Whereas college basketball has its March Madness culminating in its Final Four weekend that ultimately determines the best team in that sport, the NFL has January Jubilation – its own version of a Final Four.
This weekend will determine the two participants in our new national pastime’s ultimate event, the Super Bowl. Both matchups are intriguing. The AFC Championship is a rematch both of last season’s AFC Championship game and an earlier meeting this season.
The NFC Championship game features last season’s NFC runner up, San Francisco taking on Atlanta, which ended nearly a half decade of frustration with its first playoff win in four tries in the regime of its head coach and starting QB.
The AFC matchup between Baltimore and New England has some recent post season history. The Ravens ended New England’s 11 game home playoff winning streak in 2009. Last season the Patriots defeated the Ravens, but only after Baltimore had two attempts to win or tie the game in the waning moments.
San Francisco was a pair of special teams miscues away from winning last season’s NFL Championship but lost in overtime to the New York Giants. Although Atlanta had lost its lone playoff game each season in three appearances under head coach Mike Smith and QB Matt Ryan, two were against teams that went on to win the Super Bowl (Green Bay and the Giants). The third was to a team that went lost in the Super Bowl (Arizona).
This week’s Conference Championship games will determine the two teams that will meet in New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII on Feb. 3. All four possible matchups are interesting.
A Super Bowl between San Francisco and New England would match a pair of teams with 12 combined appearances. The 49ers are 5-0 all time in Super Bowls. New England is 3-4 (3-2 in the coach Belichick and QB Brady regime). And it would be a rematch of a very entertaining late regular season game won by San Francisco 41-34 in New England – a game in which the Niners blew a 31-3 lead only to break a 31-31 tie with 10 straight after the Pats had tied the game with under seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
A Super Bowl between Atlanta and New England would match two teams known for their explosive offenses while their defenses are each of the “bend but not break” variety.
An Atlanta-Baltimore Super Bowl could be called a “mirror image matchup” because of how similar the teams are in terms of coach and quarterback. Both head coaches, John Harbaugh of the Ravens and Mike Smith of Atlanta took over their teams in 2008. Each relied on a rookie QB that led their teams to the playoffs.
Ryan directs the Falcons and Joe Flacco leads the Ravens. Atlanta is in the playoffs for the fourth time in Smith/Ryan’s five seasons. The Harbaugh/Flacco combo has made the playoffs all five seasons.
Likely billed as the NFL’s version of “Family Feud,” the most interesting Super Bowl matchup would be San Francisco against Baltimore with perhaps most of the pregame focus being directed towards the two head coaches, John Harbaugh of Baltimore and brother Jim of the 49ers.
For many years the home team did exceptionally well in Conference Championship games but that has not been the case over the past decade. From 1979 through 1989 home teams were 17-5 straight up (77.3 percent) and 16-6 (72.7 percent) against the spread (ATS) in these games.
Since 1990, when the playoffs were expanded to include 12 rather than 10 teams the results are much more mixed. Road teams have had a fair degree of success. Over the past 22 seasons home teams are still a solid 27-17 SU (61.4 percent) but are just 20-23-1 ATS (46.5 percent).
The home team has won both Conference Championship games just seven times in the past 22 seasons. In two seasons the road team won both. In the other 13 there was a split with one home team and one road team winning and advancing to the Super Bowl, including in each of the past two seasons.
Since 1990 the average margin in Conference Championship games has been 12.3 points with an average total points scored of 43.5. This round has produced the highest percentage of OVERS of the 4 Playoff rounds at 26-18 (60.5%).
The Totals results are interesting in that the 4 games from the Divisional round of the Playoffs this past weekend all went OVER.
Last season’s Conference Championship games saw both decided by exactly a FG and each stayed UNDER.
49ers -3½ at Falcons (48.5): San Francisco was, in many respects, more impressive in its win than were the Falcons. The 49ers did have to come from behind in its win over Green Bay, falling behind 7-0 and 14-7 before taking a 24-21 halftime lead. After the Packers tied the game in the middle of the third quarter at 24, the Niners then scored 21 straight points in what turned out to be a 45-31 win.
The Falcons had a dominant first half in their win over Seattle, building a 20-0 lead at the half which was then 27-7 into the fourth quarter. But then Seattle did what it had been doing all season and they rallied to take a 28-27 lead with a half minute remaining. Atlanta then dramatically moved downfield and got the game winning FG in a 30-28 win.
The win ended all that talk about how these Falcons could not win a playoff game, and, as it turned out, it did not come easy. As such the Falcons are rare home underdogs in a Conference Championship game. Since 1990 this will be just the eighth time that a team has been a home underdog in the game that decides who will go to the Super Bowl. The line is similar to the previous seven games that saw the home team close from 2.5 to 3.5 point underdogs.
Atlanta has won the last four meetings against the 49ers dating back to 2004. The last two wins have come with Smith as coach and Matt Ryan at QB but both were before Jim Harbaugh took over as San Francisco coach in 2011 Atlanta has the better offensive stats but the edges are very slim.
San Francisco has a huge edge in total defense (No. 3 versus 24) point the game is considerably narrower when looking at points allowed (No. 1 versus No. 5 and an edge for the Niners of just 1.6 points per game). The Falcons fared much better in their revenge matchup, shutting out the Giants 34-0 in a late season game that had more practical implications and a sense of urgency for the then 8-5 Giants than for the 11-2 Falcons who were all but certain to lock up the No. 1 NFC seed at the time.
The Falcons won and covered both games in which they were underdogs this season, at San Diego in week three and at Philadelphia in midseason. They are 8-1 SU at home with the lone loss coming in a meaningless game in Week 17. Expect a much more focused effort this week if Atlanta gets out in front. An upset is clearly possible but getting at least a FG is attractive. FALCONS.
Ravens +9½ at Patriots (51): This should be yet another physical contest between teams that know each other very well. The Pats will be without star TE Rob Gronkowski as he reinjured his forearm and is out for the balance of the Playoffs. This will be Baltimore’s twelfth playoff game since 2008. The Ravens are 7-4 both SU and ATS in the prior 11, including 5-4 on the road. The Pats have played just six Playoff games in the same stretch, going 3-3 SU but 2-4 ATS in those games.
New England has won 4 of the last five meetings with the Ravens, including the win in last season’s Conference Championship game. The four wins, all since 2007, have been by three, six, three and three points. The lone loss came at home in the 2010 playoffs when Baltimore won handily 33-14, and, as noted earlier, ended a streak of 11 straight home Playoff wins by New England that dated back to 1996, the last 8 of which were in the Belichick/Brady era that dates back to 2001.
New England has the better offense, ranking first in the NFL in both yards per game and points scored. Baltimore was just average in total offense (16) but did rank tenth in points scored. New England ranked number 25 in total defense but 9 in points allowed. The Ravens were 17 in total defense but improved to 12 in points allowed.
Both offenses excel at protecting the football. Each lost just 16 turnovers during the regular season. While Baltimore’s defense forced 25 turnovers the Pats were even better, creating 41 takeaways, an average of one per game more than the usually aggressive Ravens. After announcing his retirement at the conclusion of their season, the Ravens future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis has helped his team win twice in these playoffs, including the huge upset in Denver.
Recent history of these teams against each other, and the overall playoffs experience of the underdog Ravens, suggest that this will be another competitive game. RAVENS.
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]