Wild Card Weekend is finally here, and the online sports betting community is going absolutely nuts. Thanks in part to New York’s newly minted status as a legal betting market, more bettors than ever are flooding online sportsbooks and getting money down on this weekend’s games.
Naturally, sharp bettors like myself are continuing to study the market for signals and trends connected to NFL playoff odds.
One of the games I feel most strongly about is the Sunday afternoon game between the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers. I actually took my first position on this game last weekend, betting it immediately after the numbers were posted following the final NFC regular-season game on Sunday afternoon.
Since then the market has moved back and forth quite a bit, and I have taken additional positions on San Francisco’s spread, money line and total. (You can hear the full breakdown on the latest episode of my handicapping podcast, The Lion’s Edge.)
Some movements have reinforced my initial read, while others have made me question whether I’m on the right side at all.
Wild Card Weekend Preview: San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys
They might not have great odds to win the Super Bowl, but the 2019 NFC Champion 49ers are back in the playoffs after a dismal 2020 campaign that was completely derailed by a torrent of injuries.
The first half of the 2021 season was similarly fraught with injuries for San Francisco, but the Niners got healthy as the season went on and closed the regular season out with a 7-2 record in their last nine games. That includes a season finale at NFC West rival Los Angeles, where the 49ers overcame a 17-point deficit to notch a gutsy overtime win.
San Francisco’s offense is capable, and its defense is frisky. The Niners rank fifth in the NFL in weighted DVOA and second in Rush DVOA; they’ll need the defense cranking if they want to limit a Dallas offense that can go supernova at any moment.
Dallas, for its part, has a top-5 defense of its own. It’s the inconsistencies of the offense that make me wonder if the Cowboys are a vulnerable home favorite during Wild Card Weekend. Quarterback Dak Prescott hasn’t looked right since an October injury, and Michael Gallup tore his ACL in the Cowboys’ Week 17 loss to the Cardinals.
Many of the reasons I like this game are economic, rather than matchup-oriented. Still, it’s hard not to feel like Dallas beat up on mostly bad teams all year and hasn’t done a lot to prove it’s an elite team. I’d actually argue their most impressive outing of the season was the Week 1 loss to Tampa.
The Dallas defense allows 6.1 yards/carry to teams using motion—3rd worst in the NFL.
San Francisco uses motion on 46% of their designed runs—most in the NFL.
— Mina Kimes (@minakimes) January 14, 2022
San Francisco, on the other hand, owns two wins over the Rams and an overtime decision in Cincinnati, all since mid-November.
We know that San Francisco is good now that its roster is healthy. Now that it is, they are in position to make some noise in the playoffs.
Wild Card Weekend: How to Bet 49ers (+3.5) at Cowboys
A little bit earlier, I mentioned that my reasons for betting this game are mostly economic, so let me follow up on that.
As I often say, the No. 1 rule of successful football betting is playing and understanding the full context of a point spread.
At online sportsbook BetMGM, Dallas opened this game as a 2.5-point favorite. The Cowboys were fresh off a Week 18 drubbing of Philadelphia’s backups, while San Francisco needed a spirited comeback to make the playoffs at all. From the sportsbook’s invitation, this was a clear invitation to take loads of Dallas playoff money.
This is exactly what happened. An avalanche of money came in on the Cowboys, and the line jumped up to 4.5. Counter-action quickly came in on San Francisco, and the number settled out at a conservative three.
This is where the line stayed for most of the week, before edging up to Dallas -3.5 on Saturday morning.
I love to bet underdogs that open at 2.5, because I know that it’s a sneaky trick the sportsbook often uses to position itself on the right side of a game. Public bettors see a home favorite at less than three points and immediately move to take a position.
I believe that the 49ers are going to win this game; catching three points (or 3.5 points now!) is a great buffer for what should be a closely contested game. Because of what we know about San Francisco, plus what we don’t know about Dallas, the 49ers are my play. I bought in at +2.5, +3, +3.5 and +145 on the money line.
The only thing that makes me nervous is the probably sharp action that’s fading the San Francisco trendiness and buying Dallas back north of three. Ask yourself: when was the last time you can remember where the trendy NFL playoff odds upset actually happened?
I’ve already bought in on the Niners too many times this week to second-guess my positions now. However, if you’re looking for an angle on the game that keeps you away from the messy sides, you could always consider Under 50.5. As I mentioned, this is a matchup of Top-5 defenses in a cold-weather playoff game – I think the total is inflated purely by the reputation of Dallas’ offense.
Picks: San Francisco +3.5, San Francisco +135, Under 50.5