NFL betting: In a playoff field of stacked favorites, are the underdog Cowboys worth a flier?

Underdogs cover in the NFL. The dogs went 4-2 ATS in the opening round of the playoffs despite many of the teams facing long odds with inexperienced quarterbacks. The Ravens and Dolphins covered spreads of 7.5 and 14 points, while the Giants and Jaguars were able to pull off upsets and advance. They were both popular choices as bettors lined up to fade the Vikings and Chargers as vulnerable favorites, which paid off nicely.

Good luck if you are taking that approach this week. Sure, there is likely to be an upset or two. After all, it is the NFL we are talking about. But now that we are down to eight teams, the four favorites have each won at least 13 games and have a combined record of 54-13. There are no vulnerable favorites in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.

The job will be much harder for those looking to pick off dogs in the weekend's action. Of course, we know some will cover, but they aren't sitting out there in plain sight anymore. Fading Kansas City, Buffalo, San Francisco or Philadelphia sounds like a lot less fun than loading up against Kirk Cousins or Brandon Staley last weekend. For that reason, bettors will pivot to teaser strategies or moneyline parlays to protect themselves against the inevitable underdog jumping out and covering from the least likely spot.

Rather than searching for flaws in the favorites, I decided to reverse-engineer the process and zeroed in on the high-ceiling teams catching points. Of course, that led me to a very unpopular pick, but scared money doesn't make it this time of year. So here's why I am heading out to the Bay area to bank on a dog to bring home the money on Sunday.

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 16: Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys calls a play at the line of scrimmage during the first quarter of an NFL wild card playoff football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on January 16, 2023 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)

Dallas Cowboys (+3.5) at San Francisco 49ers

Why would anyone want to step in front of the San Francisco 49ers right now? The Niners have won 11 straight games, nine straight at home, and have outscored their opponents by an average margin of 14.8 in the six games with Brock Purdy starting under center. Admittedly, the 49ers are as strong as anyone in the playoff field, but great teams don't always cover. Plus, it never hurts to be on the right side of a key number like three, so catching the 3.5 points is valuable. Finally, Dallas has shown it's also as good as anyone when it plays to its potential.

The Cowboys are inconsistent, but they are heading into San Francisco in close-to-perfect form. Just when the market turned on them for their lackluster performance down the stretch, Dallas turned in one of its best performances by throttling Tampa Bay 31-14 on Monday night. Dak Prescott completed 75% of his passes while throwing for 305 yards and four touchdowns. The Dallas offense looked better than ever, converting on 54% of third downs and turning all four red-zone trips into touchdowns.

The Dallas offense is dangerous when it's playing with confidence. But, more importantly, the Cowboys have the talent to exploit a few of the 49ers' weaknesses. San Francisco boasts the league's No. 1 scoring defense behind a dominant defensive front, but if you can buy yourself enough time, you can take advantage of them vertically down the field. That's exactly the blueprint that Josh McDaniels used to force the 49ers into overtime in Week 17. Raiders QB Jarrett Stidham threw for 365 yards against the 49ers defense and had completions of 20+ yards to four different receivers, including a 60-yard touchdown to Davante Adams. Raiders running backs ran for only 101 yards on 25 carries, proving that success on the ground isn't necessarily a prerequisite to successfully hitting explosive passes against this defense.

We saw the Seahawks' decision to go after the 49ers' secondary with deep shots to D.K. Metcalf pay off last weekend. In fact, in the previous three weeks, while facing Jared Stidham, the David Blough-Trace McSorley tandem and Geno Smith, the 49ers defense ranked 28th in EPA per drop back in non-garbage time situations. The Cowboys wideouts have deep speed and big-play ability at wideout with Ceedee Lamb, Michael Gallup and T.Y. Hilton. Obviously, pass protection from the Dallas offensive line is critical, but there is a path for the Cowboys to keep up with the 49ers' offense.

Dan Quinn's best chance against his old offensive coordinator is to go big or go home. Purdy is also playing with great confidence, but he isn't perfect when you make him feel the pass rush. His PFF passing grade under pressure falls in the middle of the pack, and he is also only 26th in big-time throw percentage when defensive linemen are breathing down his throat. The Cowboys will need Micah Parsons to take this game over, create havoc and force Purdy into some ill-advised throws. If the Dallas defense stays aggressive on the back end, the Cowboys may be able to jump some routes, win the turnover battle and gain some extra possessions to keep this one close.

There are no vulnerable favorites at this stage, so I am willing to put my money on an underdog playing its best football. Of course, you can never be sure which Cowboys team you will see, but if we get the one from Monday night, we will be happy to have 3.5 points in our pocket. There is enough to make the Cowboys a live dog if they catch a few breaks, and they are strong enough offensively to stay within this number even if they fall short.

Stats provided by pff, teamrankings, rbsdm (based on 90-10 WP).