Smith, 49ers no longer NFL punch line

It’s mid-January, and Alex Smith is leading the San Francisco 49ers to the NFC Championship Game. Read that sentence again and let it soak in, because it’s not the setup line for a joke.

On the NFL’s opening night in early September, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers dueled in a thriller. At the time, there was a lot of talk about a potential postseason rematch. Last week, there was more talk about a rematch.

Today, the talk is about Smith and Jim Harbaugh, a quarterback-coach combination that’s almost as hot as the Hollywood couple of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.

The postseason is not following a predictable script, that’s for certain. One day after the 49ers knocked out Brees and the New Orleans Saints in a stunning ending, the New York Giants buried Rodgers and the Packers 37-20 in Green Bay.

“I would imagine all bookmakers were happy with this weekend,” Cal Neva sports book director Nick Bogdanovich said.

Three underdogs covered in the four divisional-round games, and two won outright. The bettors who believed in the 49ers and Giants are pretty happy, too.

The Giants, 8-point underdogs and plus-300 on the money line, ambushed the Packers on Sunday and blew up countless teaser wagers as Eli Manning passed for 330 yards and three touchdowns.

Green Bay was a popular play, but Bogdanovich said, “There was still some money on the Giants. People have fallen in love with the Giants in a way.”

Always dangerous on the road, the Giants are 2½- to 3-point ‘dogs at San Francisco in the conference title matchup that comes as a surprise. But it won’t be a letdown, especially for bookmakers who have open windows in Reno, where 49ers fans filled the books on Saturday and were wildly entertained.

Brees passed for 462 yards and four touchdowns, but he lost, and he did not necessarily lose because the Saints fell behind 17-0 and committed five turnovers.

Smith, mimicking Joe Montana, ran for a 28-yard touchdown with 2:11 left and passed for a 14-yard score with nine seconds to go to lift San Francisco, a 4-point underdog, to a 36-32 upset.

“It was an unbelievable turnout in Reno. There were more $10 money-line bets than I’ve seen in 27 years,” Jimmy Vaccaro, director of operations for Lucky’s sports books, said with a laugh. “I think this will be one of the biggest Sundays we’ve seen in a while because of the 49ers being involved.”

The books took a few significant losses on the weekend, including one on the Giants-Packers total, which opened at 51½ and closed 55.

After Manning’s 37-yard heave was hauled in by Hakeem Nicks for a touchdown as time expired in the first half, New York led 20-10. It was 20-13 after three quarters. But with seven minutes left, a fumble by Packers running back Ryan Grant was returned 30 yards by the Giants to the Green Bay 4-yard line, and it was a pivotal play in a 24-point fourth-quarter avalanche.

“The ‘over’ was a disaster. That was a six-figure swing for us,” Bogdanovich said.

While the Saints were sabotaged by their weak defense, the Packers’ downfall had more to do with offensive errors. Rodgers, close to perfect all season, was upstaged by Manning.

“I was very surprised the Packers played that poorly and looked as sloppy as they did. Rodgers was off, and he missed some receivers,” Bogdanovich said. “The defense played good enough to get them back in the game in the second half.”

Even with Green Bay and New Orleans erased from the playoff picture, the final four promises some drama. In the AFC title game, New England opened as a 7-point home favorite over Baltimore before the number immediately moved to 7½.

The Ravens bored us again Sunday, rolling up a whopping 11 first downs and getting outgained by 88 yards in a 20-13 victory over Houston. Baltimore, favored by 7½ to 8 points, jumped up 17-3 in the first quarter but failed to cover as the total stayed under 37½.

“People always bet what they saw last,” Bogdanovich said. “Baltimore got outplayed by Houston, and New England demoralized Denver. But I think the sharps will be on the Ravens getting over a touchdown.”

The public will be behind the Patriots, who crushed Denver 45-10 on Saturday in what Bogdanovich called “the one bad game of the week.”

It was bad for the books and the Broncos. Tom Brady passed for six touchdowns, and Tim Tebow completed nine passes.

Brady and Bill Belichick still form the league’s top quarterback-coach combination.

We’re all somewhat surprised by the success of Smith and the 49ers. With a Super Bowl trip on the line, I’ll be shocked if Brady gets beat by the Ravens.

Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts the “Las Vegas Sportsline” weeknights at midnight on KDWN-AM (720) and thelasvegassportsline.com.

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