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NFL picks against the spread for wild-card weekend

The New England Patriots have hosted three first-round playoff games since 2000. They are 2-1 in those contests. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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The first round of the NFL playoffs doesn’t typically offer many surprises. Home favorites are 63-37 (.630) since 1978, the first year the league added a second wild-card team from each conference. However, underdogs have performed admirably against the spread in the wild-card round since 2002, when the league expanded to 32 franchises. Teams getting points in the first round have a 37-30-1 record against the spread over that span; underdogs are an even more impressive 8-4 over the past three postseasons.

Here is how we expect this week’s playoff teams to fare against the consensus point spreads (as of Thursday morning) from multiple sports books in Las Vegas.

The most and least likely Super Bowl matchups

Saturday

No. 5 Buffalo Bills at No. 4 Houston Texans (-2½)

Pick: Bills +2½

Houston’s division title and appearance in the playoffs overstates how well it did this season. According to Football Outsiders, the Texans were the 19th most efficient team of 2019 after adjusting for strength of schedule. Their defense ranked 26th, a poor showing compared with the rest of the postseason field. The next-worst defensive ranking by one of this year’s playoff teams: the Seattle Seahawks, at No. 18.

And while Bills quarterback Josh Allen didn’t take a huge leap forward in his second season, the 23-year-old should be able to take advantage of a Texans defense that allowed an above-average passer rating to opposing quarterbacks this year (97.6, ranking 25th).

No. 6 Tennessee Titans at No. 3 New England Patriots (-4½)

Pick: Patriots -4½

The Patriots choked toward the end of the season but they still get to play their first playoff game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. And that’s good news for quarterback Tom Brady. Brady isn’t anywhere close to the elite passer he once was — in fact, he was just an average passer this year — but he did manage to produce better numbers at home this season (92.9 passer rating) than he did on the road (83.9). That doesn’t sound like a huge difference, but it could be significant considering Brady’s passer rating in wins this season was 90.9, compared with just 79.6 in New England’s losses.

Sunday

No. 6 Minnesota Vikings at No. 3 New Orleans Saints (-7½)

Pick: Vikings +7½

Minnesota hasn’t won a road playoff game since 2005 but there are enough injuries piling up for its opponent that could at least keep this game close. New Orleans placed a pair of former first-round picks (defensive linemen Marcus Davenport and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins) on injured reserve and was without safeties Marcus Williams (groin) and Vonn Bell (knee) and cornerback Eli Apple (ankle) in Sunday’s regular season finale.

That could open things up for Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins and running back Dalvin Cook. Cousins completed 69 percent of his passes in 2019 for 3,603 yards, with 26 touchdowns and six interceptions. His passer rating of 107.4 was a career high and ranked fourth in the NFL. Cook led Minnesota with 1,135 yards and 13 touchdowns, plus was active in the passing game, catching 53 of his 63 targets for 519 yards. He also broke 19 tackles on those receptions, the third most among running backs this season.

No. 5 Seattle Seahawks (-1½) at No. 4 Philadelphia Eagles

Pick: Eagles +1½

Expect a better performance from Philadelphia’s offensive line than the one we saw in the Week 12 regular season matchup between these two clubs. In that contest, the Eagles’ offensive line was saddled with 19 total pressures (two sacks, four hits and 13 hurries), according to the game charters at Pro Football Focus. Since then, Philadelphia’s offensive line has allowed just 12 total pressures per game.

The nine-win Eagles will host the 11-win Seahawks in a playoff game. The NFL is fine with that.

Better protection means better performances from quarterback Carson Wentz. When he had a clean pocket to work with in 2019, Wentz posted a passer rating of 99.4. That dropped to 78.8 when facing pressure. It is worth noting that Wentz’s passer rating under pressure was the eighth highest in the NFL this season.

Read more coverage of the NFL:

The ultimate playoff fantasy football rankings

Eight big questions for the first round of the NFL playoffs

Giants GM once mocked analytics. Now he declares team has hired ‘four computer folks.’

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