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And so we reach the time of the year where the big boys come out to play. Our focus shifts swiftly to the emergence of people’s idea of a Super Bowl - Kansas City and Green Bay.
It might be hard to be too down on the chances of the Chiefs and the Packers given they combined for 27 wins in the regular season, but we’ve been here before and the lesson we should have learned by now is that the #1 seeds are far from invincible.
While there’s plenty of optimism around any camp at this time of year, it’s truly difficult to discount any of the teams now, especially with Jared Goff coming back to his full powers and the luckless Cleveland proving dominant in Pittsburgh. And the Brady Brees battle?
Let’s take a closer look.
Los Angeles Rams @ Green Bay Packers
These are the two best units in the NFL going head to head.
The Rams’ defense under the much sought-after Brandon Staley has been dominant from Week 1 through a combination of Jalen Ramsey in the back end and Aaron Donald wreaking havoc from his defensive tackle spot.
Now, does this translate to keeping the Packers to a low score? Probably not, although Rodgers’ reliance on Davante Adams may have to be reduced somewhat as he’ll be taken on by Jalen Ramsey wherever he goes on the field.
In order to scheme Adams open, they might move him into the slot slightly more, meaning that Green Bay will be forced to methodically march the ball downfield, rather than getting it in gigantic-chunk plays like they've been doing.
Matt LeFleur’s offense is a lot of crossing routes that keep linebackers honest, and this generally leads to space in behind on double moves, go routes or deep in-cuts. Adams feeds here by rule.
But the emergence of Aaron Jones is key also. He’s now become a premiere back because of how much attention teams pay to Rodgers. He only really works when Green Bay are ahead, as would this patient approach we expect them to take.
Aaron Donald will become more of a factor the longer Green Bay have to keep possession – so the first score here is crucial.
We suspect Staley and McVay know this - meaning their emphasis will be on a clever script to get them close. And they may even cause an upset at Lambeau Field.
Selection: Take the main line on Los Angeles at +6.5.
Baltimore Ravens @ Buffalo Bills
The Bills’ progression into one of the NFL’s most exciting teams truly lies on the shoulders of Brian Daboll and Josh Allen.
It’s rare to see a quarterback as trigger-happy as Allen improve in completion percentage year on year, let alone to the extent to which he’s done it.
But yet, here he is - now one of the league’s most efficient passers as well as being fundamentally sound. How do you stop this? Well, you bring defensive pressure.
And nobody brings more here than the Ravens.
However, we suspect that what Daboll has that Greg Roman doesn’t is a Plan B. You see, Allen’s talents are multi-faceted, where Lamar Jackson’s really aren’t.
If Allen is in trouble, he can rely on both his arm or his legs to get him out of a sticky situation. That means you either play contain with a spy and sacrifice a blitzer/fail to double cover Stefon Diggs, or you allow him to escape the pocket when playing man coverage and beat you that way - tiring your defense out in the process.
Right now, Buffalo know they can contain Jackson by going man on man down the field on third down and having a safety play the spy underneath. The Louisville alum doesn’t have an elite receiver to fall back on, with Mark Andrews getting most of his looks, and his number being compromised by the freakish athlete that is Tremaine Edmunds.
There are many outs for Allen, but seemingly fewer for Jackson - and we wouldn’t be surprised to see Buffalo spend all of their time in dime defense to try and counteract the speed that Baltimore possess.
It worked for Gus Bradley two years ago - and Lamar came undone again in the playoffs last year. If you put him under pressure, he will make mistakes.
And we like Buffalo to capitalise on them.
Selection: Take the main line on Buffalo at -2.5.
Cleveland Browns @ Kansas City Chiefs
This is this writer’s favourite line of the entire week, and he’s happy to nail his colours to the mast very early in this, too.
There is no way Cleveland are losing by 10 points at Arrowhead Stadium.
Wyatt Teller and JC Tretter getting practice reps in this week is a good sign, and they’re likely just being rested after a heavy workload, but keep an eye on Jack Conklin’s availability too.
Either way, this line is flexible enough to both pull guards everywhere and power run the Chiefs through a relatively soft interior; forcing Chris Jones not to pass rush as quickly as he’d like.
Kansas City are likely to run a lot of empty sets, just like Pittsburgh did last week, and we know how that went for them. Also, the Browns can welcome back Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson - their two best cover corners.
The Chiefs are likely to be forced to rely on quick strikes, and if they do that, Myles Garrett will have to be chipped or doubled - allowing for a crafty Browns front to get pressure on Mahomes’ strong side.
Now we’re not saying for a second that Cleveland will run out victorious here, but when you factor in the return of two top corners, Joel Bitonio and your head coach, we think it’s fair to say that giving the Browns two scores is both dangerous and disrespectful.
Kansas don’t have the run discipline at the linebacker spot to effectively shut the two-headed monster of Hunt and Chubb down for long - and even if they did, you can play that overcommitment against them in rollouts.
They’ll be within a score, let alone two.
Selection: Take the main line on Cleveland at +9.5.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees and Tom Brady. There’s an element of surprise in this being the late game, given both need to be back at home for midnight.
But what a showdown to potentially end two eras - the two greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game going head to head with young talent around them, and the future of their franchises very much being sacrificed for this one shot at glory.
Schematically, this one is fascinating because Tampa Bay almost certainly hold the defensive edge, but New Orleans have more pieces to shift the Bucs into uncomfortable alignments than vice versa.
A good old-fashioned game of chess. It’s like The Queen’s Gambit but actually entertaining. While it should be virtually impossible to run the ball against this Bucs front, The Saints should see success in motioning Alvin Kamara out wide and having their defensive backs try to guard him one-on-one.
This frees up Michael Thomas to get single coverage and alleviate pass rush in one fell swoop.
On the opposite side, we could see quarters coverage a lot to take away the dual threat of Godwin and Evans - but that gives Brady a chance to run the ball easily against a defense that is far more comfortable in passing downs than shedding blocks.
It seems fitting that a matchup between two quarterbacks who’ve set almost every passing record between them would boil down to who can throw the ball less, but that’s what this feels like.
And with that in mind, we have more trust in Tampa Bay to be audibled into beneficial running situations than the Saints.
Are we about to witness Brees’ last game? It’s likely. It’s also going to be quite a shootout between the Bucs and the Packers/Rams in the NFC title game when they get there.
Suggestion: Take the main line on Tampa Bay at +3.
AFC Championship winners odds
These are the odds at the time of writing, but of course they're liable to move. You can click on each image to take you to the relevant page to see the latest odds on offer at Cloudbet.
If you fancy looking for value in the AFC Championship winner market ahead of the Divisional Round, here's a look at the current odds and changes since before the Wild Card weekend.
With a pass from the Wild Card round, the rested Kansas City Chiefs remain favourites for the AFC title at odds of 1.80, which have narrowed from 1.95 ahead of last weekend. Buffalo still sit behind them at 3.66, little changed from 3.83, if they can get past the Ravens, whose odds have narrowed considerably to 4.64 from 6.69.
Few may have expected them to still be in the running, but the Browns have seen their Championship odds come right in to 13.4 from 24.3 before they saw off the Steelers.
NFC Championship winners odds
If you prefer to focus on the NFC Championship winner, the Green Bay Packers are still favourites and lead at odds of 2.19, down from 2.45 ahead of the Wild Card round. They're followed by the New Orleans Saints at 3.05, from 3.65, unless Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 4.50 (from 5.04) have a different idea. The longest odds are on the LA Rams, at 9.00, though narrowing in from 13.5. Expect those to shift quick smart if they roll the favoured Packers.
Super Bowl odds
At the time of writing, these are the odds on the last eight going all the way. Click on the image to open the live page for the latest odds.
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