It’s finally here. The “real” NFL season gets underway Thursday evening when the defending champion Denver Broncos host the Carolina Panthers, the team they defeated to win Super Bowl 50 last February, 24-10.
Denver’s offensive personality has changed since winning the title with both of last season’s quarterbacks, future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler, both gone. Manning retired and Osweiler signed with Houston in the offseason. Lightly tested Trevor Simeon will quarterback the Broncos and that is partially why the Broncos are underdogs. Carolina returns with QB Cam Newton eager to atone for his poor Super Bowl performance, both on and off the field.
The line, which opened back on April 15 at Westgate with Denver a 2 point home favorite, moved to pick ‘em by the end of the month. Money steadily came in on Carolina such that by mid-July the Panthers were 3 point road favorites versus the defending NFL champs. That’s where the line is as of Monday morning.
It’s good to have the NFL back and let’s look forward to the five month journey that will culminate next February 5 in Houston, Texas with the playing of Super Bowl 51.
The biggest news of the preseason involved injuries to starting quarterbacks of teams expected to contend for the Playoffs.
Minnesota’s Teddy Bridgewater was lost for the entirety of this season and possibly part of next season with a non-contact injury sustained in practice last week. With the aged but experienced Shaun Hill the backup, the Vikings traded draft choices to Philadelphia for Sam Bradford.
Previously, Dallas lost QB Tony Romo to an injury expected to sideline him for perhaps as many as 10 weeks. Rookie Dak Prescott assumes the starting position and we’ll quickly learn if his success during August can carry over to September when the games actually count.
As to predicting the Playoff teams it is worth bearing in mind that in a typical season between 5 and 7 teams that made the Playoffs the previous season will not make them the next.
In seasons in which form generally holds up as many as 8 teams might make a repeat trip to the Playoffs and in a topsy turvy season as few as 4 teams may repeat.
It is human nature to believe that what we witnessed last is the best guide as to what will happen next. But such is not often the case, especially when looking at things on a season to season basis rather than week to week.
Recent results suggest we are in an era of haves and have nots. Over the past four seasons a total of 30 teams have repeated Playoff appearances from one season to the next, accounting for 62.5 percent of the 48 Playoff berths in this time frame with either 7 or 8 teams returning for at least a second straight season.
This compares to just 24 such teams (50 percent) over the previous 4 seasons. From 2003 through 2011, the first 9 seasons since Divisional realignment, only twice did 7 or more teams repeat (and both times it was 7 teams). As just noted, this has occurred in each of the past four seasons.
In the NFC the predictions are for the New York Giants with win the East, Green Bay the Central, Carolina the South and Arizona the West. Of this group only the Giants did not make the 2015 Playoffs. The Wild Card projections are for Seattle and Tampa Bay with Arizona making a repeat from last season.
In the AFC the predicted Division winners are New England in the East, Baltimore in the North, Indianapolis in the South and Kansas City in the West. Only New England and Kansas City were in the Playoffs last season. The two AFC Wild Cards are projected to be Pittsburgh and Denver, both of which made the Playoffs last season.
Thus, the prediction is for 4 new teams to make the Playoffs in 2016 with Baltimore, Indianapolis, the Giants and Tampa Bay replacing Cincinnati, Houston, Minnesota and Washington. Arizona, Carolina, Denver, Green Bay, Kansas City, New England. Pittsburgh and Seattle are the predicted repeaters.
Prior to the Bridgewater injury I was prepared to call for a rematch of Super Bowl IV between Kansas City and Minnesota. But Bridgewater’s loss may be too much to overcome and I forecast both the Vikings and Washington to come up just short of the Playoffs, each with 9 wins.
In the AFC Championship the forecast is for Kansas City to defeat Pittsburgh 23-20 to advance to Super Bowl 51. In the NFC the prediction is for Arizona to defeat Carolina to face the Chiefs.
And in the final game of the 2016 season the call is for Kansas City to defeat the Cardinals 27-17 to give the Chiefs, coach Andy Reid and the Kansas City fans their first Super Bowl title in nearly half a century.
Now all that remains is the playing of the 256 game regular season and the 11 Playoff games that follow.
Here’s a look at each of the 16 games that will open the 2016 regular season.
NFL Football Thursday
Panthers -3 at Broncos (42): Revenge is often an overused factor in handicapping but is more significant in the colleges than in the NFL. Both teams are motivated to win. Rather than play the Side in this game a better case can be made that the strengths of both teams, especially Denver at the start of the season, are on defense. At a Total above the key number of 41, expecting a low scoring game provides value. UNDER.
NFL Football Sunday
Bucs +3 at Falcons (47.5): The Bucs are expected to be much improved this season, especially on offense with a balanced attack. The Falcons have issues on defense although in WR Julio Jones they have the most talented skilled player on the field. Tampa’s defense has holes to fill but getting at least a FG in a Divisional game to open the season allows for a play on the improved underdog. BUCS.
Vikings -2.5 at Titans (41): Minnesota has issues at QB and it may take a few games for the situation to stabilize with newly acquired Sam Bradford likely to start in Week 2, meaning Shaun Hill will start at least the opener. With RB Adrian Peterson the Vikes may not take too many chances through the air. The Titans are expected to rely on a heavy does of running as well which suggests fewer possessions and thus fewer scoring opportunities. UNDER.
Browns +4 at Eagles (41): The Eagles will start rookie QB Carson Wentz after trading Sam Bradford. The Browns will also debut a new QB, Robert Griffin III. But RG III will be missing his top wideout, Josh Gordon, for the first four games. Philly’s strength, early in the season as Wentz develops, will be their defense. That defense is familiar with RG III and his tendencies from his days in Washington. EAGLES.
Bengals -2.5 at Jets (41.5): Despite 5 straight Playoff appearances the Bengals may be one of the weaker of the strong early season foes the Jets will face. Monitor the line later in the week as we might be able to get a FG. JETS.
Raiders +1 at Saints (51): Oakland has playmakers on defense but that unit will be hard pressed to contain the passing attack led by New Orleans QB Drew Brees. This handicaps as one of the highest scoring games of the week with both teams capable of reaching 27 points or more. OVER.
Chargers +7 at Chiefs (44.5): Asking the Chiefs to open the season with a decisive win over a Divisional foe may be too much against a team led by one of the more underappreciated QBs of the past decade. CHARGERS.
Bills +3 at Ravens (44.5): The Bills did not make the progress expected of them when Rex Ryan was brought in as coach and one of the more curious moves Ryan made was in retooling what had been a top tier defense under the prior regime. The Ravens’ John Harbaugh rates the coaching edge. With a healthy team to start the season, Baltimore should cash this ticket. RAVENS.
Bears +6 at Texans (44): The Bears do have an excellent receiving corp that will test the highly regarded Texans defense. QB Brock Osweiler makes his debut for the Texans who are also expected to have premier defensive lineman J J Watt back from an injury suffered in late spring. Although the Bears will show offensive improvement as the season unfolds, that may not be the case here. TEXANS.
Packers -4.5 at Jaguars (48): The Jaguars have been the chic pick to make major strides this season, but this is still a young team with many concerns, especially on defense. Green Bay has one of the game’s most potent offenses, aided by the return of WR Jordy Nelson who missed last season and the slimming down of RB Eddie Lacy. QB Aaron Rodgers is in the peak seasons of his career and should get his team, backed by a solid defense, off to a strong start. PACKERS.
Dolphins +10.5 at Seahawks (44): Wow. Laying double digit points right off the bat. Since Division realignment in 2002 there have been only 12 double digit opening week favorites. While those favored teams have won 10 of the dozen games (including the last 8 in a row) those teams have gone just 4-8 ATS, perhaps a reflection of too much overreaction to preseason results. If you want to play Seattle, perhaps the way to do so is via the UNDER. But this is an awful big number for Opening Day. MIAMI.
Giants (Pick ‘em) at Cowboys (46): Dallas will debut rookie QB Dak Prescott who looked sharp in preseason but has gotten the start due to the injury to Tony Romo. The Giants, especially on offense, looked as bad as any team did in August. But there are not major concerns given the veteran status of QB Eli Manning and his supporting cast, especially at receiver. These teams have a knack for playing high scoring, up and down the field games. OVER.
Lions +4 at Colts (51): The Lions best player, WR Calvin Johnson, retired following last season and it will take time for the passing game to overcome his absence. Approaching elite status based on both performance and leadership, the Colts should be the best team in what has been a very weak AFC South in recent seasons. The return to the Playoffs starts here with win over the Lions, coached by ex-Indy coach Jim Caldwell. COLTS.
Patriots +6 at Cards (47): The Patriots will be without QB Tom Brady but his backup, Jimmy Garoppolo, has the confidence and tutelage of coach Bill Belichick. It would not be a surprise if the Pats were in position to do so, or even playing with the lead, in the fourth quarter. Give Belichick months to prepare for a specific foe who has the same unfamiliarity with the Pats as the Pats do with the Cards, and… PATRIOTS.
NFL Football Monday
Steelers -3 at Redskins (50): Although Pittsburgh is without star RB Le’Veon Bell backup DeAngelo Williams is more than an adequate replacement on a short term basis. Washington was on its way to showing progress last season under then second year coach Jay Gruden when the Division title all but fell in their lap. That progress should continue this season, especially with no QB controversy that marked the 2015 preseason. REDSKINS.
Rams -2.5 at 49ers (44): The 49ers do have the nucleus of a capable defense. Recall last season when the Niners were so lightly regarded that they were also 2.5 home dogs on the opening Monday night to Playoffs-bound Minnesota? The Niners pulled the upset, 20-3. With less instability and turmoil this offseason the Niners might again open the season with what turns out to be their best effort. 49ERS.