First and foremost, all those with a wagering bent should immediately stop reading this and head over to gameanalysts.com and check out the stellar work of VegasKyle and the gang over there. It’s all CFB-focused at this moment, but VK is an elite college handicapper who gets his picks locked in as soon as the lines come out on Sunday and tends to move them when he does, as Vegas has learned to respect his moves. Most of the Week 2 lines have moved in his favor (meaning there’s less value in placing a bet on the new numbers as Vegas has moved the lines to draw more action on the other side) but I think there’s a good amount of value still to be had there, and you may consider buying half a point at a key number if need be.
I tend to shamelessly follow VK and Huckleberry’s supercomputer when it comes to Saturday wagering and focus my analytical efforts on the NFL. It should be said that a dedicated college handicapper is much more likely to have an informational advantage over the books (particularly early in the season) due to the sheer volume of college teams, while it’s much tougher to get that kind of edge in the NFL. But hey – I love the NFL, and I had a pretty solid season last year after refining my system. There may be some combination of efforts with gameanalysts in the weeks to come, but right now I wanted to share some of my Week 1 and season bet thoughts over here – I’m very hesitant to dilute the gameanalysts brand until I’ve proven my worth a bit as a pro handicapper (in case you’re not picking up on the subtext here, I think VK is very, very good).
I’ll tend to separate my thoughts into Bets I Love (which tend to be multi-unit plays), Bets I Like (single-unit plays) and Fliers (half-unit plays and the like – lines where it’s more of a gamble than I’m really comfortable recommending but where I’ve got some sort of feeling). If a standard NFL wager (line, money line or game total) isn’t listed here it’s because I think it’s lined too well to make a decent bet – I’m happy to share thoughts on anything you’re looking at but keep that as a general caveat. There’s not going to be a lot to Love in this edition as we’re late to the value party right now – the season bets and Week 1 lines have been out for a few weeks and the sharps have pounded most of the value out of them. I’ll look to get thoughts up on Monday as soon as the initial lines come out going forward, and I always recommend making plays early if possible.
On to the wagers! Unless otherwise noted, all the lines and totals listed will be those featured at Bookmaker/CRIS at the time of posting.
Bets I Love
There’s nothing I really Love at this stage of the game as the super values are long off the board. I was lucky enough to get a few down that I Loved at their price in Vegas two weeks ago but I’ll discuss why those have moved below.
Bets I Like
Falcons Regular Season Wins (RSW) o10 -105
My Thoughts: I don’t think the Falcons are set to repeat their 14-2 record from 2010, but I don’t see a five-win falloff from a team that actually got better at key spots in the offseason. They weren’t the dominant force that their record suggested last year, but their W/L success was keyed by a tremendous turnover margin and success in close games. While there will be some regression there, they didn’t stumblebum their way to the factors that made them successful. Matt Ryan is legit and is extremely smart with the ball – his 1.3% Bad Decision Percentage (how often he threw the ball somewhere he shouldn’t have – stat courtesy of KC Joyner) was third-best in the entire league and tied with interception-avoidance impresario Tom Brady. Ryan will throw a few more picks this year through simple regression and the more wide-open nature of the passing attack, but the negative there should be balanced out by the benefits of a more explosive air show with the addition of stud rookie Julio Jones and the return of slot speedburner Harry Douglas. The run game remains a bit overrated as it’s more grinding and volume-dependent than really explosive, but it keeps the Falcons from having to operate behind the chains very often and Michael Turner is capable of some solid 10-20 yard scampers even if he’s not really a home run threat at this point.
The Falcons’ defense flew under the radar a bit in 2010 but turned in a solid season, finishing 10th in overall defensive DVOA (defensive-adjusted Value Over Average, stat courtesy of FootballOutsiders.com) and figures to improve this season for a few reasons. First and foremost is the addition of two-way stud defensive end Ray Edwards from the Vikings. He creates a hell of a pass-rushing tandem with the still-dangerous John Abraham, and should further solidify the Falcons’ efforts against the run. The front four should also get a boost from the return of injured 2009 first-round DT Peria Jerry, who has been flashing some strong form in the pre-season. The Falcons had some problems against the run last year – their DL played well, but when runners got past the line of scrimmage they ripped off some big gains. Better health and depth at linebacker this year should help to curtail some of those issues. The secondary is very solid, with CB Brent Grimes likely among the top 10 in the league at his position and Dunta Robinson is steady if slightly overpaid. Safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCloud aren’t superstars but do a good job of keeping things in front of them and making plays on the ball. The secondary managed a terrific 22 INTs last year and while some regression may occur, they could grab that number or more this year with what figures to be an improved pass rush harassing opposing QBs.
I project the Falcons at just over 11 wins this season, and feel good about this bet cashing and great about it ending up as no worse than a push. Their division is tough but I think the Bucs take a step back this year, and their overall schedule isn’t a gauntlet with out-of-division games like Minnesota, Jacksonville, Tennessee and Seattle looking very winnable and a lot of questions surrounding Indy. I also like them a lot over week 1 opponent Chicago as I’ll discuss below.
Jaguars Regular Season Wins (RSW) u6.5 -125
I’m really surprised this number didn’t fall to six with the news that the Jags have jettisoned the underrated David Garrard to go with the Luke McCown Experience until they’re ready to turn things over to over-drafted rookie David Garrard. I think the Jags are facing significant struggles on both sides of the ball this year. On offense, McCown has never shown anything to scare an NFL defense at QB. Garrard did a solid job with limited weapons of avoiding disaster behind shoddy pass-blocking, especially from over-matched LT Eugene Monroe. I doubt that McCown will be able to pull off a similar feat. The OL has done a better job in run blocking allowing strong seasons for star RB Maurice Jones-Drew, but Drew seems to be slowing down and rumors of a ‘bone on bone’ knee condition raise major questions as to how many effective carries we’ll see from the Jags’ workhorse this year. With the loss of Mike Sims-Walker, the Jags’ aerial attack figures to suffer this season. The undersized Mike Thomas had good success against single coverage last year, but would hardly be the first #2 wideout to struggle when asked to assume a lead role. Marcedes Lewis is a very good all-around TE but won’t be a 10-TD monster again this year, and a Thomas/Lewis passing attack isn’t likely to get too many safeties out of the box.
The Jags did add a good in-the-box safety in former Ravens SS Dawan Landry, but he doesn’t figure to be nearly enough to turn around their pass defense woes. The Jags were as bad or worse than the Texans in pass defense last season, and they return frequently-torched corners Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox and oft-befuddled FS Courtney Greene to the mix. Landry is an upgrade, but he’s not the type of player that can provide the deep centerfield help that this bunch desperately needs. They don’t figure to get a ton of additional help from their pass rush, with Aaron Kampman coming off ACL surgery and the uninspiring duo of Jeremy Mincey and Austen Lane playing opposite him. The addition of free agent Matt Roth could help, but how well he’ll transition from standup 3-4 linebacker is an open question. They improved their linebacking corps by bringing in Paul Posluzny and overpaying Clint Session – they should help against the pass as well – but some marginal improvement there won’t vault this defense to respectability.
Outside of games against the Panthers, Bengals, and possibly the Titans late if they turn things over to Jake Locker, I can’t see a game on the schedule where they Jags should be anything better than 3-point underdogs and games against the Jets, Saints, Steelers, Ravens, Texans (twice), Chargers and Falcons figure to be major-league shellackings. The game is too fast for rookie Blaine Gabbert right now, so things could actually get worse if he takes the reins at some point. Also, I wouldn’t discount the possibility of the team being upset at the loss of Garrard and quitting on coach Jack Del Rio if the season gets off to a rocky start.
Rams to win NFC West Division +150
I actually jumped on this bet early without a solid enough evaluation of the Rams’ schedule – I still like it but not as much more than a flier. On the plus side, the Rams should be improved on both sides of the ball in a weak division. Sam Bradford is the real deal at QB and figures to make a jump (not a leap, but a jump) after getting his rookie year under his belt. The OL should be at least average with the addition of mean mofo guard Harvey Dahl from the Falcons and continued improvement from young tackles Roger Saffold and Jason Smith. Steven Jackson has lost half a step but is still a top-10 back and should get spelled ably by Cadillac Williams. While the Rams were down to odds and ends at WR last season they have a ton of bodies to throw at the problem, and Wes Welker clone Danny Amendola should get help from some combination of Brandon Gibson, Mike Sims-Walker, Danario Alexander and (once healthy) Mark Clayton, as well as explosive rookie TE Lance Hendricks.
The defense should be improved as well and build on a respectable 2010. The addition of stud strong safety Quintin Mikell from the Eagles should help them against the run and the pass. An improving D-line should be further enhanced with good-looking rookie DE Robert Quinn from UNC and the continued development of Chris Long under the capable tutelage of Steve Spagnolo. They have the best set of corners you’ve never heard of in Bradley Fletcher and Ronald Bartell and James Laurinitis should lead a steady LB corps. With the best QB, OL and secondary in a weak division, I like the Rams at +150.
The biggest minus is a pretty hellacious schedule. The NFC West drew the NFC East and AFC North this season, and games against the Eagles, Giants, Cowboys, Ravens and Steelers figure to be tough sledding. In addition, their two ‘success-based’ games were the second-place teams from the NFC South and NFC North – unfortunately, this year that means the improved Saints and the outright frightening Packers. That tough draw, combined with the likely addition of capable QB David Garrard to either the Seahawks or 49ers make their division prospects much chancier than their current talent level relative to the division would suggest. UPDATE: Looks like I may have dodged a bullet here as it appears that the Seahawks have ruled out pursuing Garrard and will position themselves for the Andrew Luck Sweepstakes ride the magic right arm of Tarvaris Jackson. That plus the likelihood of the 49ers sticking with Alex Smith due to either A) Harbaugh’s ego convincing him that he can mold Smith into a real QB or B) Harbaugh wanting Luck just as badly as the Seahawks appear to should ensure that the Rams don’t have to worry about competent QB’ing from their division foes.
Rams Regular Season Wins (RSW) o7.5 -120
Same plus, minus and schedule notes as above.
Bengals Regular Season Wins (RSW) u5.5 -130
Things just don’t look good for the Bengals this year. Turning the keys over to rookie QB Andy Dalton could be a recipe for disaster given the struggles of rookie QBs in general and the even tougher transition for QBs with iffy arms moving from spread-style college offenses to pro-style attacks. The addition of blazing rookie WR AJ Green could be a moot point as Dalton could struggle mightily to get him the ball (their solid performance against the Panthers in the preseason is much more reason to downgrade the Panthers’ secondary than to believe in the Bengals air attack). The Bengals run game just doesn’t scare anyone with plodding RB Cedric Benson, and defenses will be playing 10 guys within 8 yards of the LOS and strangling the life out of this limited offense.
The defense also took a hit with the loss of Jonathan Joseph in free agency – he’ll be replaced by the unspectacular Nate Clements. It’s not the worst back seven in the world, but they’ll get little help from a very anemic pass rush. A blah set of defensive tackles and a set of LBs that is trying Rey Maualuga in the middle and a miscast Manny Lawson at OLB could struggle to keep opposing ground attacks from grinding out the clock once they take a nearly-inevitable lead.
This gets flier status because the value is iffy at -130 and the fact that their schedule does contain a number of winnable games, but it’s easy to see a slow start out of the gate prompting a team that’s never been character-heavy to finally and fully quit on the uninspiring Marvin Lewis and roll to the league’s worst record. One other possible caution would be if David Garrard emerges in Cincy to provide them with semi-competent quarterbacking – I’d wait a day or so to see where he lands before locking this one in.
I also put some entertainment-level bets on the Chargers, Patriots and Packers to win their divisions but the lack of value in those numbers means I wouldn’t recommend them as anything more than entertainment plays. I also kind of like the Jets to finish with less than 10 wins because I cannot get on board with Mark Sanchez and think they’ve taken a step back with the loss of guys like Damien Woody, Braylon Edwards and Shaun Ellis, but there’s still a lot of talent on that roster so act with caution. UPDATE – this bet is even less attractive with late-breaking injury news on the Jets’ Week One opponent, the Cowboys.
Here are my thoughts on the current lines and totals for some of Week One’s games. A quick word about my methodology in capping individual games:
- The basis for my projections on team strengths is the Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) stats for rushing and passing offense and defense as well as special teams popularized by FootballOutsiders.com. I make my preseason projections for those numbers for each team based on last year’s performance as well as their offseason additions and subtractions. As the season goes on I start to weight those numbers more and more based on the current season’s results. Before the lines come out on Mondays I update each team’s current run/pass O and D figure with what I think it should be for the upcoming week based on injuries or other player-related factors.
- I plug those numbers into my overall projection formula (placing a much larger weight on net passing numbers than rushing numbers) and factoring in other things like interceptions thrown/forced, penalties, home/away performance and a final top-line adjustment for the quality of the two QBs in the game. I try to refine the factor weights each year, but the bottom line is that the team with a higher yards per pass attempt that finishes even or plus 1 or better in INTs wins the vast majority of games, so those figure most predominantly. This spits out a percentage chance that the favored team wins the game, and I have a table that I use to correlate those percentages to point spreads.
- I’ve actually got a second formula that aims to project each team’s total points based on some similar factors, and use the net of those two numbers as my second spread figure. This is also the figure that I compare to the game total (Over/Under). I am starting to feel pretty good about this formula as it gave a total within 2 points of the Vegas game total in 11 of the 16 Week 1 matchups.
- I average those spread figures and compare that composite spread to the game line. I tend to focus on bets where my composite total is at a 4.5 point variance or higher to the published spread.
- As a final check, I lay out the starting 22’s for each team based on alignment with player ratings in the run and pass game (gleaned from the advanced player data on ProFootballFocus.com, which is a great investment for the NFL wagering aficionado) to look for any glaring player/position mismatches that could affect things.
- If I like what I see there, I take one final sanity check to make sure I’m comfortable with my bet based on the two QBs involved and then lay it down.
- I have some awareness of more heuristic measures like performance of division home underdogs, teams from one coast playing early on the other coast, etc. but I don’t really factor them into my projections. I may occasionally reduce or eliminate a bet if one of those heuristics is starkly against it, but I rarely if ever make a bet based on heuristic factors.
Sorry for the wordiness that this piece is trending towards, but I always like to see the thought process of anyone who’s laying out wagering advice. OK, on to Week 1:
Games I Love
Atlanta -3 (+105)at Chicago
My composite spread: Atlanta by 9.9 points
Top-line, I see this as a matchup of one of the two best teams in the NFC versus one I project to take a step back to the middle of the pack or worse. I see the Falcons having a big advantage when they throw, a moderate advantage when the Bears throw and slight advantages in both running games. I also like their ability to win the turnover battle by at least +1. The Bears’ historical advantage on special teams will be blunted by the new kickoff rules and the Falcons finished just behind the Bears in overall 2010 Special Teams DVOA as well.
From a matchup standpoint, the biggest thing that stands out for me is two great defensive ends for Atlanta (three if you count pass rush specialist Kroy Biermann) against two bad OTs for the Bears in the awful J’Marcus Webb and slightly slow-footed rookie Gabe Carimi making his first career start. Sacks and heavy pressure on Cutler should lead to some tremendous turnover opportunities for a Falcons D that was very opportunistic last year. The Bears’ weak interior OL figures to struggle as well against now-healthy 2009 first rounder Peria Jerry and dangerous pass-rusher Jonathan Babineaux. Cutler will hit some intermediate/deep balls when he has a clean pocket, but the Falcons have a very capable secondary and I really like the odds that new Bears addition Roy Williams – inexplicably handed the starting job over the Bears’ best 2010 receiver, Johnny Knox – contributes to a turnover through a sloppy route or volleyball set off his hands. Matt Forte won’t find much room to run – there is the chance that he completely embarrasses the Falcons’ second-level defenders when he does find a hole but his lack of elite speed and a deeper and healthier Falcons’ LB corps makes this chance a slight one.
The Falcons likely won’t put up a 30+ point outburst against a solid Bears defense, but I think they’ll have their opportunities. The Bears have some question marks at DT that should allow the Falcons to at least keep them honest with the run, and Roddy White outclasses both of the Bears’ corners. The Falcons’ newly aggressive passing attack should find some opportunities deep against a secondary that is weakened by the loss of safety Danieal Manning. The biggest factor that could hinder the Falcons’ offense is if Julius Peppers absolutely thrashes 2010 underperformer Sam Baker at LT, but the Falcons should be able to give him help if needed and still mount a solid attack.
I like the Falcons 24-14.
New England -7 (-110) at Chicago
My composite spread: New England by 17.7 points
Top-line, this is a matchup between one of the NFL’s true 2010 dominators that could be better in almost every aspect this season against a team that could finish at the bottom of this division. The Pats figure to have a substantial advantage when they throw the ball, a moderate advantage when the Dolphins throw the ball, and slight advantages in both running games. The Patriots were much better in special teams DVOA than the Dolphins were, and the chance of a fluky kick return by the Dolphins goes way down with the new kickoff rules.
From a matchup standpoint, I think the biggest advantage for the Patriots comes from their new-look defense versus a shaky Dolphins O. Any time you turn to Marc Colombo as your solution at right tackle it is not a good sign, and he has looked completely overmatched in the preseason. The Dolphins’ OL goes rookie center – struggling converted tackle – corpse o’ Colombo from center rightwards, and only stud LT Jake Long is a plus player. This bunch will be asked to handle the Patriots’ new hybrid-but-mainly-4-3 front featuring the mammoth Vince Wilfork (always tougher when he’s fresh early in the season), still dangerous pass rusher Shaun Ellis (imported from the Jets), resurgent pass-rushing DE Andre Carter (back at home as a 4-3 end after being miscast by moron Dan Snyder as a 3-4 LB in Washington) and Albert Haynesworth. A word about Haynesworth – you’ve hardly heard anything about him over the course of the preseason and a lot of folks think he’s washed up after last year’s fiasco in Washington. This is not the case. Haynesworth played about 200 snaps at DT/NT and 3-4 end last year, and on a per snap basis he was as highly rated as any DL in the league, dominating against the run and pass. Now he’ll be lining up in his preferred spot as a 1-gap 4-3 DT and playing for a coach and team that have him excited – ignore him at your absolute peril. This matchup figures to be a wipeout in the Pats’ favor in both the run and pass games. Reggie Bush has spent half a decade proving that he can’t carry a running attack as a featured guy, and the Dolphins are going to start out asking him to do just that behind a much worse OL than he enjoyed during most of his Saints career. Brandon Marshall is the Dolphins’ biggest weapon at WR and seems to win a game singlehandedly each year with a 15+ catch performance, but the return of capable CB Leigh Bodden along with second-year stud Devin McCourty should ensure that this isn’t one of those games.
The Patriots’ offense will face easier matchups than this strong Dolphins’ D, but will be solidly aided and abetted by good field position most of the day as their defense defenestrates the Dolphins’ O. The Patriots’ outstanding OL should keep Brady pretty clean against a capable Dolphins front and generate some decent opportunities for the Pats’ stable of backs (the Pats enjoyed the second-most efficient run game in the league last year per DVOA). The Dolphins’ secondary is likewise capable, but Brady spent all of 2010 operating at an almost untouchable level and they are running the best 2-TE passing attack since at least the 1996 Packers and it is hell to match up with.
The big concerns for me on this game are the ‘Division Home Dog’ heuristic, the chance that the Dolphins’ outstanding Cameron Wake is able to work Matt Light and throw a big wrench into the Pats’ attack, and the fact that weird things seem to happen on these season-opening Monday Night double headers. Those aren’t enough to scare me away from what feels like a 31-14 beatdown, however.
Games I Like
Buffalo at Kansas City -6 (-115)
My composite spread: Kansas City by 11.8 points
Now that it looks like Matt Goddamn Cassel will play despite his rib issues, I’m on board with this as a standard play. The top line here is a solid team with a great home-field advantage and no major holes hosting a lower-tier team with major holes at OL and LB. Kansas City figures to have a solid advantage across the board that should add up to a solid win.
The Chiefs’ best matchup in this game is their above-average front seven going against one of the absolute worst OLs in the league for the Bills. Pass-rush terror Tamba Hali figures to wreck an overmatched Demetrius Bell on one side, and on the other the Bills are still trying to decide on a starting RT and it’s not because they’ve got two good options. Things get no better on the interior as guard Andy Levitre gets beat consistently and new addition Kraig Urbik has been dreadful throughout the preseason. The Chiefs lost a bit when solid NT Ron Edwards left in free agency, but replacement fireplug Kelly Gregg from the Ravens and the improving Glenn Dorsey should be enough to wreak havoc in both the run and pass games. Fred Jackson is an unspectacular plugger and CJ Spiller has shown nothing in the league, so don’t look for the ground game to take much pressure off Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzy had good success last year throwing to Steve Johnson, but the Chiefs’ great corner tandem of Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers should be able to contain Johnson and the CFL-caliber Donald Jones without much difficulty. Free agent signee Brad Smith’s two wildcat snaps, one reverse and one reception on a three yard hitch shouldn’t worry you too much, either.
The Chiefs figure to have solid success on offense, starting with their outstanding rushing attack against the Bills’ awful run D. That defense should be bolstered by putting top-three draft pick Marcell Dareus next to secret superstar NT Kyle Wilson, but it’s unlikely to effect a massive turnaround in Week 1. The Chiefs should do most of their damage on the edges anyway, as the possibly-done Shawne Merriman and the very untalented Chris Kelsay at OLB won’t provide too much resistance to superback Jamaal Charles on off-tackle runs, tosses and sweeps. It appears that Big Chief Todd Haley has finally realized that he shouldn’t give a nuclear weapon like Charles fewer carries than the decrepit Thomas Jones, so look for a big presence from Charles on Sunday. The loss of Tony Moeaki hurts the Chiefs’ passing game, but Dwayne Bowe, Jerheme Urban and a healthy-at-least-for-Week One Steve Breaston should give Cassel enough to work with against a lower-tier Buffalo secondary.
I like the Chiefs, 24-13.
Minnesota at San Diego -8.5 (-110)
My composite spread: San Diego by 12.9 points
This is a big opening-week line against a not-horrible opponent, but I like the Chargers for a few reasons. First, they are generally underrated because of their 2010 record despite outstanding offensive and defensive performances due to their historic special teams meltdown. Roster turnover, coaching turnover and the rules changes should all contribute to keep that factor from submarining the Chargers this year. Rivers will be throwing to his full complement of outstanding weapons, and going against a Vikes defense that isn’t great against the pass and will have three new DL starters Week One after losing Ray Edwards and Pat Williams and enduring the suspension of DT Kevin Williams. The Chargers D is strong, and they’ve got an array of outside pass rushers who should wreck Vikes OTs Charlie Johnson and Phil Loadholt. They also have the corners to contain the Vikes' wideouts and both are strong tacklers and shouldn't get embarassed when Percy Harvin has the ball in his hands. Adrian Peterson is always a threat to go wild and take over a game, but last season proved that he can't consistently overcome consistent defeats of his blockers and that figures to the the case against monster NT Antonio Garay and the rest of the Chargers' front.
Philadelphia at St. Louis +5 (-110) OR St. Louis +190 Money Line
My composite spread: Philadelphia by 1.4 points
The Eagles are a media darling, but a lot of factors point to a close game or upset here. The Eagles’ OL is unsettled with a rookie center, a thusfar underwhelming rookie guard and a converted guard playing RT all lined up next to each other. Michael Vick has looked turnover-prone in the preseason and is likely to be lacking chemistry with mystery-illness sufferer Jeremy Maclin and just seems to not like TE Brent Celek. The Rams’ D is solid with good corners and figures to be improved with the additions of rookie DE Robert Quinn and stud SS Quintin Mikell – who knows Vick pretty well having come over from the Eagles. The Rams O should be improved as well and I’m not sold at all on the Eagles’ run D with below-average run defenders Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins playing big roles on the DL and an unsettled LB corps featuring overmatched rookie Casey Matthews at MLB. Steven Jackson could rip off some big runs on Sunday. The overall talent disparity in the Eagles’ favor makes this a flier, but I think there’s value in both the +4.5 and the nearly 2-1 payoff on an outright Rams win depending on your wagering preference.
Dallas at NY Jets -4.5 (-110)
Quick note on this one – the Cowboys were already looking to be without CB Terence Newman and have just gotten knee injuries to RT Tyron Smith and CB Michael Jenkins in practice – early unconfirmed word is that Smith will miss 2-4 weeks. This was already going to be tough for Dallas – I’d feel comfortable going a full unit or more on this one.
OK, this thing is 5000 words and I need to put it to bed – may post an update or two later. Good luck on all your action.