The Muffed Punt: NFL betting favorites fantastic when elite defenses meet

The 2015 NFL campaign ranked as the fifth highest-scoring season in league history, with more fireworks than the Fourth of July at JPP’s house. NFL teams put an average of 22.8 points per game on the board – 45.6 combined points per contest – and it was clubs like Arizona, Carolina, and New England that got them there.

Those three teams ranked No. 1 through No. 3 respectively in terms of points per game. But while those guys can throw one hell of a punch, they can take one too. And when breaking down the final four playoff contenders battling for a ticket to Super 50, the old sports adage of “defense wins championships” rings true.

The Broncos led the NFL in defense, in terms of yards allowed, with the Cardinals coming in fifth, the Panthers sixth, and the Patriots sitting at No. 9. The remaining playoff teams also placed in the Top 10 in fewest points allowed. Neil Payne, one of the number ninjas at FiveThirtyEight.com, says this could be the stingiest defensive quartet in Championship Sunday history.

The knee-jerk reaction when talking points for and against – at least when you’re a sports bettor – is gauging betting totals. And there’s some value leaning toward the Over when teams ranked in the Top 10 in defense (yards allowed) meet in the playoffs, with those games producing a 27-20 Over/Under count (57% Over) since the 1995-96 postseason.

But shifting focus to the sides in these matchups, football bettors find a massive edge for the favored team in these defensive dance-offs. Since the 2010-11 playoffs, the betting favorite is a remarkable 11-2 against the spread (87%) when two Top-10 defensive clubs clash in the postseason.

That trend includes three games from the current 2016 playoffs, with Carolina (-2.5) covering against Seattle and New England (-6) covering against Kansas City in the Divisional Round, and Kansas City (-3) covering against Houston in the Wild Card.

Those 13 defensively-sound favorites have scored 26.3 points per game while allowing just 16.2 in that six-season span, blowing away an average spread of -5.25 by almost five points per game. And in conference championship clashes between two top 10 defensive teams, which has happened three times since 2010-11, the betting favorite is a perfect 3-0 ATS while outscoring their opponent 22.6-16.7 versus an average spread of -3.8 points.

Putting that profitable trend against the matchups this weekend, it would look like New England (-3) and Carolina (-3) has very vague – but valuable – history on their side.

Three’s a magic number

Talking with bookmakers this week, they really want to stay on the key number of three this Sunday – which happens to be the spread for both conference championship games as of Friday afternoon.

And if you’re a fan of NFL playoff betting trends (if you’re still reading this column week after week, than you likely are), you may want those sides to stay at a field goal as well.

Going back to the 1985-86 postseason, conference championship favorites of -3 or less are a breadwinning 11-3 ATS (78.5%). Now, if those Sunday spreads should creep up to -3.5, don’t fret too much, with faves of -3.5 or lower boasting a confident 15-5 ATS mark (77.7%) in that 30-year span.

But should we see a -4 on the board come closing Sunday, know that betting favorites of -4 or higher are an asexual 20-20 ATS in conference title games since 1985-86.

War to settle the score

Last week, we looked at playoff rematches between teams that butted heads in the regular season, with three of the four Divisional Round games a replay of a previous 2015 matchup.

One trend we pointed out was fading teams that won the regular season meeting (or in the case of divisional rivals, the team that won the most recent meeting), which meant betting against Pittsburgh, Arizona and Carolina last weekend. That produced a bland 1-1-1 ATS mark – the betting equivalent of rice cakes.

Heading into Championship Sunday, the Patriots and Broncos are duking it out once again after Denver won a 30-24 overtime affair as a 2.5-point home underdog back in Week 12. Updating our rematches trend with last weekend’s results, and teams that won that regular season decision are 7-11-2 ATS (39%) and 12-8 SU since the 2013-14 postseason.

I smell Bacon…

It’s Friday, which means myself and Rob Cressy from BaconSports.com spit hot fire about the upcoming NFL games. I’m sick as a dog right now, with my immune system running the Prevent, so forgive any disgusting noises that come out of my face… besides my voice. Who am I kidding? Even when I’m sick, it sounds like honey.

Sharps like…

Over in Arizona at Carolina.
At this time in the season, the lines are about as solid as the Christmas fruitcake still sitting in your fridge, so you’re not going to get any massive moves. But the total for the NFC Championship has moved as much as a point, jumping from as low as 47 to as high as 48 with sharp money coming in on the Over.

As for the sides, according to Jason Simbal, vice president of risk management for CG Technology in Las Vegas, their “smartest play” – as to say a play from one of their most respected bettors – has been on Arizona +3. But since they’re taking some big bets on Carolina, the line really hasn’t moved.

Biggest decision…

Arizona at Carolina. Being the final game of the two, any parlays or teasers that win out in the AFC Championship will bleed over into the NFC title game. Not only that, but Carolina has drawn one-sided money this week.

“They’re all betting Carolina right now,” says Simbal. “We’re going to need Arizona. In fact, we’re going to need one of the dogs to win outright to have a good day.”

Daily fantasy Player of the Week

I grew up in a harbor town with more bars than street lights, so I’ve been witness to some classic “last call” scrambles. Last chance for romance baby. And that’s what the conference championships present: more last shot at DFS glory. After a season littered with duds, I’m going out with a bang. OK, maybe not. At this point I would take a pop and a fizzle.

DFS Player of the Week: John Brown, WR Arizona ($6,500)

The tricky thing about the Cardinals is that Carson Palmer doesn’t play favorites. Sure, Larry Fitzgerald ($8,000) is his main squeeze and single-handedly got Arizona to the NFC title game, but it seems like any week it can be someone different doing the damage downfield. Brown had some big games in 2015 and with Fitz drawing attention and Michael Floyd priced at $7,500, I see great value in Brown as a cheap – but explosive – WR3 option.

Injury to watch

Patriots linebackers

New England is very thin at linebacker heading into Sunday. Jerod Mayo is on the IR, Jamie Collins is a question mark with a bad back, and Dont’a Hightower is nursing a bum knee. Oddsmakers won’t move a line based on a single defensive player’s status – not even a guy like J.J. Watt – but they will respect cluster injuries at certain positions. And that’s what the Patriots are dealing with here.

Denver is going to run the ball after rumbling for 179 yards on 39 carries in its Week 12 overtime win against the Pats, and not having the bodies at linebacker to stuff that charge could be New England’s undoing.

We know how to pick’em

There is no pick’em line on the board or anything close to it, with both games sitting at field-goal spreads. So, if you’re still on the fence about who to bet on Championship Sunday, you’ve exhausted all your handicapping options, and kickoff is just minutes away – maybe just go with the team with the hottest cheerleaders.


Sunday’s menu

Ground beef was on sale at the store this week, so I bought a big-ass pack of it. And much like a QB scrambling for a first down – I’m a slider.

Song for Sunday

I got through this entire thing without mentioning Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning once… until now. This has been football’s Ali-Frazier for some time and while it may have lost steam with Manning’s recent decline, I’m glad we get one more round from these two heavyweights. So, here’s to Tom and Peyton…

Follow Covers Features Editor Jason Logan on Twitter @CoversJLo. Check out JLo’s Covers archive for his latest features and columns, including his NFL’s biggest betting mismatches for Championship Sunday.

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