The 2020 NFL Championship Weekend is finally upon us.
As has been the case this whole season, be sure to check injury and weather reports as we get closer to kickoff. Our experts Drew Dinsick, Dave Tuley and Matt Youmans combine to give their opinions on every game.
All odds as of Thursday evening, from VSiN's NFL odds page.
NFC Championship Game
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers (-3.5, 51.5)
Youmans: I’ll start with what amounts to the bottom line: Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is playing at such an insanely high level that it’s difficult for me to envision him losing this game in the cold and snow at Lambeau Field. The difference simply could be Rodgers’ ability to escape the pocket, improvise and make more plays than Tom Brady.
The Buccaneers will go from beating a worn-out Drew Brees, who had little arm strength and mobility left, to facing the hottest hand in the NFL. The Bucs used turnover luck (4-0 margin) to beat the Saints, who were stymied by Brees’ three interceptions. Rodgers is not going to gift wrap anything for Tampa Bay. Including last week, Rodgers now has 50 touchdown passes and five interceptions this season. The Packers outgained the Rams 484-244 in the divisional round, with Green Bay rushing for 188 yards and putting up 32 points against the league’s No. 1 scoring defense; Rodgers was not sacked in 36 pass attempts.
Obviously, it was a much different story in mid-October when the Packers were 2.5-point favorites in a 38-10 loss at Tampa Bay. Rodgers was sacked four times and threw two interceptions. However, that was a bad spot for Green Bay, which at the time was a fat-and-happy team coming off a bye, and I actually bet on the home ‘dog in that game. This time, the Bucs are at a disadvantage by playing their third consecutive road game. Brady’s mystique is not a fear factor for me at this stage of his career. In Brady’s past 12 away playoff games, including his last 10 with New England, he’s 6-6.
I am hooked on the Rodgers storyline as he pursues his second Super Bowl. In late November, when betting Green Bay at 7-1 odds to win the Super Bowl, I had become convinced this is Rodgers’ season. I never want to lay 3.5 points, but this line moved to -3 and that was my buy sign. I’ll back the MVP to outduel Brady.
Pick: Packers -3
Tuley: Brady vs. Rodgers is certainly the way this game is being billed. However, they’re never on the field at the same time and even though the teams’ defensive stats are eerily similar (Packers allow 328.7 yards and 22.8 points per game while Buccaneers allow 327.9 yards and 22.1 ppg), I trust Brady more against the Packers’ defense more than Rodgers vs. the Bucs’ D. I really have this as pick-’em and, while I understand the Packers being a small favorite at home, I don’t buy that Green Bay should be getting any added points for home-field advantage at Lambeau Field. With Brady in Tompa Bay, they don’t have the stigma of a “warm-weather team traveling to the frozen tundra.”
This line was widely available Sunday night at Buccaneers + 4 and hopefully those with me on the Bucs were able to already grab + 3.5 as well. The line went down to Green Bay -3, but we’ve seen this line creeping up to 3.5 at many books. Regardless of where it sits, I would still recommend two-team, six-point teasers with Bucs + 9/Bills + 9 and also Buccaneers + 9/Over 45.
Pick: Buccaneers + 3.5/+ 3, plus Bucs in teasers
Dinsick: The NFC Championship Game provides the long-awaited, first-ever playoff matchup between Rodgers and Brady. This year’s presumptive MVP hosting the greatest playoff quarterback of all time.
The key handicapping elements that support the Packers in this matchup revolve around their ability to put together game-specific approaches that particularly take advantage on their opponent in the first 15 plays; Green Bay is No. 1 in the NFL in passing efficiency, generating 0.50 EPA per dropback in the scripted portion of its game plan. This is potentially a problem for Tampa Bay, which excels with run defense but can be exploited in the passing game and has performed at a bottom five level (allowing 0.25 EPA per dropback) in the scripted portion of their games this season.
Considering the likelihood that the Packers find early success, the game would then turn to Tampa Bay’s ability to mount a comeback, a role that Brady has excelled at throughout his career and a situation that will be aided by the outstanding weapons in the passing game for the Buccaneers. Making matters even more interesting is that over the course of this season, Green Bay’s defense has been more susceptible in the second half of games, conceding 0.042 EPA per play (15th in the NFL) compared to 0.005 EPA per play (in the top 10). It is fair to assume that Rodgers and Co. recognize the strength of the Tampa defense is stopping the run and will continue to press their advantage through the air, even with a lead, which sets up a game state that lends to a shootout between these veteran quarterbacks. Fair price on the total irrespective of game-state is 55 by my numbers, so the over at 51 is in play.
Pick: Over 51
AFC Championship Game
Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs (-3, 53.5)
Youmans: I bet the Chiefs -2.5 with the expectation that Patrick Mahomes will play. If he fails to pass concussion protocol, I’m stuck with a bad number -- but most signs are pointing in the right direction. The Kansas City bet is not hopeless even if Chad Henne is the starter. Home teams are on a 12-2 SU and 10-4 ATS run in the conference championship round, and Bills quarterback Josh Allen has yet to win a road playoff game in his young career.
The Bills are 11-1 straight up in their past 12 games -- the loss was on a Hail Mary at Arizona -- and 9-1 ATS in their last 10. But the truth is Buffalo caught several lucky breaks in its two home playoff wins against the Colts and Ravens. I’m not a Bill-iever just yet.
Pick: Chiefs -2.5/3
Tuley: It was wild watching the opening lines for this game after the Chiefs beat the Browns on Sunday night. The first lines that I saw pop up on the odds screens were Circa with Bills -2.5 and DraftKings with Chiefs -1.5. Circa quickly was bet to pick-’em while DraftKings flipped to Bills -1.5 before other books posted lines and the Chiefs quickly became consensus 2.5-point home favorites. Some of the differences were of course attributed to the unknown severity of Mahomes’ concussion, but I’m not sure it was out of line for books to post Bills as short road chalk.
Steve Makinen’s NFL Power Ratings in VSiN’s Point Spread Weekly had the Bills and Chiefs tied exactly heading into last week’s game and I’ve seen other ratings that have moved the Bills ahead of the Chiefs (and we’ve already established that home-field advantage is negligible this season and postseason).
The Bills actually average more points per game (30.3 vs. 29.1) while both defenses allow 22.3 ppg, so pick-’em looks like the right line as this could go either way. Besides, while I expect Mahomes to be cleared to play from concussion protocol, let’s not forget how much he was limping around this past Sunday, so the scrambling part of his game could still be severely limited this Sunday while Allen should have his full arsenal.
Earlier in the week, the line was moving back toward the Bills at + 3 -120, but after Mahomes returned to practice on Wednesday, it started moving higher at -3 -120 at some books and we expect it to go even higher as the public gets more involved over the weekend. As stated in my Buccaneers-Packers writeup, I recommend a two-team, six-point teaser on Bucs + 9/Bills + 9 (or higher if lines continue to rise). If the Bucs don’t come through, I’ll add Bills + 9/Under 60 in the nightcap.
Pick: Bills + 3.5/+ 3, plus Bills in teasers
Dinsick: Where experience rules in the NFC, the AFC welcomes the next generation of elite passers in the NFL with Mahomes and Allen. Both teams had top-five offenses this season -- Kansas City came in No. 2 with 0.179 EPA per play and Buffalo No. 4 with 0.159 EPA per play -- and had middle-of-the-pack defenses (Bills at No. 13, Chiefs at No. 19 in EPA per play allowed). Both teams had better defensive performances over the last half of the season than the first half but these high-powered aerial attacks will surely present a test and the total of 54 reflects the high-scoring potential.
The Bills are getting it done with aggressive play-calling and a pass-first approach, which is perfect considering their weapons in the passing game including top-three receiver Stefon Diggs and clutch slot option Cole Beasley; these weapons helped elevate Allen from a below-average quarterback in 2019 to a top-five performer in 2020, generating 0.273 EPA per dropback.
Questions abound regarding the health and availability of Mahomes as he remains in the concussion protocol as of the time of this writing; however, his foot injury -- along with other injuries to the Chiefs secondary -- levels this handicap such that my numbers make this a pick on a neutral field. Considering Kansas City will have some small home-field advantage, it is fair that the Chiefs are favorites, but the ‘dog price is appealing, especially if Mahomes’ foot injury limits his ability to make game-changing plays on the ground. It’s likely that Kansas City money moves the market as we approach kick-off so I will wait to get the best of the number, but this game is Bills or nothing on the side by my metrics.
Pick: Bills + 3