Hurley’s Picks: Kicking Off A Crucial Year For The NFL

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — You take a look at the giant monolith that is the NFL, and you might feel foolish to say the league has a lot on the line this year. Because, well, you would be foolish to try to state that it’s dire times in the world of football.

Yet, when you look around at a number of issues around the league, it’s clear that the NFL is not standing as firmly as it was during the first half of the current CBA with the players’ union.

From the owners’ perspectives, all that matters is money. Concerns No. 2 and 3 would be money and money. And “money” would also come in fourth and perhaps even fifth. In that regard, we’ll all want to keep a close eye on the NFL’s ratings early this season. You’ll remember that last year, ratings dropped 11 percent through the first six weeks of the season and 8 percent on the season as a whole.

People argued about the exact reasons why, but the part the NFL didn’t care to acknowledge is the fact that some of these games have become painful to watch. Maybe it’s the reduced practice time, maybe it’s the sheer difficulty of the quarterback position, or maybe it’s the forcing of players to play on national TV on Thursday nights when they’ve had only three days to recover from the car wreck that was their previous game, but even die-hard fans have grown to admit that the game they’re watching is very often quite bad. That’s the most important issue facing the league, and it’s the one most difficult to fix.

Beyond the on-field product, you’ve got the NFL once again engaged in litigation with a star player in Ezekiel Elliott. It looks to have the potential to drag on for many more months … or years, just like the case against Tom Brady did. At a certain point, the players will grow awfully tired of watching the commissioner pretend to be a lawyer and pretend to be a judge when executing his own brand of justice whenever he feels like trying to boost the league’s PR.

Those are the same players who have used the pregame singing of the national anthem to raise their fists and/or take a knee to protest against racial inequality in America. The NFL always would prefer its players to generally be seen and not heard, and the league likely hoped this “problem” would disappear so long as Colin Kaepernick remained unemployed. But Kaepernick has no job, and the protests continue. After getting arrested and, as he claims, threatened to be murdered, Michael Bennett is sure going to be a loud voice in that arena this year. This all rankles the owners and many fans who struggle with the complexity of understanding contrasting viewpoints and multi-layered beliefs. Does it affect the bottom line? Hard to say, but the folks most offended by the demonstrations have not been shy about voicing their own feelings on the matter.

The matter of concussions is nothing new, but the latest report on the NFL’s monetary investment into research painted the league in a light so poor that it almost seemed fictional. The league appears to be actively attempting to limit the progress of research in the area of brain trauma, as if that ship hadn’t already left the port 15 years ago. This persistent level of denial about a serious issue does not bode well for the league’s long-term planning, as the league seems to believe it has the power to obfuscate the public’s knowledge on the matter. That’s one battle the NFL will not win.

Where the NFL can and will win? Well, basically everywhere else. The three other major sports in America would be absolutely delighted to have the “problems” facing the NFL, which is still by far the king of U.S. sports. Those expecting a quick collapse of the league that’s grown “too big to fail” will need to look at the NFL ratings and profits compared to the other sports to see just how great the divide is between the NFL and everyone else.

But really, everything taking place in the NFL now and in the next few years will be happening with an eye toward 2020 and the next round of CBA negotiations. Last time around in 2011, NFL owners knew they could afford to wait however long was necessary for them to get exactly what they wanted out of the deal. This time, some work needs to be done in order for those owners to have a similar confidence that they’ll be sitting in as powerful a negotiating spot as possible three years from now.

And on that rather odd note, let’s … get excited for football? Sure. Let’s do it.

(Home team in CAPS; Wednesday lines)

NEW ENGLAND (-9) over Kansas City
Frankly, the hype surrounding New England is bound to manifest itself a few times in the form of some silly lines this season. And really, a nine-point spread here in Week 1 is borderline.

But I’ll tell you what: Something magical happens at these banner-raising games. There’s just something about a team shooting off the pyrotechnics as fans clenching overpriced beer hoot and holler at a large draped canvas that makes it impossible for visitors to compete.

A brief history (Super Bowl-winning team underlined):

2016: Broncos 21, Panthers 20 — (CAR -3)
2015: Patriots 28, Steelers 21 — (NE -7)
2014: Seahawks 36, Packers 16 — (SEA -8.5)
2013: (Ravens couldn’t host opening night due to an Orioles game)
2012: Cowboys 24, Giants 17 — (NYG -4)
2011: Packers 42, Saints 34 — (GB -5)
2010: Saints 14, Vikings 9 — (NO -5)
2009: 
Steelers 13, Titans 10 — (PIT -6.5)
2008: Giants 16, Redskins 7 — (NYG -4.5)
2007: Colts 41, Saints 10 — (IND -5.5)
2006: Steelers 28, Dolphins 17 — (PIT -1.5)
2005: Patriots 30, Raiders 20 — (NE -7.5)
2004: Patriots 27, Colts 24 — (NE -3)

That’s a pretty darn striking 11-1 record for banner-raising teams since the league instituted the Thursday night kickoff at the home of the defending champs. And when you go a step further and look at those teams’ record against the spread, they’re 6-3-2. That is, for the most part, magic.

So, yeah, I’m not entirely comfortable with the Patriots as nine-point favorites just yet, especially without Julian Edelman. But the combination of Andy Reid on the road, Alex Smith in a football uniform, and Opening Night Magic™ assuages my fears for the time being.

Oakland (+1.5) over TENNESSEE
Weird line. I’m riding a well-rested Marshawn Lynch early. The guy’s only 31 years old, you know. (Please do not send me a screen shot of this when he has 120 total yards through four weeks of the season. Thank you.)

HOUSTON (-5.5) over Jacksonville
There’s a very good chance that the Houston defense scores more points than the Jacksonville offense. A very good chance.

BUFFALO (-9) over New York Jets
If you pick against the Jets 16 times this year, you’re going to go 12-4 at worst.

Atlanta (-7) over CHICAGO
The Falcons are going to face-plant multiple times this year. Admittedly, if they did it in Week 1 against a bad Bears team, the humor level would be through the roof. But let’s be honest: That’s not going to happen. The Falcons are saving their first loss for national television in Week 2.

CINCINNATI (-3) over Baltimore
I’m just going to go ahead and cast some doubts on Joe Flacco’s abilities after missing the entire preseason with a back injury. I’m not a doctor, but I do know that back injuries are problematic in the sport of football.

CLEVELAND (+10) over Pittsburgh
Ten points?! At home?! That’s no way to treat the Browns, who went undefeated in the preseason! Yup. That’s 4-0, folks. Numbers don’t lie.

(This is without a doubt my worst pick of the week, but it’s Week 1. Things get weird.)

(UPDATE: I made this bad pick before Myles Garrett suffered a high-ankle sprain so I hereby RESCIND my Browns pick and will go Pittsburgh -10. “But, Mike!” you say. “You can’t just do that,” you plead. Well, my column, my rules. Facts only.)

Philadelphia (-1) over WASHINGTON
Kirk Cousins said the Lord helped guide him in his contract negotiations this offseason. Here’s what he said:

“This has been a great faith story for me, as well. Faith lesson. The Lord has used this … I prayed about it and said, ‘Lord, what do you want to do?’ And I just didn’t feel a peace about signing a long-term contract, and I think the Lord communicates to us in many ways. And one of those ways is through his peace, and I just didn’t feel a peace.

“And in addition, I do believe that the Lord, at least in my life, likes to use one-year contracts, not long-term contracts, if you will. He likes to take me to the edge of the Red Sea and have me see there is water in front of me, there are mountains on either side, and there are Egyptians chasing me behind. And He wants me to sit there for a moment and go, ‘God, You better show up.’ And then He parts the Red Sea. And He’s done that time and again in my life, on the football field and off the football field. I believe that a long-term contract, fully guaranteed, when you start talking about that, I think that’s the Lord saying, ‘Kirk, here’s the Red Sea parted before you even start getting chased.’ And I think the Lord is a God who says, ‘You know what? I’m going to give you manna every day. I’m not going to give you manna for three years. OK? You just get enough for today and trust me for the rest.’ And the Lord’s doing that through my football contracts.”

I went to Catholic school for 12 years and frankly, I just don’t remember the part in the Bible about guaranteed money in long-term football contracts.

That has nothing to do with how this game will play out. Just felt compelled to share that.

Arizona (-1.5) over DETROIT
Are you ready to read something wild? Jim Caldwell has the best winning percentage (.563) among Lions head coaches with at least three years of experience since … Buddy Parker in the 1950s. Under those same guidelines, Caldwell ranks third all-time behind the immortal Potsy Clark (1931-36) and Parker. This is currently the golden era of modern-day Lions football. Who knew??

Indianapolis (+3.5) over LOS ANGELES RAMS
Here it is, folks. The worst game of Week 1. I can’t wait to watch every single second.

SAN FRANCISCO (+5.5) over Carolina
I understand why this line is where it is, but it’s still showing a bit too much respect for a Panthers team that fell to pieces last year and went 2-6 on the road last year. Kyle Shanahan and Brian Hoyer … might be … OK … perhaps. I don’t know yet. But I’ll take the points in the interim.

GREEN BAY (-3) over Seattle
The most dangerous thing you can do when making Week 1 picks is to get stuck in everything you believed last year. It’s no longer last year. In fact, it is now this year.

Still, I’m feeling that downslide vibe from the Seahawks. After beating the Patriots in Foxboro in Week 10, they went 1-2 in their remaining games against teams better than .500. That one win was against Detroit in the playoffs, where it’s actually an impossibility for the Lions to win a game. So does that even count? Who can say, really?

DALLAS (-4) over New York Giants
The NFL shamelessly running a fakakta kangaroo court, stepping over its bounds, suppressing evidence, controlling a public narrative and (at least) temporarily losing a battle to keep a star player off the field with coincidental timing to a nationally televised football game involving that star player? I can’t say I’ve ever seen that before.

On a serious note, take the over on number of fourth-quarter camera shots of a smugly satisfied Jerry Jones in this one.

New Orleans (+3.5) over MINNESOTA
The only way I see the Saints bungling this is if they get too focused on giving Adrian Peterson his revenge carries. As if Adrian Peterson has reason to want revenge for anything. But Sean Payton and Drew Brees are smart enough to avoid that.

Los Angeles Chargers (+3.5) over DENVER
The NFL decided to move the Chargers out of San Diego after taxpayers refused to be bamboozled by billionaires, and we don’t even get to see their tiny little soccer stadium in their nationally televised Monday night game in Week 1? More like WEAK 1.

Yeah, I don’t know. Not everything Picasso painted was a masterpiece. Just be happy football’s back. For now.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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