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Best of Bob Owens

Bob Owens Handicaps the Conference Championships

24 January 2002

Last week in the Divisional Round my four side selections went 3-1 ATS, with only Green Bay dumping it before the triumphant Sign of the Ram. For at least four straight years now, a bettor who wagered on the home teams in the Divisional Round would have gone 3-1 ATS each year. And saved himself a lot of eyestrain staring at box scores and stats.

I got a little lucky in the New England victory over Oakland, obtained by way of a disputed replay of a called fumble. Actually, I was doubly lucky in that game, for if I had known it was going to be played in a near blizzard I would have passed. When the footing is bad the better passing team (i.e, Oakland) usually has the edge.

But I'll never turn down a lucky win, because I've lost too many bets by way of bad luck. You need some good breaks to help even things out.

Stupidity cost me any chance of a cover in the weekend's final game. Green Bay's stupidity, that is, not mine. I couldn't believe it when the Packers came out deploying seven defensive backs to contain the Ram air attack! I mean, I pointed out here last week, for all to see, that the only way to beat Georgia's warriors was to prioritize the rush defense. Damn, don't those guys listen to me? Hey, cashier the Pack defensive coordinator.

Of course, nothing done defensively may have mattered anyway, since the Ram "D" made Favre and friends look like Wisconsin sausages. You're guaranteed to lose big when you turn the ball over a preposterous eight times, as Green Bay did.

Sunday, Jan 27:

PHILADELPHIA +12 over St. Louis (1.5 units.)

Yeah, I'm back for more, more goring by the Rams. Sure, I know St Louis is a very good team, and the current edition maybe among the 10 best to ever play the game.

But 12 points? Listen, win or lose this Sunday, you can't come out ahead long term by laying that kind of lumber against a team that dropped only five games all year (three more than the Rams), and never by more than 10 points.

The Eagles boast one of the best stop units in the NFL, ninth overall (using stats through the 15th game only, as I always do in the playoffs), second in points allowed, and fourth in pass defense. The stats do show them a bit soft versus the run, not a good thing to be when looking across the line at Marshall Faulk. However, the Philly rush defense did improve the latter part of the season.

The Eagles never gave up more than 21 points all season, and that includes the 20 surrendered to the Rams in the season opener in Philadelphia. The Rams won that game only by a field goal, in overtime. Certainly, the St Louis defense is better now than it was then, but so too is the Eagle offense.

Philly faces the tough task of simultaneously stopping the Ram rush while harassing All-Everything QB Kurt Warner, pressuring him into errors. (St Lou was one of the worst teams in turnover ratio.) They have a chance to keep it close and even score a world-shattering upset, if they can do that at least a good part of the time. Anyway, I know they will not be so dumb as to come out with seven DBs! Nor will they turn the ball over eight times!

Their defensive backfield is talented enough to go man-to-man against the speed demon receivers of the Rams. This allows the smart defensive coaches of the Eagles to execute blitzing packages, as well as to guard against Faulk running wild.

I am somewhat concerned that Philly's best cornerback, Troy Vincent, still suffers from the groin pull he sustained last week versus Chicago. At this moment it is the proverbial "game time decision" as to whether he'll play, or if he does how effective he'll be. But I'm wagering that the miracle of medical pharmacology will see him suited up in St Louis come Sunday, ready to do fierce battle.

The Ram defense, a little overlooked until last week, is a very good one. The flaws from the prior season were corrected with great free agent signings and a solid defensive draft. They rank second overall (to Pittsburgh), third against the run, and ninth in terms of points surrendered.

This week, though, they face an emerging phenomenon in Philly QB Donovan McNabb, who carried the offensive team last week in the win over a strong Chicago defense. This former Syracuse star is now a one-man NFL highlight film. He is not the pocket passer Warner is, but his ability to avoid the rush and make big plays on the run, or by running, puts great pressure on even the superior defenses.

His main running back, Staley, has been harassed by injury all season, and is pretty much a stiff when trying to run into the line. But he can break it if he gets the ball in open field. The rookie, Buckhalter, also has big play potential. Still, the Eagle running game does not match that of the Rams. They do or die with McNabb's acrobatics.

And we still have that big point spread. As a matter of faith, morality, principle, and common sense I will never, but never, lay that many points in an NFL game, certainly not in the playoffs versus a winning team. Doesn't matter to me what the Rams did last week, I'm more apt to take the points than to give them, and I will do just that here.

St Louis still has a poor ATS record when laying over a touchdown to a team with a winning record. And Philly is now 8-1 ATS on the road. Additionally, in contrast to the home team dominance in the Divisional Round, in this round over the past three years, the home team is only 2-4 ATS, in part because the number is set too high. One of the losers ATS in this round was the -14 St Louis team, a few years ago, at home versus Tampa Bay.

Speaking of that game, one other item that must be factored is the desire of the NFL hierarchy to have the high-flying, glamorous Rams in the Super Bowl. I mean, they do put fannies into seats, to use a phrase beloved by sports marketers. There is the possibility of referee calls corrupted by public relations concerns hurting the Eagles chances.

(For those who dismiss such concerns as paranoia, I urge you to search the archives of this site for my article, "Is Football Officiating Corrupt?" The NFL most definitely skews their calls on occasion in the interests of keeping the television sets turned on to their show. In the Eagles-Bears game last week a ref called a "roughing the passer" penalty against Philly, even though it clearly was not that.

But the Bears starting QB had already been knocked out of the game, and it would not suit the ratings if Chicago had to go with their third-string QB. As Howie Long pointed out during the halftime show, it was a bad call but the NFL was sending a message. Unfortunately, their message was sent by breaking the rules they had themselves laid down.)

It's true that if both Pennsylvania teams win this week it will mark the first time ever that two African-American QBs started in the Super Bowl, a storyline the league would eagerly milk for every drop. But they really want the Rams in New Orleans in February.

They screwed Tampa in the game mentioned above, by reversing in the replay booth a vital late-game play by the Bucs. But due to the double-digit spread, Tampa covered anyway. While I have to keep the corrupt call factor in mind, I also have to go with the double digits.

I will stand on the odds as they are now, + 12, but my own plan is to wait to bet until Saturday morning, to see if it might move up a half point or more. There are folks betting into the game who don't normally wager on sports, but they saw the huge Ram rumble last week and are contacting their sports accountants to get down. Also betting will be those ladies in love with Kurt, who has a future before the cameras when he hangs up his cleats. These fans don't care if the number is -30.

It often happens in big games like this that the number will rise until Saturday night or Sunday morning, then the wiseguys drop big bucks on the dog, as do the middlers who bet the Rams at the lower, opening number. Of course, it doesn't always come down this way, so if I see the number dropping any time before Saturday I'll make my bet.

The Other Game:

I can't see Pittsburgh losing here, but I won't bet into - 9.5. This opened at –7.5.

The Steelers appear to be too strong, too complete, for New England, who had a tough and miserable game in the snow last Saturday, won in overtime. Still, in these patriotic times the Patriots seem to have an angel on their shoulder. They'll need that angel, especially if Jerome Bettis is healthy and ready, as they are in the bottom half of the league in rush defense.

The Totals:

I lean toward the Under in both games. The defenses of these four teams are good to great, and of the last six games in this round four landed Under the total.

Bob Owens
Bob Owens has been a freelance writer for 20 years, authoring numerous articles on sports and betting. In the late 1980s, he was an advisor on betting and promotions for the Caliente bookmakers in Mexico. He's based in San Diego.
Bob Owens
Bob Owens has been a freelance writer for 20 years, authoring numerous articles on sports and betting. In the late 1980s, he was an advisor on betting and promotions for the Caliente bookmakers in Mexico. He's based in San Diego.