By Jason McIntyre
FOX Sports Betting Analyst
Preparation is the hallmark of being a good sports bettor. And with the 2021 NFL season upon us, it’s time to get prepared.
We did this exercise last summer, calling it my first annual NFL blueprint, and it had some bull’s-eye hits. I was “irrationally excited” about the Washington defense and the Chase Young-led group finished third in overall defense. I cautioned against backing the Atlanta Falcons and they went 4-12 (7-9 against the spread).
Whiffs? Those happen sometimes in gambling. I said to “resist the urge” to back the Buffalo Bills and they went 12-7 ATS and made the AFC title game.
Let’s do better in 2021. Here are the 10 things I’ll be keeping in mind this season.
20-0? SURE, WHY CAN’T TOM BRADY DO THAT?
The defending Super Bowl champs return all 22 starters, something that hasn’t been done in the modern era. And it gets better.
Remember: Tampa Bay had to win three straight road playoff games to reach the Super Bowl. There was uncertainty at the beginning of the season for the Bucs. They made a change after starting 7-5 – more play-action and more pre-snap motion – and never lost another game. The Saints, meanwhile, lost their Hall of Fame QB (Drew Brees), and New Orleans was the only team in the putrid NFC South to beat the Bucs last year.
When you look at the schedule, the Bucs are going to be favored in every game except Week 3 at the Rams. Of the six other teams with the best Super Bowl odds (Chiefs, Bills, Packers, Ravens, 49ers, Rams) the Bucs only face two of them. They get Buffalo at home in Week 14.
The last accomplishment Brady can add to his GOAT resume is an undefeated season. He’s almost done it once before, and I think there’s a chance he could do it this year. And the price is right: At FOX Bet specifically, that line is a whopping +22500, meaning just a $10 bet would win you $2,260 total.
Read that again. It might be the best pizza money you’ve spent in 2021.
BEST BET TO GO WORST TO FIRST: THE JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
How much do I love the Jacksonville Jaguars? Let me count the ways.
Depending on who you read, Trevor Lawrence is the best, most NFL-ready QB to enter the NFL since Andrew Luck. Remember that guy? Luck, while completing only 55% of his passes, flipped the Colts from 2-14 to 11-5 and the playoffs.
I’m not sure Lawrence will get the Jaguars 11 wins, but the division is there for the taking, especially with two major injuries the Colts announced this week.
If you’ve followed me on social media this summer, you know I’m all-in on the Jaguars to go from worst to first and win the putrid AFC South, a bet that was going off at around +800 before the Carson Wentz injury news pulled the division off the board.
According to Sharp Football, since 2000, 10 QBs have been selected No. 1 overall and started at least 10 games in their rookie year. Their average win percentage is 39%, which is equal to 6.6 wins in a 17-game season. But Lawrence will be working with offensive coordinator Darren Bevell, who guided Russell Wilson to offensive success (and two Super Bowls) in the first three seasons of his career.
As if all that wasn’t enough, expect Urban Meyer to have some edges in his first year since he’s never coached in the NFL. In the last decade, that’s been the case for Jim Harbaugh and Chip Kelly.
Lastly, the Jags went 1-6 in one-score games last year, including losses to three playoff teams (Titans, Packers, Browns).
SHHHHH! DON’T REMIND PEOPLE ABOUT THE BALTIMORE RAVENS!
Turn on a TV, doom-scroll on Twitter or listen to any football podcast, and you’re going to find everyone gassing up the Bills, Browns and resurgent 49ers as the sexy teams of 2021.
Forgetting anyone? Despite having the consistency of the North Star under John Harbaugh, the Baltimore Ravens are getting no love when it comes to Super Bowl talk.
Following a 6-5 start, a game in which 18 players were lost to Covid, and losing their star left tackle midseason, the Ravens still managed to go 11-5 and lost in the second round of the playoffs to Buffalo. The Ravens also ended last year as the only team in the NFL in the top 11 in offense (11th), defense (ninth) and special teams (second).
So why aren’t they getting more love?
Reminder: Lamar Jackson is 30-7 as a starter. Baltimore got even more help for him in receivers Sammy Watkins, Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace. The Ravens are favored in 12 of their first 13 games. And if I can’t hammer home the “one-score game” results enough, here’s your reminder that Baltimore went 5-1 in those affairs in 2019 (when they finished 14-2) and sagged back to 2-4 in 2020 (when they went 11-5).
Give me the Ravens (+1500 to win the Super Bowl, so a $10 bet wins $160 total) in 2021.
WHAT ARE THE 49ERS DOING AT QB?
The 49ers have all the hallmarks of a bounce-back team.
They lost more games to injury than anyone else in the NFL in 2020, per Football Outsiders. Eight of the 11 defensive starters from the Super Bowl team two years ago are still on the roster. Jimmy Garoppolo is healthy, and he’s 22-8 as a starter with the 49ers. Presumably, his receivers won’t drop as many passes as last year (39, second-most in the league). They open on the road with two of the worst teams in the NFC (Detroit, Philadelphia).
So if you want to take a flier on their Super Bowl odds (+1400; bet $10 to win $150 total), do so before Week 1, as the odds on the 49ers will get much tighter in the first month of the season.
The big problem is that nobody has any clue what Kyle Shanahan will do at QB. It’s unfathomable that he’d trot out the 21-year old rookie Trey Lance, but has Kyle Shanahan ever done anything conventionally?
THIS IS PROBABLY THE YEAR FOR THE COWBOYS … MAYBE?
I’m contractually obligated to remind you, before writing about the Dallas Cowboys, that if you want to bet them at any point this season, just know you’re paying the “Dallas tax.”
The Cowboys are still America’s team, and there’s an entire generation of gamblers still waiting for Jerry Jones to resurrect the 90s Cowboys team that won three Super Bowls in four years at a pivotal moment in this country – the rise of the internet (it’s been a little while).
Everyone who pops into Vegas for a weekend loves to bet the Cowboys, but Dallas went 5-11 ATS in 2020, the worst in the NFL Coincidentally, that ended a four-year streak of Jerry’s team finishing above .500 ATS.
The Cowboys are built around offensive weapons, but that’s useless if the offensive line isn’t healthy. Their starting tackles played two games last year. Injury reports will be your friend when it comes to the Cowboys’ OL in 2021.
Defensively, I have major questions, because if Aldon Smith and Randy Gregory can’t stay out of trouble, DeMarcus Lawrence will face all the double teams, and Dan Quinn’s rebuilt secondary will get torched like last year.
It could be a weird year in Dallas, but if you’re looking to back the Cowboys, the win total over/under (9.5 wins) might be a better option than paying the “Dallas tax” week-in and week-out.
THERE’S NO TOUGHER SEPTEMBER SCHEDULE
Oh, what a difference a year makes.
Here’s a quote from the 2020 blueprint: “Speaking of schedules: Indianapolis Colts? Buy, buy, buy.” But those halcyon days are long gone.
Instead, the Colts can thank Philip Rivers and his trip to the playoffs for this: The toughest September schedule in the NFL. They face three playoff teams from 2020 to start, and October doesn’t get any easier: 10-win Miami followed by a trip to Baltimore. Did I mention that Weeks 3-5 are at Tennessee, at Miami, at Baltimore?
And there’s no telling if they’ll have star guard Quenton Nelson or starting QB Carson Wentz for either game. There’s still no word who the left tackle will be, since newcomer Eric Fisher is coming off surgery and may not be ready.
That stretch could – should? – give you an opportunity to fade Indianapolis for a few straight weeks and get some cash in your pocket early in the season. The Colts’ top 10 defense – which lost two starting edge rushers in free agency who finished second and third on the team in sacks – will keep them in games early, but a 1-4 start is entirely possible.
NO, THE PACKERS AREN’T GOING 13-3 AGAIN
The Aaron Rodgers offseason drama featured crazy swings – betting on the Broncos to win the Super Bowl on the off-chance Rodgers got his wish! – but ultimately ended up with a boring, “He’s staying.”
After back-to-back 13-3 years, it smells like regression is on the horizon for the Packers.
Although Green Bay was 10-6 ATS last season, two things jump out at me. The loss of two starting offensive linemen from the No. 1 rated OL according to Pro Football Focus is one, plus star LT David Bakhtiari might miss the first month recovering from an ACL injury. But more than anything, it is the arduous schedule, which features an NFL-high 10 games against playoff teams from a year ago.
They’re still clear favorites to win the NFC North (-162; bet $10 to win $16.17 total) – although the Vikings will be pesky – but this is not a team I want a Super Bowl futures ticket on.
THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS ARE THE MOST CONFUSING TEAM IN THE AFC
Ben Roethlisberger is 39, the Steelers finished the season 1-5, and Pittsburgh suffered an embarrassing home playoff loss to the Browns in the playoffs. There’s a new offensive coordinator, the defense lost edge rusher Bud Dupree, the Browns are ascending and the Bengals can only get better.
What’s there to like about the Steelers?
Wait, there’s more to not like! Three offensive linemen have to be replaced, and the Steelers only have one returning lineman who graded in the top 120, per Pro Football Focus. Meanwhile, a team that went 7-2 in one-score games and is bound for regression in that department has the toughest schedule in the NFL.
Fine, fine – there’s one positive: Pittsburgh doesn’t face one DVOA top-10 pass defense until hosting the Ravens on December 5. And oh yeah, the Steelers haven’t had a losing season since 2003.
JUST BE READY FOR THE RYAN FITZPATRICK EXPERIENCE
You’ve been warned: The 38-year old QB from Harvard is going to be the starter for Washington and I’ve seen this movie before.
In Buffalo in 2010, Fitzpatrick took over for Trent Edwards and played so well, the Bills gave Fitzpatrick a six-year, $59 million contract. He proceeded to throw a league-leading 23 interceptions.
In New York in 2015, Fitzpatrick threw 31 TDs! The Jets brought him back; he threw 17 interceptions and was released.
In Miami in 2019, Fitzpatrick threw 20 TDs, and the Dolphins brought him back. He played admirably in 2020, but ultimately was pulled for first-round pick Tua Tagovailoa.
Not a knock, just the facts. Ryan Fitzpatrick often delivers for a year, then reality sets in. He’s got some talent in Washington – Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel, Logan Thomas, Antonio Gibson – but I’m not prepared to bet on the defense carrying them again this season.
LAST YEAR, WE HIT A BULL’S EYE ON THE BROWNS. THIS YEAR …
From last year’s preview: “This is the year you look to bet the Browns early before the market catches up.” When Cleveland stepped out of the rugged AFC North, they were an impressive 7-4 ATS. Three of those wins/covers came against playoff teams (Washington, Indianapolis, Tennessee).
This year, the non-division schedule is brutal, starting with an opening night trip to Kansas City. Before Halloween, there’s a three-week stretch where they face top-15 QBs Kirk Cousins, Justin Herbert, Kyler Murray, which will be a tall order for a defense that may start as many as eight new defenders.
Tread cautiously with the Browns, who will be a very public team this year.
Jason McIntyre is a FOX Sports betting analyst, and he also writes about the NFL and NBA Draft. He joined FS1 in 2016 and has appeared on every show on the network. In 2017, McIntyre began producing gambling content on the NFL, college football and NBA for FOX Sports. He had a gambling podcast for FOX, “Coming Up Winners,” in 2018 and 2019. Before arriving at FOX, he created the website The Big Lead, which he sold in 2010.
Get more from National Football League Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more.