Each week Zac Hirschbeck will look at the betting odds for each NFL game and then share his pick for each matchup. While hopefully it goes without saying, please don’t hold him accountable if you gamble away your retirement savings or child’s college fund based on his picks.
After incorrectly picking the favorited Panthers in Thursday’s opener, here are his thoughts for the remaining opening-week games.
Green Bay Packers (-6) at Jacksonville Jaguars
For the first time in recent memory, there is legitimate hope in Jacksonville. Blake Bortles will be given every opportunity to flourish in his third year with a strong collection of skill players (Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, Julius Thomas, Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon) around him. To compliment the talent on offense, GM Dave Caldwell bolstered the defensive side of the ball with a trio of free agent additions (Malik Jackson, Tashaun Gipson and Prince Amukamara) and a pair of exciting rookie talents in Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack. Despite the optimism that rightfully comes with a dramatically improved roster, the Jaguars will be hard-pressed to open 2016 with a home victory.
While Green Bay certainly has its question marks coming into Week 1, particularly Jordy Nelson’s health after missing all of 2015 with a torn ACL, management’s decision to cut its most experienced offensive lineman last week, and the team’s uninspiring inside linebackers, the Packers still have the best quarterback in football. Despite missing his top receiver and operating without much of a running game for the entire season, Aaron Rodgers willed the Packers to a 10-6 record and were an overtime defeat away from an appearance in the NFC Championship Game. With Nelson back, and with Randall Cobb and Eddie Lacy poised for bounce-back seasons, Rodgers is a good bet to become a three-time NFL MVP this season. With that mind, fully expect the 32-year-old to outperform his young Jacksonville counterpart.
Pick: Green Bay
Minnesota Vikings at Tennessee Titans (+2)
If Teddy Bridgewater were behind center for Minnesota, this game would be a pretty straightforward pick. However, following a devastating injury that will see Bridgewater miss all of 2016, the Vikings will turn to veteran backup Shaun Hill (instead of the recently acquired Sam Bradford) on the road in Week 1.
The decision to start Hill seems like the right one by Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer. Although the team paid a premium to acquire Bradford from Philadelphia, the 28-year-old hasn’t had nearly enough time to digest Minnesota’s playbook and offensive tendencies. While time will tell how long the Vikings will keep Bradford on the sidelines, whoever lines up behind center will spend an awful lot of time turning and handing the ball to Adrian Peterson. Though there continues to be whispers regarding Peterson’s longevity, the 31-year-old running back comes off a 2015 season in which he led the league in rushing attempts (327) and rushing yards (1,485). Tennessee will undoubtedly stack the box and dare Minnesota to throw, but considering the lackluster collection of quarterbacks that Peterson has played behind throughout his career, the veteran should maneuver his way to a productive day on the ground.
Tennessee certainly has a great opportunity to take advantage of a team that is adjusting to life without its franchise quarterback. Marcus Mariota impressed in his debut season, and the club dedicated resources to provide the second-year quarterback with a better offensive line and an improved running game. However, Mariota will go against a talented Minnesota defense that fueled the preseason Super Bowl hype which vanished once Bridgewater went down. While it certainly wouldn’t surprise to see Minnesota’s offense fall flat in Week 1, I think Hill does enough as a game manager against Tennessee’s defense.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+3) at Atlanta Falcons
In a matchup of NFC South divisional foes, one club certainly enters the new season with more optimism.
After ditching Lovie Smith in favor of installing offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter as head coach, Tampa Bay enters the season with hope that second-year quarterback Jameis Winston can push the Buccaneers back into the postseason for the first time since 2007. Winston will also benefit from a coaching staff that is not far removed from employment in Atlanta. Former Falcons head coach Mike Smith is now running Tampa’s defense and Koetter worked as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator from 2012-14. That intimate knowledge of their rivals should bode well.
Meanwhile, Atlanta already has some troubling news come to light in recent weeks. Between Matt Ryan publicly denying a strife between himself and second-year offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, and Julio Jones entering Week 1 after being hobbled a bit by a preseason ankle injury, the Falcons offense could start slowly out of the gates.
Pick: Tampa Bay
Cleveland Browns at Philadelphia Eagles (-4)
In a game that pits two teams who have little interest in short-term success, I’ll side with a home team that possesses a more talented collection of players.
After shipping their starting quarterback away just eight days before the season, the Eagles will open the year as home favorites despite starting first-round pick Carson Wentz at quarterback. Wentz, who was selected by Philadelphia with the No. 2 overall pick in April, missed valuable time after suffering a hairline fracture to his ribs in the preseason opener. However, even with Wentz’s inexperience and likely early-season struggles, the Eagles have an opportunity to take advantage of a Cleveland team that is largely devoid of veteran talent aside from Joe Thomas and Joe Haden.
With Jim Schwartz now calling the shots for Philadelphia’s defense, look for the Eagles to attack the Browns with relentless pressure. With a talented collection of pass-rushers at his disposal (Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Connor Barwin), the former Buffalo defensive coordinator could make RG3’s return from NFL exile an unwelcome one.
Cincinnati Bengals at New York Jets (+3)
After a 10-win season failed to clinch a postseason berth last year, the Jets come into 2016 with limited expectations due to their difficult schedule. While New York’s first six weeks (vs. CIN, @ BUF, @ KC, vs. SEA, @ PIT, @ ARZ) seem to put Todd Bowles’ team in a tough spot, their opening week matchup seems to be more manageable than the betting line would indicate.
Bengals fans surely have to expect playoff disappointment heading into each year. Last year, a pair of idiotic defensive penalties from Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones choked away a Wildcard round victory over the Steelers. That crushing defeat extended Marvin Lewis’ winless streak to seven in his playoff coaching career. That disappointment aside, the Bengals return as one of the more talented teams in the NFL. However, they are banged up heading into their trip to New York. Tyler Eifert and Darqueze Dennard are both set to miss the clash against the Jets, and the aforementioned Burfict will serve the first game of a three-game ban stemming from his penalized hit on Antonio Brown during the playoffs.
As a result, I’ll take the Jets in this matchup. If Darrelle Revis can hold A.J. Green in check, and if Ryan Fitzpatrick can play turnover-free football on offense, New York is a good bet to win.
Pick: New York
Oakland Raiders (+1) at New Orleans Saints
Much like the Jaguars, the Raiders enter the season instilled with a newfound confidence, A busy offseason saw Oakland supplement the existing core (Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, Khalil Mack) with several notable free agent acquisitions. With the additions of Bruce Irvin, Sean Smith, Reggie Nelson and rookie first-round pick Karl Joseph, the defense in particular looks set to take a step forward from its mediocre showing a season ago.
In New Orleans, the Saints will need their defense to improve from its horrific performance a season ago. Weirdly, New Orleans spent more of their money re-investing in its offense. Brees’ recent contract extension and the signing of Coby Fleener would indicate that the Saints are hoping to ride their offense to one shootout victory after another. While they certainly could do that against the preseason darlings lining up against them, I expect Oakland to demonstrate their depth of talent on both sides of the ball.
San Diego Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs (-7)
In another intra-divisional matchup that pits AFC West foes against one another, the Chiefs begin 2016 as significant favorites over the Chargers. While the optimism surrounding Kansas City’s aspirations this season is reasonable enough, this line seems generous to the home side. With their two best players (Jamaal Charles and Justin Houston) sidelined, and Eric Berry reporting late to camp after holding out, the Chiefs could struggle early.
The Chargers certainly have their concerns as well, even without considering their incredibly poor handling of first-round pick Joey Bosa. However, the Chargers offense looks bound to improve upon its performance from a season ago. With improved health and play from his offensive line, Philip Rivers should be able to distribute the ball to a collection of playmakers (Keenan Allen, Travis Benjamin, Antonio Gates and Melvin Gordon) that should prove regularly dangerous for opposing defenses. Although the Chargers might not beat Kansas City at Arrowhead, they should keep it close.
Pick: San Diego
Chicago Bears (+6.5) at Houston Texans
Similarly to the Chiefs-Chargers, the home team is getting an enthusiastic bump in it’s Week 1 matchup. While J.J. Watt will undoubtedly be a boost for Houston’s defense against Chicago, Houston’s offense is no sure bet to play well against the Bears defense. With a new, expensive quarterback (Brock Osweiler), a new running back (Lamar Miller), and a collection of young secondary receivers (Will Fuller, Braxton Miller and Jaelen Strong) behind DeAndre Hopkins, the Texans could face some growing pains as they gel in the early going.
The Bears could surprise this season. The recent addition of Josh Sitton to the offensive line gives Chicago a guard tandem (Sitton and Kyle Long) that’s a strong as any in the league. Likewise, 2015 first-round pick Kevin White joins Alshon Jeffery to form what could be a dynamic tandem for quarterback Jay Cutler. Defensively, head coach John Fox historically has proved able to dramatically improve his defenses, and the addition of linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan should help. Much like the Chargers, the Bears may not win, but they will keep things close.
Buffalo Bills at Baltimore Ravens (-3)
As a homer and an eternal Bills optimist, it’ll be difficult to pick Bills games objectively this season. Unsurprisingly, I like the Bills in Week 1.
Despite the loss of three projected starters on defense (Shaq Lawson, Reggie Ragland and Marcell Dareus), the Bills still possess several impact performers on that side of the ball that should help Rex Ryan find redemption after a miserable first season in Buffalo. On the offensive side, Tyrod Taylor leads an offense that similarly boasts an impressive collection of talent. From an offensive line that features Cordy Glenn, Richie Incognito and Eric Wood, to a running game led by LeSean McCoy, to budding superstar Sammy Watkins reeling in passes downfield, the Bills should improve upon its solid first year under offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
The 2016 Ravens don’t resemble the dominant teams of years past. Joe Flacco returns after suffering a torn ACL and MCL in Week 11 last season, and it’s certainly fair to expect him to be a bit rusty. Aside from Flacco, Baltimore is heavily reliant upon aging veterans. Steve Smith Sr. (37) and Terrell Suggs (33) both will be expected to play essential roles despite suffering season-ending achilles injuries in 2015. Free agent additions Mike Wallace (30) and Eric Weddle (31) will also be expected to play big roles despite declining play in recent years.
All things considered, the Bills are arguably better than Baltimore in every single positional group besides linebackers and special teams. While they start the season with lowered expectations compared to a season ago, they should prove capable of starting the new year with a win on the road.
New York Giants (-1) at Dallas Cowboys
In yet another Week 1 divisional matchup, the Giants go on the road to take on a Cowboys team that will play at least the first six weeks of the season without quarterback Tony Romo. Despite an offensive line that is arguably the NFL’s best, the Cowboys could struggle with rookie fourth-round pick Dak Prescott assuming control of the offense with Romo sidelined. Despite an impressive preseason showing and a one-two skill position punch in Dez Bryant and Ezekiel Elliott, the track record for rookie mid-round picks isn’t exactly encouraging.
On New York’s end, the Giants had an extremely productive offseason. New York GM Jerry Reese paid a premium in free agency to upgrade the defensive side of the ball by adding Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison and Janoris Jenkins. The front office also provided Eli Manning with a viable second receiver alongside Odell Beckham Jr. in second-round pick Sterling Shepard. Expectations are understandably high in New York, and the Giants will begin to justify those high hopes with a Week 1 victory at the monstrous AT&T Stadium.
Pick: New York
Detroit Lions (+3.5) at Indianapolis Colts
Poor Andrew Luck. Even after getting regularly beat up and subsequently suffering a season-ending injury that limited the quarterback to seven games played, GM Ryan Grigson spent another offseason failing to properly address the Colts’ lacking offensive line. While the former Stanford signal caller has a talented trio of wideouts (T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, Philip Dorsett) at his disposal, his lacking protection and Grigson’s similar inability to upgrade a defense that finished close to the bottom in most major categories will prevent Luck from making his team a legitimate contender.
Detroit will begin life after Calvin Johnson after seeing their best player abruptly retire at age 30. While free agent pickups Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin will pick up some of the slack left by Johnson, Matthew Stafford could take time to adjust to an offense lacking the comfort of his longtime target. Although Detroit is by no means a hot pick to start the season, they’ll take advantage of an overrated Colts squad on the road in Week 1.
Miami Dolphins (+10.5) at Seattle Seahawks
Although I’m by no means a believer in Miami this year despite Adam Gase’s track record of quarterback whispering, this simply seems like too big of a line for the favorites. As always, the Seahawks defense will give any team trouble, particularly on the road. However, the offense, and in particular the offensive line, is worrisome for Seattle. With first-round pick Germain Ifedi set to miss out with an ankle sprain, the Seahawks will trot out a pretty ragtag line against a Dolphins front that does possess some talent in Ndamukong Suh, Cameron Wake and Mario Williams.
In addition to potentially preying on the ‘Hawks’ shortcomings along the line, the Dolphins do have skill players (Jarvis Landry, Arian Foster, DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills) that could make plays on offense if Tannehill’s protection holds up. While Gase’s reclamation project could stand to benefit more from an easier Week 1 matchup, from a betting standpoint the Dolphins should keep the game closer than the line would indicate.
New England Patriots (+6) at Arizona Cardinals
While I was prepared to begrudgingly pick New England and then sing the praises of Bill Belichick’s ability to prepare, the news that Rob Gronkowski would be unavailable for the Patriots’ opener is certainly a game changer. With Gronkowski joining Dion Lewis in the training room, Jimmy Garoppolo will be without two key pieces as he attempts to keep New England afloat in Tom Brady’s absence. Against a defense like Arizona’s, that will be incredibly costly when considering the Patriots’ chances at pulling an “upset.”
With that said, I’m not as high on the Cardinals as others are. Although he had a career year during the 2015 regular season, Carson Palmer’s four-interception meltdown against Carolina in the playoffs is potentially scarring. Perhaps more importantly, Palmer’s age (36) and extensive injury history suggests that the Arizona quarterback could be due for some regression. However, New England’s injuries (and Brady’s suspension) provide Arizona with a more cushiony Week 1 matchup than initially expected.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Washington Redskins (+3)
While Pittsburgh’s high-powered offense has made them a preseason sleeper to play for the NFL’s ultimate prize, they enter Week 1 at less than 100%. With Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant suspended, and with 2015 first-round pick Bud Depree set to miss the game due to a groin injury, the Steelers will be without two key playmakers and a player they were expecting to help their lacking pass rush.
On Washington’s side, the Redskins also boast a capable passing game. Coming off a strong 2015 season, Kirk Cousins will be asked to distribute the ball amongst a collection of talented receivers in DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, tight end Jordan Reed and rookie first-round pick Josh Doctson. Defensively, Washington’s strength resides in the tandem of third-year cornerback Bashaud Breeland and big-money acquisition Josh Norman. If those two can combine to slow down Antonio Brown, Washington could beat a Steelers team that’s at less than full strength.
Los Angeles Rams at San Francisco 49ers (+3)
Yeesh. What a way to finish up Week 1. Case Keenum versus Blaine Gabbert. Chris Berman fumbling his way through tired schtick for 60 painful minutes. I can’t say I’ll be staying up late to take in this game on Monday night.
Although Los Angeles possesses the better top-end talent (Aaron Donald, Todd Gurley), I’ll take San Francisco as a home underdog against a team that has Case Keenum starting at quarterback.
Pick: San Francisco