Week 1 in the NFL is a morass of x-factors: new players, coaches, schemes, injuries, suspensions, cohesion issues and generally how a team will respond when the games suddenly matter. All that in mind, bettors need to look closely at the teams most likely to resemble who they were last year; good or bad. Based on sportsbook odds posted by Ceasar’s Palace in Las Vegas, here are a few games to consider and one to walk away from.
The visiting Oakland Raiders are 5 1/2 point underdogs to the New York Jets. The Jets quietly managed an 8-8 record last year with rookie quarterback Geno Smith and a defense that ranked in the top third of the NFL. Significant offensive additions include former Bronco Eric Decker, RB Chris Johnson, and drafted TE Jace Amaro. The Jets cornerbacks were the team’s weakest unit and losing Antonio Cromartie in the offseason to the Cardinals will not help the situation. The team added cornerback Dimitri Patterson from the Eagles and Safety Calvin Pryor to boost the defense. The Raiders added Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley, and Antonio Smith to their defense, but lost a number of key free agents. Most significantly, they are starting the season with rookie QB Derek Carr instead of veteran Matt Schaub.
Prediction: There are two main reasons to take the Jets and the 5 1/2 points. Do not underestimate the time difference for the Raiders, who are essentially playing a game at ten in the morning; routine is a major part of the sport and Oakland’s will be off. Also, although the Jets do not have the best secondary, they have a decent front line and should be able to contain Carr or force him into making rookie mistakes. Of course, nobody knows what Carr is capable of, but it is a good bet we will not find that out this week. Take the Jets with confidence.
The visiting Indianapolis Colts are 7 1/2 point underdogs to the Denver Broncos. Peyton Manning is out for revenge, and the Colts are first on his list. Of course, after losing only a handful of games, Manning’s list is not that long, but the Colts beat him in 2013 so there they are. Indy’s 39-33 upset of Denver is unlikely to be repeated this time. The Broncos reloaded in the offseason, adding DeMarcus Ware on the defensive line and Aqib Talib on the corners, as well as Emmanuel Sanders from Pittsburgh and rookie Cody Latimer to catch Manning’s passes. The Colts added D’Qwell Jackson and inside linebacker Arthur Jones. The Broncos go into the game missing Wes Welker and kicker Matt Prater, while the Colts are missing Robert Mathis, who hassled Manning throughout last year’s game.
Prediction: The Colts need to keep the ball as much as they can to win, meaning Trent Richardson and the running game must be effective. Unfortunately for Indy, the Broncos’ shiny new defense should handle the run and keep Luck scrambling. The Broncos have scored an average of 37.1 points in their last 14 regular season games and have been favored in 31 straight games, covering the spread 18-12 over that span. The Colts have been strong as underdogs, 10-7 under Luck and 22-13 overall during his tenure. Going by recent trends, 7 1/2 points makes this a risky bet, but as the odds-on favorites to tear through the NFL on their way to a second Super Bowl appearance, Week 1 should be a pull-away victory for the Broncos. Consider them a strong play.
The visiting San Francisco 49ers are 4 1/2 point underdogs to the Dallas Cowboys. Talk about a game with nothing but x-factors. The Cowboys and the 49ers are the nervous wrecks of the NFL. The ‘Boys have the consensus worst defense in the league and a chaotic front office, while the Niners had an offseason of turmoil and misery. San Francisco’s defense has been gutted: Aldon Smith suspended, All-Pro NaVarro Bowman on the PUP, starting nose tackle Glen Dorsey on IR, and Ray McDonald playing, but with a domestic abuse charged hanging over his head. Luckily the Niners’ offense should carve up the terrible Cowboys’ defense. Dallas has lost their two best players – DeMarcus Ware to the Broncos, Sean Lee to injury – have a top free agent who has not taken a preseason snap, and are breaking in a new defensive coordinator. In an interview, former quarterback Sean Salisbury said of the 2014 Cowboys: “I think they’re a Tony Romo injury away from being 2-14.”
Prediction: This game could go a lot of ways. Dallas may be a quarterback injury away from calamity, but Romo is still behind center and still has weapons like DeMarco Murray, Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, and Jason Witten, and nobody knows what kind of 49ers defense will show up. The Niners have plenty of offensive punch, but nobody knows how bad the Cowboys’ defense really is. If only by recent spread numbers, the 49ers should get the nod as San Francisco is 10-4-2 overall against the spread in their last 16 games while Dallas is just 6-13 in their last 19. But take a pass on the Niners this week until the NFL gets a good look at their defense. If it gels, the odds will turn heavily in the 49ers favor as they try to catch up to the Seattle Seahawks. But until we get a better look at the Niners, stay away from betting the game.
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Commentary by Andrew Elfenbein