NFL Handicapping: Most Important Games First Two Weeks
by Trevor Whenham - 9/2/2013
For bettors, every game in the NFL has the potential to be important. Some are inevitably more important than others, though – at least in terms of what they can teach us and what they mean for the season ahead. When teams face a challenge, we can learn what they are made of, how adaptable and tough they are, and what we can expect the next time they are challenged. Here are six games I will be paying special attention to in the first two weeks of the NFL season this year because of what could be learned:
Baltimore at Denver, Thursday, Sept. 5, 8:30 p.m. ET
This is the first game of the year, so the football-starved betting public is going to be all over this one – especially because it features two very public teams. That alone makes this one worthy of a close look. There are storylines for both squads that amplify the intrigue, though. Baltimore not only has to shed their Super Bowl hangover but has to do it without the two men -- Ray Lewis and Ed Reed -- that have defined the defense and the soul of the team for years. Better teams than this have looked lousy right after winning the biggest prize. How will Baltimore handle the challenge? For Denver, what’s interesting is just whether they can live up to the impossible hype. They are Super Bowl favorites, but they have an aging and fragile QB who the public doesn’t think is mortal despite a very human playoff performance last year, and they have had a tumultuous offseason that has cost them their best defensive player for six games to start the season. Is this team good enough to still deliver any value in the face of massive expectations from the betting public, or are they destined to be an ATS dud?
Atlanta at New Orleans, Sunday, Sept. 8, 1 p.m. ET
If you have a clear sense of what is going to happen in the NFC South, then you are a better person than I am. These are probably the two best teams in the division – though Atlanta sure didn’t look like it in their lackluster 0-4 preseason. How they stack up, though, is tough to know. Did the Falcons make progress in their attempts to improve their absolutely dismal running game? Will the Saints be playing with renewed focus and determination now that last year and all the suspensions are behind them? Is Matt Ryan ready to step up and become the super-leader his team clearly needs him to be? Is Drew Brees going to have another explosive, ridiculously accurate passing year? We won’t have clear answers to any of those questions after one game, but in a game this important to the divisional standings we should get more than a few clues of what to expect.
Seattle at Carolina, Sunday, Sept. 8, 1 p.m. ET
Both of these teams are intriguing to me. I can’t help but feel that the Seahawks are getting far too much attention from the adoring media and public. Pete Carroll has yet to prove he can coach a true winner in the NFL, and Russell Wilson faces real hurdles in his attempt to prove that he can transition from shocking rookie upstart to established sophomore star. Others in his position have taken a step back, yet the public expects him to leap forward. I want to see it for myself before I buy in. The Panthers were just plain lousy for most of last year, and Cam Newton was not the player he was as a rookie. He and his team showed sparks of progress late, though, and in the offseason we have been flooded by stories of how much he has matured and grown as a man and a player. This team is far from complete, and it seems unlikely that they are capable of truly being an elite squad. They are better than some think, though, and a strong start to the season could prove what I hope to be true – that they are going to be a useful betting team this year as they progress towards respectability.
Philadelphia at Washington, Monday, Sept. 9, 7 p.m. ET
Chip Kelly is a wizard, and none of us have an idea what spells he will cast in this league – or if he can succeed where successful college coaches like Saban, Spurrier and Petrino before him have failed miserably. Robert Griffin II is also a wizard, but we have no way of knowing if his injured knee is ready for primetime or if the inevitable rust can hold him back more than opposing defenses could last year. This is as close to must-see TV as there is in Week 1.
Jacksonville at Oakland, Sunday, Sept. 15, 4:25 p.m. ET
I don’t actually want to watch this game, because it will almost certainly be atrocious. From a betting perspective, though, an autopsy of the stinking corpse of the game will be highly valuable. These teams are very likely the two worst in the NFL – the teams in the front row of the grid in the race for Jadeveon Clowney. Seeing them play each other early will give us a chance to quantify just how bad each one is and how comparatively lousy they are. If one team looks dramatically better than the other then the loser could prove to be an almost automatic bet-against in most situations. If the game is surprisingly balanced, though, then we might need to be cautious is estimating the depth of lousiness of the squads.
San Francisco at Seattle, Sunday, Sept. 15, 8:30 p.m. ET
Both of these teams face big opening-week challenges - Seattle in Carolina as we discussed earlier, and San Francisco hosting Green Bay. As elite teams, though, they need to be able to bounce back and focus on new, tougher opponents on short notice. The rivalry here is intense and growing -- fuelled by two coaches who don’t like to lose to each other. The NFC West is going to be brutally tough, and with these two teams at the top of the heap a loss here could spell ultimate disaster down the road. I want to see how the squads stack up. At least as significantly, I want to see how prepared the teams are, how mentally tough they are in the face of inevitable challenges in this game, and whether they are worthy of full faith and support.
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