Thursday, September 4, 2014

Week 1 NFL Picks: Tread Lightly

And Buy A Hat
The first few weeks of an NFL season are trouble for anyone who tries to pick against the spread. Either good teams from last year fail to carry over, or bad teams emerge in odd ways, and the trick is to try to work out what's real, and what's illusion. It's rare that you make picks in true confidence before October, and if things haven't gone well for you by then, it's easy to fall into a hole that you spend the rest of the year trying to get out of. (That was 2013.)

The plain and simple is that it's been nine months since most teams have played football and meant it, which is an eternity in the life of most players. Add to that the increasing variability from turnovers and hyperactive officiating against defensive players, and it hardly seems worth the trouble.

But, well, where's the fun in that?

Once you've been making picks for a few years, just like playing in fantasy leagues, it's an effort to *not* pick. And it doesn't take that much to make the effort profitable; a good streak with an unpopular team, some trend that the public doesn't see, and you're off to the races.

And with that... on to the picks!

* * * * *

GREEN BAY (+6) at Seattle

I'm starting the year with contrarianism. The Seahawks have looked astounding this preseason, and the Pack will be without overrated NT BJ Raji, leading many to feel that the Seattle running attack will go wild. The game is in Seattle, where the home team always wins. The Pack will also be starting a rookie center in the middle of their O-line, and Seattle is the first champion in modern times to look like they should repeat.

So why take the Pack?

Simple; it's too many points, and the new rules will keep the offenses going long into the night. The way that the Seahawks get into Wilding Mode is through turnovers; QB Aaron Rodgers doesn't generally make them. Seattle is going to win this game, but with more running plays, it's not going to be a runaway. Besides, after the Fail Mary MNF game, the Pack might have extra motivation, and you never know how a team will react to getting their Super Bowl rings.

Seahawks 27, Packers 24

NEW ORLEANS (-3) at Atlanta


Everyone's favorite positive regression candidate, the Falcons, against everyone's favorite dark horse NFC champion. I get that the Saints have been a terrible road favorite for years now, and that Atlanta's loud dome will cause problems for the the visitors. I also understand that a healthy Julio Jones means the world to QB Matt Ryan, and if he's also got a full-powered RB in Presumably Healthy Stephen Jackson, it's all systems go for the Falcons. But have you seen the Atlanta pass rush? Neither has Falcon Fan, who has been looking for it for years, and you just don't beat QB Drew Brees without pressure. Look for pinball here, and I'll take the all-world passer in pinball any time.

Saints 38, Falcons 31

MINNESOTA (+3.5) at St. Louis


Oh, this isn't going to be pretty. The Rams have a quality front seven and all kinds of early draft talent in the trenches, but they don't have playmakers where it matters. The Vikings have world-class skill guys tied to a journeyman QB, and neither of these teams is going to see the north side of six wins. So why take the road dog? Because in a game of fungible, I'll take RB Adrian Peterson, fresh, healthy and eager to prove he still should be the #1 pick in fantasy, to throw up a big number and steal a win.

Vikings 24, Rams 20

Cleveland at PITTSBURGH (+7)


A big number to float for a Steeler team that really didn't show much in pre-season, and still has issues on the lines. But the Browns have looked worse, are bound to have some turnovers in a road game, can't stretch the field with this terrible batch of WRs, and are already ducking the idea of how fast the hook for QB Brian Hoyer will be, for the excitement of Johnny Manziel. There's a very good Browns defense that's going to get hung out to try, and it starts on Sunday.

Steelers 27, Browns 17

Jacksonville at PHILADELPHIA (+11)


Hate this line, and on some level, this game. The Jags are going to be better than people think, with a defense that can hit and a patient offensive philosophy built around protecting the QB. The Eagles are liable to treat this as a homecoming game, with not enough intensity or sharpness, and when the offense isn't sharp, it's a major issue to a defense that aspires to mediocrity, and has to play too many snaps. I expect this game to be close through the third, and for the Birds to finally get breathing room and a late cover, but it's not going to be easy.

Eagles 34, Jaguars 20

Oakland at NY Jets (-5.5)


The major difference between rookie QB Derek Carr getting the start over injured game mis-manager Matt Schaub is that when Carr makes mistakes that lose the game, Oakland Fan will have hope that one day, he won't do that. That's a pretty bleak reason to watch a game, let alone the next 2-3 months of relentlessly bad football. Look for the Jets' defense to win this on their own, and for the running game to eventually find success and 40+ carries.

Jets 20, Raiders 6

CINCINNATI (+1) at Baltimore


Maybe the best early game of the day, in that the Sunday afternoon games aren't much to write home about. Baltimore at home is always a tough nut to crack, but this Bengal team runs laps around them on pure talent, and the simple fact of the matter is that RB Bernard Pierce isn't good enough to grind out the extra yards that would keep QB Joe Flacco out of long downs. (Remember, last guy to beat his woman with minimal penalty Ray Rice is missing this one.) It will be fascinating to see how the refs call this, seeing how neither team will want the modern pussy footing.

Bengals 24, Ravens 20

Buffalo at CHICAGO (-7)


There really isn't a better indication of how the NFL has changed, in terms of how much less rope a first round QB has, than Buffalo with EJ Manuel. Last year's Florida State product is already seen in most circles as a bust, and a gating influence on WR Sammy Watkins and RB CJ Spiller... and for all that you might want to chastise the franchise for a lack of patience, it's not as if Manuel has given any indication that he's going to become a top-shelf performer. The season opener in Chicago is actually a place where numbers should be possible, given the weak work by the Bears these days, but it's hard to see how this goes well for the road team, or how he has the job in Year 3. Also, the Bear offense should be fantasy meth for as long as QB Jay Cutler stays healthy.

Bears 34, Bills 20

Washington at HOUSTON (-3)


How much has new DC Slurs coach Jay Gruden kept under wraps in the pre-season, and how much is it that QB Bob Griffin The Only One Anyone Cares About just isn't meshing with the offense and his a terrible, terrible OL? In any event, a road tilt against the two most explosive pass rushers on the planet (um, that'd be JJ Watt and Javedon Clowney) isn't the way to start things off. Look for the Texans to grind out a field position win, and maybe hit a big play or two to some criminally underused WRs, as a misdiagnosis of a bounceback year for Houston is locked down. The simpler reality is that DC just isn't good in the trenches, and that's where football is won. For a few more years, at least.

Texans 24, DC 16

Tennessee at KANSAS CITY (-3.5)


For the first half of the year in 2013, KC had two magical things going for them: a creampuff schedule and a healthy, talented defense. As time went on, they lost both of these attributes, and wound up getting rolled in a playoff meltdown for the ages... but 2014 starts with a Titan team that doesn't have the skill players to win a road game, and the Chiefs are going to make hay with the home crowd and pass rush. The Chiefs don't strike you as a big point offense, but with these short fields, it could be a big number.

Chiefs 34, Titans 16

New England at MIAMI (+5)


Even when the Patriots are dominant, they've struggled in trips to Miami, and given the late summer weather in South Florida, you can hardly blame them. This Dolphin team isn't going to be good enough to take the division away from the Belicheaters, but they might be good enough to steal Week One, especially if the new up-tempo offense is able to mask a mediocre OL. It also helps loads that the Fish actually get after the QB on defense. I think it's going to be decided by a field goal either way, which makes a Miami cover a reasonable moment of gambling confidence.

Patriots 26, Dolphins 24

CAROLINA (+1) at Tampa


Your other choice for a meaningful Week 1 division matchup is this NFC South clash, where two teams with meaningful defensive players and challenged offenses will get into each other with a quickness. Carolina has injury issues with QB Cam Newton's ribs, while Tampa looks dicey on the OL... and neither of these things are what you want to have happen before facing Gerald McCoy and the Panther front seven, respectively. I'd normally give more credence to the home crowd and heat, and the Tampa WRs could cause serious matchup issues with their height and physicality against a weak secondary... but I just can't see the Tampa offense staying clean. Finally, I like Carolina rookie WR Kelvin Benjamin a lot, and think he could be the difference in this one.

Panthers 24, Bucs 20

SAN FRANCISCO (-4.5) at Dallas


There are red flags a-plenty on this Niner team. The defense is aging and missing some pieces. The first-team offense has been terrible in the pre-season. The coach had off-season issues that hinted at his departure from the club. And none of that matters when they run into the perpetually .500 Cowboys, who are actually going to be worse than that this year, given that the defense is terrible and the offense is dependent on a 34-year-old QB who wins on mobility to keep plays alive, and who is coming off FREAKING BACK SURGERY. This might be the year the Cowboys stink before Thanksgiving, instead of just after.

Niners 31, Cowboys 24

Indianapolis at DENVER (+7.5)


The recent next-year record of Super Bowl losers is bleak. They don't even usually make the playoffs, let alone go deep. But the Broncos don't look all that worse from the team that entered the Super Bowl as the choice for a surprising number of touts. Sure, Knowshon Moreno, Eric Decker and Champ Bailey are gone, but the larder is far from bare, and Aqib Talib, Emmanuel Sanders and Montee Ball could easily be a net gain in starting roles. (Plus, hey presto, TJ Ward. Not bad.)

As for the Colts, they've been the AFC South paper tiger champions for a while now, and have the same issues as past years; a defense that isn't stout enough, and a running game that can't take pressure off QB Andrew Luck. Under the lights and with DE DeMarcus Ware looking to make a splash, I think the Broncos get ahead and pile on. Oh, and if you're concerned about WR Wes Welker missing the game and limiting Denver's effectiveness... you do know that TE Julian Thomas is loads better than Welker, right?

Broncos 38, Colts 27

NY GIANTS (+6) at Detroit


Low confidence pick in the early game of the annual kickoff MNF doubleheader. The Giants may be a flat-out bad team with a QB that's passed into Delhommian pick-pinball, and a coach that needs to be retired ASAP. Detroit may be a rudderless stars and scrubs team with poor leadership and a bland caretaker coach. Or the Giants may have played possum in pre-season on offense, have an actual good and deep defense, and have one of only two non-lunatic management teams in their division. As for the Lions, they have the best WR in the world, a host of other weapons, and occasionally dominant DL play. I have no idea, and neither does anyone else. So let's assume a pox on both houses, which means a game that's too close to cover this spread.

Lions 27, Giants 24

San Diego at ARIZONA (-3)


How dare the NFL end Week 1 with a competitive game! I was so looking forward to the annual Raider beatdown, so we could be reminded that (a) Chris Berman should never be let near a live football game and (b) Oakland still exists. As for this game, last year would have seen the Cardinals stuff the Charger running game, the Chargers hurt the Cards with passing to the TE, and Rashard Mendenhall cuckold Andre Ellington and the AZ rushing game into ineffectiveness. None of those things will occur this year, which is enough of an overall gain for the home team to cover the number.

Cardinals 27, Chargers 20

Last year: 120-129-10

Career: 488-501-39

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