The NFL Playoffs are set to kick off this weekend with a pair of wild-card games on both Saturday and Sunday. This postseason will mark the first time in 13 years that last year's Super Bowl teams will miss this year's 12-team tournament. Taking that a step further, this rare occasion has only happened four times prior, in 2002, 1999 and 1988. But what's done is done, and we must now turn our attention to the teams that were fortunate enough to secure a playoff spot.
Each team taking part in a wild-card game has gotten to this point in a very different fashion. Some teams are peaking at the right time (Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Miami and New York), while some teams are coming into this weekend's game slumping mightily (Detroit). Some teams (Oakland and Houston) don't have a legitimate starting quarterback, and the final team (Seattle) has alternated wins and losses for the last seven games and won their division essentially because LA, Arizona and San Francisco are bad football teams. Each of these eight teams have their own strengths and weaknesses, and as a bettor now is the perfect time to find and exploit the biggest matchup nightmares in each wild-card game.
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I am going to break down each wild-card game, culminating with a pick against the spread and the total.
Oakland Raiders @ Houston Texans (-3.5), 36.5
I have been salivating at the thought of betting against the Houston Texans on wild-card weekend for the last month or so. Unfortunately, the gambling gods decided to make this an even matchup by taking Derek Carr and backup Matt McGloin out of the equation. That leaves Oakland with no choice but to give Connor Cook his first career NFL start. Cook was a three-year starter for Michigan State, so he should be able to understand and process the "big-game" feeling and keep his emotions in check for the most part. Luckily for Raider Nation, they have one of the best run games in the league and a solid workhorse running back to lean on. The Raiders ran for 120 yards per game, which ranks them sixth in the league. They will need Latavius Murray to have a solid game in order to keep the defense honest and allow Cook some time to operate in the pocket when he does have to throw the ball. Cook also has two solid receivers he can rely on in Michael Crabtree (89/1,003/8) and Amari Cooper (83/1,153/5).
The Texans, on the other hand, are going back to previously-benched starter Brock Osweiler because Tom Savage suffered a concussion last week on a quarterback sneak. Bill O'Brien's job is certainly on the line in this one, and I fully expect him to be on the sideline of another team come September 2017. While the Texans have a solid defense, first in total yards allowed (301) and second in passing yards against (201.6), the their offense leaves a lot to be desired. They rank 29th in total yards per game (314) and passing yards (198) per game and 28th in points for per game (17.4). The X-factor in this game will be the Raiders' stop-unit and Khalil Mack. Mack has 11 sacks and five forced fumbles this season. He should have a field day against one of the league's weakest offensive lines. I expect a low-scoring game, which means a field goal could win it, and Sebastian Janikowski is definitely the superior kicker in this game.
Pick: Oakland +3.5, "Under" 36.5 -110. This line is courtesy of 5Dimes.
Detroit Lions @ Seattle Seahawks (-8), 42.5
The Detroit Lions all but had the NFC North division title wrapped up a mere three weeks ago. What followed were back-to-back-to-back losses against playoff-bound teams. Had the Lions not collapsed, they would be hosting a home playoff game instead of travelling cross-country to the rainy Northwest and playing the Seattle Seahawks in the loudest stadium in the league. The Lions are a pass-first team with virtually no running game to speak of. They average a mere 81.9 yards rushing per game, which was good for 30th overall. That is a recipe for disaster going against a Seahawks defensive unit that allows only 225 passing yards per game, which is good enough for eighth overall. It is going to be a tall task for Matthew Stafford to produce like he did in the regular season. The Lions went just 3-5 on the road this season, while Seattle was a dominating 7-1 in the friendly confines of CenturyLink Field.
Offensively for the Seahawks, they will need to find a run game in order to allow Russell Wilson time in the pocket when he drops back to pass. Starting tailback Thomas Rawls is banged up, and so are the Nos. 2 and 3 options on the depth chart. Because of this, I fully expect the Seahawks to air it out more often then not, and I can see the game going "over" the number.
Pick: Seahawks -8, "over" 42.5. -110 This line is courtesy of Mybookie.ag.
Miami Dolphins @ Pittsburgh Steelers (-10), 47
The Steelers have been virtually unstoppable since losing to Dallas in Week 10. They have reeled of seven consecutive victories and have done so behind an explosive offense and a rejuvenated defense. During the win streak, the Steelers scored at least 24 points and have held the opponent to 20 or less in five of the seven games. They are benefitting greatly from Le'Veon Bell's return to 100 percent health. Just three weeks ago, he set the Steelers' single game rushing record with 236 yards on a snowy field in Buffalo. He has topped the 100-yard rushing mark in five of his last six games and will be the key factor in determining if the Steelers' hoist their seventh Lombardi Trophy in February. This could be the perfect storm for the Steelers as the Dolphins rank 30th in the league in defending the run, giving up 140 yards per game. Bell should be able to go wild, which will allow Ben Roethlisberger time in the pocket to find his favorite receiver, Antonio Brown.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, are starting Matt Moore at quarterback, which should tell you all you need to know about why the point spread is so high in this game. Moore has been serviceable in his three starts, throwing for more than 200 yards in each and eight total touchdowns. However, six of those eight came against the Jets and Bills, which shouldn't count for much. Ultimately, this game should come down to who has the better playmakers, and the Steelers win that in a landslide. They will also win this game going away. I also like the "under" in this game, since I don't believe the Dolphins will get much going offensively.
Pick: Steelers -10, "under" 47, -105. This line is courtesy of GTBets .
New York Giants @ Green Bay Packers (-4.5), 44
Excluding the previously-mentioned Steelers, the Packers are the hottest team in the league right now. They come into this wild-card matchup against New York riding a six-game win-streak. Aaron Rodgers looks like the Rodgers from the 2010 Super Bowl-winning team, and his receivers, led by Jordy Nelson, are playing at a high level. The defense has also stepped up their game. After giving up 153 points in a four-game span from Weeks 8-11, they have given up just 88 points over the remaining six games .
The Giants, on the other hand, have won three of their last four games and have done so by playing solid defensively while being as inconsistent as possible offensively without losing. They have virtually no run game (88.3 yards per game - 29th overall) and their passing attack ranks in the middle of the league (242.4 - 17th overall). It is almost shocking as to how they managed an 11-5 record. However, here we are, with a chance to bet against Eli Manning in January. I am fully committed to doing so, because I just don't see how Manning can outplay Rodgers at Lambeau Field.
Picker: Packers -4.5, "over" 44 -110. This line is courtesy of Bookmaker.
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