NFL Betting and Handicapping: Scouting the Week Ahead
by Alan Matthews - 12/3/2013
It's now clear that the road to the Super Bowl runs through Seattle in the NFC and Denver in the AFC, and what a perfect title game that would be. Two teams who are used to the elements playing in the first outdoor cold-weather Super Bowl. Arguably the NFL's best defense against clearly its best offense. Predictably, Seahawks vs. Broncos is the big Super Bowl matchup favorite at +150 on Sportsbook.ag.
Seattle looked brilliant on Monday night in blowing out the Saints, 34-7. Russell Wilson was way better than Drew Brees, throwing for 310 yards and three touchdowns. Brees had thrown for at least 200 yards in 43 straight games but was held to 147. The seven points equaled the fewest scored by the Saints since Sean Payton became coach in 2006, and the 188 total yards were the fewest. And that Seahawks defense was missing two key cornerbacks, while offensively Percy Harvin had to sit out because his hip was bothering him after debuting a week ago.
I don't see any pass-heavy team going to Seattle and winning in January. The Seahawks are now -120 NFC favorites. So that rules out the Saints (+500), Lions (+2000) and Cowboys (+1800) or Eagles (+2500). I would give the 49ers (+550) and Panthers (+700) each a chance because their defenses are also excellent and they will play smash-mouth football. Sometimes you have to punch a bully in the mouth.
This Sunday night's Saints-Panthers game is huge as it's for sole possession of the NFC South lead and the No. 2 seed, thus avoiding Seattle until a potential conference title game. The Saints opened as 3.5-point favorites, and they are just as tough to beat at home as Seattle is, for very different reasons. As things stand now, the Saints technically are the division leaders based on best win percentage in common games with Carolina. They each have identical 3-0 division records (tiebreaker No. 2). Obviously, the first tiebreaker is head-to-head. New Orleans visits Carolina in Week 16.
Seattle became the first team to clinch a playoff spot and will wrap up the NFC West with a win at San Francisco on Sunday, but the Niners are 2.5-point opening favorites. It definitely could be a letdown game for Seattle on a short week, although they Hawks are usually fired up to face the Niners. The Seahawks also can afford to lose it because they are two games clear of the entire NFC. San Francisco (8-4) needs it, just a game up on the Eagles and Cardinals for the final wild-card spot.
As for Denver (10-2), it has pretty much exposed the Kansas City Chiefs for what they were: vastly improved from last season's 2-14 team but still not a Super Bowl contender. They are the first team to ever start 9-0 and then lose three straight. Peyton Manning probably wrapped up a fifth NFL MVP Award with his 403-yard, five-TD performance in Sunday's 35-28 win in K.C. I thought only Brees had a chance, and that evaporated Monday. Manning is now -1000 on that prop with Brees at +800. It's over.
The Broncos can't take their foot off the gas as they must finish a game ahead of New England (9-3) for the AFC's top seed. Denver has the schedule advantage with no games left against teams with a winning record, plus it got Coach John Fox back on Monday from his illness. New England figures to be challenged Week 15 in Miami and especially Week 16 at Baltimore. The Broncos are -150 favorites to win the AFC, and I think the only team with a realistic chance to beat them is the Pats (+220). I can assure you, however, that Denver doesn't want to see Baltimore again in the divisional round. The Ravens (6-6) currently hold down the AFC's final wild-card spot over Miami (6-6) because of the head-to-head tiebreaker. That gap should grow because Baltimore is -7 this week against Minnesota and Miami is +3 at Pittsburgh.
The NFC North is there for the taking for Detroit as it is the only team in the division with a winning record and the only club that hasn't had to use a backup QB for multiple games. And it looks like Chicago and Green Bay will remain with backups this week, with Aaron Rodgers almost certainly done for the year and Jay Cutler apparently not ready to return.
The Packers want to be conservative with Rodgers even though the team is winless without him. The playoffs are a huge long shot even if Green Bay (5-6-1) wins out. The Bears (6-6) have gotten great production from Josh McCown, but they are technically down two games in the division because the Lions swept them. Chicago hosts Dallas on Monday night, with it opening as a “pick'em”. There's no early line on Green Bay hosting Atlanta in case Rodgers somehow is cleared.
It looks like Matt Cassel will start this week for Minnesota in Baltimore. He played well against that porous Chicago defense on Sunday in place of Christian Ponder, who suffered a concussion. The Vikes certainly won't be turning to Josh Freeman, who is essentially stealing money from the team.
The Browns don't know who starts this week at New England (-11.5). Brandon Weeden played solidly Sunday in a loss to Jacksonville but suffered a concussion. Former backup-turned-starter Jason Campbell (concussion) has been cleared for football activity, but not for practice yet. So the starter Sunday might be some guy named Alex Tanney (literally had to look him up) or former Bear Caleb Hanie, who was just signed. Wow. Here's guessing Josh Gordon doesn't have a third straight 200-yard receiving game.
Finally, Jets rookie Geno Smith will start at home against the Raiders (+3) after being pulled from Sunday's loss to Miami. Smith's last TD pass was Oct. 20, or three games before the Red Sox-Cardinals World Series began. All of a sudden, it looks like Rex Ryan might not be back after all for New York.
Week 14 Enticing Underdogs
I was 2-1 on my underdog picks a week ago, hitting on Oakland +9.5 at Dallas and Houston +7.5 vs. New England. Just missed on St. Louis +9.5 at San Francisco.
Titans (+12) at Broncos: This just feels like a letdown game for Denver. It has had a tough four-game stretch with three division games and a trip to New England. The Titans are desperate to stay in the wild-card race and have been a pretty solid road team. I could see them hanging around like they did Week 6 in Seattle and losing by only 10.
Browns (+11.5) at Patriots: This largely falls in the Denver's category for New England. The Pats have played three straight very close games and are due to be a bit gassed. I only like this, however, if Campbell is able to play. We should know by Wednesday.
Redskins (+3.5) vs. Chiefs: Always love a home dog of more than a field goal. I believe Washington can put up some points on that now-questionable K.C. defense and that the Chiefs aren't really built to take advantage of a very bad Skins defense: Washington is decent against the run but lousy against the pass. Skins should stay within three points, and an outright win wouldn't shock me. K.C. does clinch a playoff spot with a victory.
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