San Francisco 49ers (2-0) at Minnesota Vikings (1-1)
The 49ers have been the best team in the league over the first two games. As a result, they’ve been atop almost every Power Ranking I’ve seen. It’s a very interesting dynamic. This is the prototypical “nobody believes in us” team. Before last year, they were seen as an also ran. The hadn’t had a winning season in almost a decade, Alex Smith was still their quarterback, and as promising as Jim Harbaugh seemed, he had just 7 weeks with the team because of the lockout. Even as they started to get some early season wins, everyone just assumed they’d eventually go away, but they didn’t. It wasn’t until November that they were really seen as a legitimate contender and even then, no one gave them much of a chance to win the Super Bowl because Alex Smith was still their quarterback. They didn’t, falling flat offensively in a loss to the Giants in the NFC Championship game.
Heading into 2012, they were once again being doubted as many people, including yours truly, felt they couldn’t keep it up. So what did they do? They won their first 2 games, both against 2011 playoff teams, including an upset victory in Lambeau Field, and they did it by holding two of the most prolific offenses in the league last year to a combined 41 points. Finally, everyone believes in them. How will they respond?
Not only that, how will they respond now that they’re facing the “lowly” Vikings? Every team has an off week and is flat at some point. Jim Harbaugh is an amazing Head Coach, but so is Bill Belichick. Belichick has been doing what Harbaugh’s done for the past year or so for about 10 and last week his Patriots lost at home to the Cardinals. It makes sense that the 49ers would be flat here, coming off two huge wins and having been finally anointed the best team in the league (before actually winning much substantial), against a team perceived as terrible. Their schedule doesn’t get any easier as they head to New York to play the Jets on the East Coast at a 1 o’clock start next week. This isn’t a true breather game (favorites before and after being dogs), but along those same lines, they could be flat here.
Meanwhile, the Vikings aren’t as bad as people think. In terms of points per play differential, which is my favorite stat and one that I think best predicts future success, the Vikings rank 5th through 2 games, while the 49ers stand at 8th. Obviously, schedule has a lot to do with that as the 49ers have faced two playoff teams from 2011 and the Vikings have faced the Jaguars and Colts, but the Vikings are still better than they’re being given credit for.
Christian Ponder seems to be the only 2nd year quarterback who is actually improved over his rookie year, completing 47 of 62 for 515 yards and 2 touchdowns through 2 games, including 12 of 20 on throws that go longer than 10 yards through the air, which was an issue for him as a rookie (44 of 108). The coaching staff is using Percy Harvin properly this year and he’s become a legitimate #1 receiver and his offensive line is much improved over last year. Remember, last year, in the 9 games in which he led the team in passing attempts, the team scored 22.9 points per game, which would have been 16th in the league. The 49ers probably have the league’s top defense, but if they’re flat, the Vikings can move the ball on them some.
I’m not going to pick the Vikings to win or anything, but they should be able to cover the 7.5 points here at home. The 49ers offense isn’t built to blow people out (one of the reason why I didn’t bet heavily on them as 7 point home favorites against Detroit last week, even though I thought they had the clear match up advantage) and the Vikings have played well in the 4th quarter of each of their first 2 games, scoring 23 points in that quarter, 6th in the league. Even if the Vikings don’t play the 49ers close in Minnesota, there’s a good chance they could mount a backdoor cover.
Road favorites of more than a touchdown in general don’t cover at a high rate, going 78-98 ATS since 2002. There have been two such instances this season, Philadelphia at Cleveland and Houston at Jacksonville (the former didn’t cover on the road, the latter did). I’ve bet on the road team in both instances because I really didn’t like the match up for the home team, but I made sure to keep both bets small.
This week, I do like the match up for the home team. They’re better than you think and this is a huge statement game for them, while the 49ers could be flat in a breather game, and there’s also a strong possibility of a backdoor cover given how the 49ers aren’t built to blow teams out and how the Vikings have done a lot of scoring in the 4th quarter this season. On top of this, the public is betting heavily on San Francisco and I like to go against the public every chance I get (the public is 13-19 this year and getting killed in games like this where a ton of the action is on one side).
Public lean: San Francisco (new thing I’m adding, siding with the odds makers on bets is not a bad thing to do since they make so much money, so I’m listing this here to allow readers to “fade” the public, if they so choose, in this example, the odds makers win if Minnesota covers)
San Francisco 49ers 20 Minnesota Vikings 16
Pick against spread: Minnesota -7.5 (+120) 3 units