Best bets for the NFL conference championship games

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[h=1]Best bets for the NFL conference championship games[/h]
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The top seeds in both the AFC and NFC have reached the conference championship games, leading to two marquee matchups that will determine who faces off in Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta on Feb. 3.

Each game offers numerous potential betting angles, and our experts -- Preston Johnson, Warren Sharp and Mike Clay -- are here to break down both games, sharing their best betting insights and noting the spots you should avoid.

All lines courtesy of Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, as of Friday morning. All game times are ET.
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[h=2]Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints (-3.5)[/h]
Sunday, 3:05 p.m. (FOX)

Total: 57
Money line: Rams +150; Saints -170
PickCenter consensus: 54 percent picking Los Angeles

Sharp: The key factor is whether the Saints will generate a pass rush on Jared Goff. That is because I expect the Rams will have success running on the Sheldon Rankins-less Saints defense, but unlike the situation in their divisional-round game against the Cowboys, the Rams will need more than just success on the ground to defeat the Saints. Goff has substantial home-road splits, averaging just 7.5 yards per attempt and an 82 passer rating on the road as compared to 8.8 yards per attempt and a 111 passer rating at home. In eight road games this year, Goff has passed for just 10 touchdowns to nine interceptions, as compared to 22 touchdowns to four interceptions when playing at home.

As for the Saints, their offense did not look good against the Eagles last week, and their overall offensive trajectory has tailed off in recent weeks. But how much of that is attributable to playing on the road? The Saints, like the Rams, are much better at home. Between Thanksgiving on Nov. 22 and their last game on Jan. 13, Drew Brees played just one home game. In that game, he recorded a 56 percent success rate, averaged 8.2 yards per attempt and passed for over 325 yards in a 31-point performance against the Steelers. Brees did have a bad game against the Eagles last week, but he'd had three weeks off (including the bye week plus Brees sitting out in Week 17). He did play much worse to close the season, but he only struggled in road games. So, despite recent numbers, don't expect Brees to play poorly against the Rams.

Lean: Saints -3.5
Drew Brees over (-130) / under (+110) two touchdown passes

Clay: Since averaging 4.4 touchdowns per game during Weeks 1-12, the Saints' offense sits at 2.2 TDs per game over their last six outings. That's led to passing touchdown totals of 4, 2, 1, 0, 1 and 1 for Brees during the recent stretch. In fact, Brees has finished at or under two passing touchdowns in nine of 17 games this season. The Saints have been leaning on one of their run-heaviest offenses during the Drew Brees/Sean Payton era, having called pass 54 percent of the time (30th in the NFL) while scoring only 57 percent of their touchdowns through the air (26th).

Meanwhile, 62 percent of touchdowns scored against the Rams' defense have been passes (24th) and offenses are averaging 60 plays per game against them (31st). The Rams have allowed zero or one passing touchdown in six of their past seven games, including two or fewer during 11 of 17 games this season.

Pick: Under two touchdowns (+110)
Johnson: My projections in this game are Saints -3.0 with a total of 54.8. My main takeaway from the Rams-Cowboys matchup was how effectively Los Angeles was able to run the football against a Dallas defense that ranked third against the rush this season. Both Todd Gurley and CJ Anderson rushed for over 100 yards (238 combined on 6.1 yards per carry). Jared Goff didn't make any crucial mistakes, but he wasn't sharp either. I'm intrigued to see if the Rams can run as effectively against a similarly ranked Saints defense (rated slightly worse than Dallas' defense after adjusting for strength of schedule), because the divisional-round version of Goff won't get the job done.

The Saints spotted the Eagles 14 points in their divisional-round matchup, but New Orleans' defense stepped up and didn't allow another point to Philadelphia the rest of the way. The Saints were able to run the ball with moderate success, but it was the connection between Brees and Michael Thomas (12 catches for 171 yards) that ultimately led New Orleans to victory. It seemed like every third down and long, everybody knew where the ball was going, but the Eagles had no answer -- we saw Thomas picking up significant first downs time after time anyway.

The Saints accrued 11 penalties for 84 yards, and Brees threw an opening-play interception, so the final score is actually slightly misleading. The Saints won the yardage battle 420 to 250 and possessed the ball for almost 38 minutes compared to Philadelphia's 22. I'm a little disappointed, actually, because I was hoping for a +4 to back the Rams this weekend, but the market opened +3.5. The total is understandably inflated, considering the final score was 45-35 when these two teams met in the regular season. I would need a move to 58 to have a big enough edge worth betting on, so for the time being, I'm not getting involved in this game.

Pick: Pass; lean on under if total moves to 58
 

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[h=2]New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs (-3)[/h]
Sunday, 6:40 p.m. (CBS)

Total: 56
Money line: Patriots +140; Chiefs -160
PickCenter consensus: 55 percent picking Kansas City

Johnson: My projections for this game are Chiefs -2.8 with a total of 57.6. Much like the Rams' situation, the Patriots were able to dictate their game against the Chargers with an excellent rushing attack that featured Sony Michelcarrying 24 times for 129 yards and three touchdowns. Rex Burkhead also scored a touchdown on the ground. Funny enough, in a game in which Tom Brady was seemingly "quiet," he threw for 343 yards on 34-of-44 passing. Brady and Belichick proved once again why they are arguably the best of all time.

The Chiefs dominated the Colts in similar fashion, rushing for four touchdowns of their own. Unlike the majority of the quarterbacks making their first career playoff starts over the last few years, Patrick Mahomes looked fearless this past Saturday. Mahomes threw for 278 yards on 27-of-41 passing, though the scoring drives ended in rushing touchdowns (including one from Mahomes).

The arctic blast and temperatures below freezing have been the talk around this game for most of the week, and we saw it affect the total in the market accordingly. After this number opened at 58.5 and settled at 57.5, the weather forecast pushed it all the way down to 54 before we saw some buy-back on the over. In the end, the temperature projections are for temperatures in the low-to-mid 30s on Sunday, and even if it had been on the frosty side, cold temperatures haven't historically influenced a game's expected total result in a significant way. With the wind forecasting to be minimal on Sunday, I wouldn't be blindly jumping to bet the under. If anything, I will be looking to bet the over if we see this total dip again like Chiefs-Colts did on game day.

Pick: Pass; potential play on over if the total dips on game day
Sharp: In what will be the final outdoor game of the 2018 season, the cold weather shouldn't impact these offenses' ability to move the ball on the ground. The Patriots have a tremendously efficient rushing offense, ranking ninth in the NFL despite facing the ninth-toughest schedule. The Chiefs have the NFL's worst run defense, and it is particularly susceptible to runs from 21 personnel, which are averaging 7.7 yards per carry and a 65 percent success rate since the return of Justin Houston. The Patriots use the second-most 21 personnel of any team in the league. Even though New England lacks a diverse receiving arsenal, its run game should be productive.

The Chiefs do have a diverse passing attack with the return of Sammy Watkins, and they still have a strong run game despite being down to their third-string running back. The Chiefs likewise have a definitive edge based on personnel groupings; the Patriots have the NFL's worst run defense from 11 personnel, allowing 6.8 yards per carry and a 61 percent success rate since Week 11. Damien Williams is averaging 5.2 yards per carry and a 67 percent success rate when running from 11 personnel, so expect the run lanes to be open for the Chiefs as well.

If both teams can run the ball, this game will come down to which quarterback has the edge and which defense can create a turnover. I think both defenses are capable of creating turnovers, and though I trust Brady more with the football, his passing attack doesn't have the upside that the Chiefs' passing attack does.

Pick: Pass
Travis Kelce over/under 78.5 receiving yards (-110)

Clay: Kelce has gone over 78 receiving yards in nine of 17 games this season and reached 77 yards in 11 of 17 outings. A huge and consistent piece of the Kansas City offense, Kelce has been targeted eight-plus times in seven straight games and in 14 of 17 outings this season. He's averaging 85 receiving yards per game, and that's with Kansas City often comfortably ahead in the second half of games. That may not be the case against the surging Patriots this week. But New England has surrendered 115 targets to opposing tight ends this season, which is 10th-most in the league.

Pick: Kelce over 78.5 receiving yards (-110)
Sony Michel over/under 75.5 rushing yards (-110)

Clay: This one is all about game script and game location. The Patriots have called 33 run plays per game during their 12 wins, but 22 per game in their five losses. Similarly, they average 35 runs per game at home (9-0 record), but 25 per game on the road (3-5). That correlates well with Michel's production. The rookie's rushing totals in losses are 34, 50, 31, 57 and 59. On the road, his totals are 34, 50, 22, 31, 133, 57 and 59. He's averaging 13.3 carries per game on the road and 20 carries per game at home.

The Patriots are, of course, on the road this week and, at best, figure to be close on the scoreboard with the high-scoring Chiefs. That figures to mean less Michel and more James White. New England has called pass on 79 percent of White's snaps, compared to 24 percent of Michel's snaps this season.

Pick: Michel under 75.5 rushing yards (-110)
 
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