Handicapping the NFL’s Dream Final Four

Tom Brady and the Patriots vs. Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Colin Kaepernick, Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers’ nasty defense vs. Russell Wilson, Pete Carroll and the Seahawks’ nasty defense.

Yeah, I’m gonna tiptoe out on a limb here and say that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is pretty excited about how the playoff bracket has shaken out. OK, very excited. Perhaps overly excited. (Memo to the commish: You’re supposed to call your doctor if that thing lasts more than four hours!)

Anyway, let’s see if we can deflate some of Goodell’s, um, enthusiasm by tackling the conference championship matchups from his favorite angle …

New England at Denver (-4½, 55½). The case for betting the Patriots: They’ve won six of their last seven, scoring 34 points or more five times; their four losses—while all on the road—were by 7, 3, 4 and 4 points; they’ve won and covered four straight meetings against Denver; Brady is 10-4 all time vs. Manning (including an overtime win this season); Brady will face a Denver defense that’s without its best pass rusher and top cornerback; and, somehow, the Pats have kept running back LeGarrette Blount (431 rushing yards, 8 TDs last three games; 301 yards, 2 TDs previous nine games) from having to pee in a cup.

The case for betting the Broncos: Of their 14 victories, 13 have been by a touchdown or more; they’re 8-1 at home (average final score: 38-22); Manning is facing a patchwork Pats defense that in the last six games has given up more than 1,800 passing yards to Andrew Luck, Thaddeus Lewis, Joe Flacco, Ryan Tannehill, Jason Campbell and Case Keenum; Manning has the entire city of OMAHA! on his side; New England has failed to cover in four straight AFC title tilts; and the last 13 favorites of six points or less in AFC Championship Games are 12-1 straight-up and against the spread.

San Francisco at Seattle (-3½, 39½). The case for betting the 49ers: They’ve won eight in a row, including five straight on the road; they’ve held seven of their last eight opponents to 20 points or less; they’re in their third consecutive NFC title game, while Seattle is in its third title game in franchise history (experience matters); and Kaepernick is in another playoff groove, while Wilson (158 passing ypg, 4 TDs, 3 INTs last five) is in a slump that nobody wants to discuss.

The case for betting the Seahawks: Wilson is 16-1 (12-5 ATS) in Seattle; only three of those 16 victories were by fewer than four points; final score of the only two previous Kaepernick vs. Wilson meetings in Seattle: Seahawks 71, 49ers 16; the home team is 9-1 (7-3 ATS) in this NFC West rivalry since 2009; and the NFL gods find Carroll slightly less annoying than Harbaugh.

Predictions: Broncos 37, Patriots 24; 49ers 23, Seahawks 16 (Best Bet).

Last Week: 2-2-1 (1-0 Best Bet).

Season: 62-69-2 (36-36 college; 26-33-2 NFL; 6-13 Best Bets).

Matt Jacob appears Wednesdays on Pregame.com’s First Preview, which airs 10-11 a.m. weekdays on ESPN Radio 1100-AM. Jacob also appears on “Vegas Wise Sports” at 9 p.m. Sundays on KDWN 720-AM.



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