Will NFL Underdogs Rule Week 1?
By Jason McIntyre
The first time you ever go out gambling in Las Vegas is a lot like trying to find winners in Week 1 in the NFL. The glorious sights and sounds – along with alcohol and the camaraderie of friends – make people want to spend money, just as the return of football after 225 days makes you want to gamble on every game on the board.
With 13 matchups on Sunday’s slate, and two more Monday night, the key word is patience. “He that can have patience, can have what he will.” That’s Ben Franklin talking, but it certainly applies to wagering this weekend.
So when it comes to to betting Week 1 in 2020, let's start with a bird's eye view. I’m not a huge trend player, but this angle is certainly worth further scrutiny: In the last five seasons, there have been 23 divisional matchups in Week 1. The underdogs are 16-5-2 ATS.
Last year, this trend went 4-1; the year before, 4-0. And there are nine such matchups this week.
Jets (+6.5) at Bills
Browns (+7.5) at Ravens
Eagles (-5.5) at Washington
Bears (+3) at Lions
Colts (-8) at Jaguars
Packers (+3) at Minnesota
Cardinals (+7) at 49ers
Bucs (+3.5) at Saints
That's where I'm going to look first. In fact, four of the five games I'm most confident in this week are from that slate.
Still, trends look backward and are not necessarily predictive. So where can you find an edge in these nine games? Well ...
Cleveland Browns +8 at Baltimore Ravens. Last year, in Week 4, the Ravens were favored at home by a touchdown against the Browns and lost, 40-25, as Cleveland rang up 530 yards of offense, led by 165 on the ground from Nick Chubb.
The Browns defense is banged up – injuries in the secondary and especially at linebacker – but this will be the fourth time they face Lamar Jackson. Last year in Minnesota, Kevin Stefanski’s offense was 9th in 3rd down conversions (42.8%). You could argue he’s got as good or better skill position players in Cleveland this year. I took the Browns at +8.5, still like them at 8.
Arizona Cardinals +7 at San Francisco 49ers. In two meetings vs the 49ers last year, rookie QB Kyler Murray’s offense averaged 5.5 yards per play, which is solid considering the 49ers boasted a Top 5 defense by virtually every metric. Both games were extremely close in the 4th quarter, and if not for a freaky fumble return at the final horn, Arizona would have gone 2-0 ATS against the 49ers. Also, the Cardinals added one of the best receivers in the NFL, DeAndre Hopkins, via trade.
If anyone mentions the phrase “Super Bowl hangover,” you should probably run the other way, but the Super Bowl loser is 4-16 ATS in Week 1 since 2000. Kyler Murray can kick down the back door with DeAndre Hopkins against a secondary that isn’t projected to be as strong as it was in 2019. Took the Cardinals at +7.5, like it a little less at +7.
Washington Football Team +6 at Philadelphia Eagles. Sunday features a clash of Washington’s biggest strength – the defensive line, featuring four 1st round picks – and Philly’s biggest question mark, the offensive line following the loss of All-Pro guard Brandon Brooks for the season.
Casual gamblers gravitate toward skill position players, perhaps due to a love for fantasy football. Professional gamblers know the game is won in the trenches, and the Eagles line is playing musical chairs. Hall of Fame left tackle Jason Peters is 38 and has missed 12 games over the last three seasons. He was brought in to replace Brooks, but Peters had to move to left tackle when former 1st round pick Andre Dillard suffered a season-ending injury. Will the line hold up against Chase Young? Redskins +6 is easy, but just a lean at +5.5.
New England Patriots -6.5 vs Miami Dolphins. This is a classic “narrative” game, one that flies in the face of the previously-mentioned divisional underdog trend. In Week 17 last year, the Dolphins beat the Patriots outright as double-digit dogs. It was an embarrassing loss for the Patriots, and you could argue it played a huge part in Tom Brady ultimately leaving. The loss meant the Patriots had to play the following weekend, instead of getting a bye, and they lost to the Titans.
Tom Brady left. The Patriots had more players opt-out this season due to COVID than any other team. They signed Cam Newton and cut Mohammad Sanu in an offseason that also featured the loss of four contributors to the #1 defense in the NFL.
Almost nobody is picking the Patriots to win the AFC East; the Dolphins are a sexy pick after a splashy offseason and drafting Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa. It’s like everyone has forgotten how well Bill Belichick did with an unproven Matt Cassel at QB when Tom Brady went down, and how well Belichick did with an unproven Jimmy Garoppolo when Brady was suspended. Patriots -6.5.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers +3.5 at New Orleans Saints. It’s possible to love this game, but to want no part in gambling on it. Yes, I picked the Saints to win the Super Bowl; no, I can’t explain their early season struggles.
Consider this: New Orleans has failed to cover the last six home openers. They’ve lost five of their last six season openers. And bizarrely, they’re 2-15 ATS in their last 17 games in weeks one and two.
On the other hand, Tampa Bay feels like the most public pick of Week 1 Tom Brady as an underdog? Who isn't going to be on that side? Do you want to ride with the public when you know the house is going to need the favorite?
If you really want to bet the spread, I do think it's the Bucs. But as someone who hates the hook, I’m going to do the unthinkable: Not bet a side in this game, rather just take a bite of over 48.5 so I have some skin in the game as Sunday afternoon bleeds into the evening.
Cincinnati Bengals +3.5 vs. Los Angeles Chargers. Joe Burrow is the only rookie QB starting this week, and in recent history, first year signal callers have been impressive ATS in their Week 1 debut, going 8-2 ATS since 2013. Tiny sample size, and of course, we’ve never seen a rookie QB without a preseason under his belt. SEC speed is a thing, but it’s not NFL speed.
That can go both ways – there’s zero tape on Burrow for a Chargers secondary that lost star safety Derwin James for the season. And how’s this welcome-to-the-league matchup: Burrow has to face one of the best edge rushing tandems in the NFL, Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. Burrow’s left tackle (2019 1st round pick Jonah Williams) will be starting his first game. Lean to the Bengals +3.5, don’t love it as much at +3.