The 2014 NFL season begins on Thursday, and uncertainty continues to surround many of the league's teams. Some look to have significantly improved over the offseason, and other look to be in line for a step backward. This makes predicting Week 1 contests a daunting task—especially against the spread.
Vegas oddsmakers have already been hard at work deciphering which teams should be considered favorites, and which will be declared underdogs, before the new NFL season kicks off. So the question becomes: Which games appear to be the most favorable for bettors?
Taking in each squad's potential for the upcoming season, as well as matchup strengths and weaknesses, we can generate a final score prediction for each of the week's 16 contests and weigh them against the current odds.
Let's take a look at the full odds and picks for Week 1, followed by some analysis for a couple notable games.
|Green Bay Packers||+6/-6||Seattle Seahawks||SEA, 23-20|
|New England Patriots||-5.5/+5.5||Miami Dolphins||NE, 35-17|
|New Orleans Saints||-3/+3||Atlanta Falcons||NO, 38-28|
|Oakland Raiders||+5.5/-5.5||New York Jets||NYJ, 27-18|
|Cincinnati Bengals||+1.5/-1.5||Baltimore Ravens||CIN, 23-18|
|Jacksonville Jaguars||+10/-10||Philadelphia Eagles||PHI, 31-10|
|Buffalo Bills||+7/-7||Chicago Bears||CHI, 27-17|
|Cleveland Browns||+6.5/-6.5||Pittsburgh Steelers||PIT, 16-9|
|Washington Redskins||+3/-3||Houston Texans||WAS, 20-13|
|Minnesota Vikings||+4/-4||St. Louis Rams||MIN, 17-14|
|Tennessee Titans||+4/-4||Kansas City Chiefs||KC, 27-20|
|Carolina Panthers||+2/-2||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||TB, 16-13|
|San Francisco 49ers||-5/+5||Dallas Cowboys||SF, 26-20|
|Indianapolis Colts||+7.5/-7.5||Denver Broncos||DEN, 31-27|
|New York Giants||+5/-5||Detroit Lions||DET, 23-13|
|San Diego Chargers||+3/-3||Arizona Cardinals||SD, 26-23|
Sean O'Donnell's Predictions
Week 1 Bovada odds current as of 6 p.m. ET on Tuesday and are courtesy of OddsShark.com.
New England Patriots vs. Miami Dolphins
The Patriots have finished first in the AFC East for five consecutive season, and they begin their 2014 campaign against the Dolphins—the team best suited to end that streak. However, expect New England to thwart Miami's attempt and claim a Week 1 victory.
It's scary to think a team that finished the 2013 season with a 12-4 record further improved over the offseason, but that's exactly what the Patriots did.
When healthy, Gronkowski is easily one of the most dominant offensive players in the league. Considering he'll be joined by a healthy Danny Amendola, a more experienced Kenbrell Thompkins and the shifty Julian Edelman, quarterback Tom Brady won't have a shortage of weapons at his disposal.
To make matters worse for the Dolphins, Brady has already looked sharp this preseason:
Tom Brady's 2014 preseason: -80.6 comp % -285 pass yards -3 TD -1 Int He's READY! pic.twitter.com/eQO31Fq8sm— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) August 30, 2014
Defensively, the team went out and grabbed top-notch cornerback Darrelle Revis to pair with Alfonzo Dennard to solve its secondary woes, and with Vince Wilfork back on the interior of the defensive line, the team's run defense should be improved as well.
On the other side of the field, the Dolphins' 2014 season will hinge largely on the development of quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The signal-caller took a nice step forward in 2013, but he'll need to cut down on costly mistakes—he threw 17 interceptions last season—to get his team further into contention going forward.
Dolphins offensive coordinator Bill Lazor praised Tannehill, via ESPN's James Walker:
#Dolphins OC Bill Lazor said QB Ryan Tannehill has the desire to be great and the desire to be better.— James Walker (@JamesWalkerNFL) September 1, 2014
Considering what should be a vastly improved Patriots defense across the line of scrimmage from Tannehill in Week 1, the Dolphins may have to wait just a bit longer for the quarterback to break out.
Carolina Panthers vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This Week 1 clash of NFC South foes could wind up signifying a step backward for the Panthers and a leap forward for the Buccaneers.
The Buccaneers are a far different team from the 4-12 squad of one year ago. After bringing in head coach Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay underwent some significant changes. It all started along the defensive line.
Defensive end Michael Johnson and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald were brought in to play alongside Gerald McCoy and Adrian Clayborn. In 2013, these four players combined for 24 sacks, and now they have the added bonus of playing next to each other.
McDonald was already happy with the way the defense was looking during the preseason, via Tampa Bay's official Twitter account:
On the offensive side of the ball, a revamped offensive line featuring Anthony Collins and Logan Mankins will protect quarterback Josh McCown, who made a name for himself throwing to the tall and talented Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery in Chicago last season. McCown won't have to do much different this season with a pair of 6'5" wide receivers in Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans at his disposal.
Rounding out Tampa Bay's 2014 squad is a now-healthy Doug Martin. He played in only six games last year before suffering a season-ending injury, but showcased his ability in 2012, rushing for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Carolina underwent some big changes as well; however, not all were positive. Not a single wide receiver from the 2013 team that went 12-4 remains on the roster. In their places are veteran possession receivers Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant. While the two have solid hands, don't expect either to take the top off any defense.
Rookie Kelvin Benjamin is also in the fold, but expectations for rookie wide receivers must be tempered, as results tend to vary. Needless to say, Cam Newton may find things have become increasingly difficult this season.
We'll, also have to see if Newton is 100 percent on Sunday. At least his ability to start looks promising, according to the Panthers' official Twitter account:
Ron Rivera is still confident that Cam Newton will start Sunday vs. Tampa Bay. #CARvsTB— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) September 1, 2014
While the Panthers still boast one of the league's best defenses—one sure to keep them in many games—the lack of an explosive offense will doom the team for the first—but not last—time this season right out of the gate.