Vegas picks and preview of conference

by Dan M | Posted on Saturday, January 23rd, 2016

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos
By Case Keefer

Through eight NFL playoff games this season, the underdog has won
outright only once.
The lack of turmoil may have frustrated fans drawn to the league
for parity, but it’s paying off with one of the most competitive pairs
of conference championship games ever. Only three times have both
semifinal matchups carried a spread of 3 points or less since the NFL
adopted its current playoff structure in 1990.
The 2015-2016 playoffs shape up as the fourth with the New
England and Carolina each giving a field goal to Denver and Arizona,
respectively, in their quest to reach Super Bowl 50.
Talking Points’ mission is just as simple: The blog would like
to get over .500 for the playoffs by hitting both games. After another
2-2 performance last week, I’m 4-4 for the playoffs to bring the
season total to 137-118-9 picking every NFL game against the spread.
Check below for a betting preview and picks of the AFC and NFC
Conference Championship Games.

New England Patriots at Denver Broncos 2:05 p.m.                                                                              Sunday CBS
The line: Patriots minus-3.
The bulk of the money is on the Patriots. The biggest of the
money is on the Broncos. That explains how this line has gotten
trimmed a half-point from the widespread New England -3.5 earlier in
the week despite sports books reporting swarms of bettors turning out
to take the Patriots. There’s not much of a history of home underdogs
in the AFC Championship Game. There’s even less of a history of home
underdogs in the AFC Championship Game succeeding. Since 1990, only
two other home teams have taken points at home with a chance to go to
the Super Bowl — the 2004 Steelers and the 1992 Dolphins. They lost to
the Patriots and the Bills, respectively. But the Broncos covered each
of their games as home underdogs this season, including when they took
2.5 points in a 30-24 win over the Patriots in week 12.
The matchup:
A light beer or diet soda would make for the most appropriate
presenting sponsor of the AFC Championship Game, because even though
the contest is billed as Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning, it’s a
watered-down version. The 39-year-old Manning couldn’t relieve the
sour taste left by his abysmal regular season in last week’s 23-16
victory over the Steelers, his first start in more than two months.
Although Manning didn’t commit any takeaways for the first time this
season, he still only threw for 222 yards and 6 yards per attempt —
about 50 yards and 2 yards less than his career averages,
respectively. And that was against an exploitable Steelers’ pass
defense ranked in the bottom half of the NFL. The Patriots are much
better in the secondary, with last year’s Super Bowl hero Malcolm
Butler transitioning into a true No. 1 cornerback this season and free
safety Devin McCourty stifling opponents with his versatility.
Brady, 38, is much closer than Manning to his peak but he’s no
longer the player who can take any spare parts and form them into the
best offense in the league. There’s a reason the Patriots are 22-14-2
against the spread when tight end Rob Gronkowski plays over the last
three seasons, as opposed to 6-10 against the spread when he sits out
or gets hurt. Brady needs help, and he seemed to have plenty of it
with both Gronkowski and receiver Julian Edelman healthy in a 27-20
victory over the Chiefs last week. New England was able to advance
despite no sight of a running game — injuries have forced the starting
job to fall to free-agent pickup Steven Jackson, the 32-year-old
former Eldorado High standout — but that could become more of an issue
against Denver’s top-rated defense in the league. The Broncos are the
NFL’s No. 1 defensive team against the pass, per Football Outsiders’
DVOA metric, but only fourth versus the run.
Matchups like Gronkowski vs. Brandon Marshall are probably more
important than Brady vs. Manning at this stage. They produce more
pre-game hype, too. Marshall, the Broncos linebacker and
Cimarron-Memorial High graduate who will often cover Gronkowski,
accused the NFL’s best tight end of frequently getting away with
offensive pass interference earlier in the week. But Brady vs. Manning
17 still sounds bolder, as the Patriots’ quarterback looks to cement
his series preeminence in what will likely be the final meeting. Brady
sits at 11-5 straight-up, 8-6-2 against the spread in games against
Manning lifetime.
The pick: Broncos plus 3

Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers                                                                                                                   5:40 p.m.   Sunday Fox
The line: Panthers minus-3.
The two teams that dominated the NFC for the better part of the
season are dead-even. That’s what this point spread is implying, with
the Panthers given the standard adjustment for home-field advantage
and nothing more. The betting market dictated Carolina get more
briefly, as it moved to minus-3.5 at several shops earlier in the week
before sports books found buyback on Arizona. If the spread is to
shift any more, it will likely go back in the Panthers’ direction.
Public bettors are getting behind Carolina to a much larger degree
than Arizona. Bookmakers faced more of a challenge with this line than
most of the rest from this postseason. They had nothing to base it off
of from earlier in the year. Somewhat amazingly, the NFC Championship
Game is only the third non-rematch of the playoffs.
Cardinals wide receiver Michael Floyd (15) catches a tipped pass
in the end zone for a touchdown as Green Bay cornerback Casey Hayward
(29) defends.
The matchup:
For a pair of teams that had more or less clinched the NFC’s two
postseason byes by week 10, neither the Panthers nor the Cardinals
were all too inspiring in their playoff debuts. Both their opponents
finished with higher performance grades by DVOA despite losing. Sure,
Carolina was impressive in going up 31-0 over Seattle in the opening
20 minutes but then it apparently forgot football games consist of 30
more minutes. It proceeded to give up 6.2 yards per play to the
Seahawks, which were nearly 2 yards more efficient than the Panthers
for the game. It was the fifth time this season the Panthers were
outgained, but they’ve managed to go 4-1 straight-up and against the
spread in those contests. The Cardinals were also at a yardage
disadvantage in their 26-20 victory over the Packers, which posted a
386-368 edge. Before chalking the discrepancy up to the two late-game
completed Hail Marys by Aaron Rodgers, remember that the Cardinals
received an extra possession in overtime that they converted into a
touchdown for the victory. Playing a team they blew out 38-8 less than
three weeks before, the Cardinals couldn’t mount the same pressure
defensively or ignite offensively. They only notched three
sacks-plus-quarterback hits and trudged to 5.8 yards per play, .5
below season average, with Carson Palmer throwing two interceptions.
The minor downside to Cam Newton’s superlative playmaking
ability is the predisposition it creates for him getting sacked, so
the turnovers look like Arizona’s more pressing issue against
Carolina. The Panthers lead the NFL with a plus-20 turnover margin.
The last team with a figure that high, the 2013 Seahawks, went on to
win the Super Bowl. Sometimes a margin that gaudy is written off as
lucky, but that might not work in Carolina’s case. The Panthers are in
the NFL’s bottom 10 in recovering only 47 percent of fumbles. That
means their takeaway prowess likely comes more from fielding a
secondary of ballhawks like Josh Norman and Kurt Coleman, while also
having linebackers athletic enough to excel in coverage like Luke
Kuechly and Thomas Davis. All of them will be locked in intriguing
matchups with the NFL’s deepest receiving corps as the likes of Larry
Fitzgerald, John Brown, Michael Floyd and J.J. Nelson have been almost
beyond reproach when clicking with Palmer.
Arizona still averages an NFL-best 8.2 yards per pass attempt,
though that number has gotten dragged down recently. Combined with a
significantly beaten-up defense, Arizona hasn’t been as dominant over
the second half of the season. The Cardinals are just 3-5 against the
spread with a plus-65 scoring differential in their last eight games.
The Panthers are 5-3 against the spread with a plus-119 scoring
differential. Either of these teams could wind up as the betting
favorite in the Super Bowl depending how Sunday plays out, which is
remarkable looking back to the start of the year. Carolina was 60-to-1
to win the Super Bowl before the season kicked off with Arizona at
30-to-1, leaving both with the chance to go down in history as one of
the longer-shot champions.
The pick: Panthers minus-3.

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