It’s that time of the year again: The dog days of the summer, when the weather is hot, the movies are (mostly) atrocious, and SportsCenter leads its prime-time broadcast with the WNBA All-Star Game. Meanwhile, as the faint glimmer of hope in the distant future – the football season – gets closer and closer, it’s time to start focusing on the important things in life, like betting on NFL team win totals. Last year when I wrote this column, I went 3-2, accurately predicting Cincinnati Detroit, and Washington (the paragraph on the Redskins ending up being one of the most prescient things I’ve ever written) and missing Denver and San Francisco by a combined total of three wins. I also wrote the 2013 column in May (the non-football months in 2013 must have been especially boring), and although writing this column days before the NFL trade deadline isn’t particularly advisable, I’m sick of hearing about stories like this. There is only one true football, and it's Amur-cun, goddammit!
In any event, here are five early win total predictions that, like 24-point leads, are automatic cash in your wallet (here’s an updated link via Bovada).
Indianapolis Colts (Over 9½ wins -130)
$100 bet pays $76.92
The Colts play in the NFL’s easiest division, with the Jaguars, Texans and Titans combining for 13 wins in 2013 (Indianapolis won 11 games on its own). Last season, they beat the Seahawks, Broncos, 49ers and Chiefs. Somehow in spite of winning the AFC South in 2013, the Colts are straddled with the NFL’s easiest schedule in 2014, with six games against its less-than-formidable division rivals and additional games against the Browns, Giants, Cowboys, Steelers and Ravens (all .500 or below last season). They have the NFL’s best quarterback under 30 without a Super Bowl title, the most fearsome pass rusher in the AFC (Mathis), one of the most electrifying young receivers in the game (Hilton), and the greatest kicker of all time (you know who). They also get back a healthy Reggie Wayne and will only play one outdoor cold weather game after November – against Cleveland. So why is this line so low? Well, they had a lousy draft, they somehow occasionally play inexplicably poor in spite of their obvious talent, and they still have Trent Richardson on their roster. Sorry, those aren’t big enough detractors for me. Double digit wins here feels like low-hanging fruit, and I’d be shocked to see another team out of the AFC South reach the postseason.
Pittsburgh Steelers (Over 8½ wins -150)
$100 bet pays $66.67
Since 1971, the Shittsburgh has never experienced three consecutive seasons without a winning record. From 2000 to 2009, the Stealers had only three seasons with non-double digit wins; each of those seasons was followed by at least a two-win improvement. So yeah, the Steelers have a long track record with success. That is why it seems unlikely that after two straight 8-8 campaigns marked by sloppy offensive play, injuries, turnovers and inexplicable losses to the Raiders, the Steelers will still suck (the refs won't let that happen). But if the word “unlikely” isn’t strong enough to convince you that Pittsburgh will have a winning record in 2014, then consider the following evidence: They play only two 2013 playoff teams before Thanksgiving (including a four-week stretch against the Buccaneers, Jaguars, Browns and Texans); their ridiculously fortunate 2014 travel map; Big Ben is entering a contract season, meaning he’ll have to avoid motorcycles and loose women; the running game should be revamped, with a healthy Le’Veon Bell, Dri Archer and Big Sexy; and Dick LeBeau is finally realizing that he needs to have defenders under 35 years old. Of Pittsburgh’s 16 losses the last two years, 11 have come by a touchdown or less and during that time, Roethlisberger still has managed a QB rating of 94.2 (in spite of seemingly countless games like these). The guy’s won two Super Bowls, I’m still afraid of him, and a three-year stretch of zero Pittsburgh Steeler playoff appearances feels too much like . . . (wait for it) . . . fantasy football.
San Francisco 49ers (Under 10½ wins +105)
$100 bet pays $105
This is not going to be a popular pick outside of the greater Seattle metropolitan area, but let’s look at the facts: The 49ers have had a horrific offseason. Aldon Smith and Chris Culliver are dealing with jail sentences, Vernon Davis and Alex Boone are likely training camp holdouts as they await heftier contracts, and Navarro Bowman is still recovering from this. Donte (W)Hitner is now on the Browns, Carlos Rogers is now on the Raiders, and Justin Smith is returning from major surgery to his shoulder. Frank Gore is bound to break down at some point (right?) and should Kaepernick get injured, the 49ers have all their marbles invested in this guy. Meanwhile, San Francisco plays in the league’s toughest division and faces only four sub-.500 teams from 2013. And I know this isn’t scientific or anything, but any time a team experiences consecutive playoff heartbreaks like these, there’s bound to be dejection and feelings of helplessness for years to follow (just ask the Buffalo Bills). I’m not saying the run of excellent 49er teams is necessarily over, but they may have already peaked and 10½ wins feels like a lot to ask. Got it, ladies?
St. Louis Rams (Over 7½ wins -155)
$100 bet pays $64.52
On the other hand, the Rams feel like a team finally ready to make some noise after years of unreached hype and underperformance. Say what you will about Sam Bradford, but when he was healthy last year, he had a QB rating of 90.9 with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 14 to 4. Remember that in 2013, the Rams beat Arizona, Indianapolis and New Orleans and should have beat the Seahawks – and this was with Kellen Clemens starting the majority of games. Zac Stacy, Tavon Austin and Tre Mason will certainly give the offense some electricity. Oh, and let’s not forget the most fearsome pass rush in the league, and really it’s really not even close: Robert Quinn, Chris Long, Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford – with Aaron Donald and Michael Sam added to the mix (look out, Russell Wilson). The Rams begin 2014 with games against the Vikings, Buccaneers and Cowboys, and then from October to November the schedule is brutal; but if they can manage to stay at .500 during that stretch (and relatively healthy, needless to say), December is manageable. It’s worth remembering that Jeff Fisher only had consecutive losing seasons once while at Tennessee and now that he’s entering his third season in St. Louis, success seems bound to emerge soon.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Under 7 wins +105)
$100 bet pays $105
It's everyone's favorite Arena Football League team! But are we really supposed to believe that a simple upgrade at coach (from Greg Schiano to Lovie Smith) can elevate Tampa into a .500 squad? Look at them: They just lost their best defender (Darrelle Revis) and even when he played last year, the Bucs still gave up 389 points and 4,000 yards and 30 passing TDs to quarterbacks. And speaking of QB, Tampa will either rely on a second-year player with a 4-9 record in 2013, or a 35-year-old career backup who won three games last year with the help of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans (who’s still recovering from a strained hamstring) should help, but the running game is still uncertain and no one knows how Jeff Tedford’s offensive philosophy will adjust to the NFL. The NFC South isn’t great, but New Orleans still has a better offense, Carolina still has a better defense and Atlanta isn’t likely to win only four games again. For 2014 the Bucs play the AFC North, which includes a Ravens team they haven’t beaten in 12 years and a Steelers team they’ve only beaten once all-time. Now the truth is that seven wins is virtually attainable by any team in the NFL given the right set of circumstances (Exhibit A). This Buccaneer team feels slightly better than last year, but they are still a major work in progress – even without the variable of injury-related setbacks – and seven wins is asking a lot, even for a coach with Smith’s solid track record.
AND ONE EXTRA PREDICTION
Detroit Lions (Under 8½ wins -130)
$100 bet pays $76.92
This is my third year of writing this column and in both 2012 and 2013, I predicted that the Lions would finish under their predicted win totals. And lo and behold, I was correct both times – so why not make it three-for-three with this year’s squad? My first thought here was: What drugs were they smoking in Vegas when they set this line at 8½? Do they realize the Detroit is now being coached by a dead guy? I suppose three years of Jim Schwartz will lead to a desire to lower the pulse on the sideline, but a working heartbeat would be an added plus (or at least a coach who doesn’t expend all of his energy in the preseason). The Lions play only four sub-.500 teams in 2014 and in classic Detroit Lions fashion, they squandered their first pick of this year’s NFL draft on an offensive skill player they don’t really need. This summer, they haven’t addressed issues on defense that have plagued this franchise since . . . well, since forever, and their best defensive player maybe on the outs due to intensely cramped cap space (look no further than this to understand why Suh is a liability). So yes, like the Buccaneers, let’s pretend that the new regime of Caldwell and Joe Lombardi will lead to a wholesale change in Detroit – except for the fact that to place a winning bet, the Lions must win nine games instead of seven, all while playing in a division with Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson and Jay Cutler. But hey, I got no qualms with someone in Vegas making me look smart each summer.
Thoughts? Disagreements? Eager to see the column where I explain why the Patriots will win over 11 games? (Sorry, there isn’t one). Let me know below.