Saturday's Division Playoffs

BALTIMORE-DENVER, GREEN BAY-SF BATTLE TO REACH NFL'S FINAL FOUR

The Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs kicks off Saturday with fascinating storylines in play for sports bettors and fans. Can Peyton Manning take Denver to the Super Bowl in first season as a Bronco? Will Baltimore go the distance in the last season of Ray Lewis? Is San Francisco ready to step up under young coach Jim Harbaugh? Is Green Bay going to peak at the right time after suffering a few bad breaks in the first half of the season?

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Let's put both of Saturday's games under the microscope of our key indicator stats. We'll do the same thing for you tomorrow in Sunday's games. We'll go in schedule order, starting in the Mile High City...

BALTIMORE at DENVER (4:30 p.m. ET on CBS)
Las Vegas Spread: Denver by 9, total of 46.5

Denver has been getting a lot of respect in the markets down the stretch, and has both home field at altitude and the bye week working for them here. Clearly, oddsmakers and sharps are treating them like a Super Bowl team with this price. You'll note tomorrow that the #1 seed over in the NFC isn't getting that same kind of respect.

WON-LOST RECORDS (schedule strength according to USA Today)
Baltimore: 10-6 (18th ranked schedule)
Denver: 13-3 (28th ranked schedule)

This is the biggest issue handicappers have to deal with regarding the Broncos. Are they really a great team? Or, are they just a decent team that got to play a very easy schedule. Decent shouldn't be laying that many points! Legitimate could name the score because home field and the bye is often worth a huge amount to teams who are truly Super Bowl caliber. Baltimore grades out as a clean 10-6 because they played something very close to a league average schedule. What would Denver's record have been against a league average schedule?

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL
Baltimore: +9
Denver: +1

This is a surprise. Denver is barely on the right side of zero despite having a quarterback who's mastered the percentage game while facing a very soft schedule. The defense isn't great at forcing miscues...and there are others on the Broncos who have butterfingers even if Manning makes the right decisions. This is a hidden strike against Denver that few pundits seem to be talking about.

OFFENSIVE STATS
Baltimore: 352.5 yards-per-game on 5.4 yards-per-play
Denver: 397.9 yards-per-game on 5.8 yards-per-play

Nice edge here to the Broncos. Though, that advantage shrinks when you adjust for strength of schedule. We'd give Denver a slight nod...but only a slight nod on this side of the ball.

DEFENSIVE STATS
Baltimore: 350.9 yards-per-game on 5.2 yards-per-play
Denver: 290.8 yards-per-game on 4.6 yards-per-play

This is where Denver really picks up the pace. And, this is why respected wagerers in Las Vegas are so fond of them. Defense wins championships! Denver has the best defense in the AFC in terms of yardage (though the impact is lessened because of few high impact takeaways). Denver is favored by almost double digits because they have a clearly better defense, a slightly better offense, home field, and a rest advantage at altitude.

BALTIMORE VS. PLAYOFF TEAMS (2-4 SU, 1-5 ATS)
Baltimore (-7) beat Cincinnati 44-13
Baltimore (-2.5) beat New England 31-30
Baltimore (+6) lost at Houston 43-13
Baltimore (+1) lost at Washington 31-28 in OT
Baltimore (+3) lost to Denver 34-17
Baltimore (+5) lost to Cincinnati 23-17

We're only using regular season games in our rundowns. Baltimore did beat a playoff team last week when they hosted Indianapolis. Though, that's a technicality because the Colts probably wouldn't have been a playoff team if they hadn't faced the NFL's easiest schedule. What should jump out quickly there is that Baltimore lost recently at HOME to Denver 34-17. The Ravens obviously need to pick up their play from recent form, or they're going to lose this one even worse. In terms of market expectations, few teams were more disappointing in big games this year than the Ravens.

DENVER VS. PLAYOFF TEAMS (2-3 SU, 2-3 ATS)
Denver (+3) lost at Atlanta 27-21
Denver (+1) lost to Houston 31-25
Denver (+5.5) lost at New England 31-21
Denver (-5) won at Cincinnati 31-23
Denver (-3) won at Baltimore 34-17

Interesting that Denver has a losing record vs. quality, which isn't the norm for #1 seeds. Sometimes top teams will show vulnerability, as New England has done in recent seasons. But, a losing record? Denver has a built-in excuse in that it may have taken awhile for everyone to get on the same page. We'll know more this week and next about how good Denver really is in the big picture.

BEST EXPECTATION
The fact that Denver just won 34-17 on the road vs. this very same team can't be overlooked. And, they weren't well-rested either! Handicappers must determine if the motivation factor involving Ray Lewis is important for the big dog...if the fact that Baltimore has fired its overrated offensive coordinator is actually a big help...and if Denver will suffer a case of the chokes now that it's time to produce in the postseason. Denver is the better team. Can they beat lofty market expectations?

 

GREEN BAY at SAN FRANCISCO (8 p.m. ET on FOX)
Las Vegas Spread: San Francisco by 3, total of 44.5

Home field advantage is worth three points in the NFL. And, the bye is usually worth something. A price of three suggests either that the market sees these teams as dead even, and doesn't think the bye will matter....or that the market sees Green Bay as the slightly better team.

WON-LOST RECORDS (schedule strength according to USA Today)
Green Bay: 11-5 (8th ranked schedule)
San Francisco 11-4-1 (3rd ranked schedule)

Both teams played tough schedules. Both teams thrived vs. tough schedules. San Francisco has the slightly better record. But, Green Bay got hosed in Seattle, and was unlucky to lose in Indianapolis. Can't say there's evidence here that the market is wrong.

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL
Green Bay: +7
San Francisco: +9

Once again we have strong similarities here. San Francisco will enter the game with a defense that's more likely to force turnovers, but with an inexperienced quarterback who's more likely to make them. Still even at this point.

OFFENSIVE STATS
Green Bay: 359.4 yards-per-game on 5.4 yards-per-play
San Francisco: 361.8 yards-per-game on 6.0 yards-per-play

Wow...a dead heat in yards-per-game, but a big edge in yards-per-play for the more conservative team. What this tells you is that San Francisco runs fewer plays per game. That means they'll have to do a better job of moving the chains...and of turning the big plays they do make into touchdowns instead of field goals.

DEFENSIVE STATS
Green Bay: 336.8 yards-per-game on 5.2 yards-per-play
San Francisco: 294.4 yards-per-game on 4.7 yards-per-play

Clear and meaningful edge here for the 49ers because the strengths of schedule were so even. That's a half yard-per-play and 40 yards in the boxscore. It's tough now to justify that these two teams are dead even. They're even in everything but defense! The home team with an extra week of rest has the better defense. Handicappers must determine if Green Bay's quarterback experience is enough to trump that differential.

GREEN BAY VS. PLAYOFF TEAMS (2-4 SU, 2-4 ATS)
Green Bay (-6) lost to San Francisco 30-22
Green Bay (-3) lost at Seattle 14-12
Green Bay (-6.5) lost at Indianapolis 30-27
Green Bay (+4) won at Houston 42-24
Green Bay (-7) beat Minnesota 23-14
Green Bay (-3) lost at Minnesota 34-37

This is a poor showing for the Packers. Though, if you turn around the Seattle and Indianapolis results, you get a 4-2 straight up record and break even against the spread. The problem with doing that is that they still have that horrible road result at the NY Giants that doesn't even show up here because Eli Manning and Company didn't make the playoffs. The Packers aren't putting people away, And, their defense in particular isn't shutting the door when it needs to be slammed. Again, those are regular season results. The defense did fare well last week against an inexperienced visiting quarterback from the South who had to play on the frozen tundra. That kind of edge won't exist this week.

SAN FRANCISCO VS. PLAYOFF TEAMS (3-2 SU, 2-3 ATS)
San Francisco (+6) won at Green Bay 30-22
San Francisco (-6) lost at Minnesota 24-13
San Francisco (-7.5) beat Seattle 13-6
San Francisco (+4) won at New England 41-34
San Francisco (+2.5) lost at Seattle 42-13

The win at New England established San Francisco as a serious Super Bowl threat. The fact that they couldn't follow it up with a good game in Seattle suggested that the Seahawks may be an even better Super Bowl threat! Time will tell regarding that. Note that San Francisco only played one home game against a playoff team...and that was a win of a touchdown against the Seahawks.

BEST EXPECTATION
To us it comes down to the quarterback position. Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay has had sack problems vs. aggressive defenses. Colin Kaepernick of San Francisco has no playoff experience as a starter, and didn't do a great job of protecting a big lead in New England though he did manage to finish off a victory. Handicap that position properly, and you've got the straight up and ATS winners.

JIM HURLEY has been studying these games since the matchups were locked in stone last weekend. His state-of-the-art simulation software knows how to adjust properly for the bye week (be aware that it's changed dramatically in recent seasons!). His on-site sources are letting him know about preparation and mindset. His Wise Guy connections in Las Vegas and offshore are telling him what the smart money is doing...and what it's ABOUT to be doing.

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Back with you tomorrow to preview Seattle-Atlanta and Houston-New England. Don't make a move in any NFL playoff game UNTIL YOU HEAR WHAT JIM HURLEY HAS TO SAY!

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Nov

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