The NFL season kicks off Thursday night with the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams hosting the Buffalo Bills at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. Sure, we’re all excited to watch real, meaningful games again, but we also have the opportunity to wager on them if we so choose. So what plays to our analysts like in the season’s first game?
Betting analysts Doug Kezirian, Tyler Fulghum, Joe Fortenbaugh, Anita Marks and Erin Dolan; fantasy and sports betting analysts Eric Moody and Andre Snellings; ESPN Stats & Information’s Seth Walder, ESPN analyst Jason Fitz and Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz provide their top plays for the opener.
Note: Lines from Caesars Sportsbook unless otherwise indicated.
The defending champion Rams enter Thursday night’s game as a 2.5-point underdog to the Super Bowl favorite Bills? What are your thoughts on the total (52.5) and spread for this game, and who would you take?
Joe Fortenbaugh: I think this game is a 50-50 proposition, which means I’ll take the 2.5 points with the defending champs. The Buffalo hype is legit, but have we forgotten just how good Sean McVay is as a head coach? The guy has won at least nine games every season since he took the gig in 2017, has missed the playoffs just once in five years, appeared in two Super Bowls and won one. With Matthew Stafford, Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and Cooper Kupp back in the fold, I like the +2.5 price.
Tyler Fulghum: I think the total is high for good reason. I’d play over or pass. This game seems like it is going to have very high entertainment value. I expect both offenses — and QBs specifically — to play well and produce points. I would take the +2.5 with the Rams because McVay is 5-0 ATS and 5-0 SU in his NFL career in Week 1. All of those wins have come as the favorite, too.
Doug Kezirian: It’s undoubtedly a compelling matchup, but it’s one I do not plan to bet. Is there really value? If so, where is it? Both teams are loaded offensively, and the line moved from Buffalo as a one-point underdog to a short favorite. That’s because the Bills have a higher power rating, Stafford had some elbow issues and the home-field advantage is not as pronounced in the opener and in Los Angeles. Bills Mafia will be well represented. In general, I am excited to watch but would not be surprised if either team wins.
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Anita Marks: I jumped on this line at Bills +1, and I still like it at -2.5. The best team in the NFL is favored, even on the road in L.A. — which we know does not give the Rams a true home-field atmosphere for the Rams. This will be a celebration of sorts for the Rams after winning the Super Bowl last season, but the Bills come to Hollywood for business. They have had all summer to marinate in that horrific OT loss to the Chiefs and can’t wait to get back on the field and redeem themselves. Stafford has an elbow issue and the Rams have offensive line concerns after losing Andrew Whitworth. Meanwhile, the Bills only got better in the offseason, adding Von Miller on defense, and are already stacked on offense. I’d lay the points and believe the Bills will come back to Orchard Park 1-0.
Erin Dolan: I’ve said it for the past couple of months, so I can’t go back now… Bills moneyline, baby! I don’t like that the the line has moved so much, but this is how I would play it. The Bills are stacked on offense, and the defense is even better with Von Miller in the fold. I see a Super Bowl slump coming for the Rams.
Aaron Schatz: I like the Bills as the best projected team for 2022, but I don’t think this line gives the Rams or home-field advantage enough credit. There’s also some evidence that the defending champion gets a little bump from the crowd for that Super Bowl celebration. Since the NFL started having the defending champion host the first game of the season in 2004, the home team is 10-4-3 against the spread on opening night. (This includes 2019, when the Patriots played their opening game on Sunday night instead of Thursday, but not 2013, when the Ravens started the season on the road.) I’m still on the Bills to win it all but would take the Rams +2.5 in this game along with under 52.5.
Seth Walder: Give me the Rams and the points. I’m following FPI’s lead here — we revamped the model to be players-based in-season right before Week 1 kicks off, and it makes this game a pick ’em, a small difference from the +2.5 line. One reason why that makes all the sense in the world is the absence of Tre’Davious White. Without White, the Bills suddenly become very weak at corner, and that’s not a problem I want to have against the Rams.
Jason Fitz: I love proof of concept, so change in Week 1 always scares me. Both of these teams have new offensive coordinators, but the change is bigger in Buffalo, simply because Sean McVay will continue to control the Rams’ offense. We have no idea if new Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey will try to run the football more, especially with a more talented running back room this year. That X factor makes them tougher to game plan against and gives the Bills the advantage.
Eric Moody: I recommend betting on the under. The Rams’ have a formidable defense under Raheem Morris with Bobby Wagner, Donald and Ramsey. They ranked fifth in defensive DVOA last season, while the Bills ranked first. This game has the makings of a low-scoring contest. I would take the Rams +2.5. The defending champs are 13-6-2 against the spread in Week 1 since 2000. Furthermore, Sean McVay is 8-2 against the spread in the first two weeks of the season.
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Andre Snellings: I’ll take the over. The NFL likes to kick off the season with high-powered offenses that can put on a show. Last year, the Bucs edged the Cowboys with a total of 60 points scored, and the year before Patrick Mahomes led the Chiefs to a win over the Texans with 54 points scored. This one has a similar feel, with two elite quarterbacks leading championship-caliber units. The Bills have averaged 32.9 PPG over their past seven outings with at least 27 points scored in each game, while the Rams averaged 26.9 PPG in their last 11 games of last season. I don’t plan to bet the spread, but I’d lean toward the Bills -2.5, because I think they’re entering this season with such a huge chip on their shoulder that they should start fast.
Which prop are you most intrigued by in this game?
Joe Fortenbaugh: Josh Allen over 35.5 passing attempts. Allen went over this mark in just eight of 17 regular-season games last season. So let’s take a look at those nine contests in which he attempted 35 or fewer passes. Eight of those nine outings were decided by 14 or more points, and all nine of those outings were decided by an average of 23 points per game. Translation: Allen doesn’t throw the ball as much in blowouts. Shocker, I know. I see this being a tight game with the Rams winning, which means Allen will be throwing early and often.
Tyler Fulghum: I expect Allen Robinson II to have a massive year for the Rams, so I love his yardage prop (over 64.5 receiving yards), his TD price (+121) and his odds to be the first touchdown scorer (+900). I think Stafford is more likely to go over his yardage prop (272.5) than Allen (275.5) because the Rams’ offense produces more explosive plays in the passing game and Stafford is less likely to rely on his legs to make plays and extend drives.
Jason Fitz: Look, I’m going to be that idiot who immediately looks at kickers. Hear me out: taking the over on Tyler Bass 1.5 attempts seems easy. NFL teams typically attempt more field goals early in the season, which isn’t shocking given the fact that teams are still working out offensive and red zone issues. For example in 2020, NFL games averaged 4.2 field goal attempts per game in Week 1 vs 3.4 attempts by Week 17. With the lack of preseason snaps for starters, the talent for both teams on the defensive side of the ball and the trend of early-season drive stalls, I like the kickers to be more active than we expect.
Dolan: Gabe Davis anytime touchdown (+145). Davis broke out in last year’s postseason, becoming the first player to have four receiving touchdowns in a playoff game. I’m also looking at Cooper Kupp over 7.5 receptions. He hit over this in 13 of the 21 games he played last season. I also like Matthew Stafford to throw an interception. Stafford tied Trevor Lawrence for most interceptions in the league last season with 17 interceptions and threw three interceptions in the postseason, including two in the Super Bowl.
Eric Moody/Anita Marks: Allen Robinson II over 64.5 receiving yards.
Moody: Robinson’s arrival in Los Angeles should revive his career. He’ll play in a Rams offense that averaged 373.2 total yards per game (seventh) last season, Stafford is the best quarterback he has had the opportunity to play with. He will prosper as the No. 2 receiver alongside Cooper Kupp and will fill the void left by Robert Woods, who averaged 8.1 targets per game during his tenure with the Rams.
Marks: Reports are that the Rams’ coaching staff loves Robinson. I envision McVay getting him involved quickly — like he did with Odell Beckham Jr. last season. Robinson has the most favorable matchup Thursday night — considering Tre’Davious White is out. The Bills will rely on Dane Jackson and rookies Kaiir Elam and Christian Benford to defend Robinson. Jackson allowed 12 yards per reception last season.
Walder: Tyler Higbee under 39.5 receiving yards. I’ve been working on my own prop models and have Higbee a little under here, with a mean of 34.1. But there’s a couple factors not in the model that I think further hurt Higbee here. First… there is no linebacker with better nearest defender coverage numbers over the past five years than Matt Milano. And second, without White I imagine that will make the wide receivers more appealing options for Stafford. Put the model’s output together with those two factors and I’ll gladly fade Higbee.
Schatz: Let’s go with Josh Allen running for a touchdown at +900. Allen has had six or more rushing touchdown in all four of his NFL seasons, and the aggressiveness of the Rams pass rush should open things up for quarterback bootlegs and other runs.
Andre Snellings: Devin Singletary over 44.5 yards rushing. While Allen draws all of the attention, Singletary quietly came on strong late last season and took charge in the Bills’ backfield. He averaged 68.9 yards per game on the ground over the last seven games of last season, going over 44.5 yards in five of those contests. The Bills have championship aspirations this season, and it is in their best interest to protect their quarterback by leaning more on the running game, particularly with Aaron Donald and the Rams’ pass rush on the other side.
Bills QB Josh Allen is the consensus favorite to win NFL MVP at +650. Would you take Allen to win the award now, ahead of the first game or someone else?
Kezirian: There is no chance I would make this wager. So much of this award hinges on a team success. Typically the QB of a top-two seed wins this award. Buffalo is certainly going to compete for that position, but the NFL is a league of parity for a reason. Remember, after winning in Kansas City last year, the Bills had the league’s easiest remaining schedule. The table was set. However, they lost to Tennessee the very next week and even later lost to Jacksonville. Would I be surprised if Allen won the MVP? Of course not. I just need more than +650 at this point of the season.
Schatz: Allen is a great player, but I still think Patrick Mahomes (+800) is the best quarterback in the league if you look at trends over the past couple of seasons. I would wager on him to win the MVP pretty much every year. A successful Kansas City season probably is going to take more from Mahomes because he’ll get less help from his defense than Allen will.
Fitz: This is such a Hail Mary bet, in general, to Doug’s point regarding team success. If I’m going to bet on this, it’s going to be a big money opportunity. That’s why I put my bet on Derek Carr. If the Raiders are as dynamic on offense as I expect them to be, he will have a shot depending on how many games Vegas wins. Whichever quarterback comes out of the AFC West with a division championship will be the front-runner, in my opinion, so why not make the aggressive play here and go for the bigger reward proposition.
Moody: Allen is not the player I would bet on. Lamar Jackson at +2000 calls to me like a moth to a flame. He averaged 260 passing yards and 69.3 rushing yards per game in 11 contests last season despite dealing with injuries. Jackson has shown improvement as a passer throughout his career and will have extra motivation to land a career-defining payday next year.
Snellings: I also don’t see any value in that number for Allen, nor do I consider him that strong of a favorite. There are a plethora of quarterbacks on teams I consider similarly likely to contend as the BIlls, each with longer odds that I would lean towards. In particular, Joe Burrow at +1300, Dak Prescott at +1700, Lamar Jackson at +2000, Kyler Murray at +2200 and both Jalen Hurts and Derek Carr at +3000 are on my radar. The long shot who intrigues me most is Jonathan Taylor, as the Colts could be a juggernaut in the weaker AFC South, and if he pushes for 2,000 rushing yards he’ll get some MVP buzz.
Is there anything else you like or want to bet on the board for the opening game?
Moody: Gabe Davis over 59.5 receiving yards. Davis has been touted all offseason a breakout candidate, and rightfully so. The party will start Thursday night as Davis enters the season as the Bills’ No. 2 option behind Stefon Diggs. Buffalo has run 1,534 plays in three-receiver sets over the past two seasons (fifth most in the league). Throw in four-receiver sets and the Bills have run more than 100 plays of this nature than any other team. This trend should continue in 2022. Jalen Ramsey will likely shadow Diggs, and as a result Davis is in an advantageous position. He thrives against zone coverage, and the Rams’ defense played zone quite a bit last season.
Marks: Darrell Henderson Jr. over 14.5 receiving yards. Henderson will be sharing time in the backfield with Cam Akers, and in the past, Henderson was used more on passing downs (40-35 ratio), especially on third down and in the red zone. I anticipate Stafford will look to get rid of the ball quickly facing Von Miller and the Bills’ defensive line.
Marks: Kahlil Shakir anytime TD (+850). Remember this name… Kahlil Shakir. The wide receiver is a fifth round draft pick from Boise State and was the star of Bills training camp. So much so that I can see the Bills putting him in for a few series. I am taking him for an anytime touchdown because… why not!
Walder: Jamison Crowder over 18.5 receiving yards. I know he’ll be fighting for targets but this is a player that hasn’t had below a 17% target share in games where he’s played in any of the last five seasons. Plus, the Rams ran the second-highest rate of two-high coverage last season: that ought to open up space for Crowder underneath.
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