San Francisco 49ers (7-2) at New Orleans Saints (5-5)
Colin Kaepernick will start this one for the 49ers. Kaepernick was incredibly impressive against a tough Bears defense on Monday Night, going 16 of 23 for 243 yards and 2 scores in a 32-7 win over the Jay Cutler-less Bears. Against St. Louis after Alex Smith got hurt, he was also impressive going 11 of 17 for 117 yards, leading the 49ers back from down to tie the game. He’s apparently done enough to impress Jim Harbaugh as it appears he has “Wally Pipped” Smith and will be the starter from here on out.
With Kaepernick in, the 49ers have become a lot of people’s Super Bowl favorite. Alex Smith did a decent job, but there was always a feeling that he was a limiting factor on a team that was loaded with talent elsewhere. I don’t disagree. Smith was the limiting factor on this team. They have the defense, the running game, the offensive line. They rank 2nd in yards per play differential and 3rd in rate of sustaining drives differential.
Kaepernick makes the run even more dangerous because teams have to respect the deep ball now and because they also have to respect Kaepernick’s own running ability. They have an incredibly complex playbook, but Kaepernick allows them to use more of it with his athletic gifts and it didn’t appear he had any issues with the mental part of it either, which was formerly Alex Smith’s biggest advantage.
I’m just not 100% sold on Kaepernick yet. He’s yet to face a team that’s known he was coming. The Rams probably didn’t do a whole lot of preparing for Kaepernick before their game against the 49ers because they didn’t know Smith would get hurt. The Bears might have done more preparation, but remember, Alex Smith wasn’t ruled out until Monday. There was actually a general sense that Smith would start until he was ruled out. The odds makers even posted a line on Saturday Night assuming Smith would start and then had to lower it Monday when they found out Kaepernick was going to start.
The Saints, this week, know he’s coming. Jim Harbaugh did his best to keep it a secret that Kaepernick was his guy, but in this 24/7 news cycle world, that’s almost impossible. The Saints have been preparing for a Kaepernick-lead team all or most of the week and now have a game and a half of NFL game tape of him. They won’t take him lightly, which the Bears and Rams might have, after seeing what he did to a tough Bears defense. This is also Kaepernick’s first road game and playing in New Orleans is no picnic, even if they’ve had better years.
Finally, I just don’t like to overreact to one game too much. The 49ers were 6th in my Power Rankings a week ago, which seemed very reasonable, making them a fringe contender. Kaepernick was great, but it was just one game. I’m not ready to make them a Super Bowl favorite after 1 week, though I acknowledge they could potentially be very dangerous and the first team I’m really, really sold on if Kaepernick keeps it up and continues to play at a high level.
Even though I don’t like to overreact to one game and I’m not 100% sold on Kaepernick, I still like the 49ers this week and there are 4 reasons why what I mentioned early doesn’t really matter. First, the Saints’ defense is atrocious. Kaepernick might not be as good as he looked on Monday Night, but that probably wouldn’t even matter. No team allows more yards per play than they do and only the Titans allow a higher rate of sustaining drives (what percentage of sets of downs you convert for another 1st or a score).
Because of this, we’re getting good line value with the 49ers, which is the 2nd reason I like the 49ers. The yards per play differential method of computing real line gives us a real line of San Francisco -8.5 and the rate of sustaining drives differential method gives us a real line of San Francisco -6. This line is at just -1, which is actually down from -2.5, where it was a week ago. As good as the 49ers looked on Monday Night, this line has still shifted in favor of New Orleans in the past week, because they blew out crappy Oakland.
Even with the line movement, the public is still on New Orleans, which is the third reason I like the 49ers. The odds makers have had a rough 3 weeks and are due for a big week. Betting on a publicly backed team this week is risky this week, especially a publicly backed dog. Public dogs covering especially hurt the odds makers because they need favorites and dogs to cover evenly, but also to make money. The public tends to prefer favorites, but when they prefer a dog, it’s normally a risky bet, especially given what’s happened in the last few weeks. The odds makers always win in the long run.
The 49ers may be a bit overrated based off of one game of Kaepernick right now, but the Saints are incredibly overrated and overvalued by the public. The Saints are very, very good in the red zone converting for a touchdown 71% of the time, best in the league and even defensively they aren’t terrible in the red zone (53%, 17th in the league), so that takes away some of the line value, since neither method really puts much emphasis on red zone efficiency. However, it’s not like the 49ers are a bad red zone team, converting 59% of the time, 9th in the league, and allowing their opponents to convert 53% of the time, 16th in the league. We are major getting line value with the 49ers any way you look at it.
The 4th reason is that they’re in a very strong spot coming off a Monday Night Football blowout. Excluding teams coming off a bye, teams are 27-11 ATS since 2002 after a Monday Night Football win by 21 more and the 49ers won by 25. I’m not 100% sold on Kaepernick, but the 49ers have serious line value on their side, a powerful trend on their side, and they are a favorite not backed by the public. I would have taken them even if it were Smith starting this one, though maybe for fewer units. Still, for that reason, I’m going to take them for a significant play even in New Orleans, where Drew Brees is 5-1 ATS as a dog.
Public lean: New Orleans (60% range)
Sharps lean: NO 10 SF 3
Final update: Sharps do like New Orleans, but I disagree. That 27-11 ATS trend is pretty powerful and the Saints are overrated right now.
San Francisco 49ers 27 New Orleans Saints 20
Pick against spread: San Francisco -1 (-110) 3 units