Week 1 of the NFL season always packs a few surprises. If you are looking for evidence, I’m sure anyone who participates in a survivor pool can rattle off the biggest upsets that cut deep into the field after the first week. Last season, it was the Chicago Bears that shocked everyone by beating the San Francisco 49ers, 19-10. If you want to label that as an outlier due to the weather, I will remind you Mike Tomlin’s Steelers pulled off a road win over the Cincinnati Bengals as well. That was the second straight year the Steelers pulled off a big upset in Week 1.
Every bettor looks for live underdogs in the first week, and it’s not a bad idea to start by circling the divisional matchups. Per Allan Bell from Sportsline, divisional dogs are 31-12-2 ATS (72%) over the past eight seasons. If you’re into these trends, the scheduling gods blessed us with several matchups in Week 1. Eighty of the sixteen games feature divisional opponents.
I will be betting on at least two in some capacity. Let’s break those down.
Week 1 divisional-dog best bets
Many bettors are connecting the dots between Joe Burrow’s injury-riddled summers and Cincinnati's slow starts. Last year, the Bengals started the season 0-2 after their star QB spent most of the preseason recovering from an appendectomy. This season, it was the same story with a calf injury, and as a result, the market has adjusted by making Cincinnati less than a field goal favorite at home. Let’s discuss why the potential of a subpar offensive performance makes Cleveland a valuable bet.
The Browns' offense is built around Nick Chubb. Having an offense that can grind out tough yards to move the chains is an advantage early in the season, when scoring is typically down. Teams averaged a paltry 21 points last year in Week 1. There is a path for Cleveland to control the tempo, limit possessions and chew up clock while it asserts itself behind PFF’s No. 2-rated offensive line. The style of play also benefits the Browns by giving Burrow fewer opportunities to knock off the rust and get into a rhythm offensively.
On the defensive side, I expect major improvements with Jim Schwartz calling the defense. The Browns added some beef on the line to help with the run defense, and they acquired edge rusher Za’Darius Smith to help free up Myles Garrett. Schwartz’s aggressive approach and Cleveland’s new-look pass rush will test Burrow’s pocket mobility coming off his calf injury.
There is value in backing Cleveland as a home dog at both the +2.5 and the moneyline at +115. I will also be looking to play the Browns as a teaser leg up to +8.5. Potential teams to pair them with are Kansas City (-6.5 to 0.5) or Pittsburgh (+2.5 to +8.5).
Packers (+1) at Bears
A big part of why I am invested in Green Bay futures this offseason is the advantageous situation Jordan Love is stepping into. He was able to learn behind one of the best QB’s of our era in Aaron Rodgers for two seasons. Most young quarterbacks aren’t afforded that luxury. He also gets the support of both a solid offensive line and a running game that finished ninth overall in EPA per rush. That’s a pretty comfortable spot to step into.
What makes it even more comfortable is the defense he faces in his debut. Love draws the Chicago Bears, who ranked last in both overall EPA and EPA allowed per dropback. While Chicago made some nice offseason moves on offense, the defense is still projected to be one of the worst in the league. Jordan Love should have all day to operate behind a Bears pass rush that managed only 20 sacks (1.2 per game) in 2022. The Bears aren’t talented enough on either side of the ball to win without being able to attack their opponent where they are weakest.
The Green Bay defense did a solid job against Fields last season, holding him to 70 yards passing in the first meeting and forcing him into a pair of interceptions the second time around. Green Bay won both games by more than one score while rushing for 175 and 203 yards in each contest. I see Green Bay’s offense cutting right through the teeth of Chicago's defense again, allowing Love to build confidence and make enough important plays down the stretch to ice the game for the Pack.
Remaining divisional dogs in Week 1:
Panthers (+3.5) at Falcons
Colts (+4.5) at Jaguars
Raiders (+3.5) at Broncos
Rams (+5.5) at Seahawks
Giants (+3) vs. Cowboys
Jets (+2.5) vs. Bills
Stats provided by teamrankings.com, PFF, and clevanalytics.