As General George Patton once said, “Germany hasn’t attacked in the winter in hundreds of years. Therefore, Germany is about to attack in the winter.”
Sportsbooks haven’t ignored a surging NFL upstart in 2022-23 quite like they’re ignoring one this week, but perhaps bookies were just getting around to it. For example, the comeback-artist (and playoff hack, if you ask a cynical Twin Cities fan) Kirk Cousins was not a heavy underdog against those pesky New York Giants in either meeting this season, but especially not 7 days after Minnesota had beaten Indianapolis in a comeback that compared to Tom Brady’s surreal February triumph over the Atlanta Falcons, and nearly eclipsed the Buffalo Bills’ record for the biggest losing margin ever erased in an NFL point-scoring rally.
Nor was Tampa’s current team expected to crumble following the Buccaneers’ history-making comeback win over the New Orleans Saints in December. These idle facts are significant to the Jaguars’ visit to Kansas City this Saturday, since Jacksonville quarterback Trevor Lawrence just led a fabulous comeback win for the Jags in the Wild Card Round.
How have betting books reacted? By making Jax a steep underdog…of course.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Kansas City Chiefs (Saturday, January 21)
Maybe the #1 seed Kansas City Chiefs (-8.5) would be favored to win this week no matter which NFL team was visiting Arrowhead Stadium. Sportsbook users seem to think Super Bowl 57 could be contested by the clubs that sat out Week 19, driving “Kansas City vs Philadelphia” to the priciest (+500) odds found within FanDuel Sportsbook’s “correct matchup” Super Bowl prop bet market. Pat Mahomes and the Chiefs go into postseason play somewhat healthier than in playoff runs of the past, starting with the linchpin behind center. There is no guarantee that the annual MVP candidate won’t become nicked-up again and serve as less of a dual-threat weapon in February, as was evident when Brady’s Buccaneers laid a lopsided Win on the Chiefs in Super Bowl 55. But considering that Kansas City just had a week off following another roaring regular season, any concerns about Mahomes’ mobility will come later in the playoffs. For now, any foe is considered blessed to be so much as tied with the Kansas City Chiefs, who are restablished as a point-scoring machine.
Arrowhead has seen a few surprisingly tight outcomes this season, though, even when the Chiefs managed to hold on and add to a hefty win total.
No bookmaker expected Kansas City to gain less than 300 yards of offense in Christmas Eve’s dull 24-10 win over the Seattle Seahawks. November was right around when the Tennessee Titans found a small cliff and jumped off it, but the Titans still made a valiant final stand in Missouri on 11/3 that involved fighting the Chiefs into overtime.
Of course, it is the following Sunday’s game at Arrowhead Stadium that piques the interest of odds-makers the most – the KC Chiefs’ 10-point win over the visiting Jaguars.
The Jags could find Midwestern conditions even less to their liking in Week 20. Frigid temperatures, rain, and snow flurries may combine to create a wet tundra type of environment that Jax QB Trevor Lawrence has seldom had to contend with as an NFL player or as a Clemson Tiger. But we also suspect that Las Vegas might have tuned-out Chargers-vs-Jaguars last weekend (except for the highlights and lots of re-tweeting) once Lawrence appeared to self-destruct, throwing 4 picks on early Jacksonville possessions. Otherwise, one must ask what exactly the Jags have to do to show Sin City they’re resilient competitors.
WagerBop is of the opinion that you can’t bat .900 in a multi-month span of professional football unless you’re doing something right. Paraphrasing Colin Cowherd’s take on Tim Tebow and the 2011-12 Denver Broncos, the 2022-23 Jaguars were 3-7 after falling to the Broncos the day before Halloween, and they’re now standing at 10-8. That’s not an accident. It would not be wise to tout the Jags and their upstart QB based on last weekend’s amazing comeback win alone, as Lawrence will find it harder to conjure up a “Clemson Gives Up 600 Yards, Beats USC” performance in an NFL road playoff game than in front of Jacksonville’s incredulous fan base. However, after beating everybody in sight for 2+ months running, it does not make any sense for the Jags to go into Saturday as nearly double-digit ‘dogs.
The momentum of a glorious home stretch can be a bigger deal for defense than for offense. Look for the Jaguars’ tacklers to play with all the enthusiasm of a cold-weather unit on a hot streak, while the dreary conditions pose each talented side with feast-or-famine scenarios. Bad weather on home turf can still help level out a pigskin battle of finesse versus grit.
WagerBop’s Pick: Jaguars ATS (+8.5)
New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles (Saturday, January 21)
In the QB injury department, some teams have better luck than others. However, the Philadelphia Eagles are ironically dealing with a challenge that the oft-wounded San Francisco 49ers’ signal-callers have grown used to – a playoff game vs a blood rival.
After all, there are 3 surviving teams from the resurgent NFC East performing in 2023, and a pair of them will clash this Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field. Daniel Jones and the San Fran Giants are decided betting underdogs, giving up (+7.5) points against the spread to Jalen Hurts and the talented Eagles. But it will be interesting to see if Eagles vs Giants is a shrinking point spread as NFL Divisional Playoff week goes forward.
In the late 2010s, sportsbooks were sneered at by casual bettors who were wagering money on favorites ATS to romp in supposedly “mismatched” NFC East games. Yet especially when it came to Dallas vs Washington or Philly vs NYC, the contests were bound to finish tight no matter which rival club came in with a far superior record. Bookmakers have thrived with the tight point-spread lines on NFC East bouts in such recent years that it’s strange to see on the Philadelphia-New York spread an opening line of more than a TD + XP handicapped.
Conversely, the Giants were never supposed to make it this far and are perceived to have exploited a shaky defense in New York’s upset road-victory last weekend. The Eagles’ supporting cast around Jalen Hurts, on all 3 units, appears more primed for success.
The Eagles scored a 26-point win over the Giants in midseason. Ultimately, though, Philadelphia is a strong point-spread favorite on Saturday for the same reason the Kansas City Chiefs are. NFL odds (and odds-makers) must anticipate the possibility of the fresher and more-heralded teams winning by blow-out scores. New York, however, does not fit the profile of “scrappy” playoff teams that wind up taking a TKO in the Divisional Round.
Daniel Jones’ team is not pedestrian on offense, doesn’t have an incompetent unit anywhere on the defense or kicking game, and didn’t beat the Minnesota Vikings 12-9 in a game with 10 fumbles. Hurts is not yet a seasoned NFL veteran who’s been through this gauntlet.
WagerBop’s Pick: Giants ATS (+7.5)
Cincinnati Bengals at Buffalo Bills (Sunday, January 22)
Tom Osbourne, the Nebraska icon, used to say that the Holy Trinity cared not which football teams won games on weekends, but certainly cared about human qualities that show up on the gridiron, like honor, teamwork, and mutual respect. Osbourne’s thoughts appear to be reflected in the form of an AFC playoff bracket this season, since no mortal could concoct a scenario that fits 2023 as perfectly as a rematch of the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals.
The third game on Week 20’s schedule had to happen, and now it is happening. We are less than 3 weeks removed from Bills’ safety Damar Hamlin’s scary collapse and heart attack suffered in the 1st quarter of Week 17’s no-contest between Cincy and Buffalo. Each team’s fans, players, and coaches shed tears on the field before telling the NFL to stuff any restart plans, and that troubled athletes were going home to anxiously await news on Hamlin’s condition.
The teams’ original bright-lights bout did not have to be restarted to determine a victor. It was fated to occur in the postseason anyway, with much more at stake and a clean 60:00 scoreboard to build on. Those participating on the field and those in attendance, in addition to the worldwide National Football League fan base, could find it emotionally cathartic just to watch Buffalo and Cincinnati reach the 2nd quarter with no severe injuries. In another tear-jerking plot line, Hamlin, now on his feet recovering, will be looking on.
A potential big bummer may be awaiting the general public, though, if anticipated betting action on an O/U (48.5) Buffalo-Cincy point total line is met by snowy skies on the day of the battle. There is always the chance of lake-effect snow and a brutal “limited view” defensive struggle whenever storms are moving through upstate New York. It could be a massive let-down for readers who make the obvious pick for Sunday afternoon’s game.
The ”Over” pick, from a non-analytical POV, on the Bills vs Bengals’ playoff clash is the “correct” market for everyone to wager. It is, after all, the only way to cheer for both teams and not end up conflicted by Quarter 4, and many of the NFL’s viewers will be cheering for both sides on a day of healing. Mother Nature may not cooperate quite as the Football Gods have in setting up the AFC Divisional Round match-up. Yet it’s also a potential QB’s duel.
Maybe there are solid “football” reasons to pick the high side as well. Joe Burrow and Josh Allen form a duel of QBs who will not take 3-and-out for an answer, and the smoothness of each team’s corps of skill players could set defense, not offense, at a disadvantage if the ordinary weather outcome occurs and this Sunday’s game is played on mildly slick turf.
The Bengals’ winning 96-yard scoop-and-score against the Baltimore Ravens reminds speculators that the Bengal defense is a difference-maker even when allowing a lot of yards gained. It is acknowledged that Burrow’s offense will have a harder row to hoe compared to last week’s bout against the shorthanded Ravens, an angle illustrated simply by Cincinnati’s (+5) mark ATS. But the Bills are not too shabby at all in the points-off-turnovers department, and PK Brett Maher kicks for neither.
WagerBop’s Pick: Over (48.5)
Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers (Sunday, January 22)
The opening odds for the NFC Divisional Round included an exact field-goal point spread on the Dallas Cowboys. San Francisco (-3.5) can boast of Sunday evening’s gambling markets moving in the 49ers’ direction and away from Dak Prescott and the Cowboys. However, the slight movement in San Francisco’s way has little to do with offense or defense.
The 49ers’ picks at minus-3 points and no “point-5” attached allow users to win outright or push ATS if San Francisco kicks cautious field goals in the 4th quarter of a previously tied game, then get to play defense on a “longer” field than usual, assuming the Cowboy kicking game is anywhere near as poor as it was in the Wild Card Round.
In other words, what may present itself to fans as a simple task of tying the game on a late field goal is not simple for Mike McCarthy’s team. Dallas could become a “prep-school tactics” unit late on Sunday unless PK Brett Maher recovers from a total breakdown.
In the Cowboys’ 31-14 win over Tampa Bay, Maher missed 4 out of 5 extra-point attempts. For perspective, NFL field goal and XP kicking have become such an exact science as of 2023 that place-kickers are expected to make 55-yard tries. Missing even a single XP in 31-14 types of victory is a bruise on a kicker’s resume. Maher, afflicted by a neurosis much like golf’s “yips,” or the “twisties” that held Simone Biles back from a record-setting 2020 Olympics, hooked, shanked, cut, and clanked 4 ugly misses in a row, keeping the otherwise-fine Dallas Cowboys from ringing-up a prohibitive lead by the 3rd quarter.
Any and all suggestions of firing Maher and replacing the PK for the NFC Divisional playoffs have been rejected by HC Mike McCarthy, except for a practice-squad move on Wednesday that won’t affect the starting PK’s status unless and until there’s another disaster. Maher’s excellent overall season makes the game into a potential one-off anomaly rather than a trend for Dallas. What is more, it is that very syndrome of software-precise NFL kicking in 2023, keeping McCarthy from being capable of switching out his starting-PK role easily in a week’s time. Unless the coach could find a kicker from the 2022-23 waiver wire who nails 50-yard kicks with calming consistency, whoever replaced a theoretically-fired Maher would still be below par for the NFL, causing the churning in Cowboys fans’ stomachs to continue.
Positives of McCarthy’s decision to keep Maher include the lack of a distraction and/or wasted coaches’ minutes getting a newcomer up to speed, and a dose of all-for-one franchise morale in a pro football world in which poor performances lead to swift changes, not votes of confidence. The responsibility now falls on the Dallas specialist to cure the “yips” and come back with birdies. But this could also be a brave shot at redemption for Maher.
In the meantime, it is the O/U (45.5) that could prove more vulnerable to an easy pick than that confounding, moving point spread. Brock Purdy, the 49ers’ emergency QB, has emerged as a dual-threat scrambler who makes the San Francisco dynamic running game scarier still for opponents to tackle. The Cowboy offense finds itself underrated yet again in 2022-23 after having its point-total held back by the XP snafu and a stubborn, never-say-die Tampa defense in the 2nd half. Big D coasted to the finish line this regular season but retains the healthy nucleus of an offense that was absolutely on fire in October and November.
WagerBop thinks that San Fran’s ground game and swing-passing attack featuring Deebo Samuel will terrorize visiting Dallas in the 1st half, but in the Red Zone, Prescott’s experience-edge over Purdy will make the Cowboys a more efficient offense.
The effect of Dallas’ kicking game on Sunday’s final score has the betting public worried, but it’s the 49ers who might become sick of kicking FGs by the finish. The explosive-TD potential of the visitors means that even if Purdy is still a wreck, and Prescott’s offense is forced into all-or-nothing attempts in plus territory, just 3 out of 6 successful Red Zone turns would give Dallas a chance and push the total over the top.
There is also an angle that the NFL would prefer soft-pedaled this week. Attendance in the post-COVID era has become so much of a corporate schmooze that a plurality of gameday tickets is not held by fanatical supporters who would never sell to a rival. Thus, the audience in San Francisco will have more than a customarily large set of Cowboys fans. Could each offense suffer from 3rd-down disorganization as 2 partisan crowds scream dutifully at the right time? Maybe, but a half-neutral crowd helps to create a fully close 60+ minutes.
The Sunday forecast for NorCal is bearing on lovely, the wet-field concerns holding other games’ high-side speculators back not applying to San Francisco vs Dallas. We prefer well-matched Dallas to cover (+4) or any better line, Sunday’s “score, score, score!” picks should also become “win, win, winning” picks and will have recreational bettors rejoice.
WagerBop’s Pick: Over (45.5)
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.