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NFL’s fi­nal four has no over­whelm­ing favourite

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - SPORTS - BY BARRY WILNER

The NFL has its fi­nal four, and the odds­mak­ers are fore­cast­ing tight games.

Con­sid­er­ing the divi­sional matchups all fin­ished with onepos­ses­sion re­sults, this week­end’s cham­pi­onship games should be just as close, right? Well, maybe not in one case. The 17th and pos­si­bly fi­nal in­stall­ment of the Pey­ton Man­ning-Tom Brady saga ap­pro­pri­ately takes place in a con­fer­ence ti­tle game. This one is in Den­ver, where Brady is 2-6, in­clud­ing a loss this sea­son when Man­ning was in­jured and Brock Osweiler was tak­ing snaps.

So yes, there are some raised eye­brows when the bet­ting line is placed at New Eng­land favoured by 2 1/2 points in the Mile High City.

This is the third time Den­ver has been a home un­der­dog since Man­ning came aboard in 2012. Hous­ton won 31-25 as a one-point favourite that year. This sea­son, Den­ver took apart Green Bay 29-10 in Novem­ber when the Pack­ers were a three­p­oint choice.

But there are also th­ese el­e­ments to con­sider:

- Of the four win­ners last week­end, New Eng­land looked the strong­est.

- Brady’s post-sea­son pedi­gree is bet­ter than Man­ning’s. He is 22-8 in the play­offs, in­clud­ing 4-2 in Su­per Bowls. Man­ning is 12-13, 1-2 in Su­per Bowls.

- Brady also is 10-6 fac­ing Man­ning, but the record is 2-2 in the play­offs.

Of course, the Pa­tri­ots quar­ter­back is in his 10th AFC cham­pi­onship game, fifth in a row, and has gone 6-3. Den­ver’s QB is in his fifth and is 3-1, in­clud­ing 2-1 against Brady.

That off­sets the in­di­ca­tors favour­ing New Eng­land just a bit.

- Health. Brady has a nag­ging an­kle prob­lem, but he didn’t seem af­fected against Kansas City, and he’s cer­tainly closer to peak form than Man­ning.

- Bron­cos coach Gary Ku­biak has never been in charge of a Su­per Bowl team. Bill Belichick has made a habit of it.

No quar­ter­back has won five Lom­bardi Tro­phies, and Brady has that in his sights, too.

It seems as if much of Amer­ica dreads an­other trip to the big game by Belichick’s team. Time to swal­low hard and ...

BEST BET: PA­TRI­OTS, 24-13

Ari­zona (plus 3)

at Carolina

Both clubs left their fans, neu­tral ob­servers and prob­a­bly them­selves shak­ing their heads last week­end.

The Pan­thers, who had the league’s best record at 15-1, pum­melled two-time de­fend­ing NFC cham­pion Seat­tle 31-0 in the first half. Carolina’s de­fence got con­sis­tent pres­sure on Rus­sell Wil­son and shut down the ground game. Cam New­ton, Jonathan Ste­wart and Greg Olsen were dom­i­nant on of­fence.

Then it all soured, the Sea­hawks scored the next 24 points and prob­a­bly were an on­side kick re­cov­ery away from forc­ing over­time.

New­ton ad­mit­ted his team needs more killer in­stinct.

Ari­zona dis­played the trait in over­time against Green Bay, sparked by Larry Fitzger­ald’s weav­ing 75-yard catch and run. But the Car­di­nals never should have needed the ex­tra work, al­low­ing a 60-yard com­ple­tion on fourth down, then a 41-yard des­per­a­tion TD pass on the fi­nal play of regulation.

Each team has an out­stand­ing de­fence, but the feel­ing here is lots of points will be had in Sun­day’s late game.

The ma­jor­ity of those points will be scored by the hosts, who have won 12 in a row at home.

PAN­THERS, 33-28

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