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NFL Conference Championship Preview

   by Al McMordie - 01/20/2006

Don’t be fooled by following the money. Just because betting money rolls in on one side on key playoff games this time of year, doesn’t mean someone is in the know. A year ago, the money came in on Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship game largely because they were a home dog and 16-1. The Steelers lost at home, 41-27. In last year's quarterfinal round, the Colts were at New England, a team with a decimated secondary. The money poured in on the Colts and the game to go 'Over' the total. Neither happened as the Colts lost 20-3. And two years ago, few thought the upstart Panthers could go very far, until they won at Philadelphia in the NFC Championship game to advance to their first Super Bowl.

Ahh, the Panthers....And here they are again, one win away from their second Super Bowl. The image of Carolina in sports betting circles the last few seasons is that they are a team to back as an underdog and one to fade as a favorite. The 2003 team that went to the Super Bowl was 6-2 straight up, 7-1 against the spread as an underdog! In 2004 they didn’t make the playoffs, but the Panthers were 4-4 SU, 7-1 ATS as a dog. This season? Carolina is a perfect 4-0 SU/ATS as an underdog.

If you like to find money-line dogs that have a chance to win, Carolinahas certainly been magnificent under John Fox. The Panthers are 14-10 SU, 18-2 ATS as a dog the last three seasons. What is it about this Carolina team? First, they have talent. After that 1-15 season in 2001, Fox came in and rebuilt the defense, and got lucky with Jake Delhomme. The Panther QB may not be a star, but he’s been very good. Second, Fox also likes old fashioned, conservative football, which partly explains why his Panthers have been better as a dog than a favorite. It's often too much to ask Carolina to cover the number as chalk, since this team doesn’t explode offensively. Rather, Fox prefers to get a lead, and then go to the ground game to protect it. To him, a 13-6 win is just as good as 27-13.

But Carolina's underdog prowess will be tested by Mike Holmgren's Seahawks. Seattle has a terrific home record this season, where they have yet to lose (also going 7-2 ATS).

The big story for the Seahawks is health. Seattle RB Shaun Alexander, the league’s leading rusher, wasn’t a factor last week after getting a concussion. He is a big part of this ball-control offense. There are plenty of other side stories too. For example, Seahawks' tackle Sean Locklear will play in Sunday's NFC Championship Game despite being arrested over the weekend and charged with misdemeanor assault. Nice timing, kid!

Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers missed his second day of practice Thursday with a shoulder injury and is still listed as questionable. Carolina could use its ace on the defensive line, as the Panthers have played just about all season without DE Kris Jenkins. But I believe Peppers will be ready to go Sunday. Also, Carolina’s 26-year old CB Ken Lucas played four seasons with the Seahawks and will be facing his old team on Sunday. He tied with Carolina's Chris Gamble for the NFC lead with six interceptions last season. But the Seahawks, faced with salary-cap issues, decided not to offer Lucas big money.

But perhaps the best part of the NFC Championship game is the backgrounds of the two quarterbacks. The Seahawks' Matt Hasselbeck was a sixth-round pick out of Boston College, while the Panthers' Jake Delhomme wasn't drafted at all out of Louisiana-Lafayette. So much for those who think you need a first-round pedigree around which to build a team! Think about Jim Druckenmiller, Tim Couch, Akili Smith, Cade McNown and Ryan Leaf as you watch the game on Sunday. It’s not where you’re selected, but how hard you work at your craft. Good luck as always...Al McMordie.

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