One of the best indicators of a potential misalignment between the spread and the most likely outcome of a game is perception. This column frequently illuminates games in which the perception of a team drives its expectations. Understanding that the reality will often differ allows for an opportunity to pick the team with the best chance to beat or cover the spread.
There is no better time for perception to be wildly misconstrued than Week 2 of the NFL season. After only sixty minutes of football, proclamations and claims are made at large. One team is rising up the Power Rankings while another falls. The state of each franchise is defined only by the most recent memory, and a simple one-game record splits the standings in half.
There is beauty to the chaos.
Remove any perceptions of a given team based on its last game, and replace it with long-term results. Tampa Bay was embarrassed by the Titans on Opening Day, but the assumption that the Buccaneers will never again compete — as evident by a double-digit spread — ignores the reality that the circumstances were stacked against them. Seattle was defeated in St. Louis in Week 1, only to face the wrath of the media and analysts. Lost in the shuffle is that they faced an improved Rams team in a dome where the Seahawks have recently struggled.
With perceptions and opinions now tweaked after only one game, Week 2 will either be a ‘bounce-back week’ or validation for each team.
Below are predictions for each game against the spread. Spreads have been taken from various websites and are subject to change. The spread in parenthesis denotes the selected team.
*Confidence Picks – 2015 Season: 4-3
(2014 Season: 61-46-2)
All Picks Against Spread – 2015 Season: 9-6-1
(2014 Season: 149-114-4)
Kansas City Chiefs (-3) at Denver Broncos
If only the Kansas City Chiefs did not have to play the Denver Broncos twice, every year. No matter how hot the Chiefs appear, Denver is their cold water. Winless in their last six meetings, the Chiefs are simply unable to get over the hump.
The one-sided rivalry is not comparable to other bouts of intra-division dominance. This is not the case of the Indianapolis Colts and the Jacksonville Jaguars, where the differences between the teams are obvious. Both the Chiefs and Broncos have been good for the past few seasons, yet Denver continues to come out on top.
It ends on Thursday night.
Kansas City has tried and failed to top Peyton Manning‘s Broncos, but the future Hall of Fame quarterback was playing some of his best football, at the time. He has continued to defy the odds — as well as Father Time — but his slowdown is imminent. In his last six games, including the playoffs, Manning has four touchdowns, seven interceptions, and is averaging just over 229 yards per game.
Thursday night won’t be a random opponent facing an aging superstar. It will be a hungry team, starved for years, hunting in its own backyard — Kansas City is one of the toughest places for a visiting team, especially in primetime.
The Chiefs win by a touchdown and cover.
New England Patriots (PK) at Buffalo Bills
Bills head coach Rex Ryan has a few undeniable strengths. Namely, he has an excellent defensive mind and an unparalleled ability to inspire confidence and passion from his players. Opening the 2015 season with a home game in a city that has enjoyed only two winning seasons — neither of which were double-digit win totals — since the turn of the millennium, Ryan was able to rally the troops for an emotional win.
The second game of the season has considerably less fanfare.
The Bills are soaring after their impressive win against the visiting Colts on Opening Day. While they host the rival Patriots on Sunday, it will be impossible to match the intensity that went along with an offseason of swelling expectations.
Oddly enough, the Patriots opened their season with a win that also followed an intense offseason — albeit in an entirely different form. The contrast between the two teams’ victories is that Buffalo appeared to fire on all cylinders — quarterback Tyrod Taylor completed 14 of 19 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown — while the Patriots showed room for improvement.
As the fire that burned with such intensity weakens in Buffalo, the Patriots will realize their growth. New England — with five wins in its last six games against a Rex Ryan team — will burst the hype bubble floating in Buffalo. The Patriots win by ten and cover.
Arizona Cardinals at Chicago Bears (+2)
The final score in Chicago’s Opening Day loss against the Packers hardly told the story of the game. Despite Green Bay eventually pulling away, the Bears went toe-to-toe with their rivals for much of the contest. The Packers were better, but that could be said about most of Green Bay’s opponents.
After hosting the Packers, Chicago gets thrown right back into the fire as the Arizona Cardinals — fresh off an Opening Day win against the Saints — come to town. Arizona looked as complete a football team as ever in its win — especially with the return of a healthy Carson Palmer under center — but opening the season at home brings more of an advantage than traveling the following week. In 2014, Arizona was 7-1 at home, but 4-5 on the road, including the playoffs. In addition, Arizona has lost six of its last eight early games in the Central time zone.
The Bears have enough talent to surprise a few teams, and the inflated margin of defeat at the hands of the Packers skews Chicago’s image. The Bears win by four on Sunday, beating the Cardinals and the spread.
San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals (-3)*
Individually, the Chargers and Bengals never deviate from their scripts. Cincinnati is the quiet team that buries weak opponents and wins enough games to never leave the playoff picture. San Diego is the sporadic, inconsistent team that changes faces countless times over the course of a game — as well as a season — only to end in the same place it began.
No matter how well the Chargers played in the second half of their Opening Day win, it does not excuse the team from it’s slow start. San Diego eventually capitalized on a Lions team likely to regress, but proved to be vulnerable at multiple times during the game.
Admittedly, the Bengals’ thrashing of the lowly Raiders needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Regardless, Cincinnati performed exactly as they should have. There was no letdown in Week 1, and there won’t be in the team’s home opener. Cincinnati showed little weaknesses, and will be able to exploit San Diego’s.
The Bengals win by a touchdown and cover.
Tennessee Titans at Cleveland Browns (+1)*
Arguably the matchup with two teams facing the biggest over-reactions following Week 1, the Titans and Browns have already provided their share of excitement. The spread has shifted from as high as two-and-a-half points — with Cleveland as the favorite — to the Titans giving the Browns one point.
Look no further for a swing in perception.
Following his ‘perfect’ debut — four touchdown passes and a perfect quarterback rating — Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota dominated the headlines. His team won its Opening Day game easily, and suddenly, the Titans were on the map.
Tennessee beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Cleveland was eventually defeated by an improved Jets team, but lost its starting quarterback to injury at the end of the team’s first drive — it is worth noting that the opening drive was methodical and successful prior to the ill-fated final play. The Browns looked overwhelmed for much of the remaining three quarters, but were thrust into a difficult situation with backup quarterback Johnny Manziel.
As of this writing, starting quarterback Josh McCown has not yet been cleared to play, but it should have little impact on the game. The Browns will enter Sunday’s matchup with the expectation that they have to gameplan around their quarterback, limiting his exposure. This will allow the defense — a strength of last year’s team — to contribute more effectively.
Cleveland performs as the original spread suggested, winning by a field goal and beating the spread.
Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings (-3)*
It was difficult to find a team that looked worse in its first game than the Minnesota Vikings. An abomination in the form of eleven football players did everything in their power to make a mockery of the sport. Mercifully, the game eventually came to an end.
One of the common criticisms that arose from Minnesota’s loss was the limiting of running back Adrian Peterson to only ten carries. Indeed, Peterson is coming off a nearly year-long suspension, but he is the best running back on the roster and was not allowed to make an impact.
Whatever gameplan Minnesota employed against the 49ers has surely been scrapped. When they face a Lions team that ranked first against the run in 2014, they will likely have revised their method of attack. Thankfully for Minnesota, Detroit’s defense is already a far cry from last year’s version, as it was absolutely shredded by the Chargers in Week 1.
In what should be another ugly Vikings game, Minnesota edges Detroit by four, covering the spread.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+10.5)* at New Orleans Saints
Everything about the Buccaneers traveling to New Orleans looks like a setup. The Saints just lost a tough road game against a solid Cardinals team, and the Buccaneers were embarrassed by a Titans franchise with a whopping two wins, last season. By all accounts, the Saints should be better, and the Buccaneers cannot possibly get any worse.
New Orleans has won seven consecutive games against Tampa Bay, but only one of the last four games was decided by more than six points. It will be more of the same on Sunday.
Division doormats usually see a boost in production against familiar opponents, and the large spread provides enough cushion for the Buccaneers. The Saints will win by a touchdown, but Tampa Bay beats the spread.
Atlanta Falcons at New York Giants (-2)
It’s easy to suggest that all losses are equal, but they are not. The series of events that unfolded during Sunday Night Football’s collapse by the New York Giants is as stomach-turning as it gets. When that happens, the best cure is to get back on the football field and adjust for the next opponent.
Atlanta had restarted its franchise following back-to-back double-digit loss seasons, but the core of quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones remained the offensive foundation. Desperate to recapture the magic that used to fill the Georgia Dome in the early stages of Ryan’s tenure, the Falcons opened up the season with an emotional home win.
Like many of this week’s matchups, the two franchises are coming off extremes in intensity and outcome. As they return to normal, New York will be the team that rises. The Giants win by six and cover.
San Francisco 49ers at Pittsburgh Steelers (-5.5)
The Steelers entered 2015 as one of the hottest picks for a potential Super Bowl contender. Losing in New England generally does little to a team’s reputation, but, when coupled with the 49ers and their nationally televised victory, the Steelers suddenly seem more beatable.
They aren’t. At least, not by the San Francisco 49ers.
In addition to traveling from the west coast to the eastern time zone for an early game, the 49ers are only undefeated by having the good fortune of hosting a bad Vikings team on Monday Night Football. The Steelers moved the ball seemingly at will against the Patriots, and were a few plays — scoring plays of missed field goals and out-of-bounds receivers, no less — away from, at least, a nail-biter.
The Steelers make easy work of the 49ers, winning by two touchdowns and covering the spread.
St. Louis Rams at Washington Redskins (+3.5)*
The Washington Redskins are basically a perennial ‘trap’ — last week, they were a punt returned for a touchdown away from breaking the hearts of many. With another small spread in a home game against a team that just completed an eye-opening upset, Washington, again, is the sneaky pick.
Why only three points? The question is valid days after the Rams put up 34 points on a generally stout Seattle defense, while the Redskins scratched out a mere ten points of their own.
Perhaps the fact that Washington lost to Miami helps reaffirm the belief that the Redskins are terrible. But this ignores how Washington was able to carry a three point lead into the fourth quarter against a Dolphins team with lofty goals in 2015. Maybe Washington is better than their perception.
The spread is a trap built to capture those who glance over this games as ‘too easy.’ Washington not only beats the spread, but the Rams, too, edging St. Louis by a field goal.
Houston Texans at Carolina Panthers (-3.5)
Had Houston not forged an inspired comeback against the Kansas City Chiefs in its Opening Day game, they would like bigger underdogs in Carolina. Unfortunately for the Texans, any momentum gained in the latter stages of the loss to Kansas City was likely due to desperation. The truth is that Houston is starting a backup running back and any one of many ineffective quarterbacks on the roster.
The Panthers are not a franchise with anything extraordinary, in their own right, but Carolina was able to avoid a letdown in its Opening Day win against the Jaguars. Luck smiled upon the Panthers, as they are fortunate enough to start the season with two weak opponents. They handled one, already. Houston is next.
Carolina wins by ten and covers.
Baltimore Ravens at Oakland Raiders (+6)
One week after getting dismantled at home and losing their starting quarterback, how easy would it be for the Raiders to simply not show up on Sunday? Throughout their extended stretch of ineptitude, it seems like the suggestion is not completely off-base.
The Raiders are horrible, and the Ravens will be looking for an easy target after losing a tough game in Denver. Baltimore will take advantage and win, but nearly a touchdown worth of points, at home, for a team that is perceived to be dead in the water is too much too give.
The Raiders put together a representative effort at home, losing by four, but beating the spread.
Miami Dolphins at Jacksonville Jaguars (+6)
Given the talent on the roster, it makes sense that Miami is eventually going to destroy a team. It just doesn’t happen — dating back to last season, the Dolphins last three victories were by a combined twelve points.
Logic would dictate that the Jaguars are the team to receive a thumping — even the relative proximity of the two franchises bodes well for Miami — but the same pitfalls that normally doom the Dolphins are present. Quite simply, Miami plays down to the level of its competition, and their best chance for a blowout would actually be against a more representative opponent.
The Dolphins again struggle to put a team away easily, winning by only a field goal. Jacksonville beats the spread.
Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles (-5)*
Does it look like anyone could stop the Eagles — that is, besides the Eagles — once they get rolling offensively? Philadelphia put on a clinic in the second half of its Monday Night Football loss in Atlanta. Obviously, the effort fell short, but the message was delivered clearly: this is the type of football the Eagles want to play.
The comeback effort was not driven by Atlanta’s complacency. Instead, it was Philadelphia’s designed ‘wear-you-down’ approach that needed time to develop. The Eagles are best when outrunning an opponent, and they first needed to keep a slower pace before exploding.
Now with one complete game under their collective belts, the Eagles should have a more focused method of attack. In addition, while the Cowboys marched up and down the field seemingly at will against the Giants, they were prone to making game-changing mistakes at every turn.
The spread has moved up since opening at a field goal worth of points. Like New England, last week, a premium is placed on the Eagles. It’s worth it, as Philadelphia wins by ten and covers.
Seattle Seahawks (+3.5)* at Green Bay Packers
Does anybody really want to sleep on Seattle? Ever? Even more importantly, against Green Bay?
The law of averages suggests that the Packers cannot continue to be vexed by the Seahawks forever, but there is more to this mini-rivalry than simply bad luck. Green Bay is the prototypical offensive juggernaut, but Seattle is known for touting a game-changing defense. In addition, the Packers have a recent history of struggling against mobile quarterbacks, as most of their biggest losses have come at the hands — and legs — of Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick.
With seemingly every move the Seahawks make getting called into question lately, Seattle needs a notable victory to get back on track. A primetime game against a franchise that brings out the best in the Seahawks should be the antidote. Seattle wins by a field goal and beats the spread.
New York Jets (+7) at Indianapolis Colts
There are only two possible explanations for the Colts’ loss in Buffalo on Opening Day — either the Bills found a weakness in an otherwise solid Colts team, or Indianapolis is in trouble. While the latter is potentially true, the state of the National Football League, today, allows for stellar quarterback play to cover most flaws.
The Jets should get little recognition for beating a Browns team whose starting quarterback was knocked out of the game on the team’s opening drive. New York’s recent history has featured excellent defense with catastrophically poor offense. When the Jets knocked off the Browns, at home, it was little more than taking advantage of a good opportunity.
Or was it?
For the first time in years, not only do the Jets have an offense that isn’t a liability, they may actually have one that can help them win games. Indeed, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is not going to carry the team to victory, alone, each week, but he already showed the ability to both distribute the ball and allow specific playmakers to do their jobs.
Indianapolis, ironically, does have the quarterback capable of winning any game under nearly any circumstances. When crunch time comes around, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is the difference. The Colts edge the Jets by a single point, but New York beats the spread.