NFL down to Final 4

Jan 14, 2003 5:36 AM

Following a season in which upsets were the norm and "parity" was the byword, form finally prevailed as the top two seeded teams in each conference advance to NFL’s Final 4 and play for a berth in Super Bowl XXXVII.

Revised Super Bowl odds have Oakland priced at even money and Philadelphia at 7-5. This week’s underdogs have longer odds with Tampa Bay at 5-2 and Tennessee at 6-1. Interestingly, the Titans are priced the same as they were when the Playoffs began whereas the odds on the other three teams have dropped.

Both Conference Championship games feature rematches of games played earlier this season. Back in late September, Oakland routed Tennessee 52-25 and in mid October the Eagles handled Tampa Bay, winning 20-10.

For a long time home teams were almost automatic plays in the Conference Championship game. From 1979 through 1989 home teams were 16-6 against the points. But since 1990 home teams are a very non-profitable, 10-13-1 ATS, including 0-2 last season.

The increasing amount of league wide parity has seen road teams advance to the Super Bowl with more regularity. It would not come as a surprised, therefore, if either Tampa Bay or Tennessee -- or even BOTH -- pull the upset this weekend.

In the meantime, here’s a preview of both games.

Tampa Bay (+3) at Philadelphia (Over/Under 34): Both teams allowed just a pair of field goals in advancing to the NFC Title game, reflective of how well their outstanding defenses have played all season.

The Eagles intercepted two Mike Vick passes, returning one for the game’s first touchdown while Tampa intercepted Jeff Garcia three times. Through 17 games Philly is plus 16 in turnover margin while Tampa Bay is plus 20.

Philadelphia has the better balanced offense because of a strong running game that has averaged 37 yards per game more than has Tampa’s. Both teams have top seven defenses against the run. Tampa has the much better stats against the pass.

Much has been made of Tampa’s historical inability to win in cold weather, a lengthy streak that was finally overcome in their final game of the regular season in Chicago. But note that even in that game, in which the defense pitched a shutout, the offense could manage only three field goals in their 15-0 win.

The lines maker is basically saying these teams are evenly matched, giving Philly the natural home field advantage of just over a FG. Both teams have won 13 of 17 games and both are 11-6 against the points. In their regular season meeting the Bucs failed to score an offensive TD but were still in the game in the fourth quarter, trailing just 13-10 until Eagle QB Donovan McNabb scored on a one-yard plunge with about eight minutes remaining. Their earlier touchdown came on a big pass play late in the first half. Philadelphia out-gained Tampa 269-207. Both teams turned the ball over twice. This game also figures to be a defensive war with few long drives and scoring opportunities. The play is on the UNDER.

Tennessee (+7½) at Oakland (47): Tennessee lost four of its first five games but since then the Titans have quietly won 11 of 12 and are considered by many to be the hottest team in the league entering the Playoffs. But Oakland is also on a roll. After soundly defeating the Jets last week the Raiders have won eight of nine with six of the eight wins by double digits.

These teams met earlier this season and it was more one sided than the final score or the final statistics would suggest. The rout was partially due to a pair of first quarter punt return touchdowns that enabled the Raiders to bolt to an early 21-0 lead which was extended to 31-7 by halftime. Rod Woodson scored on an 82-yard interception return early in the third quarter to thwart any notions of a Titans comeback.

Despite those three special teams/defensive scores the Raiders gained 464 total yards on offense. Tennessee’s 430 total yards are much less meaningful since they were gained attempting to come from way behind. Titan QB Steve McNair was picked off four times in that game.

Of course the Raiders are not 27 points better than Tennessee and a repeat of that earlier game would be a shock. But the Raiders do have some fundamental edges that they are capable of exploiting.

Oakland has a solid edge in the passing matchup, especially when the Raiders have the ball. Their trio of receivers -- Jerry Rice, Tim Brown and Jerry Porter -- are clearly superior to the Titans’ receivers, especially Brown and Rice in terms of experience. And despite Tennessee rushing for 10 more yards per game than Oakland, the Raiders have a significant edge in yards per carry, 4.3 vs. 3.7.

Titan RB Eddie George may also be less than 100 percent after leaving last week’s game against Pittsburgh. Yet, Tennessee will be a formidable foe. They were in the Super Bowl just three years ago and McNair is even more of a leader now than he was then. This is a mentally tough team as evidenced by their ability to win for most of the second half of the season, often rallying from behind. And let’s also recall that the Titans defeated Philadelphia in the opening game of the season. After scoring first the Titans fell behind 24-10 at halftime before shutting out the Eagles after recess and scoring 17 unanswered points. This game should be more wide open than the NFC Title game and with Oakland having most of the edges and more proven weapons they should be able to pull away in the second half. The play is on OAKLAND.

Super Bowl Odds

Raiders Ev Eagles 7-5

Bucs 5-2 Titans 6-1