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Best bets for the NFL’s divisional round: How to take advantage of a strange point spread

Green Bay Packers' quarterback Aaron Rodgers is trying to take Green Bay back to the Super Bowl as the NFC's top seed. (Matt Ludtke/AP)
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As the NFL playoffs enter the divisional round, it is important to revisit the sport’s key numbers of three and seven. Since 2015 — when the NFL moved extra-point attempts back from what was essentially a 20-yard field goal to a 33-yard attempt — 15 percent of regular season games have ended with a scoring margin of three points. Ten percent of games finished with a differential of seven points. Six, 14 and 10 were the next most frequent point differentials, but none of those occurred any more than eight percent of the time.

However, for NFL bettors, that is only part of the equation. What they should really be interested in how often a game featuring a point spread of three points has ended with a three-point margin of victory. After all, if you are backing a team that is favored by six points, a three-point win doesn’t do you any good. Since 2015, 24 out of 273 games (8.8 percent) closing with a spread of three points ended with a margin of victory of exactly three. That’s the highest percentage of pushes for any point spread over that span.

By moving off a three-point spread, either to -2.5 (if you like the favorite) or +3.5 (if you like the underdog), you gain an edge over the oddsmaker by turning a push into a win.

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On the other hand, teams favored by five points have yet to push in any game over the past seven seasons. And teams favored by five or 5½ points have won by exactly six points just four times since 2015, none since 2019.

San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers (-5½)

Pick: Green Bay Packers -4½ (or San Francisco 49ers +6)

The above discussion is relevant to this weekend’s Saturday night divisional matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and top-seeded Green Bay, in which the host Packers are favored by 5½ points. That is, for lack of a better term, a dead number. Remember, based on the above, the chances of Green Bay winning by six are low, so it makes more sense to either pay a higher price to get Green Bay -4½ or look for the Packers -7 at +120 odds or better. That last option has comparable value to Packers -5.5 at -110.

If you prefer the 49ers, pending news on defensive end Nick Bosa (concussion), linebacker Fred Warner (right ankle) and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (shoulder), you should be looking for San Francisco at +6 (or better) at -120, which means you’d wager $120 to win $100.

For what it is worth, I personally took a position on Packers -4½ at -115 plus Packers -6 at +100 and -7 at +140.

Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs

Pick: Chiefs -1 +115 first quarter

Expect Kansas City to get off to a fast start in this weekend’s final game. Since Week 8, the Chiefs have led by six points or more at the end of the first quarter nine times in 10 games, the lone outlier a Week 18 matchup against the Denver Broncos, which was tied 7-7 after the first 15 minutes. Over the second half of the season, Kansas City scored a touchdown on almost half its first-quarter drives (48 percent) and averaged 3.6 points per drive in the opening quarter, including Sunday’s win over Pittsburgh. The Bills have trailed at the end of the first quarter three times since Week 8 and have been tied two other times.

Plus, Buffalo plays mostly zone coverage and will be without injured cornerback Tre’Davious White, giving Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes a bit of an edge. Mahomes has thrown 13 touchdowns against zone coverage this season, including the playoffs, giving him the second-most passing scores against zone coverage of any quarterback this season. Four of those 13 touchdowns came in the first quarter; no other quarterback has more this season.

The plays above represent our best bets because our analysis shows their value is the most lucrative compared with what we expect to happen once the teams take the field. Below, you will find against-the-spread picks for all of the games on this week’s schedule. However, trying to pick every single game is something of a fool’s errand. The house wins so often partly because bettors try to make too many plays when the odds aren’t in their favor. Keep that in mind when evaluating the games from the weekend slate.

Picks are against the consensus point spreads as of Tuesday night.

Best bets record this season: 22-13.

Cincinnati Bengals at Tennessee Titans (-3½)

Pick: Tennessee Titans -3½

Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs (-2)

Pick: Kansas City Chiefs -2

Los Angeles Rams at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-3)

Pick: Los Angeles Rams +3