NFL WEEK 1: The world’s most exciting sport is back with a jam-packed weekend of 15 games for your viewing enjoyment. Of course, our task here is to make things even more enjoyable by successfully predicting the future so that our account balances swell as the season progresses, and even though Week 1 can be a bit of a minefield for bettors, I have a feeling we’re going to get off to a good start in that regard.
The festivities began with a dandy on Thursday night, as Dan Campbell’s Lions rode a strong game from their defense to a 21-20 upset win over defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City. The Chiefs were missing Pro Bowlers on both sides of the ball, including the ever-dangerous Travis Kelce, but it was a big win for Detroit nonetheless and yet another sign that Campbell has one of the NFL’s sad sacks on the path to becoming a consistent winner.
There are interesting storylines and questions surrounding every game this week, and our job is to wade through the muck and find the gems. With that in mind, here are four games I’m feeling really good about:
Cincinnati Bengals @ Cleveland Browns (CIN -1.5, 47.5)
Recommendation: Cleveland moneyline (to win) at 2.15
The Bengals have positioned themselves as one of the top contenders in the AFC, along with Buffalo and Kansas City, but a road game against a division rival feels like an awfully tricky way to start the season. Maybe that’s because playing in Cleveland is always tricky for these Bengals– they’ve lost five straight games in the stadium formerly known as the Factory of Sadness and have been unable to keep Myles Garrett out of Joe Burrow’s lap, with Garrett totaling 11 sacks in his last nine games against Cincinnati.
Burrow missed the preseason with a calf injury and didn’t start practicing until last week, so rust is a definite possibility for the Bengals signal-caller. His counterpart, Cleveland’s Deshaun Watson, had 7 games last year to shake off the rust that had accumulated after 18 months away from the game and I expect him to be much sharper this season. Remember that Watson was one of the top quarterbacks in the league during his time in Houston, and he’s only 27 years old. Considering the weapons that he is surrounded by– Chubb, Cooper, Njoku, Moore, etc.– I feel that this Cleveland offense could be a real sleeping giant this season and I expect them to have success against the middling Bengals D. The Browns feel like a great bet here as a short home ‘dog.
Jacksonville Jaguars @ Indianapolis Colts (JAX -4.5, 45.5)
Recommendation: Jacksonville -4.5 at 1.98
The hype is sky-high in Jacksonville right now after the Jags were able to make some noise in the playoffs last year, and I do believe it’s warranted– the Trevor Lawrence-led offense that began to hum over the second half of last season returns almost entirely intact, and they added an elite weapon on the perimeter in former Falcons wideout Calvin Ridley. Lawrence got off to a slow start in 2022 but he clearly became more comfortable in Doug Pederson’s offense as the season progressed, and with that experience plus a full offseason of fine-tuning I fully expect Lawrence to be in total command of a loaded offense this season and challenge for All-Pro honors.
The Colts will be starting rookie first-round pick Anthony Richardson at quarterback, but it’s not because he’s the best QB on the roster– that honor would surely go to backup Gardner Minshew right now. No, it’s because owner Jim Irsay wants to get his franchise QB some much-needed experience, knowing full well that there will be plenty of bumps in the road (a.k.a. losses) along the way. I watched every game that Richardson played at Florida last year (Gators season ticket holder– Sec. 10, Row 26), and it is my considered opinion that this isn’t going to go well for him– it’s going to be ugly. Yes, he’s a freak athlete who will surely make some incredible plays with his legs, but his passing acumen and play from the pocket can best be described as remedial, and I shudder to think what it’s going to look like against NFL defenses that will be focused on exploiting every weakness. What’s needed in Indianapolis is a big dose of patience, and what they’re going to get on Sunday is a big, fat L.
San Francisco 49ers @ Pittsburgh Steelers (SF -2.5, 41.5)
Recommendation: Pittsburgh +2.5 at 1.91; Pittsburgh moneyline (to win) at 2.19
This is one of those games that will make us really happy to have the NFL back– it’s going to be a savage, bloody battle between two teams who are built around defense but have elite talent on the offensive side of the ball, as well. Okay, maybe “elite” is a little strong when describing the Pittsburgh attack, but George Pickens and Pat Freiermuth are both emerging players with Pro Bowl-level talent, and I expect second-year QB Kenny Pickett to make a huge jump this season after showing flashes of brilliance over the last few games of 2022.
The Niners are being hyped as Super Bowl contenders, but are we really sure that young QB Brock Purdy, who has started a grand total of 7 games in his career and is coming off elbow surgery that left him unable to practice until mid-August, is up for the task? This is certainly a tough way to get back on the horse, as the Steelers have a ferocious front seven that can really apply pressure to the quarterback with guys like T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith, and Cam Heyward. A low-scoring game is expected here, which a total like 41.5 would indicate, and to me this just feels like a good time for the Steelers to be getting the 49ers… Purdy’s first game back, Steelers front seven fully healthy (an ongoing issue for them), Pickett and the improved offense ready to be unveiled… I like it. Gimme those 2.5 points because they may come in handy, but I’ll have a little nibble on the moneyline as well.
Green Bay Packers @ Chicago Bears (CHI -1.5, 41.5)
Recommendation: Chicago -1.5 at 1.94
The Jordan Love era begins this week in Green Bay, and after seeing Love in brief glimpses over the past three years I am entirely unconvinced that this “new era” of Packers football will be either successful or long-lasting. For one, Love isn’t surrounded by much in the way of talented pass-catchers, an issue that will be especially pronounced this week with projected No. 1 receiver Christian Watson sidelined with a hamstring injury. But he also lacks the passing accuracy that we’re used to seeing from Green Bay QBs (so… Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, whose tenures cover the last 30 years of Packers football), and it remains to be seen whether his much-ballyhooed athleticism will be enough to make up for that.
If Love were facing last year’s Chicago defense I’d say this would be a great way to start, but the Bears made wholesale changes on the defensive side of the ball in the offseason, completely overhauling their front seven, and they are expected to be much better on that side of the ball this year. And for the first time in awhile, Chicago fans have to be moderately excited about the offense– Justin Fields is an elite runner whose legs will give him plenty of 1-on-1 opportunities in the passing game, and with new addition DJ Moore at wideout to pair with speedster Darnell Mooney, Field will have some legitimate weapons at his disposal. I’m anticipating significant improvement from the Bears this season and I think we’ll see the first evidence of that on Sunday.