Back in 1931, a securities analyst at a Chicago bank invented something that so revolutionized football that The New York Times later declared that “the National Football League may owe as much to him as it owes to anyone.”
That analyst’s name is Charles McNeil, and he invented the point spread.
More than 90 years later, that innovation has taken an even more important role in football with the legalization of sports betting in most states. This season, I’ll take over this space to look at each week’s N.F.L. matchups not only as a contest between two teams, but also a contest between participants in a global marketplace, tugging the point spread — or price — hither and yon.
Thursday opens Week 1, which will provide the first look at teams after months of roster and coaching changes and a narrow window when this notoriously efficient market will show any real cracks in the armor. There are eight Week 1 games in which the home team is the underdog. In the past, it was often said that home-field advantage was worth 3 points on the spread. Today, data says it is probably worth just south of 2, which is how I factored it in my picks.
Betting market data is taken from Action Network’s Public Betting data, lines are taken from Unabated’s real-time-odds tracker.
All times Eastern.
Here’s what you need to know:
- Thursday’s Game
- Sunday’s Best Games
- The Rest of Sunday’s Games
- Monday Night’s Game
- How Betting Lines Work
Buffalo Bills at Los Angeles Rams, 8:20 p.m., NBC
Line: Bills -2.5 | Total 52
The Rams, the defending Super Bowl champs, start their season against the team favored to win it all this year. The visiting Bills are 2.5-point favorites as they come into Inglewood, Calif. For the Rams, there have been lingering questions about quarterback Matthew Stafford’s right elbow pain, which nagged him throughout the off-season. Rams Coach Sean McVay has downplayed it, but the betting markets aren’t as convinced. The money is heavy on the Bills, who opened as 1-point favorites and are now laying 2.5.
Buffalo’s secondary led the league against the pass last season, and nabbed the Rams’ veteran linebacker Von Miller in free agency to beef up an already outstanding defensive unit. This should be a close one. Pick: Rams +2.5
Sunday’s Best Games
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Dallas Cowboys, 8:20 p.m., NBC
Line: Buccaneers -2.5 | Total 50.5
Neither Tom Brady’s recent absence from training camp due to personal issues or his age have been enough to shake sports books’ faith in Tampa Bay. Most have the team as their second favorite to win the Super Bowl.
They face another Las Vegas darling in the Cowboys, which were the best team against the spread last season. Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott has a lot of offensive weapons at his disposal, from a dual backfield of Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Pollard to the newly promoted No. 1 receiver CeeDee Lamb. Prescott will need every option against the Bucs’ defense, which led the N.F.L. in blitzes last year. Pick: Cowboys +2.5
Las Vegas Raiders at Los Angeles Chargers, 4:25 p.m., CBS
Line: Chargers -3 | Total 52.5
The last meeting between these two teams, in the final game of the 2021 regular season, was easily the best game of the season. The Raiders, won 35-32, with a last-second field goal in overtime, denying the Chargers a spot in the playoffs. This week’s contest between the A.F.C. West rivals should have all the fireworks of a grudge match.
Justin Herbert is expected to have a big year for the Chargers, building on last season’s 5,014 passing yards. Raiders quarterback Derek Carr is also known to throw the ball deep, and this season he adds his former Fresno State teammate Davante Adams to his wide receiver corps. The bets have been evenly split on these two teams, but 70 percent of the money is on the Raiders, indicating some sharp action on that side. Pick: Chargers -3
Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings, 4:25 p.m. Fox
Line: Packers -2 | Total: 47
The Green Bay Packers are favored to win in 15 of their 17 games, including this one. The spread is only 2 points, presaging a continuation of Minnesota’s streak of nail-biters and heartbreakers. Last season, 14 of the Vikings’ games came down to one possession, and they won only six of them. One of those wins, however, was against Green Bay.
The Packers lost their last season-opener in a 38-3 blowout to the Saints. That game, they were 4-point favorites on the road — albeit in Jacksonville, Fla., because of Hurricane Ida — playing behind a quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, who was on his way to winning a fourth Most Valuable Player Award. Kirk Cousins isn’t as good, but he’s throwing to arguably the best receiver in the league in Justin Jefferson. Another divisional matchup, another home underdog, and all in front of the notoriously spirited Minnesota crowd. Pick: Minnesota +2
The Rest of Sunday’s Games
San Francisco 49ers at Chicago Bears, 1 p.m., Fox
Line: Niners -7.5 | Total: 41
The 49ers made it to the N.F.C. championship game last season with Jimmy Garoppolo starting at quarterback, but during the off-season they decided to start the second-year quarterback Trey Lance. Lance could not have asked for a better venue and matchup to start the new era. The Bears had one of the worst defenses in the league last season and were 0-5 as home underdogs last season, including a loss to San Francisco.
Still, with the Bears starting Justin Fields, both teams’ quarterbacks are inexperienced and there are a lot of unknowns around how well either will execute. The 7.5-point spread is the second biggest of the week. Perhaps that explains why only 29 percent of bets are on the Bears but 65 percent of the money is. Pick: Chicago +7.5
Cleveland Browns at Carolina Panthers, 1 p.m., CBS
Line: Panthers -1.5 | Total: 41.5
The Browns dealt their quarterback, Baker Mayfield, to the Panthers in the off-season after trading for Deshaun Watson and then signing him to a five-year contract. Watson was suspended for 11 games after more than two dozen women accused him of sexual misconduct, leaving Jacoby Brissett starting at quarterback in an offense that is banking on Watson’s eventual arrival.
Cleveland is 0-16-1 in the last 17 season openers and Mayfield has a chip on his shoulder. There is heavy market support for the Panthers, who have attracted 93 percent of the money bet so far. Pick: Panthers -2.5
New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons, 1 p.m., Fox
Line: Saints -5.5 | Total: 42.5
New Orleans missed the playoffs last season for the first time since the 2016 season, a finish that likely still smarts. Atlanta did not cover the spread in seven of its eight home games last season. The Falcons are expected to be one of the N.F.L.’s worst teams this season, and are playing this one in Atlanta. The Saints are the better team, but these two division rivals really, really dislike each other and always play close. Pick: Falcons +5.5
Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals, 1:00 p.m., CBS
Line: Bengals -6.5 | Total: 44.5
Cincinnati won both meetings last season, blowing out Pittsburgh, 41-10, in their second meeting during Week 12. The Steelers have had offensive line issues in the preseason, but the Bengals have only one of their offensive line starters returning from last season. In a battle of defenses, the Steelers should have an advantage in 2021’s defensive player of the year, T.J. Watt. Pick: Steelers +6.5
Philadelphia Eagles at Detroit Lions, 1 p.m., Fox
Line: Eagles -4 | Total: 49
The Lions had one of the worst defenses in the N.F.L. last season but upgraded that unit with the No. 2 overall draft pick, which they used on the University of Michigan folk hero and defensive end Aidan Hutchinson. Detroit finished a terrible 2021 season with a 3-13-1 record, but the team was surprisingly one of the best against the spread at 11-6. Not against the Eagles, however, which beat the brakes off the Lions, 44-6, in Week 8.
Detroit has attracted 61 percent of the action as 4-point home underdogs. Most books have moved them to +3.5, but some are still hanging the 4. Pick: Lions +4
New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins, 1 p.m., CBS
Line: Dolphins -3.5 | Total: 47
The Dolphins are favored against the Patriots for the first time since 2013. A big factor: Miami’s expectations for Tyreek Hill, whom the team added this off-season in a deal that made him the N.F.L.’s highest-paid receiver.
The markets are heavily behind Miami, but Bill Belichick is still the N.F.L.’s Emperor Palpatine. Pick: Patriots +3.5
Baltimore Ravens at Jets, 1 p.m., CBS
Line: Ravens -7 | Total: 45
Last year, the Ravens endured a Job-like season of setbacks and injuries. This year, the team and its quarterback, Lamar Jackson, in a contract year, have a lot to prove. The Jets’ defense made some upgrades, including by adding the fourth overall 2022 draft pick, Sauce Gardner at cornerback. It’s still unclear if the second-year quarterback Zach Wilson will be healthy enough to play or if the Jets will start Joe Flacco, who looked awful in the preseason. Flacco’s former team should win, but the Ravens are laying a touchdown to a home team looking to stunt. Pick: Jets +7
Jacksonville Jaguars at Washington Commanders, 1 p.m., Fox
Line: Commanders -2.5 | Total: 43.5
The Jaguars had a miserable 2021 season, finishing 3-14 despite having the highly regarded No. 1 pick, Trevor Lawrence, at quarterback. After firing Urban Meyer as head coach before he completed one full season, the Jags made a huge upgrade by giving the job to Doug Pederson. That and other big off-season moves have generated a lot of market excitement about Jacksonville. This game opened +4 and is now sitting at +2.5 after 90 percent of the money came in on the Jaguars. Pick: Commanders -2.5
Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans, 1 p.m., CBS
Line: Colts -8 | Total: 46
This is the largest spread on the card this weekend, with the dreadful Houston Texans getting 8 points at home. The Texans were 4-13 last season, but 8-9 against the spread. This line has been at 8 since it opened months ago and hasn’t moved. Surprisingly, 91 percent of the money bet on this game has come in on the Texans. Pick: Texans +8
Giants at Tennessee Titans, 4:25 p.m., Fox
Line: Titans -5.5 | Total: 43.5
Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s receiver options are almost all new this year, now that A.J. Brown is gone, so there may be a learning curve to hammer out this week. Running back Derrick Henry will likely get a lot of carries against a Giants defense that is weak against the run. The line opened at 6.5 but moved to 5.5 after 92 percent of the money came in on the Giants. Pick: Titans -5.5
Kansas City at Arizona Cardinals, 4:25 p.m., CBS
Line: Kansas City -6.5 | Total: 54
Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes has never lost in a Week 1 game in his five-year N.F.L. career. This game opened at 3 and moved to 6.5 by Tuesday. These are both high-scoring teams that like to throw the ball, but Mahomes is throwing to mostly new receivers. He may lean more on running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, especially against Arizona’s weak run defense. Kansas City isn’t great against the run, either, and Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray is always a running threat. Unlike Mahomes, Murray has three of his four receivers back this year, although he’ll be without his No. 1 wideout, DeAndre Hopkins, who is serving a six-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. Mahomes without Tyreek Hill and Murray without Hopkins? This one should be closer than the line suggests. Pick: Cardinals +6.5
Monday Night’s Game
Denver Broncos at Seattle Seahawks, 8:15 p.m., ESPN/ABC
Line: Broncos -6.5 | Total 44.5
The Seahawks open the season for the first time in a decade without Russell Wilson under center against … Russell Wilson and his new team. This matchup opened at 4.5 and has moved 2 points in six weeks because the public has overwhelmingly bet against the Seahawks, who are facing a rebuilding year.
Last season the Broncos lost a lot of close games, and Wilson seems like the missing piece to correct that trend. Denver should get a win as Wilson finds his footing, but he’ll have to do it against the one team that knows him better than any other, in perhaps the loudest stadium in the N.F.L. Pick: Seahawks +6.5
How Betting Lines Work
A quick primer for those who are not familiar with betting lines: Favorites are listed next to a negative number that represents how many points they must win by to cover the spread. Raiders -5.5, for example, means that Las Vegas must beat Chicago by at least 6 points for its backers to win their bet. Gamblers can also bet on the total score, or whether the teams’ combined score in the game is over or under a preselected number of points.