Our new NFL columnist, Mike Carlson, provides his three best bets for the first week of the season and thinks Houston have got more than enough in their locker to overpower Jacksonville...
"With Houston's Fearsome Foursome of Watt, Clowney, Mercilus, and Reader pushing the pocket, Bortles may not get the chance to break the pocket where he's most effective. The Jags were planning on a dominant run game with rookie Leonard Fournette, we'll see if their line can help him deliver."
The funny thing about this past weekend's massive cull of NFL rosters (the teams cut from 90 to 53 players all at once, rather than in two stages as in the past) was that the rich just seemed to get richer.
New England, Seattle and Pittsburgh were among the most active teams, and they all seemed to help themselves (the Pats, in effect, traded fifth corner Justin Coleman and a draft pick to Seattle for backup DE/OLB Cassius Marsh). The weird thing being the Pats had originally signed Coleman off the Seahawks' practice squad. The thing with good teams is they keep track of who can help them and make those specific moves. They don't simply accumulate draft picks or space under the cap to use in the future: they're constantly trying to upgrade and fill gaps.
Because of the 90 man rosters, fewer starters played less time in the last two exhibition games than usual, making it harder to judge exactly how good and how ready many teams are. This is made even tougher because of the restrictions on contact in pre-season practices. One thing we are seeing is that the gap in the nature of the game between college and the NFL gets wider all the time, and the trend to spread offenses has reduced a lot of the work on fundamentals players need to succeed in the NFL, where some of that spread philosophy has taken over, but much of it hasn't. It makes me feel less confident than ever picking to start the season, but like the season itself, you have to start somewhere.
Houston's fearsome foursome can come out on top
Best Bet: Houston (-5.5 @ 20/21) v Jacksonville (Betfair Sportsbook).
This is the story of two hurricanes, the one the Texans will rise out of to play and the one that may well hit Florida just as the Jags start play in Texas. But you could encapsulate this game in just a few words showing why Houston should be favourites: J.J. Watt is back for the Texans, and Blake Bortles is back for the Jags. With Houston's Fearsome Foursome of Watt, Clowney, Mercilus, and Reader pushing the pocket, Bortles may not get the chance to break the pocket where he's most effective.
The Jags were planning on a dominant run game with rookie Leonard Fournette, we'll see if their line can help him deliver. Houston will have to rely solely on Lamar Miller, because of banged-up backups, but there are worse fates. I kind of like the Rams (-4 AT 10/11) v Indianapolis even though Jared Goff is still their quarterback, mostly because Scott Tolzien gets the start for Indy, who really have very little around him to make his life easier.
Improved Los Angeles offense will make the difference
Value Bet: Los Angeles Chargers to beat Denver Broncos @ 7/5 (Betfair Sportsbook)
I like the Chargers to win this one straight up but giving them points (+3.5) seems like a wise move to me too at 4/5. Here's the hesitation: if it's a close one, teams tend to run out of gas in the fourth quarter at Mile High, because they aren't used to breathing without oxygen. Plus, the Broncos have Brandon McManus, who's a money kicker most of the time (nothing with kickers is ever sure) while the Chargers cut Josh 'Rambo' Lambo and have undrafted rookie Young Hoe Koo from Korea via Georgia Southern as their new kicker. A pressure kick in Denver in your first game is a pressure kick.
I see LA's offense as being much improved, since some of the weapons are healthy for a change, and their D picking up right where it left off, with Gus Bradley the new coordinator under new head coach Anthony Lynn. Trevor Siemian, the Passing Primate, is not as bad as cynics are making out, but that's faint praise: what would be interesting is choosing between Paxton Lynch and Brock 'The Heist' Osweiler if Siemian is ineffective.
Aaron Rodgers can guide Packers past Seahawks
Outside Bet: Green Bay Packers to beat Seattle Seahawks by 1-6 points @ 23/10 (Betfair Sportsbook)
I've picked the Packers, but it's always easy to see the Seahawks winning this one: their D is perfectly capable of disrupting Mike McCarthy's pretty straightforward passing game, which relies a lot on Aaron Rodgers keeping plays alive. Ty Montgomery will find the Seattle front, newly reinforced by Sheldon Richardson, who was liberated from Jets' limbo last week, hard to run against, but ex-Packer Eddie Lacy will find it hard running behind the Seattle O line, which is put together in the random sort of way you might get five numbers to fill a bingo card.
Amazingly, the Packers added not one but two players in free agency: Martellus Bennett at tight end and Ahmad Brooks at linebacker will both help. If you don't like that one, keep to the Northland and try New Orleans (+3.5 at 4/5) at Minnesota.