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Seahawks, Packers headline betting favorites for Wild Card Weekend

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Neither Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks nor Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions are on a hot streak, but home field and primetime could factor heavily into their matchup.

The Seahawks are listed as eight-point favorites against the Lions with a 42.5-point total in their NFC wild card game matchup at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. Seattle is 7-0 straight-up in their last seven home games against teams who hail from the Eastern time zone, and are also 20-4-2 against the spread in their last 26 primetime games.

The other similarity between Wilson and Stafford is the lack of a supportive rushing attack. The Lions’ pass-rush woes, apart from DE Ziggy Ansah and Kerry Hyder, might allow Wilson to get in a groove. The Seahawks’ pass defense has lost some of its identity since the season-ending injury to FS Earl Thomas, but Stafford will have to be pinpoint if he is to bring Detroit their first road playoff victory in 59 seasons.

The Green Bay Packers are 4.5-point favorites against the New York Giants with a 44.5-point total. The Giants, held together by FS Landon Collins, have perhaps the toughest pass defense of any team in the playoffs and could pose a riddle to red-hot Packers QB Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay’s injuries at cornerback might hamper their ability to slow down Eli Manning and WR Odell Beckham Jr., whose team is 4-0-1 ATS in their last five games against Green Bay.

In the AFC, the Houston Texans are favored by 3.5 points against the Oakland Raiders, who are down to a 0.4 % chance to win the Super Bowl at PredictionMachine.com, with a 36.5-point total on Saturday. The Texans contain short passes well and it might be too much to expect Raiders rookie QB Connor Cook to furnish a downfield threat.

While the Raiders’ defense is generous yardage-wise, they have an impressive 16 interceptions, which is coincidentally the same number that Texans QB Brock Osweiler has thrown.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are 10-point betting favorites against the Miami Dolphins with a 47-point total in the AFC betting matchup on Sunday. Traveling north with backup QB Matt Moore seems daunting for Miami, although Pittsburgh still has the the run-defense issues that led to Jay Ajayi scooting for 202 yards during a Dolphins win in October.

Miami is also 13-4 ATS in its last 17 games as a double-digit underdog. However, Miami can also be soft against the run and Pittsburgh, 5-1-1 ATS in their last seven games as a favorite, has RB Le’Veon Bell.

The favored team is 3-7-2 ATS in the last three years in wild card games. Twelve of the 16 wild card games over the last four seasons have gone under the posted total, with one push.

The New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs (the top two seeds in the AFC), as well as the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons (the top two seeds in the NFC) have a bye week before hosting divisional-round games on January 14 and 15. The lowest surviving seeds head to New England and Dallas next week.

Five NFL players who could become stars in 2019

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By Sam Monson, PFF Senior Analyst

One of my favorite aspects of PFF data and grading is how it can spot the obvious coming when it’s still some ways off on the horizon—getting ahead of the curve and identifying talent before it becomes self-evident. Every year there are players who excel in limited snaps before ultimately being handed a larger role and workload for their teams. When they continue dominating, we wonder how they were ever seen as anything other than superstars.

Case in point: When Joey Porter was a star and the sack leader for the Miami Dolphins back in 2009, coming off a 17.5-sack season, we at PFF were clamoring for his backup –- a former undrafted pass-rusher who had not long before been playing in Canada -– to get more snaps because he was generating pressure at a far greater rate than Porter. Cameron Wake ultimately went on to be one of the best pass rushers of the past decade and looked it from Day 1 if you were seeing beyond the box score numbers.

Such examples are everywhere, and each year it’s always an interesting exercise to take a look through the PFF grading and predict the players that could take that next step if they get the right opportunity. This past week we unveiled our PFF 50—a list of the best 50 players in football entering the season—but in this case let’s look a year from now and predict some players who could make that list in 2020.

Levi Wallace, CB, Buffalo Bills: If there’s a player with the backstory to rival Wake’s, it’s Wallace. With precisely zero scholarship offers coming out of high school, Wallace walked on at Alabama, and eventually earned a starting job. Then he had to do it all over again when he went undrafted before signing as a collegiate free agent with Buffalo. As a rookie in 2018, he earned the highest PFF grade of any first-year cornerback, along with the highest coverage grade, and wasn’t beaten for a catch longer than 29 yards all season. Though he played far fewer snaps than first-round selection Denzel Ward of Cleveland, Wallace looks like a potential star in the making if he’s given greater opportunity in year two.

Vita Vea, DL, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: At the other end of the scale, you’ve got Vea, a player who went in the first round in 2018 but fell off the radar a little because he began the season injured, then took a little while to get going and ultimately didn’t produce the box score production people want to see. Vea ended up with only three sacks, but had 23 additional pressures as a pass-rusher, 17 of which came in the final six weeks of the season. Over that stretch of play, his overall PFF grade was 86.4, and he had a top-20 grade at his position, hinting at what’s to come.

Mackensie Alexander, CB, Minnesota Vikings: Changing positions in the NFL can be a significant adjustment, and sometimes it takes time. The Vikings drafted Alexander in 2016’s second round and moved him inside to the slot after he principally played outside at Clemson. His transition wasn’t smooth, but he has now seen his overall PFF grade improve each year of his NFL career: from 47.5 as a rookie, to 54.1 in 2017, climbing to 78.1 last year. Over the final half of the season, he was the highest-graded cornerback in the league at 88.2, surrendering just 80 receiving yards in a seven-game span. Alexander could emerge as a force with the right opportunity in 2019.

O.J. Howard, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Another former first-round pick, Howard has yet to top 600 receiving yards or 35 receptions in a season, even while tight ends are breaking receiving records across the NFL. Dive deeper into the numbers, however, and Howard looks primed for a huge season with an uptick in opportunity. His overall PFF grade last season was 89.4, higher than any other tight end outside of San Francisco standout George Kittle. And on a yards per route basis, he was third behind only Kittle and Kansas City star Travis Kelce. His average depth of target was 11.3 yards downfield, a top-five mark in the league, and now the vertical threat he brings is being linked up with new Bucs coach Bruce Arians and an offense that lives down the field.

Jon Halapio, C, New York Giants: The Giants are revamping their offensive line in a major way, but one of the unsung components of the rebuild is at center, where Halapio could emerge as a foundation piece to the new-look front. He began last year as New York’s starter before going down with an injury after just 116 snaps of action. But in those snaps, he didn’t allow a single pressure, despite almost 50 pass-blocking snaps against the Jaguars and their array of pass-rushing weapons. With vastly improved players beside him, Halapio could prove to be a significant upgrade as a player who isn’t being talked about much heading into 2019.

Why Jameis Winston could win NFL passing title in 2019

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By Pro Football Focus

We think Jameis Winston will challenge for the passing yardage title in 2019. Last year he trailed only Josh Allen in average depth of target. These throws put Winston in a position to do great things at times (he was second among quarterbacks in the percentage of throws we grade as “positive”), as well as bad things (he was 21st in limiting negatively-graded throws). New Bucs head coach Bruce Arians has a track record of succeeding with high-variance quarterbacks like Winston.  In 2015 Carson Palmer had an MVP-caliber season under Arians, posting roughly the same average depth of target as Winston in 2018 and leading the league in percentage of positively-graded throws.  With Mike EvansChris Godwin and O.J. Howard a very capable trio of pass catchers, look for Winston to either make good on his 2015 draft position or give the Bucs no other option but to find his replacement the following year.