We're delighted to announce that we have signed up Mike Carlson as an NFL columnist ahead of the new season. In his first column, 'Iron Mike' breaks down his thoughts for the upcoming campaign and provides his best bets for the 2018 Super Bowl...
"The rush to anoint the New England Patriots favourites for another Super Bowl, not to mention the constant raising the question of whether they can finish undefeated like the 2007 team, is a signifier to me less of the Pats' quality than the instability of quality itself around the league."
Welcome to the first of this season's columns. Next Friday we'll begin in earnest, with picks of the weekend's best games, followed on Monday by a wrap-up of the weekend action. But this week I'll start with an overview of the season to come...
Don't get carried away with New England
The rush to anoint the New England Patriots favourites for another Super Bowl, not to mention the constant raising the question of whether they can finish undefeated like the 2007 team, is a signifier to me less of the Pats' quality than the instability of quality itself around the league. There are good teams, sure, but very few equally solid on both sides of the ball. And very few as consistent as New England.
Which is why I tell you not to back them to go 16-0. And I said that before Rob Ninkovich unexpectedly retired, and top receiver Julian Edleman and Nink's replacement, rookie Derek Rivers were both lost for the season to knee injuries.
Last year, they endured some changes, not least losing Tom Brady for the first four games (3-1, without him; 11-1 with) and trading away a Pro Bowl calibre linebacker in mid-season. They won 14 because they are always well prepared, they usually execute, and they played a relatively weak schedule where some teams were missing their own best QBs. And then in the playoffs they got the breaks.
'Luck is the residue of design,' the baseball GM Branch Rickey said (but he was stealing it from John Milton). No one is better at the fine detail of design than New England, but they've been oddly unlucky at times during the Belichick era. But no team is that lucky. The Pats are 30/1 to go 16-0, 50/1 to have an unbeaten Super Bowl year. Those may look great, but they actually seem like short odds to me. There are other ways to go...
AFC Conference Season Preview
The Pats will win the East (11/5) because the sun rises in the east, water flows downhill and footballs are inflated to 12.5psi. That's why they're 1/8 on. But the over/under on Pats wins is 12.5 (EVS for 13, 8/11 for 12 or less). That's where the key to their season lies, as 12 wins should cement the division.
Miami could do well enough to sneak a wild card if Jay Cutler turns into Jay Cutler or something; working with coach Adam Gase in Chicago was crucial to his signing; backup David Fales has a similar history and has fared well in preseason.
But the problem with preseason is that it is preseason, not season. Buffalo have joined the Jets in all-out rebuild mode, after Rex Ryan, the Donald Trump of coaches, was fired. The Jets are 4/9 on to go under 4.5 wins (13/8 over). It would take a Jets fan to take the over.
I see it Steelers, Bengals, Ravens, Browns. If the Ravens signed Colin Kaepernick I might take them over 8.5 wins (at 13/8). Pittsburgh are 5/1 to win the conference isn't a bad shout.
The Browns simply released Joe Haden, a former Pro Bowl corner, rather than trade him; they are moving on and with rookie DeShone Kizer winning the QB battle and overall number one pick Myles Garrett providing pass rush, going over 4.5 wins at 4/5 on may be tempting.
Over 8.5 wins could take this division. Houston won without a QB last year and are 21/10 to do it again. The Titans could have won last year; if you trust Marcus Mariota to stay health and Mike Mularkey to get the best from them then 13/8 is attractive. The Jags are EVS to finish under 6.5 wins. The Colts, until we know about Andrew Luck, who knows?
This one's very well balanced. The Chiefs at 11/5 might be the best bet, though the runner-up in the division might be better placed for a playoff run. The Chargers at 9/2 are tempting, though the loss of rookie lineman Forrest 'Gump' Lamp was a bad sign.
Denver have a stellar D and Oakland have a stellar O if Marshawn Lynch is back to his old form. If Trevor Siemian, the Passing Primate, comes through at QB don't discount the Broncos; if the Raiders back seven comes through on D, watch out for the Raiders.
Pittsburgh at 5/1 might be a better bet than New England at 11/5. Oakland, Denver, and KC are bunched together, in that order; the Chiefs are longest shots at 10/1. Dark horse bettors might be grabbing the Titans (16/1) or Dolphins (22/1).
Almost that time. pic.twitter.com/KxaNHDQmm2? Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) August 26, 2017
NFC Conference Season Preview
The Giants at 7/4 are just behind favourites Dallas at 13/8; this is a division where a different team seems to win each year. New York are the Denver of the NFC; but Eli Manning has receivers if his line holds up, and Jason Pierre-Paul looks back to his 2015 form on D.
The Eagles are flattered a bit at 7/2, while Washington at 5/1 reflects the question marks in most areas of a nonetheless talented team.
This has been Aaron Rodgers' division lately, which is why the Packers are 4/9 on, but have they done enough to play offense without depending on his ability to generate plays himself? Ahmad Brooks could be a valuable late addition to their D.
The Vikings are my favourite dark horse and are already 3/1: they need rookie Dalvin Cook to take pressure off Sam Bradford. The Bears (25/1) look improved, and rookie QB Mitch Trubisky could replace Mike Glennon the first time Glennon falters, while the Lions just made Matt Stafford the league's highest paid player and sit at 11/2.
Will Atlanta be better with offensive play caller Kyle Shanahan gone and without rookie pass rusher Tak McKinney? Will they recover from their fourth quarter collapse in the Super Bowl? At 13/8 favourites, it seems the anticipation is they will.
Carolina are as chaotic as Washington in the front office, and need rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel to energise their offense.
The Saints have had three 7-9 seasons in a row, decent O, horrible D each time, and might not be able to improve in this division, while Tampa, who went 9-7 last year, especially with DeSean Jackson and rookie tight end OJ Howard added to their offense. At 10/3 they might be a long shot bet.
Seattle remain the best of the west, even though George Fant's injury means they will be doing the usual grab-bag shuffle on the O line. Eddie Lacy needs to stay slim and CJ Prosise needs to stay healthy, but they could be a powerful 1-2 punch on the ground, and the D will be strong as ever. That's why they're 3/10 on favourites.
The Cardinals are making yet another 'one last push' for vets Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald, and in David Johnson have fantasy football's unanimous number-one pick. But they keep needing to patch the defense.
The Rams have a new head coach, Sean McVay, who likes to run the ball, which is good because Jared Goff is their QB. Wade Phillips is the new defensive coordinator, and his teams always improve; they're 25/1. The 49ers brought in Kyle Shanahan, and have surprised in pre-season. They're 40/1 and 11/10 to go under 4.5.
Seattle and Green Bay are joint favourites at 5/1. Either would be favourite against the other at home in January. The defending champs Atlanta are right behind them at 11/2. Tasty long shots include Dallas (6/1), Giants (9/1) and Vikings (12/1).
Super Bowl Winners
The Pats are not a bad bet at 4/1, but a flutter on Seattle at 10/1 or the Steelers at 11/1 seems reasonable, and Denver or the Chiefs at 20/1 is tempting. Minnesota would be the first team ever to host the Super Bowl in their own stadium should they get there, and they're 25/1 if they do.
#OddsOnThat NFL Regular Season Specials
Green Bay Packers & Pittsburgh Steelers both make the Play-Offs - 4/6
Cam Newton to have 4000+ passing yards & 400+ rushing yards - 11/4
Oakland Raiders & Tampa Bay Buccaneers both make the Play-Offs - 7/2
Houston Texans & Minnesota Vikings both make the Play-Offs - 5/1
Julio Jones most receiving yards & LeVeon Bell most rushing yards - 20/1
Head to the Betfair Sportsbook for even more NFL season specials