Spread picks for NFL Week 1

Analyst Eric Eager makes spread picks for the remaining 15 NFL Week 1 games.

| 10 months ago
Raiders QB Derek Carr

(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Spread picks for NFL Week 1

The commencement of every NFL season has the tendency to leave one overcome with anticipation and excitement. Fans got their first taste of real action last night, as the Broncos held off the Panthers in dramatic fashion.

It is with similar enthusiasm that I give my predicted winner and spread for the 15 remaining Week 1 games. The calculations are computed using an ensemble of statistical and mathematical models that account for, among other things, PFF’s unique player grades. Early-season models lean more heavily on player and team performance from last season, as well as preseason rankings and betting lines—influences that will fade as the season progresses. Spreads are taken from FootballLOCKS.com.

Buccaneers at Falcons (-3)

Prediction: Falcons win by 4

An early-season matchup in the NFC South pits a hot-starting team from a year ago at home against a team with a quarterback many have pegged to make a substantial leap in year two. Jameis Winston (78.3 overall grade last season) played his best game a season ago against the Falcons (Week 13), and returns all of his main skill-position contributors from a year ago. He’ll have to outclass Matt Ryan (86.8), who graded positively in all but four of his games last season, and has Julio Jones (94.4) at his disposal. Jones outpaced all wide receivers last year with 3.04 yards per route run. Tampa Bay’s secondary, featuring newcomers Brent Grimes (73.7) and rookie Vernon Hargreaves III, will have to be up to the task to keep the Falcons from covering in this one.

Vikings (-2) at Titans

Prediction: Vikings win by 4

This is possibly the trickiest game of the weekend, with a big unknown being the Vikings’ quarterback situation. Regardless of whether Shaun Hill (50.8) or the newly-acquired Sam Bradford (85.3) start, the Vikings’ defense, with superstar talent in Linval Joseph (89.0), Everson Griffen (83.9), Anthony Barr (91.8), and Harrison Smith (88.9), should be able to hold serve this week. For the Titans to spoil the Vikings’ opener, Jurrell Casey (87.6), Brian Orakpo (80.7), Wesley Woodyard (85.8) and the Titans defense (which was a respectable 16th in total grading last season) needs to stymie Adrian Peterson (74.9) and what is sure to be a run-first attack. Disclosure: My calculation is under the assumption that a combination of Hill and Bradford see the field.

Browns at Eagles (-4)

Prediction: Eagles win by 6

Rookie Carson Wentz makes his debut against the team that traded the Eagles the pick necessary to draft him. A rookie quarterback against a team that kept all 14 players drafted in the 2016 NFL Draft on their 53-man roster figures to be a game where established talent emerges as the difference. The Eagles offensive line, featuring Jason Peters (83.2), Jason Kelce (82.9), and Lane Johnson (assuming he’s not suspended by Sunday) should have their way against a Browns’ front that’s weak after losing Desmond Bryant (76.2) to a season-ending injury before the season. While QB Robert Griffin III graded positively in the preseason, he faces an Eagles defense that still has studs in Fletcher Cox (89.9), Brandon Graham (85.5), and Malcolm Jenkins (86.8).

Bengals (-2.5) at Jets

Prediction: Bengals win by 1

Cincinnati returns one of the more talented rosters coming into the 2016 season, while the Jets are still smarting after failing to close the deal on a wildcard berth a season ago. Up front, the Bengals are anchored by Geno Atkins (91.0) and Carlos Dunlap (82.4), which offer an advantage against a Jets’ offensive line featuring tackles Ryan Clady and Breno Giacomini (41.0), the former coming off a missed season, and the latter a season where he surrendered 54 total pressures in 661 pass-blocking snaps (fifth-most among NFL tackles). If Brandon Marshall (85.1) and Eric Decker (82.7) can take advantage of Dre Kirkpatrick (39.6) and a Bengals secondary with two new starters, however, the Jets may be able to push for the cover at home.

Raiders at Saints (-1)

Prediction: Saints win by 1

The reloaded Raiders head to New Orleans, where the newly-extended Drew Brees (90.7) has some supplemental talent of his own in rookie receiver Michael Thomas and free-agent tight end Coby Fleener (70.6). Thomas forced a missed tackle on a remarkable 23 percent of his receptions last season, while Fleener gives the Saints athleticism from the tight end position they’ve lacked since they traded Jimmy Graham (80.6) to the Seahawks. While the Raiders added a lot of pieces to their defense this offseason, the middle of the field is still a concern, where linebackers Malcolm Smith (45.7), Ben Heeney (71.4), and slot cornerback D.J. Hayden (36.5) should leave plenty of open space for Brees to utilize Fleener and Thomas. Derrick Carr (86.7) and the Raiders should have no problem scoring on the porous Saints’ defense, as well, making this game one of the more compelling contests of the weekend.

Chargers at Chiefs (-7)

Prediciton: Chiefs win by 8

This appears to be one of the more lopsided affairs of the weekend. However, the Chiefs are missing their best defensive player Justin Houston (90.2). In addition, Kansas City’s best offensive player, Jamaal Charles (74.5), figures to split time with Spencer Ware (77.1) at the very best. This game probably comes down to the ability of the Chiefs’ re-vamped secondary, led by Eric Berry (84.4) and Marcus Peters (74.8) to shut down Philip Rivers (81.4), Antonio Gates (81.6), and Keenan Allen (80.4) and the Chargers’ passing game. The Chiefs lost half of their dime secondary last season, a defensive alignment that they employed more than any other team in 2015. Be that as it may, Andy Reid and the Chiefs have coped with personnel losses before, and they should do so again at home this weekend.

Bills at Ravens (-3)

Prediction: Ravens win by 3

Although the Ravens (5-11 record in 2015) finished last season below the Bills (8-8) in the standings, they actually graded far better than their record would suggest, finishing in the top 20 in total offense, defense, and special teams grading. They’ll look to shut down Bills starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor (88.3), who emerged last season as a top-10 graded quarterback, using both his arm (he was eighth in deep passing accuracy) and his legs (Taylor was the second-highest graded running QB in the league). The return of players like Steve Smith (89.7), Terrell Suggs (71.0), Joe Flacco (72.5), Justin Forsett (69.1), Crockett Gilmore (76.9), and Dennis Pitta from injury should be enough for the Ravens to win this one, however. 

Bears at Texans (-6.5)

Prediction: Texans win by 5

J.J. Watt (93.8) returns in time for the Texans to face the Bears, who struggled mightily at times during the preseason. While Jay Cutler (80.8) gets second-year player Kevin White back from a lost rookie season, they failed to connect on anything substantial in August, and Cutler averaged just 4.7 yards per pass in total during that time. They face a Texans defense that, in addition to Watt, returns Whitney Mercilus (85.3) and Jonathan Joseph (87.8), and is still expecting big things from former No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney (83.8). The Bears defense, after adding Danny Trevathan (85.6), Jerrell Freeman (89.3), and Akiem Hicks (77.5) this offseason, should keep the game close, especially if Brock Osweiler (75.5) experiences any growing pains in his first start with his new team.

Packers (-5.5) at Jaguars

Prediction: Packers win by 2

This is trickier than one would think at first flush. Despite recent results, the Jaguars are a team with some substantial talent, led by the wide receiver duo of Allen Hurns (83.3) and Allen Robinson (86.2). The Packers’ secondary may very well be up to the task of slowing Hurns and Robinson, flaunting four players with 2015 overall grades above 80.0. However, Green Bay just jettisoned their best offensive lineman, and the Jaguars boast newcomers Malik Jackson (86.7), Dante Fowler (out all last season with injury), and Yannick Ngakoue up front. If they can apply sufficient pressure to Aaron Rodgers (87.3), Jacksonville can make this game closer than the spread would suggest.

Dolphins at Seahawks (-10.5)

Prediction: Seahawks win by 10

The Seahawks are at home, coming off a disappointing end to their season last year, and facing a last-place team with a new coach. For the Dolphins to have a chance in this one, their front four—headed by Ndamukong Suh (91.1), Cameron Wake (85.4), and newcomer Jason Jones (73.5)—needs to take advantage of a Seahawks’ offensive line void of any player with a 2015 overall grade greater than 66.6.

Giants (-1) at Cowboys

Prediction: Cowboys win by 2

Dak Prescott makes his first start against what is arguably the Cowboys’ biggest rival. He looked up to the task in the preseason, finishing with the third-highest grade among quarterbacks in August. The Giants acquired some big names for their defense in the offseason, but the Dallas offensive line (with three players earning overall grades above 88.5 in 2015) should be able to get rookie Ezekiel Elliott to the second level of the defense, where the Giants’ linebackers are arguably the worst in the league. That, coupled with the Giants’ history of struggling against backup quarterbacks, should lead to a home cover for the Cowboys. 

Lions at Colts (-3.5)

Prediction: Colts win by 4

Both the Lions and the Colts were disappointing a year ago. Fast forward to 2016, and the Colts are welcoming back their franchise player, while the Lions watched theirs walk away from the game of football at the age of 30. Marvin Jones (78.0) and Golden Tate (80.8) aren’t a bad replacement pair at wide receiver, and the Colts will probably be without stud cornerback Vonte Davis (82.2) on Sunday. However, a motivated Andrew Luck (44.9) behind a fortified offensive line should be able to take advantage of a Lions defense that lacks the depth in their secondary to run with the likes of T.Y Hilton (83.3) and Donte Moncrief (75.4) and outscore the Lions at home.   

Patriots at Cardinals (-6)

Prediction: Cardinals win by 2

There’s a decent amount of uncertainty going into this game. How will Jimmy Garoppolo (63.6) fare in Tom Brady’s stead? How will Carson Palmer (93.0) rebound from an awful finish to a great 2015 season? The odds makers have the Cardinals as comfortable favorites in this one, but New England’s defense—boasting seven starters with 2015 overall grades above 81.6—is likely being overlooked going into the season. That, coupled with an Arizona secondary starting third-round rookie Brandon Williams along with the liability that is Kevin Minter (40.6) at linebacker, should give Bill Belichick enough to work with to at least cover the spread.

Steelers (-3) at Washington

Prediction: Push

It’s tough to win on the road in the NFL; it’s even tougher when arguably your best offensive player is out with a suspension. That said, the Steelers have more than enough offensive firepower to make up for a suspended Le’Veon Bell (90.0), as Ben Roethlisberger (93.5), DeAngelo Williams (78.9), and Antonio Brown (96.4) all paced their respective positions in grading in the weeks where Bell was out last season (Weeks 1–2 and 9–17). That said, Washington played some impressive offense themselves in 2015, and Kirk Cousins (81.5) was particularly lethal at home. It’s going to be up to the Steelers’ secondary, which struggled mightily at times a season ago, to keep Washington from covering the spread at home.

Rams (-2.5) at 49ers

Prediction: Rams win by 1

The return of the Los Angeles Rams (albeit on the road) is one of the few redeeming qualities of this game, especially with rookie signal caller Jared Goff figuring in as the inactive third quarterback to begin his rookie campaign. While the 49ers possess some young talent of their own along the defensive line, the marquee group in this game is the Rams’ defensive line, led by our reigning Dwight Stephenson Award winner Aaron Donald (96.6). Donald, who led all defensive tackles in pass-rushing productivity (12.4) and was fifth in run-stop percentage (10.9) last season, figures to be in the 49ers’ backfield all night. Jeff Fisher’s group has always struggled in games the public thinks they should win, however, making the road cover anything but a sure thing in this matchup.

| Analyst

Eric Eager joined Pro Football Focus in 2015. He is currently working on a number of analytics projects, primarily focused on the NFL.

  • Ben Moore

    How well does your model predict out-of-sample games?

    • Eric

      This is the model’s first season – but in model validation it was anywhere between 65-70 percent in picking who wins out-of-sample games. For picking against the spread it depended on how different Spread Plus (my spreads given above) were from the actual Spread. For differences of more than three points moving towards Spread Plus was successful anywhere from 58 – 63 percent in out-of-sample games.

      Thanks for reading.

      • crosseyedlemon

        The great thing about models is that you can always abandon them in favor of the tried and trusted dart board or mystic 8-ball.

        • Eric Eager

          Tried. And. True. Don’t forget flipping a 32-sided coin. Thanks for reading

          • sikologik

            32-sided coin!? That’s likely to tell us that the Packers will beat the Seahawks this week!

          • Eric

            Maybe a 64-sided coin is necessary now without Sitton!

          • sikologik

            Now you’re just talking crazy. A 64-sided coin is likely to tell me that the Portland Trailblazers will beat the Cincinnati Reds in the Super Bowl.

          • crosseyedlemon

            I hope the game officials don’t start using a 32 sided coin because a two sided one seems to give them enough trouble.

  • crosseyedlemon

    The most dramatic line move has been on the Pats / Cards game but rather than bite on that I will make the Seahawks my play this week. It’s going to be a long season for the Dolphins who are probably the worst of the Florida teams.

  • Mike Riley

    Scary how close these predictions were to the actual final point differentials. That Rams & Niners game though…woof.