Last weekend's divisional round was maybe the best weekend of the season, four games full of incident and all of them competitive, except strangely enough for the final one, where Indianapolis' 24-13 win in Denver was less competitive than the scoreline indicates. In contrast, Seattle's 31-17 win over Carolina was tighter than it looks, at least until Kam Chancellor's 90 yard interception return TD sealed the Panthers' fate.
I mention those two games because they factor hugely in figuring this Sunday's Conference Championships (or Super Bowl Semi-Finals if you're just joining us, in which case, bet carefully, like with a blindfold and darts thrown at photos of Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers). Both home teams, as top seeds, as deserved favourites, and both by about a touchdown. But the Seahawks' and their stifling defense are getting 7.5 points against the Packers, while the Pats' explosive offense gets only 6.5 against the Colts. That's the difference between a touchdown to cover, or two scores, and that could be crucial.
In the season's opening game, Seattle trounced the Packers 36-16, and with Aaron Rodgers hobbling and the Seahawks' getting offensive linemen Russell Okung and Max Unger healthy, as well as returns of key defenders Kam Chancellor and Bobby Wagner, you'd think they're even better than they were that day. Green Bay will have trouble getting Jody Nelson open, and the game may hinge on whether they can protect Rodgers enough so he's not forced from the pocket and has time to find receivers who may take longer than usual to get open. It's hard to see the Seattle defense making the mistakes I think the Packers would need in order to win. It's more likely Seattle's offense, which really depends on Russell Wilson's ability to create plays out of nothing, could make a mistake or two. Marshawn Lynch will get tough yards running, and Wilson will turn some bad situations into positives by scrambling for yards on the ground, or to find a receiver downfield on a broken route. Just what the Packers need Rodgers to do, only he's limping.
The Patriots ran all over the Colts in week 11 of the season, literally, as Jonas Gray, just promoted from the practice squad, had 200 yards rushing and a game that was close at halftime wound up a 42-20 rout. But the Colts are a better team now, especially on defense, and they've allowed only 23 points in their two playoff gamaes against the Bengals and Broncos. They stopped Denver by playing their version of Seattle's 'cover-one', with tight man-to-man coverage on the receivers and only one safety behind them. This allows for quicker run support, but makes you vulnerable to play action and to breakdowns in the man coverage. New England is hurting in the interior line, and the Ravens forced them to throw 51 passes, but amazingly Tom Brady is 3-1 in playoff games when he throws 50 or more times; the rest of the teams in NFL playoff history are 3-27 in the same circumstances. Again homefield advantage will help the Pats, who pulled out all the stops with trick plays last week against a team that was beating them up physically on both sides of the line. Indy can't do that to the Pats; they need to force a shootout of sorts, and though I don't think they will be intimidated by either the past or being on the road, it may be too be an ask.
BEST BET: NEW ENGLAND (-6.5 at 1.92) The idea that the Pats can win by only a touchdown and still cover appeals to me. I think their offense will figure out whatever coverage the Colts throw at them, and their quality defensive backs will be able to corral the Colts' young speedsters (TY Hilton makes big plays but has had drops; Donte Moncreif can be put off his routes—look for Revis on Hilton and Browner on Moncreif). If you think the Colts will respond to the late night cold air in January Foxborough and prime time TV they are 3.20 on a match bet, which might be your outside bet.
VALUE BET: SEATTLE (-7.5 at 2.02) I actually think the Colts will play the Pats closer than the Pack play the Seahawks, so getting better than 2 even giving more than a touchdown might represent the best value of the day.
OUTSIDE BET: OVER 53.5 POINTS (New England-Indianapolis at 1.92). These are two teams with weapons, and they tend to play high-scoring games, even when they're close ones. The only caveat here is the weather; TV ratings insist on this game late, when it should at least start in daylight, which would be the same for Seattle were they the late game. I ought to check on what the original over/under on the Ice Bowl was!