Heading into last weekend’s Wild Card round, the chalk was thicker than usual, as the four games involved heavy home favorites sporting spreads of six points or more.
Of course, underdogs ruled the day in terms of against the spread betting, covering all four contests with ease.
In fact, each conference saw a six-seed win outright and move on to the upcoming Divisional Round – with the AFC sending the Tennessee Titans onward after their 18-point comeback over the Kansas City Chiefs, and the Atlanta Falcons continuing their quest to represent the NFC in a second straight Super Bowl by beating the L.A. Rams.
As for the other two teams to emerge from Wild Card Weekend, the New Orleans Saints couldn’t cover a full touchdown in downing the Carolina Panthers 31-26, and the Jacksonville Jaguars never came close to covering the 9-point number in winning a 10-3 slugfest over the Buffalo Bills.
Looking forward to the next round, it’ll be more of the same with two of the matchups featuring wide spreads. On the other hand, the linemakers expect closer calls in the other two games – with one number making waves as a first in the NFL’s post-merger era.
Check out the capsules for each Divisional Round game below to see exactly where the spread stands by midweek, courtesy of online sportsbook Bovada:
#6 Atlanta Falcons (11-6) @ #1 Philadelphia Eagles (13-3) – 4:35 p.m. EST on NBC
The first game on the docket represents history in the making, as the sixth-seeded Falcons opened as 2.5-point favorites on the road against the NFC-best Eagles.
The line has since been bet up to Atlanta (-3), marking the first time since the 1970 merger that a top-seeded team wasn’t tabbed as the favorite. Of course, that discrepancy is a direct reflection on Philadelphia’s late-season loss of Carson Wentz, who had emerged as a star signal caller in his wildly successful second year.
With the Wentz Wagon grounded for good this year, the Eagles have turned to capable backup Nick Foles to get back on track. Philly players and fans alike hoped to see a repeat of Foles’ incredible 2013 campaign, when he tossed 27 touchdowns to just two interceptions while leading a 10-6 team to the playoffs.
Unfortunately for them, Foles has struggled mightily in two of his three starts following Wentz’ injury, casting doubt on his ability to keep the Eagles’ title hopes intact.
Along with those doubts about the offense, Philly must contend with a Falcons defense that just held the top-scoring team in the NFL to just 13 points. Atlanta has quietly developed a top-10 scoring defense, allowing only 19.7 points per game (eighth overall). And with their playoff hopes on the line late in the year, the Falcons held high-scoring teams like the Saints (17 points), Panthers (10 points), and Vikings (14 points) well below their season averages.
Accordingly, the Over/Under total on this one is lower than you might expect at 41.5 points.
#6 Tennessee Titans (10-7) @ #1 New England Patriots (13-3) – 8:15 p.m. EST on CBS
When the Titans trailed 21-3 midway through their Wild Card game, it looked like Tennessee’s first playoff bid since 2008 would be short-lived.
But a rousing rally on offense combined with a second-half shutout produced a 22-21 final, sending the Titans to the lion’s den in the process. The AFC’s sixth-seed will face the conference’s top team – and perhaps the greatest dynasty in NFL history – when they head to Foxboro for a date with the Patriots.
The loss of DeMarco Murray to injury allowed Tennessee to feature second-year stud Derrick Henry in the backfield, and the former Alabama running back responded in resounding fashion. His 23 carries produced 156 yards on the ground, and he added another 35 yards through a pair of receptions, carrying the team on his back during the epic comeback.
That was enough to stymie Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, but his counterpart on the Patriots sideline is known for championships, not choking – and Bill Belichick is notorious for neutralizing an opponent’s top weapon.
After opening with New England as 13.5-point home favorites, the line has been nudged to Patriots (-14). Tom Brady and the boys faced big numbers all year though, going 11-5 against the spread despite a series of double-digit spreads. Totals bettors have a line of 47 points to work with, which seems a tad low given Patriots games have topped 50 on six occasions this year.
#3 Jacksonville Jaguars (11-6) @ #2 Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3) – 1:05 p.m. EST on CBS
Blake Bortles looked less than mortal against the Bills, going 12-23 for a paltry 87 yards through the air – but he did add 88 more as a rusher to give the Jags just enough punch for a 10-3 win.
That was the second consecutive 10-point outing for Jacksonville, which doesn’t bode well with a trip to Pittsburgh looming. The Steelers surrendered only 19.3 points per game, good for the seventh-best scoring defense in football, while putting up an impressive 25.3 per on offense (eighth overall).
With just three losses on the season, Pittsburgh was one of the league’s most consistent teams – but one of those blemishes came at the hands of Jacksonville. Back in Week 4, the Jags rolled 30-9 over the Steelers, at Heinz Field no less.
That road victory showcased Jacksonville’s top-rated secondary, as cornerback Jalen Ramsey joined in a pick parade which saw the Jaguars intercept Ben Roethlisberger five times on the day. Ramsey had another INT last week, and Jacksonville will likely need more of the same as big underdogs this Sunday.
After opening as 6.5-point road dogs, the Jags are now getting 7.5 points. Meanwhile, the total has settled at 41 points given the defensive talent on both teams.
#3 New Orleans Saints (12-5) @ #2 Minnesota Vikings (13-3) – 4:40 p.m. EST on FOX
The schedule-makers saved the best game of the week for last, with a pair of division winners clashing to cap the Divisional Round.
Drew Brees was in Super Bowl form last week, stringing together a classic 22-33, 376-yard, two-touchdown line while dissecting the Carolina secondary. He beat a respectable defense at that, as Carolina gave up a slim 317.1 yards per game – good for seventh overall.
That win went down on home turf, however, and Brees won’t have the benefit of the Superdome crowd this time around.
It’ll be a much tougher task heading to Minnesota, where the Vikings boast a league-leading defense. Opposing offenses go for just 275.9 yards and 15.8 points per game against fearsome defenders like safety Harrison Smith, so Brees will have his work cut for him.
On the other side of the ball, former backup Case Keenum has become the surprise story of the year, and Minnesota is scoring to the tune of 23.8 points per (10th overall). Receivers like Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen have helped to elevate Keenum’s play, while the running back tandem of Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon provide balance.
This should be a barnburner, plain and simple, as shown by the thin 4-point advantage given to the Vikings at home and a 45.5-point total.