With the NFL’s postseason field whittled down to the final four, it’s time to put a microscope on today’s conference championship games.
My database for the AFC and NFC championship games goes back to 1970, the first year after the NFL and AFL merged. There is plenty of data to examine.
When the line is less than 10 points, the team winning the game is 71-2-2 against the spread. Essentially, whoever wins the game straight up also wins ATS. The two losses have come in the past four years.
One stat I’ve tracked for years is the better defense in the conference championship game. The better defense is simply defined by the team that allowed fewer points during the regular season. The better defense in this round is 55-28-1 ATS since I have tracked it. Rarely does this situation lose both games in the championship round.
■ New England at Denver (-5): The Patriots are the better defensive team defined by points allowed, and they qualify in the 55-28-1 ATS situation. Also, Tom Brady is 32-16-1 ATS as an underdog throughout his career.
New England fumbled on its first three drives in the first meeting Nov. 24, which Denver promptly turned into a 17-0 advantage that climbed to 24-0 at halftime. The Patriots scored the next 31 points.
Coach Bill Belichick’s defense is battered and bruised, but Denver also will be missing four defensive starters who played in that first meeting. The Broncos defense is susceptible to good, experienced quarterbacks, and Brady will take advantage of their injury-marred defense.
And, when getting points, this game could even play out like last week (when I had San Diego) and see New England come alive for a backdoor cover. That opportunity always exists when you are taking points. But I don’t think Brady will start out as slowly as Philip Rivers and the Chargers did last week.
The Patriots have not lost by more than seven points this season, and three of their losses were to good defensive teams — Cincinnati, Carolina and the New York Jets. Those good defenses were able to exploit New England’s injuries, but an average defense such as Denver’s won’t be able to stop the Patriots.
Pick: Patriots, 31-30
■ San Francisco at Seattle (-3½): The Seahawks are the better defensive team defined by points allowed, so they also qualify in the 55-28-1 ATS situation. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson is 16-1 straight up at home and has defeated the 49ers twice, by scores of 42-13 and 29-3.
There is no question the 49ers are playing their best football of the season, and they will have wide receiver Michael Crabtree back for this game. Crabtree did not play in the Week 2 loss at Seattle. But San Francisco had Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis in the teams’ second game and barely defeated Seattle at home. So, the Seahawks can defend this offense and should be able to do it better on their home field.
Seattle has had a significant advantage in yards per pass attempt in both games this season against San Francisco, including the game with Crabtree. My numbers favor the Seahawks by about 4½ points, so combined with the defensive system and a strong home-field advantage, I lean to Seattle.
Pick: Seahawks, 21-13
Scott Kellen handicaps the NFL at SixthSenseSports.com.