We're down to the Conference Championships, which is just like the semi-finals except you get trophies and everything for winning them, a carry-over from the days when there was an NFL and an AFL and never the twain should meet, until the Super Bowl that is.
Without sounding more like an old curmudgeon than I do normally in my columns, I liked those days.
Of course I like these days too, and last week's games followed the favourites’ script (the Niners did start the game Sunday at Carolina – which was a ‘pick 'em’ here on Friday – as slight favourites). That meant a four for four weekend straight-up, and a delivery on the sure thing as well as the Chargers helping out by covering the spread.
This week is tough though.
You have the two biggest home field advantages in the league, Seattle (noise and sometimes weather) and Denver (altitude, noise, and sometimes weather—though wintry weather is supposed to be Kryptonite for Peyton Manning).
Climate change is supposed to give us a balmy day in Denver and one without monsoons in Seattle, so it will simply be the old-fashioned kind of advantages. Like last week, the Niners match up well with Seattle, another team that's almost a carbon-copy, but Seattle has trounced them at home both times they've met in the Colin Kaepernick era.
The other matchup of course is Manning against Tom Brady. Manning's been the sharper this year, though Brady holds a big advantage in their previous meetings. Manning is actually 2-1 against Brady when playing at home—amazingly only three of their previous 14 meetings (10-4 Brady) haven't been in New England.
The Pats were 4-4 on the road this season, and didn't beat any teams with winning records. The Broncos, like the Seahawks, were 8-1 at home. San Francisco was 8-2 on the road, and have won two playoff games away so far. I'm inclined to go with the road dogs this week, so sure things may be quite thin on the ground...
SURE THING: New England (+5.5) at Denver at 1.91
The Pats have not been blown out yet this season, and they're a scrappy team who can keep games close. The Broncos are an explosive team whose biggest problems right now (secondary, with the injury last week to Chris Harris, and pass rush, with Derek Wolfe joining Von Miller on IR) are in the Pats' weakest offensive area, the pass game.
The key here is Julius Thomas, who didn't play when New England beat the Broncos in overtime in Foxboro. Even if the Pats' corners can shut down the wide receivers, Thomas is a threat in the middle. Last time the Broncos ran at will against the Pats, but this time the Pats may try to do the same to them.
VALUE BET: San Francisco at Seattle, over 39 points at 1.95
Yes these are two great defensive teams, and New Orleans at Seattle last week produced only 38 points with a more explosive team, but I would consider the possibility of these defenses creating turnovers and easy scoring opportunities.
The Niners have a habit of stalling in the red zone, because the space gets more limited for Colin Kaepernick, but they also have a big play ability. The last two times they've met have been blowouts that beat the 39 because Seattle scored so well.
OUTSIDE BET: San Francisco, match bet to win at Seattle at 2.65
The spread is 3.5, which makes this a pretty even match-up. Those two blowouts ought to go out the window, and if it is indeed third time lucky for the Niners, this would be a way of covering yourself at pretty good odds.
ONE TO AVOID: The over/under in Denver is 55, with the under at 1.97 and the over at 1.85, which lets you see what the smart money is thinking.
There is a lot of firepower on display—but there was last week too and the Broncos and Chargers combined for only 41.
I'd be wary here, but if you do love your over/unders I'd be tempted by the under.