NFL Divisional Playoffs Preview: Part One

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(It turns out I had a lot to say about this weekend’s NFL Playoff games so I’m breaking my column into two parts. This is part one, which includes some general NFL headlines and aggressive breakdowns of my favorite prop bets this weekend. Check back in a couple hours for part two, where I’ll make my picks for each of the four games.)

It’s finally here. Round Two of the playoffs. The final eight teams still playing football, still thinking they’ll be the ones hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on February 1st.

Where do we even begin breaking down a weekend that has so much potential?

Let me just get this out of the way first: When I allude to a possibly great weekend of football and say there are amazing matchups across the board, I’m specifically talking about all the games except for Carolina at Seattle. No matter who tries to hype that game up, I just can’t see it. I think the Seahawks are going to slaughter the Panthers on Saturday night.

But these other three matchups? Wooooeeeee!

These are the NFL’s wet dream matchups. One of the best recent non-divisional rivalries with Baltimore going to New England. Two of the NFC’s marquee franchises with two of the best quarterbacks facing off when Dallas takes on Green Bay. And Peyton Manning hosting his Indianapolis successor, the new Peyton Manning if you will.

It’s so good you’d almost think the NFL had a hand in creating these exact matchups. Hmm…

(One million Detroit Lions fans just spat on their computer screens.)

Unless you’re a brand new reader that’s never seen any of my previous football columns, I’m not going to be able to convince you that my picks against the spread are anything close to a lock. But that doesn’t mean I can’t still monitor all of the gambling action and give you my best effort on the game lines and the prop bets.

Unlike the lead-up to Wildcard Weekend, the lines on this weekend’s games really haven’t moved since being posted on Sunday night. That tells you two things: 1) There haven’t been any major injuries or personnel news to affect the spread, and 2) No team out of the eight is getting a landslide of betting action on its side.

And it’s so interesting because we’re not talking about a small point spread for any of these games. New England and Denver are each favored by seven points over Baltimore and Indianapolis, respectively. The Seahawks are 11-point favorites over Carolina. And the smallest line is Green Bay giving six points to Dallas.

Normally you’d never feel comfortable backing so many favorites that are giving a touchdown or more in the playoffs, but then you realize these favorites are the four best teams in football, all of whom are operating on two weeks rest. And that’s before mentioning that each of those four teams have Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks and other players with a ton of playoff experience.

So yeah, you’re tempted to ride the favorites. But, c’mon, you know there’s gotta be an upset or two.

This is exactly why most of my money this weekend will be going on my favorite prop bets. Before we get into the props and my picks for each game, let’s run through everything that caught my eye this week in the world of football:

  • Nice to hear that Ron Rivera’s neighbors were so good to him and his family as his house was on fire Monday morning. I gotta wonder if those Panthers fans would still have brought them breakfast and coffee if Carolina had lost at home to Ryan Lindley and the Cardinals. In fact, while I’d never wish for anyone’s home to burn down, I am curious to know how Jim Caldwell’s or Marvin Lewis’ neighbors would have reacted if this happened to one of them. Does anyone help in that situation? Or do angry fans find a way to ensure Lewis is trapped in the house while it burns? Like I said, just curious…
  • I’ll be the first to admit the AFC North fooled me this year. With three teams making the playoffs and even the Browns looking good for stretches, I expected a better performance in the playoffs. Cincy never showed up last week and the Steelers made Baltimore’s win way too easy. That division’s schedule this season included the NFC South and the AFC South, which is basically like handing six or seven wins to any halfway decent team. You know what happens next year? They face the NFC West (Arizona, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis) and AFC West (Denver, Kansas City, Oakland, San Diego). I wish I could place a bet right now on only a single AFC North team making the postseason next year.
  • If you didn’t see Matthew Stafford’s reaction to the picked up flag in the Detroit/Dallas game, you can find the short video embedded in this Deadspin Article (for whatever reason, the YouTube clip has been pulled down).
  • This demonstrates the only reason I was never a pro athlete. The composure he has, even while yelling at the referees, is amazing. I would have whipped my Johnson out and started pissing on the refs’ legs and probably the Cowboys’ logo.
  • Speaking of that flag/no-flag debacle in the last round, that’s exactly the type of thing I will be rooting for if my Patriots aren’t the AFC’s representative in the Super Bowl. Bitterness triumphs over enjoying good football every time.
  • Rob Ryan returns to New Orleans as their defensive coordinator. And why not? He has quite the impressive resume. Here is where each of his defensive units have finished among the NFL’s 32 teams starting with the 2004 season:
    • Oakland (2004-08): 26th, 20th, 8th, 22nd, 19th
    • Cleveland (2009-10): 30th, 18th
    • Dallas (2011-12): 16th, 23rd
    • New Orleans (2013-14): 10th, 31st
  • That seems like a resume that’s deserving of more chances, right? Two acceptable years out of 11.
  • The tweet I saw this week that should definitely make you think twice about backing all four favorites was from ESPN’s Adam Schefter: “All 4 favorites haven’t covered in the Divisional Round since 1991.”
  • Twenty-two years since that’s happened, for the record.

The Prop Bets

I feel particularly good about three prop bets this week, but I’m going to make a fourth bet. That fourth one is probably a sucker’s bet, but I just can’t help myself. It’s a fun one. You’ll see:

Who will record the most passing yards in the Divisional Round?

If you’re willing to follow my lengthy logic here, we can use the process of elimination to narrow this one down. Or you can be a jerk and just skip to the bolded item at the bottom of this section for my pick (Bovada’s odds are in parentheses):

  • Cam Newton (25/1) just isn’t an option. He’s not doing it in Seattle. Sorry.
  • While we’re at it, I don’t see Russell Wilson (20/1) winning this bet either. Carolina’s defense ranks 9th against the pass and 22nd against the run. I think Wilson could have a ton of rushing yards in this game, but Seattle isn’t airing it out.
  • I’m eliminating Joe Flacco (9/1) and Tom Brady (5/1) from the discussion because people seem to think the weather (specifically the wind) could be an issue Saturday afternoon in Foxboro. Cold and snow don’t slow down passing offenses, but wind does.
  • I also don’t see Flacco going for 350+ yards against New England’s solid pass defense. Brady might not be a horrible play if the weather ends up cooperating, but as a Patriots fan, I can’t make that bet.
  • Tony Romo (7/1) has a couple things working against him: The Packers’ run defense is a lot worse than its pass defense, and Romo has only cracked 300 passing yards once in the 16 games he’s played this year. The only thing that makes him intriguing is the possibility of them going down by 10-14 points early and having to abandon their bread & butter (DeMarco Murray).
  • Peyton Manning (3/1) doesn’t give me much confidence because we have no idea what the hell is going on with his health and their focus on running lately. But maybe the bigger problem with him is this: Manning topped 300 passing yards seven times this year, and Denver’s record in those games was 3-4. Similarly, when Manning’s pass attempts in 2014 exceeded 40, the team was 2-4. For whatever reason, Manning throwing the ball often this year has not been a recipe for success. So unless you think the Colts are going into Denver and beating the Broncos, Manning’s a bad play.
  • That leaves us with Aaron Rodgers (3/1) and Andrew Luck (5/2).
  • The case for Rodgers: He’s going up against the 22nd ranked pass defense; he’s the quarterback on the league’s 2nd best passing offense; he had eight games in the regular season of 300+ passing yards, and unlike Manning, his team went 7-1 in those games; and I wouldn’t put it past any team this time of year to be exaggerating the extent of someone’s injury. So Thursday’s news on Rodgers’ lingering calf injury does not deter me at all.
  • The case for Luck: He led the league in passing yards this season; he had 11 games with more than 300 passing yards; his offense has no reliable running game; out of any of the contenders for this prop bet, his team is most likely to be losing big throughout the game.
  • I’m betting both Rodgers and Luck in a big way, knowing that as long as one of them wins it, I make a profit. (I’m fixing my mistake from last week when I bet Ben Roethlisberger but didn’t bet on Luck. I should have bet both.)
  • But if you’re feeling really lucky, go ahead and throw a sawbuck on Tom Brady.

Total Passing Yards – Andrew Luck – Over/Under 310.5

It should be obvious that I’m going with the over here (-115 odds). The Colts just can’t seem to be competitive without a lot of passing from Luck. And I feel somewhat protected if it’s a blowout in Denver’s favor because Luck will also be throwing a ton in that scenario.

Sure, we already have our bet on Luck to have the most passing yards this weekend, but I’d hate to miss out on a slice of the action if someone random happens to get hot and throw for 400 yards.

Total Rushing Yards – Justin Forsett – Over/Under 65.5

I’m also taking the over (-115) on this bet. It just seems likely that this will happen. Forsett beat this number nine times this year. The Ravens run for 126 yards per game while the Patriots give up 104 yards on average. I could end up being wrong on this, but I can’t imagine the Ravens’ gameplan is to have Flacco drop back 40 times and throw on this impressive New England secondary. In fact, I think the Patriots wouldn’t mind seeing Forsett go off for 175 yards if it means Flacco’s deep passes are held in check. (I have a weird feeling that this game will resemble that Denver/New England regular season game from 2013 where Knowshon Moreno ran for something like 680 yards but Manning couldn’t move the ball through the air.)

Will there be a game-winning field goal or touchdown as time expires in any game during the Divisional Round?

Here’s the fourth prop bet. The one that I can’t make a quantitative case for and is most likely a sucker’s bet. But I’m betting YES (4/1) on this. Last week was full of awful football so I’m praying we get some exciting games this week. It’s always good when you can make a bet that’s just naturally fun to root for, and who doesn’t want to see some games come down to the final play. (As opposed to whenever you bet the under on a point total in a game. Who wants to root for less scoring in any game?)

As a reminder, please check back on Friday afternoon for my picks against the spread. At this point it feels almost guaranteed that I’m going 0-4 again this weekend.

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