AP Pro Football Writer
Pro Picks was all over the road teams in the wild-card round, getting three of the four winners correct. Unfortunately, we weren’t so clairvoyant against the spread.
Ah, the spread. The betting lines are a whole lot more complicated this weekend, and not just because the NFL’s top four teams are joining the fray.
The price of victory for two of the four wild-card teams last week has made Pittsburgh and Kansas City difficult reads. Well, maybe not so difficult for the Steelers if Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder) and Antonio Brown (concussion) are seriously hampered by injuries when they face the Broncos.
The Chiefs would seem a good choice coming off 11 straight victories and facing a New England team that struggled mightily down the stretch. But while the Patriots are getting healthier, Kansas City’s top downfield threat, receiver Jeremy Maclin (high ankle sprain), is a long shot to suit up. Top linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali are hobbled, too.
In the NFC, the sick list isn’t quite so critical. Indeed, the Seahawks could get back a key weapon in running back Marshawn Lynch (abdominal surgery), and so might Carolina in RB Jonathan Stewart.
Green Bay could be without wideout Davante Adams and Arizona will miss defensive starters in outside linebacker Alex Okafor and tackle Cory Redding. Important players, but not game breakers.
Seattle (plus 3 1/2) at Carolina, Sunday
No team has made three consecutive Super Bowls since the unfortunate Bills of 1990-93 got there (and lost) four in a row. It’s been fashionable for many to point to the Seahawks as capable of returning to the big game, and it’s not at all farfetched.
But Pro Picks likes Carolina’s resilience, the way it matches up with Seattle, and the fact that the Panthers have been somewhat overlooked or underestimated despite a 15-1 record.
A strange BEST BET because we expect the Panthers to win, but the Seahawks to cover.
Kansas City (plus 5) at New England, Saturday
Despite the Patriots’ recent slump, triggered by injuries and an inability to give Tom Brady time to pick apart opponents, they are rested and should have top target Julian Edelman back. Gillette Stadium is a very difficult place to win anytime, especially in the postseason, but KC isn’t the type of team to get intimidated.
Of particular fun could be how the two tight ends, New England All-Pro Rob Gronkowski and Kansas City’s under-noticed Travis Kelce, fare.
Green Bay (plus 7) at Arizona, Saturday
The Packers woke up on offense in Washington as the line finally stopped imitating a sieve. The running game got its legs and Aaron Rodgers looked like a championship-quality QB.
That was against the Redskins. The balanced, experienced and deep Cardinals are another matter.
Before Arizona did a sleepwalk through its relatively meaningless finale against Seattle, it was on a tear, winning nine straight. Pro Picks thinks the Cardinals are the NFL’s most-balanced squad.
Pittsburgh (plus 6 1/2) at Denver, Sunday
How intriguing this matchup would be with all the stars at full strength. But along with Pittsburgh’s health woes, the Broncos know Peyton Manning certainly isn’t at 100 percent efficiency.
Denver, though, is in fine shape compared to the Steelers, who beat them 34-27 in Week 15 when the banged-up Broncos, with Brock Osweiler at quarterback, blew a big lead.
“So, we’re expecting a fully healthy team at their place, where it’s going to be loud and probably the biggest challenge of the year for us,” Roethlisberger said.
No big leads in this one, but …
2015 RECORD: Against spread: Week (1-3), Season (123-122-7). Straight up: Week (3-1), Season (157-103)
Best Bet: 8-9-1 against spread, 10-8 straight up.
Upset special: 9-9 against spread, 6-12 straight up.