(Results of Saints/Vikings Thursday game, Brady contract status added to this update.)
) -- If you're going to bet on NFL games against the spread, make it quick -- Week 1 offers the best opportunity to beat Las Vegas oddsmakers.
The defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints defeated the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL's kickoff party Thursday. Bettors witnessed a line that opened at -4.5 points move all the way to -6 points. Smart gamblers were able to take the Saints giving 4.5 points and also bet on the Vikings getting 6 points, winning on both sides.
It's important to remember that smart, professional gamblers have been looking at Week 1 games for months, giving them a leg up on anyone who is just beginning to look at the games and the respective lines. Thankfully, one advantage that can be used to a bettor's advantage is those same point-spread movements ahead of the games.
Looking at the slate of games for the first week of the NFL 2010-11 season, only one team (the
New York Giants
) is favored by 7 points. The rest of the matchups for Week 1 have point spreads of 2.5 points to 6 points, making this the only week where statistics are thrown out the window (for the most part) and bettors can feel a little more comfortable using their own judgment. In other words, if you think a team can win outright, that is likely your safest bet.
Of course, as the season progresses, that logic becomes flawed. As Vegas gains more knowledge on NFL teams, those point spreads begin to move higher. Looking back at the 2009-10 season, the
New York Jets
were underdogs in their first game of the season against the
by 4.5 points. By late November, they were a 10-point favorite over the New England Patriots. Similarly, the
started the season as a 5.5-point favorite over the lowly Bucs. By mid-November, they were more than 10-point favorites over the
Richard Gardner, the sportsbook manager for
, has a different take on the small Week 1 point spreads.
"No big spreads this week is more of a coincidence with the matchups Week 1," Gardner says. "Not too many mismatches. However, if teams like the Chargers, Dolphins, or 49ers were playing at home we would probably see some double-digit spreads."
Still, examining even the smallest movements in the point spreads of the Week 1 games will hopefully give bettors an advantage. Las Vegas bookmakers move the lines of several games in order get equal action on both sides.
One spread movement I have focused on this week is the line on the game between the
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
. Although Cleveland is playing on the road, the line originally had the Browns as a 1-point underdog. Over the last several days, the line has shifted in favor of the Buccaneers, who are now a 3-point favorite.
Keep in mind that the Browns managed to cover the point spread for seven straight games to finish last season. In addition, they added Jake Delhomme at quarterback, who regularly played the Bucs as a member of the
over the last seven seasons.
On the other side, although the Bucs are playing at home, their quarterback Josh Freeman has a broken thumb on his throwing hand and only recently returned to the practice field. Running back Cadillac Williams has dealt with two knee injuries, as well. To add insult to those injuries,
, as the game has not sold out. It's hard to believe these type of events warrant the status of a 3-point favorite.
Even with these circumstances, there are several better betting choices out there. So without any further ado, here are five game picks for Week 1. Once again, these are for your enjoyment and shouldn't be taken as advice. I will be keeping track of wins and, more importantly, the losses. This week, I've enlisted the help of
sports book manager Richard Gardner, who will give some perspective on the betting trends he is seeing.
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Now, read on for our top five picks against the spread this week, as well as a team to select for your knockout/survival pool.
Minnesota Vikings (+6) at New Orleans Saints
As the media will regurgitate over and over again, the previous year's Super Bowl winner has won the Thursday home opener since the NFL made that schedule change in 2004. In the last 10 seasons, the Super Bowl champ has been victorious in the first game of the season.
However, the Saints have not been able to cover the point spread when playing the Vikings in the Superdome over the last several years. During the NFC title game in January, the Saints won by 3 points but failed to cover as 4-point favorites. In 2008, the Saints were favored by 3 points but lost at home to the Vikings 30-27. Against-the-spread trends are not on the side of the Saints.
The line on this game opened at -4.5 and has moved to favor the Saints due to concerns over the health of the Vikings starters. Vikings wide receiver Sidney Rice is out for the season and Percy Harvin has been battling migraines. The Vikings defense is terrific, but the question will be whether Adrian Peterson can lead a running attack to score enough points.
Gardner says a lot of money is being placed on the Saints. "This line has moved aggressively as we opened at New Orleans -4.5. The public is all over the defending champs tonight," Gardner says.
Saints -6. The Saints offense is overpowering, and emotions will be riding high in New Orleans. I don't like the idea of Brett Favre playing with a deficit in the fourth quarter, only because of his uncanny ability to throw an interception in the last moments of a close game. Perhaps Brett Favre will retire in the next several hours leading up to game time, and the line will move even higher; Then I'll have to rethink this pick.
Please note: I made this pick before Thursday's game. For those of you who gave the 6 points with a Saint pick, you can thank Garrett Hartley for muffing two field goal attempts. If you were able to secure a -5 line at a book, you would have pushed
Cincinnati Bengals (+4) at New England Patriots
Picking games involving the New England Patriots is a difficult task for me, as they're my hometown team and rooting interest. But when it comes to making wagers on the NFL, all allegiances must be put aside. For that reason, it's important for me to admit that the Patriots' defense is very suspect following injuries to two key players and an infusion of young, inexperienced players.
And while the offense is supposed to be New England's strength, reports of a
should generate some concern among those looking to bet on the Patriots to win their home opener. This week also featured lots of chatter over contracts, with Brady reportedly agreeing to a four-year extension worth $72 million, with nearly $50 million of that guaranteed. Meanwhile, Randy Moss (pictured above) has expressed frustration over a lack of a contract offer from the Patriots.
Turning to the Bengals, their offense is completely retooled with the addition of Terrell Owens and tight end Jermaine Gresham. It's unclear, though, if Bengal fans will see the Carson Palmer they fell in love with in 2005, when he threw 32 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions.
Looking at head-to-head history between the teams, the Patriots last faced the Bengals on a Monday night in 2007, defeating Cincinnati by a score of 34-13 to cover the 8.5 spread. That small sample size doesn't give bettors much in terms of past against-the-spread trends. So far, the betting action on this game has measured that out.
"We have seen two-way action on this game," Gardner says. "In the past, I would have expected more money on the Pats at home, but there is a lot of hype surrounding the Bengals this year."
New England -4. Even putting my love for the Pats aside, it should be hard for anyone following the NFL to pick against the Pats in a home opener. The Bengals outperformed last year, notching an impressive 6-0 record against their own division to make the playoffs. I think they may experience a bit of a hangover this year, and they'll start the season off on the wrong foot with a loss to the Patriots.
Detroit Lions (+6.5) at Chicago Bears
There is a lot of history between the Bears and Lions that bettors can rely on. Since 2007, the Bears are 3-3 against the spread when playing the Lions and are 1-2 against the spread when playing host to Detroit.
Of course, a lot has changed for both teams. The Lions managed only two wins in the 2009-2010 season, a year after going 0-16. This year, the Lions drafted well (shocker!) by adding defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and running back Jahvid Best to the roster. In addition, the Lions added veterans wide receiver Nate Burleson, defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch and tight end Tony Scheffler. Many are expecting quarterback Matthew Stafford (pictured above) to improve in his second year.
On the other side, Chicago fans (as well as fantasy sports fans) are hoping quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte can bounce back from atrocious performances last season. The Bears have added Mike Martz as offensive coordinator. Martz knows the Lions well, as he served as OC for Detroit in two seasons for a combined seven wins. Linebacker Brian Urlacher is still nursing a calf strain, but the defense gets a boost from former Carolina Panther Julius Peppers, who signed with the Bears in the offseason.
For their part, gamblers are betting that the Lions have improved more than the Bears. "Our bettors do not seem to think the Bears can cover a touchdown and are backing the supposed-to-be-improved Lions on the road," Bodog's Gardner says.
Detroit Lions +6.5. Cutler had two of his best performances last season against the Lions, but this isn't the same team Detroit has been embarrassed by in the past. The Lions have a completely new look on both sides of the ball, and with a fairly difficult schedule ahead, they know they have a good chance to steal one in Chicago to start the season off.
Oakland Raiders (+6) at Tennessee Titans
I'm shocked that I'm supposed to believe the Raiders will travel to the East Coast and lose by less than a touchdown.
Yes, Oakland added a better quarterback in Jason Campbell, who is a dramatic upgrade from JaMarcus Russell. It also appears as though running back Michael Bush will be on the bench with a broken thumb suffered in a preseason game. Oakland's other running back, Darren McFadden, is already being labeled a "bust" after suffering injuries since he was drafted in 2008.
The Tennessee Titans, meanwhile, need every win they can muster in order to compete in a division that also includes the Indianapolis Colts. Quarterback Vince Young (pictured above) has come into his own, as has running back Chris Johnson. The Raiders, who won only five games last year, appear to be an easy opponent, especially as they're playing on the road. However, Oakland's defense presents a big challenge for Johnson, who has become the most popular fantasy football player this year.
The line opened at Tennessee -6.5 but we are seeing some smart money on the Raiders to cover," Gardner says. "
It will be interesting to see the difference Jason Campbell will make to their offense and if the Raiders D can limit Johnson running them ragged."
Tennessee Titans -6. The Raiders don't have enough on either side of the ball to compete with the Titans. I am also making Tennessee my selection for a survival/knockout pool this week. Their schedule only gets tougher from here, so now is a perfect time to take them off the board.
Baltimore Ravens (+2.5) at New York Jets
The Jets talk a lot of talk, as anyone who has watched HBO's
knows, and that all starts at the top with Rex Ryan. The Jets had a big offseason, signing running back LaDainian Tomlinson and wide receiver Braylon Edwards. The team also hammered out an agreement with cornerback Darrelle Revis (pictured above), who held out of team activities due to a contract dispute.
With Revis in the fold, the Jets once again have a great defense and should be able to do more on offense, rather than depend on the arm of quarterback Mark Sanchez. Even if he is washed up, the Ravens will still need to account for Tomlinson, which should help Sanchez.
The Ravens should continue to see success with the return of quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice. Earlier this week, Baltimore added wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. However, injuries may sap the power of what is usually a strong defensive unit. Safety Ed Reed is on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, and cornerback Domonique Foxworth was placed on the team's injured reserve list.
This game becomes difficult to pick as the line hasn't moved after opening at 2.5 points. Looking back, the Jets last played the Ravens in 2007, when Baltimore was unable to cover as 9.5-point favorites.
"Solid line here, no movement yet," says Bodog's Gardner. "Looks like our bettors are waiting to see what their bankroll looks like after Sunday before they bet this tough matchup."
New York Jets -2.5. As a Patriots fan, I hate the Jets and I hate to think of them as a successful or (gulp) Super Bowl team. The Jets are a far better team than last season, while the Ravens are mostly the same if not worse.
-- Written by Robert Holmes in Boston
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