Don’t sleep on the underdogs when making your Week 1 NFL picks.
Each year there are countless unknown factors that can, and will, shake up the landscape of the league. Teams have theoretically improved—or regressed—during the offseason, but there’s no way to know for sure how their adjustments will play out on the field.
Plus, there’s the uncertainty of how well a team will start out of the gate. Not every eventual Super Bowl winner begins by playing lights out in Week 1.
But are there really any underdogs that have a legitimate chance at shocking fans this week? You bet.
Cincinnati Bengals (+3) over Chicago Bears
The storyline for the Chicago Bears continues to be their dominant, but aging, defense. The Cincinnati Bengals defense, though, is emerging as one of the best in the NFL. Their 'D' was eighth in scoring defense a season ago and fifth in yards allowed per game, and they presumably got even better during the offseason.
With talented pass rushers like Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap on the edges and Geno Atkins up the middle, Cincinnati will expose the new-look Bears offensive line and harass Jay Cutler all afternoon. The linebacker group made up of Vontaze Burfict, Rey Maualuga and James Harrison is just mean. That stingy front-seven will make it difficult for Chicago to get anything going offensively.
Chicago’s defense will pose problems for Andy Dalton, but he now has the weapons—rookies Giovani Bernard and Tyler Eifert—to do enough on offense. Cincinnati has big aspirations in 2013, and they'll start out on the right foot against the Bears.
Minnesota Vikings (+4.5) over Detroit Lions
The Minnesota Vikings got better in several key areas after making a surprising run to the postseason in 2012. Christian Ponder has a lot riding on his performance this season, so I think he’ll improve marginally with new weapons Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson in the mix.
Plus, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to work off of play-action fakes with Adrian Peterson commanding the respect of the Detroit Lions’ front-seven. Peterson is on a mission to break the single-season rushing record, per ESPN:
The Lions have too many question marks right now to think that they can slow down Minnesota's running game and stop Ponder from finding Kyle Rudolph or Jennings down the field. Minnesota’s stout defense should be able to control the line of scrimmage and pressure from Jared Allen will make Matthew Stafford gun-shy with the football.
If Stafford is harassed, it’s hard to imagine him doing enough offensively for four quarters to get his team into the win column. He makes mistakes under pressure and doesn't have many options other than Calvin Johnson.
Tennessee Titans (+7) over Pittsburgh Steelers
Last year, the Tennessee Titans caught the Pittsburgh Steelers off guard on a Thursday night in Nashville. For some reason, they’re heavy underdogs again heading into their season opener against that same team.
Chris Johnson is preparing for a revival campaign in 2013, thanks to an improved interior offensive line. Those improvements are highlighted by the additions of guards Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack. The Titans have also formed a decent group of receivers for Jake Locker to throw to. But will he have the time to do so?
A lot is said about Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to avoid the pass rush and improvise on the fly. Locker has the ability to be that type of creator for his offense, and if he figures it out, it might get ugly for the Steelers in Week 1.
Either way, the revamped Titans aren’t a team you should sleep on in 2013.
*Betting odds provided by Covers and are current as of 6 p.m. ET on Sept. 2