Fresh faces abound in NFL Divisional round

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Depending on the lines you got, it’s very possible you saw the underdogs go 3-0-1 last weekend. And the biggest question heading into the divisional round is whether or not you learned anything?

It’s important to do so, considering 40 percent (72 of 176) of divisional-round games have finished with a margin of greater than 14 points, and 22.1 percent (39 of 176) have finished between 1-3 points. Considering all four lines this weekend fall between those ranges, it’s important to take something from last week’s winners.

It’s simply a matter of what points to take from each wild card winner and apply to their games this week and specific opponent.

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It’s quite clear the return of running backs Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison made a big difference for the Vikings. Yes, quarterback Kirk Cousins silenced critics with timely passes at crucial moments, but the running game contributed even more toward the win in New Orleans. It kept the Saints’ high-powered offense off the field and helped in third-and-short situations.

By doing so, Cousins was able to employ the play-action passes he loves. The Vikings rushed for 136 yards, the fifth-highest total allowed by the Saints this season, and now faces a defense that ranked 17th in the league that allows 112.6 rushing yards per game.

We’ve seen Tennessee emerge thanks to the leadership of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, but he’s benefitted from an offensive line that allowed the Titans to rush for 201 yards rushing against New England. Derrick Henry ran for a career-best 1,540 yards in 15 games during the regular season. His encore was a franchise-best postseason running performance of 182 yards.

The Ravens were the only team to run for more yards (210) against New England’s sixth-ranked run defense, and now the two power-rushing games meet in Baltimore.

We learned about the resiliency and confidence Houston maintain with Deshaun Watson under center. This is a team that has gotten used to feeding off the emotion of defensive and team leader J.J. Watt. But Watson now makes this team go.

Never rattled by a 16-0 deficit against the Bills, the Texans scored 19 straight and it was their third-year quarterback throwing for 247 yards and a touchdown, while running for an additional 55 yards and a score. He also didn’t turn the ball over, which establishes trust.

Watson had thrown five interceptions combined in his previous three games. Now he faces a defense that ranked fifth with 16 interceptions during the regular season. That resiliency and confidence and trust and momentum must continue at Arrowhead.

It’s clear every argument made about Seattle’s Russell Wilson challenging Lamar Jackson for the MVP trophy is valid. His 325 yards passing were the fourth most in franchise history in a postseason game, as Wilson accounted for 370 yards of offense overall. His passing yards were the most since early November and were a huge improvement over the team’s first 17-9 victory in the regular season, when he threw for 200 yards.

This week he has a very good chance to take advantage of the Packers, who ranked 14th during the regular season in allowing 232.6 passing yards per game, including a Dec. 15 eye-popping 319 yards to the (gulp!) Chicago Bears.

I opened the playoffs going 2-1-1, but if you remembered a column I wrote on Sept. 4, I specifically said if you’re playing an underdog catching +2.5 or +3, you buy the half point up — no questions asked. If you’re playing a favorite laying 3.5 or 3, you never hesitate to buy the half point down. Following that advice you certainly would have covered with the Texans last week.

Saturday

Vikings at 49ers -7: Though I’ve been critical about the 49ers and their rather soft schedule through the first two-thirds of their campaign, I think they’ll come in prepared and ready to play. Their defense ranked second in limiting teams to 281.8 yards per game this season and will be fired up for the Vikings. 49ERS

Titans +9.5 at Ravens: I believe the Ravens are the team to beat, all the way to Miami. But that doesn’t mean I think they can cover this number. The Titans are playing a special brand of football, and it’s been that way under the offensive direction of Tannehill. He is 8-3 as a starter, and though he completed only 8 of 15 passes for 72 yards and a touchdown last week, Henry compliments him well. TITANS

Sunday

Texans at Chiefs -9.5: Andy Reid off a bye. Can I leave it at that and move on to the next game?

We all know what he does after one week of rest and being able to prepare, and I think the Chiefs have cleaned up a lot of mistakes since midseason, when their defense was atrocious. CHIEFS

Seahawks at Packers -4: Did you read my column last week? I suggested that based on history the Ravens and Packers would meet in Miami in a few weeks. Everyone is sold on the Seahawks and 49ers as the NFC’s elite, and seem to forget about Aaron Rodgers’ pedigree. Seattle will be playing its fifth road game in seven weeks, and second straight in a cold-weather city. PACKERS

Last week: 2-1-1

Season: 51-49-4

About the Author

W.G. Ramirez

W.G. Ramirez is a 32-year veteran covering sports in Southern Nevada, and resident of 46 years. He is a freelance reporter in Las Vegas and the Southern Nevada correspondent for The Associated Press.

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