By Ron Jumper
So the NFL Wildcard is here and there are four very tough matchups to break down. We‘ve never seen this before where 3 of the 4 matchups involve rematches of the final week of the season. The lone game that doesn’t involve a rematch from week 17 is the Ravens-Pats, but even they played each other earlier in the season. This can cause some serious headaches for the prognosticators, much less the betting public. What impact will that have on the losing side’s confidence? How do we calculate the reinsertion of the guys that rested last week? More on that later.
Here are some basic things to think about when it comes to betting the NFL playoffs:
-Who has the better quarterback?
-Who has the better head coach?
-Which team has more experience?
-Which team was playing better down the stretch of the regular season?
-Does one team have an obvious advantage in a key area?
-Does one team have a psychological advantage over their opponent?
Cincinnati Bengals (-1.5) cover vs. New York Jets
Interestingly, the fact that these two teams played each other last week has little to do with what we should expect this week. For starters, we are changing venues, which makes a huge difference (especially for the Bengals who finished 5-0 in their last 5 home games but lost their last 4 road games). As far as personnel, the Bengals get back Cedric Benson and Chad Ochocinco on offense, along with safety Chris Crocker and defensive lineman Domata Peko and Robert Geathers, Jr.
Alright, now that we’ve addressed the differences between this week and last, let’s take a look at the matchup itself. The Jets are starting a rookie quarterback on the road in his playoff debut, which is a bad sign for New York. In fact, that is one of the biggest red flags you can have if you are betting this game. I feel so strongly that, in my mind, you either take the Bengals or you don’t bet this game at all. Over time fading rookie quarterbacks in their first playoff game is the right play, though every rule has exceptions (Joe Flacco last season against Miami). Even if Sanchez wasn’t a rookie, look at these teams everywhere else: similar coaching staffs (both from the Ravens coaching tree), quality running backs, and quality defenses. The difference here is Carson Palmer over Mark Sanchez. Taking it a step further, even the wide receiver-cornerback matchup for both teams is pretty even: Revis vs. Ochocinco, Edwards vs. Joseph/Hall. Take the Bengals, Carson Palmer will make the difference in crunch time. Trust me!
Dallas Cowboys (-3.5) cover vs. Philadelphia Eagles
For me, I don’t agree with the concept of “it is hard to beat a team three times” especially when the Cowboys ripped out the Eagles collective hearts last week. The Eagles came into this game with everything riding on it, unlike the Bengals. If the Eagles won, they could have not only won the division but possibly advanced to the second seed if the Vikings had lost. However, they got trounced in embarrassing fashion and that just simply has to have had an impact on their confidence. On the other side, the Cowboys couldn’t be more confident after the way they finished the season with wins over the Saints (who were undefeated at the time) and the Eagles (longtime NFC East rival).
As for the matchup itself, I have been saying for a long time that the guy who makes the Cowboys go from good to special on offense is Felix Jones. He is finally playing (fingers crossed, knocked on wood, said a few hail marys, etc.), as he has 10+ touches in each of the last four weeks. The reason I say Jones is vital is because he gives them an explosive element. Witten is a wonderful possession receiving tight end and Barber is a powerful running back between the tackles, but Jones gives them that guy that can take a simple handoff to the house. On the other side, it is unfair to talk about Romo (and even the return of Jones) but not give the defense a lot of the credit for the recent success. In fact, they have shut out their last two opponents. If they can continue to be aggressive and blitz the quarterback, they will make life tough on McNabb because the Eagles don’t have a running game (both because Westbrook has been hurt and Andy Reid doesn’t believe in running the football). In the end, the Cowboys should knock the monkey off their back and get a playoff win.
New England Patriots (-3.5) cover vs. Baltimore Ravens
This season, it just has been hard to figure out these two teams. At times, both have seemed on the verge of becoming top teams in the league and other times they have left you scratching your head after a puzzling loss to an inferior opponent. However, at the end of the day, there is one area that really stands out to me: the Patriots are 8-0 at home and the Ravens are 3-5 on the road. This is the Patriots at home in the playoffs, I can’t see Belichick and Brady not showing up in a big game no matter what the circumstances are. In fact, I’m increasingly optimistic because of the fact people are questioning the Patriots, which basically guarantees they will take it personally and make a statement.
The Ravens have a dynamic playmaker in Ray Rice, but will that be enough? Taking it a step further, can the Ravens other playmakers make enough plays if Belichick focuses on stopping Rice? I like the potential Flacco has and think he will have a good career, but going into Gillette Stadium and beating the Patriots in the playoffs is tough. Besides, these two teams played earlier in the season and the Pats won. As far as the loss of Welker, that is a tough blow but at least the youngster Julian Edelman has the same style. Basically, Edelman is literally a poor man’s Welker. So how is that good? Because the Pats don’t have to change their style or identity, they can run pretty much the same offense. In Welker’s absence, Edelman caught 10 passes for 103 yards against the Texans. I like New England, folks.
Green Bay Packers (+2.5) cover vs. Arizona Cardinals
The Packers were a team that I was high on at the start of the season and there is no reason to back down from that now. In fact, the Packers are 7-1 in their last 8 after a slow start. That one loss was at Pittsburgh in a 37-36 shootout. Also, I am a believer in staying the course and not resting starters the last week of the season. Timing and chemistry are everything, which gives the edge to the Packers since they treated week 17 like any other game to keep momentum going into the postseason while the Cardinals rested some key guys and went vanilla. Besides, don’t we just seem destined for a Favre-Rodgers Part III?
The key matchup here is in the Packers’ secondary, as Charles Woodson has been playing at an extremely high level, and the Cardinals’ wide receiver trio Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston. Green Bay leads the NFL with 30 interceptions while Warner has been known to have some multiple interception outings. Neither team is going to run down the other’s throat, as the run defense is better than the run offense on both sides. In the end, I like the Packers to continue their hot streak and advance. For the Cardinals, I’m not expecting the magic again this year that lead to a Super Bowl run.