Friday, September 8, 2017

NFL Week 1 Primer (With Picks): It Begins

Aaron Rodgers and the Packers host Seattle in one of week one's premier matchups.
 By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Week 1 is upon us. It officially kicked off last night when the Patriots blew out Kansas City by an absurd score of 77-6 and Tom Brady threw for a record nine touchdowns and ran for two more, including one while running backwards. (Jeremy wrote this part before the game kicked off so he's just going with what he saw in his dream Wednesday night.)

[Late Thursday/Early Friday update from Jeremy: Woof.]

Yesterday, we posted our Always-Way-Too-Long NFL Preview, which covers many of the things you need to know (but way more things that you don't really need to know) entering this season.

The first few weeks of picks can usually be tough, except if you're Jeremy and go 13-2-1 against the spread in Week 1 in 2015 (it really happened). Both of us had the Patriots giving 8.5 Thursday, which didn't really go too well. Although if you own Kareem Hunt and Mike Gillislee in your fantasy league, last night was probably boatloads of fun. With that said, please allow your correspondents to offer the following sage advice about how to approach the first few weeks of the season:

Jeremy Says: Don't pay too much attention to the actual spreads in Week 1. They usually mean nothing. It's the one week of the year where you might as well be on equal footing with the sportsbooks. You haven't seen any of these teams play yet, and neither have they. Just pick the winners and pretend as if the spread wasn't there. You're usually pretty safe that way.

Also, try to have a few pet teams that you value differently than what seems to be the popular opinion (like, say you think Cleveland is going to finish around .500, or you think the Eagles are the best team in the NFC East, or you think Arizona totally falls apart and finishes 4-12), and just bet those teams with your gut for the first few weeks. Don't get discouraged if they all flop in Week 1. If you've done your homework and really buy into it, it means there's something there, even if it's just a kernel. If you're getting into Week 4 or 5 and you're still losing on those teams every week, yeah, it might be time to adjust.

And if you're right, great, but be careful once the lines start to correct themselves. Sure, you might jump all over Detroit as a home underdog against Arizona and have it pay off, but if Detroit keeps winning and all of a sudden they're laying a touchdown on the road in New Orleans in Week 6, keep in mind that sometimes the pendulum swings too far. Always have an exit strategy (hopefully one involving just saying "I'm going to bet the other way this week").

Joe Says: If you've actually done your homework, value your opinions of teams and don't stress the lines (wait, is that what Jeremy just said?) Well, it's true. For instance, I think Baltimore and Denver are playoff teams this year, while I think the Titans, who are an improved team in a trash division, now have a hype train that has gone off the rails. I will probably value these teams differently than Vegas, and some of my best years have come when I bought into a team early and rattled off a bunch of ATS wins, until the lines corrected themselves.

Another thing I would say is, and I know this is going to seem ironic in a giant, two-person column where we discuss gambling theory, don't over complicate things. Yes, there are some basic rules you should follow, but generally you should be able to say "New England is gonna smoke (insert AFC also-ran), so I'll take them as a touchdown favorite." Those lines are made to get you to bet the other way. They're supposed to create inner conflict. If you're sure a game is going to be a blowout, don't let a half-point or point change your mind. Conversely, if you know it's going to be close, don't just "take the points" if it's under a field goal. Pick the team you actually think is better, and thank me later.

And now, on to the picks. As always, home teams are in CAPS, and lines are current as of the time we make our picks, which is usually sometime Thursday night or Friday morning.

Here Are The Picks We Agree On

BUFFALO (-9) over New York Jets

JC: I'm willing to buy into two different ideas - one is that Buffalo could actually be semi-good (if you read the way-too-long-preview, you know that I think most of last year's middle class of the AFC is undervalued, because I think a few of last year's top teams are going to regress, and I think the bottom falls out of the conference cellar), and the other is that New York will be an all-out dumpster fire. I was in a fantasy draft last week where the was a grand total of one Jet drafted (Bilal Powell), and the guy that took him was nearly laughed out of the room when it happened. They're that bad.

JP: I actually just benched Bilal Powell for my wife on her fantasy team (which I have been suckered into managing, even though my entire mission in life this summer was to consolidate my fantasy leagues). When she asked me why I benched him in favor of another player "projected" to score 0.2 fantasy points less than Powell, I told her I didn't care what Yahoo said, and I will not start a f^#%ing Jet in week one.

Jacksonville (+6) over HOUSTON

JC: For the first few weeks of the season or so, at least until the dust settles, I'm just taking the points any time two teams from the AFC South, NFC East, or NFC South play each other. I really can't make heads or tails on any of those divisions, so I might as well play it safe until I get a read on these teams a bit better.


WASHINGTON (+1.5) over Philadelphia

JC: As mentioned above, I'm taking the points in the NFC East. But I'd be taking the points anyway, because (a) I think Washington is better than Philadelphia in the first place, and (b) they're at home. I'm not totally sure why they're the underdog here, but I'm happy to have it.

JP: I love watching NFC East games, because the teams are always overrated, but full of characters and awesomely sloppy play. But, betting on this division is a nightmare. I never know which Cousins, Eli, Eagles defense or Cowboys secondary will show up from week to week. So yeah, I'll go with the home team on opening weekend. 

Arizona (-2) over DETROIT

JC: I'm leaning towards Arizona returning to form and being one of the better teams in the NFC this year. And I'm leaning towards Detroit regretting that contract that they signed Matthew Stafford to. Like, I'm pretty sure we've seen Matthew Stafford's ceiling. He was on an elite offense in 2010, and the team was mostly mediocre and lost in the Wild Card round. He was on a decent offense with an elite defense in 2014, and, once again, the team was mostly mediocre and lost in the Wild Card round. He's 28 years old, he's probably not going to suddenly turn into Aaron Rodgers. We would have seen more by now. I felt the same about Joe Flacco's contract. Why are you paying these guys more than any quarterback in football when there's literally no argument to be made that they're even that close to being the best quarterback in football? Just let the man walk and have it be some other team's mistake.

JP: To be fair to Detroit, if they let Stafford walk, they become the Rams, so I get why ownership wouldn't want that, even if it is the best play in the long run. That said, these are two teams that are going to end up on the right or wrong side of "average," and my pick for the right side is Arizona. On a scale of 1-10, I am about a 0.000003 for confidence in that last statement. 

Baltimore (+3) over CINCINNATI

JC: I think Baltimore is actually pretty good this year, at least on offense. Their defense was already good last year, and I don't see much of a reason that would change this year. The schedule should soften up for them (they go from the AFC East and NFC East to the AFC South and NFC North), so I'm expecting reasonably good things for Baltimore this year, and I think they get the ball rolling with a road win in the division to open it up.

JP: Baltimore was a good team that finished horribly last year, so I think they're pretty undervalued by everybody. Seriously, if Antonio Brown doesn't stretch that ball across the goal line, Baltimore probably plays in the AFC Championship game last season. Now, I don't think they're an elite team, but they're a lot better than a Bengals group that has fallen apart in front of our eyes over the past couple of years. 

Pittsburgh (-9) over CLEVELAND

JC: This seems reasonable.

JP: I see you Vegas, trying to make people bet on the Browns. I'm not buying it.

LOS ANGELES RAMS (-4) over Indianapolis

JC: The Colts probably have the worst roster in the league when Andrew Luck isn't in uniform, which says an awful lot about (a) their roster, and (b) what Andrew Luck brings to the table all by his lonesome. Indianapolis is going to have Scott Tolzien under center (catch the fever!), or, incredulously, could potentially start Jacoby Brissett barely a week after being traded. For all we make fun of the Rams for, they still have a good defense and a really good running back. This game will be ugly, no doubt, but the Rams are probably just better right now.

JP: I see no reason to watch this game without Andrew Luck. Both these front offices have mismanaged these franchises into oblivion, though the Rams haven't had a generational talent at quarterback to keep them above water (when he's on the field). Speaking of on the field, that's where Aaron Donald, LA's best player, and probably the best defensive tackle on football, will not be, due to a contract dispute. Ugh, these two. 

Carolina (-6) over SAN FRANCISCO

JC: Sure, 2016 was a major disappointment for Carolina, but from top to bottom, this team isn't that different from the team that went 15-1 two years ago. If they get a full season out of Luke Kuechly, Kelvin Benjamin gets back to 100 percent now that he's two years removed from his knee injury, and they get production out of Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel (two explosive talents in space), they could bounce back in a big way. And starting the year against one of the four worst teams in the league doesn't hurt. Giving less than a touchdown, this should be an easy win.

JP: Carolina can't be that bad again (I don't think), but San Francisco can.
MINNESOTA (-3.5) over New Orleans

JC: New Orleans had another embarrassingly bad defensive outfit last season, and Minnesota's quarterback set an NFL record for completion percentage. And that was with the innards of a dumpster behind a West Virginia Wal-Mart playing running back for the Vikings last year (they were dead last in yards and yards per rush by a hellaciously wide margin). Things should be even easier with Dalvin Cook in the backfield, so expect Sam Bradford to pick apart New Orleans and keep the chains and the clock moving.

JP: I actually think this will be a fun game (bad defense on week one? Count me in!), but yeah, the Vikes have to be the pick with their new-look backfield and New Orleans' porous rush D.

DENVER (-3.5) over Los Angeles Chargers

JC: Denver's defense is still one of the best units in football. It may not be as dominant as it's been in previous years - people do get older, you know - but they're going to remain at a level high enough that Denver will be competitive in just about any game they play. Their offense still has a few question marks, especially at quarterback, but if they ignore Brock Osweiler and stick to Trevor Simien or Paxton Lynch, who are both young and improving, it would stand to reason that their offense will pick up some of the slack.

JP: Denver is set to lead the league in tall, bad quarterbacks, but Von Miller might also lead the league in sacks, and the Broncos still have the league's best pair of corners. At home, Denver seems like a safe bet to win by a touchdown or more.

Here Are The Picks We Disagree On (Home Teams Still In CAPS)

JC: CHICAGO (+7) over Atlanta

I'm ignoring my own first piece of advice but evening it out by taking my second piece of advice. No, I don't think Chicago is going to win this game outright. But I think they might be a little bit better than they're getting credit for, and I think Atlanta might be a little bit worse than they're getting credit for. I'm willing to roll the dice for a week.

JP: Atlanta (-7) over CHICAGO

Mike Glennon is starting this game for Chicago, knowing that he may not finish it. Atlanta may have a Super Bowl hangover, but the Bears have been on a 30-some year bender at the quarterback position.

JC: New York Giants (+4) over DALLAS

As mentioned above, I'm taking the points in the NFC East, and, as mentioned yesterday, I'm digging the idea that Dallas isn't as good this year. Yes, they got Ezekiel Elliot back just in time to play Week 1, but I'm sticking with my guns. Plus, the Giants beat Dallas twice last season anyway.

JP: DALLAS (-4) over New York Giants

Well, I have Zeke on my fantasy team, so he better rush for 700 yards and 8 touchdowns to make up for the next six games he's gonna be suspended.

JC: TENNESSEE (-2.5) over Oakland

I'm all-in on Tennessee being pretty good, and pretty much all-in on Oakland regressing big time. I'm a bit wary until I see what Mariota and Carr look like coming back from injury, but all reports say both are healthy and ready to play. With both vaguely being question marks, I revert to my all-ins and take Tennessee.

JP: Oakland (+2.5) over TENNESSEE

I'm sticking to my "Tennessee is so 'underrated' that it's overrated theory." Plus, while Oakland could be perceived as a team ready to regress, is it possible that last year's group was young, and allowed teams they should have put away to hang around? We'll see how it plays out, but with Carr healthy, a promising collection of young weapons, and Khalil Mack leading a should-be-improved defense (don't ask me about the secondary), I actually think Oakland could be a better team this year.

JC: GREEN BAY (-3) over Seattle

For my money, Green Bay is just the surest bet in the NFC this year. They have the fewest holes, the most continuity, and probably the best quarterback. I'm still flirting with the idea that Seattle is going to fall back to the pack a little bit, but even if I end up not buying in, I think Green Bay is just the best team right now, and there's really no reason to not lay a field goal at home against pretty much anybody short of New England.

JP: Seattle (+3) over GREEN BAY

Something tells me the Legion of Boom has one more truly dominant year left in them, and that Russell Wilson is about to have his best season. And I know Aaron Rodgers is the man, but can you really beat Seattle's defense with zero run game? I'm wary.

Past Years-

Jeremy's Record:
2013: 118-129-11
2014: 126-123-7
2015: 131-117-8
2016: 121-127-8
Four-Year Total: 496-496-34 (.500)

Joe's Record:
2013: 125-122-11
2014: 128-121-7
2015: 132-116-8
2016: 127-121-8
Four-Year Total: 512-480-34 (.516)

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