For a change everything went according to plan - at least as far as my tips were concerned - in last week's wild card round. But this week is another story. Both AFC games look one-sided - which at this level of play is usually a dangerous thing - while both NFC games sport the kind of lines that seem to be invitations to bet both sides against the middle, a sure sign that they are perceived as little better than toss-ups. This is difficult because you can argue the relative strengths and weaknesses of Seattle and Atlanta, or San Francisco and Green Bay, over, under, sideways and down. Throw in concepts like momentum, experience and home field advantage, and you find yourself in just as much of a quandary as you were when you started!
Sure thing: Denver (-9.5) v Baltimore at 1.95
As you might guess from the above, a sure thing is not an easy call this week, and oddly enough I took the Ravens giving seven last week as a sure thing. I think Denver win this game, and I think they beat the spread, even with the Ravens' formidable defense, simply because Baltimore are going to run out of gas in the fourth quarter. I can draw up a scenario where Joe Flacco hits a bomb to Torrey Smith, Ed Reed gets a fumble return TD, and Jacoby Jones runs one back for a touchdown, or one where the presence of former Colt coach Jim Caldwell on the sideline for the Ravens lulls Peyton Manning into a false sense of security, but I think Denver's a pretty safe bet.
Outside bet: San Francisco (-2.5) v Green Bay at 1.77
The Packers are getting healthy at the right time, have the best quarterback in the league, and come up against a team starting a guy who only took over at mid-season and is coming off a couple of undistinguished performances. The Packers will likely keep it close and look for Aaron Rodgers to stage a late rally if they're trailing, but I've picked the Niners straight up, and they ought to be able to stretch beyond a figgie.
Value bet: Under 45.5 points in Atlanta v Seattle at 1.95
Atlanta's defense is somewhat undervalued and the Seahawks don't have the receiving weapons to run up a big score themselves. They also have the defenders to hold Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez out of the end zone on big plays, forcing Matt Ryan to work patiently for longer drives, which would help keep the total score down.
One to avoid: New England v Houston (+9.5)
Looking at the 42-14 win the Pats had in Foxborough earlier in the season, what stands out is that they got a few lucky breaks (a fumble going the right way, a borderline call or two) and built up a 21-0 lead. When you do that you drive the Texans out of their comfort zone; they have only one downfield threat (Andre Johnson) and Matt Schaub has not looked comfortable throwing deep lately. But the Patriots' defence has been opportunistic rather than dominant this year; if the Texans can get an early score or two and force Tom Brady into catch-up it could be a very tight game, because Houston's D has some big-time players, especially JJ Watt. This game is not necessarily the foregone rout that many commentators seem to think it is, so I'm leaving it alone.