This is the 16th year I've written this column, believe it or not, and I'm going to change a few things up. For starters, I'll make a few best bets each week and separately keep track of my record on them. While it's nice to have something to say on the entire slate - and I realize people are in office pools that require you pick every game - I usually don't have strong leans on more than a few. The benefit of this is I have a chance to win 60 percent or more - something that's nearly impossible with 256 games, many of which are coin flips.
The downside, of course, is a chance to do really terribly - it's hard to get much lower than 45 percent with a full slate over the whole year as there's safety in numbers. But after finishing around .500 the last several years and sweating out games I might as well have picked out of a hat, I'd rather focus on the few about which I feel more strongly. It could get ugly - and embarrassing - but if that happens - and I sincerely hope it does not - at least it'll make for good column fodder. (I'll still keep track of my overall record, but I'll just focus more on the best bets.)
Week 1 is always interesting because we mostly have to go on last year's results plus personnel and coaching changes, but the effects of the changes are hard to estimate because football is such a complex team game. Were the Bengals good defensively last year because of their personnel or defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer
? Were the Vikings bad defensively because of their personnel or their coordinator? It's hard to say without seeing a few games with the new set-ups, and even then it's not always clear.
Usually, I find myself sticking with what we know about the teams from last year, while fading most of the hype about preseason and offseason moves. But not always. The only thing about which you should be dogmatic is not being dogmatic.
My best bets for Week 1 are the Falcons, Bills, Giants, Jets and Broncos.
Packers +5.5 at Seahawks
I want to take the Seahawks at home because they're so tough in that venue, but the Packers are perhaps the rare team that could handle playing there. Still, Seattle's offense with a healthy Percy Harvin
might not be that far behind Green Bay's - even if they don't put the pedal down as often - and there's a wide disparity between these two defenses. Back the Seahawks.
Seahawks 27 - 20
Saints -3 at Falcons
and the Saints just aren't the same team on the road, and three is a lot to lay in a division-rivalry game now that Atlanta's skill players are healthy again. Back Atlanta.
Falcons 27 - 23
Vikings +4 at Rams
I don't view the loss of Sam Bradford
as a big deal, but it's a fair question whether the Rams should be favored by more than a field goal against a non-doormat. Probably not. Take the Vikings.
Rams 21 - 20
Browns +6.5 at Steelers
The Browns have lost 10 games in a row in Pittsburgh, are likely (barring a miracle) without Josh Gordon
and start journeyman quarterback Brian Hoyer
. But Cleveland's defense should be pretty good, and the Heinz Field losing streak (which means little) is probably driving up this line. Back the Browns.
Steelers 20 - 17
Jaguars +10.5 at Eagles
It's hard for me to lay double-digit points sight-unseen, and while the Eagles project to be a good team - especially on offense - they're not yet one of the league's elite. Moreover, the Jaguars improved down the stretch last year. Back Jacksonville.
Eagles 24 - 19
Raiders +5 at Jets
I like the decision to turn to Derek Carr
, but he might have a rude awakening on the road against a blitz-happy Rex Ryan defense. Plus, Geno Smith
played well down the stretch and now has a legitimate target in the passing game. Back the Jets.
Jets 27 - 13
Bengals +2 at Ravens
The Bengals were the better team last year, and they get Geno Atkins
and Leon Hall
back. I'll take the points here.
Bengals 19 - 16
Bills +6.5 at Bears
The Bears offense was great last year, but their defense was one of the worst in the league. The Bills are paying a tax for a poor offensive showing in the preseason, but often that's noise. Back Buffalo.
Bills 27 - 24
Redskins +2.5 at Texans
This line presumes the Redskins are the better team on a neutral field, but I'm not sure that's true. The Texans are far better defensively, and Ryan Fitzpatrick
is at least competent. Back Houston.
Texans 24 - 20
Titans +4 at Chiefs
The Titans secondary was good last year, but they lost their best corner, and the Chiefs defense is healthy again after a collapse at the end of last season. I'll lay the points here. Back Kansas City.
Chiefs 26 - 17
Patriots -4.5 at Dolphins
That Pats are typically a public team, and this is a big number on the road against a non-doormat. Back Miami.
Patriots 24 - 23
Panthers +1 at Buccaneers
The Panthers are better defensively, and I'm not sure I buy into the Jeff Tedford-Josh McCown
offense just yet. While Cam Newton
has few targets to whom to throw, how is that different from last year, when the team got a first-round bye? Back the Panthers.
Panthers 20 - 16
49ers -5 at Cowboys
I despise the Cowboys, but this is big number to spot on the road without Navorro Bowman and Aldon Smith
. Back Dallas.
49ers 30 - 27
Colts +7.5 at Broncos
I like the Colts this year, but they'll be without Robert Mathis
, and it's tough playing in the thin air of Denver for your first game of the season. (Last year the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens hung with Denver for a half, then ran out of gas.) Plus, the Broncos reloaded on defense with DeMarcus Ware
and Aqib Talib
and get Pro Bowl tackle Ryan Clady
back. Lay the points.
Broncos 33 - 24
Giants +5 at Lions
The Giants' awful offensive showing in the preseason makes them a good buy-low candidate against an overhyped Lions team that has only one great player and a suspect secondary. Plus the Giants defense could be a top-five unit this year. Back New York.
Giants 20 - 19
Chargers +3 at Cardinals
Two good teams from last year with the home squad laying three makes this a coin-flip. I'll take Arizona at home.
Cardinals 24 - 20
Last year I was 123-123-10 on the regular season. From 1999-2013 I've gone 1,933-1,764 (52.3%), not including ties.