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Submitted by Richie Baccellieri on Wednesday, December 28, 2016 at 1:15 PM

The Atlanta Falcons have a clear path to the Super Bowl. If they beat New Orleans at home on Sunday (4:25 PM ET, Fox), the Falcons lock up the 2-seed and first-round bye, thereby setting themselves up as the primary challenger to the heavily favored Dallas Cowboys on the NFC side of the bracket.

Opinion among football bettors varies as to whether the Cowboys are vulnerable because of their reliance on rookies or if their offensive line and #1 seed position makes them virtually impervious to upsets. I won’t weigh in on that here because the ultimate wagering decision I make has to be reserved for clients. What I will say is that Atlanta deserves to be taken very seriously if they beat New Orleans and the reason is price.

Whereas Dallas is the heavy 11-10 favorite to win the NFC, Atlanta is available at 4-1. If we go one step further and look at prices for winning the Super Bowl, Dallas is a modest 17-5. Atlanta is a healthier 11-1.

That’s not a bad number for a team with a quarterback in Matt Ryan that’s made himself a good case for the MVP award, and one of the top three receivers in the entire sport with Julio Jones. There are other good reasons to like the Falcons though, and it regards what happens between the tackles.

The specific vulnerability the Cowboys have had all year is the soft underbelly of their defensive front. Most teams in the NFL aren’t able to exploit that because there aren’t a lot of great offensive lines or tough physical running backs. But if you watched the first half of Monday Night Football this week, you saw the Detroit Lions make considerable hay pounding the football on the interior. Only the inability of their defense to make stops and a costly third-quarter interception forced them into a situation where the run had to be abandoned.

Atlanta doesn’t have a great offensive line, but it’s two best players are situated on the inside. I refer to center Alex Mack and left guard Andy Levitre. Running behind them is Devonta Freeman, a back both tough and versatile who’s averaging 4.6 yards-per-rush this season. Teams can’t stack the box against the Falcons because of the Ryan-to-Jones deep threat and the running of Freeman can be a critical X-factor in the playoffs in general and specifically against the Cowboys in a potential NFC Championship Game.

We do need to note that Levitre is questionable for Sunday with a hip injury. Monitor this situation carefully. If Levitre does play and you watch the game make sure you don’t get exclusively caught up in the fireworks of Ryan and Drew Brees (as fun as that is) and take a look at how healthy the left guard looks.

Atlanta has its own unique set of problems in the playoffs that I don’t mean to gloss over. The defense ranks 25th in the NFL and they’ll be dependent on defensive end Vic Beasley playing the games of his life if they’re going to advance in the playoffs. What the Falcons do have is a unique set of strengths that match up well with the favorite on their side of the bracket...and the price makes further investigation worth your while.

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