The 2015 NFL season has come down to its version of the Final Four with last week’s Divisional Playoff games determining which teams will meet this Sunday to determine the matchup for Super Bowl 50 two weeks later in Santa Clara, California.
The Divisional round action began with New England methodically defeating Kansas City, 27-20, in a game the Patriots led wire to wire but were unable to pull away from the Chiefs who saw their 11 game winning streak ended.
Once the Pats defeated Kansas City on Saturday we knew that the AFC Championship game would be a rematch of a regular season game as New England opened the season with a 28-21 home win over Pittsburgh but also lost a midseason game at Denver 30-24. All that remained was to see how the other AFC Divisional game would turn out 24 hours later.
The weekend’s action ended with Denver rallying from behind to defeat the Steelers 23-16, scoring the ultimate game winning touchdown following the game’s lone turnover when Pittsburgh backup RB Fitzgerald Toussaint in the fourth quarter as the Steelers were looking to extend their 13-12 lead.
With a successful two point conversion and a late FG it appeared as though the Broncos would cover the 7 point spread but Pittsburgh, down by 10, added a late FG of its own to make the final margin 7 after being unable to recover the ensuing onside kick which enabled the Broncos to end the game in “victory formation” and advance to next week’s Conference Championship game.
In between the two AFC Divisional games were the two games that provided most of the drama and momentum swings of the weekend.
The first NFC Divisional game on Saturday night saw Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers use his magical arm to toss a pair of successful “Hail Marys” to force overtime at Arizona. The Packers’ exultation was short lived as it took just three plays in overtime for the Cardinals to score the game winning touchdown on the first possession of overtime to win 26-20.
Future Hall of Fame WR Larry Fitzgerald make the two biggest plays of the game in denying the Packers a chance to see the football in overtime following a bungled coin toss prior to the start of the bonus football. The Cardinals then awaited the outcome of Sunday’s early game to learn whether or not they would host or travel to the site of the NFC Championship Game.
Sunday’s early game was expected to be the most competitive game of the weekend with the only pointspread less than 6 points. But Carolina, a 2.5 point favorite, got out to an early 14-0 first quarter lead over two time defending NFC Champion Seattle en route to a 31-0 halftime lead. But Seattle tried to mount a comeback and closed to within 31-24 before failing to recover an onside kick in the game’s waning moments. That result meant that Carolina will host Arizona this Sunday for the NFC Championship.
In a league that boasts of parity with the slogan of “On any given Sunday…” the opposite may be true. Thus far in this season’s Playoffs favored teams are 7-1 SU with the lone loss occurring when the shortest of all the favorites, Washington, lost at home to Green Bay in the Wild Card round.
But it goes beyond just the past two weeks. This is the fifth straight season in which the top two seeds are meeting in at least one of the conference title games. In fact, both conference championship games match the top 2 seeds for the first time since 2004.
Since the Playoff format was expanded in 1990 the top two seeds in each conference advanced to the conference championship game 4 times in the first 8 seasons and 6 times in the first 15 seasons under that revised format.
But prior to this season the last time that occurred was in 2004. In the 50 conference championship games since 1990 there have been a total of 25 matchups of a 1 vs 2. The 1 seed is 16-9 SU but just 11-14 ATS.
Of the last 18 Conference Championship games, 13 have been decided by single digits although none were decided by less than 3 points. Of those 13 single digit decisions 4 were decided by exactly 3 points.
Also 13 of the last 18 games have been won by the home team, including both games in each of the past two seasons. However those home teams are just 9-9 ATS. Totals results have been fairly even with 10 OVERs and 8 UNDERs in the 18 Conference Championship games played since the 2006 season.
Here’s a look at both Conference Championship games this Sunday.
New England -3 at Denver (44.5): Could this be the final postseason meeting between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning? Denver is just the ninth home underdog in a Conference Championship game since the playoff format was revised in 1990. The previous 8 home underdogs have been getting between 2.5 and 3.5 points. It’s a small sample size, to be sure, but those 8 home pups have not fared well, going just 2-6 SU and 2-5-1 ATS.
This is only the fifth time in which the 2 seed was a road favorite over the 1. The No. 1 seeded home dog is just 1-3 both SU and ATS. The Patriots were one of the three road favored number two seeds to win and cover when they defeated Pittsburgh in 2004 as 3 point road chalk. And, of course, that occurred in the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era. New England would then win its second straight Super Bowl, its third in four seasons.
New England was methodical in defeating Kansas City last week. The Pats’ biggest concern was protecting Brady as evidenced by the total lack of a running game from the very outset. The game plan worked to perfection and the vaunted KC pass rush did not sack Brady even once and rarely pressured him. Meanwhile the Broncos had to rally to defeat Pittsburgh. Denver’s defense has been the best in the league all season but Pittsburgh was successful in moving the football.
QB Manning managed the game well but misfired on many of his passes, a continuing concern that dates back to the end of last season. In the key statistical areas that point to success Denver has a significant edge in the running game and a more modest edge on defense. In allowing just 4.5 yards per play the Broncos led the NFL. But at 5.2 ypp the Patriots rank seventh.
New England has a huge edge in turnover avoidance, losing an average of less than one turnover per game, a full turnover less than the Broncos have averaged. And that can be key as possessions are even more valuable in the Playoffs than during the regular season. It has not been mentioned as much recently as it was in the months leading up to the season but the Patriots have played all season with the aftermath of “deflategate” adding fuel to their collective fire in wanting to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
Belichick is a master at devising the right game plan – on both sides of the football – for the right opponent and he rates a solid edge over Denver’s Gary Kubiak. Denver’s defense has to be respected and is much more likely than the offense to be responsible for a Denver win. In the early years of the Brady/Belichick regime their conference championship games were high scoring with 3 of their first 4 going OVER the Total.
But beginning with what turned out to be their last win in their 18-1 2007 season, the last 5 AFC title games involving the pats have stayed UNDER, including last season when their 45-7 win over the Colts stayed UNDER by a point. NEW ENGLAND / UNDER.
Arizona +3 at Carolina (47): This game marks the first time in NFL post-season history that two Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks will oppose one another as Arizona’s Carson Palmer (USC, 2002) will lead the Cardinals as they travel to Carolina to face Cam Newton (Auburn, 2010) and the Panthers. These teams met in the Playoffs on this field last season when Arizona had gone 11-5 but finished second to Seattle in the NFC West while Carolina won the weak NFC South at 7-8-1.
The Cardinals were 5.5 point underdogs as they were handicapped by having to rely on their third string QB after starter Carson Palmer and his backup had both been injured. The result was a 27-16 Carolina win and the Panthers would lose the next week at Seattle. Palmer is healthy for this season and is coming off arguably the best season of his career in leading a potent Arizona offense that relies much more on the passing game than the ground attack.
Most of the key statistical measures favor Carolina, several by significant margins. The Panthers have a major edge in running the football and more modest edges on defense and in avoiding turnovers. Arizona’s defense was very good, allowing just 5.3 yards per play (number 9). But Carolina’s allowed just 5.0 ypp (number 3). What may surprise many readers is not that Arizona was second in the NFL in scoring 489 regular season points but that Carolina led the league with 500 points.
The Panthers also scored the most points of any team this past weekend in their 31-24 win over Seattle. The Cardinals did play a tougher schedule but the difference was not great. And the Panthers do own a pair of wins over Arizona, which split their two games against their NFC West rival.
Carolina is two wins away from a Super Bowl championship and an 18-1 record yet the Panthers are not considered as even close to being in the class of the three previous teams to go 18-1 and winning the Super Bowl (the 1984 San Francisco 49ers, the 1985 Chicago Bears and the 2007 Patriots). Of course the only perfect season in the modern NFL was Miami’ 17-0 in 1972 (Oakland was 16-1 in its Super Bowl winning 1976 season).
The Panthers continue to successfully play the lack of respect card, even in their win last week against Seattle. There are many good reasons to back Arizona in this game. The Cards have been a consistent winner for the past 3 seasons, racking up 10 then 11 and now 13 regular season wins. That’s a pretty impressive feat for coach Bruce Arians who took over a team that was 5-11 in 2012.
Ultimately it is generally conceded that Carolina has the edge at QB with Cam Newton’s versatility vs the relative lack of mobility of the Cards’ Palmer. Combined with the better running game and the better defense Carolina deserves to be favored and that price might be, though understandable, a bit short. This should be more of a wide open game than the AFC game played earlier in the day. CAROLINA / OVER.
Last week: 3-4-1
Andy Iskoe, and his Logical Approach, provides his popular and unique handicapping statistics to GamingToday readers and online visitors. He has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football. Email: [email protected]