When Atlanta meets San Francisco Sunday afternoon for the NFC championship we’ll see something that hasn’t happened in the NFL for 30+ years. Atlanta has caught the “ire” of the betting public and will be the first #1 seed listed as a home underdog of 3.5 or more in a conference championship since 1979. Long believed to be the golden goose in pro football, home dogs in the conference championship game are rare. The scenario has presented itself 12 times since 1979 but the home team is only 5-7 against the spread when catching points. The Chicago Bears were the last home underdog in a conference title in 2011 when they came up short against Green Bay, losing 21-14 as 3.5 point dogs.
Public perception plays a huge role in determining NFL pointspreads. Bettors remember what they saw last, a concept referred to as recency bias, so oddsmakers are forced to anticipate market behavior in the postseason. The opening number hung on San Francisco vs Atlanta for the conference championship was actually 49ers -1 offshore. Everything changed quickly when Atlanta squandered a 27-7 lead and 8 minutes of football forced oddsmakers to make a 3 point adjustment. Money from the professionals drove this price right out to 3 before the public even got involved. The line climbed as high as 4.5 during the week, a move of major significance given that books do everything they can to avoid coming off the pivotal 3 and exposing themselves to a middle.
Food for thought
Bettors talk about finding value more than anything else. Here’s the evolution of futures prices over the course of the season for the 4 remaining playoff teams.
Falcons vs 49ers
Who they’re betting: The public’s backing up their Brinks truck on the 49ers. Just under 75% of the tickets written on the game at the largest offshore sportsbooks are coming in on San Francisco. However, it’s important to know the professionals bet San Francisco at prices less than 3 and may end up grabbing the underdog if the price approaches 4.5 to play the middle.
What Atlanta needs to do to win: If I’m Mike Smith, the focal point of my defensive gameplan is making someone else other than Colin Kaepernick run the football. Then again, this shouldn’t be rocket science and there’s also plenty of reasons I’m not a NFL head coach. Atlanta played Carolina twice this season, surrending 202 yards on 18 carries to Cam Newton. Why is this important? Cam is the closest QB in terms of style to what the Falcons will face this weekend in Kaepernick. The ideal offensive gameplan for Atlanta is establishing both Quiz Rodgers and Michael Turner in the ground game meaning if the tandem combines for 100 yards rushing, Atlanta will keep San Francisco’s offense on the sidelines.
What San Francisco needs to do to win: Make Atlanta play from behind so the pressure mounts. Yes, this is rather obvious that you win football games when the other team trails however in this game it takes on added importance. The Falcons are a team that’s grown accustomed to coasting late so forcing them into a drawn out knuckle dragging street fight is the way to go. Michael Crabtree needs a big game against a suspect Falcon secondary as well. If he can snag 7 catches for 100 yards it will bode well for the 49ers and their big play ability. One small problem: Crabtree’s role in this game remains to be seen given the new allegations of sexual assault.
Unit that has to step up: 49ers secondary
Trend: Atlanta is 4-16 ATS as a home dog of 3.5 to 7.5 points since 1993.
Stat to know: Falcons were 1 of only 2 teams (Colts the other) to enter the postseason allowing more yards per play on defense (6.0) than they gained on offense (5.8)
The play: Over 48
Patriots vs Ravens
For teams that don’t reside in the same division, Baltimore and New England sure spend a lot of time lining up against one another. This will be the 7th meeting between the AFC heavyweights since December 3, 2007. In the previous 6 meetings, the Ravens have actually outscored the Patriots by 5 points despite going 2-4 straight up. The largest defeat for Baltimore in those 4 losses: 6 points in October of 2009. Last year the teams met in this exact same scenario with New England listed as a 7 point favorite before winning 23-20. While New England secured the outright win, the Ravens covered wire to wire and should have won outright if not for some timely miscues.
Who they’re betting: 65% of the bets thus far are coming in on the underdog Ravens. This line opened at 9.5 and has been bet all the way down to 7.5 under an avalanche of sharp money. Things will get real interesting come Sunday if the price dips as low as 7.
What the Ravens need to do to win: Rice, Pierce, Rice, Pierce. Baltimore need’s to establish the run and keep the Patriots defense off balance. New England takes a lot of heat for having a sub par stop unit and their struggles are magnified against balanced offenses. Weather could be an issue so if the deep ball isn’t in Flacco’s arsenal, Dennis Pitta becomes a key receiving threat across the short middle. Defensively, Baltimore needs to put pressure on Brady and take him out of his comfort zone: easier said than done.
What the Patriots need to do to win: Force Baltimore to abandon the run by scoring early. Tom Brady hasn’t been electric of late in the playoffs but will need to step up here especially if the Pats have a chance to cover 7.5. Shane Vareen, Danny Woodhead, or Stevan Ridley: it really doesn’t matter with the Patriots’ next man up mentality on offense. It would be nice for Patriot backers for the mercurial Brandon Lloyd to finally became a factor and compliment Wes Welker in the passing game but you may have a better chance of seeing Manti Te’o”s girlfriend in attendance than Lloyd catching 5 balls.
Unit that needs to step up: Patriots run defense
Trend: Teams that scored 40 pts in their previous playoff game are 2-16 ATS the following week.
Stat to know: The Patriots have lost 2 games against the same team in one season 3 times since 2006 (2011 Giants, 2010 Jets, 2006 Colts)
The Pick: Baltimore +8