NFL's Final Four

BSW Writer noneContributor IJanuary 13, 2009

The NFL's version of the Final Four is set for Sunday and bettors have to be surprised by what's left on the NFC side of the bracket. Philadelphia at Arizona? Who saw that coming when these teams met in the prime-time game on Thanksgiving Day?

Las Vegas Sports Consultants opened the Eagles as two-and-a-half-point favorites with a total of 50-1/2. However, most books had Philadelphia (11-6-1 straight up, 12-6 against the spread) at three and a half by early Tuesday afternoon. The total had been adjusted down to 47-1/2 at most spots.

Andy Reid's team was seemingly left for dead after a blowout loss at Baltimore in which Reid benched Donovan McNabb for the first time in his career. But the Eagles won four of their next five games both SU and ATS, starting with the 48-20 clubbing they handed the Cardinals on Turkey Night.

Then over the last two weeks, Philadelphia has gone on the road and knocked off the Vikings and Giants, taking the money in both spots. With the Eagles set to go on the road for a third straight week, are they starting to remind odds-makers of a squad that pulled a similar trick on the way to winning the Super Bowl last season?

"The Eagles really do remind me a lot of the Giants last year," said Kenny White, the Chief Operating Officer at LVSC. "They've gotten hot at the right time. McNabb is playing great and the defense has been lights out. I personally made Philadelphia's number 4 ½ this week and really thought it could have been higher."

Arizona (11-7 SU, 11-7 ATS) clinched the NFC West early, only to limp down the stretch with four losses in its last six games, including a humbling 47-7 loss at New England. But that embarrassing defeat might have been the turning point for the Cardinals.

They have won three in a row since then, including last week's shocking 33-13 blowout of Carolina as 10-point road underdogs.

As brilliant as quarterback Kurt Warner and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald have been in the playoffs, White thinks Arizona's defense has been the catalyst.

"You go back and look at the regular season, Arizona only had 13 interceptions," White said. "They have seven so far in the playoffs, so the secondary is playing well and they are getting pressure on the quarterback. The Cardinals will have to win the turnover battle again to win this week."

White continued, "On the other side of the ball, the key is Kurt Warner against (Philadelphia defensive coordinator) Jim Johnson's blitzes. Warner doesn't have much mobility, so he'll need to get rid of the ball early."

The "over" has been a huge money maker for bettors when Arizona has been at home this year, cashing at a lucrative 8-1 clip. In addition, the "over" is 7-2 in the last nine head-to-head meetings between these clubs.

"I love the 'over' in this game," said handicapper Bill Marzano, who has produced an 11-4 record in the playoffs so far. "Even though Arizona's defense is playing good, I think the Eagles are going to score a lot of points this week. With no weather playing a factor, I see McNabb having a big game throwing the ball."

Gamblers should keep an eye on the status of Arizona WR Anquan Boldin, who suffered a hamstring injury two weeks ago against the Falcons and didn't play in the win over the Panthers. Boldin has 89 receptions and 11 TD catches despite playing in just 12 games.

Arizona has won seven of its nine home games, compiling a 6-3 ATS mark in the process. The Cardinals, who are plus-165 to win outright (risk $100 to win $165), have only been home underdogs twice in 2008. They split those games both SU and ATS, beating Dallas but losing to the Giants.

On the AFC side, Pittsburgh is set to play host to Baltimore in the third meeting between these clubs this season. LVSC sent the Steelers out as six-point 'chalk' with a total of 33-1/2. Those numbers remained the same at most betting shops as of Tuesday, while the Ravens were plus-220 on the money line (risk $100 to win $220).

Baltimore (13-5 SU, 14-4 ATS) is charting the same path as Philadelphia, going on the road to notch a pair of victories en route to the AFC Championship Game. The Ravens mashed Miami 27-9 in the wild-card round before winning 13-10 at top-seeded Tennessee on a late field goal by Matt Stover.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh (13-4 SU, 10-7 ATS) thumped San Diego 35-24 as a six-and-a-half-point home favorite last week. Willie Parker ran for 146 yards and a pair of touchdowns to pace the winners.

"Pittsburgh is healthy and really looked like it was clicking on all cylinders against the Chargers," White said. "On the other hand, I thought Baltimore was really lucky to beat the Titans, who missed a bunch of opportunities.

"The Ravens have a rookie quarterback playing on the road against a great defense, but they have a great defense, too. It makes for a well-priced game with the number at six."

John Harbaugh's squad has been dynamite for our purposes on the road, covering the spread at an 8-2 clip. The Ravens have also produced profit as underdogs recently, posting a 5-1 spread record in their last six spots as puppies. They took the money in a 23-20 overtime loss at Pittsburgh as six-point 'dogs back on Sept. 29.

When these teams met in Baltimore on Dec. 14, gamblers were treated to another nail-biter. The Steelers outscored the Ravens 10-0 in the final stanza and captured a 13-9 win as three-point underdogs. Ben Roethlisberger found Santonio Holmes for a four-yard touchdown pass with 43 seconds left to cap the comeback win.

"There's no reason to think we're not going to see another close game," Marzano said. "With the way the Ravens' defense is playing, I think you have to take the points here. Baltimore could've very easily won outright in both of the regular-season losses to the Steelers. I'm going with the underdog."

Totals are always interesting when dealing with cold weather in January. Pittsburgh has seen the 'over' go 5-4 in its nine home games, while Baltimore has watched the 'over' hit at a 6-3-1 rate in its road assignments. With that said, we should note that the Ravens have seen the 'under' cash in three straight games and five of their last six.

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By Brian Edwards