-- The Carolina Panthers have taken over sole possession of the No. 1 spot in the NFL Vegas Rankings for the first time this season.
The Panthers, as everyone knows, went 15-1 in the regular season and slowly moved up in the power ratings of our panel of ESPN Chalk NFL handicappers -- Sal Selvaggio of madduxsports.com, Erin Rynning and yours truly -- during the course of the season. Carolina jumped out to a 31-0 halftime lead over the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional playoffs on Sunday and held on to win 31-24. We upgraded the Panthers' power rating by half a point, breaking a tie with the Arizona Cardinals -- whom they host this Sunday in the NFC Championship Game.
Both championship games feature No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchups, as all four home favorites won straight-up in the divisional playoffs. The New England Patriots were the only other team to have its power rating increased (by a full point) by our panel.
Here's a look at the four remaining teams in the NFL playoffs:
1. Carolina Panthers (27.5)
Last week: T-1st (27)
Everything went right for the Panthers in the first half of their win over the Seahawks, as they ran over Seattle's No. 2-ranked defense and shut them down. They coasted in the second half and allowed the Seahawks to rally to within a touchdown, or we probably would have upgraded them even more. Carolina has the best spread record of the remaining teams at 12-5 ATS.
2. Arizona Cardinals (27)
Last week: T-1st (27)
The Cardinals looked like they were going to push as 7-point favorites over the Packers, but they were victimized by Aaron "Hail Mary" Rodgers and ended up winning (but not covering) 26-20 in overtime. We kept their power rating the same, but the Cardinals were the 3-1 Super Bowl favorite at the Westgate heading into last week and have stayed at that number despite winning. They've been bypassed by both the Panthers and the Patriots.
3. New England Patriots (26.5)
Last week: 4th (25.5)
The Patriots beat the Chiefs 27-20 after closing as 5.5-point home favorites. Our panel increased their power rating by a full point, partly for the win/cover, but also partly as an adjustment with the return of WR Julian Edelman, plus Rob Gronkowski showing that any doubts of his health were unwarranted.
4. Denver Broncos (25)
Last week: 5th (25)
The Broncos rallied to beat the Steelers 23-16 and push after closing as 7-point home favorites. They were trailing an undermanned Pittsburgh team 13-12 early in the fourth quarter and looked like they would receive a downgrade, but we kept their power rating the same. The Broncos are 7-7-3 ATS.
Championship game value plays
Our panel's power ratings are used to compare the relative strength of teams to the current point spread, as if they were to meet on a neutral field before factoring in home-field advantage. The industry standard is 2.5 points for home field, but teams such as Green Bay, New England, Denver, New Orleans and Seattle are given a field goal or even higher. Note: A team's line might not be increased the full amount when hitting (or especially crossing) key numbers such as 3 and 7.
Every week, we compare that week's lines to the NFL Vegas Rankings and list the value plays based on our panel's numbers. There were no definitive best bets last weekend. On the season, these plays are 21-19-2 ATS (52.5 percent).
Here's a breakdown of how our numbers apply to this weekend's AFC and NFC Championship Games. We always encourage people to use our power rankings as a base and adjust to where you think we have teams overrated or underrated and act accordingly in your handicapping.
New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
Our raw numbers have the Patriots as 1.5 points better than the Broncos on a neutral field, even after we upgraded New England by a full point. With Denver's home-field advantage, our collective opinion is that this game should be closer to pick 'em or perhaps even have the Broncos as a small home favorite. Getting a full field goal (and some books have gone to 3.5 at various points early this week) looks like it could have some value.
The play: Broncos +3 (EVEN) or +3.5.
Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers
We have the Panthers at half a point better than the Cardinals on a neutral field, so with home-field advantage it makes sense that Carolina is favored by a field goal with added juice -- and we would make it 3.5 before making it 2.5.
The play: Lean on Carolina -3.
(Note: As always, these are not my personal plays or those of any of the other handicappers, but rather the group as a whole. My picks will be in the championship game betting previews on Friday here at ESPN Chalk.)