Romilly Evans takes a look at the outright betting ahead of Divisional Weekend and expects the Falcons to flounder
And then there were eight. After a Wildcard Weekend which provided closer scorelines than games, it's arguable that the best eight sides remain in the Super Bowl hunt ahead of this Saturday's Divisional Round.
That's a fact reflected by some very tight Super Bowl betting in a market which seems reluctant either to pick a favourite, or to rule any team out. So while the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots jostle for position at the head of the affairs (around the 4.216/5 mark to back), even the Houston Texans are no forlorn hopes at 23.022/1. All, of course, are just two steps away from a shot at the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Even the regular season records of those involved are close (ranging across a short span from 13-3 to 10-6), so what just which factors are going to allow one outfit to finish first among these apparent equals? As George Orwell said, all are equal but some are more equal than others. And that applies to both farmyard animals and this year's Super Bowl quarter-finalists.
The key component to keeping a team alive when the bullets start to fly in the wild west of play-off country is homefield advantage. And not only do the Broncos, Patriots, Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers all enjoy home comforts (familiar local conditions and a raucous crowd whose din can disrupt the play calls of an opposition offense), but they have also enjoyed a bye week to rest their aching bodies and get their injury list off the treatment table.
That said, a bye is not necessarily the gift from the gods many might suppose. For it can also knock a team out of the flux of weekly competition, leaving them short of match sharpness against an opponent who has already won a post-season game.
In this regard, the Betfair market seems most concerned about the Falcons who host the marauding Seahawks of Seattle. As impressive as Atlanta were in the regular season (13-3), doubts persist that this is a No.1 seed that's benefitted from an easy schedule.
Couple that concern to the fact that the Falcons are still to win a play-off match in the Mike Smith-Matt Ryan (coach-quarterback) era and the Hawks are circling in more ways than one. Seattle have already proven they can win on the road and pack a solid one-two punch via their relentless ground assault and smothering defense. So Ryan faces another stern test to show that his "Matty Ice" moniker doesn't thaw once again in the play-offs.
Over in the AFC, both Denver and New England are expected to comfortably prevail against Baltimore and Houston respectively. Such a feeling is only bolstered by both jollies having recorded big victories against their rivals in the latter stages of the regular season - the Broncos stampeding to a 34-17 triumph in Week 15, while the Pats looked equally impressive, obliterating the Texans 42-14 in Week 14. Still, repeat performances seldom come so easily when it's all on the line.
Either way, hailing as they do from the palpably stronger American Football Conference, should either Denver or New England make it to Championship Sunday, they will start as favourites. In Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, they sport two of the most pivotal and popular QBs in the league - talismen who have been to the Bowl and got the ring. At this stage, Denver would be my marginal preference. They have the more balanced team on offense and defense and will enjoy home advantage in the unique altitude conditions of the Mile High City.
Back in the NFC, another home game could be ripe for an upset as the 49ers host the Packers. The Niners may have pulled off an unexpected victory against the Pack in Week One, but much has changed since then. San Francisco now have a star rookie quarterback at the controls (Colin Kaepernick taking over from the much-maligned Alex Smith) while Green Bay have found their stride under the accurate arm of Aaron Rodgers, who is finally playing like the MVP he is (29 touchdown for just four interceptions in his last 11 games and a sky-high QB rating). As impressive as Kaepernick has been, he is unproven in the cauldron. Rodgers can prove the difference one again.
With that in mind, the Packers have a legitimate shot at making New Orleans, where they will likely face the Broncos or the Patriots. Take a look at the Super Bowl Combo market for such an outcome if you want to get greedy.