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Friday, 4 January 2013

Wildcard Round - Picking against the spread

We have just 11 games left this season. 11 games between teams who all won 10 or more regular season games. So with our Prediction League over, and my 2011 crown temporarily in the hands of Thomas Moore (@ThomasMoore27), it's time for me to take things up a notch and aim at the holy grail. Going 11-0 in the playoffs against the spread.

For those who aren't in the know, the spread is a points line that bookmakers set to try and get equal money coming in on both teams. So last week, Denver were 17 point "favourites" against Kansas City. To win a bet by backing Denver, you would need them to win by 18 points or more. Traditionally, 53-55% against the spread is a good rate. Above that and you're doing very well. So to try and go 13-0 is a nearly impossible task, and I'll almost certainly fall at the first hurdle. But why not try?

NB: Anyone using my picks to bet with real money is fully responsible for any broken kneecaps and other physical injuries that may ensue from being incorrect. I'll be using the lines from bet365.com for no reason other than that's where I do my sports betting.

Texans (-4.5) over Bengals

First game, and probably the biggest challenge to the bid this week.

There are many reasons to not like Houston here. They enter on a 1-3 stretch that includes blowouts from fellow playoff teams New England and Minnesota. Arian Foster looks worn out and battle-weary and Matt Schaub really doesn't strike fear into you. But at the same time, what's to like about Cincinnati's offense apart from AJ Green?

They have a plodding running game and I still don't trust Andy Dalton on the big stage against a front that pressures as much as Houston's. The Texans also do a great job in limiting the other teams #1 receiver, giving up just 74 yards a game to them. If they can limit AJ Green to that on saturday then there's a great chance of a blowout, let alone a win.

I keep coming back to the fact that these two teams met last year at the same stage, and Cincinnati ended up losing 31-10 to a TJ Yates-led offense. Yes, Houston were playing better and had a healthier defense then, but still it was with TJ fricking Yates. If you don't think Schaub and a resurgent Andre Johnson won't make some plays then you're kidding yourself.

One area where Cincinnati do have an advantage is special teams, and they'll need to make something happen there to stay in this game, much like Indy did last week. But even that, along with stud DT Geno Atkins going against a weak right side of the Houston line, shouldn't be enough to stop JJ Watt & co. getting through.

Prediction: Texans 24 - 17 Cincinnati

Vikings (+8) over Packers

This line started at 7.5 and has since gone up. I would have taken the points at 7.5, and at 8 I feel even better about it. Firstly, Green Bay don't have the running game to sit on a lead and chew up clock, and their defense has been iffy enough to make you think they will struggle to hold a determined team who know them so well.

Now, a week after a career high 34 carries can Peterson still be the same super-human that he has been for the last 17 weeks? Probably. He's averaged over 200 yards a game against Green Bay this year so even if he's not quite at his magical best he's likely to keep Minnesota's offense ticking. It's hard to blow out a team with the kind of advantage on the ground that Minnesota has.

The other area of concern is the field goal kickers. Mason Crosby has been a disaster for the Packers this season, while rookie Blair Walsh has excelled, especially from distance. I don't feel comfortable picking a team to win by more than a TD when their kicking game is as shaky as Green Bay's.

However I don't feel totally comfortable taking Christian Ponder on the road here. There's every chance he could be horrendous, but at the same time even if they're down 10 in the 4th quarter Leslie Frazier isn't going to turn away from Adrian Peterson. Then again, Aaron Rodgers is money in the playoffs...

Prediction: Packers 35 - 31 Vikings

Ravens (-6.5) over Colts

This game boils down to the fact that the Ravens are a great home team and the Colts are a bad road team. Then when you throw in a rookie QB (even one as good as Luck) on the road in the playoffs, a fired up and emotional crowd for both a game against the Team That Left Town and Ray Lewis' last home game and even the "ChuckStrong" mojo will struggle.

As dodgy as the Ravens have looked in the 2nd half this season, and it's very dodgy indeed after closing out the season 1-4, they did go 6-2 at home. They also have a huge advantage in the shape of Ray Rice against a Colts defense that has allowed 5.1 yards a carry this season.

A quick look into Indy's 4-4 road record makes you feel really bad about their chances this weekend. A blowout loss to the terrible Jets, needing overtime to beat the Titans and a huge comeback of 14 points in about 5 minutes in Detroit and all of a sudden you realise 4-4 could easily be 2-6. Yes, Andrew Luck's end of game heroics have been staggering this season, but if you're banking on that happening against a healthier and veteran defense like the Ravens, who have ability to hit big plays and grind out the clock against Indy, then it's going to be a very uncomfortable 4th quarter for you.

But then again... The Colts have defied logic this season, and "ChuckStrong" does have some serious karma going behind it. There's been one big upset in the wildcard weekend in each of the last 2 years, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Colts ended up being the one this year.

Prediction: Ravens 31 - 23 Colts

Seahawks (-3) over Redskins

A clearly hurt Robert Griffin III going against a fast, fully healthy Seahawks defense isn't going to be fun, but the Seahawks can't afford to get sloppy and careless. The Redskins running game is like nothing they've faced all year and requires all 11 players to be on their toes and reading everything with the same eyes. Gap responsibility will be crucial, as will controlling the edges. Fortunately for Seattle they have a very deep, and very good defensive line who I think can control and bottle up the Redskins ground attack, while the return of Brandon Browner to the secondary makes the passing game even harder for Robert Griffin.

On the other side of the ball Russell Wilson and the Seahawks have been prolific of late, but their last game against St. Louis showed they can be slowed down by good edge play. The Redskins will need Ryan Kerrigan on top form, but even then keeping Russell Wilson under wraps is a hard thing to do.

Seattle also have a huge advantage in special teams, particularly in the return game with Leon Washington giving them consistently good field position and Marshawn Lynch is extremely difficult to handle. It won't be a surprise to any of you that I like Seattle to go deep this year, and even though their road record isn't particularly good (3-5 including losses in Arizona, St. Louis and Detroit) much of that was in the 1st half of the season, before their offense really got going.

Prediction: Seahawks 27 - 20 Redskins

- Toby Durant (@TDonSport)
- The Pulling Linemen

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