2015 NFL Postseason Picks, Conference Championships: My First Super Bowl Bet and What is the “Back Door?”

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We’re only two weeks away from the 50th rendition of what was originally called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, meaning we have a whole afternoon of football this Sunday to decide the two teams that will represent the conferences that have descended from the lineage of that first game. Now the American Football Conference and the National Football Conference make up the National Football League and the Super Bowl has become a cultural phenomenon, nothing like that first game that was played so long ago. It makes you think back about your first experiences with the game…

My first experience with betting the Super Bowl came when I was in the Marines in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Chicago Bears had dominated everyone that year, coming to the Louisiana Superdome to take on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX with a swagger that everyone knew was just going to crown them the champion. Thus, many were trying to find angles to bet the game and a gunny I worked with found one with me. He wagered that the Bears’ RB Walter Payton would fumble within his first ten carries for $20, a bet I willingly picked up knowing Payton’s abilities to protect the ball.

Gathered around the Enlisted Club at the Marine Barracks, we started watching the game and, sure enough, Payton would fumble on his ninth carry of the game. As I handed over the $20 to the gunny, I asked him how did he know such a bet was going to come through. He replied that, knowing how many times Payton had carried the ball since his last fumble and knowing his fumble frequency (how often he fumbled the ball), his computations were that Payton was due for a miscue such as that. And that, my friends, was my first experience with statistical measurements being used against me in a betting atmosphere.

Which brings us to something that has saved my…let’s say account…on a couple of occasions over the past couple of weeks, having a “back door” cover bets. The “back door” cover is one that comes through after it is previously thought that the game is a foregone conclusion. All we have to do is look at two games over the past two weeks to see perfect examples of this type of action.

In the National Championship game, Alabama scored with only 1:07 left in the game to take a 45-33 lead over Clemson, which was more than enough to cover the seven-point spread that the sharps had put out against the Tigers. Within 55 seconds, Clemson drove the length of the field to score a touchdown to bring the score to 45-39 and, after kicking the extra point for the 45-40 final score, had achieved the “back door” score that shifted an estimated $10 million in bets from one side (those that had chosen Alabama -7) to the other (Clemson +7).

It happened again last weekend in the Pittsburgh Steelers/Denver Broncos game. The Steelers, a 7.5-point underdog in the game, were down 10 points with 53 seconds to go in the game. Driving mightily, the Steelers drive stalled out and, knowing that one of their two scores needed to be a field goal, sent kicker Chris Boswell onto the field. His third field goal of the day made the score 23-16 – bringing the score under the spread – and, after the onside kick failed and a kneel down by Broncos QB Peyton Manning, another few million dollars shifted hands (by scoring a field goal, it also kept it under the O/U, another good thing for me especially).

These “back door” covers are lovely when they work in your favor (you know, if you’re in an area where you can bet on these types of events), but they are the most gut wrenching thing that can happen when it works in the other direction. To have a sizeable bet turn on a simple play that has no ramification on the overall game is perhaps the most indignant situation a bettor can find themselves in. This is why the late, great Yankee catcher Yogi Berra probably said, “It isn’t over ‘til it’s over” rather than anything associated with baseball.

(Home team in CAPS, picks in bold)

AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

New England Patriots (-3) vs. DENVER BRONCOS; UNDER 44.5

There is a myriad of reasons that I would rather see the Denver Broncos defeat the New England Patriots on Sunday, but the problem is that they are all sentimental ones. This will probably be the last time that Peyton Manning will have a shot at the Super Bowl – if he plays next year, it is going to be with a team that has far less talent and far less chance at getting to this pinnacle of success. The general arrogance of the Patriots, head coach Bill Belichick and QB Tom Brady do not lend themselves to being the team that is “liked” (as a fan of the New York Yankees, trust me, I know how this looks). Finally, it would be great to see Brady pout his way off the field – as he is wont to do when he loses – and Manning be able to graciously say “you know, he’s one of the greats, he’ll be back here” despite the fact that Brady’s only a couple of years younger than Manning.

Here’s the problem:  the Patriots are in much better shape, health-wise, than the Broncos. Despite backing into the home-field for this game, the Broncos are just too beat up to do much with it against a Patriots team that used the last few weeks of the regular season to get some guys rested up. Instead of having to fight to the end just to win their division (as the Broncos did), the Patriots were able to rest some players, lose their final two regular season games against divisional foes YET STILL GET THE #2 SEED after winning their division. Now that they’re in the AFC Championship Game, that’s where they will see it will pay off.

The Patriots won’t dominate this game by any stretch of the imagination, but they will do just enough to be able to cover the spread and punch their ticket to try to defend their Super Bowl title. Because of the weather conditions, however, it isn’t going to be an offensive showcase. Take the Patriots, give up the points and go with the UNDER in a game that is looking to be 24-17.

NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

Arizona Cardinals vs. CAROLINA PANTHERS (-3); UNDER 47

Strangely enough, these two teams met last year in the playoffs. This time around, however, it is for the NFC Championship, a much different circumstance than that game last year.

Last year the Cardinals, a team that was down to its fourth quarterback after starting QB Carson Palmer and his backup Drew Stanton were knocked out for the year three-quarters through the season, limped into Charlotte for the Divisional Round of the playoffs and put up next to no effort against QB Cam Newton and the Panthers. The depleted Cardinals were only able to generate 77 yards of offense, lost the game 27-16 and had to be left wondering what might have been without the rash of injuries that beset the team.

Flash forward to…well, tomorrow, and they might get their answer. The Cardinals are healthy this year and it shows. Palmer and the Big Red Machine have the best offense in the NFL and can strike through the air (2nd in the league) or on the ground (8th in the league) The problem is they are running into a Panthers team that is also markedly improved over the team that went 7-8-1 in the league last season, starting this season 13-0 before finishing the year with the best record in the NFL at 15-1. Their offense is nothing to sneeze at (11th overall in the NFL) and their defense can also stop someone (6th in the league).

The Panthers have been able to prepare for playing on the cold grounds of Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, where Winter Storm Jonas has just ravaged the area (and weather on Sunday could play a factor). The Cardinals, on the other hand, barely got into town on Friday night and may have had the chance to have a walkthrough on Saturday as North Carolina isn’t used to having to deal with winter weather. Due to the travel issues and the cold weather game (remember, Arizona is a dome team), I am taking the Panthers here, but it is going to be a defensive fight and way UNDER the O/U.

Last Week:  5-3
Overall:  53-37-5

Remember how we were talking about the “back door” above? That Steelers “back door” was the game that gave me a winning weekend. Without that field goal, it’s just another “meh” 4-4 slate that helps nobody but the cage collecting the juice. With only four potential bets this weekend, it would be great to sweep the board.

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