Against the Spread: 2011 NFL Picks: Week 1

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- Wagering on games during the first week of the NFL season is a joyous time for many gamblers, as they are free to bet on games by betting on their beliefs in the absence of any statistics for teams so far.

The problem with these bets, though, is that they run up against a lot of smart money that has already been wagered on games months ago. Although the NFL season was put in jeopardy due to a four-month lockout of players earlier this year, many sports books in Vegas and offshore posted Week 1 lines for every game. While recreational gamblers were off enjoying spring and summer weather, the pros were putting their money down where they saw value.

Now, with the 2011-2012 NFL season set to kick off tonight with the New Orleans Saints traveling to Green Bay to play defending champion Packers, the pros are looking to hedge their bets as the public begins to move the lines on games. With public money about to pour into Vegas books in the next few days, this type of action can make it more difficult to find the right value and start the betting season off on the right foot.

"These lines have been out a long time, so a lot of the money bet has been from the wise guys," says Bryan Leonard, a professional sports handicapper with Leonard is part of the Tuesday Group, a collection of professional bettors in Vegas who get together to handicap the games each week.

"It's not necessarily that the wise guys like that side. They set themselves up to make bets both ways," Leonard says. "Especially in Week 1, just because you see a line move, that doesn't mean that's the side the wise guys prefer. They know that's the side where money is going to come in."

Leonard says that with so much public money running up against sharp money, the first week of the NFL season makes it tough to find value.

"Sometimes you have to hold your nose and play these games," Leonard says. "The way I've made a lot of money in the past is to go against the hyped teams in Week 1. It's worked every year because there are certain teams that the public is on. The line gets inflated, the players start to believe the hype, and then they come out flat in Week 1."

While the lines may move a bit now after the lockout has ended and football is about to begin again, the numbers that professional model builders use aren't swayed much. Paul Bessire, the general manager and creator of the Web site doesn't anticipate that the lockout will play a significant role in his model's numbers for Week 1. His Prediction Machine is a quantitative way to break down NFL games as it simulates each contest 50,000 times to come up with a pick against the spread.

Related: 6 NFL Stocks to Kick Off the Season

"Week to week, every year, every team is different," he says. "In the NFL, there's change and things are always in flux. The lockout itself won't make much of a difference."

With that, let's get on to the picks for Week 1 of the NFL season. As I'll remind you through the entire season, these are for entertainment purposes only. Just as I did last season, I have enlisted the help of's Paul Bessire, who offers analysis of the data his model provides for the games I've picked this week.

I've also collected commentary on each game from's Bryan Leonard. His analysis focuses on the spread movement by Vegas oddsmakers to determine where the public and professional money is moving on each game. These trends prove to be critical for bettors who are on the hunt for inefficiencies and value.

Read on for the first game preview, the Saints and the Packers.

New Orleans Saints at Green Bay Packers (-4)

Defending champs against the previous defending champs, this game would have the makings of Game of the Year -- if it were held on Lambeau Field in the coldest months of the year. Instead, bettors are warmly greeted (no pun intended) with a game where the dome team on the road won't have to play in bitter weather conditions.

Both the Saints and Packers made the playoffs last season despite not winning their respective divisions. However, one of these teams should have won more games while the other won more than they should have. The Pythagorean expectation for wins -- a formula that uses points scored and points allowed to determine an expected win totals -- shows that the Packers underperformed while the Saints outperformed by more than one game.

That theory, while backward-looking, is a good predictor of regression and rebound in the following season. In other words, the Packers should be a better team this year and the Saints should regress slightly from how they played in 2010. It's not hard to find some of the reasons why that is true.

For one, the Packers return with their team mostly intact. Green Bay will see the return of running back Ryan Grant, who was lost to injury last season, as much of the Packers team was. On the other hand, the Saints have added some offensive talent to the team, notably in running backs Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles as well as tight end Jimmy Graham.

Given that both teams are considered by the public to be juggernauts on offense, it's not that surprising to see the line of the game in the so-called "dead zone," says Bryan Leonard, the area that falls between three points and six points.

"This game sat at 5.5 for a long time, which is a dead number for the NFL, which indicated that Vegas is letting the bettors decide," Leonard says. "New Orleans has played well in the preseason and is a pretty healthy team, so the line has come down to where it should be. The Wynn in Las Vegas has this game with -3.5, but most of the offshore books have it at -4.5. They're taking money, but they're going through dead numbers. I doubt we'll see a -3 on this game.

Despite the hype of the opening night game, Bessire's model has a clear-cut winner. "Green Bay is the best team in the league and playing at home in the opener with everyone healthy," he says. "The offenses and defenses for the Packers rank second and first respectively in pass efficiency, which is key to winning in this league. Expect the Packers to win by a touchdown."

The Pick: Packers -4. The home-team defending champs usually win the Thursday night season-opener, history shows. The only question is whether Green Bay can cover. With a line of -4 and an over/under of 45 points, Vegas oddsmakers are predicting a final score of 24.5-20.5. This feels more like a 28-20 game, to me. Last season, I got burned on opening night by taking the Saints to cover as 6-point favorites over the Minnesota Vikings. I don't expect a repeat like that this year.

Philadelphia Eagles at St. Louis Rams (+4.5)

The Miami Heat were crowned NBA champions before the season even began last year, thanks to the additions of some of the best players in the game. The collection of superstars then went out and lost to the Boston Celtics in their first game of the season. By the end of November, the Heat had 10 wins to 8 losses. That's not exactly the record of a champion, at least to begin a long season.

The comparisons between basketball and football are certainly a stretch, but it's hard not to walk away from seeing the similarities. Eagles QB Michael Vick as Dwyane Wade. Superstar cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha as LeBron James. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as Chris Bosh. Of course, the Heat went on to play in the NBA Finals, much like the Eagles may end up in the Super Bowl. But that doesn't mean the team is going to immediately gel to start the season.

On the other hand, there is the bandwagon team that many believe could surprise and make the playoffs. They'd do so only thanks to playing in arguably the worst division in the NFL, but it's still possible. That said, there's plenty to like about the young St. Louis Rams team behind second-year QB Sam Bradford. The Rams added talent like the Eagles did, but they did so without dropping cash on a superstar defensive player or trading away a backup quarterback to get a third cornerback. Wideout Mike Sims-Walker, for example, is one addition that will help push the Rams forward.

Leonard notes that while the Rams may be a bandwagon team, the public is very much aware of the Eagles and expect that team to outperform.

"Most of the offshore books, which is where sharps go because of the low vig, they have -4.5 for Philadelphia. That tells me they think St. Louis is the right side, and to be honest with you, I like St. Louis also," Leonard says. "You have the sharps on St. Louis, but the public will be on Philadelphia since they got all the press in the offseason after signing all of those free agents. Now that the game is at 4.5, I think that's the key time to play St. Louis. The only other number that will help you is 6, but I don't see it going back up even if the public comes in on Sunday."

Bessire, on the other hand, believes Philly will be too much for the young Rams team. "The game is in St. Louis. Even if this game were played in Sam Bradford's actual backyard, the Eagles should be giving more than five," Bessire says. "If St. Louis is improved, Philadelphia is more improved. The Eagles are also as healthy as they will likely be all year. They have a team that is capable of being dominant over anyone on a decent day. Philadelphia should not even need a decent day at St. Louis to win by a touchdown or more."

The Pick: Rams +4.5. I'm not on the Rams bandwagon yet, considering the extremely difficult schedule the team faces over the first few weeks of the season (at the Giants, against the Ravens, at Green Bay, at Dallas, and against New Orleans all before Week 9). However, the Rams are catching a powerhouse Eagles team early enough in the season, before all the pieces come together. If Andy Reid continues his clock mismanagement early into this season, I think the Rams could shock with a home victory in Week 1.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens (-2.5)

If there is one game this week I am most confident in picking, it's this early-season matchup between two bitter AFC North division rivals.

Much like the Packers/Saints game tonight, NFL fans would probably prefer to see these two teams battle in Baltimore in the winter months, like the game during last year's playoffs. Speaking of which, one thing most pundits will point to in regards to this game is the idea of "revenge." After blowing an early lead in their playoff game eight months ago, it's easy to make the argument that the Ravens are out to avenge that embarrassment.

To do so, Baltimore will have to use several new additions -- like wide receiver Lee Evans and running back Ricky Williams -- to defeat a Pittsburgh team that is returning largely intact. The Ravens' defense, with several new additions and lots of questions, will need to find ways of stopping Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger.'s Leonard doesn't see that happening.

"When you look at a line of 3, Vegas is saying those teams are equal. I happen to think these teams aren't equal," Leonard says. "Baltimore is an aging team. They lost a lot of players and coaches in the offseason. They moved around the offensive line. I wasn't impressed with their first units in the preseason. Pittsburgh is a better team. Pittsburgh has proven they are good on the road."

Bessire is similarly high on the underdog. "Last year, in the matchups between these squads, the road team won each time -- both by three points," he notes. :While we are predicting a similar outcome again to start 2011, it is not because the road team should be better in these games, but that the Steelers are a better team and present a tough matchup for the Ravens."

The Pick: Steelers +2.5. It's not hard to see Pittsburgh marching out of Baltimore with a victory. They're a better team with a better offense and a better defense. The Steelers would make a pretty good moneyline bet, too, as a solid upset pick.

Detroit Lions at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-1.5)

When everyone picks the Detroit Lions to win a lot of games as a sleeper pick, are they really a sleeper pick anymore?

I feel like I've heard this story before. Perhaps that's because I have. Last year, with almost the exact same team, the Lions were expected to do well. And while they certainly built on the previous season, they didn't do enough to become the elite team in the NFC North division.

That can be attributed to a quite a few things. There was the unlucky end to the team's Week 1 game against the Bears, where a Calvin Johnson touchdown catch was waved off. Then, quarterback Matthew Stafford went down with an injury (again). An injury to running back Jahvid Best didn't knock him out of games, but it was enough to make him ineffective during the second half of the season.

In the Lions favor, though, the Pythagorean expectation of wins had them winning 7.8 games last season, better than the 6 games they did win.

For the Bucs, the opposite is true. The team outperformed against an easy schedule, winning 10 games to the expected 8.6 games, nearly securing a playoff berth in the process. You've probably heard by now that Tampa will face a much more difficult schedule this year.

That doesn't come in Week 1, however, as they play the same Lions team they lost to at home last season. The Bucs eventually lost on an overtime field goal, but little is said about how that happened. Lions backup QB Drew Stanton has a career game, throwing for 252 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions against a Tampa defense without one of its best players, Aqib Talib.

Of course, not everyone agrees with my assessment that, while Tampa Bay should regress this year, they won't start that in Week 1 against the Lions at home.

"We may not be as high on Detroit as those expecting a playoff run (or even more), but we like what the Lions have done to improve over the last three off-seasons enough to expect a victory to start the season for Detroit," Bessire says.

While Bessire finds the Buccaneers young and fun to watch, "the Lions are better than the Buccaneers -- and they are healthy right now. It may still be close like last year, but look for a Detroit win in Tampa Bay again (the score even looks the same)."

"I like Detroit better than Tampa Bay this year. That being said, everyone and their brother is on Detroit in this game," Leonard says.

Leonard also notes that it's a significant event when oddmakers move off a 3-point line as they did with this game.

"When the line was 3, we agreed the money would pour in on Detroit," Leonard says. "Now with the line at -1.5, I think there is a lot of value on Tampa Bay. While I do think that Detroit may be the better team, I would rather have money on a team that has proven it can win the close game."

The Pick: Bucs -1.5. I'm with Leonard on this. Detroit may be a playoff team in the making, but I'm not a fan of taking them on the road against a solid Bucs team that is healthy on defense again and looking to make a mark in the NFC South.

Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns (-6.5)

The Cleveland Browns burned me too many times to count last season, as I bought into them way too early. I'm hoping they don't continue that tradition into Week 1.

There are plenty of theories at play when it comes to this battle between Ohio teams. The most prominent I've seen is that a rookie QB can't win on the road in his first start, referring to Bengals newbie Andy Dalton. The other is the so-called "Madden Curse," where the last player to appear on the front of the Madden video game typically gets injured. This year's entrant is Cleveland running back Peyton Hillis.

But wiping theories and conspiracies away, it's easy to make a case for Cleveland to improve on their performance last year. For one, with a new head coach, the team can fully institute the West Coast offense, which should help along second-year QB Colt McCoy. On the other side, the Bengals added a solid draft pick in wide receiver A.J. Green, but there are so many new players on defense.'s Bessire is one of those who believe the Browns can blow out the lowly Cincy team.

"The Bengals are clearly one of the worst teams in the league and have to go on the road to play a rival team that is headed in a great direction," Bessire says. "Any line that favors Cleveland by less than a touchdown is not strong enough."

Some professional bettors, like Leonard, argue the line has moved to high on the Browns but not high enough to make it valuable to play the Bengals.

"This line was 3.5 when it came out. At 6.5 it's a no-play for me but if this game hits 7, I'm on Cincinnati," Leonard says. "The guys who bet 3.5 early will be back on Cincinnati in a heartbeat if it hits 7. Cleveland may not be a public team, so it may not get that high. But you have to keep in mind that this game opened 3 points lower, and I haven't seen enough to make that a legitimate line move."

The Pick: Browns -6.5. The Browns -- specifically Colt McCoy -- can't really throw the ball downfield. With a better identity on offense and a reliance on the 4-3 defense, it should be enough to stop a rookie QB who is starting his first game on the road against a division rival.

-- Written by Robert Holmes in Boston.

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