NFL forecast: Eli, Giants get edge on Cowboys

By Matt Youmans  (VSiN senior editor) 

September 7, 2019 06:07 AM
Eli Manning and the Giants went 6-1 against the spread as road ‘dogs last season, and that's their role Sunday in Dallas.
© USA Today Sports Images

It’s possible Eli Manning has nothing left and, if that’s true, the New York Giants and underdog bettors are about to get a butt-kicking for believing otherwise.

But when handicapping the NFL, never fear going opposite of popular opinion, so here goes a contrarian play to kick off Week 1.

The preseason in Dallas was all about drama, distractions and contract negotiations. Ezekiel Elliott is finally back from Mexico and ready to run for big money. His hyped return has the betting public going crazy for the Cowboys.

Elliott, a two-time NFL rushing champ, says he’s the best running back in the league. Well, the Giants might have a more productive runner on Sunday. Saquon Barkley, a dynamic every-down back, accounted for 2,028 yards (1,307 rushing, 721 receiving) and 15 touchdowns as a rookie. Barkley totaled 91 receptions and will again be a major part of the passing game while the Giants figure out their problematic wideout situation.

Manning went 6-1 against the spread as a road ‘dog in 2018 — failing to cover only in a 20-13 loss at Dallas — and the Giants are 10-4 ATS in this role since 2017. The Giants were bad last year, but they did go 4-4 straight up with a pair of one-point losses in the final eight games.

It’s also possible Eli could have something left and, with rookie Daniel Jones looming over his shoulder, the 38-year-old will be playing with an edge in this NFC East rivalry.

Green Bay’s win at Chicago on Thursday extended a trend in the Giants’ favor — divisional underdogs are 18-4 ATS in Week 1 the past five years. I’ll take the 7½ points available now at the South Point in Las Vegas (and 7½ should show at more books before kickoff.)

Four more plays for the first week (home team in CAPS):

* VIKINGS (-4) over Falcons: The Matt Ryan-Julio Jones combo tends to inflate most expectations for Atlanta, which has fundamental problems with a weak offensive line. Ryan was sacked 42 times last season, when Minnesota’s defense recorded 50 sacks to rank third in the NFL. The Vikings also ranked third in pass defense, allowing 196.3 yards per game, after leading the league in scoring defense (15.8 points per game) in 2017. Kirk Cousins now has the support system to be more successful. The ground attack is legit with Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison running behind a better offensive line. Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer went 11-4-1 ATS at home the past two years, plus he’s 16-3-1 as a non-division home favorite and 3-0 against the Falcons, who are on a 4-12 ATS run on the regular-season road.

* JAGUARS (plus-3½) over Chiefs: It’s scary to bet against Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City’s explosive offense, but not quite as scary when the Chiefs are on the road against a strong defense. Last season, when Mahomes passed for 50 touchdowns, Jacksonville was the only opponent to hold him without a TD pass. Nick Foles leads an offense that can hang with Mahomes, so the Jaguars look like live ‘dogs.

* Colts (plus-6½) over CHARGERS: The Colts are down and out without Andrew Luck, right? Maybe not. This is a chance to play the Fallen Star Theory — in the first game after a star player goes down (Luck’s retirement, in this case), the rest of the team elevates its play to prove it can win without him. Indianapolis coach Frank Reich is a sharp play-caller, and this is a well-rounded team that can win with Jacoby Brissett. The Chargers also have personnel problems with a banged-up offensive line and without running back Melvin Gordon and injured safety Derwin James, who was a difference-maker for the defense. Philip Rivers is always better in the road ‘dog role. The Chargers went 2-5 ATS as home favorites last year. Expect a great effort from the Colts. I took 7 but this still is a play at 6½.

* Texans (plus-7) over SAINTS: New Orleans’ past two playoff runs ended in agony. The Saints have been slow starters, too, dropping five straight season openers, including a 48-40 loss to Tampa Bay as 10-point home favorites last year. This matchup will not be easy for Drew Brees against the J.J. Watt-led Houston defense. Deshaun Watson was sacked 62 times last season — more than any other quarterback in the league — but he’s behind a better line and orchestrating an offense capable of trading shots with Brees in the Superdome on Monday night.

Last season: 44-38-3 against the spread

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