NFL Picks and Predictions Week 1: The Ultimate Bettor's Guide
We're here. The football has truly begun. The Pittsburgh Steelers already visited the New England Patriots to kick off the regular season, but there are still plenty more games to go through this week: 15 to be exact.
Want to know the only thing better than watching NFL football? Making money watching NFL football. It's not easy, and many fail, but we'll try to go game by game, breaking down current spreads and working through the best bet for each game. Many of the lines have already swung, but that doesn't mean that all value is lost.
May the gambling gods be in our favor. NFL football is back.
Thursday Night Football: Pittsburgh @ New England
Result: New England 28, Pittsburgh 21
Vegas is great. This line opened favoring the Patriots by 6.5 and closed with them at 7.5. In a seven-point win, tight Rob Gronkowski, who caught three touchdowns on five catches, looked unstoppable.
Tom Brady, who posted a passer rating of 143.8, was fully ready to reclaim his spot as one of the league's elite after Deflategate. Still, this game is essentially what we expected. In the immortal words of Dennis Green, they are who we thought they were.
Nothing special happened in this game. The Patriots are still looking for a top back or an outside receiver, but it doesn't seem to bother them one bit. The Steelers have an offensive scheme that can even propel DeAngelo Williams to a 100-yard game, but their defense is going to hold them down this season.
Seattle @ St. Louis
The Line: Seattle @ St. Louis (+4)
The Seattle Seahawks really arrived as a Lombardi Trophy contender in 2013, and since then, they've beaten Jeff Fisher's St. Louis Rams by more than four points in three out of their four encounters. In 2014, they lost by two points in St. Louis, aided by a 17-of-20 performance by quarterback Austin Davis, who is now a backup in Cleveland, and a misdirection punt return that was taken in for a score.
Other than that, Pete Carroll's squad has won by 14, 18 and five points. I'm willing to stick my neck out and say that the fluky result was the one where a mid-level team's reserve passer had a completion percentage of 85 percent.
The strength of the Seahawks is their defense, while the Rams have no star receiver, downgraded at quarterback with the Foles-Bradford trade, are limited on their offensive line and still won't have first-round running back Todd Gurley for Week 1, as he's slowly working back from an ACL injury he suffered in college.
The Seahawks' Achilles' heel is their offensive line, which gives St. Louis a shot at equalizing the game. The Rams just might have the deepest defensive line in the league, with talented former first-round picks such as Robert Quinn, Aaron Donald, Chris Long, Michael Brockers and Nick Fairley being afforded the opportunity to stay fresh. The unit would have to put out the performance of their 2015 season to beat Seattle, though.
At the end of the day, though, the Seahawks are just too talented to not pull away with the cover, even without Kam Chancellor, their star strong safety who is currently holding out.
The Pick: Seattle (-4)
Green Bay @ Chicago
The Line: Green Bay @ Chicago (+6.5)
In 2014, the Chicago Bears had the third-worst defense in terms of yards allowed per game. On the flip side, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers won the MVP award for his offensive efforts. In the teams' two meetings last season, the Packers won 38-17 at Soldier Field and 55-14 at Lambeau Field.
While most fans hope their squad progresses from one year to the next, the Bears are in a heavy transition. Under new head coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, Chicago is going to field a 3-4 defense with mostly 4-3 personnel this season. Their "star" defender? Free-agent signing Pernell McPhee, a 26-year-old pass-rusher by way of Baltimore with six starts to his NFL resume.
Former first-round pick Shea McClellin is moving to inside linebacker this year after moving to outside linebacker last year, switching from his original position of defensive end. Once thought of as a Clay Matthews type of prospect, McClellin has 7.5 sacks to his name after three seasons. For reference, Matthews had 29.5 in his first three campaigns.
Offensively, Jay Cutler still leads Chicago, as his contract was just too much to move from in 2015. No one is looking at him as the franchise savior anymore, instead treating him like a necessary evil. Even Bears fans are using the same tone regarding him as former Packers cornerback Charles Woodson did when he stated, "We don't need luck; Jay will throw us the ball" in 2012.
Cutler also loses Brandon Marshall, a five-time Pro Bowl receiver. His replacement was supposed to be Kevin White, the team's 2015 first-round pick, but he has a stress fracture that may cause him to miss all of his rookie year.
2015 could be a disaster season for the Bears. This line opened up favoring the Packers by 3.5, and it's since moved up by a field goal. Don't be surprised if it continues to rise as we approach kickoff.
The Pick: Green Bay (-6.5)
Kansas City @ Houston
The Line: Kansas City @ Houston (-1)
This game is the closest to a toss-up this week. The line opened up with Houston being favored by 2.5 points, but it's since dropped to a one-point projection.
On the surface, both teams are about the same. The strength of each squads is the defensive front seven, and the quarterbacks are in that "game manager" purgatory.
Head-to-head, I can see the Houston Texans beating the Kansas City Chiefs for two reasons. The first is the matchup between J.J. Watt, a generational defensive lineman, and Eric Fisher, the former first overall pick who has since converted to right tackle in an attempt to finally find success at the NFL level.
Second, the Texans might have the edge in the quarterback battle. While Alex Smith is the poster boy for "good enough," Houston head coach Bill O'Brien made Christian Hackenberg, who currently is imploding at Penn State, look like the next Andrew Luck, and last season, Ryan Fitzpatrick had his most efficient year as a professional under the former Patriots offensive coordinator.
With some key Chiefs injured, most notably nose tackle Dontari Poe, it's going to be too much for Kansas City to come away with a road victory during Week 1.
The Pick: Houston (-1)
Cleveland @ New York Jets
The Line: Cleveland @ New York Jets (-3)
Defensively, the New York Jets are a top-five team on paper heading into the 2015 season, despite losing defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson to a four-game suspension. Between new head coach Todd Bowles, who may have run the most interesting defensive scheme in 2014 as the coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals, stars in Muhammad Wilkerson and Darrelle Revis, and blue-chip rookie Leonard Williams, there's a lot going for the Jets when their opponents have the ball.
Outside of Brandon Marshall, there's not a true star on the offensive side of the ball for either squad. Cleveland has one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, but as we saw last year, if the skill players aren't there, the offensive line largely goes unnoticed. The ultimate battle is between Josh McCown and Ryan Fitzpatrick, two passers who started for other squads in 2014 but were allowed to leave—McCown in free agency and Fitzpatrick via a low-level trade.
In a situation like this, give me the defense and the home squad. Jets offensive coordinator Chan Gailey has done more with less, and the only unit consistent enough to hang my hat on is the Gang Green defense.
The Pick: New York Jets (-3)
Miami @ Washington
The Line: Miami @ Washington (+4)
One of the more questionable opening lines this week was the Miami Dolphins only being favored by 1.5 points on the road against the Washington Redskins. If I were told to put money on a squad with the wager being that it wouldn't have a winning season over the next three years, Washington would be my leader.
The public communication between the coaching staff, front office and ownership gives me no reason to trust this franchise with any investment, and after the most recent benching of Robert Griffin III, one has to question who the face of the franchise is.
Is it Trent Williams, an offensive lineman? He is great, but the only other franchise whose "face" is an offensive tackle is the Cleveland Browns. You don't want to model yourself after the 2000s Browns. It might be Ryan Kerrigan, who is a good pass-rusher, but he's not J.J. Watt, and he's only cracked the double-digit sack mark once in his career.
Overall, the Redskins just don't have any wow players, and their young depth has been decimated by the awful trade that featured them taking an injury-prone passer with the second overall pick in 2012.
On the other hand, the Miami Dolphins have three star defensive linemen in Ndamukong Suh, Olivier Vernon and Cameron Wake. They also run a hyper-spread offense that should create stars with spacing and tempo. The line has moved to the Dolphins being a four-point favorite, and it might be time to make a play before that number rises even more.
The Pick: Miami (-4)
Carolina @ Jacksonville
The Line: Carolina @ Jacksonville (+3.5)
In 2014, the Jacksonville Jaguars would only have covered a plus-3.5 spread four times. This happened against the Tennessee Titans twice, who finished 2-14 and were rewarded with the second overall pick; the Cleveland Browns, who were 7-9 in 2014; and the New York Giants, a 6-10 squad.
Since quarterback Cam Newton was drafted in 2011, the Carolina Panthers have never had more than 10 losses in a season, and they've been fairly consistent as far as their identity is concerned. They are a high variance offense with a great, consistent defense. Their linebackers are talented enough to cover so much in zone defense that their defensive backs' lives are made simple, which also allows the front four to focus on stopping the run.
Offensively, Newton still hasn't been able to break the mold he was placed in during college. He often throws off his back foot, a product of playing in an option system that asked as much of him as a runner as it did as a passer. He now is missing 2014 first-round receiver Kelvin Benjamin, but other than last season, he hadn't had much help from skill players during his career, outside of Steve Smith Sr.
Jacksonville is making slow progress, but the loss of first-round pick Dante Fowler Jr. could stunt the growth of the squad, which still doesn't have a top pass-rusher. These teams look like their counterparts from last season for the most part. Other than the late-season slip to in-division rival Tampa Bay, every team Carolina couldn't cover minus-3.5 on last season was significantly better than this year's version of the Jaguars, as it stands on paper today.
The Pick: Carolina (-3.5)
Indianapolis @ Buffalo
The Line: Indianapolis @ Buffalo (+3)
The Indianapolis Colts are going to be built around Andrew Luck and the talented receivers. The Buffalo Bills are going to be built around the strong defense and complicated run game. Other than that, nothing is promised for these squads. On the surface, this is where an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.
Bills head coach Rex Ryan thinks like a defensive coordinator, and the choice of Tyrod Taylor as the team's starting passer comes with a purpose. On the defensive side of the ball, you must control gaps in the run game while also covering pass threats. Though base offenses have five linemen, there are six gaps created for defenses to cover, in between and outside of each big ugly, which defenses can do if passers aren't run threats.
If a quarterback is a running threat, though, it means the offense has the numbers advantage from the start.
In 2014, the Colts never faced a true dual-threat passer. They have three real stars on the defensive side of the ball: Robert Mathis (who is rehabbing an Achilles injury), Trent Cole and Vontae Davis. If the Colts are forced to "mush rush" because of Taylor's legs, it could be a long day for Indianapolis, which is weak in the ground game.
Ryan must have been thinking about this game for a long time. This is his shot to prove to the world that the Jets made a mistake by letting him go and that he still is one of the better defensive masterminds in the NFL, plus he loves the spotlight. The Jets were 5-1 in openers under Rex Ryan, with their only loss being a one-point failure to the Baltimore Ravens in 2010. There's a great shot at a cover, if not the upset.
The Pick: Buffalo (+3)
Detroit @ San Diego
The Line: Detroit @ San Diego (-3)
Last season, before the Chargers' center depth chart imploded, quarterback Philip Rivers was an MVP candidate. In a head-to-head matchup, I doubt San Diego would have been in a pick 'em situation on a neutral field with the Detroit Lions, let alone a Lions team without star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who signed with the Miami Dolphins this offseason. That's what this three-point favorite line suggests.
Vegas put out a bad line here. It's still setting odds thinking that San Diego is a team with a revolving door at center. With consistency at the position, the Chargers should be favored at home by at least 5.5 or six points.
The Pick: San Diego (-3)
New Orleans @ Arizona
The Line: New Orleans @ Arizona (-3)
Either way, this game looks like a shootout to me. The New Orleans Saints struggled defensively last season, but with the additions of rookie linebackers Hau'oli Kikaha and Stephone Anthony, the unit should be much improved. Switching the defense from a two-gaping 3-4 front to a one-gaping 4-3 front might be defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's best call yet.
Last season, plenty were calling for the Saints to make a Super Bowl run. The only real variable that has changed is the fact that tight end Jimmy Graham is no longer with the squad, but the team has added two offensive linemen in blue-chip rookie tackle Andrus Peat and Pro Bowl center Max Unger. The Saints also have a true top cornerback in Brandon Browner, and sophomore receiver Brandin Cooks looks like a breakout player.
Arizona had a great stretch last season, but it needed to strike when it was hot. One must question how quarterback Carson Palmer will react after another huge injury after he was finally returning to his former self. Losing defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to the New York Jets is also a much bigger hit than people are making it out to be.
Give me the Saints and the points.
The Pick: New Orleans (+3)
Cincinnati @ Oakland
The Line: Cincinnati @ Oakland (+3.5)
Last season, the Oakland Raiders had virtually no offense. Their running game was so desperate that this offseason they signed running back Trent Richardson, who is the punch line of a plethora of jokes. Instead, the short passing game became the Raiders' way of supplementing. Rookie quarterback Derek Carr's yards per attempt suffered because of the quick passing game, though, essentially keeping his talents hidden.
There was no deep ball last season. Carr only threw for five touchdowns outside of the 10-yard line in 2014. Oakland drafted receiver Amari Cooper, but until I see the deep passing game develop in the regular season, I'm not going to buy into its success.
On the flip side, Cincinnati is running its version of the spread offense, which features some option plays. The goal of option football is to make the defense declare. There's a numbers advantage when a quarterback has the choice to be a runner. If you go here, I go there. If you go there, I go here. The purpose is to make the defense beat itself, which the Raiders have done plenty of for more than a decade.
The Pick: Cincinnati (-3.5)
Baltimore @ Denver
The Line: Baltimore @ Denver (-4.5)
The Baltimore Ravens aren't a sexy team. Their only offensive star is Joe Flacco, whose recent narrative is that he's received a contract that is too large for his talent. Still, the offensive line is elite, even if the quarterback isn't. Even against the Denver Broncos, with DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller on the edges, the O-line should be able to control the game.
I don't necessarily think the Ravens should be favored to win the game. Facing Peyton Manning in Denver is tough. In the regular season, as a Bronco, he has a 22-2 record. Against the Ravens, he's won 34-17 on the road in 2012 and 49-17 at home on Week 1 in 2013.
It's not impossible for the squad to pull off a win, though. In 2012, Baltimore did sneak out with a double-overtime victory in the divisional round on the way to a Lombardi. Give me the points. If it were a 2.5-point game, I might shy away, but a 4.5-pointer is too inflated with public money.
The Pick: Baltimore (+4.5)
Tennessee @ Tampa Bay
The Line: Tennessee @ Tampa Bay (-3)
Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt is 3-25 in his last 28 games as the head man of an NFL squad. Only three of those losses were by fewer than three points. While the Tampa Bay Buccaneers aren't great, they were a sleeper NFC South pick last year and now have a legitimate quarterback in Jameis Winston. I'll take my chances on this one.
The Pick: Tampa Bay (-3)
New York Giants @ Dallas
The Line: New York Giants @ Dallas (-6)
The DeMarco Murray era in Dallas is over. The Cowboys still have a dominant offensive line, but ask the Cleveland Browns how many games they won on the ground because of their line. Tony Romo-to-Dez Bryant is near automatic, but the Giants can keep up with the squad through the air.
By the time the game kicks off, Eli Manning may have a long-term deal done. Ben McAdoo's offensive system is based on a lot of option routes by receivers, so having Odell Beckham Jr. in for a second offseason and bringing back veteran Victor Cruz from injury should help Manning tremendously. Cruz has been missing some time with a calf issue, but he isn't ruled out for Sunday's game.
With the Greg Hardy suspension in full effect, the Cowboys lack great defensive linemen to press the Giants' weakness offensively: the offensive line. If no one steps up opposite of Bryant, Dallas might not be able to take advantage of New York's beat-up secondary either.
If Cruz is cleared and Manning gets that new deal done, expect the squad to try to make a statement. Give me the Cowboys to win—but by a field goal.
The Pick: New York Giants (+6)
Monday Night Football: Minnesota @ San Francisco
The Line: Minnesota @ San Francisco (+2.5)
The Minnesota Vikings are better than the San Francisco 49ers. They have a better quarterback. They have a better coach. They have better skill players. At this point, they may even have a better defense.
It amazes me that Vegas opened this line up with the 49ers being 4.5-point favorites. On a neutral field, San Francisco loses to the Vikings more times than not. Maybe it was their reputation as a public team that set the line toward them, but bettors have completely swung the odds, which now favor Minnesota by 2.5 points.
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer won a 34-6 rout of the St. Louis Rams on the road to start his NFL coaching career last season. The imploding 49ers are going to be his next NFC West victim. San Francisco used to be a defensive powerhouse, and there might not be a star who gets to Adrian Peterson all game.
We're taking the Vikings big.
The Pick: Minnesota (-2.5)
Monday Night Football: Philadelphia @ Atlanta
The Line: Philadelphia @ Atlanta (+3)
This line has moved two points since opening. At first, the game was a near toss-up, a one-point lean toward the Eagles. That line was way too low, though. In Week 3 of the preseason, the dress rehearsal for the regular season, Philadelphia lit the sky on fire against the Green Bay Packers, showing the world that Chip Kelly's dream offense is still alive. Defensively, they're still good enough to contend for a deep playoff run, as they have been for the majority of Kelly's time in the league.
The Atlanta Falcons have become a better team over the offseason—there's no doubt about that. The question is: How much better are they? Atlanta's offensive line is still in shambles, while only receiver Julio Jones is a threat to opposing defenses. Roddy White is dinged up, and rookie running back Tevin Coleman has little to no patience.
The Falcons couldn't get a pass rush or run stop with their front seven in 2014. They've improved their pressure packages with players such as Vic Beasley and Adrian Clayborn, but Beasley has been labeled as a liability in the run game. Head-to-head, watch for Beasley's efforts to be washed by All-Pro tackle Jason Peters early and often.
The number hitting the key three-point favorite is significant, but if progressive Kelly treats two-point conversions like he did in the preseason, don't pay much mind to be sticking or swaying from a half-point difference.
The Pick: Philadelphia (-3)
Locks of the Week
1. Indianapolis @ Buffalo (+3)
2. Philadelphia (-3) @ Atlanta
3. Cincinnati (-3.5) @ Oakland
4. Green Bay (-6.5) @ Chicago
5. Tennessee @ Tampa Bay (-3)
All lines courtesy of OddsShark.com.