Welcome to the NFL playoffs, highlighted by some intriguing midweek lines.
The Ravens vs. Los Angeles Chargers, the Cowboys against the Seahawks and the Texans opposing the Colts were all giving less than a field goal to visiting rivals in the opening round of the postseason. Only the Eagles, getting 6 in Chicago, were given a fairly wide spread. Action on Seattle and Indianapolis dropped those spreads from an open of 2.5 down to a point or point-and-a-half. Changing lines is what the bargain hunters live for.
The line is wedged at a tantalizing number for bettors of the home favorites and is interesting to note during a playoff week in which underdogs have traditionally fared well. Division favorites have usually controlled the second, or divisional round.
So what about these matchups? The Colts and Texans engage in deja vu. Again. This has been an excellent rivalry, steeped in subplots. The Texans were winless when they visited Indy in Week 4 and prevailed in overtime after Colts coach Frank Reich gambled on fourth down in overtime. The play failed, the Texans won and eventually stretched their streak to nine. Who ended it? The Colts, in the rematch. Both games were decided by a field goal.
Interestingly, the Colts made the playoffs after starting 1-5 and Reich, now mentioned in some coach-of-the-year conversations, was rumored to be fired in midseason. Key matchup here is Houston secondary vs oft-injured T.Y. Hilton. Colts defense is coming on and Desean Watson, holding the ball too long, was sacked 62 times this year for the Texans.
Can you say deja vu — again? The Chargers visit the Ravens just two weeks after losing to them at home and ultimately forfeiting home-field edge throughout the playoffs. Now they have the road route. They may be the most comfortable road team this weekend, having gained significant road victories in Buffalo, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Denver and Kansas City. They are, on paper, a bit more skilled than Baltimore. But is this just a team they don’t match up well against? Their loss against the Ravens was a sloppy one. They actually play with more urgency on the road and were 7-1 there during the season.
Seattle at Dallas features more familiarity and contempt. The Hawks beat the Cowboys in Week 3, hit a mid-year speed bump and rallied into the playoffs by beating tough teams like the Chiefs. Dallas has three major weapons in Dak Prescott, Zeke Elliott and Amari Cooper. Adjustments and matchups will make this one interesting. Dallas went 6-1 when putting the mail in Elliott's bag down the stretch. He led the NFL in touches, with 203 and yards, with 1095, over that time. It also lightened the pressure for Prescott. Seattle has the rejuvenated running ability of Russell Wilson, which keys its offense. He had a hamstring injury early in the year. Seattle only committed 11 turnovers all year, nearly setting a league record.
And the Eagles, who overcame one obstacle after another, landed in the playoffs and visit the best defense of the postseason teams. Whether Chicago's defense makes a big play will go a long way to determine this one. Key players like Tarik Cohen and Khalil Mack would be the likely candidates. The Bears led the NFL with 27 interceptions. Nick Foles missed a million-dollar bonus because of a chest injury leaving him four snaps short of an incentive target in last week's win over Washington. But he can gain another million if he plays in one-third of the snaps against the Bears and the Eagles win. Playing one-third of the snaps is a bonus? Agents think of everything.
We have an excellent contrast of quarterback styles in the postseason. Kansas City has Mahomes, Dallas has Prescott, the Ravens feature Lamar Jackson, the Seahawks offer Wilson and the Texans feature Watson. All are running quarterbacks, able to give defenses nightmares but also become injured. Think RG III, Teddy Bridgewater, Tyrod Taylor. Compare that with the drop-back, in-the-pocket types like Drew Brees, Andrew Luck, Phillip Rivers, Tom Brady, Foles and Jared Goff. Trubisky, of Chicago, has been a combo of both.
As always, we suggest you check out Sugar House casino for updates on their lines and betting menus. You can go to PlaySugarHouse.com to get in on the action. They told us that the uncertainty of Nick Foles kept the line hovering between 5.5 and 7 points much of the week. After Foles was scheduled to play, it went down to 5.5 at its book.
This Week's Lines. Provided by Draft Kings, Sugar House and varied online houses.
Houston -1.5 Indianapolis (47.5)
Chicago -6 Philadelphia (41)
Baltimore -2.5 Los Angeles Chargers (41)
Dallas -1 Seattle (42.5)
This week's picks, excerpted from Beat the Degenerates, which I hosted with Scott Cronick, director of entertainment publications for the Press of Atlantic City. Our show airs on Newstalk 1400-AM WOND, 92.5-FM, WONDRadio.com and the Tune In app. Check out next week's show 4 to 5 p.m., Jan. 9.
Bontempo pick: Chargers
Brian Cahill pick: Chargers
Cronick pick: Cowboys
Weinberg pick: Bears to cover but possibly not win
Last week's highlights:
I hit with the Colts over the Titans, Cronick was beaten by the Browns plus 6.5 against the Ravens, and Cahill took the Vikings minus 5.5, losing outright. The listeners took the Eagles and prevailed. They were giving 6.5 and won 24-0 over Washington and are 9-3 on the year.
Strange Bedfellows. The Browns and Steelers hate each other, but when Pittsburgh edged Cincinnati and needed Cleveland to upend Baltimore, nobody left Heinz Field. The game was put on the big screen. Roughly 50,000 fans screamed for the Browns, who just missed beating the Ravens and nudging the Steelers into the playoffs. The Ravens instead made the playoffs by about six yards, the distance that would have made a field goal possible for the Browns. And the Steelers lost the post-season by one play, two weeks earlier, when a holding call on 4th down negated an imminent win over the Saints, who kept the drive alive and nipped them at the end.
In Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin has a discipline problem. Antonio Brown did not work out or play in the final week because of a feed with Ben Roethlisberger. ... He also missed team meetings earlier in the season. This is the team that nearly made the playoffs without Leveon Bell and was saddled with injuries, but Tomlin will have morale problems going forward if this does not stop.
Who'd have thought the Packers would bow humbly to Detroit 31-0 at home against a team they own? That's this year in the NFL.
Can you believe ... that the Patriots lost to five teams that did not make the playoffs this year.? Jacksonville, Detroit, Tennessee, Miami and Pittsburgh beat the mighty Pats but could not crack the post-season. ... How about Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton becoming backups, Marvin Lewis going from five early wins to a late-season plunge and the loss of his job? Or in Tampa Bay, where they hyped Ryan Fitzpatrick as Fitz Magic after two early wins, only to see the team collapse each week like a sprint horse in the Belmont Stakes (one and one half miles).
So how do you want to read Between the Lines? History says take the dogs. The lines say the dogs get little slack. ... That's why they call it gambling. And good luck with YOUR wagers.