AFC CHAMPIONSHIP – NFL Betting Guide

The semi-finals for Super Bowl 50 – better known as the Conference Championships – take place on Sunday and with the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers joint-favourites at 2/1 with My Club Betting to lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

In the AFC, the reigning AFC Conference champion and last season’s Super Bowl heroes New England travel to Denver to take on the No.1 seed Broncos, who are 4/1 to win the Super Bowl.

NFC no.1 seed Carolina, who have lost just once this season, face Arizona’s high-powered attack and the Cardinals are 3/1 to win it all.

Lamar Hunt Trophy
The Lamar Hunt Trophy: Awarded to the AFC Champions

 

After another winning season against the handicap, MyClubBetting handicapper and Lindy’s Sports UK Editor Simon Milham takes a look at the betting trends and some of the best bets ahead of Sunday’s AFC Championship game.

The odds are correct at the time of writing and are available on your club’s betting service.

(Handicap is denoted by +/- for the home team)

NEW ENGLAND at DENVER

Sunday 8.05pm – Sky Sports

(+1.5, Total Points 45.5)

And so he faces the final curtain. Peyton Manning’s glorious career looks set to come to an end on Sunday and what a fitting way he will go out – duelling with New England quarterback counterpart Tom Brady.

Manning wins
Final curtain: Peyton Manning 

Brady and head coach Bill Belichick have been the spoiler in Manning’s career. He would arguably have been the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time), but for that duo. Manning has all the significant passing records, he’s tied with Brett Favre for the winning-most quarterback of all time – but Brady and Belichick have the Super Bowl rings. Four to be precise. Manning and the Broncos stand in the way for a shot at ‘one for the thumb’.

Last year, Brady won his fourth Super Bowl ring (joining Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw) and third Super Bowl MVP trophy in New England’s come-from-behind 28-24 victory over Seattle. Belichick joined Chuck Noll as the only coaches with four Super Bowl rings.

Manning has one ring, a bum shoulder and a 5-11 record against Belichick and Brady. For the 17th and possibly the final time – Manning is unlikely to be in Denver next season and with little zip on his passes, he may decide to retire after an 18-year career – the bad guys face the good guy for the right to play in the Super Bowl.

Manning is 2-0 against them in home AFC Championship games, however, once with Indianapolis in 2006 and again with Denver in 2013. The home quarterback has never lost a Brady/Manning game in the playoffs, but Brady is 5-1 when the game kicks off with a temperature of less than 40 degrees.

Brady1
Four rings: Tom Brady is arguably the GOAT

Brady’s two career wins in Denver came when facing Tim Tebow and Danny Kanell and the Patriots are 3-17 at Denver since 1969, when they were known as the Boston Patriots.

New England have already been beaten by the Broncos this season, with back-up QB Brock Osweiler leading Denver to an overtime win. The Sheriff, who missed the clash with a torn plantar fascia injury, will be in charge on Sunday.

The game that will be defined by two very good defences and whether or not Manning and his offense are capable of rediscovering their form. Manning was 7-2 as a starter this season but threw just nine touchdown passes to 17 interceptions. Despite going 21 of 37 for 222 yards with zero interceptions, he was throwing dying quails rather than tight spirals and rainbows in the win over an injury-hit Pittsburgh last weekend.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Denver Broncos
Better than stats: Manning’s receivers dropped passes 

Yet he played better than the bar stats suggest, with numerous dropped passes plaguing Gary Kubiak’s team (perhaps a result of the ball not hitting its mark quickly enough and receivers getting jittery, expecting to be hit).

In his defence, the wind that caused untold problems at Mile High last weekend, is not due to be anywhere near as severe and gusty. Perfect football weather is forecast.

The Patriots easily dealt with Kansas City last weekend, ending their 11-game winning streak, and their underrated defense will dare Manning to throw deep on them, staking the box to stop the run.

Denver simply has to be able to run the ball effectively to keep Brady off the field for as long as possible. C.J. Anderson ripped off almost five yards per run against Pittsburgh last week and more of the same is imperative if the Broncos are to have a chance.

Buffalo Bills v Denver Broncos
First TD scorer: C.J. Anderson is our suggestion

He is currently a 10/1 chance with My Club Betting score the first touchdown, and that is a fair bet.

The Broncos’ defense is marginally better than the Chiefs’ and, looking at this simplistically, Brady will have to get receiver Julian Edelman involved early to keep them Broncos off balance. Edelman is 8/1 to get the first score.

Edelman Gronk
Big threat: Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman

The Patriots have only scored 24 points or more on four of their last 22 trips to Denver and with such a marauding Broncos defense, we feel that hitting that mark again might be a stretch, particularly if Brady is under fire and forced to make throws into coverage.

We hope the Broncos win it, but the odds are stacked against Manning and company. Still, New England’s awful record at Mile High cannot be overlooked. We are betting with the heart a little bit, hoping that Manning can have one more day in the sun, but there are a few other bets to take advantage of.

VERDICT: DENVER 23 NEW ENGLAND 16
BEST BET: NEW ENGLAND UNDER 23.5 POINTS @ 1.83

OTHER SUGGESTIONS FOR THE BIG GAME:

HANDICAP: DENVER +1.5 @ 2.2o

TOTAL POINTS: UNDER 43.5 @ 1.95

FIRST TD SCORER: C.J. ANDERSON @ 12.00

RACE TO 10 POINTS: DENVER @ 2.10

HT/FT: DRAW/DENVER @ 17.00

WINNING MARGIN: DENVER WIN BY 7-12 POINTS @ 5.50

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NFL DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS – MCB Betting Guide

The Arizona Cardinals head into the Divisional round of the playoffs as the co-favourites to win Super Bowl 50 with My Club Betting.

The Cardinals are 4/1 with both the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers. The Denver Broncos, the top seed in the AFC, are 5/1, followed by the reigning NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks at 6/1. The Kansas City Chiefs are next best at 10/1, followed by the Green Bay Packers at 14/1 and the Pittsburgh Steelers the outsiders at 16/1.

Super Bowl 1
Ultimate goal: Vince Lombardi Trophy

Some poor officiating in Cincinnati and a last-minute field goal from Pittsburgh prevented a perfect tipping performance ATS in last week’s wildcard round. After another winning season against the handicap/spread (ATS), MyClubBetting handicapper and Lindy’s Sports UK Editor Simon Milham takes a look at the betting trends and some of the best bets ahead of this weekend’s Divisional playoffs.

The odds are correct at the time of writing and are available on your club’s betting service.

(Handicap is denoted by +/- for the home team)

KANSAS CITY at NEW ENGLAND

(-5.5, Total Points 43.5)

Here’s where it ends. It had a good life, after all. Time to mourn its passing. The Kansas City Chiefs won 11 games in succession and thumped Houston 30-0 in their own house to make it this far.

Brady
Platitudes: A confident Tom Brady

But now it stops. The Chiefs have a dreadful record in New England and have managed just one win in their last eight visits. They have lost their last five trips to Boston and while the hosts will be fearful, having lost 41-14 to them in last year’s Super Bowl-winning campaign, that defeat was on the road.

Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady has had a week off and he’s been hurling platitudes towards to Chiefs in the media – a sure sign the Patriots are confident in their game plan. They just love to be condescending. It is in their DNA. So is winning.

Brady had more than one eye on the Chiefs’ win in Houston and is right when he admits: “I think Kansas City forced them into a lot of bad football, but that’s what Kansas City has done a great job of all year. They’ve forced teams, whoever they played down the stretch – they’ve won 11 straight – all of them, into making a lot of bad plays.”

The Chiefs have a great pass rush and their front seven is playing as well as any front seven has done this season.

But, like the Patriots, they have suffered some significant injuries. Center Mitch Morse missed Saturday’s game. They lost starting right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff to a concussion, as well as top wide receiver Jeremy Maclin with a high ankle sprain in last week’s win. Maclin is a key component in the short-passing game that is predicated on giving the runners the opportunity to get yards after the catch.

Quarterback Alex Smith throws a lot of wide receiver screens to safety-blanket Maclin and Albert Wilson. He’ll also look for Charcandrick West on flat routes. But Maclin’s loss will be felt, even though rookie Chris Colney – whom we highlighted as a great bet to score a TD last week – is a polished receiver who has been biding his time and should make an impact. The Georgia product is going to be a star in this league before too long. Take that to the bank.

Charcandrick West
Charcandrick West: Safety valve in the flat

The loss of Maclin would also allow the Patriots to put pressure on TE Travis Kelce inside with a safety over the top.

Spencer Ware is punishing downhill runner and can gain tough yards. We expect him to see plenty of the ball.

But the Chiefs are not in great shape. Premier pass rusher Justin Houston not the force he was since missing five weeks with a knee injury (he lacked explosion off the edge against Houston), and Tamba Hali, the Chiefs’ other edge rusher playing only 15 snaps against the Texans. He has a broken thumb.

If either are limited, the onus will be on Dee Ford to make plays off the edge and rattle Brady.

The Patriots are in better shape now. They had unrecognisable starting units in Weeks 16 and 17 and rested key players. They also had the benefit of the bye week and should have mostly everyone – including perhaps their most important offensive cog outside of Brady, Julian Edelman, ready for the playoff game.

The Patriots will have Dont’a Hightower, Chandler Jones and Sebastian Vollmer available after they missed their season-ending defeat in Miami. That could be hugely significant and will allow them to execute a less vanilla game plan.

This should be a tight encounter. The Patriots have not played well in recent weeks but while their injuries have cleared up, the Chiefs are bruised. We feel the super Bowl Champions will make it to the AFC Championship game.

VERDICT: KANSAS CITY 17 NEW ENGLAND 31

BEST BET: NEW ENGLAND +5.5 @ 2.05

SPORTING BET: OVER 43.5 POINTS

GREEN BAY at ARIZONA

(-7.5, Total Points 49.5)

Rewind just three weeks ago. The Arizona Cardinals made a statement, beating the Green Bay Packers 38-8 behind nine sacks. It gave them the number two seen in the NFC and a week’s rest.

Dwight Freeney
Veteran force: Dwight Freeney

The key was pressure up front. The Cardinals feasted on a makeshift Packers offensive line, with Dwight Freeney and Calais Campbell among six players all recording sacks on Aaron Rodgers.

Though the Packers rediscovered their mojo after a slow start in Washington to prevail 35-18, they are still heavy underdogs to prevent losing for their third consecutive visit to Arizona, a feat that has not occurred since 1948-49, when the Cardinals franchise was in Chicago.

The Cardinals’ offense is arguably the most explosive of all the playoff teams. They have a rookie running back in David Johnson, who is getting hot late in the season, a veteran head coach in Bruce Arians who has a chip on his shoulder after being overlooked for so long, a sure-handed, speedy and large receiving corps, led by an assured quarterback in Carson Palmer who has a point to prove. They should be favourites to win it all and are rightly heavy jollies over the pre-season Super Bowl favourite.

For handicap bettors, there is a little conundrum. The Cardinals are 1-5 ATS in their last six games at home, but their one cover came against the Packers. The Cheeseheads have won seven of the last 10 games against the Cardinals and are 3-1 outright and ATS in their last four games as an underdog against them.

The points total has gone under the Vegas line in 10 of the last 14 Packers’ games and also 5-2 in the last seven games between the Packers and Cardinals.

Deone Bucannon
Deone Bucannon: Different looks

This game won’t be a case of déjà vu. In the first game, Green Bay committed four turnovers, including two fumbles that were returned for touchdowns. The Packers were, at one point, playing without three starting offensive linemen and the game turned on a couple of turnovers in the second and third quarters.

The Cardinals’ gameplan will be to limit the Packers’ running game and make them one-dimensional, believing their secondary can overwhelm the Packers’ receivers.

And they are healthy. Defensive tackle Corey Redding is the only Arzona player who is expected to miss the game, with both outside linebacker Markus Golden and defensive tackle Josh Mauro both expected to return after missing the last two games.

Perhaps the x-factor is Palmer’s 0-2 playoff record. Yet he has a ton of experience since his last trip to the post-season in 2009 and far greater talent at his disposal.

One of the key matchups will be safety Deone Bucannon against Rodgers. Bucannon disguised the defensive coverages well and Rodgers was not given enough time to decipher what was coming. The Cardinals will expect Rodgers to target cornerback Justin Bethel, as has been the case in his four starts (three in relief of injured starter Jerraud Powers) – that is what happens when you have an elite cornerback in Patrick Peterson playing on the opposing side of the field.

We feel the Packers have papered over the cracks in Washington and Rodgers will turn this into a dogfight, yet ultimately the Cardinals will come away with the win. They are simply playing at a different level right now (their meaningless Week 17 defeat by Seattle aside).

VERDICT: GREEN BAY 24 ARIZONA 34

BEST BET: ARIZONA -7.5 @ 2.05

SPORTING BET: ARIZONA WIN BY 12 POINTS OR MORE @ 2.80

SEATTLE at CAROLINA

(-2.5, Total Points 44.5)

Seattle were manhandled by Carolina in their first meeting in Seattle in Week 6, with both the offensive and defensive lines dominating the trenches. And this game is likely to be one of the most physical you will encounter in the playoffs.

Jonathan Stewart
Returns after injury: Jonathan Stewart

While Carolina lost just once in the regular season, Seattle had their struggles, particularly when running back Marshawn Lynch went down injured in Week 10, but he was not having a great season before undergoing surgery on his abdomen in any case.

The NFC champion Seahawks, who look to reach the Super Bowl for the third successive season, went 10-6 on the season, but were 2-4 before the bye and 6-2 after it, with improving St Louis and NFC favourites Arizona inflicting those two losses. This is the same team, but the psychology of this team is different to the one that lost by a one-score margin in Week 6.

Seattle got lucky in Minnesota, with Blair Walsh’s attempt at a last-minute, game-winning 27-yard field goal sailing wide left. Seattle played poorly in one of the coldest NFL games ever played.

The only think frosty in Carolina will be the reception they will receive from the Panthers fans who have suffered through seven losses to the Seahawks in the last nine meetings. Indeed, the Panthers have lost their last three home meetings.

Russell Wilson
Elusive: Russell Wilson still took 45 sacks

Each of their five meetings in Charlotte was been a low-scoring duel and lovers of defense will be in their element again on Sunday, even though Carolina boasts the No.1 scoring offense, having scored 500 points this season.

No-one relies on a quarterback to run as much as Carolina does. Cam Newton has 10 rushing touchdowns this year and their diverse running attack will also be boosted by the return of Jonathan Stewart, who missed the last four weeks with a sprained foot.

Stewart scored two TDs and ran for 78 yards in the 27-23 win over the Seahawks in Week 6. The ground and pound will be in full force, particularly since WR Ted Ginn will be able to stretch the field and hinder the Seahawks’ ability to stack the box against the run.

While Lynch may see some game-time this week (he was a full participant in practise on Wednesday), the Seahawks may well rely heavily on Christine Michael, who managed 71 yards on 20 carries against the Vikings in their 10-9 win last weekend.

While Carolina may be almost at full strength – and rested – it is perhaps worth noting that Carolina lost cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Bene Benwikere to season-ending injuries since their first meeting, with veterans Cortland Finnegan and Robert McClain filling in. It does not appear to have slowed them.

Seattle tend to like close encounters where the playoffs are concerned. Their last drama-free post-season game came with the 31-17 win over Carolina in last year’s Divisional round. Indeed, they have held a lead at some point in the fourth quarter in all bar one of their last 17 games.

Factor in Seattle’s playoff experience and momentum (seven wins in their last eight games), we should expect the battle-tested Seahawks to keep this close.

One of the biggest issues will be with how well Seattle’s offensive line holds up. Even with his knack for great escapes, elusive QB Russell Wilson was sacked 45 times in the regular season, tied for third most in the NFL. And in their first meeting, two of the Panthers’ top pass rushers Jared Allen and Charles Johnson missed the game through injury.

Seattle outplayed Carolina for three quarters of their first meeting. Their defense, which has allowed just one touchdown in their last seven road games, will invariably give Wilson enough opportunities to win every game. They can stop the run (Adrian Peterson had just 45 yards on 23 carries last week) and the pass (they held the prolific Cardinals to six points in Week 17, with Carson Palmer completing just 12 of 25 passes and Drew Stanton just 8 of 18).

This game should be a real scrap and we think the Seahawks will be more like the team that beat Arizona than the one who escaped against Minnesota.

VERDICT: SEATTLE 23 CAROLINA 17

BEST BET: SEATTLE +2.5 @ 1.85

SPORTING BET: UNDER 44.5 POINTS

PITTSBURGH at DENVER

(-6.5, Total Points 40.5)

The most obvious line of thinking has Peyton Manning and the AFC top seed Denver Broncos riding their defense to victory over a banged-up Pittsburgh Steelers and advancing to the AFC Championship game.

ben Roethlisberger
Injury blow: Ben Roethlisberger

Pittsburgh got into the playoffs by the back door thanks to the New York Jets losing in Buffalo and somehow got past Cincinnati 18-16, thanks to a big turnover and two costly Bengals’ penalties in the closing moments of their Wildcard game.

That came at a cost, however, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went down with a shoulder injury and wide receiver Antonion Brown suffered a concussion. Along with running back DeAngelo Williams, they are listed as day-to-day for the trip to Denver, where they have won on three of their last 11 visits.

The Broncos got the Steelers’ best shot on December 20 in Pittsburgh. The hosts prevailed 34-27 but the Broncos have not lost consecutive games to the Steelers since 1979 (a span of 20 games).

It is unlikely that this will come down to how well Manning performs. The veteran passer returned from a foot injury to deputise for struggling Brock Osweiler in the Week 17 win over San Diego. This will be about how dominant the Broncos’ front seven is going to be in shutting down Pittsburgh’s attack. If Brown does not play, they will stack the box to limit the run and force Roethlisberger to beat them deep. With a sprained AC joint (commonly known as a separated shoulder) – plus a few torn ligaments in his right shoulder – pain and accuracy are going to pay a part.

If he is not fit – and Big Ben is 4-0 in Divisional playoff games – Landry Jones will be under center.

Brown is more likely to start, providing he gets through the concussion protocol. He was almost unplayable in their first meeting, catching 16 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-27 comeback win.

Owen Daniels
Big target: Owen Daniels

Williams, the AFC’s fourth-leading rusher, is expected to miss out, meaning the majority of handoffs will be split between Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman.

You can easily envisage the Broncos, who do have nagging have concerns at left tackle and have struggled with injuries at guard, winning this via a couple of turnovers.

The Steelers are not big in stature at the cornerback position, so we expect WR Demaryius Thomas will exploit that weakness in fade routes to the corner of the endzone and he may draw double coverage. That may allow TE Owen Daniels to find room elsewhere and he is a big target to cover. We see him a viable candidate to score a TD at any time.

VERDICT: PITTSBURGH 17 DENVER 21

BEST BET: PITTSBURGH +6.5 @ 1.91

SPORTING BET: DENVER TO WIN BY 1-6 POINTS @ 4.00

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MCB’s COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW OF THE 2015/16 NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP

My Club Betting handicapper and Lindy’s Sports UK Editor Simon Milham had you covered with another winning regular season and went 23-16-1 ATS in Bowl games. Now the NCAA Football season comes down to this, the National Championship. Bet on the game via your club’s My Club Betting service…

(Handicap is denoted by +/- for the home team)

CLEMSON at ALABAMA

(-6.5, Total Points 51.5)

Tuesday, 01:30

The 14-0 Clemson Tigers take on the 13-1 Alabama Crimson tide for the National Championship at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, the early hours of Tuesday morning (1.30am UK time).

QB Deshaun Watson1
Deshaun Watson: Tough to defend

The Tide have won 10 titles since 1936 (the last coming in 2012), while the Tide have one title to their name (in 1981). Alabama averages 34.1 points per game, while Clemson is notching 38.5 per tilt. The Tide is allowing 14.4 points per game, while Clemson concedes 20.2ppg.

That is the tale of the tape, save to say that the essence of the title game will come down to whether Alabama defends QB Deshaun Watson better than Clemson defends Alabama running back Derrick Henry.

Statistically, Clemson has managed to move the ball better, winning the average rushing yards per game (228.6 to Alabama’s 204.4) and passing yards per game (283.4 to 219.4), but Alabama’s scoring defense is ranked No.1, while Clemson sits at No.16.

Clemson has the advantage at the QB position. Watson is the single-season leader for total offense (4,731 yards) after his 332 yards of total offense in Clemson’s 37-17 win over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.

Derrick Henry.jpg
Derrick  Henry: Heisman Trophy hero

Alabama’s Jake Coker has improved in his last 10 games, with nine touchdowns. He has completed 73 per cent of his passes for 1,703 yards in that span. But he is not the same force at the Tigers’ triggerman.

Yet it is the Alabama defense that stands out. They are perhaps the best unit that Nick Saban has produced, sparked by the defensive line, which gives very little away.

Potentially, six of their front seven will go on to produce at the professional level. Jonathan Allen, A’Shawn Robinson, Reggie Ragland, Rueben Foster and DeShawn Hand are all possible first-round draft picks. As a unit, the linebackers are not far behind.

Calvin Ridley.jpg
Calvin Ridley: Prime target

Alabama’s secondary is often talked about as the weak link, but they still rank No.4 in the nation in passing efficiency. They have more interceptions and have given up less touchdowns than Clemson, however.

So it seems that Clemson’s running game is going to be tested. Wayne Gallman has gone under the radar thanks to Watson’s heroics, but he is their rushing leader, with 1,482 yards. He compiled 150 yards against Oklahoma.

Their receivers are also going to be challenged. Charone Peak and Artaivis Scott were reliable targets, but Watson will miss Deon Cain who is suspended for the title game for violating team rules.

Tight end Jordan Leggett could be the main outlet and he has the ability to get open.

Yet Alabama’s one-two punch is exceptional: receiver Calvin Ridley may be a true freshman, but he has 1,031 yards in 14 games, while the Tide’s young offensive line should be good enough to open holes for exceptional running back and Heisman Trophy winner Henry.

It has been an exceptional season for the Tigers in the ACC, but we feel the only thing that will stop Alabama is Alabama themselves.

VERDICT: CLEMSON 24 ALABAMA 37

BEST BET: ALABAMA -6.5 @ 1.85

SPORTING BET: ALABAMA WIN BY OVER 12 POINTS @ 2.70

Odds and handicap lines are subject to change. You must be 18+ to bet.

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NFL WILDCARD WEEKEND – MCB betting guide

The New York Jets flunked in their final game of the regular season and the Pittsburgh Steelers stole in through the back door. But can they take advantage of their good fortune?

After another winning season against the handicap, MyClubBetting handicapper and Lindy’s Sports UK Editor Simon Milham takes a look at the betting trends and some of the best bets ahead of Wildcard weekend.

The odds are correct at the time of writing and are available on your club’s betting service.

(Handicap is denoted by +/- for the home team)

KANSAS CITY at HOUSTON

(+3.5, Total Points 41.5)

Houston won the AFC South almost by default with a 9-7 record, while Kansas City rode a 10-game winning streak, having started 1-5, to finish runner-up to Denver in the AFC West.

Travis Kelce.jpg
Big threat: TE Travis Kelce

The Chiefs’ sole win in their first six games came at Houston, as they built a big lead before holding off the Texans 27-20 in Week 1, with quarterback Alex Smith tossing three touchdowns in a 22-of-33, 243-yards afternoon.

That has been a theme of their season – getting out to big leads and grinding out victory on the ground with Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware.

The pass rush – and the respective ability to protect the passer – is one of the more fascinating battles to keep an eye on. Houston have JJ Watt, while Kansas City may have Justin Houston back after missing the last five games with a knee injury.

While the Chiefs have relied, with great success it must be said, on a re-jigged offensive line, Houston has been weakened with the loss of left tackle Duane Brown, who tore a quad muscle in the regular-season finale.

The Chiefs should get plenty of joy on the ground, particularly running up the gut. West is an elusive runner who can get tough yards. Houston know they must do a better job of shoring up the middle of the line, where they are giving up 3.72 yards a carry, according to FootballOutsiders.com.

The Texans’ defense also does not match up well against quick-passing screen plays and slants, and that will play into Smith’s hands. He may not have a big arm, but he is careful with the ball and the Chiefs should have space on the perimeter.

Those looking for a cheeky anytime touchdown scorer at a big price might like to consider Chris Conley. The first-year receiver out of Georgia has one score in five starts, but had six catches for 63 yards and a score when the Chiefs snapped their five-game losing streak in a 23-13 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. While he is the future, tight end Travis Kelce looks a fair bet to score a touchdown. At 6ft 5in, the third-year man out of Cincinnati is a big target in the red zone.

We see the Chiefs continuing their winning streak and they should be able to cover the handicap.

VERDICT: KANSAS CITY 24 HOUSTON 16

BEST BET: KANSAS CITY -2.5 @ 1.67

SPORTING BET: UNDER 41.5 POINTS @ 1.75

PITTSBURGH at CINCINNATI

(+0.5, Total Points 46.5)

Pittsburgh were fortunate to make the playoff party but they are one of the most dangerous sides in the AFC, with arguably the most explosive offense.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Pittsburgh Steelers
Plenty on his shoulders: Ben Roethlisberger

While quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s strengths are well documented, the Steelers, who have won eight of their last nine trips to the home of their NFC North rival, have a major problem with balance. It seems likely that veteran running back DeAngelo Williams, who has filled in admirably for Le’Veon Bell since Week 8, will miss the game with a foot injury.

That means Mike Tomlin with build his gameplan around Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman. The worry is that while Todman can provide protection in the passing game, he is not a patch on Williams, whose blocking skills are vastly underrated.

Cincinnati, who win the division with a 12-4 record, beat the Steelers 16-10 on the road in November, but lost their home tilt 33-20 on December 13, a game in which they lost starting quarterback Andy Dalton with a broke thumb.

Dalton has not played since but may well be available for the wildcard clash. However, it is expected that AJ McCarron, who has filled in adequately, will start. There is plenty on his shoulders, but what we like about this match-up is the Bengals’ ability to take advantage of the Steelers’ major weakness: defending tight ends.

In their first meeting, before Dalton’s injury, they spread the field, forced the Steelers to respect the deep ball and punished them for it over the middle. Tyler Eifert could have a big night if the Bengals can get AJ Green involved early and often.

However, bettors must be concerned if backing the Bengals, as McCarron does not inspire confidence – the Bengals have not looked the same early-season force since Dalton went down. They are also 0-6 in the playoffs since 1995 and have not won a post-season game since January 6, 1991.

Pittsburgh may be one-dimensional in attack, but as long as Roethlisberger is flinging he ball to receiver Antonio Brown, the Steelers will always be in with a chance. Brown, with 136 catches and 1,834 yards has to be in the running for the League MVP award.

Still, despite their excellent record in the Queen City, without a running game, they may not be able to close out the game and the Bengals may make a few crucial stops and progress to the Divisional round.

VERDICT: PITTSBURGH 17 CINCINNATI 27

BEST BET: CINCINNATI +0.5 @ 2.15

SPORTING BET: CINCINNATI WIN BY 7-12 POINTS @ 7.00

SEATTLE at MINNESOTA

(+4.5, Total Points 40.5)

Minnesota won the last of the church raffle prizes by beating Green Bay to take the NFC North division.Their reward is a clash against the NFC champion Seattle Seahawks, who are the team nobody wanted to face. While the Vikings have a home game, the Packers appear to have the easier task when they travel to Washington.

Harrison Smith
Key component: Harrison Smith

Minnesota’s 20-13 win at Lambeau Field was their first in seven visits, their first since last winning the division in 2009.

Two years ago, Minnesota went 5-10-1, but they have been rejuvenated under first-year coach Mike Zimmer and have been aided by a stifling defense and a soft schedule – their win over the Packers was just their second in six games against teams with a winning record.

Vikings’ quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has won nine of his 11 starts at home, but the Vikings offense is all about running back Adrian Peterson, who led the NFL in rushing with 1,485 yards and was named to his seventh Pro Bowl. The running back sustained a lower back injury against the Packers, but is still expected to start.

They have also got great production out of receiver Stefon Diggs, who led NFC rookies with 720 receiving yards and ranked second with 52 catches.

Seattle have already gone to Minnesota and beaten them once this season, inflicting a 38-7 victory upon them on December 6.

The Seahawks made a statement last week at Arizona, winning 36-6, with quarterback Russell Wilson passing for 274 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran in a score. They also got a boost from the running game with rookie Thomas Rawls rumbling for 101 yards and a TD.

The Seahawks aim to reach the Super Bowl for the third consecutive season and have beaten the Vikings in their past three meetings, outscoring them 109-47.

The difference this time round is the Vikings are a lot healthier. This young team played with youth Joseph in the first meeting and lost two other key players, safety Harrison Smith and linebacker Anthony Barr to injuries early on. Wilson finished 21-of-27 passing for 274 yards and three TDs. He has posted a 120-passer-rating in six of the last seven games (the exception coming against St Louis) and is looking just as effective within the pocket as he is scrambling outside of it.

Is revenge in the air? It is rare that a team which had lost by 30 points or more to a non-division opponent in the regular season served up a victory against that same team in the playoffs. The last time it happened was in 1993 – Kansas City lost 30-0 to Houston during the regular season and then beat them 28-20 in the playoffs.

The Seahawks have the propensity to throw in a bad game – usually against St Louis, who are their kryptonite – but we don’t see the Vikings having enough offensive pop to keep pace, especially with Peterson not 100 per cent and with top running back Marshawn Lynch returning for the Seahawks.

It could be much closer than anticipated, however, and the Vikings’ defense should be much better equipped to handle the occasion in what could be an unusually low-scoring encounter in very cold conditions.

VERDICT: SEATTLE 17 MINNESOTA 13

BEST BET: MINNESOTA +4.5 @ 1.83

SPORTING BET: SEATTLE TO WIN BY 1-6 POINTS @ 3.50

GREEN BAY at WASHINGTON

(-0.5, Total Points 45.5)

Marbles. We lost a few a while back. But Aaron Rodgers was only talking marbles when discussing the Green Bay Packers’ putrid offensive output over the last eight weeks.

eddie lacy2
Packers need to run: Eddie Lacy

The star quarterback, who has averaged under 300 yard passing in the last three weeks, said: “I have confidence in those guys and myself that, when it matters for all the marbles, we’re going to show up.”

The Packers, coming off a home loss to the Minnesota Vikings which cost them the NFC North title, may have decided it was better to face Washington’s 28th-ranked defense than to play a home game against Seattle’s 2nd-ranked defense in yards allowed (they are 1st in points allowed). That seems a sensible move.

The only time they could face the Seahawks would be in the NFC Championship game – and that would be at Lambeau.

The Packers’ ground game has been skittish, with Eddie Lacy and James Starks being given sporadic roles. The lack of direction and inconsistency is troubling, and had Rodgers and company been firing as they have in seasons past, they certainly would not be underdogs going to Washington.

Losing WR Jordy Nelson to injury means they have not been able to stretch the field and loading up against the run means opponents can make the Packers look one-dimensional, much like the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In fairness, their season has seen them win 10 games, lost four on the last play of the game and they have been beaten by the AFC’s No.1 seed Denver. It is worth noting that the last time the Packers’ defense outplayed its offense, they went on to win Super Bowl XLV.

The Redskins have played much better in the second half of the season than their fans could have imagined. The NFC East champions have run the ball effectively and, with Kirk Cousins tossing 19 TDs to two interceptions since Week 10, they are getting far more production out of the quarterback than they dared hope.

The Packers have won five of the last six meetings but have lost on five of their last six trips to Washington. On the flip side, the Redskins have played three teams with a winning record in 2015 and lost all three. They have been outscored 105-46 in those contests.

We think Washington’s tight end Jordan Reed is going to have a leading role to play. He has five TDS in the last four games. Still, if he and running back Alfred Morris, who had 107 yards against the Packers in their last meeting, can be limited, Rodgers may not lose his marbles and keep the Packers on track for the Divisional round.

VERDICT: GREEN BAY 27 WASHINGTON 23

BEST BET: GREEN BAY +0.5 @ 1.85

SPORTING BET: OVER 46.5 POINTS

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NFL PICK SIX – Week 17 betting guide

The final week of the 2015/16 regular season is upon us and with Denver beating Cincinnati on Monday night, there is just one wildcard spot still up for grabs. The New York Jets will take that remaining sport if they beat Buffalo. Pittsburgh need to win at Cleveland and hope the Bills do them a favour if they are to take the final AFC post-season berth.

MyClubBetting handicapper and Lindy’s Sports UK Editor Simon Milham takes a look at the betting trends and some of the best bets ahead of Week 17.

The odds are correct at the time of writing and are available on your club’s betting service.

(Handicap is denoted by +/- for the home team)

NEW YORK JETS at BUFFALO

(PK, Total Points 42.5)

Buffalo confirmed earlier this week that former New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan will be back next season, despite a disappointing campaign.

Rex Ryan
Playing the spoiler: Rex Ryan

Ryan would like nothing more than to keep the Jets from making the playoffs, having put themselves in pole position with an unlikely and fortuitous overtime win against AFC East division winners New England.

Cynics would say that Bill Belichick’s decision to concede possession upon winning the toss before overtime was not so much miscalculated as incredibly calculated – the Pittsburgh Steelers would arguably be a more formidable foe in the playoffs than would the Jets.

Regardless, this is a game in which the Jets have the capacity to choke. The Bills have won five of the last six meetings, including the last four. Yet Gang Green has not lost five consecutive meetings dropping six between 1995 and 1997. Furthermore, the Bills have not won four consecutive meetings at home for 25 years.

This will be the biggest game in Jets’ QB Ryan Fitzpatrick’s career and it ironically comes against the team who released him after four years in 2012. A win sees the Jets return to the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

Can the Jets extend their five-game winning streak? In that span, Fitzpatrick had a 13-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio. Can he extend that?

In the week 10 22-17 loss to Buffalo at MetLife Stadium, he tossed two interceptions and completed only 15 of 34 passes for 194 yards.

While it would be typical of the Jets to go limp at the wrong time, the Bills have nothing to play for and even Ryan’s pride may not be enough to see them record a season sweep.

VERDICT: NY JETS 27 BUFFALO 14

BEST BET: NY JETS TO WIN @ 1.70

PITTSBURGH at CLEVELAND

(+11.5, Total Points 47.5)

Want to know why Pittsburgh are looking in from outside? Ryan Mallett just threw on that defense for 274 yards and a touchdown last week (cue gulping/head shaking/rolling eyes/all three).

Austin Davis.jpg
Better option: Austin Davis is next man up

After losing to the sad-sack Baltimore Ravens for the second time this season, the Steelers get a chance to stop Austin Davis this week, as Johnny Manziel is ruled out with concussion for the 3-12 Cleveland Browns.

This is a bad thing for Pittsburgh, as we started at the start of the season that Davis was the best QB on the Cleveland roster. It is a wonder that he has had to sit on the bench for so long.

There is plenty on the line for Mike Tomlin’s team. They need to win and hope that the Bills beat the Jets – something they have already done this season – to grab the remaining wildcard.

Pittsburgh’s play-calling left a bit to be desired last week, with Ben Roethlisberger handing off the ball for the first six plays and he did not look himself. He found no rhythm and when he did try and make big plays downfield, they were forced. Patience will be key and the Steelers will need to take what they are given, as the Browns will attempt to keep everything in front of them and be determined not to let Antionio Brown’s speed beat them deep.

It all starts up front and the Steelers’ secondary is vulnerable because they don’t have a great pass rush. Keep an eye on Cleveland TE Gary Barnidge and receiver Travis Benjamin, who may be able to take advantage of a soft underbelly.

Cleveland have nothing but pride to play for, although they hung tough against Kansas City last week. The handicap is a large one and we side with the Browns to keep things interesting.

VERDICT: PITTSBURGH 27 CLEVELAND 20

BEST BET: CLEVELAND +11.5 @ 1.75

NEW ENGLAND at MIAMI

(+8.5, Total Points 46.5)

The Miami Dolphins’ biggest weakness this season has been the same as it has been for the past few years – they have failed to fix their lack of depth on the offensive line.

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Ryan Tannehill: Not about to prove us wrong any time soon

And while you won’t hear it from some pundits, we tell it like it is: Ryan Tannehill is not a franchise quarterback. He will get something of a pass again this season owing to the O-line issues, yet while his toughness is not in question, his accuracy, lack of a deep ball and questionable leadership skills continue to dog the Dolphins, who need to move on quickly. The upcoming draft is quarterback-rich, for a change.

The Patriots will also have to move on from Tom Brady sooner rather than later, but they are on course to defend their Super Bowl crown with the elite QB at the helm.

Bill Belichick’s team has suffered several significant injuries at the receiver position and while they may rest a few key men for the playoffs, they have not lost on three consecutive trips to Miami.

Having been embarrassed by the Jets in overtime, the Patriots should be in the mood to cover the handicap, no matter how many scrubs play in the final quarter.

VERDICT: NEW ENGLAND 31 MIAMI 13

BEST BET: NEW ENGLAND -8.5 @ 1.85

BALTIMORE at CINCINNATI

(+8.5, Total Points 46.5)

The Baltimore Ravens shocked division rivals Pittsburgh last week yet it is questionable that they will be able to topple the NFC North champion Bengals.

AJ McCarron.jpg
Sprained wrist: AJ McCarron

The Ravens, who have lost five of the last six meetings (including the last four), will be out to avoid an unprecedented fourth consecutive loss at Cincinnati. The handicap is a large one, particularly when you consider that while the Bengals can earn a first-round bye with a win and a Broncos loss to the Chargers, the latter is unlikely and it may be more advisable to rest a few starters before the playoffs. The Bengals can secure a bye with a loss, if Denver falls to san Diego and the Kansas City Chiefs beat Oakland.

The Ravens have only lost by more than eight points in four of their last 19 trips to Cincinnati (where they are 7-12), who play back-up QB AJ McCarron. So, they are been beaten by a one-score loss in Cincinnati just 21.05% of the time.

Second-year signal-caller McCarron is also set to start, despite spraining his left wrist against the Broncos.

The problem with bad teams is that they will play well one week, then slump back to what they really are next – and Baltimore’s record is 5-10.

The Bengals could roll – the incentive is certainly there – but this could be a tense game for the hosts and while they should prevail, we feel that the Ravens are a prideful group and are just the sort of team to play hard when there is little on the line.

VERDICT: BALTIMORE 17 CINCINNATI 24

BEST BET: BALTIMORE +8.5 @ 1.85

NEW ORLEANS at ATLANTA

(-4.5, Total Points 53.5)

There should be a few points in this largely meaningless NFC South battle, with no playoff hopes on the line. The Saints, who have not lost on consecutive trips to Atlanta since 2004 and 2005, seek their second season-sweep over the Falcons in three years.

Devonta Freeman.jpg
Superb season: Devonta Freeman

They may also been buoyed by the news that head coach Sean Payton and QB Drew Brees will return next season. Time will tell.

Falcons have won three of the last 10 meetings overall (two of those coming at home) and will fancy their chances of WR Julio Jones consistently beating Delvin Breaux, particularly when he lines up in the slot. Jones leads the NFL with 127 catches and 1,722 receiving yards, with eight touchdowns.

The Saints also don’t defend the run well at all. Opposing running backs are averaging 5.0 yards per tilt and they are vulnerable against screen passes – something that Atlanta excels with, utilising Devonta Freeman to great effect.

Atlanta QB Matt Ryan has thrown seven touchdown passes to one interception in five career home games against the Saints, who are conceding 30 points per game. He should get plenty of yards against this sieve-like New Orleans defense.

The Saints are 2-5 on the road, but the Georgia Dome is a home away from home and Brees has had some of his best games against the Falcons, who are conceding an average of 21.7 points per game and a middle-of-the-pack 344.8 yards per game.

We are chancing the Falcons’ better balanced attack to win the day, although this could develop into a shoot-out and you can never rule out Brees.

VERDICT: NEW ORLEANS 27 ATLANTA 33

BEST BET: ATLANTA -4.5 @ 1.80 

MINNESOTA at GREEN BAY

(-3.5, Total Points 47.5)

Minnesota’s defense has been talked up. A LOT. The fact remains that they have ridden a soft schedule to the brink of the NFC North title: they have gone 1-4 against playoff teams this year.

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Good first season in charge: Mike Zimmer

A win at Lambeau Field – which has happened just once since 2005 (in November 2009) – would see them win the division. A Green Bay win, coupled with a Seattle win over Arizona, would see the Packers take on the Vikings at the same venue next week in a wildcard playoff.

The Packers are not the team that everyone was expecting to see. They have struggled badly at times and last week were walloped 38-8 on the road at Arizona.

They did managed to shut down the Vikings in Minnesota, however, and the Packers are 6-2 AS coming off a loss and 5-0-1 against the spread in their last six against the Vikings at Lambeau. They are 10-1-1 against the Vikings since 2009.

Injuries mean there is lack of speed on the Green Bay perimeter, which is causing Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers to hold onto the ball longer than he would like. As a result, he is getting sacked and making more mistakes than we are used to seeing.

The Vikings are a healthy group and Mike Zimmer’s defensive schemes have usually found ways to slow Rodgers down.

Yet we are not convinced by the Vikings’ attack. QB Teddy Bridgewater gets rattled when faced with a decent pass rush and they are too heavily reliant on running back Adrian Peterson, who is going to be 31 in March.

The Vikings have improved since their first meeting, a 30-13 win at Minnesota on Nov. 22 and this should be a much closer affair. The Packers are limping towards the playoffs, much as they did in 2010… the year they won the Super Bowl.

VERDICT: MINNESOTA 23 GREEN BAY 27

BEST BET: GREEN BAY -3.5 @ 2.00

OTHER HANDICAP PREDICTIONS

CHICAGO -1.5 over Detroit: The Lions have done a much better job of protecting Matt Stafford since their trip to London and how well they match up against the Bears’ front seven will be key to the outcome. We don’t feel the Lions have the running game to put things to bed and Jay Cutler’s last hurrah in Chicago (possibly) will be a winning one. Bears 24-20

DALLAS -5.5 over Washington: The Cowboys can still get the second pick in the NFL draft if things fall their way. As it is, they have already secured a top-eight pick. Washington are locked into their playoff spot and will likely face the Seattle Seahawks next week in the wildcard round, having already won the NFC East. Do the Redskins rest key players as they seek their first back-to-back win in Big D since 1989? We see the Cowboys winning and just about covering a lofty spread. Cowboys 20-13

JACKSONVILLE +6.5 at Houston: Plenty has to go wrong for Houston to lose the AFC South and that should not happen. They seek a fifth home victory in the last six meetings with the Jaguars. Jacksonville’s emerging passing game may well be able to keep pace, if its dreadful defense – which allowed 539 yards in a loss to New Orleans last week – can make a few stops. Blake Bortles, Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson are a combination that you are going to hear a lot more about over the next few years. Texans 31-27

INDIANAPOLIS -2.5 over Tennessee: Horrible game. Colts need a minor miracle to win the division and reach the playoffs and their 40-year-old QB Matt Hasselbeck says his injured arm will be okay. If it isn’t, you will be putting your faith in Josh Freeman, Ryan Lindley or Stephen Morris to overcome a Titans’ defense that has allowed 34 points per game in its last four outings. Actually, if it is Freeman, we probably would. Colts 23-17

PHILADELPHIA +3.5 at NEW YORK GIANTS: We have little faith in this pick. Do we bank on the Eagles playing hard for interim head coach Pat Shurmur following the dismissal of Chip Kelly? Or will the Giants put it in for under-fire head coach Tom Coughlin? Eagles have won eight of the last nine meetings on their NFC East rivals’ turf. That sways us a little. Eagles 24-21

ARIZONA -6.5 over Seattle: The Cardinals are going to the NFC Championship. That’s our view, anyway. They can secure homefield advantage through the playoffs with a win and a Carolina Panthers loss (unlikely, since they face Tampa Bay). Seattle have little to play for and will face a trip to Washington, Green Bay or Minnesota in the wildcard round next week. Seattle are having problems running the ball with Marshawn Lynch still working his way back to fitness. The Cards will blitz, Russell Wilson will be picked off a couple of times and the hosts will win. Simple. Cardinals 23-13.

CAROLINA -10.5 over Tampa Bay: The Panthers missed out on a perfect regular season when falling to the Falcons and while they should win this and secure homefield advantage for the playoffs, how long QB Cam Newton will stay in the game is the big question. Tampa should be put away early and while a garbage-time TD might blow the handicap, we’ll take that chance. Panthers 33-17

SAN DIEGO +8.5 at Denver: Chargers have not lost three consecutive trips to Denver since 2005 and the Broncos will win the AFC West title with a victory. Brock Osweiler has thrown eight TDS to three interceptions in relief of Peyton Manning, who will suit up for the first time since tearing his plantar fascia in his left foot seven weeks ago. Denver still has a shot at securing the AFC’s top seed should they win and Miami knock off New England. The Chargers are 1-6 on the road and have not won a division game, but you can bet Chargers QB Philip Rivers will be feeding off the atmosphere and there could be a momentum swing or two before the inevitable. Broncos 27-21

KANSAS CITY -5.5 over Oakland: The Chargers were written off at 1-5 with star running back Jamaal Charles injured and lost for the season, but have since gone on a nine-game winning streak and have secured a playoff berth. They can clinch the AFC West with a win and a Broncos loss. Oakland have done a great job of protecting QB Derek Carr (sacked just 25 times this season) and the future looks bright for the Raiders. Still, the Chiefs’ pass rush will probably win the day when it matters. Chiefs 23-17

SAN FRANCISCO +2.5 over St Louis: This is all about draft position for the 49ers. They have already secured a top eight spot but could go much higher if they lose to the Rams, who seek back-to-back wins in San Francisco for the first time since 2001. The Rams are playing vastly superior football to the Niners, as their win at Seattle last week indicates. This line looks more than a little squiffy. Thus, we take the hosts in the hope that the linemakers have not overdone it on New Year’s Eve and have seen something that tells us the Niners are actually better than their stats suggest. 49ers 17-14

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MCB’s COLLEGE FOOTBALL BOWL-SEASON BETS

My Club Betting handicapper and Lindy’s Sports UK Editor Simon Milham had you covered with another winning regular season. He continues his foray into the betting trends for every NCAA College Football Bowl from New Year’s Eve to January 3 in a bid to predict the winners on the handicap…

TEXAS A&M v LOUISVILLE

Music City Bowl – Thu, Dec 31 (00:00)

Louisville won seven of their last nine games after a 0-3 start and while Texas A&M started hot, they fell away towards the end of the season. This is plenty about momentum and not-so-much about the better team.

Kyler Murray
Airing it out: Kyler Murray

A couple of exciting freshman quarterbacks square off in the shape of Lamar Jackson, who is the Cardinals’ leading rusher, and the Aggies’ Kyler Murray, who is expected to air it out to a well-coached receiving corps.

Can Jackson, who had 734 yards on the ground, be effective against an athletic Aggies’ front? He will be on the move a lot and we take the Aggies to win in a relatively low-scoring game.

VERDICT: TEXAS A&M +1.5

USC v WISCONSIN

Holiday Bowl – Thu, Dec 31 (03:30)

Wisconsin’s defense under first-year head coach Paul Chryst was one of the best in the nation. They allowed an average of just 13.1 points per game and limited opponents to 97.9 yards per tilt on the ground.

Joe Schobert.jpg
Joe Schobert: Pass rushing force

They possess an elite inside linebacker in T.J. Edwards and their pass rush is strong, with Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel accumulating 17.5 of the Badgers’ 26 sacks this season.

That is a worrying problem for USC, whose offensive line was the third-worst in the Pac-12, allowing 35 sacks in 13 games. There is no question that QB Cody Kessler is going to be under fire.

Still, the Badgers lack offensive punch and they may have to lean on their defense to keep things interesting. USC have limited opponents to 147.2 rushing yards per game and Wisconsin’s backfield duo of Taiwan Deal and Dare Ogunbowale have averaged better than four yards per carry.

USC outside linebacker Su’a Cravens, who will enter the NFL draft after this game, will keep senior QB Joel Stave under pressure and while the passer has completed 60.4 percent of his passes, his 10-11 touchdown to interception ratio shows the Badgers’ offensive limitations.

We like USC to extend its six-game winning streak over Wisconsin, who were 4-0 away from home this term.

VERDICT: USC -3

HOUSTON v FLORIDA STATE

Peach Bowl – Thu, Dec 31 (17:00)

FSU is playing in its 34th consecutive bowl game but for the first time in three years is not playing for a national title (beaten by Oregon in the College Football Playoff semi-final at the Rose Bowl 59-20 last season). That ended a streak of six straight bowl wins for the Seminoles.

Greg Ward Jr.jpg
High-powered attack: Greg Ward Jr

The Houston Cougars won the AAC and advance to their biggest bowl game since losing to Boston College in the 1995 Cotton Bowl. The Cougars relied on their high-powered offense to reach a 12-1 summit this term, averaging over 40 points a game and scoring 50 or more points four times. Their sole loss came to UConn (20-17).

QB Greg Ward Jr is not the biggest at 5-foot-11, but he completed 68 percent of his passes for 2,590 yards and 16 touchdowns, but his ability with his legs stood out, running in another 19 scores. He led the Cougars’ rushing attack that averages 240 yards per game.

FSU knew there would be a few struggles in trying to replace Tampa Bay QB Jameis Winston and Everett Golson has been up and down. A move to Sean Maguire later in the season stabilised the Seminoles, who run the ball with purpose. Dalvin Cook averaged nearly 7.9 yards a carry and scored 19 TDs, but was somewhat surprisingly left out of Heisman Trophy calculations.

Florida State’s defense is better than advertises and the Cougars are coming up against the fastest team with the most overall talent that they have met this year. The question is whether FSU will be motivated. We take the Cougars as a fun underdog pick.

VERDICT: HOUSTON +7

OKLAHOMA v CLEMSON

Orange Bowl Bowl – Thu, Dec 31 (21:00)

This is the first of the National Championship playoff semi-finals. No.1 Clemson meets No.4 Oklahoma, who are considered 3.5-point favourites to beat the Atlantic Coast Conference winners.

Baker Mayfield
Top gun: Baker Mayfield

The Big 12 winners went 7-0 and 6-1 AST in their last seven games, putting behind them a stunning 24-17 loss to Texas as a 16.5-point favourite.

Over their last seven games, QB Baker Mayfield led an offense that piled up an average of 51.9 points per game to earn a trip to Sun Life Stadium in Miami.

Clemson were the only team in College Football to avoid defeat, their 13-0 record capped with a 45-37 win over North Carolina in the ACC Championship game.

It is perhaps worth remembering that the Tigers were 6.5-point underdogs against a much weaker Oklahoma side in last season’s Citrus Bowl, but they still thumped them 40-6.

Revenge will be in the air as they fight for the right to face Michigan State or Alabama in the National Championship game.

Clemson survived a couple of scares, just managing to hold off Louisville 20-17 and Notre Dame 24-22 in games that they needed turnovers to benefit. Oklahoma went 5-0 against ranked opponents, while Clemson went 3-0 against Top 25 teams and it is fair to say that the Sooners are a more seasoned team, particularly since many of them faced Alabama in the Sugar Bowl two years go.

The handicap line may be misleading to some, as the Tigers are legitimately the No.1 team in the nation. But head coach Dabo Swinney was forced to send home three players from Miami after failed drug tests this week, among them burgeoning star receiver Deon Cain, who scored five TDs this term.

Clemson’s defense can stop the run – they held Georgia Tech’s diverse attack to 1.69 yards per carry and have only allowed 14 rushing TDs all season. When they force opponents to throw, they can dominate. However, they have not faced a tandem like Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, who have thrived behind an emerging offensive line as the season has worn on.

The biggest issue for us is the battle in the trenches. If Clemson’s defensive line can dominate as it has throughout the season, the Tigers have a fair chance of winning. If Oklahoma manage to run the ball consistently, they should win.

We are taking a mighty chance with the underdog, but until they are beaten, they are still the top dog and are a bit of value to win outright at 2.60.

VERDICT: CLEMSON +3.5 @ 2.00

MICHIGAN STATE v ALABAMA

Cotton Bowl – Fri, Jan 1 (01:00)

With the winner going on to face either Oklahoma or Clemson in the National Championship game, Michigan State are as big as 4.50 to beat Alabama in the Cotton Bowl.

Derrick Henry.jpg
Heisman hero: Derrick Henry

The Crimson Tide are considered double-digit favourites by some firms and that is expected, since the Spartans are 2-7 in their last nine Bowl games.

They won their first six games but failed to cover the spread each time, then turned a sloppy start around with a win at Michigan on a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown.

Having allowed an average of just 10 points per game in their last four contest, the Spartans ended the season with a 17-14 win at Ohio State as a 14.5-point underdog, and then knocked off Iowa 16-13 in the Big Ten Championship game.

In contrast, Alabama are 8-1 in their last nine Bowl games and beat their last 10 opponents by an average of 21.6 points per game. Star running back Derrick Henry won the Heisman Trophy, rushing for 1,986 yards and 23 touchdowns this season, and he should prove pivotal to the outcome.

Only two opposing running backs have compiled 100 yards or more against the Spartans this season: Purdue’s Markell Jones had 157 yards on 22 carries (68 of them came on one TD run), and Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, who managed 103 yards.

Alabama have won five of their last six games against Big Ten opponents, but the SEC team have looked a dominant force in all phases and it is no wonder they are favoured to win the National Championship.

If they can run effectively, they should triumph.

However, Michigan State’s QB Connor Cook has been stellar, not necessarily in terms of numbers (he does not have the surrounding talent possessed by some other schools), but in terms of leadership and game management.

He rarely makes mistakes and can put up decent stats when healthy: and that is the issue. Cook injured his shoulder against Maryland and he managed just three TDs and 516 total yards in his last three games as a result. However, he has had almost a month to heal and he should resemble the player he was before November.

The Spartans are battle-hardened, too. They have played a tough schedule and beat four teams ranked in the top 15 (Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan and Oregon). The other three playoff teams have three wins against top 15 teams between them. Alabama does not have any.

Mark Dantonio’s Spartans should not be underestimated. They have a giant chip on their shoulder and can make this interesting.

VERDICT: MICHIGAN STATE +9.5 @ 1.92

NORTHWESTERN v TENNESSEE

Outback Bowl – Fri, Jan 1 (17:00)

We like Outback Steakhouses. It is No.1 port of call whenever we are in the States (which isn’t often enough). In this 30th edition of the Outback Bowl, if Northwestern wins, Outback Steakhouses will be giving away free coconut shrimp on Jan. 1. If Tennessee wins, there will be free Bloomin’ Onions.

Anthony walker
Top talent: Anthony Walker

Take a breath mint with you, as Tennessee, riding a five-game winning streak, are expected to win. Whether they cover the 8.5-point handicap is another matter.

The Vols (8-4) boast the second-ranked rushing attack in the SEC, with dual threat QB Joshua Dobbs adding 623 yards and nine TDs on the ground to his 2,125 passing yards and 15 touchdowns trough the air. Tailback Jalen Hurd added 1,158 rushing yards and 11 TDs.

Northwestern’s defense is decent. The Wildcats (12-2) limited opponents to 16.4 points per game, led by outstanding LB Anthony Walker, who has 113 tackles, 19.5 of them for a loss.

The Wildcats have played plenty of close games and there is no reason to think that the Vols will blow the Big Ten outfit away. We’ll still take the free Bloomin’ Onions, thank you.

VERDICT: NORTHWESTERN +8.5 @ 1.92

MICHIGAN v FLORIDA

Citrus Bowl – Fri, Jan 1 (18:00)

While they won’t finish the season as one of the nation’s big six, Michigan and Florida have had highly successful seasons under first year head coaches.

Jim Harbaugh
Overseeing a turnaround: Jim Harbaugh

Michigan’s turnaround from 5-7 a year ago to 9-3 this season (they were just a blocked punt away from having the chance to reach the National Championship playoffs), has been testament to former San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh.

Jim McElwain also did supremely well at Florida, who went 7-5 last season but only lost three times in 13 outings this year.

Points should be at a premium in the Citrus Bowl. Florida boast the eighth-ranked scoring defense, holding eight opponents to 14 points or fewer. However, they dropped off in their last two games, allowing 28 points per game to two top-10-ranked opponents.

Michigan’s defense posted three consecutive shutouts in October, including two against ranked teams. They rank 11th overall in points allowed per game (17.2) and fourth in total yards. They have been particularly good against the pass and that’s the best reason for taking on the Gators, despite the Florida ‘home-state’ advantage.

For the Gators’ attack has been pedestrian, to say the least. Treon Harris has thrown for 165 yards or fewer in five of his seven starts, while leading rusher Kelvin Taylor averages just 4.0 yards per carry.

It is hard to see how the Gators can match the Wolverines blow for blow and we take Michigan to cap a fine season with a relatively comfortable Bowl win. We would not put anyone off backing them at odds of 1.50 for the win.

VERDICT: MICHIGAN -4 @ 1.95

NOTRE DAME v OHIO STATE

Fiesta Bowl – Fri, Jan 1 (18:00)

The No.8-ranked Notre dame Fighting Irish face the No.7-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes in what promises to be an enthralling Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona, home of the NFL’s Cardinals.

Ezekiel Elliott
Stomach for a fight: Ezekiel Elliott

For much of the season, these two looked like they could face off for the National Championship playoffs.

Ohio State are the current National Champions, but they are not able to defend their title this season after losing to Michigan State in their penultimate game of the regular season. It was their only loss of the season, but it sent the Spartans to the playoffs at the Buckeyes’ expense.

Notre Dame also lost just once – a heart-breaking defeat to No.1-ranked Clemson.

Ohio State was the unanimous No.1 choice in the polls before the season began, but they had a soft schedule and paid the price for that loss to Michigan State, who were heavy underdogs and missing their first-string quarterback.

Notre Dame choked at the death. A win over Stanford in their last game would probably have been enough to earn them a spot in the playoffs, but they could not hold on to a one-point lead that they took with just 30 seconds remaining.

The Buckeyes have not delivered as expected, but they should account for Notre Dame. The ground game will be significant. Ohio State runs the ball with authority – Ezekiel Elliott has surpassed the 100-yard mark in 11 of 12 games, averaging over seven yards per carry in five games. He ran all over Michigan’s vaunted run defense to the tune of 214 yards in their last game.

His one poor game came against Michigan State, where he carried the ball 12 times for 33 yards, and got little help from the passing game.

He should have a decent afternoon against the Irish, who rank 65th against the run.

We also feel that the Buckeyes’ pass rush will have some success against inexperienced passer DeShone Kizer, who has gone 8-2 as a starter behind one of the best offensive lines in football.

Even so, Ohio State will have its hands full trying to limit elite receiver Will Fuller, but they should be able to control the clock and grind out a narrow win, although the handicap line is right where it should be.

VERDICT: NOTRE DAME +6.5 @ 1.92

STANFORD v IOWA

Rose Bowl – Fri, Jan 1 (22:00)

There is not going to be too much flash and rather more grind-it-out power-running football played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

C.J. Beathard.jpg
Big arm: C. J. Beathard

For the Stanford Cardinal and Iowa Hawkeyes, while not exactly mirror images of themselves, certainly have more than a passing resemblance in style. Or should that be a ‘running’ resemblance?

Full-backs and tight ends are not going to be bench-warmers and smash-mouth football is not something that the Cardinal often see in the pass-happy, finesse-fuelled Pac-12.

Iowa will commit to the run and they will stay committed to it. It is one of the reasons they rank 89th in the nation in passing, but don’t be fooled: QB C.J. Beathard has a decent arm and has good mobility.

He is just as likely to hit a 50-yard bomb off of play-action as he is to avoid the rush and keep the chains moving with his legs. It is a heavy pro-style attack, involving running out of zone-blocking looks to set up the play-action passing game.

Lane discipline is going to be vitally important if Stanford are to get their offense onto the field, as their pass defense is vulnerable and Beathard, while not prolific, is accurate, completing 61.4 per cent of his passes and was at his best against the two best defences Iowa faced (Pittsburgh and Michigan State).

Iowa lost just once in a surprising season, which saw them record their first 12-0 start in school history. Yet their schedule – which was largely out of their hands – was a soft one. The avoided games against Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State or Michigan State.

The key match-up is likely to be how well Iowa’s ninth-ranked rushing defense stacks up against Stanford’s no.18-ranked rushing attack.

Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey is going to cause plenty of problems for the Iowa defense, who were worn down late against Michigan State, and if the Cardinal can pick up some big gains on early downs, then it could get problematic for Iowa. McCaffrey has an ability to break big plays in the passing game and Iowa’s linebackers lack closing speed.

Special teams could be a factor as well: Iowa has not covered kick returns well all year (ranking 106th), and in a game of field position, this could be crucial.

We take Stanford to break it open in the fourth quarter.

VERDICT: STANFORD -4 @ 1.67

OKLAHOMA STATE v MISSISSIPPI

Sugar Bowl – Sat, Jan 2 (01:30)

Oklahoma State earned 10 wins for the fourth time in six season, but this year’s team will be remembered as the comeback kids.

Mason Rudolph.jpg
Growing in stature: Mason Rudolph

For they have erased a deficit of 15 points or more three times to win and are 4-0 in games decided by one score this term. They Cowboys are 7-0 in their last seven games decided by a single score.

Oklahoma State has won 12 of its last 14 games and has scored at least 30 points in 10 of its last 11 games, employing a two quarter-back system with Mason Rudolph (3,591 yards) and J. W. Walsh (who has accounted for 18 TDs in the last seven games).

The Cowboys have won four of their last five Bowl games and are 10-2 against in their last 12 games against current members of the Southeastern Conference.

Ole Miss are 6.5-point favourites despite the loss of dominant defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, an All-American junior who was projected as a top-five NFL Draft pick before being suspended and charged with Marijuana possession.

The OSU offensive line is still going to face a stiff challenge, however thinly their line is stretched at this point. They arguably played their best game when Nkemdiche was ruled out – against Texas A&M – although much of the defensive strategy runs through him. He attracts a lot of attention, even though big plays have been limited.

Arguably a bigger miss for Ole Miss is that of Fadol Brown, who can play end or tackle. Losing both is a big blow.

Teams that have managed to protect their QB sufficiently have had success against the Rebels’ secondary this season and the cornerback play has not been a strong as was anticipated in the spring, yet with a month off, the defensive line has had time to heal and could still dominate.

OSU’s defense has forced 13 turnovers in the last six games and 27 turnovers in total. Again, that is another component worth looking at.

This is a tough call, but while Ole Miss has the overall NFL-level depth, their defense is not good at stopping yards after the catch (13th in the SEC). If OSU can get the ball out quickly and stretch the field, the Rebels might have a fight on their hands.

VERDICT: OKLAHOMA STATE +7.5 @ 1.83

PENN STATE v GEORGIA

TaxSlayer Bowl – Sat, Jan 2 (17:00)

Georgia lost head coach Mark Richt to Miami after falling sort of the SEC title game and they quickly replaced him with Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. He will stay with the Crimson Tide for the remainder of the season, so receivers coach Bryan McClendon will be the interim coach.

Grayson Lambert
Grayson Lambert: Efficient

Due to other coaching changes, they Bulldogs will be playing in the bowl game without the offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach that it finished the regular season with.

QB Grayson Lambert was efficient, completing 64.4 per cent of his passes for 1844 yards and 11 TDs, but it is on ground game where they dominated, averaging 194.3 yards per game.

Defensively, the Bulldogs were solid. They yielded only 16.9 points per game on average and conceded less than 299 yards per game.

Penn State started strongly before falling away to a mark of 7-5 and head coach James Franklin fired offensive coordinator John Donovan after they finished the regular season as one of the worst attacks for the second successive year.

QB Christian Hackenberg was efficient, tossing 16 TDs to five interceptions, but his play dropped off and while he was once thought of as a high NFL draft pick, it will now be interesting to see who will take a chance on him.

We feel the Nittany Lions’ inability to block sufficiently for Hackenberg will come back to haunt them, despite the coaching uncertainty at Georgia. The Bulldogs defense should lead the way, but we would not want to get too involved.

VERDICT: GEORGIA -6.5 @ 1.91

KANSAS STATE v ARKANSAS

Liberty Bowl – Sat, Jan 2 (20:20)

Size matters. Arkansas boast one of the biggest offensive lines in the nation – and that includes NFL teams.

Brandon Allen.JPG
Underrated: Brandon Allen

That is going to be a problem for the Wildcats. Almost every offensive line in the Big 12 sports a size advantage over them and while they have managed to be a force against the run, the Razorbacks have mustered an average of 456 yards per game this season, with 192 coming on the ground.

It has been a tumultuous season for Arkansas. They started with losses to Toledo and Texas Tech, before a four-OT thriller against Auburn gave them some much-needed confidence. They beat 19th-ranked Ole Miss 53-52 in OT and a week later trounced ninth-ranked LSU 31-14.

While Kansas State plays in the pass-happy Big 12, only Kansas, a 0-12 team that lost to FCS South Dakota State, finished with a worse passing defense than the Wildcats. Kansas State finished 120th of 128 teams in the FBS in yards per game and gave up 24 TDs while getting just four interceptions.

Arkansas is 121st. The Razorbacks have a superior TD to INT ratio (17 to 10), but gave up 300 yards or more five times, including a 508-yard shellacking by Mississippi State. Neither team’s defense can be confused with Georgia’s.

The nub is this: Arkansas QB Brandon Allen led the SEC in touchdowns, was second in the nation in Total Quarterback Rating, completed 65 per cent of his passes and had the second best touchdown to interception ratio in the SEC (29 to seven).

While the Arkansas defense is similarly weak, it is not likely that junior K-State passer Joe Hubener will be able to keep pace with the Razorbacks. They are a near two-touchdown favourite for a good reason.

VERDICT: ARKANSAS -12.5 @ 1.91

OREGON v TCU

Alamo Bowl – Sat, Jan 2 (23:45)

Following the return of QB Vernon Adams from injury, Oregon ended the year on a six-game winning streak, having dropped three of their previous five outings to go 9-3. Their very good defensive line masks an horrific secondary and that is going to be a major problem against a diverse TCU attack.

Vernon Adams.jpg
Sparked revival: Vernon Adams

While TCU receiver Josh Doctson is ruled out with a wrist injury, the Horned Frogs will still fancy their chances of covering a small spread. QB Trevone Boykin (2,928 yards) can hurt the Ducks with his legs (524 yards on the ground), but is still likely to target Kolby Listenbee and KaVontae Turpin with regularity.

Oregon will have to outscore TCU to win and they have the capability to do just that. Over the last five games, they have averaged 48.6 points per game and beat Stanford, USC and Arizona State.

They have a top-class running back in Royce Freeman (1,706 yards, 16 total touchdowns) and have speed across the board.

TCU’s talented offensive line was hit by injuries and suspensions down the stretch. The secondary also struggled due to injury, but with five weeks to recover, it will be interesting to see how often they will blitz and leave their defensive backs – who are used to man-to-man coverage – in isolation.

The key stats are perhaps these: Oregon is 109th in the nation at keeping its QB upright (sacks allowed), while TCU’s rushing defense ranks 80th in the nation in yards per game and 66th in yards per rush at 4.3.

This is a game to savour and we take TCU to win it in a shoot-out. Call us quackers, but we simply don’t like that Ducks secondary.

VERDICT: TCU -1 @ 2.00

WEST VIRGINIA v ARIZONA STATE

Cactus Bowl – Sun, Jan 3 (03:15)

This is another prickly pick ’em Bowl game between two teams that each had loftier aspirations.

Dana Holgorsen.jpg
Lucky to survive: Dana Holgorsen

West Virginia went 7-5, going 0-4 against ranked opponents and claiming its best victory over Texas A&M. Head coach Dana Holgorsen somehow survived a fourth season in which is teams have gone 25-25.  Yet the Mountaineers have the chance to gain their first eight-win season and a Bowl victory since 2011.

Arizona State Sun Devils fared well below expectations. Their 6-6 record in sharp contrast to 10-win seasons over the previous two campaigns. The Devils opened up with a loss to Texas A&M and largely struggled against better opposition. They only became Bowl eligible (six wins) on November 21.

The Sun Devils have given up 30 touchdown passes and are missing their leader in the secondary, safety Jordan Simone. While they have done a fair job against the run, they may have to sell out to stop the Mountaineers’ talented running back Wendell Smallwood.

That should mean more chances for QB Skyler Howard, who has been plagued by inaccuracy issues, to find speedy receiver Shelton Gibson.

ASU’s QB Mike Bercovici is a little more seasoned and while West Virginia’s secondary take chances (they have picked off 23 passes), they have better balance in attack, with Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard capable of moving the chains on the ground.

Put simply, we don’t have a lot of faith in this West Virginia attack with Howard struggling for form and take the Sun Devils with a small spread.

VERDICT: ARIZONA STATE +1 @ 1.92

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NFL PICK SIX – Week 16 betting guide

Who will make the playoffs? With two weeks of the regular season to go, there are plenty of questions that remain unanswered.

Last week, the Carolina Panthers defeated the New York Giants 38-35 to improve to 14-0 for the first time in franchise history. The Panthers, who have already clinched the NFC South division title and a first-round bye, can secure homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a win.

The Panthers are the fourth team in the Super Bowl era to start a season 14-0, joining e Miami Dolphins (1972), New England Patriots (2007) and Indianapolis Colts (2009). All three of those clubs advanced to the Super Bowl, with the Dolphins winning Super Bowl VII. The 1972 Dolphins are the only team to record a ‘perfect’ unbeaten season.

Mercury Morris
Perfect: Mercury Morris and the 1972 Dolphins

MyClubBetting handicapper and Lindy’s Sports UK Editor Simon Milham takes a look at the betting trends and some of the best bets ahead of Week 16 of the 2015/16 NFL season. In the last two weeks, our handicap selections have gone 21-10-1.

The odds are correct at the time of writing and are available on your club’s betting service.

(Handicap is denoted by +/- for the home team)

SAN DIEGO at OAKLAND

(-5.5, Total Points 47.5)

Neither team can make the playoffs, so this is effectively a dead rubber in the early hours of Christmas Day (01:25) UK time.

The Chargers (4-6) may well have played their last game in San Diego as a potential move to Los Angeles has been mooted. At least they signed off in style, defeating perennial underachievers Miami 30-14 in San Diego on Sunday.

Philip Rivers 2
Great season: Philip Rivers

Philip Rivers has had a strong season and he completed 26 of 36 passes for 311 yards with three touchdowns. He ranks second in the NFL in passing yards (4,287) and eclipsed 4,000 yards for the seventh time in his career.

Rivers is 14-5 as a starter against the Raiders, who fell to 6-8 after losing 30-20 at home to the Green Bay Packers.

The Raiders have been inconsistent, but QB Derek Carr has been a bright spot. He passed for 276 yards against the Packers and two TDs, giving him 30 for the year. He, along with Daryle Lamonica, are the only Raiders to reach the 30 TD barrier in a season.

Rookie receiver Amari Cooper had six receptions for 120 yards against the Packers and two touchdowns. He broke the 1,000-yard receiving barrier (1,040), making him the first Raiders’ rookie to do so and the first Raider since Randy Moss (1,005) in 2005 to hit that mark.

This is an awkward start to the penultimate week of the regular season. The Chargers have won six of the last eight meetings and nine of the last 11 in Oakland. They have not been swept by the Raiders since 2010.

Both teams stack up evenly as far as the stats go and, despite their record, San Diego has hung tough against some decent teams since their bye week.

Oakland has improved their run defense markedly and they have a decent nucleus of a top-level attack. There is no question that the Raiders are rising and we take them, albeit tentatively, to cover the number.

VERDICT: SAN DIEGO 17 OAKLAND 27

BEST BET: OAKLAND -5 @ 1.91

WASHINGTON at PHILADELPHIA

(-4.5, Total Points 47.5)

After winning on the road and posting back-to-back wins for the first time this season, the Washington Redskins can clinch the NFC east title by beating the Eagles (6-7), yet they are 4.5-point underdogs.

Matt Jones
Injury doubt: Matt Jones

In truth, the Redskins (7-7) are winning the division by default. They were the only team in the NFC East to win last weekend, outlasting the Buffalo Bills, despite giving up 452 total yards.

Washington has a couple of injuries along the offensive line, which is a concern. Tackle Morgan Moses could be ruled out with an ankle injury and Ty Nsekhe could fill in, while back-up center Josh LeRibeus, who has filled in for Kory Lichtensteiger, is similarly hampered. Brian de la Puente is expected to replace him.

Running back Matt Jones, who has been effective catching the ball out of the backfield, is also a doubt with a hip injury.

This could negate any advantage Washington may have had. The Eagles boast the 30th-ranked run defense and the Redskins have run the ball over 100 yards in each of the past four weeks.

The onus will be on Redskins QB Kirk Cousins to keep the chains moving, but Washington’s inability to win on the road is a concern, as is Cousins’ penchant to tossing interceptions – he has had at least one in his last 12 road games.

Still, Philadelphia’s inability to tackle effectively – they give up on average 123 yards per run after the catch – and their offense, which has been held to under 20 points in four of the last six games, means this could be a nail-biter.

Washington should not be such heavy underdogs. The reason they are leads us to think that Philadelphia should keep the NFC East title in the balance until the final week of the season.

VERDICT: WASHINGTON 17 PHILADELPHIA 23

BEST BET: PHILADELPHIA -4.5 @ 1.91 

CAROLINA at ATLANTA

(+6.5, Total Points 48.5)

Atlanta’s offense has been stagnant since Week 5. They have eclipsed 21 points just once since then, scoring 23 points in a win at Jacksonville last weekend.

Jonathan Stewart
Fantasy option: Jonathan Stewart

Thumped 38-0 by unbeaten Carolina just two weeks ago in Charlotte, they are less than a touchdown underdog for the return at the Georgia Dome, where they have won on each of their last two visits. The Panthers seek a third successive victory there for only the second time in the series’ history.

The Panthers have won five of the last six meetings and have wrapped up the NFC South with two weeks to go. A win – or an Arizona loss to Green Bay – will see them lock down homefield advantage for the playoffs. The Falcons remain alive in the playoff race at 7-7 with New Orleans to play in the finale.

Panthers QB Cam Newton leads a big-play passing attack which hums along when faced with teams who cannot get pressure up front. The Falcons are last in the league with 13 total sacks, so the Panthers’ offensive line should be able to give Newton enough time when he drops back.

However, the Falcons’ defense does create turnovers – they are fifth in the league in interceptions.

We expect the Panthers to dominate on the ground, as Atlanta’s tackling is not great (ranking 26th in missed tackles per snap), and would not put anyone off having running back Jonathan Stewart in their fantasy teams this weekend.

The line is lower than we would expect, but the Falcons have plenty still to play for and this could be a tighter battle than many anticipate. We did not like the way the Panthers took their foot off the gas last week in New York, who showed they are vulnerable to elite receivers. We are looking at you Julio Jones. Still, the Panthers should

VERDICT: CAROLINA 27 ATLANTA 21

BEST BET: ATLANTA +6.5 @ 1.91

PITTSBURGH at BALTIMORE

(+9.5, Total Points 47.5)

The Steelers are 9-5 and can clinch a playoff spot with a win and a New York Jets loss. The 4-10 Ravens are in the hunt for the first overall pick in the NFL draft after a bitterly disappointing season.

Ben Roethlisberger
Firing: Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers

Pittsburgh has lost three of its last four trips to Baltimore and four of the last five meetings overall, yet the Steelers’ offense is firing now that Ben Roethlisberger is healthy. They have put up over 30 points in each of the last six games and Big Ben is averaging over 330 passing yards per game.

Consequently, the Steelers enter this as heavy favourites, despite allowing a poor 7.7 yards per pass play average.

The reason for the big handicap line is the uncertain status at the quarterback spot. Joe Flacco tore his ACL in week 11 and was replaced by Matt Schaub, who suffered a chest injury and was then benched for Jimmy Clausen after two games.

Clausen started the last two weeks, but has gone a combined 49 of 85 pass completions for 555 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. Joe Montana he isn’t. It could be that Ryan Mallett, the former New England back-up who was cut by Houston earlier this season, makes his first start.

Pittsburgh’s record in Baltimore is not good. Their total points in the last 12 visits were: 10, 13, 13, 0, 21, 13, 17, 13, 7, 23, 20 and 6. They won just three of those games.

Can we trust them to cover such a large number against a division foe with nothing to lose? The simple answer is yes. The Ravens simply are not a good football team right now.

VERDICT: PITTSBURGH 27 BALTIMORE 13

BEST BET: PITTSBURGH -9.5 @ 1.91

NEW ENGLAND at NEW YORK JETS

(+1.5, Total Points 45.5)

The New York Jets need to win their last two AFC East division games – against New England and Buffalo – and see either the Chiefs, Steelers or Broncos lose if they are to make the playoffs as a wildcard.

Tom Brady
Seeking homefield comforts: Tom Brady

They are riding a four-game winning streak thanks, in part, to some clutch performances from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has tossed 10 TDs and one interception in that span.

Standing in their way are the Patriots, who can clinch homefield advantage with a win or a Cincinnati loss.

The banged-up Patriots, who have won eight of the last nine meetings, could well rest some starters as they bid to extend their 23-7 record over the Jets in the Tom Brady era.

But ever since the infamous Butt-fumble in 2012, games between these two have been close, decided by three, three, two, three and seven points – all Patriots wins.

Much depends on how the Patriots approach this. Still, the Super Bowl champs are unlikely to let up and we see them as one of the better bets of the weekend, regardless of what is on the line for the Jets.

VERDICT: NEW ENGLAND 23 NY JETS 17

BEST BET: NEW ENGLAND -1.5 @ 1.91 

GREEN BAY at ARIZONA

(-4.5, Total Points 50.5)

This is possibly the best game of Week 16, with the Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals already having secured respective playoff berths. The Packers lead the NFC North by one game after a 30-20 win in Oakland and can secure the title this weekend with a win and a Minnesota Vikings loss. The Packers and Vikings meet in week 17.

David Johnson
Full deck: Cards are stacked with David Johnson

The Cardinals have won a franchise 12 games and clinched the NFC West last week with a 40-17 win at Philadelphia. The Cardinals will receive a first round playoff bye with a win.

Green bay has a fair record at Arizona, only having lost back-to-back visits once since 1949 (and those losses came nine years apart).

The Packers have won their last three games and five of seven on the road, while the Cardinals are riding an eight-game winning streak and playing arguably the best football in the league right now.

Arizona suffered a blow last week when safety Tyrann Mathieu suffered a torn ACL. He led the team in passes defended (16), was tied for the most interceptions (five) and was second in solo tackles (80). So we expect the Cardinals to drop off a bit defensively.

The one thing they don’t have is a dominant pass-rusher and if given time, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers will pick any defense apart.

Yet their running game is not the best and to keep one of the best attacks on the sidelines, you need to be able to control the clock. We are not sure that the Packers can do this.

The Cardinals’ offensive line is greater than the sum of its parts, but they have a veteran quarterback in Carson Palmer who is playing some of the best football of his career and they can hit you deep off of play action.

Yet it is the running game that impresses us the most. David Johnson, a third round selection from Northern Iowa, is the real deal. In three starts, he has rushed for 378 yards at 5.4 yards per carry. He catches the ball well and is also a capable pass blocker.

We see the Packers’ defense wilting under pressure and take the Cardinals to cover a lofty number.

VERDICT: GREEN BAY 23 ARIZONA 31

BEST BET: ARIZONA -4.5 @ 1.91 

OTHER HANDICAP SELECTIONS 

DALLAS +6.5 at Buffalo: Buffalo’s playoff drought continues after their loss to Washington and their motivation will be to beat a team that beat them in back-to-back Super Bowls (1993 and 94). The Cowboys are in the hunt for the first pick in the NFL draft (Tennessee and Cleveland have the inside track) and have little motivation, but the handicap is big enough to warrant a small play. Bills 24-20

SAN FRANCISCO +9.5 at Detroit: The Lions have lost 14 of the last 15 meetings against the Niners, including four of the last five at home. Nothing rests on this game, but a play on the points total at 43 might be worth taking. We’ll go over. Lions 28-20 

KANSAS CITY -12.5 over Cleveland: The biggest handicap line of the weekend and we take the Chiefs to cover it. They are the only team in NFL history to win eight consecutive games immediately following a five-game losing streak. Amazing what a trip to London will do for you. At 9-5, the Chiefs can clinch a playoff berth with a victory and a loss by either Pittsburgh or the New York Jets. Chiefs 31-13 

MIAMI -2.5 over Indianapolis: The Colts have shut down QB Andrew Luck for their final road game of the season and should Houston win at Tennessee, it won’t matter. They already need help to make the playoffs for the fourth straight season. This could be Matt Hasselbeck’s last hurrah, the 40-year-old gunslinger looked to have little left against Houston and it could be that Charlie Whitehurst will start. Miami have been poor all season but they may well nick a home win against a banged-up opponent. Dolphins 21-17 

TAMPA BAY -3.5 over Chicago: The Bears have not won three consecutive meetings in Tampa since winning on six consecutive trips from 1983-88. Consecutive losses to New Orleans and St Louis meant the Buccaneers miss the playoffs for the eight consecutive season and this young team, though improving, made to many mental errors when it mattered (including 21 penalties in those two losses). The Bucs have had 10 days rest and the Bears are in a tailspin, having lost their last three. Not a game to get too involved in. Buccaneers 24-20 

TENNESSEE +4.5 over Houston: The Texans moved into sole possession of first place in the AFC South with last week’s 16-10 win at Indianapolis. Houston QB Brandon Weeden came on in relief and threw the game-winning touchdown pass to rookie receiver Jaelen Strong in the fourth quarter. The Texans can clinch the division title with a win and an Indianapolis loss. The Titans are going nowhere, but they are worth a punt at home. Titans 16-13 

NEW ORLEANS -5.5 over Jacksonville: The post-season playoff drought in Jacksonville now stands at eight seasons after their loss to Atlanta and they will face a severe test from the Saints’ passing game, which is averaging over 303 yards per game. The Jaguars’ secondary gives up 260 yards per game, but bear in mind that the Saints have failed to cover the handicap in three of their last five home games. Saints 34-27 

SEATTLE -13.5: Seattle have clinched a wildcard and despite losing five games, are still the NFC champions and the team no-one wants to face. The Rams have lost their last 10 trips to Seattle and in just two of those contests have they managed to keep it to a one-score margin of defeat. The line is about where it should be, but we take the Rams to keep this competitive for a while. Seahawks 31-16 

NEW YORK GIANTS +5.5 at Minnesota: The Giants are a game behind Washington and are tied with Philadelphia in the NFC East, with whom the Giants face in week 17. The Giants can still win the division title but need to win their last two and get help along the way. Minnesota will clinch a playoff berth with a win and should they defeat Green Bay next week, will clinch the NFC North title. Tough call. Vikings can win, but it may be close. Vikings 27-24 

DENVER -3.5 over Cincinnati: Cincinnati can clinch the AFC North division title and a first-round bye with a win on Monday night. The Broncos can secure a playoff spot with a win and a loss by either Pittsburgh or the New York Jets. Denver clinches the AFC West title with a victory over Cincinnati and a loss by Kansas City. The Bengals have lost their last nine trips to Denver and with receiver AJ Green suffering a back injury and with AJ McCarron still deputising for starting QB Andy Dalton (broken thumb), we see the Broncos covering the field goal handicap. Broncos 27-21

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