And then there were four. We’re looking forward to what is maybe the single best day on the NFL calendar: Championship Sunday. The matchups are great, the storylines are dramatic and we have a fun blend of old and young quarterbacks. As exciting as these games look, I think it will be quickly forgotten that we were thisclose to an all-AFC North conference title game.
The Ravens clamped the Bills’ high-powered offense, holding them to just 220 yards, while Baltimore marched five times inside the Bills’ 30. Those drives resulted in a grand total of three points for the Ravens ... and seven points for Buffalo, courtesy of a pick-six that essentially sealed the game. The Ravens outgained the Bills, ran more plays and averaged more yards per play. Watching Justin Tucker miss two field goals was like watching Steph Curry miss a pair of free throws, a sign that it just wasn’t the Ravens’ night.
The Browns held the Chiefs to 22 points and had a shot to eliminate the champs with Patrick Mahomes out for a large chunk of the game. They had the ball down five, ran three bad plays and punted. They never got their hands on the ball again. Allowing that third-and-14 to be converted to an eventual first down will haunt the Browns -- and their fans -- for years. The rematch of that wild Monday night game in December was very close to taking place on Championship Sunday, but will now be tabled until next year.
With only two games to focus on, I suggest bettors take a closer look at the prop market. A strategy I’ve adopted is betting the Under on quarterback passing yards for individual players, a method that went 8-0 last weekend. Bettors like to root for points, yards and ultimately Overs, which encourages books to jack up the numbers on these props, implementing a tax that creates value on the Under. Those numbers are generally available later in the week, so it’s something to keep an eye on. One of those quarterbacks who stayed well Under his total was Drew Brees. Watching him and his team get eliminated made me wonder: If Brett Favre had just decided to run with the whole field in front of him in the 2009 NFC title game, the Vikings likely would have kicked a short game-winning field goal, leaving Brees without a title or a Super Bowl appearance as well as no MVP awards. Maybe he’s viewed as a slightly better Philip Rivers? It’s funny how fickle sports can be. Anyway, let’s find some winners for Championship Sunday.
Bills (+ 3) over Chiefs: A lot to unpack here. Sitting at or around a key number, this line will be something to monitor all the way until Sunday’s late kickoff. What I find fascinating is the line presumes Mahomes will not only play but be at or near full strength. That is the biggest reason for my bet on the Bills. If Mahomes is cleared to play and is fully healthy, you have a fair price getting the field goal. But not only is Mahomes awaiting clearance from a concussion, he also was visibly limping after an apparent injury to his toe in the first half. The market assumes Mahomes will start, and I would agree it’s likely, but it’s not certain. Let’s say there’s a 10-20% chance Mahomes is ruled out. Then this line immediately flips to Buffalo being a 3- or 4-point favorite. Even if Mahomes plays, I think it’s reasonable to wonder if the concussion might have a lasting effect and if the toe injury will limit his ability to scramble and extend plays. His speed and mobility have always been unsung weapons, taking a back seat to his mesmerizing arm strength. The Bills also have an extra day to prepare, coming off a Saturday victory. Mahomes is the biggest injury question for the Chiefs, but he’s far from the only one. Cornerback Bashaud Breeland, running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and tackle Mitchell Schwartz are all iffy. Helaire carved up Buffalo in the first meeting, but not only is he not healthy, the Bills’ defense is in much better shape compared with their first meeting in Week 6. The Bills beat the Colts with a good performance on offense and defeated the Ravens by excelling on defense. They have yet to play a complete game in the postseason, but it’s perhaps a good sign that they’ve been able to advance despite playing their B game both times out.
The Chiefs might very well be good enough to overcome all the injuries, but one other bullet they’ll need to dodge is their kicker. Harrison Butker nailed a field goal to send the ’18 AFC title game against the Patriots into overtime and hit a 58-yarder against the Chargers this season to win the game in OT. The pressure doesn’t seem to bother him and he has plenty of leg, but he’s beginning to remind me of Sebastian Janikowski, the former Raider who was like a shooter who could hit from 5 feet behind the 3-point line but was never guaranteed to make a layup. Butker missed his seventh extra point of the season Sunday against the Browns as well as a field goal from extra-point range. In what figures to be a close game in which every point will be precious, it is something to keep in mind. I like the Bills catching three.
Packers (-3.5) over Buccaneers: Aaron Rodgers will soon be collecting his third MVP. He has won a Super Bowl and Super Bowl MVP, and he will be playing in his fifth NFC title game. But for the first time, he will be doing so at home. This line seems a touch low and makes me wonder what it would be if the Bucs had played Saturday and the Packers on Sunday. I think recency bias is a real factor and that the Bucs cashing in as 3-point dogs late Sunday being the last thing we saw is keeping this line down, especially considering the way they ran away with the game late. I expect this line to climb maybe a point or so, but that expectation could be incorrect, given the public’s affinity for Tom Brady and the 38-10 loss the Bucs handed the Packers in Week 6.
Brady has proven he’s not Michael Jordan in a Wizards uniform, but I’m not convinced he’ll add another title this season. Joe Montana was Brady’s childhood idol, and I think it’s more likely that Brady follows in those footsteps. Montana took the Chiefs to the ’93 AFC title game, losing to the Bills in a game few people remember or talk much about. After all, nobody really remembers the conference runner-up. The Packers will have an extra day to rest and prepare, while the Buccaneers will be traveling to frigid Lambeau Field to play their third game in 14 days.
The Bucs were on the verge of letting the Saints pull away a couple of times Sunday. A punt return for a touchdown that was called back would have given the Saints a 10-0 lead, and then Jared Cook fumbled with the Saints up by seven when it seemed like his team was a few plays from possibly going up by 14 and sealing the game. The Bucs won the turnover battle 4-0 and returned one of those turnovers to the Saints’ 3-yard line. That turnover luck will likely not repeat itself against a Packers team that is exceptional at protecting the ball. Despite beating the Packers this season, the Bucs lost 38-3 to the Saints, fell to the Bears and probably should have lost to the Giants. Rodgers will see his decade-long gap between Super Bowl appearances end Sunday. Lay the points with the much better, more consistent Packers.