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For the 17th time since the merger, a home team in the conference title round has been installed as an underdog. This time it’s the top-seeded Falcons against the long-distance-traveling 49ers.
Perhaps strangely, these underdogs are only 8-8 ATS, but have paid off nicely for money-line bettors along the way by going 8-8 SU. That could be a wise option here.
This is also only the third time since the current seeding system was instituted in 1990 that a No. 1 seed was in this underdog spot: The host New York Giants routed the second-seeded Minnesota Vikings 41-0 in 2000 and in 1997 San Francisco was a 23-10 loser at home to defending champ Green Bay, which was a 2½-point choice.
Also, in a trend mentioned last week, since 2007 teams are now 10-2 ATS as a playoff underdog of 8-plus points and 8-4 straight up. Included was Baltimore’s stunner in Denver last week, 38-35 in OT, as a 9-point ’dog.
Can the Ravens do it again this week at New England?
The Patriots of all teams should know. In their first Super season, in 2001, they beat Pittsburgh in the AFC title game as a 10-point underdog and then downed the 14-point-favorite Rams in the Super Bowl.
And, good luck figuring out the OVER/UNDERS this week. In the wild-card round, each of the four UNDERS were winners by at least 8 points. In the divisional round, all four OVERS were good by at least 10. In fact, if you played OVER for the Grand Salami (185 points), you had the victory clinched well before Sunday’s late game.
Maybe this will help: OVERS are 15-7 in this round since 2001.
Now for a closer look at this week’s conference clashes:
PRO FOOTBALL NFC CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS – SUNDAY, JAN. 20
49ers (12-4-1) at Falcons (14-3)
Time: Noon PST
Line: 49ers -3½ (49)
Facts: Colin Kaepernick’s 181 rushing yards last week for SF were more than Peyton Manning has had the past decade.
• Atlanta averages 3.7 yards a run and yields 4.8. That differential of minus 1.1 yards is the third worst for a Final Four team in the Super Bowl era. In 1960, however, the Eagles were champs despite a negative 1.7 margin (3.2/4.9).
• The host Falcons squandered a 20-point lead to Seattle last week, but won 30-28 on a late FG. Had Atlanta lost, it would have matched the biggest collapse by a home playoff team. In the 1957 game to decide the Western Conference title, SF blew a 27-7 lead in a 31-27 loss to Detroit.
• The 49ers, who lost in this round last year, are trying to become the 10th team since the merger to lose in a conference final one year and win the crown the next, but only the second to do so on the road (Rams 1979).
Analysis: The 49ers mauled Green Bay 45-31 last week with four TD drives of 80-plus yards, including back-to-back 93-yard marches late, gaining 323 rushing along the way. It was the weekend’s most dominating performance.
They should be fueled this week going 6-0 SU/ATS the past two seasons playing in the Eastern time zone (the other three West Coast teams in that span are a cumulative 8-16 SU and 9-14-1 ATS).
Atlanta, meanwhile, had no answer for stopping rookie QB Russell Wilson last week when he led the Seahawks’ charge. But what might work in the Falcons’ favor is that they finally broke through for their first playoff victory in Mike Smith-Matt Ryan regime. And since they also enter here as an underdog, perhaps some of the pressure will be lifted. Thus…
Forecast: Falcons 28, 49ers 24
PRO FOOTBALL AFC CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS
Ravens (12-6) at Patriots (13-4)
Time: 3:30 p.m. PST
Line: Patriots -8 (51)
Weather: Low 30s; wind 15-17 mph
Facts: In the five-season John Harbaugh-Joe Flacco era, this marks their ninth road playoff adventure (4-4 SU/5-3 ATS) with the Ravens. Conversely, this is the 14th postseason home outing for the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady bunch, where they are 11-2 SU, 6-6-1 ATS).
• Baltimore beat Denver last week despite yielding a kickoff and punt return score. The last team to survive two such TDs and win was Baltimore in 2011, when defeating the Jets 34-17.
• Enemy QBs have fumbled a league-high 19 times vs. New England this season, losing 10. Baltimore’s numbers are at 12/6, including two fumbles last week by Peyton Manning (losing one), matching his total for the season.
• Baltimore’s offense was ranked 16th and its defense 17th this season. The last Super team to be out of the top 15 in both categories was NE in 2001 (19/24).
• The Ravens’ defense has been on the field 87 plays in each of the past two weeks. That 174 total is the most over a two-week span for anyone the past five seasons.
Analysis: The Ravens’ 31-30 victory over the Patriots in Week 3, the only time the past 27 games NE wasn’t a favorite (+2½), wasn’t a fluke. Baltimore had four TD drives of 80-plus yards, including two of 92, which tied for the league high this season.
On the other hand, one of the Patriots’ scores was a 6-yard drive, the only time this season NE’s offense was set up inside the 10. Plus, the Patriots will be without one of Brady’s favorite targets, TE Rob Gronkowski – Or “Gonk,” as Boston’s mayor says. He is out with a broken arm. That’s a big deal.
The Ravens seem to have a bottomless pit of adrenaline to be capable of pulling another upset. At least enough to beat the line, anyway.
Forecast: Patriots 31, Ravens 30
Last week: 1-3 ATS; 3-1 SU
Season ATS: 129-124-6 (.510).
Season SU: 154-109-1 (.586)
(Games that were “off” at midday Friday each week not included in any ATS totals)
“Popular” Bob Christ has been forecasting NFL games for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in newspapers from coast to coast in Canada and the U.S. Contact him at [email protected].