Familiarity might favor ‘dogs

The process of elimination continues in the NFL playoffs, as we’re down to eight teams, all needing three wins to capture a Super Bowl title.

All four road teams were favored last week, with two advancing to the divisional round. This week the world is spinning on its axis again — all the home teams are favored.

The striking fact is the four games feature rematches from the regular season. What, if anything, can be gleaned from the previous encounters?

“I’ve found, more often than not, that familiarity tends to help the underdog,” said Las Vegas Sports Consultants chief operating officer Ken White.

Defense is expected to be on full display today at Nashville, Tenn., where the Titans are 3-point favorites over the Baltimore Ravens.

These teams have a history in the playoffs. In 2000 Baltimore went to Nashville, knocked off the AFC’s top seed and went on to win the Super Bowl. Three years later the Titans returned the favor with a postseason win at Baltimore. This season, in early October, the Titans won a hard-fought, defensive battle at Baltimore, 13-10.

The Titans and Ravens have simple plans for success and never deviate. Both teams’ basic premise is not to have their offense lose the game, and they strive to protect the football and let their defense dictate the outcome.

How much will playoff experience matter in this particular game? It’s a definite factor, according to LVSC oddsmaker Sean Van Patten, who said he “wouldn’t be surprised” to see Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher get the best of Baltimore coach John Harbaugh.

“I believe inexperience does matter,” Van Patten said. “At some point, counting heavily on a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback will eventually catch up with the Ravens.”

Van Patten said to expect “a few major mistakes” from Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.

In today’s NFC matchup, the Arizona Cardinals are 91/2-point underdogs to the Carolina Panthers, the only team to go unbeaten at home this season. Carolina beat its guests on average by more than two touchdowns.

One team that gave the Panthers a tussle in their backyard was the Cardinals, who coughed up a 14-point second-half lead and lost 27-23 on Oct. 26. The total is 481/2 in the rematch.

“With Arizona third overall in scoring and the Panthers no slouch ranking seventh, I’d look for this total to go up as kickoff approaches,” White said. “The Cardinals’ last five road games averaged 53 points.”

The early game Sunday is an NFC East showdown between the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants at the Meadowlands. The Giants are 4-point favorites, but the road team won both meetings during the regular season.

It might be as simple as this: The team that wins the running battle wins the war. The Giants beat the Eagles 36-31 in early November, outgaining the Eagles by 113 yards on the ground. In the rematch a month later, Brian Westbrook ran for 131 yards and had 203 yards from scrimmage, and the Eagles shut down the Giants’ ground assault, limiting them to 88 yards rushing.

Van Patten said the road-team trend has continued, with most bettors backing the Eagles.

“To me, the line on this game is a bit of an overreaction to the Eagles’ recent performances,” he said. “The Giants have been the best team in the NFL all year. Given the extra time to prepare, I wouldn’t be surprised by a convincing New York win. I’m not sure Philly has enough weapons.”

LVSC oddsmaker Mike Seba also believes the Giants’ week off will reap rewards.

“The Eagles’ win over the Giants is a bit deceiving,” Seba said. “New York was dealing with the Plaxico Burress fiasco, had won seven in a row and already beaten Philadelphia on the road. The last time Tom Coughlin had two weeks to prepare the Giants for a playoff game, they beat New England in the Super Bowl.”

In mid-November at Pittsburgh, the Steelers outlasted the Chargers 11-10, when San Diego was seemingly spiraling out of playoff contention. The Steelers, 4-point favorites in the first meeting, are favored by 61/2 in the rematch.

Injuries are a concern for both teams. Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson is doubtful, so Darren Sproles — the new secret weapon for the offense — is expected to get most of the touches. Why not? Sproles had 328 all-purpose yards in last week’s overtime victory over Indianapolis.

Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has had two weeks to recover from a concussion suffered in the meaningless regular-season finale, when he was inexplicably on the field.

The most important player might be Steelers running back Willie Parker, who has battled injuries for most of this season. He’s healthy now and could be the difference in the outcome.

Seba sees the Chargers facing many obstacles in Pittsburgh, saying, “With Tomlinson hobbled, the prospects of frigid, windy conditions, and going against the NFL’s best defense, I could see this game closing Pittsburgh minus-7.

“Sproles won’t have the fast track that he had last week, and if the Steelers get out early, San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers could struggle just as he did in the November game.”

Brian Blessing, project manager for Las Vegas Sports Consultants, can be reached at blessing@lvsc.com. Listen to the LVSC oddsmakers on “Sportsbook Radio” at 4 p.m. weekdays on Fox Sports Radio (920 AM). Visit vegassportsconnect.com for more odds information.

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