What a lucky couple of years, eh? In 2011, these Winners finished two games better than Vegas and ahead of 99.5% of the world. Last year, we beat Vegas by nine games, again finishing in the top 1% globally. No reason to think it can't happen again, right?
The two toughest weeks of the season to predict are Week 1 and Week 17, as those are the two slates in which the products on the field are the least known quantities of the year. Such is the case as we enter 2013; we all think we know which teams will do what this year, but our natural perception is skewed by the conclusions we came to last season. Injuries, coaching changes, the draft, and free agency have churned up the NFL landscape over the past few months and it's my mission to help make sense of it.
This column has been very successful over the last two years, and those of you that put some money behind these picks have come out a little wealthier for the effort. It is, hopefully, with your implicit trust that we venture into the new season of prognostication together.
This year's format will be a bit different as, in an effort to make these predictions with the most info possible, the picks will be broken up into two columns. The first will post every Thursday morning, picking that evening's winner. The remainder of the week's picks will post every Friday morning, allowing an extra day of practice information / injury updates before the weekend. To the pick:
THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL
Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos
It's not often that the defending Super Bowl champs come into the following season's opener as a decisive underdog; especially if they just slayed the draft and beat the team they're playing in the playoffs on the road the season before and when their opponent just lost their best defensive player, but here we are. Vegas is laying more than a touchdown on the Broncos in this one, an extremely high number given Baltimore's recent performance, making this a very alluring upset opportunity.
But you don't make money picking sexy upsets. Not, at least, over the long haul and not when you step back and realize that picking said upset means laying your hard-earned on a road team that's less talented than the favorite. Yes, Baltimore is still very talented, I'm not saying they aren't. They've got some great players in Ray Rice, Terrell "Baby Teeth" Suggs, Haloti Ngata and the richest muppet in history, QB Joe Flacco as well as the addition of former Broncos Pro Bowler Elvis Dumervil. The losses of Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, however, leave big gaps in that defense, gaps that aren't likely to be filled by replacements this early on. Besides, despite all of that talent, Denver is just better.
The Broncos are coming off a 13-3 season and, even with the losses of their two edge rushers (Dumervil and the suspended Von Miller), are trotting out a roster that may be even more talented than last year's. While the acquisition of slot aficionado Wes Welker garnered most of the press, it's the additions of all-stud guard Louis Vasquez and draftees Sylvester Williams, Montee Ball, and Quanterus Smith that make Denver even tougher. And while you may all still have visions of Torrey Smith sprinting behind the Broncos secondary last January, this is a unit that boasted what may have been the best CB tandem in the league last year. Oh, and they added Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, too.
It would also behoove us to remember that Peyton Manning is still Peyton Manning and as long as that's the case, the Broncos will have an edge over almost every team in the NFL at the sport's most important position. Toss in the continued development of Demaryius Thomas and heart-throb Eric Decker and you've got a team capable of beating anyone by two touchdowns.
Bottom line: don't get cute here. Vegas doesn't give out 7.5-point spreads lightly and home field advantage is still a big deal, especially when that HFA is in an altered environment like Mile High's thin air. Baltimore showed it was capable of winning in Denver last year, but Chris Weidman also showed he could beat Anderson Silva and ain't nobody taking Weidman in the rematch.
THE PICK: BRONCOS