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November 25, 2014

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Trends, players and teams to watch early in the NFL season

The splendid novel Rabbit Is Rich, for which John Updike earned his first Pulitzer Prize, contains a scene set late in the summer of 1979 in which the protagonist lights a fire using a Philadelphia newspaper’s sports page as kindling. The headline reads, “Eagles Ready.” Coincidentally, in the real world, the September 1, 1979, edition of The Gold Sheet handicapping newsletter included a prescient treatise on how various types of injuries affect the point spread in NFL games. The advice it imparts remains valid.

Late in the summer of 2011, as we get “Back to Football,” to use the NFL’s hackneyed slogan, oddly enough the readiness of the Philadelphia Eagles and a spate of crucial injuries rank among the top concerns in the collective psyche of sports bettors. The more things change …

The Eagles are the second choice in sports books, behind only the Green Bay Packers, to win the NFC championship. Yet perhaps no team will draw more scrutiny early in the season than Philly, primarily due to uncertainty about the team’s offensive line. Two rookies, right guard Danny Watkins and center Jason Kelce, will be starting for the Birds, with former left guard Todd Herremans moving to right tackle. Only left tackle Jason Peters will return to start in the same spot on the line.

The linemen have struggled to protect quarterback Michael Vick in preseason games, an inauspicious sign for a team that opens the regular season with consecutive games in unfriendly domes at St. Louis and Atlanta. Those games could set the tone for the season for the Eagles, projected to win 10.5 games by oddsmakers. By the way, after Harry Angstrom lit his fire, ominously, he watched “the words “Eagles Ready” ignite and blacken, the letters turning white on the crinkling ash,” in Updike’s inimitable prose.

The status of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, meanwhile, has dominated NFL injury news. The Colts’ opener at Houston has been taken off the betting board in Las Vegas. That column in The Gold Sheet, however, advised bettors to focus on “cluster injuries”—an early use of a phrase still commonly employed today—rather than injuries to high-profile players.

“Cluster injuries,” which by definition hit several players outside of the so-called skill positions (quarterback, running back, wide receiver), are often overlooked in the betting marketplace. Early this season, for instance, bettors should keep an eye on the health of the Minnesota Vikings’ banged-up linebacking crew.

Elsewhere in the NFL, Oakland’s Hue Jackson faces the most pressure of any first-year head coach. The Raiders, installed as a small underdog at Denver in their opener, won eight games a year ago and have an over/under of 6.5 wins attached to them in sports books. It’s doubtful 6.5 victories would satisfy irascible team owner Al “Just Win, Baby” Davis.

Past performances suggest that about half of last season’s 12 NFL playoff teams will fail to qualify for postseason play this year. The Houston Texans and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the two most intriguing teams hoping to make a run at the playoffs after falling short a year ago.

Houston, featuring a potent offense and a suspect defense, is an attractive choice to win the Super Bowl at odds of 25-1 in Las Vegas sports books. Knocking off the Colts, with or without Manning, in Week 1 could place the Texans on the right track.

Tampa opens with six consecutive games expected to be close, with likely spreads of 2 points or fewer. The Bucs then travel to play the Chicago Bears in London—another city with rampant legal football betting, but one that has somehow, mysteriously, managed to remain in the good graces of the NFL.

Jeff Haney is one of the nation’s leading sports gambling writers. Connect with him at sophisticatedmaniac.com.

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