Wednesday, 30 January 2013

World Hurdle antepost preview

Cheltenham's fast approaching and for many, that means starting to extract any value out of the money-back offers that start opening up about now. It makes sense when you can't be certain which way some contenders will go, and now that Big Buck's has gone amiss, this race is an option for several more than it could have been. Bear in mind though, that promo offers like that usually come at a cost, and that means extra percentage in the market. Regular contributor Jon da Silva, @creamontop, has stepped forward to take an early look at the feature staying hurdle of The Festival.

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World Hurdle

My favourite jumper was a hurdler called Morley Street who achieved a Timeform rating of 174 and won five straight years at the Aintree Festival. Had he been better trained he might have been one of the greats. Yet Big Buck's a giant who Morley would have laughed at at 21 furlongs or less is rated 176. Top class three-mile hurdling is for specialists. Yet take Big Buck's out and Grand Crus wins and he would hardly be classed as a dour stayer. Nor My Way de Solzen. Indeed the race can easily become slowly run with so many plodders and held up to get the trippers. This year's winner will likely not be an all time great or top class at the trip.

Failed Chasers

Reve de Sivola won the last two trials and probably the dourest stayer here - Tidal Bay excepted. I was all set to anoint this one last week but truth be told barely beating a dodgy stayer on bad ground and taking forever to dominate Knockara Beau and a six length beating of the likely under-rated Kentford Grey Lady combined with a reduced price like 5s is hardly bet compelling. The likely race will be 40 seconds quicker than the Cleeve. Key point is he might improve for good ground as his Neptune second shows he goes well on it but it could improve others more for me. 5s

Bog Warrior OK he's hardly failed at anything. Finished last once and otherwise unbeaten when completing (OK OK beaten when falling twice). Has won on nothing better than Yielding (Good to Soft) so maybe well named. Hard to evaluate but has crushed Solwhit and Zaidpour (the yardstick for those fetishists who do that kind of thing). On soft ground 10s might have some appeal but that is an outside chance regardless of water table twaddle. 10s

Oscara Dara certainly turned the Lanzarote into a cake walk with a remarkably easy looking win right up till he rooted the last and still picked up to win easily. That was off 140 and the first time at a trip. He would still need circa 15 pounds and to stay further on a tougher track. Not out of the question but entered this weekend. Exchange prices suggest he will run in the World Hurdle if he comes through all right. Inexperienced.

Not Champions

Peddler's Cross proved he had four legs the other day. Target uncertain. Ability retained uncertain. Stamina a guess. Not an ante post bet? 12s

Oscar Whisky would have every chance based on Saturday but chances of not running and one to consider Non Runner Non Bet knowing he may only run with ground to suit. I (and everyone else) has the suspicion that despite the ground Saturday showed he is not as good at three miles. 5s

Similarly Solwhit and Thousand Stars may also go straight to Aintree which could be a cracker. Mullins said Thousand Stars lost Aintree at Cheltenham last year and I think that comment should not be ignored. 16s pair.

Zaidpour beaten by Monksland and whilst impressive in many respects just lacks top class ability. Could win a slow slow quick race but assume likes of Oscar Whisky, Solwhit & Thousand Stars would be even better suited. Skybet's 33s out of line and exchange price even bigger so another who might be better suited by Aintree and NRNB.

Nothing so far

Monksland won a three-miler from Zaidpour the marker again. Now OR 158 and has to have a chance but the 18 length pasting when third in the Neptune makes me wonder at his class - hampered slightly, winner mustard. Goes on any ground. Six year old with only seven lifetime runs. Trained by Noel Meade, ummmh. Monksland goes straight there. 8s

Smad Place third last year and the two in front won't be there. Arguably below form with rest of stable but despite being six it hardly leaves him with a less than progressive profile and has been beaten off 140 in a handicap. Likely to run main positive. 20s.

Quevega

Unlikely to run and even if she did quite fragile it seems so chance Cheltenham in a real race (not outclassing mares) not ideal. Mullins said she is extremely likely to win the Mares' race for a fifth time. World Hurdle hardly a big draw to drag her off a decent achievement. Exchange price 16s No bet

Tidal Bay

Seems better than ever - more accurately under Nicholls more consistent but then has been running on Soft ground all season. Would need slow ground for me and if he was mine and had been fit I would have won the Argento and Cleeve with him on Saturday just to show off. I suspect if he got his ground he would be in the Gold Cup. Thus an ante post bet is out.

Conclusion

On likely faster ground this race could cut up. If the cry wolves are right we might get soft ground and it becomes trickier with Tidal Bay and Bog Warrior back into it. I will be poised on the Exchanges if Oscara Dara runs this weekend. Indeed with a fair chance nothing steps up a case can still be made for Reve de Sivola but I fear he's too slow and even if he gets bad ground (Tidal will beat him if running).

The front pair did not impress me Saturday and whilst I accept he's not shown he is a 165 horse yet (TF 163 as it happens) and ran merely OK last year at Cheltenham. Monksland is progressive and with five wins from seven starts. Nibble at 8s with some powder reserved for the day and the ground. Monksland also has the highest Timeform rating bar Oscar and Quevega (who gets the mares' allowance on top).

1pt Monksland

Monday, 28 January 2013

the worst attempt at stopping a horse you ever did see....

I posted this on Twitter last week and got plenty of retweets, I probably should post it on the blog for reference in future years.

This race is from Mons in Belgium. The race was worth €4500 and the standard looks to be remarkably low. Bare in mind that Belgian authorities do not permit fixed odds betting (bookies or Betfair) on local horse racing as the potential for fraud is too high.

This is a dead-set shocker. Watch the #2 horse, white body, maroon sleeves and cap, outside the leader from about halfway.

the worst attempt at stopping a horse you ever did see....

The horse was owned, trained and ridden within the same family. The jockey, Sascha Stappaerts, had her riding licence taken away immediately, awaiting a hearing on February 1. I doubt she'll be riding again anytime soon...

Friday, 25 January 2013

Argento Chase preview

After strong doubts earlier in the week, it looks like all systems go at Cheltenham tomorrow for Trials Day. It's a quality card being under two months away from the festival, so time to bring in the expertise to assess a couple of races. Calum Madell, @calummadell, weighs in with his preview.

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2:25 – Argento Chase

There are doubts about a number of these but Tidal Bay is the most solid option by far and he’s run some superb races of late. He did have a setback earlier in the week and even though Paul Nicholls wouldn’t run him if he wasn’t 100% sound, it is something you have in the back of your mind.

Imperial Commander is of course the real fly in the ointment as he wins this comfortably if returning to the racecourse with his best form after a long layoff, especially in receipt of 10lb. Connections would be pleased with simply a good run though.

There’s still doubts for me that Grand Crus and Hunt Ball are up for a slog in the mud like this over three miles, even though both ran crackers at Kempton last time.

The fragile but talented Weird Al could well take advantage if the race falls apart but a chance is taken on Cheltenham specialist MIDNIGHT CHASE to take the race again. He beat Tidal Bay last year and though that rival has improved since, there’s no denying he loves the course and will be primed for this. His season hasn’t been brilliant of late but there have been glimmers of promise and this will confirm a lot more. For that reason he’s worth taking a chance on for small stakes.

Wayward Prince is very much a reformed character this season but was entitled to win last time in receipt of weight and this requires a lot more. Similar can be said of Cape Tribulation who took advantage of a nice handicap mark over fences when winning the Roland Meyrick. Quartz De Thaix is worth a chance in this sort of grade while Calgary Bay has a bit to prove, Little Josh won’t be good enough and Hey Big Spender has a lot to prove.

Advice – Midnight Chase 1pt e/w @14/1 generally

Read more of Calum's musings on his blog.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Betting Bank and Bankroll Management

It's been a while since I posted an educational piece from another author. Declan Meagher (@declanmeagher76) is a pro punter from Ireland, he will have more articles like this coming up on his new blog.

Betting Bank and Bankroll Management

To make money gambling you need to be placing bets that have a higher probability of success than the odds at which you back them at. Over time good luck and bad luck will even itself out and it will be the sum of these probabilities that decide your fate. If you do indeed have an edge in the bets you place, you should win money. I use the word should instead of will for a simple reason. It is possible to have an edge on every bet you place but still lose money. Sounds implausible? Bear with me and I’ll explain.

Let’s say your Betting Bank is €1,000. Your kind bookmaker offers you 2.05 on heads in a coin toss. This offer is available for 50,000 coin flips, but you can only use your original bank, and if you lose it, you’re done. How much should you bet? You edge is not huge, but is very real, and with proper Bankroll Management should result in huge profits after the 50,000 flips.

I set up a Monte Carlo spreadsheet to investigate. Excel has a random number generator which I use to simulate the toss of a coin. I enter the probability of success of 50% and the odds I’m getting of 2.05 and it will generate a 1 for heads and 0 for tails. I also enter my betting bank as €1000 and the percentage of my bank that I wish to stake on each bet.

First off I enter to return 10% of my betting bank on each bet. With my bank at €1000 and my odds 2.05 this would mean a stake of €48.78 on the first bet (I’m staking to return €100 which is 10% of my bank). My stake is thus only 4.87% of my bank which might seem reasonably small considering I have a 50% chance of success. I graph the results after each 1000 bets. In this run my bank increased to €209,995 after 37,000 flips. You would therefore presume that betting to return 10% of your bank is the way to go. Alas a big down swing happens soon after and my bank hit a low of just €46 after 48,000 bets. It recovered slightly to €290 after the 50,000 coin tosses.

I hit refresh to produce another set of random numbers and this time my betting bank peaked at €5,200 after 2,000 bets but went downhill and was just €1.18 after 50,000 bets. Both times the overall strike rate ended within 0.1% of the expected 50% which should ensure a profit as getting odds of 2.05 I only need a 48.78% strike rate with level stakes to break even. I ran it a few more times and each time I ended up with less than my starting bank after 50,000 bets. The reason for the massive fluctuations in the bank is that I was staking to high a percentage on each bet so the inevitable bad run will decimate my bank, regardless of the fact I had an overall edge on the bets. In the first run everything went smoothly for 37,000 bets which would lead most to believe their method was a safe one. When things are going so well it’s hard to believe a down swing could be so bad to bust you, especially with such a big sample size. This example shows that having a profitable angle isn’t enough if your bankroll management is bad.

Kelly Staking, which I talk about in my article about staking plans, would suggest staking 2.38% of my bank, which would be equivalent to staking to return 4.879% (2.38*2.05) of my bank. I ran this simulation 10 times, and the worst end result was a bank of €160,000. Clearly this is a much better way to go, but as noted in my staking plans article, it’s not so simple in real life. Kelly Staking is optimal if you know the true odds of each bet. This of course is normally impossible, as in most cases you can only make an estimate, and I believe its human nature to overestimate our edge in most things. Unless you have access to valuable information the market hasn’t accounted for, I would suggest you will at best be only as good as the market.

For instance if a horse is 2.0 on Betfair just before the off and you rate it a 1.8 shot. This means you think it has a 55.55% chance of winning and the market thinks it has a 50% chance. If you’re pretty good the true price is probably more like 1.9 or a 52.63% chance. In my daily betting I find that the best I can hope for is that the true probability is the midpoint of my estimate and the estimate of the market. It is vital to keep this in mind when coming up with your staking plan.

Rather than just using the midpoint of your price and the markets, an analysis of your past results should show you what your real edge is on certain bet types, and providing the sample size is sufficient this would be a good figure to use. Bear in mind past success doesn’t guarantee the future will be the same, so be cautious with this method too.

In the above example, using Kelly staking and working on the presumption that your probability is correct, you would be staking to return 22.2% of your bank. If your right and the bet wins 55.55% of the time your profits will go off the scale, if however you only get the 52.63% strike rate I suggested, your in big trouble and will go bust every time. This is despite the fact you clearly have an edge on the market, the problem is, you overestimated it.

These are all examples of cases where having an edge is not enough to guarantee a profit. If your stakes are too high your bank will fluctuate wildly and the inevitable bad run, when it comes, will undo all your hard work and your profits. That is not to say you should be ultra conservative, gambling at all is probably not for you if you’re unwilling to take some risks. Your risks should be calculated though, and it’s vital to understand that a long term successful strategy will have many periods of short to medium term loses. It is important that your betting bank can withstand these bad periods.

To show you what types of losing runs you can expect I again set up a Monte Carlo simulation in excel. A probability of 50% will result in a strike rate of 40% or less over a 100 bets about 3% of the time. This means before every bet you place where your long term strike rate is 50% there is a 3% chance that over the next 100 bets you will have 40 winners or less.

A 10% strike rate which is 9/1 true odds will result in getting only 1 winner out of a 100 bets about 0.05% of the time. This might seem very rare, and it is, but over the course of 5000 bets on horses who have a true chance of 9/1, you will get a period of 100 bets with only 1 winner about 12% of the time. Again when it happens, and eventually it will, you need to ensure your bank can withstand it. You also need to ensure your Betting Discipline is such that you keep a cool head and don’t do anything stupid.

When deciding how much of your bank to stake on a bet, the probability of success, and thus the size of your edge are vital components. Overestimate your edge, and it could turn an otherwise profitable system into a loss making one. I suggest using Kelly Staking as a starting point, but leave your ego out of it when estimating your edge. If the market price is 9.0 and you think it should be 7.0, maybe use 8.0 as its true price when working out your edge. Your estimate of a probability, no matter how good you are, is still just your opinion; the market price is the combined opinion of thousands! Of course the most obvious way to improve your bottom line is to always get the best price which means having multiple betting accounts.

Original article posted here.

Betdaq.... sold...... FOR HOW MUCH???

So as rumoured for a while, Ladbrokes have finally acquired the lemon, sorry, purple-coloured betting exchange, Betdaq. For a mind-boggling €30m as 'initial consideration'. That's an even more ridiculous price than Fernando Torres for £50m, or any English player Liverpool have purchased in recent seasons!

As I've written previously there are no logical business reasons for this acquisition.

from Nov 29, 2012

The Racing Post reported this week that Ladbrokes are nearing a decision to acquire Betdaq. This baffles me, it really does. Betdaq are a complete and utter lemon. Their only rival in the market has kicked so many own goals over the years with the premium charge, followed by an increase in the premium charge, cost of API and data use, customer service standards which have fallen faster than Facebook share value, site crashes and various other faults. So many pissed off Betfair customers, yet Betdaq are still tailed off with a lap to go. Around the world, Betfair is losing favour. Across Europe, they are being kicked out of countries on a regular basis. Growth for the exchange just isn't there, hence they've had to push hard into other products - casino, arcade, sportsbook etc. Ladbrokes online division continues to spend vast sums of money for poor return on investment. So now they want to purchase Betdaq to fix that, when the exchange honeymoon period is well and truly over? You couldn't give the purple mob away. As I said to a mate on Twitter the other day - if you offered them a carton of Foster's for the business, you'd expect change. So many poor decisions made there over the years, they've blown their chance to be a real player in the market.

ADDENDUM - 30/11/12 - Betdaq have started contacting Australian clients to notify them their accounts will be closed. This either means Betdaq are intending to gain an Australian licence and wish to obey local laws, or, more likely, Ladbrokes, as a PLC, do not wish to break any local Australian laws - they have already closed all their Australian-registered accounts. Sources tell me Danish clients of Betdaq have received a similar email recently.


There can only be one real reason for this - a favour to their biggest individual shareholder Dermot Desmond, who owned Betdaq as well. €30m is massive overs for Betdaq, but keeping Dermot happy in the long run might be the better long-term strategy.

To those in high places with the 'Magic Sign', feel free to prove me wrong over the next couple of years ...

ADDENDUM 25/1

From the Racing Post:

The acquisition is expected to be completed late next month, and Glynn said: "The Betdaq exchange is a well-regarded and well invested business and a close strategic fit for Ladbrokes.

"Whilst the main focus of our digital growth strategy continues to progress well, this bolt on acquisition provides us with an exciting opportunity to grow our share of wallet through the creation of a differentiated and comprehensive sports betting proposition for customers and also supports our drive for improved liability management."


Well-regarded? By whom? They've been around for several years and have trod water for the majority of that. If their ambition has been to see off WBX and iBetX, then fair enough.

Well invested? By that does he mean it had been flush with cash or carefully managed not to wilfully waste it chasing Betfair when they weren't able to keep up? Or is it just Richard Glynn trying to claim victory in finally landing an acquisition after mainly aborted/failed attempts?

Monday, 21 January 2013

Tour Down Under

Experts in less popular sports are hard to find, and even harder to keep hold of as they become successful. Betting on cycling has been getting more popular each year recently, and accordingly, bookies keep offering more events on the sport. Who knows what will happen in the light of Lance & Oprah last week.

This week, the professional cycling circuit heads to Adelaide for the Tour Down Under and the best cycling tipster on the planet, Wheelie, has been preparing for weeks. Bets and analysis are posted on his blog, but after the price has been claimed by subscribers. It's worth considering investing in this service. I can attest to last year's results...

Wheeliebets.com

In the UK, Sky Sports will have coverage of the Tour Down Under live overnight, with highlights at a more respectable hour for those who have to work, or aren't being kept awake all night by babies!

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots NFL Preview

More great work from Andy Richmond, @bickley14. As with the NFC game, this is just a snippet of the full article. Find the lot at NFL Insight.

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NFL Preview – Conference Championships 2013

Game Keys:

Baltimore need another composed game from QB Joe Flacco

Will that energy sapping victory in Denver leave the Ravens running on empty?

Patriots to establish their running game behind their dominating O-line

Welker; can the Ravens cover and control him from the slot

Hernandez is a key player for the Patriots, a lot of the good things they do go through him – watch where he lines up.

Brady needs to be aware of Ravens defenders like Ed Reed, who loves an interception

Ravens need to pressure Brady – but be selective.

Can the Ravens cope with the Patriots no-huddle/hurry-up offence?

What defensive schemes do the Patriots run?

Boldin, Smith, Pitta and Jones give Flacco plenty of options in the passing game

Can the Ravens find their deep passing threat again especially against a two-deep coverage scheme?

Baltimore O-line needs to play at the same level as they have in the past few weeks

The turnover battle is vital.

Key players: Baltimore (Torrey Smith) – New England (Aaron Hernandez)

Game Statistics This will be the first time two teams have met in a conference championship game in consecutive seasons since the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers met in three straight from 1992 to 1994. It’s the first instance of teams meeting in consecutive AFC championships since the Cleveland Browns and Denver Broncos met in 1986 and 1987.

Tom Brady is 86-15 in his career in home starts (including postseason). Among quarterbacks whose careers began in the Super Bowl and made at least 20 starts at home, Brady has the best home winning percentage (.851). Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco ranks fourth (35-7, .833). Brady also passed Joe Montana for the most career playoff wins with his 17th on Sunday. He’ll tie Montana’s mark for most appearances in conference championships with his seventh.

The Patriots will be without Rob Gronkowski, who broke his arm in Sunday’s win against the Houston Texans. There is a drop in the Patriots completion percentage without Gronkowski from 65.7% to 58.4% and the yards gained per play also drops from 6.0 to 5.4, it’s also worth comparing the TD/INT records with and without Gronkowski on the field; on that measure 23-3, off the numbers are 11-6.

Flacco is no slouch on the road. His five road playoff wins are tied (with Eli Manning) for the most in NFL history by a starting quarterback. In fact, the Ravens’ eight postseason road wins are a total eclipsed by only two NFL teams: the Green Bay Packers (10) and Cowboys (nine).

John Harbaugh is 0-2 in his career in AFC title games. He could become the fifth coach to lose his first three conference championship game appearances. The others: John Madden, Chuck Knox, Marty Schottenheimer and Andy Reid.

Flacco is 8-of-12 for 324 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions on throws deeper than 20 yards downfield in the playoffs, including the game-tying touchdown in the final minute of the fourth quarter against the Broncos on Saturday. Flacco completed 37 percent of those attempts during the season with seven touchdowns, and had the most attempts without an interception (81) of any quarterback.

Ray Lewis leads the Ravens with 30 tackles this postseason. The Ravens have allowed opponents to complete only 49 percent of their passes when sending five or more pass-rushers with Lewis this season. Without Lewis, Ravens opponents are completing 65 percent of their passes against such pressure.

The Ravens are the No. 4 seed in the AFC. No. 4 seeds are 6-1 all time in conference championship games, including a win by the Ravens in 2000; when they went on to win Super Bowl XXXV against the Giants.

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Read more including the Game Preview at NFL Insight - the above is just a small part of the overall preview!

San Francisco 49ers @ Atlanta Falcons NFL Preview

Game preview time, none better at analysing from a betting-related perspective as Andy Richmond - @bickley14. The full preview for this game can be found at NFL Insight.

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NFL Preview – Conference Championships 2013

Game Keys:

Can Atlanta ”control” a mobile quarterback after struggling with them this year

Atlanta to run the ball as well as last week to give them balance on a tough 49ers D

Atlanta must be able to tackle far better in the second level of the defence; missed tackles will spell big trouble and big yardage gains for the 49ers

49ers to make more use of tight end Vernon Davis

San Francisco to create dynamic 1-on-1 matchups for their wide receivers, especially Crabtree

Atlanta to use zone blitzes to create pressure and confuse Kaepernick

The battle in the trenches will prove vital, particularly the protection of Matt Ryan

Ryan must stay patient against the San Francisco base Cover2 man defence

Atlanta wide receivers White and Jones must win their battle against the 49ers corners

Atlanta need a big game from Tony Gonzalez

If field goals are vital the Falcons have the clear edge in that department

Key players: San Francisco (Michael Crabtree) – Atlanta (Tony Gonzalez)

Game Statistics

No. 1 seeds are 6-0 in conference championships in the past seven postseasons (2005 to 2011). The last to lose was the 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers, who lost to the New England Patriots 41-27.

The Falcons have won four straight games against the 49ers, including two with Matt Ryan as their starting quarterback (45-10 in 2009 and 16-14 in 2010). The Falcons’ last loss to the 49ers was a 37-31 setback in 2001, one of two overtime losses they suffered against the 49ers that season.

49ers coach Jim Harbaugh is the fourth coach to reach the AFC or NFC Championship Game in each of his first two seasons as an NFL head coach. The other three are George Seifert, Barry Switzer and Rex Ryan. Ryan is the only one from that trio who did not get to the Super Bowl at least once.

Colin Kaepernick has averaged 8.7 yards per rush, best of any quarterback with 30 rushes (including playoffs) this season. Including the playoffs, the Falcons have allowed 8.9 yards per rush to quarterbacks this season, the worst rate in the NFL (excluding kneel-downs). The Falcons twice got shredded by Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who ran for 202 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries in two meetings this season. Kaepernick’s legs have helped him to an 82.8 Total QBR the past nine weeks, the best in the NFL in that span.

Since Kaepernick became the starting quarterback in Week 11, Michael Crabtree ranks fifth in the league with 50 catches, fourth with 714 receiving yards and tied for second with seven touchdowns. In Weeks 1-10 Crabtree tied for 41st in the league with 59 total targets.

Combining regular season and the playoffs, Matt Ryan is 34-6 in home starts in his career. His .850 winning percentage currently ranks second best among quarterbacks whose careers began in the Super Bowl era. The only quarterback better: Tom Brady of the Patriots (86-15, .851).

One other stat to watch on Ryan: He’s completed 70 percent of his passes in the final two minutes of either half this season. Ryan had completed only 50.0 percent of those passes in his first four seasons.

Should the game come down to a field goal, Falcons kicker Matt Bryant should be up to the challenge of trying to make it. Bryant made the game winner in the final seconds of the NFC divisional win over the Seattle Seahawks. The Elias Sports Bureau notes that Bryant was 17-for-18 in regular-season games on go-ahead or game-tying field goal attempts in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime in his career. That includes a game-winning 43-yard make with two seconds remaining in the last meeting between these teams on Oct. 3, 2010. Bryant’s 94 percent success rate is the best of anyone with at least 15 such attempts in the NFL since 1970.

Our friends at AccuScore ran 10,000 simulations of this game and they gauged it a toss-up. The 49ers won 50.1 percent of the time. The Falcons won 49.9 percent.

Read more including the Game Preview at NFL Insight - the above is just a small part of the overall preview!

NFL Conference Championship prop bets preview

After absolutely nailing the player props bets last weekend, it's time to welcome back Scottish NFL devotee Ian Steven, @deevo82, to preview tonight's two Championship games.

San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons are the home team in this encounter but the 49ers are the bookies favourite and rightly so on paper. What is emotive and not taken into consideration is the fact that the Dirty Birds and the Niners used to be bitter division rivals before the NFL realignment so there is added spice to the match up. The Georgia Dome is going to be full and rocking which evens the balance out slightly. Atlanta fans do not have a Lombardi trophy gathering dust on their mantelpiece there is definite yearning after speaking to a few Falcs fans this week.

Where San Fran are strongest is on defense. Navarro Bowman, Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith and Justin Smith are all on top of their game and importantly, they are all three-down defenders making it difficult for Atlanta to scheme against their personnel. I have a hunch we are going to see a defensive touchdown from this talented unit in the NFC title game.

On offense, the 49ers like to establish the run through Frank Gore and more recently, through the read-option with Colin Kaepernick, which destroyed Green Bay, so much so that the QB set an NFL record for rushing yards in a single game at that position. The bookies were way off having and over/under around the 40 yard mark and the former Nevada man ran for 181 yards. He will probably use his feet again against Atlanta but more out of necessity than design as Atlanta will probably attack the line of scrimmage to create pressure with top pass rusher John Abraham ailing with an ankle injury. The bookies have taken note so the odds are below worthwhile at 1.47.

What is an unknown factor is the mental state of top receiver Michael Crabtree after being questioned over an alleged sexual assault this week. Crabtree has quickly found favour as Kaepernick’s receiver of choice and I would have looked seriously at placing money on his receptions totals but he has shown signs of immaturity in his career so how prepared he is to play is far too much of an unknown factor. Tune in to any pre-game broadcasts to get a hint of how he is coping. The unders market might work well here.

Atlanta will try to establish the run on offense, sometimes out of shotgun which is a formation they use a lot of recently, but will eventually have to move to a pass first approach as they won’t get much change out of a stingy Niners defense. I expect Jaquizz Rodgers to play a key role as he will be the outlet on a lot of hot reads and should get a few screen passes coming his way to take the sting out of San Francisco’s pass rush. I don’t think Matt Ryan will have enough time to target Julio Jones and Roddy White downfield so there should be quite a few dump off passes with Tony Gonzalez the prime target.

I think San Francisco will ultimately be too tough for Atlanta to break down and the Niners should progress to yet another Super Bowl.

Bets

Colin Kaepernick as an anytime touchdown scorer 3 points @2.3 with William Hill (ED - 2.75 at Coral, cheers @jamesr32ca for the tip)

Michael Crabtree under 82.5 yards receiving 1 point @ 1.9 with Bet 365 (bet close to game time if he appears unprepared)

Jaquizz Rodgers over 22.5 receiving yards 4 points @1.8 with Bet 365

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Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots

New England are looking to end future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis’s career one game early as the Ravens come to town in a bid to make their second Super Bowl since their controversial transformation from the Cleveland Browns in the 1990s.

Baltimore look to have the “team of destiny” moniker in the playoffs, much like the New York Giants last year but the visitors will have to play lights out football if they want to keep up with the Patriot’s lightning fast offense.

Usually then you think of lightning fast you think of receivers with sprinter’s speed but in this case, it is New England’s speed getting to the line of scrimmage that is wearing down defences. Bill Belichick met with former Oregon head coach Chip Kelly who runs a no-huddle offense that has dominated college football and was inspired to borrow some of that system for the 2012 season. Tom Brady has been a maestro running the offense which has got defences huffing and puffing and this is where Baltimore could fall short as they are a defense built for the black and blue AFC North division and could struggle to keep pace with the Pats.

New England will have to approach their passing attack without the injured Rob Gronkowski who broke his forearm against the Houston Texans last week. Aaron Hernandez will step into the breach and should have a big game as Brady targets him early. New England has so much talent and Brady can read the field so well it is difficult to isolate a definite performer making it difficult to wager.

The Patriots are not as strong on defense and Baltimore has a chance of managing the scoreboard if Joe Flacco is accurate early on and gets into a rhythm, whilst feeding the ball to Ray Rice to keep the chains moving. Rice should get 25-30 touches of the ball as John Harbaugh looks to lean heavily on his best player.

Flacco has been lucky with a heave and hope approach in recent weeks but this masked his earlier struggles in games. New England might bring more pressure than they normally would so that the quarterback loses his composure. I fully expect Baltimore will have to play catch up due to the speed New England puts points on the board and a lot rests on Flacco’s shoulders.

I think New England have the advantage with a Hall of Fame coach and quarterback in their ranks and I think Lewis will ultimately go home unhappy so take the opportunity to enjoy his bizarre peacocking as he runs out of the tunnel for the last time.

Bets

Aaron Hernandez over 72.5 receiving yards 2 points @1.83 with Paddy Power

Aaron Hernandez anytime touchdown 1 point @2.00 with William Hill

Ray Rice over 84.5 rushing yards 2 points @ 1.83 with Paddy Power

Ray Rice over 3.5 receptions 5 points @1.9 with Bet 365

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

BuzzSports buzzes off

Word has reached the SportIsMadeForBetting rumours desk that BuzzSports, pioneers of the zone live play-by-play betting system have closed down with immediate effect. You wouldn't know it from their website but reliable sources have told me traders were called at 11pm last Wednesday night and informed the founder of the company had decided to pull the pin on the business with immediate effect.

I believe staff were offered a generous redundancy package, rather than the company going bust. It came completely out of the blue for staff, I even know one guy who had a job interview with them scheduled for the following day!

Why did they fail? Purely speculation but they spent heavily promoting their product at trade exhibitions, in industry publications etc but it's not a product I could ever see catching on. It's a niche market, perhaps ahead of its time, and I query whether they could ever have exclusivity over the product - surely it wouldn't be long before another firm, i.e. a bookmaker/betting provider with highly sophisticated data modelling systems, if there was money in it. Perhaps the wealthy founder decided it was time to pull the pin, or as some have alluded to, he has closed down the business in the UK with a plan to restart it somewhere warmer in the future.....

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Australian Open women's preview

Throughout the Aussie Open, I'll be writing my usual previews for local website theshark.com.au, with match betting action for each round. To kick off the fortnight, here's my look at the women's draw.

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Amid the stinking hot weather embracing Australia in January we have the Australian Open, a brutal test for tennis players, most of whom spent December in freezing cold Europe. Those who haven't done the hard yakka in preparation will be found out. Victoria Azarenka is current number one and defending champion, but this time there's a 100% fit Serena Williams in the draw. That pair stand clear above another six or eight players, then it falls away for genuine winning chances. Let's take a look through them:

1 - Azarenka - came up with a new excuse for a retirement last week in Brisbane - a bad pedicure! That's 25 retirements/withdrawals in six years, the woman has the pain threshold which would embarrass the average bunch of pre-schoolers. Or was it a convenient excuse to avoid Serena? Her quarter looks smooth sailing but then comes the semi-final. She's no.1 in the rankings but with a 1-9 record against her, she can't be fav for the title, especially being drawn in the same half as her.

2 - Sharapova - collarbone injury has kept her out of two lead-up events, Brisbane and an exhibition in Asia. Everything revolves around her serve. If that injury hasn't disappeared completely, then she's vulnerable from R1. If it has gone, she's underdone and vulnerable once she starts meeting top 30 players. Poor record v Serena means the title is a big ask even if fit and firing. Watch closely, she may be ripe to oppose early - Martic, Venus Williams, Cibulkova and then Kerber steadily increase the pressure she will face.

3 - Serena W. - well, for most female players, they say being loved up can only send their career backwards. For Serena, shagging her coach seems to be working just fine. A pre-season workout in Mauritius (with other players in the Mouratoglou camp) tuned her up nicely for Brisbane, recording her first tournament win in Aus other than the Slam. She's fit, she's firing, she's scaring the others off. She's won this event in the past looking a a stone overweight coming off injury, hard to see any of them beating her if she stays fit and healthy.

4 - A.Radwanska - capable of wearing down any player on her day, although it would take the top three to be slightly off their best to succumb to her. 0-4 vs Serena, 3-12 vs Azarenka, 2-8 vs Sharapova, 4-5 vs Li. In Maria's half, gives her some chance of making her second Slam final. In dominant form this year, hasn't dropped a set so far in two tournaments, but has only faced one top 10 player.

5 - Kerber - has settled into the top 10 with string of consistent performances throughout the year. Not sure she's topped out just yet, avoiding Serena will make a big difference to her chances. Yet to get beyond R3 here so far, her last five Slams have delivered two semis, a QF, a R4 and R3 here last time. She was the last player to beat Serena - way back in August.

6 - Li - tough as nails and showed her trademark resilience to wear down Keys in Sydney on Wed night in an entertaining encounter. Won lead-up event in Shenzhen, dealt with change in temp from 2C to 42C, a finalist here two years ago, nothing's beyond her. 4-8 v Sharapova, 1-6 vs Serena, 5-4 vs Radwanska, 4-5 vs Azarenka. In the weaker half, can go a long way again.

7 - Errani - the Italian rabbit who had a sensational 2012 (you may recall we backed her here a few times last Jan); the question now is will she be a flash in the pan or be able to sustain her ranking? There's nothing brilliant about her game other than sheer tenacity. Heat and wind are her biggest allies, wearing down the impatient opponent. Flogged by fellow 'person of diminutive stature' Cibulkova in Sydney which is a bit of a concern. Putintseva or McHale in R2 are talented enough to test her R2, Kuznetsova is hiding behind them for R3.

8 - Kvitova - having severe problems with asthma when the heat and humidity builds up. Impossible to win a Slam in that state, watch her and the weather forecast on a match-by-match basis. Schiavone shouldn't bother her too much in R1, Robson R2 and Stephens R3 might work her a lot harder.

9 - Stosur - 0-2 so far this Aussie summer after having surgery to clean up her ankle, and the streak actually stands at five since the Kremlin Cup. That doesn't bode well for her chances here. Draw crucial. Weaker half, has Li and Radwanska to worry about.

10 - Wozniacki - no Grand Slam title win coming for her, anyone thinking she'll ever claim one is advised to go to Specsavers or consult a therapist. Lisicki R1 looks the best early matchup in the women's draw.

Beyond that there are a few who might go a few rounds or take a decent scalp along the way.

Vekic - 16yo, has reached a Tour final already. Big future.

Stephens - one of the impressive American teens coming through. Hard worker, the girl can play. Reaching the second week is not beyond her with that draw.

Barthel - scrapes in as seed 32, in great form winning seven matches already this year. Radwanska R3 is her likely conqueror.

Keys - very impressed with this young American. 17yo, gives the ball a real crack and moves fairly well for her physique. 19-3 since the US Open, and while many of those were at a weaker level, I'm tipping her to make an impact at at least one of the Slams this year.

Barty - the next big thing for Australian women's tennis, she has stepped out of juniors early with her heart set on making the big time. Still young, has to develop more weapons, but she is capable of giving most seeds a run for their money. Meets Cibulkova R1, will be running for hours!

Watson - troubled by an elbow injury of late, faces Cadantu then Barthel who is in great nick.

Robson - the Melbourne-born Brit faces Oudin R1 and possibly Kvitova R2. If they cop a hot and windy day, Laura shortens right up against the Czech.

Kuznetsova - back from a serious knee injury, showed in Sydney that she is regaining her touch. Any seed facing her won't want to be off their game. Should be able to take out Hsieh R2, who hasn't been fully fit lately.

Putintseva - potty-mouthed Russian straight out of juniors, described by some as the most annoying player to hit the women's tour in years. Arrogant, rude, gets in opponents' faces, but also mighty talented.

BETS

How do they beat Serena? I heard one veteran pundit say this could be the year for the Serena Slam and I couldn't argue with him. She is primed in January and has the wood over her rivals. A shade under evens on Betfair at time of writing - that's virtually a coin flip over whether stays fit for the fortnight.

For a trade, the bottom half is the place to look. It's not particularly ambitious as she's fifth seed, but Kerber is the biggest price of the main chances down the bottom. I like her chances of reaching the final, so there are two options for you - trade the outright market (currently 38 to win) or back her to reach the final at around 10.

And don't forget the WTA fantasy comp, it closes tonight GMT before the tournament starts. Visit www.wtatenniscomp.com for details!

Australian Open men's preview

Throughout the Aussie Open, I'll be writing my usual previews for local website theshark.com.au, with match betting action for each round. To kick off the fortnight, here's my look at the men's draw.

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And so the season starts again. The Aussie media and one-eyed public will be caught up in Tomic fever expecting him to win, while the rest of us can look at the tournament through a dimension called REALITY. With Nadal being injured, one positive out of his absence is at least a five hour long final is unlikely. Djokovic, Federer and Murray all won Slams last year so it's hardly a surprise they dominate the market.

1. Djokovic - reigning champ aiming to become the first man to win three Sir Norman Brookes Trophies in a row since Roy Emerson in the 60s (1963-67). Finished last year in fine style and has taken the low-pressure lead- in by taking the Abu Dhabi exhibition and the Hopman Cup path, where any losses have no effect on his ranking. Ignore the fact he might have lost a couple of matches, his preparation will be timed to perfection - leaving energy up his sleeve if he needs to go to marathon five-setters at the business end of the tournament again. Landed the 'soft' side of the draw with Ferrer instead of Murray in his half. Clear favourite and deservedly so.

2. Federer. Impending obituaries for the Swiss legend's career were put on hold last year after a season which seemed planned specifically to shut his critics up. With his first Slam win in years and deep appearances elsewhere, you can never count him out. Four-time winner here but has only won once in past five visits, with one other final. No lead-up tournament but did pocket a ridiculous amount of cash for playing a series of exhibition matches in South America pre-Xmas. Tricky draw in theory but price up those matches and he's still long odds-on favourite again each of Davydenko, Tomic, Raonic/Kohlschreiber, Tsonga/Gasquet. Semis again, Murray to take him out.

3. Murray. The monkey's off the back now with Olympic gold and the US Open title, will the floodgates open now for Andy? Still ranked three, he was always going to face Novak or Roger in the semi, and he got the slightly better result in landing Federer. Early draw looks a breeze, hopefully leaving plenty of petrol in the tank for the business end matches. Two-time finalist here, ready to win.

4. Ferrer. In the absence of Nadal, 'Daveeeed' gets a rare top four seeding, keeping him away from the top echelon until the semis. In fine form leading in, won Auckland, reached semi (or QF?) in Doha. Can't beat Djokovic on hardcourt off his own racquet. Would need Novak to be limping. Baghdatis (likely R3 opponent) beat him in five sets here in 2010.

5. Berdych. Had a good run of form in October but since then he is 5-8, including losing a Czech league match against #166 ranked Stebe. Never past the quarters here (2011/12), lined up to meet top seed at that stage again this year.

6. Del Potro. No ranking events to prepare, just exhibition matches in South America and the Kooyong hit'n'giggle. It's taken a while but he's now at that level he was back in 09 when he won the US Open. The problem is, others have lifted their game and he's not a surprise anymore, so he has to keep improving to crack the top echelon long-term. Three Slam QFs last year, I think that's his level now. In Murray's quarter, and the Scot eats him for breakfast (7-1 h2h).

7. Tsonga - pulled out of Sydney with a groin strain he picked up during the Hopman Cup. Will need to be fit to conquer Gasquet R4 and then comes Federer. One-time finalist who hasn't reached same lofty heights in 16 Slams since.

8. Tipsarevic - grinder who it's safe to say is not everyone's cup of tea. Suspicions over match-fixing, history of retiring with a bruised ego when just a handful of points away from losing etc. Faces Hewitt first up in the marquee match-up of R1. Hewitt leads h2h 3-1, but they've not clashed in four years. A decent run into the second week not beyond him if he ovecomes Rusty. QF matchup against Ferrer - last time they met at a Slam, it went to a final set tiebreak (US Open 2012).

9. Gasquet - the French enigma who flatters to deceive. Only once past R4 in 34 Grand Slam main draws, but very consistent - 12 times exiting at the round of 16 stage.

12. Cilic - semi-finalist here 2010 (best Slam result), missed last year due to a knee injury. Capable of matching anyone when he gets swinging. His semi here was on the back of winning the Chennai event, this year he lasted two rounds, beaten by Paire. Del Potro looms large in R4, current h2h stands at 2-7 and lost all 10 sets against him last season.

13. Raonic - fans of giants serving 225km/h have another player to worship in Raonic, but his all-round game is more developed than some of his peers in that category. However, he's on a terrible run at the moment, losing eight of his last 10 matches, including exhibition matches against the now-retired Roddick. Has reached R4 of both hardcourt Slams, that looks his most likely result here - that's when he's pencilled in to face Federer (currently 0-3 but each match went to a tight final set).

and the rest:

Baghdatis - scrapes into the seedings at #29. Not won a tournament in three years, and still basking in the memory of reaching the final here back in 2006. Looked in good nick in Brisbane last week.

Nishikori - troubled by a knee injury of late (retired in Brisbane) but managed a match at Kooyong to prove his fitness. Quarter-finalist last year, would need to beat Youzhny and Ferrer to achieve that this time.

Dimitrov - dangerous floater perched just outside the seedings. Lost to Murray in Brisbane final. Yet to progress past R2 in a Slam and cops a seed R1, #32 Julien Benneteau. Has a 2-0 record over him, but both went to the wire. Could have a slight distraction this week, grapevine says he's dating Sharapova.

Hewitt - the old warrior is defying calls for him to retire with some solid performances so far this summer. Wins over Berdych and Raonic at Kooyong have to be taken with a grain of salt since there were no points up for grabs, but his movement was looking impressive - his main downfall with nagging injuries in recent years. Capable of beating Tipsarevic (3-1h2h as mentioned earlier), backing it up is the problem. Last five years here have gone R4-R1-R4-R1-R4. A continuation of that pattern is on the cards.

Matosevic - current Aussie #1 (at least before Tomic won Sydney today) but Slam record is 0-7 in main draws and has never won a tour level match on home soil. Faces Cilic R1, last time they met was at the US Open where the Aussie blew a 2-0 lead.

Monfils - very consistent here, reaching R3 or 4 at each of his last five visits. A year of knee problems has seen his ranking balloon out towards 100 but the last fortnight has shown signs he might be able to regain the spotlight. Faces Dolgopolov R1, that won't be easy.

Tomic - all aboard the Tomic Express after his eight straight wins at the Hopman Cup followed by his maiden ATP title in Sydney. Well, at least that's what the media will be getting carried away with. All bar Djokovic (a 'mate' he has beaten before, also in a meaningless exhibition) were ranked outside the top 20, so there is still work to do. Likely to face Federer in R3, an upset seems unlikely with the H2h currently standing at 3-0, including a clinic here last year, but I can still remember a young Philippoussis blasting Sampras off centre court one night, so shocks can happen.

Davydenko - the arthritic old crook seems rejuvenated this year, hellbent on one last crack at a decent ranking (and pay packet before he retires). Injuries under control, looked the part in Doha recently (beat Ferrer comfortably), but faces Federer R2.

BETS

Apparently a first-time Slam winner has never gone on and won his next major, according to a stat tweeted by Brad Gilbert. Can't be bothered checking it but it doesn't sound that meaningful to me. At least I hope so because I am opposing it. Andy Murray has the 'harder' half to deal with, but in reality that's just Federer, whom he has a career record of 11-9 against (but 0-3 in the Slams). I'd rather be taking 4.5+ on Murray than a shade better than evens on Djokovic.

Can't see many opportunities for trading big prices as the top guys strangle the market, but Nishikori at 300+ might earn you a few ticks being in the Ferrer quarter.

Expecting match betting to be much more lucrative, the outright market won't have the volatility needed for trading unless one of the names falls over in a major shock.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Green Bay Packers @ San Francisco 49ers NFL Preview

Time for some deep insight on the biggest playoff game of the weekend (at least to Andy & I). I've been a Niners fan since the Joe Montana days and Andy's been a Cheesehead for many a year. If you want in-depth coverage, then read on! Andy Richmond, @bickley14 has been a part of a very successful NFL trading site this season, called NFL Insight. Here's the link to the original preview. All this weekend's matches will be covered in depth there.

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Green Bay Packers @ San Francisco 49ers NFL Preview

NFL Preview – Divisional Play-Offs 2012 Season

Game Keys:

Green Bay to maintain more balance this time around

The Packers hold a clear advantage at receiver they must use it

Keep Rodgers upright at all costs – handle the 49ers pass rush

49ers must establish the run to ease the pressure on Kaepernick

Can Kaepernick challenge and beat the aggressive Packers secondary

Turnovers – Rodgers rarely turns the ball over; Kaepernick must be mindful of ball security

Field position could be vital both teams have good punting and return units – a key battle

Kickers – both teams have problems in that department, who holds their nerve the best in a tight game.

Aggressive Packers defence to pressure Kaepernick, not only through Matthews but on a variety of creative blitz packages

Key players: Green Bay (DuJuan Harris) – San Francisco (Michael Crabtree)


Game Statistics

The 49ers and Packers have met on five previous occasions in the postseason with Green Bay winning four of them. The lone win by San Francisco came in the 1998 Wild Card Playoffs on Terrell Owens’ game-winning touchdown grab with three seconds remaining. The Packers won the most recent meeting in the 2001 Wild Card Playoffs.

‎The 49ers earned a chance to play at home in the Divisional round thanks to finishing with the second-best record in the NFC this season and that bodes well… sort of. At 19-9, San Francisco is tied for the second-most home playoff wins all-time but has never reached the Super Bowl as the No. 2 seed.

Aaron Rodgers comes into the weekend having thrown 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in the last four games including at least one touchdown pass in each of those contests. The four straight games with at least one touchdown and no interceptions are tied for the longest such streak of his career.

Colin Kaepernick threw for a career-high 276 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the 49ers’ win over the Cardinals in Week 17. The performance helped Kaepernick finish the year with a 76.8 Total QBR, trailing only Peyton Manning (84.1) and Tom Brady (77.1) among all qualified players during the regular season.

The Packers improved to 30-17 in the postseason all-time with their win over the Vikings in the Wild Card round. Their .638 win percentage in the playoffs is the best by any franchise in NFL history.

The 49ers defeated the Packers 30-22 in Week 1 of this season, snapping Green Bay’s eight-game winning streak in the series. San Francisco has not won consecutive meetings with the Packers since winning three straight between 1981 and 1987.

Including the playoffs, the Packers are just 6-15 in games decided by three points or fewer under head coach Mike McCarthy (1-3 this season). Since he took over as head coach in 2006, that .286 win percentage in such games is the worst in the NFL.

San Francisco ranked second in opponent points per game (17.1) and third in opponent yards per game (294.4) this season. It marked the second straight year in which the 49ers ranked among the league’s top five teams in each category.

Game Preview

Another re-match, way back in Week 1 the 49ers landed a signature victory against the Packers at Lambeau Field, showing that San Francisco’s run in 2011 was not a fluke. However, each team has gone through personnel changes that could lead to a different outcome this time around and most fans either attached to either of these two teams or the neutral amongst you will be looking forward to this one. Much will be decided by the two quarterbacks in this contest – the Packers Aaron Rodgers is a Californian native who was passed over by the side he supported as kid in the 2005 draft and Alex Smith who San Francisco took instead of Rodgers and was recently replaced by Colin Kaepernick as the 49ers starter, he was born in Wisconsin and said he used to cheer for Green Bay.

There’s an awful lot at stake here. Both teams are in Super Bowl or bust mode. It’s one of the best passing offences in the NFL against what may be the game’s best defence. It’s the 49ers, who play as physical as any club in the NFL on both sides of the ball, against a Green Bay team that can be a little more finesse offensively. The 49ers have one of the league’s stingiest defences and will be tasked with shutting down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offence. It worked well back in Week 1, and though Green Bay lost by just eight points, the game never really looked like it was out of San Francisco’s complete control.

Plenty of contrasts in style at play here and plenty of star players on display, although I wonder how much bearing and how much of a template that first week match-up will provide in the post-season.

The biggest change will be at quarterback for the 49ers where the sophomore Kaepernick got the nod from coach Harbaugh after Smith was injured. Smith led the second-seeded 49ers to last year’s NFC title game but has been replaced by Kaepernick and his emergence is one of many changes since these two met in the season’s opener. Smith despite going 20 of 26 in that first game was mostly a stationary target and was sacked four times, Kaepernick’s mobility gives the 49ers a completely new look and one that is more in keeping with the modern NFL – he’ll certainly create a different challenge for the Packers than Smith did.

Rodgers as usual will always create problems for any defence and I’d have to say that the Packers defence has also got healthier and a new look since then. Talking of defence the San Francisco version will also be playing a big part in this game, although the 49ers finished around the middle of the pack with 38 sacks – Aldon Smith had an NFC-high 19 1/2 – their pass rush figures to be a major factor against Rodgers, who was sacked a league-high 51 times including three in the opener. The return in that defensive unit of the other Smith (Justin) is also welcome news for the 49ers and especially his namesake Aldon who has not appeared as effective without him in the line-up. Justin Smith can help the Niners defence regain its swagger. The 12th-year pro was injured early in the second half of a Week 15 win over the Patriots, and his remarkable pass-rush skills were sorely missed over the final 10 quarters of the regular season. The 49ers’ defence surrendered a total of 86 points in that span, looking nothing like the impenetrable force that had dominated the NFL for most of the 2012 campaign. Smith excels at executing stunts and games off the edge, displaying unbelievable chemistry with second-year defensive lineman Aldon Smith; before Justin Smith was injured, the duo’s impeccable timing produced a number of disruptive plays off the edge. It’s amazing how much of Aldon Smith’s production has been generated by the execution of a loop or stunt with Justin Smith. The veteran uses all of the tricks in the book, including a grab-and-hold manoeuvre that frees Aldon Smith on the inside.

Defensively the Packers have had a season where their work on that side of the ball has been called into question but as a unit I think they are getting better and the return of Charles Woodson has given the young but effective secondary a great lift. That D will be facing another tough running offence this week after limiting Adrian Peterson to 99 yards last week. Green Bay may be helped after facing backup Vikings quarterback Joe Webb, who ran for 68 yards and presents a similar threat on the ground as Kaepernick.

Slowing the San Francisco offence has been evolving since the quarterback change – Michael Crabtree is now a very active threat and is Kaepernick’s favourite target with 35 catches for 538 yards in five December games and I expect Woodson will be giving him plenty of attention. While in the same timeframe Vernon Davis who used to play very active part in the 49ers offence has become a non-entity with just 61 combined yards and no TD’s, I just wonder if he might be more active this time against the Packers though as in four games versus Green Bay he has totalled 251 yards and scored in all four games, that could well be something to watch out for.

Green Bay may not be the more rested team, but that didn’t matter two seasons ago when they were seeded sixth and Rodgers guided them to three road wins and a Super Bowl triumph over Pittsburgh and the Packers are 4-1 in the post-season against San Francisco.

As I said earlier many will be looking to make the game in September the template for this game but too much has changed since then for that to apply and I think we have to take a look at this head-to-head with fresh eyes and a new outlook. The winner will either take a trip to Atlanta or host the surging Seahawks for a chance at a Super Bowl berth. It’s hard not to like the chances of whichever club wins this game, and with that, let’s break down what it will take for each team to get the W and move on.

I’ll start with a question and one that may well be key to this game – can the Packers get a ground game going? We all know that the Packers can move the ball through the air via Rodgers and all of the variety and array of targets that he has; we’ll discuss those in a moment. You have to know that San Francisco are one of the most difficult teams to run on and perhaps as they did back in Week 1 the Packers don’t even try, but this is a different Green Bay team and I believe that they are more committed to trying to make the run work than ever now, that may have been caused by this fact that in the three games that Rodgers dropped back to pass the most, Green Bay found themselves 0-3. Never did Rodgers drop back more this year than in Week 1, and the chief reason for that was a complete lack of any running game. The only Packer running back to touch the ball in that game was Cedric Benson (who has since landed on I.R.) and the results showed exactly who was in charge of that battle; Benson managed 18 miserable yards on nine carries as Green Bay quickly lost all semblance of a balanced offense. The Packers didn’t use a running back on 31 plays in Week 1 against the 49ers, dropping back to pass on every one of those plays. Although Aaron Rodgers had his best success passing in the game from those sets, the lack of balance hurt the Packers. Green Bay is 2-14 when dropping back to pass at least 70 percent of the time since 2008 (85 percent in Week 1 this season).

Since then Green Bay have tried to get the running game going via a variety of backs with Alex Green initially getting most of the carries and the Packers even tried to reignite an old flame by re-signing Ryan Grant. However if recent games have been anything to go by, it will be DuJuan Harris who will be handling the bulk of the load – Harris has rushed for three scores and forced seven missed tackles, a tremendous haul considering he’s only been on the field for 100 snaps and he does have the potential to at least provide the offence with some more balance and keep San Francisco somewhere near honest. DuJuan Harris has averaged 4.3 yards per rush between the tackles this season, including playoffs. The Packers had six running backs with at least 25 runs between the tackles this season, and Harris’ 4.3 rate ranked as the highest. Cedric Benson gained only 17 yards on eight rushes between the tackles in Week 1 against the 49ers.

Of course the aforementioned Justin Smith who is expected to be back will play a huge part in controlling the run game along with Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis, if San Francisco shut the run game down early that will force the Packers into an imbalance offensively, allowing Aldon Smith to pin his ears back and do what he does best, which only bodes well for San Francisco. Aldon Smith has 33.5 sacks in his career, including postseason, but only 1.0 of those sacks have come with Justin Smith off the field. As a team, the 49ers have recorded a sack once every 14.8 dropbacks with Justin Smith on field this season and once every 26.8 dropbacks with him off the field.

So while I expect the Packers to pay due respect to the run game and maintain some sense of balance it will be in the passing game where Rodgers has real options, only possibly Denver have as many options as Green Bay have in that respect. Greg Jennings is back to health and is getting back in tune with Aaron Rodgers. Jordy Nelson also remains a high-end option, but he did get injured late in last week’s game although it looks like he will make this week’s gig. and James Jones is capable of exploiting single coverage and is scoring touchdowns at an excellent pace, while Randall Cobb will align all over the formation. Cobb is potentially Green Bay’s most dangerous all-around weapon. And a player that I really like and so does Rodgers who looks for him out of plenty of slot formations and across the middle. Also, TE Jermichael Finley has quietly been a major contributor during the second half of the season having seemingly cured his “passion” for dropped balls. The 49ers excel in coverage but are not really sophisticated with their coverage schemes, often keeping two safeties deep and playing a lot of man coverage and I expect to see them in plenty of nickel and dime defence.

Rodgers whilst not an RG3, Russell Wilson or Cam Newton is still an extremely mobile QB and he can hurt you with his legs as well as his arm and he is also spreading the ball around extremely well to all of his pass-catchers. Ten different Packers caught a pass last week, which is the most in postseason history – over Green Bay’s past four games, Rodgers has an 11-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio and while this is a much vaunted San Francisco defence they did allow a combined 76 points against New England and Seattle in Weeks 15 and 16, respectively. The reigning NFL MVP has been sensational, particularly over the last 11 regular-season games. During that span, Rodgers completed 66.5 percent of his passes with 29 touchdowns against just four interceptions. Most importantly, though the Packers had a non-existent running game and an injury-ravaged defence, they were able to compile a 9-2 record over that span that let them enter the postseason as one of the NFL’s hottest teams. Rodgers has carried Green Bay, picking apart coverage with pinpoint passes to receivers all over the field. His efficient distribution stresses defences horizontally and vertically while allowing the Packers’ playmakers to make plays in the open field. Receivers Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb and tight end Jermichael Finley are rounding back into form. The deadly passer and his explosive receiving corps could combine to spark fireworks at Candlestick Park.

Turning the tables now how will the 49ers cope with an improved Packers defence and one that can be aggressive and create pressure, something that Kaepernick will have to deal with and as with most young quarterbacks, keeping Kaepernick upright will be of utmost importance. With a clean pocket, he has a QB rating of 112, but it’s been a different story under pressure. When rushers get home, Kaepernick’s rating drops to 64.5, completing a shade over half of his passes with no touchdowns. The Packers sent five or more pass rushers 40 percent of the time in the regular season (fourth highest), including 46 percent of the time against the 49ers in Week 1. Alex Smith completed 11-of-12 attempts against such pressure in the game and a league high 73 percent for the season. Colin Kaepernick’s 57 completion percentage was the 20th-highest in the league this season and it will be up to left tackle Joe Staley to keep his quarterback safe and sound versus the biggest Packers pass rushing threat Clay Matthews, although I can see defensive end Mike Neal who has the second most Packers sacks this year turning out to be a big threat also especially if he can get matched up against Mike Iupati, who has struggled with penalties this year and looks as though he could be vulnerable. Matthews had 2½ sacks when these teams met during the regular season and two last week, but Staley has had an excellent season and is now one of the top left tackles in the league.

We know that Kaepernick is a mobile quarterback but he’s also a young and relatively inexperienced one and he may want to lean on his running game to establish himself in the game – remember this will be his first experience of playoff football and the whole experience speeds up from here. With that thought in mind it may well be the 49ers rely once again on Frank Gore to provide the early traction he opened his regular season by rushing for 112 yards on just 16 carries in Green Bay on a day when San Francisco rushed for 186 yards in total. The 49ers feature one of the most physical and diverse running games in the league in terms of formations and personnel groupings. LaMichael James brings fresh legs and big-play ability as another new wrinkle to this power running game. A problem that Green Bay’s defence has had all year is allowing a lot of production to opposing backs as receivers, and both Gore and James could have success in this department – an area that the Packers need t work on and due to their aggressive nature they can sometimes over pursue in this facet of the game and that leads to big gains.

The run game can only take San Francisco so far and to keep up with the likely offensive production from Green Bay (they are a mighty hard side to shut down completely) the 49ers are going to have to challenge the aggressive Packers secondary. With Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams on injured reserve it has been up Michael Crabtree to lead the receiving corps and he’s undoubtedly a favourite target for Kaepernick, since the loss of Williams and Mannigham, Crabtree has picked up 538 yards in his last five games – Crabtree saw an average of 10.4 targets per game in that span, far above his average of 6.0 through the first 11 games of the season.

Behind Crabtree though the receivers are a little weaker and rather underwhelming and the Packers hold a clear advantage in this department. They also have a very fine secondary with which to cover the 49ers in the aerial game with Tramon Williams, Sam Shields and the excellent rookie Casey Hayward forming a formidable band and some of their numbers are staggering. Williams despite being persistently targeted has only allowed a 53.3% completion rate; Shields now back after an ankle injury ranks very highly in the coverage charts and Hayward has allowed QB’s just a QB rating of 30.8 when throwing at targets he is covering. With the lack of depth at receiver I’ll be expecting Kaepernick to use his tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker, neither had huge seasons from a numbers perspective but they do have a talent for getting deep downfield and will need attention. Fortunately the Packers have Charles Woodson back in action; he can line-up all over the defence and has the ability to pull the defensive strings to confuse any quarterback let alone a young one like Kaepernick, he also excels covering tight ends. Green Bay have been rigid against opposing tight ends of late and if they can take Davis and Walker out of the equation it may lead to Kaepernick having greatly reduced targets. If the Packers can get ahead early and force the 49ers to air it out, this ball-hawking secondary may be able to put the game away on their own.

Just one final thought about the special teams and specifically the kicking game and it’s something I touched on in one of my blogs this week in a section called “Kicking Off” and it may well be worth bearing in mind. It’s not quite the smallest handicap of the weekend, the 49ers are required to give the Packers 3 points but it’s certainly the game that could well be the closest and when a game gets close it is often those rather mercurial or enigmatic types called kickers that can decide the game. Well this game features three of the least accurate in the NFL; San Francisco’s David Akers and Billy Cundiff joined the Packers’ Mason Crosby at the bottom of the NFL’s rankings for field-goal accuracy this season. Akers was 35th out of 37 qualifying kickers with a 69.0 percentage. Crosby (63.6) and Cundiff (58.3) rounded out the rankings. The 49ers have not yet announced which kicker will take the lead against the Packers – but if it comes down to a field goal of 50 yards plus then these figures don’t make good reading Akers is 2-6, Cundiff 0-2 and Crosby 2-9; I hope somebody has made the coaches – Harbaugh and McCarthy aware of those numbers.

Just something to think about especially if you are taking short prices about a field goal even from short range to decide the game, Akers, Cundiff and Crosby are not the most reliable bunch ever.

The Packers are still the more popular team, so it’s no surprise they’re being backed even as the underdog despite the fact the 49ers won the season opener 30-22 in Green Bay. Sharp bettors also jumped on the Packers plus-3 as they’re playing their best football of the year at the right time. Green Bay, including that opening loss, started 2-3 but has gone 10-2 SU and 9-3 ATS since their loss at Indianapolis in Week 5.

The 49ers have gone 4-3 ATS since Colin Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith as the starting quarterback, but they’ve failed to cover two straight and three of their past five and the Rams game which Kaepernick blew with an intentional grounding penalty and an interception is enough evidence for some to side with the Packers an point to Kaepernick being beatable under pressure – I think it’s too early to make such a strident call but that sort of incident is clearly influencing some punters.

The Packers play a rare roll as the underdog here, a scenario we only saw twice in the regular season when they went 1-1 from such a situation; this is a fascinating game and I really have tried to put aside my allegiance to the Green and Gold here but in a game that has great trading potential I’d rather side with the Packers at the prices nut it will come as no surprise to see this come down to a very close game similar to the handicap mark – although I really hope we don’t have to see one of the shaky kickers have to convert to win it in the dying seconds. For me if you distil this game and it comes down to quarterbacks and in that one-on-one you have to take Aaron Rodgers every time despite the obvious potential of Kaepernick; if he makes a mistakes here it could be a long summer for Coach Harbaugh.

Friday, 11 January 2013

NFL playoff props

Taking a different angle for betting on the NFL playoffs is Ian Steven, @deevo82. His last contribution to the blog was very successful - tipping the NFL Division winners.

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NFL playoff props analysis
For reference, my betting scale is 1-10.

Ravens vs Broncos

Peyton Manning seemed to defy medical logic by his superb season this year after multiple neck surgeries. Denver shocked the Steelers last year in the wildcard round with Tim Tebow under centre so having an MVP at QB should lead to a deep playoff run, especially with a very stingy defense led by joker backer Von Miller. Manning is the master of reading defences at the line of scrimmage and it will be a constant chess battle with Manning audibling at the line of scrimmage and Baltimore quickly checking out of a pressure package into a cover 1 or cover 3 defense.

The Ravens welcomed back Ray Lewis after missing most of the season with a triceps tear. The linebacker is still not 100% healthy but his leadership skills on the field visibly lifted Baltimore against the Colts last week. The key for John Harbaugh’s men will be the play of Joe Flacco. He is morphing more and more into a game manager who does not revel in being forced to gunsling in a match. The creative spark for the Ravens comes from Ray Rice but the diminutive running back may struggle for space against a very stingy Denver defense.

I can’t see past Denver winning this with home field advantage. Peyton will tear the Ravens apart. Look out for Manning trying to isolate Ray Lewis in man coverage with Jacob Tamme. Mike McCoy will put the ball in his field general’s hands and the former Colt’s QB could well have over 45 passes in the game. Most of his pass calls will be bubble screens or dump offs to the running back so he will have a high completion percentage.

Peyton Manning – over 24.5 completions
2 points @ 1.8 Bet 365

Packers vs 49ers

This is the most evenly matched of the playoff games. The 49ers defeated Green Bay 30-22 in the regular season but the Packers will have learned from their mistakes and they are hitting form just at the right time. Aaron Rodgers is arguably the best QB in the league and he boasts a glut of talented receivers which makes it tough for opposing defences to rotate coverage to double a perceived danger man. The Green Bay running attack is not the strong point of the offense and with Navarro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Justin Smith spearheading a talented defense; the Packers will barely acknowledge the running game.

San Francisco are embroiled in an odd quarterback controversy as Alex Smith was one of the highest rated passers in the league when he was forced to the bench due to injury. Colin Kaepernick stepped in and played so well that Jim Harbaugh has kept Smith in reserve. The 49ers will look to ground and pound with Frank Gore and Kaepernick will look to Vernon Davis up the seam as a safety valve as the mobile quarterback will not have enough time to dally in the pocket with Clay Matthews breathing down his neck.

I think the Packers will be the only road team to win in the Divisional rounds. It should be a fairly high scoring game and I think Kaepernick will be forced to air it out with Davis a reliable safety net for him. James Jones has been the go to guy for Aaron Rodgers in the end zone at the end of the season and he is highly likely to catch a touchdown pass once Green Bay get into the redzone. Clay Matthews will be a beast in the playoffs and will be all over the field in Candlestick Park. He could easily notch 4 sacks, let alone tackles.

Colin Kaepernick – over 17.5 completions
3 points @ 2.00 Bet 365

Vernon Davis – over 3 receptions
2 points @ 1.86 Bet 365

Vernon Davis – over 33.5 receiving yards
2 points @ 1.83 Paddy Power

Clay Matthews – over 4 tackles and assists
3 points @ 1.8 Bet 365

James Jones – anytime touchdown scorer
4 points@ 2.8 Paddy Power

Seahawks vs Falcons

The injury report will ultimately be the undoing of Seattle in this match up. Pete Carroll’s men lost their defensive end in Chris Clemons last week to a knee injury in their wildcard thriller against Washington. Coupled to that, their bulldozing running back Marshawn Lynch is nursing a foot injury that caused the former Buffalo player to miss two days of practice this week. Rookie QB Russell Wilson will be forced to pass more than the Seahawks would like and this should play into the laps of the Falcons. The Seahawks defense does have a dominating secondary and Matt Ryan will have to pick and choose his passes carefully. The NFL’s best ever tight end, Tony Gonzalez, will be the primary threat in the red zone. Amazingly, the former San Diego player has yet to win a playoff game in his 15 year career that has seen the 36-year-old voted to 13 Pro Bowls.

I fully expect the Dirty Birds to dominate the time of possession and run the rock early to set up the play action to Julio Jones and Roddy White. Michael Turner will see a lot of the ball and the Hawks defense will tire going into the fourth quarter. Watch out for Asante Samuel picking off Wilson and taking one to the house. The former Eagles and Patriot specialises in playoff interceptions

Marshawn Lynch has missed two days of practice with a foot injury. I don’t think he’ll top 100 yards rushing as I expect Atlanta to take an early lead and Seattle will have to pass to try to get back in it which will inflate Wilson’s passing yards total. Zack Miller is his go to target and the tight end should get more than 33 receiving yards. Michael Turner will be used as a workhorse so jump all over him getting more than 13.5 carries. Injuries to Clemons and Lynch means Atlanta will win this match up.

Michael Turner – over 53.5 rushing yards
4 points @ 1.83 Paddy Power

Michael Turner – over 13.5 carries
10 points @ 1.76 Bet 365!!

Tony Gonzalez – anytime touchdown scorer
3 points @ 1.8 Paddy Power

Russell Wilson – over 220.5 passing yards
3 points @ 1.76 Bet 365

Marshawn Lynch – under 101.5 rushing yards
6 points @ 1.83 Paddy Power

Zach Miller – over 32.5 receiving yards
2 points @ 1.76 Bet 365

Texans vs Patriots

New England are a football machine led by coaching genius Bill Belichick and future hall of famer Tom Brady at quarterback. The mere fact that Belichick has had an extra week to prepare for the Texans removes most of the suspense from this fixture. Brady has a wealth of talent to spread the ball around to, with The Gronk being the most PR friendly of his weapons. The big tight end is a favourite target of the former Michigan QB and he should find space down the seams as he is a match-up night mare due to his size and strength. New England’s running game has been vastly improved this year and they are capable of running a balanced offense that should keep the Texans guessing. The Patriots led the league in yardage per game in the regular season and are capable of moving the ball on anyone.

The Texans were the sexy pick for the Superbowl at the start of the season but a December 42-11 thumping of Houston dished out by the Pats has relegated Gary Kubiak’s men into an outsider role. Matt Schaub is a talented quarterback and he boasts a superb running back in the vegan Arian Foster and one of the all-time great wide receivers in Andre Johnson and they should keep pace with the Pats on paper. The bookies have acknowledged the talents of Foster and Johnson and there is little value in the pair of them. The New England defense cannot be considered elite and Houston could keep things interesting if they can get their zone running game working early which sets up the play action but I get the feeling they will be playing catch up all game.

I can’t see past the Pats after having two weeks to prep for the Texans, a team they have already defeated heavily. The Gronk always shows up when the cameras are on him and he will feature heavily as the tight end is a match up nightmare. He could end up with two or three touchdowns in what should eventually be a comfortable win for the home side.

Rob Gronkowski – over 75.5 receiving yards
1 point @1.83 Paddy Power

Rob Gronkowski – over 5 receptions
3 points @ 1.95 Bet 365

Rob Gronkowski - Anytime touchdown scorer
1 point @ 1.53 Paddy Power

NFL playoffs - Seattle @ Atlanta preview

January means the SuperBowl can't be far away. This weekend we'll have four different previews of the playoff games, providing many different angles for a bet or a trade. First off the rank is Ghislain Hofman, @gghofman, an astute NFL fan taking a close look at the Seahawks-Falcons game. You'll also find his material on the SBB site.

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Seattle @ Atlanta

It's the second week of post-season as the playoffs swing into gear. The prize to the winner will be a shot at the conference title with a view to making a Superbowl appearance. The Seahawks (11-5) come in off a good win over Redskins after going 14-0 down early on. The Falcons (13-3) look to keep their home dominance this season intact (only loss was meaningless final week game at home). The Georgia Dome has been a good home to them.

Russell Wilson now becomes the sole remaining rookie quarter back starter, a lot like Flacco when he came into the NFL, he has overcome the critics of his game and did not let his limitations due to his size causing issues passing from the pocket. Seattle went from home bullies to a side capable of putting up big scores on the road. Wilson has perfected the balance between maintaining the pass game and knowing when its time to run. Having an excellent runner in his back field has done no harm either creating their own duel running threat on a more limited scale.

On the Falcons side something interesting comes up from their last 2 years in the play offs, Two years ago, Atlanta owned the top seed in the NFC but lost home to eventual Super Bowl winners the Packers. Last year the Falcons made the play offs as a wild card, and were disposed of by the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants. Could this be three years in row if the Seahawks went on to win it, looking to improve on their last attempt a ugly loss to the Steelers. The first proper Superbowl I watched.

The Falcons started 8-0 flying out the traps with their solid defence and their exceptional passing game with the trio of White, Jones and Gonzalez giving defensive coordinators nightmares. The Falcons losses came to the Saints and Panthers, and their final game versus the Bucs when taking the foot off the pedal. Both losses came away from the Georgia Dome, however easing off in week 17 has cost teams before. The Seahawks themselves did not start too well going 4-4, losing on the road, but not letting up at home with its renowned 12th causing havoc for visiting sides. But since then the Seahawks went 7-1 and won its wildcard game scoring 33 points per game in that run, their loss came on its long trip to Miami just going down by field goal, hopefully the Seahawks will have stayed on east coast for the week to prepare for this. The Seahawks get on top of teams by limiting their run game and letting their run game run riot. Falcons have struggled at times with their run which has pressured their passing game. While Seattle has outscored its opponents 217-74 over the last six games.

The Seahawks defence will play a key part in deciding this game. It is excellent stopping the run, an area Falcons have struggled to establish for most of the season with Turner. They also have cornerbacks and safeties good enough to limit the big play ability of both White and Jones. Ryan does make mistakes and this defence could bring those mistakes out. The pressure of a possible 5th play off loss in a row is surely on his shoulders as he has been part of three of that run. White and Jones combined for 171 catches with 2,549 yards and 17 touchdowns while Gonzalez is coming off the most productive of his four regular seasons in Atlanta with 93 receptions for 930 yards and eight TDs. All this helped form the 6th ranked passing game in the NFL. As mentioned the Falcons’ ground game has not been up to par with the passing game. Atlanta averaged just 87.3 yards per game rushing this season. Turner averaged a lowly 3.6 yards per carry on 222 carries this year. On the defensive side Atlanta ranked in the bottom half of the league stopping the pass, giving up passing yards per game (242.4) and rushing yards per game (123.2).

The Seahawks try to join the 1989 Los Angeles Rams as the only West Coast team to win back-to-back playoff games on the East Coast, interesting as I pointed out the trip can be a challenge to West Coast teams. The Seahawks' good form has come behind their excellent run game. Lynch has averaged 116.8 and 6.9 per carry while topping 100 yards in each of the last five games. The Seahawks averaged 161.2 yards per game on the ground this year, the 3rd best in the NFL.

Wilson balances that with his quarterback rating of 100 the fourth best in the league. But look at his form at latter end and it is scary the improvement he has shown. Wilson threw 17 TDs and just two INTs over his final nine games, and his 116.9 passer rating since November is the best in the league. Its defence strong against the pass and rush may be affected by its loss of Sherman who has proven useful putting pressure on quarterbacks. They also must be weary of screen passes and tight end and running backs down field.

Seattle last week lost sack leader Chris Clemons for the rest of this season to a knee injury, a huge loss to the team. Seahawks have also made a change at kicker, where veteran Ryan Longwell is brought in to kick.. Lynch seems to be carrying a knock as Turbin took more carries but he will be good to go come gameday. Atlanta is healthy in most spots except the secondary,saw safety Mitchell will return to practice after sitting out on Wednesday. Mitchell has been dealing with a calf issue. Cornerback Owens did not practice as he recovers from a hamstring injury.

The Falcons had one of easier schedules this season which may mislead as to how they did so well their division had issues with all three of its rivals having different reasons for their struggles yet they still only went 3-3 in division play. The 49ers presented the Seahawks a great challenge and they shared the spoils. The fight back shown by the Seahawks when they started slow was good, teams who play better in second half tend to do a lot better in the post season. A better start this time round should see them right in with a chance of spoiling with Ryan's record 33-7 at home when starting. These teams meet last season with Falcons coming away from Seattle the victor, but under Wilson the Seahawks look much more of a complete a side.

If the Falcons win, they’ll play host to either the 49ers or Packers in the NFC title game. If the Seahawks pull off the upset, they’ll head either to Green Bay or San Francisco and so will leave the east coast. The Seahawks as always under Carroll will likely have the usual ace up the sleeve in its game plan something often seen this season in latter half of its games.

All in all this is a game of two birds, the Falcon or the Seahawks and it should leave up to its billing as the game of the weekend. These two sides match up well which makes for some exciting battles.

Verdict:
Match odds: Seahawks 13/10 Falcons 20/27 Spread -2.5 Points Total 46pts
The game is for the taking by either side here, but the better running game of the Seahawks could prove a difference maker, and a more reliable defence compared to a Falcons' secondary feeling the pinch which Wilson can expose with a choice of receivers they use in different schemes. Expecting another big night from Lynch leading his team to a tight win by just a single score.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

WTA fantasy competition 2013

No, it's not how to score a night out with Sharapova, she's engaged now anyway. Along the lines of the successful and long-running fantasy competition (www.tenniscomp.com - started offline over a decade ago), I've created a similar contest for the women's tour. There are plenty of tennis punters who focus more on the WTA Tour, me included, so why not have one for the fillies as well?

www.wtatenniscomp.com

£10 entry as per the other comp, payable via PayPal. All entry fees distributed as prizes, minus 5% to cover PayPal fees.

Many thanks to @dpwoodford for his work in getting this going. so quickly, please forgive the rough edges!

The groups for the competition are listed on this printable sheet.

The more the merrier, get on board! Entries close at the start of the Australian Open, and all points gained so far in the season count. Any queries, contact me on Twitter or email via the site.

L'Ormarins Queen’s Plate Preview

Elite level racing is worth watching anywhere in the world and this week I'm excited to cover South African racing for the first time. The Queen's Plate is one of the premier races on the South African racing calendar and covering it for the blog is a former colleague of mine, Alan Moscrop. You can follow him via @alanmoscrop and his work on a collective blog with a few more of his countrymen, Goodforthegame.

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2012 L'Ormarins Queen’s Plate Preview

The 2012 L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate takes place at Kenilworth on Saturday and has served up one of the strongest Queen’s Plate field seen in many years.

The month of January in the South African horseracing industry is all about the action taking place in the southern parts of the country, as Kenilworth plays host to succession of top class feature and graded horse racing action from now through to the J&B Met (which takes place just inside February). This weekend’s L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate is one the jewels in the racing crown and is a race steeped in history, having been won by some of the very best horses to grace local racetracks over the years.

Aside from the quality thoroughbred racing itself, punters and visitors to Kenilworth on Saturday will be treated to a host of other world-class entertainment and the usual elegance and focus on fashion that comes with such an occasion. It will be the place to be seen for many, but for the jockeys, trainers, owners and punters alike, the focus will without a shadow of doubt be all about what happens in the 100 or so seconds from when the starter sets the Queen’s Plate field on their way at 10 minutes to 5pm.

A collection of the very best middle distance horses line up to compete this year’s contest, which, as a weight for age race, ignores the merit rating each runner has, so we have 14 runners all shouldering the same mass (note the late scratching of Changingoftheguard on Tuesday has reduced the field from 15 to 14). Unlike 2012, when the two top 3 year olds, Variety Club and Gimmethegreenlight battled it out in a pulsating finish, there's none of the younger crop taking the challenge this season, nor are there any entries of the fairer sex. Last year’s runner-up Variety Club is back to try and take the title he so narrowly missed out on 12 months ago, and the Joey Ramsden trained colt is a warm favourite to take the honours on Saturday. He will need to be at his brilliant best however, as the field lining up is without question one the strongest for many running’s of this race.

The official draw took place last week and a kind starting stall can be quite crucial over the Kenilworth 1600m, especially with a field of this year’s size. As it turned out lady-luck was did not look kindly on a few of the horses most fancied in the betting market – and none fared worse than the afore mentioned Variety Club, who jumps from the widest position of all. The Brett Crawford trained Jackson, a beaten favourite in last season’s Durban July, was only marginally more fortunate than Variety Club in drawing gate 13, but bookmakers still make the classy son of Dynasty a clear second favourite to take the win. Of the others near the top few places on the betting boards, 2012 Durban July Pomodoro drew well with gate 7, meanwhile champion sprinter What A Winter will have his stamina put to the test when he tries the step up in trip to the mile, and the Mike Bass trained 5 year old will jump from gate 10.

The runners and riders therefore line up as follows:


LATEST BETTING

Bookmakers priced up for the race shortly after the official draw was made last week (Ed. - take note British racing, early declarations builds up interest and the ability to do the form properly!), and despite being drawn out in the sticks, champion miler Variety Club is a hot favourite for the race win. His form over this distance, and manner in which he's notched up a long succession of impressive wins since April last year, has bookies extremely wary of the brilliant Var colt, regardless of the poor draw, and he's generally available at a little over even money in most places.

The latest betting and generally best prices available is shown below (taken on Tuesday 08th Jan), it should be pointed out that prices will change as race day nears and punters start getting their bets down:

Variety Club @ 12/10
Jackson @ 7/2
Pomodoro @ 6/1
What A Winter @ 12/1
Run For It @ 16/1
Bravura @ 25/1
Slumdogmillionaire @ 25/1
Master Plan @ 40/1
Castlethorpe @ 40/1
Depardieu @ 40/1
Tribal Dance @ 66/1
Fabiani @ 80/1
Martial Eagle @ 80/1
Bulsara @ 80/1
Changingoftheguard - scratched

THE CONTENDERS

It makes perfect sense to start off with a view of the main contenders with the horse they've all got to beat, Variety Club. A winner of 11 of his 16 career starts, this superb son of Var has been blowing away all before him with relative ease the bulk of last season, and last tasted defeat in the Derby over a 2000m trip that is perhaps his maximum distance. However back on the mile he's had no peers so far, and only the combination of a fierce head-wind and a determined ride by Pierre Strydom on Gimmethegreenlight thwarted Variety Club from taking this race last year. His jockey Anton Marcus knows him better than anyone else, and if he uses his excellent speed out the gate to help Marcus get him across from that wide draw, he'll be in his favoured position at the front turning for home – and we've seen that situation play out race after race the last 8 months. As worthy a favourite as you could ever ask for, and if he wins here, the Ramsden stable could very well try their arm with him at the J&B Met later this month.

The J&B Met was always the main target for Jackson, but connections feel he's very much in with a shout of fighting out the finish on Saturday, and if Variety Club fluffs his lines, then Jackson could very well be the one who will be there to pounce. Make no mistake this is no prep run, Jackson is here to race for the win, but he'll need to produce something a notch up from his best over a trip that is just a touch sharp for his long-striding action. He's chased home Variety Club twice over the 1600m trip already, including his last run in the Green Point Stakes, when the son of Dynasty ran on strongly but too late to land a blow. In his favour this time is that he'll be as fit as he's been before compared to his previous 3 meetings against Variety Club, and although he's drawn poorly in stall 13, his off-the-pace running style suggests it won't be as big a handicap as might have been expected. A big runner despite the J&B Met being his number one feature race target.

To have the reigning Durban July champion in a Queen’s Plate is a real treat and Pomodoro leads the challenge of the few raiders from other provinces. A surprise 28/1 winner of the July where he won from an impossible draw of 20, the Sean Tarry-trained Jet Master colt has held that form superbly since then and is a big danger to the Cape based runners. He made his seasonal debut over a sprint distance, where he showed his versatility by producing a storming finish to take the win, albeit unexpectedly to many. His final run was a comfortable win over the Turffontein mile in soft underfoot conditions, and he was a late supplementary entry for the Queen’s Plate, with the 2000m trip of the J&B Met also his main target. But with wins now from 1160m to 2450m, and a hat-trick over the mile last season, connections clearly feel he's got the turn of foot to give Variety Club a really tough battle. He looks like he might prefer further as well as a bit of sting out of the ground, however with hot and dry conditions expected all week in the Cape Town area, I do have some concerns about his chances if the surface runs on the firmer side of good.

What A Winter = what a horse and what an interesting runner. The strapping son of Western Winter has been dominating the sprint races in the Cape for 3 seasons on the bounce, and the Mike Bass yard have been sounding bullish about his ability to mix it over the extended 1600m trip. There will be plenty doubters however, and he's not won beyond 1200m in two years, and a field with such a classy bunch of middle-distance sorts is hardly going to make that task any easier. But the stable feel they have him as well as they've had him before, and they'll be hoping he can show the same sort of stamina from his early career when won the Selangor Cup over the Kenilworth 1600m as a three year old. The draw of 10 leaves the stable a bit unsure on what tactics to employ and they would have loved to have been a good few places on the inside, and he'll be looking for a position just off the early pace as they turn for home as he attempts to catch out those more likely to stay the trip.

Justin Snaith sends out the five year old Run For It and despite not registering a win in over two years he's perhaps surprisingly as short at 14/1 in some places. His last run is probably the cause for the lower odds than some would have expected – a strong finishing second behind Beach Beauty, a top class mare who will be a force at the J&B Met later this month. Run For It has chased home Variety Club over 1600m before when runner up in a Grade 3 contest at Durbanville in 2011, and the blinkers have certainly helped with the improvement in his last 2 runs. However I'm really battling to make a case for him here and he looks held by those above him in the betting.

Gavin van Zyl sends down two runners to contest the Queen’s Plate and Slumdogmillionaire is his first choice, with the Strike Smartly colt getting the plum number one draw and is quoted at 25/1. A winner of a SA Classic as a three year old when he pipped Pomodoro by a nostril, he then had a long spell on the sidelines due to surgery to remove a bone chip on a fetlock. He was slowly bought back into training towards the latter part of 2012 and made his seasonal debut when staying on gamely for fourth over 1600m at Clairwood. It was a decent enough comeback run but he's another that has the Met as his number one target. The fitness concerns and the trip down to the Cape make him one who I feel the race just comes a week or 2 too early, and a minor placing at best is how I’d rate his chances.

Variety Club's trainer Joey Ramsden has a livewire outsider in his second runner, the talented Bravura, who at six years old still looks a game individual and will no doubt give 100% up the Kenilworth finishing straight. After a disappointing downfield finish in the Green Point Stakes behind his stablemate, he finished strongly from well off the pace for fourth behind Beach Beauty in the Premier Trophy, and his course record of 6 wins from 15 runs at the Cape track is one that deserves some respect. He's normally one who needs some luck in running and should be fit and well for Saturday's contest.

Greg Ennion teams up with the experienced Robbie Fradd when he sends out the Jet Master gelding Master Plan, who ran with credit his last two outings when third behind Variety Club in the Green Point and then third-best again behind Beach Beauty 3 weeks later. He's not quite shown the form that he had displayed when landing two decent graded feature races in the KZN Winter season, and as with a couple in this field, he might be suited to a slightly longer trip.

The second runner from the Mike Bass stable is the Australian-bred Castlethorpe, who on his best form would have a shout of running into the quartet and maybe even the trifecta. A winner of seven races from 1200m to 1600m from his 26 career starts, he's always been a slightly quirky sort who's best distance has sometimes been hard to establish. Last season he was excelling over the sprints after returning from a lay-off, and when stepped up to what would have been thought to be his optimum trip, he chased home Variety Club over the Clairwood 1600m, beating stablemate What A Winter in the process. A terrible run in the Durban July followed, and only in his most recent outing has he shown his zest for racing is still there, when flashing up behind What A Winter over the Kenilworth 1200m. He's one I'm struggling to assess as his in-and-out form lends to him being a lurker for placing at big odds, with top jockey Anthony Delpech making to the trip to take the ride.

Of the remaining runners, we’re starting to look at some who would have to show real turnaround in recent form to feature or at least produce career best performances. Depardieu has been smart over sprints and up to the 1400m, but his last run was well below par and this trip looks a stretch for his chances. Trainer Dean Kannemeyer is an astute trainer when it comes to getting his charges ready for the big races, but Depardieu is not one I expect to trouble the judge. Tribal Dance, from the Vaughan Marshall yard, is more a staying type and the Met will be his main target. I suspect he’ll be struggling to match the pace once they turn for home, and although he did win over 1800m in his penultimate run, the field was weak-looking and the formlines have not looked strong since.

The field is rounded up by 3 older horses in Fabiani, Martial Eagle and Bulsara, who are all priced at 80/1 and could well be triple figures come the weekend. Fabiani finished an excellent 3rd in the Queen’s Plate back in 2010 behind Pocket Power, but was tailed off in last year’s race. He’s been thereabouts his last few runs and the 3rd place behind Hill Fifty Four on his penultimate start has had the formline franked with Hill Fifty Four winning last weekend’s feature race, The Penninsula Handicap. However his best years are past him and he looks to have far too much to find here. Martial Eagle has continued to climb up the merit rating table and seems to be getting better with age, with his strong finishing second behind Thunder Dance last time out over the course and distance a career-best effort - he looks the pick of the 80/1 shots. This leaves Bulsara, who represents the van Zyl yard and is the stable second-string to Slumdogmillionaire. He finished like a steam-train for second behind Silver Age in his prep run but his very best efforts have been when there’s been give in the ground, and conditions don’t seem to favour him causing an upset on Saturday.

SUMMARY & SELECTIONS

So we’ve looked at the runners and now it’s time to nail our bets for the race. Looking at the way the L'Ormarins Queen’s Plate has been priced up by local bookmakers it would suggest it’s a three-horse race, with Variety Club casting an imposing shadow at the top of the betting. Followers of our fortunes on Goodforthegame will know that 9 times out of 10 I will look to get a favourite beat, and as strong as the claims are for Variety Club to score another impressive win, I’m going to stick with my tactic that favourites are there to be beaten, and the vote goes to Jackson, who I hope will mow Variety Club down over the final 50 metres and take the win. The son of Dynasty is poorly drawn, not as poorly as Variety Club, however he will come from off the pace as usual and will be finishing faster than anything else in the field. The key is to ensure he’s not too far back from Marcus and the favourite turning for home, however Karis Teetan knows the four year old inside-out and should give Jackson every chance of turning the tables on Variety Club.

We’ve had a bit of a purple patch on Goodforthegame and booted home the winners in all three of the main female races that have taken place at Kenilworth in recent weeks. It’s therefore fair to say the Cape has been kind of late and my hope is that run can continue with a storming finish from Jackson late on Saturday afternoon. It’s a tough ask as he would then go onto challenge for the J&B Met later this month, where he is currently a warm favourite over a trip which will be more suited than this weekend. But he’s a top class individual and I’m hoping that quality sees him edge his rival Variety Club on Saturday. The boxed exacta is my back-up bet.

BET: Jackson to win at 7/2, boxed exacta Variety Club/Jackson

My outsider, far more speculative bet of the race is a small interest in a boxed trifecta of Variety Club, Jackson and What A Winter. It costs just R6 to take so can be taken multiple times and should pay a decent dividend if those 3 filled the places, regardless of what order.