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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

NFL Predictions 2013 Week 1: Packers vs 49ers

Green Bay Packers vs San Francisco 49ers: GB +4.5 (Pinnacle)

Market Watch

It's no secret that the 49ers were hugely popular during the offseason after their Super Bowl appearance under one of the best coaches in the league, Jim Harbaugh. He's had an excellent record against the spread at home, outperforms his stats on a regular basis, and beaten the Packers in both meetings last year.

Yet, there are reasons to believe they might be a tad overrated in this game. The 49ers opened at -5.5/-5 back in May, depending on where you look, but there's been a slow trickle of support for the dog ever since. What should the true line be for this game? If I was setting it, I'd put it at -3.5. I'll have more on this in the analysis, but for now I like the value we're getting at the current number and I don't think it will close at anything better.

54% of the bets are coming in on the Packers.

When the 49ers have the ball

The first thought that likely comes to mind when you think of Packers/49ers is the image of Colin Kaepernick running through and away from Packers defenders on route to the end zone. The smackdown as so bad that people might be underestimating what's going to happen in this ball game.

To begin with, Dom Capers is still one of the best defensive minds in the game. It's well-documented that he didn't prepare enough for the read-option and the wheels fell off for the young players that were filling in. In fact, the 49ers had the least amount of man-games lost due to injury last season, while the Packers had the most (and still finished as a top 5 team).

There won't be any surprises this time around. Capers has done his homework and will have some kind of game-plan in place for the read-option/pistol offense. The Ravens laid a blueprint in the Super Bowl by simply hitting the QB as much as possible, and Kaepernick's highly exposes upright running style may help the Packers there. They might also dial up the blitz more as Kaepernick threw for 3 less yards per play when defenses sent extra defenders.

There's no question that Jim Harbaugh is a brilliant coach and his formations leave a lot of defenses hesitant. They love to setup with two backs and/or two tight-ends and dare defenses to figure out what's about to happen. They have a mean and nasty offensive line and Gore and Hunter to tote the rock behind them.

But how will they use Kaepernick this year? Last year he had mostly easy either/or reads and wasn't asked to go through the progression. Not open? Take off and run. Making matters more tricky is a depleted secondary. Crabtree and Manningham are on the shelf and Moss and Walker are out the door. Boldin is a nice pickup, but he's not going to stretch the field. Is Marlon Moore or Quinton Patton able to help? Don't hold your breath. Vernon Davis remains the most trusted pass-catcher.

How much has Kaepernick progressed? We won't know that until kickoff, but despite what Ron Jaworski says, he still has questions about his presnap recognition and whether or not he can go through his reads and deliver the ball where it's supposed to be.

They'll also have to go up against one of the better defensive secondaries. Williams, Shields, House will have no problem lining up against these receivers and Burnett and Jennings round things out nicely at safety.

Up front they are hoping Datone Jones can provide a boost up front and BJ Raji should be motivated for a bounce-back season. Clay Matthews is a beast, not only rushing the passer, but also as a run-defender. For Green Bay, we still don't know if Nick Perry can reliably alleviate some pressure off Matthews on the other side and BJ Hawk and Brad Jones remain average over the middle.

If SF do have success, I expect it to come on the ground.

When the Packers have the ball

The SF D enjoyed incredible health last season as most starters played over 90% of the snaps. So what happens when goes begin to go down? They had 28 sacks in the first 11 weeks of 2012, but only 14 in the final 8 games (coincided with the Smith's injuries).

They still have firepower up front and they'll be going up against a shaky offensive line, but losing Chris Culliver at cornerback and all-pro Dashon Goldson at safety really hurts. Culliver finished 2012 as their best cornerback and was set to lead the way in 2013.  So how did they replace these guys? They brought in Asogmugha and drafted Eric Reid in the draft. Asogmugha is a better fit in this scheme, but he's clearly not the guy the Eagles thought they were getting.  Reid won the starting job, but that's not saying much given how bad Craig Dahl is in coverage. Maybe he'll surprise, but that's asking a lot when you consider who's shoes he's trying to fill.

Making matters worse for SF, they'll be facing the best wide receiving groups in the NFL. Cobb is ready to become the go-to guy and Nelson is a fantastic option on the other side. Jones and Finley can offer multiple looks on the inside. The Packers should also feature a better running game than last year - although that might not be saying much).  But Eddie Lacy is sure to be a nice option coming out of the backfield, and Franklin might be able to offer something in specific situations.

Most will say the 49ers defense has the advantage here due to the Packers OL. I agree there are serious problems there, but both LT David Bakhtiari and the likely starter at RT, Don Barclay, will be given help through play designs and protection help. On top of that, Aaron Rodgers is a superstar and he's capable of overcoming a bad front. He's still the best player in the NFL in my opinion. His presnap recognition is up there with the best, and he's even better post-snap.

I think the real advantage will come once Rodgers does find time. Willis and Bowman might be the best inside linebacking duo of any 3-4 defense, but Rodgers will be targeting the questionable group behind them.

Bottom Line

I have a ton of respect for Jim Harbaugh and this 49ers team. Even when some of their advanced stats suggested a playoff letdown, he out-schemed opposing coaches and put a rookie quarterback in a position to tear it up.

Yet, I don't see San Fran ripping apart this Packers defense like they did last year. I trust that Capers has devised a plan that will test Kaepernick's progression as a passer.  I like how the Packers secondary matches up against the 49ers wide receivers, and vice versa with the Packers receivers vs the 49ers secondary.

I think this will be a close game and the Packers might even pull off the straight up upset.

NFL Pick: GB +4.5.
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