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Week One handicapping column

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Posted Sept. 08, 2011 @ 3:46 p.m. ET
By Mike Wilkening

Welcome to another season of PFW's handicapping column. The format works this way: I pick four games on a pointspread or Over-Under basis and explain the logic behind my selections. Then, I sit back and pull out what remains of my hair.

I am often asked, "Who do you root for?" My answer, truthfully, is no one. But these picks … well, they matter to me. I'm at my lamest when I try to act cool, so here goes: I care about this. I play to win. You will never hear me say, "These games are impossible to pick" or "That's why the NFL stands for 'Not For Long' " or any of the similar excuses I've seen lobbed like water balloons when upsets occur. I want to pick them all right, even if some afternoons I'm reduced to walking around and saying to myself, "A cover here and I'm 1-3, which beats 0-4." Or, even worse: "Wow, a push would be ideal here!"

I have no bankroll to speak of, but I've been putting my name on these picks since 2005, and I've beaten the standard vigorish attached to sports wagers during that time frame. I study. I regularly talk to oddsmakers and handicappers. I've heard from people telling me their way of handicapping ensures big-time profits, and I've been criticized and praised for my picks, sometimes by the same emailer. You can reach me at the email address above, and you can find me on Twitter @mikewilkening.

If you're new to the column, welcome. If you're back, thanks for returning.

On to the picks:

New Orleans (+4½) at Green Bay

This line opened as high as Green Bay minus-5 in Nevada, dipped to four and now looks to be on its way up again as this column gets published. I'm convinced the Packers are capable of repeating as Super Bowl champions. They are deep, talented and versatile. The latter point is particularly key — they can grind out a win, and they can win a shootout.

The Saints bolstered their defense and running game in the offseason, but I believe they will struggle stopping the Packers' explosive passing offense. And while expecting Green Bay to completely shut down New Orleans' passing game isn't reasonable, the Packers have the skilled secondary and stout, varied pass rush needed to get the necessary stops for victory. Defending Super Bowl champions are 7-1-2 ATS in Week One since 2001, and Green Bay will be the latest to take care of business beginning a title defense.

Wilkening's pick: Green Bay

Cincinnati at Cleveland (O/U 35)

I have been interested in this total all offseason, and with the number falling this low, it's time for a play.

Many are down on the Bengals, and I see the logic. Rookie QB Andy Dalton looked shaky at times in the preseason, and he surely wasn't facing defenses drawing from their entire bag of tricks. Nor, of course, was Browns QB Colt McCoy, who has shown improvement in his second NFL season and really stood out early in the summer.

In my view, both of these young passers get favorable matchups in Week One. The Browns have switched defensive schemes and have three new starters along the defensive line. The Bengals have at least one new full-time starter at each defensive position group compared to the beginning of last season, and their defense really regressed in 2010.

Will the Browns show Dalton some aggressive looks? I would think so, and Dalton has receivers capable of beating one-on-one coverage. McCoy might lack a go-to target, but he runs Pat Shurmur's offense well, and he was sharp in his lone start vs. Cincinnati last season.

Am I expecting a shootout between these clubs? No, but with neither team having a stout defense and the weather forecast reasonably favorable (a 32 percent chance of rain, per weatherunderground.com), the Over looks like the side.

Wilkening's pick: Over 35

Minnesota at San Diego (O/U 41½)

Here's another total that looks a touch low. The Chargers gained more yards per game than any other club a season ago — and could be even better offensively in 2011 with WR Vincent Jackson back in the fold at the beginning of the campaign. The Vikings' defense lacks DT Kevin Williams because of suspension, lost DE Ray Edwards in free agency and looks vulnerable against a passing game this strong.

The Vikings' offense suffered a big loss of its own in free agency with the departure of WR Sidney Rice, but the addition of QB Donovan McNabb gives Minnesota a chance to be competitive in a tough division. While the Chargers allowed the fewest yards per game in 2010, no defense was on the field less, and San Diego allowed 20.1 points per contest.

I wish this total were a half-point lower, but I'm comfortably selecting the Over nonetheless.

Wilkening's pick: Over 41½

Dallas (+4½) at N.Y. Jets

I expect the Cowboys to be better than they were a season ago, but I believe the matchups will favor the Jets. For starters, the Jets can cope with two of the Cowboys' strengths — strong play from Dallas' outside wide receivers and an above-average pass rush — better than other clubs. Factor in the Cowboys' secondary and O-line concerns, and the Jets should be able to prevail in this intriguing prime-time matchup on Sunday night.

Having watched Cleveland closely a season ago, I am aware of the risks and rewards a Rob Ryan-coached defense creates. The biggest fear of anyone selecting the Jets should be that he pushes all the right buttons and short-circuits the New York offense. I'll take my chances, though, in his first game in charge of a defense that flopped in 2010.

Wilkening's pick: N.Y. Jets

Wilkening's 2010 ATS record: 46-32-1

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