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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

NFL Predictions 2012 Week 1: 49ers vs Packers

San Francisco 49ers vs Green Bay Packers: GB -5 (5Dimes)


The Packers opened at CRIS as -6.5 favorites, but sharp money recognized the over-inflation and bet it down to -5.   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 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 ATS.  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 10Football Outsiders is projecting them for a 7 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 beat 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.

In fact, if you take a closer look at the numbers you'll see that the 49ers defense was merely average on third down 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?

Key Matchup

Last year the 49ers lined up in a two tight-end set 43% of the time which made it hard to defend the run.  On first down, they ran the ball 57% 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% 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 Mathews.

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 D and should be able to handle a 49ers offense that is still looking for respectability. 

Bottom Line

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 will. If San Fran fall 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.

The rest of my Week 1 predictions are here, or you can find all my 2012 predictions on the home page main menu.

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