01/13/2011 3:48PM

Underdogs look live in NFL's divisional round


LAS VEGAS – For the second straight year, wild-card weekend in the NFL was pretty wild.

It started with the Seattle Seahawks, the much-maligned winner of the NFC West (aka NFC Worst) as the first team to win a division with a losing record, beating the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints 41-36 as 10-point home underdogs. It continued with the New York Jets going on the road to Indianapolis and beating the defending AFC champion Colts 17-16 as a 2-point dog. After a return to form with the Baltimore Ravens routing the Kansas City Chiefs, 30-7, as 3-point favorites, the Green Bay Packers knocked off the Philadelphia Eagles 21-16 as 1.5-point underdogs.

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When all the dust had settled, it was the second straight year that three of the four games were won by the dogs. For the record, three of the games also stayed under the totals, with the Saints-Seattle game being the exception.

In updating the odds to win the Super Bowl, obviously the victors saw their odds drop after getting by the first round. At the Las Vegas Hilton, the Packers were dropped from 12-1 to 6-1, the Ravens from 15-1 to 8-1, the Jets from 30-1 to 15-1, and the Seahawks from 200-1 to 50-1 (you’ll note the others were basically chopped in half while the Seahawks was reduced by 75 percent, but that’s due to the Eagles losing and increasing the chance that if the Seahawks win this weekend, they could potentially get a home game next week if the Packers knock off the top-seeded Falcons). As far as the teams that had first-round byes, their odds remained basically the same, with the Patriots at 7-5 (raised slightly from last week’s 13-10), the Falcons at 9-2, the Steelers at 5-1, and the Bears at 7-1.

Handicapping the divisional round has changed over the years. Even though the NFL has been known for parity for a long time and bangs the “on any given Sunday” mantra, there was a time in the not-so-distant past when favorites were dominant in this round and oddsmakers had a hard time setting the lines high enough as the elite teams that earned byes seems to cover no matter what the number was. According to the database of handicapper Marc Lawrence of playbook.com, bye teams in this round were 33-7 straight up and 24-15-1 (61.5 percent) against the spread in the 1990-99 seasons. They were slightly profitable at 13-10-1 from 2000-06, but have gone 5-11 combined the past four years, so betting the dogs has been the way to go, and I think we have live dogs in all the games this weekend as well and fully expect that a flat bet on all four dogs will yield a profit. Of course, if the Seahawks (+400) or Jets (+330) prevail, you wouldn’t even need a second dog to win in order to come out ahead.

Back to the betting board

I went 2-0 in the wild-card games last week with my official plays here with the Seahawks +10 as they beat the Saints outright 41-36 at +450 on the money line, and the Packers-Eagles under 46.5 as the Packers survived 21-16 in a defensive battle. That puts me at 29-19 overall on the NFL season, just over 60 percent. Hopefully, I can keep the winning going this weekend. I’ll stick with my two strongest plays but point out that I also like the Packers over the Falcons and the Jets-Patriots under 45.

Ravens-Steelers over 37 points

I’m known for going the contrarian route, and this pick certainly fits the bill. Everyone is talking about how these two rivals always have hard-fought defensive battles, and that was certainly the case with the Ravens winning 17-14 in Week 4 and the Steelers winning 13-10 in Week 13. If anything, I thought this total would be even lower, but I think the oddsmakers have seen what I see. The Ravens, despite only ranking 13th in the AFC in yards per game, have opened up their offense with Ray Rice not only running the ball hard but catching the ball out of the backfield more and Joe Flacco using Anquan Boldin and Todd Heap better last week versus the Chiefs but also spreading it around. I think this Ravens’ offense can have success this time around against the Steelers. And the Ravens’ defense, despite shutting down the Chiefs last week, has shown some vulnerabilities, especially against the pass, that the Steelers can exploit. And a defensive score – something these two teams also excel at – certainly helps our cause.

PLAY: Over for 1 unit.

Seahawks +10 vs. Bears

Regular readers know I grew up a Bears fan (one of my daughters is named Peyton, after Walter Payton, not Peyton Manning), but as handicappers we need to bet with our heads and not our hearts. The Bears have had a great season, but I still don’t think they should be favored by 10 over any playoff team, even the sub .500 Seahawks who were 2-6 on the road. One of those road wins by Seattle was in Week 6 when they went to Chicago and won 23-20, so we know they match up. In season stats, and if they play half as well as they did against the Saints, I don’t see the Bears routing them. I’ll be doubly happy if the Seahawks cover but the Bears still win and advance.

PLAY: Seahawks for 1 unit.

Last week: 2-0 for a profit of 2 units. Overall NFL record: 29-19 for a net profit of 8.1 units (based on risking 1.1 units to win 1).