There is no better time to win money on football than the first two weeks. Being a good gambler isn't necessarily about knowing who will win games (that is a given), but being able to identify when Vegas has overvalued or undervalued specific teams.
What's so special about the first two weeks? Vegas has absolutely no clue what's going on. Spreads are based almost entirely on offseason perception and what happened last year. If you feel strongly about certain teams you probably aren't going to find better value than the first two weeks.
That's where I come in. I wouldn't call myself an expert (I prefer the term "guru"), but I think I have a good read on how this week is going to play out.
I'm not going to get every pick right (any percentage in the mid-to-high-50's is considered excellent against the spread), but I'll at least set you on the right path. Here are my Week 1 picks against the spread.
Is it unfair of me to post this pick a day after the game? Yeah, probably, but I made it and I have an enormous ego so I'm posting it—deal with it.
Need proof that I went with Dallas? Check out my NFL preview. I make my feelings about the Giants and Cowboys very clear.
One last note before we go on to the games that haven't actually happened: Dallas heads to Seattle next week and will be huge favorites after their big win. If I've learned anything about the Cowboys over the last decade it's that they'll always screw you over when you think they've made the leap.
Seattle is awesome at home. Dallas is incredibly erratic. Take the points with Seattle next week. Even if they don't win, they'll keep it close.
Pick: Cowboys (+3).
Doesn't this seem like a game Chicago would blow against an easy opponent? Huge favorites, big expectations for the season, important game with Green Bay in five days, this seems like the classic look-ahead game.
On paper Indy actually matches up nicely with Chicago. I don't care whether they're standing up or have their hand in the ground: Chicago's offensive line can't block Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. It just isn't happening.
On the other side Brian Urlacher isn't going to be close to 100 percent. That's going to make Andrew Luck's debut much easier.
I think Chicago wins the game, but it will come down to the fourth quarter and will end with a single-digit margin of victory.
Pick: Indianapolis (+9.5).
Cleveland has been getting some upset buzz over the past few weeks. Normally I'd agree that Philly is exactly the type of team that would lose in Week 1 despite being huge favorites, but those types of upsets only happen when the other team has...you know...talent.
Cleveland just isn't good enough to hang with Philly. Do you really want to bet on Brandon Weeden in his first career start? With Trent Cole and Jason Babin breathing down his neck? And with Nnamdi Asomugha lurking in the secondary?
Even if Michael Vick gets hurt (which, by the way, has become such a clichéd pick that I'm not even going to think about it), Philly can steamroll Cleveland with LeSean McCoy and the running game.
Oh, and if Joe Haden doesn't start (suspension pending) DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin will be covered by Sheldon Brown and Buster Skrine. Good luck with that. Take the Eagles.
Pick: Philadelphia (-8.5).
This is a perfect example of what I was talking about in the opening slide. Vegas has completely valued the wrong team (the Jets) due to past performance and offseason buzz.
The 2012 Jets aren't the 2010 Jets, and the 2012 Bills aren't the 2010 Bills. This game looks like a disaster for the Jets.
Buffalo has the best defensive line in football while the Jets have serious questions on the offensive line. Mark Sanchez isn't even good when he has time, when he's rushed he's among the worst quarterbacks in the league.
Everyone hypes the Jets defense, but they are secretly not great against the run. They were ranked only 13th last year against the run. They're going to see a lot of CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson.
If you like Buffalo to go 8-8 or better this year (and I have them at 10-6), this is a game they should win. The Jets are in complete disarray and the Bills are always great at the beginning of the season. I'd honestly lay three points with the Bills comfortably if the spread were reversed.
Pick: Buffalo (+3).
Let me preface this by saying that I love RGIII and this pick is by no means a slight to one of my new favorite players in the league. I don't think there's any chance Washington hangs with New Orleans.
Consider this: In nine home games last year the Saints averaged 41.55 points, never scored less than 27, and scored at least 40 points six times. Let's say that average dips to 35 points due to roster losses and Sean Payton's suspension.
Do you really want to bet on Robert Griffin scoring 29 points in his first NFL game? Because if the Saints put up 35 that's what it would take for Washington to cover.
I wouldn't take that risk if this were Week 7, but in Week 1? With New Orleans coming in fired up and ready to prove that they're a great team with or without their coach? There's no way I'm taking the Redskins. Sorry RGIII, maybe next time.
Pick: New Orleans (-7).
Here are the final scores from every Week 1 game the Patriots have played since 2007 (not including 2008 when Tom Brady got hurt):
Notice a trend? Outside of 2009 against Buffalo (Brady's first game back from a torn ACL), the Patriots have always been awesome in Week 1. I think it's Bill Belichick's little way of telling the rest of the league "I'm better than you, and don't you forget it."
Vegas would have to give me double digits to bet against that trend. I'm not taking 5.5 points for the right to watch New England win by 30. Don't outsmart yourself, take the Patriots.
Pick: New England (-5.5).
Let's assume Adrian Peterson and Maurice Jones-Drew cancel each other out by both doing very little. Let's also assume Leslie Frazier and Mike Mularkey cancel each other out by each losing a challenge and wasting a timeout in the third quarter.
Who would you rather bet on: Christian Ponder playing against the team with the 25th most sacks in the league last year, or Blaine Gabbert playing against the team with the most sacks in the league last year?
How many chances are you going to get to only lay 3.5 points against Blaine Gabbert playing an elite defensive front? The next time that happens the Jags will be getting 13.5. The extra noise of the Metrodome seals the deal.
Pick: Minnesota (-3.5).
I really thought about taking the points here. 12.5 is a lot for anybody, but the Texans don't have a particularly explosive offense. They run the ball really well, but they aren't the type of team that can randomly drop 45 on someone.
They're built to win games by scoring between 21 and 27 points. Let's say they score 24. That means Miami would only have to score 12 points to cover. Even against an elite defense like Houston that's manageable.
And then I remembered Ryan Tannehill is starting. Screw it. I'm not taking the risk. I'll lay 12.5 if it means getting to watch Tannehill throw four interceptions against one of the best defenses in the NFL.
Pick: Houston (-12.5).
Let's look at this the same way we looked at the Saints-Redskins game. The Lions averaged just over 30 points per game at home last year. That means if you're picking St. Louis you're essentially saying that you think the Rams will score at least 22 points.
Do you really want to do that when you consider that the Rams scored only 12 points per game last year? And remember, just because the Lions averaged 30 points per game last year doesn't mean they can't score more. Remember, the Rams were 26th in the league last year in scoring defense.
Picking the Rams essentially means you think they can compete in a shootout with the Lions. I have absolutely no faith that they can do that.
Pick: Detroit (-7.5).
Bookie: "How would you like to bet against Romeo Crennel in his first game back as a head coach?"
Gambler: "Well I'd love to, but I don't want to give 13 points."
Bookie: "He's only favored by three."
Gambler: "You're kidding! Well he must be playing the worst team in the league right?"
Bookie: "No he's actually playing against a playoff team from last year."
Gambler: "... Did Romeo somehow inherit the best roster in the league?"
Bookie: "No, his best defensive player (Tamba Hali) will miss the game because of a suspension, and three of his other top players (Eric Berry, Jamaal Charles, Tony Moeaki) are playing their first games since tearing their ACLs."
Gambler: "Wait, so I can bet against Romeo Crennel, with a messed up roster, playing against a playoff team, and only lay three points?"
Bookie: "That is correct."
Gambler: "I bet my house on Atlanta."
Pick: Atlanta (-3).
I think the Packers are at least three points better on average then every other team in the NFL with the possible exception of New England. I know that home-field advantage is worth approximately three points to Vegas.
That means that no team should be getting less than six points when they travel to Green Bay, and if you think San Francisco is worth that spread then you're basically saying they're the third best team in the league. That's entirely possible, but I have them somewhere between fourth and sixth.
I gave some thought to San Francisco when the line was seven, thinking that they could keep it close and at the very least push by losing by only a touchdown, but five points isn't enough for me to think San Francisco can go into Green Bay and beat the Packers. Especially with a quarterback disparity as big as Aaron Rodgers vs. Alex Smith.
Pick: Green Bay (-5).
This one comes down to personal preference. Everyone has one of these two teams as their NFC sleeper, it just depends on which one you like. I personally think Tampa Bay is going to make the playoffs, so I like them here.
I think Carolina has a pretty similar season to last year. They're going to score a lot of points and be very exciting, but winning games is going to be tough given the state of their defense.
Tampa's offense should be much better with Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks and Doug Martin. Josh Freeman looks like he's back in shape, and Greg Schiano is my pick for Coach of the Year.
It's a close one, but I like Tampa more and home-field advantage is important to young teams like these.
Pick: Tampa Bay (+2.5).
I'm so excited for the Russell Wilson era. He's either going to be a folk hero or flame out in a fantastic fashion. There's literally no in-between.
This game isn't about Russell Wilson though. It's about my excitement for the opportunity to bet against John Skelton.
This is going to be the gambling version of throwing to Calvin Johnson in Madden until your opponent proves they can stop him. Hear that Vegas? I'm betting against John Skelton every week until you start giving him 13 points! Try and stop me!
I'd bet against John Skelton if he were playing Alabama's defense, but Seattle's criminally underrated defense? This is going to be awesome. I know you aren't supposed to count your pick-sixes before they're thrown, but this is just too good to be true. Remind me to send Ken Whisenhunt a muffin basket.
Pick: Seattle (-2.5).
This is another case of Vegas valuing the wrong team. Think about the two sides here:
Pittsburgh is incredibly consistent and dependable. You know exactly what you're getting from them: 10-12 wins, a top 10 offense and a top five defense.
We have absolutely no idea what to expect from Denver, but their best case scenario is 10-12 wins, a top five offense and a top 10 defense.
In other words, if Denver plays their absolute best, which they probably won't because this is Peyton Manning's first game back and he has traditionally struggled against Pittsburgh, they'll be about as good as the Steelers. Even if that's the case, you're getting points with the Steelers.
I hate to pick against Peyton Manning at night, but we don't know if he's still Peyton Manning. I'd be perfectly happy to be wrong about this one, but I think Pittsburgh gives him a tough welcome back.
Pick: Pittsburgh (+1.5).
Assuming you subscribe to the well-known notion that home-field advantage is worth three points, this line says that the Bengals are only three points worse than the Ravens. Really?
I seem to recall the Ravens handling Cincy pretty easily twice last year. Combine that with Cincinnati's natural regression and I think Baltimore should be giving eight or nine points here.
I'll believe in the Bengals when I see them string together two consecutive winning seasons. They've won a combined 12 games in the two seasons following their last two trips to the playoffs.
Until then, why would I bet against Baltimore at home on Monday Night Football?
Pick: Baltimore (-6).
There are two games every year that you never want to bet on no matter what the circumstances: the second Monday night game of Week 1, and the Saturday night wild-card game. Weird things just tend to happen during those games.
If you are going to bet this one though, I'd go with Oakland. If weird things are going to happen I'd give the edge to the team with better athletes.
Carson Palmer actually had a ton of success against San Diego last year. He threw for over 700 yards in the two matchups.
This is a stay away game. I strongly recommend avoiding it, but if you must pick a side go with the Raiders. When in doubt take the home team.
Pick: Oakland (-1).