Every team, whether it's the
, now has a 0-0 record heading into the playoffs. Like the Giants and Broncos, who enter the playoffs without winning records, I get to wipe the slate clean and do my best to compete well in the playoffs with my picks. The question now is which side of each game has value for bettors.
After going 2-3 in the final week of the regular season, I finished the season with a record of 33-43 with four ties, good for a winning percentage of 41.2% in the 80 games I picked in this column. Because one has to bet $110 to win $100, a 53% winning percentage in games is usually the benchmark for average performance. This was, without a doubt, the worst year I've had with my NFL picks.
It's a good thing for you, dear reader, that I've got Paul Bessire, the general manager and creator of the Web site
, to help out with the playoff picks. Bessire's model, which simulates each contest 50,000 times to come up with a
, hit 59% of its picks against the spread this season and was a perfect 11-0 in the playoffs last year.
In order to keep his playoff undefeated streak alive, Bessire has a long road ahead of him with a brutal start. In the first round of the playoffs, his model's picks against the spread have a confidence level that hovers between 53% and 57% for each game, which is considered a "weak play." In other words, his model isn't finding very much value in this first slate of playoff games.
"It's actually rare for us to see a lot of value in lines around this time of year," says Bessire. "Even though we take advantage of the public moving the line in the direction that favors us, we've gotten through a full season now and the linesmakers know where to put it."
Think back to last year's playoffs, particularly the game where the
New Orleans Saints
traveled to play the
as a double-digit favorite. The Saints not only failed to cover, they were booted from the playoffs in a terrible loss to Seattle. Also recall that the
Green Bay Packers
, the eventual Super Bowl Champions, were underdogs in the first round.
"Those lines from a year ago look much more exploitable than these," Bessire says. "It's a product of the matchups. We don't see a situation where one team's strengths correlates to another team's weakness that we could have a surprise outcome."
"The lines are roughly about where I thought they'd be," adds Bryan Leonard, a professional sports handicapper with
who is also part of the Tuesday Group, a collection of professional bettors in Las Vegas who get together to handicap the games each week.
"It all depends on where you think the lines are going," Leonard says. "High-scoring public teams will get the money from the public, so the Saints line will probably go up. The public will probably also try to bet against Denver and go for the Giants. That said, it's a crapshoot at this point. You have a lot of information for the full year, so it's harder to find value."
With that, it's on to the
. These are for
entertainment purposes only
. Once again, I have enlisted the help of
Bessire, who offers analysis of the data his model provides for each of the playoff games I've picked this week.
Leonard also offers his thoughts, picks and analysis, which focuses on the spread movement by Vegas oddsmakers to determine where the public and professional money is moving on each game. These trends prove to be critical for bettors who are on the hunt for inefficiencies and value.
Read on for the first game pick, where the underdog
play host to the injury-plagued
. And as always, I encourage you to leave comments below with your favorite
Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos (+8.5)
When a home team in the playoffs is getting more than a touchdown, it's either one of the worst teams in the championship hunt or Vegas oddsmakers know they can jack up the line on the favorite team. So which is it?
, the Las Vegas Hotel & Casino posted the Steelers as 8-point favorites on Jan. 2, and the line quickly ticked up to 8.5 points, where it has stayed all week. Some other casinos, though, have bumped the line as high as 9 points during the week. The total opened at 34.5 points at the Las Vegas Hotel and has now come down by a full point to 33.5 points.
R.J. Bell of Pregame.com points out that this Steelers team is only the second road playoff team in NFL history to be favored by more than a touchdown. The first came a year ago when the Saints were 10-point favorites in Seattle (and we all know how that turned out). Bell also notes that home underdogs getting more than a touchdown are 10 for 11 against the spread this season.
Pregame's Leonard notes that Pittsburgh is a major favorite that gets huge public backing, but he argues the offense hasn't been very good and will likely get worse without injured running back Rashard Mendenhall and a banged up Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback.
"Pittsburgh hasn't put a lot of points on the board and Denver's defense isn't bad," Leonard says. "In the playoffs, home dogs have been great against the spread. Denver is a team no one wants any part of it. There is a total of 34 points, which is very low in a playoff game. I like Denver and the over. Denver has a chance to win this game outright, but I feel much more comfortable taking the points."
Bessire, though, says his model is on the complete other end of the spectrum, picking Pittsburgh to cover in a game that will likely go over the point total.
"You see a low total but a high spread, which is very rare. In this case, if you think it's under, you take the Broncos. But we think it'll go over, so we like Pittsburgh," Bessire says. "I see this as a game where it's such a bad matchup for the Denver Broncos. We see Pittsburgh as the team most likely to win by double digits this weekend. It's hard to see the Denver offense doing enough to keep it close."
The Pick: Broncos +8.5
. Some interesting notes: Pittsburgh's six final games of the regular season all went under the totals, even as those totals dwindled nearly every week. Pittsburgh has trouble scoring against decent defenses; For example, the Steelers scored a total of only 27 points in two games against the Cleveland Browns. They also only managed a lowly 3 points against the 49ers on a Monday night recently.
I'm not saying that Denver's defense is incredible; The Broncos are ranked 19th overall on defense using
DVOA statistic, with their run defense slightly better than their pass defense. I don't think the Broncos will win, but with a decent running attack, Denver will slow down the game. If Roethlisberger isn't 100%, the Steelers may rely on Isaac Redman to run the ball more, which would also slow down the game. I think the Broncos keep this game within 8 points and the total is under or right around 34 points.
Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans (-3.5)
The line on this game hung around a field goal for nearly the entire week, and I wanted nothing to do with this game at a line of Houston -3. But a very small line move late close to the weekend, there may still be value to had in this game.
, the Las Vegas Hotel & Casino posted the Texans as 3-point favorites on Jan. 2, where it stayed for most of the week. However, the juice increased on the Bengals side as the payoff moved from -110 to +100. Now, the line is at 3.5 points with the Texans at +100 and the Bengals at -120. The total opened at 38 points at the Las Vegas Hotel and drifted up to 38.5 points.
Pregame's Leonard had been leaning towards Cincinnati earlier in the week when the line was +3, and he said he'd jump on the Bengals if he could get +3.5 points. "This is the one dog that has a decent chance to win outright," he says. "If Houston played all season long with T.J. Yates and not Matt Schaub before he got injured, they probably would have the same record as Cincy against teams over .500."
Prediction Machine's Bessire, meanwhile, notes that the Texans traveled to Cincinnati earlier in the season as underdogs and won 20-19 with T.J. Yates at quarterback. His model is now picking Houston as the better team playing at home.
"It looks like the Texans were the better team in the earlier matchup," Bessire says. "The Texans have the number one overall defense in the league, a great running back and good wide receivers. The Texans have been consistently undervalued by linesmakers and the public. Cincinnati falls just short of the Texans in everything except at quarterback right now, and the gap there is not as great as most would expect."
The Pick: Bengals +3.5
. My pick ultimately comes down to my belief that the Bengals aren't as bad as they're believed to be. The extra half-point on the line only helps my decision. The Bengals defeated only one team all season that finished with a winning record (Tennessee Titans). But no one pays much attention to how the Texans wins over three teams with winning records who they probably caught at the right time of year. Maybe Cincinnati doesn't pull out a victory this weekend, but I think they keep this game super close. Either way, the margin of victory for either team should be razor-thin.
I should add, if you throw out the last minute touchdown last week by Jake Delhomme, the Texans failed to score more than 20 points since they scored 37 points on Tampa Bay in mid-November. In the final three weeks of the season, Houston played against teams with pitiful defenses (Colts and Panthers) and failed to score more than 16 points in either game. The Bengals, meanwhile, averaged 21.5 points in its games all season and played a slightly more difficult schedule against tough defenses like Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Baltimore.
Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints (-10.5)
If I get 10.5 points by picking an underdog that scores an average of 30 points per game, and that team is going up against one of the worst ranked defenses in the league, I'm going to take the points every time.
, the Las Vegas Hotel & Casino posted the Saints as 10.5-point favorites on Jan. 2, where it has stayed all week except for a quick trip up to 11 points. The total opened at 59 points at the Las Vegas Hotel and has stuck there all week. Some other Vegas casinos, though, have the total at 59.5 points and two spots (Peppermill and Stations) had the total as high as 60 points.
R.J. Bell of Pregame.com notes that the total of 59 points is the largest in NFL playoff history, with the prior coming when the Saints and Cardinals faced off a few years ago in a game that carried an over/under of 57. Furthermore, Bell notes that only one game in NFL history had a higher Vegas total, and that came more than a decade ago when a Rams/49ers game had a record total of 62 points.
Pregame's Leonard notes that he hasn't been right in picking a good time to go against New Orleans. For those keeping track at home, the Saints were 12-4 against the spread this season and ripped off an impressive eight-game streak of covers to close out the regular season.
"It wouldn't surprise me if the line inflates more when the public comes in," Leonard says. "Detroit's offense puts points on the board and could easily have a backdoor cover. Also, you may actually get some value on the over now. The public likes to bet overs, so it'll continue to go up. It wouldn't surprise me if this hits 60 by game time."
Leonard makes one key point that Prediction Machine's Bessire agrees with: When the Lions and Saints played earlier this season in New Orleans, the line was Saints -8.5 for a game where Ndamukong Suh was suspended and Detroit was without other key defensive players. Now, bettors could pick the Lions that are restocked with Suh and the other players and get more points.
"New Orleans was lucky to cover the first time," Bessire argues. "Detroit enters the postseason as one of the surprisingly healthier overall teams. I would think the line moved in the wrong direction with those defensive players coming back. I don't see this as a 14-point game but instead a single-digit game. Expect a shootout with plenty of opportunities for Detroit to stay in this game."
The Pick: Lions +10.5
. According to
DVOA statistic, New Orleans' defense ranks 28th out of 32 teams, a dramatic falloff from a season ago. In particular, the Saints are not good at stopping opponents from throwing on them, which just happens to be a strong point for a Lions teams with Matthew Stafford at quarterback and Megatron at wide receiver. This is probably my top pick of the weekend in terms of picking a side, although I'm nervous about taking the over with the total up near 30 points.
Atlanta Falcons at New York Giants (-3)
My heart says 'Falcons' while my head says 'Giants.' Unfortunately, this line hasn't moved an inch to open up any value opportunity for this game.
, the Las Vegas Hotel & Casino posted the Giants as 3-point favorites on Jan. 2, a line that hasn't budged all week. Every other Vegas casino has also held the line to -3, although the juice on the Giants side has fluctuated from +100 to -120 during the week. The total opened at 47.5 points at the Las Vegas Hotel with a few brief stints at 47.
Pregame's Leonard says Atlanta would be his pick in the game under normal circumstances. "At Giants -3, I don't have an opinion, but I would like to get Atlanta +3.5," he says. "Unfortunately, it looks like it actually is trending downward right now. Atlanta has a pretty good defense and both teams run the ball well, so the total seems to be a little high."
Meanwhile, Prediction Machine's Bessire said that until last weekend's victory over the Dallas Cowboys, he didn't have a very favorable opinion on the Giants, although that has changed.
"They consistently showed they can hang with the elite teams, and I wouldn't call Atlanta an elite team on the road outdoors," Bessire says. "We like the Giants to win by about 5 points. We think it'll be more of a shootout than Vegas thinks it will be, so we like the over. The Giants' defense has improved relative to expectations and the running game improved over the past few weeks."
The Pick: Falcons +3
. This game is a stay away for me, but I have to pick it for my column since we only have four games this weekend. Since I've gone exclusively with the underdogs so far this week, I figured I'd make it 4-for-4.
All joking aside, the Giants defense isn't as good as it has appeared to be these past few weeks, in my opinion. By
DVOA statistic, the Falcons have the 6th ranked defense overall while the Giants are ranked 20th. In particular, the Falcons are good at stopping opposing running backs, which is a bad matchup for the Giants. And while the Giants' passing offense is ranked 4th in the entire league, I have a hard time believing Eli Manning can play well enough even at home to win this game by more than a field goal.
-- Written by Robert Holmes in Boston
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