The Wild Cards Begin
NFL PLAYOFFS BEGIN SATURDAY WITH CINCY-HOUSTON, MINNESOTA-GREEN BAY
The week is just flying by with marquee matchups for sports bettors in the college bowls leading right into the first fantastic weekend of NFL playoff action. Today's edition of the NOTEBOOK will run through our key indicator stats in Saturday's Wildcard tandem of Cincinnati at Houston and Minnesota at Green Bay, while also providing bonus coverage of the BBVA Compass Bowl matching Pittsburgh and Ole Miss.
There's a lot to get to, so we're going to jump right in...
CINCINNATI at HOUSTON (4:30 p.m. ET on NBC)
Las Vegas Spread: Houston by 4.5, total of 43
Home field advantage is worth three points in the NFL, which means Houston is now seen as being only 1.5 points better than Cincinnati on a neutral field. If this game were played about a month ago, Houston would be closer to -7. Though, if the playoffs were scheduled for a month ago...Houston would have a bye in the first round!
WON-LOST RECORDS (schedule strength according to USA Today)
Cincinnati: 10-6 (31st ranked schedule)
Houston: 12-4 (27th ranked schedule)
Both teams played very easy schedules. Remember, there are only 32 teams in the NFL. You'll see tomorrow that Indianapolis had the easiest schedule of all. Cincinnati would probably have been 8-8 against a real schedule, possibly worse...suggesting they're not really a playoff caliber team. Houston has been exposed recently vs. quality, and might only have managed 10-6 against a balanced schedule.
Houston did a better job this year of winning the risk/reward battle vs. its weak schedule. The defense forced miscues from bad teams, while the offense's safe approach grinded out points. That didn't work well at all against playoff caliber teams in the final month of action. Cincinnati's +4 is actually pretty bad considering how soft the schedule was.
Cincinnati: 332.7 yards-per-game on 5.2 yards-per-play
Houston: 372.1 yards-per-game on 5.5 yards-per-play
Edge to Houston, though they need to be getting the very best from the running back position to express that advantage.
Cincinnati: 319.7 yards-per-game on 4.9 yards-per-play
Houston: 323.2 yards-per-game on 5.1 yards-per-play
Very close numbers here. Cincinnati had a slightly easier schedule...which probably puts Houston ahead. These are the strengths of both teams at the moment, though Houston has been vulnerable vs. good passing attacks. Is Andy Dalton ready to step up and play like Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers?
CINCINNATI VS. PLAYOFF TEAMS (2-2 SU, 2-2 ATS)
Cincinnati (+7) lost at Baltimore 44-13
Cincinnati (+3) won at Washington 38-31
Cincinnati (+5) lost to Denver 31-23
Cincinnati (-5) beat Baltimore 23-17
The Bengals only played four games vs. playoff teams this year. And, two of those were against the Ravens. Of course, last week's matchup with Baltimore saw a lot of backups on the field...so it's more like 3.5 games. Very soft schedule.
HOUSTON VS. PLAYOFF TEAMS (3-4 SU, 3-4 ATS)
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
At least Houston is battle tested. Unfortunately, they lost three of their last four games vs. playoff teams in a stunning finish to what had been such a promising season.
We'd have to say that the bulk of data suggests the market has the price right. Handicapping the game will involve determining Houston's mindset. If they've lost their fire because of that horrible finish, then Houston can easily lose this game outright. If Houston has its head back on straight, Cincinnati is an untested non-playoff team that lucked into a berth because they play in a very weak conference. JIM HURLEY is working closely with his Texas sources to get a read on the Texans.
MINNESOTA at GREEN BAY (8 p.m. ET on NBC)
Las Vegas Spread: Green Bay by 8, total of 46
Green Bay was -3 on the road last week vs. these very Vikings. That would have suggested a line of Green Bay -9 here. That was the number for awhile, but smart money hit the underdog to bring us down to eight.
WON-LOST RECORDS (schedule strength according to USA Today)
Minnesota: 10-6 (6th ranked schedule)
Green Bay: 11-5 (8th ranked schedule)
Unlike the first Saturday game, we have two teams who played very tough schedules. Green Bay would have been a bye team in most years, because they would have gone 12-4 or better vs. an average schedule. Minnesota is better than people realize, managing 10 wins against a tough slate.
Green Bay: +7
Aaron Rodgers has a big edge over Christian Ponder...which shows up in this category. Rodgers is more likely to move the ball in the air without miscues. If the Vikings NEED Ponder to produce, he's likely to have turnover troubles. Can Adrian Peterson keep the pressure off Ponder?
Minnesota: 336.6 yards-per-game on 5.4 yards-per-play
Green Bay: 359.4 yards-per-game on 5.5 yards-per-play
Edge to Green Bay, though the per-play difference is probably much closer than you imagined. Peterson gets a lot of yards after contact. Rodgers of Green Bay is getting contacted behind the line of scrimmage way too much!
Minnesota: 350.2 yards-per-game on 5.2 yards-per-play
Green Bay: 336.8 yards-per-game on 5.2 yards-per-play
Every even defensive teams. The per-play data suggests this is a virtual coin flip on a neutral field. Who wins and covers will come down to turnovers, and the ability to maximize scoring opportunities in the red zone. Green Bay can still cover this tall spread if they're turning 5.5 yards-per-play into touchdowns while Minnesota is settling for field goals.
MINNESOTA VS. PLAYOFF TEAMS (3-4 SU, 3-4 ATS)
Minnesota (-3) lost at Indianapolis 23-20
Minnesota (+6.5) beat San Francisco 24-13
Minnesota (-1) lost at Washington 38-26
Minnesota (+4.5) lost at Seattle 30-20
Minnesota (+7) lost at Green Bay 23-14
Minnesota (+8) won at Houston 23-6
Minnesota (+3) won beat Green Bay 37-34
A nice finish for the Vikings, as they had a good chance of covering that near miss at Lambeau a few weeks ago. It's also worth remembering that they beat San Francisco earlier this season too.
GREEN BAY VS. PLAYOFF TEAMS (2-4 SU, 2-4 ATS)
Green Bay (-6) lost to San Francisco 30-22
Green Bay (-3) lost at Seattle 14-12
Green Bay (-6.5) lost at Indianapolis 30-27
Green Bay (+4) won at Houston 42-24
Green Bay (-7) beat Minnesota 23-14
Green Bay (-3) lost at Minnesota 34-37
Green Bay was robbed in Seattle, which is why they're playing this week instead of enjoying a bye. At least they get to play at home on the frozen tundra against a dome team. Familiarity will surely breed contempt among these teams who were already divisional rivals. Which team will make the most adjustments in this critical rubber game?
The stats say that Minnesota can hang tough for 60 minutes. But, hanging tough only got them a nine-point loss the last time they were on this field. JIM HURLEY has been running through the computer simulations to get the best read on how possessions are going to end for both teams. He's also thinking seriously about the Over/Under here depending on game time weather conditions.
COMPASS BOWL (Birmingham)
PITTSBURGH (7-4-1) vs. MISSISSIPPI (9-3)
Vegas Line: Mississippi by 3.5, total of 52
Remember that this is an early kickoff. We're putting it third because it's the lowest priority game of the day. Kickoff is at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN.
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
Big edge here for Ole Miss, though the SEC has disappointed through the bowl games...while the Big East has scored some notable wins (Louisville and Syracuse jump to mind as outright underdog winners vs. Florida and West Virginia respectively). All of our bowl previews are using Jeff Sagarin's pre-bowl numbers from USA Today. Our proprietary material in-house has it closer than that right now.
Pittsburgh: 61st (92nd rushing, 40th passing)
Mississippi: 46th (55th rushing, 47th passing)
Clear edge to Ole Miss, who had the better numbers while playing the tougher schedule.
Pittsburgh: 16th (25th rushing, 24th passing)
Mississippi: 50th (31st rushing, 83rd passing)
Clear edge to Pittsburgh, who grades out as a legit defense amidst a conference that's played some good defense so far in the bowls. You can throw in Rutgers here, who shut down Virginia Tech and scored their teams only TD in an additional Big East bowl appearance.
ADDING IT ALL UP
You've seen this year that MOTIVATION is the key to most minor bowls. Who cares more? JIM HURLEY'S sources have been on that angle all week with these Alabama bowls (today's game is in Birmingham, while Sunday Night's Go-Daddy Bowl will be in Mobile). We may have a big play here depending on what they've learned.
Saturday's WINNERS are available here at the website for credit card purchase. If you have any questions, call our office at 1-800-323-4453.
Back with you tomorrow to preview the last two Wildcard games and the Go-Daddy Bowl. Then Monday we'll go in depth for Notre Dame-Alabama in the BCS Championship. The information YOU need to win is always available from JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK!
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