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Public siding with underdogs in conference finals


As legend has it and according to media hype, Colin Kaepernick faces a nearly impossible task this weekend as he attempts to quarterback the underdog San Francisco 49ers to a highly unlikely playoff victory.

Sure, life offers few guarantees. Anything is possible. Add your favorite cliche here. But the Seattle Seahawks have the strongest home-field advantage in the history of football, soccer included, and they never lose on their home field anymore.

It’s the NFL’s version of Alcatraz, and good luck escaping in the middle of the night on a makeshift raft.

Yet the 49ers are only 3½-point underdogs in Seattle on Sunday, so maybe Kaepernick going there and getting a win in the NFC title game is possible.

“Everybody you talk to has kind of got a different opinion,” Sunset Station sports book director Chuck Esposito said.

That’s what makes this conference championship weekend so intriguing. Opinions on the Seahawks and 49ers are basically split, as are popularity polls on Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Strong cases can be made for and against all four sides, especially when point spreads are involved.

“With the buzz and the atmosphere and with everybody talking about these games,” Esposito said, “I think we’re going to have huge crowds in our sports books.”

That is a guarantee. This will be a mini-Super Bowl Sunday. It actually might be better than the big game on Feb. 2, just with fewer proposition bets.

“I think it’s going to be huge. We’ve got the four best teams in the final four,” LVH sports book director Jay Kornegay said. “Most of the time, the public will bet the perceived better team. But the underdogs are getting more tickets than the favorites right now, and usually it’s the opposite.”

San Francisco and New England, an underdog of 5 to 6 points at Denver, are getting the most support at the windows, so a lot of bettors are not buying the hype about Seattle’s impenetrable home field or Manning’s destiny to win his second Super Bowl in his little brother’s backyard.

Manning and Brady — or the Broncos and Patriots — square off in the first game, but let’s get to the AFC championship later. The other issue to be settled is between Kaepernick, who is 3-0 in road playoff games, and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who is 16-1 at home.

“San Francisco is clearly the better team right now,” said Mike Colbert, a former book director who runs his own sports consulting firm. “I’ve been waiting for this matchup. No. 1, I think the 49ers have a lot more weapons.”

Aside from Kaepernick, the 49ers’ weaponry includes running back Frank Gore, wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree, and tight end Vernon Davis.

“I think Seattle’s run defense is suspect, and Gore will be able to grind out 60 or 70 yards,” Colbert said. “Kaepernick clearly has been better than Wilson for the past six weeks. I’m a Kaepernick fan anyway.

“I know a lot of people are looking at that home field, but at this point in the season, I don’t think the home field means as much as people think it does. I think experience plays a huge role in these type of games.”

Kaepernick and the 49ers, who lost last year’s Super Bowl, have big-time postseason experience, and they also have had bad experiences in Seattle. Kaepernick threw only 11 interceptions in the past two regular seasons, but four of them came in two games in Seattle, which the Seahawks won 42-13 and 29-3.

Colbert said his “only concern” is the grabbing and physical play the referees allow the Seahawks’ defense to get away with at home. Still, he’s siding with the 49ers.

Micah Roberts, an analyst for “The Linemakers” on SportingNews.com and another former book director, is on San Francisco’s side, too. The 49ers are 8-1-1 against the spread on the road this season for coach Jim Harbaugh.

“Seattle’s offense has been sluggish in its past five games, one of which was a rare home loss in Week 16 to Arizona,” Roberts said. “Kaepernick has been dialed in with the best play of his career. He went through a phase where he almost didn’t run at all, but I think that was scripted by Harbaugh so he could unleash Kaepernick in key moments during the playoffs when needed and give teams something they hadn’t seen on film in months. He has proven to be as good from the pocket as he is on the run.”

Manning and Brady rarely leave the pocket. Manning also rarely beats Brady, who usually is the favorite.

“Brady has said they kind of relish the role of the underdog, and I think the Patriots will try to use that to their advantage,” said Esposito, who is leaning to the Broncos because Manning has more weapons and the Denver defense can contain New England running back LeGarrette Blount.

According to reliable sources, the world’s most renowned sports bettor, Billy Walters, placed a major wager in Las Vegas on Denver minus-4½.

“I think the public will be on New England. You just don’t see the Patriots at plus-6. I can’t remember if I’ve ever seen it,” Colbert said. “But I absolutely think the sharp money will show on Denver.”

Roberts is riding the Broncos, and Esposito said “Denver-San Francisco is probably the ideal matchup” if Nevada is going to top last year’s Super Bowl-record handle of $98.9 million.

I’ll stick with Kaepernick and Manning in the Super Bowl matchup I predicted in August.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.

CONFERENCE FINAL PROPS

A sample of proposition bets posted at the LVH sports book for the AFC and NFC championship games:

New England at Denver

■ Passing yards for the Patriots’ Tom Brady: 270.5

■ Touchdown passes by Brady: 1.5

■ Rushing yards for the Patriots’ LeGarrette Blount: 72.5

■ Completions by the Broncos’ Peyton Manning: 26.5

■ Touchdown passes by Manning: 2.5

■ Will Manning throw an interception? Yes -140, No +120

San Francisco at Seattle

■ Will either team score three straight times? Yes -160, No +140

■ Completions by the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick: 16.5

■ Rushing yards for Kaepernick: 34.5

■ Receiving yards for the 49ers’ Michael Crabtree: 50.5

■ Passing yards for the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson: 194.5

■ Rushing yards for the Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch: 89.5