Week 1 NFL picks: Is there an upset brewing in Miami?
By MARIO MERGOLA
There are no predictions more difficult than Week One of the NFL season. Despite what we expect to happen over the course of the next 17 weeks, nothing has been verified until the moment each team takes their first possession.
Hard as we might try, the residue of seasons past stick with our memory until wiped away by fresh observations. Coming off a 4-12 season, are the Buccaneers any good? Probably not, but if they beat the Panthers on Sunday, how does that change our perception? What does it mean for Carolina? It will take a few weeks, but eventually the dust will settle and we can better judge the teams.
The problem is opening week. Armed with nothing but past performance and future predictions, the hidden gems need to follow suit with the overall belief in the NFL that nothing is as it seems. More importantly, upsets happen and teams arise from nowhere. Try to catch them now before it's too late.
Below are predictions for each game against the spread. Spreads have been taken from various websites and are subject to change. The spread in parenthesis denotes the selected team and an asterisk denotes one of the week's most confident picks.
Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-1)*
Carolina's 12-4 season of 2013 could be considered as far a stretch in the over-performing direction as Tampa Bay's 4-12 failure. If both teams level out, the difference in talent is, therefore, much smaller.
Cam Newton is expected to play for the Panthers (again, the NFC South champions one season ago) against a Tampa Bay team led by the former back-up quarterback Josh McCown. 12-4 versus 4-12. Yet the Buccaneers are favored by one point.
Every piece of conventional wisdom says that the Panthers are the obvious pick. But conventional wisdom, in the sense of picking football games, is using past performances to predict future outcome. There's a reason the Buccaneers are giving one point to the defending NFC South champions. It's because they don't need it.
Buccaneers win and cover.
New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons (+3)
Atlanta will win more than four games this year. Last season was a fluke, and the Falcons will be ready to prove that on Sunday. They are as difficult to beat at home as the Seahawks, and getting a field goal in the spread helps tilt the scales towards Atlanta, with hesitation.
The Saints are consistently good, but Atlanta wins the NFC South this year. It starts with Sunday's game.
Buffalo Bills (+6.5)* at Chicago Bears
List the number of question marks surrounding the Bills. Add a few more and you have the Chicago Bears. The Bills are the team with the bigger upside, while the Bears are entering a pressure-packed season.
It's doubtful Chicago loses the game, but I certainly can imagine hearing 'Cutler needs to protect the ball better' and 'the Bears looked sloppy' next week. The Bills hang in to the end, surprising most, and probably lose by a field goal. They cover.
Tennessee Titans (+4)* at Kansas City Chiefs
Possibly the upset of the week. Tennessee is better than people realize. Kansas City is worse than people realize. In the battle of two teams heading in opposite directions, taking the points and the upside seems best. Tennessee should break through the overrated Chiefs' defense en route to a seven-point victory.
Minnesota Vikings at St. Louis Rams (-4)
Neither Matt Cassel nor Shaun Hill will quarterback their respective teams in 2015 (neither may continue to do so in '14), but the veterans will go head-to-head on Opening Day. Sam Bradford's injury is crushing to any St. Louis playoff hopes, but Shaun Hill does enough to keep his team in a game. Factor in the coaching, and the Rams win and cover.
New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins (+4.5)*
The Dolphins have been quietly improving each season, and the best way for them to make a quick splash in the AFC East race is by knocking off the defending champions on Opening Day. The road to an AFC East title goes through Foxboro, but the game is being played in Miami. A huge letdown is possible for New England, and Miami should steal the game, setting the tone for the rest of the season.
Oakland Raiders (+5) at New York Jets
The New York Jets will have to outscore a team by more than five points – a feat they managed to accomplish five times last year. While it's likely that neither team is going to be vying for the Super Bowl title, their mediocrity is fairly even across the board. Therefore, the Jets win on Opening Day, but won't be able to cover the spread.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Philadelphia Eagles (-10)
Is it cheating to say the Eagles win by exactly 10 points? There is too much potential fluctuation for each team to have confidence in this game. The Jaguars trail by a touchdown in the fourth quarter, only to lose by double digits. The Eagles pull away and cover.
Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers (-6.5)
This is simply a numbers game. Typically, division underdogs, especially on the road (bigger chance for an upset) get more love. But an unproven quarterback (and coach) against a veteran on Opening Day cannot be ignored. If this game was played weeks from now, Cleveland would be the pick, but the Steelers need to set the tone early this year if they want to rebound. Pittsburgh wins and covers.
Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens (-2)
The scariest game of the week. The Ravens won't have Ray Rice, and there is nothing to suggest that the Bengals won't come into Baltimore and thrash them. But when the home team is giving two points (much like the Buccaneers) without a valid enough reason, red flags arise. Carefully, the Ravens for the win and cover.
Washington Redskins at Houston Texans (-2.5)
Write down any set of numbers between 1-40 next to each team's name and you could argue that the score is justified. What happens if RGIII gets pummeled by Jadeveon Clowney? What if they can't catch him? Bottom line, the should Redskins struggle this year, while Houston has a lot to prove. The Texans win and cover. Barely.
San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys (+5)*
It's possible that the Cowboys' defense is as terrible as everyone thinks. It's also possible that the 49ers' defense is being overrated and the Cowboys' offense is being ignored. If Dallas could start pouring on the points, they put the 49ers in an 0-1 hole to start the season. It happens. Dallas wins.
Indianapolis Colts (+7.5)* at Denver Broncos
It takes a really good team to make the Colts seven-point underdogs. This isn't the difference in talent between Jacksonville and Philadelphia or Cleveland and Pittsburgh. These are two teams coming off back-to-back playoff appearances. The last time they met (granted, in Indianapolis) the Colts put up 39 points and won. Indianapolis probably has the best scouting report available on Peyton Manning, and the Colts currently hold the younger version, themselves. Give us Andrew Luck, Sunday Night Football, and a touchdown cushion to cover. If pressed, Colts for the win, but love their chances of covering.
New York Giants (+5.5) at Detroit Lions
If the Giants secretly find a way to protect Manning, they win the game outright. But Detroit ultimately gets the better of them by a field goal. Detroit wins and New York covers.
San Diego Chargers at Arizona Cardinals (-3)
This matchup features two teams that could win their respective divisions. With the excitement already building around the Super Bowl being played in Arizona, expect home-field advantage to be in full force on the final game of the week. Arizona wins and covers.
Team-by-team previews and predictions
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46 links: A know-it-all guide to the NFL season
Week 1 power rankings
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