Photo: Jason Behnken / Associated Press
Each year in this spot, the first Betting the NFL column of the season, I always write about how the first week of the regular season is like the last week — overall you really don’t know what you are going to get on the field.
The last week of the season is always a crapshoot because most teams take a hit talent-wise with starters and standout players sitting and resting. Kicking off the season, it usually takes about two to three weeks to see any trends take shape and get some early indications of who the contenders and pretenders truly are moving forward.
Still, no matter what week it is, at least for me, there are always two or three teams that stand out as solid plays for one reason or another.
This week is no exception. My key plays against the spread are Detroit, Houston and Indianapolis.
The Lions are giving the visiting Jets 61/2 points. While everyone seems to be jumping on the Jets bandwagon with rookie quarterback Sam Darnold at the helm, the Lions are loaded for bear in 2018.
An improved offensive line will be the difference for the Lions. Quarterback Matthew Stafford should have the time to hook up early and often with receivers Golden Tate and Marvin Jones. The running game by committee also gets a boost with the addition of rookie pass-catching back Kerryon Johnson who will be a multipurpose contributor.
The visiting Texans are getting 61/2 points against New England. The Patriots, led by Tom Brady, will always be tough, but Houston QB Deshaun Watson is back after missing the second half of last season with an ACL injury and likely motivated after a tough loss to the Pats in 2017. Watson threw for over 300 yards and two touchdowns in a 36-33 loss.
Look for Watson to connect early and often with receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller and pass-catching back Lamar Miller.
Andrew Luck returns after missing 2017 with a surgically repaired shoulder. Yes, the Colts host a Cincinnati team that is tough on defense and getting 3 points. But I am convinced a healthy Luck will be motivated to make a statement in the season-opener in front of his fans. I would expect speedy receiver T.Y. Hilton will also be pumped up. He will have his elite QB back in form for more of the typical deep connections the duo made before Luck’s injury.
As long as the shaky Colts offensive line can give Luck a few seconds to throw, this could be an interesting season for Colts fans.
Pittsburgh at Cleveland (+4): The loss of holdout running back Le’Veon Bell will have an impact on this game, but the biggest impact will come from new Browns quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who gets a new lease on life and is surrounded by some decent talent. Upset special. Nowak’s pick: Browns 27-24.
San Francisco at Minnesota (-61/2): Thanks to new QB Kirk Cousins, the Vikings are looking formidable on both sides of the ball. Nowak’s pick: Vikings 31-17.
Cincinnati at Indianapolis (-3): See above. Nowak’s pick: Colts 24-17.
Buffalo at Baltimore (-7): The key here is a pair of defenses that will keep the score low and close. FYI: The Bills defense should allow them to be competitive all season. Nowak’s pick: Ravens, 17-14.
Jacksonville at Giants (+3): The Jaguars’ top defense against a revitalized Giants team stacked on offense. The Giants need to make a statement in this spot. Nowak’s pick: Giants 27-17.
Tampa Bay at New Orleans (-91/2): Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. quarterback Drew Brees playing at home. No contest. Nowak’s pick: Saints 31-14.
Houston at New England (-61/2): See above. Nowak’s pick: Texans 33-31.
Tennessee at Miami (+11/2): The key will be the Titans’ running back-by-committee duo of Derrick Henry and former New England standout Dion Lewis. They don’t only hurt you on the ground but both can catch the ball. Nowak’s pick: Titans 30-17.
Kansas City at Los Angeles Chargers (-3): Despite some decent defenses, the offensive talent for both teams will make this a wild, high scoring game for fans. The edge goes to the Chargers at home. Nowak’s pick: Chargers 31-27.
Seattle at Denver (-3): While the Seahawks have the best QB in this game (Russell Wilson), the Broncos match up better in just about everywhere else. Nowak’spick: Broncos 24-13.
Dallas at Carolina (-21/2): The key in this matchup will be the Panthers’ solid rushing defense that will likely prevent Cowboys’ top standout Ezekiel Elliott from making a huge impact. Nowak’s pick: Panthers 27-17
Washington at Arizona (-1): The teams match up well, but I think the difference maker will be Cardinals back David Johnson who should help control the game and the clock. Nowak’s pick: Cardinals 24-21.
Chicago at Green Bay (-8): A healthy Aaron Rodgers will want to make a statement here and get the Packers off on the right foot against a Bears offense in transition mode. Nowak’s pick: Packers 30-17.
Jets at Detroit (-61/2): See above. Nowak’s Pick: 30-17.
Los Angeles Rams at Oakland (+4): Gurley, Gurley, Gurley. And I’m not saying Gurley because he is on my fantasy football team. Nowak’s pick: Rams 30-17.