The Muffed Punt: Why the NFL’s top teams are terrible bets in Week 1

Expectations are a mutha.

Far too often, we let ourselves build up how things will go, with dreams of grandeur exceeding the realm of reality. Las Vegas, where I’m stationed for Week 1 of the NFL season, was pretty much built on this flaw.

Vegas visitors en route to Sin City have scenes from The Hangover playing over and over in their heads, expecting a wild night they’ll never remember in a penthouse suite high above the Strip. Or they dream of running the craps table, having some hot model “blow on their dice”, and raking in a fat stack of chips and all the comps that come along with it. No one daydreams of waiting in line for 20 minutes for a $5 cup of coffee or sweating through the ass of your pants while cruising Las Vegas Boulevard.

Unchecked expectations can also be dangerous in the Las Vegas sportsbooks, especially when it comes to NFL teams fresh from a successful season. Just because a team made the playoff cut last year doesn’t mean they’re bound for another winning run – at least not as far as the pointspread is concerned.

Going back to the 2002 season, excluding Thursday’s 2016 opener between the Broncos and Panthers, teams that made the postseason the year before are just 81-75 SU and a 68-83-5 ATS in Week 1.

With Week 1 odds built on the previous year’s success, books and bettors often overvalue the playoff teams, leading to a 45 percent cover rate, and perhaps even more shocking is the fact that those top teams barely hover above .500 in the win/loss column.

Things get really dicey when you look at Week 1 underdogs that made the playoffs the season before. It’s a rare situation, happening only 54 times in the previous 14 NFL campaigns, and has produced a 14-40 SU mark and a bankroll bruising 17-34-3 ATS record – covering in only 33 percent of those games.

Denver bucked this trend Thursday night with an inspired performance as 3-point home pups, leaving two 2015 playoff contenders susceptible to this letdown in Week 1. The New England Patriots – minus Tom Brady – are getting 6.5 points at Arizona, and the Washington Redskins host the Pittsburgh Steelers as field goal pups on Monday night.

Not in the cards

Looking deeper into the trend above, teams that lost in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs are just 22-30 SU and a dismal 20-31-1 ATS in Week 1 of the following season, a 39 percent winning ticket. That puts play-against tags on Minnesota (-2.5 at Tennessee), Houston (-5.5 vs. Chicago), Cincinnati (-2.5 at N.Y. Jets), and Washington (+3 vs. Pittsburgh).

Primetime paydays

Last season, we tracked every primetime NFL regular season game against the betting numbers and if you blindly bet the underdog and the Under, you’d be able to afford that “Hangover” suite mentioned above.

Primetime pups finished with a 30-19-3 ATS record – covering an incredible 61.22 percent of the time – and those marquee games posted a 21-30-1 Over/Under mark – staying below the total at a 59 percent clip.

The Broncos’ win over the Panthers Thursday night kept this trend rolling and makes us look twice at Washington (are you confused with this game yet?) and San Francisco in the Monday Night Football double dose.

Doggy Dog World

Home dogs are howling in Week 1 with six on the board, including Denver +3 Thursday night. Since 1985, home teams getting the points in the season opener are 86-72-4 ATS (54.43 percent), which is above that magic number of 52.4 percent to turn a profit. However, these teams do their most damage when they travel in packs.

In years in which Week 1 featured six or more host pups, those underdogs went a collective 46-28-1 ATS for a 62 percent winning rate. Last season’s opening week saw nine home teams pegged as home dogs, finishing 4-5 ATS.

The Jaguars +4.5, Jets +2.5, Titans +2.5, 49ers +2.5, and of course, the Redskins +3 (this could be the toughest team in the NFL to figure out) are the remaining home underdogs on the board.

Sharps like…

San Diego. According to Jason Simbal, vice president of risk management for CG Technology, wiseguys have been all over the Bolts against the Chiefs, betting that line down from San Diego +7 to +6.5.

“We opened seven and are down to 6.5 now because of a few sharp bets,” says Simbal. “They’re not huge but big enough to move off seven. Those kind of guys, you respect their opinion.”

Biggest line move…

Cleveland at Philadelphia. Outside of the games involving injured/suspended quarterbacks, this toilet bowl game has been one hell of a roller coaster ride for oddsmakers. CG Technology opened this at Philadelphia -8.5 back in the spring and after the QB shuffle and coaching changes in Philly, bettors have dragged this one all the way to -3.5 on the home side.

“Both teams are supposed to be horrible. So take the points, right?” says Simbal.

Biggest sweat…

Green Bay at Jacksonville. This game has drawn one-sided money on the visiting Cheeseheads, moving it from Jags +3.5 to +4.5. Books are going to be rooting hard for Jacksonville – which is never a good plan on an NFL Sunday.

“Right now, this is our biggest liability,” says Simbal. “There’s no big bets it’s just all public action accumulating.”

Banker game…

There are a trio of games featured on plenty of parlay cards at CG Technology books. The Packers (-4.5 at Jaguars), Texans (-5.5 vs. Bears), and Seahawks (-10 vs. Dolphins) are tied together, in a parlay combo that could decide if Week 1 is a winner or loser for sportsbooks.

“It’ll end up coming down to those three games,” says Simbal. “If all three get there, we’re in trouble. But if we can break that up, we’ll be OK.”

Injury to note

Jack Mewhort, G Indianapolis Colts

The Colts were terrible at protecting QB Andrew Luck last season, giving up 37 sacks and forcing their $140 million investment to run for his life. Things may not be any different as long as Indianapolis keeps losing bodies on the offensive line. Mewhort is out for Week 1 with a bum knee and right tackle Joe Reitz has been limited with a back injury. Indy is starting a rookie in center Ryan Kelly and a second-year guard in Denzelle Good, against a Lions defense that record 43 sacks in 2015 – seventh most in the NFL – and is headlined by Haloti Ngata, Ziggy Ansah and Devin Taylor.

We know how to pick’em

As we did last season, we take the game with the pick’em spread (or the tightest line) and turn the handicapping over to those bubbly, high-kicking sources of sideline sunshine: the cheerleaders. So if you can’t figure out who to bet, just listen to your groin… I mean gut!

This week, it’s the NFC East rivalry between the Giants and my beloved Cowboys which is sitting at a pick at plenty of sportsbooks since Tony “Mr. Glass” Romo busted his back in the preseason, handing the keys to rookie QB Dak Prescott. Since the Giants hate fun and don’t have cheerleaders, you’re blessed with a double dose of Cowboys cheer. I know this doesn’t help with picking a winner, but it’s a great excuse to feature the best cheer squad in the NFL.

Sunday’s menu

As mentioned, I’m in Las Vegas for Week 1. Covers is inside the sportsbook at The Mirage, showing off our site, tossing out some swag, and giving away a free $1,000 bankroll to bet on Sunday Night Football. If you’re in town, come on down and see us for your chance to enter and win.

Being away from home for the season opener, I’m unable to cook my usual Sunday specials and apparently bringing a slow cooker into your hotel room is a fire hazard. Who knew? So since we’re on Pacific time out here, I’m going with the eggs benny for my Sunday brunch before the 10 a.m. kickoffs. And toss some smoked salmon on that bad boy instead of ham…

Easy (money) like Sunday morning

Time to put my money (I have three kids. There isn’t very much) where my mouth is. Each week I’m going to give my favorite ATS play for Sunday, and hopefully come Week 17 I won’t look like a total fraud. *Deep breath* Here goes…

Pick: Tennessee Titans +2.5 vs. Minnesota Vikings

This line has bounced around, thanks to Teddy Bridgewater’s injury. Tennessee opened as a field goal underdog at home, then jumped to as high as -1.5 when the Vikes lost their starting QB, but money coming back on Minnesota has pushed the spread back to Titans +2.5. This isn’t going to be a flashy game, with both teams looking to pound the ball, but Tennessee added some nice pieces on offense and have been great in openers, going 7-2 ATS in their last nine Week 1 contests.

Song for Sunday

There are a lot of half-point hooks around those keys numbers in Week 1: 2.5, 3.5, and 6.5. That means plenty of line watching in the next few days before kickoff, with football bettors trying to squeeze out any value left in these pruney dried-up spreads. So, here’s a tune to kill the time while you wait for those hooks to disappear…

Follow Covers’ Senior Managing Editor Jason Logan on Twitter @CoversJLo. Check out JLo’s Covers archive for his latest features and columns.

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