Home-field advantage makes selections all the more difficult Take Broncos on the road, but stick with 49ers at home

On the line

January 09, 1998|By Gerald Strine | Gerald Strine,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The home-field advantage grows stronger every year in the NFL. Even the weakest teams perform much more bravely in their own stadiums. Crowd noise is becoming an increasingly important factor in big games. If, for example, the visiting team's offense has to resort to a different method for calling and changing plays, it can only have a negative effect.

Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Tennessee were among the teams with the highest home-field ratings this season. And though Green Bay was only 3-4 covering the point spread at Lambeau, part of the reason for the poor record is the fact that the betting number on the Packers, when they played at home, was slightly inflated each and every time out.

Now we come to the conference championships, and the home-field consideration is monstrous. If Pittsburgh were playing Denver and San Francisco traveling to Green Bay on Sunday, you could book a Super Bowl junket to San Diego today to see the Broncos challenge the Packers on Jan. 25.

I doubt that the number on those two matchups could keep me from selecting Green Bay and Denver, even though both would be solid favorites.

But that's not the way it is. Pittsburgh and San Francisco, enjoying the home-field edge, are one-point underdogs. And that makes for some very difficult handicapping.

This week's picks

(All bets in mythical dollars)

Broncos (-1) at Steelers: Pittsburgh defeated Denver, 35-24, as a 1 1/2 -point favorite at Three Rivers Stadium on Dec. 7.

The Broncos led 21-7 and were moving with the ball in Steelers' territory in the second quarter. Denver's receivers were open all day. John Elway usually hit them with accurate passes. Sometimes those receivers held onto the ball, sometimes they didn't.

Pittsburgh got back into the game when Yancey Thigpen proceeded to have cornerback Darrien Gordon for lunch. Then, in the second half, the Steelers' interior blocking gave Jerome Bettis room to roam and "The Bus" took off.

You can be sure that Gordon will have help against Thigpen this time. Whether Denver's defensive front can do a better job on Bettis is another question.

Pittsburgh's defense will do a solid job, again, against Terrell Davis. Denver won't beat the Steelers by running the ball, which is what it would prefer to do. But Pittsburgh's pass defense is shaky, and Chad Scott is the cornerback every opponent picks on. The Steelers' secondary will give him help.

Take Denver for $100.

(Nothing about this selection is guaranteed, not with the game being played in Pittsburgh. The colder it gets, the better the Steelers' chances. And The Bus runs great on antifreeze.)

Packers (-1) at 49ers: The Pack has been the best team in the NFL the past two months, since things became serious. Nearly )) everyone agrees on that.

Green Bay has defeated San Francisco three straight, including the playoffs the past two seasons. Steve Young was hurting last year in the 49ers' two losses to Green Bay. Now he's healthy.

The Packers, on their way up, may have caught the 49ers a bit overconfident in San Francisco in '95 and '96. Now the situation is reversed. Green Bay must go to the West Coast to face a squad that, for the first time in this recent series, has the emotional factor in its favor.

It's a bit like the Dallas-at-Green Bay game at Lambeau Field this fall. The Cowboys had beaten the Packers regularly, playing in Dallas. Finally, the home field was reversed. The Packers were primed. Now, the 49ers will be.

Take San Francisco for $100.

The numbers

Last week's record: 2-1-1. Net for week: plus $50.

Season record: 54-47-6. Net for season: plus $1,045.

Pub Date: 1/09/98

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