For sports handicappers across the country, the NFL playoffs allow us an opportunity to recoup some of our losses suffered over the regular season, or hopefully, keep adding onto a successful year.
The Wild Card Round features four games and Vegas oddsmakers have given us a few interesting (questionable) lines to work with.
Let's take a look at the matchups and see where the betting value is this weekend.
Spread: Houston -3
This matchup truly is the "wild card" of the weekend in terms of handicapping.
There are just too many unknown variables here to try to accurately forecast this one.
Let’s start with the quarterbacks. Rookie Andy Dalton has undoubtedly had an impressive season for Cincy. It’s been hard to tell that 2011 was his first year in the NFL.
But the postseason is a different animal. How will he handle the pressure of winning in the playoffs, especially on the road against a team that finished second in overall defense?
And how about the QB situation in Houston? Will it be third-stringer TJ Yates? Journeyman Jake Delhomme? How is Delhomme still in the league, nevermind starting a playoff game? Does it really even matter who starts?
The Texans do have a few things going for them here. First, they’re at home (although teams playing in their own building have won just 53 percent of games in the Wild Card Round since the NFL expanded to eight divisions in 2002).
Second, all-world receiver Andre Johnson should be close to 100 percent for the first time in a long time—a big help to whomever will be playing quarterback.
Third, Houston has had a terrific running game and a solid defense all year long, and if nothing else, those are two strengths you can expect will carry over into postseason play.
Still, with A.J. Green on the field, Cincinnati has the ability to strike quickly. Oh, and by the way, the Bengals play some tight D, too.
In the end, this matchup is just too close to call with any confidence. I’m predicting a close win for the Texans (because the Bengals went 0-7 against current playoff teams this season), but for betting purposes, don’t be tempted into action just because it’s the first game of the weekend. Save your money for smarter opportunities.
Prediction: Houston 23, Cincinnati 17
What to Bet: Nothing
Spread: New Orleans -11
And here’s a smart opportunity.
Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson are getting 11 points? Where do I sign up?
Yes, I know New Orleans is playing at home, where they are 8-0 this season. Yes, I know Drew Brees just set the all-time record for passing yardage and completion percentage in a single season.
I also remember that these same Saints went into their first-round game last year versus Seattle as double-digit favorites and were promptly sent home.
Don’t get me wrong: I admire Brees and that Saints offense just as much (probably even more) as the next guy. If I had a vote, Brees would be my MVP this year. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see New Orleans win the Super Bowl.
But I don’t care if Detroit is playing against New Orleans or the AFC Pro Bowl roster: 11 points is too much to give here. The line opened up at 9.5 on Sunday night, and I thought even that was too high.
New Orleans will probably win this game, but giving 11 points just screams out “backdoor cover.”
I can see it now: New Orleans scores a touchdown with three minutes left to go up 34-21 and then we all know what happens next. Stafford drives down the field and returns the favor with under a minute remaining to make it 34-28. The onside kick doesn’t work out.
Game over, Saints win.
Except bettors stuck holding New Orleans -11 tickets.
Prediction: New Orleans 34, Detroit 28
What to bet: Detroit +11
Spread: NY Giants -3
Personally, I’ve given up trying to figure out how to bet the NY Giants this year.
And I’m not about to try doing it in the postseason.
For a team with a lot of talent on both sides of the ball, it’s amazing how inconsistent this team can be. The Giants lost to division doormat Washington twice this year, along with head-scratching losses at home to Seattle and Philly.
Yet they beat Dallas twice and also took down the Patriots—in New England.
Enter the Atlanta Falcons, a much more consistent group. They seem to beat teams they should be beating but struggle against the upper-echelon teams. You know what you’re getting with the Falcons—a balanced offensive attack and a steady quarterback that doesn’t make many mistakes. The defense is pretty good, especially against the run, but it’s nothing to write home about.
So where does this all leave us for Sunday’s game?
Sometimes the best bet you can make is not making one at all, and this seems to be one of those spots.
If I had to pick, I like the Giants’ chances to win it here. They are a very confident group right now. Tom Coughlin’s squad seems to be peaking at just the right time after beating their archrival Cowboys twice and also defeating the NY Jets over the last four weeks of the season.
Eli Manning has had a terrific 2011, but for some reason I just don’t trust him to deliver in a huge spot.
My advice here: Lay off placing any bets on this one and just enjoy watching what should be a close, hard-fought NFL postseason game.
Prediction: NY Giants 24, Atlanta 21
What to bet: Nothing
Spread: Pittsburgh -9
Seems to me that oddsmakers are giving the Pittsburgh Steelers just a little too much respect in this one.
Running back Rashard Mendenhall’s season is over with a torn ACL. Safety Ryan Clark, who played more snaps on defense this year than anyone else on the team, won’t be in uniform since the last time he played at Mile High, he lost two internal organs and 30 pounds because of a sickle-cell trait. Yeah, that would scare me away, too. Oh, and Ben Roethlisberger has a gimpy ankle, although I’m sure he’ll be out there as long as he can stand up.
I’m not going to talk about Tim Tebow too much (just because he’s gotten way too much press already this season, or maybe it’s because I’m a Raiders fan), but in the last three weeks, it seems like the NFL has finally figured out how to stop him.
However, professional sports is all about adjustments, and as much as I hate to say this, I think Tebow and Denver’s coaching staff will have some tricks up their sleeve on Sunday.
Sometimes sports handicappers rely too much on statistics, matchups and past results. Information and knowledge is important—to a degree. I understand that there aren’t many reasons to think Denver will keep this one close, but how many times have you made what you thought was a logical bet, only to say afterwards “Damn, I should have went with my gut”?
Well, I’m going with my gut this time. I say this one will be a defensive, hard-hitting, grind-it-out type of game that stays close throughout. Pittsburgh wins it and “escapes” Mile High with a victory.
Give me the home team and the points.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 17, Denver 14
What to bet: Denver +9