NFL conference championship betting trends: Target ball-hawking, pass-rushing defenses ATS

Kevin Byard, Tennessee Titans, January 2020
Tennessee Titans free safety Kevin Byard celebrates an interception. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
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If the betting lines hold close to their opening numbers, Sunday will see the 10th and 11th conference championship games with a point spread longer than 6 points since the NFL’s 2002 realignment.

After opening as touchdown favorites over the Packers at Levi’s Stadium in the NFC title game, the 49ers have been bet up to -7.5. In the AFC, the Chiefs are spotting the Titans 7.5 for their Arrowhead Stadium clash.

Although the sample size is small, favorites have not fared well against these steep numbers, covering just one-third of prior matchups, going 7-2 SU and 3-6 ATS in this span.

Below are three trends worth considering when handicapping the upcoming AFC and NFC title matchups.

Aggressive defenses adept at getting to quarterbacks and riding high off games in which they forced multiple turnovers have been good bets against the spread in the conference championship games.

Those wagering the totals, meanwhile, should give consideration to strong rushing favorites scoring more than projected and cashing OVER bets.

Sacks matter to the spread

Pressuring quarterbacks is vital in this modern pass-happy era of the NFL, and those that do it best tend to perform well against the point spread in conference championship tilts. Since 2002, teams generating more sacks than their opponents for the year are 22-12 ATS (64.7%) in their quest to play for the Super Bowl.

Such teams that are priced as favorites, or as underdogs of fewer than 4 points, are 16-6 ATS with a 5.5 average cover margin.

Both betting favorites have the sack edge in Sunday’s clashes. The Chiefs best the Titans 2.9 to 2.6 sacks per game, while the 49ers hold a 3.2 to 2.7 edge over the Packers.

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Turnover machines keep churning

Statisticians argue turnovers are largely unpredictable. In the long run, reversion to the mean takes hold for teams either good and bad at protecting the ball or generating takeaways. But turnovers sometimes come in spurts.

Since 2002, units entering the conference championship after forcing more takeaways than their opponent did in their respective divisional round matchups tend to maintain their turnover edge and cover spreads. These teams are 19-8 ATS (70.4%), covering a -0.1 average line by a healthy 5.8 margin. They also induce more takeaways in the title game, forcing 2.0 to 1.6 for opponents.

The Titans forced three turnovers in their 28-12 upset win over the Ravens, as opposed to one takeaway for the Chiefs in their 51-31 comeback victory over the Texans. Tennessee, in fact, has forced multiple takeaways in four of its last seven games.

In their 28-23 Lambeau win over the Seahawks, the Packers did not generate a takeaway for the first time since their Week 12 defeat at San Fran. The 49ers forced a pair of turnovers in their win over Minnesota.

Favorites score plenty behind strong rushing games

One theme of the 2020 NFL Playoffs is the strength of rushing attacks. Six of the eight franchises that made it to the divisional round rank in the league’s top 10 in yards gained on the ground. Only a pair remain: the Titans (146.7) and 49ers (146.5 ypg), who rank second and third, respectively.

A rushing advantage typically allows for longer possession, greater control of the clock, and a more balanced offensive game plan. This may loom large in the totals market for Sunday’s late game.

Since 2002, the OVER is 10-3-1 in conference championship games when the favorite has the rushing edge over its opponent. Favorites rumble for 133.9 yards per game on 31.1 carries, wearing down defenses late in contests. They outscore their opponents 15.9 to 9.0 in the second half.

This season’s NFC title contest fits the trend, as Green Bay picked up 112.0 rushing yards per game for the season, 34.5 less per outing then the 49ers.

Additionally, the OVER is 11-6 when San Fran is the better rushing team than its opponent with Jimmy Garoppolo under center, including seven of the last nine as the betting favorite.

Sunday’s total sits at 45.

This story was compiled with the help of queries performed at SportsDatabase.

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