San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams: 2018 Week 17 NFL Pick

San Francisco 49ers (4-11) at Los Angeles Rams (12-3)

The 49ers are just 4-11, but they’ve been much better since turning to Nick Mullens under center. They have moved the chains at a 36.87% rate in Mullen’s 7 starts, as opposed to 35.17% in CJ Beathard’s 5 starts. More important, Mullens has committed just 7 turnovers in 7 games, while Beathard committed 10 in 5 games, and the 49ers are 3-4 in his 7 starts, as opposed to 0-5 in Beathard’s 5 starts.

Turnover margins tend to be unpredictable on a week-to-week basis anyway and the 49ers have been killed by the turnover margin all season, ranking dead last in the NFL at -21. Beathard’s turnovers weren’t the only problem, as a capable defense that ranks 17th in first down rate allowed on the season somehow didn’t force a single takeaway for 6 games until forcing 2 last week against the Bears, who ironically rank 2nd in the NFL in turnover margin (yet another example of turnover margins being unpredictable).

Unfortunately, it seems like the public is catching on with the 49ers, as they are just 10.5 point underdogs in Los Angeles against the Rams. I know injuries have started to pile up for the Rams, with wide receiver Cooper Kupp, running back Todd Gurley, and safety LaMarcus Joyner all sidelined, but I still think this line would have been at least two touchdowns a couple weeks ago. I’m still taking the 49ers, but I wouldn’t recommend betting any money on them.

Not only are we not getting enough line value with the 49ers anymore, but they also haven’t played on the road in about a month and have been at home for 5 of Mullen’s 7 starts. In his only two road starts, the 49ers got blown out by the Seahawks and Buccaneers. Home/road disparities tend to be inconsistent in the long run, but I am concerned taking an inexperienced quarterback with no history of success on the road against a Rams team that still has a ton of talent.

Los Angeles Rams 26 San Francisco 49ers 17

Pick against the spread: San Francisco +10.5

Confidence: Low

Chicago Bears at San Francisco 49ers: 2018 Week 16 NFL Pick

Chicago Bears (10-4) at San Francisco 49ers (4-10)

The Bears have been better than their record all season. Even at 10-4 with the 3rd best record in the NFC, the Bears are better than that suggests, as their 4 losses came by a combined 14 points, including one game with a backup quarterback. Despite starting a backup quarterback for two games, the Bears still rank 1st in the NFL in first down rate differential at +6.57% and 2nd in NFL in point differential at +119. Because of that, I’ve picked them against the spread in every game but two this season and they are 10-2 ATS in those 12 games.

That being said, I’m not going to be taking the Bears this week because the 49ers are also better than their record suggests. They are only 4-10, but they are 3-3 since turning to 3rd string quarterback Nick Mullens, who has played pretty well. They have moved the chains at a 38.16% rate in those 6 games, as opposed to 35.17% in CJ Beathard’s 5 starts. More important, Mullens has committed just 6 turnovers in 6 games, while Beathard committed 10 in 5 games.

Making the 49ers’ recent record more even more impressive is the fact they haven’t gotten a single takeaway over that 6-game stretch. In fact, they are -9 in turnover margin over that time frame, including -2 in their 3 wins. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent and unpredictable on a week-to-week basis and this defense has played well enough (36.88% in first down rate allowed at 18th) that they should be able to get more takeaways going forward. This is a quietly capable team with Mullens under center.

We’ve lost line value with the 49ers due to their recent upset wins over Denver and Seattle, as this line has dropped to Chicago -4 from Chicago -6 on the early line last week, but the Bears have also lost stud safety Eddie Jackson to an ankle injury in the past week, so that line movement is more than justified. An All-Pro caliber player, Jackson’s absence is worth at least 2-3 points. We’re not getting enough line value with the 49ers to take them with any confidence, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Chicago Bears 23 San Francisco 49ers 20

Pick against the spread: San Francisco +4

Confidence: None

Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers: 2018 Week 15 NFL Pick

Seattle Seahawks (8-5) at San Francisco 49ers (3-10)

The 49ers are just 3-10, but that’s primarily because they’ve gotten killed in turnovers, posting a league worst -21 turnover margin this season. In terms of first down rate differential, they are actually positive at +0.39%, despite their record, but it’s tough to win games when you consistently lose the turnover battle. Their offense hasn’t turned the ball over as much since switching to Nick Mullens under center though, as they’ve turned the ball over 8 times in his 5 starts, with 6 credited to Mullens, as opposed to 14 turnovers in CJ Beathard’s 5 starts, with 10 credited to Beathard.

They’ve also moved the chains better in Mullens’ 5 starts, moving them at a 38.51% rate, as opposed to 35.17% for Beathard (41.30% in Garoppolo’s 3 starts). However, despite Mullens being an obvious upgrade, they are still just 2-3 in his 5 starts as their defense has not managed a single takeaway in his 5 starts. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent and unpredictable on a week-to-week basis though, so the 49ers could easily get some takeaways over the final 3 games of the season, which would be a big boost to this team.

The defense isn’t at 100% without injured top safety Jaquiski Tartt and released top linebacker Reuben Foster, but they rank a decent 19th in first down rate allowed on the season at 37.42% and are talented enough that they should have forced more than 5 takeaways on the season. Recovering just 2 of 10 forced fumbles is a big part of the problem, but that tends to be luck more than anything. With an improved quarterback under center and a defense that should force more takeaways going forward, the 49ers are better than their 3-10 record suggests.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like they’re really that underrated, after last week’s upset win over a banged up Denver team. That game moved this line from Seattle -7 all the way down to Seattle -3.5, so we’re getting no line value with a 49ers team that isn’t in the best spot this week. In addition to coming off of a big home upset victory, they also have to follow up this tough home game with another tough home game against the Bears next week, a game in which the 49ers are 6-point home underdogs on the early line. Teams are just 26-53 ATS since 2016 before being home underdogs of 4.5 points or more. I’m still taking the 49ers and hoping for a field goal game, but I can’t take them with any confidence, given all of the line value we’ve lost in the past week.

Sunday Update: The 49ers got some good injury news over the weekend, with running back Matt Breida and wide receivers Dante Pettis and Marquise Goodwin all expected to play despite questionable tags and limited practices. Despite that, this line has climbed back up to +4. There’s still not enough here to bet the 49ers, but I’m moving this up to a low confidence pick.

Seattle Seahawks 26 San Francisco 49ers 24

Pick against the spread: San Francisco +4

Confidence: Low

Denver Broncos at San Francisco 49ers: 2018 Week 14 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (6-6) at San Francisco 49ers (2-10)

The Broncos have had a tough season. They had the toughest schedule in the league over the first 11 games of the season, including close losses to the Texans, Rams, and Chiefs (twice) and wins over the Chargers, Steelers, and Seahawks. Now that their schedule has gotten easier, they’ve had so many losses that they aren’t the same team. Already without their top-2 offensive linemen, right guard Ron Leary and center Matt Paradis, with injury and starting wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who was traded to the Texans for a draft pick, the Broncos are now without #1 cornerback Chris Harris and #1 wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who have both suffered season ending injuries in the past week.

The Broncos’ opponents this week, the San Francisco 49ers, are one of their easiest opponents all season, but it’s hard to be confident in the Broncos as 3.5-point road favorites given the current state of their roster. With a banged up offensive line and a depleting receiving corps, the Broncos have little talent around quarterback Case Keenum and their defense isn’t nearly as good without their top cornerback Chris Harris. The 49ers have been killed by the turnover margin this season at an NFL worst -20, but turnover margins tend to be unpredictable week-to-week and the 49ers are the kind of team that can easily pull an upset if they can play a turnover neutral game. I have this line calculated at Denver -4, so I’m still taking the Broncos, but this is a no confidence pick.

Denver Broncos 20 San Francisco 49ers 16

Pick against the spread: Denver -3.5

Confidence: None

San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks: 2018 Week 13 NFL Pick

San Francisco 49ers (2-9) at Seattle Seahawks (6-5)

The Seahawks have a solid record at 6-5, but this is not nearly the Seahawks team we’ve seen in recent years. Despite their record, they rank 22nd in first down rate differential at -2.78%. Their offense has been solid, moving the chains at a 37.03% rate, 14th in the NFL, but their defense, a shell of its former self, has allowed opponents to move the chains at a 39.81% rate, 27th in the NFL. Their defense has been on the field for fewer snaps than any defense in the league, as a result of the offense going 9 of 12 on 4th down on the season and only turning over the ball 9 times, fewest in the NFL, but 4th down percentages and turnovers tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, so they won’t always be able to depend on those to make life easy for their defense.

Given that, this line is a little high at 10. The 49ers have major issues at the quarterback position, but they have a capable defense (17th in first down rate allowed) and a strong running game. They’re just 2-9 largely because of their -17 turnover margin, 2nd worst in the NFL, but, like I said, turnovers tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. Given their quarterback situation, it wouldn’t surprise me if the 49ers continued turning the ball over frequently, but their defense should have more takeaways than they’ve had (5 in 11 games) just from random chance alone. We’re not getting enough line value to bet the Seahawks, but this line is a few points too high.

Seattle Seahawks 24 San Francisco 49ers 17

Pick against the spread: San Francisco +10

Confidence: Low

San Francisco 49ers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2018 Week 12 NFL Pick

San Francisco 49ers (2-8) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-7)

These two teams have had similar seasons statistically. Both have poor records, but rank significantly better than their record suggests in first down rate differential. The 49ers rank 12th at +1.26%, while the Buccaneers rank 16th at +0.95%. Both teams have been crushed by the turnover margin, with turnover margins of -15 and -23 respectively, but turnover margins tend to completely unpredictable on a week-to-week basis. For example, the Buccaneers were -4 in turnover margin last week in New York in 3-point loss to the Giants and, on average, teams with a turnover margin of -4 in a game have a turnover margin of +0.0 the following week.

The 49ers’ offense obviously hasn’t been as good since Jimmy Garoppolo went down, but they haven’t been terrible either, moving the chains at a 36.30% rate in 7 games without Garoppolo, as opposed to 41.30% in the 3 games Garoppolo started. CJ Beathard took over the starting job after Garoppolo got hurt, but he missed a start with a hand injury and lost his job to 3rd string quarterback Nick Mullens, who has been an upgrade in 2 starts.

After Beathard turned the ball over 10 times in 5 starts, the 49ers are just -2 in turnover margin in Mullens’ two starts, with both turnovers bouncing off receivers’ hands. Turnover margins tend to stabilize in the long run anyway, but Mullens has definitely been an upgrade over Beathard. They’ve also been decent defensively, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 36.49% rate, 17th in the NFL, and should force more turnovers going forward.

The Buccaneers have also switched quarterbacks several times this season, but under different circumstances. Ryan Fitzpatrick began the season as the starter, but the Buccaneers have switched quarterbacks mid-game three times this season and are now back to Jameis Winston for his second stint as their starting quarterback this season. Both quarterbacks have committed numerous turnovers, 13 for Fitzpatrick and 12 for Winston, but they’ve also averaged a combined 9.11 yards per attempt (3rd best in the NFL), taking numerous shots downfield to one of the better receiving corps in the NFL. As a result, they have moved the chains at a 43.34% rate, 4th best in the NFL. Regardless of which quarterback they start, they should continue moving the chains at a high rate and their turnover margin should be better, even if only by default, going forward.

The biggest problem for the Buccaneers is that they have the worst defense in the NFL. They rank 31st in first down rate allowed at 42.39% and have been even worse in recent weeks due to numerous injuries, including linebackers Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David, safety Justin Evans, and cornerback MJ Stewart. The injury bug has also spread to their offense, with tight end OJ Howard going down for the season, which is a big hit to their receiving corps. The 49ers, meanwhile, are getting healthier coming out of the bye, with both linebacker Reuben Foster and safety Jaquiski Tartt both expected back this week. For that reason, I’ll give them the edge in this one, but this could easily end up being a push.

Final Update: Foster will not play for the 49ers after being arrested for domestic violence last night. Despite that, sharp action on San Francisco has pushed this line down to 2. Given that, I’m changing my pick, but this is still a no confidence pick.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30 San Francisco 49ers 27

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay -2

Confidence: None

New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers: 2018 Week 10 NFL Pick

New York Giants (1-7) at San Francisco 49ers (2-7)

This is a tough game to predict because I’m still not sure what to make of new 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens, a 2017 undrafted free agent who completed 16 of 22 for 262 yards and 3 touchdowns in his first NFL start last week. If he continues to play at least decent, the 49ers should cover this game as 3-point home favorites over the lowly Giants. The 49ers actually have a solid offensive supporting cast around the quarterback and rank 13th in first down rate at 37.70%, despite quarterback turmoil.

Turnovers have been a huge problem for them, as they’ve turned it over 18 times and have a -13 turnover margin (2nd worst in the NFL), but turnover margin tends to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. Mullens didn’t turn the ball over at all last week (after CJ Beathard committed 10 turnovers in 5 starts) and if he keeps playing at least decently their turnover margin could easily stabilize for the rest of the season.

Those are big ifs with Mullens though. The track record of undrafted quarterbacks in the NFL is pretty weak and, as good as he looked in his debut, it was one start against a team that had no tape on him and wasn’t expecting him to play. He also happened to be playing a Raiders defense that can make a lot of quarterbacks look good. I’m taking the 49ers in this one for pick ‘em purposes, but there’s far too much uncertainty for them to be bettable this week.

San Francisco 49ers 24 New York Giants 20

Pick against the spread: San Francisco -3

Confidence: None