The NFL’s Conference Championship Games are here and I’ll be breaking down both of Sunday’s games from a betting perspective. I recommended a pair of wagers in last week’s blog and finished 1-1 ATS, winning with a backdoor cover by the Chargers (thank goodness for onside kicks) and losing with the Panthers against the 49ers. With that being said, I actually had a very strong read on last week’s games. If I had bet on every single side and total using my predicted final scores I would have finished the week 7-1, but unfortunately, that wasn’t the case as I tried to be selective. Anyways, it’s still been a very strong season overall and hopefully I can provide a couple more winners before February’s Super Bowl.
Note: If you follow me on Twitter or have read my blogs in the past, you’re probably well aware that I love Tom Brady, hate Peyton Manning, and despise the 49ers (mainly due to their whiny fans that love to bitch at me whenever I pick against their team). I have done my best to not let those factors affect my handicapping of this week’s board. You may see some of those biases come through in my writing, but you can trust that I haven’t let those views influence my judgement whatsoever.
The Nickel Package Record: 49-36-3 ATS
As always, you can check out The Nickel Package podcast. Each week – even through the playoffs - Joe Fortenbaugh from the National Football Post joins me to analyze those picks and provide additional insight. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, listen to the player below or download the MP3 file here.
Recommended Wagers Record: 62-50-3 ATS
New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos
Friday Line: Broncos -5.5, total of 56
Public Consensus: 72% on the Patriots, 77% on the over
The Pick: It’s hard to argue that there could have been a more intriguing AFC Championship matchup than Brady vs. Manning. As I type this, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms are probably creaming their pants just thinking about this contest. Simms may also be trying to figure how to drink tea, but that’s a story for another day. This will mark the fourth head-to-head playoff meeting between Brady and Manning in the last 11 years, and will mark their second meeting this season after New England came back from 24 points down to defeat Denver 34-31 in overtime back in Week 12. There is a ton of history between the two future Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks, but guess what? None of it actually matters when breaking down this contest. I couldn’t care less about Brady’s 10-4 career record against Manning—this Patriots’ squad is worse than in years past, and this is the peak of Manning’s amazing career.
I’ve heard all of the arguments for New England in this game ad nauseam, so let me take some time to debunk some of these irrational lines of reasoning.
- The Patriots already own a victory over Denver this year. Who cares? First of all, that was a predictable flat spot for the Broncos, with that game wedged in between two games against the Chiefs. Kansas City had the AFC West lead at the time and Denver spent a lot of time preparing for those games. Even with the bad spot for Denver, the Broncos led New England in New England by 24 points! Think about that for a second. The game was decided by a stroke of luck in overtime when a New England punt bounced off of Tony Carter’s leg to put the Pats into immediate field goal position.
- Tom Brady is 18-7 in his career in the playoffs. Congratulations Mr. Brady. After an unreal 14-2 start to your postseason career, you’re just 4-5 in your last nine postseason games. Talk about an overblown trend.
- New England will be able to run all over Denver. The Patriots’ running game has looked stellar in recent weeks; I’ll give them that. LeGarrette Blount has put together incredible back-to-back performances against the Bills and Colts (355 yards on 48 carrries), both of whom happen to be in the bottom ten in the league in terms of defensive yards per carry. The Broncos just so happened to boast one of the league’s better run defenses this season, yielding just 3.9 yards per carry. To put that into perspective, that’s the exact same yards per carry that both the 49ers and Seahawks allowed this season. The Broncos just shut down the Chargers’ ball-control offense that had been running the ball consistently in recent weeks, so why can’t they duplicate that feat against the Patriots?
- The loss of cornerback Chris Harris will be a huge blow to the Broncos’ defense. I’m not going to argue against this point. Chris Harris is a big loss—the Broncos’ secondary was already banged up and now they’re down another body, but why are we suddenly ignoring the Patriots’ injuries on defense? New England is without their top lineman in Vince Wilfork, their best linebacker in Jerod Mayo, and two key cogs of their defensive front seven in Tommy Kelly and Brandon Spikes. If you ask me, those injuries are just as significant (if not more significant) than the losses of Harris and Von Miller, who was placed on IR late in the season.
At the end of the day, I’m not buying any of these cases against Manning and the Broncos. All but one of Denver’s victories this season have come by a touchdown or more, and that’s simply because they possess the most potent offense that the NFL has ever seen. Bill Belichick may just be the best coach in the league, but there’s no denying that he lacks the personnel on defense to contain the likes of Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker, Julius Thomas, Knowshon Moreno, and Montee Ball. The Patriots allowed the Texans, Browns, Jets, and Dolphins—some of the league’s weakest offenses—to score at least 24 points against them this season, so I have a hard time imagining they can do anything to shut down the Broncos’ offense.
New England’s only chance of making this a game is to match points with Denver, but that’s easier said than done. The Broncos have a plethora of red zone weapons, whereas the Patriots are without their chief red zone target in Rob Gronkowski. It’s no wonder Tom Brady only threw for 25 touchdown passes this season, after throwing for at least 34 in the past three seasons. The Patriots’ entire receiving corps has combined for 16 touchdown receptions this season—Demaryius Thomas alone has accumulated 14 touchdown receptions this season. Consequently, the Broncos have scored 10 points per game more than any other team in the league.
And then to top it all off, the Patriots were a disaster on the road this season. New England finished just 4-4 away from home this season, with three of those four wins coming by a combined 12 points in Buffalo, Atlanta, and Houston. Not good. The Broncos lost just one home game and that happened to be on a short week against the Chargers, who just so happen to have a head coach that was on the Broncos’ coaching staff last season. Denver’s seven home victories came by an average of 20.4 points per game.
All things considered, this game shouldn’t be as close as the media would lead you to believe. Most of the arguments in favor of New England are based on success from the past, but this is the weakest Patriots’ squad in a long time. With weather not expected to be a factor in Denver this weekend, I see this being a comfortable Broncos’ victory. Broncos 42, Patriots 27
The Wager: Denver was a 1-point favorite in New England earlier this season, which would translate to the Broncos being a 7-point favorite with this game being played at Sports Authority Field. Granted, Denver has looked more vulnerable in recent weeks but I still see some small line value on the Broncos. BoDog is currently offering Denver -4 (-125) which is just too good to pass up. Denver -4 (BoDog), I like Denver up to -6.5.
The Trend: The Patriots are 2-7 ATS in their last 9 games after scoring 30+ points in their previous game.
San Francisco 49ers @ Seattle Seahawks
Friday Line: Seahawks -3.5, total of 39
Public Consensus: 68% on the 49ers, 63% on the over
The Pick: While the world can’t seem to get enough of another Brady vs. Manning matchup, there’s a pretty good affair on deck in the NFC when the Seahawks host the 49ers for the right to play in the Super Bowl. By now, it’s a well known fact that San Francisco’s track record in Seattle isn’t very good (understatement of the year). The Seahawks have crushed the 49ers in back-to-back years at CenturyLink Field, winning by scores of 29-3 and 42-13. San Francisco was able to exact some revenge on the Seahawks at Candlestick Park back in Week 14, triumphing 19-17 with a field goal inside the final minute of the game, but this game isn’t at Candlestick Park. This game is in the Emerald City, where the Seahawks have won 16 of their last 17 games, and have surrendered just 13.1 points per game this season.
Granted, there are some differences between this 49ers’ squad compared to the two squads that were annihilated in Seattle in consecutive seasons. In San Francisco’s trip to Seattle earlier this year, they were without receiver Michael Crabtree, who has proven to be a huge weapon on the offensive side of the ball. Last year, Colin Kaepernick was still relatively inexperienced and the 49ers had some significant injuries on the defensive side of the ball. This is undoubtedly the best 49ers’ team that the Seahawks will have seen in the past couple of seasons.
With that being said, I hate this matchup for San Francisco. The first concern for the 49ers has to be the injury status of fullback Will Tufuaku, who sustained a leg injury in last week’s contest against the Panthers. Tufuaku took over for the injured Bruce Miller earlier in the season, and if he’s not at full strength for this matchup, the 49ers’ running game will take a significant hit. In my opinion, San Francisco needs to establish some sort of running game in order to have any chance of pulling out a victory on the road. Frank Gore was held to just 16 yards on 9 carries in San Francisco’s Week 2 loss in Seattle, but put up 110 yards on 17 carries in the 49ers’ victory in Week 12, including a 51 yard-run that setup the game-winning field goal.
San Francisco’s running game is exceptionally important because I have little to no faith in Colin Kaepernick to move the ball consistently against the Seahawks’ defense. Seattle limited opponents to just 172 passing yards per game this season—a full 22 yards less than the second best pass defense in the league. They also held opponents to a ridiculous 5.8 yards per attempt. The 49ers are finally reaping the benefits of having three healthy game-changing receives in Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, and Vernon Davis, but those receivers rely on being physical to create separation from defensive backs; a tactic that isn’t going to work against Seattle’s brute secondary. Even with this group of quality receivers, it’s hard to give the 49ers an edge, especially when you consider Kaepernick’s career numbers against Seattle. The former Nevada standout has played the Seahawks four times in his NFL career — make sure you have a vomit bag available before checking out his stat line: 53.4 QB rating, 50.5% completion rate, 136.5 passing yards/game, 5.9 yards/attempt, 2 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, and 1 fumble lost.
While I feel as though the Seahawks’ defense has a big edge over the 49ers’ offense, I don’t feel the same is true for the 49ers’ defense against the Seahawks’ offense. San Francisco has to deal with a tough, physical runner in Marshawn Lynch, who’s scored seven touchdowns in his last six games against the 49ers. Lynch has kept Russell Wilson out of third-and-long situations for the majority of the season, and is the type of back that is built to wear down opposing defenses. Seattle’s offensive line has suffered from numerous injuries this season, but they’re now fully healthy and should be able to open up some running lanes for Lynch.
There’s obviously some concern around Wilson and his struggles over the last month, but I still trust Wilson a hell of a lot more than Kaepernick. Wilson has thrown just seven interceptions in 16 career home games, while compiling a stellar quarterback rating of 112.8 at CenturyLink Field. Even with Wilson’s recent struggles, I believe he’s less likely to make a big mistake than Kaepernick, who faces a defense that’s allowed just 16 touchdown passes while forcing 28 interceptions this season. I also feel that too much is being made of the injury to Seahawks’ wide receiver Percy Harvin. Don’t get me wrong, Harvin is a superb player, but Seattle was able to make do without him all season, so I don’t see why anything’s changed here.
Last but not least, all of this travel by San Francisco is bound to catch up to them sooner or later. This will be the 49ers fourth straight road game (at Arizona, at Green Bay, at Carolina, at Seattle), and you really have to wonder if fatigue will play a factor here. Remember, the Seahawks were sitting at home watching the Wildcard Round of the playoffs and they played New Orleans last Saturday, giving them an extra day of rest over the tired 49ers. There are just so many factors working against San Francisco, making this another dud of a game. Seahawks 27, 49ers 13
The Wager: I think this is a really bad line. The Seahawks have a much bigger home-field advantage than most teams in the league, and at worst they’d be a pick’em against the 49ers on a neutral field. I expected a line of at least -4.5, but the public’s overreaction to San Francisco’s playoff run has created some great line value with Seattle. This is a classic case of buy low, sell high. Seattle -3 (BoDog), I still like Seattle at the widely available line of -3.5
The Trend: The Seahawks are 16-3 ATS in their last 19 games against teams with a winning record.