College Basketball has its Final Four and the NFL has its Quintessential Quartet.
New England and Denver have advanced to the AFC Championship game while San Francisco and Seattle play for the NFC title.
Both games will be played on Sunday with the winners advancing to Super Bowl XLVIII two weeks later in the Meadowlands of New Jersey at Met Life Stadium, home to the Giants and Jets. It will be the first Super Bowl held outdoors in a northern city and the elements could come into play.
Through the first eight playoff games it’s interesting to note half have been won by the road team – the lower seed. But the first two weekends have had dramatically different results. Road teams won 3 of the 4 Wild Card games and underdogs were also 3-1, but last weekend form held with home winning 3 of 4 and all four favorites winning straight up.
San Francisco was the lone road team to win this past weekend and did so as favorites in Carolina. But two of the road underdogs – New Orleans and San Diego – covered the spread in their losses at Seattle and Denver.
Both the Wild Card and Divisional round each produced 3 UNDER and 1 OVER results. Interestingly, the only games that went OVER the total were in the AFC and each involved Indianapolis. The Colts defeated Kansas City in the Wild Card round, 45-44, before falling, 43-22, to New England in the Divisional round.
The Colts’ loss added to the list of teams that were unable to win (or cover) after a huge scoring outburst in a playoff game and were underdogs the following week. Since the current playoff format began in 1990 there have been 31 instances of an underdog that scored at least 35 points in its previous playoff win. Such teams are now just 7-24 SU (22.5 percent) and 9-21-1 ATS (30.0 percent).
Ironically New England, the team that added Indianapolis to this ignominious list last week, is in the same situation this week. The Patriots catch 5 points at Denver (4½ at some books). Such teams are 2-7 both SU and ATS when they meet that condition in Conference Championship games. The total at LVH opened at 55 and hovered within a half point on either side as GT went to press.
In the NFC Championship Game, Seattle opened as 3½ point home favorites over San Francisco and initially was bet up to -4 at some books before dropping back to -3½ and even down to -3 at some shops. The books that had the Seahawks at that key number of -3 attached an added vig of some 10 to 15 cents for the privilege of laying just a FG.
At William Hill, for example, Seattle was a 3 point favorite but with a vig of minus 125. The signal is that this line is likely to fluctuate between 3 and 3½ for much of the week leading up to Sunday.
Both are attractive matchups and intriguing handicaps.
The AFC game has two of the top offenses in the NFL. Denver ranked first in both total offense and scoring. Their 606 total points broke the record set by the 2007 Patriots.
New England ranked seventh in total offense but second in scoring offense. Neither team was strong defensively although the Patriots, despite ranking No. 26 in total defense, improved to 10 in scoring defense. The Broncos were more inefficient, ranking 19 in total defense but 22 in scoring defense.
The NFC Championship features a pair of outstanding defenses but with offenses that were more efficient than potent. Much like the Denver offense, Seattle’s defense ranked No. 1 in both total defense and scoring defense. San Francisco was No. 5 in total defense but 3 in scoring defense.
Seattle’s offense, despite its No. 17 ranking in total offense, ranked 8 in scoring offense. San Francisco was 24 in total offense but 11 in scoring offense.
In line with history, two of last week’s four Divisional round games were decided by more than 10 points. In the 46 Conference Championship games played since 1990, exactly half (23), have also been decided by more than 10 points.
Here’s a look at the two games that will determine the participants in Super Bowl XLVIII on February 2.
Patriots +4½ at Broncos (55½): Second seeded New England is playing its first playoff road game, aside from Super Bowl appearances, since losing at Indianapolis in the 2006 AFC Championship game, ironically to a Colts team quarterbacked by current Denver QB Peyton Manning that went on to win the Super Bowl. Since that loss all nine of the Patriots’ non-Super Bowl post season games, including last Saturday’s win over the Colts, have been at home.
Since the NFL began seeding teams in 1990 there have been 23 prior matchups of a 1 seed facing a 2 in the Conference Championship round. The 1 seed has gone 14-9 SU and just 10-13 ATS. Since 2001 the 2 seed has fared reasonably well, going 4-5 SU but 6-3 ATS, including covers in each of the last three such pairings dating back to the 2009 playoffs.
This is just the sixth time in the era of QB Tom Brady and HC Bill Belichick that New England has been a post season underdog. The Pats are 3-2 both SU and ATS but a perfect 3-0 SU and ATS when getting 4 points or more.
The Patriots hosted the Broncos on Sunday night of Week 12 in late November. Denver raced out to a 24-0 halftime lead only to see New England score 21 third quarter points and 10 more in the fourth quarter to take a 31-24 lead. Denver scored the tying TD with about 3 minutes remaining to force overtime and New England kicked the game winning FG with just over 2 minutes remaining in the extra quarter. It was a sloppy game that featured seven turnovers.
Denver will be without LB Von Miller and New England will be without TE Rob Gronkowski. Both were involved in key plays in the first meeting. Denver has been the team to beat since the start of the season. And they are exactly where they have been expected to be. It’s hard to argue against Brady and Belichick considering all they have accomplished over more than a decade. But Denver coach John Fox has taken a team to the Super Bowl when he coached at Carolina.
Denver’s defense has played much better over the second half of the season. This still figures to be a game of dueling quarterbacks with Manning having more options at his disposal than Brady. Both teams have been able to run the football effectively. The home field is important, especially since the Patriots have not played a true road Playoff game in seven seasons. Make no mistake about it, Manning’s teammates want a Super Bowl win as much for Peyton as themselves. The expectation is they will get that chance. Pick: PATRIOTS/OVER.
49ers +3½ at Seahawks (40): The 49ers and Seahawks meet for the third time this season. The home team won the regular season meeting but Seattle’s 29-3 win in week 2 was much more impressive than San Francisco’s 19-17 win in the rematch in week 14. To be fair, Seattle led just 5-0 at the half of their week 2 win in what was viewed by many as a revenge game for the 49ers who had been blasted in Seattle, 42-13, in week 16 of 2012.
In the three seasons in which San Francisco’s coach Jim Harbaugh has faced Seattle coach Pete Carroll the 49ers are 4-2 SU but just 1-5 ATS against the ‘Hawks. But lest you rush to the windows to back Seattle just on that basis, note that three of Seattle’s ATS wins were by a half point, including this year’s covering loss in San Francisco. Since 1990 there have been 12 prior meetings of a number 5 seed versus a number 1 seed but only two of those meetings have been in Conference Championship games (the others were in the Divisional round and Super Bowl). The number 1 seed won and covered both prior meetings (and both went OVER).
Divisional opponents facing one another for a third time in a season in the playoffs is a fairly frequent occurrence. But this marks just the fifth time since 1990 Division foes have met to decide a Conference Championship. The road team is 3-1 both SU and ATS in the previous meetings.
Considering the huge home field advantage enjoyed by the hosts, the line of -3 or -3½ suggests Seattle’s home field is basically in line with the average home field, or San Francisco is a point or two better than Seattle on a neutral field.
At the same time “3” is such a key number sports books that might believe the “true line” should be in the vicinity of 4 or 5 are reluctant to give the “sharps” the extra point or two that would attract heavy action on the 49ers.
Seattle is 16-1 SU and 12-5 ATS at home over the past two seasons. Ten of their 16 home wins have been by double digits with two against the 49ers (by 29 and 26 points).
Perhaps Seattle’s recent struggles on offense and the availability of WR Michael Crabtree for SF is a partial explanation. This should be another hard fought, physical defensive struggle.
In what figures to be an emotionally charged game all around, the intangibles plus Russell Wilson are decisive between evenly matched teams. Pick: SEATTLE/UNDER.
Last Week: 5-3
Andy Iskoe, and his Logical Approach, provides his popular and unique handicapping statistics to Gaming Today readers and online visitors. He has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football. Contact Andy at [email protected]