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Nigel Eccles, Co-Founder, FanDuel
Here we are again this year, back for more NFL picks. It is with great pleasure that I begin my second season writing this column. 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 with 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.
Compared to last year, when there were exactly zero preseason games to take the temperature on teams, this autumn has provided us with some valuable nuggets. However, regardless of the shortened preseason reps teams have taken, Week 1 generally features plenty of missed assignments, slip-ups, and, frankly, rusty players.
Note that the over/unders are taken from VegasInsider.com
(Thursday Night) DALLAS at TAMPA BAY (-7.5) (Over/Under 52)
The stars are aligning for the Super Bowl champions to kick off in style. Over the past four years, playoff teams are 24-6-1 straight up (SU) and 18-13 against the spread (ATS) in Week 1 when playing a non-playoff team from the previous year. Advantage, Bucs. Truthfully, for a team returning all 22 starters from a Lombardi-winning campaign, it should be no surprise if the fully loaded Bucs drop 40 points on the Cowboys. That they are only laying the 7.5 points is as much a hedge by Vegas experts on the eve of a new season as anything else.
As for the Cowboys, they may still be squinting after being under the bright lights of Hard Knocks for the past weeks – but now the real show begins. The question, understandably, is how ready Dak Prescott will be after sitting out the preseason. Expect the Cowboys to play things close to the vest early, only to be smothered by a better and sharper Bucs team. Chemistry and reps count in Week 1; that Dallas has been unable to get their star quarterback into a rhythm is a bad sign.
Pick: Tampa Bay
PITTSBURGH at BUFFALO (-6.5) (Over/Under 48)
The Bills have turned into something of a juggernaut under Sean McDermott’s coaching. Josh Allen’s spectacular 2020 season confirmed what many already knew: the big-armed passer always had an elite season in his locker. He needed to put all the pieces together. Stefon Diggs helped Allen take his game to another level last season; this year, the addition of Emmanuel Sanders should provide a veteran safety valve for the gunslinger to rely on in tough spots. To put it simply, the Bills are positioned as one of the AFC’s teams to beat. Beginning the campaign with a victory against an old foe in Pittsburgh would go a long way to convincing any lingering doubters.
Mike Tomlin’s team is laying 6.5 points on the road, perhaps a number as much about Buffalo’s perceived supremacy in this match-up as anything else. However, note that the Steelers are 21-15-1 ATS (58.3%) as the away underdog since 2011. While public sentiment might be down on Pittsburgh due to Ben Roethlisberger’s advancing years, among other things, they have enough in their playbook to cause problems for the Bills. Expect a highly entertaining clash that could well have implications for playoff seedings down the line. A slight nod to the Steelers.
NY JETS at CAROLINA (-4.5) (Over/Under 45)
New Jets head coach Robert Saleh brings with him the reputation of a fiery, inspirational presence capable of turning an average unit into a good one. Even with the limitations the 49ers faced last year, his defense managed to overperform. The hope for Gang Green is that Saleh’s leadership, combined with clever play-calling from offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, can set up rookie passer Zach Wilson for success. There is absolutely no pressure on the team as far as the win column goes this year; simply seeing progress will be enough.
For Matt Rhule and Carolina, the timetable is a little different. Having passed on Justin Fields and Mac Jones in the NFL Draft, the team opted for former Jet Sam Darnold. The storyline all week will be around Darnold facing his old team, but the final preseason game left a lot to be desired, with the same old mistakes showing up for the new Panthers quarterback. Offensive coordinator Joe Brady has a lot of tools at his disposal; the game plan here should be to minimize Darnold’s mistakes and let the returning Christian McCaffrey carry the load. Even with the Wilson rookie factor, however, 4.5 points seems slightly generous.
Pick: New York
JACKSONVILLE (-3) at HOUSTON (Over/Under 44.5)
There is a great deal of intrigue surrounding this game, even though it is likely a battle of two teams that will end up drafting in the top 10 next year. The grand unveiling of the Urban Meyer-Trevor Lawrence partnership will be quite the treat, with casual viewers undoubtedly stealing a glance to see how Meyer’s system translates to the NFL. The Jaguars are firm road favorites here, a clear market statement of how poorly Houston is viewed as a betting option.
Tyrod Taylor will start at quarterback for the Texans as the Deshaun Watson saga rolls on in the background. At times, Houston’s offensive line showed well during the preseason and could be the best route to victory here. The chances are slim, though, and in an arms race between Lawrence and Taylor, there will only be one winner. While the AFC South has a habit of throwing up unusual scorelines – and with the proviso that anything can happen in Week 1 – it would be unwise to predict that the Texans are destined for anything but a defeat here.
ARIZONA at TENNESSEE (-3) (Over/Under 52)
The offseason chatter has often focused on the status of head coach Kliff Kingsbury in Arizona and just how much leeway he has. The Cardinals are locked and loaded to be one of the most watchable teams in 2021, with a potential A.J. Green renaissance season possible and Kyler Murray doing his thing. Defensively, J.J. Watt will add a bit of panache and power, while Chandler Jones and Budda Baker will continue to make noise. It will come down to how to navigate a tough NFC West and whether the Cardinals are equipped to go the distance this season.
The Titans make a formidable opponent for them to start off, certainly. All eyes will be on Julio Jones and how he connects with Ryan Tannehill, but the focus should be on the Titans defense. The unit was often exposed last season, and one wonders whether Mike Vrabel will get them to turn the corner. The -3 line here makes perfect sense as a result; these are two evenly matched teams, and they should put on a show here.
LA CHARGERS at WASHINGTON (-1) (Over/Under 44.5)
The Chargers are one of the hot teams entering this season, and what is not to like? Justin Herbert proved to be every bit the superstar as a rookie, routinely showing no fear and growing as the weeks went by. In a wise move designed to boost Herbert's prospects and confidence, new head coach Brandon Staley brought in Joe Lombardi, who was with the Saints in the Drew Brees era. There remains a hesitancy in the betting market to trust the Chargers, with their penchant for surrendering leaders and blowing games legendary at this point. Will the 2021 version be different?
For Washington, as potential team names continued to get thrown around as an offseason storyline, Ron Rivera continued to build on the roster that won the NFC East last season. Watching Ryan Fitzpatrick sling it is fun for any true fan of the game, but one wonders how the wily veteran will fare against the Chargers’ ferocious defense. The line is a safe -1 in the home team’s favor. Everything about this game says avoid at all costs in terms of the spread.
Pick: Los Angeles
PHILADELPHIA at ATLANTA (-3.5) (Over/Under 48)
In one of the underrated clashes of the early slate, the Eagles and Jalen Hurts will kick off a new era and attempt to shake things up in the NFC East. Philadelphia may not have been on the radar too much over the past few weeks and certainly are not seen as a contender, but they should be fun to watch nonetheless. The major question is how committed new head coach Nick Sirianni is to his starter, with Joe Flacco and the newly acquired Gardner Minshew breathing down the neck of Hurts.
The Falcons will be delighted to unleash Kyle Pitts on the unsuspecting Eagles defense, but there is a lack of bite in the offense with Julio Jones gone that will be nigh on impossible to replace. Calvin Ridley should step forward as Matt Ryan’s number one option in tight spots. The over/under of 48 points seems a little light for a clash that could be a ping-pong affair featuring points aplenty.
SEATTLE (-2.5) at INDIANAPOLIS (Over/Under 48.5)
Whatever it is about the Seahawks, they have been a must-watch team for many years as they have stacked playoff appearances during the Russell Wilson-Pete Carroll era. This Week 1 test looked a lot less daunting a few weeks ago as the Colts’ injury woes piled up, but regardless the Seahawks are laying points on the road. Indeed, the return of Carson Wentz for Indianapolis just a month out from foot surgery could suit the Seahawks. Any immobility or tenderness will be seized upon.
For the Colts, the formula will be a conservative one designed around their offensive line, Jonathan Taylor’s breakaway talent, and their sturdy defense. As usual, Frank Reich has quite the coaching job on his hands, but he has consistently shown that he can get the best out of a bad hand. If he plays his cards right this week, the Colts could hang at home and spring a surprise.
MINNESOTA (-3) at CINCINNATI (Over/Under 48)
In this intriguing clash, there are plenty of storylines to keep track of, not least Joe Burrow’s triumphant return. However, former Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer will have a good game plan cooked up to stall the returning quarterback. The Vikings are perennially underrated but seem to figure out a way to pull out games such as this. The defensive weaknesses of last season will have been a frequent offseason topic for Zimmer to drum into his players’ minds. Expect a vigorous and determined performance from the men in purple as a result.
As for Cincinnati, Burrow will hope Ja’Marr Chase can put his drop-filled preseason behind him and show up in a wide receiver battle against former LSU compatriot Justin Jefferson. In what could be another developmental season for the Bengals in the tough AFC North, expect a valiant effort but not enough to overcome the veteran Vikings.
SAN FRANCISCO (-7.5) at DETROIT (Over/Under 45.5)
Can the two-quarterback system that Kyle Shanahan teased us with really work? He certainly seems to think so. Jimmy Garoppolo will be the primary man at the controls, but with an implied game script tilting in the 49ers’ favor, the wily head coach might roll out Trey Lance a few times to keep the Lions off balance. San Francisco is fully loaded and looking primed to cause problems for the NFC.
Dan Campbell’s first game in charge, therefore, is shaping up to be a challenge. A fiery pre-game speech can only get you so far, but Campbell’s rhetoric might resonate in the early exchanges. Jared Goff’s debut as a Lion – and particularly who he links up with most – will be interesting to watch, but otherwise, the 49ers should be able to take care of business handily.
Pick: San Francisco
CLEVELAND at KANSAS CITY (-6) (Over/Under 53)
The popcorn game of the late window features the Browns, who fell short of knocking off the Chiefs in the postseason last year only to be scuppered by Chad Henne and Andy Reid. That game is in the rearview mirror, and this clash will feel a lot different for the visitors with the fans back at Arrowhead in full force. Patrick Mahomes II has gone 17-4 in his career at home and has never lost to an AFC North opponent, so the numbers are in the Chiefs’ favor.
The game script for the Browns has to focus on play-action passing and a reliance on the ground game, peppering the Chiefs defense with jabs before knocking them out with a sucker punch late in the contest. From the neutral perspective, what will be most interesting is how the revamped Browns defense fares against the high-flying Chiefs offense. It is tough to lean any other way than Kansas City in this one.
Pick: Kansas City
MIAMI at NEW ENGLAND (-3) (Over/Under 43.5)
Tua Tagovailoa will look to kick off his second year in style against the Patriots, with Bill Belichick undoubtedly relishing the match-up. Mac Jones will be the quarterback on the other side, the rookie being thrown into the fire from day one. The Patriots will likely rely on Jones to make the high-percentage, lower-risk throws and let the defense and running game carry most of the load. Think Tom Brady in the early New England seasons.
The Dolphins must force the Patriots out of that game plan, and perhaps rookie receiver Jaylen Waddle will have a few things to say about that. Brian Flores has this team well put together but overcoming the New England hump in Week 1 might be a bridge too far.
Pick: New England
DENVER (-2.5) at NY GIANTS (Over/Under 42)
The Giants could be walking into a buzzsaw here at home. Expectant fans in New York will be clamoring for a strong game from Daniel Jones, with the defense playing its part, but the Broncos are set up for success here. Jones’ fumbling issues haven’t gone away, and this Denver defense looks to be opportunistic and hungry. The Giants' offensive line will be a major question mark in this game – and maybe all season.
Teddy Bridgewater gets the starting nod at quarterback for Denver, and he should be able to make the most of the talented squad of backs and receivers at his disposal. Jerry Jeudy, with his precision route-running prowess, should benefit. Normally I would be more cautious about betting on road favorites in Week 1, but not this time.
GREEN BAY (-3) at NEW ORLEANS (Over/Under 50)
This game will be played on a neutral site in Jacksonville, but it may not matter in the grand scheme of things. Packer fans will turn out in huge numbers to witness Aaron Rodgers taking the first snap of the season after so much chatter and intrigue throughout the offseason about whether he would ever do that again. Green Bay’s firepower is a lot more potent than New Orleans, so if this turns into a shootout, there will only be one winner.
Jameis Winston will rely heavily on Alvin Kamara, but he will never be able to reproduce the accuracy and efficiency of Drew Brees. Winston has to play things his own way; the question is whether Sean Payton can pull in the reins on his most self-destructive plays. Our survey says no.
Pick: Green Bay
(Sunday Night) CHICAGO at LA RAMS (-7.5) (Over/Under 44.5)
Matthew Stafford kicks off his Rams career against a familiar opponent in the Chicago Bears, with fans in L.A. undoubtedly excited to see their new signal-caller in full flow. Sean McVay will be keen to put on a show on Sunday Night Football, and the sharps agree that the Rams are well-positioned to take care of business with the line set at -7.5. Defensively, the home team should be able to keep Andy Dalton under wraps. It could get ugly for the Bears from there.
The inevitable storyline for the Bears during this clash will be when we see Justin Fields. The calls will increase in volume should the visitors flop in primetime, so Dalton is under increased pressure to show well. While the Rams should be able to handle things, the +7.5 for the Bears looks tempting.
(Monday Night) BALTIMORE (-4.5) at LAS VEGAS (Over/Under 51)
The Raiders kick off with a primetime clash to showcase Allegiant Stadium with a full crowd, and they will hope the fans can make their presence felt. Jon Gruden’s team went just 2-6 at home last season. Facing Lamar Jackson and the Ravens is not the most straightforward of tasks to remedy that, with the Ravens quarterback throwing seven touchdowns and no interceptions in three Monday Night Football clashes so far in his career.
The Vegas line has the visitors as comfortable favorites given the supremacy they are likely to have on the ground and defensively. While it is possible that there could be a handful of wacky results this week, don’t expect this to be one of them. The Raiders have a lot of convincing to do – not just for themselves but for the watching public.
Once again, this article will give out the Best Bets and a rating of each one on a 1-3 Star scale. The more stars, the bigger the emphasis on that side of the game.
This week, we will focus our bets around the following lines:
- 1 GREEN BAY (-3) vs. NEW ORLEANS (in Jacksonville)
- 2 DENVER (-2.5) at NY GIANTS
- 3 PITTSBURGH (+6.5) at BUFFALO
- 4 BALTIMORE (-4.5) at LAS VEGAS
With these likes in mind, here are the Week 1 selections:
* ONE-STAR GAMES *
- 2-TEAM ATS DOUBLE (2.61-1 ODDS)
- BALTIMORE (-4.5)
- PITTSBURGH (+6.5)
** TWO-STAR GAMES **
- 2-TEAM ATS DOUBLE (2.42-1 ODDS):
- GREEN BAY (-3)
- DENVER (-2.5)
*** THREE-STAR GAMES ***
- 4-TEAM MONEY LINE (2.81-1 ODDS)
- TAMPA BAY - FOR THE WIN
- MINNESOTA – FOR THE WIN
- DENVER – FOR THE WIN
- LA RAMS – FOR THE WIN
PICK(S) OF THE WEEK: Green Bay, Denver, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Minnesota
Good luck this weekend!
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