I've returned for another year of handicapping the NFL against the spread. Feel free to ride along if you like the selections (I want you to ace your pool in Yahoo! Pro Football Pick'Em) and by all means offer up your own picks and rationale in the comments, no matter if you agree or disagree. (If we always agreed on this sort of stuff, the game wouldn't be much fun, would it?)
There were a lot of naysayers when this column started last year, but the snark disappeared by season's end and I finished 49-34 against the number (59 percent, which is very good). To be honest, anything over 50 percent is a decent season, and I'm not foolish enough to make any guarantees or promises. Just know I'll be here for all 17 weeks, win lose or draw, picking five games every week.
Here's what I'm using for Week 1 of the fresh season (all lines drawn from Yahoo! Pro Football Pick'Em):
Rams +5 versus Eagles: I'm not expecting this to be a popular pick, as the Eagles have settled in as a public team. But I love how the Rams retooled on both sides of the ball (especially on the improved offensive line) and playing on the road in a dome presents a significant challenge to Michael Vick. At the end of the day, I see Philly as slightly overrated at the beginning of the year, and the Rams perhaps mildly underrated. There's upset possibility here, and the points provide a nice backstop.
Buccaneers -2 versus Lions: I want to believe all the sunshine and lollipop stories being told about the Lions, but I need to see it in a real game first. Tampa Bay's breakout season came with a bunch of red flags (a plus-23 point differential does not suggest a 10-6 record), while the Lions (minus-7) were better than a 6-10 outfit. But the pro-Detroit buzz and the anti-Tampa current has been priced into this line, perhaps too much. Let's take Josh Freeman to make the small number at home.
Bills +6 at Chiefs: I'm not completely sold on Chan Gailey as a head coach, but he did make things work with Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Buffalo offense last year, and on the other side you have Matt Cassel and his rib injury. The Bills have enough playmakers to keep the game competitive, and so many things about the 2011 Chiefs scream out "regression."
Panthers +7 at Cardinals: Both teams are starting off with new quarterbacks here (rookie Cam Newton against Kevin Kolb, he of seven pro starts), but remember the Panthers have two capable backs and a reasonable offensive line. Bad teams can rise to the competitive level pretty quickly in the NFL, and I'm expecting Carolina to win at least five games under its new regime. It's easier for the Cats to play loose in this spot — there's more pressure on Kolb and the Redbirds.
Titans +2 at Jaguars: Anytime you can pick against Luke McCown and get points at the same time, it sounds good to me. Jacksonville has never had much of a home-field advantage, and I don't understand why Jack Del Rio handled this QB situation the way he did (canning David Garrard so late, and then starting someone who hardly played in the preseason).
So it's four underdogs for Week 1, and probably some unpopular teams at that. That will likely be a recurring theme in this column; it's a search for value above all else in this game, and you have to be prepared to go ugly on a semi-regular basis.
Survivor: I like to stick with home teams whenever possible in Survivor Pools, and it's also best to avoid divisional matchups if you can. I'll break one of those rules this week as I ride with Cleveland at home; I love going up against a rookie QB in Andy Dalton, and I've talked myself into believing that the Browns can be an 8-8 or 9-7 junkyard dog this year. Colt McCoy's steady rookie season (7.1 YPA, 60.8 completion percentage) was one of the more underreported stories of 2010.
Last Season: 49-34.
Image courtesy Associated Press