BALTIMORE @ NEW ENGLAND: When it comes to capping NE games you have to ask yourself a different question. It's not whether or not there is value betting against them because on paper the books always inflate the line thanks to the fact that Belichick and Brady always overperform their stats. The question is whether the inflation is justified? In this case I don't think it is.
The inflation in this line has a lot to do with last week's performances. BAL didn't look all that convincing vs HOU and NE smashed DEN into oblivion. As a result the public is all over NE -7 this week with over 60% of bets coming in on that side. Early sharp money came in on NE at -6.5, but more sharps prefer BAL +7.5. Feel free to take BAL +7, but you can find the hook if you shop around.
In my final power rankings I had BAL slightly ahead of NE. After factoring in home field advantage NE should be favored by 4 points. BAL should completely own this game on the ground. Don't expect a lot of rushing yards from NE. If Harbaugh doesn't lose his composure then Rice should get the ball 20-25+ times and give them a chance at winning the time of possession. Keeping Brady off the field for as long as possible is the obvious key here. In the other key categories BAL is in the upper half in most categories while NE rank near the bottom. One thing NE's defense has going for them is their points-to-yards ratio. Only GB had a better ratio throughout the season. This is not to say NE's defense is a top 10 unit inside the 20's, but they do tighten up and cause some turnovers when they are needed most. The other significant advantage NE have is on special teams. They ranked as a top half team this year while BAL toiled away near the bottom all season long.
But is this enough to lay the points on the favorite?
Not at all. Most of the confidence people have in NE comes solely from Belichick, Brady, and home field advantage. Granted, it could also be people fading a guy like Joe Flacco. He is one of those QB's that always make me nervous, but there's no denying what his supporting cast is capable of. They are a much more balanced team than NE and if it stays close then they should be able to grind out a cover of +7.5. Their D-line ranks near the top of the league and will give NE's O-line a much tougher test than DEN did last week. They also rank high in red zone/third down defense. The key for BAL will be to weather the early storm and be in the game by the 2nd quarter. If they get down 10-14 points the momentum ball will get rolling and it could be an early walk to the showers. I'm betting that they'll be able to hang in there in a highly competitive game and keep it within reach right until the 4th quarter.
NEW YORK @ SAN FRANCISCO: For the most part I stayed away from SF games this season. Like NE they've outperformed their stats all year long. Alex Smith puts up mediocre numbers in the air, they rank low in time of possession and completed plays per game, and they are below average on both their O and D lines. Nothing in this recipe indicates that they will even win half of their games, let alone most of them. Last week I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to capitalize on this overperformance and ride NO -3 all the way to the bank.
In hindsight I would make the same play again because even with five turnovers NO was up by 3 with under two minutes to go. Not many people would have banked on Smith driving down the field under pressure to score the go-ahead touchdown. At the same time, when you look at how SF won you have to accept that it wasn't a fluke. There is a reason why they are overperforming their stats this year.
SF rank near the top in special teams play, red zone defense, completed plays given up, points from long drives defense, points-to-yards ratio, and turnover ratio. These stats are the hallmark of a well-coached team and collectively they are more than the sum of their parts.
Matchup-wise, they come out looking pretty good against NY as well. Gore should be able to get things going on the ground and SF have the best run defense in the entire NFL. NY have the leagues worst run offense despite their recent playoff success. Add in the fact that this should be a weather affected game and NY's slight edge in the air could be nullified. Advantage SF. NY's only statistical advantages come from the O and D lines. Usually this is a big red flag and cause for concern, but as I said SF have been overcoming this discrepancy all season long.
When you consider this is NY's third playoff game and second straight on the road vs a rested SF team then this pick becomes a no-brainer. The public are overwhelmingly on NY this week and that's no surprise after they took out the Super Bowl favorites in GB. They are also evoking memories of their prior Super Bowl run and most people are banking on a rematch with NE. All of this adds up to value on SF. Home field is no joke come playoff time and I think it will come into play in this tightly contested affair. I like SF at anything under a field goal despite my own disbelief in how they get it done. It took a while but I'm finally hopping on the Harbaugh train.