NFL Wildcard Weekend Picks: Guaranteeing 4-0 Against The Spread

steelers-ravens

Blogger, meet clean slate.

Clean slate, meet blogger.

The dream of going 11-0 against the spread in the NFL playoffs is alive and well today because there hasn’t been a single game played yet. That all changes tomorrow afternoon. What a way to kick off the NFL playoffs: The 7-8-1 Panthers host Ryan Lindley and the Cardinals!

Can’t wait.

It’s come to my attention that I ‘ve picked only one game correctly in each of the last two Wildcard Weekends. That’s not good. The undefeated dream is usually dead by Saturday night of this first weekend. Two years ago I was able to grind out an 8-3 against the spread record over the course of the playoffs, but last year I took a major step back with a horrific 2-6-3 record by the time the Super Bowl confetti hit the MetLife Stadium turf.

It’s time to beat that 8-3 record.

Before I move on, I want to reiterate something I wrote after last year’s Wildcard Round:

“In three of four games, the team with the better quarterback won this past weekend (Andrew Luck over Alex Smith, Drew Brees over Nick Foles, Philip Rivers over Andy Dalton)…And three head coaches who have been criticized for years for making shaking decisions at the most important moments lost in the opening round (Andy Reid, Marvin Lewis, Mike McCarthy). File that away…among all the craziness and unpredictability of the season, we might be able to fall back on the trusted QB/Coach competency factor to make our picks going forward.”

Wow, so filing things away for future reference can actually work as long as you go back and review those things, huh?

Before I dive into the picks, let’s get through some general football housekeeping:

  • I don’t necessarily care if Ndamukong Suh is suspended or not, but I totally disagree with the people who are saying if this was a regular season game they’d be OK with a suspension. These are probably the same people who bellyache about penalties and enforcement of rules being different in the playoffs than the regular season. If it was a suspendable act in the regular season, it should be the same for the postseason.
  • Regarding the MVP, I’m fully in the J.J. Watt camp. People are always so quick to point out how the rules have changed to favor offense and scoring when they want to take away from offensive accomplishments. How about a defensive player putting up one of the greatest seasons in league history at a time when every rule works against him? No bonus points for the era Watt is currently thriving in? What if the situation was reversed? What if the NFL had changed the rules constantly over the past 10 years to lower scoring and reduce offense? If a QB put up a record-setting season during that time, he’d get the MVP, a Purple Heart, the WWE Heavyweight Belt and all the other awards in the world, wouldn’t he?
  • The news that broke a few days ago about Tom Brady restructuring his contract, accompanied by this article from Grantland’s Bill Barnwell, was just the third moment in the last seven years that caused Patriots fans to hyperventilate (Brady’s ACL and the loss to the Giants in the Super Bowl three years ago are the other two moments).
  • If you can remember way back to the start of the season, I entered into a bet with frequent guest blogger Neil regarding who could come closest to predicting each team’s win total correct. We picked records for all 32 teams in early September and tracked it throughout the year. I’m happy to report that after two straight years losing this same bet, I finally won. I was closer with 17 teams; he was closer with 14 teams; and we pushed on one.
  • In terms of precision, I nailed eight teams’ records exactly. Maybe I’m not so horrible at this prediction thing after all.
  • Interestingly, and randomly, we guessed all four AFC West teams exactly between us. Congrats, AFC West, for being the most predictable division in 2014!
  • The real reason I’m bringing this up is because Neil has already taken the attitude over the past week of refusing to acknowledge that this bet existed. He has pretended not to know a thing about it, and that worries me because as the winner, I’m entitled to force him to drink any eight alcoholic beverages of my choosing during a 12-hour period when we’re in Vegas two months from now. So for those of you who join us in Vegas, please keep this in mind if he doesn’t cooperate. I may need help enforcing the results of this bet.

Over the course of the season, I’ve made some futures bets that are still in play:

  • Indianapolis to win the Super Bowl (18/1 odds)
  • Baltimore to win the Super Bowl (33/1 odds)
  • Pittsburgh to win the Super Bowl (18/1 odds)
  • Dallas to win the Super Bowl (17/2 odds)

So if you’re counting along at home, I’ve spread my chips all over the proverbial board, backing four of the 12 playoff teams. Unfortunately I would have been better off waiting to bet the Ravens (now 40/1) and Colts (25/1). At least the Steelers are down to 16/1, somewhat validating my November bet on them.

Rather than go crazy with a ton of playoff bets that’ll never pan out, I thought I’d give you just three bets you can make today that will almost definitely work out:

  1. Exact Super Bowl matchup – New England vs Dallas (8/1 odds): Yeah, the Cowboys finished 22nd in overall defense via FootballOutsiders.com (the only playoff team that was worse is Pittsburgh at 30th), but it’s not like we haven’t seen teams with bad defenses make deep playoff runs lately (New England, New Orleans, Green Bay, to name a few). And if we’re looking for one of the Super Bowl representatives to be a mini-surprise, why not Dallas? They have one of the best quarterbacks in football, a near record-setting running back, and arguably the best receiver in the league (In fact, this Dallas trio might be better than Pittsburgh’s oft-discussed big three). They went 8-0 on the road this year. They beat the Seahawks in Seattle. Basically, if they execute no worse than the regular season, they’ve got a great chance. I love Dallas to make it. And I don’t mind spitting in the face of the “Cowboys as chokers” narrative. C’mon, it’s the NFL. Why wouldn’t a team we all ruled out way back in August make it to the final game?
  2. How many Wildcard teams will win this weekend? One (3/2 odds) and Two (5/2 odds): Technically this is two individual bets on the exact number of Wildcard teams to advance. But I love it because as long as one of the bets wins, you’ll make a profit if you laid out the same amount on them. Remember that the best four teams in football aren’t playing this weekend. And remember how clustered together all the other good teams were throughout the year. You don’t think there will be at least one or two upsets this weekend? (And don’t forget that one Wildcard team was an 11-game winner that’s facing a seven-game winner on Saturday.)
  3. Ben Roethlisberger to record the most passing yards this weekend (2/1 odds): This is the only logical bet on the prop of which QB will throw for the most yards. You’re getting better than even odds to back the passer who led the league in passing yards, had nine separate games of 300+ yards and is facing a mediocre pass defense (Baltimore was 15th in the league). Oh, and it’s official: Le’Veon Bell is out for this game….so we might see Roethlisberger throw it 73 tims.

You don’t have to personally thank me for all three of these bets. Just advise 500 of your closest friends to start reading this blog and we’ll call it even.

And now for the picks…

Arizona @ Carolina (-6)

  • The Pick: Arizona
  • The Score: Carolina 20, Arizona 17

This game is a perfect example of “beware of your subjective, rooting interests influencing a pick that’s supposed to be made without emotion” for me. All week long I’ve looked for reasons to pick the Cardinals to win outright. I just like them more and don’t want to see the under-.500 Panthers advance simply because of unfortunate injuries to an 11-win team’s top two quarterbacks. But it’s impossible to look at this game objectively and not walk away convinced the Panthers will win.

Carolina’s defense is playing a lot better than Arizona’s lately. The Panthers also have some semblance of a running game and a steady, veteran quarterback at the helm. The Cardinals have none of those things.

The biggest problem with Arizona is figuring out how the hell they’re going to score any points. We know Lindley is a possible liability throwing the ball, but it’s even worse when the Cardinals try to run. They have the third worst rushing attack in the league.

The NFL rightfully put the least intriguing game in the least attractive TV timeslot, and I don’t imagine we’re getting a surprise “Ohmygod, that was such an incredible game” moment out of this one.

Winning 11 games in the toughest division, having the Coach of the Year, still employing a frisky defense…all of that’s gotta count for something, right? That’s why I like the Cardinals to cover even if I have to stop short of predicting the win.

Baltimore @ Pittsburgh (-3)

  • The Pick: Pittsburgh
  • The Score: Pittsburgh 26, Baltimore 21

There aren’t many running backs in the league whose participation or lack thereof should swing a game. Le’Veon Bell belongs in that miniscule group. On top of being one of the best pure runners in the league, he also had more than 80 receptions this year and never leaves the game, which tells you how good he is in pass protection too.

It’s unfortunate for the Steelers and for those of us who want to see teams at full strength that Bell is out for this game. I even wrote earlier this week that if Bell is out, I need to make sure I don’t just gloss over that because of how badly I want to pick the Steelers.

But on the other side, you have a Ravens team that’s only looked good this year when facing bad football teams. Their biggest weakness is pass defense, and the Steelers happen to have one of the most potent passing attacks in the league.

Baltimore, like most teams, has been far worse on the road. The only decent team they really beat away from Maryland this year was Miami. That no-show at Houston in a week 16 must-win game against Case Keenum is still so fresh in my mind.

These teams split their season series, with the home team winning by exactly 20 points in each game.

The Ravens rate out as a better team according to FootballOutsiders.com, though not by much.

You see why this is the hardest game to pick in Round One (and why I’m all over the map trying to find an edge for one team).

Even with a healthy Bell, you could make a case for Baltimore (battle-tested, great coach, decent quarterback, a great team according to all the advanced metrics).

Eff, this is tough. You know what? This is one game where I really think who’s at home and who’s on the road matters a lot. And what can I say? I’m a sucker for this Pittsburgh passing game. I’m also a sucker for my preseason prediction that Pittsburgh would face New England in the AFC Championship game.

Just know that I changed my mind on this particular game five times before ultimately deciding on the Steelers.

Cincinnati @ Indianapolis (-3.5)

  • The Pick: Cincinnati
  • The Score: Cincinnati 23, Indianapolis 16

Damnit! This was going to be my major upset. The line opened earlier this week at Indianapolis -6 and I instantly loved the Bengals to cover, and possibly win outright. I was hoping this would be a sneaky bet. The public was supposed to focus on Andy Dalton’s most recent game, a clunker at Pittsburgh last Sunday night. They were also supposed to remember Cincy’s 27-0 loss in Indy back in October because the collective media can’t reference that game enough times this week. But is it possible the Colts are so bad that everyone is willing to back one of the shakiest quarterbacks in big games on the road against a team that beat him by four touchdowns earlier this year? The line dropping by 2.5 points certainly makes it seem that way.

It’s incredible how evenly-matched these teams are (again, using FootballOutsiders.com as the guide here). The Colts are one spot ahead of the Bengals in overall team efficiency (12th for Indy, 13th for Cincy), overall offense (17th vs 18th) and overall defense (13th compared to 14th).

One thing I’m ignoring so far is the news from Friday that A.J. Green could be out of this game with lingering concussion symptoms. That would certainly impact things, but it sounds like we won’t know until Saturday what his final status is.

Regardless of that injury (Geez, talk about the three AFC North teams’ fates being determined by some major injuries), I think the Colts are bad enough that I’ll take the extra half point Vegas is giving me here. Even if Indy somehow pulls this game out, and we’ve certainly seen that before, it should be close (unless Andy Dalton wants to reach an all new level on the Cincy fanbase’s ShitList).

Detroit @ Dallas (-7.5)

  • The Pick: Dallas
  • The Score: Dallas 41, Detroit 17

Even in Cowboys fans’ wildest dreams, they never would have imagined their team laying more than a touchdown in a playoff game this year. This is the point-spread they assign to juggernauts.

They have a superior everything on offense, and their mediocre defense is only dealing with the 19th best offense in football. It’s not like the Packers or Broncos are rolling into Texas this weekend.

We have a full season sampling that says the Cowboys’ offensive line is fantastic, Tony Romo (when healthy and getting protection) is fantastic, and they are a truly good team. Do you realize if Romo doesn’t get hurt midway through the Cowboys’ week 8 game against Washington we’re probably talking about a 14-win Dallas team? That is downright scary.

And if we finally reference my own advice from last year about the QB & coach combo, well, the Cowboys demolish the Lions in both spots. I don’t think the person that controls the Jim Caldwell doll with a remote control can hang with Jason Garrett in this game (you’re damn right I just said something nice about Garrett).

Every Wildcard Weekend needs at least one blowout, and this feels like the one. It’s truly stunning how different this season has gone for the Cowboys based on preseason expectations. Fingers crossed that it continues that way for a few more weekends.

And just like that, I’ve given you the four winners plus three prop bets that can’t miss!

Enjoy Wildcard Weekend!

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