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November 14, 2018

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

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AP

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) runs into the end zone for a touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Home-field advantage has quite possibly never mattered less in the NFL.

For the first time in NFL history, every road team prevailed in last week’s wild-card round. The four stadiums left full of malcontent fans at the end of last week’s action could be dismissed as a one-off anomaly, especially considering betting boards favored every road team during long stretches last week.

But that would be ignoring a larger season-long sample. Excluding the three games held in London, visiting teams have gone 135-113-9 against the spread throughout the entire year.

That’s the same number of victories Talking Points has posted in picking every game throughout the season. The blog stands at 135-116-9 against the spread after a 2-2 record last week. Are the road teams destined to keep up the pace in the last six games before the Super Bowl?

Check below to find a betting preview and picks of the divisional round.

Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots, 1:35 p.m. Saturday on CBS

The line: Patriots minus-5. For their 13th consecutive home playoff game, the Patriots are favored on the point spread. This is only the second time in that 11-year span, however, that they’ll lay less than a touchdown. As the hottest team in the NFL, Kansas City demands that level of respect. There are a number of bettors unafraid to fade them, though. Although action has evened out on both sides later in the week, New England saw the initial surge of money. The Patriots posted as 4.5-point favorites over the Chiefs late Saturday night before the addition of an extra half-point. Some sports books got as high as New England minus-5.5.

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New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates his touchdown pass to wide receiver Julian Edelman (11) in the second half of an NFL game against the Miami Dolphins on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass.

The matchup: The Chiefs put an exclamation mark on the NFL’s most emphatic winning streak last week. They became the only wild-card round road team to ever win by 30 points or more, posting the first postseason shutout since 2005 with a 30-0 victory over the Texans. Kansas City’s 11th straight victory was the best single-game performance by any team all season, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. The Patriots have lost four times, going 4-5-1 against the spread, since the last time the Chiefs were defeated. New England had its worst outing in nearly two years in its last game, forfeiting the right to home-field advantage throughout the playoffs by losing 20-10 at Miami as 10-point favorites in week 17.

It was the poorest the Patriots had played, per DVOA, since the last time they faced Kansas City, a 41-14 road loss in week 4 of last season. But the Patriots, which are at risk of losing three straight games for the first time since 2008, traditionally save their best when belief in them starts to waver. New England may no no longer be the Super Bowl favorite — behind Arizona at 3-to-1 and tied with Carolina at 4-to-1 at the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook — but it was the odds-on choice at 9-to-5 the last time tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Julian Edelman were both healthy. The Patriots started the season 8-0 straight-up, 5-2-1 against the spread when quarterback Tom Brady had his two most reliable targets around.

They’re both expected to play against Kansas City along with a number of other players who have filled New England’s lengthy injury list. The bye week may pay off in a big way for the Patriots, as the Chiefs are suddenly the team dealing with more significant injuries. Top receiver Jeremy Maclin and running back Spencer Ware, who has far outperformed starter Charcandrick West, both sprained ankles in the win at Houston to leave their status for New England uncertain. Despite Brady and New England coach Bill Belichick’s outstanding success in the postseason with a 20-9 straight-up record, they are only 13-15-1 against the spread.

The pick: Chiefs plus-5.

Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals, 5:15 p.m. Saturday on NBC

The line: Cardinals minus-7. Late action steamed the number up from minus-4 to minus-6 when these two teams met three weeks ago at University of Phoenix Stadium. It burned bookmakers, who watched in horror as Arizona doused Green Bay 38-8 for an easy cover. The house made sure to stay in front of the fire this time around. A couple shops opened as high as Arizona minus-7.5 when the playoff rematch was set. That quickly went to minus-7, but there’s no smoke indicating the number could move any lower. Like Kansas City at New England, the game has largely drawn even action on both sides. At William Hill sports books, for example, the ticket split was 52/48 in favor of Arizona.

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Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is sacked by Arizona Cardinals inside linebacker Dwight Freeney during the second half of an NFL game Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz.

The matchup: Here are two reasons why the second game between these two teams will go differently — Green Bay’s offense is rising, and Arizona’s defense is disintegrating. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers went without throwing an interception while getting sacked only once for the first time in a month in the 35-18 victory over the Redskins last week. His reconfigured offensive line held up against a Washington defense front that had pressured more effectively than Arizona’s on the season. The Redskins rate eighth in the league in adjusted sack rate with the Cardinals all the way back at No. 27. Two of Rodgers’ bullies from the first game with the Cardinals are out with injury, defensive tackle Cory Redding and linebacker Alex Okafor, while a third, linebacker Markus Golden, remains questionable. Suspected fallout from losing All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu for the year before the first Packers meeting reared itself in the Cardinals’ latest game, as Russell Wilson threw for three first-half touchdowns in a 36-6 Seahawks obliteration.

Here are two reasons why the second game between these two teams will go similarly — Green Bay’s offense isn’t really rising and Arizona is on a much higher level overall. The Packers managed a pedestrian 5 yards per play — .1 down from their season average that ranks 29th in the NFL — against the Redskins for the fifth straight game where their opponent has moved the ball more efficiently. Green Bay continues to field a strong pass defense, rating No. 6 in DVOA, but Arizona can slice apart any team with an NFL-high 8.2 yards per pass attempt. Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer was even better than that against the Packers in December, averaging 9.8 yards per attempt and completing at least three passes to four different receivers. Arizona has spent the entire year at or near the top of DVOA, currently sitting at No. 4 to Green Bay’s No. 9.

The pick: Packers plus-7.

Seattle Seahawks at Carolina Panthers, 10:05 a.m. Sunday on Fox

The line: Panthers minus-3. Betting action on the premier game of the divisional weekend somewhat resembles campaigning strategy in a swing state during an election year. Two warring factions convinced they’re on the right side face off in an attempt to find every available opening. Such explains bookmakers' deliberation between lines of minus-2.5 and 3. The books that opened at minus-2.5 last weekend adjusted to 3 when Panthers money poured in. Most ended up going back down to 2.5 when Seahawks’ bettors pounced at getting the full field goal. Both 2.5 and 3 were available at different sports books as of Thursday afternoon, and like political polls in a state that’s painted neither red nor blue, the line may continue to fluctuate until kickoff.

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Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, right, catches a pass for a touchdown ahead of Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman in the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015, in Seattle.

The matchup: If it’s possible for two franchises separated by 3,000 miles to be considered rivals, these two teams have reserved the distinction. Carolina and Seattle have played in each of the last four seasons, including twice last year with a playoff meeting, since Cam Newton and Russell Wilson took over their respective teams. The Seahawks won the first four meetings outright, including covering in all but one, before the Panthers struck back with a 27-23 victory as 7-point underdogs on the road in week 6 this season. Some viewed the result as a coronation of Carolina, which improved to 5-0 straight-up on the year with the win, and a condemnation of Seattle, which fell to 2-4.

That conclusion was proven right on the first account, as the Panthers went on to win 10 of their last 11 games, but mistaken on the second, with the Seahawks going 9-2 straight-up after the loss. The biggest difference between these two teams has been their performance in close games. Seattle’s 10-9 escape in Minnesota last week after Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field goal was an exception to how the rest of its season has gone. Seattle was only 2-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less in the regular season, with Carolina 6-1 in the same category. That allowed Carolina to finish four wins ahead of Seattle in the standings despite the teams’ Pythagorean wins expectation — 12.1 for Carolina, 11.7 for Seattle — being virtually identical.

Carolina has a few undeniable advantages, however, ahead of the second meeting with Seattle. The Seahawks must travel East for a game that kicks off at 10 a.m. their time for the second consecutive week. Seattle’s Doug Baldwin scored more than any receiver in the league over the second half of the year with 13 touchdowns, but Carolina has the personnel to contain him. Projecting to receive the bulk of the Baldwin assignment is shutdown cornerback Josh Norman, who’s led a secondary that’s second in the NFL surrendering only 5.8 yards per pass attempt on the year.

The pick: Seahawks plus-3.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos, 1:40 p.m. Sunday on CBS

The line: Broncos minus-6.5 Sports books aren’t looking to endure the same fate as Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown. They don’t want to get hurt. That’s why the casinos have been so cautious with the betting line in the final divisional-round game. With no definitive status update on Roethlisberger, who’s dealing with a shoulder injury, or Brown, who’s in the NFL’s concussion protocol, almost all sports books kept this line off the board early in the week. A few still haven’t relented and posted a number, while the shops that have made sure Denver bettors would have to pay a premium. The Steelers closed a 7.5-point favorite before beating the Broncos 34-27 at home in week 15, meaning this two-touchdown swing is among the most steep a bettor will ever witness.

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Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger (7) is taken off the field after being injured during the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Cincinnati Bengals Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016, in Cincinnati.

The matchup: Even if Roethlisberger plays, it’s not guaranteed to benefit the Steelers. As noted earlier this year, Roethlisberger’s toughness has developed a history of hurting his team. He’s performed significantly worse through his career in his first game back from an injury, lending credence to the theory that he often comes back before properly healed. This season produced one example, when Roethlisberger returned early from a sprained MCL and threw three interceptions in a 16-10 home loss to the Bengals. Backup Landry Jones looked worse than a hobbled Roethlisberger in going 2-for-5 for 11 yards and an interception in last week’s 18-16 win at Cincinnati. But Jones has been a serviceable backup on the year with a passer rating of 77.3 and an average of 9.3 yards per pass attempt, and players typically improve when given a full week of preparation as the starter.

Denver’s quarterback situation doesn’t look any better. Brock Osweiler has been their best option this season, but Peyton Manning earned the start by helping lead the Broncos to a 27-20 victory over the Chargers in Week 17. Manning rates last out of qualified quarterbacks in the NFL this season with a passer rating of 67.9, and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 9-to-17. He does have a merciful matchup, as Pittsburgh ranks last out of all remaining teams in surrendering 6.8 yards per pass attempt. The Steelers are much tougher against the run, at fifth in DVOA, which could stifle Broncos coach Gary Kubiak’s preference to primarily attack on the ground.

At full strength, Pittsburgh has a major edge on offense — gaining 6.2 yards per play to Denver’s 5.4. But the Broncos’ advantage on defense is more sizable, as they give up an NFL-low 4.4 yards per play to the Steelers’ 5.4. Denver conceded a season-high in points, 34, and yards, 377, against Pittsburgh when they first played. Brown also became the first player in two seasons to score on Denver cornerback Chris Harris with a 23-yard touchdown that wound up as the game-winner. The question becomes whether Pittsburgh will have the same pieces to try to repeat the success.

The pick: Broncos minus-6.5

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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