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August 22, 2019

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NFL gaming: Vegas picks and preview of championship weekend

With favorites advancing, futures set up well for sports books

Falcons-49ers

John Bazemore / AP

Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman, left, makes the reach near the goal line past a 49ers defender during the first half of an NFL game Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016, in Atlanta.

Local sports books have spent most of the NFL season, including the entire playoffs thus far, getting pummeled financially in the rare year when the betting public has regularly succeeded.

Bookmakers can now find relief in knowing the season won’t end that way, not from a futures perspective at least. Not with the profile of the four teams vying for a Super Bowl berth in Sunday’s conference championship games.

The Patriots, Packers and Steelers were all preseason favorites to make it this far, meaning their short odds prevented any significant liability. New England vs. Green Bay was actually the most likely Super Bowl matchup going back to the offseason with the Patriots at plus-275 (risking $1 to win $2.75) to win the AFC at the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook and the Packers at plus-400 in the NFC.

The Steelers were the next team listed below the Patriots in the AFC at odds of plus-450.

Atlanta was the one true outlier, but its odds doubled to 80-to-1 to win the Super Bowl and 40-to-1 to win the NFC for a reason — no one was betting on the Falcons. So championship weekend officially has three expected guests and one party crasher.

None of them have the opportunity to trash sports books’ bottom lines any further.

Check below for betting preview and picks of both the AFC and NFC Championship games. The blog sits 3-5 against the spread picking every game of the playoffs following last week’s 1-3 record.

Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons, 12:05 p.m. Sunday on Fox

The line: Falcons minus-4.5. There’s a push and pull game going on between a select group of big-money gamblers and scores of recreational bettors. Right now, the latter is winning in terms of effect on the betting market. Money coming in on the underdog Packers from the majority of bettors has pulled this point spread down to where it opened last Sunday at as low as Atlanta minus-4. Professionals gobbled up that number on the Falcons when it was first posted, sending the line to as high as 5.5 before the public became more involved in the middle of the week. In theory, the spread might get popped up again before game time. At William Hill sports books, 67 percent of the total money is on the Falcons, though 68 percent of the tickets are on the Packers.

Click to enlarge photo

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) rushes for a gain as the Dallas Cowboys' Sean Lee (50) and Anthony Brown (30) defend during the second half of an NFL divisional playoff game Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017, in Arlington, Texas.

The matchup: That’s a strong ticket split in the direction of a road team that isn’t better than its opponent in any area. Many clearly think otherwise, but the statistics bear out that the Packers are indeed not better than the Falcons in at least any major area, lest of which is offense. The Falcons average an NFL-best 6.6 yards per play, with the Packers way back at 5.8. Even isolating for the Packers’ much-ballyhooed eight-game win streak, where many would argue they’ve morphed into a different team, the Falcons are still a significant .3 yards per play better. Atlanta has the more solid offensive line. It has the more proven running back in Devonta Freeman. Regardless of whether Packers receiver Jordy Nelson plays — and he probably won’t — the Falcons have the greatest pass-catching threat in Julio Jones.

They’re better on defense, too, though both teams struggle there. Pass defense will be of the utmost importance in an NFC Championship Game with the highest over/under of all-time, 61 points, and that’s where the Falcons have made up for their helplessness against the run. Atlanta gives up only 6.5 yards per pass attempt to Green Bay’s 7.5. A lot of that is the pressure packages dialed up by Atlanta coach Dan Quinn. Second-year edge rusher Vic Beasley quietly led the NFL with 15.5 sacks, 4.5 more than Green Bay counterpart Nick Perry.

All of these advantages are facts, but facts that don’t matter to Packers’ supporters for one justifiable reason — Aaron Rodgers. At his best, the quarterback gives the Packers an advantage that even oddsmakers have struggled to correctly quantify over the years. And there’s no doubt he’s playing his best during this win streak and run to within a game of the Super Bowl. But so is Atlanta’s Matt Ryan. There’s not a single all-encompassing metric, in fact, that would rate Rodgers as having a better year than Ryan. Anything can happen in a single game, but in this case, all evidence points toward the right team laying about the right amount of points.

The pick: Falcons minus-4.5

Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots, 3:40 p.m. Sunday on CBS

The line: Patriots minus-6. The number has stayed as still as the Tom Brady statue that will one day stand outside of Gillette Stadium. A few shops have bounced up from opening at minus-5.5, but the majority of local sports books revealed 6 initially and have remained at 6 ever since. Although the majority of early action is on the favorite, this matchup sets up to have less of a divide than the first game. There were sharp bettors who laid the points with the Patriots immediately. There were also recreational players who fired on the Steelers after riding them over the last several weeks. Surely the factions will continue to be split leading up to kickoff in a game where there’s plenty to like on both sides.

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New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount (29) is upended by Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Vince Williams (98) during the first half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Jared Wickerham)

The matchup: The AFC is currently as high as a 3.5-point favorite over the NFC in a proposition Super Bowl wager at sports books around town, and not without reason. These two teams have separated themselves as the two best in the NFL. Barring injury or unforeseen circumstances, the winner of this game will go into the Super Bowl as the favorite. William Hill currently has the Patriots as 3.5- and 3-point favorites over the Packers and Falcons, respectively, with the Steelers as a pick’em against both potential opponents. But if Pittsburgh knocks off New England, that spread won’t last. Football Outsiders’ DVOA rates New England as the top team in the NFL with the Steelers as No. 2, and that’s far from the only statistical model that labels these two teams as such.

What the Steelers and Patriots have that the Packers and Falcons lack, as well as the rest of the NFL did this season, is balance. Both AFC finalists’ defenses progressed throughout the season to complement their already-formidable offenses. In its first two playoff games, Pittsburgh has given up less than 5 yards per play. Dating back over the last month, New England has only given up 4.5 yards per play — the second-best rate in the NFL. While neither Atlanta nor Green Bay crack the top 20 of DVOA in defense, Pittsburgh is No. 4 with New England at No. 7.

The question is how much it will matter against offenses that have been as prolific at piling up production as these two. New England has averaged 30 points per game since Brady’s return from his four-game suspension at the beginning of the year, and only dipped below 20 on one occasion. It’s tied with Atlanta for committing a league-low 11 turnovers. If there’s one knock on the Patriots, it’s that they haven’t seen anything like this Steelers’ offense. New England faced the easiest schedule in the league by DVOA, including a 27-16 win over Pittsburgh when it was playing without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It was a 7.5-point favorite in that game and still racked up 375 yards with Landry Jones. The Steelers should be able to top that with Roethlisberger, who should be worth more than 1.5 points on the betting line.

The pick: Steelers plus-6

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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