Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (0-0) at New England Patriots (0-0)

These two teams went in opposite directions talent wise this off-season. The Patriots most obvious loss was quarterback Tom Brady, but Brady showed decline last season and could be adequately replaced by a healthy Cam Newton. The Patriots’ bigger concern is on defense. The Patriots had far and away the best defense in the league last season, finishing with a 29.64% first down rate allowed, significantly better than even the 2nd ranked Steelers, who allowed a 32.43% first down rate, but they only return 5 of their top-11 in snaps played from last season’s defense.

The Patriots lost a pair of players to opt outs (Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung), a trio to free agency (Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Danny Shelton), and another in Duron Harmon who was traded. Harmon and Chung can be replaced effectively by free agent acquisition Adrian Phillips and rookie Kyle Dugger and the Patriots have great coaching and still have a good amount of talent, including promising young players like Chase Winovich, Jawhaun Bentley, and Josh Uche who could breakout in a significant role, but there’s no doubt the Patriots are worse on defense. 

On offense, Cam Newton will benefit from a healthier offensive line than Tom Brady had last season and a healthier Julian Edelman as well, but the Patriots did lose right tackle Marcus Cannon to an opt out and still don’t have proven skill position talent behind Edelman, which was a big part of the reason why they finished just 21st in first down rate last season. The Dolphins, meanwhile, added talent on both sides of the ball, adding much needed serviceable running backs and offensive linemen and adding key defenders like former Byron Jones and Patriot Kyle Van Noy, and are looking to improve on their 5-11 record from last season.

All that being said, I think there’s still a big gap between these two teams talent wise. The Patriots are unlikely to be a great offense, but there’s enough talent on their defense that they could be able to be at least above average on that side of the ball, especially if young players are coached up and come along in significant roles, while the Dolphins are starting with a lower floor than most realize. They did manage 5 wins last season, but they were consistently blown out and finished 30th in first down rate differential at -5.49% and last in point differential at -188. 

That’s despite the fact that they got close to a career year from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who single handedly won at least a couple games last season. Now in his age 38 season, Fitzpatick is unlikely to be as good and it’ll be hard for rookie Tua Tagovailoa to be as good as Fitzpatrick was last season either, whenever he is able to take the field. The Dolphins are a more complete football team, but might not necessarily win more games. I still have 7 points between these two teams in my roster rankings and even though the Patriots won’t have fans in the stands, we’re still getting some line value with them as just 6.5-point home favorites. This isn’t one I would bet, but I like the Patriots for pick ‘em purposes.

New England Patriots 24 Miami Dolphins 16

Pick against the spread: New England -6.5

Confidence: Low

Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Seattle Seahawks (0-0) at Atlanta Falcons (0-0)

The Seahawks weren’t as good as their 11-5 record suggested last season, as they went 10-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less and just 1-3 in games decided by more than a touchdown. They also lost Jadeveon Clowney this off-season and he was arguably their best defensive player last season. Despite that, I still have the Seahawks ranked 11th in my roster rankings, due to the incredible job they’ve done rebuilding their secondary. 

This off-season, the Seahawks added cornerback Quinton Dunbar and safety Jamal Adams to a unit that already saw significant improvement down the stretch last season after adding Quandre Diggs in a deadline trade. Including top cornerback Shaq Griffin, the Seahawks have arguably the best secondary in the NFL, which buoys a roster that is otherwise underwhelming around the quarterback and that is especially weak on the defensive line.

That being said, I don’t really like the Seahawks’ chances week 1, for a couple reasons. For one, they typically are a much better team later in the season, going 38-39-6 ATS in week 9 or earlier and 49-26-2 ATS in weeks 10-17 since Pete Carroll’s first season in 2010. Breaking that down even further, the Seahawks are just 6-13-1 ATS in weeks 1 and 2 over that stretch. This is a well coached team that normally figures it out by the end of the season, but they don’t usually start strong.

The second reason I don’t really like the Seahawks’ chances this week is simply that the Falcons won’t be an easy opponent. I have the Seahawks 11th in my roster rankings, but the Falcons are just one spot behind. I don’t have them making the playoffs, but that’s primarily due to a brutal schedule. The Falcons finished last season 7th in first down rate and 24th in first down rate allowed, giving them the 15th ranked first down rate differential in the league, and offensive performance tends to be much more consistent on a year-to-year basis than defensive performance. They also enter the season without injury concerns.

The Falcons won’t need to have a great or even a good defense to be a competitive football team and if they can be even just a few spots better than last season on defense while continuing their offensive performance, they could easily be a playoff caliber team. Given that, I think they’re a little underrated, opening the season as 2.5 point home underdogs. The Falcons won’t have their normal homefield advantage and very few games are decided by 3 points or fewer, so this won’t be a big bet, but I would consider increasing the play if this line happens to move to a field goal.

Atlanta Falcons 26 Seattle Seahawks 23 Upset Pick +120

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +2.5

Confidence: Medium

Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Chicago Bears (0-0) at Detroit Lions (0-0)

The Bears won 12 games in 2018 on the strength of a defense that led the NFL in first down rate allowed, but in 2019 they fell to just 8-8 and were noticeably worse on both sides of the ball. Part of it was their schedule got significantly tougher after facing one of the easiest in 2018, but their defense lost a pair of starters to free agency, lost their defensive coordinator to a head coaching job, and then lost Akiem Hicks for an extended period of time due to injury, after having the best injury luck in the league on defense in 2018, while their offense continued to have issues at the quarterback position and couldn’t hide them nearly as easily as they did in 2018 with their run game and offensive line struggling as well.

In 2020, I expect things to get worse. After some off-season departures and opt outs, the Bears have just 6 players remaining from their top-11 in snaps played from their dominant 2018 defense and all six players are coming off of down years relative to 2018 when Vic Fangio was defensive coordinator. They’ve also done little to replace the players they’ve lost and their one key off-season addition Robert Quinn is set to miss what would have been his debut with the team due to injury. The Bears still ranked 8th in first down rate allowed last season, but this year I don’t expect them to be nearly that good, especially without Quinn. On offense, the quarterback situation has yet to be resolved and their offensive line and running game figure to continue to be mediocre at best.

The Bears look like a bottom-5 team on paper, but this line suggests they’re essentially on par with the Lions, favoring the Lions by just 2 points. The Lions won’t have much homefield advantage due to pandemic restrictions, but very few games are decided by fewer than 2 points, so the Lions really just need to win to cover. The Lions probably won’t be a playoff team, but they should at least be competitive, similar to the start of last season when the Lions had a healthy Matt Stafford. The Lions aren’t fully healthy with top wide receiver Kenny Golladay out with injury, among other minor absences, but they were one of the most injury plagued teams in the league last season and even in their current injury state, they still have a substantial edge on the Bears in my roster rankings. I have this line calculated at Detroit -6, so we’re getting a great value with them at -2. This is my Pick of the Week.

Detroit Lions 24 Chicago Bears 17

Pick against the spread: Detroit -2

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (0-0) at Jacksonville Jaguars (0-0)

This is the biggest line of the opening week, with the Colts favored by 8 points on the road in Jacksonville, but I don’t think this line is high enough. Not only will the Jaguars barely have any homefield advantage with limited fans, but there’s a massive talent gap between these two teams. The Colts were just a middling team last season, finishing 16th in the NFL in first down rate differential at 0.79%, but they get a significant upgrade at quarterback going from Jacoby Brissett to Philip Rivers, they get TY Hilton back healthy after an injury riddled 2019 season, and they added a massive upgrade on defense in DeForest Buckner, who they acquired via trade from the 49ers.

The Jaguars, meanwhile, finished last season dead last in first down rate differential at -6.64%, got substantially worse after trading away Jalen Ramsey, with a -9.00% first down rate differential from week 7 on, and they shed even more talent this off-season, including key players like Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue. On paper, they are the worst team in the league, while the Colts rank in the top-5 in my roster rankings. Given that and the lack of homefield advantage, this line should be closer to Indianapolis -12, so they’re worth a bet at -8.

Indianapolis Colts 30 Jacksonville Jaguars 17

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis -8

Confidence: Medium

Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Green Bay Packers (0-0) at Minnesota Vikings (0-0)

When these two teams met last season, the Packers won both matchups, outscoring the Vikings by 18 points and winning the first down rate battle by 10.32% between the two games. The Packers also won more games overall, winning the NFC North at 13-3, with the Vikings settling for a wild card at 10-6. However, overall, the Vikings actually outplayed the Packers on the year, with edges in first down rate differential (+3.34% vs. +1.15%), point differential (+104 vs. +63), and DVOA (+15.4% vs. +7.7%). 

There is a lot of talk about how the Packers didn’t do anything notable to improve their weaknesses this season, but the Vikings had a much worse off-season and are missing key contributors from last season. On offense, they traded away Stefon Diggs, who was their top wide receiver last season, and replaced him with a rookie first round pick. On defense, defensive end Everson Griffen and defensive tackle Linval Joseph left in free agency. The Vikings brought in Yannick Ngakoue and Michael Pierce to replace them, but the latter opted out of the season, while the former will start the season as a replacement for other starting defensive end Danielle Hunter, one of the top edge defenders in the league, who will miss at least the first 3 weeks of the season with injury. Without him, the Vikings have a very underwhelming defensive line, with Ngakoue as their only real threat.

The Packers are missing an offensive lineman to do injury, but have arguably the deepest offensive line in the league, with 6 capable starters on the roster. Overall, I give the Packers a 3.5 point edge over the Vikings based on the current state of their rosters. This is technically a road game for the Packers, but the Vikings won’t have any fans in the stadium due to pandemic restrictions and the Packers don’t have to travel far. This line favors the Vikings by 2.5 points, but my calculated line is the opposite favoring the Packers by 2.5. I don’t love line value between -3/+3 because so few games are decided by 2 or fewer points, but the Packers are worth a small bet at +2.5 and there’s good value with the money line at +120 as well. If this line moves up to +3, I will increase this bet.

Green Bay Packers 23 Minnesota Vikings 20 Upset Pick +120

Pick against the spread: Green Bay +2.5

Confidence: Medium

Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (0-0) at San Francisco 49ers (0-0)

Every year there is at least one team that proves to be overhyped. The Cardinals seem like the leading candidate going into this season. Much of their hype is based around second year quarterback Kyler Murray, who many are expecting will follow in the footsteps of Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson and breakout as an elite quarterback in his second season, after a nondescript rookie year. 

However, Mahomes and Jackson are the exception to the rule when you look historically and Murray has a long way to go to become that level of a quarterback. He doesn’t have the size of either quarterback, the athleticism of Lamar Jackson, or the throwing ability of Patrick Mahomes and finished his rookie year as just Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible. Despite that, he enters the season with the 6th highest MVP odds, ahead of much more established players like DeShaun Watson, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz, and Drew Brees.

That hype is showing up in this line, favoring the reigning NFC Champion 49ers by just 6.5 points at home over the Cardinals. The Cardinals have more talent around the quarterback this season with Kenyan Drake and DeAndre Hopkins, but they still have issues on the offensive line and their defense, which finished last season 30th in first down rate allowed, isn’t noticeably improved either. The Cardinals should be a better team this season, but they finished last season 27th in first down rate differential last season at -3.87%, so they have a long way to improve.

The 49ers, on the other hand, finished last season 2nd in first down rate differential at +5.29%. This season, they have injuries in the receiving corps and they won’t have their normal homefield advantage in this one, but they’re still close to last year in terms of talent level. It’s typically tough for teams to be as good as the 49ers were last season in back-to-back years, but the typical risk factors for regression aren’t really present here. 

The 49ers didn’t benefit from an unsustainably high turnover margin (+4). They didn’t win an unsustainably high amount of close games (5-3 in games decided by 7 points or fewer). They didn’t stay unsustainably healthy, actually having the 6th most adjusted games lost to injury of any team in the league last season. They also mostly avoided the significant personnel losses that high level teams often have, ranking 4th in the NFL in snaps returned from last season and generally doing a good job of replacing the few key players they lost. They also bring back all key members of their coaching staff. They should be able to win this one with relative ease, so I like them a lot if you can get them less than a touchdown. Including playoffs, the 49ers won 10 of their 15 games by a touchdown or more last season.

San Francisco 49ers 27 Arizona Cardinals 17

Pick against the spread: San Francisco -6.5

Confidence: High

Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Houston Texans (0-0) at Kansas City Chiefs (0-0)

The 2020 NFL season is underway, with the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs playing host to the Houston Texans, a team they defeated 51-31 in the AFC divisional round, en route to their Super Bowl victory. This season will be unlike any other, with pandemic restrictions significantly reducing stadium capacity, in many cases down to zero. In the MLB, we’ve seen next to no benefit to being the home team in front of an empty stadium, with the average MLB home team actually being outscored by 0.02 runs per game, when teams normally have an advantage of 0.15 runs per game at home. 

There is established sleep science that sleeping in a familiar bed leads to enhanced performance, so I wouldn’t say there will be no homefield advantage this season, especially with there being some fans in attendance in many markets, and with home teams having access to fake crowd noise to try to make life more difficult for opposing offenses, but it is clear that the standard three point advantage for homefield can’t be used this season. Instead, I would recommend something in the 1-1.5 point range, depending on whether or not limited fans are allowed.

They will be in this one, with up to 16,000 fans joining the Chiefs in celebrating their Super Bowl victory. Super Bowl winners normally do pretty well in their first game back, especially at home, going 10-4-1 ATS since 2004, but this line seems pretty inflated, favoring the Chiefs by 9.5 points. If the Chiefs defense plays like it did down the stretch last season, this line is justifiable, but their defensive talent is suspect outside of their top guys, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they regressed back to their early 2019 season form. I wouldn’t recommend betting on the Texans, who are in worse shape than they were last season, but there’s more value taking the points for pick ‘em purposes. You can read more in depth on both teams and others in my season previews.

Kansas City Chiefs 31 Houston Texans 23

Pick against the spread: Houston +9.5

Confidence: None