NFL Week 1 best bets: Dolphins' D will harass Mac Jones in debut

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How's that for a triumphant return? Thursday's NFL season opener between the Buccaneers and Cowboys set the stage for what should be a thrilling Week 1, which features 11 of 16 games with a line of -4 or shorter.

We finished last campaign with a 24-17-1 record against the spread through 17 weeks, including a 13-5 ATS mark to end the year. Can we carry that momentum into this season's opening weekend?

Jets @ Panthers (-4, 44), 1 p.m. ET

Call me a fool for buying into Sam Darnold - who struggled in three years with the Jets - and maybe it's deserved. But I love what the Panthers have built around the former top-three pick, who will play in the most stable situation of his career with easily the best surrounding cast.

Joe Brady's offense averaged 36.9 yards per drive in 2020, which ranked eighth in the league despite missing star Christian McCaffrey for all but three games. Now McCaffrey's back, joining electric wideouts D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson and dynamic rookie Terrace Marshall, who finished the preseason as the NFL's highest-graded first-year receiver.

The bigger question is whether Carolina can stop anybody. The Panthers' defense is littered with former first-round picks and breakout candidates - namely Derrick Brown and Brian Burns up front. So if those two can put pressure on Zach Wilson in his pro debut, it'll be another long day for New York bettors.

Pick: Panthers -4

Chargers @ Washington (-1, 44.5), 1 p.m.

I've been waiting all summer for this line to flip from Chargers -1 to Washington -1, as it predictably did on Thursday. That's still not enough to keep me from backing the home side, which finished last season on a 6-2 ATS run behind elite defense and stable (but not great) quarterback play.

Washington's defense ranked in the top five of nearly every metric in 2020, and the team returns the core of that group this year, led by a dominant defensive line featuring four former first-rounders. The real leap will come on offense. Washington cycled through four signal-callers a year ago, none of whom had the arm to unlock standout wide receiver Terry McLaurin or create breathing room for rising star Antonio Gibson.

That changes with veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick stepping in as the $10 million man. Don't be surprised if he outduels Justin Herbert, who will trot out behind an offensive line replacing four of five starters this season. Even if that unit gels quickly, a Week 1 meeting with Washington's front seven isn't the kindest test for Los Angeles' high-upside but unproven offense.

Pick: Washington -1

Dolphins @ Patriots (-3, 43.5), 4:25 p.m.

This is my favorite bet on the board, mostly because of my bullish optimism in the Dolphins this campaign. Brian Flores' defense showed elite upside a year ago, ranking fifth in points allowed per drive (1.8) and first in turnovers forced (0.16) behind a chaotic blitz scheme and lockdown secondary.

That's a nightmare combo for rookie Mac Jones to face in his first NFL start, especially within a complex Patriots offense that emphasizes quick reads and sharp decision-making. Jones showed those skills at Alabama, but he benefitted from a stellar O-line and uber-athletic wideouts - neither of which he has in New England.

Conversely, Miami has surrounded former Bama star Tua Tagovailoa with an explosive receiving corps to augment his progression in Year 2 - his first with a full offseason to prepare as the starter. Tagovailoa should be able to pick apart a Patriots defense that quietly ranked 26th in DVOA a year ago and lacks the athleticism up front to threaten the Dolphins' shaky line.

Pick: Dolphins +3

C Jackson Cowart is a sports betting writer at theScore. You can follow him on Twitter (@CJacksonCowart) or email him at cjackson.cowart@thescore.com.

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NFL Week 1 best bets: Dolphins' D will harass Mac Jones in debut
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