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Friday, January 17, 2014

NFL Championship Playoff Predictions 2014: Patriots vs Broncos

New England Patriots vs Denver Broncos: DEN -4 (Bovada)

Market Watch

When the point spread for this game was released last Sunday, my immediate reaction was to side with the Patriots. Las Vegas opened the Broncos as -6 point favorites, and to no surprise the "sharp" money came pouring in on Brady and company. The line moved all the way down to -4, but since then we've seen support come back in on the Broncos. The consensus line sits at -5.5 at the moment, but it's as high as -6 at some places, and as low as -4 at others.

The true line for this game should be Broncos -6.5, but that's not taking into account the "experience" and coaching factors. Essentially, the current point spread is pretty accurate and it's just a matter of which team you think will execute (or make the least mistakes) on Sunday.

So far, a whopping 72 percent of the bets are on the Patriots.

Keep an eye on

When it comes to breaking down the big games, we often suffer from "paralysis by analysis".  My write-up for this matchup back in Week 12 turned out to be a complete waste of time given what we saw unfold during the game. There were seven turnovers and a game-deciding coin toss in overtime determined by the wind.

The other problem we face is that these are two teams that you just shouldn't bet against. Handicapping the Broncos is extremely difficult because their offensive numbers go beyond anything we've seen before. The Patriots always seem to find a way to be more than the sum of their parts.

So which team is destined to cover the spread this weekend?

When I look back at all my playoff picks so far, the three I got wrong were all teams that weren't quite ready for prime-time - the Eagles, Colts, and Panthers.  Despite having a number of key advantages on the field and value on the point spread, they all lost to teams that had better head coaches and more playoff experience.

And this is what this game comes down to because nothing on paper suggests that the Patriots can keep this within a touchdown. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether or not Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are reasons enough to bet against the Broncos.

Last week the Patriots proved that executing in the "make-or-break" moments is what matters most, and we saw it in the stat sheet.  Brady only had three first downs on first and second down against the Colts, but he went 6 for 9 on third down. They also dominated in the red zone on both sides of the ball.

Can they repeat a performance like that on the road against a superior team?

When we look at all the meaningful statistical categories, special teams is the only area where the Patriots hold a clear advantage.  Yet, there are some important factors that nullify that.

Unlike in New England, the wind isn't going to be a factor on Sunday. The thin air also helps negate any net starting field position advantage they might have had. Matt Prater's kickoffs result in touchbacks 58 percent of the time on the road, but it goes up to 84 percent at home.

The lack of wind is also something that will aid the Denver passing offense. I worried about Peyton Manning performing under pressure last week, but his play on third down demonstrated that he's ready for this challenge (7 for 9 for 1 touchdown and 6 first downs).

With better conditions, a home crowd, and clear advantages in the air, someone is going to have to talk me out of taking the Broncos.

Bottom Line

For New England to cover, they'll need to win the turnover battle, control the clock on the ground, and get A+ performances from Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.  This is plausible in theory, but it's also asking for a lot of stars to align just right.

Even without Chris Harris, Denver's advantage in the air is too much for me to overlook. I don't see how New England is going to prevent Denver from scoring points. I respect Tom Brady a lot, but outside of Julian Edelman, his weapons don't inspire much confidence.

It might be worth waiting to see if this line comes down, and it always pays to shop around for the best number, but I'd roll with the Broncos at anything less than a touchdown.

NFL Pick: DEN -4.
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