If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that practice matters. Institutional focus and cohesion matters. The vibe in a dressing room matters. More than handicappers ever considered possible, the fates of National Football League teams have mirrored those of FBS and prep pigskin organizations across the United States. Similar athletes in different circumstances tend to produce lopsided meetings and surprise outcomes every bit as often as disparate athletes in like circumstances tend to.
Yet when it comes time for Sin City to set odds on Championship Sunday, we act as though all that really matters is the past.
Consider that Kansas City began Week 20 getting more “futures” betting action to win Super Bowl 55 than any other NFL playoff contender. Yes, the Kansas City Chiefs are the defending NFL champions, but you’ve got to weigh the cost of the win over Cleveland at Arrowhead Stadium in addition to the AFC Championship Game berth produced by the victory.
Pat Mahomes suffered a concussion in the 2nd half of Kansas City’s 5-point win on Sunday. NFL betting books have been prepared for AFC Championship lines to vary as far as 10 points, with Buffalo a (-7) favorite if Mahomes were too hurt to play, or point spreads jerking in the other direction as soon as the Chiefs announce that their starting QB is good to go.
As of Saturday, Mahomes is telling the media he’s cleared concussion protocol and is ready to suit up in 24 hours. Still we know that the 2018-19 league MVP has been too distracted and in too much pain since last weekend to partake in the Chiefs’ preparation to play the Bills. There won’t be a patented West Coast Offense “script” orchestrated for the opening 15 plays that the visitors must stop or else give up 2 quick touchdowns.
Faster starts in the playoffs are clearly a priority for Andy Reid following the Chiefs’ “cardiac” run to an NFL title last season. But it may not be possible this time against a powerful Buffalo team, which is why it’s a little puzzling to see the Bills at 3-to-1 futures odds, compared to the Chiefs who opened the week as a 2-to-1 futures bet and remain field-goal favorites to win on Sunday.
In the NFC, the Green Bay Packers are simple field-goal favorites over the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers, even though the Pack might be capable of hitting the Buccaneer defense where it’s strongest – in the trenches – and breaking through with room for tailbacks to run.
The idea of a team getting its bread-and-butter toasted in a title game isn’t a lesson learned from 2020, though…gridiron pundits have hopefully known about it for quite some time.
Scroll for a pair of moneyline picks on Championship Sunday, and a prop-betting interlude, in case a weekend with only 6 main markets feels like a drag following a pigskin-packed holiday.
NFC Championship Game: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers (-190)
In the Rams’ maiden season in St. Louis, coaches installed a flaky “Jet” defense that nonetheless hoodwinked a few opponents in a 4-1 start. Prior to the 6th game, a match-up against division rival San Francisco, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a cartoon depicting the Rams as gigantic monsters, thrashing a batch of skinny, squeaky cowards in San Francisco unis. The 49ers won the game by 7 touchdowns. The moral of that story – it’s bad news (literally) when the local media makes a home team look cocky prior to game day, especially when there’s a dangerous visitor in town.
Perhaps with the above in mind, and to keep Cheeseheads from ballooning into the stratosphere, PackersNews.com reports that the expected snow showers and frigid temperatures at Lambeau Field on Sunday are not likely to benefit Green Bay very much. But the NFC Divisional Round showed that the Packer defense is at its best when it can take chances, provoking big-motor mayhem and getting an opposing OL sliding backwards. At least there’s an icy field to do it on. Maybe it’s true that Tom Brady, the Buccaneers’ legend of a QB, is used to playing in the snows of Foxboro, but that doesn’t mean his supporting cast wouldn’t prefer Tampa sunshine.
Knute Rockne and Vince Lombardi each said that if you attack a defense at its strongest point and win that battle, you have won the game, since there’s no Plan B for a confident foe whose go-to weapon has been neutralized. Tampa Bay’s defensive line is fierce, but the Packers are blocking for the rock as well as they ever did under Mike McCarthy, and Aaron Jones is playing like Ahman Green on a hot streak. If the Buccaneers commit extra resources to stopping the run, then there’s the best QB-to-WR combo in the NFL to worry about in Aaron Rodgers and Devante Adams.
Brady can always make things interesting. The 43-year-old phenom has out-played expectations again in 2020-21. But his Bucs are thriving on short fields, and the Packers have the ground game, the QB, and the special teams unit to avoid giving Tampa a bunch of easy Red Zone chances.
Pick: Packers ATS (-3.5) or ML
*** NFL Championship Sunday Prop Betting Interlude ***
(Odds Courtesy of FanDuel Sportsbook)
NFL Conference Championships – Highest Scoring Team
Green Bay is a popular choice at (+200), but we’ll take Buffalo at (+300) for reasons you’ll find on scroll. The Missouri game is likely to be higher-scoring because neither coach will be trying to manufacture a lower-scoring contest necessarily (except if Mahomes is unable to play for Kansas City) unlike Tampa Bay HC Bruce Arians and his aging QB.
NFL Conference Championships – Lowest Scoring Team
Pick the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at (+170) despite the bet standing as the thinnest of 4 options, since Arians might get his wish in a negative sense this weekend.
More Passing Yards – Josh Allen or Pat Mahomes?
Strange to see Allen (-105) drawing almost as much action as Mahomes (-125) despite Kansas City’s status as the favorite. Maybe it’s the Mahomes concussion keeping the former (and let’s face it, future) MVP from drawing more bets? If that’s the case, you’d think it would be tightening the point spread for the AFC Championship Game too.
Most Receiving Yards on Sunday: Travis Kelce (+220), Stefon Diggs (+230), Devante Adams (+260)
Diggs is the 1 player in the prop bet’s top group of 3 wagers who may not have to deal with A) snow or B) an injured and ineffective QB.
AFC Championship Game: Buffalo Bills (+144) at Kansas City Chiefs
Gambling with valid information can be like solving the Monty Hall Problem. A game could be played 10 times over and result in 10 very different outcomes, but the handicapper works to find a pick for which at least 2 “doors” out of 3 leads to a winning ticket.
Mahomes might feel fine on Sunday. He might hit Travis Kelce down the middle a hundred times for a zillion yards as usual, or race up the sidelines for 1st downs and TDs. But the Buffalo Bills can still win the game and the AFC title in that circumstance. The important thing to remember about Buffalo – possibly the most-complete team in the NFL in 2020-21 – is that the Bills have chosen not to run more often than they’ve been unable to run the football, (with irony) much like the New England Patriots in a few postseasons of old with Brady at the helm. If necessary, Buffalo can work to control the egg and keep it out of a hot KC offense’s hands. That’s not a 50%+ or even a 40%+ formula to win the game on Sunday, but it could still happen.
Think of the other 2 main possibilities – Mahomes is unprepared, unable to go, or simply doesn’t look like himself, and Buffalo asserts a natural advantage, OR Buffalo could become the 1st team in a long while to take an early lead on KC and hold it to the finish line, thanks to a full regimen of practice snaps for Josh Allen compared to Mahomes’ week of doctors and tests.
It’s at least a 60% wager – the Buffalo Bills are the underdog pick of the week. But there’s only 2 underdogs in the NFL this weekend, so they’ll need a win to stand out in the headlines.
Those hoping for a nice moneyline on an overlooked team should give thanks that the Bills never made too many big headlines…until now.
Pick: Bills ATS (+3) or (+144)
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.