Submitted by Jim Hurley on Wednesday, September 14, 2016 at 5:18 PM
If the lessons of NFL betting have taught anything it's that smart handicappers have to be prepared to quickly adjust their thinking off the preseason. How quickly is a matter of reasonable debate, but the tendency of teams to overperform and underperform in this parity-driven league is a matter of record. And that willingness to re-evaluate has to take us to San Francisco in the aftermath of Week 1.
The 49ers were widely considered one of the worst teams in the NFL when the season began, perhaps worse than every team outside of Cleveland. San Francisco was said to be a dysfunctional organization run by a head coach in Chip Kelly who had just finished getting run out of Philadelphia. That all may be true, but what's also true is that San Francisco was the only team in the NFC West to look impressive in Week 1.
San Francisco shut out the Los Angeles Rams 28-0 as (+2.5) home dog in the late show on ESPN's Monday Night doubleheader. Elsewhere in the division, the two favorites failed to impress. Seattle barely escaped Miami, winning the game 12-10, but decisively losing the cover as a (-10) favorite. The Seahawks' offensive line problems, building over the last two years, may be hitting a point where Russell Wilson can no longer compensate - if Wilson is even healthy enough to play in Week 2, that is .
Arizona had a terrific opportunity to make a major statement against Tom Brady-less New England on Sunday Night. But as a (-9) favorite, the Cards lost 23-21 to a Patriot team also missing Rob Gronkowski and two key offensive line pieces.
When the two favorites play that far below expectations and the 49ers look as good as they did, it's worth asking whether San Francisco might have a chance to cash what's currently a 15-1 price tag to win the NFC West. We might remember that when Kelly took over Philadelphia in 2013 he inherited a team with similar low expectations and promptly won a division title. He won 10 games again the following year. It was the foolish decision to put him in charge of personnel - not his coaching per se - that ultimately ruined Kelly in Philly. Now in San Francisco, all Kelly has to do is coach.
There's good talent on hand defensively. The 49er secondary was outstanding across the board on Monday Night, though admittedly the Case Keenum-led passing attack of the Rams was a big contributor to that. NaVorro Bowman played well at linebacker. Bowman was once one of the best defensive players in the league before tearing an ACL in the 2013 NFC Championship Game in Seattle. That kind of injury requires a long road back and if Bowman is finally there, he'll be a big difference-maker for this defense.
San Francisco has played defense over the last decade, covering a variety of head coaches and producing units that range anywhere from average to outstanding. They added defensive end DeForest Buckner in the draft, the best defensive lineman on the board and Buckner played well on Monday Night.
The key will be finding the right balance between patience, mistake-free football on offense while still generating enough to win. Blaine Gabbert was extremely conservative on Monday, 22/35 for 170 yards. He avoided mistakes and against the Rams that was enough. It won't be if San Francisco is going to build off this win.
There's every reason to be cautious with these 49ers. Last year, in the same late-night MNF spot in Week 1, they beat the Vikings 20-3 as a (+1.5) home dog. San Francisco turned and lost to Pittsburgh and Arizona the next two weeks and gave up 90 points in the process. With games this year at Carolina and Seattle immediately on deck the same could happen. We don't advocate rashly overturning any preseason negativity you may have had regarding the 49ers. We do suggest watching these coming games closely.