The first four weeks of a new NFL season are often considered a second preseason with more questions being raised than answered.
The wagering environment has changed over the past couple of decades with the explosion in the availability of information and the growth in technology that allows more and more of us to analyze and break down that information from which we draw conclusions.
Years ago developing meaningful Power Ratings was the goal. It was the end point of our handicapping as less information was available and the linemaking process itself was less analytical and sophisticated than it is today.
Nowadays, Power Ratings are the starting point as so much is known about the players, coaches, teams, injuries and other factors that go into their development.
I have long maintained that handicapping is both an art and a science. In years past the science part of handicapping was the goal. Today, more and more it’s the artistic part of the process that is the key to success. How we incorporate the intangible factors into the handicapping process is vital to success.
Through three weeks only two teams remain unbeaten at 3-0, one team in each conference. Atlanta has started with a pair of road wins at Chicago and Detroit sandwiched around a home win over Green Bay. In the AFC Kansas City has opened with road wins at New England and the LA Chargers, also sandwiched around a home win over Philadelphia.
Sometimes when the schedule looks ugly we are pleasantly surprised. Take last Thursday night for example. The game between the Rams and 49ers did not look very attractive when the schedules were released last April and figured to be a low scoring affair between a pair of teams with limited offenses but capable defenses.
Eighty points and a point margin of victory later we had just witnessed what may turn out to be one of the most entertaining games we will witness all season. Well, except for those uniforms.
Here’s a preview of Week 4’s schedule.
Chicago +7.5 at Green Bay (45.5): The Bears have been beset by key injuries to receivers, which diminishes the effectiveness of their solid rushing game due to the lack of balance, which also puts added pressure on their defense. Despite their 2-1 record the Packers have yet to play a solid game on offense. The short week of preparation usually favors the host and this is the ideal spot for Green Bay’s potent offense to finally play to its potential. GREEN BAY
New Orleans -2.5 vs. Miami (49.5) at London: This is a tough spot for the Dolphins who were flat from virtually the opening kickoff in last week’s upset loss at the Jets. The Saints have a big edge at QB with Drew Brees vs. Miami’s Jay Cutler. Their losses at Minnesota and to New England to open the season were expected and even their defensive deficiencies may not be able to be exploited by the Dolphins in this tough situation. NEW ORLEANS
Carolina +8.5 at New England (49.5): The Patriots have a long history of bouncing back from subpar efforts, even those that result in wins. Were Carolina playing better than they’ve shown thus far this would normally be a spot to take the points. This number is a lot more reasonable than the Patriots were asked to lay against the Texans and off of that performance a much sharper effort can be expected here, especially from an embarrassed defense that gets to face a struggling offense. NEW ENGLAND
LA Rams at Dallas (No Line): The Rams are still a young team, which often leads to inconsistent efforts from week to week. The offense does show signs of being much better than expected and with Dallas having one of the best balanced offenses in the league this could be a shootout. New coach Sean McVay is having a positive impact on the Rams but not knowing the results of Monday’s game prior to going to press the best approach to this game may be via the Total. OVER
Detroit at Minnesota (No Line): This game remains off the boards on Monday pending clarification of the status of Vikings QB Sam Bradford, who missed the past two games. His backup, Case Keenum, had a career game in leading the Vikings to an easy win over Tampa Bay. Detroit played well but fell short in losing to Atlanta, playing on a short week after winning on the road at the Giants the prior Monday night. Both teams are 2-1. The Vikings have the much better defense and these teams played a pair of low scoring games last season. UNDER
Tennessee -1.5 at Houston (43.5): DeShaun Watson shows signs of becoming a quality NFL QB as he develops and gains experience. The Texans’ defense will not be challenged nearly as much this week as it was against the Patriots, but the Titans will not be an easy foe to defeat. Still, the Texans deserve to be about a FG favorite in this spot and with game in the pick ‘em range there is great value in taking the home team with the better defense, notwithstanding last week’s fine performance in New England. HOUSTON
Jacksonville -3.5 at NY Jets (39.5): Jacksonville had one of the most impressive wins we may see all season in their 44-7 rout of Baltimore in London. The Jets had an impressive win of their own, a 20-6 upset of Miami. The Jets should have a pedestrian offense all season and rely on their defense to keep them in games. It would not be surprising if the Jacksonville offense is not sharp in this spot but the line is too short to back the Jets. UNDER
Cincinnati -3.5 at Cleveland (40): Cleveland coach Hue Jackson got the gig as a result of his work as offensive coordinator for the Bengals so he has intimate knowledge about most of the Cincy offensive players, including QB Andy Dalton. But in his first season with the Browns, last season, the Bengals won both meetings by double digits. The Bengals are a desperate team once again this week. They are also the more talented team and take some confidence from last week’s offensive performance at Green Bay into this game. CINCINNATI
Pittsburgh -2.5 at Baltimore (45): In past seasons this would be an ideal spot to back Baltimore as home dogs but the Ravens seem to be a team in decline (two straight seasons missing the Playoffs and 3 of the last 4) whereas the Steelers are still among the favorites to win the AFC Title. And the toll taken by the long trip to London last week also works against the Ravens. PITTSBURGH
Buffalo +8 at Atlanta (48.5): The Bills lead the NFL in allowing just 12.3 points per game. The offense ranks in the bottom third in most key categories and will face an Atlanta defense that has performed better than expected. The teams are similar in that both offenses have run the football well and have been excellent in defending the run while also faring well against the pass. It’s tempting to take the points with the Bills but the better play may be to look for the ground games of both teams to slow the pace of the game. UNDER
NY Giants +3.5 at Tampa Bay (44): Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston was harassed by a Vikings defense that force three interceptions and two sacks. The Giants still have a decided edge on defense and when both units play to their potential the Giants are the more talented team. This could be a high scoring game and the preference is to take a field goal or more with the visitors. NY GIANTS
Philadelphia (Pick ‘em) at LA Chargers (46): Normally this would be a spot to back the 0-3 Chargers but their sloppy early season play makes this hazardous. Philly has shown an early season ability to both run the football and to defend the run. And even in this era of dominant passing games the ability to both run the football and defend the run creates balance, which leads to overall effectiveness. PHILADELPHIA
San Francisco NL at Arizona: The Arizona defense is still above average, though, and should have success now that the 49ers have shown signs of how their offense is designed to succeed. Barring key injuries on Monday night the preference will be to back the hosts, who figure to take advantage of the vulnerable 49ers defense while the defense shuts down the 49ers offense that, to be fair, played from behind all game against the Rams. ARIZONA
Oakland +1 at Denver (47): Oakland has the more powerful offense but the defense still is a concern. Denver’s offense is rushing for 143 yards per game (number 3) while the defense is allowing just 60 ypg (number 1) while also allowing just 203 passing ypg (number 11). That defensive strength should be the deciding factor that makes backing the home team a very attractive option in a near pick’em game. DENVER
Indianapolis +13.5 at Seattle (41.5): QB Andrew Luck remains sidelined for the Colts but new backup Jacoby Brissett was impressive in last week’s home win over Cleveland. The Colts have some new found confidence behind Brissett and although Seattle is capable of winning in a blowout, until they show signs of being the team that has been one of the NFL’s elite teams for the past half decade we cannot take the chance of being burned again laying huge numbers with the ‘Hawks. INDIANAPOLIS
Washington +6.5 at Kansas City (49): Chiefs RB Kareem Hunt has been outstanding and takes the pressure off of QB Alex Smith to make big plays. Yet, known for most of his career as a game manager, Smith now has the receiving talent around him to make the KC offense as well balanced as it has been since coach Andy Reid arrived in 2013. At some point the situation will be right to play against the Chiefs but now is not the time to step in front of a team playing so well on both sides of the football. Washington does have its bye next week but even that edge is not enough to warrant bucking the hosts. KANSAS CITY
Last week: 10-5