Winning from the Dog House
New this season, every week I will be pointing out one-to-two keys for every underdog to pull off the upset. Following the keys to success for each team ill give my brief prediction on if they will actually pull it off.
From there, I'll pick my three most likely underdog teams to win outright, (keep in mind this isn't against the spread, the points are just there for your convenience) and I'll keep my win/loss running tally throughout the season. Being that I'm choosing underdogs to win outright, I'll set my season goal at a 40-percent win rate. Let's get to it!
Houston Texans +9.5 @ Kansas City Chiefs
Key #1: Calm the noise, or lack thereof. This is the first game of the season, with no preseason and limited full speed contact. Mistakes will happen. The whole nation will be watching to see how the new normal looks and feels in the NFL. Houston is a good team with continuity on their side. Calm the opening night jitters and they have a chance.
Will it happen? No. Houston is a great team and Watson is fastly becoming, and deservedly so, one of the faces of the sport. But this is Week 1, against the Champs, in their house. Expect a close high scoring game, but I don't think the Houston secondary can slow Mahomes down enough to steal this win.
Miami Dolphins +6.5 @ New England Patriots
Key #1: Rattle Cam. It can be argued that no player in the NFL is under as much pressure Week 1 as Cam Newton. New team, fresh off a lost season, all eyes on him. With the amount of confidence this guy has, you can't let him hit a rhythm. Hit him early and often. Miami has one of the best corner tandems in the NFL, they should be able to hold their own without needing to drop six in coverage.
Key #2: Find a little Magic. Fitzys' back at the helm Week 1, somehow. It usually takes the veteran journeyman a few weeks before it all falls apart. If Fitzpatrick can put together another sexy stat sheet like some of the early 2019 bouts, Miami can take this one on the road.
Will it happen? This is close, but no. I can't underestimate Belichick's readiness. I have a feeling New England, although more depleted of talent than they've been in a long time, will be prepared and fundamentally sound. I don't expect the Pat's to be a playoff team, but I expect them to take this one from a division foe and a team in transition in Foxboro.
Cleveland Browns +8 at Baltimore Ravens
Key #1: Find a way to limit the most electrifying player in the sport. Easier said than done. After losing their best tackler from last year in Joe Schobert, they must find a way to have enough speed spying Jackson to keep him in the pocket at least most of the time.
Key #2: Score. Cleveland needs to finally show all the potential we saw on paper last year. Kareem Hunt. Nick Chubb. Odell Beckham Jr. Jarvis Landry. Austin Hooper. Get the ball to the playmakers and find a way to put up 25-plus to have a chance.
Will it happen? Heavens no. This is a team with an identity issue on the road against the defending MVP of a team that only got better in the off season. I'd rather eat my shoe than pick Cleveland to beat Baltimore on the road.
New York Jets +6.5 at Buffalo Bills
Key #1: Find a chink in the armor. This Bills' defense is absolutely scary good. Quite possibly the best defense in the league top-to-bottom, and the Jets are thin at the skill positions. I don't know where the weakness is, whether they're better off passing on that secondary or trying to run against that stout front seven, but they can't afford to keep stumbling out to consecutive three-and-outs.
Key #2: Win the turnover battle. Josh Allen has a tendency to try to do too much. Keep this game close and make him try to win it above the X's and O's and force mistakes, like we saw in the playoffs last year. A big fumble or a pick six late could force the upset.
Will it happen? Nah. The Jets don't have the skill players good enough to win the one-on-one match-ups. I expect the Bills to win the division and the Jets to be in the cellar. For that to happen, Buffalo has to set the tone here.
Carolina Panthers +2.5 vs. Las Vegas Raiders
Key #1: Run CMC. Without preseason or much full speed reps to get Bridgewater in sync with the wide outs, feed the sure thing. Get Christian McCaffery 150-plus all purpose yards and win the time of possession.
Key #2: Slow down Jacobs. But don't do it at the expense of forgoing safety help over the top. Carolina doesn't have the speed at cornerback to stay in lockstep with Ruggs. Don't get beat deep, but don't give up five-plus yards-per-catch being too conservative either.
Will it happen? Yes. Our first underdog pick of the season! Carolina has the best player on the field and the Raider defense doesn't have the front seven to stop him. Carolina will win the time of possession, and Bridgewater doesn't turn the ball over. That's typically a pretty solid recipe.
Atlanta Falcons +1.5 vs. Seattle Seahawks
Key #1: Contain DangeRuss. Wilson can take over a game so quickly and has an unprecedented knack for the big play when it seems all is lost. Don't get beat deep. Play to the whistle.
Key #2: Challenge the secondary. I think a lot of people are excited to see what Todd Gurley can do in his new colors. And the Seattle front seven isn't what it used to be. But neither is the secondary. Julio Jones is good at football. Let him do his thing.
Will it happen? No. Russell Wilson is spectacular and in his prime. Matt Ryan has been pretty flat since, you-know-what. I'll take the most exciting player on the field Week 1 to be the difference.
Washington Football Team +6 vs. Philadelphia Eagles
Key #1: Test the philly offensive line. After sustaining multiple blows along that front five, Washington needs to find a way to hit Carson Wentz. They have so much premium talent along that front, they should be able to do it. Chase Young should win some battles against an aging Jason Peters.
Key #2: Find a way to run the ball. Without a name brand runningback on the roster, Washington still can't rely on Dwayne Haskins to out duel Wentz with just his arm. I believe in Haskins, but I don't think he's at a point in his career where slinging it 40 times is a recipe for success.
Will it happen? No. I do believe Washington will be improved this year. And I believe they can pressure Wentz, but Philly has too many weapons to stop them for 60-minutes. And until Washington proves they can function offensively, it'll be hard to predict them winning too often.
Chicago Bears +3 @ Detroit Lions
Key #1: Test the kid. I would expect number-three overall pick Jeff Okudah to follow Allen Robinson all over the field. This will be a fun match up to watch, and even though you've got subpar quarterback play in Chicago, Mitchell Trubisky has to get Robinson enough targets to give Okudah a formal welcoming to the big leagues.
Key #2: Let Khalil Mack take over. You have to let this guy pin his ear back on every down. Chicago has the secondary that can handle covering with four-to-five guys on most plays. If they can keep this a low scoring affair, they've got a punchers chance.
Will it happen? No. I just don't have the faith in Trubisky to exploit too many defenses with his arm. He hasn't yet proven he can push the ball deep often enough to burn many secondaries.
Jacksonville Jaguars +7.5 vs. Indianapolis Colts
Key #1: Stop the run. Jacksonville was the worst run stopping team in the NFL last season, with a woeful streak of five consecutive games allowing 200-yards-rushing to opposing teams. Yikes. They did add tackling machine Schobert, but they lost Calais Campbell and Al Woods opted out. Indy has two competent between-the-tackles runners in Marlon Mack and rookie Jonathan Taylor, paired with a top five offensive line. Jacksonville must find a way to slow them down, even if it means selling out and forcing an aging Philip Rivers to beat single coverage.
Key #2: Unleash the magic of the 'Stache. Jacksonville has given the reigns to Gardner Minshew to see if he can potentially be the franchise guy. He showed enough last year to earn that chance, winning more games than any other rookie quarterback (6), and showing a clutch gene for getting it done at the end of games But he also showed long stretches of inconsistency and an inability to find success in the middle of the field. If he can improve in year two, this team can be a lot better than national pundits predict.
Key #3: Stop the Run. It's that important.
Will it happen? No. It pains me to say this one, because those who know me know I'm a huuuge Jags' fan. However I just don't like this match-up against a team that can run as consistently as the Colts. I believe this will be close, and Jacksonville will score, but I see this incredibly young defense being too worn down the stretch to keep Indy from sealing this one on the ground.
Green Bay Packers +2.5 at Minnesota Vikings
Key #1: Make Cousins outshine Rodgers. Don't let this game be about Dalvin Cook. If you can keep him from taking over, Green Bay is the better team.
Key #2: Get big time production from Devante Adams. Everyone has been expecting Adams to enter elite status, but he hasn't gotten there yet. If he can prove he can be available and consistent week-in-week-out, the Packers offense should be potent. If you give a hall of fame quarterback a top five wide receiver, he should win more often than not.
Will it happen? Yes. Rodgers will have to navigate a scary pass rush duo of Danielle Hunter and new addition Yannick Ngakoue, but if he finds enough time to scan the field, nobody does it better. It's not often that an arguably top ten quarterback all time is an underdog, and when it's against a team outside the top ten in the league, gimme that dude.
Cincinnati Bengals +2.5 vs. Los Angeles Chargers
Key #1: Run Mixon. With a ferocious pass rush and a more than capable secondary even with the loss of Derwin James, the Chargers are going to blitz Burrow and try to confuse him with exotic looks. I bet it works. Avoid all that and get Mixon 25-plus touches. That's the only key here. Tyrod Taylor is not going to put up 30-points unless you give him the ball in plus territory time-and-time-again. Get Mixon in space and eat clock. Don't put the kid in third-and-impossible and ask him to do too much in his debut.
Will it happen? No. Quarterback wasn't the only issue for the Bengals last year, and most of those glaring needs from 2019 are still just that.The Chargers will be aware that the offense goes as Mixon goes, and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is smart enough to know that's the game plan, and find a way to limit it.
Arizona Cardinals +7 at San Francisco 49ers
Key #1: Find a way to score. Exploit a broken coverage or two. Let Kyler Murray win with his legs. San Fran's defense is too good to think you're going to methodically beat them with 12-play drives all games. Create a few "wow" plays and keep yourselves in it.
Key #2: Win the turnover battle. Jimmy Garappolo has a habit of being a bit loose with the ball, and Chandler Jones is a top three pass rusher in the NFL. Force a sack/fumble or a poorly timed panic throw and let Patrick Peterson do what he does.
Will it happen? No. San Francisco's defense is good enough to force a few plays of their own. Unless Arizona's inferior defense can keep pace with them in terms of wreaking havoc, I think the defending NFC Champs take this one handily at home.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers +3.5 at New Orleans Saints
Key #1: First off, what a Week 1 match up! We've all needed this. Okay, onto the key. Find the fountain of youth. This will be our first real look of whether Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski can recreate at least a degree of what they've been in the past. If they are, they have enough else around them that they can beat anybody in the league.
Key #2: Don't share the fountain. Hog it. Don't tell Drew Brees where you found it.
Will it happen? No. Not yet. Not this early in the season. This is an entirely new offense in Tampa from what we're used to seeing, and nobody knows what it will actually look like. I'm wary about so much change in a shortened off-season. I'm going to give them a week or two to see what they really can be before I crown Tommy for a seventh time.
Los Angeles Rams +2.5 vs. Dallas Cowboy
Key #1: Limit Zeke. Don't let him eat all game. Make Dak Prescott earn his extension by beating Ramsey down the field. Aaron Donald is the best player in the world, and he should keep Elliot from running for eight-yards up the gut all day.
Key #2: Air it out. Remember how dangerous the Rams' passing attack was in 2018? This team can be that again. With two All Pro players at impact positions on defense, they can win this game with 24ish points. Get there and make the Cowboys chase you.
Will it happen? Yes. If the Rams can show close to what there offense was in 2018, the defense has enough to hold the Cowboys down enough to pull this one off.
New York Giants +4 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Key #1: Let Saquon do Saquon things. He's going to have to be super human to gash this front seven, but he's your best player and an elite back. Elite backs do elite things even against top defenses. He's gonna have to prove that early this season.
Key #2: Don't get behind too far too early. The last thing you want is T.J. Watt pinning his ears back knowing you have to pass down 17. Keep it close to allow Barkley to keep getting touches.
Will it happen? No. The Giants should be better. But so should Pittsburgh. Ben is back, Conner is healthy. The defense has a chance to be elite. The Giants look a year-or -two away from being favored in games like this.
Tennessee Titans +1.5 vs. Denver Broncos
Key #1: Fire the guy that made these odds. Didn't we just see Tennessee a few minutes short of the Superbowl last year?! And then get Clowney? Anyhow, this line may shift barring the Von Miller news that broke late Tuesday night.
Key #2: Run Henry. The guy wears down defenses and makes Ryan Tannehill look like a world beater while a bunch of gassed linebackers chase him around in the fourth quarter.
Key #3: Rattle Drew Lock. I'm not high on the big armed passer from Mile High. Four games to me didn't show me enough to expect him to win physical games like this against top teams just yet, even surrounded by playmaking talent. If Tennessee can control the clock and force Lock to pass early and often, they should force enough mistakes to pull this one off.
Will it happen? Yes. But I won't count this toward my year long tally. I don't expect Tennessee to be an underdog by game day, and I've already picked my three winners. Knowing my luck this will be the only one I get right. We shall see.
Stay tuned and thanks for reading! Comments encouraged!