While the Hall of Fame Game was certainly nice and all, NFL preseason action really gets underway Thursday night with a full slate of contests. Starting with the defending champion Baltimore Ravens visiting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, we'll be treated to six games as we finally get a taste of our sweet, beloved football.
Just because these early games rarely resemble the kind of competition we've come to expect doesn't mean people won't bet on them. Here's the complete game-by-game odds and lines information for Thursday's matchups via OddsShark.
Ravens (+3) at Buccaneers, 7:30 p.m. ET
You'd think the defending Super Bowl champions would be considered favorites in their preseason opener, but it appears we've all underestimated Tampa Bay's third-stringers. Entering Thursday's game, the Buccaneers are three-point favorites to beat Baltimore at home.
One aspect of this game especially worth watching will be Tampa Bay's quarterback play, as Josh Freeman's long-term hold on the starting job seems tenuous. The Buccaneers have committed to Freeman entering the season, but with his contract expiring after the season and 2013 third-round pick Mike Glennon around, how Freeman plays this season will be huge.
The game should also give Baltimore fans a first glimpse at two rookies expected to start this season, safety Matt Elam and linebacker Arthur Brown.
For both of these teams, numerous questions loom entering the season. Can guys like Matt Ryan and Andy Dalton carry their teams not only to the playoffs, but through them? Who will be Atlanta's fifth wide receiver? Which Bengals player will make the biggest fool of himself on "Hard Knocks" this year?
On Thursday, we'll be able to start answering those questions. While our glimpses at Ryan and Dalton will presumably be limited to a series or two, seeing each get some snaps against an opponent's starting lineup should be fun.
At the beginning of the preseason, possibilities seem endless for nearly every team. These two squads probably don't have as much to get excited about as other teams, but we could get a chance Thursday to see some young players close to breaking out from both sides.
In particular, with both quarterbacks starting at what amount to make-or-break seasons, keep an eye on Sam Bradford and Brandon Weeden. While they're both at different stages in terms of experience, excuses are running thin for both guys. Bradford's had three seasons to show he can be a star-quality QB and it's never happened. Weeden, meanwhile, is 29 years old. If he's going to show he's a legit starting-caliber player, it happens in 2013.
Also, you'll be able to watch Tavon Austin. That's good. Cleveland likely won't have Trent Richardson playing, though, which is a bit of a bummer.
There haven't been any setbacks for Robert Griffin III in his recovery from ACL surgery, but the preseason will be all about Kirk Cousins for Washington. With RGIII expected to sit out rather than risk injury in a meaningless game, Cousins should get a lot of playing time in the coming weeks.
While Cousins obviously will start the season on the bench, his play in the preseason could help improve his value as trade bait. The Redskins will eventually need to decide what to do with the quarterback, and assuming Griffin stays healthy, he'll probably get dealt. The better he plays whenever people see him, the more Cousins will get in return.
For at least a series or two, this game should feature two groups angling to make postseason noise. Peyton Manning and Colin Kaepernick may not be especially similar as players, but they're both fantastic quarterbacks, and the contrast between the two should be intriguing.
With a whole bunch of position battles still playing out in Denver, it will be worth paying attention to the team's skill guys. The Broncos know what they're getting out of Manning, assuming his arm strength doesn't take another big step back, but figuring out the depth chart at wide receiver, running back and tight end needs to happen.
Among the six games scheduled for Thursday, this is the only one where oddsmakers favor the road team. I don't know if there's been some definitive research on this, but it's pretty clear the folks putting together the lines have reason to bet against road teams in preseason games.
This game was initially even when the oddsmakers first released lines, but the injury to Danario Alexander presumably didn't help San Diego's case. The top receiver will miss the entire 2013 season after suffering a torn ACL on Tuesday, so we'll see how the Chargers move forward without him.