The wait is finally over. The NFL season kicks off on Thursday night when the Kansas City Chiefs host the Detroit Lions. With the season opener approaching, the real work starts now. Today, we dive back into the weekly cadence that will become part of our lives for the next five months.
Mondays are for scouring through the opening spreads and identifying games hovering around the key numbers. A few days later, we'll be glued to the midweek injury reports and the line moves they produce once they start being released on Wednesday. It’s all about timing and giving yourself the best chance to win by getting the best number.
So let’s start early by locking in a few totals. Last year was a season of defenses punching back. After allowing more than 23 points per game the previous year, defensive coordinators made schematic adjustments to limit explosive plays and overall team scoring dropped to 21.9. Teams only averaged 21 points per game through the first three weeks, creating a nice window to open the season where unders were a very valuable bet. Almost two-thirds of the games in Weeks 1 and 2 went under the closing total, including 11 of the 16 in the opening week.
Will defenses continue to have success to start the season, or will offenses successfully counter and stop the three-year scoring decline? We will have to take a wait-and-see approach, but it’s definitely something to keep in the back of your mind while enjoying the slate on Sunday.
Now let’s get to the first bet that I locked in for Sunday. It’s a game where I think both offenses will want to slow the game down to help build the confidence of the veteran quarterbacks.
The Raiders have won six straight versus the Broncos, sweeping the series in each of the past three seasons. However, none of those wins came in Denver during the month of September. That’s key because the Broncos’ home-field advantage is at its greatest early on when their opponents' conditioning isn’t at full-strength to deal with playing at altitude.
I fully expect new Denver coach Sean Payton to lean into this with a heavy dose of the running game. Wearing down a Raiders defensive front that finished 26th in rushing success rate allowed accomplishes two things. It keeps their pass rush off balance, and it allows Russell Wilson to operate under optimal conditions against one of the league's most leaky secondaries. It’s the ideal situation in terms of improving Wilson’s confidence without the pressure of putting the offense on his shoulders. Payton will prioritize efficiency and chew up the clock in the process.
The Raiders should go after Denver in similar fashion. New QB Jimmy Garoppolo is at his best when he throws short passes over the middle of the field and allows his receivers to move the chains with yards after the catch. Sustaining drives won’t be easy against a Broncos defense that ranked fifth in EPA allowed per dropback. Raiders coach Josh McDaniels will likely have to turn to his workhorse running back, whose first game after missing the entire offseason will be at elevation. Integrating a new quarterback without the best version of Josh Jacobs is going to make moving the ball a real struggle. Las Vegas was also 26th in converting red-zone trips to touchdowns last year. Do you think Garoppolo fixes that against this Denver defense on the road? I have my doubts.
The game is currently sitting on the key number of 44 at BetMGM. Market-wide it opened at 44.5, so the slight movement has been toward the under. The total mirrors last season's average closing total across all teams for the entire season (44), indicating the market views this as an average game in terms of points expected. For the reasons noted above, I don’t see it that way. We have two quarterbacks with a lot to prove in their first games in new offensive systems. I will put my money on both teams utilizing a conservative approach in the opener. Bet the Under 44.