Thursday Night NFL Preview

THURSDAY NIGHT NFL FEATURES SEAHAWKS AND 49ERS IN NFC WEST SHOWDOWN

Before the season started, fans knew there would at least be a chance that this week's Thursday Night NFL showdown matching the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers would be very important. San Francisco was a popular pick to go to the Super Bowl this year...while Seattle was a popular darkhorse pick to surprise in the division and maybe the postseason too.

Things couldn't have worked out any better in terms of DRAMA. The two teams are tied for first place in the NFC West right now with 4-2 records (along with Arizona, who is lucky to have that record and is once again dealing with a quarterback injury). Whoever wins will be in the driver's seat in the West. Whoever loses will be basely sitting over .500 knowing that a strong finish will be required to even earn a Wildcard in the competitive NFC conference.

Also:

  • We have a former USC coach facing a former Stanford coach...and those guys didn't like each other back at the college level either!

  • We have a relatively new defensive stalwart in Seattle hoping to make a statement in the home city of one of the dominant NFL defenses of the past few seasons.

  • We have young quarterback Russell Wilson recently upstaging Alex Smith with a pair of dramatic game-winning touchdown passes. Smith may be moving in the right direction...but it will be a tough blow if the rookie Wilson outperforms him tonight under a national spotlight.

The NFL Network assigned itself a gem this week. Let's see what our indicator stats say about this marquee matchup...

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS at SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (8:20 p.m. on NFL NETWORK)
Las Vegas Spread: San Francisco by 6.5, total of 37.5

The Vegas market is suggesting San Francisco is about 3.5 points better on a neutral field. The game would be near pick-em if it were in Seattle (where the Seahawks have already played nailbiters against Green Bay and New England). This will be a great test to see if the Seahawks can play well vs. a top contender on the road. This is where we find out if Seattle is really a playoff threat or not. San Francisco's a known quantity...and some of what's known is the vulnerability they showed last week in a disappointing home loss to the NY Giants. Vegas has posted a very low total here because great defenses are on the field...facing quarterbacks who are far from certain to put points on the board against great defenses.

WON-LOST RECORDS (scheduled strength according to USA Today)
Seattle: 4-2 (15th ranked schedule)
San Francisco: 4-2 (9th ranked schedule)

Good stuff for both teams...as Seattle grades out as a winner against roughly a league average schedule. San Francisco looks even better because they've dealt with a tougher slate. Right now, both look like playoff teams. Tonight's winner will be in a battle with Atlanta, Chicago, and possibly others down the road for a first round bye.

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL
Seattle: -1
San Francisco: +2

Both of these teams play conservatively on offense. San Francisco is opening things up some this year thanks to new personnel. But, coach Jim Harbaugh would still rather punt than suffer a turnover. Pete Carroll of Seattle knows he has to take it slow with a rookie quarterback. We may see a lot of punting tonight as a result. San Francisco is most likely to have the edge in this stat if one presents itself. Note that the Niners were +5 for the season before last week's game against NYG where they had to increase their risk while playing from behind.

OFFENSIVE STATS
Seattle: 300.7 yards-per-game on 5.0 yards-per-play
San Francisco: 387.0 yards-per-game on 6.2 yards-per-play

This is one of the biggest developments of the year. It's been lost in the shuffle because of last week's loss to the Giants. But, San Francisco now has an offense! Their newfound big play capability has them over six yards-per-play. And, who would have thought that an Alex Smith-quarterbacked team could make a run at 400 yards per game a third of the way into the season? They did have some problems last week...which means they could have more problems this week against another good defense. A very important game for Smith in terms of proving that he can get the job done when needed vs. quality.

DEFENSIVE STATS
Seattle: 294.7 yards-per-game on 4.7 yards-per-play
San Francisco: 275.8 yards-per-game on 4.6 yards-per-play

Fantastic numbers here...which is why the total is so low. If both offenses keep things very safe against intimidating stop units...we could see a battle of field goals and punts this evening. So, what looks like a great matchup in the standings may be a boring game to watch! Sometimes games like this blow up because one head coach tries to get creative. Will Seattle and San Francisco become the Pittsburgh-Baltimore rivalry of the NFC? The preview stats you're seeing today would be consistent with those from Steelers-Ravens in their recent primes.

LAST WEEK'S BOXES

SEATTLE 24, NEW ENGLAND 23
Total Yardage: New England 475, Seattle 368
Rushing Yards: New England 87, Seattle 85
Passing Stats: New England 36-58-2-388, Seattle 16-27-0-283
Turnovers: New England 2, Seattle 2
Third Downs: New England 44%, Seattle 33%
Vegas Line: New England by 3.5, total of 43

It's not embarrassing to get outgained by New England. And, the Seahawks managed to keep the Pats off the scoreboard relatively speaking considering that almost 500 yards were allowed. Think about how great Seattle's stat averages were before this game! Seattle must be concerned offensively about turnovers and third downs. Those are key categories when you have a rookie quarterback. With tonight's game being on the road...QB inexperience may be the tie-breaker that ultimately decides who covers the spread.

NY GIANTS 26, SAN FRANCISCO 3
Total Yardage: NY Giants 342, San Francisco 314
Rushing Yards: NY Giants 149, San Francisco 80
Passing Stats: NY Giants 15-28-0-193, San Francisco 23-37-3-234
Turnovers: NY Giants 0, San Francisco 3
Third Downs: NY Giants 33%, San Francisco 29%
Vegas Line: San Francisco by 6.5, total of 46

Speaking of turnovers and third downs. The Niners struggled in both categories last week. Third downs were an issue all last season because Harbaugh was so conservative with Smith. If throwing downfield more often increases turnovers while not improving third downs...then the city's Super Bowl dreams may have to be put on hold for awhile. When playing clean, San Francisco looks to be beat in the NFC. We'll be learning over the next month how regularly they can pull that off.

BEST EXPECTATION
We'd have to say that the very best expectation is for a defensive struggle that sees both teams running clock, playing field position, and trying to grind out a win. The possible monkey wrenches in that scenario come from the rookie status of Seattle's quarterback...and the "trying to get better"status of San Francisco's quarterback. Either could blow up with turnovers if they try to bite off more than they can chew.

JIM HURLEY has been working closely with his sources to get a read on how these coaches are going to approach the game. First meetings are often close to the vest, with creativity saved for divisional rematches. That could trigger an Under play here. But, if our sources here about some trickeration or opening up of the offenses...then either team and the Over becomes a possibility at manageable prices.

Bottom line...DON'T MAKE A MOVE UNTIL YOU HEAR WHAT JIM HURLEY HAS TO SAY!

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Back with you Friday to start two days of big-game previews in college football action. We'll look at South Carolina-Florida on Friday, then Kansas State-West Virginia on Saturday here in the NOTEBOOK. Both are top 10 meetings in terms of the BCS standings.  The NFL resumes on Sunday just in time for another exciting week of action. Why lose on your own when BIG, JUICY WINNERS from JIM HURLEY are JUST A FEW CLICKS AWAY!

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