Surviving Week 1
One of my biggest fears in life is losing in Week 1 of Survivor — not only would I lose my entry fees before getting any entertainment value whatsoever, but I'd take down all the people who trusted my advice with me. In most years, while the fear is well founded (after all, upsets are relatively common in the NFL), chances are good that it won't happen (usually you can get an 85-90 percent moneyline favorite). But this year is different. The biggest Week 1 line is seven points (Giants over Panthers), and the moneyline is -300/+250. That means the real line is +/-275, or a mere 73 percent chance that the Giants win (assuming you agree with that line). Moreover, I think the Panthers are underrated (see above), and the true odds of that game might be even closer. So there really is no solid ground to stand on.
I was initially considering the Titans, but there are two arguments against this pick. One, that they play the Raiders, and historically Oakland has been a survivor killer, especially last year when they knocked off the Steelers, Bengals, Broncos and Eagles. Second, according to the Yahoo Survivor Game the Titans are the most popular pick with 31.2 percent of people taking them. That means if the Titans do lose, and you have a different team, a significant portion of the pool will die, and your equity in the pool will grow by a lot. But if the Titans win, and the Giants (six percent) lose — only a very small percentage of your pool is gone, and your equity only increases slightly. In other words, the payoff is better by avoiding the Titans. The first argument doesn't sway me much — the Panthers, for example, have upset double-digit favorites seven times in the last 10 years to Oakland's eight, and anyway, it really isn't a very useful stat because Oakland's been on the dog side of so many double-digit spreads, it's not surprising they'd pull out a bunch of them. The second argument is more compelling — for the Titans to be a better pick than the Giants, you'd have to think they had a significantly better chance to win, given the disparity in payoff. To illustrate, if there were 100 people in your pool, and 31 had the Titans, you'd go from a 1 in 100 to a 1 in 69 chance of winning should the Titans lose and your team win. With the Giants it's just 1 in 94. Put differently, a $100 entry would be worth $106.38 in pool equity after Week 1 with a Titans win and Giants loss, and $144.93 with a Giants win and Titans loss.
So here's who I'm taking instead: (And in my seven pools, I will hedge, i.e., I'll go with my No. 1 choice in 4-5 of my seven, and pick one or two other teams as well.)
Week 1 Picks
1. Chicago Bears
The Lions could be a much-improved team this year, but I'd expect that to happen as the season goes on and their young players get more experience. It's asking a lot of them to make that leap in Week 1 on the road. This game is far from safe, but it looks to me like the best option on the board. I give the Bears a 71 percent chance to win this game.
2. New York Giants
I'm of two minds here - (1) The Giants are at home, opening their new stadium, have the experienced, quality QB, healthy RBs and a healthier and ostensibly improved defense, while Carolina has a young QB, no No. 2 receiver to speak of and lost Julius Peppers this offseason. But (2) the Panthers destroyed the Giants (and everyone else) down the stretch last year, were 8th in YPA allowed on defense, have two game-breaking offensive players in DeAngelo Williams and Steve Smith and got very solid QB play out of Matt Moore. I give the Giants a 69 percent chance to win this game. (I know I said 64/36 in East Coast Offense, but I've revised my number slightly since.)
3. Tennessee Titans
The Titans were actually a playoff-caliber team over the season's last 10 games, but it's hard to see Chris Johnson repeating his numbers from last year, and you never really know what you're going to get from Vince Young. The Raiders don't have enticing playmakers like the Lions do, and that might make one more comfortable going against them, but that was the case last year, too, and it was Oakland and not Detroit who caused so much carnage. I give the Titans a 71 percent chance to win this game, but I rank them lower because (see above) they appear to be the most popular pick.
4. San Diego Chargers
Having one of the league's best quarterbacks go against one of its worst defenses is usually a good bet, but for whatever reason the Chargers have struggled early the last couple seasons, are missing their top wideout and starting left tackle and are going on the road against a division rival. Moreover, the Chiefs offense has some weapons, notably Jamaal Charles who had a record-setting finish to the season, Dwayne Bowe, presumably off roids and out of the doghouse and rookie Dexter McCluster. This might be the biggest mismatch on paper, but I don't like the way it sets up much. I give the Chargers a 67 percent chance to win this game.
5. New England Patriots
I'm a huge believer in Tom Brady/Randy Moss/Bill Belichick, and I think people are sleeping on this team in part because Brady wasn't entirely himself last year after returning from a serious knee injury. But Cincinnati went to the playoffs a year ago, upgraded at receiver and tight end and Carson Palmer himself is now another year removed from an elbow injury. I give the Pats a 65 percent chance to win this game.
New Orleans Saints:
Wouldn't it be great to win the Thursday game and watch the rest of your pool get tortured on Sunday by all the likely close games? It surely would, but I'm still not going to go against a hungry Vikings team that probably outplayed New Orleans in last year's NFC title game.
The Bills are considered a league doormat, but their secondary is actually good, they're playing at home and Lee Evans has lit up the Dolphins a number of times in recent years. Plus, I like Chan Gailey to open up the offense a bit after the long-overdue departure of Dick Jauron.
San Francisco 49ers
They're a trendy team this year - shockingly they're -175 favorites to win the NFC West. Maybe they're really that good, and Seattle et al. are really that bad, but I need to see more evidence first. Same goes for backing the 49ers on the road.
I know it's the Rams, but I don't want to stake my survivor entry on Derek Anderson leading his team on the road with a banged-up Beanie Wells and a possibly less-than-100-percent Larry Fitzgerald.