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Here is the 2021 Pro Football Betting Guide preview for the NFC West.
THE FAVORITE: SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
It appears 2021 might be a special sports year in San Francisco — look at the Giants! By merely getting some better injury luck, the 49ers can pick up where they left off in 2019. Indeed, improved health, not handing the offensive reins to first-round rookie QB Trey Lance, would be the best-case scenario. Remember, Jimmy Garoppolo led the Niners to the Super Bowl two years ago before a couple of trips to the injured list in 2020. He was hardly the only casualty last season. The infirmary also included TE George Kittle, RB Raheem Mostert, DE Nick Bosa, DE Dee Ford and CB Jason Verrett. For now, all seem ready for September. New defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, promoted to replace new Jets head coach Robert Saleh, has been playing to rave reviews this summer. At full strength, the 49ers romped through the NFC two years ago, including a pair of dominant playoff wins at home, and much of the core of that roster remains. While strength of schedule is often a dicey indicator, the fact that the Niners will play a fourth-place slate probably won’t hurt their chances to get back on top of the West.
LIVE DOG: ARIZONA CARDINALS
If the season had ended by Veteran’s Day the last two years, the Cardinals would have been in good shape. But a combined 5-11 mark the last halves of 2019 and ’20 suggest that perhaps Kliff Kingsbury hasn’t had enough depth on his roster. GM Steve Keim tried to rectify that in a busy offseason. He signed ex-Steelers RB James Conner and several other former Pro Bowlers, such as WR A.J. Green, C Rodney Hudson, DE J.J. Watt, CB Malcolm Butler and PK Matt Prater. Yet it’s the possibility of a breakthrough to the elite level by third-year QB Kyler Murray, running the progressive Kingsbury offense, that suggests the Big Red might be able to finally get to the postseason after sitting in playoff-qualifying position into late December last year.
PROP PLAY: KYLER MURRAY UNDER 680.5 RUSHING YARDS
We have been on the Murray rushing yardage prop for two seasons, though both times to the Over. That worked out well as the Cardinals quarterback easily cleared 435.5 yards in 2019, ending with 544, and 475.5 yards in 2020, finishing with 819. Now the hurdle has been pushed upward more than 200 yards, but this time we’re thinking it might be time to look Under. Opposing defenses did a better job keeping Murray in the pocket late last season, partly due to Murray becoming more reluctant to look for escape routes after a Week 11 shoulder injury. To protect his prized asset, Kingsbury likely will call fewer direct runs for Murray, and adding James Conner from Pittsburgh provides a more traditional, established diversion.
BIG GAMES ON THE BOARD
Tampa Bay at Los Angeles Rams (Sept. 26)
Hard to believe, but Tom Brady has never played a game in Los Angeles. So barring injury, this will be a first for him, and expect the Hollywood element to respond accordingly. Mostly, however, this figures to be more of an important early test for the Rams in the Matthew Stafford era and a measuring stick for Sean McVay’s crew against the first serious Super Bowl contender on the schedule.
Green Bay at San Francisco (Sept. 26)
This will be the Packers’ fourth trip to Santa Clara in 22 months as the schedule continues to cycle them into Levi’s Stadium. Though Aaron Rodgers beat the 49ers 34-17 on this field a year ago, it was a depleted Niners squad. And no one has to remind Green Bay fans what happened the last time Rodgers and the Pack faced a full-strength bunch of Niners in the 2019 campaign, when San Francisco routed Green Bay twice. The second of those meetings came in the NFC title game. Might this late September date be a preview of the same in January?
Arizona at Los Angeles Rams (Oct. 3)
The Cardinals haven’t beaten the Rams since Bruce Arians roamed the Arizona sidelines in the 2016 campaign, and they’ve never beaten Sean McVay’s team in eight chances. Safe to say that if the Cardinals are to move up the division ladder and make the playoffs, they will have to perform better against this foe.
Seattle at San Francisco (Oct. 3)
The possibility of a reprise of the two cliffhangers from 2019, when Jimmy Garoppolo was healthy for the Niners, is enough to whet the appetite for this game. Even short-handed, San Francisco played the Seahawks within three points on the final weekend last season. With Arizona and the Rams also clashing this day, expect the West race to begin to take shape after this weekend.
LOS ANGELES RAMS
Sean McVay set a pretty high bar his first two seasons with the Rams, but the operation has veered slightly off course since. After getting bounced from the playoffs by the Packers in the divisional round last season, McVay and GM Les Snead changed course dramatically by dealing QB Jared Goff and multiple draft picks to the Lions for Matthew Stafford. However, Stafford has never won a playoff game in 12 seasons despite seemingly universal acclaim. Stafford’s addition, and the thumb injury he has already aggravated in training camp, reminds some longtime Rams observers of the ill-fated Bert Jones trade of 1982, but McVay has other concerns with expected featured RB Cam Akers already out for the season with an Achilles tendon injury.
Speaking of concerns, Rams fans are having more of those about McVay, who has often tried to get too cute with his play-calling the last couple of years and sometimes had Goff throwing 50 times or more. McVay occasionally abandoned the more balanced approach that worked in 2017-18 and surely would be more appreciated by Stafford, who would rather not have to resort to the gunslinger role that paid few dividends in Detroit. New questions have arisen about a defense that lost some key cogs from its secondary in the offseason and has committed much of its resources to DT Aaron Donald and CB Jalen Ramsey.
Reprising George Allen’s penchant for trading draft picks, Snead hasn’t had a first-round pick in five years, relying on high-priced free agents and splashy trades. Might that risky strategy begin to catch up with the Rams?
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Injuries nailed the 49ers last season, removing almost every key component for multiple games, some for the duration of the campaign, and it became obvious by the end of September that a repeat NFC title wasn’t in the offing. In fact, San Francisco lost a whopping 161.6 games due to injury, the most in the NFL in 20 years. Though Jimmy Garoppolo hasn’t proven the most durable QB, missing 23 of the 48 regular-season games the last three seasons, he has a sparkling 36-12 record as a starter. If the season progresses as coach Kyle Shanahan has planned, a healthy Garoppolo will take snaps and first-round pick Trey Lance will watch and learn, much as Patrick Mahomes did behind Alex Smith in 2017 at Kansas City. A worst-case scenario would include more injuries and forcing Lance into the lineup too soon.
Meanwhile, a healthier offensive line might once again be able to open holes as wide as one of the Bay Bridge’s toll booths for slashing Raheem Mostert, also injured in 2020. Equally important will be the returns of DEs Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, both added in 2019 to help supercharge a pass rush that produced 48 sacks and continually collapsed opposing pockets until last season, when the pair combined for just three games. Shanahan is also breaking in two new coordinators, Mike McDaniel on offense and DeMeco Ryans on defense, but both were promoted from within and are familiar with the system.
With a fourth-place schedule perhaps providing help, the Niners can get back to the playoffs with 11 or 12 wins in a quest for their first Super Bowl title in 27 years ... as long as they avoid the injury bug.
Storm clouds are forming at what is now called Lumen Field, and we’re not referring to the usual cautions about the Seattle rain. Rather, it’s what might be up with QB Russell Wilson, who has been making more noise about perhaps wanting out of the Northwest. He has couched his apparent displeasure with a challenge to coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider to improve his supporting cast, the line in particular. Whatever becomes of any roster upgrades, some NFL insiders believe Wilson has grand plans for himself in his post-football life and might desire a higher-profile locale for his ultimate ambitions. The Seahawks might suffice in that regard only if they are serious Super Bowl contenders, which they haven’t been for several years.
Sensitive to his do-everything QB, Carroll is hoping new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, recently the passing game coordinator for the Rams, will provide the boost Wilson seeks. Meanwhile, Schneider arranged to trade for G Gabe Jackson from the Raiders. Appeasing Wilson seems a good idea, considering all the hair-raisers in which Wilson’s magic has come in handy the last few years. Other problems exist. The days of the Legion of Boom defense are in the rearview mirror after the Seahawks were continually torched through the air last year, ranking 31st in pass defense, and the cornerback situation remained unresolved into August. Seattle also hopes the contract saga of S Jamal Adams doesn’t turn into a distraction. But the mere fact that Wilson’s long-term commitment will be under scrutiny suggests it might not be business as usual in Seattle.
We’re not sure who might be on a hotter seat, GM Steve Keim or coach Kliff Kingsbury. Perhaps Keim, though it would be hard to see Kingsbury staying should Keim be forced out. Keim put his Cardinals career on the line two years ago with his radical hire of Kingsbury, and the duo must deliver this fall. But Keim cannot be accused of sitting on his hands in the offseason, bringing aboard all manner of potential contributors with Pro Bowl credentials such as DE J.J. Watt — who, if healthy, could form a devastating push from the edge with Chandler Jones — RB James Conner, C Rodney Hudson, CB Malcolm Butler and PK Matt Prater. The Big Red was on course for its first playoff berth in five years until a December slump coincided with QB Kyler Murray’s sore shoulder and derailed the bid.
A potential breakthrough season from Murray, who passed for almost 4,000 yards and ran for 819 last season, fuels the optimism as he figures to have mastered Kingsbury’s attack in their third season together. DeAndre Hopkins proved a boon upon his trade from the Texans, catching 115 passes in his Arizona debut, so the pieces are in place on offense. Meanwhile, the defense has plenty of playmakers, led by the aforementioned Watt and Jones.
The fact the Cardinals went from three wins in the ill-fated Steve Wilks season of 2018 to five and then eight under Kingsbury suggests the trajectory is at least right to exceed 8.5 wins, get to the playoffs and save the jobs of Keim and Kingsbury.