Patriots (PK) and first half under 24 One thing about Super Bowls is they don't tend to start with a bang.
Correlated 49ers-Panthers parlay
49ers -125 at Panthers/under 42.5
Lots can happen in the week leading up to a playoff game, but sometimes bettors need to act fast when there’s heavy steam on a particular line. Such is the case with Sunday’s divisional matchup between the 49ers and Panthers in Carolina.
Soon after San Francisco punched its ticket to the next round with a 23-20 wild-card win over the Packers in subzero temperatures on Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field, oddsmakers in Las Vegas and offshore opened Niners-Panthers as a pickem with a total of 43.5. That line was short-lived, and by Monday afternoon most shops had San Francisco listed as 1- to 2-point favorites. The total also dropped a point to 42.5. Nearly 80 percent of tickets had come in on the Niners side in the first 18 hours.
It’s not often the public and sharp guys are aligned, but that’s exactly what has happened so far. And rightfully so. A combination of injuries and a slow start held the 49ers back early on, but they have slowly rounded into the fierce no-holes juggernaut that came within a play of winning the Super Bowl last year. Since a 6-4 start, the Niners have ripped off seven consecutive wins. The victories have come in many varieties – blowouts, comebacks, nail-biters, you name it. Along the way, they ended Seattle’s seven-game win streak and halted a white-hot Cardinals team in Arizona before knocking off the Packers for the third time in the last calendar year.
During the surge, the offense has found its groove, Colin Kaepernick in particular. After struggling with accuracy and interceptions early on, Kaepernick has zoned in, completing 60.5 percent of his passes with just two interceptions (as opposed to 56 percent and seven interceptions over the first 10 games). It’s no coincidence that the return of Michael Crabtree has coincided with Kaepernick’s resurgence, as Crabtree is a maestro when it comes to turning short passes – slants, bubble screens etc. – into big plays. Along with possession-receiver extraordinaire Anquan Boldin and downfield threat Vernon Davis, the San Fran passing attack is suddenly formidable. And as Kaepernick illustrated on multiple occasions vs. Green Bay, when things break down and/or nobody is open after going through his progressions, he’s capable of picking up key first downs on the ground. With the ever-steady Frank Gore in the backfield, the Niners offense is clicking on all cylinders.
Defensively, they are just as good. Aldon Smith (1.5 sacks, 1 tackle for loss vs. Green Bay) is looking more like the guy who was in the running for Defensive Player of the Year in 2012 than the one who was plagued by off-the-field issues early this season. Veteran tackle Justin Smith is fresh, having clearly benefited from limited reps in the regular season. The secondary is the weak spot, but a dominant front seven can more than make up for any deficiencies on the back end. As a unit during the win streak, the San Fran D is giving up under five yards per play, has totaled 21 sacks and allowed averages of 88.7 rushing yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry. That is a winning formula in the playoffs.
It’s also the recipe for beating the Panthers. Simply put, Carolina can’t win if it isn’t having success running the football. Cam Newton ranked 23rd in the NFL in yards per completion (10.5) and the Panthers passing offense as a whole ranked 29th in yards per game (190.2). In the first meeting between the teams, Carolina was able to grind out a 10-9 win on the strength of its defense, as it held San Francisco to 151 total yards and no touchdowns. Given the leaps and bounds by which the Niners offense has improved since that Week 10 clash, it’s difficult to envision the Panthers defense holding them under 20 points in the rematch.
For an offense that’s averaged 21.7 points in seven games since that first meeting – and one that had trouble topping 20 against the likes of Miami and Atlanta – even reaching the high teens may be optimistic against San Francisco. The Panthers are also far from full strength, as key playmakers Steve Smith and Jonathan Stewart could both see their effectiveness limited by knee injuries. Newton has been sensational this year, but if he’s on an island the Panthers are in big trouble.
The bye week could help Carolina, but what about their general play of late? Despite winning their last three games, the Panthers have not been in top form, requiring a last-second comeback at home against the Saints in Week 16 before barely holding on vs. the Falcons in the regular-season finale. And as New Orleans illustrated against the Eagles, playoff experience can play a bigger role than home-field advantage in January. Kaepernick is 3-1 in the playoffs – including 2-0 on the road – while Jim Harbaugh is in the midst of his third postseason in as many years as the Niners coach, and he’s won at least one game each time. Similar to the Nick Foles/Chip Kelly tandem, Newton and Ron Rivera have yet to experience the postseason in their current roles. That’s simply too tall of an order against a seasoned and peaking San Francisco outfit.
Playoff picks: 4-1
Playoff parlays: 1-1
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