-- LAS VEGAS -- Sometimes it's clear from the opening kickoff that a team is going to win and/or cover the spread. Other times it looks like one team is going to coast to victory when the other one rallies, causing bettors to wonder how they could have possibly lost that game and cry, "bad beat!" And of course, there are the back-and-forth, 50-50 games that are virtual coin flips.
Each week of the season, we look back at ESPN Chalk's NFL betting recaps and provide my handicapping takeaways from each game -- a quick overview of the action for those who didn't get a chance to watch all the games.
We'll also include Rufus Peabody's numbers to give an analytical look at which teams should've covered based on the fundamentals and statistics that Massey-Peabody considers predictive.
After favorites went 4-0 ATS in the wild-card round, they improved to 6-0 ATS in the playoffs after the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots covered the two divisional playoff games on Saturday. But on Sunday, the underdogs bounced back, with the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers pulling outright upsets.?
Note: We'll point out crazy over/under results, but this is primarily a recap of the against-the-spread (ATS) results.
Bad beat (clearly wrong side)
Saturday: Houston ( 17) in 34-16 loss at New England
At the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook on Saturday night, there were dozens of Patriots backers whooping it up and saying, "We had it all the way" and boasting about how favorites had covered all six NFL playoff games to that point. But the fact of the matter is this was the luckiest cover of the weekend and a bad beat for Houston backers as the Patriots were never leading by more than the spread until Stephen Gostkowski's 43-yard field with 6:37 to play set the final score.
After falling behind 7-0 and 14-3 in the first quarter, the Texans got right back in the game and trailed just 14-13 until the closing seconds of the first half, when the Patriots went up 17-13. The Texans were still covering after Tom Brady's 19-yard TD pass to James White with 9:09 left in the third put the Patriots up 24-13, and the key play of the game came with just over two minutes left in the third, when Will Fuller dropped a 45-yard pass from Brock Osweiler that would have cut the New England lead to 24-20. Regardless, the Texans had to punt but got the ball back on a Brady interception to set up a Nick Novak field goal to make the score 24-16 with 14:51 to play. Unfortunately for Houston bettors, the Pats scored the game's final 10 points with Dion Lewis' 1-yard TD run and finally the Gostkowski field goal.
The Texans certainly played better than most people expected, but with our handicapping takeaways we're more concerned with the teams moving on, and the scary thing is that the Patriots covered such a huge spread without playing anywhere near their best game. All of the postgame talk from the Patriots was that they have to play better in the next round or they'll get eliminated, though with the Steelers advancing without scoring a touchdown, that might not be necessary.
Massey-Peabody numbers say: New England played 7 points better than Houston.
Easy covers (clearly right sides)
Saturday: Atlanta (-6.5) in 36-20 win over Seattle
This started out looking like a 50-50 game as the Seahawks grabbed a 7-0 lead on Russell Wilson's 7-yard TD pass to Jimmy Graham that capped an eight-minute, 34-second opening drive, and then took a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter. However, the game turned when a holding penalty on an 80-yard Devin Hester punt return made the Seahawks start their drive inside their own 10-yard line, and then Wilson was tripped up by one of his own offensive linemen and fell in the end zone for a safety. That started a run of 19 straight points by the Falcons as they took control of the game and led 26-10 midway through the third quarter.
A Steven Hauschka field goal barely stemmed the tide as Atlanta added another 10 points to pull away to a 36-13 lead before giving up a garbage touchdown late (though it was Doug Baldwin's 31-yard TD catch from Wilson that put the game over the total of 51.5 points with 3:21 to play). The Falcons played a complete game with an explosive, balanced offensive attack and a defense that made adjustments after the opening drive.
Massey-Peabody numbers say: Atlanta played 8 points better than Seattle.
Sunday: Green Bay ( 5) in 34-31 win at Dallas
This was the most thrilling finish of the weekend, but the only way Dallas backers were going to cover was with a fluke defensive touchdown in the closing seconds or a TD in overtime. The Packers were covering the entire game, even after holding the Cowboys to a field goal on their opening drive. From there they dominated with three straight touchdowns, building a 21-3 lead. Of course, the Cowboys rallied to tie the game at 28-28 and 31-31, but the Packers kept control, and? Aaron Rodgers' 36-yard pass to Jared Cook with three seconds to play set up Mason Crosby's 51-yard game-winning field goal as time expired.
Rodgers keeps doing whatever it takes to win, whether it's with his arm, his legs in scrambling for first downs or his head in drawing encroachment or too-many-men-on-the-field substitution penalties. However, the Packers' defensive deficiencies don't bode well in a rematch in Atlanta.
Massey-Peabody numbers say: Dallas played 3 points better than Green Bay.
50/50 ATS results
Sunday: Pittsburgh ( 2) in 18-16 win at Kansas City
Watching the game, it seemed like the Steelers were always in control as they outgained the Chiefs by more than 200 yards until Kansas City's final drive, but by settling for six Chris Boswell field goals, the Steelers never pulled away and kept this in doubt until the end.
Time and again, the Chiefs' defense bent but didn't break. Kansas City actually led 7-3 midway through the first quarter, and even though Pittsburgh scored 12 straight points to take a 15-7 lead early in the third quarter, the Chiefs were able to cut it to 15-10 on a Cairo Santos 48-yard field goal with 10 seconds left in the third and thus were just a TD (and a two-point conversion) away from winning (and covering). Regardless, even after the Steelers added yet another field goal, it looked like they were heading to overtime after Spencer Ware's 1-yard TD run cut the lead to 18-16 and the Chiefs appeared to tie the game with a two-point conversion, only to have it called back on a holding penalty. Even then, the Chiefs could have gotten the ball back with a three-and-out, but Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown converted a third down to seal the victory.
The Chiefs played "bend but don't break" all season, but the Steelers still need to do a better job of finishing drives if they hope to keep up against the Patriots. On the plus side, the Pittsburgh defense is playing much better now than it was when the Patriots beat the Steelers 27-16 earlier this season (and of course, Big Ben will be playing in this game).
Massey-Peabody numbers say: Pittsburgh played 9 points better than Kansas City.