David Murphy: Rolling the dice on the NFL season

Posted: September 07, 2012

I HAD ALWAYS wanted to go where no man had gone before, yet I also had a debilitating fear of heights. So earlier this summer, I decided that I would watch every first-team snap of every preseason football game. As I wait for Mayor Nutter to schedule the parade, here is what I learned:

1 Take the Colts over the conventional wisdom.

Since 2002, 23 teams started a rookie quarterback in the majority of their games. Seven of those teams finished with a winning record. Six of those teams finished the previous season with a losing record. Four of those teams finished the previous season with fewer than six wins.

So the turnaround that Andrew Luck is attempting to orchestrate in Indianapolis is not without precedent. Luck finished the preseason completing 62.1 percent of his passes for 522 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions, including an impressive performance against a Steelers defense that finished first in the NFL in passing yards last season. The Colts led three of their four preseason games at halftime.

With home games against the Vikings, Jaguars, Browns and Dolphins (two second-year quarterbacks and two first-year quarterbacks), the Colts very well could be the Vegas favorite in a quarter of their games. Factor in winnable games against the Jaguars in Jacksonville, the Jets in New York, and the Titans at home and on the road, and a 7-9 record is not out of the question.

As big of an impact as Luck will have on the offensive side of the ball, Chuck Pagano could equal it on defense, where the Colts were woeful last season. Vegas has the over/under on Indy wins at 5.5. I'd take even odds at 6.5. In fact, I've already bet one person that they win nine.

Back in 2008, Matt Ryan and Mike Smith helped lead a Falcons team that finished the previous season at 4-12 and ranked 29th in yards allowed and points allowed to an 11-5 record. That team had two things that the Colts do not: a pounding running game led by Michael Turner and a big-play wideout in Roddy White. But it also didn't have Luck.

One other note: Rookie running back Vick Ballard, currently listed at third on the depth chart behind Donald Brown and Mewelde Moore, showed some impressive ability between the tackles during the preseason. Don't be surprised if you hear his name at some point this season.

2 Take the over on "murderous stares from Mike Tomlin."

If I could invite any three people from history to dinner, Tomlin probably would not make the cut. But he sure as hell would be working security. That said, even the intimidation rays that beam from the Pittsburgh sideline might not be enough to avoid a markedly un-Steeler-like season.

Pittsburgh has not finished with a losing record in Tomlin's 5 years as coach, but the Steelers also haven't had an offensive line this porous, or a defense this full of questions. The anchor of that defense, nose tackle Casey Hampton, is attempting to make a 9-month recovery from ACL surgery on a knee that needs to support a lot of man. He missed all of training camp and saw his first game action in the Steelers' preseason finale.

The schedule makers did not do Pittsburgh any favors by scheduling Week 1 in Denver, where Peyton Manning looked sharp in the preseason and where Steelers safety Ryan Clark will not play because of a medical condition that is exacerbated by high altitude. Pittsburgh spent much of the preseason with third-string linebacker Chris Carter getting reps with the first team, as James Harrison and Jason Worilds recovered from injuries. Harrison is listed as questionable for Week 1, a status that you can extend to the Steelers' hopes for a double-digit win season.

At last glance, the Steelers were getting 1.5 points against the Broncos. Let 'em have 'em.

3 Beware the Patriots . . . 

 . . . If you are planning on taking them as a 6.5-point favorite on the road in Tennessee. As good as New England was down the stretch last season, winning 10 straight games before the Super Bowl, the run defense did show some holes.

Reggie Bush rushed for 113 yards on 22 carries in a 27-24 Patriots win over the Dolphins in Week 16, and Roy Helu carried 27 times for 126 yards in a 34-27 win over the Redskins in Week 14. The Pats' first-teamers were outscored by the Bucs, 23-14, in their third preseason game, with rookie running back Doug Martin rushing for 51 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries.

Bill Belichick has won eight straight season openers, but don't be surprised if a rejuvenated Chris Johnson takes enough pressure off Jake Locker to keep the game close. The line says that Vegas likes the Titans, and Vegas knows more than we do.

Listen to the line

One-point road favorites are 0-5 against the spread in Week 1 over the last two seasons. This year, the Chargers (in Oakland) is in that category. Also beware of the Panthers (-2 1/2) in Tampa Bay and the Falcons (-3) in Kansas City.

Betting Big Red

At last glance, the Eagles were giving up between 8 and 9 points to the Browns. Andy Reid knows how to blow out inferior opponents in Week 1: 31-13 over the Rams (2011), 38-10 over the Panthers (2009), 38-3 over the Rams (2008), 24-10 over the Texans (2006). In 2007 and 2010, the Eagles lost to the Packers. I would classify the Browns as inferior.

Contact David Murphy at dmurphy@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HighCheese. Read his blog at philly.com/HighCheese.

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