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April 23, 2014

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NFL playoffs by the odds: Vegas picks and perspective on conference championships

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San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree (15), center, is congratulated after scoring a touchdown with quarterback Colin Kaepernick, left, and guard Jonathan Goodwin (59) against the Green Bay Packers in an NFC divisional playoff NFL football game in San Francisco, Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013.

Potential Super Bowl lines (open for betting)

  • Patriots -2 vs. 49ers; over/under: 49
  • Patriots -6 vs. Falcons; over/under: 51.5
  • 49ers -4 vs. Ravens; over/under: 46.5
  • Falcons pick'em vs. Ravens; over/under: 49.5
  • Source: William Hill sports books

Odds to win the Super Bowl

  • Patriots — Even
  • 49ers — 2-to-1
  • Falcons — 6-to-1
  • Ravens — 8-to-1
  • Line: AFC -3 vs. NFC; over/under: 51.5
  • Source: LVH Superbook

If any team is ever temporarily permitted to use the dreaded “no one believes in us” or “we get no respect” clichés, it’s the Atlanta Falcons right now.

Truth is very few people believe in the Falcons, especially within the confines of this fair city. Bettors have driven Atlanta up to 4-point underdogs at home in the NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers, which is the most points a No. 1 seed has ever taken in the playoffs excluding the Super Bowl.

The Falcons are also the biggest home underdog in the history of conference championship weekend. The most similar scenario took place eight years ago when the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the No. 2 seed New England Patriots as 3-point underdogs.

The Patriots cruised to a 41-27 victory to reach Super Bowl 39, which they won 24-21 over the Philadelphia Eagles. They’ve been back to three AFC Championship Games since then, winning two but failing to cover in all of them.

Recent failures didn’t affect oddsmakers’ perception of New England’s chances this weekend. The Patriots opened as 9.5-point favorites against the Baltimore Ravens, the second-highest line in a conference championship game in the last 10 years.

The 2007 Patriots were the only chalkier team, as they were a 14-point favorite against the San Diego Chargers. San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers famously endeared himself to underdog bettors in the game, playing through a torn ACL to cover in a 21-12 defeat.

Will the Falcons need their own version of heroics to cash moneyline tickets at +180 (risking $1 to win $1.80)? The early betting market would indicate so. Atlanta’s gotten no respect.

Read below for a breakdown of the lines and matchups followed by picks for the two NFL conference championship games this weekend.

San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons; Noon on Fox

The line: San Francisco -4. Minutes, heck even seconds, after the Falcons escaped from one of the biggest playoff collapses in history against the Seattle Seahawks, sports books posted the 49ers within as 3-point favorites. They were up to laying 3.5 within an hour. By the end of last Sunday night, San Francisco was -4 all over town. The 49ers briefly moved to 4.5-point favorites, but Falcons bettors crept out of whatever desert hole they were hiding in to shave the extra half-point back off.

The matchup: The Seahawks were a better team than the 49ers at the end of the season. This seems hardly debatable. Seattle went 7-1 to close the regular season and 6-2 against the spread. San Francisco went 5-3 straight-up and 4-4 against the spread in the same span. One of the 49ers losses, notably, was a 42-13 shellacking against the Seahawks. So how can the two teams play in Atlanta on back-to-back weeks with a 6.5-point difference in the line — Seattle stuck as a 2.5-point underdog — favoring San Francisco? Objectively, it makes no sense.

To answer the question, though, it’s perception. Public bettors perceive the 49ers as unstoppable at the moment. Sports books posted quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s rushing over/under at 40 yards for the divisional round against the Packers. The former UNR star eclipsed it by five times, running for 181 yards and throwing for another 263 in a breakout 45-31 beat down. Mobile quarterbacks have frustrated the Falcons all season. Cam Newton dirty-birded — that can be a verb, right? — Atlanta in two meetings, rushing for 202 yards on 18 carries.

More telling, however, is how Atlanta combated a rushing quarterback last weekend. Even though Russell Wilson rushed for 60 yards on seven carries, Atlanta did a decent job keeping him in the pocket by running contain and spy defenses. They dared Wilson to beat them with his arm, and he nearly succeeded with 385 yards on 24-for-36 passing. Although he’s a much better runner, Kaepernick is not as skilled of a passer as Wilson yet.

Atlanta’s secondary had a resurgent year led by cornerback Asante Samuel and safety Thomas DeCoud, ranking 11th against the pass according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings. They shouldn’t get torched for a second week in a row. Atlanta’s Mike Nolan is a more competent defensive coordinator than Green Bay’s Dom Capers. It’s also often forgotten that head coach Mike Smith is a defensive mastermind, presiding over a few memorable Jacksonville stop units before getting the Atlanta job. The Falcons are going to score points of their own. Their offense clicks more at the Georgia Dome, where Matt Ryan is 34-5 as a starter.

This is only the seventh time the Falcons are getting points at home with Ryan at the helm. They are 4-2 against the spread in the previous six instances.

Pick: Falcons +4

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots; 3:30 on CBS

The line: New England -8. In somewhat of a surprise, Ravens money has appeared everywhere over the last two days. A line that looked settled at Patriots -9.5 at some books is suddenly 1.5 points lower than that. Don’t expect the number to drop any further. The public will line up on the Patriots all weekend, likely returning this spread to where it started — New England -9.5

Click to enlarge photo

New England Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib talks with reporters in the locker room after an NFL football practice in Foxborough, Mass., Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013.

The matchup: Ravens bettors were as rare as Area 51 infiltrators last week. But a whole slew of them have mysteriously revealed themselves this week as Baltimore goes from a cold Denver showdown to a chilly New England clash. Although some books remain heavy on the Patriots, most of them are now reporting at least a split ticket count on the Ravens. Baltimore backers are all spitting the same rhetoric: That these Ravens always play these Patriots close. And it’s true. Four of five meetings between the franchises since 2009 have been decided by six points or less. The outlier was a 33-14 Baltimore waxing two years ago in the playoffs.

The counter point? This Ravens team isn’t as strong as the versions from the last three years. Not even close. Baltimore rode a great defense in the past. This year’s defense ranks only 19th in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Yes, they played extremely well in Denver. Their best game of the year. Without two return touchdowns from the Broncos Trindon Holliday, the Ravens defense would have led the team to a much easier victory. But overvaluing one game when a sample of 18 is available can be a costly mistake. Baltimore was one of the worst teams in the NFL all season when it came to stopping the run. New England, conveniently, has the best running attack it’s had in years with Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen.

Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco’s biggest foe has always been consistency. So even though he threw 331 yards and three touchdowns against the Broncos in his trademark game to this point, what evidence is there to believe he can do it two weeks in a row? New England, in fact, might be less susceptible to the deep throws Flacco thrives on. The Patriots have defended the pass much better since trading for cornerback Aqib Talib midseason and moving Devin McCourty to safety.

In fairness, the Ravens also made meaningful adjustments. Sharp bettors are raving at the offensive line play since they re-arranged the unit. Bryant McKinnie slid off of the bench and into the left tackle spot two weeks ago, moving Michael Oher to the right side. It’s hard to argue against the results.

Much has changed since the Ravens beat the Patriots 31-30 at home on Sunday Night Football during week three. The Patriots, by the way, led that game by nine points with five minutes to go before a late collapse.

Pick: Patriots -8

NFL Playoffs ATS record: 5-3

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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