AFC Championship Game Handicapping: Keys for Betting
by Trevor Whenham - 1/14/2015
When we have a whole week to handicap just two football games like we do this week, it can be easy to get distracted by storylines that sound compelling but ultimately aren't particularly meaningful from a betting perspective. It is important for handicappers, then, to be able to tell the difference between the key factors that will decide who wins and who loses and the distractions that will lead us away from the bets we need to make. In this year's AFC Championship Game there is no shortage of both types of stories - the keys and the major distractions. To help you jumpstart your handicapping efforts, here are three of the biggest in each category.
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Colts pass rush: Indianapolis is a team that absolutely loves to blitz, and that tendency is even more common when it's third down - and especially when the team is facing third-and-long. That has been effective for them, and they are better at it than most teams. A blitz inevitably leaves receivers one-on-one (or less), though, and Tom Brady is better suited than most quarterbacks to take advantage of light coverage. He also has a couple of tools in his arsenal that are very dangerous if they can get room to move. This matchup is going to be the defining one in this game.
Andrew Luck: I was impressed by the way that Andrew Luck played last week. It would be hard not to be. He wasn't perfect, but he has so much poise and composure that you are almost blinded by how bright his future is. Trying to figure out if he is poised to be a big factor in this game or a liability, though, is a bit of a puzzle. On one hand, New England does not have a particularly great pass defense, and Luck is the commander of the top deep passing game in the league. He likes to take deep shots, and he is going to have his chances here. On the other hand, though, he has been pretty unlucky in his games against the Patriots so far in his career. He has played them three times and has thrown eight picks and lost a fumble in that time.
The Patriots early in the game: New England absolutely should have lost last week. They stumbled out of the gate and did not look focused or particularly invested in the game for much of the first half. They obviously got it together and showed a lot of toughness and heart in the process. The stakes are much higher this week, though, and it's unlikely that the team will be able to get away with the same thing again. That means that as bettors we have to decide whether the slow start was an isolated-and-correctable occurrence or if Indianapolis is going to be able to get off to the same strong start that Baltimore did.
Colts defensive strength last three games: A lot is being made of the fact that Indianapolis has allowed just 11 points per game in their last three games. The theory a lot of people are putting forward is that the team is clearly in a groove defensively and will be tough to overcome. I'm not necessarily buying it. None of those three opponents have been exactly strong. Tennessee was a horrible team and was desperate for their season to end. Frankly, it's a bit of a concern that the Colts let them score 10. Cincinnati is burdened by an offense that can't perform in the playoffs. Peyton Manning was so beaten up that he couldn't have played catch with his son and looked good doing it. The week before the Tennessee game the Colts had allowed 42 points to the Cowboys. The Colts get credit for doing what they have needed to do lately, but the idea that they are suddenly some sort of defensive juggernaut is misguided at best.
Rob Gronkowski: Gronk is extremely good, and his return to action this year had an immediate and significant impact on this team. As good as he is, though, his impact cannot even come close to matching the public fascination with him. People are in awe of him, and they assign almost superhuman powers to him. He's good, and he'll have a big impact on this game, but it's all but guaranteed that his impact won't be as significant as the average public bettor will assume that it will be.
New England gimmicks: The Patriots beat the Ravens in part because of a gimmicky alignment that no one had seen before. It wasn't the first time that Belichick and company not only outplayed but out-thought their opponents. Because it was so unexpected it has gotten a lot of attention, and a lot of people seem to expect more trickery this time around. We can't count on that. It's not like they do such things every week, and it's not particularly easy to just come up with new and bizarre plays that will work all of the time. It's possible that the Patriots have something up their sleeves, but we certainly can't factor that possibility into our handicapping.
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