By now the allegedly intriguing storylines for the AFC and NFC Championship games are already worn to the bone and have passed “Jerome Bettis is from Detroit” status as Stuff We’re Sick of Hearing About, while speeding toward “Jim and John Harbaugh are BROTHERS!” status achieved during last years’ Ravens-Niners Super Bowl. (Obviously coaching brethren is the hottest path to a championship, hence Dan Snyder hiring Jon Gruden’s brother as the new head coach in Washington.)
Before we get to the Super Bowl, we get a juicy double-header of conference championships. Manning vs. Brady in the AFC. Pete Carroll (and his nasty defense and young QB) vs. Jim Harbaugh (and his nasty defense and young QB) in the NFC. (They were coaching rivals at the college level too, ya know!)
Also: did you know that the New England Patriots won last week by having huge success running the ball? After a couple good games, it seems RB LeGarrette Blount is being fast-tracked to Canton for a spot in the Hall of Fame and Terrific Tom Brady has been relegated to the “guy who hands off to him” role. Meanwhile in Denver, the Broncos have been running the ball pretty well themselves, and the team that at one point was averaging 45 points per game (ppg) has looked pretty ordinary in averaging “only” 30 ppg over their last four games.
So, both the Patriots and Broncos are gonna use their newfound love of the run game to not only balance themselves for offensive success but also to keep the opposing all-world QB’s on the sidelines. And this won’t be nearly the high-scoring affair the oddsmakers expect, with the Total set way up there at 56, right? I don’t think so.
The Broncos offense still finished the regular season averaging 38 ppg, and their defense yielded close to 25 ppg (nuzzled neatly in the rankings between Tampa and Cleveland, teams that each finished 4-12 and fired their coaches). Now they have to play without LB Von Miller and their best CB Chris Harris (injured in the second half vs. San Diego, not coincidentally right before the Chargers 17-point flurry that got them back in that game). This week, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, they get a visit from scheming Bill Belichick, who always manages to zig when we expect him to zag.
The whole world witnessed the running-game explosion in the Patriots playoff win over the Colts, all that “both teams will run to keep the other QB off the field” talk ensued, and now here we are. But I think both teams will come out throwing. The weather will be perfect, and I can see both teams being aggressive offensively instead of ignoring their Golden Arm QBs and hoping a conservative approach gets them to the Super Bowl. Both QB’s are future Hall of Famers who will get the benefit of every call from the refs (from roughing the passer to pass interference), playing with their legacies on the line against two depleted defenses. Neither QB will take the “playing not to lose” approach, so it’s not a stretch to envision each of these teams managing to score about a TD per quarter. That’s 56 points right there.
And for all of New England’s well-publicized departures and injuries on offense, they still averaged a not-too shabby 28 ppg this season (not even including that 43-point outburst last week). In fact, the last four times they’ve faced Denver, the Patriots have averaged 37.8 ppg.
I can see either of these teams earning a Super Bowl berth this weekend. I’d give the edge to Denver, playing at home, as they’ve been the better team all season and still have enough weapons to outlast Brady. But that point spread of Denver -5 seems a little too much to give the battle-tested Patriots who are appearing in an amazing 8th conference championship in the 12-year Brady-Belichick era. While 56 is certainly a high Total, I still think the best bet in this game is on the Over. It doesn’t have to be 45-44 like that crazy Indy/KC wildcard game. A 30-27, 35-24, or 31-28 type of game gets this one over.
Just think, that Manning-Brady showdown is only the appetizer! For the headlining nightcap we get a third meeting between the 49ers and Seahawks, or as this rivalry has become: Ravens-Steelers 2.0. Just like those divisional rivals from Baltimore and Pittsburgh in recent years, these NFC West rivals have taken over that black’n’blue spot in our hearts. That place where we yearn to see two teams who play bone-crunching defense and reach the boiling point where respect nuzzles right up next to hatred.
This matchup promises to be the polar opposite of the looming AFC shootout, as Vegas has set the Total in this game at just 38.5 (with Seattle favored by just over a field goal). I won’t bore you with a lot of analysis or stat trends. This will likely be a close, relatively low-scoring game. Since my “Teaser” recommendations were so successful in this space last week, let’s do another one. (For the novice bettors: a “Teaser” allows you to move both the point spread and total 6 points in your favor, but both parts have to win.) So given these teams are so evenly matched and know each other so well… (Did you know they were so evenly matched? And knew each other so well? And are practically mirror images of each other?? Of course you already knew that.) Seattle could certainly cover the 3.5-point spread with a 21-17 or 24-20 win, or prevail by a FG and NOT cover the spread (or obviously the Niners could win outright). This is a tough game to predict, so let’s tease the 49ers with the Over (so you’d have San Fran +9.5 and just need both teams to combine for more than 32.5 points). That way even if they head to OT tied at 17-17, or even at just 16-16, you’ve already won.
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