Submitted by Jim Hurley on Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 11:55 PM
Last week the starting quarterbacks for the Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers (tonight’s pairing on ESPN’s Monday Night Football) both suffered concussions. Jay Cutler of the Bears will not be in action this evening, and it’s not clear when he’ll be ready to return. Alex Smith of the Niners is back in action, but you know the team will be very cautious with him so soon after an injury.
That means sports bettors must try to predict if a “scaled back” Alex Smith can cover the number against Bears backup quarterback Jason Campbell. It’s been tough duty for Campbell, who had to play the second half last week against Houston’s great defense in horrible weather, and must now face San Francisco’s great defense on the road.
Can Campbell get any points on the board for the Bears? What about Smith, who’s struggled in recent home games vs. playoff contenders:
*3 points in a turnover debacle resulting in a 26-3 loss to the NY Giants
*13 points and less than 150 passing yards in a grinder battle with Seattle
Smith at his best struggles vs. quality…and Smith may not be at his best facing the most dangerous defense in the league right now.
Let’s crunch our indicator stats and see how this game might play out…
CHICAGO BEARS at SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (8:35 p.m. on ESPN)
Las Vegas Spread: San Francisco by 6, total of 37
The market says San Francisco with Smith is three points better than Chicago with Campbell on a neutral field. Home field advantage is worth three points in the NFL. The Niners would be -3 at a neutral site and pick-em in Chicago based on this number. Vegas has posted a low total of 37 here…in a season where oddsmakers won’t go below 40 unless very good defenses are involved. Has that been a good choice? Five of SF’s last seven games have landed on 37 or lower. Chicago plays Overs when its defense scores. Its offense has only made it past 360 total yards once in the last eight weeks.
WON-LOST RECORDS (schedule strength according to USA Today)
Chicago: 7-2 (22nd ranked schedule)
San Francisco: 6-2-1 (16th ranked schedule)
With Smith vs. Cutler, these teams would grade out very close to even after you adjust for schedule strength. And, it’s pretty safe to say that the Vegas line would have been about SF by 3 if Cutler had been healthy enough to play Monday Night. The market is adjusting three points for the change in quarterbacks.
San Francisco: +4
That’s actually low for San Francisco compared to last year. The offense has tried to be more aggressive, which has resulted in more giveaways. And, the defense isn’t making as many plays in Harbaugh’s second year as head coach. In fact, the Niners have only forced a total of three turnovers in the last four games combined. Chicago forced five in one game at Tennessee two weeks ago, the THIRD time this season they had pulled that off! If you’re thinking about fading the backup quarterback merely on principal, be aware that the possibly woozy favored quarterback may have turnover issues against this great Bears defense…and you don’t to be laying points with the team committing turnovers.
Chicago: 316.8 yards-per-game on 5.1 yards-per-play
San Francisco: 365.9 yards-per-game on 6.0 yards-per-play
San Francisco is okay with the increase in turnovers because their aggressiveness is yielding six yards-per-play and a total yardage number that will consistently get the job done on a great defensive team. For now, the risk-reward ratio is working out. Come playoff time, that’s dicier though because good defenses take away your reward while increasing your risk! This game should have a playoff feel to it, which means Smith and the Niners will have a lot of trouble getting near their season norms. Same for Chicago of course…though it’s worth remembering that Campbell was a starting QB last year for Oakland, and Cutler wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire with his arm before the injury. The Bears were winning blowouts because of defensive points, not because Cutler was playing great.
Chicago: 307.3 yards-per-game on 4.9 yards-per-play
San Francisco: 292.1 yards-per-game on 4.7 yards-per-play
Both of those are GREAT defensive composites. Chicago is 15 yards worse per game in yardage, but is more than making up for that with all of their takeaways (30 takeaways for the Bears this year, just 13 for the Niners). They say that defense wins championships (and we say that a lot ourselves!). Both of these teams will be in position to win a championship come January because of their strong defenses.
LAST WEEK’S BOXES
HOUSTON 13, CHICAGO 6
Total Yardage: Houston 215, Chicago 249
Rushing Yards: Houston 127, Chicago 115
Passing Stats: Houston 14-26-2-88, Chicago 18-33-2-134
Turnovers: Houston 2, Chicago 4
Third Downs: Houston 21%, Chicago 15%
Vegas Line: Chicago by 1, total of 39
The weather sure wasn’t helping. But, this was likely to be a low scoring struggle anyway given the quality of the defenses (Houston’s in the same class as SF and Chicago this season on that side of the ball). Note that the Bears had turnover troubled and third down troubles on the way to a low yardage effort. Conditions will be better this week. Production may end up looking very similar if the offense doesn’t break any big plays.
SAN FRANCISCO 24, ST. LOUIS 24 (overtime tie)
Total Yardage: St. Louis 458, San Francisco 341
Rushing Yards: St. Louis 159, San Francisco 183
Passing Stats: St. Louis 28-41-1-299, San Francisco 18-25-0-158
Turnovers: St. Louis 1, San Francisco 0
Third Downs: St. Louis 44%, San Francisco 18%
Vegas Line: San Francisco by 12, total of 38
The Niners were lucky to survive a game that should have been easy. They were coming off a bye (which has been a great indicator this year), and were facing a team they should have dominated. You shouldn’t have to sweat endings when you’re favored by double digits. Yes, Smith got hurt. They weren’t playing great before the injury. And, the DEFENSIVE numbers really jump out there. If San Francisco doesn’t bring more intensity this week, then Jason Campbell can certainly do what Sam Bradford did on this field. Bradford’s time may be up as an NFL starter. Yet, he played well and should have won last week. This version of the Niners shouldn’t be favored by six over a playoff contender no matter who’s at quarterback!
If you assume that San Francisco bounces back from last week, but chooses to play conservatively with Smith one week after his concussion…then we’re likely looking at a virtual replay of the Seattle/San Francisco game that was played on this field a few weeks ago. That was a physical war, and a battle of punts most of the night that ended up being a 13-6 victory for the Niners. That’s enough to cover this spread, but it sure doesn’t offer much margin for error. If this assessment is true, then the Under would make sense for those of you courageous enough to try to dance the limbo under the shortest totals.
JIM HURLEY has been working with his full team of handicappers to determine the best option for this game. Sometimes the obvious is a red herring. Sometimes backup quarterbacks represent improvement over a struggling starter. Sometimes the public overreacts to what they hear on television, creating openings for smart bettors to exploit.
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