Watch for bounce-back teams in NFL Week 1

By Steve Makinen  (Point Spread Weekly editor) 

Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray

With most sportsbooks having released lines and totals for the 2020 NFL season and with most of the sports world on hiatus, it’s never too early to dig into the information that will help us cash tickets when Week 1 arrives. Every year I like to comb through some profitable betting systems I’ve kept for 20 years to prepare for opening week. 

As usual, plenty has happened in the offseason to alter perceptions we had at the end of last season. With big-name players like Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, DeAndre Hopkins and Melvin Gordon having moved on to new teams, perhaps the magnitude of change is greater than ever. We’ve seen enough analysis from experts to form our own opinions of teams. Does that mean oddsmakers have it pegged? Not exactly! Even these experts make mistakes or overlook things. And they certainly can’t accurately quantify teams’ Week 1 chemistry, such as how they’ve changed in personnel or attitude since last year.

Remember, the bookies’ theoretical job is to try to get as much even action as possible on wagering options, not so much to pick the game. And savvy bettors who are prepared with knowledge of the teams and powerful weapons like systems can be ready to take advantage.

When Week 1 arrives, I publish a list of betting systems that have produced nice profits over the years. One system backs some of the teams that are expected to bounce back in 2020. It is a fairly simple but rewarding angle.

NFL opening-week road teams that won four to six games the previous season are 43-18-5 ATS (70.5%) since 2004 (Win: + 23.2 units, R.O.I.: 38.0%, Grade 70)

2020 potential plays: Miami, Cleveland, L.A. Chargers, Arizona

Analysis: Teams in the four- to six-win range usually qualify as potential bounce-back teams, with the start of the new season offering fresh motivation. In many cases, bad luck, injuries or even tanking soured their records the year before. Last year the six teams on the system went 3-2-1 ATS. Four teams qualify for this angle in 2020. Let’s look at each of those games.

MIAMI (+ 6.5) at New England

Miami is one of the popular picks to enjoy a resurgence in 2020 after going 5-11 last season. The Dolphins’ draft was widely respected, with the selection of QB Tua Tagovailoa at No. 5 being the key. In Week 1, coach Brian Flores’ team will take on the same opponent it faced to end the 2019 season. In that game, the Dolphins were heavy 15.5-point underdogs but pulled a 27-24 upset, sending the host Patriots from what would have been a first-round playoff bye to the No. 3 seed and an eventual loss to Tennessee in the wild-card round. Of course, that playoff loss wound up being QB Tom Brady’s last game with the franchise he took to dynasty heights. Brady has moved on to Tampa Bay and is expected to be replaced by second-year pro Jarrett Stidham. That could change by opening day, but even so, New England is a healthy 6.5-point favorite. Miami won its final two games of 2019 and was 9-3 ATS in its last 12 games. Coach Bill Belichick’s Patriots lost their final two games and were 1-5-1 ATS down the stretch. This game could signal a changing of the guard in the AFC East should Miami win.

CLEVELAND (+ 8.5) at Baltimore

Cleveland went into the 2019 season under the intense pressure of overly optimistic expectations. The Browns had just added wide receiver Odell Beckham and others and was coming off a resurgent 2018 season in which QB Baker Mayfield had established himself as the franchise cornerstone. They were 5-2 SU and ATS in their final seven games and were a popular pick to end their playoff drought. But the expectations were unrealistic, and the Browns succumbed to the pressure early. They were routed by Tennessee 43-13 in Week 1 and finished 6-10. While expectations remain high, they aren’t nearly at the level of 2019. The 2020 Browns should respond better, as they’ve added several players who will be key despite lacking the name recognition of Beckham. Cleveland lines up in Week 1 against Baltimore, which comes off a 14-2 season soiled by a divisional round playoff loss. Quarterback Lamar Jackson was named the league’s MVP, and generally the Ravens are expected to pick up where they left off. That is usually difficult to do, as teams that reach the 14-win level typically ride a ton of momentum. That will have to be re-established in 2020, and opening as an 8.5-point favorite in Week 1 is added pressure.

L.A. CHARGERS (-3.5) at Cincinnati

The Chargers’ 2019 stats and talent level are far better than their 5-11 record indicated. For that reason, they are one of my favorite season win total bets to go Over 8. It’s not often a team loses its franchise quarterback yet is expected to improve by three games or more. The new QB figures to be journeyman Tyrod Taylor, who should at least improve on the 20 interceptions Philip Rivers threw last season. Coach Anthony Lynn’s team was just 1-6 SU and ATS down the stretch but lost five of those games by 10 or fewer points, and turnovers were often the difference. In fact, the Chargers lost 10 games by 10 or fewer points, a characteristic of teams that tend to bounce back the next season. Los Angeles’ opponent in Week 1 also boasts fresh hope, with top draft pick Joe Burrow expected to take the QB reins for Cincinnati. Typically, rookie quarterbacks as starters are good bets early in the season. But the Bengals were just 2-14 last season while scoring 17.4 PPG, and as 3.5-point underdogs they figure to be a risky bet.

ARIZONA (+ 8) at San Francisco

Arizona’s 2019 season can best be described as inconsistent, with rookie QB Kyler Murray and first-year coach Kliff Kingsbury experiencing their fair share of peaks and valleys. But enough positive signs exist to think this franchise is closer to success than its 5-10-1 record indicated. With a point-spread mark of 9-6-1, the Cardinals showed the competitiveness of a team ready to emerge in 2020. That effort will be aided by the arrival of WR DeAndre Hopkins. He was one of the NFL’s top playmakers for the Texans and will make an immediate impact for an offense that averaged 22.6 PPG. That stat in itself is a good sign for teams that make significant year-to-year improvements. However, the biggest reason for optimism is the defensive haul the team made in the draft, highlighted by LB Isaiah Simmons of Clemson. Kingsbury’s team is an eight-point underdog at San Francisco, the defending NFC champion. The divisional rivals played two highly competitive games last season, and the Cardinals scored 51 points on the vaunted San Francisco defense. The 49ers will be trying to overcome the Super Bowl-losing hangover, a situation in which teams typically drop three wins or more from one year to the next.

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