-- It's the NFL divisional playoff round and ESPN Chalk's Vegas experts have you covered with comprehensive betting previews for all of the Saturday and Sunday action, included together in one handy file.
Favorites (who were all division winners playing at home as the higher-seeded teams) swept wild-card weekend at 4-0 ATS but now those four winners are road underdogs at the teams that earned first-round byes.
Last week: 0-2 against the spread with best bets (marked with an *); 0-2 with over/under best bets; 1-1 on ATS leans; 1-0 on O/U leans.
Season to date: 51-48-3 (51.5 percent) on ATS best bets; 44-31 (58.7 percent) with O/U best bets; 79-70-2 on ATS leans; 12-15 on O/U leans.
Season: 91-91-6 (50 percent) on ATS best bets; 86-88-2 (49.4 percent) on O/U best bets; 1-0 on ATS leans.
Last week: 1-0 on ATS best bets; 1-0 on O/U best bets.
Season: 15-21 (41.7 percent) on ATS best bets; 22-17 (56.4 percent) on O/U best bets; 7-3 on ATS leans; 3-4 on O/U leans.
Last week: 0-0 on ATS best bets; 1-0 on O/U best bets, 1-0 on ATS leans.
Season: 29-37-3 (43.9 percent) on ATS best bets; 19-22 (46.3 percent) on O/U best bets; 14-8-2 (63.6 percent) on ATS leans, 8-5 on O/U leans.
Note: All odds courtesy of the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook as of Thursday morning.
Spread: Opened Dallas -4; now Dallas -4.5
Total: Opened 51; now 52.5
PickCenter public consensus pick: 64 percent Green Bay
Public perception: The Packers, who are always a very public team, continue fulfilling Aaron Rodgers' "run-the-table" speech with seven straight wins and rewarding backers at 6-1 ATS. The Packers are the biggest public underdog of the weekend.
Wiseguys' view: Sharps are split on this game, grabbing the best line they can get on the side they prefer. The Cowboys were the league's best bet earlier in the season at 9-0-1 ATS but they were just 1-5 ATS down the stretch.
Dave Tuley's take: I'm sure most followers of mine are expecting me to land on Rodgers plus the points, but I'm not that high on their chances (and turned off by the fact they're such a popular underdog play). Now, obviously the Cowboys cooled off down the stretch, but they're still the superior team that ran over the Packers 30-16 in Week 6 (and that was at Lambeau Field; now they get them at home). Clearly, the Packers are playing better than they were at that time of the season, but I don't see the defense being able to slow down Ezekiel Elliott or hold the Cowboys below their season average of 26.3 points. I see the Cowboys jumping out to an early lead, so that will force Green Bay to abandon the run and have Rodgers throwing a lot -- which makes me look to the over, especially as the Packers average 27 points per game themselves. This total is high for a reason (and the Packers have gone over in their last five games), but I don't think it was set high enough.
The pick: Over 52.5* (lean to Dallas -4.5).
Erin Rynning: Rodgers and the Packers continue to deliver, however all incredible runs must come to end. No question, Rodgers and his gaudy numbers will be tricky to contend with for the Dallas defense. However, the probable blow of losing Jordy Nelson is very real for this offense. Meanwhile, the Packers defense is a huge cause of concern. Of course, they showed real issues throughout the campaign, while finishing 28th overall and allowing 5.9 yards per play. During their winning streak, the schedule has been full of teams without competent offensive units. Certainly Dallas owns the firepower and balance to give the Packers defense fits. The ability to run and throw the football will be too much to handle, as the Cowboys controlled their first meeting without Dez Bryant.
Rufus Peabody: Green Bay is a very interesting team. The Packers have won seven in a row -- and only one of those wins was by less than a touchdown -- but their numbers during that stretch aren't necessarily indicative of a 7-0 team. During the win streak, Green Bay has averaged 6.3 yards per play on offense, while giving up 5.8 yards per play to opponents. Those numbers are significantly better than the first 11 weeks of the season (5.6 yards per play on offense, 6.1 on defense), but they don't tell the whole story.
We all know how large a role turnovers play in football, but they are notoriously difficult to predict. During the Packers' 4-6 start, they fumbled 17 times (losing eight) and threw eight interceptions, while forcing seven fumbles (recovering just two) and intercepting opposing quarterbacks seven times. That's a turnover differential of -7. During their seven-game winning streak, the Packers have exactly ONE giveaway, a lost fumble against Houston in Week 13. They have only three total fumbles during that stretch. And on defense, they have recovered 6 of 7 fumbles they forced, and picked off opposing quarterbacks an astounding 11 times. That's a turnover differential of 16!
Have the Packers been better fundamentally in the latter part of the season? Without a doubt. But they've also been extremely fortunate. All that said, I think the spread is about where it should be, as Massey-Peabody makes the Cowboys a 4.5-point favorite -- which leads me to look at the total here.
The Green Bay/Dallas game has the highest total of the week, at 52.5. Both teams are offense-dominant, with slightly-above-average defenses. Green Bay is definitely more of an over team, as the Packers run more plays and are very pass-heavy; in my "total ratings" the Packers come in at number three. But despite one of the NFL's best offenses, Dallas is not a team that profiles to be in a lot of high-scoring affairs; in fact, the Cowboys are 15th in those total ratings. Why? They don't run a lot of plays -- in fact, my numbers have them forecasted to run the third-fewest plays of any team -- and they are a run-first team. They are incredibly efficient on offense, but they're not going to rack up a ton of volume. A total of 52.5 implies two teams on the extreme end of the total spectrum. In reality, this game is a matchup of one extreme team against an average team. The game being played indoors certainly helps scoring, but 52.5 is too high. The under is the play here.
Pick: Under 52.5
Massey-Peabody Line: Dallas -4.5; Total: 49.9
103.5 rushing yards by Ezekiel Elliott (O/U -110)
John Parolin: Elliott isn't catching anyone off guard. A 103.5 total is pretty high, and the Packers are certainly game-planning to stop Dallas' stud rookie rusher. But this is a league-average rushing defense, ranking between 14th and 16th in yards per rush, yards after and before contact per rush. Being aware of him doesn't mean they have the formula to stop him, and a week's worth of rest for him and his offensive line won't make it easier on them.
Elliott is averaging 108.7 rush yards per game this season, including a 115.2 mark since Week 3 (his breakout game against the Bears). Green Bay saw him up close in Week 6, when Elliott rushed for 157 yards at 5.6 yards per rush. The Packers haven't quite addressed that issue, allowing 4.5 yards per rush after that game, 22nd in the league. A more troubling number in that same span is the 3.0 yards before contact per rush they're allowing (25th), which is a huge part of what makes Elliott successful. He's averaging 3.1 yards before contact per rush (thank you, offensive linemen), seventh among qualified rushers and the only player with at least 250 rushes who is above 3.0. Green Bay is already prone to giving rushers space, and for a defense with that flaw, this is the worst matchup to have.
The play: Over
Spread: Opened New England -14.5; now New England -15.5
Total: Opened 46; now 44.5
PickCenter public consensus pick: 74 percent New England
Public perception: The Patriots are a hugely popular public team and bettors are all over them here despite the very high spread. Bettors have good reason, too, as the Patriots were a league-best 13-3 ATS this season, including 4-0 ATS as double-digit favorites.
Wiseguys' view: Early bettors weren't scared off by the high spread either, but we saw some resistance when the line hit 16 and it was sharp money driving the line down to 15.5 at several books (and 15 offshore as of early Thursday morning).
Dave Tuley's take: I certainly understand the Patriots being heavy favorites based on how well they've played (and covered) this season, and it looks justified in some ways when you consider they routed the Texans 27-0 in Week 3 -- and that was with rookie Jacoby Brissett. However, I can't stop looking at the NFL Vegas Rankings that have only 6.5 points separating these two teams on a neutral field. Other power ratings have a bigger difference, but this line still looks way overinflated to draw action on Houston. The Texans are still a playoff team with the No. 1 defense in the league that really came together in the second half of the season. I certainly don't expect Houston to totally shut down Tom Brady and Co., but I do believe the Texans can keep this relatively close. Even if they fall behind by three touchdowns, the back door should be open.
The pick: Texans 15.5*
Erin Rynning: Yes, much is stacked against the Texans this week, but it's well represented in the pointspread. The Texans own a defense that's playing at a high enough level to make this contest competitive. They ranked third in the NFL allowing 4.9 yards per play with a banged-up secondary at times during the season. The Patriots offense is a juggernaut, but it's still missing Rob Gronkowski, which makes a vital difference against a top-notch defense like Houston's. Obviously the Texans can be offensively challenged, but the Patriots defense has built their numbers against the likes of Matt Moore, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Trevor Siemian and Jared Goff -- and that's just down the stretch. More than two touchdowns figured to provide at least a hint of value as my strike price is 16 with a lean to the Texans at lower numbers.
Play: Texans 16 or more
Rufus Peabody: It's rare to see a two-touchdown favorite in the playoffs. Normally with a spread so large, I would think there's value on the underdog, but my numbers actually think this is justified. Massey-Peabody makes the Patriots a 17-point favorite, but we don't adjust for injuries (except at quarterback), and my research earlier this season showed that Gronkowski is worth in the neighborhood of 2.5 points to the Patriots' offense. The Patriots haven't lost a game since his injury in Week 12, however that doesn't mean his absence hasn't been felt. In the first 11 weeks of the season, the Patriots averaged 7.9 yards per pass play; since, they've averaged 7.0. That most certainly isn't worth 2.5 points per game, so we have reason to think the dropoff may not be as severe, but it's still worth something.
The reason they've been winning -- and doing so convincingly -- is their defense, which has become a dominant unit. Including the Week 12 game, the Patriots defense has only given up 4.8 yards per play since Gronkowski's injury (compared to 5.5 yards per play before).
The Massey-Peabody model isn't perfect, of course (this season has certainly shown that!), but historically, I've found the best prediction weights the Massey-Peabody line about 45 percent and the closing point spread about 55 percent. So after fitting my spread of 17 to the distribution and regressing to the market number, a Patriots bet is about a break-even proposition at a line of -110. That wouldn't ordinarily even be a lean, and we're not about to force it given the Gronk injury.
Massey-Peabody Line: New England -17.1; Total: 45.4
Will Tom Brady throw an interception? (Yes 110, No -130)
John Parolin: Brady has thrown 28 touchdown passes and only two interceptions since returning from his four-game suspension. His ridiculous 14-1 TD-to-INT ratio was more than twice as large as the next-closest quarterback ( Dak Prescott, 5.8). Even playing only a 12-game season, Brady threw 432 passes this season -- meaning he threw an interception on a microscopic 0.5 percent of his pass attempts. In the last 15 years, only two qualified quarterbacks had a lower interception percentage in a season -- Damon Huard in 2006 and Josh McCown in 2013. Brady was slightly more productive than both of them, as they threw 24 combined touchdown passes in those seasons.
This isn't a one-year anomaly, as Brady has thrown nine interceptions total since the start of last season (28 games), and his opponent this week isn't known for ballhawking. Houston boasts the league's No. 1 defense by total yards, but tied for 26th in takeaways and tied for 21st with 11 interceptions. Weird things can happen (especially in the playoffs), but ball security is a serious priority for the New England offense, and the numbers show Brady's avoidance of interceptions is no fluke.
The play: No (-130)
Spread: Opened Pittsburgh -2.5; now Kansas City -1.5
Total: Opened 46.5; now 44
PickCenter public consensus pick: 54 percent Pittsburgh
Public perception: The Steelers, especially with Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown all on the field together, are a very popular team and the public is backing them here, especially now that they're short underdogs.
Wiseguys' view: Sportsbooks here in Vegas and also offshore opened Pittsburgh as a short road favorite, but early sharps jumped on Kansas City and flipped the favorite. Part of that is Andy Reid's record of 19-3 with an extra week to prepare (regular season byes and playoffs).
Dave Tuley's take: I agree with the original oddsmakers that the Steelers should be favored, so I'll take them with any points. I'm sure that Reid will have the Chiefs ready off a bye, but I keep going back to the Steelers' 43-14 rout in their Week 4 meeting. The Steelers were No. 7 in yards per game and they're clicking now after a mid-season slump. The Chiefs' defense -- which certainly makes a lot of big plays -- ended up ranked No. 24 in yards allowed and misses Derrick Johnson. Unless the Chiefs can force a ton of turnovers from Big Ben and Co. or get special teams TDs, I don't see their offense being able to keep up with the Steelers.
The pick: Steelers 1.5*.
Rufus Peabody: As someone with a sizable stake in Kansas City Chiefs futures, I was hoping Miami could somehow pull the upset last week, giving the Chiefs a matchup against the Texans, but Pittsburgh completely dominated them. Pittsburgh played like a team that was fresh (they did rest their key players in Week 17), and the single-digit temperature was definitely an advantage, since the Steelers faced a Miami team that had spent the week practicing in the 80-degreee South Florida weather.
A bye is worth about 1.5 points overall, and while we don't give any teams more points than others, Reid does have a track record of his teams playing very well the week following a bye. He'll certainly need it this week. Pittsburgh is the clear-cut second-best team in the NFL, per the Massey-Peabody ratings, and is 2.6 points better than Kansas City on a neutral field. After adding in home-field advantage and the bye week bonus, Kansas City is (rightly) a small favorite. I show no value here, but will be rooting for the Chiefs.
Massey-Peabody Line: Kansas City -1.5; Total: 44.9
Will Le'Veon Bell score a TD? (Yes -135, No 115)
John Parolin: The price for any "will player X score a touchdown?" rarely favors the yes this much, but Bell is as versatile and productive a running back as you'll find in the NFL. He's fresh off a franchise-record rushing performance against the Dolphins defense, notching 167 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Don't be fooled by a "six of his 13 games with a touchdown" stat this season (missed three games with a suspension). Bell scored all his touchdowns over Pittsburgh's last eight games, and we're seeing the first playoff run that Roethlisberger, Brown and Bell have ever had together.
The Chiefs defense isn't a particularly stingy unit against running backs, either. Since the Chiefs lost Derrick Johnson, their rush defense has really struggled -- Kansas City allowed 4.4 yards per rush this season overall, but that number jumped to 4.8 without their veteran linebacker. The Chiefs have allowed 10 rushing touchdowns this season, tied for fifth fewest in the league, but running backs added five more in the passing game (tied for third most in the league). Expect Bell to add to their total.
The play: Yes -135