San Francisco 49ers (5-6) at Buffalo Bills (8-3)
The Bills’ +17 point differential is pretty underwhelming when considering their 8-3 record, as they have gone 5-1 in games decided by 7 points or fewer and haven’t won a game by more than 10 points all season. The good news is that they’ve been better than that in first down rate, ranking 10th with a +1.39%% schedule adjusted first down rate differential, and they’ve been led by their offense. The Bills rank 3rd in first down rate over expected at +3.10% on offense, which is a much more consistent and predictable side of the ball, and their struggles have primarily been on defense, where they rank 26th in first down rate allowed over expected at +1.71%, which is much less likely to continue going forward than their strong offensive play.
Sheer regression suggests the Bills should be better defensively going forward, but there is even more reason to be optimistic, as this defense has largely underperformed its talent level. Showing the randomness of defensive performance, the Bills ranked 6th in the NFL in first down rate allowed last season, with largely the same personnel. I don’t expect them to be as good as they were last year again, but they’re getting healthy coming out of their bye week, especially with linebacker Matt Milano likely to return, and they can at least be a middling unit going forward, which, if it’s combined with the Bills continuing to play well on offense, which would make this team very dangerous going forward. It’s hard to be underrated at 8-3, but the Bills might be.
The 49ers also are underrated though, as they’re much healthier than they were earlier in the season on both sides of the ball. They’re still missing key players like quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, tight end George Kittle, and edge defender Nick Bosa, but they were more depleted than probably any team in the league at their worst, so, by comparison, the 49ers are in much better shape now.
They’re not as good as last year obviously, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be a competitive team and they actually might be better in the secondary than they were last season now that Richard Sherman is back from injury, because, in Sherman’s absence, Jason Verrett stepped up as the corner they lacked opposite Sherman last year, which somewhat makes up for the 49ers missing Bosa and DeForest Buckner from last year’s dominant defensive line. My roster rankings have the 49ers ranked 14th in their current state and first down rate differential paints an even better picture, as they rank 6th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +2.23%, despite all of the injuries they’ve had thus far this season. It might be too late for them to climb back into the playoff race, but they’re a playoff caliber team right now.
We’re still getting some line value with the Bills, as I have them two points better than the 49ers, while this line seems to suggest the 49ers are a point better, favoring them by a point in what amounts to a neutral site game with the 49ers forced to play in Arizona for the next couple weeks. However, the 49ers are in a better spot because they’re a west coast team at night against an east coast team, which is about a 60% cover spot all-time regardless of location because of the difference in circadian rhythms. I’m not sure if that holds up in this weird circumstance in a neutral site game and I’m still taking the Bills for pick ‘em purposes, but I’m not that confident in them.
Buffalo Bills 24 San Francisco 49ers 23 Upset Pick +100
Pick against the spread: Buffalo +1