Against the Spread: 2010 NFL Picks: Championship Games

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- The Green Bay Packers against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV sounds like a dream come true. But before that can happen, those favored teams must win their respective conference championship games.

After a sweep in the wild card round, my picks against the spread were 2-2 last week. The Packers and the Steelers were successful picks, while my beloved New England Patriots didn't even show up for their game against the New York Jets. I'm sure there's a "foot in mouth" joke to be made, especially considering news that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is having foot surgery this week, but I haven't yet gotten over that pathetic performance on Sunday to crack any jokes.

My overall column record is now 48-44 with one tie. My success rate is 51.6%, shy of the magical 53% threshold. A bettor typically needs to win 53% of his or her bets in order to profit, based on the idea that you have to wager 110 units in order to win 100 units. Including this Sunday's championship games, I have three chances left to improve my overall record for the season.

Sadly, I've lost my shot at a perfect 11-0 run. The same cannot be said about Paul Bessire, the general manager and creator of the Web site PredictionMachine.com, who is perfect in the playoffs so far.

The Prediction Machine is a quantitative way to break down NFL games as it simulates each contest 50,000 times to come up with a pick against the spread. So far, the model has gone 8-0 in the playoffs. Bessire, though, is modest in his reaction to his playoff success, arguing that luck has a lot to do with the outcome of each and every game.

"I was asked to what degree does luck play in the individual games, and I said that luck shows up in every single game," Bessire says. "In the short term, especially with an investment strategy coming up with probabilities, luck could have a lot to do with whether we're on one side of the pick or not. Luck means a lot in the short term. In the long term, we win out because we consistently find opportunity to wager when something is likely to occur 60% of the time."

The problem that arises in this championship round of NFL playoffs games is that the spreads for the games make much more sense than in the last two weeks. Remember, the Bears were favored by 10 points last week, while the Patriots were nine-point favorites. In the wild card round, the New Orleans Saints were laying more than 10 points as they traveled to play in Seattle.

These smaller spreads this week means less opportunity to expose lopsided lines, and Bessire says neither of the two NFL conference championship games yields a probable win against the spread more than 57% of the time. That doesn't bode well for someone like Bessire who is aiming to go 10-0.

"Based on our own confidence, we only have a 31% chance of hitting both sides on Sunday," Bessire admits. "That's still much better than throwing darts, yet not as likely as we have come to expect by exploiting invalid lines for two weeks."

With that, it's onto my picks for the two title games this Sunday. Once again, these are for entertainment purposes only. And as always, I've enlisted the help of PredictionMachine.com's Paul Bessire.

I've also collected commentary on both games from Bookmaker.com CEO Mickey Richardson. His analysis focuses on the spread movement by his oddsmakers and a look at where the public and professional money is moving on each game. These are necessary tools for bettors on the hunt for inefficiencies and value based on betting trends.

Read on for the first game preview, the early Sunday game with the Packers on the road again to play the Chicago Bears.

Jay Cutler

Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears (+3.5)

For only the second time in NFL playoff history, bitter division rivals the Bears and Packers will play each other in a win-or-go-home game. This hasn't happened since 1941, and deserves much more attention than the public is giving it.

Let's tackle (no pun intended) the Chicago Bears first. At the beginning of the NFL season, it seemed that no one gave the Bears any credit. A reader named Stanley emailed me on Oct. 10 to spout off on how unloved the Chicago Bears are in the media.

"In Chicago, the local media unanimously hates coach Lovie Smith. So they all predicted the Bears would be awful," Stanley wrote. He notes that no one recognized that the Bears added a strong offensive coordinator in Mike Martz -- their first credible OC in years. He also noted the importance of a healthy Brian Urlacher and the addition of Julius Peppers on defense.

"The result," Stanley wrote, "is that they have started 4-1, instead of 1-4 as predicted by the local and national media before the season. In order to win money against the spread, a lot of easy money is available early in the season, because the bookies are very slow to recognize the changes from the previous year. Some teams, like the Bears, are much better than last year, and will continue to be better all year."

And the Bears did just that, finishing with an 11-5 record and nine wins against the spread. Chicago beat these same Green Bay Packers in Week 3 en route to that winning record, and Chicago fans expect that the Bears will make their first Super Bowl appearance since 2007, when the team lost to the Indianapolis Colts.

The Bears have some pretty big backers, too. After a meeting this week with the president of China, President Barack Obama pledged that he'd be at the Super Bowl if da Bears make it to the big game in Texas on Feb. 6.

If the only requirement to make the Super Bowl was to stop an opponent's running game, the Bears would be a top contender. Chicago ranks second overall in the NFL in stopping rushing attacks, allowing an average of 90.1 running yards on defense. That's good news considering the Bears play a team in the Packers where quarterback Aaron Rodgers is tied for the most rushing touchdowns at four.

The bad news, however, is that Chicago ranks poorly in virtually most other team metric. The Bears defense is 20th overall based on passing yards allowed, which doesn't bode well considering the defense will have to stop Rodgers. Chicago is even worse on offense, ranking 22nd in rushing yards and a pitiful 28th in passing yards.

This has lead to bookies undervaluing the Chicago Bears once again. Despite home-field advantage against a team that will be playing a third consecutive road game, the Bears are getting more than a field goal. So what about the Bears makes them an attractive pick this weekend?

For one, even though the offense had 31 turnovers this season, the Bears' defense outpaced that with 35 turnovers in their favor, good for a +4 turnover differential. The Bears' defense also ranks fourth overall in points allowed and ninth overall in yards allowed. On offense, running back Matt Forte finally pieced together a strong season, notching six rushing touchdowns and only three fumbles in his 1,000-yard campaign.

Aaron Rodgers

Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears (+3.5)

Admittedly, I was stupid for picking the Seattle Seahawks as 10-point underdogs against Chicago last week. That said, the Bears covered the 10-point spread by the slimmest of margins, which I blame on the fact that Seattle did not once attempt a two-point conversion. The Bears may have appeared dominant in racking up 35 points last week, but the same should not be expected this week against the Packers.

For many of the ways the Bears are considered good, the Green Bay Packers are statistically better. Green Bay ranks ahead of Chicago in terms of offensive and defensive passing yards. Green Bay's defense ranks second and fifth in points and yards allowed, respectively. When it comes to turnovers, the Packers have a +10 differential, thanks to 32 turnovers by the defensive unit.

The differences in both teams are clearly defined in comparing the performance of their respective quarterbacks. Aaron Rodgers threw 28 touchdown passes in the regular season and only 11 interceptions. Opposing defenses sacked the Packers' quarterback 31 times for a loss of 193 yards. On the other hand, Jay Cutler threw for 23 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, while a whopping 52 sacks resulted in the loss of an eye-popping 352 yards.

That isn't to say that the Packers don't have chinks in the armor. Green Bay certainly falls short in the running game, and that has been the team's weakness all season. In recent weeks, running back James Starks has emerged as a decent rusher, but it's hard to imagine he'll have success against the Bears' defense. Similarly, the Green Bay defense isn't effective against opposing running backs, allowing a total of 1,838 rushing yards in the regular season, or 4.7 yards per rushing attempt.

Considering this will be the third road game for the Packers against the NFC's elite teams, it's amazing to see the Packers favored by more than a field goal. Will the Pack show the dominance that the public is now expecting? There is a chance the Packers could look as flat as they did in the final game of the season, which resulted in a 10-3 home victory over a Bears team that looked like it wasn't even trying.

Bessire's Take: Bessire says that the Prediction Machine has Green Bay covering the 3.5-point line 56.9% of the time, based on 50,000 simulations. He argues, though, that the real play is on the "under" based on the 43.5-point line, based on the outperformance of both defenses.

"Playing through the injury issues that plagued their season, Green Bay has emerged a much stronger, smarter and more efficient team than the Packers were when the teams met in Week 3 in Chicago on Monday night. Chicago holds home-field advantage and a moderate advantage in the run game, though neither relies on running the ball. The Bears also have edge in special teams, which rarely means much in 50,000 games played, but could mean a lot in a game played once. Green Bay wins every other matchup, most notably in the passing game, where Aaron Rodgers completes 63.8% of his passes for 6.7 yards-per-pass and Jay Cutler completes just 57.5% of his passes for only 5.1 yards-per-pass. The Packers even win the turnover and penalty battles by slim margins. Interestingly, weather shouldn't really play a factor in this game. Yes, it will be cold, but winds will be very moderate -- especially for Chicago in the winter -- and possible flurries should not accumulate."

Bookmaker.com Take: "Amazingly, Bookmaker.com opened the wild card Packers as a 3-point favorite over the hometown Bears. Currently, there is a hard lean to the Packer and the line is 3 -135. This is a result of the early and sharp money backing Green Bay. The public money is starting to show for the Bears, but it is doubtful it will even out the books. Shoppers and hedge players will see an occasional 3.5. However, the book will do everything in its power to stick to the number 3."

The Pick: Packers -3.5. I worry that the Packers will kick off the game to Devin Hester, who will run for a touchdown to lead off the game. And over the last 10 years, the Packers have never played three back-to-back-to-back road games. It's extremely hard to predict what will happen when two familiar division rivals play each other in the playoffs. I have to go with the Packers, as I believe that Aaron Rodgers will find great success in passing against a Bears defense that has exhibited time and time again this season that they have trouble against opponents' passing game.

LaDanian Tomlinson

New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers (-3.5)

Having lived in New York for the better part of a decade, I became friends with several long-suffering Jets fans. Almost as if they were inspired by Rex Ryan's trash talk, many of them felt the need to send text messages late Sunday without provocation as they reveled in the Jets victory of my hometown Patriots. I have to wonder if what I feel now toward Jets fans is the same way the rest of the nation felt after the Red Sox finally won something meaningful in the playoffs.

Although I still maintain that the Patriots have looked completely unprepared and badly coached in two consecutive playoff games, I don't mean to take away from what the Jets accomplished on Sunday. Momentum and emotion can't be turned into a statistic to analyze and dissect, but they certainly are factors in the NFL playoffs.

Like with my Seattle pick last week, it was foolish in hindsight for me to pick the Patriots, considering the fact that the public loves to bet on New England, which allows Vegas to bump the spread even higher. I severely underestimated the Jets' defense, which ranks in the top 10 for points allowed, yards allowed, first downs allowed, passing yards allowed, rushing yards allowed, yards per attempt allowed by pass and rush, and turnovers forced.

The Jets' offense is similarly strong when it comes to the running attack, ranking in the top 10 across all rushing statistical categories. New York showed its rushing ability well against the Patriots, with 120 yards rushing and one touchdown. The weak link has been the performance of Mark Sanchez, as the Jets rank 22nd overall in passing yards, 23rd overall in passing touchdowns and 22nd in net yards gained per pass attempt.

Apparently no one told Sanchez about these stats last Sunday, as he throttled the Patriots' defense in racking up 194 passing yards with three touchdown throws and no interceptions.

Jets fans have eagerly noted that Gang Green traveled to Pittsburgh in Week 15 and beat the Steelers 22-17. But in a stark contrast from the trash talk aimed at the Patriots last week, Jets players have nothing but praise for their opponents this week. Jets' wide receiver Santonio Holmes went out of his way to say Steelers defender Troy Polamalu "is probably the greatest player I've ever played with or even seen play in person."

Troy Polamalu

New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers (-3.5)

It's probably in Holmes' and the Jets' best interests to speak about Polamalu in such glowing terms, considering that the Steelers playmaker was absent during that Week 15 game. Despite missing two games this season with an ankle injury, Polamalu notched 49 solo tackles this season with one sack, seven interceptions and one touchdown.

Polamalu's absence seems to be exactly why the Jets defeated the Steelers in the regular season. In that game, Pittsburgh dominated in terms of first downs, third-down efficiency, total yards, yards per rush and red zone success. However, Sanchez was able to complete 19 of 29 passes and averaged nearly six yards per pass. That's one thing Pittsburgh cannot allow this week if they expect to be AFC champions.

Polamalu isn't the only strength the Steelers have on defense. It's easy to say Pittsburgh has one of the best defenses in the NFL, but it's another thing to show that the Steelers' defense allowed the fewest number of points this season (232) and the second fewest number of yards (4,429) to opposing teams. The Steelers' defense ranks number one in essentially all categories when stopping the running game of opponents, and they'll certainly have a challenge when the Jets come to town.

Lost in all the noise about both teams' defense is how well Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has played since serving a four-game suspension related to off-the-field conduct. Roethlisberger had 17 touchdowns and only five interceptions in the regular season. He was sacked 32 times, which raises more questions about Pittsburgh's offense line than it does about Roethlisberger's ability.

Bessire's Take: Bessire says the Prediction Machine offers weaker results for this game compared to the NFC Championship game, as the Steelers cover the 3.5-point spread only 53.8% of the time based on the 50,000 simulations.

"On paper, or 'in computer' if you will, this game looks a lot like the Ravens at Steelers game from last week. In fact, going into last week, we even liked Baltimore a little bit better than the Jets in general. At this point, with the Jets looking strong last week, we foresee an eerily similar final score result to our Baltimore at Pittsburgh prediction last week. Unfortunately, that means that we don't really have a strong opinion on either the side or the total. The side is barely playable, while the total is not even playable. The Steelers and Jets are fairly similar teams, but Pittsburgh has home-field advantage, the better defense and the better quarterback. Those edges in matchups should yield a decisive victory more often than not."

Bookmaker.com Take: "Pittsburgh opened as a 3-point favorite over the wild card Jets and sharps backed the favorite, producing a heavy lean to the steel town and making the line 3 -130. Bookmaker.com has gone to 3.5 during the week and the hedge crowd takes the value and brings the number back down to 3. The wiseguys seem to believe in Pittsburgh with a healthy Polamalu back in action, which was not the case the last time these two teams met. It is possible to see a closing line of 3.5 but more predictable to close 3."

The Pick: Steelers -3.5. This pick isn't made because of Polamalu alone. Like Bessire, this feels very much like the Steelers/Ravens game we witnessed last week. There was a lot of concern at the time that 3.5 points was simply too much for the Steelers to be laying against an opponent with a great defense and mediocre offense. The only difference is that I don't expect Pittsburgh will be as rusty as they were at the start of last weekend's game, which I blame on the Steelers having a bye week for the first round of the playoffs. The Steelers should win this game easily, and I'm not letting that half-point added to the spread sway me into an underdog pick.

-- Written by Robert Holmes in Boston.

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Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors, reporters and analysts from holding positions in any individual stocks.

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