It’s playoff time in the NFL, and that means less games and tougher lines for the punter. The opportunities on offer early in the season have long dried up as bookmakers get a stronger handle on team strengths and weaknesses. Now more than ever the NFL is about reads on the teams involved – there are no easy games, everyone is playing hard so the read of the match-ups is crucial. Also for those who have teams left in the running on Superbowl/conference championship bets from earlier in the season, depending on the stakes and how juicy the odds, now is the time to consider laying off to ensure a positive net result. Stay smart about your bets and you can have a strong outcome in NFL playoff time.
New Orleans Saints @ Seattle Seahawks
The first NFC wild card game sees the fifth seeded Saints go to the fourth seeded Seahawks. The twist is, because division winners automatically qualify for the playoffs, the 11-5 Saints are on the road against a Seattle side with a 7-9 record – the first playoff team with a losing record in NFL history. Naturally, New Orleans is favoured by double figures. Their offence, led by QB Drew Brees, should pick apart a shaky Seahawks secondary. However there is reason to believe that Seattle will keep this closer than many think. The Saints’ running backs have some injury issues, and Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck (confirmed to be starting over Charlie Whitehurst, AKA The Clipboard Jesus) traditionally performs very well against heavy blitzing defences – which is what New Orleans employs. It’s far from a sure thing, but in a game the Saints should win, the Seahawks with the start is probably the best proposition in this one. Seahawks +10 @ 1.91 (multiple sites)
New York Jets @ Indianapolis Colts
These two teams have underperformed to expectations this season. The Jets were the subject of much pre-season hype (a lot of their own making) but have struggled on both sides of the ball – defensive playmakers going missing or carrying injuries, and QB Mark Sanchez shaky under pressure. Meanwhile, perennial playoff contenders the Colts just scraped into their division title in Week 17. QB Peyton Manning has had a vastly reduced talent pool of receivers to work with, and defensively they have battled to stop any multi-dimensional attack. Indy is a side that traditionally rely on outscoring the opposition rather than stopping anyone, but this is a Jets offence that have been largely stopping themselves. Manning is also phenomenal at reading blitzes at the line of scrimmage – a staple of the Jets’ D – and changing the play to take advantage. If his receiving corps doesn’t let him down, In The Pocket likes his chances to defend his home turf. Colts –2.5 @ 1.91 (multiple sites)
Baltimore Ravens @ Kansas City Chiefs
Pretty much everyone likes Baltimore in this one, and that always makes In The Pocket concerned. The Chiefs, so strong at home all season, were embarrassed at Arrowhead by the Raiders last weekend (and the line is probably 1-2 points higher as a result), but you should remember the game did not matter to them, so take the offensive line’s no-show with a grain of salt. Their strong running game in a cold weather stadium presents one of the few home field advantages left in the NFL. The cold weather won’t bother the Ravens overly, but QB Joe Flacco’s performances in adverse conditions will be a cause for concern for Baltimore. His lack of clutch plays along with the average running game they’ve had this year has meant that the Ravens haven’t really put away any teams this season. The fact that the Chiefs, at home with a superior running game, are getting points means they should definitely be at the forefront of anyone’s thoughts on this game. Chiefs +3 @ 2.00 (Sportingbet)
Green Bay Packers @ Philadelphia Eagles
This is perhaps the toughest of all four of the weekends’ games to pick. There’s a school of thought that these are the best two teams in the NFC right now, but only one will progress to next week. This Packers team was supposed to be a very strong contender, but season-ending injuries slowed them down significantly. With no running game to speak of, they struggle to defend leads if they can’t score at will against the secondary of the opposition. Their defence is strong, but they face the tough test of QB Michael Vick and the explosive deep threats of the Eagles. The Total Points line of 46 will probably be on the low side on this match-up. Another factor to consider when punting on this game is the collectively poor clock management by both coaches – a mistake in this area could easily cost either side the game. If you’re looking for more action on this one other than the Over, the ability of the Packers to get stops on defence should probably sway your opinion the most. Packers +2.5 @ 1.95 (multiple sites)
Bye teams & future playoff thoughts
In the NFC, neither the Chicago Bears or Atlanta Falcons have made many friends with punters with their recent performances – a strong argument could be made that the wild card teams are the strongest in the NFC. The more games the Saints get to play in a dome, the better as far as they are concerned, so they will fancy a shot in Atlanta in the second round (possible if Philly beat Green Bay). Chicago match up well against Vick and the Eagles, but the Packers will fancy their chances of going into Soldier Field and taking a win. Long story short, the NFC is a real roll of the dice. The AFC however has two solid favourites – the New England Patriots are red hot right now and unbackable for the superbowl, whilst the Pittsburgh Steelers, despite their offensive line problems, are a consensus second-best team in the league. Any playoff result that doesn’t end with the Pats and the Steelers playing for the AFC conference title will be a major upset.