NFL Wild Card Weekend: Sunday Betting Preview
The final Sunday Night Football game of the regular season pitted age old NFC rivals against each other as Washington topped Dallas to win their first division title in thirteen years, whilst the Seahawks, Colts and Ravens confirmed their post-season seedings in their respective conference, with Baltimore only one of three playoff teams playing this week to have lost.
Turning our attention to the second set of games in this exciting Wild Card Weekend, and after last night's festival of playoff football, the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens take centre stage before the emphatic Seattle Seahawks travel to FedEx Field looking to top the Redskins.
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If Hollywood studios are looking for the next international smash hit on the silver screen, they need look no further than Indianapolis, and more specifically, the Lucas Oil Stadium, for this season has been one for the ages. Beginning with a trade that saw franchise hero, and future Hall of Fame QB Peyton Manning sent to Denver, the drafting of Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener, and a raft of relatively unknown pieces.
As the season began, expectations for instant success were low, but early breakout performances by TY Hilton and an inspired defensive unit helped Luck stand out as the Colts challenged the AFFC big boys. When it was announced after their Week 3 game that new Head Coach Chuck Pagano had been diagnosed with leukaemia, the football world was shocked, and whilst most wrote off their early playoff hopes, the team continued to produce solid performances that culminated in a post-season berth and a Week 17 win over division rivals Houston. With one of the lowest average ages across the NFL, having assembled a rag-tag bunch of cast-offs and undrafted FAs, and now back under the tutelage of Pagano, Indianapolis head to Baltimore looking to upset the odds.
For Baltimore, the best way for Indy's perfect season to end would be on a sour note. For one, the city's residents have never, and will never forget the betrayal that led the Colts to leave Baltimore in 1983 for pastures new. However, more recently, their natural team leader and Hall of Fame lock Ray Lewis announced his retirement from the pro game at the end of the season, and for hime the Ravens will do anything. Returning from injury this week, Lewis would love to elongate his career by three more games, and with Ray Rice lining up behind an inconsistent Joe Flacco, you never know what you are going to face.
Rice, the Rutgers grad with explosive abilities, can dominate out of the backfield with the ball, or as a target for the Ravens QB, yet it is Flacco himself who has caused much debate this season. After suggestions that Flacco could be considered one of the league's elite passers grew louder pre-season, they were quickly muffled as his stats often confounded. Only averaging just over 200 yards a game with a completion percentage of less than 60%, the Ravens' D has been forced to step up, and on the occasion in which they have not, Baltimore have struggled.
There is no doubt that Indianapolis lack a depth in talent that the Ravens do not, however the playoff fever and fairytale nature of their season could lead to a closer encounter than many fancy.
Best Bet: Indianapolis +5 - 11/10
When it was announced that Russell Wilson, a third round rookie out of Wisconsin, would be the starting QB of the Seahawks, despite their marquee free agency signing of exciting former Packer Matt Flynn, the Seahawks were written off by some, and championed by others.
The Seahawks already possessed a young, exuberant defense, packed with powerful, aggressive D lineman that made their front seven one of the more fearful units in the league, and with Marshawn Lynch pounding the rock out of the backfield, there was a equilibrium of experience. Early performances suggested Wilson may not have been the correct man to start, but he soon came into his own, and looked as dangerous on his feet as he did a passer.
However, if Wilson has looked like one of the more mobile QBs in the league this season, RG3 has blown them all away. The 2nd overall pick joined the Redskins franchise at a turning point, and has been the major contributing factor to their immediate turnaround. Having gone without a division title since the late nineties, Washington's home win over America's Team last week confirmed their crown, whilst they make their first post-season appearance in five years.
Griffin's Week 14 injury may be a worry for those Redskins fans who realise they are reliant on him to succeed, and although his performance against Dallas proved good enough to get the win, he may struggle in the face of a fearsome pass rush. John Schneider and Peter Carroll have built a defense that seems almost exclusively made to stop the Rdskins D, and will play a major role in the final Wild Card match.
Best Bet: Seattle -4.5 - 11/10
Worth a Punt: Seattle to win by 7-12 points - 5/1