1 thing mitigates all arguments for 49ers: Seahawks are at home

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comJanuary 17, 2014 

The San Francisco 49ers are a powerhouse approaching a dynasty.

Since 2011, their regular-season record is 36-11-1, slightly better than their postseason record of 5-2. If not for a fumbled punt in the 2011 NFC title game the Niners lost in overtime, and a stalled goal-to-go sequence last year in the Super Bowl, it’s conceivable Jim Harbaugh’s team could be girding for its third consecutive world championship.

And yet, despite the 49ers’ convincing victory at Carolina last weekend, a day after the Seahawks appeared vulnerable while hanging on to beat New Orleans, oddsmakers made the Hawks 3.5-point favorites for the showdown Sunday against their NFC West rivals.

Las Vegas handicappers applied three fundamentals in determining the 49ers to be underdogs:

Location, location and location.

If the Seahawks are preparing to travel to San Francisco, the betting line is reversed. Even at a neutral location closed off from the public — an impromptu football field set up, say, at the base of Pikes Peak — I’m imagining the 49ers are established as slim favorites.

But the Hawks will be at CenturyLink Field, beneficiaries of an invaluable perk earned fairly and squarely. Competing before a supportive audience is always an edge, regardless of the sport, but when it comes to pro football in Seattle, the edge is more like a cliff that finds visitors with their backs to the fall, swaying against the gust and teetering on one foot.

To paraphrase a former Stanford economics professor whose name escapes me — my only association with Stanford was the very used Fairlane I almost bought at Stan Ford Autos — statistics are similar to political prisoners: If you torture them long enough, they’ll tell you precisely what you want to hear.

But some stats announce legitimacy, and announce it with a shout. Here’s one: The Seahawks are 16-1 in their past 17 home games. Here’s another: The Seahawks are 6-1 in playoff games at the Clink. (The lone blemish was a 27-20 loss to the Rams during the wild-card round after the 2004 season, when Bobby Engram was unable to cling to a last-second, catch-it-if-you-can pass from Matt Hasselbeck in the St. Louis end zone.)

A book published in 2011, “Scorecasting,” coauthored by University of Chicago behavioral science professor Tobias Moskowitz and Sports Illustrated writer L. Jon Wertheim, debunked as myths most assumptions about home-field advantage. Moskowitz and Wertheim insisted the reason home teams win more often than not — and they win 58 percent of the time in the NFL — is not because of noise or the opponents’ unfamiliarity with the surroundings.

The advantage, according to “Scorecasting,” is determined by referees and umpires, subconsciously inclined to extend the benefit of the doubt to the home team.

Uh, OK. The authors poured countless hours into research, and all I can counter it with is some personal anecdotal evidence. I was there when the 1987 Minnesota Twins — 56-25 at home, 29-52 on the road — clinched a seven-game World Series against St. Louis at the Metrodome.

I was back in Minneapolis when the Twins beat Atlanta in the 1991 World Series. What’s notable about those ’87 and ’91 Twins teams is that of the three seven-game Fall Classics in which the home team prevailed every time, they participated in two of them.

I don’t remember any controversies suggesting the umpires were biased, and I’ll need to consult some old box scores to share details of what happened between the foul lines. What I remember is the sheer noise in that dome. It was electrifying and exhilarating, and it doomed the 1987 Cardinals and the 1991 Braves.

Victims of intangible karma? Sort of, except the karma was tangible.

It will be tangible Sunday afternoon, too.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is a proponent of the sports psychology espoused by the late UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who believed that winning has nothing to do with any issue beyond your control. When a game is played, where it is played, the quality of the opponent — none of that matters. It’s about you and your teammates.

But as Carroll talked with reporters Thursday, he addressed the obvious “12th Man” advantage awaiting the Seahawks.

“You couldn’t pick a better venue to play a championship game anywhere I could ever imagine than right here at CenturyLink Field,” he said. “The 12’s are something really unique and special.”

The 49ers are bringing an eight-game winning streak into Seattle. They’re scary talented, one fumbled punt and a few incomplete passes separating them from the pantheon of All-Time Great Teams, and the fact oddsmakers consider them underdogs adds fuel to a fire that has been raging for two months.

There are many compelling reasons to believe San Francisco will advance to the Super Bowl, and they’re all obscured by a single fact so consequential that it reverberates.

The Seahawks will be at home.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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