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Wild-card round handicapping column

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By Mike Wilkening

Bettors believe in the Seahawks.

That’s my takeaway from conversations with a pair of oddsmakers leading up to this weekend’s wild-card round games.

The Seahawks, who are three-point favorites at Washington on Sunday, have been backed by sharp bettors at the MGM Resorts International sportsbooks in Nevada, said Jay Rood, MGM's vice president of race and sports. Pat Morrow, head oddsmaker for online sportsbook Bovada.lv, said Seattle was the “largest position” bettors had taken in the wild-card round. (That said, there’s also been some sharp action on Washington at plus-3, longtime Nevada oddsmaker and Pregame.com analyst Chris Andrews said Thursday on Twitter.)

Bettors also appear to be smitten with the Colts, who are underdogs of around at TD at Baltimore. The interest in Indianapolis has been “growing and growing” as the club has made its run to the postseason, Rood said Wednesday.

In Saturday’s Vikings-Packers matchup, the bulk of the money at Bovada has been on Minnesota, Morrow said Thursday, though there has been a little professional money on Green Bay. At MGM, however, some sharps took Minnesota plus-8, Rood noted. The line is Minnesota +7½ at MGM but 1½ points higher at Bovada.

At Bovada, no game has drawn less interest than Bengals-Texans, according to Morrow. At MGM, the straight bets on both clubs were fairly even, Rood said, but most of the parlay money was on Houston — a development that could eventually get Rood to move the line a little bit.

For his part, Rood believes the Bengals (+4½ at MGM, +5 at Bovada) look like a solid underdog on Saturday.

“I wouldn’t mind needing the Bengals for a little bit of a decision,” he said. 

My wild-card round picks:

Cincinnati (+4½) at Houston

Five quarterbacks in Round One have yet to win a postseason game. Three are rookies: Andrew Luck (Indianapolis), Russell Wilson (Seattle) and Robert Griffin III (Washington).

The other two quarterbacks face off in this game, and oh, does each passer need a win on this stage.

Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton has one postseason start, and it did not go well. He was outplayed by Texans reserve QB T.J. Yates in the Bengals’ 31-10 wild-card loss at Houston last January. Dalton was intercepted three times and didn’t throw a TD pass. By contrast, Yates didn’t throw a pick, and he made the game’s biggest throw — a 40-yard strike to WR Andre Johnson that broke the game open for the Texans.

Yates filled in for Matt Schaub, who was out with a foot injury.

Now, it’s Schaub’s turn to lead the Texans into the postseason. Expectations are far higher for Schaub than Yates. By extension, we say the same about the 2012 Texans compared to last year’s edition. A Texans loss would be a major disappointment, and a defeat where Schaub struggled would be a disaster, considering the club gave him a contract extension before the season.

Another loss for Dalton, meanwhile, would ramp up the external pressure on the Bengals’ starting quarterback entering 2013. Dalton, like Schaub, will be his club’s starter next fall. Saturday’s game isn’t about proving whether either quarterback is a capable starter; it’s about whether either player can be more than that.

That’s why Bengals-Texans is the most fascinating game of Round One. No two quarterbacks have more to prove this weekend. The rookies are playing with house money. Little is expected, relatively speaking, of Christian Ponder. Aaron Rodgers is Aaron Rodgers. Joe Flacco has a career’s worth of wild-card wins already.

I believe Schaub wins his first-ever postseason start on Saturday. The Texans’ blue-chip players (Johnson, DE J.J. Watt, RB Arian Foster) again loom matchup problems for Cincinnati. The top of Houston’s roster will be the difference in a close game. That said, I expect Dalton to fare better in his second playoff start. I would be surprised if he faltered.

The best wild-card game of the weekend will be the first. The Texans are likely winners, but it won’t be by much. 

Wilkening’s pick: Cincinnati

Minnesota (+7½) at Green Bay

I always try to have a handle on how I could get beat in any particular game. Take Bengals-Texans, for example. If Andy Dalton doesn’t play well, the Texans could romp.

Which brings us to Vikings-Packers. There’s a clear blueprint for Minnesota to pull the upset. It starts with the running of Adrian Peterson, of course, but it also requires Christian Ponder to make a few plays himself, too. On Sunday, the Vikings ran and passed with great effectiveness, and it was the difference in a 37-34 Minnesota win.

The Vikings can cover this number if they play that well on Saturday, but I’m not convinced they can, especially with the game at Lambeau Field.

So much rides on how the Packers start this game. If they build an early lead, they will have a clear advantage. And even if they trail in the initial stages, they are still very capable of overtaking Minnesota and pulling clear. Green Bay’s 34 points came in the final 34:01 of regulation on Sunday.

The Packers can put up points in a hurry. They can also win a grinding game, too, as they did in a 23-14 triumph vs. Minnesota on Dec. 2.

I don’t know if the Packers can stop Peterson, but if they even slow him a little, they could be very, very tough on Saturday night.

Wilkening’s pick: Green Bay

Indianapolis (+7) at Baltimore

I don’t like this matchup at all for the Colts. Here’s why:

Setting. The Ravens are a different team at home. They averaged 31.8 points in eight regular-season games in Baltimore. Their offense has been significantly better at home than on the road, and four of the Ravens’ five return scores have been in Baltimore, too.

The Ravens’ run strength. The Colts are 29th in rushing yards allowed and 31st in yards per carry surrendered. The Ravens have Ray Rice. Gulp.

The Ravens’ defense is getting better. Baltimore surrendered less than 200 yards in its last two regular-season games. Also, the Ravens allowed a very respectable 4.7 yards per play against powerful Denver in Week 15. Also, the Ravens’ decision to sit several defensive starters in Week 17 can’t hurt, either — injuries have been a big problem on that side of the ball, and a little rest could help.

I’m not concered about the Ravens losing four of five games to finish the season. They blew leads vs. Pittsburgh and at Washington, and they treated the Week 17 games at Cincinnati like a preseason affair. If anything, the Ravens look ready to improve in January, not regress. Look for them to start the postseason in fine fashion.

Wilkening’s pick: Baltimore

Seattle (-3) at Washington

The Redskins as underdogs? Sign me up. They are 7-2 against the spread this season with six straight-up wins when getting points.

History suggests the Redskins are the play, too. Since 1992, road favorites in the wild-card round are just 5-9 against the spread. A road favorite has tumbled out of Round One in each of the past three seasons, with the 2011 Steelers the most recent example.

The Seahawks are to be respected, but so too are the Redskins, who have won seven games in a row. In that span, Washington has surrendered 21 points or less in 5-of-7 contests, which makes this decision even easier. While the Redskins’ defense is unlikely to shut down Seattle’s offense, it can probably get enough stops. What’s more, I can’t see the Seahawks’ defense holding Washington in check for four quarters.

Wilkening’s pick: Washington

Last week: 0-4
Season to date: 36-30-2
Wild-card record since 2005 (ATS): 25-3

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