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. Three road teams pulled upsets to advance to the Conference Championship games and are a win away from playing in Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa two weeks from this coming Sunday.
Over the past two weekends 8 of the 12 teams that made the playoffs have been eliminated. Two more will be eliminated this weekend in Glendale, Arizona and in Pittsburgh.
As was pointed out last week, contrary to what seemingly makes sense on purely an intellectual level, playoff games more often than not don’t come down to the final few minutes of play. The average margin is close to two touchdowns and last week saw three of the four games decided by double digits.
Only Baltimore’s last minute win over Tennessee had true late game drama.
The odds makers are predicting an all Pennsylvania Super Bowl between the Steelers and Eagles based upon each being favored this week. Which begs the question of whether Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell will have to make a bet with himself?
Since 1988 there have been only six previous instances of a home underdog in the Conference Championship round of the playoffs. Contrary to what you might think, these home underdogs have not fared well, winning going 1-5 straight up and 1-4-1 ATS. And although all 6 point spreads were a FG or less, four of the road favorites won by double digits.
Of the four playoff rounds, the point spread comes into play least often in the Conference Championship round. Since the NFL adopted its present 12-team playoff format in 1990, there have been 36 Conference Championship games. The straight up game winner has covered the spread in 30 of those wins.
Aside from one push, the winning team (obviously a favorite) has lost to the spread only five times or a success rate of 86 percent. And, despite conventional wisdom, the home field has not been the huge advantage many believe it to be.
Of the three playoff rounds leading to the Super Bowl, home teams have performed the worst in the Conference Championship round, winning just 21 of 36 (58 percent) since 1990. This clearly suggests that current form may be more important than overall season achievement.
The team allowing fewer points over their most recent four games has covered over 65 percent of the time in Conference Championship games. The team having scored the most points over those four games, however, succeeds barely 30 percent of the time.
Going back to 1979 the team allowing the fewer points in the regular season has covered over 65 percent of the time in Conference Championship games. For the record Pittsburgh allowed 223 points this season, Baltimore 244. For the NFC combatants Arizona allowed 426 regular season points, Philadelphia just 289.
Also, the Conference Championship games have produced the highest percentage of over games than any playoff round. Since 1990, the over is 21-14 (60 percent).
Eagles -3½ at Cards (48): The Arizona performance in winning its first two playoff games has started to make believers of those who considered this to be one of the weakest postseason teams ever.
The perception had some validity looking back at how Arizona’s season played out. The Cards were 6-0 against their weak NFC West Division rivals (who were a combined 13-35 this season) while going just 3-7 against the rest of the NFL.
Arizona’s task gets tougher against a very experienced Philadelphia team making its fifth Conference Title appearance in eight seasons.
There is a veteran nucleus led by QB Donovan McNabb on offense, Brian Dawkins on defense and head coach Andy Reid. Aside from QB Kurt Warner (a past Super Bowl MVP) Arizona basically has a roster of limited playoff experience. Both teams were in the Top 10 offensively during the regular season, but the Eagles had a huge edge defensively, allowing 57 yards per game less than the Cardinals while playing a tougher schedule.
In the 48-20 loss at Philadelphia, the Eagles intercepted Warner three times. McNabb had his best game of the season and that effort triggered the late run that has many comparing the Eagles to last year’s Giants.
And Philly has not disappointed with a pair of road playoff wins. They have not allowed over 14 points in any of their last six games. At the same time Arizona has scored at least 30 points in each of its last 3.
The Cardinals’ reliance on the passing game against a top notch defense will ultimately prove decisive. The running game, which fared well in the wins over Atlanta and Carolina, should struggle here. If Arizona is to pull the upset, it will likely be due to the defense maintaining the level of the past two weeks. If Arizona loses it’s likely due to not solving the Eagles defense. Both of which can suggest a lower scoring game than the odds makers expect. EAGLES/UNDER.
Ravens +6 at Steelers (33) The Steelers won both regular season meetings, but neither came easily. There’s every reason to believe this will be just as tightly contested. Both teams possess outstanding defenses. Pittsburgh owned the No. 1 defense, giving up 237 yards per game. The No. 2 rated Ravens yielded just 261. Both defenses were equally good all season against both the rush and the pass attack.
Baltimore wound up having the more productive rushing offense (149 ypg vs. 105 ypg). Both offenses were average in avoiding turnovers. The Ravens defense led the league by forcing 34 turnovers. Pittsburgh was not far behind with 29. The Steelers do have the edge at QB with Ben Roethlisberger having already led his team to a Super Bowl victory. But it’s hard to find fault with anything Baltimore’s rookie QB Joe Flacco has done this season.
The Ravens are also led by a rookie head coach John Harbaugh, while Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin is just in his second season. Let’s also remember Baltimore was 13-3 just two seasons ago. The 2007 season was ruined by an unusually high number of injuries that greatly limited the offense. The Baltimore defense in 2007 was still among the league’s best, including being second against the rush.
Pittsburgh’s defense has also been excellent going back several seasons so this game figures to be one of field position and field goals rather than big plays and touchdowns.
Pittsburgh does have the advantages of more recent playoff experience on its current roster and playing at home. So the Steelers should be able to get the win. But this shapes up as a game in which the points will matter.
Just like the Baltimore-Tennessee game, a late field goal could well be the difference. RAVENS/UNDER.