Free NFL Picks: Fade Home Field Advantage & Lock Patriots To Win AFC Title

Jay Pryce

Wednesday, January 20, 2016 1:40 PM UTC

Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016 1:40 PM UTC

The Patriots hope to avenge a 30-24 overtime loss to the Broncos back in Week 12, New England's first defeat of the season. Can Denver do it again and take the AFC Championship? 

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NFL Pick: Patriots -3
Best Line Offered: at Pinnacle


The Patriots hope to avenge a 30-24 overtime loss to the Broncos back in Week 12 on Sunday (3:05 p.m. ET), New England's first defeat of the season. Can Denver do it again and take the AFC Championship? Or will the Pats make consecutive trips to the Super Bowl?


New England Patriots (13-4 SU, 9-7-1 ATS)
The Pats' offense is a different beast when healthy, particularly with TE Rob Gronkowski and WR Julian Edelmen in the lineup. Gronk's speed and size create mismatches against nearly every defensive set, forcing coordinators to rearrange coverage to allow for help guarding the four-time Pro Bowler. Since he returned form surgery to repair a torn ACL and MCL  suffered in December 2013, the Pats are 27-4 SU when Gronk catches three or more passes in a game as opposed to 1-4 SU, 0-4-1 against the NFL odds with less, or when fails to play. In the 1-4 contests, the Pats put up 16.2 points per game and 31.8 when Gronk produces.

Edelman missed the regular-season matchup against Denver with a fractured foot. He returned last weekend, catching 10 passes for 100 yards, terrorizing the Chiefs' big, check-down corners with his speed and versatility. Brady's favorite underneath target may not present as much of 1-on-1 matchup problem for the quicker secondary making up the league's No. 2 pass defense (206.1 passing yards per game), but the threat he poses will almost certainly help Gronk. Look for the Broncos to double team one, or both receivers, and go to zone more than it likes. The Pats are 15-0 SU, 11-4 ATS in their last 15 when Edelman starts. Since 2011, New England is 38-8 SU, 29-17 ATS when they both catch a pass in the same game. 

New England's offensive line, which struggled to keep Brady upright in the second half of the year, will have to stand on its head against the No.1 sack defense in the league (one sack every 8.27 percent of backdrops). It doesn't matter how healthy Brady's receiving corps is if he spends all game dodging Denver's sack specialists Von Miller and Demarcus Ware. 

New England's 5.2 yards allowed per play is seventh best in the NFL, but the defense is just so-so in danger spots on the field. Coach Bill Belichick's units tighten up in the red zone historically, but this year it allows a TD on a pedestrian 56.5 percent of trips inside the 20-yard line, ranking 15th in the league. 


Denver Broncos (13-4 SU, 7-8-2 ATS)
Brock Osweiler started in the regular-season victory over the Patriots, but Peyton Manning gets the call for this one, his second start back since sitting out most of the second half of the season because of a sore foot. This will be the 17th time the Canton-bound quarterbacks Manning and Brady faceoff.

Manning didn't show any signs last week that his arm strength is stronger than it was earlier in the year. He did stymie the Black and Gold with his masterful game management and play calling, however, and could do the same against the Pats.

Denver's rushing attack will likely be the difference-maker if it is to upset the reigning Super Bowl champs. It was held below 2.8 yards per carry in six of its first nine games this season. Since then, C.J. Anderson, Ronnie Hillman, and gang have posted 3.3 yards or more on the ground in all but one game, for an average of 131.6 rushing yards per contest.

The modern NFL is a passing league, though, and the number threshold that may signal the winner of this matchup is 6.23 yards per passing attempt. The Pats failed to surpass this figure in three games this season, losing each outright (0-3 SU & ATS). The Broncos defense, meanwhile, held 11 opponents below this mark, going 10-1 SU (6-5 ATS) in the process. Coach Gary Kubiak's squad went 3-3 SU (1-3-2 ATS) when allowing more. In the last two seasons, Brady and company have posted less than 6.23 yards in only two of 27 games when Gronk and Edelman picked up a catch in the same game.


Final Analysis
The Pats are growing healthier by the day, getting closer to the offensive juggernaut it was earlier in the season. The Broncos' run game has improved, but it hasn't helped the team overcome its passing woes and scoring difficulties. The team is averaging 20.7 points per game in the second half of the season versus 24.0 prior. Denver's defense will keep the game close, and will likely have to find some points of its own to pull off the mild upset, as Manning and crew will not be able to match Brady's offense stride for stride. New England -3 is the NFL pick here.

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