The favorite: 49ers. Although coming precariously close to blowing a big lead and the West title in the last Sunday night game of 2019 at Seattle, the 49ers were the class of the division and the conference, as was proven in playoff thumpings of Minnesota and Green Bay. How the team recovers psychologically from coughing up a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl against the Chiefs remains to be seen, but there is reason to believe Kyle Shanahan’s troops might remain on the ascent. Jimmy Garoppolo still has something to prove at QB after being part of the late Super Bowl meltdown, but let’s not forget he is a sparkling 23-6 as a starter and just completed his first full season leading a team. It’s on defense, however, where the Niners wrecked most of their opposition last fall. The fastest DL in the NFL routinely collapsed pockets and dismembered non-Chiefs offenses, rendering the Vikings and Packers almost helpless in the playoffs. With emerging RB Raheem Mostert having settled his contract differences and All-Pro TE George Kittle signed to a new long-term deal, the offense shouldn’t skip a beat. A strong veteran presence remains on a roster that should absorb losing two key cogs in OT Joe Staley and DE DeForest Buckner. In the high-tech world of the modern NFL, San Francisco’s old-school formula of running the ball and rock-ribbed defense is a combo that’s still hard to beat.
Live dog: Cardinals. Year 2 of the great desert experiment continues after the gamble of hiring coach Kliff Kingsbury off a losing season and dismissal at Texas Tech played to mixed reviews. But the Big Red had a look at most of the games in a debilitating six-game losing streak, twice played the 49ers to the hilt and won handily at playoff-bound Seattle in the penultimate week. That suggests better things might be on the horizon after a more-competitive-than-it-looks 5-10-1 mark. Kingsbury’s progressive spread will again be detonated by ex-Oklahoma Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray, who flashed enticing upside as a rookie. That was before GM Steve Keim heisted prolific WR DeAndre Hopkins from Houston, giving Murray a collection of dangerous targets that includes Hall of Fame-bound Larry Fitzgerald. The offseason additions of free-agent LB De’Vondre Campbell from Atlanta and fascinating, do-everything Clemson rookie Isaiah Simmons add more bite to defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s platoon. Expect Arizona to threaten for a playoff berth if the pieces fall into place.
Prop players. Last year at this time, we thought Murray was a good bet to exceed 435.5 rushing yards out of the Kingsbury offense. Murray did so comfortably, running for 544 yards. And while the hurdle has increased to 475.5 yards for 2020, we again think the Over has plenty of value, offered at a reasonable -110 at many outlets. Sticking with Murray and the chance he’ll have three 1,000-yard receivers in Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk and newly added DeAndre Hopkins, we’ll also look Over his 3,850.5 passing yards at -110. Murray almost reached that level as a rookie, ending 2019 with 3,722. Similarly, we look Over with another rushing total — San Francisco’s Raheem Mostert at 750.5 yards, also priced modestly at -110. Mostert became the featured back in Kyle Shanahan’s chop-busting infantry as last season progressed, and he flattened the Packers for 220 yards and four TDs in the NFC title romp. Now that he’s beyond a brief contract spat, he’ll likely get most of the carries and should handily clear 750.5. If looking for longer odds with a reasonable chance, perhaps consider Arizona hybrid Isaiah Simmons for Defensive Rookie of the Year, priced enticingly at + 550 with PointsBet.
Big games on the board
Arizona at San Francisco, Week 1: The Big Red gave the Niners all they could handle in a pair of close losses a season ago, and this opener should provide a barometer of sorts to determine if Arizona has made progress in Year 2 with the Kingsbury-Murray combo and whether San Francisco’s resolve after the bitter Super Bowl loss has taken a hit. This will also be the first chance to see Hopkins in a Cards uniform, with the suspicion that GM Steve Keim stole the All-Pro from the Texans.
Dallas at Los Angeles Rams, Week 1: A new era begins in L.A. with the Rams opening high-tech SoFi Stadium at the old Hollywood Park site on “Sunday Night Football.” But some think the gloss is disappearing from fourth-year coach Sean McVay, whose troops fell short of a playoff berth in 2019 after their Super Bowl appearance two seasons ago. The Rams have changed their mix too. Mysterious RB Todd Gurley has moved on, leaving the infantry a bit of a question, and McVay jettisoned wily defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. We’ll find out early if L.A. has really regressed as the Rams should be psychologically primed for their new stadium, not to mention avenging a lopsided 44-21 beating in December.
San Francisco at Seattle, Week 8: A rivalry that promised so much nearly a decade ago when Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick looked to be in the early stages of an exciting future finally revived last year in a pair of pulsating heart-stoppers. The Seahawks won a wild OT game on the road, dealing the Niners their first loss of 2019, before Jimmy Garoppolo & Co. won the West by barely hanging on in a grandstand finish of the regular-season finale at CenturyLink Field. What to do for an encore? We’ll find out here, with division ramifications likely at stake again. They’ll meet again in the final week at Levi’s Stadium.
Arizona at Seattle, Week 11: If the Cards are hanging in the playoff chase, as we suspect they might, this Thursday night special figures to be a crucial test with an effective two-game swing in the standings vs. an NFC West foe. The Big Red have won four times in the last five seasons at Seattle, covering as an underdog in each. That includes last year, when Murray engineered a 27-13 shocker over Pete Carroll’s crew. These teams will also meet a few weeks earlier, Oct. 25 in Arizona, where the Seahawks haven’t lost outright since 2012 as visitor-oriented trends continue to endure in this series.
San Francisco (Over 10.5 + 105, PointsBet)
The Super Bowl losers’ hangover has infected several quality teams, most recently perhaps contributing to the Los Angeles Rams missing the playoffs last season after appearing in Super Bowl LIII. While acknowledging that the Niners might have to deal with some of those psychological demons, the fact Kyle Shanahan’s crew rolled as it did through the NFC portion of the playoffs suggests a pretty wide gap between San Francisco and the rest of the conference.
Some of the offseason departures could leave leadership voids, but enough veteran presence remains to fill those roles. Moreover, the raucous 49ers defense showed it could make opposing offenses one-dimensional in the playoffs. It effectively rendered impotent the capable Vikings with Dalvin Cook and Packers with Aaron Jones, then teed off on Kirk Cousins and Aaron Rodgers, respectively. As long as breakout WR Deebo Samuel is beyond his offseason foot injury, as it appears, QB Jimmy Garoppolo can withstand the departure of WR Emmanuel Sanders, especially if first-round pick WR Brandon Aiyuk delivers.
As long as Dr. Phil isn’t required for psychological help after the Super Bowl loss, the Niners can still be the NFC’s best team.
Seattle (Under 9.5 -105, PointsBet)
We’re a bit reluctant to underrate the Seahawks as long as QB Russell Wilson remains in the fold. Seattle has missed the playoffs only once since Wilson arrived in 2012, and the Seahawks have never won fewer than nine games with him at the controls. Seattle has survived many high-wire acts the last couple of years, but goodness knows what might happen if Wilson ever goes down for an extended period.
The addition of SS Jamal Adams from the Jets came at a steep price but lends hope for a Legion of Boom resurrection in the secondary. The defense still gets an incomplete grade as long as DE Jadeveon Clowney remains on the open market, as the front seven lacks proven pass-rushers. Even though grinding Chris Carson has emerged as a reliable runner, the Seattle backfield has never been quite the same since the heyday of Marshawn Lynch, and we’re not sure free-agent TE Greg Olsen will be able to post the numbers he did once upon a time with Carolina.
Remember: All but one of Seattle’s 12 wins last season were by single digits, with six by four points or fewer (or in OT). For how long can Carroll’s notorious rah-rah keep the Seahawks afloat or Wilson be expected to pull rabbits out of his hat?
Los Angeles Rams (Under 8.5 -140, DraftKings)
Some 8s are available in the marketplace with the Rams, and the price is less daunting if looking Under that number, but the extra hook on the season-win side can often mean the difference between cashing a ticket and not, so we’d rather take our chances laying a heavier price at a higher victory total.
We suspect the Rams are headed in the wrong direction as the shine begins to fade from recent boy-wonder coach Sean McVay, who raised eyebrows not as much for some of his play-calling decisions last year as his decision to throw sage defensive coordinator Wade Phillips under the bus after the defense regressed last year. Phillips might not have been as much to blame for the Rams sinking out of the playoff picture as McVay’s constant tinkering with the offense. QB Jared Goff threw 45 or more passes in seven games (with a high of 68!) after doing so just twice the previous year. Before Goff requires Tommy John surgery, McVay might want to use his other talent in the backfield, which was de-emphasized a year ago and now proceeds without a true featured back after Todd Gurley’s departure.
The dreaded Super Bowl hangover might have had as much to do with Bill Belichick providing the road map to deal with McVay’s offense in Super Bowl LIII as anything else. With GM Les Snead dealing first-round picks the way George Allen used to, the Rams’ title window might have closed. The move to the new SoFi Stadium at Hollywood Park might turn into a non-event.
Arizona (Over 7 -130, DraftKings)
We admit to not loving the price on an Arizona Over recommendation, but if the Big Red is really ready for a breakthrough and on course to reach .500, that seven-win number might not be prohibitive. We think schedule talk is often overstated before a season but can’t help thinking the path is laid out for a quick break from the gate. The Cards have winnable home games vs. Washington and Detroit and road games vs. reloading Carolina and the Jets after the opener at San Francisco. A well-placed bye near Halloween suggests Arizona should be recharged for the stretch run.
We saw enough indicators of progress in the first year after the radical hire of Kliff Kingsbury, with QB Kyler Murray progressing quickly and the Big Red competing strongly in the second half of the season, including a win at Seattle. Adding WR DeAndre Hopkins from the Texans should help immensely, and first-round pick Isaiah Simmons could fit almost anywhere on the defense. Beating the Rams at least once, which the Cards haven’t done since 2016, would certainly help a move up the West table.