This is NFL Best Bets, a recurring series in which professional sports handicappers lend us their insights and picks for the most intriguing matchups for each week of the football season.
For this edition of Best Bets, Paul Bovi, a sports betting expert from VegasInsider.com who’s been handicapping games for three decades, and VSiN reporter Josh Applebaum share their opinions on the NFL’s four-game slate of divisional-round matchups.
You’ve got places to go, people to see and possibly some wagers to make, so let’s get to it.
No. 6 Vikings (+250, +7, O/U 44.5) at No. 1 49ers
Like the Titans did the night before, the sixth-seeded Vikings were able to go on the road on Sunday and knock off a No. 3 seed in the Saints. Though he wasn’t perfect, quarterback Kirk Cousins made key plays down the stretch and came through in front of a national audience for what felt like the first time in forever. Minnesota will take on a San Francisco team that only lost two games at home this season but will be relying on a quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, who is making his playoff debut.
Bovi’s take: “The Vikings and Kirk Cousins pulled off a shocker on Sunday as they defeated the Saints in overtime 26-20. The defense rose to the occasion as they bottled up the Saints’ offense for most of the first three quarters while harassing QB Drew Brees into a few untimely mistakes. Saints star pass-catcher Michael Thomas was held to 70 yards, one of his lowest outputs this season. The Niners will host the game rested and healthier than they have been in weeks. They may get back the services of defensive end Dee Ford, who has been sidelined since mid-November after accumulating 6.5 sacks this season. Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will take the field lacking playoff experience, which is certainly a concern. That said, the Vikings have struggled defensively at times this season, particularly on the road. The feeling is that the Niners will get 27 to 30 points here while the Vikings will do enough to put this one over the total.”
Applebaum’s take: “The Vikings (10-6) are playing with house money after taking down the Saints 26-20 as 7.5-point underdogs. Kirk Cousins finally got the ‘can’t win a big game’ monkey off his back. Now they head to San Francisco to take on the top-seeded 49ers (13-3), who are rested and coming off a bye. This line opened with San Francisco listed as either a 6.5-point or 7-point home favorites. Teams getting a touchdown or more have been a smart bet in the playoffs historically. Since 2003, big dogs of +7 or more are 36-24 against the spread (60 percent). The Vikings already cashed in this spot last week. Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer will be able to use the underdog ‘they don’t believe in us’ card once again. Divisional round dogs are 38-24 ATS (61 percent) since 2003. Also, it’s been profitable to bet against teams coming off a bye (52-43 ATS, 55 percent). I’ll back Cousins and company to lose by six or less.”
Our Pick: Make Garoppolo prove it. Take the Vikings with the points.
No. 6 Titans (+350, +9.5, O/U 47) at No. 1 Ravens
In the biggest upset of Wild-Card Weekend, the Titans went to New England and knocked off the Patriots in a physical game that was dominated by Tennessee’s running game. One of the best success stories of the season, Ryan Tannehill, did almost nothing, but also wasn’t asked to do too much thanks to Derrick Henry’s dominance. Tennessee will have their hands full trying to contain Lamar Jackson, who will certainly be motivated to show his horrid playoff performance last year was a fluke.
Bovi’s take: “The Titans ran their streak of scoring at least 20 points since Ryan Tannehill became the starter to 10 games thanks to a last-second pick-six of Tom Brady by cornerback Logan Ryan. The Ravens have been a force on offense this year, much of that being driven by quarterback Lamar Jackson as he rushed for 1,206 yards and passed for 36 TDs versus only six interceptions. For the Titans, Derrick Henry piled up 1,540 rushing yards in the regular season capped off by 182 in Saturday’s playoff win. He should enjoy at least some success against a Ravens defense which has been vulnerable to the run at times. We’ll call this one 30-24 Ravens.”
Applebaum’s take: “The Titans (10-7) enter Baltimore with confidence and momentum having just upset the Patriots 20-13 in the Wild-Card round. But now they face their stiffest test of the year against the NFL’s best team. The Ravens (14-2) finished with a league-best +249 point differential, are rested and at home. Baltimore all day, right? This line opened with the Ravens listed as a 10-point home favorite. The public doesn’t know which way to go. They love backing Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. But the Titans secured an impressive win at Foxborough last week and 10 points seems a little high. Despite spread bets being split 50/50, this line has dipped to 9.5. Some shops are even down to 9. In a vacuum, a line shouldn’t move at all if the tickets are even. So we know based on this line movement that sharps are leaning Tennessee plus the points. The Titans also have value as a contrarian dog, a big dog getting 7 points or more and a divisional dog. Look for Tennessee to run Derrick Henry, keep the ball out of Jackson’s hands and keep the game within nine points.”
Our Pick: The Ravens have struggled with the run. Go Titans with the points.
No. 4 Texans (+350, +9.5, O/U 51) at No. 2 Chiefs
It wasn’t pretty, but Houston was able to hold off the Buffalo Bills in overtime on Saturday in the first game of Wild-Card weekend. No one on the Texans outside of quarterback Deshaun Watson played especially well, but Houston made some key plays when they had to (and were aided by some big Buffalo mistakes). Normally tough at home, the Chiefs are only 5-3 in Kansas City this season and ended their playoff run last year with a loss at home. Nevertheless, they are tied as the biggest favorite on the board.
Bovi’s take: “The injury status of wide receiver Will Fuller may well determine the fate of the Texans’ offense. His presence will be needed to match scores with a very potent Kansas City attack that should be able to exploit a very ordinary Houston defense. The Chiefs’ defense stepped up after the bye week as they held their last five opponents to an average of just over 10 points per game. If Fuller plays, we’ll side with the over. If he sits, we’ll call this a 35-13 wire-to-wire Chiefs win.”
Applebaum’s take: “Houston (11-6) rallied from a 16-0 deficit to beat the Bills 22-19 in overtime last week. Now they head to Arrowhead against a streaking Chiefs team (12-4) that has won six straight and is playing its best football of the year. Kansas City opened as an 8-point home favorite. Sharps immediately pounded the Chiefs, pushing the line up to 9.5 or even 10 at some shops. When books reached 10, they took in sharp buyback on the Texans at the key number of +10, dropping it back down to 9.5. The Texans have a lot of value as a road dog getting big points in the playoffs. The Texans also traveled to Arrowhead in mid-October and upset the Chiefs 31-24 as 3.5-point dogs, so they have that in their back pocket. All the value on Kansas City was at the opening line of -8. At this point, I’m holding out for Texans +10 and hoping Deshaun Watson keeps it close or scores late for a back door cover.”
Our Pick: Houston didn’t impress last week. Lay the points with the Chiefs.
No. 5 Seahawks (+170, +4, O/U 47) at No. 2 Packers
During the final game of last weekend, the Seahawks went to Philly and took care of a scrappy Eagles team in fairly efficient fashion. Rookie wide receiver D.K. Metcalf emerged as a real weapon for QB Russell Wilson and helped Seattle ice the game at the end of regulation. If the Packers, who only lost a single game at home this season, can take care of business against the Seahawks, it will be just their fourth victory over a team with a winning record this season.
Bovi’s take: “The Packers finished the regular season 13-3 but were less than impressive at times, particularly on offense, as they managed to eclipse the 24-point plateau only once in the last eight weeks. With a first-round bye at stake in Week 17, Green Bay was forced to go all out to defeat the Lions, coming away with a 23-20 win. On the other side, the Seahawks continued their surprising season with a 17-9 road win over the Eagles on Sunday. D.K. Metcalf stepped up with seven catches for 160 yards, while QB Russell Wilson racked up 325 yards through the air while completing 18-of-30 passes. Both teams have struggled at times yet find themselves one game away from the NFC Championship Game. We’ll call for a close game and take the Seahawks plus the points.”
Applebaum’s take: “The final game of the weekend is shaping up to be a classic Pros vs Joes mismatch. Seattle (12-5) took down the Eagles 17-9 on Wild-Card Weekend, improving to 8-1 on the road this season, including 6-2-1 against the spread. The Packers (13-3) are entering the postseason on a hot streak having won five straight. This line opened with Green Bay listed as a 3.5-point favorite. The public can’t believe Russell Wilson and the Seahawks are getting points and roughly two-thirds of bettors are rushing to the window to back Seattle. However, despite this lopsided support, the line has ticked up to Packers -4 or even -4.5 at some shops. Essentially we are looking at a fade the trendy dog play with pros laying the points with the contrarian favorite. Betting against the wiseguys is never a smart strategy, but it’s hard not to like Wilson as a dog, especially if you get +4.5 with the road warrior ‘Hawks. An added bonus for Seattle backers: Packers head coach Matt LaFleur will be making his playoff debut while Seattle coach Pete Carroll is a grizzled postseason veteran and Super Bowl champ.”
Our Pick: This one will come down to the wire. Take Seattle and the points.
Last Week’s Picks: 1-3, Season: 37-47
Editor’s note: Lines fluctuate throughout the week based on injuries, weather reports and other factors. Make sure to double-check odds before betting.