ATLANTA FALCONS at NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Sportsbook.ag Line & Total: New Orleans -3 (-115) & 56
Opening Line & Total: Saints -3 & 54
After a year-long “Bounty” ban, Sean Payton returns to coach the Saints against their division rival Falcons on Sunday afternoon.
New Orleans QB Drew Brees is 13-3 SU versus Atlanta since joining the Saints, but one of those defeats came in the most recent meeting on Nov. 29 when he threw five interceptions in a 23-13 loss. The Saints allowed an NFL record 440 total YPG last year and could struggle again facing the high-powered Falcons’ offense, which added RB Steven Jackson to bolster a suspect ground game. Atlanta QB Matt Ryan has thrown for 1,300 yards (325 per game) in the past two seasons of this rivalry, with 13-time Pro Bowl TE Tony Gonzalez scoring four times during that span. Although Mike Smith is 26-16 ATS (62%) in tightly-contested games where the line is +3 to -3 as the Falcons head coach, the Saints are tough to bet against at home where they were a perfect 9-0 ATS last year at the Superdome. In the past two seasons, they are 8-1 ATS (89%) as a home favorite of seven points or less.
Atlanta finally transitioned to a pass-first offense in offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s first year, though with new No. 1 back Steven Jackson replacing over-the-hill Michael Turner, they at least have the threat of a running game now. WR Roddy White remains QB Matt Ryan’s favorite target, while WR Julio Jones is frequently used either downfield, or on bubble screens. Ryan’s second look is usually for TE Tony Gonzalez up the seam. On defense, the Falcons are hoping disgruntled DE Osi Umenyiora seriously helps a pass rush that totaled nine sacks in the second half of the year and finished with the fifth-fewest sacks in the NFL (29). Atlanta also ranked 24th in total defense last season (366 YPG), but forced 31 turnovers (T-4th in NFL), including a dozen over the final five games. Atlanta departed with veteran DE John Abraham and CBs Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson, but FS Thomas DeCoud (6 INT) leads a secondary that is still loaded with talent.
The return of head coach Sean Payton should be a nice boost for QB Drew Brees and the spread passing attack, featuring a lot of West Coast routes. Top WR Marques Colston does much of his work facing the line of scrimmage. TE Jimmy Graham is basically a receiver 1A, and RB Darren Sproles is also targeted frequently. The Saints have a series of looks they can run out of, the most common being RB Mark Ingram rumbling behind fullback Jed Collins. Defensively, the Saints gave up 908 more yards than any other NFL team, setting a league record for futility with 7,042 total yards allowed. They also surrendered the second-most points in the NFL with 28.4 PPG against. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan inherits a defense that has productive veterans in ILBs Curtis Lofton and Jonathan Vilma to lead the front seven, but two newcomers must make an impact immediately, CB Keenan Lewis, and rookie FS Kenny Vaccaro. DE/LB Will Smith was lost for the year when he tore his ACL in late August.
GREEN BAY PACKERS at SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Sportsbook.ag Line & Total: San Francisco -5.5 & 49
Opening Line & Total: Niners -4.5 & 50.5
Two of the past three NFC champions square off Sunday afternoon when the Packers visit the 49ers.
Green Bay has dominated this series since 1996, going 13-3 SU (10-4 ATS), including 5-2 SU (5-1-1 ATS) in San Francisco. However, the 49ers beat the Pack twice last year, 30-22 on the road and 45-31 in the playoffs when QB Colin Kaepernick rushed for an NFL quarterback record 181 yards, with four total TD (two rushing, two pass). He’ll miss top WR Michael Crabtree (Achilles) though, and the elite 49ers defense had major trouble stopping Packers QB Aaron Rodgers last year too, as he threw for 560 yards and 4 TD, tallying 53 points in the two losses. Although Mike McCarthy is 19-9 ATS (68%) as a road underdog since becoming the Green Bay head coach, San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh is 16-7 ATS (70%) in all games played on a grass field.
QB Aaron Rodgers is as good as anyone in the NFL throwing on the run, and they’ll keep moving the pocket behind a shaky offensive line that allowed him to be sacked 51 times last year. WR Randall Cobb takes some hand-offs and works underneath in the passing game while WR Jordy Nelson is the big-play receiver. WR James Jones and TE Jermichael Finley are key end-zone targets. Rookie RB Eddie Lacy has emerged as the team’s No. 1 back and should give the Packers more of a balance on offense. The Packers defense has certainly improved in the past few years, especially at home where they allowed just 17.5 PPG last year. The defensive line doesn’t possess great pass rushers, but OLB Clay Matthews (13 sacks) takes care of pressuring opposing quarterbacks. Even without Charles Woodson, who left for Oakland, this secondary still shines brightly with SS Morgan Burnett (123 tackles) and CBs Tramon Williams (16 PD) and Casey Hayward (6 INT). Green Bay placed 11th in the NFL in three main categories last year, scoring defense (21.0 PPG), total defense (337 YPG) and passing defense (218 YPG).
The 49ers have a big, man-blocking offensive line and frequently use either a fullback or a second tight end. RB Frank Gore is still the leader, getting a feature back workload. It’s a lot of play-action, pistol formations and moving around for QB Colin Kaepernick. His No. 1 target, possession WR Michael Crabtree, will be sidelined until at least December, while TE Vernon Davis is going to stretch the field more often than No. 2 WR Anquan Boldin. On defense, the 49ers defense was truly elite last year (17.1 PPG allowed, 2nd in NFL; 294 total YPG allowed, 3rd in NFL). It might be even better in 2013 after adding CB Nnamdi Asomugha, rookie FS Eric Reid and DT Glenn Dorsey. DEs Aldon Smith (19.5 sacks) and Justin Smith are both healthy, and ILBs NaVorro Bowman (148 tackles) and Patrick Willis (120 tackles) comprise the best linebacker duo in the NFL. CB Tarell Brown (13 PD) is an underrated corner who was a big reason why the Niners finished fourth in passing defense (200 YPG) and led the league by allowing just 5.65 passing YPA.
NEW YORK GIANTS at DALLAS COWBOYS
Sportsbook.ag Line & Total: Dallas -3.5 & 50
Opening Line & Total: Cowboys -3 & 49
The Cowboys look for a rare win over the Giants when the NFC East rivals clash on Sunday night.
New York has dominated this series in recent years, going 8-3 (SU and ATS) in the past 11 meetings. However, the road team won both games last year, giving New York QB Eli Manning four straight wins in Dallas, where he’s thrown for 1,228 yards (307 YPG) and 8 TD. Cowboys QB Tony Romo has also flourished in this series with 286 passing YPG and 28 TD over 12 games. The performances of these two quarterbacks are a big reason with the Over is 9-4 (69%) in this series since 2007. The Giants parted ways with veteran RB Ahmad Bradshaw and DE Osi Umenyiora this offseason, but hope ultra-talented youngsters RB David Wilson and DE Jason Pierre-Paul both step up. Romo has great weapons with WR Dez Bryant and TE Jason Witten, but RB DeMarco Murray needs to stay healthy for this team to succeed. While the Giants are a strong 57-37 ATS (61%) as a road underdog of seven points or less since 1992, the Cowboys are just 1-9 ATS (10%) as a home favorite of seven points or less in the past two seasons.
QB Eli Manning has taken over this offense, running a lot of three-receiver sets, and working off play-action. WR Hakeem Nicks works primarily on the outside with WR Victor Cruz getting most targets out of the slot. Cruz has been slowed with an injured heel during the preseason, but does expect to start on Sunday. TE Brandon Myers is the main check-down option. The Giants have moved toward a zone-blocking scheme more and more in past years. Second-year RB David Wilson fits best in a one-cut system, as does tandem back Andre Brown, but he was lost for the season with a broken leg suffered in late August. Although the Giants’ defense allowed the second-most yards in the NFL (383 YPG), they also forced 35 turnovers (3rd-best in NFL) with FS Stevie Brown compiling six interceptions. The defensive line is too talented with DEs Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck to record just 33 sacks again (22nd in league), and a better pass rush will certainly help their beleaguered secondary that gave up 7.6 YPA (2nd-worst in NFL). However, both Pierre-Paul (back) and starting FS Antrel Rolle (ankle) are questionable for this game. The defense added seven new defenders this offseason, but DT Cullen Jenkins is the only projected starter.
Jason Garrett will give up his play-calling duties to new offensive coordinator Bill Callahan this year. That should mean more action for the ground game with RB DeMarco Murray taking a full workload. The Cowboys finished third in the NFL in passing offense last year (296 YPG), but had the league’s second-worst rushing offense (79 YPG). Callahan will still operated Garrett’s aggressive Air Coryell passing game with WR Dez Bryant now the clear-cut No. 1 option. QB Tony Romo often comes back to TE Jason Witten for shorter targets, and WR Miles Austin does more catch-and-run work over the middle. Dallas will switch to a 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and new defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, who oversaw Chicago’s amazing 44-turnover defense last year. This pair of veteran coaches will hopefully increase the team’s paltry 16 takeaways from a year ago. Star pass rusher DeMarcus Ware (111 career sacks) shifts to defensive end, Sean Lee mans the MLB spot and Bruce Carter explodes from the weakside linebacker position. The Cowboys also inked two new starters via free agency, SLB Justin Durant and FS Will Allen. Dallas is dealing with two significant injuries on defense, as DE Jay Ratliff (hamstring) is doubtful to play, while DE/LB hybrid Anthony Spencer is listed as questionable with a knee injury.