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Germany looks to shore up defense ahead of Poland clash

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EVIAN-LES-BAINS, France — Germany needs to focus on its defensive deficiencies weaknesses as it prepares to play Poland, top-scorers in qualifying round for the European Championship.

The world champions opened their campaign with a 2-0 win against Ukraine but were grateful to goalkeeper Manuel Neuer for three outstanding saves and Jerome Boateng for a goal-line clearance.

Poland, which is led by qualifying’s top scorer Robert Lewandowski, will present a bigger challenge for Germany’s defense with both sides eyeing top spot in Group C on Thursday at Stade de France. Poland also won its first match, beating Northern Ireland 1-1.

One potential positive development for Germany is that defender Mats Hummels has declared himself fit after recovering from a calf injury he sustained in the German Cup final last month in his last game for Borussia Dortmund.

Coach Joachim Loew needs to decide whether to risk Hummels, who won’t have played for almost four weeks, or continue with his stop-gap solution of Shkodran Mustafi partnering Boateng in central defense.

Mustafi opened the scoring against Ukraine but looked vulnerable at times against speedy wingers Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka, and the Valencia defender almost gifted a late equalizer in a mix-up with Neuer.

Bayern Munich midfielder Joshua Kimmich could also fill in, as could Bayer Leverkusen’s Jonathan Tah, though both players are short of experience. The 20-year-old Tah was a late call up for original Hummels-replacement Antonio Ruediger, who tore a cruciate ligament in his right knee in training.

Poland’s victory over Northern Ireland in Nice on Sunday was the country’s fist victory at a European Championship. The team is unlikely to be overawed having beaten Germany in qualifying – its first win over its neighbor in 19 games.

Lewandowski says it is “the best Polish team in which I have ever played.”

Lewandowski is partnered in attack by Ajax striker Arkadiusz Milik, familiar to Bundesliga fans from his time at Leverkusen and Augsburg. Though Lewandowski was kept quiet against the Northern Irish – no shots on goal and just 49 touches of the ball – he created space for Milik to score the only goal.

“The goal was important, I’m really happy about it,” the 22-year-old Milik said. “But even more important are the three points. We still have a few steps ahead of us; this is not the end of the journey.”

Sunday Divisional Round Matchups: Cowboys, Chiefs Both Favorites

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The dynamics for a team with a red-hot quarterback often change when they go on the road, which is why Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys are a solid favorite against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.

The Cowboys are listed as 4.5-point favorites against the Packers with a 51.5-point total, according to sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. Dallas is 7-0 straight-up and 5-2 against the spread in its last seven home games, but the fact that the Packers are 6-1 ATS in their last seven playoff games as a road underdog will no doubt give bettors pause.

The Packers, who are 11-6 SU and 9-7-1 ATS, need QB Aaron Rodgers to stay in peak form to have a shot at taking down Dallas, which does happen to be 0-4 SU and 1-3 ATS in its last four divisional round games.

That doesn’t leave the Packers with much margin for error, especially since WR Jordy Nelson (ribs) may not play and the Cowboys will be able to pay more attention to WR Davante Adams and Randall Cobb. Running the ball against OLB Sean Lee and Co. could also be tough for Green Bay.

The Cowboys, 13-3 SU and 10-5-1 ATS, have one of the NFL’s most balanced offenses outside of New England with the combo of Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliott. Provided LT Tryon Smith is healthy and handles OLB Clay Matthews, Dallas is capable of setting the pace. The Packers’ pass defense is spotty and as a team that is 7-3 ATS in their last 10 games after bye weeks, Dallas surely will have used the extra prep time to develop schemes to use WR Dez Bryant (seven TD in his last nine games).

The total has gone over in five of the Packers’ last six games on the road, according to the OddsShark NFL Database.

In Sunday’s other game, the Kansas City Chiefs are listed as the 1.5-point favorite against the Pittsburgh Steelers with a 44-point total.

The Steelers, 12-5 SU and 10-6-1 ATS, with QB Ben Roethlisberger, WR Antonio Brown and RB Le’Veon Bell, are experts in staying explosive even in the type of cold weather forecast for Kansas City on Sunday.

However, thanks to FS Eric Berry, the Chiefs excel at limiting long completions, and their defense, thanks to the return and/or emergence of DE Chris Jones, OLB Justin Houston and ILB Ramik Wilson, is much improved since that embarrassing defeat.

The Chiefs, 12-4 SU and 9-7 ATS, are the more likely team to come out ahead in the all-important turnover battle. Kansas City’s M.O. offensively is misdirection and the Steelers defense, which has had a steady diet of mediocre matchups over the last two months, are prone to missing tackles.

Having to account for speedster Tyreek Hill may create some big openings for RB Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware. Quarterback Alex Smith and his offensive line have also improved at providing ball security as the season has progressed.

Kansas City coach Andy Reid is 3-0 SU in divisional round games after a bye. The total has gone under in the Chiefs’ last six games after consecutive wins.

Last year all four home teams won in the divisional round. In the last three years the visiting team is 7-3-2 ATS in the divisional round.

Saturday Divisional Round Matchups: Falcons, Patriots set as Favorites

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Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons nearly won at Seattle during the regular season, which is partially why they are a significant favorite against the Seahawks this week despite a poor playoff track record.

The Falcons are listed as five-point favorites against the Seahawks and Russell Wilson, with a 51.5-point total in their NFC Divisional Round matchup at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

Atlanta, which had a bye last weekend, is 7-2 straight-up and 6-3 against the spread in games following a bye week during Ryan’s career. However, Atlanta is just 1-5 SU and 0-6 ATS in its last six playoff games according to the OddsShark NFL Database.

The Seahawks, who are 11-5-1 SU and 8-8-1 ATS, seemed to get their running game untracked during their wild card win against the Detroit Lions. Thomas Rawls figures to have an opportunity for a big day since the Falcons allow 4.5 yards per rush, the worst of any playoff team.

Wilson will not be facing an imposing pass rush, and Atlanta’s ability to cover WR Doug Baldwin and TE Jimmy Graham could be affected without CB Desmond Trufant (chest). That said, Seattle has never won a playoff game on the road as the underdog, going 0-8 SU.

The Falcons, who are 11-5 SU and 10-6 ATS, may be capable of capitalizing on Seattle’s diminished deep pass coverage now that FS Steven Terrell is replacing injured All-Pro Earl Thomas. The Seahawks’ best chance of stopping Atlanta is through blitzing Ryan with DE Cliff Avril and MLB Bobby Wagner. Star WR Julio Jones will have a tough matchup against Seahawks CB Richard Sherman, but if Ryan has protection, there should be opportunities for playmakers such as RB Devonta Freeman and WR Taylor Gabriel.

The total has gone over in the Falcons’ last six games.

On Saturday night, the New England Patriots are 15-point betting favorites against the Houston Texans, with a 44.5-point total in the AFC Divisional Round matchup. The spread is the largest in the playoffs since 1998.

The Texans, who are 10-7 SU and 7-9-1 ATS, are going from facing Oakland Raiders rookie QB Connor Cook last week to facing Tom Brady in New England. The Texans rely on a  defense which has allowed the fewest yards in the league, with CB Johnathan Joseph and CB Kareem Jackson doing a stellar job of containing the short-range passes that are Brady’s specialty.

The Patriots, who are 14-2 SU and 13-3 ATS, already defeated Houston once this season, without Brady. New England, which is 4-1 ATS in its last five games against Houston, should be able to keep a run/pass balance thanks to RB LeGarrette Blount. Houston has struggled at covering running backs on pass plays and Brady, with Dion Lewis and James White, should be able to exploit that weakness.

The total has gone over in six of the last eight games between the Texans and the Patriots. In the last two years the favored team is 2-4-2 ATS in the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs. Last year all four home teams won in the Divisional Round.