NFL Divisional Playoff Weekend preview and picks – In The Pocket

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. Even the weaker playoff teams have been eliminated after the Wild Card weekend. 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 York Jets @ New England Patriots
The Pats have seemed like a relentless juggernaut in the second half of the regular season, and are deserved Superbowl favourites. The Jets had an early season victory over New England, but that was when their old, Randy Moss-aligned offense was stuttering badly. Moss was traded, old Pats receiver Deion Branch was reacquired, and now QB Tom Brady heads the most potent passing attack in the NFL this year. They have enough of a running game to keep defences honest as well. The Jets need to come up with some changes to be competitive after Brady blew them away 45-3 in Week 13. Brady has worked out their exotic blitz schemes and has been picking them apart with wide receivers running short routes in the flat and their athletic tight ends running deeper routes. The Jets’ strengths generally involve shutting down reliable wide receivers, but when they have to defend a spread attack, their nickel and dime defensive backs are a glaring weakness. For the Jets to win, they will need a huge game on the ground from their running backs, and for their QB Mark Sanchez to stop throwing the ball a metre over the head of their receivers. In The Pocket doesn’t see it happening, and there is also a strong recent correlation with teams that blowing out opponents in the regular season, covering spreads in the playoffs. Patriots –8.5 @ 1.91 (Centrebet, Sportsbet)

Seattle Seahawks @ Chicago Bears
In a win that surprised many, the Seahawks solved the Saints’ defensive schemes and scored enough points to finish off a sputtering but still potent New Orleans offense. This week though, Seattle won’t have the advantage of the loudest stadium in the NFL on their side. Instead, they travel to the colder climes of Chicago. QB Matt Hasselbeck was strong against the blitz last week, but the Bears won’t send many blitzes at him. They rely on their front 4, led by DE Julius Peppers, to cause havoc in opponents’ offensive linemen and force quarterbacks to make rushed decisions to avoid the sack. Meanwhile the linebackers and defensive backs sit back in the Cover 2 scheme that defends against big passing plays and leaving only short options. They also defend strongly against the run without having to dedicate extra men to the task. Seattle went well enough in Chicago to escape with a win earlier in the season, but since then the Bears have solved some drastic offensive line issues and can now protect QB Jay Cutler more effectively. Combined with a stronger emphasis on the running game, Seattle will find things much tougher this time around in Chi-town. Bears –9.5 @ 1.91 (Centrebet)

Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers
Last week the Ravens, despite shaky play from QB Joe Flacco, outlasted the tired out the Chiefs’ offense and then used big defensive plays to rack up the points late in the game. RB Ray Rice is coming into form late in the season, but the passing game has looked uninspired, and Flacco will face twice the pressure this week on the road against the ruthless Steelers’ D, led by safety Tory Polamalu. The bye will have given a crucial week for Pittsburgh to get over some injury concerns to key personnel, so you can expect to see an extremely tough, low scoring, hard-hitting defensive contest. Steelers shut down the run better than every team in the league, so the result of this one will rely on QB Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to avoid the blitz and make plays. Baltimore’s front 7 put a lot of pressure on opposing offensive lines, and as Pittsburgh’s offensive line has struggled at time to protect Big Ben, his elusiveness and strength to throw off potential tacklers will be crucial. Home field hasn’t meant much with this match-up this season (or in recent seasons), with the road team winning by 3 in low scoring affairs. As such, the total points line of 37 seems a very strong opportunity to play the Under (1.91 @ Sportsbet), rather than bet an actual winner. If you must though, shop for the largest start you can find and take the points. Ravens +3.5 @ 1.83 (Sportsbet)

Green Bay Packers @ Atlanta Falcons
Green Bay got lucky last week to hang on against the Eagles and come out of Wild Card weekend with a win. Clock mismanagement by Mike McCarthy was overpowered by some strange decision-making by Eagles’ QB Michael Vick ending in a game winning interception. The Pack won’t be able to put the cue in the rack at any stage if they want to beat the Falcons at home. Atlanta does everything fairly well without shining in any particular phase this season, and are able to take whatever the opposing defence is giving them. This usually results in close wins against good teams, and the Falcons are also guilty at times of going too conservative with their game planning. QB Matt Ryan will face some pressure against the Packers’ confusing pass rush schemes, but if his partner in crime, RB Michael Turner can force Green Bay to respect the run, the Falcons will be able to run up some points and take the lead. There is a lot of public support for this Packers team right now and as such, their start is a little low. As such, the Falcons (who have been beaten twice in their last 22 home starts, and beat GB 20-17 at home this season) represent better value. Falcons –2.5 @ 1.91 (Centrebet, Sportingbet)

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