NFL Week 1 Predictions: Expert Bets on Packers vs Bears, More
Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images. Pictured: Aaron Jones.
Each week during the 2023-2024 NFL season, I'll be sharing my favorite spread picks and teaser (if I have one).
Let's kick things off with a quintet of Week 1 games in the early time slot on Sunday.
I'm seeing a lot of love for the Saints after their acquisition of quarterback Derek Carr, but they still have an old, broken roster with a coaching staff that doesn't really move the needle. I'm definitely looking for chances to fade New Orleans early, especially as a favorite.
I was overjoyed to see this particular matchup given that I have an affinity for backing the Mike Vrabel-led Titans when they are underdogs. Vrabel has squeezed as much out of his roster as any coach in the league since arriving in the Music City, as evidenced by his teams going over their preseason win total in four of five seasons. Over that span, he's the most profitable coach on the moneyline as an underdog with a 20-19 outright record for a splendid 47.8% ROI.
Things did go downhill for Tennessee last season after a 7-3 start, but most of those struggles can be attributed to horrendous injury luck against a very tough closing stretch of games. As a result, people have seemingly forgotten that this team sat in first place at 7-3 just one season after securing the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC.
The core of that team remains intact — possibly for the last time — and they made a huge splash in free agency by bringing in DeAndre Hopkins. The veteran should be a reliable possession-type receiver, and his presence could open things up for second-year breakout candidate Treylon Burks.
Vrabel should also have his defense, now healthy, ready to roll heading into the regular season. Due to last year's injuries, many of his depth pieces have also gained invaluable experience. Tennessee should have success generating pressure against the interior of the Saints offensive line — the exact formula for disrupting Carr.
The Titans certainly don't have a perfect roster. I have concerns about the offensive line, especially while projected starting left tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere serves a six-game suspension. That certainly has thrown a wrench into the protection plans, but I'm not as concerned in this particular matchup. The elite pass rushers they will face in Weeks 2 and 3 could pose many more problems.
I'm buying a Titans bounce back this season, and I'm starting with this game.
Trending: Since taking over as Titans head coach in 2018, Mike Vrabel has gone 23-15-1 (60.5%) against the spread (ATS) as an underdog. He's 14-6-1 ATS (70%) as a road underdog of three or more points, covering by almost 4.5 points per game.
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For the third straight season, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow missed time leading up to the start of the regular season due to a health-related issue.
If the previous two starts to the season are any indication of what to expect in 2023, Burrow might struggle out of the gates, as he combined to throw an equal amount of combined touchdowns and interceptions across the first two games in 2021 and 2022. The Bengals went 1-3 overall in those contests, with the trio of losses coming against the likes of Mitch Trubisky, Andy Dalton and Cooper Rush.
While there are questions about whether Deshaun Watson can find his top form again, he's still much better than all of those aforementioned quarterbacks. I feel fairly confident that Watson will look much sharper after shaking off the rust following a 700-day hiatus. Getting a full offseason of reps also should provide a boost.
I loved what the Browns did in the offseason, plugging the most gaping holes on their roster. Cleveland added much-needed speed at wide receiver to help stretch the field — and open up more passing lanes underneath — while bulking up along a vastly improved front seven to plug a leaky run defense. Additionally, bringing in new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz should help fix the countless communication issues on the back end that plagued Cleveland throughout last season. The addition of Juan Thornhill at safety should help in that department.
Ultimately, I believe the Bengals come into this season a bit overvalued after getting fairly fortunate injury luck over the past two seasons. Not only did they stay very healthy (until the offensive line injuries late in the 2023), the other teams in the AFC North had awful injury luck. Plus, just take a look at the quarterbacks Cincinnati faced in the 2022 regular season:
- Mitch Trubisky
- Cooper Rush
- Joe Flacco
- Teddy Bridgewater
- Andy Dalton
- Marcus Mariota
- Jacoby Brissett
- PJ Walker
- Anthony Brown
Not one of those quarterbacks is currently starting for a team and a few aren't on active rosters. Cincy even got to face Watson in just his second game back, in addition to another backup in Tyler Huntley in the postseason.
The Bengals are a great team and will be in the mix come January because of Joe Cool and his elite receiving corps. However, Burrow could struggle a bit early, which the Browns would welcome if Denzel Ward (concussion) can't suit up.
Meanwhile Cincy's defense might take a step back after losing three starters in the secondary (with another returning from injury after a limited camp). That includes a pair of steady veteran safeties in Von Bell and Jessie Bates, who provided defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo with flexibility in terms of scheme and play-calling.
From a market perspective, I'd advise on waiting to see if this gets to +3, which I'm personally doing. It could certainly get there with continued good news on Burrow combined with Denzel Ward potentially getting announced out. It's much more detrimental to take +2.5 in a game that gets to +3 than to wait and have to take +2 if the market goes the other way.
Trending: Since 2005, division dogs in Week 1 have gone 64-44-2 (59.3%) ATS. Home teams have enjoyed even more success at 25-13 (65.8%) against the closing number for a sparkling 28.3% ROI and average cover margin of over 3.5 points per game.
Everybody knows Vikings and their 13 wins were fraudulent last year due to extreme close-game positive variance. I even had them power rated as a bottom-five team toward the end of the regular season.
They had a flawed roster that needed a significant overhaul, which management quietly began in the offseason, shedding a number of veterans that include:
- WR Adam Thielen
- CB Patrick Peterson
- RB Dalvin Cook
- DT Dalvin Tomlinson
- LB Eric Kendricks
- LB Za'Darius Smith
In my opinion, those constituted smart moves for the franchise's long-term success. However, the roster now possesses less overall talent. Despite the undeniable dominance of star wide receiver Justin Jefferson and a strong pair of tackles, the offense is still led by an aging quarterback who likely finds himself in his final year in the Twin Cities, and he's playing behind an offensive line with a questionable interior.
The picture looks even gloomier on the other side of the ball with a defense void of playmakers. I have an abundance of respect for new defensive coordinator Brian Flores, but there's only so much he can do schematically with a unit incapable of generating natural pressure or locking down on the outside. As a result, I expect Flores to call a very aggressive defense with plenty of blitzing.
Despite popular opinion, that might not be the worst thing in the world for Baker Mayfield, who actually has a higher career touchdown-to-interception ratio against the blitz compared to when he doesn't. Mayfield struggles most when teams can generate natural pressure with more defenders back in coverage.
Ultimately, I'm not sure Minnesota can consistently get into the backfield — even against a vulnerable offensive line that had to deal with plenty of turnover due to offseason attrition as well as the transition from right to left tackle for Tristan Wirfs.
Additionally, I believe Tampa made a major upgrade at offensive coordinator, which should help address some of the early down woes we saw in 2022. This offense still has two elite wide receivers who can exploit a beatable Minnesota secondary.
On defense, the Bucs still have talent at all three levels. While they lack depth, that doesn't matter as much in the season opener.
To me, Tampa enters the season a bit undervalued. Remember, the Bucs made the postseason last year despite poor injury luck and an inefficiently called offense. Tom Brady's gone, but I expect this veteran-laden roster to surprise early in the season after being written off in the summer.
Trending: As a favorite of greater than four points, Kirk Cousins has gone just 11-18-1 ATS (37.9%) in his career, including 7-15-1 (31.8%) in home affairs.
Despite being extremely low on the season long prospects for this Colts team, I took the points with the divisional week 1 home dog. For what it's worth, I do think the Jaguars come into this season a bit overvalued in the market, which does align with this play.
Additionally, the uncertainty surrounding this new Colts offense with a first-time head coach (who certainly can scheme effective offenses) and a rookie quarterback should work in the Colts favor in their first regular season game together. For what it's worth, rookie quarterbacks starting in week 1 have gone 15-13 ATS over the past 20 seasons.
While Indy won't have the services of running back Jonathan Taylor, that could actually work in its favor against a very suspect Jaguars pass defense that remains vulnerable on the back end and has had to deal with a number of key injuries along the front 7 during camp.
This is just too many points for a home divisional dog in week 1 against a suspect defense
I wouldn't be surprised if the Colts pulled off the mini upset. Those seem to happen this very week in the AFC South more than any other division of late.
Trending: Divisional week 1 dogs that missed the playoffs the previous season have gone 58-27-2 (68.2%) ATS since 2003. That includes an astounding 41-17-1 (70.7%) ATS mark when getting more than a field goal, which would also apply to the Raiders, Panthers, and Rams this week.
I'm lower than the market on the Bears and higher on the Packers, so it didn't surprise me to see value on the small road pup.
I'm not a believer in Justin Fields until he shows me more from an accuracy and pocket-presence standpoint. Though his offensive line hasn't provided much help, pressure could plague him once again even after the front office attempted to upgrade his protection over the offseason.
For what it's worth, Fields threw zero touchdowns and three interceptions against the Packers last year compared to 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions in his other 13 games.
With projected starting guard Teven Jenkins injured, the Bears traded for Dan Feeney, who's a below-average interior offensive lineman. I'm assuming general manager Ryan Poles acquired him to primarily bolster depth. However, the issues don't stop there for the offensive line.
Projected starting center Cody Whitehair likely isn't ready to snap due to injury (same goes for Doug Kramer), he'll likely slide over to left guard where he played last year. That leaves Lucas Patrick at center — he last played there in 2021 and ranked 28th (minimum 500 snaps), per PFF. That's a lot of moving pieces for a unit that will also start a rookie at right tackle.
Meanwhile, the sample size is minuscule, but I like what I've seen from Jordan Love, who will have a much better offensive line to work behind, in addition to a number of young skill position players I'm high on. Love can also lean heavily on the rushing attack, as Green Bay did in a season sweep of its division rival in 2022, rushing 67 times for 381 yards (excluding kneels) at an average clip of 5.7 yards. For comparison, the Chargers allowed the highest yards per attempt last season at 5.4.
It also won't hurt to face a Chicago defense incapable of generating much pressure.
Don't forget the Bears had a historically bad defense last season (32nd in DVOA). They made some offseason changes, but not enough to substantially move the needle. It could also take some time for those new pieces to jell after dealing with a number of preseason injuries.
Looking just within a division certainly not known for its defensive prowess in 2023, you could argue the Bears have the worst position groups — except for linebacker (the least important in today's NFL) — after significant offseason upgrades. Green Bay possesses significantly more defensive talent, especially with a now presumably healthy shutdown corner in Jaire Alexander.
Trending: Head Coach Matt LaFleur owns a 13-4 ATS (76.5%) mark as an underdog, covering by just under four points per game. Having Aaron Rodgers at quarterback helped, but Jordan Love did cover as a road pup in Kansas City in his lone career start.
Teaser of the Week
Steelers +8.5 / Jets +8.5
Historically, 3, 4, 6, 7, 10 and 14 are the six most common margins of victory in the NFL. However, 3 and 7 are kings since games end on those two numbers at a significantly higher clip than the rest. Therefore, you almost always want to cross both when teasing a side.
From a purely mathematical standpoint, you give yourself an edge without taking anything else into account by simply crossing 3 and 7 with both parts of a teaser at -110. You may hear some bettors refer to doing this as the good ol' Wong teaser (in reference to gambling author Stanford Wong).
In order to break even on a 6-point teaser at -110, you need teams that have a greater than 72.4% chance of covering after being teased. If we look back in our Bet Labs database, all NFL regular season spreads since 2003 covered only 68.9% (6,962-3,149) of the time if teased six points over a sample set containing just over 10,000 data points. That obviously doesn't clear the hurdle rate of 72.4%.
The story changes if we filter for all teases that would've captured both the 3 and 7.
NFL regular season underdogs between +1.5 and +2.5 covered a 6-point teaser 75.4% of the time (407-133). And favorites between -7.5 and -8.5 have historically covered at a slightly higher clip of 77.2% (230-68). That gives us a total of 637-201 or 76.0%, which easily clears the breakeven rates for teasers at -110 and -120.
Those results capture the closing lines on all teams in those specific spread ranges. If you consider a few other factors, such as using underdogs in games with lower totals, you can potentially improve that percentage. Again, this analysis only applies to teasing NFL sides — not totals, which you should steer clear of teasing. And please never tease across zero.
It's worth noting that everything I've said is predicated on the fact that you have access to a reasonable teaser price (-120 or lower). The break-even point for a 6-point teaser at -130 odds suddenly jumps from 72.4% to 75.2% — which sits barely below the historical rate (76.0%) I illustrated above. Paying anything greater than -130 heavily tilts the edge in the book's favor and I personally wouldn't go above -120.
For this week's teaser, I'm using a pair dogs that fit the above criteria in the Steelers and Jets. From a matchup perspective, New York and Pittsburgh's ferocious defensive lines could cause chaos against two offensive lines with question marks coming into the season. I believe both will stay within one possession at the minimum.