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NEW ENGLAND GETS FIRST TRUE TEST AGAINST BALTIMORE

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say the New England Patriots’ 2019 season begins Sunday night against Baltimore (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC) after an expanded 12-week exhibition schedule.

While the undefeated defending world champion Patriots are still clear market favorites to win another Lombardi Trophy, they haven’t been tested often. Several wins were glorified scrimmages against the league’s dregs. The Dolphins, Jets, Giants, Redskins and Browns are a combined 6-25 when not playing the Pats.

Against good teams …

New England (-5.5) pounded Pittsburgh 33-3 to open the season. Ben Roethisberger was still in the lineup. A truly dominant result.

New England (-7) won at Buffalo 16-10. This actually looks worse now than it did at the time because the Bills subsequently struggled badly on the same field against horrible Miami and got blown out by Philadelphia 31-13 with ugly stats.

Here’s what’s ahead for New England in the next five games: at Baltimore (5-2), at Philadelphia (4-4), vs. Dallas (4-3), at Houston (5-3), vs. Kansas City (5-3, but 5-2 in games started by Patrick Mahomes).

New England will likely close as a favorite of -3.5 or -4 in Baltimore. However, sentiment for the TV home dog might build through the weekend, given hype about Ravens coach John Harbaugh’s successful big-game history against Bill Belichick. The Patriots’ performance Sunday will influence the remaining point spreads. New England will likely be favored to win all five games individually. They’re a percentage underdog to run the table because upsets happen in the projected price ranges.

Other notes:

After Sunday’s cover against the Cleveland

Browns, winning 27-13 as a 10-point favorite, New England remains one of the best NFL money-makers for bettors.

Best ATS records: New England 6-2, New Orleans 6-2, Green Bay 6-2, L.A. Rams 6-2, San Francisco 5-2.

Worst ATS records: Atlanta 2-6, Baltimore 2-5, N.Y. Jets 2-5, Cleveland 2-5, Chicago 2-5, Tampa Bay 2-5.

Thursday night’s matchup featuring the undefeated San Francisco 49ers and the Arizona

Cardinals (8:20 p.m., FOX/NFL Network) offers analysts a clear snapshot of the championship chase. Global betting odds show San Francisco and New Orleans at the top of the NFC futures board. The Saints just played Arizona five days ago. Makes for an easy comparison.

Also worth noting for comparing the Niners to the Pats in Super Bowl discussions … New England was in a similar schedule spot a week ago Monday. Tom Brady and company were -9.5 on the road at the New York Jets. San Francisco has been priced on or near that number all week.

New Orleans dominated Arizona 31-9, winning total yardage 510-237, yards per play 7.1 to 4.8, third-down conversions 58% to 17% and red-zone touchdown percentage 67% (4/6) to 0% (0/2).

New England dominated the Jets 33-0, winning total yardage 323-154, yards per play 4.1 to 2.9, third-down conversions 44% to 18% and red-zone touchdown percentage 75% (3/4) to 0% (0/2).

If San Francisco can’t dominate Arizona to the same degree, championship talk is likely premature.

Global odds to win the Super Bowl: New England 5/4, New Orleans 5/1, San Francisco 7-1.

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