This weekend is always one of my favorites in the sports year. College football enters its second week, pennant races are entering the home stretch (that means nothing for Pirates fans, unfortunately), and most importantly, a new NFL season begins on Opening Weekend. One game is already in the books - Green Bay's thrilling 42-34 win over the New Orleans Saints at Lambeau Field Thursday night. 13 more games are set to be played on Sunday, followed by two Monday Night Football games to conclude the week.
For both the casual gambler and the 'sharps' who try to make a living out of handicapping sports, Week 1 in the NFL is both thrilling and a tough challenge. We all have an idea of who's going to be good. But the NFL is intentionally structured and operated in a way that allows teams to come out of nowhere and surprise us with their marked improvement from one year to the next. Some years are easier than others though, and I must say, the Week 1 lines for 2011 have me stumped. I can identify very few games where I feel confident one way or another. Let's take a look. Lines from BetOnline.com as of Friday evening, 8:00 PM EST.
Atlanta (-2.5) @ Chicago
- Everyone seems to be very high on Atlanta and very down on Chicago. I'm not ready to say that the Falcons are going to miss the playoffs, but I do think their lack of size and physicality on defense will haunt them more than it did in 2010. (You can't escape the consequences of that reality forever). I do not think the Bears have the roster to go all the way, and yes, I agree it will be hard for them to win games in the same fashion as they did in 2010 (either through blown calls by refs, an unsustainable win percentage in close games, and by virtue of elite special teams play that looks like it will be negated by the kickoff rule change this season). The one thing I think most pundits and fans are overlooking is that there's literally nowhere for the Bears offense to go but up after last year. Chicago finished in the bottom third in just about every offensive category last season. They've taken the first steps towards improving the offensive line, and they're not trying to learn the wackiness that is Mike Martz's offense this year. There is still a long way to go for Chicago's offense, and like I said, I don't see them as a legit contender, but I like them to hold serve at Soldier Field and stun the Falcons. Pick: Chicago.
Pittsburgh (+100) @ Baltimore (-1)
- Unsurprisingly, this line started at -3 in favor of the Ravens. Being that Baltimore is playing at home, that's Vegas' way of saying that these two rivals are dead even and impossible to differentiate between really other than what homefield advantage provides. That line has now dropped to -1, an indication that more action is being placed on Pittsburgh. And for good reason. The Steelers have covered the spread in each of their last six AFC North contests. Considering how well the Steelers have played in their season openers recently - they've won their past eight, the longest active streak in the league - and particularly under Mike Tomlin - they're 4-0 since 2007 - I can see why the bulk of the action is coming in on Pittsburgh. I'm leaning that way too, however with the line just at +1, I'd prefer to just pick the Steelers to win outright on the moneyline for a +105 payout. Pick: Steelers to win outright.
Detroit (-105) @ Tampa Bay (-1)
- Lots of hype surrounding this Detroit team. Hard to believe that Detroit's a sexy pick after so many years of futility, isn't it? Well, not really I guess considering how the NFL is set up. With Matt Millen no longer butchering draft picks, the Lions have overhauled their roster and finally look like they're ready to compete for a playoff berth. We'll see. No doubt they'll be awfully tough at home some weeks, and when they play well on offense they should be very tough to handle. But I think they still have some growing to do away from Ford Field with Matthew Stafford under center. Not that Tampa Bay is an inhospitable place to play necessarily, but I think Detroit comes up just short in the opener. Pick: Tampa Bay
Buffalo @ Kansas City (-6)
- This game was at 7 earlier in the week, but looks like it's been bet down some by what I guess were large plays by sharp bettors. The Chiefs should be solid this year, but with Matt Cassel still not quite fully healthy, I imagine they'll struggle to score enough for Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bills to be able to hang in there. I really liked the Bills at +7; at +6 I'd probably stay away, but I'll still go with them because I think this game will still ultimately be decided by less than a touchdown. Pick: Buffalo
Indianapolis (-115) @ Houston (-9)
- This line has been moving like crazy while the rumors have swirled about Peyton Manning and his neck injury. Ultimately the line looks to have settled in at 9 points after reaching double digits at some books. 9 points seems high for the Texans under any circumstance, really, and particularly in a divisional game against a Colts team that's had their number for years now. But still, hard to imagine Kerry Collins keeping pace with Matt Schaub on Sunday considering Collins' strength as a play-action threat is counterfeited by the fact that the Colts' rushing attack scares nobody and doesn't at all lend itself to many play-action opportunities. Pick: Houston
Philadelphia (-4) @ St. Louis (-120)
- I like St. Louis outright here. Awfully nice advantage from playing in a dome, and I think the Eagles new-look offensive line is going to struggle to give Michael Vick a clean pocket. Throw in a not-quite-full-strength Jeremy Maclin and an Eagles front-seven that's undersized and decidedly underwhelming, and I can see Steven Jackson having a nice day, which in turn should give Sam Bradford some opportunities to make plays in the passing game against the vaunted Eagles secondary. Pick: St. Louis.
Cincinnati @ Cleveland (-6.5)
- If Andy Dalton is just decent and not a total liability, the Bengals are going to be a lot better than people think. The Bengals have some really nice weapons in the passing game, and Jordan Shipley and Jermaine Gresham in particular are the exact type of players that an inexperienced quarterback like Dalton should be able to get the ball to at least for 175 yards or so. If he can avoid turnovers, the Bengals defense should be able to keep them in the game. This line is too high. Pick: Cincinnati.
Tennessee @ Jacksonville (-2)
- I would be very inclined to say that Luke McCown might surprise folks with a solid performance, but it's my understanding he hasn't had much time working with the first team. If you're leaning towards Tennessee like I am, you might just be better off taking them on the moneyline and increasing your payout from -110 to cover -2 to +110 to win outright. Pick: Tennessee
NY(-3) @ Washington (-120)
- Play this game in front of a rabid New York crowd on 9/11 and I take the Giants to cover up to 6 points. As is on the road in D.C., I think the Redskins carry over their solid preseason play into Week 1 and stun the Giants. Pick: Washington.
Carolina @ Arizona (-6.5)
- Cam Newton has played well enough for me to believe that he'll be able to make enough plays to keep Carolina in this game. Because the Cardinals are acclimating to new defensive coordinator Ray Horton's scheme, I think they make enough mistakes and struggle just enough against the Panthers' rushing attack to allow Carolina to hang tough until the fourth quarter. Arizona should win this, but 6.5 seems high. Pick: Carolina
Seattle @ San Francisco (-5)
- Every reason in the world points towards Seattle coming out and looking like a college level football team, but the Seahawks Ace in the Hole and the lone reason I'm ignoring concrete evidence to love San Francisco by at least a touchdown is how good Pete Carroll has been in season openers as head coach. He's 13-1 on Opening Weekend, be it at USC or in New England. It's been 13 years since he last lost an opener. That's not to say I believe Seattle will win necessarily, but I have to believe that Pom Pom Pete will work some of his motivational magic and at least get his team ready to compete for 60 minutes against a mistake-prone 49ers team. Pick: Seattle
Minnesota (-115) @ San Diego (-9)
- I think both of these teams are going to be good in 2011. The Chargers are expected to be, but Minnesota enters the new year with little to no expectations. Here's the thing though -- they've got the NFL's best player in Adrian Peterson, they're free of the distractions that Brett Favre brought to the locker room, they've replaced their unrelatable, and awkward head coach (Brad Childress) with a man you can't help but respect and work hard for (Leslie Frazier). Frazier is a defensive guy by trade, and I think he'll be able to at leas slow Philip Rivers and the Chargers high-octane offense down enough to allow Minny's offense to continue running the ball rather than becoming one-dimensional with Donovan McNabb. If McNabb has a great running game taking the pressure off of him - something he's never really had in his lengthy NFL career - he could surprise people in 2011 with a productive season. I think San Diego wins, but not by 9 points. Both teams go on to competitive, interesting seasons. Pick: Minnesota.
Dallas @ NY Jets (-5.5)
- Interesting nightcap on Sunday. Should be a memorable night in New York. Rex Ryan has been clear that he really wants to win this game for the city. He knows it's just a football game, but he's right when he's talked about why it would just cap what promises to be a somber yet inspiring and hopeful 10th anniversary commemoration of 9/11. Remember how awesome it was watching the Saints thrash Atlanta in the re-opening of the Super Dome post-Hurricane Katrina? A game, sure, but there was something much more special about that night that came along with the Saints playing well for their faithful fans. Much like that September night back in 2006, the Meadowlands will be rocking and the Jets will be jacked up this Sunday. But I wonder if the spectacle and magnitude of the moment will cause the Jets to play tight or perhaps even expend too much energy throughout the long day waiting for kickoff. I'd prefer an AFC contender like the Jets lose usually, but I'd be perfectly pleased to see New Yorkers have a grand, freedom-loving time watching the Jets romp on a day that just means more to residents of the city than anywhere else in the country. So, my pick? Well, my mind says Dallas even though my heart says New York. Pick: Dallas.
New England (-7) @ Miami (-120)
- I sure don't like taking road teams playing divisional rivals by more than 7 points, but hard to not like this play, especially at even money. Miami has played New England well over the years, but until Miami proves they're going to be a scrappy, competent, competitive squad with John Beck under center, one shouldn't really have to justify why they'd take the explosive Pats offense to lap Miami on Monday night.
Oakland (-115) @ Denver (-3)
- Uhh, who cares? For real? I guess it's a great rivalry so I'm sure those two fanbases are pumped up for the 16th and final game of Week 1 on Monday night. But for even the most hardcore fan, I can't see there being much interest in this one. If either team won 8 games it would be a huge shocker. And no Tim Tebow ain't playing unless Kyle Orton gets injured. Both teams will look great for a few moments this year, and they'll both shoot themselves in the foot enough times to fail to get to the .500 mark. Denver has gotten better defensively though, and they have a defensive minded coach in John Fox that will come in handy against Oakland's dynamic rushing attack. Pick: Denver