Beating the Spread: Week 1 Picks

Our Week 1 Beat the Spread column is ready to go for your consideration as you put in your weekly bets!

The NFL is back!  After a tumultuous 2020 in which we had games on Wednesday and WRs starting at QB and stadiums devoid of fans, everything seems mostly back to normal for the 2021 season.  Plus we get one more week this year!  That gives us 90 games to showcase our incredible handicapping talent or make us fodder for public ridicule.  Either way, we’re going to be here for you every week of the season.

Erik is back with me (Bryan) this season and we’ve conned convinced two new guys to join us.  Give a hearty welcome to Justin and Brennan as they make their Beat the Spread debut!

Gamblers know that 60% is the magic number to come out ahead, so that’s the goal again this season.  We didn’t make it last year, which just motivates us, even more, this season.  Every week the four of us will pick five games against the spread or on the over/under.  We’ll track the picks every week and see where we end up.  Feel free to play along in the comments or find us on Twitter!

Let’s get to the lines and picks for Week 1!

The following lines were captured on Tuesday. Betting lines can vary by site and move throughout the week so check yours to make sure that you have similar information.

Week 1 Betting Lines
Away Home Line O/U
Cowboys Buccaneers Buccaneers -6 52
Cardinals Titans Titans -3 52
Jaguars Texans Jaguars -3 44.5
Eagles Falcons Falcons -3 48
Steelers Bills Bills -6.5 48.5
Vikings Bengals Vikings -3 47.5
49ers Lions 49ers -7.5 45
Seahawks Colts Seahawks -2.5 50
Chargers Football Team Chargers -1 44.5
Jets Panthers Panthers -5.5 45
Browns Chiefs Chiefs -6.5 54.5
Packers Saints Packers -4.5 50
Dolphins Patriots Patriots -3 43.5
Broncos Giants Broncos -3 41.5
Bears Rams Rams -7.5 46
Ravens Raiders Ravens -4.5 51
Staff Picks

 

Analysis:

Justin Dunbar: The Panthers ranked fourth-worst in team PFF grade this year while Sam Darnold, even independent of the situation, has performed as one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL over the past few seasons. To me, it seems odds that Carolina is a 5.5-point favorite against anybody. With the Jets, I’m getting the better quarterback in Zach Wilson. Plus, in a game with such a low total, a closer game can be expected. This is about betting the number, not the team, and 5.5 points present great value here. NYJ +5.5

Matt Ryan vs Jalen Hurts? Yes, please. I continue to believe that 7.5 wins are too little of an expectation for the Falcons, who face an easy schedule, will face massive positive regression in one-score games, and get a major coaching improvement with former Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. For perspective, Ryan earned a top-ten PFF passing grade, while Hurts earned a 57.5 passing grade, posted a 4.6% turnover worthy play, and added on just a 65.1% adjusted completion rate. I’ll always bet on the better offense, and the gap here is substantial. Whereas this was ATL (-3.5) earlier in the week, it’s no longer crossing a key number, increasing the surplus-value. ATL -3

I think Erik would agree with me that we should be careful about our expectations of the Bengals’ offense early in the season. Joe Burrow’s progress returning from a torn ACL and MCL has been stalled, per reports, while the offense as a whole has struggled to gel. The Vikings, meanwhile, are a run-first team that also will be content to not be aggressive on fourth downs, helping project a lower total. Should they win, as they are projected to do, then this could become a slower-paced game without a lot of points. Would it be a disappointment if the Bengals came away with around 20 points in this game? If so, then Minnesota needs to score under 28, which seems quite doable, no? I’m super excited to bet on the skills of Burrow when fully healthy, but this isn’t the week to do so! MIN-CIN U47.5

Right now, the Cardinals’ two starting outside cornerbacks are Robert Alford and fourth-round rookie Marco Wilson. Yep, that’s who will go up against AJ Brown and Julio Jones. There’s little to suggest that Tennessee’s offense won’t flourish in this game, and the high total makes it more likely the margin of victory is higher. Simply put, I think they possess a better defense (yep, that’s what happens with positive regression on third downs and in the red zone, where they ranked bottom-three last year) with a much more talented, reliable offense. Hey, it’s not even crossing three points! Above all else, I highly recommend watching this game. It should be very high-paced with a lot of points scored, and who doesn’t want that! TEN -3

If you’ve been following my content, you know I love it when I pick a team as a favorite when it isn’t crossing a key number. The Steelers’ success last year was derived greatly from defensive production and a favorable schedule, but we already saw how defensive regression could take a toll on the last year. Whereas Josh Allen improved significantly in stable areas and will lead a down-the-field, high-volume passing attack, Ben Roethlisberger’s average depth of target sat at just 7.6 yards. Yes, it increased down the stretch, but for a quarterback who struggles under pressure, playing last year’s seventh-highest graded pass rush from PFF, in addition to a defensive scheme that will incentivize inefficient rushing production by playing fewer defenders in the box, isn’t an ideal fit for them. The gap in offenses here is incredible, and I’ll gladly bet on an elite offense that produces explosive plays and passes the ball as well as anyone. It’s just hard for me to imagine Pittsburgh scoring enough to cover the spread here. BUF -6.5

 

Brennan Rampe: The 49ers’ 6-10 record last year was a fluke. Injuries to mainstays such as Jimmy Garoppolo, George Kittle, and Nick Bosa were the main reason why the team failed to make the playoffs after reaching the Super Bowl in 2019. Still, they were able to upset teams and keep games close with mostly backups, which shows how good the coaching staff is. Everyone on the 49ers is back healthy, and they’ll be taking on a Lions team with a new head coach in Dan Campbell, a downgrade at quarterback with Jared Goff, and without their top two wide receivers from last year, Marvin Jones Jr., and Kenny Golladay. Goff is 3-5 against the 49ers in his career and doesn’t have Sean McVay as his coach anymore. The 49ers will cover and should beat the Lions by double digits. Inside the Numbers: In 2020, the 49ers were 5-3 against the spread on the road. SF -7.5

The Panthers have a new quarterback in former third overall pick Sam Darnold, who didn’t play so well with the Jets in his three years there. However, that was due to a lack of talent and the coaching of Adam Gase. Darnold is now on a team with playmakers at every level, and the Jets enter the season with a new head coach in Robert Saleh and a rookie quarterback in Zach Wilson. They will face off against a very talented Panthers defense with playmakers like Brian Burns, Derrick Brown, Jeremy Chinn, and rookie cornerback Jaycee Horn. The Panthers will cover, as there is no way that Darnold loses to his former team at home. Inside the Numbers: In 2020, the Jets were 2-6 against the spread as the away team. CAR -5.5

The Vikings (my favorite team) missed the playoffs last year all because of their horrible defense. Injuries to Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr, and Eric Kendricks, combined with the opt-out of free-agent defensive tackle Michael Pierce, resulted in the Vikings generally giving up 30 points every week for most of the season. All of those players are back healthy, and the offense has most of the electric playmakers returning, such as Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, and Adam Thielen. The Bengals will get quarterback Joe Burrow back under center after he suffered a brutal knee injury last year, but the offensive line isn’t a whole lot better than it was last year. The defense has a couple of question marks, particularly in the secondary. The Vikings’ wide receivers should have big games, and the new and improved Viking defensive line should harass Burrow fairly constantly. Inside the Numbers: Under Mike Zimmer, Minnesota is 38-29-1 against the spread as the favorite. MIN -3

The Seahawks have a pretty big advantage here. They’re loaded at the wide receiver position, unlike their opponent, the Colts. Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll have been the quarterback-head coach duo ever since 2012, which has resulted in a Super Bowl win and a winning season every year since 2012. The Colts have a new quarterback in Carson Wentz, who has missed a lot of time with a foot injury and has nowhere near the amount of talent as the Seahawks at the wide receiver position. The Colts’ offensive line is banged up, with guard Quenton Nelson having missed time with a foot injury, while free agent left tackle Eric Fisher is still recovering from an Achilles injury. The Colts defense is talented and should maybe keep it close, but the Seahawks will pull through with a road victory. Inside the Numbers: In 2020, the Colts were 3-5 against the spread at home. SEA -2.5

The Rams made the biggest move of the offseason when they traded for longtime Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, sending a 2021 third-round draft pick, the first-round draft picks in 2022 and 2023, and quarterback Jared Goff to the Lions. Stafford is very familiar with the Bears, as he is 11-9 against them in his career. Stafford now is on a team with way better talent and coaching. The Bears made a big move themselves by trading up in the draft for Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, but he is going to sit on the bench and learn from journeyman quarterback Andy Dalton for now, who is nowhere near as exciting as Fields is. The Rams defense should carve up the injury-riddled Bears offensive line, and the Rams offense should make big plays. Inside the Numbers: Under Sean McVay, the Rams are 30-22-1 against the spread in conference games. LAR -7.5

 

Erik Smith: I’ve been down on the Bengals all offseason, time to put my money where my mouth is. Joe Burrow enters Week 1 with barely one series of live game action under his belt on his way back from a major knee injury. The offensive line doesn’t appear to have been all that improved, and their first-round wide receiver has a case of the drops. And that’s before we even get to a very suspect head coach and defense. Minnesota has too much talent and experience on offense to not take care of the Bengals, and I expect a limited offensive gameplan as Cincinnati just looks for Burrow to shake off the rust in the opener. MIN -3

I’m overall optimistic about the Saints’ chances this year, but in a neutral-field game against the Packers, I expect some learning experiences in their first game without Drew Brees. Green Bay should be able to focus on slowing Kamara while making the inexperienced pass-catchers beat them, while the Packers’ offense should be ready to pick up where they left off in 2020. The Saints’ D may keep it close, but Aaron Rodgers will pull away in the end. GB -4.5

Teddy Bridgewater should be able to avoid a meltdown on the road against a strong Giants defense, more than I can say about Daniel Jones against a dangerous Broncos defense. With Saquon Barkley and Kenny Golladay working back from injury and Evan Engram likely to miss the opener, it’s hard to imagine this offense firing on all cylinders. A few big plays from Denver’s talented playmakers should be enough to cover three points. DEN -3

This line feels a bit too high but I’m willing to pay the price, as Matthew Stafford and Sean McVay look to start this season off on the right foot. I don’t think this is the Bears defense of old after losing Kyle Fuller, and while Justin Fields provides hope, we are stuck with Andy Dalton for the time being. The Rams will run away with this one at home while the Bears’ future watches from the sidelines. LAR -7.5

Despite injuries across the offense, I’m skeptical the Raiders have done enough on defense to slow down Lamar Jackson and this Ravens rushing attack, even without J.K. Dobbins. Baltimore’s defense is as stout as ever, and Las Vegas desperately needs one of its young receivers to break out. That will be a tall order against this deep Ravens defense, and Jackson will do enough on his own to put this game out of reach. BAL -4.5

 

Bryan Sweet: Full disclosure, I got this a few months ago at 45.5 when it became apparent Deshaun Watson would not be playing QB for Houston shortly, if ever again.  Four other names influenced my belief that this will be a low-scoring affair and those names are Trevor Lawrence, Urban Meyer, David Culley, and Tyrod Taylor.  Rookie QB, rookie HC, first-time HC, and journeyman QB.  Houston might be the worst team in the NFL this season and rookie QBs are notorious for struggling, at least early on, with the speed and complexity of the NFL.  Assuming Jacksonville is the better team, I can’t see this getting to a 24-21 score or more which is what it would take to push this game over. JAX-HOU U44.5

There have been some head coaching misses from coordinators that worked under Bill Belichick, but Brian Flores looks like he might join Mike Vrabel as a success story.  Flores molded a Miami defense that finished in the bottom five of almost every statistical category into a team that “bent but didn’t break” by finishing sixth in points allowed per game despite finishing in the middle of the pack in yards allowed per game.  New England will be rolling out a rookie QB and Flores was a key cog in those New England defenses that seemed to always frustrate young or inexperienced QBs.  I also think Miami might just be the better team this year.  MIA +3

Browns fans, this just might be the year.  I think Cleveland has all the pieces in place to contend for a division title and make a bit of a playoff run if they can stay healthy.  The journey begins this week with the AFC’s Super Bowl representative the past two years and presents a real challenge with the crowd back in Arrowhead Stadium.  Cleveland hasn’t won a Week 1 game since beating the Ravens 20-3 in 2004 and I don’t think that trend ends this week.  However, we saw how Tampa Bay was able to overwhelm Kansas City’s offensive line in the Super Bowl and Cleveland brings a strong defensive front into this game along with a good enough secondary to keep it close.  Kansas City won by five when these two teams met in the Divisional Round in last year’s playoffs and I expect a similar outcome in this one; a close loss for the Browns.  CLE +6.5

I was originally going with the Giants and the points as home underdogs but can see a scenario where the “key number” makes this game a push.  Much like Jacksonville and Houston above, this is a game between two teams that are seemingly in the bottom half of the NFL hierarchy.  Daniel Jones hasn’t shown he can be trusted to win a game on his own and the concerns of Saquon Barkley not being 100% for this game are big.  Teddy Bridgewater won the QB job in Denver, but I can’t help but feel that was a result of his conservative style of play limiting turnovers and letting their defense win low-scoring affairs.  Both teams getting to 21 seems unlikely, so I’ll ride with the under here.   DEN-NYG U41.5

Anybody noticing a theme to my picks this week?  Here is another game involving a rookie QB in Zach Wilson and there is just too much evidence of rookie QBs struggling early to ignore.  Carolina struggled to a 5-11 record last year but that was without All-World RB Christian McCaffrey for most of the season and with Teddy Bridgewater at QB.  I won’t say Sam Darnold is a big step up from Bridgewater, but I do think his supporting cast, or lack thereof, with the Jets undermined his talent.  This will easily be Darnold’s best collection of talent in his career and I think we see Carolina turn a corner this year.  I do believe Wilson is the future for the Jets, but we’re betting in the present and, presently, I think Carolina is at least a TD better than the Jets.  CAR -5.5


 

What are your favorite picks of the week? Put in your comments below to play along. We’ll be updating our records all season!

 

Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

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