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NFL Title Games

   by ASA - 01/13/2009

We are now down to the “final fourâ€쳌 for the NFL. Each game is drastically different from the other. The NFC title game has an east coast team vs. a west coast team. The road team and lower seed is favored. The total is not far from a half a century. The field will be fast and the weather will not be a factor. The AFC title game is long standing, fierce rivalry of teams in the same division. The home team is favored and the total barely tops 30. The weather will definitely be a factor in this game. Baltimore and Pittsburgh will be facing off for the third time this season. Philly and Arizona also met in week 13 of the NFL regular season. Let’s see if we can pull anything from those match ups that may help us handicap these games on Sunday.

NOW: Philadelphia (-3) [48] @ Arizona, Sunday, January 18th

THEN: Philadelphia (-3) [48.5] vs. Arizona on Sunday, November 27th

WHAT HAPPENED: The Eagles put the smack down on Arizona 48-20 in late November. Philly put up 435 total yards while the Cards were limited to only 260 by the red hot Eagle defense. In fact, that was the last time the Eagles allowed more than 14 points to their opponent. That means this stop unit has given up 14 or less in six straight games. Over that stretch they are allowing only 10.8 PPG. Zona’ was shut down to only 25 yards rushing and they turned the ball over four times. They never had a chance in that first meeting.

That being said, is there much we can take from the first meeting and apply it here? Maybe not a whole lot. The circumstances are drastically different in this one. The first meeting was on Thanksgiving night, thus Arizona had to travel across the country on a short week. Also, they were off a hard fought, physical loss at home to the Giants. The Cards may not have had much left in the tank. It was also a much bigger game for Philly. The Eagles were off a tie @ Cincinnati and a loss @ Baltimore. Donovan McNabb had just been benched the previous week and a loss here could have sent the Eagles season on a downward spiral. The Cards, on the other hand, didn’t have NFC West locked up quite yet, however it was basically a foregone conclusion that they would do just that in the near future.

Now back to this week’s game. Arizona has benefited big time from turnover in the post season. The Falcons turned it over three times two weeks ago including a 25-yard fumble return for a TD in the Cardinals 30-24 home win. Last week, Carolina gave the ball away an unheard of six times and got away from their potent running game way too early in may opinion. The Panthers ran the ball only 15 times in the game while Arizona toted the rock 43 times. Who saw that one coming?

A few questions will be answered on Sunday. Can the Cardinals win if they don’t emphatically win the turnover battle for the third straight week? Can the Eagles buck the trend that teams tend to struggle playing their third consecutive road game? The Eagles are traveling for the third straight week which has been a tough spot. In fact, NFL playoff teams on the road for the third straight game are only 15-28-1 ATS going back to 1981. We’ll see on Sunday as the Cards host their first ever NFC title game.

NOW: Pittsburgh (-5) [33] vs. Baltimore, Sunday, January 18h

THEN: Pittsburgh (-6) [34.5] vs. Baltimore, Sunday, September 29th

Baltimore (-3) [34] vs. Pittsburgh, Sunday, December 14th

WHAT HAPPENED: Unlike the NFC title game, I feel much more can be taken from the two meetings these two AFC North rivals had in 2008. Both games were played with great intensity and both teams were as focused as humanly possible. The Steelers put both match ups in the win column this season, however they were decided by a total of seven points. They topped the Birds 23-20 at home in overtime and then 13-9 at Baltimore.

The game in Pittsburgh was played in ideal weather in September with a game time temperature of 65 degrees. Baltimore dominated the first half and led 13-3 at the break. The Steelers were doing almost nothing on offense and were down to their fourth string RB. Starter Willie Parker did not suit up, Rashard Mendenhall went out with a season ending knee surgery in the first half and third-teamer Cary Davis injured his ankle and was unable to return. Pitt went 50-yards on their opening drive which ended in a Jeff Reed 49-yard field goal. After that opening drive, the Steelers were only able to muster up SIX TOTAL YARDS for the rest of the half. The Ravens had just under 150 total yards at half time.

The Steelers upped the pace of the game in the second half and went no huddle, party by necessity due to their lack of a running game. The second half was the polar opposite of the first. Pitt rolled up 181 second half yards while Baltimore was held to just 95. The Steelers hit the endzone twice in the second half although one was a 7-yard fumble return by the defense. The game went to overtime tied at 20 and Pittsburgh hit a 46-yard field goal to win it. The stats were nearly identical with neither offense topping 245 total yards.

There were a number of similarities in round 2 @ Baltimore on December 14th. Baltimore again led by 10 points in the second half. The Steelers rallied for a 13-9 win on a controversial TD catch by Santonio Holmes with 43 seconds remaining. The Steelers had 311 total yards, however 92 of those came on the final drive of the game. Baltimore was held to only 202 total yards. Each team had two turnovers.

Speaking of turnovers, that’s probably what this one will come down to. The Baltimore defense has already had eight takeaways in their two playoff games. The Ravens have a whopping 43 takeaways this year (2.38 per game) and seven of those have been returned for TD’s. On the other hand, they have only turned the ball over 8 times in their last 11 games. The Steelers have 31 takeaways this season (1.82 per game) and three were returned for TD’s.

Another key to the game could be the “fatigue factorâ€쳌. An overlooked stat is the fact that Baltimore will be playing for the sixteenth straight week on Sunday. Their bye this season was back on September 14th! Pitt, on the other hand, has had two byes since mid-October including the first round of the playoffs.

There is some legitimate history we can look at in this series. The Steelers have had the big advantage at home winning 17 of the 21 games played there since 1990. The Black & Gold are 14-6-1 ATS in those 21 home tilts. Just as Philly is playing their third straight roadie, Baltimore is doing the same. Again the numbers on teams in the playoffs playing their third straight road game are just 15-28-1 ATS dating back to 1981. Again, we’ll see if that stands up this weekend or if Baltimore and Philadelphia can buck the trend.

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