Thursday, September 4, 2014

NFL Week 1 Primer (With Picks)

It's an interception! No, it's a touchdown! Who cares, football is back, starting with Green Bay making its return to Seattle for the first time since the "Fail Mary" tonight.
 By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

It's here, you guys.

It's finally here.

It took eight months, but meaningful football games are back, and they're here to stay (through February).

I feel like I say it every year, but I have never been so excited for football season. It might actually be true - maybe every successive football season is more anticipated than the last. There are so many things to be excited about, starting with anywhere from five to seven potential juggernaut teams sprinkled throughout the league (Denver, New England, Seattle, New Orleans, Green Bay, and possibly Philadelphia and San Francisco, depending on how optimistic you are).

Former playoff teams like Houston, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore could all bounce back in a big way. San Diego and Chicago have emerged as sleepers with high-octane offenses. Carolina and Kansas City look to hold on to the success that they found last year. Cleveland, Minnesota, and Jacksonville all have new first-round quarterbacks who could see substantial playing time this year. And in case you didn't notice, I just named more than half the league, every division is represented, and there's plenty of more excitement to be had for the teams I didn't mention.

Football, baby. Football.

Game(s) of The Week

Green Bay @ Seattle (8:30 p.m. Thursday, NBC)

As per usual, opening night features the defending Super Bowl champion squaring off with a high-profile foe. You forget it now, but the Ravens were, in fact, the defending Super Bowl champions on opening night last year. On only two occasions has the defending champion lost on opening night, and on only one occasion has the home team lost (the Ravens as defending champions lost on the road in Denver when a scheduling conflict with the Orioles forced the game out of Baltimore; the Giants in 2012 lost at home to Dallas). That might tip the scales towards Seattle, but more on that later.

New Orleans @ Atlanta (1:00 p.m. Sunday, FOX)

New Orleans starts their Super Bowl quest (which at least one of us buys into heavily) on the road against their bitter rivals. Atlanta is healthy on offense and (hopefully) improved on defense, and this was a team that was 13-3 in 2012. If New Orleans is going to have competition in the NFC South, odds are it's going to come from Atlanta. 

Cincinnati @ Baltimore (1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS)

Another divisional tilt where the perceived favorite travels to the hopeful bounce-back team. Cincinnati opens at Baltimore and closes at Pittsburgh, so their season is book-ended in two road games that they almost certainly need if they want to win the division. This will be our first glance at Andy Dalton after losing his third consecutive postseason game, and our first glance at Andy Dalton after signing a large contract extension.  

Indianapolis @ Denver (8:30 p.m. Sunday, NBC)

The Sunday night game is, as usual, a doozy. Luck and the Colts handed Manning and the Broncos their first loss of the season last year, but the Broncos get this one at home and will probably come out looking to knock heads together after last year's Super Bowl surely left a sour taste in their mouth. And if Seattle makes a statement opening night against Green Bay, odds are Peyton will have a response come Sunday.

Here Are The Picks We Agree On (Home Teams in CAPS)

Green Bay (+6) over SEATTLE

JC: Okay, so, (1) the home team always wins on opening night, and (2) Seattle always wins at home. So why am I picking Green Bay? Because I think Seattle is slightly worse than they were last year (they lost some depth on their defensive line, their offensive line very quietly fell apart, and they lost Golden Tate to Detroit), and I think Green Bay is substantially better than they were last year. I'm not sure that Green Bay wins outright, but if you're giving me the points, I'm going to take the points.

JP: Agreed. I think this ends up being a really close, exciting game, so I have to take the points.

New Orleans (-3) over ATLANTA

JC: If the Saints are going to be a 13-3 juggernaut (and I think they are), then this is a game they should win handily. The Falcons have a lot of new pieces on their defense. It's very possible that they grow into a much better unit than they were last year, but asking them to slow down the Saints' offense in Week 1, even at home, is a tall order.

JP: I know this game is being played in Atlanta, but the Saints are just great in domes. I doubt the new patchwork Falcon defense will be ready in week one to slow down Brees and the New Orleans attack indoors

ST. LOUIS (-3.5) over Minnesota

JC: I'm down on St. Louis this year, but I might be even further down on Minnesota. I'm not sure St. Louis is covering a three-point spread against anyone other than Oakland and Jacksonville, but until I see some evidence that (a) Matt Cassell can resemble an NFL quarterback, and (b) Shaun Hill is decidedly worse than Sam Bradford, I think the Rams' defense will be able to hold down the fort.

JP: I have no doubt the Rams will be fine without Sam Bradford, because I often thought they played well in spite of him the last few years. Shaun Hill's not as good as Kellen Clemons, but really, who is? On the other side, any team that continues to start Matt Cassell when they have a promising rookie quarterback deserves to lose.

Oakland (+5.5) over NEW YORK JETS

JC: I think both of these teams are going to suck. The Jets will probably suck slightly less, but not five and a half points less. I'm fully aware that Oakland is starting one of the Carr brothers at quarterback (I'm not sure which, but to be honest, I don't think it matters), which, after last season, isn't even a step up from starting one of the McCown brothers. But the Jets are starting Geno Smith. I think it turns out to be a wash. Just give me the points.

JP: The scary thing here is Oakland starts rookie Derek Carr, but he honestly can't be any worse than the carcass of Matt Schaub that they rolled out during the preseason. Plus, as you mentioned, it's not like Geno Smith is a world-beater on the other side. I actually think Oakland's defense, particularly its pass rush, will be improved, and the addition of MJD on offense should give them somebody to hand the ball too when Run DMC comes up lame on his third carry. These teams seem pretty equal to me. Gimme the points.

Cincinnati (+1.5) over BALTIMORE

JC: I'm going to continue to ride the "Baltimore and/or Joe Flacco is overrated" bandwagon until I see reason not to. I started driving the bus almost as soon as Flacco was handed the Super Bowl MVP trophy and it's been clear sailing ever since. The Bengals are probably under-valued at this point (case in point - they're a playoff team from last year getting points against a non-playoff team - there's only one other instance of that this week), mostly because of their poor postseason resume over the last three years, but people seem to forget that they've increased their win total in each of the last three seasons.

JP: I think the three AFC North "favorites," if you want to call them that (PIT, BAL, CIN), are all pretty close to each other, but I like Cincy a little more than Baltimore. The only reason this line favors the Ravens is the game is being played in Baltimore, but I'll take the points and, what I think is, the better team.

CHICAGO (-7) over Buffalo

JC: Chicago seems to be everyone's NFC sleeper, which has me a bit worried. But the Bills are in shambles on both sides of the ball to such a degree that it might not matter. If there's something to worry about, it's Chicago's historically bad run defense from a year ago going against E.J. Manuel, Fred Jackson, and a probably-bouncing back C.J. Spiller. But historically, run defense fluctuates year to year more than any other aspect of football besides special teams, so one would have to assume Chicago's ground defense will be improved. A touchdown is high, but if Chicago is as good as everyone thinks they are, they'll cover it.

JP: I don't really consider the Bears a sleeper, but I do think they're a playoff team in the brutal NFC. Conversely, the Bills seem destined for another season as an also-ran (or possibly worse) in the weaker AFC, plus Chicago opens at home. I hate touching lines that are a touchdown or more, but the Bears seem that much better than Buffalo.

New England (-5) over MIAMI


JP: I don't know about that, but yeah, an AFC favorite giving less than a touchdown against the Dolphins. Sure.
Carolina (+2.5) over TAMPA BAY

JC: Okay, now this is swinging too far. I think Carolina is going to regress just as much as the next guy, but they're a team that was 12-4, and they're *GETTING* points against a team that was 4-12? Huh? And don't get me wrong, Josh McCown had a great year last year, but what is more likely, that his 2013 season was a complete aberration thanks to a beautiful offense system, or did McCown suddenly break through at age 34 after posting a QB rating of 71.2 over his previous 1100 pass attempts over the last 10 years? And now he's going up against one of the league's elite defenses from a year ago and he's giving a field goal? Yeah, I think I can sniff out a sucker bet.

JP: I REALLY like the Bucs to improve this year, but they've got a new coaching staff, new quarterback, rookies starting at tight end and receiver, and a new defensive scheme. To force me to pick them, and give points, in week one... I just can't do that. The second time these teams play in Charlotte could be a totally different story, but for now I'll take the points, and the team with continuity at quarterback and in the coaching staff to start the year quicker.

San Francisco (-5) over DALLAS

JC: I really think Dallas is going to suck, but because Dallas is such a public team (meaning the unassuming public will bet on the Cowboys just because they're a blue-blood team), Vegas will be able to get away with lower lines because they know all the dummies will bet on Dallas anyway. There could be a lot of value to be had this year (especially early) betting against the Cowboys. Sign me up.

JP: It's usually a good bet to go against certain teams that have large fan bases and, thus, inflated lines. The Cowboys are a great example of this, along with the Steelers, occasionally the Packers and, of course, the poster child for this phenomenon, Notre Dame.

New York Giants (+6) over DETROIT

JC: I hate both of these teams. Give me the points.

JP: Feel about the same, plus I think Eli is poised to bounce back, meaning I also think this thing devolves into a score-for-score and turnover-for-turnover shootout. Detroit may end up winning, but this has the makings of a 3 or 4 point affair either way.

San Diego (+3) over ARIZONA

JC: This one I don't get at all. San Diego has a bandwagon so big they need jet engines to lug it around. Meanwhile, Arizona might be the most sure-fire candidate for regression in the entire league. Why is Arizona favored? There are two possibilities here - the first is that Vegas is just betting against the public, knowing that if *everyone* thinks San Diego is good and *everyone* thinks Arizona is bad, they're probably all wrong. The other possibility is that Vegas is trying to double-bluff everyone. They know that everything from possibility No. 1 is something that gamblers actually think about, so they're trying to sneak one by us by tricking us into taking Arizona. But I'm not falling for it.

JP: Look, I'm not buying into this "San Diego will be great, Arizona will be awful" theory as much as you are, but I do think the Cardinal D loses some bite, and the Chargers offense is going to be tough to stop. Really, this pick comes down to me trusting Phillip Rivers to start quicker than Carson Palmer... Yeah, I feel pretty good about that.

Here Are The Picks We Don't (Home Team Still in CAPS)

JC: PITTSBURGH (-7) over Cleveland

If Johnny Manziel was playing, I'd be tempted to take Cleveland to cover, because at least he can run around and make plays and do stuff. Brian Hoyer doesn't really bring that to the table. I understand why they're starting Hoyer right out the gate - it's not like they're competing for a Super Bowl, and if they decide to make a change at quarterback mid-season, it makes much more sense to move from Hoyer to Manziel than vice-versa, when Manziel is the one who ostensibly will be the quarterback of the future. But for now, Hoyer just doesn't offer any upside, and Pittsburgh looks pretty good this year.

JP: Cleveland (+7) over PITTSBURGH

As I said above in the Chicago-Buffalo pick, I hate touching lines of a touchdown or more, especially in week one when we really have no idea how good any of the mid-level teams are. Do I think Pittsburgh is better than Cleveland. Yep, but the Browns have a better defense than people give them credit for and Brian Hoyer was 3-0 as a starter in Cleveland last year, including a win over eventual division champion Cincinnati.

It's week one, and I'm not giving an 8-8 team the benefit of the doubt that they'll cover a touchdown spread against anybody.

JC: PHILADELPHIA (-11) over Jacksonville

I am in a pickle on this one. I think Philadelphia is going to regress a touch, but they're playing against Jacksonville. I'll trust Chip Kelly for now, but the Eagles are on a short leash.  

JP: Jacksonville (+11) over PHILADELPHIA 

Again, I hate these big lines. I know they're playing the Jags, but I have to believe Jacksonville will be able to put together a half of intense football before the wheels fall off. Philly should again be able to score, but Chip Kelly's offenses tend to get better as the year goes on, so I'm hoping Jacksonville can score a few cheap ones against a still gelling Eagles defense and keep this one tight while the Philly offense finds its rhythm.

JC: HOUSTON (-3) over Washington

In the battle of "there's *NO WAY* we can be that bad again this year, right?" teams, Houston has the home-field advantage and the problems that were easier to identify (their quarterback and coach both went Section 8) and possibly fix (they have a new quarterback and coach). Moreover, the Texans actually got to take advantage of their terrible season with a first-round draft pick. Washington shipped theirs to St. Louis as part of the Robert Griffin III trade. And do you think RG3 wants to run around against J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney? I didn't think so.

JP: Washington (+3) over HOUSTON 

Houston has the better defense and home field advantage, but if RG3 is back up to speed, Washington will have a far better quarterback situation, and the offense has explosive potential with the outside pairing of DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, along with Alfred Morris in the backfield. Plus, I have to think the Washington D will be improved as the secondary has some new pieces, and Jason Hatcher should finally add an interior pass rusher to complement the fantastic Orakpo-Kerrigan combo on the outside. I think this teams are about even, so I'll take the better QB and points.

JC: DENVER (-7.5) over Indianapolis

See above. I think Peyton wants blood. 

JP: Indianapolis (+7.5) over DENVER

I was originally going to agree with you, but I found myself writing "while I hate picking against Andrew Luck, and giving over a touchdown in an early season game to a passing team missing two of its top three receivers from last year, and its best receiving running back..."

Then I realized, screw it, I don't agree with you. Indy's Miracle Man under center keeps them in this one against their old favorite QB. Still think Denver will win straight up though.

JC: Tennessee (+4) over KANSAS CITY

I've really got nothing on this one.

JP: KANSAS CITY (-4) over Tennessee

I think the Chiefs will take a step back, but I still have to believe they're at least four points better than this average-to-below-average team, especially at home.

Jeremy's 2013 Record:

Joe's 2013 Record:

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