AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
Friday, Jan. 16, 2015 | 2 a.m.
The top two seeds in the NFL playoffs have only advanced to the Super Bowl twice in the last 20 years.
There’s a 54 percent chance, according to converted Las Vegas sports books’ odds, that it happens for the second straight season this weekend. The NFC champion Seattle Seahawks are a lofty minus-325 (risking $3.25 to win $1) on the money line to beat No. 2 seed Green Bay Packers, translating to a 75 percent win expectancy when accounting for the house’s hold.
The defending Super Bowl champions’ AFC counterparts, New England Patriots, come in with a price just as hefty. New England is a minus-290 favorite over No. 3 seed Indianapolis, implying a 73 percent chance at victory.
The Seahawks were a 1.5-point underdog when they rode the best regular-season record to last year’s Super Bowl against the Broncos, whom they crushed 43-8. Seattle would be the favorite, by 2.5 to 3 points, on the opening line if history repeats and it gets through championship weekend along with New England.
Check out Talking Points’ full preview and picks for Sunday’s semifinals below. We’re looking for a comeback after a 1-3 showing last week, bringing the playoff record to 4-4. For the season, we're still sitting at a respectable 136-124-4 picking every game.
Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks; 12:05 p.m. on Fox
The line: Seahawks minus-7.5. For the 34th time in 37 games over the last two years, Seattle enters as a favorite. It’s also the 17th time since the start of last season that it’s given more than a touchdown on the betting line, including for the fifth consecutive game. The streak didn’t have to extend into the NFC Championship Game. Early action pushed Seattle above minus-7, where it opened last Sunday after Green Bay defeated Dallas 26-21 in failing to cover the 5.5-point spread. The money rush on the Seahawks has tailed off with sports books like William Hill and Wynn positioning at minus-7. But most shops have solidified at 7.5 all week. The Seahawks have gone 15-2 straight-up and 9-7-1 against the spread when giving more than a touchdown since the start of the 2013 season. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers has never come into a game as an underdog of more than a touchdown.
The matchup: Now feels a relevant time to beckon back to last season when Rodgers missed nearly half of the year with a broken collarbone. The Packers went 2-6 straight-up, 1-7 against the spread in the games without Rodgers as opposed to 6-3 straight-up and against the spread when he was under center. The incident all but confirmed Rodgers was the most important player in the NFL on the point spread, an idea this year’s playoffs have again demonstrated. Rodgers’ torn left calf is the reason the number ballooned to 7.5. Give Green Bay a healthy Rodgers and the line is closer to the 4.5 points Seattle laid at CenturyLink Field in the season opener between these two teams in September.
The Seahawks thumped the Packers 36-16 in that game with Bobby Wagner, Michael Bennett and the rest of their defensive front dictating the action. They limited the Packers to three field goals and less than 4.5 yards per play after the first quarter. And the defense has only gotten better, becoming just the second team ever to finish first in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA in back-to-back years. But have they really improved? Carolina moved the ball rather efficiently last week, slightly outgaining Seattle despite losing 31-17 and failing to cover the 13-point spread, especially on the ground. The Panthers gained 4.4 yards per carry before falling behind and having to stray from the game plan.
Seattle pulled away with three turnovers, interceptions by Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman to go with a fumble recovery by Tony McDaniel. The Seahawks have been opportunistic all season, with a plus-9 turnover margin. That’s fourth in the NFL trailing the leading Packers at plus-14. There’s evidence on both sides of the debate over how much Rodgers’ injury is affecting him. He looked hampered in the first half against the Cowboys, completing nine of 16 passes for 96 yards, but unaffected with a 226-yard breakout on 15-for-20 passing in the second. Fading Rodgers is a risky proposition. He’s 66-36-1 against the spread for his career. Seattle’s Russell Wilson is perhaps the only quarterback more profitable at 36-17-1 against the spread throughout his three-year career.
The pick: Packers plus-7.5
Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots; 3:40 p.m. on CBS
The line: Patriots minus-7. Calling seven “the line” is as debatable as the rules surrounding Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s substitutions for his four-lineman trickery in last week’s 35-31 win over the Ravens as 7-point favorites. The full touchdown and extra point are available at a couple sports books dispersed throughout the valley, but the majority are holding firm at New England minus-6.5. The market arrived at the consensus number through something that hadn’t happened in the previous two weeks of the playoffs and even rarely in the regular season — early money on the Colts. Indianapolis’ third straight cover, a 24-13 victory at Denver as 9.5-point underdogs, must have eased a collection of big bettors’ minds about trusting the Colts. They got the initial surge, but action is now evening out with more tickets on the Patriots. The number closing back at seven is a possibility even though it’s not widely available at the moment, making its inclusion as legal as Belichick’s formations.
The matchup: No team has ever embodied its owner’s surname better than the Patriots last week at Gillette Stadium. With Robert Kraft stationed in his usual suite, New England got straight crafty to conquer a familiar nuisance and reach its fourth straight AFC Championship Game. The much discussed plays slotting running back Shane Vereen and tight end Michael Hoomanawauni as de facto linemen to extend drives are just a single example of how the Patriots erased two separate 14-point deficits. They also entirely ditched an ineffective ground game, not giving any running back a single carry in the second half. It was a shrewd strategy that that’s frustratingly unpopular in the NFL where several cling to the archaic fascination with “establishing the run.”
Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, who had a weekend-high 367 yards with three touchdowns on 33-for-50 passing, have needed no such gimmicks against the Colts lately. New England has encountered Indianapolis three times since coach Chuck Pagano and quarterback Andrew Luck took over, winning every meeting by at least 21 points. The latest was week 11 of this season when the Colts were a field-goal favorite at home, but got walloped 42-20. Indianapolis is 7-1 straight-up, 5-2-1 against the spread since the defeat. The Colts stand alone as the league’s most profitable team to bet on this season with a 12-5-1 against the spread record.
They’re not without their issues. Indianapolis rates 27th in the league in rushing, according to DVOA. The failed progression of Trent Richardson, who was inactive last week, is often blamed but the Colts’ offensive line is also porous. Stopping the run is just as much of a concern as New England outrushed them by 227 yards in the first meeting this season. The Patriots have their own problems up front. Center Bryan Stork is listed as questionable, though trending towards doubtful with no practice participation, after hurting his knee against Baltimore. The rookie arguably trails only Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski as the most important player on the Patriots’ offense given their blocking struggles before his emergence. Stork snagged the starting job just as the Patriots went on their mid-season seven-game winning streak. Although New England is 4-2 straight-up since, it’s only 2-4 against the spread.
The pick: Colts plus-7