Ah, Las Vegas.
The overall feel of romance and splendor you get when your plane comes in over the Strip rarely survives its brush with chain-smoking septuagenarians at the slot machines, but you still can't beat the experience of watching a full slate of NFL games at a good Vegas sportsbook.
Courtesy of Lagasse's Stadium at the Palazzo, that's just where I'll be ensconced for today's action. And speaking of action, since the city fathers of Vegas have seen fit to allow the occasional friendly wager let's check out the five biggest bets I'll have riding on today's games.
San Diego at Jacksonville
The Odds: San Diego -7.5, O/U 44
The Bet: OVER
The Rationale: The Philip Rivers Recovery Project is in full swing. Instead of Twelve Steps, this one features a lot of 3- and 5-step drops that get the ball out quickly and let guys like Vincent Brown and Keenan Allen do work. While San Diego's rebuilt OL may not allow for a ton of deep ball action, they are keeping Rivers clean on the short stuff while opening actual holes in the run game. The Jags kept it close on some fluke-tastic plays against the Broncos last week, but this Jacksonville defense is dreadful and begs to be exploited through the air.
For Jacksonville's part, having a QB in Henne who is simply willing to show NFL courage in the pocket is a huge upgrade. Justin Blackmon has rampaged for two weeks straight, and even if Cecil Shorts sits out Henne has a couple of other options in Mike Brown and Ace Sanders. The Bolts' corners are bad, and they lack the edge-rush pop to truly take advantage of Jacksonville's duct-tape tackle tandem. The Chargers can easily score 30 on their own in this one, and the Jags should be able to put up a couple of TDs even if they come in garbage time.
The Line: Chiefs -6.5, O/U 39.5
The Bet: Chiefs
The Rationale: In a word, the Chiefs' defense. OK, in three words – the Chiefs defense. Kansas City has been turning out destructive efforts on a weekly basis, and the Chiefs have the horses to put the screws to Houston’s Case Keenum in his first career start. You can’t bank on the continuation of Houston’s absurd Pick-Six trend on offense, but a turnover or two from Keenum isn’t a bad bet – especially if Justin Houston keeps up his strong play against Houston’s weak-link right tackle in Derek Newton. Houston figures to bring an Arian Foster-heavy game plan into KC, and the Chiefs’ counting stats against the run still look bad after their Week Four torching by the Eagles. But Dontari Poe, Tyson Jackson and Mike DeVito should cause enough havoc to allow Derrick Johnson and Eric Berry to fly to the ball and keep Foster from running wild, meaning that there will be a bigger load on Keenum’s shoulders than he's ready to handle.
Houston's defense has played well when not getting its Achilles tendons cut by their own offense. The Chiefs’ offense won’t run up and down the field against them, but Jamaal Charles’ all-around excellence should help KC stay ahead of the chains while Brigadier General Checkdown should protect the ball and avoid handing Houston any short fields to work with. It likely won’t be a blowout, but winning the turnover battle should stake the Chiefs to a comfortable 10-point win at Arrowhead.
The Line: 49ers -3, O/U 41
The Bet: 49ers
The Rationale: OK, we're going to keep it to one word this time - physicality. While the Titans' defense has made great strides in that department this season, San Francisco just brings too much of it on both sides of the ball.
Most knowledgeable NFL observers knew that the built-in constraint of Vince Young on zone read keeps was the only thing that let Chris Johnson get within shouting distance of 2,000 rushing yards in a season. But even after two sputtering campaigns, most thought you'd see SOMETHING more out of the Titans' ground game than what CJ2.5YPC has managed behind his rebuilt offensive line. Outside of RT Michael Stewart, the Tennessee front has blocked more or less competently, but there's been far too much mincing and dancing from the NFL's most boom-or-bust back. The gaping holes that Johnson longs for won't be there against Justin Smith and company, meaning that Jake Locker will spend most of his first game back operating behind the chains. The strong play of outside corners Tarrell Brown and Tramaine Brock will be too much for the scatter-armed Locker to consistently overcome.
The 49er offense is still feeling the lack of an A-grade receiver, but the ground game is clicking even though the read option seems largely shelved to this point in the season. Vernon Davis just reminded everyone what a true matchup nightmare he can be from any alignment on the field, and even if the Titans' Alterraun Verner can clamp down on Anquan Boldin the Niner attack should be able to get to 20 without too much trouble. And 20 should be plenty to cover in this one.
The Line: Bears -1, O/U 50.5
The Bet: Bears
The Rationale: Last season, Robert Griffin III was cutting a swath through defenses while Jay Cutler was mired in yet another sack and interception-filled slog. In 2013, however, the tables have turned. While RGIII turned in his best game of the season against Dallas last Sunday and has made his fifth consecutive vow to run more, he’s still short-circuiting drives by missing too many easy throws. Cutler, by contrast, is parlaying half-decent pass protection into the best ball of his career. He’s also able to do more than simply spam Brandon Marshall thanks to the emergence of second-year wideout Alshon Jeffery and an unprecedented spate of decent routes and decent hands from Martellus Bennett. With London Fletcher on his last legs, Washington will also have trouble containing a two-way threat like Matt Forte.
Chicago’s defense is struggling just about any time it’s not running a turnover back for a score, and carnage along the front four has kept them from creating the kind of havoc that defined their D under Lovie Smith. The return of Stephen Paea should at least solidify the interior, though, while the Bears will also enjoy the healthy return of Charles Tillman at corner. Tillman and Tim Jennings can still get it done on the outside, and they offer the kind of quality force play in run support that can help contain RGIII and Alfred Morris in Shanahan's zone run scheme. On their worst day, though, the Bears still trump the defensive mockery that the Skins have been trotting out in 2013.
Cowboys at Eagles
The Line: Eagles -2.5, O/U 55.5
The Bet: UNDER
The Rationale: This one seems a little counter-intuitive when you take a look at both teams’ high-octane offenses and flammable secondaries. But betting against the week’s highest total tends to work out more often than not, and there are a few other factors that could keep this one in the 20s for both teams.
Under Jason Garrett, the Cowboys tend to turtle up on the road and go for short drops and safe throws. Philly has the pass rushers in Fletcher Cox, Trent Cole, Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry to scare Garrett into conservatism and prevent the wholesale slaughter that would result from a fully unleashed Dez Bryant. Dallas’s run game should struggle without DeMarco Murray breaking 2-3 tackles on every carry. Garrett’s willingness to shoot for around 24 points should make it tough for the Cowboys to score much more.
Dallas’s defensive front is banged up, but the Cowboys been getting some strong play against the run from fill-ins like Nick Hayden and George Selvie to complement the all-around excellence from guys like Jason Hatcher and Sean Lee. Lee and Bruce Carter have the speed to contain LeSean McCoy, and Brandon Carr is fresh off perhaps his best game as a Cowboy. If Carr is able to keep DeSean Jackson from getting loose deep, Philly lacks enough weapons in the pass game to truly punish the Dallas secondary.
If you also find yourself in Vegas today, good luck on your action. If you're in one of the other states that have decided it's more moral to prohibit gambling than to generate hundreds of millions in tax revenue to fund education...hopefully you've found a way to circumvent that particular idiocy. And good luck on your action, too.