Back in the day—and by “the day” I mean less than three years ago—Alex Rodriguez was on track to become the greatest power hitter in baseball history, Miley Cyrus was that cute Hannah Montana kid on the Disney Channel and the NFC West was a bigger mess than the economy. Today, A-Rod has morphed into a baseball pariah, Cyrus has morphed into a tramp (who can’t stop jamming an ice pick into her daddy’s achy, breaky heart) and the NFC West has morphed into arguably the best division in the NFL.
The difference between the three? Anyone with half-functioning eyesight could’ve seen the A-Rod and Cyrus spirals coming (at least to a degree). Nobody, though, could’ve predicted the NFC West’s resurrection. Rewind to 2010, when the 7-8 Rams and the 6-9 Seahawks squared off in Week 17 to determine the division champ. Seattle won that barn burner 16-6, becoming the first team in NFL history to claim a division crown with a sub-.500 record.
As a whole, the Seahawks, Rams, 49ers and Cardinals finished 2010 with a 25-39 record … which was actually better than 2009 (24-40) … which was actually better than 2008 (22-42).
So, yeah, what happened last year—when the NFC West combined to go 34-28-2, with the Seahawks and 49ers each posting 11 victories and coming within seconds of facing each other in the NFC Championship Game—was stunning. And according to Las Vegas oddsmakers, not at all a fluke, as San Francisco and Seattle sport two of the league’s four highest win totals for 2013; St. Louis is projected to at least flirt with .500; and even Arizona looks improved, judging by the number of bets placed on the Cardinals going “over” their win total.
But will reality match perception in the West? Let’s find out as I wrap up my season win-total previews. (Reminder: I’m using the best available odds from the LVH, William Hill, Cantor Gaming and Station Casinos.)
Cardinals (5½ wins): That bright light you see coming from the south? That’s Larry Fitzgerald’s million-dollar smile, which the Cardinals’ stud receiver has been sporting since the team acquired Carson Palmer. (The fact Fitzgerald is giddy about Palmer tells you just how dreadful Arizona’s quarterback play has been since Kurt Warner retired!) But the upgrade under center is only one reason why bettors have pushed the juice on the Cardinals’ “over” from minus-110 to as high as minus-175. The other reason? The defense—which last year had its moments, holding nine opponents to 21 points or less—has gotten better.
Arizona does have a brutal schedule, but most of its tough non-divisional games (Lions, Panthers, Falcons, Texans, Colts) are at home, where the Cards have won at least four games for six straight years. The play: OVER (-135, William Hill).
49ers (11½): Here’s your ironic note of the week: Former UNR standout Colin Kaepernick burst on the scene last year only because of an injury to then-starter Alex Smith. Now the 49ers are one Kaepernick injury away from seeing their 2014 Super Bowl dreams go up in smoke. Why? Because the other QBs on San Francisco’s roster are named Colt McCoy, Scott Tolzien and B.J. Daniels. Now here’s your reminder of the week: Kaepernick likes to run. A lot. And defensive players like to hit running quarterbacks. Hard. Clearly, I’m not the only one who doesn’t see Kaepernick making it through the season unscathed, as bettors have hammered the 49ers “under” as hard as they have the Cardinals “over.” The play: UNDER (-170, William Hill).
Rams (7½): I attended a football-betting preview seminar last week at the LVH, during which one guy a lot smarter than me said his best win-total bet was the Rams “under”—and the three other guys on the panel (also a lot smarter than me) agreed that St. Louis, which went 7-8-1 last year, will take a step back in 2013. Who am I to argue, particularly when the Rams play back-to-back road games three times, all in difficult venues and/or against difficult opponents: at Atlanta and Dallas; at Houston and Carolina; and at San Francisco and Arizona. The play: UNDER (EVEN, LVH).
Seahawks (10½): You know how many times Seattle has posted double-digit victories in its 37-year history? Six. You know how many times the Seahawks have done it in consecutive seasons? Zero. But this year’s gonna be different, right? Because Seattle has Russell Wilson (can you say “sophomore slump”?) and Marshawn Lynch (can you say 1,452 career carries, including 600 over the last two years?) and Pete Carroll (can you say 61-58 career NFL record?). Please forgive me if I’m just a wee bit skeptical of the Seahawks—and, really, this entire division. The play: UNDER (+110, Cantor).
Best Bet: 49ers-UNDER.