The Las Vegas Hilton Supercontest is one of the world's most prestigious pro football handicapping contests. Las Vegas' best handicapping minds have made a tradition of ponying up $1,500 per NFL season for the chance to earn the ultimate respect of their peers, not to mention a very large payout.
The contest itself is devilishly simple: Each week, contestants pick five NFL games against the Hilton's spread. Contestants are awarded one point for a win and a half point for a push. Whoever has accumulated the most points at the end of Week 17 is declared the winner.
Picking NFL games against the spread is either the ultimate test of skill or a wild crapshoot, depending on whom you ask. However, no bettor can reasonably dispute the following: Betting NFL lines can be a whole lot of fun. Because this fall will mark the first time I visit Las Vegas during the NFL regular season, I thought I would trot out a weekly blog post in which I pick five games against the spread (to limber up my brain a little).
Please leave your thoughts in the comments section. I will try to get the blog post up by Thursday, and I will confine my picks to the weekend games (i.e. no picks for games falling on Wednesdays/Thursdays). Finally, as I will always disclaim, these lines and picks are for entertainment purposes only.
(Home teams in CAPS)
Colts (+9.5) over BEARS
It's tough to know what to think about the first Bears game featuring the Jay Cutler-Brandon Marshall connection. With a talent like Matt Forte in the backfield, it seems likely that Chicago will retain some semblance of a "run first" mentality. Still, even if Marshall doesn't get the volume that some think he will, the "quality" factor of what he adds to the Bears offense will be huge. The Bears offense will still be somewhat limited by a leaky offensive line, but Cutler has worked around that for years now and performed at an above-average level. What concerns me more about the Bears is their aging defense, which at this point has its share of bad games to go along with the good ones. This is a tough spot for Andrew Luck's first game, but he should be able to complete enough passes against a so-so secondary to allow for a backdoor cover.
VIKINGS (-3.5) over Jaguars
During last year's lockout, we constantly heard how NFL teams' inability to install their offseason programs would hurt newly-drafted rookies, especially quarterbacks. Once the season started, Cam Newton and Andy Dalton put this notion to rest by leading their teams to a respectable finish and to the playoffs, respectively. However, it seemed that Christian Ponder and Blaine Gabbert certainly could have used some additional seasoning before auditioning under center. Now that Ponder and Gabbert have had a full offseason to study the playbook, their performances have evened out a bit (albeit in preseason play). So, why the Vikings? Simply put, the Vikings have many more established playmakers, especially with Maurice Jones-Drew set to come off the bench in this game. The Vikings are at home, and on that turf, I do not expect Gabbert to sustain drives against a defensive line that thrives on the speed rush. Finally, I believe that the Vikings' first-round selection, left tackle Matt Kalil, will provide a lot more utility to Ponder than the Jaguars' first-round selection, wide receiver Justin Blackmon, will provide to Gabbert. Add it up, and I believe the Vikings win by at least a touchdown.
LIONS (-7) over Rams
Things we know about the Lions: (1) They attempt a lot of passes, and with Jahvid Best on the PUP List and Mikel Leshoure suspended, this trend will likely endure into Week One; (2) if they get a lead at home, they will not shy away from continuing to pass to the point of running up the score; and (3) their deep defensive line can make it difficult for opponents to pass in obvious passing situations. I respect Jeff Fisher's rebuilding program as much as the next guy, but I just don't think the Rams have the horses to make this a game. The Rams got fat on a bunch of first- and second-round draft picks a few months back, and they might exceed expectations over the course of the season. Still, when so much of what decides a game comes down to quarterback quality, it's easy to see why the Lions are a superior play at home. Sam Bradford has simply not been consistent enough to trust in this spot, mainly because his lack of mobility can get exposed by the type of pass rush the Lions can bring. I generally don't like picking teams giving so many points in Week One (because there's so much we don't know about every team at this point), but for whatever reason, I just don't see this game ending with a single digit margin.
CARDINALS (+2.5) over Seahawks
This game provides a guts test to those who still believe that the preseason means something. These teams' recent past is similar, but the conventional wisdom has them going in different directions. Both teams finished last season hot, but only the Seahawks' finish is considered to portend contention for the NFC West title this season. Both teams switched out their presumptive starting quarterbacks during the preseason - the Cardinals will start John Skelton over Kevin Kolb and the Seahawks have tabbed Russell Wilson to start over Matt Flynn - yet the pundits have seen this as a sign of strength for only the Seahawks. Much of this perception has to do with the otherworldly preseason performance by Wilson, which makes this line seem too low. In fact, my first instinct was to throw all my weight behind the Seahawks. However, I've learned over the years that the "obvious" pick is usually the one that makes me look stupid in the end. So, I'm going with the Cardinals, and I have my reasons. First, all indications are that the Arizona offense simply never responded to Kolb, who seemed to lack the ability to lead a huddle. Inserting Skelton is simply addition by subtraction. Second, the Cardinals have two transcendent players, Larry Fitzgerald at wide receiver and Patrick Peterson at punt returner; the Seahawks have none. Third, I love taking a home team getting points in Week One when that team finished a game better than its opponent the previous season. Finally - and this comes from a big UW and Russell Wilson fan - I am taking the Cardinals because I am a firm believer that the preseason means absolutely nothing.
Steelers (+1.5) over BRONCOS
The Steelers have already suffered a few major injuries, but they're pretty used to that by now. Pittsburgh is still healthier than it was when it took the Broncos to overtime in January, and like Jay Cutler, Ben Roethlisberger is quite comfortable making plays when the pass protection breaks down. The X-factor in this game is obviously Peyton Manning's level of performance. While I believe that Manning will have a good season overall, I think that he will have to be at his best against the Steelers for the Broncos to have a shot in this game. I get the feeling that the Broncos' defense played a little over its head last season, and I would look for Big Ben to get the ball downfield despite the pressure that will be in his face. With the Steelers likely to score in the twenties, it remains to be seen whether Eric Decker and DeMaryius Thomas can consistently bail out Manning (who will encounter pressure packages that make a quick delivery mandatory). This one should be fun to watch.
Games That I Didn't Pick
Eagles (-9) vs. BROWNS
JETS (-3) vs. Bills
SAINTS (-7) vs. Redskins
Patriots (-5) vs. TITANS
TEXANS (-13) vs. Dolphins
Falcons (-2.5) vs. CHIEFS
PACKERS (-5) vs. 49ers
Panthers (-2.5) vs. BUCCANEERS
RAVENS (-6.5) vs. Bengals
RAIDERS (-1) vs. Chargers