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NFL Picks, Against the Spread: Divisional Round

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger suffered a broken nose in the last Steelers-Ravens matchup. What's in store for him Saturday with Pittsburgh's porous offensive line (AP)?

The line between being in the red or black is a razor-thin one, fellow degenerates. If you wagered equally on last weekend’s four games and went 2-2 against the spread, you might feel good about coming in at an even .500, but you’d have lost a small amount of net cash, accounting for the vig.

As for me, I did well to finish 3-1, but I’m kicking myself for looking like the biggest square in the world by losing both against the spread and straight up on the Saints. Hindsight being 20-20, I’m especially upset at having ignored some pretty critical warning signs for New Orleans, chiefly that it was dealing with injuries to a few of its most important players.


The lesson? We should always be doing our homework. If you’ve read my picks before, you know I’m not talking about digging up Matt Hasselbeck’s playoff record; I’m more interested in injury reports and unit-on-unit matchups. Those small things can be the difference between winning and losing money, or winning a little bit of money and a lot of money.

Last week, there were some good betting opportunities if you were able to cut through the fluff (read: misleading) information. Home-field advantage and regular-season record are worth looking at, but look at how that played out in the Wild Card round: Three away teams and arguably the worst playoff team in NFL history were victorious (straight up and against the spread).

This week, it gets murkier, and the oddsmakers have responded in turn by setting some pretty stiff lines.

For the sake of thoroughness, here are my 2010-11 records:
28-22-2 in the regular season.
3-1 in the playoffs.

On with the picks (mine are in bold) …

Ravens (+3) at Steelers
Baltimore flexed its muscle Sunday in overwhelming the Chiefs. The Ravens are pretty much a no-frills team. Indeed, what you see is what you get: Balanced offense, solid special teams and a strong, hard-hitting defense.

Pittsburgh is more or less a similarly constructed team, which accounts for these squads’ well-documented history of low-scoring, tightly contested slugfests.

If I were to call out each team’s most glaring weakness, it’d be the Ravens’ smallish, limited-upside cornerbacks and the Steelers’ sub-par offensive line. Remember when the Bills and Ryan Fitzpatrick shredded Baltimore’s secondary? I do. Remember when the Ravens battered Ben Roethlisberger and broke his nose? Right.

I’m picking the Ravens because this game is essentially a tossup, and they’re the ones getting points, albeit a small number. Plus, Troy Polamalu is slated to return after a lengthy absence from game action, but he’s still not practicing. If I’m to infer anything from that, it’s that he’s not 100 percent healthy.

Packers (+2.5) at Falcons
The Packers, as we know, went into an incredibly hostile road game last week and beat the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. I picked them to win (shameless plug), but I’m most pleased with it because it wasn’t a fluke. I’ve lamented coach Mike McCarthy’s obsession with establishing a ground game all year, but he finally found the right mix Sunday with James Starks and a full-house backfield, as Mike Tanier brilliantly breaks down.

Like Baltimore, Green Bay is just a really good, balanced team, which is why I’ve picked it to win the Super Bowl. With a newfound ground attack, the Pack can only be better.

Here’s what I like about the Packers with respect to this game: They boast a damn good corner to sic on one of the best receivers in football in Atlanta’s Roddy White. As we here in New York have seen with Darrelle Revis, that often means the offense simply shifts its focus elsewhere, but that Falcons’ other options are modest, and it’s not like the rest of the Packers’ secondary is chopped liver. White is the Falcons’ best skill-position player (after Matt Ryan, of course), and if Woodson can neutralize him, relatively speaking, it could be a tough go of it for Atlanta offensively.

In turn, I suspect the Falcons will try to bully the Packers and their sometimes spotty front four with a steady dose of Michael Turner, but that is hardly a gimme.

Do the Falcons have the defensive push up front to terrorize the sack- and concussion-prone Aaron Rodgers? They might. But again, in a virtual tossup, I’ve got to take the points.

Seahawks (+10) at Bears
Goodness, it pains me to side with the team that ruined my perfect weekend.

The Seahawks are not a good team by any measure, and they’re actually among the worst teams in NFL history to qualify for the postseason. Ah, the spoils of residing in the NFC West.

Yet, Seattle has won a game, and it knocked off a pretty good squad in New Orleans. Does that mean the Seahawks are suddenly a good team? Not really.

But here’s the rub: The Bears are hardly a juggernaut. In fact, if I were to rank the six teams that qualified for the playoffs in the NFC, they’d have been No. 5 — ahead of only these ‘hawks. This is how I rank them:

1. Atlanta
2. Green Bay
3. Philadelphia
4. New Orleans
5. Chicago
6. Seattle

How steep is the dropoff between Nos. 5 and 6? Is it worth 10 points?

For me, obviously, no. Consider that the Seahawks have already beaten the Bears earlier this year. And consider that this is the year of parity in the NFL — the year in which there is a very small handful of top-tier teams, and the rest are sort of a garbled mess.

There’s a premium here, too, because the Bears are a favorite of the betting public, at large. When they think of the Bears, they think of the Monsters of the Midway. They don’t think about a turnover-prone quarterback, porous offensive line and soft zone coverages. They also don’t think about the fact that the Seahawks boast terrific special teams and are one of the few teams in the NFL that might be able to neutralize Chicago’s consistent advantage in the field-position battle.

I’m taking the points and not looking back.

Jets (+8.5) at Patriots
Not to incite an existential crisis in you, my fellow degenerate gamblers, but what the hell is an 8.5-point spread? I mean, there are those familiar numbers we see so often — 3, 7, 10, 14. But 8.5?

I think it speaks to a indecision on the part of the oddsmakers. You can’t give a team like the Jets — one that boasts such a strong defense — 10 points. You just can’t. Their defense is so strong that they’re not going to lose by 10 points or more very often. In their five losses, the margins were one point, nine points, four points, 42 points and four points. Which is the outlier?

But here’s the dilemma: The Patriots, fairly, are perceived by the public to be the NFL’s best team. And they’ve beaten some good teams — including these Jets — by crooked margins. So, the Pats have to be favored by at least a touchdown, but they can’t lay double-digit points to the Jets. Hence, splitting the baby — 8.5.

But here’s a rule of thumb when all else fails: If a good defense is getting a lot of points, take ‘em. So, I am.

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