Handicappers like to show off.
They like people to think they have some inside information and edge that no one else possesses. They find it most satisfying to be able to win with an underdog that no one else saw coming. In this year’s playoffs, it was a lot more fun for them to have pulled the Green Bay Packers victory over the Dallas Cowboys from their bag of tricks than winning with the favored Baltimore Ravens by more than three touchdowns over the Houston Texans.
What is interesting, is that because motivational factors are often in exact opposition to the most popular public plays, handicappers can often have their druthers. Winning with underdogs that no one else saw coming while looking singularly smart in doing so.
This week, the National Football League stage their Divisional Playoff Games which by their nature should pit the four best teams against each other to see which two advance to Super Bowl LVIII. In fact, the two teams hosting the games this weekend have been on most football radars most of this season as the best two teams in the league; the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens.
Their opponents are not huge surprises. We don’t have a team this year that has survived to this weekend that isn’t carrying credentials to warrant their participation. The visiting teams this week are the Kansas City Chiefs and Detroit Lions. The Chiefs are the defending Super Bowl Champions and are participating in the AFC Championship Game for the sixth straight year. They have won the AFC title three times since 2018 and have a pair of Super Bowl rings.
They deserve to be here.
The Detroit Lions are new arrivals among the NFL best, this is their first Championship Game since 1991 and they lost that game against the Washington Redskins, 41-10, as a 13 point underdog. They had only appeared in one postseason game since that loss 32 years ago, a defeat against the Green Bay Packers in 1993, before their two victories in this postseason.
But this is not rarified air for the Lions, they were in the running for the top seed in the National Football Conference until the final two weeks of the regular season. Detroit made a run at the playoffs last year which included a final day of the regular season victory over the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field which knocked the home team out of the playoffs and allowed the Seattle Seahawks the final playoff berth in the conference.
The Lions come into Sunday’s contest at Levi’s Stadium seven point underdogs to the talented 49ers. San Francisco is participating in their third NFC Championship Game over the past four seasons. They won it four years ago, over the Green Bay Packers, when as an 8 point favorite they beat Green Bay by 17, 37-20. Two weeks later, they lost Super Bowl LIV to the Kansas City Chiefs.
While the Ravens haven’t advanced to a Championship Game since their Super Bowl winning campaign eleven seasons ago, they have been in the postseason mix six times since 2012. Their biggest challenge has been winning in the postseason once they get into the playoff field. This year, as the top seed in the AFC, they required only one postseason win to advance to Sunday’s Championship Game, and they got it against an inexperienced playoff team with a rookie quarterback and first-year head coach, the Houston Texans.
Now they meet the most experienced postseason team from recent years, the two time Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs.
Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid are a formidable opponent for John Harbaugh and his recently named league Most Valuable Player, quarterback Lamar Jackson.
One might think that a handicapper could get some satisfaction in picking the Ravens to beat the Chiefs in this one. But in fact, the Ravens are favored over the Chiefs and the line was both three and three-and-one-half points when it was first posted and that number is more likely to be four by game day than returning to a field goal.
A Lions pick would seem like one a handicapper could get some brownie points for picking given the 49ers and Detroit history, but in fact more people are betting on Detroit this week than San Francisco.
And for the defending Super Bowl Champion Chiefs, the money is edging on the Ravens side.
We won’t get any cross eyed looks before the game, or a satisfying underdog win in Baltimore on Sunday. Since 2000, the 39 home favorites in the Championship games are 27-12 straight-up and 20-19 against the point spread. There have been seven home underdogs during those years and they have both won the games straight-up four times with a point spread record of five wins and two losses.
By the numbers, that means since 2000 the Championship Game home favorites are 67% winners straight-up and covered the point spread 51% of the time. Whereas the Divisional Round, last week’s games, showed a difference of 26% of the time the underdogs beat the spread while losing the game, in the Championship games that stat is down to what is typical in a regular season, that is the point spread turning 16% of the straight-up losers into point spread winners.
Does that illuminate the winners for us this weekend?