Conference championship Sunday around the NFL is made up of two games, both representing the best that the AFC and NFC have to offer. It is a day when the entire league comes together to celebrate the success that certain teams have had up until this point.
It is also a day when two teams making reservations for New Orleans, while two other teams join the other 28 in starting to embark on the offseason.
Yes, everything that the last 19-plus weeks brought us has led up to this pivotal moment. What teams will stand up and lay claim to being the best their conference has to offer? Who will be the goats? All these questions and more will be answered in relatively short fashion.
Meanwhile, a whole contingent of fans take to Vegas in hopes of striking it rich. They won't only be placing bets on the outcome of each game, they will be wagering on specific situations when they arise within each championship bout.
Today's article is going to focus on just that: prop bets.
My Take: Over
The Atlanta Falcons gave up 262 rushing yards and three touchdowns to Cam Newton and Russell Wilson in three games, postseason included. Those cannot be numbers that help defensive coordinator Mike Nolan sleep at night following what Colin Kaepernick did to the Green Bay Packers on Saturday night.
While the second-year quarterback will not come close to matching his 181-yard rushing performance in the divisional round, it would be foolish to bet against him reaching just 60 throughout the NFC Championship Game.
Heck, he could do that on just one rush attempt.
Bet the over on this and thank me later.
My Take: Under
When Ray Rice actually touches the ball, good things happen. The issue is that he has been the least utilized top running back in the entire National Football League over the course of the last couple seasons.
The firing of former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron following the Baltimore Ravens loss to the Washington Redskins in Week 14 seemed to have a lot to do with his inability to use Rice the way that head coach John Harbaugh would have liked.
Rice has averaged over 20 rush attempts per outing in the four full games that he has played since Jim Caldwell took over control of the offense. That could indicate that he will get a nice amount of touches against the New England Patriots come Sunday evening.
Not so fast, my friends.
We already know that New England runs a high-powered and uptemp offense. If Baltimore wants to be able to stick with Tom Brady and company in a high-scoring affair, it is going to have to put the game into hands of Joe Flacco, who has been downright awesome in the playoffs this season.
While I fully expect Rice to get his touches, I am not looking at him going over the 75-yard plateau in this one. He will, however, gain over 120 in total offense.
My Take: Over
Matt Ryan averaged 295 passing yards per game during the regular season, though his total numbers and pass attempts did go down at home.
There are a few different dynamics at play here.
First, if the Atlanta Falcons find themselves down by multiple scores early, they will abandon the run game with Michael Turner in an attempt to come back. We have seen this multiple times against the San Francisco 49ers since Jim Harbaugh changed the destiny of the franchise last season.
Over the course of the last two years, quarterbacks are averaging 36 pass attempts against San Francisco. Meanwhile, Ryan is putting the ball up about 37 times per game during the same span.
It doesn't take a math prodigy to come to a conclusion here. Ryan should easily eclipse this number, even in defeat.
In fact, the more yards that Ryan throws for the less of a chance Atlanta has of coming away with a victory. After all, the Falcons are just 10-7 when Ryan throws for over 300 yards and 46-15 when he doesn't.
Odds: Yes (-210)
The New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens combined for nearly 14 points in the first quarter during the regular season. Their defenses combined to give up nearly nine points per game in the opening stanza as well (via Team Rankings).
Needless to say, you can expect some early scoring in the AFC Championship Game. To say that neither team will be able to put up a single score in the first half of the opening quarter would be foolish, and Vegas seems to think so too.
Look for one of the two to cover here.
Odds: San Francisco (-140)
My Take: Atlanta
Oddsmakers are not taking one important thing into account here. The San Francisco 49ers rarely receive the ball to open up the game. Whether the other team wins the toss and elects to receive or San Francisco defers, it usually goes on defense first.
This has been the case with most of the top defenses in the NFL. Why not elect to receive the ball to open up the second half and put the strength of your team on the field first?
Of course the dynamics have changed a bit here since Colin Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith as San Francisco's starting quarterback, but Jim Harbaugh's philosophy seems to remain the same as it relates to the coin toss.
The Atlanta Falcons also ranked fifth in the NFL in points per drive during the regular season at 2.4 (via Football Outsiders).
Even if it is as much as just a field goal, Atlanta should be in good shape to take an early lead should it get the ball first.
On a side note, why even bet on this?
My Take: Under
Tom Brady is averaging only 244 passing yards in 23 career playoff games. Those numbers are down from the regular season when he goes for 256 a pop.
Neither of those statistics seem to suggest that Brady will surpass 300 yards in the AFC Championship Game.
It is, however, important to look a bit further here.
Brady is averaging over 311 passing yards in his last four home playoff starts since losing to these very same Baltimore Ravens in January of 2010.
Despite struggling to an extent on defense during the regular season, Baltimore yielded less than 250 passing yards per game and has held quarterbacks to under 200 passing yards in four of its last five road games.
Also important to note, New England has put up over 120 rushing yards in nine of their 17 games, postseason included. I am looking for more of a balanced attack here.
Of course, this could all change if Baltimore jumps on Brady and company early.
San Francisco 49ers: 13.5
Atlanta Falcons: 10.5
This line fits perfectly in with what Vegas is telling us about the over/under and outcome of the game. However, it is important to look past basic lines. After all, Vegas really isn't giving Atlanta much of a shot in this one.
I guess that's why they actually play the game on the football field and not in smoky lounges on the Strip.
Atlanta averaged nearly two touchdowns per game in the first half at home during the regular season. Meanwhile, San Francisco put up just under 12 points in the initial half on the road (via Team Rankings).
This doesn't tell us the entire story. Rather, it just gives us a basic understanding of where each team stands as it relates to this specific prop.
One thing you can take to the bank. The NFC Championship Game will be a one-score affair at the end of the first half. It remains to be seen who will be in the lead at that point.
I will not give you a prediction because this is too close to call.
New England Patriots: 16.5
Baltimore Ravens: 10.5
This is where it gets interesting. These prop bets are now being utilized in order to "predict" what the score will be during a certain part in the game. If New England possesses a near touchdown lead at the half, Baltimore will be in trouble.
Statistics may force me to actually go with Vegas here.
New England put up an average of three touchdowns per game at home during the first half in the regular season. Meanwhile, Baltimore tallied 10.6 points in the first half on the road (via Team Rankings).
While a six-point deficit at the half wouldn't be a huge deal for Baltimore, it would be forced into a shootout with Tom Brady and the home-standing Patriots.
I am not sure John Harbaugh would feel too comfortable about that scenario. Either way, it is important that Baltimore gets off to a strong start and is able to maintain some resemblance of balance on offense. After all, Brady has proved he can come through and win when running a one-dimensional offense, Flacco hasn't.
My Take: Over
Michael Crabtree has really taken off since the San Francisco 49ers inserted Colin Kaepernick at quarterback. The talented wide receiver is averaging 110 yards per game in his last six outings. That ranks him among the best wide receivers in the entire National Football League during that span.
In fact, Crabtree is performing better than both Roddy White and Julio Jones over the course of those last six weeks.
Meanwhile, Atlanta gave up about 100 receiving yards to starting wide receivers during the regular season (via Football Outsiders).
This promises to be magnified considering that both Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams are out for the remainder of the postseason. In reality, Crabtree is San Francisco's only consistent wide receiver threat at this point.
He will get the necessary targets to put up another 100-yard game on Sunday. If those targets do come, Crabtree should have himself a whale of a game. Including the game against the Green Bay Packers last week, No. 15 has caught nearly 70 percent of the passes thrown in his direction this year (via ESPN).
This bodes well for him moving forward to Sunday.
My Take: Over
He did so after missing the previous two-plus months with an injury.
There is absolutely no reason to believe he can't duplicate that type of success against a New England Patriots team that ran an league-high 73.9 plays per game during the regular season (via Team Rankings).
If New England continues to run a balanced offensive attack, this will only give Lewis more of an opportunity to make plays near or at the line of scrimmage. He will not be dropping back against the likes of Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker in the slot. Rather, the future Hall of Fame linebacker will be asked to draw out plays at the line and clean up messes between the tackles throughout the game.
I am looking at another 15 tackles or so for Lewis in what could easily be his final NFL game.
San Francisco 49ers: 26.0
Atlanta Falcons: 21.5
This shouldn't be too surprising considering that Vegas has had San Francisco as the clear favorites since the weekend. After all, it has 2/1 odds to win take home the Lombardi (via BetVega).
I will go with the road team in this one. If San Francisco plays anywhere near the level that it played against the Green Bay Packers last week, Atlanta really doesn't stand much of a chance.
On that note, the idea that San Francisco can duplicate its performance from the divisional round is absolutely hilarious. It was one of the most dominating games I have seen from a team in the playoffs in some time.
I am expecting a close game here, but Colin Kaepernick and company seem to be a bit too dynamic on the offensive side of the ball for Atlanta's defense to stop. In addition, the Falcons have had a hell of a time stopping running quarterbacks this season. If Kaepernick is able to be that dual-threat we have seen since he took over as a starter, the Falcons are going to be in deep trouble.
Offensively, Atlanta's success depends a great deal on finding some balance. If it is forced to become one dimensional with the passing game taking over, it will be in a world of hurt.
Either way, this game will be within the margin that Vegas is projecting at this point. Don't expect a runaway victory for either team.
New England Patriots: 29.5
Baltimore Ravens: 21.5
Back in August I went out on a limb and indicated that New England would be taking on the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl. Okay, it wasn't really going "out on a limb." Rather, just being a mindless sheep following what other "experts" had indicated.
Either way, I will stick with this prediction as we enter championship weekend around the NFL.
While one definitely does have to look at the Ray Lewis factor here, I just cannot envision Joe Flacco leading Baltimore over Tom Brady and the Patriots in Gillette Stadium with a shot at the Super Bowl on the line.
Despite decent play from Corey Graham and the rest of Baltimore's secondary against Peyton Manning last week, this is an entirely new matchup here. How does it match up against the likes of Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez in the passing game? Will it be able to stop Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen in the running game?
Equally as important, do you see Baltimore's offense being able to keep up with the Patriots if this game turns into a high-scoring affair? I honestly can't see it.
While the game will be closer than this spread indicates, look for New England to come out on top by three or four points and make a return trip to the Super Bowl.