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Lombardi: Analyzing the NFL schedule, early over/under leans

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Howard Katz, the man in charge of the NFL scheduling, knows something we all think might happen – why else would he have the Carolina Panthers hosting the Cleveland Browns in Week 1?  Does Katz visualize this game as a revenge game for former Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield who might be wearing Carolina blue by kickoff?  Probably.  And Katz has every reason to believe it will play out that way. 

Mayfield and the Panthers needs to happen, for many reasons, the first being they need each other. It’s much like a sign that was the on the side of the road at a run-down restaurant leaving Barstow, California, heading towards Las Vegas, reading, “Eat here, or we both starve.”  The Panthers need a short-term fix, someone who might bridge them to their next quarterback and still keep the team respectable -- which Mayfield has proven he can accomplish.  If the Browns and Panthers don’t work something out, they both might starve, because who else is taking Mayfield and offering him a chance to be the starter?  That’s the key part of the equation: Mayfield having a chance to start.  The $18-plus million owed to Mayfield is also important, but that’s guaranteed and being paid regardless.  It all comes down to opportunity to re-start Mayfield’s career and standing on the sideline won’t help. 

The Panthers want Mayfield. They, like other NFL teams don’t have the room to absorb the big contract, which cannot be lowered unless Mayfield signs an extension -- and that extension would have to be a real deal or why else would Mayfield give away his best negotiating chip?  The Browns have been refusing to pay any of the $18 million, telling teams they have to take on the contract, which is comical.  When they traded for Deshaun Watson, the first week after the trade when no callers were offering a deal or having any interest of giving them a Day 2 pick (second of third round) -- which the Browns wanted and asked for -- they were left carrying the coin.  There is no team coming to their rescue. 

You might say, Mayfield is in place as insurance against any long-term suspension coming for Watson; this makes sense practically, not in reality.  The quarterback position isn’t a hockey line, constantly shifting and moving players in and out.  All teams gain their identity, toughness and leadership from the quarterback, and there can never be a debate of who’s in control.  Jacoby Brissett was signed by Cleveland to fill that role.  He can lead, understands his role and can carry the mail until Watson were to return, if suspended.  The Browns clearly understand the quarterback dynamic, which is why they signed Brissett, so holding onto Mayfield makes less sense each day. 

Katz knows something, or else why start would the Browns the season in Carolina? 

When I review the rest of the NFL schedule, which by the way was far more entertaining than watching the 76ers flop once again, I am always reminded of 17th-century Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle’s quote: “Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance but to do what lies clearly at hand.” 

For all the conversations about the November and December schedules, every team is only focused on its September games, what lies clearly at hand.  For example, the Panthers, Jets, Steelers, Falcons and Chargers are the Browns; first five opponents, and they would much rather face Brissett than Watson.  Playing the Browns early might prove better, if and only if Watson gets suspended.  As for bettors, the best number for any Browns game will occur now, as I am sure most books are reluctant to post a number due to the Watson saga. 

Since the preseason has been reduced to three games and September is in some ways an extension of the preseason, playing tougher teams in that month can help build a stronger team for the stretch run.  Most everyone wants to start the year on the softer side, gradually build into the meat the schedule, then have their team ready for the stretch run.  The Patriots open in Miami, which is extremely a tough place to play for them over the years, then off to Pittsburgh, host Baltimore and then back on the road to Green Bay.  Four challenging games against four good teams, which means the Patriots must show vast improvement every week in September, or else they will dig themselves a huge hole. 

Another component of the schedule is what out-of-conference divisions a team faces.   For example, if you’re interested in over/under win percentages, look at the Eagles as the NFC East faces the AFC South, which means they have a strong chance to add a few wins.  The NFC East has two good teams -- Dallas and Philadelphia -- and the AFC South has two in Indianapolis and Tennessee.  The Eagles also face the NFC North, with only Green Bay as a viable playoff team and Minnesota with new coach Kevin O’Connell, facing a slight rebuild.  Look at the Birds schedule and 10 wins seems rather easy.  If you like a team in the NFC East, the setup is perfect for an over win total.  The problem for me is other than the Eagles, no team in the division has demonstrated improvement over last year. 

Baltimore might be a good over play as well, assuming the Ravens stay healthy and Lamar Jackson returns to his old 2020 form.  Facing the AFC East and NFC South sets them up perfectly to show marked improvement over last season.  If the Ravens beat the Panthers, Falcons and Saints, and win their AFC North home games, they are already at seven wins and only need to beat three of five between the Patriots, Dolphins, Jets, Giants and Jags to reach 10. Seems doable. 

Another factor from the schedule critical to most anyone who plays in any survivor contest is understanding the Thanksgiving games and Christmas Day games are individual weeks of the season. So, the Bills, Lions, Giants Cowboys, Patriots, Vikings, Packers, Dolphins, Broncos, Rams, Bucs and Cards have to be held out of the weekly picks to make sure you have saved a team for those weeks -- but you don’t have to save them all.  You might want to save the Bills or Dallas for Thanksgiving and the Rams and Packers for Christmas Day, giving more freedom to the other week’s picks.  Survivor is hard, takes planning and more importantly you need to make adjustments along the way to take advantage of weekly injuries.  To win in survivor, each week is different and you must think like an NFL coach and take it one week at a time. 

In 119 days, we will kick off NFL Sunday and we have 10 home dogs (according to DraftKings’ lines) to start the season.  The Jets, Atlanta, Carolina, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Dallas, Arizona, Minnesota, and Seattle are all home dogs.  Of the 10, eight were picking in the top 12 in the draft, which means the books didn’t feel the draft brought them enough to warrant making them a favorite.  Now, we know not all 10 dogs are going to lose.  The key is to find the team, and the right spread over the next four months that offer a ray of sunshine for their season.  Can the Jets cover the Ravens getting 4.5 points?  Do the Bears getting 6.5 points against the 49ers with their new starting quarterback Trey Lance seem like too much? No one is certain of the Bears or the Lance. That line seems a little too large and one that will shift based on Lance’s play this summer.    

Week 1 lines and the September play is the most critical and now with the schedule at hand, we can act like the NFL teams and only worry about near future.  I can’t wait. 

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