Pittsburgh at Denver
Two very similar teams meet to decide the AFC championship and the lines out of Las Vegas reflect that. Denver opened and remains a three point favorite indicating that the Sports Gods believe these are two evenly matched teams with the difference in this match-up being home field advantage.
If you look at the numbers, that makes a lot of sense. Denver is a dominate home football team going 9-0 SU this season in the mile high city and is 12-2 SU all time at home in the playoffs. However, the Steelers have been equally impressive on the road, coming in with a 15-3 SU road record over the past two seasons. Both teams have solid defenses with each giving up 258 total points this season. The Steelers get the edge against the run (3.4 vs 4.0 yards per rush), then again, each team gives up 85 rushing yards per contest. Pittsburgh does pressure the quarterback better but DEN quarterback Jake Plummer is more mobile than Peyton Manning. Both teams are well-coached and, outside of the late and uncharacteristic fumble by Jerome Bettis last week, both teams take care of the football. The coaching match-up is a draw as well with little to choose from between Cowher and Shanahan.
Denver gets the nod here purely on the situation. This is Pittsburgh’s third straight game on the road, off a huge road win over Indianapolis, and this time they play at altitude. I expect the playoff grind, the emotional energy expended last week, and the lack of oxygen is going to take its toll in the second half. Both teams will look to play balanced football and avoid turnovers, but history, the strong home field advantage, the letdown off the huge victory over Indianapolis suggests that the Broncos will get the big breaks. I can’t take Pittsburgh with a horrible record AFC Championship games (Pitt 1-4 SU and 0-5 ATS under Cowher), I’ll take the Broncos in a low-scoring, hard-fought game.
Carolina at Seattle
This is Carolina’s fourth straight road game and third straight road game in the playoffs, so once again we have a good road team coming in to play a dominate home team.
This game opened at a neutral SEA -6, but early money came on the road dog moving the line down to -3.5 and even -3 in far off places. The reason for that line move is Carolina’s underdog record (dog’s cash more than 70% in Panther’s games as Carolina seems to play up or down to their competition) and what is perceived to be a coaching mismatch with road warrior Fox plus QB Delhomme (6-0 ATS in playoffs all-time) being favored against the inconsistent Holmgren. The casinos have been taking lots of Carolina money-line action indicating the public is betting the Panthers like they already know the final score.
The Seahawks ran the table at home this season going 9-0 but Carolina has been strong down the stretch on the road and 8-2 SU as visitors this year. Like the previous game, there’s not much to choose from on defense, but the Seahawks have the edge in turnovers as they tied Pittsburgh for the fewest (17) this season despite giving up three in last week’s victory.
The obvious edge comes down to the runningback position. MVP Alexander took 24 hours to get cleared from the concussion that sidelined him last week while the Panthers RB Foster broke an ankle and is done for the season. Nick Goings, Rod Smart, and Brad Hoover will have to carry the load this week for Carolina and the gap between a runningback that went Top 5 overall in fantasy drafts and three guys that were free agents for most of the season is significant. I expect Seattle to sit on CAR wide receiver Steve Smith this week forcing the Panthers to win the game on the ground. If the Seahawks let Smith burn them, they deserve to lose this championship. Carolina is beaten up after a very physical game at Chicago (7 players missed practice this week). I don’t think the Panthers can win another physical game this week. If the Seahawks can pound out first downs, Carolina will crumble first.
I believe the Sports Gods set a six point line with full knowledge the public was going to jump all over the Panthers. A 2.5 to 3 point line movement tells me this is either a trap or a mistake. My guess is trap, I’ll take the Seahawks.