime of an NFL game against the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014, in Seattle. The Seahawks defeated the Broncos 26-20.

The matchup: Laughs are engulfing the Cardinals for setting a new bar of offensive futility with 78 total yards in last week’s 27-16 loss as 6.5-point underdogs at the Panthers. Let’s not forget Carolina had a lot to do with Arizona’s ineptitude, too. Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis have built the Panthers’ defense back up to resemble the unit that got them to this weekend a year ago. Arizona had the same offensive personnel in week 16 against Seattle and gained 216 yards in a 35-6 loss as 9.5-point underdogs. The Seahawks remain the NFL’s best defense by most measures but the Panthers have closed the gap in Football Outsiders’ weighted DVOA, which emphasizes recent performance, and moved into third.

They’ve won five straight, never giving up more than 17 points during the streak, but the last four victories have all come against teams ranked in the bottom 12 of yards per rushing attempt. It’s going to be a major leap with Seattle ranked No. 1 at 5.3 yards per rushing attempt. Quarterback Russell Wilson leads the NFL with 7.2 yards per carry. Lynch is among the 10 running backs with 4.7 yards per carry. Carolina’s defensive line remains mediocre, so if there’s an ideal way to attack the Panthers, it’s on the ground like the Seahawks prefer anyway. Carolina has held its own in past meetings, though. The two teams have played in each of the last three regular seasons with every game was at Carolina, the Panthers losing all of them by more than a field goal but less than a touchdown.

The pick: Panthers plus-11

Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers; 10:05 a.m. Sunday on Fox

The line: Packers minus-5.5. It’s the 1990s all over again in sports books. Everyone is betting on the Cowboys. The opening price of Green Bay minus-6.5 gradually discounted to minus-6 across the board before shops like the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook trimmed all the way to 5.5. The Packers are one of the public’s favorite teams to bet on, so a move back upwards would be far from surprising. But the Cowboys are not a neglected side either, especially not with the four-game covering streak they were on heading into last week’s wild-card game. The narrow 24-20 escape over the Lions as 7-point favorites wasn’t enough to sway gamblers away from the group (formerly known as?) America’s Team.

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Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant, right, pulls in a touchdown pass under pressure from Washington Redskins cornerback David Amerson during the first half of an NFL football game in Landover, Md., on Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014.

The matchup: The nation’s most scrutinized left calf belongs to Aaron Rodgers. Reports of a tear in the Green Bay quarterback’s muscle spread Thursday afternoon to much panic. Rodgers promised he’d play anyway, but the news could have prompted more bets on the Cowboys as a couple sports books moved the spread in their direction. Restraint might have been a better reaction. Rodgers also dealt with the ailment in a regular-season closing 30-20 victory over the Lions as 8-point favorites and fared fine with 226 yards and two touchdowns on 17-for-22 passing. It’s not as if Dallas counterpart Tony Romo, the only quarterback to finish the regular season with a better passer rating than Rodgers, is a bastion of full health. Before the Cowboys’ five game winning streak, Romo suffered from a pair of fractures in his back. He’s off the injury report, but no one is labeling him 100 percent.

The two defenses in this game are more battered than the quarterbacks. They’re the two worst stop units left in the playoffs with the Packers at No. 16 in defensive DVOA to the Cowboys’ No. 22. Both teams are suiting up in preferred roles. Dallas has yet to lose on the road this season, going 7-1 against the spread. Green Bay is perfect at Lambeau Field, going 6-1-1 against the spread. It’s the first time ever an undefeated home team has hosted an undefeated road team in the playoffs.

The pick: Packers minus-5.5

Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos, 1:40 p.m. Sunday on CBS

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Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) walks off the field after throwing an interception to Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick who ran it in for a touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game Monday, Dec. 22, 2014, in Cincinnati. The Bengals beat Denver 37-28.

The line: Broncos minus-7. The spread has stayed as still as the air in the Rockies on a calm winter day. It’s as perfect as the mountain breeze on a balmy summer afternoon. Opened at Denver minus-7. Stuck at Denver minus-7. When these two teams met at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in week 1, the final margin of victory was naturally Denver by seven. The Broncos beat the Colts 31-24 after closing as 8-point favorites. The game featured Denver opening on a 24-0 tear before allowing Indianapolis to control the second half, leaving reference points for gamblers on both sides of the postseason rematch.

The matchup: The temptation is to center the entire game on the quarterback matchup between Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. The reality is, the two Pro-Bowlers may not have earned that level of scrutiny over the second half of the season. They tailed off greatly from early in the year when they were likely the top two MVP candidates. Manning has thrown three touchdowns to six interceptions over the last month. Luck is second in the NFL with 22 turnovers — 16 interceptions and six fumbles — this season.

Turnovers hung around as a problem for the Colts all season as they’ve tallied a minus-5 differential despite slightly above-average luck with a 50.75 fumble recovery percentage. Denver has taken care of the ball much better with a plus-5 turnover margin that’s dragged down by a 48.65 fumble recovery percentage. That’s unlikely to put bettors at ease, however, with Denver the last team alive not sporting a winning against the spread record. The Broncos are 8-8 versus the number, marking the first time since 2006 that Manning finished the regular season as unprofitable. The Colts, on the other hand, regained their status as the best team to bet on this season with their 26-10 win over the Bengals last week as 3.5-point favorites. Indianapolis is an NFL-best 11-5-1 against the spread. But the Colts have lost eight straight as underdogs, with the only cover during the span coming against the Broncos earlier this season.

The pick: Broncos minus-7

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

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