The NFL season is here. That is exciting. Throughout the season I’ll be making picks against the spread here on Thursday mornings. These are strictly for fun and entertainment purposes and please for your sake do not take these picks as gambling advice. Lines used here come from the Westgate Las Vegas via OddsShark. Home teams in CAPS.
Atlanta (+1) over PHILADELPHIA
This line opened with the Eagles as a 5.5-point favorite, but has dropped to just 1-point since it was revealed Carson Wentz will miss the game and Nick Foles will start in his place. Foles was under center when the Eagles beat the Falcons in the Divisional Round, but Philadelphia had a few lucky breaks in that game. Both of these teams remain the same and figure to be two of the top teams in the NFC at the end of the season. Atlanta is a little healthier going into this game and could spoil the Eagles’ banner raising.
NEW ORLEANS (-9.5) over Tampa Bay
New Orleans finished last season as the No. 1 team in DVOA, per Football Outsiders. They were a bad angle and a missed tackle away from the NFC Championship Game and who knows after that. The Saints return most of their starters and the young players have another year of experience. This should again be a Super Bowl contender. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers had the league’s worst defense by DVOA last season and will be starting Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback because of a suspension for Jameis Winston. The Bucs could end up being one of the worst teams in the league.
San Francisco (+6.5) over MINNESOTA
There’s two questions to ask about Kirk Cousins and the Vikings. The first is can Cousins be better than the 2018 version of Case Keenum and the answer to that is probably yes. But the other is can he be better than the 2017 version of Case Keenum and that’s going to be fairly difficult. Keenum was first among quarterbacks in DVOA and expecting Cousins to replicate that, especially early in the season, could be a tough task. San Francisco, meanwhile, is a young team with a lot of promise, though we might be pushing them into the top tier a little quickly. But I trust Kyle Shanahan to configure a game plan to help the Niners offense navigate through the Vikings defense. This game should be close and fun.
BALTIMORE (-7.5) over Buffalo
Buffalo has a talented defense, but the offense might be the worst in the league. Baltimore has a talented defense, but the offense might be the most boring in the league. However, we don’t have to fully buy into the “Lamar Jackson has lit a fire under Joe Flacco” narrative to project the Ravens offense to be better. A receiving trio of Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Willie Snead is the best Baltimore has fielded in a while and Alex Collins is one of the league’s most underrated runners. The defense should remain a top-five unit even without coordinator Dean Pees and the special teams is always one of the best in the league with a former coordinator as head coach. The Bills are starting Nathan Peterman at quarterback. If you’re playing in a survivor pool, Baltimore might be the best bet for Week 1.
Jacksonville (-3) over GIANTS
If anyone knows what the Giants are going to look like in this game, they’re lying. The range of outcomes might be as wide as any team in Week 1. Even if the Giants are set to improve, that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s going to happen from the start against one of the league’s best defenses. There’s an argument to be made that Jacksonville might not be able to repeat their defensive success over a full season considering how healthy the entire unit was and how that’s not likely to happen for a second consecutive season. But even if that’s is true, it’s not the case in Week 1. The Jags are still healthy and so deep the loss of Dante Fowler won’t really matter. This is not the defense a brand new offense wants to see in the opening week.
NEW ENGLAND (-6.5) over Houston
If Deshaun Watson continues to develop, the Houston Texans could be a surprise contender in the AFC. But the question will be whether Watson’s improvement will be enough to offset the clear regression he’s going to see throwing touchdowns — he threw a score on 9.3 percent of his passes, only Carson Wentz was even over 7 percent. Houston even came close to beating the Patriots in the regular season last year if not for a few conservative decisions from Bill O’Brien. Still, these are the Patriots coached by Bill Belichick and quarterbacked by Tom Brady and that duo should continue to be favored until future notice.
Tennessee (-1.5) over MIAMI
We’re in Year 7 of the Ryan Tannehill Experience with last year lost to a torn ACL. In the previous five seasons Tannehill has played, he finished above league average in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (a metric that accounts for touchdowns, interceptions, and sacks) just once. It’s hard to see it finally happening and Tannehill becoming some above average quarterback this far into his career. On the other side, Marcus Mariota had his worst season as a pro last year, but it’s somehow comforting it was so bad and fluky — just a 2.9 percent touchdown rate — he’s bound to bounce back in 2018. The Titans will shift from a 1992 offense under Mike Mularkey to one familiar to the turn of the century under offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, who has spent time under Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay. The Titans also added Dean Pees as defensive coordinator, who has overseen the impressive Baltimore defenses for the past six seasons.
Cincinnati (+3) over INDIANAPOLIS
This might be the most puzzling line of the week. I get there’s a lot of excitement around the return of Andrew Luck — that’s a great thing — but immediately favoring them, even at home, might be pushing it. Yes, Luck did drag bad Colts teams to 11-5 records in each of his first three seasons, but that was at full health. We don’t really know yet if or when Luck is going to be 100 percent. This defense in Indianapolis also might be worse than any unit Luck had to lift to the playoffs in the past. Cincinnati, for as unremarkable as they’ve been, have a pretty high floor. They’re unlikely to be terrible and have just enough top tier talent — A.J. Green, William Jackson, Geno Atkins, and much of the defensive line — they’ll be able to give most teams a game and should handle bad opponents like the Colts.
Pittsburgh (-3.5) over CLEVELAND
As the focus of Hard Knocks, the Browns are going to be a popular pick to improve this season. There’s a lot of reasons to believe that might be the case. There’s so much more talent on the roster than there was last season and there’s now two legitimate quarterbacks. But most of the coaching staff is still in place. Todd Haley should be an improvement of the offensive side of the ball and he’s presence takes play-calling off the plate of Hue Jackson, who has struggled with gameday duties on the sideline. Then there’s Gregg Williams, who is somehow still the defensive coordinator. No team played base defense more than the Browns in 2017 — 66 percent of defensive snaps! That’s not great when opposing offenses are using 11 personnel (three wide receivers) on 60 percent of their snaps. Even without Le’Veon Bell, if the Steelers line up in a three-wide set with Antonio Brown, Juju Smith-Schuster, and James Washington while the Browns line up in base personnel with a safety 20 yards deep, the Steelers might score a billion points — give or take a few.
Kansas City (+3.5) over CHARGERS
The AFC West could be a fascinating division. The Chiefs handed over the offense to Patrick Mahomes and gave him Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins to let him rip it deep. They also have one of the best tight ends in the league in Travis Kelce and last year’s leading rusher in Kareem Hunt. The defense might also be really bad. Then there’s the Chargers who easily have the most talent in the division — even with the early injuries — but they always have a way of screwing something up over the course of the season to derail playoff hopes. This game should be fairly close, even though the Chiefs went 2-0 with a plus-21 point differential in the two games last season.
Washington (+1) over ARIZONA
What do we make of these two teams? Arizona has David Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Sam Bradford behind a shaky offensive line on offense. On defensive, they have a ton of players who fit into James Bettcher’s aggressive 3-4 and are being put into a Carolina-like 4-3 under new head coach Steve Wilks. That’s a transition that might take some time. Meanwhile, Washington is Washington, right? This is a team that could never commit to Kirk Cousins but threw a boatload of money at Alex Smith after a trade that also cost them one of the league’s best slot corners in Kendall Fuller. This is also a team that’s going to start Adrian Peterson at running back in 2018. This has the potential to be the most unwatchable game of the week.
DENVER (-3) over Seattle
Denver wasted a few years of a top-tier defense while playing around at quarterback, trying to find the next guy. Case Keenum isn’t the future, but he’s the best option they’ve had since Peyton Manning. But now we’ll have to see how the defense is after dropping to 10th in DVOA last season. Seattle’s defense also isn’t the frightening unit it was a few years ago, though there’s still a lot of young talent to like. For this game specifically, the edge could to the Broncos because of the impact playing at altitude in Denver has on opponents early in the season — a trend discovered in a few different places this week.
CAROLINA (-3) over Dallas
Last season the Carolina defense was seventh in pressure rate and fifth in run defense DVOA. Dallas will be without center Travis Frederick while guard Zack Martin might not be 100 percent after suffering a hyperextended knee in the first preseason game. If the Panthers can get disruption up front, that throws off the Cowboys’ entire offense. The Panthers are also hurting along the offensive line, but tackle Daryl Williams returned to practice on Sunday after suffering what some thought could have been a season threatening injury in training camp. But a Matt Kalil injury might improve the Panthers’ offensive line by virtue of him not being out there.
GREEN BAY (-7.5) over Chicago
Getting Khalil Mack is really cool. Getting Aaron Rodgers back is better. The Bears could be one of the most fascinating teams to watch this season. They’ll be going from the ultra-conservative John Fox offense to a Spread Coast hybrid under Matt Nagy and Mark Helfrich. Then they’re adding Mack to a Vic Fangio defense that was already 14th in defensive DVOA last season. But Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the league when healthy, so this is probably a matchup the Bears would have liked later in the season when the team has a little more time to mesh everything together. But unfortunately they’re starting the season Sunday night in Green Bay. That’s a recipe for a Packers victory.
JETS (+6.5) over Detroit
The Lions were surprisingly 12th in DVOA last season, but it’s hard to have strong feelings about them one way or another. The Jets were 18th in defensive DVOA last year and there could continue with some improvements and development. On offense, they have Sam Darnold taking over. His preseason wasn’t as impressive as his completion percentage would indicate, but he gives hope at the most important position. Even if the Jets don’t win, they should be able to keep a home opener on Monday night close.
Rams (-4) over OAKLAND
I was ready to bet big against the Raiders even before the Khalil Mack situation reached its conclusion. Even the 12-4 team from two seasons ago was fluky and they were always much closer to the 6-10 team they were last season. Now, who knows what’s going on. The Jon Gruden era is going to be a trip. The Rams are going to be good. Even if they’re not taking anyone by surprise this season, there’s so much talent there and if there’s two coaches to trust to get the most out of it, it’s Sean McVay and Wade Phillips.