What matters most for bettors as the NFL playoffs wind down?

Receiver Antonio Brown and the Steelers have won eight straight, including last weekend’s playoff game against Kansas City.
Photo: Ed Zunga / AP

Every year, debate rages about whether it’s shrewder to bet on NFL playoff teams that have performed well over the course of the entire season or those that have gotten hottest closest to the finish line. It will never be settled, because there’s ample evidence on both sides. The right choice depends on the year.

Last season’s Denver Broncos, for instance, stumbled into the playoffs but demonstrated that sample size from the whole season was more important as they surged to a Super Bowl 50 victory. But we’re also only a few years removed from runs by the 2012 Baltimore Ravens, 2011 New York Giants and 2010 Green Bay Packers—all of whom emerged as surprise champions by saving their best for the postseason. And then there are teams like the New England Patriots from two years ago, who fall somewhere in the middle.

This year won’t end with inconclusiveness. There will be a definitive answer to the NFL’s key postseason question one way or the other.

Sunday’s NFC Championship Game features a team that has dominated all season, the Atlanta Falcons, against one that hit its stride late, Green Bay. Sunday’s AFC Championship Game carries the same theme—Patriots, looking to maintain the lead they’ve held over the rest of the league all season, versus the peaking Pittsburgh Steelers.

The situations are nearly identical, and so are the point spreads. Atlanta is a 5-point favorite at home against Green Bay, while New England hosts Pittsburgh as a 5.5-point favorite.

The betting public typically sides with the hotter team, and that’s certainly the case when it comes to the NFC. Early reports indicate two out of every three tickets are coming in on the Packers. But it’s a different story in the AFC, where the Patriots are commanding the lion’s share of the betting action. New England is the rare team that came into the season with the highest expectations in the league and somehow surpassed them, posting a 15-2 straight-up, 14-3 against the spread record to this point. The Pats were Super Bowl favorites before Week 1 of the season—at a price of 6-to-1 at the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook— and never strayed from the top of the betting board.

The Packers and Steelers entered the year closely behind—at 8-to-1 and 10-to-1, respectively—but saw their numbers swell while suffering through slumps. Pittsburgh struggled to stay healthy and sat at 4-5 straight up and against the spread following a four-game losing streak. Green Bay was mired in its own four-game skid at around the same time, leaving it a game worse at 4-6 straight-up and against the spread. But neither the Packers nor the Steelers have lost since those midseason swoons, and they’ve combined to cover in all but three games.

Atlanta is the team both oddsmakers and bettors misjudged. The Falcons were 80-to-1 win the Super Bowl in the preseason, but have scorched the league with their offense. Their 12-5 straight-up record could be even better if they didn’t go an unlucky 1-3 in games decided by less than a touchdown.

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