Niners, Cards, and Woeful West

HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

DUD OF A DESSERT WITH SF/AZ
CAPPING OFF THANKSGIVING WEEKEND

by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

It's not exactly a dream finish to what's been a very entertaining and profitable Thanksgiving Weekend. Two of the worst teams in the league...who are tied for last place in the worst division in the league...will square off tonight on ESPN when the San Francisco 49ers visit the Arizona Cardinals.

Particularly troublesome for these teams is the fact that they were supposed to be competing for FIRST place rather than LAST place!

Arizona has owned the NFC West in recent seasons. The loss of Kurt Warner was supposed to hurt them. But, with Matt Leinart groomed to take over after a long apprenticeship, many pundits expected the Cardinals to still be a serious threat to win the division.

San Francisco was the logical choice to supplant Arizona if they were going to get supplanted. Mike Singletary's team seemed poised to take over control of the division. In fact, they were virtually a consensus pick to win the NFC West before the season started. Some pundits were seriously considering them as a Super Bowl darkhorse.

Matt Leinart was sent packing before the season even started. San Francisco didn't get its wake-up call until a few weeks ago. Thus, a pair of 3-7 teams are in a national TV showcase in the not-so-grand finale to one of the most important weekends of the football season.

How bad is the NFC West? Some context:

NFL TOTAL OFFENSE RANKINGS (entering the weekend)
San Francisco 25th
St. Louis 27th
Seattle 29th
Arizona 31st

There are only 32 teams in the NFL. And, we're in an era where you have to have a good offense to compete. Yes, defense still wins championships...amongst the teams who know how to move the ball! If you can't move the ball you have no shot.

Oh, those horrible offensive rankings are coming against schedules that are very weak to begin with.

NFL STRENGTH OF SCHEDULES (according to USA Today)
Arizona 20th
San Francisco 24th
Seattle 27th
St. Louis 30th

We're not seeing bad offenses vs. league average schedules. We're seeing bad offenses vs. easy schedules! Yes, even if you knew this was a bad division, it's probably even worse than you realized!

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Things aren't quite so bleak on defense.

NFL TOTAL DEFENSE RANKINGS (entering the weekend)
San Francisco 13th
St. Louis 15th
Seattle 28th
Arizona 29th

Both San Francisco and St. Louis are lead by head coaches who came from the defensive side of the ball. It's not surprising they have acceptable rankings there. Just remember that the rankings came against weak schedules...in a division where nobody has an offense! Seattle and Arizona are abysmal when you adjust for context.

Yes, Pete Carroll of USC had Seattle in first place entering the weekend. It's still a bad team, and he's still in over his head!

It's a shame that one of these teams will reach the playoffs. The NFC West winner will host a Wildcard team in the first week of the postseason. Given Seattle's poor home showing against the NY Giants already, you have to assume it's going to be a loss to the class of team likely to earn the right to visit a woeful host.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves. The playoffs will be here in due course. JIM HURLEY doesn't care about being entertained. HE WANTS TO WIN MONEY! Let's see what our key indicator stats are saying about tonight's game.

San Francisco: 8.7 offense, 11.0 defense (-6 TO's, 24th schedule)
Arizona: 9.0 offense, 15.4 defense (-8 TO's, 20th schedule)

You'll recognize those numbers from our stat previews that run every Thursday. The offensive and defensive numbers are per-game Drive Point averages (those scored and allowed on drives of 60 yards or more). We add in turnover differential and strength of schedule for context (and you won't find a better nutshell summary of stuff that MATTERS anywhere on the internet!). The numbers suggest:

*San Francisco is the better team by a good bit, with a differential of -2.3 in Drive Points compared to -6.4 for the Cardinals. It's odd to say that about a pair of 3-7 teams. But...the Niners grade out as four points better on a neutral field...seven at home...one on the road because home field advantage is worth three points in the NFL.

*Both teams have issues in the turnover department, making things worse than the negative differentials would already be suggesting. Unproductive AND turnover prone is a lethal combination.

*Neither can point to strength of schedule as an excuse, as we made clear earlier.

(Note, if you're wondering what the whole division looks like...since we've made today's piece a study of the whole not-so-fearsome-foursome:

St. Louis: 8.9 offense, 10.0 defense (+2 TO's, 30th schedule)
San Francisco: 8.7 offense, 11.0 defense (-6 TO's, 24th schedule)
Arizona: 9.0 offense, 15.4 defense (-8 TO's, 20th schedule)
Seattle: 9.4 offense, 16.2 defense (+1 TO's, 27th schedule)

St. Louis is the closest to respectability in the numbers, but it's come against a very easy schedule. Seattle's division lead entering the week was largely smoke and mirrors.)

San Francisco is a slight favorite in Las Vegas, which is what Drive Points would suggest with a four-point neutral field differential.

So, you can deduce that JIM HURLEY'S BIG PLAY tonight isn't based on the math! It's based something he's heard from his on site sources about the mindset of one of the teams. Triggered by a bad loss last week (either Arizona's 31-13 loss at Kansas City, or San Francisco's 21-0 loss to Tampa Bay), one squad has given up on the season and tuned out their head coach. You're going to see a flat effort this evening from this side. And, when a BAD team plays FLAT, they have no chance to win and cover.

You can purchase our full Monday Night card including basketball online. Just make a few clicks for our Niners/Cardinals bombshell plus bonus baskets that might involve New Orleans/Oklahoma City, Milwaukee/Utah, Virginia/Minnesota, and USC/TCU depending on what we hear from our Wise Guy connections in Las Vegas and offshore. Seasonal packages are also available. Make tonight your FIRST NIGHT in a season-ending onslaught that runs through the bowls and playoffs!

Coming up through the rest of the week:

TUESDAY: College basketball TV action to close out November that will feature our best plays from the Big Ten/ACC Challenge (including North Carolina/Illinois and Ohio State/Florida State on ESPN) or Georgtown/Missouri on ESPNU. You'll also get our top NBA play from a card that features Boston, Orlando, the Lakers, and San Antonio.

WEDNESDAY: December opens with a huge NBA card (12 games!) and more from the Big Ten/ACC Challenge including Michigan State/Duke and Purdue/Virginia Tech. We'll really be stepping out in the colleges on the biggest weeknight schedule we've had so far this season. If you've been sitting on the fence about starting your basketball portfolio...get off the fence and get in the money!

THURSDAY: LeBron James' long awaited return to Cleveland highlights are ticket as Miami/Cleveland leads off TNT's weekly TV doubleheader. We'll also be looking very closely at UCLA/Kansas on ESPN2 in the colleges. Oh, THERE'S FOOTBALL TOO! Houston visits Philadelphia on the NFL Network, and Arizona State faces hated Arizona in another classic college rivalry game.

This all leads into CHAMPIONSHIP WEEKEND in college football, where the ACC, SEC, Big 12, CUSA, and MAC champions will be crowned. Huge NFL games like Pittsburgh/Baltimore and NY Jets/New England are on tap Sunday and Monday too.

So...TONIGHT'S game may not be worth watching on TV. Cash your tickets with JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK then park yourself in front of the couch for almost a non-stop barrage of great basketball and football for the rest of the week. And, be sure you're with us EVERY DAY in the NOTEBOOK as we guide you through the biggest stories in sports from a handicapping perspective.

YOU'RE ALWAYS CONNECTED WITH NETWORK!

This article is part of the VSM MASTERS SERIES presented by VegasSportsMasters.com and JimHurley.com. For more information on JIM HURLEY'S handicapping packages, call 1-800-323-4453.

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