Road teams are favored in half of the 16 games to kick off Week One, and some of the home underdogs aren't exactly traditional pushovers. Among the home teams getting points are:
• An AFC North club that had been favored on its home turf in its last 43 regular-season games and hasn't been a regular-season home underdog since Nov. 7, 2004.
• An NFC East club that is 10-6 ATS at home the last two seasons and has covered in four of its last six season openers, including both openers at home.
• An NFC West club that posted a 5-3 ATS mark at home last season in the midst of a down season — and is renowned for having a very loud home stadium.
The teams in question, respectively, are the Steelers, who are getting 2½ points vs. Atlanta; the Eagles, who opened as favorites vs. Green Bay but are now getting a point; and the Seahawks, 2½-point underdogs to the 49ers.
The biggest visiting favorite is San Diego, laying 5½ points at Kansas City, while the Packers — regarded as a strong threat to win the NFC — are the smallest favorite visiting talented but young Philadelphia. The other road favorites are Miami (-3) at Buffalo, Indianapolis (-3) at Houston, Arizona (-3½) at St. Louis and Dallas (-3½) at Washington.
Handicapping Week One is always challenging; is a club's early-season form going to be predicated on how it looks on paper after an offseason of personnel moves? What to make of preseason form?
On top of these hurdles, handicappers have to weigh which road favorites are live and which home underdogs have bite.
Throughout the offseason, I've written about several of these games on my "Covering the Spread" blog, but with so many road favorites in Week One, I thought a more detailed look at the topic, with last season's results the focus, was in order.
For starters, road teams were favored in 90-of-256 regular-season games a season ago, and posted a 46-42-2 record against the spread (52.3 percent). That's a good mark, but if all wagers were made at the standard minus-110 rate (in which a bettor risks $11 to win $10 for a total of $21 for a successful gamble), blindly betting every road favorite would have resulted in a slight loss.
Of the eight Week One road favorites in 2010, only two — Indianapolis and Green Bay — posted winning ATS records as road favorites last season. The Colts were ultra-dependable in this role, covering in 5-of-6 games and scratching out a push as a two-point favorite at Baltimore in their only non-cover. The Packers were 4-1 as a regular-season favorite, with a sloppy defeat to then-winless Tampa Bay as its only blemish. (The Packers also fell at Arizona in the wild-card round as a three-point favorite; they were the only road favorite of the '09 postseason.)
By the same token, the eight Week One home underdogs struggled in this role last season, posting a cumulative 11-18-1 ATS record. Only Seattle, which covered in two of three games getting points at home, had a winning ATS record.
However, some of the home underdogs proved feisty, particularly in division matchups. The Bills won and covered vs. Miami, as did the Seahawks vs. the 49ers. The Rams didn't beat the visiting Cardinals straight-up last season, but they did cover the spread. On the flip side, the Colts came back to win and cover against the Texans, the Cowboys handled the Redskins with ease and the Chargers routed the Chiefs.
Of the aforementioned eight games, the three most intriguing to me, as a handicapper and NFL observer, are Falcons-Steelers, Cardinals-Rams and Chargers-Chiefs, primarily because of my skepticism about each of the favorites. I believe all are playoff contenders, with San Diego among the best in the AFC at its best, but all look like somewhat shaky propositions in Week One. I'm far from convinced the Falcons are better than the Steelers, even with Byron Leftwich likely to start at quarterback in Week One for Pittsburgh. The Cardinals should be favored against the Rams, and they are likely to win, but I would be leery of laying more than a field goal on the road with Matt Leinart replacing the retired Kurt Warner at quarterback. Finally, the Chargers will be without WR Vincent Jackson (suspension) for the opener at Kansas City, and OLT Marcus McNeill remains a holdout as of this writing. Also, San Diego has failed to cover as a favorite in Week One the past two seasons.
Of course, it must be noted that bettors who have backed road favorites against the Chiefs the past three seasons have reaped the rewards. Kansas City is just 6-11 ATS as an underdog at Arrowhead Stadium since 2007. Perhaps San Diego, which has won and covered as a favorite at Kansas City in two of the past three seasons, will do so again. Whatever the case, the home schedule gets easier for the Chiefs thereafter, with only one game against a '09 playoff team — the Warner-less Cardinals — at Arrowhead.
Chargers-Chiefs marks the end of Week One, which begins with Vikings-Saints in New Orleans on Sept. 9. Alas, the road team is the underdog in this game, but Minnesota looks much sturdier now that Brett Favre could be returning for another season. His return, should it happen, undoubtedly would be one of the top story lines of the week, but handicappers taking a long view will definitely be tracking how the road favorites and home underdogs fare as another regular season commences.
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