Here we are again this year, back for more NFL picks. It is with great pleasure that I take the reins from Jeff Pasquino after writing a guest edition last year. As someone who has won and lost their fair share of money on the NFL (and many other sports), this is bound to be a fun and unpredictable ride. Join me, won’t you?
As with the format in previous years, this article will help those of you who compete in confidence pools and in ranking selections, which may come in handy on those Las Vegas trips. Games are rated based on preference for both the point spread and other angles (such as totals or over/unders) with 1-3 “Stars”, which basically highlight the best bets for the week. Those games which have zero stars are not preferred one way or the other, but will still be covered, discussed and a winner will be predicted for those trying to get some advice for their weekly office pools.
Let’s make a start with a tantalizing slate of games in Week 1 which, as we all know, can be a tricky week to make selections. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained; the uncertainty can swing things in our favor. If you have been on top of the NFL to this point and all through preseason, this might afford you a good advantage and help you to get off to a fast start.
Gleaning too much from the preseason can be a red herring on some level; defenses are vanilla in their schemes, offenses are reticent to give away too much. While it’s tempting to take all the overs this week, there are a couple of things to consider:
- Vegas knows people love to bet the over, so the totals are usually going to be a little higher than one might expect
- Defenses tend to be ahead of offenses early in the season
The best bet (no pun intended) is to let things play out in Week 1 and then start to increase your bankroll commitment as the picture becomes clearer. If the 2019 season was a puzzle, right now all we’d have are the corner pieces. Let’s get started with this week’s picks.
Note that the over/unders are taken from VegasInsider.com
(Thursday) GREEN BAY at CHICAGO (-3.5 to -3) (Over/Under 46)
There is no better way to kick off the 100th NFL season than a duel between two of the sport’s OGs in Green Bay and Chicago. While much has remained the same for these teams during the offseason, there have been some pivotal changes as well. Green Bay’s defense looks beefier and more dangerous as a pass-rushing unit, while long-tenured head coach Mike McCarthy has made way for former Sean McVay disciple Matt LaFleur. The Bears lost mastermind defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to the Broncos, so Chuck Pagano takes the reins of a unit poised to pick up right where they left off in 2018.
It is important to note that, being that this is the first ‘real’ game that people can wager on, there is bound to be plenty of action. Both teams would be popular public teams as well, with diehard fanbases and even casual fans getting in on the action. The line move from Bears -3.5 to -3 tells us that money has come in on the Pack, and that could continue as the game draws closer. There is every chance that both teams will come out a little rusty, paving the way for a classic NFC North slobber knocker, as the famed wrestling commentator Jim Ross would say.
Notably, the Bears boasted the best record against the spread last season, notching a 12-5 record (covering 70.6% of the time). I would advise sitting back and enjoying this one, but if you are planning to dip your toe in the pool on opening night, the Bears at -3 is the way to go.
LA RAMS (-2.5 to -3) at CAROLINA (Over/Under 50.5)
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera is notoriously cagey when it comes to revealing the injury status of players, preferring to demur and defer to the head trainer. In the case of ailing quarterback Cam Newton and his foot sprain, however, Rivera said he had "no doubt" his star passer would suit up this week. Newton has played only a week after being involved in a serious car accident, among other things, so a foot sprain isn’t likely to prevent him from taking the field. The question becomes: how effective will he be?
In order to navigate what is likely to be a muddy pocket with Aaron Donald and others wreaking havoc, Newton will have to rely on his arm – and not his legs – to beat this team which, as we know, represented the NFC in the Super Bowl last year. The thing to like about the Rams is their continuity; Sean McVay’s offense is boosted by the return of Cooper Kupp, while Wade Phillips has the defense on lock. It is a difficult proposition for Newton and a Carolina offense that has flattered to deceive in the preseason.
The Rams have some questions to answer as well, notably the status of Todd Gurley, whose arthritic knee condition has been one of the talking points of the offseason. Will McVay, in a pre-emptive move, adjust his offense to counter the expected defensive onslaught against his usual tendencies? And for the Panthers, how will this revamped front seven fare against a Rams offensive line that has lost two starters from last season?
This looks like one of the games of the week and you could consider it a coin flip, but the Panthers have generally been good for the home cover under Rivera. Since he took the job in 2011, Carolina has covered at home 58.2% of the time (6th best mark over that period). Grab the points if you can get the three.
BUFFALO at NY JETS (-3 to -3.5) (Over/Under 39.5)
The retirement of Andrew Luck shocked the football world. It also opened a window of opportunity just a little wider for the AFC fringe playoff hopefuls – the Bills and Jets are two of these teams. There is an unquestionable sense of optimism surrounding both of these AFC East rivals; the upstart coach Sean McDermott, who has rebuilt the Buffalo roster brick by brick to his vision, has a team that can compete, while the second year of the Sam Darnold era is imbuing the long-suffering Jets faithful with optimism. The new Jets coaching hierarchy of Adam Gase and Gregg Williams may result in fireworks (watch this space).
The line move for this game speaks to a lack of public faith in the Bills, who arguably have the better overall roster on paper. The total of 39.5 is Vegas’ way of saying: turn back, all ye who yearn for offense – but that viewpoint may be a little myopic, considering the two strong-armed passers chucking it all over the park. The incentive is certainly there for both teams to lay down an early marker in what should be a Patriots (+1) division, but the Bills strike me as a team ready to spring a surprise.
WASHINGTON at PHILADELPHIA (-8.5) (Over/Under 46.5)
It is rare in my experience to see a team giving 8.5 points to a division rival on opening day, but Vegas obviously feels the Eagles are that much better than their rival. Somewhat surprisingly, Washington had one of the best against the spread records in 2018, covering 56.2% of the time. The tenets of wagering would generally have me leaning towards the underdog here, but there are many reasons not to bet on the Redskins.
First among them is the injury to Trent Williams, who turns this offensive line from above average to subpar and shaky. The second is the uninspiring Case Keenum at quarterback, who is just keeping the seat warm for first-round pick Dwayne Haskins. Keenum has self-destructed before; a hungry Eagles front seven is sure to revel in chasing him all game long. Finally, we have the fact that the Eagles’ roster is vastly superior to the Redskins’ – and I don’t think many would argue with that.
All of it points to an Eagles win, but it should be noted that a backdoor cover is always a possibility for Washington. Teams are typically more fatigued in the first game back having not played a full game since December. Caution is the keyword here.
ATLANTA at MINNESOTA (-4.5 to -4) (Over/Under 47.5)
A potential NFC playoff clash is another of the games to whet our football appetite in the early slate of games, with the Falcons visiting the Vikings. Atlanta will be boosted defensively by the return to health of Deion Jones, who singlehandedly changes what offenses can do to attack downfield, and Keanu Neal, whose hard-hitting style is a tone-setter for the entire unit. Minnesota benefits from roster stability; you know what you are going to get from a Mike Zimmer-coached team.
The slight line movement indicates an investment in the Atlanta side of things, and there is an argument to be made that the Falcons deserve more respect here. However, one must consider that Dan Quinn’s team finished 2018 with the worst against the spread record in the league, covering just 25% of the time. That number rises to 44.1% of the time since Quinn took over in 2015. Minnesota under Zimmer, meanwhile, has the second-best against the spread record as the home team since 2014, covering an impressive 68.3% of the time. I don’t know about you, but when trends are that strong you would be wise to trust them.
I am always leery of giving the four points, but the Vikings appear to be as safe a bet as any in Week 1 (cut to next week when a Kirk Cousins self-destruction puts paid to this recommendation and I look very silly indeed).
KANSAS CITY (-5.5 to -4) at JACKSONVILLE (Over/Under 52)
Did somebody say trap game? I’ve seen enough opening weekends to know that the Chiefs could be tiptoeing into the lion’s den here – and they don’t even know it yet. The Jaguars have a sneaky good roster, particularly defensively. Granted, we have seen very little of new quarterback Nick Foles running the show, but his competence as a signal-caller should, like a rising tide, lift all the Jaguars ships. It may even catch the attention of the pool revelers in the stadium!
Then, of course, you look across to the other sideline and you’ve got reigning league MVP Patrick Mahomes II, whose made no-look passes cool again. The sharp bettors out there have hammered this line from an opening of Chiefs -5.5 to just -4. Every instinct tells me to take Jacksonville and the points here and not look back. But then you take a look at this coaching matchup, where Doug Marrone will be outmatched by Andy Reid; the quarterback matchup, where Mahomes will hit a home run for every time Foles hits a single; and it is difficult to back the home team.
The best play here might be to let the market settle on the final line and then pounce, though it is unlikely to get down to -3.5 or -3. If you believe in Jacksonville, jump on the +4 and sleep soundly, but remember you’re betting against a man who casually chucked 50 touchdown passes last season, shredding teams like they were mere obstacles in his path.
Pick: Kansas City
BALTIMORE (-4 to -5) at MIAMI (Over/Under 37.5)
Vegas doesn’t think much of the 2019 Miami Dolphins, folks. Projected to win no more than five games, new head coach Brian Flores would appear to have his work cut out for him. A home game to kick off his maiden campaign will hearten him somewhat. Hard Rock Stadium has been a happy hunting ground for the Fins, winning 63.3% of their games there since 2015.
If nothing else, it will give Flores room for optimism as he tries to duct tape together his offensive line, tame the wild urges of journeyman hirsute quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and stitch together a defense against arguably the most dynamic running threat at quarterback since Michael Vick. Herein lies the rub for Miami; Lamar Jackson and the binds he can put them in down after down.
Baltimore’s defense may have taken a step back, but a whole offseason of the offensive line, backs, and receivers working with Jackson will have done wonders for this offense’s cohesiveness and chemistry. This feels to me like a big reveal for Jackson on the NFL stage. In the blazing heat of Miami, the expectation must be for Baltimore to get the job done. The over could be a decent play if the Ravens run riot, which is entirely possible.
TENNESSEE at CLEVELAND (-5.5) (Over/Under 45.5)
The Browns are back! Wait, when were they even here? Where is here? I digress, but you perhaps get a sense of what I’m getting at: the Browns haven’t accomplished anything yet. How will head coach Freddie Kitchens deal with the multiple strong personalities on this roster? Can the subpar offensive line do enough to protect Baker Mayfield, a storyline that has been conveniently swept under the rug as casual fans dream of the Mayfield-to-Odell Beckham Jr. connection. So many questions.
This game will be a decent test for the Browns, who have been made comfortable favorites at home against a Titans team that, let’s face it, has been hovering around the .500 mark far too much for their liking. Defensively, Tennessee could pose some problems. A stacked defensive front seven features many quality players – Datone Jones, Jurrell Casey, Rashaan Evans, Harold Landry and of course the ageless wonder Cameron Wake – who can and will create havoc up front. Expect Titans head coach Mike Vrabel to have a game plan in place to exploit Cleveland’s glaring weakness: their offensive line.
The temptation here is to buy into the Browns hype, to believe that only good things can happen to this tortured franchise after a long period in the wilderness. But these teams are closer on paper and on the field than the 5.5 points.
CINCINNATI at SEATTLE (-9.5) (Over/Under 43.5)
The Seahawks are 36-23-2 against the spread as the home team since Russell Wilson was installed as the franchise quarterback. The team hasn’t looked back since that day in 2012 – and the generous -9.5-point line on this one tells you that Vegas is tired of underrating this perennially doubted team. Pete Carroll’s team only got stronger in the past few days, adding Jadeveon Clowney in a trade. If Ezekiel Ansah can get healthy and when Jarran Reed returns from suspension, this front seven could dominate.
Though the Hawks will be without Reed in Week 1, their overall roster strength is comfortably better than that of the visiting Bengals, who have been bitten by the injury bug this offseason. First-round offensive tackle Jonah Williams will miss the season, while highly touted center Billy Price has disappointed. The new offensive scheme installed by Sean McVay disciple Zac Taylor appears to suit Andy Dalton’s skill set, but with a wall of noise to deal with and a fired-up Seattle team, this could get ugly quickly.
There is one statistic that gives me pause, however: since Dalton took the reins in 2011, the Bengals have the best record against the spread as the road team, covering 60.9% of the time. If the line goes up to 10, it would be wise to jump on it. As it is, Seattle gets the nod.
INDIANAPOLIS at LA CHARGERS (-3.5 to -7) (Over/Under 45)
Understandably, the Andrew Luck retirement news moved the line on this contest by several points, making the Chargers prohibitive favorites. And yet there is a little voice in the back of my head that is telling me to trust in Jacoby Brissett, that the talk of a Colts demise is premature and that an upset could be on here.
The last time we saw Brissett, he was a gamer type of quarterback, taking his lumps while impressing in spurts. Enough to qualify him as a steady backup with occasional starter upside, but nothing more. Colts head coach Frank Reich believes Brissett has come a long way since that time in 2017. With a much better roster around him than two seasons ago, what is to stop Brissett from not just surviving, but thriving?
Well, perhaps the Chargers defense would have something to say about that. Unfortunately for them, one of their most important defensive players, Derwin James, will miss most of, if not all, of the season with an injury. Melvin Ingram III doesn’t look like he will be back anytime soon, and the same goes for standout left tackle Russell Okung. The Chargers have the horses to get the job done, but the weakness along the offensive line profiles as something the Colts, loaded with front-seven talent, could pounce on.
SAN FRANCISCO at TAMPA BAY (-2.5 to -1) (Over/Under 49.5)
The high total on this game would have you believe that there will be offensive fireworks, with the returning Jimmy Garoppolo and the retuned Jameis Winston trading blows as defenses stumble over themselves in the stifling Tampa heat. That is certainly within the range of outcomes; after all, both head coaches – Bruce Arians of the School of High-Flying Passing Attacks and adept tactician Kyle Shanahan – can cook up a game plan to do just that.
The question becomes, then: which defense will be able to make enough stops or difference-making plays to turn the offensive tide? The absence of Nick Bosa, despite his rookie status, is a blow for the 49ers. The Bucs, meanwhile, will roll out their 3-4 front under Todd Bowles, although key puzzle piece Vita Vea will not feature. All of this goes some way to explaining the line move on this game, with the Bucs narrow favorites.
This projects as a coin-toss, helter-skelter affair, and in those situations, it is always wise to take the points. Watch this line as kickoff approaches and see if you can get any more than +1.
Pick: San Francisco
NY GIANTS at DALLAS (-7.5 to -7) (Over/Under 45.5)
In division games since 2016 when Dak Prescott took over as quarterback, the Cowboys have covered 66.7% of the time, the third-best mark in the league. The visit of arch-rival the New York Giants in Week 1 is enough to get the juices flowing for any Cowboys fan, but that statistic might have them sleeping a little easier. Another might be the potential dumpster fire that is the Giants roster – on both sides of the ball.
New seasons bring with them fresh waves of optimism, but some of this can be misguided. Additions are often seen as saviors when they can be just as good or worse than the player they replaced. The Giants roster has strong points; the offensive line has improved, the front seven looks more competent and Saquon Barkley is Saquon Barkley, which helps. There are holes on defense, however, notably in the secondary. The Cowboys will be licking their chops to get after Big Blue.
The Cowboys are in a much better position to do damage long-term in the NFC playoff picture. While they won’t underrate the Giants, they must feel that their defensive front and offensive line will be far too powerful. The -7 line gives me some pause, but it is hard to back the G-Men here.
DETROIT (pick'em to -2.5) at ARIZONA (Over/Under 47.5)
One wonders if Lions head coach Matt Patricia could have handpicked his opening game whether he would have gone with this desert duel. The hype train that is the Arizona Cardinals super-exciting 2019 offense has been, if not derailed, then certainly brought to a shuddering halt. Patricia will look up and down this Cardinals roster and, defensively at least, will fancy his chances to cause some real damage with Detroit’s run-first approach.
Teams reveal their intentions with their offseason moves, and the Lions are telling us they want to run it early, often and effectively. The debut of T.J. Hockenson in the regular season will be fascinating as he profiles as a key cog in two-tight end sets and can reach block at the second level as well as he can beat linebackers and safeties downfield. Kerryon Johnson figures to get a heavy workload as well.
Alas, the Cardinals may have an ace up their sleeve in Kyler Murray, the number one overall pick in the 2019 Draft and as exciting a player as you will see. The concern isn’t with Murray, but rather the lack of protection he is likely to be afforded. The Lions front seven isn’t renowned for its pass-rushing prowess, but Trey Flowers may inject some life. Mike Daniels has been known to create some internal disruption in his time as well.
The move with this game was to jump on the Lions at pick'em, but the -2.5 still speaks to a lack of respect both for them – and their opponent Arizona.
(Sunday Night) PITTSBURGH at NEW ENGLAND (-6.5 to -6) (Over/Under 51.5)
Get your popcorn ready, ladies and gentlemen. This clash of AFC titans rarely falls short of expectations. There is a real possibility that it is the last time Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger will face off, barring a playoff clash in a few months’ time. The line move here suggests a little juice on the Steelers. As a massive public team, that’s not entirely surprising, nor is the level of respect the Patriots are getting at home.
It will not shock anyone to learn that the Patriots have the best against the spread record at home since 2003, covering 59.9% of the time with an average margin of victory of a cool 11.8 points. Not too shabby. As much as detractors and Brady bashers want to believe it, this team is far from done and should be in among the AFC’s elite come season’s end.
The more interesting aspect of this game is how Pittsburgh will handle the drama vacuum on their roster: No more Bell, no more Brown, no more problems, right? Perhaps it will be just the tonic head coach Mike Tomlin needs; then again, losing a receiver of Brown’s caliber could cap Roethlisberger’s upside, forcing him to rely on receivers with whom he doesn’t share the same level of trust and chemistry.
The smart money here is on history – and history is on the side of the home team.
Pick: New England
(Monday Night) HOUSTON at NEW ORLEANS (-9 to -7) (Over/Under 53.5)
The spot here is horrendous for Houston. New Orleans in the dome is difficult enough, but in prime time and on Monday night is a concoction of factors so insurmountable as to turn Bill O’Brien’s face bright red. Since 2006, when Drew Brees took the starting job, the Saints have covered just 51.5% of the time when they were home favorites.
Some sharp gamblers have apparently figured out that trend and the betting has seen the line move by two points. Laying seven points isn’t the worst idea, especially considering the advantages the Saints have. The one that stands out like a sore thumb is the New Orleans front seven, which should have its way with Houston’s revamped, but as yet untested as a fivesome, offensive line.
This is the first game in the Superdome since the NFC Championship game – we all know what happened there – and the home team will be a nightmare to handle for Deshaun Watson and company. A blowout could be on the cards, folks. I can’t look past a comfortable Saints win under the lights.
Pick: New Orleans
(Monday Night) DENVER at OAKLAND (-3 to -1.5) (Over/Under 43)
Is it just me or is the NFL world at large sleeping a little bit on these Broncos? Yes, the Joe Flacco factor must be baked into any calculation as to this team’s playoff viability, but the schedule is generous in patches and nine to 10 wins isn’t outside the realms of possibility. A kickoff game against the Raiders isn’t the worst way to start. As much as Hard Knocks may have altered the perception of the soon-to-be Las Vegas franchise, this roster isn’t there yet.
And yet the Raiders are slight favorites on their home turf (though some places this game is now a pick) in front of what should be a raucous crowd. This is another toss-up type of game, but the team I trust more is the Broncos. New head coach Vic Fangio should have a nice game plan cooked up for Derek Carr, who is prone to mistakes when plays break down.
Gruden might be calling for his friend Glen-non before the night is out.
Once again this year this article will give out not only the Best Bets but also a rating of each one on a 1-3 Star scale. The more stars, the bigger the emphasis on that side of the game.
As mentioned earlier, Week 1 is tough. As usual, Las Vegas has done a very good job of making lines, even with all the personnel changes in recent weeks. The way to best play this week is to look at the teams most likely to come away with a win and then tease them together (similar to how to best play the NFL playoffs). That narrows the focus down to six games for 6-point teasers. Here is how they rank:
- 1 PHILADELPHIA (-2.5) vs. WASHINGTON
- 2 NEW ORLEANS (-1) vs. HOUSTON
- 3 BALTIMORE (+1) at MIAMI
- 4 CAROLINA (+9) vs. LOS ANGELES RAMS
- 5 DALLAS (-1) vs. NEW YORK GIANTS
- 6 DENVER (+4.5) at OAKLAND
With these likes in mind, here are the Week 1 selections:
* ONE STAR GAMES *
- CAROLINA (+3) vs. LOS ANGELES RAMS
- DENVER at OAKLAND (-1.5)
- 6-POINT TEASER: DENVER (+4.5) at OAKLAND (Under 43)
- 6-POINT TEASER: CAROLINA (+9) vs. LOS ANGELES RAMS (Under 50.5)
- 2-TEAM, 6-POINT TEASER (2.65-1 ODDS):
- CAROLINA (+9) vs. LOS ANGELES RAMS
- DENVER (+4.5) at OAKLAND
** TWO STAR GAMES **
- NEW ORLEANS (-1) vs. HOUSTON
- PHILADELPHIA (-2.5) vs. WASHINGTON
- BALTIMORE (+1) at MIAMI
- DALLAS (-1) at NEW YORK GIANTS
- 4-TEAM, 6-POINT TEASER (5-1 ODDS):
- PHILADELPHIA (-2.5) vs. WASHINGTON
- BALTIMORE (+1) at MIAMI
- DALLAS (-1) at NEW YORK GIANTS
- NEW ORLEANS (-1) vs. HOUSTON
*** THREE STAR GAMES ***
- None this week.
PICK(S) OF THE WEEK: Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, Denver, Dallas, Seattle, Detroit
Good luck this weekend!
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