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September 16, 2014

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NFL playoffs by the odds: Vegas picks and perspective on conference championships

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

In this Oct. 7, 2012, file photo, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, left, and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, right, speak in the middle of the field after the Patriots beat the Broncos 31-21 in an NFL football game in Foxborough, Mass.

Like a defensive coordinator completely reconfiguring his blitz packages, public sports bettors are throwing something unexpected at sports books this weekend.

Which team is the best bet in Sunday's conference championship games?

Which team is the best bet in Sunday's conference championship games?
Patriots plus-5 — 29.5%
49ers plus-3.5 — 26.2%
Broncos minus-5 — 22.7%
Seahawks minus-3.5 — 21.7%

This poll is closed, see Full Results »

Note: This is not a scientific poll. The results reflect only the opinions of those who chose to participate.

They’re all over the two underdogs. Casinos generally accept that they’ll print more tickets on the teams giving points, especially in big games, but 2014 conference championship weekend is proving the anomaly.

Broncos vs. Seahawks remains the most probable Super Bowl matchup according to the sports books. Looks like gamblers lean to Patriots vs. 49ers.

Register it as another wacky trend in a postseason increasingly full of them. Three of four underdogs won outright in wild-card weekend before none of them sniffed victory last weekend.

That was much to the blog’s dismay, as a disastrous 0-3-1 showing set the playoff record back to 2-4-2. That balances my year-to-date NFL mark at 53-53-2 against the spread. Not pretty, but there are three games left for a shot to at least finish above 50 percent.

Read the betting breakdown of the final two below.

New England Patriots at Denver Broncos, 12 p.m. Sunday on CBS

The line: Denver minus-5. For the seventh time in 15 career meetings against Peyton Manning, Tom Brady comes in as the underdog. It’s the most points his Patriots have gotten against Manning since Oct. 21, 2001, when they upset the Colts 38-17 at plus-10 on betting boards. Brady has gone 3-3 straight-up and 3-2-1 against the spread as the underdog against Manning, but he is getting shorted here. The Patriots opened as high as plus-6, but sharp bettors ensured that generous price didn’t last long. The line got as low as a consensus minus-4.5 before sports books found some buyback on the Broncos. Manning is 0-2 against Brady since joining the Broncos, dropping his overall numbers in the rivalry to 4-10 straight-up and 5-7-2 against the spread.

The matchup: This game will surely come down to more than Manning vs. Brady, but it’s one heck of a place to start. The gap between the two legendary quarterbacks’ performances this season isn’t as pronounced as the common perception. Oh, Manning — with his snapping of both Brady’s touchdown-record and the 2007 Patriots’ scoring record — easily had the better year. But Brady has come on strong late. In Football Outsiders’ weighted DVOA, which heavily adjusts for the final two months and downgrades early-season performance, New England’s offense is slightly ahead of Denver’s. The Broncos are still bounds in front by the season-long metric, but the deviation makes sense. Since Week 12, the Patriots have outscored the Broncos, albeit by the narrowest of margins — 233-232. That’s conveniently where weighted DVOA begins measuring, the same week the Patriots beat the Broncos 34-31 in the likely Game of the Year. Brady had 344 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in the contest. Manning had 150 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

That’s not an entirely fair comparison, as Denver tasked Manning with protecting an early 24-0 lead while the dire situation forced Brady to bomb away. Just about everything from that game in Foxboro, Mass., is superfluous as the two teams have changed as much as a couple random kaleidoscope slides. LeGarrette Blount punched the Patriots into the AFC Championship Game with 166 yards and four touchdowns in a walloping against the Colts last week. Blount had two carries for 13 yards the first time against the Broncos. Tight end Julius Thomas led Denver in receiving yards against San Diego in the divisional round but didn’t play in the first New England game.

Absences will have a larger impact than additions. Denver linebacker Von Miller had a fumble-recovery touchdown and two sacks against New England in November but is now out for the year. The Broncos’ most consistent defensive back, Chris Harris, joined Miller as the fifth starter lost for the year in last week’s game against San Diego. They can’t complain any more than the Patriots, which couldn’t even feign surprise when punter Ryan Allen went down with a bizarre injury against the Colts. It’s just been that type of year for the Patriots, who have lost their two best defensive players in Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork, among others.

Pick: Denver minus-5

San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks, 3;30 p.m. Sunday on Fox

The line: Seattle minus-3.5. Veteran oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro, currently vice president of marketing for the South Point sports book, has an unsavory moniker for a line like this that bounces between three and 3.5. He calls it “occupational suicide for a bookmaker.” Sports books leave open the dreaded possibility of having to refund tickets on the favorite minus-3 while paying out on the underdog at plus-3.5. Like a wise quarterback against Seattle’s pass rush, oddsmakers try to dodge the situation. But sometimes it’s unavoidable. That looks like the case in the final game before the Super Bowl as books confidently posted Seattle as a 3.5-point favorite to open. The public vehemently disagreed with the line, however, in drilling it down to a field goal immediately. Big money on Seattle has forced some sports books to reattach the hook.

The matchup: Seahawks 71, 49ers 16. That’s the combined score of the past two times these archrivals have clashed at CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks gave 2.5 points to the 49ers ahead of their 42-13 trouncing at the end of last season. The spread climbed to three at the beginning of this year, and Seattle clobbered it just as thoroughly with a 29-3 win. It’s hard to say that history mixed with the Seahawks’ ascension to the best team in the NFL all season didn’t earn them an extra half-point this time around.

But the betting market is showing its doubts. It has less to do with anything Seattle has done wrong as opposed to what San Francisco has done right. The 49ers haven’t lost a game since before Thanksgiving, reeling off eight consecutive victories. One of only two against-the-spread losses in the span was on Dec. 8 against the Seahawks. The 49ers won 19-17 at home but couldn’t beat the 2.5-point line. San Francisco was a clearly superior team, however, with a decisive edge in both first downs and yards. Frank Gore gashed Seattle for 110 yards. The Seahawks’ run defense is the one somewhat susceptible part to the league’s best stop unit, which might be a cause for concern against 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who’s more openly exploring rushing opportunities in the playoffs.

The loss at San Francisco wasn’t on Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, who threw for 199 yards in the slugfest. That was actually his best yardage output in four career encounters with San Francisco. Statistically, the past two home games haven’t been nearly as lopsided as the score indicates with only a combined 116-yard differential in Seattle’s favor. Seahawks takeaways have paved the way to the pair of routs, as they’re plus-5 in turnover margin. A small-sample figure that high tends to regress, but it’s entirely possible playing in the NFL’s toughest venue against a defensive backfield that features Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor brings out the worst in some quarterbacks.

Pick: San Francisco plus-3.5

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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