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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Sunday, December 16, 2012 at 7:00 AM

Last week’s Houston-New England was supposed to be a preview of the AFC Championship. Houston played so badly that sports bettors now have to wonder! Is Sunday Night’s San Francisco-New England game (which will be nationally televised by NBC) going to be a Super Bowl preview? Or, is another pretender about to be exposed?

New England is certainly at the top of its game. That’s been their history in December at home. Of course, they’ve had a few recent disappointments in January because it’s tough to run the table vs. playoff caliber teams with a vulnerable defense and an offense that HAS to carry the load through the air.

New England played like a Super Bowl champion last week. Are they about to be reminded that it’s hard to run the table vs. quality? Or, are they going to remind pundits and bettors that they’re the kings of December once again?

Let’s crunch our indicator stats and see what they have to say…

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (8:25 p.m. on NBC)

Las Vegas Spread: New England by New England by 4.5, total of 47

The market is saying New England would only be favored by 1.5 on a neutral field, which is lower than the current “generic” price for the Super Bowl where Vegas has the AFC at -3 over the NFC. If New England is best in the AFC (a right they earned with last week’s win even if they won’t end up being a #1 seed), why is the line so short against a team who may NOT be the AFC entry when the Lombardi Trophy is on the line? We’ll see how the game gets bet before kickoff. Last week, sharps and squares lined up on the Pats, and won big by doing so. This week, sharps stepped in on the dog at +5.5 and +5, as the line started dropping as the weekend approached.

WON-LOST RECORDS (schedule strength according to USA Today)

San Francisco: 9-3-1 (14th ranked schedule)

New England: 10-3 (20th ranked schedule)

The teams grade out very close to even with this combination. San Francisco just misses matching New England’s 10-3 while playing a slightly tougher schedule. It all adds up to a neutral field dead heat…which would mean New England -3 at home. The weekend market price kind of splits the difference between what this is telling us, and what last week’s blowout win for the Patriots suggested.

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL

San Francisco: +6

New England: +24

We say this every time…but there are new readers each day that need to get the message. Turnovers aren’t random! New England mastered the risk/reward ratio long ago in the Brady/Belichick era. If turnovers were random, New England couldn’t keep popping all of these +20’s. San Francisco has fallen back from last year’s high marks…as they tried to get more aggressive with their downfield passing before enduring a quarterback change. You can make a good case that San Francisco’s hopes for a cover depend largely on this stat. Can their great defense force miscues from Brady? Can Kaepernick play smart and clean in the toughest road test of his young career.

OFFENSIVE STATS

San Francisco: 360.1 yards-per-game on 6.0 yards-per-play

New England: 425.7 yards-per-game on 5.8 yards-per-play

Notice that San Francisco has more yards-per-play but less yardage. How could that happen? By so much?! New England focuses on short passes that move the chains…and they do it at a very fast tempo. San Francisco is much more of a grinder team, which shortens their games. Each is happy with their approach. It’s important that YOU remember San Francisco is better per-play than New England, which few people realize.

DEFENSIVE STATS

San Francisco: 275.5 yards-per-game on 4.4 yards-per-play

New England: 376.3 yards-per-game on 5.8 yards-per-play

Huge edge here, even after you make mental adjustments for tempo. San Francisco’s games have fewer plays. That deflates yardage…but it also legitimately helps keep the defenders fresh. New England’s defense is on the field longer, and is facing desperation attacks. Still, that’s how football defenses get worn down. San Francisco clearly has the better defense by a significant degree…even if you knock them up a couple of decimals and reduce New England a couple of decimals because of tempo.

MOST RECENT BOXES

SAN FRANCISCO 27, MIAMI 13

Total Yardage: Miami 227, San Francisco 321

Rushing Yards: Miami 94, San Francisco 155

Passing Stats: Miami 17-33-0-133, San Francisco 18-23-0-166

Turnovers: Miami 1, San Francisco 0

Third Downs: Miami 38%, San Francisco 20%

Vegas Line: San Francisco by 10, total of 38

It’s interesting that both teams played Miami within the last two weeks. New England won yardage 321-277, with more passing and less rushing…and a better ability to move the chains (San Francisco will have big trouble pulling an upset this week if they can only convert 20% of their third down tries!). That’s a classic grinder boxscore. If you watched, you know that San Francisco had a lucky TD after a muffed Miami punt. And, you saw Kaepernick scramble around the end for a long TD in the final moments when the team just needed to run out the clock. This was close to being a 13-all type game with 49er yardage in the 270’s. If you plan on betting San Francisco, you’re going to be asking the defense to do much of the heavy lifting.

NEW ENGLAND 42, HOUSTON 14

Total Yardage: Houston 323, New England 419

Rushing Yards: Houston 100, New England 130

Passing Stats: Houston 21-36-1-223, New England 21-36-1-289

Turnovers: Houston 1, New England 1

Third Downs: Houston 29%, New England 50%

Vegas Line: New England by 6, total of 52

The yardage doesn’t line up with the scoreboard. But it was a true blowout. Wherever New England got the ball from, they drove the field and scored. Houston spent the first half punting, and the second half waiting for the game to end. Maybe Houston was keeping several things under wraps because they’re assuming a rematch for the AFC Championship in a few weeks. Texans fans better hope that was the case! Let’s add third downs to the turnover category for keys to SF-NE. What happens in those two categories will most likely determine who wins, who covers, and whether the game goes Over and Under.

 

BEST EXPECTATION

We have competing theories once again. New England is great at home late in the regular season. New England historically has difficulty playing up to expectations with smash mouth teams in big games. Houston didn’t bring their smash mouth helmets last week, so the Pats crushed them. San Francisco is much more likely to. BUT:

*San Francisco has a huge game on the road with divisional rival Seattle next week

*San Francisco has an inexperienced quarterback trying to win on the road

*San Francisco is travelling cross-country while New England stayed at home

There’s a chance the 49ers hold back here just like Houston did…because important games are ahead and this is also possibly a first of two meetings. It should be said though that head coach Jim Harbaugh doesn’t shy away from many challenges. And, this defense is the type that would love to make a statement against a Hall-of-Fame offensive regime.

JIM HURLEY has been working very closely with his sources, his scouts, his statheads, his computer programmers, and his Wise Guy connections to make sure he gets this one right. If this game made the Sunday cut (on a day with a FANTASTIC schedule), you’ll be able to find out right here at the website. NETWORK will only release the best options from SHOWDOWN SUNDAY. If you have any questions, call our office at 1-800-323-4453.

Back with you tomorrow for a stat preview in NY Jets/Tennessee. Can the Jets make a late run to steal a playoff spot? What are the “best expectations” when a horrible offense faces a horrible defense? The man with the answers is always handicapping legend JIM HURLEY!

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