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Conference Championship - Vegas Lines, Over/Under Picks, Predictions

Trends come and go in the NFL, but for the sixth straight season, both Super Bowl teams will have had a bye to begin the playoffs. The one and two seeds from the AFC and NFC flexed their muscles during the Divisional Round, casting away the remaining Wild Card contenders. We mentioned in our article for the Opening round how it was vital to avoid falling into a recency bias trap from what we would inevitably see during the Wild Card round, stating " I would like to discuss not overreacting to the market. Regardless of which one of these two teams wins on Sunday, there is a big possibility that the market shifts way too far for the next game. The same can be said for any of these teams that prevail during the weekend... Situations like these allow value to be found on a side that remained idle the week before. It is one of those classic situations of being out of sight and out of mind. Let's try to not overreact to what we see this weekend."

Honestly, that mentality is sports betting in a nutshell. When you think you have a read on a team or circumstance, the market has already lost all of its value. Betting is about being ahead of the public perception and shifting off of them once the price catches up with the reality. Public bettors consistently fall into the same trap week after week of thinking they have seen something that the sportsbooks have somehow missed. Almost as if the casinos have decided to be generous and give free money away. In reality, every matchup is different, and every game presents a different dynamic to decipher. If you are viewing things as a one or two-game sample size and not taking into account actual stylistic mismatches, you will find yourself falling into the same rut that drains most gamblers funds.

There are a lot of moving pieces to begin any NFL week, so I will update this article as pertinent information comes to light. Without further ado, let's jump right into the NFL's Championship Round.

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Los Angeles Rams vs. New Orleans Saints (-3.0): O/U 57.0

The NFC title clash is a rematch of a meeting earlier in the season that saw the Saints get the best of the Rams by a score of 45-35 in Week 9. New Orleans was listed as a 1.5-point home underdog, and the two teams flew over the total of 57 points. For the meeting on Sunday, New Orleans opened at -3 but has already taken some early money and been moved to -3.5 at almost all books. The game should see a ton of two-way action throughout the week, so it seems likely that the casinos will have less liability on this matchup than the AFC Championship tilt. The over/under opened at 56.5 but has already moved to 57 points. The more significant financial burden for the books appears to be on the total, and they will likely need the under when all is said and done.

After the games last week, the narrative around both of these teams seems to be shifting in opposite directions. The Rams' handling of the Cowboys seems to have resonated with the betting public more than the Saints' near hiccup. That makes logical sense, mostly considering the end of the season offensive woes we have seen from New Orleans since Week 13. However, it must be noted that Los Angeles has also suffered some regression as of late.

From Weeks 13-17, the Saints have fallen from first in passing success rate to 16th, grading out nearly nine percent worse in the final five weeks. Their explosive passing plays have also seen a steep decline, slipping from fifth in the league to 17th. The Rams have experienced a similar backslide of their own, going from eighth to 15th in passing success rate over the same duration of time -- which includes seeing a massive swing in big plays with their passing game, plummeting from second to 27th.

I believe some of this has to do with complacency from both units, but I also think the lack of weapons has taken a toll for both. Before that comment gets overblown, let me explain. For the Rams, it has more to do with the loss of wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who was injured during the Seattle game in Week 10. From Weeks 1-10, Jared Goff averaged 313.4 yards and threw for 22 touchdowns with only six total turnovers. Things have changed for him towards the end of the season though. If you exclude the Kansas City game during Week 11 and the final game of the season in Week 17, Goff has averaged 225.6 yards per game over his past five contests, which includes a total of two touchdowns and nine turnovers.

On the opposite end, the lack of a true number two wide receiver has stunted some of what Drew Brees has been able to do. Teams are more locked into stopping Brees, which has changed the gameplan for head coach Sean Payton and the Saints. Payton seems more than willing to give the ball to Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara and attempt to eat the clock away on the ground. While it has hurt the offensive statistics for the Saints, it is much less of a red flag when trying to handicap this game on Sunday than what I see from the Rams.

To take it one step further with Goff, his home versus away splits are very troublesome. I know New Orleans is a dome, and that will remove some of the weather concerns for the 24-year-old, but he is averaging nearly 100 yards less per game on the road this year, is down almost seven percent with his completion percentage and has only thrown 10 tds compared to his nine interceptions. The Rams aren't going to have their run game work on the road against the Saints' third-ranked defense in rushing efficiency, and Goff is going to need to make plays to win.

If you are worried about the Saints' performance against the Eagles, view the game this way. Philadelphia was able to apply pressure and get to Brees throughout the contest, which is why they encountered early-game problems. I believe the Saints were a little rusty from not playing since Week 16 and stumbled out of the blocks. While Aaron Donald and the Rams are considered a vaunted front four, they are just 19th in the NFL in sack rate and were incapable of applying pressure to the Cowboys, who were ranked 28th in preventing sacks. Los Angeles' rushing defense comes into the game ranked 28th in efficiency against the run, and the combination of large running holes and a lack of pressure to Brees provides an opening for the Saints to run wild in New Orleans.

Prediction: Saints 31 – Rams 20

Recommended Picks: Saints (-3.5), Under 57.0

I think an argument can be made that the Saints score 50 points themselves, so I am not sure how much I love getting involved in the total. I think the Rams could be in a position where they struggle offensively, but it is a tough market to enter. I placed a wager on the Saints when the market first opened at -3 and think it has a chance to get to -4 before the week is done. 


New England Patriots vs. Kansas City Chiefs (-3.0): O/U 57.5

For the eighth consecutive season, the second-seeded New England Patriots will take part in the AFC Championship game. New England (12-5 straight up, 10-7 against the spread) handily took care of the Los Angeles Chargers, leading 35-7 at halftime before cruising to a 41-28 victory. Similarly, the No. 1 seeded Kansas City Chiefs had very little restraint from the Indianapolis Colts, taking a 24-7 halftime lead en route to a 31-13 win. The Chiefs increased their record to (13-4 straight up and 10-6-1 against the spread).

The line has stayed put at Kansas City -3, although early money did take the Patriots as soon as the line opened. The juice shifted to New England +3 (-120) but has since moved back to -110 both ways. It seems likely to me that this line should stay about where it is all week, and we see the vig changed to account for any slight movements. The public will be all over the Patriots, especially on the moneyline, and it could create some value on the Chiefs. The total opened up at 59 for the game but has already been bet down to 57.5. These two teams combined for 83 points in the Pats' 43-40 victory during Week 6, and the public hasn't forgotten about that contest. As an interesting side note, during the previous seven AFC Championship games for New England, the total has failed to go over 57 points in any of those meetings.

New England has had some unique home versus away splits this year. They are (8-0) when playing at Foxboro but are just (3-5) away from New England. Those splits are not necessarily uncommon for an NFL team, but the lack of success on the road is alarming. The Patriots graded out slightly worse in offensive success rate during their games on the road, but the biggest issue has been their defense. At home, New England graded out 13th against the run and fifth against the pass. Conversely, though, they rated just 28th in success against the run and 18th against the pass in games outside of Massachusetts.

I thought the Patriots looked good against the Chargers, but a lot of that had to do with Los Angeles being in a terrible position. The Chargers looked like a team that was running on fumes, which would make sense given the fact that they were playing their third straight road game and second straight early game on Sunday. We have been stressing the fact that West Coast teams do not travel well on the road to play the first set of games on Sunday, but the general public continues to ignore the evidence. Road teams have a 45.2 percent win rate, but that number is reduced to 33.5 percent when a West Coast team travels East to play the first game.

The Patriots should be given credit for taking advantage of an ideal situation, but let's pump the brakes when it comes to forgiving all their regressions this year. Rob Gronkowski has been virtually non-existent for the team since Week 14 and has only caught five passes in the Patriots' last four games. He isn't right physically, and the team doesn't have many weapons to turn to after Josh Gordon's suspension. Julian Edelman and James White are the only two players producing as of late, and a two-man show will not get the job done against a prolific Kansas City offense.

Bill Belichick is a mastermind when it comes to taking away what you do best, so Chiefs running back Damien Williams will need to be productive to open up the passing game for Kansas City, but it is difficult for me to imagine that the Patriots will have enough firepower to keep up in this battle. New England may be able to dictate some of the tempo early, which could result in this game being slightly lower scoring than the public is anticipating, but I'd imagine that we see the Chiefs find some rhythm and eventually pull away late.

Prediction: Chiefs 31 – Patriots 23

Recommended Picks: Chiefs (-3.0), Under 57.5

With the public coming in on the Patriots, I don't think there is a rush to get this wager off yet. I'd hold tight and see if the books eventually shift off of three for any duration of time. If you do find a -2.5 in the market with clean vig, I recommend acting fast. That number will quickly be gobbled up and shot right back up to three. The over/under appears to be steadily decreasing and is a wager I would get in sooner than later. There is a cold storm in the forecast for Sunday's game, and the weather could be around zero degrees by kickoff. I do think the totals in both games are somewhat accurate, but there is without a doubt value in under 57.5. 


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