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Against the Spread

Conference Championship Picks

by Jeff Baldwin
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

Jeff finished 2-3 last weekend as he had winners on the Patriots and Cardinals/Packers under.  He came up short with the Seahawks, Cardinals and Steelers.  Jeff finished the week down 110 units.  Jeremy went 1-4 as he nailed the Seahawks/Panthers over, but came up empty with the Chiefs, Cardinals and Steelers.  Jeremy finished the week down 180 units.  Jeff currently has a 310 unit lead in our playoff-long contest.  Can Jeremy cut into Jeff's lead?  Let's get to the picks for Championship weekend.

 

 

New England Patriots (-3.5) at Denver Broncos

Jeff: The Patriots used their bye week to get healthy and it showed against the Chiefs as they went on to a 27-20 victory.  The Broncos needed a late touchdown to defeat the Steelers after trailing most of the game.  The Patriots will now head to Denver in what will be a rematch of their Week 12 game.  The Broncos won that game in overtime, but this time around things are different as the Patriots are healthier and the Broncos will have QB Peyton Manning behind center.  The return of WR Julian Edelman to this Patriots’ offense can't be understated.  Edelman finished with 10 receptions for 100 yards.  The Broncos struggled getting the ball in end zone last week which has to be a cause for concern going up against a Patriots’ offense that will put points on the board.  Manning's limited arm strength has really put this offense in a tough position.  You have to think the Patriots’ game plan on defense will be to stack the box and shut down the Broncos’ running game while forcing Peyton Manning to beat them in the passing game.  The Patriots will also look to put a ton of pressure on Manning in order to force him to get rid of the ball early, or make him take sacks as he has very little mobility in the pocket.  When Manning was in his prime facing the Patriots, Bill Belichick would always come up with a defensive game plan that would force Manning into mistakes.  Now with Manning's physical abilities on the decline, you have to think whatever Belichick comes up with will most likely be successful.  QB Tom Brady and the Patriots will most likely use the short, quick passing game like last week against the Chiefs as they face another dominant defense in the Broncos.  Brady will spread the ball around with his main targets being Edelman and TE Rob Gronkowski.  In the end, I think the lack of effectiveness from the Broncos’ offense will be the reason why the Patriots will advance.  We know the Patriots will move the football and score points, but I don't trust the Broncos offense to march down the field in a critical part of the game and score a touchdown.  The Patriots will get the chance to win back-to-back Super Bowls.

Pick: Patriots -3.5, 100 units

Jeremy: For the fifth straight season the New England Patriots will be playing in the AFC Championship Game, this time against the Broncos in Denver. These teams last met in Week 12 in Denver with the Broncos ending New England's undefeated streak with a 30-24 victory. New England was without top wideouts Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola for that game but the pair will be available this week. The Patriots’ defense is the unit dealing with the most injuries heading into this game. Linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins are dealing with knee and oblique injuries but are expected to play while defensive lineman Chandler Jones who left last week's win over the Chiefs in the fourth quarter has been a full participant at practice and is also expected to play. New England will need all of them in order to contain Denver's solid running game. C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman combined for nearly 1,600 yards on the ground during the regular season and the two put together a 110 yard, one touchdown performance in Denver's win over Pittsburgh last week. Quarterback Peyton Manning has struggled all season but will be highly motivated for this one against his longtime rival. How Manning reacts after playing in his first full game since Week 9 will be vital for a Broncos win. With New England focusing on stopping the run, it will be up to Manning to be accurate in hitting his receivers and for Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and the rest of the Broncos’ receiving corps to hold onto the ball after having nine drops last week. Offensively, New England will utilize Edelman and Amendola in the short passing game to help slow down Denver's top ranked defense. The Broncos will be relatively healthy for this one with CB Chris Harris (shoulder) being the only major question mark. While Denver won the last meeting between these two teams, that game really can't be used as a barometer for how this game will go. Manning's return for the Broncos along with Amendola and Edelman being back for New England changes the whole dynamic creating a slight edge for the Patriots. With a full complement of receivers along with a healthy Rob Gronkowski, New England will have enough weapons to offset Denver's defense. New England's offensive line played well last week against the Chiefs' aggressive pass rush with the return of Sebastian Vollmer and they will provide Brady with enough time to move the ball effectively. This game will go down to the wire with New England getting a late score to cover.

Pick: Patriots -3.5, 100 units

 

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Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers (-3)

Jeff: The Panthers got off to a quick start against the Seahawks as they built up a 31-0 halftime lead, and went on to hold off a late Seahawks rally to win by a touchdown.  The Cardinals survived at home after more late-game heroics by QB Aaron Rodgers forced the game to overtime.  WR Larry Fitzgerald had a huge 75-yard reception which turned out to be the difference in the extra session.  The Cardinals will now travel to Charlotte to take on the Panthers to see who will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.  The key takeaway from the Panthers’ victory over the Seahawks was their dominance of the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.  RB Jonathan Stewart returned to action since leaving their game in Week 14 due to a sprained foot.  Stewart looked healthy as he finished with 106 yards on the ground and two touchdowns.  QB Cam Newton didn't have to do much in this game due to the Panthers jumping out to such a large lead.  The Panthers were extremely conservative in the second half from an offensive perspective.  In this matchup versus the Cardinals, I think we are going to see Cam Newton play similarly to what we saw during the regular season.  Look for the Panthers’ offense to be well-balanced here as they want to establish the run along with getting the passing game going.  Stewart will be effective on the ground as I expect this offensive line to create some running room similar to last week.  Newton will spread the ball around in the passing game with the focus being TE Greg Olsen.  Over the past two games, the Cardinals’ secondary has gotten torched by both Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers.  As for the Panthers defensively, look for them to put a ton of pressure on QB Carson Palmer to make it difficult for this passing game to get into any consistent rhythm.  I think the Panthers come up with another solid all-around effort on Sunday as they'll come away with the win.  The Panthers have been a solid home play against the spread as they are 11-3 ATS versus conference opponents in their building over the last two seasons.

 

Pick: Panthers -3, 100 units

Jeremy: One week after earning the first playoff victory in his career, Carson Palmer leads the Arizona Cardinals into Charlotte to take on the Panthers and Cam Newton. Carolina stormed out to an impressive 31-0 first half lead over the Seahawks before holding on in a nail-biting second half for a 31-24 win. Arizona also had to deal with a late-game scare as Green Bay tied the score with a Hail Mary as time expired forcing overtime where the Cardinals won on a couple Palmer to Larry Fitzgerald connections. Arizona's 2nd ranked passing game will be key to getting the win in this one as Carolina has one of the better overall defenses but is stronger against the run than the pass where they rank 11th. The Panthers have allowed 21 or more points eight times this year with each of those coming against teams with a strong passing attack. The average number of points allowed during those games was 28 while over the other nine games, they allowed just 12 points. Carolina will, as always, be led offensively by Newton and a rushing attack that led the league in attempts. The Panthers are dealing with injuries to a couple of key offensive players. Lead running back Jonathan Stewart injured his ankle last week and is questionable for this game. While he is expected to play, after missing the previous five games before last week with a foot injury, how effective he will be remains to be seen. Newton's favorite target, tight end Greg Olsen, is listed as probable with a shoulder injury but also won't be at 100%. Arizona ranked 5th in total defense while forcing 33 turnovers and will focus on trying to pressure Newton and limit the Panthers’ rushing attack while forcing Newton to go to the air. This game features two evenly matched teams. Arizona is a bit healthier and has the better balanced offense while Carolina will have the energy of the home crowd and the best player in the game. Arizona won't spot the Panthers 31 points to start the game and the Cardinals’ passing game will keep the score close with the game being decided by a late score.

 

Pick: Cardinals +3, 100 units

 

Patriots at Broncos (Total: 44 points)

 

Jeff: QB Tom Brady and QB Peyton Manning will meet again for most likely the last time as both players are looking to lead their respective teams to the Super Bowl.  Brady will have his work cut out for him as he faces arguably the best defense in the NFL.  The Broncos’ offense struggled last week and now faces a very solid Patriots’ defense.  I don't see this game turning into a shootout especially with how well both teams play on the defensive side of the ball.   I think the Broncos will struggle moving the ball with any consistency as the Patriots will focus on slowing down the run game and force Manning to beat them with his arm.  The Patriots were burned by the Broncos’ running game the last time these teams met so that will be their primary focus in this matchup.  Manning's diminished arm strength really hinders this offense in the passing game as the deep threat is non-existent.  I think the Broncos’ defense will keep them in the game up to a certain point as they'll keep the Patriots out of the end zone on some drives and force them to kick field goals.  I think the game total here will stay under the total as it will finish in the upper-thirties.

 

Pick: Under 44 points, 50 units

Jeremy: In the AFC Championship Game quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will face off for the 17th time in their impressive careers. Manning played his first full game in nine weeks last week when he led the Broncos to a 23-16 win over the Steelers. In that game, Manning failed to throw a touchdown pass for the 6th time in 11 games played. Despite his inconsistent play, Denver has averaged 23 points per game during Manning's starts this year. New England has allowed 20 points per game throughout the regular season and the playoffs. With Manning back under center New England will have to be wary of the passing game but should be able to focus on limiting the Broncos’ rushing attack which was responsible for 40% of Denver's offensive touchdowns. After ranking first or second in scoring much of the year, New England finished the regular season 3rd at 29 points per game and would likely have led the league had the offense not been riddled with injuries much of the second half. With the offense nearly at full strength, the Patriots scored 27 points against a talented Chiefs’ defense that gave up less than 18 points per game during the regular season. The Patriots have gone over the posted total 10 times this year while the Broncos have gone over in six games this year. In the last 11 games played in Denver between these two teams, eight games have gone over the total. The total for this game has been set at 44. I am not expecting a high-scoring game here and see each team scoring in the low- to mid-twenties. Take over 44 as a late score pushes the total over the number.

 

Pick: Over 44 points, 50 units

 

 

Cardinals at Panthers (Total: 48.5 points)

 

 

Jeff: The Cardinals escaped with an overtime victory against the Packers even though their offense didn't play well.  The Panthers jumped on the Seahawks early while taking their foot off the gas pedal late as they held on to advance the NFC Championship.  These two teams were the best in the NFC in scoring offense so we know this game has the makings of being a high-scoring contest.  QB Cam Newton wasn't asked to do much last week since his team jumped out to such a large lead.  I think in this game Newton will show why he is the favorite to win the league MVP award.  The Panthers will display their balanced offense with TE Greg Olsen in the passing game and RB Jonathan Stewart in the running game.  QB Carson Palmer didn't play well versus the Packers.  I think he'll play better here as this offense will need to put points on the board in order to stay with this Panthers’ offense.  The Panthers’ defense has given up three straight 300 yard passing performances by opposing quarterbacks.  I think this game will have a lot of offense on display with points at a premium.  I can even see a defensive or special teams touchdown scored in this contest.

 

Pick: Over 48.5 points, 50 units

Jeremy: Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers welcome Carson Palmer and the Arizona Cardinals to Bank of America Stadium in a matchup of teams that averaged more than 30 points per game during the regular season. Arizona seemed out of sync offensively last week against the Packers but still scored 26 points. I am chalking that performance up to the pressure on Palmer created by high expectations to get his first career playoff win. With that monkey off his back, the Cardinals will relish the role of underdog and play much looser. Injuries have taken their toll on the Carolina secondary and since Josh Norman can't cover everybody, Arizona will use their depth at wide receiver and be able to move the ball through the air. Carolina scored 31 points in the first half last week against Seattle but failed to find the end zone in the second half. I am expecting more balanced scoring from the Panthers in this one. Newton creates matchup problems anywhere on the field and, despite Arizona's strength against the run, will find a way to put up points. The total for this game has been posted at 48.5. Arizona averaged 33 points per game on the road which is five points higher than at home. Six of their last nine road games have gone over the total while five of Carolina's last six home games have also gone over. The weather forecast for game time is cold with temperatures below freezing but very little chance of snow. If that forecast holds, weather won't be a factor allowing two high-scoring offenses to pull out all the stops and put up scores in the upper 20s putting the total over 48.5.

 

Pick: Over 48.5 points, 50 units

Jeff Baldwin
Jeff Baldwin has written Rotoworld's 'Gambling Solution' on Season Pass since 2011. He can be found on Twitter @JeffBaldwin4.