We are down to the last eight on the road to the Super Bowl. This weekend, the 2019/20 NFL playoffs continue with the Divisional round and Lindy’s Sports’ UK editor Simon Milham looks at all four games, with only the Chiefs there this time last year…

Minnesota Vikings at San Francisco 49ers

Minnesota’s dramatic 26-20 overtime win over New Orleans, their first road playoff win since 2005, sets them up for a trip to NFC No.1 seed San Francisco, who went 13-3 in the regular season.

The 49ers secured a first-round bye and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs with a goal-line stand victory at Seattle and come into this clash fresh after a week’s rest.

As such, the 49ers are BetVictor NFL Moneyline favourites at odds of 3/10.

The Vikings, who are 13/5 to win, have a poor record in San Francisco, having won just one of their last 10 visits. Those nine defeats included three playoff losses, none of which were close-run affairs (the 49ers winning by 25, 28 and 16 points respectively). The 49ers have won four of the five post-season matchups with the Vikings, their sole loss coming at home in January 1988.

However, those who befriend trends will tell you the Vikings have won six of the last eight meetings overall, although five of those came in Minnesota.

The Vikings won on the road in the regular season against the Giants, Lions, Cowboys and Chargers before knocking off the Saints in Wild Card overtime, which boosted their record to 2-4 against teams with a winning record this season (their other success against a ‘quality’ opponent came in Week 6 with a home win against a Philadelphia team who also lost on the road to Atlanta, Dallas and Miami, teams who all failed to post a winning record).

The Vikings, who are the No.6 seed, will hope to buck a trend if they are to advance to the NFC Championship, as 13 of the previous 15 Wild Card sixth-seed winners have fallen in the Divisional round.

The 49ers, who are considered 7.0-point favourites at odds of 10/11 on the BetVictor NFL handicap, will try to lean on tight end George Kittle, whose 7.3 yards after the catch is among the league’s best, although his output is higher than many at his position because he catches a lot of passes nearer to the line of scrimmage and linebackers generally drop in coverage and allow space in front of the, which Kittle exploits.

However, Minnesota’s defense is ranked best in the league at defending tight ends, thanks largely to the disciplined safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris, and inside linebacker Eric Kendricks.

Yet San Francisco ranks just behind the Vikings in defending tight ends, and like Minnesota, boast ferocious pass rushers, a trio of top running backs, a physical secondary and not too much playoff experience at this stage of the post-season.

What bettors must ponder is why a team boasting plenty of talent went 10-6 in the regular season?

That can be answered in several ways, but the most obvious one is the lack of faith the Vikings’ coaching staff has put in QB Kirk Cousins.

He quite rightly received plenty of plaudits for his overtime 43-yarder to Adam Thielen which put Minnesota in position to win the Wild Card game in New Orleans, and it was just the kind of play the Vikings envisioned him making when signing Cousins to a three-year contract in 2018.

However, erasing a lifetime of narrative with one play does not wash with many Minnesota fans. He has not typically performed when big games are on the line and that is frustrating, because he can make all the throws, the tight-window ones, but he often plays too conservatively and checks down too often.

Against New Orleans, he was put in too many third-and-long situations due to conservative play-calling, which underlines a lack of trust in the 31-year-old passer. Receiver Stefon Diggs was visibly frustrated on Sunday when he was ignored on numerous occasions when wide open down the field, as Cousins dinked and dunked.

No question, offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski will need to loosen up the playbook for Minnesota to win in San Francisco, yet the likelihood is he will want Cousins to simply manage the game and play mistake-free football, since the QB is just 7-30 against teams with a winning record and 17-26-2 on the road in his NFL career.

While Cousins is more experienced that San Francisco QB Jimmy Garoppolo, who makes his first playoff start, the Niners’ passer has lost just two games at home in a 21-5 career as a starter, which includes seven fourth-quarter comebacks.

San Francisco will stack the line of scrimmage to slow down RB Dalvin Cook and dare Cousins to beat them through the air. The issue with that is the Niners boast a relentless pass rush and they have a decent back seven, which is now healthier in coverage.

Heading to Santa Clara off a short week, travelling 2,000 miles and crossing two time zones after a bruising road game is not always a recipe for success in the playoffs, and the hosts may cover the spread with a bit to spare, provided Garoppolo does not freeze on the big stage, possibly by a two-score margin.

TIP: Point Spread – San Francisco 49ers -7.0 at

TIP: Total Points – Over 45.0 at  

TIP: Winning Margin – San Francisco 49ers 13-18 Points at

 

Tennessee Titans at Baltimore Ravens

Last week, we alluded to the fact that Tennessee Titans’ QB Ryan Tannehill, while enjoying a momentous season, was playing in his first playoff game and had not once come close to leading a team to win in Foxboro’.

He was liable to metaphorically spit the dummy and, true to form, he looked terrible against the New England Patriots, but the AFC South runner-up Titans (9-7) had the luxury of the league’s top running back Derrick Henry, who dragged his team to the Divisional round.

Had the Patriots scored a touchdown in the second quarter after their first-and-goal at the one-yard line, the outcome could have been much different. As it was, the Titans’ win owed much to the Patriots’ broken offense – and specifically 42-year-old QB Tom Brady’s poor performance, which has become a theme over the past few weeks.

The reward for the AFC’s No.6 seed is a trip to No.1 seed Baltimore (14-2), who have had more rushing yards this season than any other team in NFL history, with their combined attack of Heisman winners Mark Ingram and Lamar Jackson.

Layers are expecting an easy Ravens victory, with BetVictor NFL odds of 2/9 for the hosts to win, and it is 10/11 that they cover a 9.0-point handicap.

If any team is well equipped to deal with the Ravens’ league-topping ground game (averaging 206 yards per game), it is Tennessee, who have improved from a 2-4 start to win eight of their last 11 games, including the last four on the road.

The Ravens also lead the league averaging 33.2 points per game but their run defense, which is ranked in the top five (allowing an average of 93.4 yards per game), is perhaps not as great as the stats make out, since opponents are often forced to play catch-up and abandon the running game.

Tannehill cannot possibly play as poorly as he did in New England, where he managed 72 yards passing from 15 attempts and while Baltimore’s defense has been designed to pressure opposing QBs, the former Dolphins QB hangs tough in the pocket and excels against the blitz. He can also extend plays with his legs, which was a little-heralded part of his game before being released by the Dolphins.

(And what a delicious, ironic narrative we would feast upon should Tannehill reach the Super Bowl in Miami and face San Francisco QB Jimmy Garoppolo, heir apparent to Tom Brady until he was traded away by New England against the wishes of head coach Bill Belichick, in the same season that saw Brady/Patriots dynasty crumble. Incidentally, the Titans are 14/1 with BetVictor to win the AFC, while the 49ers are 10/11 to take the NFC title. But we digress.)

One key will undoubtedly how Baltimore copes against Henry. While they are stout up the middle with Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams clogging up lanes, they have been less impressive against teams who can run outside of the tackles – and Henry, who piled up 182 yards against the Patriots, is more effective when running to the outside.

The Ravens are on a 12-game winning streak and they are coming off a week’s bye. They also rested six Pro Bowl starters, including Jackson, in their regular season finale, so there is the potential to be a little rusty. There is no question they have the healthiest squad in the NFL, however, and that could be a factor late on.

The Titans do have one of the best defensive coaches in the league in Dean Pees, who has always done a nice job of disguising coverages before the snap and changing the picture after it. He has frequently simulated pressures which can lead to an offensive line sliding protection the wrong way, leading to blocking mismatches and sometimes a free runner to the quarterback.

Last week, he befuddled Brady, the most storied QB in history, so 23-year-old Jackson, who had trouble earlier in the season against similar disguises in Kansas City and Pittsburgh, may have some tough moments in Saturday’s late game.

Historically, the Titans have only failed to cover a nine-point spread on three of their last 10 visits to Baltimore. They have won five of those 10 games, including two of the last three and they have alternated wins and losses in the last eight meetings, with the Ravens winning the last clash 21-0 in Nashville in October 2018.

This is a big spread to cover and while Baltimore are very capable of blowing out the Titans, if Pees can frustrate Jackson, if Tennessee’s top-10 run defense can slow Baltimore’s ground game and if Henry can get rolling, keeping the ball away from the Ravens’ QB, the scrappy Titans may keep this close. That is a lot to ask against the NFL’s best team.

It would be no surprise to see the Ravens cruise should they get an early lead, as asking Tannehill to pass his team to a comeback takes a huge leap of faith. The hope is the Ravens may show some rust and struggle early, thus we take the points and keep everything crossed.

TIP: Point Spread – Tennessee Titans +9.0 at

TIP: Total Points – Under 47.0 at

TIP: Tennessee Titans Total Points – Over 19 at

 

Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs

The latest BetVictor NFL Super Bowl odds suggest that Kansas City are 7/2 third favourites (behind Baltimore at 2/1 and San Francisco at 10/3) to lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Those odds probably won’t change too much after Sunday’s early AFC Divisional round clash, but they appear to be the value outright pick.

The Chiefs will progress past Houston, giving NFL fans the AFC title game they deserve. Andy Reid’s team are currently 7/4 to be the AFC representative in the Super Bowl on February 3, while the Texans are 14/1 pokes.

AFC South winners Houston (10-6) won’t be a pushover, having knocked off Buffalo in a sensational Wild Card game which went to overtime last week. They will also fancy their chances of an upset, following their 31-24 Week 6 win over Kansas City at Arrowhead, the Chiefs’ second defeat of four in a six-week span.

However, this is a much different Kansas City team. Back then, they were without WR Sammy Watkins, OT Eric Fisher, LB Anthony Hitchins, DT Chris Jones and OG Andrew Wylie. QB Patrick Mahomes was hobbled with an ankle injury, WR Tyreek Hill was in his first game back following a shoulder injury picked up in the season opener and played only half of the offensive snaps, and CB Kendall Fuller left the game early owing to a thumb injury.

Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill

The Texans were without WR Kenny Stills and CB Jonathan Jospeh, who will both play on Sunday, but more significantly Houston’s receiving corps could be boosted by Will Fuller, who was a big miss against Buffalo last week.

Kansas City’s mid-season wobble had plenty to do with Mahomes’ ankle issue and a porous run defense, which conceded 192 yards on 41 carries in their first meetings, with Carlos Hyde racking up 116 yards and a score, and QB Deshaun Watson running in another two scores.

However, the Chiefs’ run defense has been vastly upgraded since with the arrival of defensive tackle Mike Pennel, who surprisingly failed to make New England’s 53-man roster after training camp.

They also set the edge better with veteran Terrell Suggs arriving last month from Arizona to bookend Frank Clark.

The Chiefs powered to the AFC West title again on the back of an unbeaten six-game run which saw the defense concede an average of just 11.5 points per game to some (arguably former) top-tier QBs such as Phillip Rivers (twice) and Tom Brady, plus strong-armed Derek Carr.

Houston needs to establish the run. It is no coincidence that when Hyde carried the ball 19 times or more in a game, the Texans were 6-0 in the regular season. Fuller, who is a real deep threat when healthy, has been battling hamstring and groin injuries, changes the whole dynamic of Houston’s attack. He is foil for WR DeAndre Hopkins and Stills, and takes the pressure off the running game to a degree. But how healthy will Fuller be, should he suit up?

However, while Houston’s attack should be more dynamic than it was against the Bills, the Chiefs should be able to exploit the Texans’ 29th-ranked pass defense, which gives up an average of 267.2 yards per game. And while Kansas City’s run defense is still ranked 26th (conceding an average of 128.2 yards per game thanks to those early-season struggles), the Texans’ run defense is not much better, ranking 25th (allowing 121.1ypg) in the NFL.

Chiefs face JJ Watt

Given all the tireless charitable work he has done for the city of Houston, arguably no-one deserves a Super Bowl ring more than edge rusher J.J. Watt. Though still hampered by a torn pectoral muscle, he gained a few much-needed, but possibly too many, reps last week, although doubts remain about his effectiveness against a such a mobile QB in Mahomes.

If the Chiefs can maintain their solid defensive play of recent weeks, they have a good chance of covering the spread. If not, they will get involved in a shoot-out. Either way, they should advance to the AFC title game.

TIP: Half Time / Full Time – Kansas City Chiefs – Kansas City Chiefs at

TIP: Point Spread – Kansas City Chiefs -9.5 at

 

Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers

Green Bay Packers have ridden their luck this season. Blessed with a healthy roster with few significant injuries, they have won 13 games, most of which in less-than-impressive fashion.

Now they get another break, facing a banged-up Seattle Seahawks team who could be missing as many as eight starters, a team they have beaten at Lambeau Field in each of their last eight meetings. Indeed, the Seahawks have won just three of their 14 previous trips to Wisconsin.

Having overcome a weakened Eagles team in the Wild Card round in Philadelphia, the Seahawks must head east again to face a Packers team seeking to avenge an NFC Championship defeat in the Emerald City five years ago.

Green Bay has been dominant at home this season and the Seahawks have been hit hard by injuries, particularly at the running back position, with Chris Carson, Rashaad Penny and C.J. Posise all missing. They have relied upon Travis Homer and a re-signed Marshawn Lynch in the last couple of weeks, and the pair have combined for just 115 yards from 39 carries, averaging less than three yards per tilt.

Green Bay’s run defense has been far from stellar at times – especially between the tackles where Lynch does much of his damage – but Seattle have not been able to pick up chunk plays on the ground in the last couple of weeks, which is their forte. Of their 63 yards on the ground against an admittedly stiff Eagles’ run defense, 45 of those came from QB Russell Wilson.

As well as losing their running back trio, the Seahawks have starting center Justin Britt, TEs Will Disley and Ed Dickson, left guard Ethan Pocic and free safety Tedric Thompson on Injured Reserve. The Seahawks were also without starting left tackle Duane Brown and linebacker Mychal Kendricks for last week’s Wild Card win, and defensive end Ezekiel Ansah also picked up neck injury, which makes him a doubt for Sunday’s late game.

Green Bay could take advantage of Seattle’s 22nd-ranked run defense, with Aaron Jones likely to be the focal point of Matt LaFleur’s attack. Jones is not only an exceptional runner, he is also a big threat as a pass-catching back and with the Seahawks allowing 22 rushing touchdowns this year (third-most in the NFL), and 117.7 yards per game, QB Aaron Rodgers will dink and dunk and attempt to let Jones do his thing.

The Packers have been inconsistent in attack all season and have rarely played a complete game. They have managed to top 24 points just three times at home this season – and those wins came in the first half of the year. You would think that Rodgers would have become more comfortable in rookie head coach LaFleur’s scheme as the season progressed, but it appears not to be the case.

Like the Seahawks, whose 12 wins contained 11 by a one-score margin, the Packers have won ‘ugly’ with regularity.

The numbers suggest Rodgers will be able to take advantage of the soft middle of the Seattle secondary and the Seahawks’ linebackers, in particular, will need to bring their best game to keep this close.

Despite the injuries, Wilson has created a good chemistry with rookie receiver D.K. Metcalf, who snared seven catches for 160 yards against the Eagles, giving him 1,060 yards in 17 games, with a 16.3-yards average. He has also scored eight touchdowns. Metcalf and particularly fellow wideout Tyler Lockett will cause plenty of problems for the Packers’ secondary if Wilson is given enough time. And let’s be clear, Wilson is as dangerous and resourceful QB as there is in the league, and the Seahawks always have a puncher’s chance of beating anyone while he is on the field.

Lynch and/or Homer must also be productive if Seattle are to justify their 8/5 BetVictor NFL Moneyline odds and advance to the NFC Championship game. Success on the ground would take some of the pressure off Wilson and open things up in the passing game.

If they don’t, Green Bay’s marauding front, containing Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Kenny Clark, will take advantage of a Seattle defense that has allowed 48 sacks this season. Given manageable second and third-down distance, Wilson can keep the Seahawks close.

The Packers are 4.0-point handicap favourites at odds of 10/11 and are 1/2 on the BetVictor Moneyline (to win the game), and while some would say they should be heavier favourites, given they are facing an injured team that has rarely played well at Lambeau, Seattle has lost just once on the road this season. For that reason, they might be worth taking with the points in what should be the most fascinating of all the Divisional round games.

TIP: Seattle Seahawks +4 points at

TIP: Green Bay Packers Total Points – Under 25.5 at

Odds are correct at the time of posting

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