NFL playoff picture/Week 11 picks

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NFL playoff picture/Week 11 picks

As Thanksgiving approaches every NFL season, the playoff picture usually starts coming into focus. This year is a little different, as key injuries to playoff contenders like the Packers (Aaron Rodgers), Bears (Jay Cutler, Charles Tillman, Lance Briggs) and Bengals (Leon Hall, Geno Atkins) have thrown those teams into varying states of flux. Coupled with the painful mediocrity of the NFC East, we could be well into December before any having any substantial clarity. That’s not to say all is murky, though.

In the AFC, the Patriots look to have a firm grasp on the No. 2 seed and the second bye, with the Jekyll¬†and Hyde Colts staking their claim to the No. 3 seed. Whoever emerges from the pair of expected battles between the Broncos and Chiefs over the next three weeks will be looking at home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Which means the loser is headed toward a tough-luck 12-4 or 13-3 wild-card spot. The second wild card is up for grabs, while the AFC North remains the Bengals’ to lose.

The top of the NFC looks to be solidified, as all that stands in the way of the Super Bowl going through Seattle is a Week 13 Monday night showdown between the 9-1 Seahawks and 7-2 Saints at CenturyLink Field. Advantage Seattle. New Orleans has a tough closing schedule (San Francisco, twice Carolina, at Seattle) but nevertheless has the look of ¬†12-4 and a two-seed. The Lions are officially in the driver’s seat of the NFC North thanks to their 21-19 over the Bears last Sunday. As for the wild-card race, much will hinge on how fast Rodgers is able to come back from his broken collarbone. And then there’s the NFC East, where the Giants were 0-6 less than a month ago yet are currently one game back of the first-place Eagles and Cowboys in the loss column. Enough said?

Onto the picks.

Steelers (+3) vs. Lions

There are a handful of wiseguys who are known as situational handicappers, meaning they take into consideration circumstance as much as analytics. On the surface, the Lions and their third-ranked passing attack laying a field goal on the road against a three-win Steelers team would appear to be easy money. But take a look at their last two wins. First, they needed a furious fourth-quarter comeback to beat the Cowboys, 31-30, before requiring all sixty minutes and a pair of two-point conversion stops last week to fend off the Bears. In light of the Rodgers injury, the Bears victory doubled as the biggest of the Matthew Stafford era, considering it vaulted Detroit into frontrunner status for its first NFC North crown in 20 years. Those are two taxing, emotionally-draining wins. For a young and still relatively inexperienced Lions team, a letdown against a non-conference opponent on the road is to be expected. Also working against Detroit is its perennial status as one of the least disciplined teams in the league (25th in penalties and penalty yards per game in 2013). Then there’s Pittsburgh, which after an 0-4 start has reeled off three wins in five games since its bye and suddenly finds itself just two games behind the injury-stricken Bengals in the loss column. To get points in a home game that has far more significance to the Steelers against a team that has been known to falter in these spots is the essence of a situational play.

Redskins (+4.5) at Eagles

It can’t be stressed enough: the betting public has a short memory. In the case of the Eagles, the public sees a team that’s won its last two games while outscoring its opponents, 76-33. Hence a line that opened across the board at -3.5 has moved a full point. In addition to Philadelphia’s troubling tendency of playing well on the road and crapping the bed at home (10-game losing streak dating back to Sept. 30, 2012), the Redskins have a few things going for them in this matchup. First and foremost is their bread and butter. Washington loves to run the football and has been doing so with far more success of late, churning out better than 187 yards per game over the last five. Alfred Morris has been a wrecking ball in that span, averaging 105.8 yards per game and more than five yards per carry. Then there’s the familiarity factor. Although these are division rivals, the Redskins were the first team to get a glimpse of the Chip Kelly system in Week 1 and therefore had no tape on which to gameplan. The Eagles jumped to a 26-7 halftime lead and were up 33-7 before Robert Griffin III, who didn’t play a snap in the preseason, put together three successive touchdown drives late in the game. Griffin is not only healthy, but he’s rediscovered his 2012 form in recent weeks. This game looks like it will be decided by a field goal, with the edge to Washington.

Saints -170 over 49ers

It’s absolutely worth taking into consideration all the crooked numbers the Saints have hung at home and “breesy” covers they’ve enjoyed under the Drew Brees/Sean Payton partnership (13 straight wins ATS with an average of 38.8 points per game). But it all boils down to this: if you’re going to beat the Saints in the Superdome, you better be prepared to throw the football. The San Francisco passing offense ranks dead last in the NFL and has been particularly anemic of late. For some perspective, Colin Kaepernick has thrown for 454 yards and one touchdown in the last three games. Brees threw for 392 and four scores vs. the Cowboys on Sunday night. The Niners ground attack and defense could keep this one tighter than typical Saints home games, but that’s the best-case scenario. With the Saints laying 3 points at -120, there’s not a lot of difference between the side and moneyline for parlay purposes (and the moneyline offers protection against a no-action leg if a late San Francisco touchdown makes the game land on that key number of 3).

Chiefs at Broncos – under 50.5

One thing about the sports betting market is it will always adjust to adverse trends (see: 2007 New England Patriots, who started 8-0 ATS before covering just two of their final eight). For the first eight weeks of 2013, Broncos games went over the total, in many cases obliterating the number. That run finally came to an end last week, as the Denver-San Diego game (28-20) finished well under the total of 57/57.5. While the total in this matchup relative to recent Broncos game would seem to invite action on the over, bookmakers are in fact giving the Chiefs defense its rightful due. Kansas City is allowing an NFL-best 12.3 points per game and hasn’t surrendered more than 17 in any contest. With 36 sacks in nine games, the Chiefs also feature the league’s best pass rush. That’s something the Broncos are acutely aware of, particularly after Peyton Manning suffered a sprained right ankle at the end of the Chargers game. Protecting Manning is always paramount for Denver, and even more so this week. Coupled with the fact that teams have had success running the football against the Chiefs (24th against the run), Denver figures to eschew its quick-strike tendencies in favor of longer, more balanced drives to both attack the one weakness of the KC defense as well as ensure maximum protection for Manning. Finally, given Andy Reid’s track record in Philly coming off the bye (14-1 straight up, 11-4 ATS) and the lack of respect the 9-0 Chiefs are getting as 8-point ‘dogs in this game, you can be sure Reid will have his troops – and particularly the defense – well prepared for this one.

Patriots +120 at PanthersCLICK

Overall picks: 13-10

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