The Atlanta Falcons have doubters in Las Vegas, even after their first National Football League playoff victory in eight years. The top postseason seed is listed as record-setting underdogs for a game that can send them to the Super Bowl.
The Falcons have an 8-1 home record and have more wins than any team in the NFL this season, yet the San Francisco 49ers are 4 1/2-point favorites for the Jan. 20 NFC championship game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
The Falcons are the biggest home underdog of any No. 1 seed in any round since the NFL playoffs -- now at 12 teams -- expanded to 10 clubs in 1978, according to Las Vegas-based handicapping information website Pregame.com.
“It’s very understandable why people don’t believe in the Falcons,” said Trent Dilfer, a Super Bowl-winning quarterback who’s now an NFL analyst for ESPN. “They don’t do anything outside their passing game that just jumps out at you. They also play a lot of tight games against teams that aren’t top-tier teams. I just know that sometimes the most powerful things in football are confidence and momentum, which you can’t quantify.”
The Falcons last week avoided their fifth consecutive postseason loss with a 30-28 victory at home over the Seattle Seahawks, making a winning field goal in the closing seconds after blowing a 27-7 fourth-quarter lead.
The 49ers returned to the NFC title game for the second year in a row by beating the Green Bay Packers 45-31 as first-year starter Colin Kaepernick set an NFL record for a quarterback with 181 rushing yards and two touchdowns. The 49ers missed a chance for a Super Bowl trip last year when Kyle Williams mishandled two punts in their 20-17 overtime loss to the New York Giants, the eventual champions.
“It’s a team that was there last year, probably should have made it a little further and now they’re back again,” Johnny Avello, director of race and sports operations at the Wynn Las Vegas, said in a telephone interview. “The quarterback seems to give them more movement, more offense.”
While the 49ers are the popular team in the NFC, Pregame.com founder RJ Bell said the Falcons have been on a season-long search for respect outside of Atlanta.
“The Falcons were available at the juicy odds of 22 to 1 to win the Super Bowl before the season,” Bell said by e-mail. “Hardly any bettors in Vegas jumped onboard. The Falcons had the best record in the NFL throughout the entire season, and still few bettors jumped on board. Now, the Falcons have the home field in the NFC championship game and they’re still not even the favorite.”
Since the postseason field went to 12 teams in 1990, only two other No. 1 seeds have been an underdog at home for a conference championship game. Both lost.
The most recent was the 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers, who were 3-point underdogs against the New England Patriots and were beaten 41-27. After the 1998 season, the top-seeded 49ers were 2 1/2-point underdogs at home and lost to the Green Bay Packers 23-10.
The Patriots are favored by nine points at home this time against the Baltimore Ravens in the Jan. 20 American Football Conference title game. In the past 20 years, the NFL’s only conference championship with a bigger point spread was in 2008, when the 18-0 Patriots were favored by 14 1/2 points against the San Diego Chargers.
While the Patriots are seeking to reach the Super Bowl for the sixth time during Tom Brady’s 12 seasons as a starter, Joe Flacco of the Ravens is the only quarterback in the NFL to win at least one playoff game in each of the last five years.
Flacco and the Ravens knocked Peyton Manning out of the playoffs with a 38-35 double-overtime road win over the Denver Broncos last week.
“The one question with Joe is that he’s been inconsistent,” Kurt Warner, a former NFL Most Valuable Player who’s now an NFL Network analyst, said on a conference call. “But he seems to be one of those guys who elevates his game when he needs to.”
The Patriots and Ravens also met in last year’s AFC championship game, with New England winning 23-20 when Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal with 11 seconds left that would have tied the game.
The Ravens won the previous meeting between the teams during the regular season, 31-30 in Baltimore on a field goal as time expired. They bring the NFL’s best postseason road record (8-5) to Foxborough, Massachusetts, while the Patriots have the league’s highest winning percentage (.824) in home playoff games, with a 14-3 mark.
“It’s not like you beat this team 50-0,” Brady told reporters. “It’s always a tight game.”
Oddsmakers said one of the biggest reasons the 49ers are favored on the road is Kaepernick, who replaced Alex Smith as the starting quarterback midway through the season.
Mike Nolan, the Falcons’ defensive coordinator who was the 49ers’ coach from 2005 to 2008, called Kaepernick “a game-wrecker.”
“He can run with it, he can keep plays alive, he’s going to deliver down the field,” Nolan said. “Typically from the pocket, those things don’t happen. All of your scheme breaks down when a quarterback gets outside the pocket. When a play gets into six, seven, eight seconds long, all that math that looked real nice on the board is gone.”
The conference champions will meet in the Super Bowl in New Orleans on Feb. 3.