Within the betting community, the San Francisco 49ers are possibly the most polarizing team in the NFL.Their Week 1 opponents, the Green Bay Packers, might be the least talked about 15-1 team in league history.
On September 9th, the two square off in one of the most intriguing opening week matchups.
The Packers opened at most places as -6.5 favorites, but sharp money recognized the over-inflation and bet it down to -5 (odds courtesy of SBRforum). The question is, what is the 'right' number for this game? You're unlikely to find a consensus, but based on my formula, the current line is about right.
So why would I like the Packers to cover the spread if the line is correct?
Are the Packers the new Patriots?
First, it's quite possible that the Packers are becoming "spread-proof" in the same way as the New England Patriots. During their Super Bowl season, they went 9-7 against the spread. Logic would dictate that they would be far overpriced in 2011 and not offer much value. Yet, they did one better and finished 11-5 ATS last season—despite being a public team, a defending Super Bowl champion and a weekly shaded line.
On top of this, they did it with arguably the worst defense in the NFL.
Perception vs. Reality?
There are two divisive minds regarding the 49ers. Some look at Jim Harbaugh's coaching ability, an intact defense, and crown their 2011 season as legit. As such, you'll see them in the top 10 of most power rankings out there.
On the other side, you'll have people like me who don't have them anywhere near the top 10. Football Outsiders is projecting them for a seven-win season! For the 49ers, I made conservative downward adjustments to reflect natural regression to the mean.
In Offense We Trust
According to Football Outsiders, "offense is the most consistent phase of a team from year to year and offensive performance is easier to project than defensive performance."
Conversely, defensive performance and special teams (especially) are much more inconsistent from one season to the next.
This is a bad omen for the 49ers and puts the Packers in a much more favorable position in this matchup. We've already seen the 49ers first-team defense get beaten by Matt Schaub and Peyton Manning this preseason.
I realize exhibition means nothing and neither of those games involved game-planning, but defensive coordinator Vic Fangio wasn't happy and offered no excuses for the poor play (CBSsports.com).
In fact, if you take a closer look at the numbers, you'll see that the 49ers defense was merely average on third downs last year—the 'make or break' identity of a team.
I don't think anybody is going to look at Aaron Rodgers and his sick collection of receiving options and say that they are due for a regression. We know Green Bay is going to put up points in Week 1—the question is can the 49ers control the clock and improve on offense?
Last year the 49ers lined up in a two tight end set 43 percent of the time, which made it hard to defend the run. On first down, they ran the ball 57 percent of the time. Everyone assumes they were a great rushing team in 2011, but in reality they were not as successful in key situations as you would think.
Now reports out of camp say that Harbaugh wants to add 4-5 passes per game. I don't think that's a good idea with Alex Smith under center.
In 2011, the Packers lined up in their make-or-break nickel 2-4-5 package 61 percent of the time. In this set they aren't as susceptible to the run—especially with Charles Woodson in the lineup.
The big problem comes with the Desmond Bishop injury. AJ Hawk will be on the field more and they'll be relying on Nick Perry to get some pass rush opposite of Clay Matthews.
The good news is there is a lot of quality talent on this defense that includes BJ Raji, DJ Smith, Morgan Burnett and Tramon Williams. With Dom Capers calling the shots, it's hard to imagine this defense is as bad as last year. They are more than capable of becoming an opportunistic middle-of-the-pack defense and should be able to handle a 49ers offense that is still looking for respectability.
In short, the 49ers defense is good, but they don't have the D-line that the Giants have. I also think the Packers defense will improve more in 2012 than the 49ers offense. If San Fran falls behind by double digits, it's going to be hard for Alex Smith to navigate a comeback. Relying on turnovers and special teams got them far last year, but that kind of fortune doesn't usually carry forward.
I'm fading the 49ers in 2012 and it starts in Week 1.
NFL Pick: GB (-5).
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