The regular season is over, but the betting fun has just begun. Like they did all season, Rich Hribar and Raymond Summerlin are here to preview the betting weekend and hopefully make a few good picks along the way.
*All lines taken from the Westgate Superbook on Thursday morning
Rams @ Saints (-3.5) – 57-point total
Rich: After 19 weeks, we arrived with the four teams we would’ve expected to be left standing midseason. As we highlighted a week ago, home-field advantage is a huge factor as the playoff progress, and we had home teams sweep the board last weekend with all but New Orleans covering. Home teams in the Conference Championship have been on a scorching hot run, winning each of the previous 10 games and going 8-2 against the spread. The last time we had a road underdog win to go to the Super Bowl was 2012 when the Ravens beat the Patriots.
This week is also exciting because we’re getting rematches of the fourth and sixth highest-scoring games of the season. Rams at Saints was the latter, with the Saints winning at home 45-35 back in Week 9. The Saints have cranked up their defense since that game, allowing 17 or fewer points in seven of their past nine games, with one of those games being a Week 17 throwaway. But 57 total points is still a modest line and not an overcorrection to the 80-point game we had earlier in the season. In fact, it’s the exact same game total from that Week 9 game. Six of the past eight games the Saints have played have gone under the game total, but the one strong offense they played in the Superdome (Pittsburgh) saw the game total hit 59 points. I was buried by totals last weekend, so I’m a little gun-shy here, but I would lean towards the over.
As for the line, I mentioned in the open home teams have been hot and it’s hard to get away from the home-field advantage the Saints have. New Orleans went 6-2 at home in the regular season with their losses coming in Week 1 and Week 17. In the postseason, they are now 6-0 at home with Drew Brees as their quarterback. They’ve only covered in two of those games, but this matches the smallest line they’ve given over that span as they’ve been at least 4.5-point favorites in five of those six games. I wish we were giving a flat three, but you can buy that half point back if you’re uncomfortable with the hook. New Orleans raced out to a 35-14 halftime lead when these teams played in Week 9 and the Saints are markedly better on defense at this point of the season than they were at that time. I’ll swallow the chalk and take the Saints.
Pick: Saints -3.5
Ray: This looks like it will be a fun weekend with hotly-anticipated rematches of high-scoring affairs. I have concerns about both of these games reaching the lofty standards they set in the regular season, but history suggests the over has a solid chance to hit in at least one of these contests. Since 1998, the over is 23-15-2 in Conference Championships including 3-1 over the last two seasons. There have been 10 games with a total in the 50s over that span but just four with a total above 52. The over posted 5-4-1 and 3-1 records respectively in those contests.
If the over is going to hit, this game feels like the better bet despite two defenses which are better than they were back in Week 9. While the Saints did struggle last week against the Eagles and with Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback in the season finale, they have otherwise been on fire at home this season. They scored 37 per game in the seven Drew Brees started including at least 40 in four of them, and they hung 45 against these Rams, albeit without Aqib Talib. Before last week, the last time a Brees-led offense failed to score 30 in New Orleans was way back in Week 2.
The concern is on the other side. This is not the Saints defense the Rams managed 35 against, and New Orleans is set up to shut down the rushing attack Los Angeles has ridden the last three games. Losing Sheldon Rankins hurts, but the Saints still have a defensive line which defends the run extremely well in addition to an unsung hero in Demario Davis who helped them to the third-best run defense in the league according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Of course, the Cowboys boasted a top-five run defense heading into their matchup with the Rams last week, but the Saints are unlikely to give away what they plan to do before the snap this week.
New Orleans should be able to stop the run much as they did in the first matchup and force Jared Goff to throw into an improved pass defense. That is good news for Saints backers, especially when matched with the utter dominance of home teams in this round over the last five years and their own home-field advantage, but it does raise some concerns about the total. I would lean over, but I will just bet New Orleans and call it a day.
Pick: Saints -3.5
Patriots @ Chiefs (-3) – 56-point total
Rich: The AFC Title game is a rematch of a Week 6 game in which the Patriots won in New England 43-40. “In New England” is a crucial part of that statement because the Patriots were two different teams on both sides of the ball at home compared to on the road. New England went a perfect 9-0 at home this season as opposed to 3-5 on the road, averaging 21.6 points per game (18th) on the road compared to 33.8 points per game at home. That also plays into Kansas City’s splits, as they allowed just 17.4 points per game at home (fourth) compared to being sliced up for 34.6 points per game on the road (31st). The Chiefs haven’t allowed an opponent to score 30 points in Arrowhead in 34 consecutive games (including the postseason), the longest such home streak since the Jaguars went 41 games over the 2003-08 seasons. The Chiefs have had a poor defense in each of the past two seasons overall and still have been able to turn home-field into a major advantage. Tom Brady has played in Arrowhead just three times in his career, throwing three touchdowns to six interceptions in those games. This game has nothing to do with those past transgressions, but Arrowhead has consistently been a tough place to generate ceiling performance.
The Patriots are playing in their eighth consecutive AFC Championship game, which is just absurd. They’ve dominated the AFC and because of that have regularly hosted playoff games. This Sunday will be just the third playoff game the Patriots have played on the road since the 2006 season out of 20 non-Super Bowl postseason games over that span. That is also absurd. But winning on the road is tough in the NFL in the postseason and New England is no exception to that rule despite their historical dominance. The Patriots are 20-3 at home in the postseason under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady but are 3-4 on the road, which includes a 2-3 record on the road in AFC Title games, losing each of their past three.
This game total opened at 58 points, but the under was hammered initially as the weather in Kansas City is expected to be below 20 degrees. But with no expected precipitation or wind issues, I’m not really sure that’s a huge factor in overall scoring more than the home-field advantage in play for Kansas City. The Colts played an insanely bad game last week in both heavier wind and snowfall than what is expected at this stage for Sunday and we still had 44 total points put up. This is another game where I’d lean on the over, but not to the point where I’d go all in on it.
We’re going to see another road team win and go to the Super Bowl at some point and the Patriots can undoubtedly be that team. Their run of NFL dominance in an era that incubates parity is unparalleled, and it is unlikely we’ll ever see anything like it again. I’m not picking them, but I believe in their chances of winning this Sunday much more than I do the Rams. But at the end of the day, I’ll eat the three points given the recent heater home teams have been on in these circumstances paired with the struggles New England has shown on the road and let the chips fall where they may if the Patriots rise up to the occasion once again.
Pick: Chiefs -3
Ray: The great thing about Bill Belichick’s and Tom Brady’s nearly 20-year run of success is it offers a lengthy track record for bettors to study. Last week, it was easy to pick the Patriots and the over because of their history coming off a first-round bye. This week, New England’s road record in the playoffs, not to mention their struggles this season, make it pretty easy to go the other way.
To be fair, the Patriots have not been forced to play on the road very often in the playoffs. They have played just seven total since 2001 and only two since 2006. They are a respectable 3-4 both straight up and against the spread in those seven, but they have lost four of the last five including each of their last three road games in the AFC Championship game. It is worth noting all three of those losses came to teams quarterbacked by Peyton Manning including two in Denver, so perhaps one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time is more to blame than playing on the road. To that point, however, the guy they are facing this week is no slouch, and the Patriots have been awful on the road this season.
Now 9-0 at home following last week’s win over the Chargers, the Patriots are just 3-5 both straight up and against the spread on the road this season. They have scored 12.2 fewer and given up 6.1 more points per game on the road this season, finishing middle of the pack in both scoring offense and defense on the road. It is not like they played an easier schedule at home, either. Their eight regular-season opponents on the road combined for 58 wins while the eight at home combined for 64, and that is without counting the Chargers last week.
On the other end of this home-road conversation is the Chiefs, who dominated the Colts’ offense last week and have given up essentially half as many points at home as on the road this season. In fact, the Chiefs rank third in scoring defense at home behind just the Bears and Jaguars. They have held opposing teams to 14 or fewer points in five of their nine home games this season.
Like last week with the Colts, I have concerns the Patriots’ stellar pass protection as well as their elite coaching will shut down the real strength of Kansas City’s defense, and New England was in vintage form during the beat down of the Chargers last week. Still, history suggests the Patriots will underperform on the road, and home teams have simply dominated the Championship Round this decade, putting me on the Chiefs and the under.
Pick: Chiefs -3, Under 56
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