Regression likely to sink 49ers in NFC West

By William Hill  () 

First-and-goal from the 1 was what the NFC West came down to in the final days of the 2019 season. It seems like decades ago, considering what we’ve endured in the six months since Seattle was stopped at the goal line and San Francisco was crowned as not only the division champ but also the No. 1 seed. 

 

On fourth-and-goal, Jacob Hollister caught a pass from Russell Wilson. As Hollister got tackled, the ball flirted with crossing the goal line. The officials deemed him short, and video replay showed it was too close to overturn, upholding the call on the field. Did any part of the ball cross any part of the goal line? Probably, but impossible to say for certain. 

 

That fraction of an inch rejiggered the entire NFC postseason picture. Had it been ruled a touchdown on the field, there would have been no conclusive evidence to overturn the call, and San Francisco would have dropped from the No. 1 seed all the way to No. 5 and would have headed to Philadelphia in the wild-card round. Seattle would have completed a season sweep of San Francisco, snatched the division title and hosted Minnesota in Round 1. New Orleans would have gotten a bye to Round 2. 

 

A week after San Francisco’s goal-line stand forced New Orleans to play in Round 1, Minnesota’s goal-line score eliminated the Saints. New Orleans never reached the second round, which it would have secured had San Francisco lost. Instead, the 49ers won the game and cashed in a division-winner ticket that paid as high as 7-1 before the season, according to sportsoddshistory.com.

 

Oddsmakers pegged Los Angeles as the favorite to win its third consecutive West title heading into last season, listing the Rams as -200 chalk. In 2018 L.A. won the division at the same -200 price a year after pulling off a stunner and getting a + 1500 long shot to the window. Each team in this division has won a title this decade, with Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle winning it multiple times. Arizona’s lone West title came in 2015, but it packed a punch, making good on a hefty + 550 preseason price. San Francisco is favored this year, but this division has the highest combined preseason win total at 35.5, according to sportsbooks, so the competition will be fierce. Will chalk prevail, or will the dogs continue to bark?  

 

San Francisco to make the playoffs: No + 250. Yes, the 49ers went 13-3. And, yes, they won the NFC title and held a 10-point lead and the ball in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. But, infamously, that double-digit lead evaporated and ultimately went into the record books as a double-digit loss. The 49ers have some strong trends working against them. The last time the team that lost the Super Bowl went over its season win total the next year was the ’14 Denver Broncos. The Super Bowl hangover is real; just ask the Rams. San Francisco’s last winning season before ’19 was in ’13 under Jim Harbaugh. The 49ers won four games in ’18, making the jump to 13 one of the biggest one-year turnarounds in league history. The precedent for these stark improvements is also an unfavorable sign for San Francisco. In 2017, Philadelphia followed a seven-win season in ’16 with a 13-3 record in ’17. That same stretch Jacksonville jumped to 10 wins after winning only three. In ’18, the roller coaster dipped again for both teams, with Philadelphia dropping to nine wins and Jacksonville to five. In ’07-08, Miami jumped from 1-15 to 11-5. Year 3? Back down to seven. In ’06 New Orleans was a great story, improving from 3-13 in ’05 to 10-6 in ’06. In ’07? Back under .500. Those are just a few of many examples. These drastic increases are rarely sustained because the improvement is usually in part due to the weak schedule last-place teams play. With such extreme improvement comes a more difficult schedule. When the win total spikes, so does the strength of schedule. Regression is inevitable for last year’s runner-up.   

 

Seattle to make the playoffs: Yes -125. Not only did the season finale come down to a fraction of an inch, but the first meeting between San Francisco and Seattle was a Monday Night OT classic in which both teams blew 10-point leads and the game nearly ended in a tie. Seattle handed San Francisco its first loss and did so on the home field of the lone unbeaten team. Seattle played 13-win San Francisco essentially to a draw in the nearly 130 minutes the teams faced each other. A slow start in the divisional round had Seattle trailing most of the game in Green Bay. A Malik Turner drop near midfield would have given Seattle a first down and a chance at taking the lead. Pete Carroll decided to punt, and the Seahawks never got it back. That is all that prevented, perhaps, a third matchup between the division rivals taking place in the NFC title game. Wilson has been in the league eight years. He has won 10 or more games in seven of those eight. The only year he missed the playoffs was ’17, when Seattle went 9-7. With an extra wild-card spot and Wilson’s propensity for leading winning teams, there’s no reason to think Seattle won’t be playing into January. 

 

Week 1: Arizona + 7.5 at San Francisco. Much like their games vs. Seattle, the 49ers got all they could handle in the two matchups last season. Despite losing both, Arizona moved the ball with regularity, scoring a total of 51 points and averaging 7.1 yards per play in the first matchup. Arizona lost to San Francisco on Halloween by a field goal and led by a field goal with 30 seconds left in the rematch two weeks later. A late TD pass and a fumble return for a TD on the final play gave San Francisco 13 points in the blink of an eye, as the 10-point win bailed out those who took the Niners -9.5 (bad beat of the year!). The score in the second game was misleading, as both games were competitive throughout. Kyler Murray’s mobility seems to give San Francisco’s ferocious defense fits, as the defensive line simply cannot pin its ears back and attack a spot. Arizona ran all over San Francisco despite the two losses. The Cardinals’ 135 rushing yards at 5.4 yards per carry in one game and 153 rushing yards at 6.7 yards per carry in the other game illustrate the success Arizona had on the ground. Spreading San Francisco and running it effectively is a good formula for keeping this a one-score game. Arizona was a bettor’s friend last year, going 9-5-2 against the spread.  

 

Arizona to make the playoffs: Yes + 230. This number has gone down as this team seems to be a public darling after acquiring wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in March. Murray did not make the highlight-type plays we’ve seen from Lamar Jackson or Patrick Mahomes. But flying under the radar, he was a productive, quality player who is likely to get even better as he enters his second year. In ’19, Jackson won the MVP as a second-year quarterback. In ’18, Mahomes won the award as a second-year quarterback. In ’17, Carson Wentz was going to win the award as a second-year quarterback, entering a December game as a -1000 favorite. But he got injured and missed the rest of the season, and the award went to Tom Brady. While I think forecasting Murray to capture the MVP is overly ambitious, the extra wild-card spot makes this team very viable to make its first postseason in five years. San Francisco is a candidate for regression. L.A.’s frivolousness with draft picks and cap space evokes memories of the generous neighbor who passes out giant handfuls of candy on Halloween. Between the Rams and the 49ers, that is four games up for grabs. Arizona also plays the AFC East, a division in which everyone is respectable yet beatable. Games against the New York Giants, Washington, Carolina and Detroit round out a manageable schedule. Murray and this offense will be fun to root for, especially in January.

 

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