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NFL Preseason Odds: 6 Sleepers Who Could Win Super Bowl 54

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All sports gamblers who actually like sports (i.e. the non-miserable people of the world) are guilty of fan bias – among other forms of bias – whenever they handicap the odds.

You can’t get away from it. For instance, I personally try to take an “ambivalent” view of professional sports, not that I don’t care who wins or loses or that I don’t think the leagues are fun to watch and speculate on from day to day. There’s just a sense of perspective that can be healthy when trying to forecast outcomes – I might like to watch Stephen Curry play, but I knew he would likely be coming from behind in the 4th quarter of fateful Game 6 with NBA-champion Toronto on Thursday.

But who am I kidding? I might claim to have a deep personal connection to college and prep football. That doesn’t mean passion for the NFL isn’t in still deep in my wiring.

NFL games have been responsible for the breaking of furniture in more than 1 household in my family, usually in a vain cheering effort against the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, and other legendary clubs of the NFC.

Thankfully, we weren’t breaking the woodwork over each other’s heads.

It doesn’t help that I come from a family of Cardinal loyalists. The Big Red served as whipping-post practice for NFC East rivals back in the day, and the franchise’s brief flourish of success as the Arizona Cardinals quickly deteriorated into another era of last-place doldrums. (If you grew up following a team like the Gridbirds and tried to find their highlights on cable TV, they were always the players vainly running after Eric Dickerson or Jerry Rice in slow-motion montages.)

When E.J. Junior was called for “roughing the passer,” ending the Big Red’s playoff bid in 1984 before it could begin, a remote control took off like a missile and met its doom against the wall.

The coffee table on which the remote control had sat also had a wobbly leg, from where one of my family members had once drop-kicked it. That happened after officials spotted the ball sideways to avoid giving the Cardinals a game-saving 1st down against the Doomsday Defense.

I also have a broken old radio somewhere. Cardinals vs Vikings, October 1999. Don’t ask.

But all bias aside – I think – the only thing the Arizona Cardinals are responsible for breaking so far in 2019-20 are the brains of handicappers and pundits.

Daniel Jones, a role-playing QB from Duke who was drafted into a ready-made quarterback controversy in New York, is getting more respect from some NFL scouts and analysts than fellow rookie Kyler Murray from Oklahoma, drafted 1st overall by the Cardinals.

That’s an epic joke. And it has to do with a far-deeper bias that simply a rooting interest in a team.

2019-20 NFL Season: Cards a Model “Over” Pick vs Win Total

The prevailing logic in rating Jones over Murray – and to be fair, not all analysts are saying that the 2-sport NCAA phenom will have a hard time adjusting to the NFC West – is that a stoic pocket passer is more “NFL-ready” than a free-wheeling scrambler who gave Trevor Lawrence and Dabo Swinney a blueprint for attacking the Alabama Crimson Tide defense in January.

Such has been the bias in NFL handicapping for generations. It’s why the Cowboys have gone from being a traditionally-overrated club behind QBs like Danny White and Tony Romo to being an underrated commodity now, at least in the free press and not on betting boards where popular fan-interest often makes an impact. That’s because Dak Prescott isn’t viewed as a classic, elite passer of the ball.

Murray is a classic passer of the pigskin, he’s just also fast enough to turn the lights out, as they say, and jump into bed before the room gets dark. The #1 overall pick will play for an organization, Arizona, that has numerous issues of its own at quarterback already. It is perceived as a dodgy proposition that new coach Kliff Kingsbury will be able to mold Kyler into an “NFL-style” player right away.

Have we learned nothing from the trajectory of Houston Texan football with Deshaun Watson in town? The former Clemson QB doesn’t play like Danny White (or Drew Brees) but he lent instant credibility to the franchise upon his recent arrival. Saturday and Sunday playbooks have never looked more alike, helping young dual-threats apply their talents quickly after draft day.

Yes, Watson has been injured, and “college” style QBs often do get hurt running the ball. But no more often than befuddled rookies like Josh Rosen, or the endless cavalcade of NFL Draft-bust “pocket” passers you could dredge out of forgotten files.

Besides, the fact that a dual-threat QB could get hurt over the long-term is a big picture issue. Not a single-season issue. Yet the Giants are currently a (+5000) pick to win the Super Bowl behind Eli Manning or Jones, and the Cardinals are a paltry (+8000) at BetOnline.

The book also published at least 1 win-total market on the Big Red already…5 wins on the Over/Under for the upcoming 2019 season.

It’s as if the betting public is considering that Jones is more likely to be a healthy NFL starter 10 years from now, and forgetting what Murray can do for a football team in the here-and-now.

No, I don’t think the Arizona Cardinals are bound to win Super Bowl 54 in Miami. But they’re a fabulous win-total wager even at this early stage, and an excellent example of how preseason NFL handicappers overlook certain things that a downtrodden team might have going for it once all records reset to 0-0 in training camp.

Consider that former head coach Steve Wilks was, by any measure, one of the very worst skippers to come along in the National Football League in some time. There was a sequence at the end of the Cardinals-Raiders contest in ’18 in which all of Oakland’s options were taken off the board except quick passes to the sideline with time running out. Wilks allowed his interior defensive backfield to be stacked with little attention paid to the boundary, as if the HC had never played “Madden” before. The Raiders quickly gobbled-up 1st downs and went on to win the ballgame.

Does that sound like the rantings and ravings of a bitter Cardinals fan? If so, please note that I’m not one of those bloggers who would write, “Wilks wasn’t qualified to be a Pee-Wee coach” after a result like the Oakland Raiders loss. It was, after all, 2 NFL teams and 2 NFL coaching staffs facing each other. Everyone involved is an expert on the gridiron or their names wouldn’t be on contracts. Still, the overwhelming pressure and responsibility of a head coaching/CEO position in the league isn’t suited for all men, and the most ill-suited for the role allow themselves to be distracted at the worst times.

Some pundits thought Wilks should get another try in 2019-20. Michael Bidwell would have been guilty of cruelty and bad business ethics had he made that decision. I have no idea how Kliff Kingsbury will fare as the Cardinals’ head coach, but in a league full of such parity as the NFL, the Cardinals are likely to get better “by default” relative to Vegas numbers and ATS. It’s only natural. A dead-in-the-water campaign like 2018 simply makes the talent on a team look less impressive than it would otherwise be.

We’ll spend lots of time in preseason looking at the New England Patriots, Los Angeles Rams, and other top contenders of the NFC and AFC in 2019. But sometimes the best wagers are just like a good NFL pass rusher…hiding somewhere in the weeds, bashful of attention until the triumph is nigh.

Here’s a look at 5 more NFL “sleepers” worthy of your consideration – and perhaps your gambling buck – headed into another September kickoff:

Green Bay Packers ((+2000 Odds-to-Win Super Bowl 54 at BetOnline)

A new era will begin in Green Bay with head coach Matt LaFleur taking over for Mike McCarthy.

I was a great admirer of McCarthy’s approach to offensive football with the Packers. Like the great Civil War generals of yore, under McCarthy’s high-tempo system the Pack usually got there “the fuh-stest with the most-est” on the gridiron.

Of course, that’s easier with scramble-and-fling masters of the QB position like Aaron Rodgers at your disposal. McCarthy was mostly blessed at QB during his years in Wisconsin, and it’s once again the pass-offense that has fans consumed with excitement and anxiety in the land of Real Great.

Cheeseheads hope LaFleur’s offensive pedigree – with the skipper having learned from Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan – will spark Aaron Rodgers back into championship form. It might help to build a title-worthy offensive line that can keep “Rah-gahs!” upright and not hobbling to commercial-shoots on crutches half the time.

Instead, the woebegone Packers have been busy upgrading the defense. Despite losing longtime linebacker Clay Matthews, the additions of linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith could give Green Bay a ready-made lethal combo. Meanwhile the acquisition of Adrian Amos is expected to vastly improve the Packers’ pass defense. Top draft pick Darnell Savage also looks to add toughness and physicality at safety.

(Wondering why Maryland has been a weirdly-effective FBS underdog to wager on lately? Just get a gander of those clips above. I wonder if the Terrapins will sink back into mediocrity without the program’s own “Honey Badger”…or honey-turtle.)

Focusing on the front-7 might not be a direct way to impact Rodgers’ future health and stability. But a new playbook will draw fresh enthusiasm to the chalkboard, and Davante Adams will be catching lots of those devilish RAC-friendly tosses from the veteran QB to keep the chains moving in ’19.

If a defense that is suddenly enjoying lots of organizational focus happens to get hot, the Packers will be tough no matter who’s got the pigskin.

Minnesota Vikings (+2500)

The signing of Kirk Cousins was meant to help send the Vikings to the promised land in 2018, but the year ended in a disappointing 8-7-1 record and a playoff whiff.

However, many crucial components remain of the club that went 13-3 in the 2017 regular season.

Cousins has a rich pool of WR talent at his disposal with Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Laquon Treadwell, and the emerging Chad Beebe all lined-out wide. The coaching staff has put a greater emphasis on establishing the run game and hope to propel Dalvin Cook to a breakout year.

Only problem – how many times have we all heard that one? “We’re putting a greater emphasis on the running game” is to NFL football what “We’re continuing to talk to our advisors and look for solutions” is to White House politics.

Minnesota’s defense remains locked and loaded with Pro Bowlers at all 3 levels. The DB duo of Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith will continue to benefit from Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr leading the charge in the front-7.

My only problem with betting on the Vikings’ 25-to-1 Super Bowl line is that head coach Mike Zimmer doesn’t give either his offensive line or his defense a fair chance to win when he allows play-callers and QBs to abandon the running game completely at key moments.

Jacksonville Jaguars (+3300)

The Jaguars have severely backtracked after a promising 2017 campaign that resulted in an AFC South title and a near-dethroning of the Brady Bunch in the AFC Championship.

Coming off a tumultuous 5-11 season, the Jags ousted an inconsistent Blake Bortles and snagged Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles in free agency. The front office has also been active in adding new weapons around Foles, with wide receivers Chris Conley, Terrelle Pryor, and tight end Geoff Swaim all under contract. Dede Westbrook looks to build off a breakout 66-catch season, while Marqise Lee and Leonard Fournette hope to bounce back from an injury-riddled 2018.

Although the news of Pro Bowl linebacker Telvin Smith’s sabbatical was a shocker, the defense received a significant boost with the addition of a fierce pass-rusher and an SEC Defensive Player of the Year in Josh Allen.

Houston Texans (+3300)

Houston isn’t taking as much action as it might otherwise thanks to a challenging 2019 schedule. But I never put much stock in NFL schedules until the season begins. In fact, the age-old method of looking at a schedule and writing-in “W” and “L” next to each date is as poor a method of handicapping as it was when we were 10 years old and tried it on the refrigerator.

Star power is intact in Space City. Deshaun Watson and the ultra-reliable DeAndre Hopkins remain on offense, and the intimidating tandem of J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney man the defensive line. Texan fans might have to wait on pins and needles the remainder of the offseason regarding Clowney, though, as he is currently sitting-out minicamp.

The Texans lost safety Tyrann Mathieu – the real Honey Badger – in the offseason but are optimistic that the additions of safety Tashaun Gipson and cornerback Bradley Roby can help salve the pain.

Draft picks Max Scharping and Tytus Howard will need to develop into solid players if the OL is to keep Watson on his feet over the long term. But win-total bets and even Super Bowl futures aren’t based on a QB staying healthy for a lifetime. Watson is pretty good at making hay while the sun is shining.

Oakland Raiders (+6600)

The Raiders are a curious case entering the 2019 season. It’s as if Jon Gruden “scrapped” his maiden year with the team, using it to scout talent on the field and make controversial, landmark decisions like trading star linebacker Khalil Mack and wide receiver Amari Cooper. The Chicago Bear and Dallas Cowboy fan bases said “thank you very much” and welcomed each respectively for the stretch run. Meanwhile, a 4-12 mark was no surprise for an Oakland team in full rebuild-mode.

WR Antonio Brown has arrived from Pittsburgh in the offseason, along with WR Tyrell Williams and offensive tackle Trent Brown. The inclusion of safety Lamarcus Joyner will help the Raiders defend the AFC West’s dynamic group of quarterbacks. The Raiders used a trio of 1st-round draft picks to select defensive end Clelin Ferrell, running back Josh Jacobs, and safety Jonathan Abram.

All excellent material. But does Gruden have enough puzzle pieces to put together a playoff-worthy campaign?

It feels more like a 3-year plan than a 2-year plan to me…but definitely look for the Raiders against Las Vegas win-totals like (6 ½).