NFL: Week 1 picks against the spread
By MARIO MERGOLA
It begins again. Among the many traditions that surround the return of the National Football League to our weekly routine — fantasy football, tailgate parties, potato chips — the act of making predictions never gets old. In our incessant desire to 'figure the league out,' we look everywhere for hints and tips as to what may happen on Sunday. It is an inexact science, as individual games will always be among the most elusive to solve. Instead, we look for bundles of matchups that provide the best opportunities — traps, over-hyped teams, and games where perception overtakes reality.
Last season, this column finished first among all experts tracked by NFLPickwatch in picks against the spread for the combination of the regular season and postseason. The methodology used throughout the year was based less on the talent of the teams and more on their circumstances. Most importantly, the trends and patterns of favorites and underdogs, home and away teams, primetime and meaningless games were used throughout the year.
Naturally, the opening week of the NFL season throws a wrench in the plans, as there are no previous games off which to base the state of the league. There are no 'hot' or 'cold' teams. There are no 'sleepers' or 'busts.' There is truly no concrete evidence to indicate if a team will have a good or bad year.
With that, we look to last season. Certainly, the personnel for each team plays a large role in the expected performance of the following year, but there is value in finding stability, as well. Teams that benefited from incredible luck — Carolina is chief among these — are at a significant disadvantage with months separating their last game from their next. Conversely, teams that suffered a season-long slump had an entire offseason to tweak and adjust for the next chapter to be written on a blank piece of paper.
'Bounce-back seasons' begin on Opening Day, as do immediate over-reactions. Nothing has been carved into stone, yet, but after sixty minutes of football has been played, the state of the National Football League will look vastly different from just a few hours prior.
All we can do is try to read the tape as it unfolds.
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.
*Confidence Picks (2014 Season: 61-46-2)
All Picks Against Spread (2014 Season: 149-114-4)
Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots (-7)
The National Football League wasted no time pulling the public back in. As if the Opening Night primetime game needed any more attention, Tom Brady's suspension getting overturned creates an undeniable ripple effect throughout the league. Immediately after the announcement that Brady would play in Thursday's season opener, the spread for the game jumped to a full touchdown worth of points.
The movement in the numbers should tell the full story.
Too many times last year a quarterback with an uncertain status prior to the game — Teddy Bridgewater, Carson Palmer, Cam Newton — had an impact on the final spread once the roster was announced. Common sense dictated that it was worth flipping sides on the pick, only to be irrelevant. The games were not, and will not be decided by one player.
The spread, however, says otherwise.
Had the number remained small, it would have been an indication that Brady's presence was assumed, all along — quite frankly, the Steelers must have been preparing for Brady, in case the suspension was overturned. With the spread doubling in some places, it is a telling sign that taking the Patriots will come at a premium.
The other facet of picking New England in Thursday's game is the expectation that the franchise will be looking to deliver a message to both the league and the public. Whatever the impact of a deflated football is on the actual game, one common argument used by defenders of the Patriots is that the scoreboard was hardly affected, anyway. What better way to drive this point home than to run up the score with perfectly inflated footballs?
Playing in front of their home crowd, as well as the rest of the country, the Patriots win by seventeen and cover.
Indianapolis Colts (-2.5) at Buffalo Bills
Will Rex Ryan's Buffalo Bills hold Indianapolis' high-powered offense under seventeen points? Of all the battles to be fought in Buffalo, this appears to be the only one that matters.
Ryan has made a living cultivating ferocious defenses, and the outcome of his first game as the head coach of the Bills rests solely on his team's ability to slow down Andrew Luck and the Colts. Regardless of how good or bad the Colts' defense proves to be, long-term, the only threat it will face on Sunday is former rushing leader LeSean McCoy. His presence will likely be nullified, however, if Buffalo falls behind and needs to put points on the board quickly. With Tyrod Taylor starting at quarterback for the first time in his four-year career — 35 career pass attempts, 27 career rushing attempts — points will be at a premium.
The Bills might end up with the best defense in the National Football League, but their scoring offense should be horrific. The Colts win by ten and cover.
Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears (+6.5)*
How easy it is to write off the Chicago Bears after their 2014 season. Fantasy football-relevant at nearly every offensive position, Chicago won over the hearts of many prior to its 5-11 season. By the end, the Bears' bandwagon was empty.
The Green Bay Packers were one of the best teams in the league, last year, and were a handful of impossible plays away from going to the Super Bowl. With an 8-0 regular season record at home, they were unstoppable at Lambeau Field, but were an average 4-4 on the road.
The Packers have dominated the Bears, of late, winning eight of their last nine meetings, increasing their margin of victory in each of the last three. One-sided rivalries only last so long in the National Football League, and the Bears have the perfect catalyst in place to stop the skid on Sunday — a clean slate.
The Jay Cutler-era in Chicago has been a roller coaster ride, but the change in head coach from Marc Trestman to John Fox should not be overlooked, as the new coaching regime should have a revitalizing effect on the offense. Clearly, whatever Trestman was trying to accomplish was lost on Cutler. Opening a new season with an established head coach provides the opportunity for a surprise attack.
The Bears shock the Packers on Sunday, winning by a field goal and beating the spread.
Miami Dolphins at Washington Redskins (+4)*
Two teams going in completely opposite directions square off on Sunday, as the Miami Dolphins — with arguably the best offseason of any team — travel to Washington, D.C. to face a Redskins team that already has quarterback issues. Miami looks poised to ascend in the AFC, while Washington is a sinking ship.
This is a trap.
2014 looked like the season in which the Dolphins would break their five-year playoff drought. With a 6-4 start, the pieces were in place. Four losses later, the streak of consecutive season without a playoff appearance was pushed to six.
The Dolphins should be a better team in 2015 — significantly better than the Redskins — but the way they ended last season is telling. After a heart-breaking loss in Denver, Miami's only two wins came against the 4-12 Jets and the 7-9 Vikings. The combined margin of victory in those two games was five points.
It was not that long ago when Kirk Cousins was one of the most highly touted backup quarterbacks in the league. His record as a starting quarterback is horrible — 2-7 in nine starts, but so were his teams. He is arguably the best passer on the roster, and he gives the Redskins an unexpected boost against a Dolphins team with a recent history of close victories.
Miami struggles in Washington, but pulls out a nail-biter. The Dolphins win by a point, but Washington beats the spread.
Cleveland Browns at New York Jets (-3)*
Two of the most unwatchable teams of the second-half of 2014 face each other on Sunday, where one is basically guaranteed to start the season 1-0. While the two franchises were moving in opposite directions in the first half of last year — the Jets were spiraling out of control while the Browns were competing in a crowded AFC North — they both leveled off towards the end.
Cleveland looks more like the team that finished last year on a five-game losing streak, while the Jets — with a new head coach, quarterback, and top receiver — appear to be on the rise. Maybe the rest of the season proves otherwise, but the Jets are simply better than the Browns — in fairness, who isn't? — and they have the opportunity to erase the memory of 2014 with an Opening Day win.
The Jets come out firing, hold down the Browns' weak offense, win by two touchdowns, and cover the spread.
Carolina Panthers at Jacksonville Jaguars (+3)*
Is there any real reason to think that the Panthers will be good this year? Carolina lost its top wide receiver for the season to injury, played to a losing record last year, only to be fortuitously bailed out in the playoffs by facing a third-string quarterback, and looked every bit as bad as the next team for a large portion of 2014. Indeed, the Jaguars look like a pushover, but why don't the Panthers?
Carolina is salivating over its Opening Day matchup in Jacksonville, but the Jaguars should be doing the same. Jacksonville has a long way to go before it reverses the perception that it will always be terrible, but they have enough young pieces in place to be overlooked in parings such as this.
The Jaguars open the season with a seven-point win, beating the spread.
Seattle Seahawks at St. Louis Rams (+4)
The Seattle Seahawks are as good and complete a team as the league has seen in the past decade. One bad pass — play call, decision, execution, etc. — away from becoming back-to-back Super Bowl champions, Seattle will enter 2015 hungrier than ever.
The St. Louis Rams have suffered for years in a difficult division — 2003 was St. Louis' last winning season — and faces a familiar opponent in its opening matchup. Oddly enough, the disparity between the two franchises hardly played a role in last season's bout, as the Rams defended their home turf by completing an improbable upset.
It won't happen again, but it will come close. The Rams tend to give the Seahawks a hard time, despite the lack of wins. In the past six meetings, only once have the Seahawks scored more than 20 points and won.
Seattle wins by a field goal, but St. Louis beats the spread.
Kansas City Chiefs (+1.5)* at Houston Texans
In what should be considered a trap, the Kansas City Chiefs are somehow the underdogs in their Opening Day matchup with the Houston Texans. The only saving grace is that Houston is getting an incredible amount of hype, despite complete uncertainty at the quarterback position.
Under head coach Andy Reid, the Chiefs have started their 2013 and 2014 seasons with 9-1 and 7-3 records, respectively. They are a better team than the Chiefs squad that closed last season on a 2-4 slide, and should be one of the surprise teams of 2015. The Texans, conversely, are flying too close to the sun with no one at the controls.
Kansas City wins by two touchdowns and beats the spread.
New Orleans Saints (+2.5) at Arizona Cardinals
Are Drew Brees, Sean Payton, and the New Orleans Saints really finished? It took almost the entire 2014 season for the final nail to be driven into the coffin, even though the team's 4-7 record should have been all the proof that was needed. Finally, the balance of power has shifted to the point that the Arizona Cardinals are giving points to the visiting Saints.
New Orleans has a reputation of playing poorly on the road, but a late afternoon game in a dome alleviates such concerns. Neither Sean Payton nor Drew Brees have had back-to-back losing seasons — including Brees' tenure in San Diego — and the Saints have all the makings of this year's 'bounceback team.' Conversely, the Arizona Cardinals, fresh off the franchise's winningest regular season in forty years is due to regress.
The Cardinals had their chance to make history, last year, but the moment has passed. New Orleans starts its 2015 season with a win, topping the Cardinals by ten and beating the spread.
Detroit Lions at San Diego Chargers (-3)
Possibly the two least consistent teams of the past few years, the San Diego Chargers and Detroit Lions will meet Sunday afternoon in a non-conference showdown. Each victims of sharing a division with a powerhouse, the two also feature another parallel by posting nearly identical offensive numbers in 2014, ranking 18th and 19th in yards. Detroit owned the edge in defense, while the Chargers outscored the Lions by approximately one-and-a-half points per game.
The Lions and Chargers — anything but rivals as they meet once every four years — are almost mirrors of one another. The biggest difference between the two is that Detroit celebrated a playoff appearance while San Diego finished third in its division with a 9-7 record.
Detroit, now devoid of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, should take a step back to the pack, shrinking the perceived gap between these teams. This allows the hometown Chargers to gain the edge and secure an Opening Day win. San Diego narrowly covers the spread with a four-point victory.
Baltimore Ravens (+4.5) at Denver Broncos
Anytime the Broncos aren't massive favorites at home, it's time to take notice, as they always deserve consideration when the spread is fewer than a touchdown worth of points. That is, unless the opponent is from Baltimore.
The Ravens, hardly afraid of the spotlight, have taken three of the past five matchups from the Broncos, including the memorable playoff game that ultimately catapulted Baltimore into a Super Bowl championship. Furthermore, the Broncos may not be the same team that started 2014, as quarterback Peyton Manning was one of many players to see his performance dip with the temperatures. Indeed, a new season should bring a rested and rejuvenated squad to the field, but the end of Denver's dominance has to come, eventually.
The Ravens have survived using the same formula for years, and it has proven successful, especially when the games matter most. They will go toe-to-toe with the Broncos on Sunday, but won't be able to stop the aerial attack in the end – Baltimore ranked 23rd against the pass, last year.
Broncos win by a field goal, but Baltimore beats the spread.
Cincinnati Bengals (-3.5) at Oakland Raiders
While the jury remains out as to whether or not the Raiders have a complete enough team to compete in 2015, they drew the short straw in Opening Day matchups by hosting the Cincinnati Bengals. Not only are the Bengals frequently forgotten in discussions regarding the league's best teams, but their inability to inspire confidence helped keep the spread small and manageable.
The Bengals will ravage the Raiders on Sunday.
Cincinnati plays in such a competitive division that securing wins against weaker opponents is imperative if it wants to reach the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season. The Bengals put up 30 points in five games, last year, and easily disposed of teams like the Falcons, Titans, Jaguars, and Saints. They will take care of the Raiders via a two touchdown victory, covering the spread.
Tennessee Titans (+3) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
How beautiful it is that the top two overall picks in the 2015 NFL Draft will face each other on Opening Day. The league will immediately get to see who delivers the first punch and, the world will likely overreact.
Why wait for the game to be played to make definitive proclamations? The entire offseason was spent debating which of the two quarterbacks — Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota — was worthy of being selected first overall. The Buccaneers clearly believed the answer was Winston, but their decision is still a matter of opinion.
Tennessee found Marcus Mariota so valuable that, instead of trading away the pick and proceeding with Zach Mettenberger under center, they stockpiled another quarterback. It was not long before the job was Mariota's.
The belief is that Mariota's college game does not translate well in professional football, but it could be argued that Winston's off-field issues does not translate well into developing a leader. When the game is on the line, Mariota, not Winston, should have better command of his huddle.
Tennessee wins by a field goal on Opening Day, beating the spread.
New York Giants (+6)* at Dallas Cowboys
Throw out the records when the Giants and Cowboys face each other. Even though the Cowboys have won their last four games against the Giants, five of their last six matchups were settled by one touchdown or less.
Like most divisional rivalries, these teams bring out the best in one another. With the Cowboys being the aggressor, of late — both in head-to-head contests and their superior record to the Giants — New York can make an early statement in the NFC East with a nationally televised win in Dallas.
The Cowboys are walking into 2015 with the belief that last season was the foundation on which they will build and take the next step. But what if they severely over-performed? Worse for Dallas, what if the Giants, with another year under offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, are on the rise?
The two franchises looked like polar opposites in 2014, but both should revert back to the mean in 2015. In addition, the Giants have never been intimidated by a trip to Dallas — New York has won four of its last six road games against the Cowboys — and the team will head home with a victory under their belts. New York wins by four and beats the spread.
Philadelphia Eagles at Atlanta Falcons (+3)
There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the Atlanta Falcons were simply unbeatable at home. Quarterback Matt Ryan donned the nickname 'Matty Ice' for his ability to remain cool under pressure, and there appeared to be no game out of reach for the team's high-flying offense. Atlanta has fallen on hard times in the past few years, but the signs of a potential 'bounce-back year' are everywhere — from the new, defensive-minded head coach to the established duo of Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones.
Philadelphia travels to Atlanta with a different agenda. Head coach Chip Kelly is out to prove that his offseason of tinkering was part of a bigger plan yet to be revealed. Perhaps he is right, but the horse on which he is placing his largest bet brings an incredibly high level of risk. Quarterback Sam Bradford has not played a regular season game in the National Football League in nearly two years, and will be expected to lead a revamped team to victory out of the gate.
Storylines in sports have an uncanny knack for writing themselves. The tendency for people and analysts to overreact to a single game adds undue pressure to an Eagles team that will be on full display on Monday Night Football.
Atlanta, riding under the radar, beats the spread and the Eagles by a touchdown. The next day, the football media unfairly explodes with proclamations that Chip Kelly was wrong.
Minnesota Vikings at San Francisco 49ers (+2.5)*
No team has had a more tumultuous offseason than the San Francisco 49ers, ranging from player departures to player arrests. Their head coach left to take over a college team, and their quarterback quickly slipped from a rising comet to a falling star. They are a near-lock to be one of the worst teams in the league.
They will win on Opening Day.
When a franchise is in disarray off the field, the best medicine is usually a dose of on-field action. Problems are forgotten between the white lines of a football field, and teams are galvanized — if only for one game — under these conditions. The 49ers need a piece of salvation, and they will find it Monday night.
The Vikings bring their own offering to the table, as Minnesota is gaining traction as one of this year's hot 'sleeper teams.' Expected to kick off a hopeful season with a road victory against a bad team, Minnesota will be in for a rude awakening if the team is not nearly as good as the hype would suggest.
San Francisco will struggle through the upcoming season, but take advantage of an over-hyped opponent and escape the collapsing world around them. The 49ers win by ten and beat the spread.
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