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Friday, Jan 20

   by Larry Ness - 01/20/2006

Kobe scored 51 points last night in Sacramento (his third 50-plus game this year) but it didn't stop the Lakers from blowing a five-point lead over the last 35 seconds of regulation. LA lost 118-109 in OT and tonight plays in Phoenix against the Suns, as the second half of ESPN's NBA doubleheader (10:35 ET). The Spurs visit Miami to take on the Heat at 8:05 ET in the first half of that doubleheader, as these two marquee games highlight a 13-game NBA card for Friday.

My free play for Friday is in the NBA. Take the Mia Heat over the SA Spurs at 8:05 ET. Although it's a HUGE NBA card on Friday, I'm playing just ONE game. It's my Situational Game of the Month. Get it NOW!

The Spurs own the league's second-best record at 30-9 and enter having won nine of 11 and SEVEN of their last eight versus the Heat, including a 98-84 win in San Antonio back on December 12. Shaq was not yet back for Miami in that one but he'll be ready tonight, as will Dwayne Wade, who is expected to play despite some ankle problems. However, those problems haven't kept him from scoring 30 or more points in FOUR of his last five games. The Heat are 13-6 since Shaq returned to the lineup, including 5-1 at home (just 3-3 ATS). The Spurs are 11-7 SU and 7-10-1 ATS on the road. The Heat are a three-point favorite with a total of 187 1/2.

Phoenix has won all five meetings with the Lakers (averaging 115 PPG) since Shaq left for Miami, after going 8-24 in the Shaq-era (averaging 95 PPG). Phoenix is still the league's top-scoring team this year (105.2 PPG) even with Stoudemire out plus Johnson and Richardson elsewhere. More impressively, the Suns have cut their defensive average this year by a little over four PPG and the team's point-differential of plus-6.1 is topped by only San Antonio and Detroit. After an 0-3 start at home this season, the Suns have gone 15-3 SU and 11-7 ATS but while the Lakers are just 11-10 SU on the road, they are 14-7 ATS. Phoenix is favored by eight points and the total is 209.

It's the NFL's version of the "Final Four" this Sunday, as Pittsburgh takes on Denver in the AFC title game and Carolina is in Seattle for the NFC title game. Denver and Seattle were the league's only two teams to go through the regular season unbeaten at home and after winning home games last weekend, can advance to the Super Bowl by "holding serve" one more time. For either Carolina or Pittsburgh to advance to the Super Bowl, they would have to join the 1985 New England Patriots, who are the only team to have ever advanced to a Super Bowl by winning three straight road playoff games!

Home teams have gone 46-24 SU and 39-29-2 ATS since the 1970 merger in championship games. However, after going 16-4 SU and 15-5 ATS during the 1980s, things have changed since the league went to a 12-team playoff format in 1990 (any connection?).

Over the last 30 championship games, home teams are just 17-13 SU, with visiting teams 'covering' 17 of the 30 games, including 11 of the last 16. Going back to 1970, these title games haven't been close. In fact, exactly half (35 of 70) have been decided by 14 points or more! All SIX of the games the last three years have been decided by double digits, as have EIGHT of the last 10!

Since 1990, home teams have won both games four times but not once since 1996. Visiting teams swept both championship games in both 1992 (Buffalo and Dallas) and 1997 (Denver and Green Bay). Since 1998, the last seven years have seen one visiting team and one home team advance to the Super Bowl (the ball's in your court!).

In the AFC, Pittsburgh is the first No. 6 seed (since 1990) to advance to a conference title game. The Steelers broke a string of 10 consecutive No. 6 seeds that lost in the divisional round when they beat the Colts last Sunday, so why can't they win here? Cowher had been 0-3 in playoff road games prior to this year but has now won two straight, so maybe being on the road for this title game is a good thing?

Especially when you consider he's 1-4 in five previous AFC title games (all at home!). However, the Broncos are not only 9-0 at home this year after beating the Patriots, but they are 12-2 all-time at home in the playoffs plus 6-1 in seven previous AFC title games (4-0 at home!). Denver is favored by three points with a total of 41.

In the NFC, Carolina is a No. 5 seed and the Panthers are just the third No. 5 seed (since 1990) to advance to a conference title game (first in the NFC). Both previous No. 5 seeds lost, the Colts 20-16 to the Steelers in 1995 (but they covered) and the Jaguars 20-6 to the Patriots in 1996 (they didn't). In the Panthers favor is Steve Smith (the playoff MVP to this point) and Jake Delhomme (5-1 as a starter in the playoffs), including an NFL record-tying FOUR playoff road wins (matching Len Dawson and Roger Staubach).

Seattle is at home but the Seahawks are playing in just their 2nd title game in 30 years, while the Panthers are playing in their 3rd title game in their 11-year history. With the AFC's No. 1 seed gone (Indy), a loss by Seattle would give us just our second Super Bowl since 1990 (and first since 1997), without ONE of the two No. 1 seeds. Seattle is favored by 3 1/2 points with a total of 43 1/2.

Ness Notes is available Monday through Friday by 1:00 ET. On Saturday and Sunday, it's available at 7:00 ET.

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