If you thought Wild Cards were good…

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Although Detroit was competitive deep into its Wild Card loss in New Orleans, the first three playoff games turned into one sided contests.

Houston defeated Cincinnati by 21 points, the Saints won by 17 and the Giants eliminated Atlanta by 22. But in grand dramatic fashion the NFL saved its best Wild Card game for last.

A Pittsburgh win in Denver would have meant all four favored teams advancing to the Divisional round. More than 60 years following baseball’s “shot heard round the world” Denver QB Tim Tebow’s pass to WR Demaryius Thomas that went for an 80 yard touchdown on the first play of overtime caused a reaction similar to what a less complicated world witnessed over 60 years ago. 1.

It was then that the New York Giants’ Bobby Thomson sent a pitch delivered by Brooklyn’s Ralph Branca into the left field stands at the Polo Grounds to send the Giants to the 1951 World Series

The reactions consisted of stunned silence, wild hysteria or repeated utterances of the word “wow.”

Denver’s dramatic 29-23 overtime win over the banged up Pittsburgh Steelers sends the Broncos east to New England to face the AFC’s top seeded team in a matchup filled with ironies. Perhaps the most significant is that Josh McDaniels, the coach who drafted Tebow amid much criticism, will be on the Patriots’ sideline.

McDaniels will transition into his role next season as New England’s offensive coordinator, a job he held prior to being named head coach of the Broncos in 2009. McDaniels was fired midway through the 2010 season and was the OC for a St. Louis Rams offense that was rather offensive!

As if Pats coach Bill Belichick needed any additional edges having McDaniels available to provide a thorough revelation of Tebow’s strengths.

It was just a month ago when the Patriots went into Denver and defeated the Broncos for the sixth of eight straight wins to end the regular season.

Two of the other three Divisional games are rematches. The lone first meeting of the season will be in Saturday’s early game when the high powered New Orleans offense travels to San Francisco to face an outstanding 49ers defense.

The other two rematches feature Houston at Baltimore where the Ravens defeated the Texans 29-14 in mid October and the Giants at Green Bay seeking to avenge an early December home loss to the Packers.

Just seven games remain in the 2011 season, not counting the tag football game known as the Pro Bowl that will be played in Hawaii in between the Conference Championship games and the Super Bowl. The most significant aspect of Pro Bowl weekend is the announcement of this year’s class of Hall of Fame inductees.

But this weekend trims the field to 4. With two games Saturday and two more Sunday many fans consider this to be the best weekend of NFL football each season.

Let’s hope the conclusion of Wild Card weekend was just a prelude to a great weekend of Divisional round games. Here’s a look at each.

SATURDAY

Saints -3½ at 49ers (47½): These teams last met early in the 2010 season when the Saints, favored by 5, won by just a field goal, 25-22, at San Francisco. The 49ers’ offensive strength is its running game, led by RB Frank Gore. Under first year coach Jim Harbaugh, QB Alex Smith displayed strong growth in the position and the Niners, though still operating with a run first mentality, did become more of a passing threat as the season progressed.

The 49ers also have outstanding special teams. Only Pittsburgh allowed fewer points than the 49ers and San Francisco ranked first both in fewest turnovers committed (10) and most turnovers forced (38, tied with Green Bay). The short line shows that the lines makers have great respect for San Francisco despite the Saints’ overwhelming edge in recent playoff experience.

The Saints have now covered nine straight games and are 13-4 ATS for the season. At the same time the Niners have also rewarded backers this season to the tune of 11-4-1 ATS. That combined ATS record of 24-8-1 is remarkable and thus it’s hard to make a case against either of these teams. This is only the fifth instance of a home underdog in the Divisional round of the playoffs but the last such occurrence was way back in 1997.

Sean Payton has established himself as one of the top coaches in the league and is now 67-36 in 6 seasons as New Orleans coach, including 5-2 in the post-season. San Francisco’s Harbaugh has made the transition from college football to the NFL as well as any coach ever has, although its been just one season. By lessening the number of possessions and using the strength of their special teams the Niners could make this a game that comes down to the wire. UNDER.

Broncos +14 at Patriots (51½): These teams met in Denver in week 15 when the Patriots overcame an early first half deficit to win handily, 41-23, and deal the Broncos the first of three straight losses to end the regular season. After missing the playoffs in 2008, with an 11-5 record, the Pats lost their first and only postseason in each of the past two seasons. And both games were at home.

Denver was outscored by 81 points in the regular season. A closer look at the stats shows that Denver had the league’s top rushing offense which, of course, was greatly impacted by the legs of Tebow. The Pats were right at the league average defending the run. Their defensive weakness was against the pass, allowing 295 ypg, ranking number 31. But notwithstanding last week, Denver’s offensive weakness is the pass

Having already seen Tebow and having made successful in game adjustments, combined with additional information from Tebow’s former coach add up to enough edges to suggest another one sided win in much more favorable conditions. Favorites of -13 or more in the Divisional round are 8-1 straight up and 5-3-1 ATS since 1990. PATRIOTS.

SUNDAY

Texans +7½ at Ravens (36): These teams met in Baltimore in mid October with the Ravens defeating Houston 29-14. It was one of 5 double digit home wins for Baltimore which was a perfect 8-0 straight up in front of their home fans, although just 4-3-1 ATS. Both teams have outstanding defenses that are balanced against both the run and the pass. Overall these teams are statistically similar. But Baltimore’s experience counts for a lot.

Ravens QB Joe Flacco has been able to win repeatedly in the playoffs and on the road to boot. They are facing a team that won its Division without really facing much of a challenge and captured a Wild Card game at home against Cincinnati’s rookie QB Andy Dalton.

Baltimore was in a tough Divisional race against Pittsburgh that was not decided until the final game of the season. The much needed week of rest is a huge benefit for the Ravens. Houston is a team that should continue its progress next season, especially with Matt Schaub back at QB. But their 2011 season should come to an end here and it won’t be a surprise if a defensive score factors into Baltimore covering the game. RAVENS.

Giants +8½ at Packers (52): These teams engaged in one of the season’s best games in early December when nearly defeated the then 11-0 Packers, losing 38-35 on a FG at the final gun after the Giants had tied the game with less than a minute left to play. Giants QB Eli Manning and his Packers’ counterpart Aaron Rodgers combined for over 700 passing yards in a wildly entertaining contest. The Giants’ win over Atlanta on Sunday was their first Playoff win since defeating New England in Super Bowl XLII.

Green Bay is seeking to defend last season’s Super Bowl title and enter this postseason as the favorite. And they are healthier than a season ago. Rodgers shall likely win the MVP award for 2011 while Manning had a career season himself. The Giants’ bottom ranked rushing offense came to life last week, gaining 172 yards on 31 carries in their 24-2 win.

The defense played its best game of the season and the Giants have now won three “must win” games in a row. Yet all 3 wins have been on their home field following their most recent loss which also occurred at home. Thus the Giants are taking to the road for the first time since their dramatic Sunday night win at Dallas just over a month ago.

In their run to that Super Bowl win over the unbeaten Patriots the Wild Card Giants won three road Playoff games, including the NFC Championship game on this field, with the current QB and coach combination of Manning and Tom Coughlin. These teams have similar statistical profiles. Both offenses are weak running the football but rank third and fifth in passing the pigskin. Both defenses are average against the run but rank numbers 29 and 32 against the pass.

The Giants were outscored during the regular season. Green Bay was outgained in total yards. Green Bay was second to San Francisco with a plus 24 turnover margin. The Giants were decent at plus 7. As Green Bay showed last season its not necessarily the entire season’s body of work that leads to a Super Bowl run but rather how a team is playing in December. If Tim Tebow can pass for 316 yards against Pittsburgh’s top ranked pass defense can the Giants pull off a similar miracle at Lambeau Field? Perhaps. Certainly not a stretch. But getting more than a TD is an appealing option. GIANTS.

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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