Panthers and Broncos to Host Conference Finals?
By The Rex Factor
Seattle is lucky to be playing this weekend, the recipient of a Minnesota missed 27-yard field goal in the waning seconds of last Sunday’s wild-card game in frigid Minneapolis. Now the Seahawks travel for the third week in a row and will be playing their second straight 1 p.m. EST Sunday game (FOX has the call here). Not ideal for any west coast team. Neither was the listless Seattle offense last week, as Darrell Bevell called a very bland game for Russell Wilson. The Seahawks scored the game’s only touchdown last week thanks to a fluke play where Wilson scrambled around after the snap went over his head and found Doug Baldwin standing by himself to set up a first-and-goal. They kicked the game-winning field goal after Adrian Peterson fumbled in his own territory.
The Seattle offense never found a rhythm and credit goes to the Viking defense, which focused on rushing BEHIND Wilson instead of in front of him. This never allowed him to find his preferred escape lanes to the outside. The NFL is a copycat league, and the Panthers have the league’s best linebackers in Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, who will force Wilson to make plays from the pocket. I don’t think he can do it. Running back Marshawn Lynch won’t play until he is absolutely healthy, and is not a cinch to play this week (although I would think he will at least travel to Charlotte, something he didn’t do last week when the Seahawks boarded their plane to Minneapolis).
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton became the first player in league history to throw for 35 touchdowns and run for 10 more. He certainly doesn’t have a ton of weapons, but Ted Ginn will be back from injury and can stretch the stout Seattle defense, which has played better as of late. Tight end Greg Olsen had his way with them the first time and should find plenty of space to work with against the preferred Seattle Cover-3 base. The Panthers don’t send out many receivers, instead keeping in extra blockers to provide a clean pocket for Newton and his howitzer of an arm.
Let’s remember that the Seahawks didn’t win on the road in either of their most recent two trips to the Super Bowl. While they did eke one out last week, it’s a tall order to ask them to go out east and beat a 15-1 team that handled them earlier this year, led the league in scoring, outplayed them in the playoffs last year and has gradually gotten better each time out against this defense. This will be the sixth meeting between the sides since the 2012 season, so it’s safe to say they know each other pretty well. Carolina was 8-0 at home and outscored their foes 33-17 in those games this season. Cam will win the MVP award, and this weekend you’ll see a large reason why, as he’ll handle Seattle again and await a trip from the winner in Phoenix next week.
Prediction: Carolina 20, Seattle 13
Recommendation: Carolina -1.5 medium to big. Add to make it a big play at -1 or pick if those numbers pop up.
Not many markets out there yet for Pitt and Denver. The Broncos are roughly a 7.5-point favorite, with some juice attached to Pittsburgh. Or, Denver minus-7 laying juice at places like Bet33.com and a few others. CBS will have the 4:40 p.m. (EST) kickoff.
Here’s what we think we know: Pitt quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is going to play. He practiced Friday and was able to go through the whole route tree. Wideout Antonio Brown is going to miss a game for the first time since 2012. He had 16 catches for 189 yards in the first meeting between these teams this season – he’ll obviously be missed. RB LeVeon Bell was also knocked out for the season a few weeks back – all three of the aforementioned players were injured by Cincy LB Vontaze Burfict, who single-handedly likely wrecked both his own team’s and Pittsburgh’s seasons last week. RB DeAngelo Williams is also going to miss for the guests, who will be playing their fourth straight road game!
Landry Jones is also taking first-team reps at the quarterback position this week. Ben will surely start, but has to avoid contact. Repeated throwing will also hurt him as the game goes on and he might need to scramble a bit more to avoid hits to that shoulder. Deep throws probably won’t be a part of the package so expect Denver to crowd the line and jam the receivers. It could be tough for the Steelers as they are missing numerous skill players in addition to trotting out a quarterback with a bad throwing arm.
On the other side, the Pitt defense has played much better of late. They held Cincy to just 269 yards last week in the road win and will certainly be aggressive with Peyton Manning, who is making his first start since a four-interception stinker in mid-November. He entered in Week 17 after Denver had turned the ball over five times and led the Broncos to a win and ultimately, the top seed in the conference.
Manning won’t be asked to do too much, so expect a heavy dosage of Ronnie Hillman (a better receiver out of the backfield) and C.J. Anderson, who could do much of the work between the tackles. Unlike Pittsburgh, Denver is largely healthy at this point on both sides and should be able to find a way to win at home. The total would have me looking UNDER in most circumstances, especially with the way Denver has won games most of the year when Manning started (sloppy and low-scoring) but it’s going to be in the 30s and after these two put up 61 in the earlier meeting, I can’t say I’m enthused about trying to keep it more than three touchdowns less than that.
Prediction: Denver 23, Pittsburgh 17
Recommendation: OVER 38.5 small, for a sweat bet. If it goes to 38 or lower, then I would be inclined to go for a little more.
Have a look at Joe Berra’s take on a Divisional Weekend Sunday, NFL Division Round | Sunday Style.
The Rex Factor knows that football playoff time is the best time of the year to be a bettor and a bookmaker alike. He knows the winner of all 49 Super Bowls in NFL history by memory.
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