A #1 seed in the NFC hasn't lost a conference championship game since the 2002 Philadelphia Eagles. Are the Falcons going to join them or will we see them defy the odds?
At what point do we look at an inflated point spread and say enough is enough? The theoretical look-ahead line for this game was at "pick em" before the Divisional round. A bookmaker on the Behind the Bets podcast with Chad Millman said "pick em" was about right statistically, but thought -3 was a proper line to compensate for "perception".
I couldn't agree with him more as my numbers come out around the same. I expected San Fran to be inflated because, like the Patriots, they outperform their stats on a regular basis. Yet, I was surprised that books moved the game off the key number of "3" on Sunday night. Sharps recognized that money was going to pour in on the road team and bet -3 mostly in an anticipatory move and books quickly recognized that they put out a number that was too enticing to bettors across the board.
Now we sit here late in the week and the line is hovering anywhere from -3.5 all the way up to -4.5, depending on where you shop. I don't care how good the 49ers are, I'm not passing on that kind of value.
This match-up features big similarities to last week's NFC games. The 49ers are facing a pass-heavy offense, while the Falcons are facing a run-first team with a mobile QB and a stout defense.
The good news for Atlanta is they were able to rack up rushing yards against the Seahawks, something that no one would have predicted based on what we've seen all year. Now they must hope they can have just moderate success against the best run defense in the NFL.
They'll also face a defense that likes to limit the big down-field play with bracket safety play. This forces opposing offenses to exhaust their playbook and take their chances with crossing routes, tight end match-ups, and swing passes. With a linebacking corp full of pro-bowlers who can cover, there is no easy answer for this SF defense.
And the questions don't stop there.
No one liked how the Falcons responded when Seattle punched them back in the mouth last week. If SF can overcome the 1st Q tidal wave of home momentum, can ATL deal with it?
What will they do with Kaepernick? Will Kaepernick fare as well on the road in this spot? Cam Newton exposed ATL twice this year. Wilson had 60 yards and a TD, but did not utilize the read-option for any of those plays. Don't expect that to happen with Kaepernick. Does the ATL defense have the necessary gap discipline?
The Falcons will need to spy Kaepernick, but this does provide extra opportunities in the passing game - something the young QB seems able to exploit. Harbaugh will also be busy creating favorable match-ups that will come down to simple execution.
The benefit for the Falcons is they have a playoff win under their belts and it came from a "make-or-break" moment. I should actually make that plural since they got clutch plays from Ryan/Gonzalez as well as their kicker. That kind of confidence might be able to carry over.
The added relief they'll get is the big underdog status they'll have. With no one giving them much of a chance to win this game, there won't be the big dark cloud of pressure looming over them like last week. This could all be meaningless if the 49ers beat them to a pulp, but if the game is close it's the little things that could contribute to a win (or in my case a cover).
I probably deserve to lose this pick since it's become ridiculous to bet against the 49ers over the last two seasons, but value is value - especially for a #1 seed playing at home. A place where they've had a great deal of success as well.
In fact, this line might even go higher with more money expected to come in on the 49ers leading up to kickoff. I suggest if you like the Falcons in this spot, wait until you see what happens over the course of Saturday - and even early on Sunday.
NFL Pick: ATL +4.5.