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Friday, January 17, 2014

NFL Championship Playoff Predictions 2014: 49ers vs Seahawks

San Francisco 49ers vs Seattle Seahawks: SEA -3 (Bovada)

Market Watch

When the 49ers clinched their win over the Panthers last week, Las Vegas opened up the Seahawks as -3 point favorites for this game. It didn't take long for the line to move to -3.5, which is what the consensus is right now, but you can still find Seattle -3 if you shop around.

So which side has the value?

The 49ers are on a great winning streak, and the perception of Seattle's home invincibility was tainted when the Cardinals won there in Week 16. The Seahawks also failed to cover the inflated point spread last week against the Saints.

Yet, despite all this there's obvious value on Seattle, especially at -3.  Their home field advantage is worth around 5 points, which means the 49ers are currently perceived as the better team in this matchup.

The public agree with that, as 69 percent of the bets are on the 49ers thus far. This is pretty close to what we saw back in Week 2 when 67 percent of the bets came in on San Francisco.

Keep an eye on

When we take a closer look at this matchup, there are a few critical areas that favor the Seahawks.

Anytime we talk about Seattle, it usually starts with Marshawn Lynch. No other running back forced more missed tackles this year than him (99).  However, on the other side we have a 49ers front seven who haven't given up 100 yards to any running back this year. This probably means we are going to see a handful of third and longs for Russell Wilson, and it leads us to the first big advantage for the 'Hawks.

Pass defense.

As great as the 49ers defense is, their cornerbacks are considered the weak link. Last week Tramaine Brock and Tarell Brown didn't have a great game, and this will be a bigger test than the one Cam Newton posed in Carolina. There aren't many quarterbacks who are more dangerous outside the pocket than Wilson, and if he has to improvise on a third and long, I prefer his chances over Kaepernick's.

And speaking of Kaepernick, a disproportionate amount of his interceptions have occurred in Seattle. If the 49ers want to win or cover this game, they'll need to buck that turnover trend. They can do this by relying heavily on the run game, but will that be enough?

Probably not.

The Seahawks have the highest takeaway rate of any team in the NFL, and no other team is better against the pass or defending their red zone. These advantages are heightened at home by having the loudest fans in the league. If Kaepernick is facing too many third and longs, or is in a position to bring the team from behind, we could see a repeat of what we saw in Week 2.

The Seattle defensive line is dominant in their own right, but when you add a split second advantage due to the crowd noise, it becomes extremely daunting for opposing QBs.  Under all this pressure, they must try to pass the ball into a secondary that features Sherman, Maxwell, Thurmond, Chancellor, and Thomas.

Sherman only faced 58 targets this year, but he picked off 8 of them. Thurmond has only allowed 25 yards on 12 targets over the last three games. It helps that San Fran have a healthy Crabtree to put into the mix, but they are still outmatched in the air, and the challenge becomes even tougher with K.J. Wright back on the field.

Having said all that, you can never feel entirely comfortable betting against the 49ers.  In fact, you could say that about all four teams that remain in the playoffs.  Much like Bill Belichick, Jim Harbaugh always seems to find a way to get more out of his team than the advanced stats suggest. Coaching is always a wild card that is difficult to quantify, but if anyone can overcome the odds, Harbaugh is near the top of the list.

Bottom Line

For the 49ers to win, they'll need to win the turnover battle, win the "make-or-break" moments, and be opportunistic on offense. This is a script that they've used for their entire winning streak, so it's entirely possible that they keep it rollin', but in Seattle? That's asking a lot.

This has all the makings of an epic game, and it wouldn't surprise me if the 49ers win, but I think this point spread should be around -5 (or higher).  It's worth it to pay a bit of extra juice to grab a -3, but I'd still side with Seattle if -3.5 was my only option. When we combine the home field advantage with the discrepancy in pass/red zone defense, we are getting some rare value on the Seahawks.

NFL Pick: SEA -3.
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