San Francisco 49ers (0-0) at Green Bay Packers (0-0)
Anyone who has been following the website during the offseason knows I’m not particularly optimistic about the 2012 49ers. I have them as my team that goes from 1st round bye to out of the playoffs (there’s one every season) and my team that sees a win decrease of 6+ games (also one every season). They had 10 turnovers last year, an NFL record. Unfortunately, turnovers and takeaways are fairly inconsistent on a yearly basis. Teams that have fewer than 20 turnovers win, on average, 2.69 fewer games the next season. Those teams average 26.3 turnovers per year the following year. Meanwhile, teams that have 35 or more turnovers average 28.3 turnovers the following year.
The same is true for takeaways. Teams with 35 or more have had 10.58 fewer turnovers and 2 fewer wins in their next season. The 49ers forced 38, for a turnover differential of +28, best in the league over the past decade. Teams with differential of +15 or higher have had a differential 16.35 points lower and won 2.3 fewer games the following season. Teams with differentials of +15 or higher have a differential of, on average, +2.1 the following season. Teams with differentials of -15 or lower have a differential of +1.4 the following season. Teams with 20 takeaways or less average 25.8 takeaways the following season, while teams with 35 or more average 27.5 the following season.
Meanwhile, the 49ers also improved 7 games last year and teams that do that win, on average, 4.5 fewer games the next season. Along the same lines, since 2003, of the 16 teams who have gone from out of the playoffs to a 1st round bye (like the 49ers did last year), 7 did the opposite thing the following season, and those teams won an average of 3.2 fewer games the following season. The 49ers also had tremendous luck with injuries last year, only losing Patrick Willis for 3 games. Defensively, they had 9 or 10 of 11 starters have career years. If guys get hurt at a more normal rate this year and say 5 of 10 guys regress slightly, it’ll be noticeable on the field and in the win total.
On top of that, I’ve followed the NFL long enough to know that teams without legitimate franchise quarterbacks don’t have staying power. You can have a good season or even a great season one year when everything else goes right, but you’ll never have the consistent success of the teams with elite quarterbacks. The 49ers are either a one year wonder or a team that’s going to take a step back this year. I lean towards the latter because I really respect Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke but they have to do something about the quarterback position eventually and, either way, they’ll regress this season.
The Packers also had more than 35 takeaways, fewer than 20 turnovers, and a turnover differential of higher than +15. Here’s why it won’t affect them as much. Defensively, they may have fewer turnovers, but they added 3 talented rookie defensive players in the first 2 rounds of the draft, and could get potential bounce back years from BJ Raji and Tramon Williams, key players on a Packers defense that allowed the 2nd fewest points in the league in 2010, when they went to the Super Bowl.
Offensively, they have an elite franchise quarterback. Teams with elite franchise quarterbacks tend to be more immune from big shifts in turnover numbers. Peyton Manning and the Colts had 20 or fewer turnovers 5 times, while Tom Brady and the Patriots had 20 or fewer 3 times. Of those 8 combined times, 5 times the team had 20 or fewer turnovers the following season. Of the 3 times that didn’t happen, one is yet to be determined, because the Patriots did it last year, one was the 2008 Patriots, who lost Tom Brady for the season week 1, and the other was the 2008 Colts, who had a mere 21. Aaron Rodgers may throw more turnovers than the mere 6 he threw last year, but if he does, it’ll probably be something along the lines of the 11 he threw in 2010 or the 13 Tom Brady threw last year after throwing just 4 in 2010. The 49ers don’t have that luxury at quarterback.
Yes, the Packers may regress a little bit, but you can regress 2 or 3 games when you win 15 games and still be fine. Teams that improve 5 games in a season regress about 2.4 games the following season. The Packers don’t have every warning flag going off saying “Major regression!!! Major regression!!!” like the 49ers. They’ll be a 12 or 13 win team, which is what they’re averaged over the last 3 years (12.0) and compete for another Super Bowl. They’re a much better team than the 49ers, but this line (-5) doesn’t suggest it. What you see below are some Vegas odds from weeks 1-3 last season.
Detroit (+1) at Tampa Bay
Indianapolis (+9) at Houston
Cincinnati (+6.5) at Cleveland
Tennessee (+3) at Jacksonville
Seattle (+5.5) at San Francisco
Chicago (+7) at New Orleans
Houston (-3) at Miami
Dallas (-3) at San Francisco
San Diego (+7) at New England
St. Louis (+4.5) at NY Giants
Philadelphia (-3) at Atlanta
San Francisco (+3) at Cincinnati
NY Giants (+9) at Philadelphia
Kansas City (+15) at San Diego
Baltimore (-4) at St. Louis
Green Bay (-4) at Chicago
Those look comical to us now, but they were once legitimate lines. If you had predicted beforehand that teams like Detroit, San Francisco, Houston, Tennessee, and Cincinnati would exceed expectations and teams like Tampa Bay, Chicago, St. Louis, San Diego, Philadelphia would do the opposite, that’s 15 wins (and one push) for you in 3 weeks easily. I identified San Francisco as an overrated team and will be betting against them pretty heavily until they stop being overrated or prove me wrong.
Even if the 49ers prove everything I wrote above wrong, I still like the Packers in this situation. If these two teams faced off last year, when everything was going right for the 49ers, I would have picked the Packers to win and cover against this line. San Francisco barely beat New Orleans at home. Green Bay is a superior and similar style team compared to New Orleans and this game is in Green Bay. As good as the 49ers’ defense is, the Saints still hung 32 points on them in San Francisco.
In fact, you look at how they did against elite quarterbacks in general (not counting Ben Roethlisberger because he was hurt), they allowed 316 and 311 yards to Eli Manning, 462 yards to Drew Brees, and, if you want to count them, 293 yards to Matt Stafford and 345 yards to Tony Romo (that game went into overtime, but Romo also missed time in the game with bruised ribs, so that evens it out). The 49ers have an amazing run defense, but their pass defense can be thrown on. They ranked a solid, but not elite 10th against the pass last year, allowing 6.9 YPA and that was with all 4 starting defensive backs having career years.
Aaron Rodgers and company will be able to move the ball. They won’t be able to run, but that’s not a big part of their offense anyway. I expect the Packers to score in the 30s here and, now on the road, I don’t expect Alex Smith and company to keep up. He could easily throw a couple picks if they get down early and get a head start on that increase in turnovers. Besides, it’s not smart to bet against the Packers. They were 11-6 ATS last year (including 7-2 ATS at home), which goes right along with their 35-19 ATS record from the last 3 seasons. The 49ers were 12-4-2 ATS, but that’s because they were so underrated for the first half of the season. After ripping off a 9-0-1 ATS stretch to start the season, they finished just 3-4-1 ATS. It’s one thing to have a strong ATS record when sneaking up on people like the 49ers did last year. It’s another thing to do it as defending Super Bowl champs. The Packers won’t sneak up on anyone this year either, but they’ll still be a covering machine. This is one of my favorite picks of the week.
Green Bay Packers 31 San Francisco 49ers 17
Pick against spread: Green Bay -5 (-110) 4 units