01/15/2009 12:00AM

Underdogs have what it takes in NFC, AFC championships


Super Bowl Sunday is great, with the biggest and most-watched game of the year. A lot of professional football bettors, however, prefer the earlier rounds of the playoffs so they don't have their bankroll riding on just one huge decision.

The Super Bowl does offers an expanded prop menu, so that helps the wiseguys diversify their portfolios, but this weekend's conference championship games gives them two games to shoot at, plus we see more and more sports books offering more props on these games as well.

A lot has been made of the unlikely foursome playing this Sunday, as the No. 1 seeds in each conference, the Titans in the AFC and the Giants in the NFC, were unceremoniously ousted last weekend by the Ravens and Eagles, respectively. At least the Steelers, the No. 2 seed in the AFC, prevailed over the Chargers, but the biggest surprise to most people (excluding those who followed my top play last week) was the Cardinals' upset of the Panthers as a 10-point underdog.

In all, the underdogs went 3-1 straight up and against the spread in the divisional playoffs after the favorites went 3-1 in the wild-card round. A number of Vegas sports books reported that while underdogs are usually what they need, and that they were doing well over the course of the weekend, they had significant liability if the Chargers had beaten the Steelers. Why? Because some bettors like to parlay all the underdogs, and if you had used the Ravens +135, Cardinals +325, Eagles +175 and Chargers +225 (those were the consensus money lines available around town) in a four-team parlay, you could have turned a $100 bet into more than $8,900. The books were sweating when the Chargers jumped out to a 7-0 lead, but then the Steelers rallied and won comfortably, 38-24.

We also saw three of the four games go under for the second straight week, which is typical of playoff football. One interesting tidbit that you won't read about anywhere else is that a lot of bettors (and bookmakers) were on the edge of their seats at the end of the Cardinals-Panthers game despite the Cards being up 33-7 late in the fourth quarter. The total on the game opened at 46 1/2 and was bet up to 49 1/2 by kickoff, so when the Panthers drove down and scored a "meaningless" touchdown to make it 33-13 and then lined up for the two-point conversion, a number of early bettors had their wagers in the balance and some books could have gotten middled if it fell 48. Alas, the Panthers failed and the game stayed under.

Early wagering on this Sunday's games have been on the favorites as the Eagles opened as a 3-point road favorite over the Cardinals at most books, with some shading higher to 3 1/2, and as of Thursday's deadline it has climbed to 4 at several sports books. The Steelers opened -5 1/2 vs. the Ravens and that line looks like a solid 6 everywhere. It shouldn't surprise anyone who follows my work that I'm looking at both underdogs this Sunday (especially after losing with the Giants last week).

Cardinals +4 vs. Eagles

I've been on the Cardinals the past two weeks, long before most believed they could make a playoff run. The interesting thing is that there's plenty of room left on the bandwagon, as a lot of people are putting the Eagles in the Super Bowl. Not so fast, my friends. Both teams are playing their best football of the year, and I love that this game is at home for the Cardinals, who suffered all of their embarrassing East Coast losses (including to these same Eagles on Thanksgiving night) far away from the desert. In that previous meeting, the Cardinals were traveling on a short week (three days' rest) and were running away with the NFC West while the Eagles were fighting to stay alive for a playoff berth. The Cardinals are a much different team, especially on defense, where they still don't get the respect they deserve.

I'm going to invoke the name of Arizona safety Adrian Wilson as the difference-maker in this game as he stalks Brian Westbrook out of the backfield or reads the eyes of Donovan McNabb. On offense, everyone knows about the passing game of Kurt Warner along with the improved running game in recent weeks. The Cardinals are supposed to get back receiver Anquan Boldin, which will help take double coverage away from Larry Fitzgerald. A lot of people are talking about that, but I think it could also help the running game if the Eagles choose to bring in extra defensive backs for fear of the passing game. I think the Cardinals pull the rare home upset, but I'll gladly take the points in case it comes down to a field goal.

PLAY: Cardinals for 1 unit.

Ravens +6 at Steelers

Now in this game, I fully expect it to come down to a field goal. Who knows, maybe even a 3-0 final with the way these teams play defense. The Steelers did win a low-scoring 13-9 game the last time they met. Earlier in the year on this same field, the Steelers won 23-20 in overtime. These teams are mirror images of each other - great defenses, offenses that rely on the run but can go downfield for big yardage - so I could go on and on trying to make an argument for one unit over the other, but it really is quite even. This is mostly a case that the line shouldn't be more than a field goal, so I have to take the points.

PLAY: Ravens for 1 unit.

Last week: 2-2, including 1-0 on a 2-unit play on the Cardinals +10, for net profit of 0.8 units (based on risking 1.1 units to win 1). Season DRF record: 30-18-2, including 3-2-1 on 2-unit plays, for a net profit of 11 units.<?strong>