Are you ready? The 100th season of the National Football League kicks off, at long last, with the most-played rivalry in the sport. The Chicago Bears (-3) meet the Green Bay Packers for the 199th time, Thursday night at Soldier Field. In other national games, the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots (-5.5) host the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday night. Monday Night Football begins its 50th season with a doubleheader: the New Orleans Saints (-7) host the Houston Texans early, then the Denver Broncos (EVEN) visit the Oakland Raiders in a traditional late grudge match.
Despite losing tight end Rob Gronkowski to retirement this offseason, the six-time Super Bowl champion Patriots (7-1) are favored to do it again this year. Last season’s AFC and NFC championship game representatives find themselves in the same place as well, if Vegas has anything to say about it. Led by reigning NFL Most Valuable Player, Patrick Mahomes, the Kansas City Chiefs (8-1) come in next. You can expect a rematch of last year’s controversial NFC championship game too, with the New Orleans Saints (9-1) and Los Angeles Rams (11-1) facing the best odds in the NFC.
One team that stands out in this year’s preseason Vegas odds are the long-suffering Cleveland Browns (15-1). Two seasons removed from their infamous 0-16 stink bomb, the Browns are a trendy pick in the AFC, thanks to second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield, and a frenzy of offseason moves. FiveThirtyEight is skeptical, however, of the Browns’ hype machine, preferring the Steelers to win the AFC North. The toughest division race in football this year is likely to be the NFC North, home to a rebuilt Packers squad, a reloaded Minnesota Vikings team, and the defending champion Bears.
If your favorite NFL team is one of your own creation (or changes every week), there are resources for you too. Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants was picked #1 overall in most fantasy leagues, and is the top-rated running back to start the season. He’ll take center stage in front of most of the country Sunday afternoon, against the Dallas Cowboys (-7.5) on Fox. Of course, be sure to check injury reports and player status before you get those lineups set.
As has been well-documented before, last year’s Supreme Court decision, striking down bans on sports betting, was a game-changer for fans and state governments alike. Punters in a dozen states will be able to legally partake by Thursday night, with several other states in the works. However, the New York Times suggests that the recent proliferation of gambling-oriented shows and integrated broadcast content won’t be coming to NFL telecasts any time soon. Offhand references by certain sportscasters notwithstanding, the league has a longstanding policy against announcers and analysts discussing gambling. Expect that to continue, at least for now.