You’re very welcome back to a special preseason edition of Inside Slant, a column normally reserved for the bumpy ride of the regular season dipping its foot into the comparatively calm waters of the offseason. As our football hibernation comes to a shuddering halt, it is about time to dust off our punters’ caps and turn our attention to the season ahead – and specifically, how we can get ahead of the pack with our wagers and mine some real value.
By the time training camp rolls around after a barren spell without football, it is easy – perhaps even understandable – to get caught up in the chatter.
‘This team will be better this year’, they prognosticate from their plush sets on television, adjusting their ties and shirt sleeves with self-assured sniffs.
‘With Player X back, expect this team to put together a deep playoff run.’ While one player can certainly make a difference, football is never that simple and often the more nuanced analysis is eschewed in this quick-fix world for a bite-size chunk of predictability.
Expectations and attempting to predict what will happen based on last year is, quite simply, folly.
Of course, we are under no illusions that everything we predict has its share of risk, but that is part of the fun. I always find that analysing win totals for the season is an excellent place to start to get the lay of the land. The totals are released by Vegas at an early stage; many are subsequently betted on heavily, while others are just right and avoid any major action.
Finding the soft underbelly of the totals is the entertaining part, and it is exactly what I will endeavour to do with this column.
Where is the value in the 2017 NFL win totals, and should we pounce now while the meat is fresh or let it simmer a bit before making our move?
Note: My source for these win totals was www.footballlocks.com
The Value Plays
Oakland Raiders UNDER 9.5 wins
If the 2017 Raiders were a stock on the market, you could make equally compelling cases to buy and sell. I will be falling on the latter’s side, however, as this feels like a team poised for a step back.
The Raiders have the distinct misfortune of playing in one of the most gruesome divisions in football; no quarter is asked or given in the AFC West, and it has gone from afterthought to true powerhouse in a matter of years. The Broncos, Chiefs and Chargers (don’t sleep on them) will pose major challenges to a developing defense. Each division rival is built to counter what is perhaps the Raiders’ greatest strength – their offensive line. Front seven players like Joey Bosa, Von Miller and Justin Houston will be champing at the bit to derail the Raider division title procession that many are predicting.
If you need more reason to take the under, look no further than the schedule. The Raiders have only seven true home games; one has been moved to Mexico City, and that is against the AFC favourite Patriots. On the road, they must contend with cross-country road trips to Washington, Buffalo, Miami, Tennessee and Philadelphia. Whether you believe in it or not, travel time can disrupt a team’s rhythm and tiredness can build up quickly.
It is easy to get caught up in the Oakland hype, but the prudent option might be to bet the regression factor.
Los Angeles Chargers OVER 7.5 wins
The downfall of one AFC West team could be the boon the other needs to re-establish control and perhaps even take the division. The Los Angeles Chargers (it still sounds weird when you say it and looks weird when you type it) are poised for a rebound – provided the raft of injuries that has become an unwanted bedfellow for this team can die down.
It seems stalwart Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has had to deal from a shallow deck for years, making fantasy assets out of the most unlikely players as he absorbs hit after hit. The probable loss of rookie phenom receiver Mike Williams will hurt, granted, but the return of Keenan Allen and the development of Hunter Henry and Tyrell Williams should offset that.
The schedule features some tough games, but a road test at Denver to kick off is followed by three home games in a row as the team get comfortable in their new, more compact digs. The appearance of teams like Cleveland, Jacksonville and the New York Jets should see the Chargers pick off a few victories. After that, it is simply a matter of splitting with their division rivals and you’ve almost reached the magic number.
People don’t want to trust this team, but they should.
Green Bay Packers OVER 10.5 wins
The mark of 10.5 wins is a high bar for the Packers, but wouldn’t you rather place your faith in a team led by Aaron Rodgers than be a doubter and watch as they sweep the NFC North?
Defensively, the Packers may not be on par with most of the league – the embarrassing performance in the NFC Championship still haunts them – but the offensive firepower can make up for it. There is an innate sense of ‘R-E-L-A-X’ with this roster whereby no matter what happens they find a way to pull things out of the fire.
The NFC North could be a cake walk for the presumptive champions in 2017, with the Bears languishing in rebuild mode, the Lions playing roulette with their fourth-quarter comebacks and the Vikings, well, having more questions than answers. It’s never an easy path to win the Black and Blue division, but I feel more confident about the Packers than almost any other team to win their division this year.
The question is, do you feel the same way?
Atlanta Falcons (O/U 9.5 wins)
Dan Quinn has quite a job on his hands to revitalise the confidence of a team whose belief must have been on the floor in the moments after the devastating Super Bowl loss. They say time heals all wounds; Quinn will hope that an offseason of rest and reflection will have these players thinking what could be rather than what could have been.
The narrative on Super Bowl losing teams is quite clear at this point; if your season extended into February, you more than likely took more of a beating and therefore need more time to recover. Vegas has set the Falcons’ win total at 9.5, which to me feels just about right – the Goldilocks win totals that is so difficult to take a side on.
Even if you buy into the story that the Falcons, who return almost fully intact from last season, will take the inevitable step backward, a nine or 10-win campaign seems well within reach, with perhaps seven or eight wins their floor. The NFC South should be highly competitive this year; one of these teams is going to finish with a sub-.500 record.
Which way will the pendulum swing for the Falcons? My advice is to let it swing and stay well out of its way.
New York Jets (O/U 4.5 wins)
This is one that, if you managed to get it a higher number earlier in the summer, then kudos to you. If not, we look back in regret at the move we didn’t make when the Jets were telling us with their roster moves that they had no inclination to compete this season. They say a team can’t lie to you with their personnel decisions; the Jets have pretty much been transparent with theirs all offseason.
So the question you need to ask yourself is this: how low can you go? Are the Jets really that bad – ‘worst team in the league’ bad? Quarterback play will likely mean they won’t be very competitive in many games, but their defense is passable in some areas and could keep them in contests they have no right to be in.
Still, to me 4.5 wins is just too low to stomach for a season-long bet. There is too much talent on this team to simply fold – and there are winnable games on the schedule. It’s a stay away for me, folks.
New England Patriots (O/U 12.5 wins)
The rich get richer – or so it seems with the 2017 Patriots, fresh off a Super Bowl title in the most improbable of comebacks. The additions of Stephon Gilmore and Mike Gillislee, the return of Rob Grownkowski and the injection of Brandin Cooks’ speed all point to a very healthy team ready to repeat as champions.
Barring catastrophic injuries to key players, we should see the Patriots once again waltz their way to the AFC East crown and a bye in the playoffs. However, reaching 12 or 13 wins would appear to be the safe mark; Bill Belichick, in fact, was swatting away questions from journalists this week about an undefeated season. Sometimes Vegas hits it right on the nose. The wise guys in the desert lost a lot of money last season as the public hammered the Patriots’ betting lines; they couldn’t make it high enough, and the public kept winning.
The best bet here might be to adopt the strategy of parlaying the Patriots with another team on a week-to-week basis rather than trying for a season-long wager.
Jacksonville Jaguars (O/U 6.5 wins)
The buzz around the Jaguars is very positive, and rightfully so when you take a look at their roster top to bottom – well, except maybe the quarterback. Blake Bortles took a major step back in 2016, with his mechanics faltering and a general lack of confidence pervading his game. The blueprint in Jacksonville is to limit his involvement as much as possible and let rookie running back Leonard Fournette and the star-encrusted defense do the work.
But how realistic is hiding your quarterback in the modern game? NFL Films’ Greg Cosell has spoken at length about this in the past, and one of his mantras is that no matter how good the rest of your team is, at some point your quarterback will have to make some ‘big boy’ throws on third downs. I don’t have confidence Bortles can do that.
Sometimes preseason games can affect these lines, and if this were to go up to 7, I would jump all over it. There is an innate lack of trust in my bones when it comes to the Jaguars – until I see it on the field, I’ll struggle to buy in. If anything, the right play here might be to take the under. The AFC South, though much maligned, will be a feeding frenzy this year, with teams sniping wins from each other.
Arizona Cardinals (O/U 8.5 wins)
There is an undeniable ‘last hurrah’ feeling about the 2017 Cardinals. Bruce Arians, who has admitted it may be his final year amid a cancer scare, is speaking like a man ready to enjoy the twilight years of his life away from the game. Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald are more than likely going to walk off into the sunset together come the end of the year. Defensively, the loss of Calais Campbell may hurt more than the team is currently letting on.
Despite the gloomy picture I just painted, there are reasons for optimism: a game-breaking running back in David Johnson, the return of Tyrann Mathieu and the fact that the feeling of ‘the end is nigh’ could actually inspire this team to a better effort.
The schedule will be tricky to navigate, with several long road trips along the way. If you ask me, 8.5 wins seems a tad optimistic – although you have to think Seattle and Arizona will be the dominant teams in this division and should take two wins apiece from San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively. Matchups against the AFC South have inflated this total as well, but I have a lingering doubt about this team.
I’m afraid this is one of those ‘throw your hands up in the air’ situations, but if I had to lean one way, it would be to the under.
If you have any questions on preseason bets, don't hesitate to drop me a line on Twitter @davlar87
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