I say "new season" because that's essentially what it is now for all of these playoffs teams. Every team, whether it's the New England Patriots or the Seattle Seahawks, now has a 0-0 record heading into the playoffs. And this new season couldn't be more timely for me. After starting out the season strong, I limped to the finish line with a .500 record. Compared to the 7-9 record of the Seahawks, I guess I don't look so bad.
Of my five picks for the final week of the NFL season, only two were winners, pushing my overall column record to 42-42 with one tie. My success rate is right at 50%, shy of the magical 53% threshold. A bettor typically needs to win 53% of his or her bets in order to profit, based on the idea that you have to wager 110 units in order to win 100 units. That means I need to be nearly flawless in the playoffs to end the season as "profitable," although again these picks are only for entertainment. Can I go 11-0 with my picks against the spread in this season's playoff games? Before even dreaming of going 11-0, I need to go 4-0 in this first round of playoff games. These wild card battles are particularly interesting this year as it could be argued that every road team is better than the home team they are playing. "That's not necessarily surprising," says Paul Bessire, the general manager and creator of the Web site PredictionMachine.com. His Prediction Machine is a quantitative way to break down NFL games as it simulates each contest 50,000 times to come up with a pick against the spread. Bessire makes special note of the divisions many of the wild card teams come from. "Each of the wild card teams come from divisions with teams that have byes, but is surprising how relatively weak the home teams in the wild card round are this season," Bessire says. "While we don't necessarily like every road team to win straight-up or against the spread as the most likely scenario, it is a very unique first week of the playoffs with four games where the road team would be a definitive favorite on a neutral field." With that, it's onto my picks for all four games of Wild Card Weekend. Once again, these are for entertainment purposes only. And as always, I've enlisted the help of PredictionMachine.com's Paul Bessire. I've also collected commentary on each game from Bookmaker.com CEO Mickey Richardson. His analysis focuses on the spread movement by his oddsmakers and a look at where the public and professional money is moving on each game. These are necessary tools for bettors on the hunt for inefficiencies and value based on betting trends. Read on for the first game preview, the Baltimore Ravens and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Baltimore Ravens at Kansas City Chiefs (+3)
I was very excited about the prospects of the Jets playing in Kansas City against the Chiefs, simply because both teams are so much alike that it promised to be a good matchup. Now that the Ravens are traveling to Kansas City, I can't say I'm as enthusiastic, but that doesn't mean this will be an unentertaining game. My knee-jerk reaction is to pick the home team, if only because the Chiefs appear to have the means to make a good playoff run. Matt Cassel has enough experience as a quarterback to help lead a relatively young team. Remember, this is the first playoff appearance for the Chiefs since 2006, when the team got bounced in the first round by the Colts. The Chiefs also have a solid running game thanks to Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones, as the team ranked first overall in the NFL in rushing. Despite Cassel's winning performance with the Patriots years ago, his arm remains the weak link in the Chiefs' offense. Kansas City ranks 30th overall in passing yards, although Cassel has 27 touchdowns to only seven interceptions. It can be argued that he's certainly a step up from Damon Huard and Trent Green, mostly thanks to the dominance of Dwayne Bowe. The Chiefs' defense has been solid, too, racking up 14 interceptions and 21 forced fumbles and giving Kansas City a turnover differential of +9. The Baltimore Ravens are no slouch on defense, either. The team has a turnover margin of +7 thanks to the outstanding play of Ed Reed. What worries me about the Baltimore Ravens is how the team has played on the road this season. While one of the team's few blowout wins this season came on the road, it was against the lowly Carolina Panthers. The Ravens won only four of their other seven road games by an average of five points. That number is skewed higher by a 10-point victory over a weak Cleveland Browns team on Dec. 26 and a six-point overtime win at Houston on Dec. 13. The Ravens lost on the road to the Patriots and Falcons, both playoff teams, as well as the Bengals. What I'm trying to get at is that I don't trust the Ravens, and in particular quarterback Joe Flacco, on the road as favorites. The Ravens' passing game is ranked 20th overall in the NFL out of 32 teams. This is not very inspiring. Bessire's Take: "The Chiefs are a good team, ranking 11th in our final Power Rankings, but the Ravens are an elite team with a serious chance at winning the Super Bowl. And while the Chiefs have one of the better home-field advantages in the league, it's not going to quite make up for the talent differential. The Chiefs are clearly not as good as their record. Taking strength-of-schedule into account, Kansas City ranks 27th in passing, seventh in rushing, 10th against the pass and 24th against the run. Interesting to note, though it's rarely discussed, Baltimore draws the most penalties per play of any NFL team and commits the sixth fewest, which seems to fit into its strategy on both sides of the ball and could help to counteract some of the home-field advantage benefit." Bookmaker.com Take: "The Ravens opened as a 3-point favorite over the Chiefs with the public backing Baltimore. However, there is smart money showing up on the dog, evening out the books. Bookmaker.com odds makers predict this event to be the opinions of the public versus the pros. The spread should close 3 with a slight lean towards KC." The Pick: Ravens -3. Baltimore is the better team, right? Right?! Again, I'm almost lured into take the points with the Chiefs at home. They have a good running game, and the defense can contain Joe Flacco, whom I still can't bring myself to trust. Then again, the Ravens are the fifth best overall at stopping the run. This will be a close game, but ultimately I have to go with the Ravens. They have the playoff experience, as they showed last year by trouncing the Patriots in Gillette Stadium.
New York Jets at Indianapolis Colts (-2.5)
Like the Ravens at the Chiefs, this Wild Card Weekend game sees the better team traveling on the road to a division winner. Yes, you read that correctly. The Jets are clearly the better team in this game, and they're much better than the 2009 version that lost to the Colts in the AFC Championship game earlier this year. It's no surprise that Rex Ryan could organize a terrific defense, one that has helped the team realize a turnover differential of +9. Like the Chiefs, the weak link of the Jets is the quarterback position. Mark Sanchez has thrown 17 touchdowns and has done enough to help his team win, there's no doubt about that. But Sanchez also has 13 interceptions and nine fumbles. Making matters worse, he's been sacked 27 times for a cumulative loss of 171 yards. An injured shoulder surely can't be helping Sanchez's situation. The Jets defense, however, could win the game for the team as it can stop the pass and run. Against a Colts offense that counts on Donald Brown and Joseph Addai and ranks 29th overall in terms of yards, the latter won't be difficult to accomplish. However, as the saying goes, you can't stop Peyton Manning; you can only hope to contain him. This is the same Peyton Manning who threw for 4,700 yards and 33 touchdowns this season. The same Peyton Manning who threw only two interceptions in the final four games of the regular season after horrendous performances against New England, San Diego and Dallas. The same Peyton Manning who allegedly never loses a night game. Bessire's Take: "A rematch of the AFC Championship from last season that the Colts won 30-17, this game may be the most intriguing of the weekend, pitting too opposites against each other with the better team having to go on the road. The home favorite wins barely more often than not, which puts the value on the road underdog. Despite being an even matchup, these teams are very different. The New York Jets offense is almost perfectly balanced, running 49.1% of the time to 50.9% passing. On the season, the Jets played the eighth toughest schedule, winning 11 games and ranking 23rd in passing, sixth in rushing, fifth against the pass and second against the run in our strength-of-schedule-adjusted efficiency metrics. The Indianapolis Colts pass the ball 62.1% of the time. They played the 21st toughest schedule in the league and won 10 games, ranking 13th in passing, 30th in rushing, 10th against the pass and 25th against the run. The Jets have a great opportunity to succeed running the ball against the Colts; and the Colts are better off passing against the Jets than rushing." Bookmaker.com Take: "Bookmaker.com opened the home-town Colts with a 3-point advantage and the smart money came in early and pushed the spread down to 2.5. Clearly, the wiseguys feel the right side is the Jets. This game expects to close 2 to 2.5 by kickoff." The Pick: Jets +2.5. My logic here is very simple. The Jets can run the ball well, something the Colts can't stop at all. Meanwhile, the Colts are completely ineffective running the ball, while the Jets defense is like a brick wall. This benefits Mark Sanchez, who won't be depended on as much. On the other hand, the pressure is all on Peyton Manning's shoulders. He's certainly done it before with great success, but I'm not so sure the same can be said now.
Green Bay Packers at Philadelphia Eagles (-3)
This is the game I am most excited about this weekend, as both of these teams were considered early favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Let's take the Eagles first, so I can address the league's most fascinating player right now, Michael Vick. Putting everything about Vick's personal life aside, he is extremely fun to watch, and I'm glad we get to observe his play for at least one more game. Vick is nursing a quadricep injury, which held him out of the Eagles' regular season finale. He certainly needed the rest, too, given his performance in recent games. His worst performance of the season came in Week 16 against the Vikings, as Vick was sacked six times, threw one interception and fumbled the ball away twice. Despite that performance, the Eagles offense is ranked among the best in the NFL, while the defense is in the middle of the pack (no pun intended). Unfortunately for Vick, he could see a repeat of his performance against the Vikings as Green Bay comes to town. The Packers have an edge when looking at turnover margins as well as defensive performance. Green Bay's defense is as effective against opposing running backs as the Eagles -- which doesn't say much -- but the Packers excel at limiting passing attacks. That could stop long pass completions and the explosive nature of Vick, forcing him instead to pull the ball down and run to the outside. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers didn't inspire much confidence last week, though, in a must-win game against the Chicago Bears. The lack of an effective running attack has had its effects on Rodgers, as he's been sacked 31 times for a total loss of nearly 200 yards this season. It should also be noted that Green Bay is dreadful on the road, losing five games away from Lambeau Field by an average of 3.4 points. Bessire's Take: "We were very high on both the Packers and Eagles going into the year and that came to fruition. We also had the Packers going into Philadelphia and winning in Week 1 by about a touchdown and that happened as well. Even though Michael Vick only played half that game, not enough has changed in these teams to expect a different outright winner. In other words, while Philadelphia has home-field advantage and a decent advantage with its running attack against Green Bay's run defense, the Packers have every other advantage. Much of Michael Vick's value through efficiency comes from his ability to avoid costly turnovers earlier in the season. He's come back to Earth quite a bit recently, turning the ball over in each of his last five starts with six interceptions and four fumbles lost." Bookmaker.com Take: "Currently Philly is a 3-point favorite over the Packers. The early money came in on Philly -2.5. Bookmaker.com believes 3 is the right number and doubts there will be much movement." The Pick: Packers +3. I have to go with Green Bay, although I'm not particularly fond of this pick. Neither team played well near the end of the season, which is never a good sign. The Eagles, though, will be playing their third game in 13 days. Vick is injured and it's unclear how much that will limit him running the ball. Given the success, of the Packers at defending opponents' passing game, I think the Packers keep this game very close and could certainly win outright to advance in the playoffs.
New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks (+10.5)
If you take time Saturday afternoon to watch that Inception DVD you were gifted over the holidays, I'm sure no one will blame you. That's because the general public is fully expecting a rout in this game, as the Super Bowl champions head to Seattle to play a team that won the NFC West with a losing record. Oh, yes. There were loud criticisms in the media this week over the fact that a 7-9 team is still a possibility to make the Super Bowl. Personally, I don't care, and I'm not going to complain about it. The Seahawks are here and there appears to be plenty of value in picking them this week. So while movie viewers will spend the day figuring out if Leonardo DiCaprio was dreaming or not, I'll be content in watching to see if the Seahawks can cover an outsized point spread. That's certainly a possibility given two circumstances. For one, Matt Hasselbeck appears to be ready to go in the game, which would save the betting public from Charlie Whitehurst. Of course, Hasselbeck hasn't had the greatest of campaigns in 2010, as he's thrown more interceptions (17) than touchdowns (12). It's also a tough bet to take the Seahawks given that every one of the team's nine losses this season was by 15 points or more. However, Hasselbeck has been in the playoffs before many times, so he knows what to expect when the crowd at Qwest Field becomes louder than a jet engine. Secondly, I don't trust the Saints. Wait, let me rephrase that: I don't trust the Saints to completely thrash the Seahawks. The public is rightfully assuming New Orleans will march into Seattle and beat the Seahawks. To be sure, the Seahawks stink. Seattle ranks 31st overall for rushing yards on offense, 27th on defense against the pass and 21st on defense against opponents' running game. And the Seahawks lost by 15 points to the Saints in New Orleans in Week 11. The Saints, though, have only won five games this season by more than 10 points, with two of those blowout victories coming on the road against Carolina and Tampa Bay. In addition, the Saints running attack -- already ranked among the worst in the league -- isn't going to get better now that both Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory are on the injured reserve list. I love Drew Brees and all, but am I really expected to believe the Saints have a balanced offense with only Reggie Bush in the backfield? Bessire's Take: "I think that we can definitively state that the Seattle Seahawks are the worst playoff team that we have ever seen. However, they have a great chance to keep this game within 10 points because of a couple things that were on full display in Week 17. Seattle has the best home-field advantage in the NFL and New Orleans is not that good, either. The Saints are the better team; that's not in debate. But can the Seahawks keep this game close enough to cover a 10.5-point line? Our answer is yes -- at least more often than not. Just considering the game that was played in New Orleans earlier in the season when Seattle lost to the Saints 34-19, if we take away the Saints home-field advantage -- just over three points -- and tack on Seattle's advantage, we've got an eight- or nine-point game, no matter who plays quarterback for the Seahawks." Bookmaker.com Take: "This is the first time in NFL playoff history to have a visiting team be a double-digit favorite, New Orleans -10. This is classic public money versus pro money. Bookmaker.com has been moving the spread back and forth all week long from 10 to 10.5. The public is backing the favorite and the pros are backing the dog. We expect to see the event close at 10 flat." The Pick: Seahawks +10.5. New Orleans wins this game, so there's little to no value in a straight-up money line bet. That said, even considering how horrible the Seahawks passing game will likely be against an effective Saints pass defense, 10.5 points is just too many to be laying on this game. -- Written by Robert Holmes in Boston. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Robert Holmes. >To follow Robert Holmes on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/RobTheStreet. >To submit a news tip, send an email to: email@example.com.