NFL Championship Weekend breakdown
For divisional weekend, we broke down the games from a gambling perspective, looking at line movements, betting trends, public sentiment and historical precedents as they pertained to the four contests. Left unanswered were the all-important questions of whom would come out on top between the betting public and bookmakers, and how much bearing the actual results of the games – as opposed to the point spreads – would have on the direction of the cash flow.
In short, it wasn’t a good weekend for the gamblers and that’s putting it lightly. Gut-punch is a more apt term for what the public endured up and down the Las Vegas Strip and offshore. First came Broncos-Ravens, a double-overtime epic that turned into the upset of the playoffs, not to mention the longest game in a quarter-century. Although the public was significantly heavier on the Denver side of the 10-point spread, the Broncos money line was the most prevalent bet because of its natural fit in parlays. Since Denver was considered as close to a sure-thing as there was and it was the first game of the weekend, the money line was omnipresent in parlays.
In a dizzying back-and-forth thriller, just when it seemed liked the Broncos (and gamblers) were going to escape by the skin of their teeth, a slow death came for all involved. It began with Joe Flacco’s game-tying bomb to Jacoby Jones with 30 seconds left, which sucked the thin air right out of the Mile High crowd. Then came Denver’s decision to eschew a potential winning drive on the ensuing possession and its puzzling conservative approach to begin overtime, followed by Flacco’s cold-blooded third-down throw from his own end zone later in the first OT to flip field position, and finally Peyton Manning’s decisive interception near the end of the period.
Just like that, the bettors were in the hole and the bookmakers were licking their chops. It only got worse from there, as the weekend’s most public team and heavily bet money-line underdog, Green Bay, proceeded to tantalize the gamblers by returning a Colin Kaepernick interception for a touchdown on the game’s first series and take a 14-7 lead over San Francisco before being run straight into the Bay by Kaepernick. If anyone had money in their pocket by Saturday night, it certainly hadn’t been passed to them through a betting window.
Suffice to say, of the above-stated “all-important” questions, the first was answered unequivocally once the 49ers went up by three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Indeed, the sports books would have been hard-pressed to finish the weekend in the red after that double-dose of devastation administered to the public. As for the second question about the direction of cash flow between bettors and the books, there are frequently scenarios in which there is no correlation between the outright winner of a game and the team that covers the spread. This happens mostly with favored teams, as recreational gamblers traditionally bet money lines because they feel more comfortable picking a winner as opposed to competing against the bookmakers. For example, if Team A is favored by six points over Team B, the public will usually play it safe and take the Team A money line. So if Team A wins by four points, although Team B will have beaten the spread, the public still wins.
If that sounds rudimentary, that’s because it is. I only spelled it out because the early Sunday game between the Falcons and Seahawks somehow found a new way to stick it to the gamblers. Because the line closed at Atlanta -2.5, the recreational bettors basically made one of two bets in an effort to recoup their losses from the Saturday bloodbath.
There were those who liked the hot team, Seattle, and therefore wagered on the Hawks money line. Then there were those who believed the Falcons were due to reverse their playoff fortunes and thus bet Atlanta. However, because of the 2.5-point line, the difference between betting the money line and point spread was negligible. It’s rare that a team’s margin of victory is fewer than three points, so to bet the Falcons money line was to sacrifice value in the name of insuring against the slim probability of a one- or two-point final margin. Of course, everyone knows what happened. The Falcons jumped out to a 20-0 lead and all the bettors on that side were already looking ahead to the Patriots-Texans game. Then Seattle roared back and went up 28-27 with 30 seconds left, seemingly giving those who took the Seahawks money line a most improbable hit. But a lightning-quick drive and field goal by the Falcons gave way to a 30-28 final score. Yup, whether you had the Falcons -2.5 or the Seahawks money line, you lost. Cue the gut punch.
If there was a silver lining to an otherwise nightmare weekend for the recreational bettors, it’s that the Patriots rather comfortably covered a 9.5-point spread and nearly hit the over on their own en route to a 41-28 domination of the Texans. That set up a final four that is nearly identical to that of a year ago, save for one omission (see: Giants fans nodding their heads sadly).
NFC Championship Game: 49ers (12-4-1) at Falcons (14-3)
So here we go, the Niners looking to avenge their home loss to the Giants in last year’s NFC title game by going on the road and taking down the top-seeded and having-just-now-finished-exhaling Falcons with a Super Bowl berth on the line. It’s not a surprise that the public – with its notoriously short memory – jumped headfirst onto the San Francisco bandwagon (or dove headfirst off the Atlanta bandwagon, depending on how you look at it). This was evidenced in the line opening at San Francisco -3 before getting bet up to 3.5 almost immediately and ultimately settling at San Francisco -4.
It’s clear nobody is giving the Falcons a chance in this game. Is that due to everyone overreacting to last week? Or are the Niners just that much better of a team than Atlanta? What if I were to say both the general overreaction and notion of San Francisco being the superior team were equally founded?
Let’s look at the Falcons. They drew a Seattle team playing a 10 a.m. game according to their body clocks on the heels of a second cross-country trip in a week. The Seahawks started predictably slow. Or did they? What was lost in the 20-0 deficit Seattle faced at halftime were the points they left on the board. After going three-and-out on their first drive and advancing 28 yards before losing a fumble on their second, the Seahawks proceeded to submit a six-play, 38-yard drive that resulted in a punt, a six-play, 58-yard march that ended on downs at the Atlanta 11-yard line, and a 13-play, 60-yard drive that again stalled at the Atlanta 11-yard line because Seattle had no timeouts left and the half expired. That says a lot about the lethargy the Seahawks were experiencing to begin the game. It says even more about the Atlanta defense given that Seattle’s second-half drives went thusly:
Nine plays, 80 yards, touchdown
Eight plays, 80 yards, touchdown
Four plays, 62 yards, touchdown
Five plays, 10 yards, punt
Seven plays, 61 yards, touchdown
Seattle may have scored all 28 of their points in the second half, but they had their way with the Atlanta defense in the first half as well. The scoreboard just didn’t reflect it. All told, the Seahawks amassed 491 total yards against the Falcons D, with Russell Wilson accounting for 445 of them (385 passing, 60 rushing). Wilson is a mobile quarterback who can also throw the ball very well. Who does that remind you of? Kaepernick, of course! Yes, but we’re not quite there yet. There’s in fact another quarterback built in the same mold as Wilson who happened to play the Falcons twice in the regular season.
Cam Newton, suddenly the sophomore-turned-elder-statesman of the mobile-thrower class thanks to the accelerated youth revolution initiated by Wilson, Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III, fared a little more than OK in Carolina’s two matchups with the Falcons this year. In the first, a 30-28 Carolina loss in Week 4, Newton threw for 215 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 86 more and a score with no turnovers. He was even better in a 30-20 win in Week 14, totaling 287 yards passing and two touchdowns, 116 yards rushing with a touchdown and zero turnovers. For those scoring at home, in three games against the two quarterbacks most comparable to Kaepernick (the Falcons also played Washington but Griffin III exited with a concussion), Atlanta surrendered an average of 383 total yards – with a 295/87 passing/rushing split – and three touchdowns to said signal-callers.
As for Kaepernick (or any quarterback whose primary perceived Achilles heel is his relative youth), there were two red flags that arose when assessing his big-picture potential: How would he respond on the road and how would he respond to adversity? On the first count, he established his chops by winning in New Orleans in his first road start, no small feat. He then stamped his street cred by besting Tom Brady and the Patriots in Foxborough in December, something anyone who has followed the Patriots for the last decade knows simply does not happen. As for overcoming adversity, throwing a pick-six on your first playoff drive and then proceeding to utterly annihilate a team many had pegged for a Super Bowl run qualifies.
The verdict: Atlanta has developed a knack for pulling out close games at home it has no business winning. That’s a virtue, but it’s also an indictment of the Falcons’ competition for not putting them away. Kaepernick and the Niners won’t fall into such a trap.
AFC Championship Game: Ravens (12-6) at Patriots (13-4)
Let’s get something straight right away: The Ravens don’t think they’re better than the Patriots, they know they are. History, metrics and overall success obviously tell a different story, but that’s irrelevant. Baltimore is unfazed by the mystique of New England, which is why this rivalry is unquestionably the AFC’s best and has been for some time.
The root of it all was planted on a Monday night in 2007, when the 11-0 Patriots went into M&T Bank Stadium as 18.5-point favorites (not a typo) over the 4-7 Ravens. Baltimore punched the Pats in the mouth from the opening bell and didn’t relent, with the game’s outcome altered by a questionable holding penalty on a do-or-die fourth down with under a minute to go that gave Tom Brady a second shot. The Patriots escaped, but they probably know they shouldn’t have. The Ravens have always known. Since then, the teams have played three times in the regular season (the Pats winning twice) and split a pair of playoff games. Take away a 2009 wild-card game (33-14 Baltimore), and a total of 13 points separated them in the other four contests.
Add to all that Lee Evans, Billy Cundiff and last year’s AFC title game the Ravens know they should have won, then sprinkle a little of the Ray Lewis farewell tour on top. The result is a vengeance-seeking Baltimore team so hopped up on emotion that all standard modes of analysis should probably be thrown out the window for this game. The Patriots may be the more talented team and playing at home, but they are well aware the Houston Texans aren’t walking through that door. The bettors concur, as the sports books opened New England as a 10-point favorite on Sunday night and the line has steadily dropped (it was at 7.5 almost across the board as of Saturday afternoon).
With that said, a team’s greatest strength can also be the source its downfall. The ’07 and ’11 Pats were an aerial outfit that, among other reasons, couldn’t seal the deal against the Giants in the Super Bowl because they were too one-dimensional. The Ravens’ strength lies in their emotion; they feed off it more than any other team. That has often suited them well against the Steelers, their divisional blood rivals, but it has also historically caused them to experience significant letdowns the week after playing Pittsburgh. The reason being that it’s extremely difficult to sustain that emotional high week in and week out.
The Ravens have been able to ride that wave of emotion through their wild-card game against the Colts and into and out of Denver last week. They are certain to come out swinging again on Sunday (the fact that they are six-point underdogs in the first half is ludicrous when compared to the game line of 7.5). But at some point it all has to catch up.
Against Indianapolis, the Baltimore defense was on the field for 87 snaps and lost the time-of-possession battle 37:32-22:28. And last week vs. the Broncos, they were on the field for another 87 snaps and over 40 minutes of a 78-minute game played at altitude in sub-zero temperatures. For some reference, the Baltimore defense allowed an average of 70 plays per game by the opposing offense in the regular season. That was the worst mark in the league (the team with the second-worst number, Jacksonville, was closer to the sixth-worst team than they were to Baltimore), and yet it was still a full 20 percent fewer snaps than they have averaged in the playoffs! The primary culprit for the Ravens’ inability to get off the field all year was their poor run defense, as they gave up an average of 31.3 rushing plays (third-worst in the NFL) and 124.4 yards (20th) per game.
Conversely, the Patriots have done two things better than any of their previous incarnations: run plays and run the ball. New England, which came within nine plays of breaking the all-time record for total plays in a season, averaged 73.9 plays per game, which was tops in the league (in ’07 they ranked third at 65.8, and last year they were second at 67.4). The Patriots also finished second in the league with 32.2 rushing attempts per game (up from 27.7 apiece in ’07 and ’11, which ranked them around the middle of the pack) and seventh in rushing yards per game at 135.6. In other words, the Ravens’ most glaring weakness is in direct opposition to the Patriots’ greatest strength. That disparity can’t be overstated in a game of this magnitude.
The verdict: There is no denying the Ravens’ heart. It has spurred them to this point and will keep them in the game. But New England’s hyper-paced offense and ability to run the ball will keep the Ravens defense on the field for long chunks of time and ultimately wear them down.