By Mike Sando, ESPN.com
R.J. Bell of pregame.com says the New Orleans Saints are only the second road favorite in an NFL divisional playoff game since 1982.That makes the San Francisco 49ers only the second home underdog in those games, joining the 1996 Carolina Panthers. That Carolina team defeated the Dallas Cowboys, 26-17, despite its status as a 3.5-point underdog.The 49ers’ underdog status at home following a 13-3 season plays into the no-one-gave-us-a-chance thinking coaches love to promote and athletes love to embrace.Of course, point spreads tell us only indirectly which teams should win. Their first purpose is to generate equal betting amounts on both teams. Spreads reflect what oddsmakers think the public thinks, in other words.In 1996, the Panthers were 12-4 and playing at home in the divisional round. They had won their final seven regular-season games. But in the public’s eyes, they were a second-year expansion franchise playing against the defending Super Bowl champions. Never mind that the Cowboys were 10-6 during the regular season, having averaged 17.9 points per game.Making the Panthers an underdog by 3.5 points invited additional betting on them, protecting the house from bigger losses if the Cowboys had won the game.Odds are, a certain percentage of people reading this item will think something along the lines of, “If the 49ers need a point spread for motivation, they’re in trouble.”No one is saying the point spread will serve as a primary source of motivation. But anyone following the 49ers this season knows coach Jim Harbaugh has welcomed skepticism at every turn, even promoting a fictional Frederick P. Soft character to encourage humility amid success. He plays the underdog role well.