12 NFL teams remain but there can be only 1

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The prelude to the NFL Playoffs known as the 256 game regular season is complete and the 12 teams that will compete for the Vince Lombardi Trophy emblematic of winning Super Bowl 50 have been determined.

To say the regular season had a wild final week is an understatement as half of the 16 games were won outright by underdogs.

Three of those underdog winners had direct playoff implications. Buffalo’s defeat of the Jets kept the Jets out of the Playoffs and Minnesota’s win at Green Bay earned the Vikings the NFC North Titlen Miami’s upset of New England lowered the Patriots from the AFC’s top seed to the second seed.

Underdog winners that did not affect the Playoffs, either in terms of team or seedings, included New Orleans, Philadelphia, San Francisco. Washington won as an underdog at Dallas but the Redskins were already locked in as the NFC’s fourth seed. Seattle also crushed the NFC’s No.2 seed Arizona, but the Packers loss to Minnesota pushed the Seahawks to the sixth seed.

In past seasons each conference had one Wild Card game played on Saturday and the other on Sunday. But this season will see both AFC Wild Card games played Saturday and both NFC Wild Card games played Sunday.

The strong finishes by both Houston and Washington enabled to NFL to avoid the embarrassment of having at least one team with a losing record from making the Playoffs. Such was the case with Carolina last season. Both teams finished at 9-7 with Houston winning its final 3 games and Washington entering the Playoffs on a 4 win winning streak.

Only one team with a better record than the Texans and Redskins, the 10-6 Jets, failed to make the Playoffs. No other team was 9-7 and a trio of 8-8 teams also missed the Playoffs (Atlanta, Buffalo and Indianapolis). The Falcons may be the most disappointing team to not make the Playoffs after starting 5-0 and 6-1 before losing 6 straight.

Much as you can disregard preseason results once the regular season starts, the Playoffs represent an even greater increase in intensity from that displayed for most of the regular season. There is, however, one major distinction.

Most coaches coast through the preseason, using rather plain game plans and limiting the time starters see action. While preparing for regular season play is important, staying as healthy as possible is the major concern.

As the season unfolds injuries take a toll and as we have seen repeatedly through the years, and again this season, key and/or cluster injuries impact which teams make the Playoffs and how teams play down the stretch when those Playoff berths and seedings are on the line.

Consequently, as of Monday morning, 3 of the 4 road teams are favored in their Wild Card games with Kansas City favored at Houston, Pittsburgh favored at Cincinnati and Seattle favored at Minnesota. Washington is just a 1 point favorite at home over Green Bay and it’s quite possible that later in the week the Packers draw money and close as slight favorites.

While not unprecedented having 3 Wild Card home underdogs is rare, having occurred just twice since the Playoff format was expanded to 12 teams in 1990. The 1999 Playoffs saw Wild Card home underdogs win all 3 games outright and the 2008 Playoffs saw them go just 1-2 both SU and ATS.

The AFC is wide open with the top two seeds Denver and New England each showing vulnerabilities over the final few weeks. It can be argued that the two AFC Wild Cards – Pittsburgh and Kansas City – are playing by far the best football of any of the 6 AFC teams, although the same can be said of fourth seeded Houston.

To those who think the defending Super Bowl Champion Patriots are vulnerable this postseason you may have some ammunition. For the first time in the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era the Pats have lost back to back games to end the regular season. And a win in either of those games would have earned the Pats the AFC’s top seed.

In the NFC both top seeds – No. 1 Carolina and 2 Arizona – have played very well all season. The Panthers, of course, had the NFL’s best record, 15-1. The Cardinals were next best, 13-3, and had their 9 game winning streak end with their loss on Sunday to Seattle.

Here’s a look at the four Wild Card games.

Saturday AFC

Kansas City -3 at Houston (40.5): This is a rematch of an opening week game on this field, won by Kansas City 27-20 as 1 point favorites. Both offenses can run the football with the Chiefs having the edge. Both teams were excellent on defense, allowing barely 5 yards per play which ranked in the top 6 in the league. Both offenses also excelled at protecting the football.

 This has the makings of a well-played, relatively mistake-free game that will be controlled by both defenses. Most of the big plays are likely to be made by the defenses and this should be a game in which field position is key and with more plays coming via the field goal than the touchdown, at least from the offenses. Defensive and special teams touchdowns are always possible in this type of matchup.

 Houston is playing with revenge for that opening week home loss to the Chiefs. But revenge is not a factor – these are the Playoffs after all! Rather, the Texans’ defensive improvement since the start of the season is what puts them in excellent position to advance to the Divisional round. HOUSTON / UNDER.

Pittsburgh -2.5 at Cincinnati (46.5): These AFC North rivals meet for a third time this season with each having won on the road in their regular season meetings. On paper Cincinnati is perhaps the most talented and deepest team in the league. But they have to get over the hump and win that first Playoff game. If they do, the Bengals can win the Super Bowl. The Steelers have huge big game experience with QB Ben Roethlisberger already leading Pittsburgh to a pair of Super Bowl titles. He’s also had another solid season and has one of the best receiving corps in the league.

There are concerns at RB with Le’Veon Bell out for the season and effective backup DeAngelo Williams banged up. Williams’ ineffectiveness would put greater pressure on the Steelers’ offensive line to protect Big Ben from a strong Cincy pass rush. Both teams match up fairly evenly statistically although the Bengals do have edges on defense and in avoiding turnovers. Convincing cases can be made for both sides.

The fact that Cincinnati is a home underdog provides some value and if the line rises to a FG the Bengals become even more attractive. Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin has made some questionable in game decisions this season which could be critical to the outcome of this game. CINCINNATI / OVER.

Sunday NFC

Seattle -5.5 at Minnesota (42): Congratulations to the Vikings on their 11-5 record and NFC North championship, won on the road last week at Green Bay. Seattle, after starting 0-3 on the road, has now won 5 straight away from home. No team has been more consistently dominant in their wins over the second half of the season. Both teams run the football exceptionally well. Minnesota averages 138 yards per game (number 4) and Seattle 142 (number 3).

 Both teams have solid defenses although Seattle’s allows a half yard less per play. Both offenses excel at avoiding turnover. Seattle has a significant edge at QB with Russell Wilson although the Vikes’ Teddy Bridgewater has shown great promise in just his second season. The key for Seattle is all of that experience on both sides of the football but especially on defense. They will disguise coverages, focus on stopping RB Adrian Peterson and force the Vikings and Bridgewater to beat them through the air.

Seattle is shorthanded at RB although Marshawn Lynch is considered more likely than not to be available. From a perspective of having the better chance to advance Minnesota might have fared better by losing Sunday night at Green Bay and returning to Lambeau Field this week for a rematch. SEATTLE / UNDER.

Green Bay +1 at Washington (45.5): Of the dozen Playoff teams a case can be made that Green Bay is the most vulnerable. After starting 6-0 the Packers dropped 6 of their next 10 games, including losing streaks of 2 and 3 games, to end their regular season. Washington won and covered its last 4 games to win the NFC East but they played a fairly soft schedule. Green Bay has been somewhat better at running the football and has the more accomplished passing attack with QB Aaron Rodgers. But that passing game has been more limited over the second half of the season whereas Washington QB Kirk Cousins has flourished and set some all time franchise records.

The Packers do have a solid edge statistically both on defense and in avoiding turnovers. Backers of the Packers should be concerned about their failure to win the Division Sunday night against Minnesota although both teams were already in the Playoffs. Still, experience plays a huge factor in the playoffs.

Rodgers has shown the ability to avoid mistakes and make the big play many times in the past and although the level of his performance has been down this season his talent, savvy and confidence has to be respected. GREEN BAY / OVER.

Andy Iskoe, and his Logical Approach, provides his popular and unique handicapping statistics to GamingToday readers and online visitors. He has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football. Email: [email protected]

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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