NFC Conference Championship betting preview

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We’re down to the final four. We should have a great Sunday of NFL action this weekend, starting with the Packers vs. the Buccaneers and wrapping up with the Chiefs vs. the Bills.

One thing that stands out to me is that this is a battle of the old guard and a battle of the new at the quarterback position. On the NFC side, we’ve got two absolute legends squaring off in Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. Brady has solidified himself as the clear NFL GOAT, while Aaron Rodgers is likely to take home his third MVP award this season. These will go down as two of the best to ever do it, so watching them squaring off with a Super Bowl berth on the line should be a blast.

On the AFC side, we’re watching the future of the quarterback position. Patrick Mahomes has already built an impressive resume in just his third full season, and he seemed destined for stardom the first time he took an NFL field. Josh Allen’s journey has been a bit more circuitous, but he has the Bills on the verge of the Super Bowl for the first time in nearly 30 years.

Whoever wins these two matchups will set up what is sure to be an entertaining Super Bowl.

Of course, Conference Championship weekend does mean we have just three betting opportunities left for the NFL season, so let’s make sure we take advantage. This piece will focus on the NFC Championship, while Geoff Ulrich will handle the AFC side.

Let’s dive right in.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Green Bay Packers (-3.5) — 51.0 total

Moneylines: Buccaneers +156/Packers -175

My initial reaction when I saw this game was “why are the Packers only favored by 3.5?” They were thoroughly dominant vs. the Rams, just as they have been for most of the season. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers limped past Washington — who was playing without their starting quarterback — and got an absolute gift from Drew Brees and the Saints last week. The Bucs won that game relatively easily, but that tends to happen when you win the turnover battle 4-0 and score 21 points off turnovers.

With that in mind, I thought the Packers would be larger favorites. They’ve been the best team in the NFC this season, and they also have the benefit of home-field advantage. Unsurprisingly, the Packers have seen a slight edge in terms of spread bets (58%) and dollars (58%) to start the week.

However, there are two major factors that are pushing some in the direction of the Buccaneers.

First, the Bucs absolutely dominated the Packers in their first meeting this season. They managed to win that game 38-10, although it was played in Tampa Bay as opposed to Green Bay. The Packers jumped out to an early 10-0 lead, but the Bucs rattled off 38 unanswered points en route to an easy victory. The Packers finished with just 201 yards of total offense in that contest, which was their worst output of the entire season.

The Buccaneers’ defensive line made life a living hell for Aaron Rodgers in that matchup. They pressured him on a whopping 43.1 of his dropbacks, resulting in five sacks and two interceptions. Rodgers threw just five picks and was sacked only 20 times all year, so Tampa Bay did an amazing job of getting to him in their first matchup.

Line Movement’s Bets Against The Spread show

That brings me to the second factor. The Packers’ offensive line is currently down two starters, including all-world left tackle David Bakhtiari. He earned a Pro Football Focus grade of 91.8 this season, which makes him one of the best offensive lineman in the business. The Packers had him in the lineup in their first meeting vs. the Buccaneers, yet Tampa was still able to put Rodgers under relentless pressure. That’s not a good sign.

Conversely, the Bucs’ defensive line should be healthier than it was in their first matchup. Vita Vea missed that contest, but he is eligible to return from the IR for the NFC Championship. Vea has been one of the most dominant interior defensive linemen this season — he owns a PFF grade of 90.1 — and he was particularly impactful as a pass rusher. He racked up two sacks and 13 quarterback hurries in just five games. He hasn’t officially been activated from the IR yet, but the early reports are that he looks great in practice. As long as he doesn’t suffer a setback, expect to see him on the field on Sunday.

As good as Rodgers is, his one flaw is his ability to perform while under duress. He completed just 45.3% of his passes while under pressure this season, which ranked 29th out of 41 qualified quarterbacks. His PFF grade also dropped from 97.6 with a clean pocket to just 68.3 while pressured. In other words, Rodgers is basically unstoppable if you give him time to throw, but he is mortal if you can put defenders in his face.

Those two factors are pretty tough to ignore.

Additionally, Tampa Bay owns the edge in this contest from a Football Outsiders’ DVOA perspective. They rank second in overall DVOA, while the Packers rank third. That’s not a huge edge, but it does suggest that this line might be a smidge high. If you factor in three points for home-field advantage — which might be a smidge high considering there are only going to be 8,500 fans in attendance — this line is still saying that the Packers are the better team on a neutral field. That might not be the case.

The big difference between these two teams is on the defensive side of the ball. Both of these teams have been excellent offensively — the Packers rank first in offensive DVOA, the Bucs rank third — but Tampa has a massive edge defensive. They rank fifth in defensive DVOA and are in the top five against both the run and the pass, but the Packers are all the way down in 17th. They have improved as the season has progressed, but the Bucs still have a clear edge.

Tampa Bay’s offense also matches up pretty well with the Packers’ D. They have the best cornerback in football in Jaire Alexander, and he will be able to take away whoever is matched up across from him. That said, the Bucs have a trio of standout wide receivers in Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown. As good as Alexander is, he can only guard one of them at a time. The Packers’ other cornerbacks have been mediocre-to-poor this season, so whoever doesn’t draw Alexander will have an excellent matchup.

It is worth noting that Brown has missed practice on both Wednesday and Thursday with a knee injury, but that injury is reportedly not serious. It would be encouraging if he’s able to get on the practice field on Friday, but he should be a full go when Sunday rolls around.

From a trends perspective, there are factors that favor both sides. These are two of the best quarterbacks in league history, so it’s not surprising that both own excellent records against the spread:

  • Aaron Rodgers as a home favorite: 58-34-3 ATS including playoffs (+22.5% ROI)
  • Tom Brady as road underdog: 22-11-2 ATS including playoffs since 2004 (+30.3% ROI)

There’s no real edge to be had here — both QBs are elite in their respective situation — so these trends cancel each other out.

That said, there is one huge trend that favors the Buccaneers. When two teams square off in the playoffs that have previously met during the regular season, the team who won the first matchup has a clear edge. Those teams have gone 55-39 straight up under the current playoff format (58.5% win rate). Since the Buccaneers are underdogs in this contest, a straight-up win would obviously guarantee that they cover the spread.

Add it all up, and I think the Buccaneers are the correct side in this matchup. The only real concern I have at this point is the weather, but the current forecast in Green Bay is decent. It’s going to be cold, but you could do a lot worse for Lambeau Field in January. Brady has been excellent in cold weather throughout his career, but it is slightly concerning for a 43-year-old QB. As long as the forecast doesn’t get worse heading into Sunday, I have no problems rolling the dice on the GOAT.

The Pick: Buccaneers +3.5

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