The beginning of a National Football League season from a handicapping standpoint is a lot like playing the game Mastermind. That is the game where there are four hidden different color pegs and a player tries to match the pattern while getting clues with indicators that show right colors and right colors in correct holes.
If you are good at this game and get lucky, you can crack the formula in three tries. It should never take longer than four attempts to perfectly match the hidden pattern.
In the NFL, we can take the first clue with what teams won and which teams lost during opening week play. But, the NFL is not so black and white as pegs on a game board. There are subtleties that need analysis to really determine whether a result will lead to another like or opposite outcome.
It is worth noting that over the past ten seasons NFL teams that won on opening day are 77-78-2 in second week action with a point spread record in those same games of 72-82-3. Teams that lost their first game of the season win 80 of 159 games in second week action while compiling a winning point spread record of 81-75-3.
In other words, betting on a team that lost the first week has a greater percentage of beating the spread in second week action than backing a team that won their opener. Against the point spread, first week winners are 10 games under .500 in second week action while opening game losers are six games over .500 in Week Two.
Those numbers are not enough to bank on, and a bad team is a lot more likely to lose a second straight game than a good team that was upset in opening week action. Good teams can begin a successful campaign with multiple wins, but one can be sure that if a team is too successful the books will adjust point spreads as they continue to win that are certain to beat them soon enough by the number.
Which brings us to this, what if a really bad team wins on opening day or a really good team loses on opening day? We have a couple examples of this in play this week.
First, the Jacksonville Jaguars came into the season considered by many to be the worst team in the league. Are they? They didn’t prove it on opening day when they earned a home win over a team that had solid press clipping and high expectations, the Indianapolis Colts.
The Colts were a playoff team while led during the short career of Andrew Luck, one that ended abruptly on the eve of the 2019 season due to injuries. The loss of their franchise quarterback threw a roadblock up on the Colts season last year, but like good organizations are able to do, they persevered through the tough times and managed to win seven games and only get outscored on the season by 11 points in 2019.
Then, also a sign of a good team, they compensated for the loss of Luck this season by signing veteran Philip Rivers to lead their offense. The move to add a proven veteran quarterback and the stability of the organization had the Colts in the conversation as a threat to win Super Bowl LV.
Now, with one game in the books, are we to think that losing to the Jaguars is a sign that the Colts are overrated and that Rivers is no longer the force he once was on the field? Or, are the Jaguars truly much better than anyone anticipated while being led by the colorful second-year quarterback out of Washington State, Gardner Minshew?
Tomorrow, the Colts host another team that was considered in the mix to vie for a championship this season, the Minnesota Vikings. They too took one on the chin in their opener, losing at home to the Green Bay Packers, 43-34.
Which is worse? Losing at home to a good division opponent like the Vikings did, or being upset on the road by a team that no one had listed above a bottom feeder before this season began?
The Colts loss last week was twofold, they not only were defeated on the scoreboard, 27-20 in Jacksonville, they also lost their starting runningback, Marlon Mack, to a season ending injury.
What does that leave us with? Well, like in the game of Mastermind, this early in a season it forces us to make choices with limited evidence to support our conclusions. What if the Jaguars are a lot better than people think, then the Colts loss might just have been a trap they will bounce off with a big win at home over the Vikings on Sunday.
What if the Jaguars are bad, then the Colts might be way overrated and in for a surprisingly disappointing season and the Vikings will recover from their opening loss with a road win in Indianapolis.
What if the Green Bay Packers, who beat the Vikings in Minnesota are real good this year, then the Vikings loss can be minimized and they would be in a good position to down the Colts on Sunday. But, what if the game between the Packers and Vikings last week didn’t have an outstanding team on the field, then Minnesota’s defeat could be the first step towards their head coach, Mike Zimmer, losing his job.
As for the Jaguars, we’d be mighty surprised if they were a team that won more than half their games this year. That puts their visit to Tennessee tomorrow on a near certain losing path to the Titans, but this is not necessarily the year to back Mike Vrabel’s team with money given their second half of the season surge in 2019.
Where does that leave us now? In the early stages of putting together the pieces to generate a great campaign. I don’t expect to complete the Mastermind game in two steps, but if I’m going to make an assumption, I’m willing to bet the Indianapolis Colts off a loss and a serious injury are the team more likely to have the backs-to-the-wall motivation and hand the Vikings a second straight setback.
Qoxhi Picks: Indianapolis Colts (-3) over Minnesota Vikings