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NFL Divisional Playoffs: Ranking the Games
by Trevor Whenham - 1/9/2013

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Frank Gore of the San Francisco 49ers

The NFL Wild-Card Round this year was, in a word, horrible. The matchups largely weren’t intriguing, and even when they were the games didn’t turn out well. There wasn’t a game played last weekend that would rank in the Top 20 all year. Or even the Top 50. That’s not what the playoffs are supposed to be about. Thankfully, things should be much better this weekend. The teams are better, the matchups are more intriguing, and surely we can’t have such bad luck two weeks in a row. Here’s a look at how the four divisional playoff games rank this weekend from a betting perspective:

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Green Bay (+3) at San Francisco (Saturday, Jan. 12, 8 p.m. ET)

This is clearly the most interesting game in my eyes — both as a matchup and from a betting outlook. It stands out because it seems in a lot of ways to be the NFC Championship played a week early since either team would be my solid pick next week regardless of who wins the other game. The last time the teams met, the Niners won in emphatic fashion. That was all the way back in Week 1, though, so it’s hard to attach too much significance to that. Green Bay was terrible on the ground then, but the Packers have improved significantly since. San Francisco has a different quarterback as well. I still maintain that the Niners are the best team in football when they have their heads in the game. They have proven to be flaky, though, so we can never be sure that they will show up in a given game. The stakes don’t get higher than the playoffs, though, so motivation shouldn’t be a factor. You can make a good case for either team — the team led by the defending MVP, or the team that has a terrifying defense. When games are that tight things can really get interesting.

Baltimore (+9.5) at Denver (Saturday, Jan. 12, 4:30 p.m. ET)

A lot of people view this one as a blowout, and they could be right. The one thing that stands out in this one, though, is that the last meeting between these teams — an easy 34-17 win by the Broncos in Baltimore in Week 15 — is very misleading. Baltimore had just fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, and the Ravens clearly struggled to get on the same page without him. Denver’s defense is sound, and they had a big edge in that one — especially as the game went on and Baltimore had to create on the fly to climb out of a hole. They have had time to get on the same page now, though, and they played their best offensive game since the change last week. They also have the imminent departure of Ray Lewis and the emotion around that as a rallying point. He’ll certainly be fired up against another obvious Hall of Famer like Manning. Denver is still the clear choice to win, but you could make the argument that they shouldn’t be favored nearly as strongly as they are, and that’s why this one is so interesting.

Houston (+9.5) at New England (Sunday, Jan. 13, 4:30 p.m. ET)

This one should be much more interesting than it is. It would have been if the Texans were playing like they were before they had their mojo shredded by these Patriots. That took a lot of thrill out of this game, and the subsequent games have made it really hard to view the Texans as a serious Super Bowl contender this year. Heck, they struggled last week against a bad Cincinnati team that was determined to lose. It’s hard to make an iron-clad case that Houston is going to win this game. The challenge, then, is to determine whether they are going to be able to keep it close or if they are going to be as outclassed as they were last week. That kind of handicapping is never as interesting as in a game when the outcome is in real doubt. The spread is big, though, and will likely only get bigger if it moves at all, so there is lots of room for Houston to cover if they play better than they did last time. It would be hard for them to play any worse.

Seattle (+1) at Atlanta (Sunday, Jan. 13, 1 p.m. ET)

I just can’t get excited about this game. All you need to know about this Falcons team is that the team with the best record in football, and with a 7-1 record at home, is favored by just one point against a team traveling clear across the country for the second week in a row. If a team can’t at least get the home-field advantage in a situation like that then it is hard to get excited about them. In my mind, though, Atlanta has been a false star all year. They don’t have inspiring heart or depth, and they just seem vulnerable when they are slapped in the face — as they will be this week. The game is pretty close to a coin flip. The line is pretty close to a coin flip. I like to bet on sports, not the flip of a coin. This one just isn’t very compelling for bettors.

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