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May 22, 2017

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

Patriots posted as heavy favorites to win Super Bowl 51

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Steven Senne / AP

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, center, passes against the Los Angeles Rams during the second half of an NFL game Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016, in Foxborough, Mass.

NFL Games 1/2/17

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (5) looks to pass under pressure from Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins (97) in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Gary Landers) Launch slideshow »

New England goes into the NFL Playoffs at the same spot on betting boards as it spent the season — far removed at the top.

The pressure is on the Patriots. There’s no way around it after they posted an NFL-best 14-2 record, including becoming only the second team of the last 13 years — joining last year’s Vikings — to go 13-3 against the spread.

They’re plus-130 (risking $1 to win $1.30) in futures to win Super Bowl 51 next month in Houston. Those are the lowest odds attached to a team going into the playoffs since the Patriots themselves were less than Even money after an undefeated regular season in 2007.

The Giants, of course, upset the Patriots in the Super Bowl that year to start a six-year run of the favorite entering into the playoffs falling short of the Lombardi Trophy. The 2012-2013 Seattle Seahawks remain the only favorite in the last nine years to prevail in the postseason.

Talking Points wishes it had high stakes to fight for in the playoffs. Unfortunately, even a perfect 11-0 record over the next month wouldn’t get the blog to .500 picking every game against the spread this season.

After an apt 5-11 finish to the regular season in week 17, we’re now 120-132-4 on the season. It’s already guaranteed to go down as the worst in the five-year history of Talking Points.

But that doesn’t mean surrender. I’ll continue to analyze and pick every game of the playoffs from a betting perspective.

Read below for the preview of wild-card weekend.

Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans, 1:35 p.m. Saturday on ESPN

The line: Texans minus-4. The old gambling tale goes that when linesmakers are unsure what to do with an NFL game, they slap a line of minus-3 on the home team and let the betting market dictate where the number goes from there. It’s a little more complicated than that, of course, but that’s essentially what happened here. Houston opened a 3-point favorite, and most bettors felt that wasn’t enough. It’s a surprising stance if looking at betting patterns on the year as a whole. Oakland was one of the most popularly bet teams in the NFL; Houston was not. But it’s far less unforeseen when looking at the specifics of the matchup. Oakland is ravaged by injury, most specifically behind center where it turns to Connor Cook, a third-string rookie who will become the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to make his first start in a playoff game.

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Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles (5) is sacked by Houston Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (90) during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

The matchup: Forgive bettors for not wanting to load up on Cook as an underdog in a big game. They’ve done that recently, and it didn’t end well. Behind Cook in his senior year, Michigan State received the bulk of the action in last year’s College Football Playoff semifinal game as 9.5-point underdogs against Alabama. The Spartans lost 38-0 with Cook looking helpless and throwing two interceptions. Alabama’s defense was awfully good, but it pales in comparison to an NFL unit. Let alone an NFL unit that kept its team afloat.

Houston had the second-worst offense in the league, behind only Los Angeles, in gaining 4.7 yards per play but its defense did just enough to enable a second straight AFC South title. The Texans are particularly strong in the secondary, where they gave up only 6.4 yards per passing attempt to rank fourth in the NFL. Former top overall pick Jadeveon Clowney had a breakout year at defensive end in J.J. Watt’s absence, while veteran cornerbacks Kareem Jackson and Jonathan Joseph showed their best years weren’t behind them. The Raiders are far sketchier there, surrendering an NFL-worst 7.6 yards per passing attempt.

Schedule makers annually stash the least compelling of the wild-card playoff games in the early Saturday slot. They really outdid themselves this year. The Texans are the third-worst team in NFL history to reach the playoffs by Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. The Raiders were at least significantly better than that, but this isn’t the same team that beat the Texans 27-20 as 6.5-point favorites on a neutral field in week 11.

The pick: Raiders plus-4.

Detroit Lions at Seattle Seahawks, 5:15 p.m. Saturday on NBC

The line: Seahawks minus-8. Each of the home teams in the final three wild-card playoff games have established themselves as the NFL’s utmost powers in recent years. They’ve all won a Super Bowl since 2009 and emerged as some of the most supported teams of the decade in sports books. The Seahawks are the lone franchise that's fallen off going into this postseason. For the first time in several years, gamblers are mostly off of Seattle. That’s reflected in this line, which has stayed planted where most local shops opened it. A couple early birds went with Seattle minus-7, but moved higher than the touchdown when the market price was set. Since then, bettors have sided slightly more with taking the big number than laying it.

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Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) scrambles away from Los Angeles Rams defensive end Ethan Westbrooks, center, in the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016, in Seattle.

The matchup: Those who wager on which team is hotter going into the playoffs won’t have a side to back here. Over the last quarter of the season, Detroit and Seattle are a combined 1-7 against the spread. Seattle had the only cover, and that was when it defeated Los Angeles 24-3 as 15-point underdogs four days after Rams coach Jeff Fisher was fired. At least Seattle managed another victory last week, edging San Francisco 25-23 as 11.5-point favorites on the road. Detroit hasn’t won since a 20-17 escape against the Bears in week 14 as 7.5-point favorites.

For the Lions, it was easy to see this coming. They got up to a minus-200 favorite to win the NFC North with a two-game lead after that week 14 victory despite having only outscored opponents by an average of 2 points per game. Detroit’s magic wasn’t sustainable. Its offense also couldn’t continue to compensate for an extremely disappointing defense, which ranks dead last in the NFL by DVOA. Quarterback Matthew Stafford fell out of MVP contention by committing four turnovers during the three-game losing streak to end the season. An injured finger on his throwing hand may have assisted the struggles, and remains a concern going into a game in one of the NFL’s toughest venues.

The Seahawks are an unbelievable 38-6 straight-up and 28-15-1 against the spread at CenturyLink Field since quarterback Russell Wilson’s rookie season. Wilson had the most interceptions and lowest passer rating of his career this season, but it’s hard to assign him most of the blame. The Seahawks have fielded one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines the last few years, and though they had figured it out by the end of previous seasons, it never happened in this campaign. How Seattle holds up against Detroit edge rushers like Kerry Hyder and Ziggy Ansah, who’s questionable with an injury, will go a long way in determining which team covers.

The pick: Seahawks minus-8

Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers, 10:05 a.m. Sunday on CBS

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Miami Dolphins wide receiver Jarvis Landry (14) runs the ball as New York Jets free safety Marcus Gilchrist (21), attempts to make the tackle, during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

The line: Steelers minus-10. Miami ended the regular season getting 10 points against the top team in the AFC by the odds. It starts the postseason by getting 10 points against the second-best team in the conference by the odds. The similarities stop there. The Dolphins were at home for their 35-14 loss to the Patriots last week in a game that carried virtually no significance. They’re on the road for what’s likely the franchise’s biggest game in a decade this week. The Patriots’ line crashed a couple points at many sports books before kickoff, but there’s no indication that will happen with the Steelers. There’s even action on the 10-point spread, leaving it unchanged over the last few days.

The matchup: One of the most shocking results of the year deserves a part two. That’s what Dolphins at Steelers provides. Miami came into Pittsburgh in week 6 looking like one of the worst teams in the league at 1-4 straight-up, and left with a dominant 30-15 victory as 8-point underdogs. All-Pro defensive linemen Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh led a relentless charge in getting after Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who threw two interceptions before tearing his meniscus. But Roethlisberger is fully healed now, and it’s the Dolphins’ quarterback who’s dealing with a wrecked knee. Backup Matt Moore is likely to start a fourth straight game for starter Ryan Tannehill, and the two extra points on the spread from the first time they met is a reflection of the drop-off.

Those backing the Dolphins may argue the drop-off doesn’t exist. It’s a small sample size, but so far, Moore has thrown for more yards per attempt, a higher passing rating and a smaller touchdown-to-interception ratio than Tannehill. Miami covered and won its first two games under Moore before running into the Patriots. The victory over the Steelers remains the highlight and launching point of the Dolphins’ season, though.

It started a six-game winning streak where they covered in all but one contest, and allowed them to reach the playoffs as the longest of shots. Miami was plus-290 — same as Detroit — to reach the postseason before the year began. Pittsburgh was the complete opposite at minus-240, the second-most likely playoff-bound team in the AFC behind only the Patriots.

The pick: Steelers minus-10

New York Giants at Green Bay Packers, 1:40 p.m. Sunday on Fox

The line: Packers minus-5.5 Anyone who bet the Giants immediately upon point spreads surfacing offshore on Sunday night should take a Lambeau Leap. They scored a heap of value. Green Bay posted as high as a 7-point favorite before getting bet down right away. The line now sits at 4.5 at most books in Las Vegas, with 5 and 5.5 also circulating at select shops. It certainly shouldn’t sniff anywhere near a touchdown again. The resounding initial support on the Giants seemingly puts this game in an interesting scenario, and one beneficial to sports books. Professional bettors are behind the Giants. The public hasn’t gotten involved as much yet, but they aren’t going to stray from the Packers. Not after the Packers went 6-0 straight-up and 5-1 against the spread to close the regular season.

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New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham (13) gets both feet down in the end zone for a touchdown after catching a pass as Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Leodis McKelvin (21) makes the hit during the second quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

The matchup: There’s plenty to praise about the Aaron Rodgers-predicted streak the Packers ride into the wild-card round. Rodgers has implanted himself in the running for a third MVP award — he’s currently a 3-to-1 second choice behind Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan — after having not thrown an interception for 206 passing attempts. Take away one alarming performance against the Bears, which gained more than 7 yards per play in a 30-27 loss as 4-point underdogs in week 15, and the defense has played around league average. It’s a demonstrably tougher unit with linebacker Clay Matthews healthy.

But there’s also a little room to nitpick the Packers’ run. Notably, the Packers didn’t face one offense rated above league average by DVOA. Their biggest weakness is defending No. 1 receivers — ranked No. 28 in the NFL by DVOA in the category — but they mostly managed to avoid the NFL’s elite at the position in the final month and a half of the season. DeAndre Hopkins could be an exception, but his production was cut into all year by the Texans’ crippling inefficiency at quarterback. This is all to say Odell Beckham, Jr. could play a huge role in this game — assuming his much-publicized trip to Miami was as harmless as he contended.

Some have referenced the Giants’ two recent playoff upsets at Lambeau, a 37-20 win as 8-point underdogs in the 2011-2012 divisional round and a 23-20 overtime victory as 7.5-point underdogs in the 2007-2008 NFC Championship, to call for another. While interesting, those results mean nothing. The Giants have less than 10 players on their roster from that 2012 Super Bowl team, while the Packers only have 11 from the same season. Giants coach Ben McAdoo was on the other sideline back then, working as a quarterback’s coach for the Packers.

The pick: Giants plus-5.5

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

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