As I did for the AFC, I will do for the NFC.
If you find yourself "stuck" in Las Vegas on the eve of the NFL season, and want a better way to spend your last few crinkled dollars than at the craps table, here is how I would bet on the NFC Over/Under team props.
Under San Francisco (10.5)
For those of you unaware, San Francisco moves into a new stadium this year: Levi's Stadium. In the last 20 years, 15 other teams have moved into a new stadium. According to research conducted by Football Outsiders, these teams have an adjustment period prior to realizing the typical NFL home field advantage that knocks roughly a half win off the team's expected win total.
The 49ers will likely be much worse against the run in 2014 than they were one year ago: Navarro Bowman will miss at least half of the 2014 regular season. Bowman, an All-Pro in 2013, will be the sixth All-Pro inside-linebacker to miss at least half a season in the past fifteen years. According to the Football Outsiders Almanac, the other five teams yielded, on average, more than half a yard more per run without that All-Pro inside linebacker.
They also have a few questions on their offensive line. The 49ers, thought of as a power running team, declined in short yardage and power situations in 2013. (Recall, they lost Delanie Walker while rookie Vance McDonald disappointed.) Now, they'll replace their veteran center with a rookie, Mike Iupati returns from an ankle break suffered in the playoffs, and Anthony Davis recovers from offseason shoulder surgery. There's no question this line can be good, but that's a lot of question marks for a team traditionally reliant on a power running game.
All of this is secondary, though, to the play of quarterback Colin Kaepernick. I think it's nothing short of pure wishfulness to expect him to improve from his rather pedestrian 6.5 Y/A and sub-60% completion percentage in 2013. If he can't, he'll have to continue to play mistake-free football - he only threw seven picks last year - while staying healthy, despite relying on his legs for most of his value.
I'm not saying I can't see the 49ers continuing their postseason run; I would just personally bet that their win total in 2013 is more likely to be 8, 9, or 10 than it is to be above that figure.
Over Dallas Cowboys (7.5)
Are the Cowboys good? Bluntly, no. But this is a value bet: the over on this line is actually a +145, meaning a $100 bet would produce a profit of $145. To break even, we need the Cowboys to finish with 8 or more wins just 40.8% of the time.
There are also some reasons for optimism in Dallas. Chiefly, it's the decentralization of Jason Garrett. Last year, the Cowboys brought in Bill Callahan to overhaul their running game. It worked, as they improved by almost any running metric you can come up with. This year, they've brought in Scott Linehan to overhaul the passing attack. Expect more screens and play action passes, helping to keep Tony Romo free from the pass rush instead of consistently scrambling.
The Cowboys also reside in a relatively weak division and get the luxury of facing the AFC South as the rotating AFC division. Additionally, one of their road games is a UK road game against Jacksonville, meaning they actually play an 8 home, 7 road, 1 neutral schedule.
Yes, their defense will miss DeMarcus Ware and Sean Lee. But the defense has missed both of those players for different time periods throughout the last four years anyway, so the drop off will be slightly less than simply projecting a full season of missing games.
Do I expect the Cowboys to compete for the postseason? Not really. Do I think there's a reasonable chance their not-too-distant-past top five offense returns in 2014? I do. That makes this a good value bet.
Over Atlanta Falcons (8.5)
Another value bet, this time at +120.
I'm betting on a rebound for a few reasons. First, the Falcons were incredibly unlucky with both their schedule and injuries in 2013. Quoting the Football Outsiders Almanac:
There were other injuries—lots of them. At the fantasy po- sitions, Roddy White missed three games, Steven Jackson four, Harry Douglas five. Offensive tackle Sam Baker started only four games. Six linebackers started at least one game for the Falcons (on a 4-3 team, at that), but only two of them started more than seven: undrafted rookies Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow. When all was said and done, Atlanta finished 27th in Adjusted Games Lost, and made the bottom five at wide receiver, offensive line, and linebacker.
As I said in the AFC guide, quarterback is both the most predictive and the most important position of all. Matt Ryan passes that test with ease, even with an interception blip in 2013.
If Julio Jones can stay healthy or the defense, buoyed by either a Desmond Trufant breakout or the meshing of an entirely new defensive line (as the Falcons brought in Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, and spent a 2nd round pick on a DT), takes a step towards simple mediocrity, the Falcons will return from their 2013 disappointment to once again compete for the division title. That means more than 8.5 wins. As a value bet, you could do much worse.