Week 1 NFL best bets: A play on every game

By VSiN Staff  (VSiN.com) 

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The first weekend of the 2021 NFL season is here. 

With 14 games on Sunday's slate, there are plenty of betting opportunities. Our VSiN experts Adam Burke, Wes Reynolds, Scott Seidenberg, Dave Tuley, Jonathan Von Tobel and Matt Youmans, along with Ben Brown from Pro Football Focus, combine to give their opinions on every game.

Note: Lines are from DraftKings Sportsbook as of Thursday night.

Here are our Week 1 best bets:

Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills (-6.5, 48.5)

Seidenberg: The Bills come into this season with Super Bowl aspirations. Coming off a season in which Josh Allen had a 20-6 TD:INT ratio at home, expect the Bills to continue to dominate on their turf. The Steelers have a weakness in the secondary and the trio of Stephon Diggs, Cole Beasley and Emmanuel Sanders will be too much to handle. The Steelers are also transitioning to a new offensive line, and as much as I love Najee Harris, he won’t be able to carry the Steelers to a win.

It’s going to be loud in Orchard Park and the Bills defense is going to get after Ben Reothlisberger. Buffalo beat Pittsburgh last December 26-15, and eight of its last nine wins for the Bills have been by double digits. Take the Bills.

Pick: Bills -6.5

Von Tobel: Last season, Buffalo won at home against Pittsburgh 26-15, but struggled to find consistency on offense. The Bills only put up 4.7 yards per play and 27.8 yards per drive. Allen posted one of his worst passing grades of the season by PFF standards (61.2) while averaging just 5.5 yards per attempt and 55.8% completion percentage. Despite the questions in the secondary for Pittsburgh, it is possible that this team is capable of yet again limiting this offensive attack yet again with the talent in the front seven. Pittsburgh’s offensive line looked better than expected in the preseason as well. Buffalo does not have a dominant pass-rushing front by any stretch, and this front finished 17th against the run by DVOA standards in 2020 and PFF graded their run defense as the fifth-worst unit in the league (42.5). 

If the Steelers get above-average play from their line and play similar to what Roethlisberger did in the preseason, the Steelers will be very live here.

Pick: Steelers + 6.5

New York Jets at Carolina Panthers (-4.5, 44.5)

Burke: Over 44.5 is on my card this week for the game between the Jets and Panthers. Robert Saleh already is dealing with some key injuries on defense, including the loss of Carl Lawson. Sam Darnold certainly has a lot to prove and the former USC product and No. 3 overall pick in 2018 has a new lease on life with offensive coordinator Joe Brady.

Zach Wilson steps into a good situation at the skill positions and the Jets have really revamped their offensive line over the last couple of years. Everybody will be growing up all at once, but the departure of Adam Gase is about the biggest NFL example of “addition by subtraction” that you could possibly get.

Darnold will have a healthy Christian McCaffrey to go with former Jet Robby Anderson, a high-quality wideout in DJ Moore, and promising rookie Terrace Marshall Jr. Those are better weapons than he had with the Jets and he’s also getting a healthy McCaffrey to start the season, a luxury that has rarely been afforded to Panthers QBs.

Both the Jets and Panthers were in the top 10 in missed tackles last season and these skill groups have some burners. Both defenses were also in the bottom eight in completion percentage. The sticks should be moving in this game and the QBs will have lots of red zone options.

Pick: Over 44.5

Jacksonville Jaguars (-3, 44.5) at Houston Texans

Von Tobel: The market just seems too high on Jacksonville here. This is not a great offensive line, and it is playing together for the first time in Week 1 after not playing a snap together in preseason. Overall, how good is this Jacksonville offense going to be?

Lawrence graded out well in the preseason (78.3), but that’s inflated by a 93.0 grade in Week 3 against a Cowboys team that played no one. We also do not know how good this Jacksonville defense is going to be. The unit finished 21st in rush defense grading by PFF and 24th by Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. It was 17th in Adjusted Line Yards (4.42), 15th in opponent power success rate (66%), 20th in second-level yards (1.30) and 30th in open field yards (1.19).

Houston wants to build its offense around the running game. The Texans’ projected starting offensive line was not a great run-blocking unit, but they finished 14th in power success rate (67%) and eighth in stuffed rate (15%). They finished eighth in pass-blocking last season and could have a big day keeping Tyrod Taylor clean against a Jags front that finished 28th in pressure rate, 31st in sacks in 2020.

Pick: Texans + 3

Arizona Cardinals at Tennessee Titans (-3, 52)

Reynolds: The Titans have reached the playoffs in three of the past four seasons and went 11-5 in 2020 before losing at home to Baltimore in a Wild-Card game. Former offensive coordinator Arthur Smith left to coach the Falcons, so the offense could have a different look this season. The new OC is Todd Downing, who has called plays only once before, for the 2017 Raiders. That Raiders club finished only 17th in total offense and 23rd in scoring offense; however, the Titans have more weapons than that Raiders bunch including Derrick Henry, who became just the eighth player in NFL history to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season in 2020. Ryan Tannehill also gets another receiving weapon in Julio Jones, who will be WR2 opposite of A.J. Brown (two straight 1,000+ yard seasons). 

The defense has six new starters on a unit that ranked 28th in yards allowed, 29th in passing yards allowed, 30th in sacks, 30th in red zone defense and 24th in points allowed in 2020. 

The pressure is on Arizona GM Steve Keim and head coach Kliff Kingsbury to deliver in arguably the strongest division in the NFL. Quarterback Kyler Murray has improved each of his first two years and has a multitude of weapons to exploit a defense in Tennessee that has perhaps upgraded the talent, but still has six new starters learning a new scheme. 

Arizona has brought in several former Pro Bowlers such as WR A.J. Green, C Rodney Hudson, DE J.J. Watt, CB Malcolm Butler and PK Matt Prater to add leadership for a club with some good, young talent. 

The Titans were 0-4 ATS last season as home favorites of five points or less. 

Pick: Cardinals + 3

Los Angeles Chargers (-1, 44.5) at Washington Football Team

Youmans: Chargers QB Justin Herbert is the real deal, but the key to controlling every great passer is to break down the pocket by creating pressure, and Herbert will be facing a defensive front with the ability to dominate. Washington ranked No. 4 in the NFL in scoring defense (20.6 PPG) last season. The line ranks among the best in the league with former first-round picks Chase Young, Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Montez Sweat leading the charge.

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Journeyman QB Ryan Fitzpatrick runs hot and cold yet has plenty of playmakers to work with, including wide receivers Curtis Samuel and Terry McLaurin. The Chargers, who lost six games by seven points or fewer last year, will have to prove they deserve to be road favorites against an opponent with an elite defense.

Pick: Washington + 1

Philadelphia Eagles at Atlanta Falcons (-3.5, 48)

Burke: The matchup between the Eagles and the Falcons may be a “battle for the birds” for some, but there are some compelling betting angles regarding this game. The Falcons have a new head coach in Arthur Smith and the Eagles have a new head coach in Nick Sirianni. Both guys have recent experience as offensive coordinators and that is what stands out to me here.

Smith was first in Red Zone Efficiency last season with the Titans and second in 2019. Sirianni wound up 18th last season with the Colts, but was firmly in the top 10 the previous two seasons, finishing fifth in 2018 and sixth in 2019. If you recall, the 2019 season for the Colts was right after Andrew Luck retired, so Sirianni and the Colts had to figure things out on the fly with Jacoby Brissett; they still had a lot of red zone success.

Two good red zone playcallers should be able to capitalize on opportunities here when it looks like both offenses will have some success moving the football. Matt Ryan has some weapons, even with the loss of Julio Jones. Smith should love a player like Kyle Pitts in this offense, especially in the red zone.

Jalen Hurts is a bit of a question mark, but Sirianni was the OC for Colts head coach Frank Reich. Reich was the OC for the Eagles under Doug Pederson before he took the Colts gig. That means that Hurts should have a few similarities to pull from with this offense.

The Falcons ranked 30th in yards per play allowed last season. The Eagles were a bit better, ranking 14th, but neither one of these defenses really stands out.

With the mobility and improvisation skills of Hurts and what should be an improved offense for the Falcons with Smith, we should see plenty of points and yards in this game.

Pick: Over 48

Seattle Seahawks (-3, 48.5) at Indianapolis Colts

Tuley: This line opened with the Colts favored by 3 points back in May, but there was a change in favorites when Indy QB Carson Wentz suffered a foot injury in training camp. The Colts are my value bet to win the Super Bowl, not because of Wentz’s reunion with Reich but because of the overall team. Darius Leonard and the Colts’ defense might not be able to totally shut down Russell Wilson and the Seahawks offense, but it should contain Seattle enough to give Wentz time to work through any rust and lead the Colts’ balanced attack.

I wrote in Point Spread Weekly that I was hoping this line would get to 3 here in Las Vegas and it has as of Thursday night with only the Westgate and Treasure Island holding the line at 2.5 (DraftKings also dealing Seattle -2.5 in other states). I’d suggest taking whatever points you can get with the better overall team even if Wentz isn’t 100%.

Pick: Colts + 3

Minnesota Vikings (-3, 48) at Cincinnati Bengals

Joe Burrow over 7.5 rushing yards (-123)

Brown: The Bengals offense was said to struggle some in training camp against what is projected to be a below-average Cincinnati defense.  Additionally, we only got three plays of Joe Burrow data in the preseason, leaving us without much in the way of data to project usage in this week 1 matchup, other than how Burrow was used a season ago.  While Riley Reiff is sure to make the Bengals offensive line better, Danielle Hunter, Sheldon Richardson and Everson Griffen will likely make it harder on Burrow in the passing game than normal, leading to some scrambling from the second-year star out of LSU. 

Burrow went over this number in seven of his 10 starts a season ago, and in five of them gained such yardage on scrambles alone.  Additionally, with the Vikings roughly 3-point favorites in this contest, don’t be discouraged by the idea of a kneel down (or two) by Burrow ruining this bet.  

San Francisco 49ers (-7.5, 45.5) at Detroit Lions

Burke: The 49ers start with two straight road games to open the season, and the plan is to stay at The Greenbrier in West Virginia between games. San Francisco has planned for this before and has had success, including last year’s road games against the Jets and Giants. Maybe that presents a little bit of a look-ahead to next week for San Francisco.

As far as this week, there have been a lot of headlines around the 49ers. More specifically, a lot of headlines about the QB position, where incumbent Jimmy Garoppolo is trying to hold off Trey Lance. Coaches and executives are in the business of not getting fired. Winning games is great, but it also makes sense to have success so that some measure of job security comes along with it.

In that respect, you have to think that Kyle Shanahan will not expose Garoppolo too much in this game and open up opportunities to be criticized for not starting Lance. And therefore, this game should fall on the rushing attack. The Niners are a hefty favorite here, which implies that a lot of running plays are coming in the second half with what we assume to be a lead in the game.

The under 45 makes a lot of sense in this game as a result. The 49ers aren’t going to be in a hurry and it is tougher to get explosive plays in the running game than it is in the passing game. At time of writing, there wasn’t a widely available prop for Garoppolo pass attempts or pass yards, but those props were available for new Lions QB Jared Goff. That seems to be enough of an indication about what oddsmakers anticipate the gameplan to be for the favored 49ers.

We can reasonably assume that the Lions offense will struggle, especially because the 49ers -- even without Robert Saleh -- have a lot of experience planning for Goff. His few strengths and many weaknesses should play into the hands of the San Francisco defense.

Pick: Under 45

Tuley: This line hardly budged since I bet the Lions + 7.5 back in May. Oops! I should have been more patient with my love of home underdogs (especially when getting more than a touchdown) as the line started going higher in the middle of this week. But that’s good news for dog bettors this week. I’m not exactly thrilled with Goff replacing Matthew Stafford in Detroit, but I would trust my money less on Garoppolo to lead the 49ers to a double-digit win on the road, which is basically what it takes to cover this spread. This line was Week 1’s highest until the steam came in on the Buccaneers in Thursday night’s opener and the Rams were bet from -7 to -7.5, so it’ll be interesting to see how survivor players handle this.

Look for the Lions to defend their home turf and stay within a TD.

Pick: Lions + 7.5 or better (+ 8 widely available as of Thursday night)

Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs (-6, 53)

Patrick Mahomes Over 2.5 Passing Touchdowns + 120

Brown: The Chiefs revamped offensive line should offer Mahomes more protection, as he was under pressure at a league-average rate throughout the 2020 season. Everyone remembers the difficulties in the Super Bowl, which has led to the Chiefs being just the second team with a Super Bowl win probability over 10% that is starting five fresh faces along the offensive line. It typically isn’t the making of a Super Bowl contender, but most teams don’t have Mahomes as a starting quarterback, either. Our projections indicate that the Chiefs will be better off with their revamped offensive line in the long term, but there could be some hiccups to start the season.

Even if there are difficulties in Week 1, there are a number of reasons to like Mahomes going over his 2.5 passing touchdown prop. Mahomes was slightly below breakeven in going over his passing touchdown prop in 2020, with the over hitting on 7 of 18 games. The plus price matters in this situation, as you don’t need to win at a 50% clip to break even. The Browns sit seventh in our defensive rankings, but don’t necessarily have a secondary to fear. With sportsbooks projecting the highest-scoring game of the weekend, lock in Mahomes at over 2.5 passing touchdowns in what should be a statement win over the Browns in Week 1.

Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots (-3, 44)

Von Tobel: I’m high on the Patriots this season, and I am very high on them in this matchup. New England comes into 2020 with an offensive line that finished sixth in run blocking by PFF standards and Damien Harris finished as the second-highest graded running back last season. This line is going to give Mac Jones a light workload as they exploit a front seven that finished 16th in adjusted line yards per carry allowed (4.41), 19th in second-level yards per carry allowed (0.66) and 26th in defending power situations (71%) last season. Tua Tagovailoa might improve this season, but he is lining up behind an offensive line that allowed opposing defenses to pressure him on 29.1% of his dropbacks last season.

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New England was the fifth-best team in pressure rate last season (26.4%), but only finished with 24 sacks. They addressed the problem in the offseason with the additions of Kyle Van Noy and Matthew Judon. Include the return of opt-outs like Dont’a Hightower and we can expect a much better front for the Patriots this season.

Pick: Patriots -2.5

Denver Broncos (-2.5, 42) at New York Giants 

Burke: The Broncos lost one of their biggest early-season advantages by being forced to play on the road. Denver has been excellent in the first two weeks of the season when teams go to the Mile High City, but that benefit has been lost for 2021 with two games on the road to open the season.

As a result, I do have a lean towards the Giants + 3 and will wait to see if a 3.5 pops somewhere by game time (or a reduced juice + 3). Even if that doesn’t happen, the under 42 is a pick in this game.

These two offenses were putrid in the red zone last season, which happens with quarterbacks that make bad decisions. Drew Lock had a 56% completion percentage in the red zone last season and Daniel Jones was at 54.2%. The Broncos were 27th in red zone efficiency last season; the Giants were 31st. My best guess is that neither one of these teams improves all that much in that department this season – and even if they do, it doesn’t look like it will happen in this game.

The Broncos were tops in the league in red zone defense last season, as opponents scored a touchdown only 47.5% of the time; the Giants were second at 50.8%. Premium scoring chances look few and far between with these two offenses and those red zone trips may result in field goals. Turnovers in the red zone or in plus territory are also something I would expect in this game.

Pick: Under 42

Green Bay Packers (-4, 50) at New Orleans Saints

Aaron Jones under 66.5 rushing yards (-115)

Brown: There’s a part of this under that could blow up in smoke -- the part where the Packers try to justify the contract they gave to Jones this offseason by giving him a ton of carries.  But that’s worth the risk for a few reasons. 

First, the Saints defense, which did lose some depth this offseason, still has one of the best first units in football, headed by Cameron Jordan (38 run stops last year) and Marcus Davenport (23), along with linebacker Demario Davis (a team-leading 48).  Second, the Saints, without Michael Thomas due to injury and Drew Brees, Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook due to offseason departures, are likely to want to slow games down and increase variance, especially when they are underdogs like they are to the Packers here in a neutral-site game.  This should inevitably lead to fewer carries to go around for Packers’ running backs.  Lastly, those carries will likely be split between Jones and 2020 second-rounder A.J. Dillon, who has impressed in brief stints.  Thus, while this feels low, it’s worth going under, and would have cashed in seven of Jones’ games a season ago.

Tuley: This line has changed as much as the teams’ travel plans. The Saints were 3-point home favorites in May (though several books had the game off the board because of the Aaron Rodgers saga). The line flipped to Packers -3 when it was rumored the game was moving out of hurricane-ravaged New Orleans (first to Dallas, then to Jacksonville). I know the Saints lose home-field advantage, but I don’t think the line should have moved a full touchdown. Jameis Winston can put up points for the Saints, who have a decent defense. I’ll take the generous points in a game I truly believe should be closer to pick-’em on a neutral field like this.

Pick: Saints + 4  

Chicago Bears at Los Angeles Rams (-7.5, 44.5)

Youmans: The Rams’ strength is their Aaron Donald-led defensive line, and the Bears’ biggest weakness is their patchwork offensive line. The mismatch up front spells trouble for Chicago and immobile quarterback Andy Dalton, who does not have much of a running game to lean on for help. How will the Bears create offense against the Rams’ No. 1-ranked scoring defense (18.5 points per game) from last season? It’s doubtful that Bears coach Matt Nagy has the answer. The Rams should roll to a double-digit win, but I played the teaser to be safe.

Pick: Rams -1.5 on a teaser with Buccaneers -2

Burke: If the Rams had gotten more game reps during the preseason with newly-minted QB Matthew Stafford, laying the 7.5-point spread would be a lot more attractive. However, teasing the Rams down to -1.5 is the other leg of my two-team, six-point teaser with the aforementioned Buccaneers.

The Rams have a stars and scrubs kind of team and the stars are all healthy right now, including defensive stalwarts like Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. With Andy Dalton on the other side, the Rams defense, which only allowed 4.6 yards per play last season, should have a strong showing to open the season.

Offensively, Stafford is undoubtedly an upgrade to Jared Goff and a creative offensive mind like Sean McVay should be able to do a lot more with Stafford behind center. Goff’s limitations held the Rams offense back. Stafford has familiarity with the Bears and their scheme and more weapons than he has had the last few seasons in Detroit.

Ultimately, taking the Rams down from -7.5 to -1.5 provides a lot more margin for error, given that we haven’t seen this first-team offense together yet in a game. Los Angeles has a very solid, veteran offensive line, another luxury that Stafford hasn’t really had. Once the Rams hit midseason form, laying some numbers with them will be more palatable. For now, this is an ideal teaser situation going through 3 and 7 with those key numbers and the other numbers of 4, 5 and 6 that have become more frequent since the extra point was pushed back.

Pick: Rams -1.5 (six-point teaser with Bucs -2)

Tuley: When the lines first came out in May, I passed on the Bears + 6.5 and even + 7 as I felt the public would put this over a full touchdown, and the public didn’t let me down. The Rams are a top contender with the addition of Matthew Stafford, but I think this line is still too high against a team that can play defense. A lot of people are saying “I’d be on the Bears if they had Justin Fields to avoid the pass rush,” but I think Andy Dalton’s experience will suit him just fine and keep the Bears close.

Pick: Bears + 7.5

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