Playoff picture coming into focus

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Five teams clinched playoff spots this past weekend as Buffalo, Green Bay, New England, San Francisco and Seattle joined Baltimore, Kansas City and New Orleans as participants in this season’s tournament.

Only four spots remain with two weeks left to play. In the AFC, the winner of the South and a second Wild Card team remain available. In the NFC, the winner of the East and also a second Wild Card remain undetermined.

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Currently controlled by the Seahawks, the top NFC seed can still be earned by the Saints, 49ers or Packers. Baltimore controls the top AFC seed with the Patriots and Chiefs still having chances but needing help. No team has yet to clinch a first round Bye that goes to the top two seeds in each conference.

There was an oddity that occurred last weekend. At most sportsbooks Seattle closed as a six-point favorite. In defeating Carolina 30-24 the game ended in a point spread push. In the other 15 games the spread did not come into play. Favorites either won and covered or underdogs won their games outright.

Historically, the spread comes into play between 15 and 18 percent of the time, ignoring pushes and tie games. That’s roughly one game in six which translates to two or three games per week.

Rather than focusing on games in which a favorite is likely to win but fail to cover it may be a better use of time to focus on the straight-up winner of the game. In doing so, however, be sure to consider taking points with underdogs.

Over the six seasons between 2013 and 2018 underdogs have won outright 32.6 percent of their games. They’ve lost but covered in 15.6 percent of their games. They’ve lost both SU and ATS in 48.4 percent and have pushed in 3.4 percent. 

Saturday

Rams at 49ers -6.5: Perhaps suffering a letdown following their huge win over the Saints the 49ers were lethargic against Atlanta that enabled the Falcons to hang close and ultimately pull the upset. 

The Rams remain barely alive for a Wild Card after their “no-show” at Dallas. Were the 49ers not off a loss that followed a sloppy defensive effort at New Orleans a case might be made for the underdogs. But for next week’s game in Seattle to potentially determine the top NFC seed, the 49ers can’t afford to slip up here. They need to regain the form they’ve demonstrated on both sides of the football most of the season. 49ERS

Sunday

Saints -3 at Titans: Tennessee needs help to make the playoffs after last week’s home loss to Houston. The Saints rode a record-setting performance from QB Drew Brees to rout Indy Monday night and still have a chance at the top NFC seed. 

After losing last week there could be even a greater sense of urgency for Tennessee if Houston wins Saturday at Tampa Bay. In the loss to Houston, the Titans had edges in both total yards (432-374) and yards per play (6.5-5.9). 

Prior to the loss Tennessee had won four straight and six of seven. TITANS

Bengals +1 at Dolphins: In mid-season, this game was expected to decide which of these then winless teams would pick first in the 2020 NFL draft. But Miami’s won thrice after starting 0-7 start and is 7-3 ATS after starting 0-4. Cincy got its lone win after starting 0-11. 

Surprisingly, the early money came in on the Bengals. Cincy’s been better at running the football lately but QB Andy Dalton has struggled since reclaiming the starting job, tossing five interceptions the past two weeks. 

Miami’s won two of its last three home games, sandwiching wins over the Jets and Eagles around a loss to playoff-bound Buffalo. DOLPHINS

Ravens -10 at Browns: Baltimore clinches the top AFC seed with a win as they seek to avenge a 40-15 home loss to the Browns in Week 4. Expected to rest next week, it’s possible QB Lamar Jackson and other starters may be pulled if they have a two- or three-score lead in the second half. 

Cleveland’s won four straight home games including wins over Buffalo and Pittsburgh. They’d like nothing more than to complete a season sweep vs the current Super Bowl favorite. It likely does not happen but there’s plenty of room for the Browns to give a competitive effort in their final home game. BROWNS

Cowboys -3 at Eagles: Dallas played a nearly perfect game in routing the Rams. A similar effort here clinches the NFC East title and a home game in the Wild Card round. 

Within the last month both lost close, low-scoring games to New England. Dallas performed better than Philly despite playing on the road while the Eagles hosted the Pats.

Dallas clearly outplayed the Eagles in their earlier meeting, winning at home 37-10 with edges in total yards (402-283) and yards per play (6.1-5.0). Dallas has the better overall talent, especially at QB and RB, and are the healthier team on both sides of the football. 

With Jason Garrett as coach, the Cowboys have won seven of nine games in Philly. COWBOYS 

Chiefs -5 at Bears: Though not repeating last season’s playoffs appearance the Bears can win a fourth straight home game before ending their season next week at Minnesota. 

After struggling for much of the season, QB Mitchell Trubisky performed over the last month as he did last season. 

Should New England have lost on Saturday a win here gives KC control of the second AFC seed. December weather could be a factor that limits scoring and gives edges to the defenses. The Bears have allowed more than 24 points just once this season and the Chiefs scored 23 points in each of their last two games, their second lowest points output of the season. BEARS

Last week: 4-2

Season: 46-42-2

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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