NFL's wild-card weekend has a tough act to follow


When time expired on the NFL regular season, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers squeezed their way into the playoff bracket by sweating out a long-shot parlay that was full of surprises. Most of us could do without seeing Big Ben limp through another game, but Pittsburgh earned it the hard way.

The best was saved for last. This was a movie script building up to a wild night in Vegas — it was football’s version of “The Hangover” without Zach Galifianakis, Mike Tyson and the tigers — and it ended with the Raiders beating the Chargers 35-32 in overtime in arguably the most dramatic game of the 272 played since Sept. 9.

“It was absolutely insane,” DraftKings sportsbook director John Avello said.

The Raiders and Steelers are in the AFC playoffs, and the Chargers and Colts played their way out. It will be tough for wild-card weekend to top the insanity of Week 18, which nearly finished with the Raiders and Chargers playing to a tie that would have eliminated the Steelers.

“We had a great day, and it was a monster (wagering) handle,” said Avello, who attributed some of the betting boom to the first weekend of online wagering in New York.

Only the top seeds in each conference — Green Bay (NFC) and Tennessee (AFC) — get a bye in the first week of the postseason. BetMGM lists the Packers as the Super Bowl favorites at 4-1 odds, followed by the Chiefs (+ 500), Bills (+ 700), Titans (+ 750) and Buccaneers (+ 850). The playoffs appear to be a wide-open race.

“There’s no team to me that really stands out,” Avello said. “But I think Green Bay is playing as well as anyone.”

The Packers’ loss to the Lions was only a footnote to a crazy week. Aaron Rodgers passed for two touchdowns in the first half and sat out the second half of Detroit’s 37-30 win that had no impact on the playoff picture.

It was a different story in Jacksonville, where Carson Wentz crumbled and the Colts let a wild-card spot slip away in a 26-11 loss to the lowly Jaguars. Indianapolis’ inexcusable flop as a 15-point favorite opened the door for the Steelers, who staged a comeback to beat the Ravens in overtime. Roethlisberger’s career was extended only after the Raiders knocked out the Chargers on a 47-yard field goal.

VSiN’s Brent Musburger, the radio voice of the Raiders, has called thousands of games and said Chargers-Raiders was one of the best he has witnessed.

In the big picture, Pittsburgh’s presence in the playoffs is expected to be brief. The Steelers are the biggest underdogs this weekend, getting 12.5 points at Kansas City. The Chiefs rolled to a 36-10 win when the teams met Dec. 26.

“I don’t want to watch Pittsburgh, and watching Ben Roethlisberger play at this time in his career is painful,” said VSiN analyst Michael Lombardi, a former NFL executive. “But the Colts don’t deserve to go to the playoffs.”

Derek Carr’s two touchdown passes Sunday night helped the Raiders wrap the regular season with a four-game winning streak, including an upset at Indianapolis in Week 17. Carr now hits the road in a quick turnaround and a tough situational spot.

A tie with the Chargers would have sent the Raiders to Kansas City. Instead, the postseason kicks off Saturday with the Raiders as 6.5-point underdogs at Cincinnati. Second-year quarterback Joe Burrow led the Bengals to a 32-13 win in Las Vegas on Nov. 21. Burrow passed for only 148 yards in what was a 16-13 game with just over five minutes remaining.

“It’s a nice draw for the Raiders to get Cincinnati and a quarterback who’s inexperienced in the playoffs,” Avello said. “The Raiders are probably as hot as anyone in the playoffs.”

In the second game of Saturday’s AFC doubleheader, the Patriots and Bills collide for the third time this season after the road team won the first two meetings. Buffalo is a 4-point home favorite after the line opened at 4.5. New England has lost three of the past four following a seven-game win streak, and rookie quarterback Mac Jones has cooled, but I’m playing the dog.

“There’s going to be Patriots action,” Avello said. “The Bills are winning but beating bad teams and do not seem to not be running on all cylinders right now.”

Tom Brady and the Buccaneers start their march toward a Super Bowl repeat as 8.5-point home favorites against the Eagles. Tampa Bay won an earlier meeting 28-22 on Oct. 14 in Philadelphia.

Dak Prescott and the Cowboys crushed the Eagles in Week 18 and enter the playoffs with the league’s best ATS record at 13-4. Dallas will draw public action this week.

The only game of wild-card weekend that’s not a rematch from the regular season is 49ers-Cowboys, and this could turn into a pros-versus-Joes betting showdown. Dallas is a 3-point home favorite, but the line opened slightly higher before immediate sharp action showed on San Francisco.

The 49ers have won four of the past five and their 27-24 overtime victory over the Rams was telling for both teams. Despite a right thumb injury, Jimmy Garoppolo led San Francisco’s offense to 449 yards and 6.7 yards per play. The Rams totaled only 265 yards and 4.1 per play.

The Cardinals are 10-7 ATS this season, including 8-1 SU and ATS on the road. Arizona is a 4-point road dog to the Rams, who backed into the NFC West title and limp into the playoffs with a quarterback, Matthew Stafford, who has nine turnovers in the past four games.

The NFL’s expanded playoff format is great for all involved, including bettors and bookmakers, and the Cardinals-Rams game on Monday night will attract a major wagering handle.

The Super Bowl will be in Los Angeles, barring a COVID-19 curveball, and I would not bet on Stafford and a reeling Rams defense to raise the Lombardi Trophy.

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