Playoff picture/Week 9 picks

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Playoff picture/Week 9 picks

Once Halloween comes and goes, the first snapshot of the NFL playoff picture starts to come into focus. The AFC sounds like a broken record, but for the third straight year it looks like the Broncos and Patriots will be occupying the top two seeds, in that order. The Colts are well on their way to a third straight AFC South title, while the AFC North – the only division in which every team is over .500 – figures to be a race to the finish.

In the NFC, the Saints took a big step toward reclaiming the South by virtue of their win over the Panthers on Thursday. The Cardinals are cruising along at 6-1 atop the NFC West, but the Seahawks and 49ers will surely have something to say about that before all is said and done. The NFC North is a two-horse race and already looks like it will come down to a Week 17 showdown between the Lions and Packers in Green Bay. And all eyes are on Tony Romo in the NFC East. If the back injury he sustained against Washington doesn’t significantly hinder him going forward, both the Cowboys and Eagles should go into December with claims to the division title. Onto the Week 9 picks.

Patriots (+3) at Broncos

There aren’t many overarching rules of thumb in betting, but taking the Patriots when they’re catching points is one of them. That’s especially true at home, where Tom Brady is an all-time best 87-13 straight up in Foxborough, and 48-3 since the beginning of 2007. New England hasn’t lost a regular-season game at home since December 2012 and was responsible for two of the Broncos’ six losses in Peyton Manning’s first two seasons in Denver. With Rob Gronkowski back to his old form and Brandon LaFell quickly emerging as a go-to Brady target, the Pats offense has rediscovered its groove to the tune of 39.5 points over the last four games. And while it’s pretty much impossible to stop the Denver offense – especially this time of year – the Patriots should be able to at least disrupt it thanks to the man coverage capabilities of corners Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington. The revenge factor is also at play for Brady and the Patriots, who were severely undermanned when the teams last met in the AFC Championship Game earlier this year, a 26-16 Broncos victory. Add it all up this game looks like a coin flip, which makes that +3 even tougher to pass up.

Ravens at Steelers – under 48

This is a rivalry that always seems to defy the numbers and trends in favor of physical, stingy football. Indeed, Baltimore-Pittsburgh has been defined by defense since 2008, with the total not once exceeding 43 in 13 regular-season meetings. On the surface, it’s easy to be scared off the total after the Steelers’ 51-point eruption last week, but that’s also the reason bettors are suddenly getting exceptional value on the under, as this number is inflated by about two points because of that Indy result. These teams simply don’t play shootouts, and the numbers once again are backing it up. While both defenses have their issues (the Ravens at corner and the Steelers at linebacker), they also share in common a knack for bending but not breaking in the red zone. Baltimore is holding opponents to a 40.74-percent touchdown rate inside the 20 (No. 2 in the league), and Pittsburgh isn’t far behind at 51.85 percent (ninth). On the flip side, both offenses have struggled to convert drives into touchdowns in the red zone, with the Ravens (51.52 percent) ranking 22nd and the Steelers (50 percent) 23rd. And finally, they have both done a good job of taking care of the ball (nine turnovers for Baltimore; 10 for Pittsburgh) while sitting middle of the pack in takeaways (12 for Baltimore; 11 for Pittsburgh). As it tends to be when these two teams meet, the offenses will move the ball between the 20s but find points hard to come by.

Bucs at Browns – over 43

Neither of these teams have done much to distinguish themselves on the defensive side of the ball. This is only matchup of the week pitting defenses rated No. 20 or below according to Football Outsider’s DVOA metric, with Tampa Bay ranked 29th and Cleveland 20th. Both offenses should be be able to move the ball, as the Bucs are allowing 6.0 yards per play (26th) and the Browns 5.7 (20th). Interconference games usually trend toward the over given the lack of familiarity between teams, and so far this season, the AFC North-NFC South matchups have been high-scoring affairs, with the games going 6-2 to the over – including 3-0 when either the Bucs or Browns have been involved. Over is a safe play here.

Last week: 1-1
Overall: 8-15-2

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