Let’s just say, hypothetically speaking, that a certain NFL team won’t have its leading tackler for at least the first six games of the 2014 season as he recovers from a torn ACL. Now let’s say this same team also will be without its best pass rusher until November as said pass rusher, who makes Pacman Jones look like a choirboy, serves yet another suspension. And let’s say a third defensive starter got arrested on suspicion of domestic violence just days after the NFL announced new harsh domestic violence penalties … and a fourth will likely miss at least half the season with an injury … and a fifth, one of the league’s top linebackers, dealt with a neck stinger all preseason.
Unbelievable stuff, right? Now what if I told you this same team didn’t score its first touchdown of the preseason until 46 seconds remained in the first half … of the third game. And that touchdown drive was led by the new backup quarterback, not the quarterback who this offseason signed a monster six-year contract worth more than $110 million, $61 million of which is guaranteed. Hell, since this story isn’t crazy enough, let’s say that this newly rich QB last led a touchdown drive in January.
Finally, for shits and giggles, why don’t we go ahead and make this team a 5-point road favorite in Week 1 … against an opponent that averaged 27.4 points per game last season, fifth best in the league.
Now that’s some award-winning fiction writing, ain’t it? Except it’s not fiction at all. “This team” is the San Francisco 49ers. And they really are one of just three road favorites in Week 1, laying five points at Dallas.
Yes, the Cowboys’ defense was historically dreadful last year, and it very well could be worse in 2014. But Dallas has had six months—rather than six days—to game plan for this contest; that should mean something. Throw in the extra opening-day boost of playing at home, the “nobody’s-giving-us-a-chance” card and the 49ers’ serious on- and off-field issues, and I’m grabbing the points with the Cowboys as my Week 1 best bet.
The rest of this week’s selections:
Broncos (-7½) vs. Colts: Denver’s opening-day results in Peyton Manning’s first two years with the squad: 31-19 home victory over Pittsburgh; 49-27 home victory over Baltimore. Those Steelers and Ravens teams were terrific defensively. These Colts are not. Added motivation for the Broncos: Last year they took a 6-0 record to Indy and lost 39-33. You think Manning remembers that one?
Bengals (+1½) at Ravens: The home team has won eight of the last nine meetings (including four straight) in this AFC North rivalry. And yet the Ravens are barely favored on their turf. You shouldn’t need an abacus to do the math here: The Bengals—who outgained Baltimore 756-411 in two meetings last season—have superior talent across the board.
Rams (-4) vs. Vikings: Everybody’s buying Minnesota because of its 4-0 preseason record. Everybody’s selling the Rams because they went 1-3 in August and lost QB Sam Bradford to yet another season-ending knee injury. Everybody’s forgetting to picture Vikings QB Matt Cassel running for his life vs. St. Louis’ frightening pass rush. Lay the deflated number, which was as high as Rams minus-6.
Michigan State (+13) at Oregon: Fact: The Ducks’ offense is as explosive as any in the country. Fact: That explosive offense has been a dud against top-tier defenses in recent years (see results vs. Stanford, Auburn, Ohio State, LSU and Boise State). Fact: Michigan State’s defense is as good as any in the country. Bonus fact: The Spartans are 16-1 in their last 17 games, winning their last 11 in a row.
Best of the Rest: Iowa State (+12½) vs. Kansas State; USC (+3) at Stanford.
2013 Results: 63-70-2 (36-36 college; 27-34-2 NFL; 7-13 Best Bets).
Matt Jacob appears at 10 a.m. Fridays on “First Preview” on ESPN Radio 1100-AM and 98.9-FM.