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June 20, 2021

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

Bill Belichick

Steven Senne / AP

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick takes questions from reporters before an NFL football practice, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, in Foxborough, Mass.

For the first time in NFL history, both the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints will play on wild-card weekend.

Any two teams having not shared an early playoff round might be a mild surprise considering the NFL went to its current four-week bracket in 1978, but it's especially stunning with two of the franchises that have recently dominated. And no one would have expected this to be the year to break the streak.

Going into the season, Patriots vs. Saints was the most likely Super Bowl matchup by the odds. At offshore sports books, Patriots vs. Saints was available at as low as 22-to-1.

With each team now needing to win three straight games to reach the championship in Miami on Feb. 3, the odds are now 30-to-1. The Saints are a victim of circumstance considering they're the first team in NFL history not receiving a bye after posting a 13-3 regular season.

The Patriots can place much more blame on themselves considering their 12-4 finish after losing outright to the Dolphins 27-24 as 17-point favorites last week.

How will the preseason favorites fare with having to play an extra game? I'll give my thoughts below as I continue picking every NFL game against the spread.

The regular season finished with a mediocre 8-8 week 17 to bring my overall record to 138-114-4 — 39-24-1 on plays, 48-40 on leans and 51-50-3 on guesses.

Read on for picks on all four wild-card games. Lines are the best currently available in Las Vegas on the chosen side.

Buffalo Bills plus-2.5 at Houston Texans, over/under: 43. It's been all Buffalo money so far. This line opened as high as Houston minus-3.5 and stretched as low as minus-2 — significant movement through a key number considering it's only been a few days. And it's hard to call it unjustified considering Buffalo's metrics grade out higher than Houston's by almost any system. The Bills have enjoyed a couple important factors on their side, though. They faced the much easier schedule — No. 30 by Football Outsiders' DVOA strength of schedule to Houston's No. 6. They also stayed much healthier. That could be changing, at least slightly. Two of the Texans' most important players, receiver Will Fuller and edge rusher J.J. Watt, are practicing and could provide a big boost. The likelihood of them playing, along with a few other teammates, should have pushed this spread back to the field goal. It still might, but right now, there's slight value on the home team. Lean: Texans minus-2.5.

Tennessee Titans plus-5 at New England Patriots, over/under: 44. What do we do with this one? Seriously, I'm perplexed. The line is right around where I set it — New England minus-4.5 — but it just feels like there are so many conflicting factors. The eye test is pointing most gamblers towards the Titans. But the eye test is a fraught method. Have the Titans really been as unstoppable as perceived in the second half of the season? Being the last team to beat the Chiefs, 35-32 as 5-point underdogs in week 11, is highly impressive, but otherwise, they're lacking signature victories. They've mostly beaten up on downtrodden opposition. It might be hard to remember now coming off of the loss to Miami as 17-point favorites, but the Patriots have been the more consistently strong team. This is still a defense that leads the NFL in giving up 4.7 yards per play. This is still a home venue where not many visitors have found postseason success. Guess: Patriots minus-5.

Minnesota Vikings plus-8 at New Orleans Saints, over/under: 49. Game of the week, hands down. These are the only opponents facing off that both rate in the top half of the league in the four major DVOA categories — rushing offense, passing offense, rushing defense, passing defense. They've both got complete rosters and are two of only seven teams in the NFL with point differentials better than plus-100. It feels like some people would be surprised to learn that about Minnesota, which has frequently been undervalued by the betting market this year. Problem is, so have the Saints, which sport an NFL-best 11-5 against the spread record. New Orleans has looked extremely close to catching San Francisco — two points after a long Greg Kittle completion, to be exact — as the NFC's best team down the stretch, but more than a touchdown looks inflated here. The number should be New Orleans minus-7, and getting a point of value across a key number is about as much as a gambler can ask for in the playoffs. Play: Vikings plus-8.

Seattle Seahawks minus-2 at Philadelphia Eagles, over/under: 45.5. This is the same price that was attached to Seattle's trip to Philadelphia last month. The Seahawks won and covered, 17-9, but the game sure seems closer in hindsight than it's being portrayed. It was a one-score contest until Rashaad Penny broke a 58-yard in the fourth quarter. The yardage totals were nearly identical — Seattle had a four-yard advantage —with the deciding factor being six Philadelphia turnovers including failing to recover three of its own four fumbles. That's not going to repeat. Penny is now hurt, by the way. And while running back injuries aren't all that impactful, it's emblematic of the entire Seattle roster. Philadelphia came into the last game much more beaten up than Seattle. The usual suspects remain on the Eagles' injury report, but now the Seahawks have their own lengthy report to match. This was a coin-flip game the first time the teams played, and the circumstances have strayed further in the Eagles' direction. They shouldn't be a home underdog here. Play: Eagles plus-2.

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

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