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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, January 12, 2013 at 8:00 AM

The great thing about not having any upsets in the Wildcard games is that we truly get the best eight teams playing for the right to advance to the Final Four. Are the eventual Super Bowl teams going to be on the field today? Sports bettors know that we’re looking at four teams who are in the thick of the discussion.

*Atlanta is the #1 seed in the NFC

*Seattle is considered by many to be the “uncrowned” #1 seed in the NFC because of a hot finish.

*Houston was set to be the #1 seed in the AFC until a disappointing finish

*New England was set to be the #1 seed in the AFC until they were upset by San Francisco

This has a Final Four feel to it already! Let’s crunch some numbers and see if we can determine which two teams will join Saturday’s winners over Championship Weekend.



Las Vegas Spread: Atlanta by 2.5, total of 46

Home field advantage is worth a field goal in the NFL, and the bye week usually counts for something. We said that for Saturday’s Green Bay-Atlanta matchup. Here we actually have a line BELOW the key number of three. That tells you the market sees Seattle as the better team right now regardless of the seedings.

WON-LOST RECORDS (schedule strength according to USA Today)

Seattle: 11-5 (5th ranked schedule)

Atlanta: 13-3 (25th ranked schedule)

And, here’s part of why the market feels that way! Atlanta faced a very easy schedule. If you gave them a league average schedule, they would drop to at least 12-4, and possibly 11-5. Well, Seattle’s already at 11-5 against a killer schedule! Give the Seahawks a league average slate, and they move up to 12-4. The NFL uses won-lost records to fill out their brackets. Oddsmakers and handicappers use CONTEXT to shape the line.


Seattle: +13

Atlanta: +13

At first glance, this is dead even and you can move on. Don’t forget about strength of schedule. If Seattle was +13 against a killer schedule, while Atlanta was +13 against a weak schedule, then it’s clearly the Seahawks who rate an edge in this category. Handicappers will have to think about the possibility that playing back-to-back road games on the East Coast might hamper this team from the Pacific Northwest in this particular category.


Seattle: 350.6 yards-per-game on 5.8 yards-per-play

Atlanta: 369.1 yards-per-game on 5.8 yards-per-play

A wash in yards-per-play, with a volume edge to the Falcons. What happens when you factor in the schedule, Seattle moves ahead in our view. You’re hearing the media talk about this game being a match of “Atlanta’s offense” vs. “Seattle’s defense.” Be aware that Seattle has the slightly better offense when you adjust for context.


Seattle: 306.2 yards-per-game on 5.1 yards-per-play

Atlanta: 356.6 yards-per-game on 5.9 yards-per-play

And, now you can see that they have a MUCH better defense when you adjust for context. Wow…huge edges already…and the better defense faced the killer schedule. This is why Atlanta is so cheap at home as a #1 seed with a bye.


Seattle (+3) beat Green Bay 14-12

Seattle (+3.5) beat New England 24-23

Seattle (+7.5) lost to San Francisco 13-6

Seattle (-4.5) beat Minnesota 30-20

Seattle (-2.5) beat San Francisco 42-13

An impressive showing needless to say. And, if you throw in last week’s win at Washington, we’re looking at 5-1 straight up and 6-0 ATS. What’s not to like? Four of the victories came at home, and one was a gift from the officials. They were a bit lucky to beat New England too after rallying from behind. Just remember that last week’s team fell behind 14-0 before rallying against a hobbled quarterback. This week’s team will be tired, and will be facing a fresh, healthy host.


Atlanta (-3) beat Denver 27-21

Atlanta (-3) won at Washington 24-17

Only two games all year vs. playoff teams? Are you kidding?! That schedule was even weaker than you had realized. Historically, this is a bad sign for playoff preparation. But, at least you can say that Atlanta enters the playoffs fresher than anyone else in recent history. Nobody’s been less battle-tested than these Falcons.


Looks like this is coming down to what Seattle has left in the tank. Based on recent form and the stats, Seattle is clearly the better team. Atlanta is clearly the fresher team, and will have the benefit of home field against a visitor from the other side of the country. JIM HURLEY is working closely with his on-site sources to get a feel for Seattle’s ability to hang tough again on the road. That one single element is likely to rule the day.

HOUSTON at NEW ENGLAND (4:30 p.m. ET on CBS)

Las Vegas Spread: New England by 9.5, total of 47.5

New England won a recent meeting between these teams on this field so handily that the market has to make them a prohibitive favorite. You’ll see in a moment that oddsmakers made quite an adjustment from that first meeting.

WON-LOST RECORDS (schedule strength according to USA Today)

Houston: 12-4 (27th ranked schedule)

New England: 12-4 (25th ranked schedule)

How’s that for a dead heat? Houston didn’t get a bye because that prior debacle in Foxboro gave the Pats the tie-breaker. Over the full four months, these were even teams. Over the past month, New England has been the much superior side…keyed by that head-to-head blowout.


Houston: +12

New England +25

Wow…how are you going to beat the Pats if they dominate the turnover category like that?! We’ve seen in recent years that an edge that high is often a false indicator. It means New England is great at abusing bad teams, but falls back to earth when facing quality. This team is in the playoffs all the time. They DON’T dominate this stat in the postseason the way they do in the regular season. We will still give New England the nod because Houston will likely have the riskier approach if they want to spring an upset. The edge isn’t as big as those numbers make it seem.


Houston: 372.1 yards-per-game on 5.5 yards-per-play

New England: 427.9 yards-per-game on 5.7 yards-per-play

New England posts a nice number per-play, then runs more plays than anybody else because of their fast tempo and their ability to move the chains. Houston has lost its ability to move the chains in recent weeks. They have no chance to compete here unless they find a way to keep Tom Brady off the field for long stretches of time.


Houston: 323.2 yards-per-game on 5.1 yards-per-play

New England: 373.2 yards-per-game on 5.7 yards-per-play

The problem with saying “big edge to the Texans” is that they had strong defensive numbers coming into the first meeting. Those didn’t matter! They also had trouble stopping the high octane offense of Green Bay. They couldn’t clamp down on Minnesota and Indianapolis when a bye week was within reach. Houston’s defense is fading. Those numbers are overly influenced by a long ago strong start against a weak schedule.


Houston (-1) won at Denver 31-25

Houston (-4) lost to Green Bay 42-24

Houston (-6) beat Baltimore 43-13

Houston (+4) lost at New England 42-14

Houston (-11) beat Indianapolis 29-17

Houston (-8) lost to Minnesota 23-6

Houston (-6) lost at Indianapolis 28-16

If the Super Bowl were held in late October, we would have liked the chances of these guys. That 1-3 finish is ugly, particularly since the only win came at home against an Indy team who wasn’t really playoff caliber. You can see that Vegas moved the line five points from the first meeting in Foxboro. If we’re going to see a replay of 42-14, the line’s not going to matter.


New England (+2.5) lost to Baltimore 31-30

New England (-5.5) beat Denver 31-21

New England (-3.5) lost at Seattle 24-23

New England (-10) beat Indianapolis 59-24

New England (-5.5) beat Houston 42-14

New England (-4) lost to San Francisco 41-34

Some hope for Houston and other potential Patriots opponents in that New England was only 50/50 vs. quality this year. If you agree that Indy isn’t really playoff caliber, then it falls to 40/60 the wrong way. New England has a very poor recent pointspread history in the playoffs because the magic they work is great at running up the score on lesser lights. Quality opposition has a fighting chance against them.


Is Houston quality opposition? That’s what you have to determine. That may be ALL you have to determine. It’s so clear that New England struggles to cover vs. quality in the playoffs…and so clear that New England squashes pretenders that Houston’s gameplan and mindset will determine everything. You KNOW what New England is going to do. Will this be a surprisingly close thriller or another 42-14 rout?

JIM HURLEY has built a handicapping dynasty because he knows how to handicap dynasty teams. You MUST have a knack for that because so many of the usual suspects keep showing up when championships are on the line. He will have strong opinions in both of Sunday’s games. You can purchase those picks here at the website with your credit card. If you have any questions, call our office at 1-800-323-4453. Be sure to check on combination packages with basketball when you call.

Back with you tomorrow to preview Big Monday Basketball on ESPN. It’s Louisville-Connecticut and Baylor-Kansas under the spotlight. There are only two football days left after today…so make sure you’re winning seven days a week with bonus basketball from JIM HURLEY’S NETWORK!

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