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Old 09-04-2002, 11:57 PM   #1
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THURSDAY, September 5, 2002

SELECTION: San Francisco -3½ over NEW YORK GIANTS

The 2002 NFL regular season finally kicks off Thursday night as the San Francisco 49ers visit the New York Giants. The Niners, who went 2-3 during the preseason, enter the new campaign looking to build off last year’s 12-4 record. The club added a couple of key pieces to the puzzle during the offseason, including ex-Giant and former Pro Bowl offensive guard Ron Stone, and ex-Bears safety Tony Parrish, who will attempt to fill the void left by the departure of Lance Schulters. The Giants, who compiled a 3-2 exhibition mark, stumbled to a 7-9 finish last year after making a surprising run to the Super Bowl in 2000. New York was uncharacteristically quiet during the free-agent signing period, deciding instead to maintain its solid salary-cap status for 2003.

The 49ers have crawled past their salary-cap problems of a few years ago to establish themselves as one of the top clubs in the NFC. Last year’s 12-win season was no fluke. San Francisco has a balanced offense led by Jeff Garcia, who became the first quarterback in team history to throw for 30-plus TDs in consecutive seasons (that's right, not even Joe Montana or Steve Young accomplished that feat). Known for the "West Coast" passing offense, head coach Steve Mariucci actually employs a run-first attack with the Niners. They had the second-best rushing attack in the league last year, averaging a whopping 140 yards per game on the ground. San Francisco’s vaunted rushing attack is led by Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow. Expect a more diverse look this year with Hearst and the up-and-coming Barlow splitting time at tailback. We also look for Mariucci to use the two players together in the backfield at times. All-World receiver Terrell Owens and his speed, size and athleticism present matchup problems for every NFL team. The Giants will be no exception. Owens is the featured component of the Niners’ passing attack and talks of piling up an NFL-record 2,000 receiving yards this year. Could this finally be the year J.J. Stokes has the breakout season that the club has been looking for since he took over a starting role after Jerry Rice’s departure? Stokes worked hard in the offseason to gain a rhythm with Garcia and has also stayed relatively healthy during training camp, so we'll see. If San Francisco is able to duplicate the dynamic receiving duo of Rice and John Taylor from glory days past current pass-catchers Owens and Stokes, and combine that with their strong rushing attack, they would be virtually impossible to stop.

It will be tough enough as it is for the Giants D to slow down the Niners in this game. The Michael Strahan situation was finally put to rest this week when the All-Pro defensive end inked a six-year contract extension. New York will need to generate a consistent pass rush or Garcia will pick apart an average Giants secondary. New York’s linebackers will have their hands full, with receivers running crossing patterns, Hearst and Barlow catching passes out of the backfield, and trying to keep containment on Garcia who loves to scramble and make plays on the run. With the departure of Jessie Armstead, the Giants 'backers are over-matched here. On offense the Giants certainly aren’t a very flashy bunch. QB Kerry Collins fumbled 23 times last season and threw 16 interceptions as he was on the move way too much, which forced him to make poor decisions with the football. This year's weaker, thinner, and less experienced offensive line will not make it any easier for him. The only starter in this game from last year’s unit is LT Luke Petitgout. Center Dusty Zeigler will miss the opener following offseason knee surgery. RB Tiki Barber is expected to play in this game, but he might be limited following a preseason hamstring injury. The Virginia product has been the offense’s MVP over the past two seasons. With Barber potentially limited, the Giants will look to get Ron Dayne more involved in the mix; however, the club has been kicking itself ever since it selected Dayne over Shaun Alexander in the 2000 draft. The coaching staff can’t seem to find an equitable way to use both Barber and Dayne over the course of the game’s 60 minutes, and Dayne has never stepped up to be the kind of back they had envisioned. He simply runs too soft for a guy of his size, and he's too slow to be anything more than a plower. The Giants will no doubt be forced to go to the air more often than they would like in this contest. Starting wideouts Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard are solid, but the talk of training camp was No. 1 pick Jeremy Shockey. The rookie tight end presents the Giants with an element that their offense had been lacking since Mark Bavaro left the team more than a decade ago.

The Niners Defense must account for Shockey or risk losing the game on account of a rookie tight end. They will certainly be looking to tee off on Collins as well. We expect defensive coordinator Jim Mora to run a lot of stunts and blitzes against New York’s inexperienced front five. He wants to be more aggressive this season with his front seven, and there’s no better time than game one with the shaky O-Line they'll be facing here to start the experiment. 49er DBs will be in a position to snare a few errant passes from Collins as the front seven generate a consistent rush. Run-stuffers Dana Stubblefield and Bryant Young should control the line of scrimmage and allow the linebackers more freedom to roam. OLB Julian Peterson will share the responsibility of keeping Shockey in check.

It will take the 49ers beating themselves for New York to have a reasonable chance here, but Steve Mariucci, who preaches taking care of the football, leads NFL coaches with fewest turnovers committed by his team (minimum of 50 games). This is a maturing, playoff-experienced team that shouldn't make dumb mistakes. What we have here, is, quite simply, a team on the rise taking on a team in decline. The younger, faster, quickly improving 49ers are the better squad and find themselves in a good spot here. They have gone 10-5-1 ATS as favorites over the past 2 years, are 5-1 ATS as September road faves of 6 or less points, and 11-4 ATS vs. their last 15 non-divisional opponents, beating the spread by an average of 8 points.

New York tried to mask their problems during training camp, such as the relatively new and questionable offensive line, limited defensive line depth and various sore spots among the starting positions (free safety, weakside linebacker and in the kicking game). Now the masks must come off. This is the real season and the pace and tempo increase. This will be the first time the Giants have faced the Jeff Garcia-Terrell Owens pass-catch tandem and we don't see them adequately prepared. Head coach Jim Fassel has faced the Niners only once and lost, 31-7, while the 49ers own victories in each of the past three meetings with New York, and won their last regular-season game at Giants Stadium in the 1992 season opener, 31-14. New York will have the home crowd behind them, but that simply hasn't been enough for them lately. They are 8-15-1 ATS in the Meadowlands over the last 3 years and 0-3 ATS as a home underdog.

While this is not officially a Monday Night Football game, the same type atmosphere and national attention is present for this, the league's lid-lifter, so we believe the same factors apply, which heavily favor the Niners as well. Despite home dogs notoriously covering on MNF (although 0-4 ATS last year), San Fran is actually 11-5 ATS as a prime-time road favorite, including 5-0 ATS in their last 5 tries. The average spread win for the 49ers in those 5 games was an astounding 14 points, with the closest game falling a hefty 8 points shy of the spread! In their last dozen games overall on MNF, the Niners have indeed been a San Francisco treat for those backing them, simply going 11-1 ATS. Meanwhile, New York is not quite ready for prime time as they are 1-6 ATS ON MNF, including 1-4 ATS at home, with an average spread loss of 15 points!

There is little question that San Fran will put points on the board and win the game SU. It would seem to us that the only question is whether they can cover the spread as well. In addition to the previously referenced numbers we have uncovered these gems: The 49ers are 67-19 ATS when scoring 28+ points, while New York is a horrific 2-37 ATS (0-11 last 11 times) when allowing 28+ points. Put those numbers in Giants stadium and they become even more stark. The Niners are 33-5 ATS when scoring 28+ points on road with an average spread win of 12 points, while New York is 2-17 ATS when allowing 28+ points at home, losing to the spread by an average of 13 points! Finally, in SU losses, New York rarely covers, going 2-19 ATS their last 21 defeats. At home, they are not any better, going 4-34-2 ATS in SU home losses (average spread loss of 10 points). As you might imagine, San Francisco is the mirror opposite in this dichotomy, going 16-3 ATS in SU road victories (average spread win of 12 points).

FINAL PREDICTED SCORE: San Francisco 30 New York Giants 23
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