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Best bets for the NFL playoffs: A Tom Brady-Trevor Lawrence teaser

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) throws a pass during an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
6 min

As the first weekend of the NFL playoffs approaches, the point spreads have been on the move. The news that Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa remains in the NFL’s concussion protocols and won’t play against the Buffalo Bills sent that spread soaring; the Bills, who had been favored by 9½ points, were giving 13½ points by Friday morning. With Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson ruled out, the Cincinnati Bengals moved from seven-point favorites to 8½- or nine-point favorites on Friday. The spreads in some other games also moved, although less dramatically.

This column rebounded in Week 18, going 2-0 with two point-spread underdogs to improve to 5-5 as Neil Greenberg’s understudy. Hopefully the playoffs — which begin Saturday with the first two of six first-round games — can push us into profitability.

All spreads and totals taken Wednesday from All times Eastern.

New York Giants at Minnesota Vikings (-3)

Sunday, 4:30 p.m. | Fox, Fox Deportes

Pick: Under 48½ points (By Thursday morning, the total had inched down to 48.)

These two teams combined to score 51 points on Christmas Eve, going over the total of 48, but that result is at least a little deceiving. The Giants led 13-10 entering the fourth quarter before the teams combined to score 28 points over the final 15 minutes, the final three coming on Greg Joseph’s 61-yard field goal to win it for Minnesota as time expired. New York ran all of four plays inside the Vikings’ 20-yard line the entire game, all of them on one second-quarter drive.

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Gamblers probably will look to that game — along with the fact that Vikings games went over the total in seven of nine games to finish the season — as a reason to back the over. There’s also a natural inclination to root for points. I’m not so sure.

The Giants were the most blitz-happy team in the NFL this season (38.9 percent), and if there’s one quarterback who doesn’t like to see heavy pressure, it’s the Vikings’ Kirk Cousins, who has completed only 56.6 percent of his passes and averaged just 5.8 yards per attempt when facing the blitz. (Cousins’s overall completion percentage and yards per attempt this season? 65.9 and 7.1.) While Cousins threw for 299 yards and three scores in the first meeting, it took him 48 attempts to get there, and the Giants sacked him four times. Between Weeks 11 and 17, Cousins was sacked 26 times.

This series will examine the impact of legalized gambling on sports, through news coverage, accountability journalism and advice for navigating this new landscape. Read more.

Though Vikings running back Dalvin Cook had only 14 carries for 64 yards in the first matchup, Minnesota would be wise to increase his workload against a New York rushing defense that ranks 30th in expected points allowed per rush, a strategy that could serve to drain the clock.

Giants quarterback Daniel Jones will be making his first playoff start, and postseason rookies are notoriously bad bets: Teams with first-time playoff starters at quarterback playing against teams with quarterbacks who have previous playoff starts are 16-34 straight-up and 14-35-1 against the spread since 2002. There were three such quarterbacks in last season’s playoffs — the Cardinals’ Kyler Murray, the Eagles’ Jalen Hurts and the Patriots’ Mac Jones — and their teams scored 11, 15 and 17 points, respectively, with two of those games staying under the total (the Bills put up 47 points to push their matchup with New England over).

And it’s not like Cousins — who’s notoriously bad when the spotlight is on — has led his team to postseason glory, either. In four career playoff games, his teams have scored 14, 18, 26 and 10 points, and three of those games stayed under the total.

This is the highest total of the opening weekend. Take the under.

Los Angeles Chargers (-2) at Jacksonville Jaguars

Saturday, 8:15 p.m. | NBC, Peacock, Universo

Dallas Cowboys (-2½) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Monday, 8:15 p.m. | ESPN, ABC, ESPN2, ESPN Plus, ESPN Deportes

Pick: 6½-point teaser, Jacksonville Jaguars +8 and Tampa Bay Buccaneers +9 (-120 odds, and the spreads may have changed since this pick was made.)

We’ll switch things up for our second pick this weekend to tease two home underdogs, buying points to get through the key NFL number of seven for both teams and then parlaying them together.

Jacksonville and Los Angeles are two similar teams, with promising but young quarterbacks, talent at the skill positions and defenses that are seriously flawed in one particular aspect (the Jaguars are terrible against the pass, while the Chargers are terrible against the run). And both looked good down the stretch, with Jacksonville ending on a 7-2 run that included wins over two playoff teams (the Ravens and Cowboys) and the Chargers finally getting healthy enough to finish on a 5-2 spurt. Los Angeles Coach Brandon Staley’s curious decision to play most of his starters in Sunday’s meaningless finale against the Broncos resulted in wide receiver Mike Williams and star edge rusher Joey Bosa getting nicked up, and while they’re expected to play, it’s not great for the Chargers that they might not be 100 percent.

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The Cowboys closed the season with wins in six of their last eight, but let’s look at whom they beat: the overrated Vikings and Giants, the terrible Texans and Colts, and two teams (the Eagles and Titans) that were missing their starting quarterbacks. Then Dallas lost in the finale to Washington, putting up only 182 yards and looking wholly uninterested even with all their starters playing. Quarterback Dak Prescott tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with 15 even though he played in only 12 games. Running back Tony Pollard is more effective than Ezekiel Elliott but has been battling injuries, and teams are starting to figure out that CeeDee Lamb is the Cowboys’ only dangerous receiving threat.

Everyone was proclaiming the Tom Brady Era over when he threw six interceptions in three games late in the season, but he’s played well the last two games, completing 75.8 percent of his passes and avoiding picks. Tampa Bay has no running game to speak of, but there’s no reason the Bucs can’t stay within a touchdown-plus of the overrated Cowboys at home.

Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers (-9½)

Saturday, 4:30 p.m. | Fox, Fox Deportes

Pick: Seattle Seahawks +9½

Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills (-13½)

Sunday, 1 p.m. | CBS, Paramount Plus

Pick: Buffalo Bills -9½ (By Friday morning, the Bills were favored by 13½.)

Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals (-8½)

Sunday, 8:15 p.m. | NBC, Peacock, Telemundo

Pick: Baltimore Ravens +7 (By Friday morning, the Bengals were favored by 8½ or 9.)