NFL Week 1: Can Bears sneak a win at Colts?

The first week of the NFL season includes a rematch of Super Bowl XLI as the Chicago Bears visit the Indianapolis Colts, and the center of attention is squarely on the QB position in this one with the Bears' Rex Grossman seeking some respect and Indy's Peyton Manning hobbled with a knee injury. Meanwhile, the Dallas Cowboys are one of six road favorites the first Sunday when they visit the Cleveland Browns.

The great thing about being the NFL early bird: You don’t have to get up at four in the morning to catch the worm.

Now that training camps have opened, the larger betting public is just starting to pay attention to the NFL – Brett Favre notwithstanding. This is a great time to get to the ticket window and capitalize on the early betting odds. Handicapping Week 1 of the regular season is already a speculative exercise as it is; you’re not going to learn much during the five weeks of the preseason, aside from who’s healthy. Might as well jump in right now.

Chicago Bears at Indianapolis Colts (-10)
How appropriate that Chicago, financial hub of the American Midwest, is home to both the Bulls and the Bears. The storied football franchise has gone through accelerated boom and bust periods in the salary-cap era. Last year’s squad finished 7-9 straight up and against the spread, joining the long list of teams who have missed the playoffs after losing the Super Bowl the previous season.

There is cause for hope in 2008. Quarterback concerns aside, injuries were a major part of last year’s decline; so was the poor play of running back Cedric Benson, who ran for just 3.4 yards per carry and was given the heave-ho in June. In terms of Football Outsiders’ new Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) stat, Benson ranked No. 44 out of 49 qualifying backs with -67 yards. The Bears should feel confident about getting much better results from either Kevin Jones (+40 DYAR with Detroit) or rookie Matt Forte from Tulane.

People have less room for optimism in Indianapolis. Not that the Colts are likely to collapse in 2008 after going 13-3 (9-7 ATS) last year, their sixth straight season of double-digit wins under coach Tony Dungy and quarterback Peyton Manning. But Manning had an infected bursa sac removed from his left knee on July 14. Wide receiver Marvin Harrison had one of those, and he missed the second half of the 2007 campaign. Harrison had other knee problems, and Manning is expected to make a full recovery in time for Opening Day, yet there remains enough concern to add value to the Bears in this matchup.

Dallas Cowboys at Cleveland Browns (+3)
The Browns were by far the most pleasant surprise of 2007. Although they didn’t make the playoffs at 10-6, they were the league’s ATS kings at an incredibly profitable 12-4. However, Cleveland was also lucky, outscoring opponents by just 20 points over the 16 games for a pythagorean record of 8.5 wins. You might recall those two overtime victories over Seattle and Baltimore, the latter going into the extra frame on a 51-yard Phil Dawson field goal that caromed off the left upright and the back of the stanchion.

The Browns as a franchise appear to be headed in the right direction, adding wide receiver Donte’ Stallworth to a young team that ranked 11th in offensive efficiency last year. That upward mobility could be enough to get Cleveland through any “regression to the mean,” but that’s too much to expect from a betting standpoint.

Dallas, on the other hand, does have some elbow room left for handicappers. The Cowboys went 13-3 last year, but only 9-7 ATS after dropping the cash in their last four regular season games – plus their NFC Divisional loss to the Giants. Although Dallas is cutting ties with WR Terry Glenn, he was already a non-factor in last year’s No. 3-ranked offense. The No. 10 Cowboys defense is where the growth should come, thanks to Adam Jones and first-round pick Mike Jenkins at the corners.