If bookmakers could script the outcomes of NFL games, this is how they would write it. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are going head to head, in the most dynamic quarterback duel possible, with a Super Bowl spot on the line.
A New England-Denver matchup for the AFC championship is all we could ask. But there’s more. In the NFC half of the bracket, bad blood will be spilling between San Francisco and Seattle in a battle of the league’s strongest defenses.
The season is down to three games, and the final four teams are a lock to attract huge wagering handles in Las Vegas and all over the world. Bookmakers don’t script the games in dark, smoke-filled back rooms, despite what some conspiracy theorists suspect, but the ending to this season is straight out of Hollywood.
“Where do you go from here,” South Point oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro said, “as far as marquee value?”
Manning played his part Sunday, passing for two touchdowns doing just enough to avoid a fourth-quarter collapse as the Broncos, 9-point favorites, held off the San Diego Chargers, 24-17.
Brady was more of a caddy Saturday in the Patriots’ 43-22 blowout of Indianapolis. He did not throw for a touchdown, but LeGarrette Blount ran for four to deliver the knockout blow to the Colts, who drew public and wiseguy play as 7-point underdogs.
The Seahawks, who closed as 9-point favorites, eliminated New Orleans 23-15 in the wind and rain on Saturday, when Drew Brees and the Saints rallied to cash tickets in a suspenseful final minute.
The 49ers, laying 1½ points as the most popular favorite of the weekend, turned back Cam Newton and Carolina Panthers 23-10 for their second straight road victory in the playoffs.
“Probably the most heated rivalry in the NFL right now is the Seahawks and 49ers,” LVH sports book director Jay Kornegay said. “These basically have been the four best teams for most of the season. The buffet of storylines will be endless. The props are going to be terrific. You couldn’t ask for a better conference championship weekend.”
It all starts with Brady and Manning. Denver opened as a 6½-point favorite in the AFC title game, but early money on New England drove the line down to 6 and 5½. Seattle opened as a 3½-point favorite in the NFC title game, but some books were going with 3, and there will be lots of support for the 49ers.
“Five weeks ago, I declared the 49ers as Super Bowl champs,” MGM Resorts sports book director Jay Rood said. “I told everyone here.”
And almost everyone was listening. At LVH, Kornegay said, 83 percent of the tickets were on San Francisco in its game against Carolina.
“Everybody in the world had the 49ers,” Kornegay said.
Colin Kaepernick passed for a touchdown and ran for another. San Francisco’s pit-bull defense did the rest by forcing two turnovers and stuffing Newton and the Panthers, who were sabotaged by poor play-calling, near the goal line.
“It was the worst game of the weekend for us,” Rood said. “It was heavily bet from the Niners’ standpoint.”
By most accounts, the books raked in a small win for the weekend. It could have been worse, if not for the Broncos’ attempts to blow a 24-7 lead.
Manning left the back door open, and the Chargers stormed through to score 10 points in the last six minutes. Philip Rivers, who slept through the first three quarters, hit Keenan Allen for two touchdown passes and Nick Novak added a field goal to cover after San Diego recovered an onside kick.
“We had a lot of parlays going to the Broncos. We really dodged a bullet with the Broncos letting the Chargers back into the game,” Kornegay said. “They did us a favor because we were looking at one of our worst Sundays in a long time. It could have been a borderline disaster for us.
“The Broncos didn’t even punt. It should not have been that close. It was certainly a bad beat if you laid the points in that game.”
All four favorites won, but only the Patriots and 49ers covered. The Saints produced the most dramatic point-spread shenanigan by closing to within eight points on Brees’ 9-yard touchdown strike to Marques Colston on fourth down with 26 seconds left. Some books got middled on a line that fluctuated from 7½ to 9½, and that was not in the script.
The handle for the four games “was off the charts,” Kornegay said, and Vaccaro was seeing a similar trend at the South Point, where the amount wagered was up about $480,000 from the same weekend a year ago.
“It keeps getting crazier,” Vaccaro said. “It just shows how popular these games are getting.”
The next two games should be even more popular. Brady and Manning meet in the playoffs for the fourth time in their careers. The 49ers and Seahawks hook up to show their hate for the third time this season.
Vaccaro speculated a record-breaking Super Bowl handle could be around the corner, which is how Las Vegas bookmakers would script it, if they actually had the power to pen the results.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.