When the NFL seems wild, crazy and unpredictable, the bookmakers win. That is a constant truth, week to week and year to year, and the theme will be the same when the regular season opens Thursday night.
While the betting public will ride or die with the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes, bookmakers root for surprises and despise popular favorites. Underdogs and upsets cause chaos and spoil parlays, and the biggest underdog of Week 1 takes the field in the first game of the season when Deshaun Watson and the Texans get nine points at Kansas City.
“If Houston wins the game, it would be enormous for the books,” Westgate SuperBook director John Murray said. “I would expect we’re going to see every parlay start with Kansas City.”
Reigning Super Bowl champs are 17-3 straight up and 13-5-2 against the spread in the next season’s opener, so Chiefs bettors have a strong 20-year trend in their corner.
But the kickoff to this season will be unlike any other. The most recent NFL game was played Feb. 2, when Mahomes led Kansas City’s comeback in the Super Bowl. Tens of thousands of fans actually attended, before most of us knew anything about the coronavirus. With no preseason, bettors had no chance to overreact to the good, bad and ugly teams of August.
The COVID-19 pandemic has quieted some of the football hype, so will it all mean a decline in betting action this week? Probably not.
“There was no preseason to prep, and I’m not going to say bettors are going in blind, but there was not as much information out there, so more people might wait and watch for a week,” William Hill sportsbook director Nick Bogdanovich said. “But if I had to bet, I would say more (action) because everything is more right now.”
Smart money says the wagering handle will be monstrous, as it always is in Week 1. Aside from Texans-Chiefs, five games will be most important to the books.
Raiders at Panthers:
William Hill opened Carolina as a one-point favorite May 7, but the favorite has flipped to Las Vegas -3. Sharp bettors anticipated the line move and got ahead of it. It’s usually pretty easy to predict which sides the betting public will choose. Bogdanovich said the decision will be especially big in Nevada, where the Raiders are attracting a high volume of Super Bowl futures action.
“The sharps definitely were on the Raiders early,” Bogdanovich said. “I don’t know if it’s a bet on the Raiders or against the Panthers.”
Colts at Jaguars:
The public typically plays the bully role against bad teams, and Jacksonville appears to be the worst in the NFL. (Washington is almost as weak, so Philadelphia will be another popular road favorite.) Indianapolis is laying eight points on the road as it begins a new era with old-school quarterback Philip Rivers.
“Everybody is going to be on the Colts because of the perception out there that Jacksonville is tanking for (Clemson quarterback) Trevor Lawrence,” Murray said.
Buccaneers at Saints:
One public dog is especially hot each week. This week it’s Tom Brady and the new-look Bucs, who are getting 3½ points after the line opened 4½ in May. The 4:25 p.m. ET kickoff sets the stage for Sunday’s most-wagered game.
“This one is a no-brainer because of Brady,” Bogdanovich said. “If everything started at the same time on the same day, I would say Tampa Bay-New Orleans would be the top game of the week. All the money is on Tampa.”
The public money is on the Bucs. Most sharps view Tampa Bay as overvalued and will be inclined to lay a cheap price with Drew Brees and the Saints. However, New Orleans has failed to cover five straight home openers, and there will be no fans in the Superdome this time.
“The Bucs are going to be the big trendy team,” Murray said. “I really think the public is going to come in heavy on the dog, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see that number come down to -3 before kickoff. I think the books are going to need the Saints.”
Cowboys at Rams:
The prime-time game almost always draws the largest wagering handle on Sundays, and this is a marquee matchup. Los Angeles’ new stadium will be empty, so does any home-field advantage truly exist?
Dallas has an explosive offense and looks to be a team on the rise with new coach Mike McCarthy. The Rams are perceived to be on the decline. The line has ticked up from Cowboys -2½ to -3.
“The biggest decision for the books this week is probably going to be the Rams,” Murray said. “Every parlay is going to go to the Cowboys, so I would expect us to need the Rams huge in that game.”
Steelers at Giants:
This is the most anticipated of the two Monday night matchups. Tennessee-Denver will draw two-way action in the later kickoff slot, but Pittsburgh will be the public play by a landslide in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s comeback. The Giants are 5½-point dogs and rising after the line opened 3.
“If the favorites are covering Sunday, you’re going to see all kinds of parlay money going to the Steelers,” Murray said. “We will probably need the Giants big. I would not be shocked if the number goes to 6, and the Giants could end up being a good bet.”
When in doubt — and this is the most mysterious Week 1 we have ever seen — the betting public will play the favorites.
BEST BETS FOR WIN TOTALS
Kansas City Chiefs (Under 12, -120)
The Chiefs finished 12-4 in each of Mahomes’ two years as the starter, but the AFC West is not such a cupcake party for Kansas City anymore. The Chiefs dominated the division the last four years with a 22-2 record. If the Broncos, Chargers and Raiders are gaining as much ground as it appears, it will be tough for the Super Bowl champs to get to 13 wins and beat this bet. The road schedule poses more challenges outside the division with trips to Baltimore, Buffalo, Tampa Bay and New Orleans.
Dallas Cowboys (Over 9.5, -170)
Based on opponents’ win percentage from last season, Dallas faces the third-easiest schedule in the NFL. The Cowboys finished 8-8 despite going 0-5 in games decided by seven points or fewer, and this year’s schedule includes five games against teams projected to win fewer than seven games — Cincinnati, Washington and the Giants. Sharp action has forced most books to raise this win total to 10. The coaching staff held this team back, but Jason Garrett’s stale style has been replaced by the rejuvenated McCarthy, who has good coordinators to help run the show. Dallas has an explosive offense, solid defense and the talent to get back to the top, so I also took 15-1 odds to win the Super Bowl.
Las Vegas Raiders (Under 7.5, -125)
The Raiders do seem to be on the rise, but the energy boost they hoped to get from sellout crowds in Las Vegas is not happening in 2020. General manager Mike Mayock has helped coordinator Paul Guenther make definite upgrades to the defense. The offense has potential, but a season-ending injury to top wideout Tyrell Williams is a setback. The Raiders open with a brutal six-game stretch — at Carolina, New Orleans, at New England, Buffalo, at Kansas City, Tampa Bay — so I’ll project a 2-4 start and 7-9 finish. This team is one year away.
Other win total opinions: Bears (Under 7.5, + 105), Broncos (Over 7.5, -120), Dolphins (Over 6.5, + 115), Jaguars (Under 4.5, -110), Rams (Under 8.5, -125), Seahawks (Over 9.5, -115), Steelers (Over 9.5, -110).