NFL arrives

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Let’s take a look at each NFL game

Though operating in a different environment than the Olympics, the NFL can utter the same words with equal force and perhaps even greater fanfare.

Let the games begin!

Seven months of waiting has ended. After being teased for the last month by starters who play half a game and wannabees who determined outcomes, the games that count finally start this Thursday when the regular season kicks off with a rematch of last season’s NFC Championship game.

As we get set to battle the sports books for the next five months there are several things to keep in mind.

First, forget much of what you witnessed during the preseason. For the most part teams were more interested in preparing for the real games than in winning games that don’t count. Many coaches, especially the experienced ones, did not want to show too much to upcoming opponents but rather to tinker and tweak in areas that needed improvement. In many cases those adjustments were very subtle and not obvious to the typical fan. Don’t be guided in the first few weeks by preseason records or results.

Also keep in mind that a great many games have “random” outcomes. In a great many games each side will look like the right side during certain stretches and often the final scoring play of the game changes the pointspread result.

Finally, keep in mind the following percentages. The pointspread matters in only about 17 percent of all games. In roughly 83 percent of the games the team that wins the game also covers the spread.

Favorites win and cover just under 48 percent of all games while underdogs win outright (and thus obviously cover) just over 31 percent of the time. About 4 percent of games either end in pushes or are pick ‘em games. And in about 17 percent of all games the favored team wins but by less than the pointspread.

With those thoughts in mind here is a look at the 16 games that will get the 2010 regular season underway.

THURSDAY

Minnesota (+5) at New Orleans (Over/Under 48): Brett Favre’s late arrival in training camp and some significant injuries to his receivers place the Vikings in a tough spot to open the season. It will be a frenzied atmosphere as the defending Super Bowl champion Saints look to repeat the result of the NFC Championship game. Recall that Minnesota greatly outplayed the Saints but the -4 turnover margin was too much to overcome. The Saints’ offense will be as potent as ever and the defense will be just as aggressive and that could create some uncomfortable moments for Favre. NEW ORLEANS

SUNDAY

Carolina (+7) at N. Y. Giants (41): Both teams have a pair of solid running backs as the focal points of the offense. Both coaches have historically preached defense as the key to success. Carolina dashed the Giants’ playoff hopes with a crushing 41-9 rout in the Giants’ final game at Meadowlands so the Giants should be focused for this rematch. The fundamentals suggest both teams will run much more than they pass which works to lessen the number of possessions and shortens the game. UNDER the Total.

Miami (-3) at Buffalo (39): Buffalo will have the most exciting player in this game, C. J. Spiller, who could well be a factor especially in returning kicks. But that’s about the only area in which the Bills should enjoy an edge. Miami is expected to contend in the AFC East and is the more complete team. But they have not had much success in Buffalo in recent seasons, losing 5 of their last 6 meetings up north to Bills teams with talent comparable to this season’s. It’s a new season and, at 0-0, Buffalo’s players have every reason to believe they will have a good season. BUFFALO.

Atlanta (-2½) at Pittsburgh (38½): Pittsburgh is still undecided as to whether veteran Charlie Batch or inexperienced Dennis Dixon will start at QB as starter Ben Roethlisberger serves a four game suspension. That explains why Atlanta is favored at a site where the Steelers are 21-6 under coach Mike Tomlin. Both teams are off of 9-7 seasons that were plagued by key injuries. Perhaps the player whose absence had the greatest impact on their team’s fortunes was Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu who is the heart of the Steeler ‘D.’ Atlanta’s defense is an area of concern and early in the season an edge on defense is significant. PITTSBURGH.

Detroit (+6) at Chicago (43): Detroit should be improved with QB Matthew Stafford in his second season and a better running game to provide balance. Chicago also expects to be better on offense with Mike Martz in charge as coordinator which should allow QB Jay Cutler to show the form he displayed in Denver a few seasons back. Chicago’s defense should be improved with Julius Peppers coming over from Carolina and a healthy Brian Urlacher. Chicago has won the last four meetings, three by at least 14 points. Chicago’s improvement on defense appears greater than the Lions’ improvement on offense. CHICAGO.

Cincinnati (+4½) at New England (45): Despite the opinion expressed in this column in recent weeks suggesting the Bengals will decline in 2010 many sharp handicappers expect Cincinnati to have every bit as successful a season as they did in 2009, when they were 10-6 and won the AFC Central. This will provide a good early test as the Patriots are still an elite team and have been waiting to erase the memory of the game that ended last season, a one sided 33-14 loss on this field to Baltimore. New England enters the season with some legitimate concerns on defense but whether the Bengals can take advantage is debatable. Sure, Chad Ochocinco has been joined by Terrell Owens but QB Carson Palmer has been just ordinary for the past few seasons. Given his attention to detail and the amount of time he’s had to prepare for this game Patriot coach Bill Belichick should have his team well prepared. It likely is not a blowout but the line does seem a couple of points too short. NEW ENGLAND.

Cleveland (+3) at Tampa Bay (37): Both teams appear improved over last season and carry over late season momentum from 2009. Cleveland won their final four games to finish 5-11 while two of Tampa’s three wins came in their final two games. Cleveland jettisoned QB Derek Anderson in favor of beleaguered Carolina QB Jake Delhomme, thinking that a change in scenery and tutelage from new front office executive Mike Holmgren will enable him to return to good form. Tampa relies on QB Josh Freeman to manage the offense which is based on a strong ground game. Both teams look at this as a very winnable game and as such might not take many chances. That means heavy doses of the running game. UNDER the Total.

Denver (+2 ½) at Jacksonville (40): Both teams look to erase memories of last season swoons that cost them shots at a Wild Card in 2009. Denver starts the season with a couple of key players missing from last season with WR Brandon Marshall traded to Miami and DL Elvis Dumervil injured and out for the season. Those losses may be too much to overcome early in the season and Jacksonville has enough talent to take advantage. Especially on offense as RB Maurice Jones-Drew has established himself as one of the NFL’s best. QB David Garrard has more to work with than his Broncos counterpart Kyle Orten and the Jags should be able to start their season with a nice home win. JACKSONVILLE.

Indianapolis (-2½) at Houston (46½): It’s clear that the Colts are the team to beat in the AFC South and are better than Houston. But the Texans have given the Colts fits in recent seasons but continue to fall just short when it comes to defeating their nemesis. Both teams have plenty of offense but also have underrated defenses. We might not think the defenses are underrated after watching this game, however. If this game follows the recent scripts of games between them plenty of points will be scored. Nine of the last 12 meetings have produced at least 50 total points, including 7 of 8 meetings since 2006. OVER the Total.

Oakland (+6) at Tennessee (41): Oakland is once again a fashionable pick to show significant improvement in 2010 and some have the Raiders contending for the playoffs. While that might be an overly optimistic outlook it’s undeniable that the cutting of JaMarcus Russell in favor Jason Campbell, acquired by trade, is a huge upgrade at QB. There are concerns about the running game and the defense that could hold back Oakland’s improvement. Tennessee seeks to show that their 0-6 start of a season ago was a fluke and that their 8-2 finish is a better indicator of their talent as was their 13-3 mark of 2008. Vince Young is firmly entrenched at QB and has become a team leader. The Titans are not a blowout team and this is one game in which the points could very well come into play. OAKLAND.

Green Bay (-3) at Philadelphia (47½): Green Bay enters the season as one of the most complete, better balanced teams in the league and clearly a Super Bowl contender. The Eagles begin a new era at QB with lightly tested but highly regarded Kevin Kolb replacing Donovan McNabb. Both teams have plenty of offensive talent. Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers has become an elite QB and he should have success against what appears to be a vulnerable Philly defense. At the same time, the Eagles will also use a wide open offense to challenge a solid Packer defense. It’s easy to like the Packers as they are the much better known entity but it’s equally as appealing to like the Eagles as home underdogs in a game they very easily could win outright. PHILADELPHIA.

San Francisco (-3) at Seattle (37½): San Francisco is favored to win the NFC West and take another step forward under coach Mike Singletary. The strength of the 49ers should be their defense and the offense will be called upon to avoid mistakes and move the chains. Seattle should be improved under new coach Pete Carroll who returns to the NFL after great success at USC. The Seahawks were hit hard by injuries last season and there appears to be a general lack of depth at many key positions. Carroll has always been about defense and Seattle should be improved on that side of the football. It may be a bit premature to lay points on the road with the Niners which makes the Total a more attractive alternative. UNDER the Total.

Arizona (-4) at St. Louis (39): A new era begins in St. Louis as rookie Sam Bradford is the new starting QB for the Rams who have seen their number of wins decline from 3 to 2 to 1 the past three seasons. Arizona also has a new QB running the offense as Derek Anderson replaces the retired Kurt Warner. The Cardinals also made other key changes in the offseason on both sides of the football and it might take some time for cohesion to set in. Arizona still has more talent than the Rams but the absence of Warner, in terms of both his talents and his leadership, cannot be overstated. Arizona has won 7 straight in the series, all but one by more than a TD. While the gap may be narrowing it may still be too soon for the gap to have closed. And it could be tough for a rookie QB making his debut against a confident division rival, even at home. ARIZONA.

Dallas (-4) at Washington (40½): The latest renewal of Cowboys v Indians has a new twist with Dallas facing a familiar QB in a new uniform. When Dallas last faced Donovan McNabb it was in a pair of games at the end of last season when McNabb led his former team, Philadelphia, to a pair of one-sided defeats that ended Philly’s season and McNabb’s Eagles career. Longtime Denver coach Mike Shanahan takes over for Washington in what might well be a season of transition as the Redskins seek to upgrade the overall talent base. Dallas enters the season pretty much intact from 2009 although there are some questions along the aging offensive line. But Dallas has a tremendous wealth of talent on both sides of the football. This will be an electric atmosphere as a new era begins in Washington and that certainly gives the hosts a huge edge in intangibles. But while it’s tempting to make a play on the home underdog in such a spot the reservation is that Dallas ultimately outplays Washington in the second half. Perhaps the better play could be in expecting both offenses to put up at least 20 points. OVER the Total.

MONDAY

Baltimore (+2) at N. Y. Jets (36): With the announcement Monday morning the CB Darrelle Revis has agreed to a contract and end his holdout, the Jets have arguably their most valuable player back in the fold and available for their Monday night season opener. The Jets parlayed a pair of wins against disinterested teams at the end of the 2009 regular season to a pair of playoff upset wins and a halftime lead at Indianapolis in the AFC title game before succumbing in the second half. That led to heightened expectations for this season, the second for QB Mark Sanchez and coach Rex Ryan. Baltimore has made the playoffs in the first two seasons of QB Joe Flacco and coach John Harbaugh so there are some similarities. Not the least of which is that Ryan got the Jets job as a result of his work with the Ravens defense. Both teams use similar philosophies which suggests the low Total is warranted. Baltimore does have the more mature passing game but they also have some key injuries to their defense which negates that edge. This has all the makings of a tightly contested game between a pair of fundamentally sound, well coached teams. Laying less than a FG with the host is the preferred option. NEW YORK JETS.

San Diego (-5½) at Kansas City (45): These long time rivals whose history goes back to the old AFL renews with the Chargers heavily favored to win the AFC West yet again. Kansas City is expected to show major improvement this season, largely due to the heavy New England Patriot emphasis in the front office, on the sidelines and on the field. San Diego has a history of starting slowly under coach Norv Turner and there has been significant personnel turnover and distractions since the end of last season. For many years Kansas City had one of the strongest home fields in the NFL but are just 4-20 over the past three seasons with a pointspread record not much better. The current line is in that demilitarized zone between 3 and 7, basically letting the bettors choose sides. Considering San Diego’s early season struggles and their tumultuous summer there are enough reasons to support the home underdog to keep this game close and be in position to win late. KANSAS CITY.

 

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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