Early Week 1 Bets & Leans

The NFL season is still over two months away from kicking off (S.O.S.), but most sportsbooks already have their Week 1 spreads and totals up. In most cases, placing bets as early as possible will lead to better value, so I’m going to lock in some Week 1 bets today and discuss some leans even though a lot can change between now and September.

My Power Ratings are an integral part of the handicapping in this piece, and I actually updated my Power Ratings on Tuesday (6/26). The changes are pretty minor from my previous Power Ratings, but if you want to see all of the changes make sure to check that out.

As was the case with the win totals discussed in last week’s post, these Week 1 spreads and totals have already been up at most books for a month or two. The sharp bettors have shifted the lines and odds with their betting, but relative to the win totals, the drop-off in the value of these wagers due to sharp action is considerably less pronounced. In my opinion, there is still a ton of value in some of these lines and totals, especially so with two different games involving teams donned in purple opening their seasons as home favorites. They’re not as much of a sure thing as a “looking like a snack” reference on the new Drake album, but I feel pretty good about them.

For each wager, the amount I’m risking is shown in units, the odds are shown in parentheses and in American units, and the name of the home team is capitalized. The explanation for the first pick is longer than the others because I used the opportunity to explain my methodology in a little more detail.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS -4.5 vs. San Francisco 49ers (-110) for 4 Units – The analysis of every one of these picks will start with a look at the Power Ratings to see where the two teams stand relative to each other. The Vikings currently have a TMC Score of 4.5 while the 49ers are at 0.5, so that means I think the Vikings should be a 4 point favorite over the 49ers on a neutral field. When accounting for home field advantage through the most traditional method of giving the home team an extra 3 point advantage, that would make the Vikings 7 point favorites. They’re only favored by 4.5 points as of now, which is a difference of 2.5 points from my handicap. That is significant because a) 2.5 points is a big difference, and b) that difference would take us off of 7, which is a highly valuable number since it’s the second most common margin of victory.

Now that the difference in quality between the two teams and which team is playing at home is accounted for, the circumstances of the game itself need to be considered. We need to look at injuries, personnel matchups, motivational factors, and any other factors that could come into play that may shape our handicap. Since we’re still a few months removed from Week 1, we can’t take a look at certain factors such as injuries or weather, but once we get to late August we can start looking at those things.

For this game in particular, I think the motivational factors are worth examining closely. Nearly every sign I can see points to the Vikings players and their fans being very fired up for this game. I think the 49ers will be excited and ready to play too, given that Week 1 marks a fresh start for every team in the league and even the worst teams will be motivated to start out strong. But there are a few reasons why Minny’s motivation should be on a whole other level.

For starters, the Vikings are in a very unique situation in which they have a surefire franchise QB making his first start with a new team on a Super Bowl contender. Think about how rare that is – most QBs with any potential of being a franchise guy making their first start with a new team are rookies that were drafted by a very bad team or an average team that traded up in the draft. Since Vikings fans know Cousins has already proven himself and that this team is a contender, this already rowdy crowd is going to be even more excited to see Captain Kirk wearing purple for the first time and giving them dreams of finally winning a Super Bowl.

Speaking of Cousins, I have to imagine he will be motivated to make the Redskins look bad for refusing to sign him to a long term extension. Aside from actually beating the Redskins, there wouldn’t be a better way to do that than completely eviscerating the first team he played this season. With maybe the best receiving duo in the league at his disposal against a weak secondary that probably won’t have Richard Sherman available for the start of the season, the stage is set for a monster Cousins performance.

And I have to think the Vikings defense will also be motivated after getting absolutely embarrassed by a backup QB in last season’s NFC Championship Game. That was the team’s final game of the season and the defense looked completely out of sorts, missing routine tackles the entire night and allowing the Eagles to convert 10 of 14 third downs after a historic season preventing third down conversions. I genuinely believe that their dramatic win over the Saints the previous week led to the unfocused performance, and when that was put alongside a surprisingly (at the time) great game from Nick Foles, it led to the lopsided outcome. Regardless, the Vikings defense will be ready to re-establish themselves as one of the best in the league after that terrible performance being on their mind all offseason.

Determining how much an extra energized crowd and a fully motivated quarterback and defense are worth is far from an objective process. If I had to put a number on it, I think the combination of all three of those factors are worth an extra point in the Vikings favor. Specifically, I think the crowd should make the Vikings home field advantage worth 3.5 points instead of 3, and I think a motivated Cousins and a motivated defense are roughly worth a quarter of a point each.

As for the personnel matchups, I think the only one worth noting aside from the aforementioned advantage the Vikings receivers will have against the weak 49ers secondary is the 49ers defensive line matching up against the Vikings offensive line. With DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead already proving their merit and Solomon Thomas having the potential to emerge as a force in his sophomore campaign, this defensive line is easily the strongest aspect of the 49ers defense. Meanwhile, the weakest unit of the Vikings roster is their offensive line, but I would grade it as only a slightly below average line overall. Offensive tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers should be able to keep Armstead and Thomas at bay, but Buckner will be matched up against a fairly weak interior offensive line. If he can consistently pressure Cousins that may be a major issue, but at least Cousins has a track record of performing well when pressured.

The only player on the 49ers that scares me more than Buckner is the devilishly handsome Jimmy G. This man is now 7-0 as a starting QB in his career, and although he has faced an easy slate of opponents thus far, he passes the eye test in flying colors. The dude is a stud. I don’t like betting against great QBs when their team is more than three point underdogs, as they are very capable of keeping their team in the game or getting a backdoor cover. Philip Rivers is the king of covering these sort of games, and Garoppolo isn’t much worse than Rivers. But considering that my handicap has the Vikings as about 8 point favorites in this game, I think it’s worth betting against the undefeated Jimmy G in what will be his toughest game thus far.

BALTIMORE RAVENS -4.5 vs. Buffalo Bills (-113) for 4 Units – The parallels between this game and the previous one are uncanny. We have another team that regularly wears purple opening their season as 4.5 point favorites at home. And per my Power Ratings, the Ravens have a TMC Score of 0.5 and the Bills are at -3.5, so my handicap again has the purple team favored by 4 points on a neutral field.

I would argue that the Ravens have a home field advantage of 3.5 points too, but unlike the Vikings advantage, the Ravens advantage isn’t matchup specific. Alongside Seattle, Baltimore has proven to be the toughest place for opposing teams to play over recent years (Minnesota also grades pretty well by those same metrics). You wouldn’t think that’s the case just by watching their games, simply because the crowd doesn’t stick out as one of the more frenzied groups of fans in the league, but the team has consistently managed to greatly elevate their level of play at home. In that sense, the Ravens are the antithesis of the Chiefs, a team with one of the best crowds in the league but a track record of playing at home that doesn’t reflect that.

So after adding 3.5 points for the Ravens home field advantage, my handicap has them favored by 7.5 points. If that wasn’t enough, I believe that the Ravens have motivational and personnel edges in this game too, just like the Vikings have in their game. Specifically, I think the motivational edge the Ravens have is less concrete but the personnel edge is more in their favor.

Remember when the Bills made the playoffs last season? I wouldn’t blame you if you purposely blacked it out of your memory, or if you’re a fan of the Bills, accidentally blacked it out of your memory with excessive drinking. But that actually happened, and it was at none other than the Baltimore Ravens expense. They blew a Week 17 home game against the Bengals (not good for my argument that the Ravens have a strong home field advantage, I know) to open the door for the Bills. I think that moment will incentivize the Ravens to come out with a chip on their shoulder and prove that they’re better than the sorry Bills franchise.

As for personnel matchups, it’s important to note that both of teams are going to want to run the football a lot. The Bills ranked second in team rushing play percentage in 2017 and the Ravens ranked 12th despite missing Marshal Yanda, arguably one of the best offensive linemen in the league, for nearly the entire season. When you throw in the fact that AJ McCarron and Joe Flacco are the two starting QBs of these teams, it becomes clear that a defense equipped to stop the run would be very useful in this game.

This is good news for the Ravens, as they ranked ninth in rush defense DVOA last season while the Bills ranked 30th. Buffalo did make some moves to improve their rush defense this offseason in the form of signing DT Star Lotulelei in free agency and drafting MLB Tremaine Edmunds in the first round of the draft, but I don’t think that will be enough to scare offenses away from running on them. Especially considering the very talented secondary and impressive rotation of pass rushers the Bills have, it makes a ton of sense for the Ravens to run the ball and throw to their tight ends as much as possible.

The Bills aren’t so fortunate. Unless McCarron is able to make some magic work with an inferior supporting cast (I certainly have my doubts), this will be a one dimensional offense trying to move the ball against a well rounded defense. The game plan is pretty simple for the Ravens defense – stop LeSean McCoy by stacking the box with eight players, with excellent run stopping safety Tony Jefferson serving as the extra man, and dare the Bills lackluster receivers to get open against a deep and talented secondary. If they can execute that plan with even moderate success, only a terrible game by Joe Flacco should prevent the Ravens from covering.

BALTIMORE RAVENS vs. Buffalo Bills Under 42.5 Points (-130) for 1 Unit – I’ll warn you that I’m not as sharp when it comes to point totals, as I have way less experience with them and my Power Ratings are of no use when betting them. But part of the reason why I started this blog is to refine my gambling approach, so I will be betting totals periodically with smaller unit counts to further hone my skills.

Neither offense will flourish in this game, given that both teams have more talent on defense. Unless Shady has an unbelievable game, I think the Bills offense will really struggle. The Ravens should have more success, but if they stick to the sensible plan of running and throwing to their tight ends, they will chew a lot of clock. I could easily see the Ravens dominating time of possession but only putting up about 20 points.

I also see a conservative approach by the Ravens in this game. There isn’t much of a need to risk going for a tough 4th down conversion if you have a great defense and especially a great special teams. I’ve already talked about the former, but the Ravens had the best special teams in the league last season and that will figure into their gameplan too. Justin Tucker is incredible and Sam Koch is a rock solid punter, so there is no need to roll the dice if those guys can get you three points or pin the opponent deep in their own territory.

Funny enough, these two teams played each other in nearly the exact same circumstances two seasons ago. The Ravens were the home team and 3 point favorites in their season opener against the Bills, and they went on to win the game 13-7. Obviously, a lot has changed in two years, but I’m expecting a similar result. There should be a little more scoring this time, but I would be pretty shocked to see five or six touchdowns scored in this game.

In addition to these three bets, I have some leans that I want to discuss. For each lean, the odds are shown in parentheses and in American units, and the name of the home team is capitalized.

Kansas City Chiefs +3 vs. LOS ANGELES CHARGERS (-110) – This isn’t a Power Ratings play, as the Chargers are rated a full point higher and conventional wisdom would suggest they should be 4 point favorites in this game. Rather, this is a play on the idea that a) the Chargers home field advantage may be the worse in the NFL, given their recent move to LA and the fact that they currently play in a soccer stadium, and b) Andy Reid has an incredible track record when given extra time (at least two weeks) to prepare his team for games, with a 30-12 record in all such regular season and postseason games. I’m not too worried about Mahomes, even going against a talented defense like the Chargers, but the sloppiness of the Chiefs defense at the end of last season has me a little too shook to bet KC at the moment.

CAROLINA PANTHERS vs. Dallas Cowboys Under 44 (-110) – These squads ranked second and third in team rushing play percentage in 2017, and since the Cowboys have possibly the most depleted receiving corps outside of Buffalo and the Panthers heavily rely on Newton’s rushing ability, I don’t expect the play calling of either team to change dramatically this season. So if these teams are able to move the football, they’ll at least be gnawing on the clock like a chew toy. I don’t expect a ton of offensive success though, as the Panthers ranked 5th in rush defense DVOA in 2017 and the Cowboys are also good at defending the run when Sean Lee is proving his worth on the field. The Panthers lost multiple contributors to their rush defense in the offseason (their DC, linebackers coach, and Star Lotulelei) and Thomas Davis will be suspended for this game, while the Cowboys lost LB Anthony Hitchens to the Chiefs, so I want to make sure that these defenses are healthy and seemingly effective before I place this wager.

That is all the football content I have for this week. I will NOT be putting up a post next week, as it is the week of Independence Day and I have to celebrate my independence from societal expectations by consuming an ungodly amount of barbecued food. I’ll be back with the first of the division previews and my scorching hot takes on the Drake album in two weeks, but in the meantime, keep yourself entertained by placing this wager that I’m about to suggest.

M.A.D. – Mutually Assured Degeneracy

We have been #blessed to be able to witness one of the greatest athletes of all time at the peak of his powers, and within the next week, the next chapter of his storied career will begin. No one knows for sure where this next chapter will take him and how it will affect his reputation and legacy, but because these chapters are few are far between, I feel an obligation to bet on it. Seldom comes the opportunity to claim that you correctly predicted the fate of the greatest athlete of our generation, so it would be foolish for me to pass this up.

Of course, I’m talking about Joey Chestnut embarking on his quest to earn his 11th Mustard Belt at the 2018 Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest. My mans is looking to three-peat after losing to that schmuck Matt Stonie in 2015 and wiping the floor with his fatty carcass in ‘16 and ‘17. A Chestnut victory is more of a sure thing than Jordan dicking on the Jazz in the ‘98 Finals for his second three-peat, but unfortunately, the books know that too and have Joey Jaws priced as a huge favorite. However, there is value elsewhere, and it comes in the form of betting the under on the number of weiners Mr. Chestnut will be able to eat.

I know, I know – the idea of betting against how many weiners the G.O.A.T. can house makes your stomach churn more than watching him actually house said weiners. But you can’t go about life living in fear. If anything, you should embrace scary situations so you’re more prepared for them, especially when it comes to betting. Earlier this month, I wasn’t afraid to bet against the second best athlete of our generation either – Justify ended up winning the Triple Crown, but because I didn’t have to cash my ticket, it only took me three hours to leave Belmont Park instead of four. Right around the same time, I also bet against the third best athlete of our generation – Kevin Durant won the Finals MVP again, but he’s still a snake so it doesn’t matter. The point is that sometimes you have to man up and bet against history, and if you can do that while focusing on the positives and/or triggering LeBron stans that makes it even better.

There is actually some logic behind the wager too. Joey has previously admitted that his biggest weakness is the heat/humidity, similar to another less accomplished athlete, and we’re looking at about a high of 90°F with 65% humidity for Coney Island on the 4th (considerably worse than last year’s weather). It makes sense that the humidity could be an issue – it’s more difficult to determine how long you should dip your hot weiner and buns in the water to lube them up when there is a lot of water vapor already in the air. I also think that grabbing his tenth Mustard Belt at last year’s event was the final check mark on his bucket list. Eleven Mustard Belts bares very little significance relative to ten, and there probably isn’t too much incentive to clinch a three-peat given that he previously EIGHT-PEATED from 2007 to 2014.

Most of the degenerates betting on the Hot Dog Eating Contest will be betting the over on the amount of weiners Joey wolfs down. Everyone knows he is a stud and the overs tend to be more popular bets across every sport. Therefore, to maximize the value of this wager, I’m going to wait to place the bet until the morning of the 4th (the “closing number”) since the betting action on the over will raise the total and/or improve the odds of the under. As of now, the total sits at 70.5 with the under being +110, but I may be able to get my under bet in at a total of 71 or 72 with similar odds. On the morning of the 4th, I will tweet out when I place the bet with the exact total/odds, so you should follow me on Twitter.

Don’t get me wrong, Joey is going to win this thing again. No one is better at bringing weiners from around his nuts to around his chest than Chestnut. I don’t think we’ll get a record performance this year though, given the humidity and a (probably) less than 100% motivated Joey. I’m predicting that he gobbles up a nice 69 weiners, scoops Stonie’s man tits on his way to the podium, and challenges LeBron to win a title with the Sacramento Kings so the debate over the greatest athlete of our generation isn’t so lopsided.