This story appears in the Aug. 27, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated—I swear it does. Subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
Surely you’ve heard by now: Sports gambling is legal. Judging from the amount of gambling content hitting the world wide web this summer, not just legal, mandatory. They’ll soon be adding it to the curriculum in public schools.
That’s not quite accurate. The Supreme Court, in May, ruled the federal ban on state-sanctioned sports betting to be unconstitutional, paving the way for sports betting to, possibly, become legalized in your state. But don’t let that dampen your enthusiasm. This football season you will be battered—relentlessly—by a deluge of advice on how to make your money grow through the magic of betting on the NFL. Let us not be left out in the cold. Here are the prop bets we’re advising you get in on this season (if, of course, your local sportsbook offers them)…
Number of times Hue Jackson is asked, “But are you really not starting Baker Mayfield in the opener?” over the first eight days of September: Over/Under 853.5
Jackson’s desire to sit the No. 1 overall pick is curious for a few reasons. First, there’s the fact that NFL teams have been flocking to Norman, Okla. to learn about the scheme Mayfield mastered at the collegiate level. Any organization interested in drafting Mayfield was prepared to heavily incorporate elements of the Sooners’ attack—surely that included the one who actually drafted him. Second, Mayfield is NFL-ready: He has the ability to handle a ton of information and process it quickly, he’s accurate, he’s able to create late in the down, and—depending on your point of view—he has a unique charm. Cleveland’s offensive line is a legitimate strength, and the receivers are solid. The sooner Mayfield gets on the field, the sooner he can add all the exotic defenses and trap coverages to his mental rolodex and start progressing toward solidifying himself as a franchise QB. Third, the one knock on Mayfield is size. The Browns are not expecting the 23-year-old to have a growth spurt. I mean… they’re not, right? (Oh God, tell me you’re not waiting on a growth spurt, Cleveland brass. After all those Hard Knocks episodes, we just want to be sure.) Fourth, the placeholder in Cleveland is Tyrod Taylor, who is a high-character leader of men who is surely a boon to this organization’s rotten culture. But Taylor is also ultra-conservative as a passer, a playing style that emphasizes preventing turnovers to the point that he sometimes neglects the scoring points part (see: Buffalo at Jacksonville Wild-Card game). Last winter, the Eagles won a Super Bowl because Nick Foles was willing to actually be the aggressor in a league where the rules skew so heavily toward passing offenses that defensive backs can now be penalized for thought crimes. There would seem to be a lesson in the 41 points Foles dropped on Bill Belichick and Co. One the Browns, perhaps, missed.
OUR PICK: OVER. They’re really going to do this, aren’t they? Apparently watching your team turn the ball over 41 times during an 0-16 season makes a man do strange things. Or—OR!—perhaps the team with one win over its past 32 games is making a particularly unwise decision.
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Fans in attendance when Chargers clinch AFC West vs. guests in attendance at your nephew’s bar mitzvah (–53.5)
The Rams dominated the headlines this past offseason, but they’re not even the best team in their own city, and whe—yes, there’s another team in L.A. … Chargers … The Char-gers … Yes, they moved. Two years ago. They’re the one that used to be in San Diego, now they play in that soccer stadium… Anyway, the Chargers are the only team in football that can boast bona fide stars at each of the most important positions in the NFL: Quarterback (Philip Rivers), both edge rushers (Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram), and No. 1 cornerback (Casey Hayward). Anthony Lynn’s team wo—Anthony Lynn is their head coach. Lynn’s team won six of seven games to finish 2017, and would have been 12-4 last year had it not been for the gaffes of a disastrous special teams unit (a rookie kicker’s missed field goals at the gun in Weeks 1 and 2, and a series of mistakes in a midseason overtime loss at Jacksonville. No one realizes this because they’ve been completely overshadowed by the Rams in the L.A. market and play at the 27,000-seat StubHub Center—which they still can’t fill despite it being by far the smallest venue in the NFL and consistently filled with the fans of the opposing teams—and should have figured out a way to pay for their own stadium in San Diego rather than taking off after they couldn’t get taxpayers to foot the bill. But anyway, they’re a team with a strange homefield situation that has found some creative ways to blow games the past couple years, but there’s no doubt they are one of the most legitimate threats to New England in the AFC.
OUR PICK: Chargers fans. This one is going to be close, especially with the Rams poised for another playoff run as they stake claim to the hearts and minds of Southern California’s NFL fans. Plus, your sister-in-law promised open bar, those little mini-hot dogs and that the DJ they hired signed an ironclad agreement that bars him from playing any Black Eyed Peas. There aren’t going to be a lot of no-shows at that party, is my point. Still, if the Chargers start out fast people will come out to see a winner. Maybe not a lot of people, but more people.
Number of times carded when trying to order a post-game celebratory Keystone Light at local watering hole: Sean McVay vs. Kyle Shanahan (+2.5)
The NFL is a copycat league, and while the Eagles’ run-pass options (“RPOs,” as the young people say) captured hearts across America last winter, everyone in the league is scrambling to steal as much as they can from the whiz “kids” out west: the 32-year-old McVay and the 38-year-old Shanahan. The changing of the guard in the NFC West appears to be complete, with the Legion of Boom no more in Seattle and McVay’s revamped Rams offense unlocking QB Jared Goff’s potential in an 11-win, division-winning debut season for the coach. Meanwhile, Shanahan, one year after directing a record-setting offense in Atlanta, was looking at a lengthy rebuild in his first head-coaching job until the 49ers acquired the impossibly handsome and now overwhelmingly hyped Jimmy Garoppolo as their new franchise quarterback. Garoppolo stepped into the lineup for a 1-10 team and San Francisco went on to win all five of his starts, emphasizing the beauty of Shanahan’s system. All that traditional base personnel—like multiple running backs and tight ends, rather than the wideout-heavy formations seen around the league—keeps a defense from putting extra defensive backs on the field and effectively merges the run and pass games. Not only is it nowhere near being solved by opposing defenses, but it’s simple enough for a signal-caller to pick up midseason and succeed. The NFC West is set up to be a two-team race between the two most exciting offenses in football.
OUR PICK: McVay. Along with being younger, he’s more likely to head out for those post-game drinks after the Rams added a trio of big-talent, big-personality and, at times, big-drama stars in Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters.
Photocopies of lost dog-style Khalil Mack posters Jon Gruden pins to telephone poles around the greater Oakland area: Over/Under 712.5
Strange times in Oakland. The Raiders are two years (at most) from setting sail for Vegas. Wunderkind QB Derek Carr took a step back in 2017 after signing his QB mega-contract (yes, that’s now redundant) last summer, and the man brought into fix him last coached a game during the George W. Bush presidency and, over the past 10 seasons, mostly held prominence for dispensing “Gruden Grinders” 16 times a year. It’s easy to forget that their best player could very well miss regular-season games while holding out. Mack, indisputably one of the top three pass rushers in football and the 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, was one of the few constants on a defense that has generally been in shambles at the other 10 spots. He is surely one of the few non-QBs who deserves to be paid like a true franchise headliner, but rumored cash-flow problems and Carr’s contract (heavily backloaded) complicates Oakland’s ability to get a second huge deal on the books. A lame-duck franchise coming off a 10-loss season, a new regime, a QB in crisis, and now a potentially prolonged absence for the franchise’s only undisputed superstar. Welcome back, Grudie. (Does anyone call you “Grudie”? May I do so?)
OUR PICK: UNDER. Considering Gruden is on the record as being… shall we say “lukewarm” on some technology that is now commonplace in the NFL, he won’t take any shortcuts in his search for Mack, like social media. Though don’t rule him out firing up the fax machines to spread the word. Still, he’s going to have his hands full with Carr and an offense that needs a lot of that famous Gruden TLC. One might say, for the Raiders to succeed this year, Gruden is truly going to have to… work beyond what would be considered a normal capacity in order to obtain his goals.
Number of “sad face” emojis Dak Prescott texts to Dez Bryant this season: Over/Under 26
Bryant is not who he used to be, and it was only a matter of time until the Cowboys moved to get out from under a contract that paid him like he was still in his prime. But Dallas was surely caught off-guard when future Hall-of-Fame tight end Jason Witten, still a security blanket for Prescott, retired last spring. Every NFL season produces a handful of unexpected breakout stars and perhaps there’s one waiting in slot receiver Cole Beasley, rookie wideout Michael Gallup or tight end Blake Jarwin. But the Cowboys enter 2018 with—on paper—the worst group of pass-catchers in the NFL. There is not a single receiver or tight end on this roster that demands a double team, the kind of threat a healthy Bryant might have been able to provide. The Cowboys are surely going to be built around Ezekiel Elliott, an all-world offensive line and the run game this season. But, as he enters year three, Prescott doesn’t have the supporting cast to become the kind of surefire franchise QB the Cowboys might have to compensate him as when he’s due for a contract extension next offseason.
OUR PICK: UNDER. The ice-cold market for Bryant after he was released shows what most teams think of the one-time star: He’s lost a step. Nostalgia for the good old days of 2016 will hit Prescott every now and then, but there’s enough of a run game in Dallas to give the ‘Boys a puncher’s chance at a playoff spot.
Hours of sleep lost by NFC East defensive coordinators while thinking about Saquon Barkley: Over/Under 51.5
A fact that might surprise you if you’ve been in a coma since 1989: The NFL is a pass-happy league. So perhaps you shrugged your shoulders when the Giants decided to rustle a hibernating run game awake by drafting the Penn State runner in April (with the second overall pick, no less). Barkley is indeed capable of becoming the third consecutive rookie to win the NFL rushing title—even behind an offensive line with some question marks. But just as important: He’s immediately going to be one of the most valuable pass-catching backs in the NFL, in the mold of Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell and Arizona’s David Johnson, and capable of torching most linebackers and even some safeties in one-on-one situations. The Giants, stagnant, predictable and one-dimensional (or, after Odell Beckham Jr. broke his leg last September, zero-dimensional) under former coach Ben McAdoo will be new and vastly improved with Barkley as the centerpiece. Then consider that Beckham demands a double team on every play, second-year tight end Evan Engram provides another matchup headache, and new head coach Pat Shurmur is considered one of the shrewdest play designers in the NFL. Then consider that, while his performance under McAdoo led many to pen his obituary, Eli Manning’s arm strength has not deteriorated and he’s the kind of savvy veteran who can take full advantage of the matchup problems this offense creates. The Giants, 31st in the league in scoring a year ago, have a legitimate chance to be one of the league’s top-five scoring teams in 2018.
OUR PICK: OVER. Figure a defensive coordinator averages five hours of sleep per night, and loses an average of 90 minutes per night during Giants week, starting with the previous Sunday. Six division games, though Philly visits on a Thursday night and Washington plays a Monday nighter before they host the Giants. That would come in around 57 hours of lost sleep this season, and not even memory foam would make much of a dent.
A couple other bets I like: Dermatology appointments scheduled by Eagles fans who continue to wear latex dog masks in the September heat (definitely OVER on the 418.5, fans can’t give it up now even if they are the favorites, it’s superstition); metaphorical pounds of pressure on Kirk Cousins’s shoulders (OVER on 4 billion considering how good their defense is); Number of petitions filed for immediate realignment by front offices of NFC South teams (UNDER of 76 with the Bucs at risk of imploding); Decibels of the unintelligible grunt from Bill Belichick the first time he hears “Garoppolo” during a press availability (UNDER 38.5, he’s going to be ready for that one after the Niners start 4-1); Commentator references to Patrick Mahomes as “Favre-esque,” “Favre-ian” or “Favre-errific” (OVER 12.5, he’s going to be something to behold in Andy Reid’s offense); and finally, don’t be tempted on Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey takes second job moonlighting as a quarterbacks coach. I’m not sure repeatedly shouting “you suck” is the constructive criticism teams are looking for. And please, spend your winnings wisely. By making more bets, perhaps.
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