Here's a lock: The highest-rated Week 1 game in the United States, outside of the four prime-time matchups, will be San Francisco at Dallas. That used to be one of the NFL's marquee rivalries. The Niners are 3.5-point favorites on NFL odds.
49ers Ready To Put Seattle Behind Them?
San Francisco might be disappointed to not be facing Green Bay in Week 1, since the Niners have beaten the Packers each of the past two opening days, which turned out to be preludes to a San Francisco playoff victory over Green Bay, as well.
Of course, the last time the Niners were on the field for a game that counted was the NFC Championship Game loss in Seattle, 23-17. San Francisco was the better team for the first three quarters, but Colin Kaepernick had three turnovers in the fourth quarter, including the game-clinching interception in the Seattle end zone in the final seconds. You may remember how Seattle's Richard Sherman then taunted Michael Crabtree, the intended receiver, afterward. It worked: Sherman's national profile skyrocketed after that and he's probably the most famous cornerback in the NFL now. Kaepernick was 14 of 24 for 153 yards, a touchdown and two picks in the game. He did run for a team-high 130 yards on 11 carries.
Dallas finished 8-8 last season for the third straight year -- a fourth consecutive would be an NFL first. Also for the third straight year, the Cowboys lost a winner-take-all game for the NFC East title. This time it was 24-22 at home to Philadelphia. Tony Romo had to sit that one out after back surgery, the only game he missed all season. Kyle Orton was pretty good in his place, throwing for 358 yards and two touchdowns. He also had two interceptions, including the game-clincher with under two minutes left.
Romo should be fine for Week 1 off that surgery. However, two very good 49ers are in question: linebackers Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman. The former continues to have off-field problems, allegedly saying he had a bomb while in an airport security line, and it would be an upset if he's not suspended for at least the first handful of games this season. Bowman was everywhere against Seattle and has become one of the league's best players at his position, but he suffered a devastating knee injury in that NFC title game. He had surgery in February and it's very unlikely he's ready for Week 1. Expect Bowman to start the season on the PUP list.
The Cowboys still are coached by Jason Garrett -- for now -- but will have two new coordinators this season. Scott Linehan will the third offensive play-caller in the past three seasons. Technically, his title is passing game coordinator. Bill Callahan for some reason remains the offensive coordinator in title only (yep, this is how Jerry Jones runs things in Dallas). The Cowboys defense was historically bad under Monte Kiffin last season, finishing last in total defense and allowing the most yards franchise history, yet Kiffin is still on the staff, just not as defensive coordinator. That title belongs to former line coach Rod Marinelli. Kiffin is now called assistant head coach/defense, whatever that means.
This will be the first time Dallas has seen Kaepernick as the Cowboys, and 49ers haven't played since Week 2 of the 2011 season. The Cowboys won 27-24 at Candlestick in overtime. Romo was battered in the game, but was terrific with 345 yards passing, and two scores. He left the game for a bit with a broken rib. Miles Austin, who was released this offseason by Dallas, caught nine passes for 143 yards, and three scores; one of those from backup Jon Kitna while Romo was being treated in the locker room. Dallas' Dan Bailey tied it at the end of regulation with a 48-yard field goal. The 49ers managed only 206 yards of offense. The 2013 Dallas defense gave that much up in a quarter it seemed at times. The Cowboys have won three in a row in the series.
NFL Free Picks: This line by all rights should be double what it is. It's 3.5 because it's the Cowboys and sportsbooks know that people love to back arguably the NFL's most popular team. Don't fall into that trap. Take San Francisco with your NFL pick, which has covered eight of its past 10 road games. The total is 48.5 on NFL odds; go 'under.' That bet has hit in eight of San Francisco's past eleven overall.