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Divisional Preview for the Bettors

Some leftover ramblings from a nightmarish wild-card weekend.

Going 0-for-4 on a playoff weekend is an experience. It’s tough to do. Believe me, I just did it.

Watching your team — The Team Of The (past) Decade — get doused with lighter fluid on the first play of the game (Ray Rice 83-yard touchdown run) and lit by a match on the fourth (Terrell Suggs strip-sack of Tom Brady) before becoming engulfed in flames and frantically flailing about for the next three hours was … (sigh).  OK, here goes: painful, aggravating, enraging, saddening, shocking, bewildering, grounding, amusing (kidding).

The Bengals ought to be ashamed of themselves. Turnovers, mindless penalties at home, poor receiving, poorer quarterbacking, and a pair each of the worst challenges (see: Lewis, Marvin) and most hideous field goal attempts (see: Graham, Shayne) you’ll ever see. Sorry, Cincinnati. You were unfairly duped again. Cedric Benson was the only player wearing a Bengals uniform who deserved to be on the field Saturday.

Of all the picks gone awry, Dallas is the one I regret the most. I weighted far too heavily Donovan McNabb’s track record in playoff openers, the fickle nature of the NFC East and the Cowboys’ knack for January disasters. I also failed to give Dallas its due. Ending the Saints’ perfect season in the Superdome and shutting out the Redskins and Eagles in succession was as much of a forewarning as a team could give, and I missed it. D’oh.

Green Bay got screwed. Not only did the Packers salvage an atrocious weekend of football by displaying what neither the Eagles or Patriots could — some spine — they came all the way back from 21 points down and won the coin flip in overtime only to have the refs stick it to them. On second-and-10 from the 20, the officials flagged Green Bay for a hold, yet failed to offset that penalty with what was a blatant helmet-to-helmet hit on Aaron Rodgers.  On the ensuing third-and-5, Michael Adams came off the end and used his right hand to strip the football from Rodgers, except he also clearly grabbed and twisted Rodgers’ facemask in doing so.

Those missed calls jobbed Green Bay and absolutely destroyed many bettors.  The Vegas line on the Cardinals-Packers game opened at Arizona minus-3 and closed at Green Bay minus-3.  That means so much money was placed on Green Bay at plus-3, plus-2.5, plus-2 etc., the Vegas bookmakers kept having to lower it to get some action on the Arizona side.  What resulted was a six-point swing of the spread, the likes of which is rarely seen in an NFL playoff game.

Only the whales who saw the value in getting in on the other side of said six-point swing — and thus laid heavy money on Arizona at plus-3 Sunday morning — ended up profiting from this one.  Even then, those wiseguys were essentially hedging their bets because it was their big money that served as the impetus for such a wild line shift to begin with.  So basically, as was the case with the epic disaster that Panthers-Cardinals turned out to be last year, the bettors took a sizable beating last weekend.

Now if gambling were legal, someone like yours truly would’ve probably thrown a four-team parlay with his winners, immediately lost, tried to make up the weekend by parlaying the Pats, Packers and the Packers over, lost again, and tried one more time to salvage something with a Packers/Packers over parlay on Sunday afternoon.  Phew.  At least gambling isn’t legal.

Let’s move on.

Arizona (11-6) at New Orleans (13-3)

In a nutshell: After watching them hang 51 on one of the hottest teams entering the postseason — not to mention the No. 2 defense in league — it’s clear the Cardinals can score on anyone, anytime. And fast. Problem is, their defense is still pretty banged up (and was never a stingy unit to begin with), and the Saints, in their building, should be able to move the ball at will on Arizona. This game will come down to ball security, particularly for New Orleans, as Arizona’s D has always been predicated on forcing turnovers.

If gambling were legal: The divisional schedule couldn’t have shaken out more favorably for the bettors, as this game is the toughest call of the weekend. Arizona has spent the last two Januarys busting everyone up in Vegas and defying the so-called “prognosticators”. With the Saints giving seven points, the smart-money move is to take those points with Arizona. Even if New Orleans is up by 14 or 17 in the fourth quarter, a couple of late drives led by Kurt Warner can probably cover that spread. The over — even though it seems astronomically high at 57 — also seems safe. Of the 18 playoff games that have been played in domes since 2000, the average total has been 56 points.

The pick: Saints 36 Cardinals 31

Baltimore (10-7) at Indianapolis (14-2)

In a nutshell: History says the Colts, when they rest starters after locking up a bye in December, lose their first playoff game at home (2007 vs. San Diego, 2005 vs. Pittsburgh). It also says the Ravens are true road warriors; their three January road wins over the last two years (in Miami, Tennessee and New England) are the most in the league.

If gambling were legal: So much to sift through here. The Ravens were ever-so-close to knocking off the 9-0 Colts in November, but Joe Flacco threw a huge pick when Baltimore was driving for the go-ahead field goal attempt. With that said, the Ravens have not fared well against Indy — straight up or against the spread — over the last few seasons. They lost 31-3 in the regular season last year and 15-6 at home in the playoffs in 2006. The Colts moneyline is the only workable action in this one.

The pick: Colts 24 Ravens 17

Dallas (12-5) at Minnesota (12-4)

In a nutshell: The Vikings were far from impressive down the stretch. They got run over by Carolina (26-7) in a nationally televised game Week 15, were minced by Jay Cutler and the Bears the following Monday night, and concluded with a 44-7 pasting of a Giants team that may as well have been on the golf course. The Cowboys, meanwhile, are as hot as they’ve been since the days of their dynasty. Tony Romo is playing the best football of his career and the defensive line has been absolutely owning the line of scrimmage during the Boys’ four-game winning streak.

If gambling were legal: There are two conflicting theories at play here. One line of thinking instructs the bettor to lay the points on a home team if the line is three points or less (Minnesota is currently minus-3, with some sportsbooks offering it at 2.5). The other is to only take the points on an underdog if you expect that ‘dog to win outright. It really boils down to who you like in this game.

The pick: Cowboys 26 Vikings 24

New York Jets (10-7) at San Diego Chargers (13-3)

In a nutshell: The Jets are peaking at the right time. They’ve won six of seven, and in their victory over the Bengals last week Mark Sanchez took care of the ball and made the throws he had to make. That’s all you can ask for from a rookie quarterback in the playoffs. The Chargers haven’t lost since a Monday night game vs. Denver back on Oct. 19. They’ve won 11 straight — including at Dallas on Dec. 13 — which makes them unquestionably the hottest team in the tournament.

If gambling were legal: It’s been said many times but I’ll reiterate: Beware of the Round 1 team that generates so much hype the facts are ultimately overlooked. The fact is the Jets beat a mediocre Bengals team to begin with that happened to submit its worst cumulative performance (offense, defense, special teams, coaching) of the season last Saturday. The prevailing argument is the Jets are equipped to shut down the pass and San Diego can’t run. Let’s make the reasonable assumption that Darrelle Revis adds Vincent Jackson to the milk carton that already contains Chad Ochocinco, Randy Moss, Andre Johnson etc. Who’s left to defend the dynamic duo of Antonio Gates and Malcolm Floyd (both of whom resemble basketball forwards more than football receivers)? Jim Leonhard? Kerry Rhodes?  Really?  How about Darren Sproles?   Lay the eight points.

The pick: Chargers 27 Jets 13

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