It is the opening week in the National Football League. Richard O'Hagan rounds up the week's big stories and casts an eye to the coming weekend.
"For all of their reputation as a defensive powerhouse, Chicago only had the 21st ranked defense in the NFL last year and they start this season with another injury cloud over talismanic linebacker Brian Uhrlacher. I wouldn't be surprised if the Colts surprised everyone at Soldier Field."
If you're waking up this morning thinking 'Oh good, the NFL season starts today' then I've got news for you. You missed the kick-off. In a rare move, the season began on a Wednesday this year, with the opening match scheduled to avoid a clash with Barak Obama's keynote speech at the Democratic Party Congress on Thursday. Yes, there might be many things that Obama cannot do, but he's proved that he's one of the few people in America who can sway NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Last night's season opener provided a fitting start to the 2012 campaign, as everyone's favourite under-achievers, Dallas Cowboys, beat reigning Super Bowl champs the New York Giants, 24-17. It was far from the touchdown-fest that last year's opener was (indeed, the first quarter was entirely scoreless) but it proved just how level the playing field is likely to be in this seasons NFL, with everyone in with a chance of beating everyone else.
The off-season has, as always, provided plenty of stories. For the first time in eleven years the season begins without the one man media circus that is Chad Johnson (ne Ochocinco) after the veteran wide receiver managed to be cut by both the Patriots (for being rubbish last season) and the Dolphins (for both being rubbish and assaulting his wife of less than a month). Peyton Manning's move from the Colts to the Broncos has been well documented and that in itself has seen their odds of winning this season's Super Bowl sucked in to [20.0], which gives away that their redevelopment under coach John Fox is still a work in progress and that even with a wonky neck and throwing arm Manning is still their main offensive weapon. Nothing, however, could have prepared Peyton for this problem.
Manning's replacement in Indianapolis, Andrew Luck, has an interesting debut weekend in the NFL. As the number one pick in the Draft this year he was always going to be subject to intense scrutiny, even in this country where his opening match against the Bears is live on Sky on Sunday night. Taking the worst team from the previous season to a defensive hotbed such as Chicago is a tough ask for any rookie and this is reflected in the Colts' odds of [4.8]. However, for all of their reputation as a defensive powerhouse, Chicago only had the 21st ranked defense in the NFL last year and they start this season with another injury cloud over talismanic linebacker Brian Uhrlacher. I wouldn't be surprised if the Colts surprised everyone at Soldier Field.
At the same time, two of the off-season's biggest stories collide in New Orleans, where the Saints host the Washington Redskins. The 'bounty' scandal has hit the Saints hard, costing them their head coach and defensive captain for the season, interim head coach for six games and general manager for eight. If there is any team who will be motivated to succeed in 2012 it is this one. But against that they come up against the slipperiest customer in the NFL, Washington's rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. The second pick in the Draft is the more likely to transform a flagging franchise, being possessed not only of a superb footballing brain but athletic skills unseen in an NFL quarterback for many a long year (yes, I really would rate him above Michael Vick). The Saints might have an axe to grind, but at [3.96] I'm backing the Redskins.
Then there are the quiet but significant stories of the off-season. I don't mean the Jets signing former Saracens rugby star Hayden Smith or the Patriots picking up London 2012 track star Jeff Demps. No, the quiet story of this August has been the NFL officials' strike.
That's right. Skilfully buried beneath the noise of the season buildup, like the sound of the stream that runs through the music festival site, the NFL has kept as quiet as possible the fact that this week's games - and possibly for weeks beyond - will be officiated by replacement crews. Unlike last year, when the players' lockout ended in time for the season to begin, the NFL officials and the NFL have failed to reach an agreement on such thorny subjects as future pensions and this means that opening week crews will come not even from the college system (where the officials are also mentored by the NFL) but high school and minor college games.
Even allowing for the fact that we here at Betfair are always slow to criticise officials, there have been some very wrong calls in the pre-season games (not to mention the official who confused Atlanta and Arizona) and this could have an impact on some of the closer games this weekend. In tight games one wrong call can have a disproportionate effect upon the result and for that reason I would avoid any team trading below evens where there is a small points gap between the sides. For example, the New York Jets are hosting Buffalo on Sunday and are a confident [1.78] to beat the Bills. With replacement crews the risk of a game-affecting mistake is too high to make the Jets a reliable bet and I would go for the outsider Bills as, proportionately, the risk is less.
Recommended Bet: Back the Indianapolis Colts to beat the Chicago Bears at odds of 4.8