Here come the NFL playoffs, the coveted second season for NJ sports betting operators and bettors.
Three games on Saturday and Sunday form a strong six-game Wild Card Weekend, adding two games to the first-round total of previous years.
As it prepares for the postseason, the NFL, sportsbooks and gamblers are savoring a monster victory. The league completed all 256 regular-season games without a single COVID-19-related cancellation.
We take a closer look at the wild card games in this week’s Odds Five breakdown.
Saturday NFL playoff games
The Buffalo Bills opened as a significant favorite over the visiting Indianapolis Colts for the weekend opener at DraftKings sportsbook.
The host Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Rams meet for the second time in three weeks. Favored Seattle won the last battle, 20-9.
In the evening finale, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a fat -7.5 against the host Washington Football Team. The 7-9 squad earned a home game by winning the NFC East. Hey, somebody had to do it.
— NFL (@NFL) January 4, 2021
Sunday NFL playoff games
The visiting Baltimore Ravens opened as a slightly above a field-goal favorite against the Tennessee Titans in what could be the most entertaining matchup of the weekend. It opens the Sunday ticket.
The host New Orleans Saints are the lopsided chalk against the Chicago Bears in the middle game.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, at -4, host the Cleveland Browns for the second straight week, this time with their starters, in the evening clash.
Saturday NJ sports betting overview
Line shopping provided deals for Buffalo Bills bettors in the early trading.
While Buffalo opened at -7.5 at DraftKings, encouraging action on Indianapolis, William Hill had the line at -6.5. That’s an enticement for Bills bettors and indicates the sensitivity of that dreaded “7” number. Bettors will be ready to whale on either side of the Buffalo -7 line, depending on which team they prefer.
Buffalo enjoyed a monster regular-season sprint of six straight wins to the finish line. In that surge, they defeated the Steelers and then torched the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins by scoring 142 points. That’s almost 50 a game.
Buffalo is doing the intangibles found with championship teams.
They crushed a 10-6 Dolphins team that needed the season finale, 56-26. The Bills featured the league’s leading receiver in Stefon Diggs, a strong young quarterback in Josh Allen and a defense that picked Tua Tagovailoa three times and scored, along with a special team’s unit that delivered a punt-return score. One player, Isaiah McKenzie, scored three consecutive touchdowns, including the punt return TD.
This team is feelin’ it. And local officials just relaxed COVID-19 restrictions to allow nearly 7,000 spectators into this game.
Indy has one of the game’s best coaches in Frank Reich and a good run game.
The Seahawks do just enough to win, week in and week out. They face a Rams team that gutted out a season-ending 18-7 triumph over the Arizona Cardinals without quarterback Jared Goff. The defense notched a score, and quarterback John Wolford improved throughout the game.
But now he goes against Russell Wilson. In Los Angeles, there is sentiment to start Wolford, who accounted for nearly 300 combined pass and run yards this past week against the Arizona Cardinals, even if Goff is healthy.
The Bucs, riding a similar wave of dominance, have crushed their last three foes, the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons (twice) to the tune of 122-61.
Tampa Bay has been on an offensive steamroll. In the last four games, Tom Brady has reached the level expected from him when he was lured away from the New England Patriots in the offseason.
Brady features a sizzling 12 touchdowns against just one interception over the last four games. He has thrown for over 390 yards twice. Brady is releasing the ball with more certainty, the offensive line is protecting him and a talented group of receivers like Mike Evans, Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown help make Tampa Bay one of the hottest offensive teams in the NFC.
The Bucs will meet a legitimate defense for the first time in four weeks, providing a good clash for Brady. One reason for the lopsided line? The Washington offense is weak.
Sunday NJ sports betting overview
The Ravens, the team nobody wants to play in the postseason, opened as slight road favorites against the Titans, who beat them 30-24 in overtime during the regular season.
Sunday’s opener features a terrific matchup of The Beast, Titans running back Derrick Henry, against the Lamar Jackson-led Ravens, who ran for an astounding 404 yards in Sunday’s 38-3 pasting of the Cincinnati Bengals. It was the most rushing yards in an NFL game by one team since the Bengals did it in 2000. The Ravens won their last five games to finish 11-5.
The Titans come off an exhilarating last-play triumph over the Houston Texans. And it was a roller-coaster ride for the bettors.
They won on a doink. Kicker Sam Sloman’s game-ending field goal banged off the right upright and snaked across the crossbar.
The Titans were heavily favored. Many moneyline parlays contained them winning this game. The “doink” therefore resonated with gamblers.
New Orleans looked methodical in crushing the Carolina Panthers, while the Bears flirted with an upset of the Green Bay Packers before surrendering two fourth-quarter scores and losing 35-16 in the season finale.
The line for this late-afternoon game says the second-seeded Saints are playing too well and should roll the team that got the last playoff spot. We’ll see.
And then the Browns and Steelers do it again, with everything on the line for both teams.
Cleveland nearly choked on the gift it was given Sunday when the Steelers rested quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and others for a game they didn’t need.
Cleveland, at -9, jumped to a 24-9 lead early in the fourth quarter. But the Browns gave up 13 fourth-quarter points and escaped with a 24-22 home triumph. It took the denial of a two-point conversion to ensure the Browns’ first playoff appearance since 2002.
Now they are the visiting team and Roethlisberger is back in. The first line of Pittsburgh -4 was 13 points different than the Browns -9 for the Week 17 finale.
Wild Card Weekend ‘bye’ standers
You won’t see the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs this weekend. The Packers have the NFC top seed, and the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs garnered the AFC’s lone bye. Each team will face the lowest-rated survivor of the Week 1 playoff round.
Both teams have the home field throughout the playoffs.
Final look at the NFC East, the division nobody wanted
Every team had at least one four-game losing streak. The eventual winners, Washington, once dropped five straight.
No team could sustain the run that put it in first place.
The Eagles, once in “command” of the division at 3-4-1, finished 1-7.
The Giants took over with a pulsating triumph against the Seahawks as a massive underdog, but then lost three straight. They escaped in Week 17 against the Dallas Cowboys, who had won three straight, because Dallas fell apart inside the Giants’ 10-yard line in the final two minutes.
That put a light on Washington, which rebounded from a 1-5 start to win the division at 7-9. Its last four wins were on the road, including a strange 20-14 triumph over the Eagles on Sunday.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson made two head-scratching moves in this game. He bypassed a chip-shot field goal that would have tied the game late in the third quarter, and the Eagles did not score on fourth down. Pederson then inexplicably replaced starter Jalen Hurts, who had rushed for two touchdowns, in the fourth quarter.
.@ShannonSharpe on Doug Pederson benching Jalen Hurts:
"I don't know how Pederson stood in the locker room after the game and looked his team in the eye and says: 'I tried to win that game.' pic.twitter.com/zwWkcQaRa2
— UNDISPUTED (@undisputed) January 4, 2021
Washington was on its heels and ripe to be beaten. Pederson’s move prompted derisive comments like “Tank you very much” by New York Giants fans, who accused the Eagles of lying down in order to preserve a better draft pick. Pederson was also second-guessed on the national broadcast.
Gamblers got burned, too. Hurts’ over-under rushing attempts was 9.5 across the major books. He was at eight and probably would have run at least twice more. When he sat, that bet lost.
On to the postseason, where history has been kind to teams in Washington’s position.
The two teams that did win their divisions with sub .500 records, the 2010 Seattle Seahawks and 2014 Carolina Panthers, both won their first-round game.
And the coach who did it in 2014?
Ron Rivera. The same Rivera who is guiding the 7-9 Football Team into this postseason.
AP Photo/John Munson