Texans at Saints (-6.5/52), 7:10 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Saints take the field in a game that counts for the first time since being robbed in January’s NFC Championship game. Outside of losing running back Mark Ingram to the Ravens, a few veteran linemen retiring and a couple of defenders leaving via free agency, the team that should’ve been out there against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIII returns intact. 40-year-old Drew Brees is aging like the finest of wines and returns to engineer an offense that scored 30 or more points in 10 of 16 games last season.
A great first test awaits with the Texans in town, especially since there are a lot of variables in play since Houston’s most recent preseason game. The Texans upgraded their left tackle situation by adding Laremy Tunsil, unquestionably the Dolphins’ best player. They’ve addressed the unfortunate loss of Lamar Miller to a torn ACL and MCL in the “dress rehearsal” game by dealing for Duke Johnson and also added WR Kenny Stills to give Deshaun Watson four excellent threats at wideout. The addition of Tunsil to protect him is the game-changer, which sets the stage for the Texans to take the next step in emerging as Super Bowl contender.
Although they’ve won three AFC South titles in four seasons, a glance at NFL betting futures tells you how lightly regarded Houston is in terms of being a legitimate threat to win a championship. The Westgate Las Vegas Superbook hung 50-to-1 odds on the Texans to win a Super Bowl and have them at 25-to-1 to win the conference, which ranks seventh among AFC teams. Why their number would be placed behind the Jaguars and Ravens is debatable, but a case can be made that they’re among the most undervalued quality teams in the NFL. You can still get in on a projected win total of 8.5 that looks awfully appealing since Jacksonville has lost QB Nick Foles for a few weeks due to a broken clavicle and Andrew Luck’s retirement makes the Colts more vulnerable. Tennessee looked fantastic in destroying the Browns, but I’d still prefer Houston to win the division (7/4).
In visiting New Orleans, the Texans will test themselves against a team that is going to be favored in almost every game so long as Brees and top playmakers Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas stay healthy. Westgate set the Saints’ projected win total at 10.5 after last season’s 13-3 run and made them the overwhelming favorite to capture the NFC South (5/7). They’re listed as the NFC co-favorite at 5/1 alongside the Bears and Eagles and at 12/1, lagging only behind the Chiefs (5/1) and Patriots (6/1) in terms of Super Bowl odds.
Even if they’re unable to post an upset, simply testing themselves before the Jags come to town on Sunday with rookie backup Gardner Minshew at the controls in place of the injured Foles should prove beneficial for the Texans, who can look at this debut as a freeroll of sorts given how the schedule lays out. Because new pieces like Tunsil, Carols Hyde, Johnson and Stills all have to gel quickly, Houston comes into this one a substantial underdog, opening at plus-7 with some action dropping them to a 6.5-point ‘dog as of Sunday night. A moneyline wager would play out +240, which was the same figure the division-rival Colts were getting out in Carson in their eventual overtime loss to the Chargers.
Watson played all 16 games in 2018 in coming back from an ACL tear and has mostly impressed thus far throughout his career. He’s twice lost duels with Tom Brady but has put together a number of record-setting performances and presided over Houston’s nine-game winning streak last season. He passed for at least 375 yards in three straight weeks and struck the right balance of taking off and running an hanging in the pocket despite a porous offensive line that contributed to him being sacked 62 times last season. Brees was only sacked 17 times despite only 16 fewer pass attempts, so think twice about partaking in any J.J. Watt sack props.
If Tunsil gives Watson the assistance he’s expected to provide and can keep the likes of Cam Jordan away from him on Monday, he’s definitely got weapons on the outside who can help Houston keep up with whatever pace the Saints set. DeAndre Hopkins is among the NFL’s top receiver, Keke Coutee can be a game-changer in the slot and Will Fuller and Stills can take advantage when teams are forced to play them one-on-one. The total here opened at 54 and has been bet down to 52. That figure was eclipsed in seven of the Saints’ 16 regular-season games but was surpassed just three times in contests involving the Texans.
Houston was 5-3 (3-3-2 ATS) on the road last season, while the Saints were 7-3 at the Superdome if you lump in their playoff results. New Orleans did fail to cover in any of their last four home games. DT Sheldon Rankins is still working his way back from an Achilles tear and will miss this game for New Orleans, who will also be without DE Mario Edwards (hamstring). LB Craig Robertson is questionable, which is the same designation shared by starting offensive linemen Greg Mancz (ankle) and Tytus Howard (finger), the Texans’ most recent first-round pick. Coutee (ankle) is also uncertain to play.
Brees’ Saints won both of their Monday night games last season, while the Texans won in their lone appearance, blowing out the Titans 34-17 to set a franchise record for consecutive wins. Houston is 2-2 against the Saints, winning the last meeting in 2015. The Texans are 0-2 in New Orleans.
Raiders at Broncos (-2.5/42), 10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
Week 1 closes with a divisional matchup at Mile High as the Raiders begin their final season before moving to Las Vegas by putting a tumultuous training camp behind them.
Your late-night drinking game involves the serving of your choice whenever Antonio Brown is mentioned. Be careful or you won’t make it to halftime. Brown didn’t make it to the season opener, successfully getting himself waived after clashing with GM Mike Mayock and not doing his part to fit in with the team who envisioned him eclipsing QB Derek Carr as the face of the franchise prior to the team moving in behind Mandalay Bay next season.
Instead, Brown arrived with burnt feet, feuded with the NFL over its new helmet policy and never did get on the field during the preseason. Even his stint on HBO’s Hard Knocks left much to be desired, especially since shooting had wrapped by the time he had his confrontation with Mayock over fines incurred due to his protests. Brown apologized to the team and was expected to play on Monday but then went to social media with a strange video he put together himself and ultimately got his wish to go elsewhere. He signed with the New England Patriots in what is potentially the most impactful pickup we’ve seen over the last eight months.
Jon Gruden and the Raiders were left picking up the pieces and signed rookie Keelan Doss back off Jacksonville’s practice squad after reluctantly parting ways with the training camp standout on cutdown day. Carr’s go-to receiver now figure to be newcomer Tyrell Williams, rookie Hunter Renfrow and tight end Darren Waller. Another rookie, Alabama product Josh Jacobs, is likely to get a lot of carries alongside fourth-year backup DeAndre Washington and pass-catching threat Jalen Richard.
Uncertainty over Brown’s availability greatly affected this point spread. Oakland opened as a 2.5-point road favorite, dipped to a pick’em, became a 2.5-point ‘dog when it appeared that Brown would be suspended and then improved to plus-1 when Gruden announced he’d be starting and that his teammates had made him a captain. Since his release, the number returned to 2.5 and a total that opened at 43.5 had settled at 42.
The Raiders are extremely young. Gruden is still setting the foundation and securing personnel he wishes to take with him to Vegas, which means he’s willing to take some lumps. A handful of undrafted free agents made the team. The majority of the group has only been around a handful of years. Carr and free safety Lamarcus Joyner are the leaders, but there’s plenty of room for others to emerge. The defense added hard-hitting linebacker Vontaze Burfict from Cincinnati and will sign up for his aggressiveness to trickle down to the younger guys. First-round pick Jonathan Abram is a thumper with a nasty streak who will be looking to have an impact at strong safety, so the unit that coordinator Paul Guenther is trying to piece together will obviously have an edge to it.
Offensively, Gruden and veteran coordinator Greg Olson will be looking for playmakers to emerge and never accounted for Brown not being around to make life easier for everyone else. Considering the Broncos woke up on Saturday morning expecting to see him, their game plan now has to change on the run. New head coach Vic Fangio and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell have worked together on a couple of teams over the years and will look to help revitalize a unit that struggled under Vance Joseph after years of being considered among the NFL’s best due to the presence of playmakers like Von Miller, Derek Wolfe and CB Chris Harris, Jr.
Although LBs Brandon Marshall and Shane Ray and CBs Bradley Roby and Jamar Taylor signed elsewhere, there’s plenty for Fangio to work with key veterans back and emerging star Bradley Chubb coming off a 12-sack rookie season.
John Elway went out and signed QB Joe Flacco to try and help stabilize the offense with his arm and experience, but first-time NFL offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello is adamant that his attack will be run-based, centering on getting explosive young backs Philip Lindsay and Royce Freeman the ball. Offseason tweaks like adding pass-catching back Theo Riddick and athletic tight end Jake Butt have both hit a snag due to unfortunate injuries, so the development of the team’s young backs and receivers like Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton, Tim Patrick and rookie Juwann Wifnree will dictate how effective Flacco can be early on.
Denver’s projected win total has been set at 7. Oakland’s total was set at 6 even before Brown’s departure, so now that their Super Bowl odds are 100/1, you should know not to tune in for a masterpiece in the nightcap of this MNF doubleheader. The Chiefs and Chargers are the AFC West’s heavyweights and the Broncos (14/1) Raiders (16/1) are longshots to win the division who will likely be vying to stay out of the cellar.
The teams split last season’s meetings, but Oakland has captured 11 of the last 15 against the Broncos. The ‘under’ has prevailed in seven of the last eight matchups, including the last five in succession. Denver inside linebacker Todd Davis (calf) is expected to miss the opener, so Fangio will have to get creative to fill that spot. Oakland lost starting guard Gabe Jackson (MCL) early in preseason and won’t have him back until October at the earliest. Projected fill-in Richie Incognito is suspended for the first two games, so Gruden will have to shore up that spot next to center Rodney Hudson, the league’s highest-paid player at his position.
The Broncos have won their last seven season openers and have started at least 2-0 six straight years. The Raiders were the last team to beat them in a Week 1, winning a 23-20 decision on a Monday night at Mile High in 2011. Gruden lost in his return to the sideline in last year’s season-opener, getting crushed 33-13 in the second half of an MNF twinbill similar to this one. Weather shouldn’t be a concern with light winds and temperatures in the 70s in the forecast.