01/01/2009 12:00AM

Falcons, Dolphins biggest overachievers


Before we get to this weekend's NFL wild-card games, I think it's important to look back at the season and see how we got to this point.

Back in the opening week of September, I doubt anyone could have predicted which would be the 12 playoff teams. For starters, the Patriots and Cowboys would have been on most people's list, since they were the preseason favorites in each conference. Yet they didn't make it out of December.

The Patriots, the 3-1 favorite to win it all in the Las Vegas Hilton future book and lower at most of other sports books in town, lost Tom Brady in the first game of the season, making the Cowboys the new Super Bowl favorite at 5-1. The Cowboys won their first three games and four of five before the pivotal overtime loss at Arizona in Week 6 in which Tony Romo was injured, making the undefeated Titans the new fave. The Titans and defending champion Giants (who didn't get much preseason respect at 25-1 to repeat as champs and were the third choice to win the NFC East at 9-2) proved to be the class of the league the rest of the way, with the Steelers and Panthers coming on strong before losing Week 16 games to the leaders to settle for the No. 2 seeds.

But the biggest surprises came from the assumed dregs of the league. If you checked the Super Bowl futures back in early September, the bottom two teams in the Hilton's list were the Falcons and Dolphins at 200-1 (the 0-for-16 Lions were 75-1). In fact, after the Dolphins lost to the Jets in the season opener, they were raised to 300-1.

As we enter the playoffs, here are the Super Bowl futures: Giants 9-4, Steelers 4-1, Titans 6-1, Panthers 7-1, Eagles 10-1, Colts 10-1, Ravens 10-1, Falcons 15-1, Vikings 15-1, Chargers 15-1, Dolphins 30-1, Cardinals 60-1.

Other interesting betting notes from the season:

* Over/unders were virtually even, as unders held a 123-122-11 edge in all games. Underdogs/favorites were also nearly a dead heat as dogs pulled off a slight 122-120-6 victory (eight games closed at pick-em to account for the difference).

* I've written often about how home-field advantage wasn't much of an edge all year, and road teams ended with a record of 134-115-6 against the spread (the Chargers-Saints game in London isn't included). This is interesting to note since the four wild-card road teams opened as favorites for this weekend's matchups. However, keep in mind that home underdogs (who were a woeful 30-42-1 on the season) did at least finish strong at 13-6 against the spread the last four weeks of the season.

* Double-digit underdogs finished 22-9 against the spread. Cardinals at Giants is the only likely playoff matchup in which we might see a double-digit spread; perhaps Dolphins at Steelers.

* The Titans finished with the best spread record at 12-3-1. The push was when they beat the Packers, 19-16 in overtime, as a 3-point favorite at the Hilton, which I use as my sports book of record. However, the line was 3 1/2 most of the week and that's where it closed at most other books, so if someone wants to say there was a three-way tie with the Titans, Giants, and Ravens at 12-4 ATS, I won't argue with them. The worst spread record was by the Jaguars at 4-12, with the Broncos at 4-11-1 (the push being their controversial 1-point victory/push over the Chargers in Week 2). The Redskins were the best under team at 12-3-1 despite going over in their finale vs. the 49ers, and the Cardinals were the top over team at 11-5.

Cardinals +2 vs. Falcons

The Cardinals were the first team to win their division and they showed it the past month with several lackluster performances. However, I liked what I saw last week vs. the Seahawks and believe they will be ready for a playoff run. I think the Cardinals' unheralded defense will contain Michael Turner and pressure Matt Ryan.

PLAY: Cardinals for 1 unit.P

Colts -1 vs. Chargers

While the Chargers won eight games all season, the Colts have won nine straight, including a 23-20 win over San Diego in this same stadium in Week 12 when it was a playoff atmosphere and a must-win for both teams. I see a repeat here. Philip Rivers has played great recently, but I don't trust him in crunch time, and the same goes for Chargers head coach Norv Turner.

PLAY: Colts for 1 unit.

Ravens-Dolphins Under 37

Ravens won here, 27-13, back in Week 7. I think they are the right side again but if you missed the -3 then I wouldn't lay the -3 1/2. Instead, I will look to the total and expect both defenses to dominate. The two quarterbacks, Chad Pennington and Joe Flacco, will probably be forced to make their reads quicker and not go as deep as they have lately. With the conservative nature of the playoffs, I'm expecting teams to settle for field goals instead of trying to make big plays and risk turnovers. I will call it Ravens, 17-13.

PLAY: Under 37 1/2 points for 1 unit.

Vikings +3 vs. Eagles

This could be another low-scoring game because both teams have highly ranked defenses and offenses that rely on the run (Vikings) or short passing game (Eagles). I'm not a fan of Tavaris Jackson, but he can get the job done if he's not asked to do much, and with Adrian Peterson being fresh (thanks to platooning with Chester Taylor throughout the regular season) the Vikings will be at least one home team that wins this weekend.

PLAY: Vikings for 1 unit.

Last week: 1-1 for a net loss of 0.1 units (based on risking 1.1 units to win 1). Season DRF record: 26-14-2, including 2-2-1 on 2-unit plays, for a net profit of 10.4 units.