Playoff time is here, meaning over the next month we can expect to enjoy football at its highest level. It's one of the most fundamental levels of handicapping games, however, that gets magnified across this weekend's board - when picking against point spreads, the best numbers trump the best teams.
For the first time, every road team is favored on wild-card weekend, leaving little doubt about who's better in each matchup. But road favorites in the wild-card round historically sport a scant 5-13-2 record against the spread, supporting the notion that the better team isn't always the better value when the point spread comes into play.
Houston +3.5 vs. Kansas City
In what will become a theme this week, let's look back to this same matchup on the same field during the regular season - the line was pick 'em when the Chiefs visited the Texans in Week 1. While a full regular season has passed, not much has changed for these teams, calling the 3.5-point adjustment into question.
Kansas City has plenty of support from the market thanks to a current 10-game winning streak, but only two of those victories came over teams that finished with winning records. One was against a Landry Jones-led Steelers offense; the other included Peyton Manning's miserable final half of football before getting benched for Brock Osweiler (Manning went just 5-for-20 for 35 yards, with no touchdowns and four interceptions before leaving the game). The Chiefs haven't played a team better than .500 since that mid-November showdown in Denver, and they haven't faced a good team anywhere near full strength since starting the season 1-5.
Houston also benefited from a weak regular-season schedule by virtue of residing in the paltry AFC South. J.J. Watt is leading the defense, however, on a run that's special against any caliber of professional opposition, having held six of the last nine opponents to 10 points or less, five of those teams failing to reach the end zone at all.
Vegas' projected total of only 40 points accounts for the strengths of each defense as well as the limitations of the offenses, as illustrated by Kansas City having failed to reach 200 yards passing each of the last five weeks. The low total gives each point more relative value, and the final half-point for the Texans may make the difference in a game that could come down to a field goal.
Minnesota +6.5 vs. Seattle
The Seahawks entered their Week 13 contest in Minnesota as slight favorites, and on Sunday will take the field laying considerably more. Although Seattle closed out the regular season as well as any team in the league, the Vikings may also be peaking at the right time. The market appears to be attaching too much weight to the 38-7 final score from the last time these teams met.
Last month, the Seahawks came into Minnesota fresh off a bye and three straight home games. This time around, it will be their second straight road game. The 10 a.m. Pacific Time kickoff - possibly in sub-zero temperatures - won't do them any favors. And in a surprising late breaking development they'll be without Marshawn Lynch, leaving the backfield in a precarious situation with No. 2 back Thomas Rawls having broken his leg since topping 100 yards rushing with a touchdown in Minnesota in December.
In another key difference from the Week 13 meeting, the Vikings will be better equipped to stop Seattle - for most of the first game, they went without Pro Bowl-caliber players who have since returned to action on all three levels of their defense. This one will be played much more on Minnesota's terms as long as it stays competitive early. That should enable the home team to hang around long enough to cash for its backers in Vegas and keep Teddy Bridgewater's mom happy in the stands.
Pick of the Week: Cincinnati +3 vs. Pittsburgh
Four weeks ago in Cincinnati, the Bengals were favored over the Steelers. The drop-off from Andy Dalton to AJ McCarron does mean a slight downgrade for Cincinnati, but not enough of one to warrant this big of a line move.
Heading into their third straight road game, and fourth in five weeks, the Steelers look to be in for a downgrade of their own that isn't reflected in the line. Running back DeAngelo Williams, who rushed for more than 900 yards and 11 touchdowns while also serving as a passing-game threat out of the backfield, has been ruled out due to an injury he suffered in Cleveland on Sunday. His replacement: Fitz Toussaint, who went undrafted out of college, has been cut twice by the Ravens, and played for Pittsburgh's practice squad as recently as Thanksgiving. Toussaint had only 12 career carries before filling in for Williams last week and managed just 24 yards in 12 more rushing attempts, with zero receptions, against the Browns' porous defense. Factoring in that Roethlisberger has thrown multiple interceptions in three straight games, there's credence to the presumption the Steelers can't afford to be one-dimensional against the Bengals' robust pass rush.
Because it will be a battle for the Steelers to run through the jungle, it's easy to see either team emerging victorious. The value lies with the home team getting three points as Cincinnati looks to rekindle the glory of the Ickey Shuffle era.
Wild-Card Weekend Record: 2-1
Picks of the Week: 10-5-1