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Atlanta Falcons OVER 7.5 (-135)
While this year’s group of first-year head coaches might not wow you, I’m a firm believe that Atlanta made the best hire of the bunch by bringing Arthur Smith four hours south from his previous position as the Tennessee Titans' offensive coordinator. In just two seasons as the Titans OC, Smith resurrected Ryan Tannehill’s career, got back-to-back rushing titles for Derrick Henry and a pair of 1,000-yard receiving seasons for AJ Brown. He also schemed up 984 receiving yards out of Corey Davis in 2020 and that’s with Davis missing two games. While 2019 and 2020 were the first two seasons of Brown’s career and he certainly looks like a special talent, the other players mentioned all reached new heights in their career with Smith calling the shots on offense.
So now Smith’s first gig as a head coach allows him the opportunity to work with Matt Ryan, who is coming off a season in which he finished fourth in the NFL in passing yards, one of the league’s best young receivers in Calvin Ridley and a generational tight end prospect Kyle Pitts? We’ll get to the defense in a second, but there’s no doubt this is going to be a fun team to watch in 2021. I’m sure Atlanta would like to improve its ground attack after finishing 27th in the NFL in rushing yards per game one year ago and the Falcons did bring in Mike Davis in the backfield, whom they should be familiar with from his time filling in for Christian McCaffrey in Carolina last season. The Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers also did finish 28th in rushing yards per game in 2020, as if anyone needed any more evidence that the NFL is a passing league and rushing prowess isn't as important as it used to be.
The Falcons' pass defense was an atrocity for Atlanta last season and is a huge concern heading into 2021, as they were dead last in passing yards allowed per game in 2020. They’ve revamped their safety room, however, as all four safeties that played at least 200 snaps last season are gone and in are veterans Erik Harris and Duron Harmon as well as rookies Jaylinn Hawkins and Richie Grant. They’ll be banking on internal improvement at corner as they drafted Isaiah Oliver, Kendall Sheffield and AJ Terrell in the 2018-2020 drafts respectively and will hope at least two of them can find their footing under a new coaching staff. When you consider the only way this secondary can go is up, overhauling at safety and banking on young players improving at corner isn’t the worst plan in the world.
Lastly, the Falcons simply weren’t a 4-12 team last year. They struggled mightily in close games going 2-8 in games decided by one score in 2020. Remember, it’s all about the numbers in sports betting and this number at 7.5 says we just need Atlanta to be 8-9 to cash the over. So with some better luck in those tight games, an excellent offensive mind as their head coach and a defense that can only get better, I believe Atlanta can get to eight wins. I’ll take it a step further and say if you want to have some fun and play the Falcons at some plus prices to make the playoffs or win the NFC South, I won’t stop you.
Chicago Bears OVER 7.5 Wins
Mediocre quarterback play has been the story, especially as of late, with this storied franchise. The QB position under Matt Nagy’s tenure has been no different as years prior either. The organization believes that they’ve finally fixed the quarterback position this year, however, with the selection of Ohio State’s Justin Fields in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. But will Justin Fields even see the field? Veteran Andy Dalton was signed this offseason and anointed the Week 1 starter before training camp even started. All indications from training camp thus far is that Dalton is in no jeopardy of losing that title, so what does that mean for the 2021 Chicago Bears?
Offensively, Dalton does provide the team with veteran leadership and a solid understanding of coach Matt Nagy’s system at the most important position on the field. That's indeed important for stabilizing the position and the offense overall, sure, but we’ve also seen Dalton’s play in recent years be quite erratic.
Can Nagy come up with a consistent game plan that highlights Dalton’s strengths while minimizing his deficiencies? Nagy was able to do that very thing in his first year with the Bears with the polarizing Mitchell Trubisky back in 2018, but can he do that again with Dalton? Dalton will play behind an offensive line that played very well during the second half of the 2020 regular season, one that allowed David Montgomery to thrive on the ground and also show that he has potential to be one of the better dual-threat running backs in the league. Defensively the Bears cut cornerback Kyle Fuller, which will put some pressure on secondary, but they do also get the anchor of their defense back in Eddie Goldman, who missed the entirety of the 2020 season due to a COVID-19 opt out. When Goldman is in the lineup, this defense is one of the better units in the league. Goldman's play up front allows the linebackers to roam free behind him and put pressure on the opposing quarterback, and these Bears have two of the top linebackers in the league in the future hall of famer Khalil Mack and the young, super talented Roquan Smith. The calling card of this team is their defense, and it’s poised to be one of the top defenses in 2021.
The key for the Bears and surpassing their win total of 7.5 is getting off to a good start early. On paper, they have some very winnable games in their first five, however their next five games are an absolute gauntlet before finishing up with an easier but still competitive schedule over their last seven. The Bears have never had a losing season under Nagy’s tenure, as they’ve finished 12-4, 8-8, and 8-8 with some brutal quarterback play over that time. Dalton is nothing to write home about, but I believe that under Nagy’s tutelage and newlyfound commitment to the running game, this offense will be good enough to win games, especially behind one of the better defenses in the league. We only have to get to 8 wins (8-9 overall, still under .500) which is something that Nagy has done each and every year as a head coach.
San Francisco 49'ers OVER 10.5 Wins
Many people might say that the San Francisco 49'ers simply suffered from a Super Bowl hangover last season, but I believe it was just an unlucky year due to injuries. Jimmy Garroppolo, George Kittle, Deebo Samuel and Raheem Mostert missed a combined total of 35 games as well as star defensive ends Nick Bosa and Dee Ford playing in only 3 games total. The 49'ers only played 2 games all of last year when they had their QB1, TE1, WR1 and WR2 all starting and healthy, and they won both of those games. With a little bit better luck and this team staying healthy, I see them performing more like their 2019 season when they reached the Super Bowl and were mere minutes away from beating the Kansas City Chiefs
Jimmu Garroppolo has played well enough for this team to win games when he’s been healthy as he’s 24-9 SU 18-14-1 ATS while averaging 28.2 PPG but Garoppolo still has limitations in his game which don’t allow this offense to reach its full capacity, which is why the 49'ers made a big investment in rookie QB Trey Lance. Leading up to evaluating the draft Kyle Shanahan made a statement about having the ideal quarterback, saying "you want a guy that’s as accurate as Drew Brees and can move like Lamar Jackson,” and he’s confident that he’s found his guy in Lance as they moved up to the 3rd pick in the draft to get him.
With Shanahan’s ability to draw up plays to scheme guys open and Lance's ability to reach his potential while still being on his rookie contract, just one of those reasons alone could end up being the reason why the 49'ers win a lot of games instead of having a guy in Garroppolo where you just don’t want him to mess it up. Either way, this team is poised to look more like their old selves, which at 11-6 isn't asking for much.
-Justin "Smoove" Everett