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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Thursday, January 5, 2012 at 9:47 AM

Think the NFL Playoffs really "don't start" until the #1 and #2 conference seeds swing into action the weekend of January 14th and 15th ... than think again!

If you jog your memory than you came up with the following:

Since the 2003 season there have been six teams that made it to the Super Bowl that had to play the first weekend of playoff action including the 2003 Carolina Panthers, the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers, the 2006 Indianapolis Colts, the 2007 New York Giants, the 2008 Arizona Cardinals and the 2010 Green Bay Packers and - go ahead and count 'em up - four of those teams won it all ('05 Steelers, '06 Colts, '07 Giants and last year's Packers).

True, the odds still favor a #1 and/or #2 conference playoff seed getting to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis on February 5th but you cannot possibly ignore recent history as these handful-plus teams mentioned above all have won a first-round game and than picked up major momentum en route to playing in a Super Bowl.

Is there a team - or two - playing this weekend that might get to play for all the proverbial marbles on 2-5-12?

Perhaps the roaring-hot New Orleans Saints? Or maybe those injury-riddled but battle-tested-tough Pittsburgh Steelers? Hey, what about another post-season run by the NY Giants?

Let's get it on!

Jim Hurley and his Network of Handicappers and Bloggers will continue to win big-time this week/month as we roll on with our College Football Bowl Games all this weekend and right through the BCS Championship Game next Monday, Jan. 9th between #1 LSU and #2 Alabama plus there's NFL Playoff Wild Card Game action this weekend along with the NBA and tons of College Hoops action too. Get all these winners at our toll-free # of 1-800-323-4453 or else get it online right here as America's #1 Handicapper keeps up the winning beat this holiday season. Make sure to get your New Year off to a rollicking start!


On Saturday, it's ...

CINCINNATI (9-7) at HOUSTON (10-6)
- 4:30 p.m. ET, NBC
The history lesson here: The Houston Texans have never been to the playoffs since arriving on the NFL scene back in 2002 and the Cincinnati Bengals haven't won a post-season game in 21 years and so let's not exactly confuse these teams with the 1970s Steelers or the 1980s Forty-Niners, okay?

If banged-up Houston is gonna survive-and-advance Round I of these playoffs than kid quarterback T.J. Yates - who bruised his left/non-throwing shoulder last weekend and only played one series in that otherwise meaningless 23-22 home loss to Tennessee - likely will have to make some big passing plays as was the case when he helped the Texans snag a playoff berth in the first place with the 20-19 win in Cincinnati back on December 11th.

All Yates did there was guide Houston on fourth-quarter touchdown drives of 83 and 80 yards with his six-yard scoring fling to Kevin Walters with just six seconds remaining in the game providing the winning pop - no doubt the run-first Houston offense starring RB Arian Foster (1,224 yards rushing) and the always fearless Ben Tate (942 yards rushing) would like to play hardball here but something tells us the Bengals defense will be better than last week when Cincy allowed 221 yards rushing in the 24-16 loss against Baltimore.

Know this about the underdog Bengals: They've scored more than 20 points just once in their last five games (see 23-16 hang-on-for-dear-life win against Arizona in Week 16) and star rookie wide-out A.J. Green (hamstring) simply has not been close to 100 percent in weeks and so QB Andy Dalton (3,398 yards passing with 20 TDs and 13 INTs) might have to get "chunk" plays from somersault king WR Jerome Simpson.

The X-factor here: Cincinnati PK Mike Nugent has nailed 14-of-16 FGs from between 40-to-49 yards out and could get to trot out here for four or five field-goal tries in this clash.

Spread Notes - Houston enters its first-ever playoff game having posted a tidy 6-3-1 ATS (against the spread) log as betting favorites this season but keep in mind the Texans have not covered a game since Week 14 when they copped that 20-19 come-from-behind triumph at 2 ½-point favorite Cincinnati. In all, the Texans have covered their last four consecutive head-to-head showdowns versus the Bengals. Meanwhile, Cincinnati staggered down the stretch while going 1-6-1 against the Las Vegas prices the second half of the '11 regular season and note the Bengals are a dead-even but vig-losing 4-4 ATS as dogs this year and that's after getting off to a 4-and-oh spread start as pups with covers against Cleveland, Denver, Buffalo and Tennessee.

DETROIT (10-6) at NEW ORLEANS (13-3)
- 8 p.m. ET, NBC
There's been plenty of reason to party along Bourbon Street these days - heck, New Year's Eve is always a bash on these streets and the glut of college bowl games in town has made for a festive atmosphere but nothing (and nobody) can beat these Saints at home.

Well, so far this 2011 season nobody has!

Safe to say that record-breaking QB Drew Brees - who finished regular-season play with an NFL mark of 5,476 yards passing with 46 TDs and 14 INTs - has been on target and he's already had one successful crack at these Detroit Lions as exhibited by the 31-17 triumph back on December 4th. If Brees learned anything about the Lions there (and remember that DT Ndamukong Sug didn't play in that Sunday Night game while serving a two-game suspension) than it's that he can tease 'em with short strikes to Pro Bowl-bound TE Jimmy Graham (8 catches for 89 yards in that game) or can strike long distance too as WR Robert Meachem bagged three receptions worth a whopping 119 yards including a 67-yard score.

Don't be entirely shocked here if Brees and Company "suck in" the Detroit pass rushers early and resort to traps/draws and so RB Pierre Thomas (only 10 yards rushing in the first game against Detroit) could be a stat-sheet stuffer.

The Lions know that - quite simply - they need to score lots of points if they're gonna win here as 10 ½-point dogs.

In fact, note that Jim Schwartz's crew went 8-1 SU (straight-up) whenever scoring 27-or-more points with the lone loss last weekend's wild/wacky 45-41 setback at 6-point fav Green Bay. Still, Lions' QB Matthew Stafford managed only one touchdown pass while throwing for 408 yards in that first meeting with the Saints and you might recall WR Calvin Johnson was relatively quiet in Round I with 6 catches for 69 yards.

Simply put, if "Megatron" doesn't get into the end zone a couple of times here than Motown fans will soon turn to their beloved Red Wings!

Spread Notes - As stated in yesterday's Jim Sez, the N'Orleans Saints zoom into this playoff game having covered their last eight in a row and overall the NFC South champs are an NFL-best 12-4 ATS (see accompanying chart below). The Saints, however, are only 2-4 against the odds in all prior post-season tilts the past five years. Detroit failed to cover five of its final six regular-season outings this season and that naturally included the aforementioned 31-17 loss at 8-point fav New Orleans in Week 13 action. The Lions covered just 2-of-5 games as underdogs this year after going an electric 9-4 ATS as pups in 2010 ... remember?

On Sunday, it's ...

- 1 p.m. ET, Fox
There's two "negative streaks" at work here, folks: The New York Giants - believe it or not - have never won a playoff home game in the Tom Coughlin Era that started way back in 2004 (losses to Carolina in 2005 and to Philadelphia in '08) while the Atlanta Falcons (as you all are aware) have not won a playoff game during this QB Matt Ryan/head coach Mike Smith Era that started in 2008 (see losses at Arizona in '08 and than home to Green Bay last year).

So, let's call these negative vibes a "wash" here and find out what's gonna give:

The Falcons realize that the Giants' strength is their defensive line - especially on passing downs when NYG often opts to have four defensive ends on the field - and so it's up to Ryan to make some quick-hitter passes here to explosive WRs Roddy White (100 catches for 1,296 yards and 8 TDs) and speedy Julio Jones (54 grabs for 959 yards and also 8 TDs) and then have them break a tackle or two. If the Giants can put the Falcons into too many third-and-long plays than Ryan and Company likely won't be standing come the NFC Divisional Playoffs.

Meanwhile, the Giants' offensive game plan here is rather fascinating: QB Eli Manning (4,933 yards passing with 29 TDs) has become so dependent lately on WR Victor Cruz (see 82 catches and 9 TDs) that you're starting to see WR Hakeem Nicks and others draw single coverage and so look for Manning-to-Hicks to become prevalent in this matinee and expect the Giants to run the ball and screen it in the area that Cruz vacates because there could be some real running room for RB Ahmad Bradshaw (among others).

Under-the-radar item here: The Giants kick/punt return specialists have been awful (again) this year and so don't count on NYG getting the "hidden yardage" that's so critical in big games.

Spread Notes - Atlanta's actually 6-3-1 spreadwise in its last 10 games overall after a sluggish 1-4 ATS start but did you know Smith's gang went just 3-5 ATS away this year after having posted a combined 11-5 ATS away mark the prior two seasons? On the flip side, the New York Giants were a dead-even but vig-losing 8-8 against the odds this year and that included a shabby 3-5 ATS log at home. The Jints have not covered a post-season game since that dramatic 17-14 upset win against 12-point fav New England in Super Bowl 42.

PITTSBURGH (12-4) at DENVER (8-8)
- 4:30 p.m. ET, CBS
In case you were wondering, there have been two other 8-and-8 NFL playoff teams that have won post-season games but there's been eight other .500 teams that made it to the post-season and lost right away - so the odds are certainly not in the slumping Denver Broncos' favor as they head into this home game against the banged-up but still formidable Pittsburgh Steelers.

The cynics this week have been saying that a half-speed Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger (4,077 yards passing with 21 TDs) is still better than a full-speed Denver QB Tim Tebow (1,729 yards passing with 12 TDs and 6 INTs) - and who are we to argue?

Still, what's truly compelling here is that Tebow - who has started only 11 games this year - has been sacked a total of 33 times and his fumbling woes in last week's 7-3 loss to Kansas City became yet another problem to be added to his list of woes. Hey, Roethlisberger has been sacked 40 times this year and thrown 14 picks and so that undersized but cat-quick Broncos defense figures to be coming full tilt at "Big Ben" here especially knowing that the Steelers are without injured RB Rashard Mendenhall (knee) for the rest of the year.

Can Pittsburgh win this game with Roethlisberger chucking it 35-plus times? Hmmm.

It says here that Broncos' pass-rusher supreme Elvis Dumervil (9 ½ sacks) and rookie sensation LB Von Miller (a team-leading 11 ½) sacks - must create three or four turnovers here and "shorten" the field for Tebow and the offense. The Steelers probably will put Roethlisberger in the shotgun for much of this game and hope the protection holds out so he can zip it deep to WRs Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown (a combined 141 receptions while averaging better than 16 yards a grab) but "safety valves" like veteran WR Hines Ward and RB Isaac Redman could wind up being the make-or-break guys here for the 8 ½-point road-favored Steelers.

Spread Notes - Denver followed up a five-game spread winning streak with a rotten 0-3-1 ATS log in the final four regular-season weekends and note the Broncos have covered just one playoff game in the past 10 years (see the 27-13 triumph over 3-point underdog New England back in the 2005 AFC Divisional Playoff round). Pittsburgh's failed to cover three of its last four games this year and the Steelers are just 11-14 ATS away since the start of the 2009 campaign.


New Orleans 12 4 0 .750
San Francisco 11 4 1 .733
Green Bay 11 5 0 .688
Seattle 11 5 0 .688
Houston 9 5 2 .643
Carolina 9 6 1 .600
Oakland 9 6 1 .600
Baltimore 9 7 0 .563
Kansas City 9 7 0 .563
New England 9 7 0 .563
Arizona 8 7 1 .533
Atlanta 8 7 1 .533
Cincinnati 8 7 1 .533
Cleveland 8 7 1 .533
Miami 8 8 0 .500
NY Giants 8 8 0 .500
Philadelphia 8 8 0 .500
Chicago 7 8 1 .467
Denver 7 8 1 .467
Detroit 7 8 1 .467
Jacksonville 7 8 1 .467
Buffalo 7 9 0 .438
NY Jets 7 9 0 .438
Pittsburgh 7 9 0 .438
Washington 7 9 0 .438
Tennessee 6 8 2 .429
Minnesota 6 9 1 .400
Indianapolis 6 10 0 .375
San Diego 6 10 0 .375
Dallas 5 10 1 .333
Tampa Bay 4 12 0 .250
St. Louis 3 12 1 .200

Folks, we added up the won/loss/tied marks of all 12 NFL Playoff teams and this is what we have discovered:

NFL squads heading to this year's post-season party beginning this weekend posted a composite ATS mark of 106 wins, 79 losses and 7 pointspread pushes for a .573 winning rate with the Saints, 49ers, Packers and non-playoff team Seattle the absolute cream of the crop wagering-wise this past 2011 NFL regular season. As you can see, the booby prize goes to the woeful St. Louis Rams - hey, it ain't easy cashing just three bets in a 16-game season as one might believe you could fall into one or two spread wins along the way. Yikes!

NOTE: Catch our Cotton Bowl Preview - that's Arkansas versus Kansas State - in tomorrow's edition of Jim Sez.

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