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Handicapping Championship Weekend: Matchup Analysis

NFL Preview – The Championship matchups

The NFL betting season is down to its final three games, meaning handicappers are tuned in and oddsmakers are setting their sharpest lines of the year.

In the AFC Championship, the Pittsburgh Steelers are now 6-point home favorites against the Baltimore Ravens, who have seen the bulk of the action all week. The Ravens have something to prove against the Steelers, who got the best of both matchups this season – albeit by a slim margin in both wins.  

The Arizona Cardinals return home to host the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship, and not surprisingly, public money is on the Eagles as 4-point chalk. The Cards are no strangers to improbable victories following paydays against the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers, although the Eagles may have one-upped them by knocking off the New York Giants last week.

NFC Championship: Philadelphia at Arizona (+4, 48.5) – Sunday, 3 PM ET

If the Cardinals (11-7, 11-7 ATS) are going to cover the 4-point dog tag imposed by oddsmakers when they take on the Eagles (11-6-1, 12-6 ATS), things sure as hell better be different than when the teams met on November 27.

Philadelphia creamed Arizona 48-20 in that contest, which was the closest thing you’ll see to a statement game from Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. A week after being benched by head coach Andy Reid in Philly’s 36-7 pasting at Baltimore, McNabb went out and totally redeemed himself against the Cards.

McNabb was 27-of-39 for 260 yards with four touchdowns for the Eagles, who cruised to the bank as 3-point home favorites. Philadelphia has been on a tear ever since, winning six of its last seven games both straight up and against the number including last week’s 23-11 upset of the Giants as 4-point road pups.

One thing that’ll be different – and one thing that is crucial for Arizona backers – is their team is playing at home. The Cardinals’ struggles on the road are well documented, although Arizona (+10) did roll into Carolina last week to stun the Panthers 33-13 for its first win away from the desert against a team with a winning record this season.

Wide receiver Anquan Boldin is expected to return to the lineup after missing last week’s game with a strained left hamstring. Boldin practiced on Wednesday, and if he continues to improve will be penciled in to saddle up opposite Larry Fitzgerald to form arguably the most dynamic receiving duo in the league.

Another factor that could push the game in Arizona’s direction is the recent play of its run defense. After having trouble stopping the ground game all season, the Cards held Atlanta’s Michael Turner and Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams to a combined 104 yards rushing over its last two games (2-0 ATS).Future NFL Odds

AFC Championship: Baltimore at Pittsburgh (-6, 34) – Sunday, 6:30 PM ET

With the trends pointing to a Ravens (13-5, 14-4 ATS) cover against the rival Steelers (13-4, 10-7 ATS) on Sunday, there’s one thing that has bettors thinking twice: Pittsburgh defeated Baltimore in both meetings this season.

The Ravens don’t need to win the game to cash against the spread, especially with Baltimore getting almost a converted TD from Pittsburgh. The Ravens are 7-3 ATS in their last 10 postseason encounters, have won ATS in six of their last eight contests against the Steelers, and are 8-1 ATS in their last nine matchups against the AFC.

Still, going will be tough for rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, who for all his poise hasn’t exactly lit it up under center this season. While the mainstream media continues to harp on how difficult it will be for Pittsburgh to defeat Baltimore for a third time in the same season, no neutral observers seem to be mentioning the opposite reality. Namely, how is the Ravens’ psyche considering they’re going up against the team that won the AFC North on the back of beating them not once, but twice?

The Steelers have won seven of their last eight games (6-2 ATS), and come into the AFC finale playing their best pigskin of the season. Pittsburgh overpowered the San Diego Chargers 35-24 last week in the divisional round, earning for bettors as 6.5-point home faves in the process. The Steelers held the LaDainian Tomlinson-less Chargers to only 15 yards rushing in the win, and had 165 yards on the ground of their own behind 146 yards rushing and two scores from Willie Parker.

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