Another very successful season for the San Francisco 49ers ended a couple weeks too early when their division rivals, the Seattle Seahawks, were victorious in the NFC Championship Game. At times, it fell like second-year starter Colin Kaepernick had taken a step back, but there were other times where Kaepernick was the same dynamic player that led the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2012. Armed with a new contract, Kaepernick will have the ability to silence the doubters in 2014.
Jim Harbaugh’s three-year run has been very impressive for the 49ers and it doesn’t appear that it will slow down this season. The 49ers have made two conference championship games and a Super Bowl with a regular season record of 36-11-1 since he was hired. The defense has ranked in the top five in both points and yards in each of the last three seasons.
Turnovers played a major role in San Francisco’s season. They were +12 in turnover margin and their 30 turnovers forced was the sixth-best mark in the league. An in-depth look at the defense shows some potential cracks, however. The 49ers recorded just 38 sacks to rank 18th in that department. The pass defense regressed slightly from 5.3 net yards per attempt to 5.7 and there was a slight increase in yards per play overall. Red zone defense was a key, as the 49ers prevented touchdowns on 52.94 percent of red zone opportunities, seventh-best in the league.
A six-game winning streak after starting 6-4 carried the 49ers to the playoffs and they won back-to-back road games to force a rubber match with Seattle in the conference championship. The 49ers were just 1-3 when they lost the turnover battle, so the spotlight shines brightly on Colin Kapernick this season as the key to the 49ers success in a very tough division.
Oddsmakers project San Francisco to be one of the league’s top teams. At Sportsbook.ag, the Niners have a line of 10.5 with the over juiced at -140. Bettors can get 10 with the over at -145 at 5Dimes.
Lines courtesy of CG Technologies:
|6||@ St. Louis (Mon)||-4.5|
|10||@ New Orleans||+1.5|
|11||@ New York Giants||-3 (-120)|
|16||San Diego (Sat)||-7|
The 49ers are favored in 12 of their 15 lined games from CG Technologies and their schedule certainly ranks as one of the toughest in the NFL. Along with six difficult division meetings, the 49ers get the AFC West, including a trip to Denver in Week 7, and the NFC East. Travel doesn’t appear to be a problem for San Francisco this season with one tough stretch in Weeks 10 and 11 with back-to-back road games.
The final five weeks of the season are particularly interesting with both Seattle games, a short trip to Oakland, and back-to-back home games against San Diego and Arizona, who could both be fighting for playoff spots. Despite some big lines, there are very few easy games on the schedule.
Last season, the 49ers played the NFC South and the AFC South. Carolina, New Orleans, and Indianapolis were formidable opponents, but the 49ers clubbed Houston, Jacksonville, and Tampa Bay and had little trouble with Tennessee and Atlanta. This season’s schedule is decidedly tougher and features much better offensive teams.
Why bet the over?
There wasn’t a lot of player movement for the 49ers this offseason, so the core of a group that has a 36-11-1 record over the last three seasons is mostly in tact. There’s a reasonable expectation that experience will continue to benefit Colin Kaepernick as he learns how to better manage both the game and his emotions. When the 49ers needed him, Kaepernick was there. He was 5-0 with a 61 percent completion percentage in December and posted a 7/1 TD/INT ratio.
One of the better draft picks in the second round was the selection of Carlos Hyde. At 6’, 230, Hyde can be that punishing third down back that the 49ers need to spell Frank Gore in short yardage situations. At 30, Gore had 276 carries, the third-most in his career. Because the 49ers use the run more than almost anybody in the league, their running back depth is vastly improved and may keep Kaepernick from taking additional hits from having to create with his legs.
Anquan Boldin had a fantastic season and Vernon Davis was his usual reliable self, but the 49ers really could have used a third option. Michael Crabtree played just five games and San Francisco’s third-leading receiver was fullback Bruce Miller. A healthier wide receiver unit gives the 49ers another dimension to punish a tired defense. Crabtree’s return should also benefit Kaepernick’s accuracy. Bruce Ellington, a fourth-rounder out of South Carolina, could be a breakout player in his rookie season.
The defense lost 16-game starter Donte Whitner and 10-game starter Tarell Brown, but like the offense, there’s not much to be worried about here. Harbaugh and his staff continue to recruit players that buy into their system and fit tremendously into their 3-4 scheme. Depth has always been a point of emphasis under Harbaugh, so there’s no reason to be afraid of injuries crippling the defense. There are guys all over the 53-man roster that can play and those that are on defense are no exception.
Antoine Bethea and Chris Cook are solid additions to the secondary and the 49ers could improve in both the pass defense rankings and in turnovers forced. There aren’t many holes on defense. If there are any, the 49ers have a great evaluation staff and they will be filled immediately.
Why bet the under?
The schedule definitely presents some challenges. The 49ers may play the best schedule in the NFL this season and the level of talent opposing offenses have will be exponentially higher than last season. As good as the 49ers defense is, playing better opponents should lead to a bit of a drop-off in numbers. If the offense performs better to compensate, it won’t be a problem. That’s hardly a guarantee.
The 49ers were one of the healthiest teams in the NFL last season with only 39 man games lost to injury. Four offensive linemen started all 16 games and the other started 12. Eight of the 11 defensive starters started at least 14 games and nobody started fewer than eight. While there is depth on the roster, there’s not exactly depth behind the depth, and that’s true of every NFL team. The 49ers were remarkably healthy last season and that will have to continue against a much tougher schedule.
Backing high numbers with teams that have mobile quarterbacks is always a worry. Colt McCoy is not a NFL-caliber starting quarterback, so Kaepernick’s health is essential to cashing the over. A lot of teams are like that where an injury to the quarterback would be the end of an over bet, but it’s especially true for the 49ers because of their division, the schedule, and the risk is much higher with Kaepernick’s style.
Despite ranks of 26th, 11th, and 24th in yardage, the 49ers have finished 11th in points in each of the last three seasons. Is that a sustainable trend? Turnovers and special teams have played a big part and a regression in either of those areas could make scoring points a lot more difficult for the 49ers. Bettors have to ask themselves if they trust that the trends will continue with such a high number.
NFL Pick: Under 10.5 (+110) (Sportsbook)
Maybe last season’s 6-4 start was an anomaly, but it doesn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence in the 49ers with a major step up in class in the non-divisional schedule. Perhaps it’s because I’m higher on the Cardinals than some and the Rams are really building a great team in the trenches, but the 49ers just don’t look like an 11-5 team without bucking some discouraging trends.
Without knowing the year-to-year correlation between red zone defense or turnover margin, there’s a chance that both regress and the 49ers offense may not be potent enough to overcome those problems. There’s a big difference between allowing three points and allowing seven points and there’s an even bigger difference between a +12 turnover margin and +2 or +3. With more potent offenses on the schedule, the 49ers are a team that could be a surprise underachiever.
Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.