The NFL regular season is finally here!
Arguably the most exciting Sunday for football fans of the year, second only to Super Bowl Sunday, opening weekend is full of excitement from the much amped-up anticipation of a brand new season.
However, for bettors, it can also be one of the most challenging weekends to wager correctly. With teams improving from free agency, trades, and the draft to squads downgrading from losing key personnel, bettors may have difficulty predicting which teams surprise and disappoint in their 2021 opener.
With that, here are 5 potential upsets chosen by the ZenSports staff on which teams may pull off the outright upset or at least cover as the 2021 season kicks off.
Cardinals (+140) over Titans
Spread: Cardinals +3
The Titans made a splash in the offseason when they acquired WR Julio Jones from the Atlanta Falcons. However, after an injury-ridden 2020 season where Jones only played 9 games, it is unclear how much of an impact he will have early on opposite the dangerous A.J. Brown. In addition to their potent aerial attack, the Titans still tout one of the top running games in the league behind Derrick Henry. Ryan Tannehill has been playing the best football of his career ever since he took over the starting QB position in 2019.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, added some offensive weapons of their own, signing former star Bengal wideout A.J. Green in the offseason a year after trading for DeAndre Hopkins. QB Kyler Murray has also shown improvement since being drafted #1 in the 2019 NFL draft. Add former Steelers RB James Conner to sure up the run game behind Chase Edmonds, and Arizona sports a potential offensive powerhouse themselves.
The public will be jumping all over the Titans, given their record the past two seasons. However, the spread is as low as it gives good value to the home underdogs on opening weekend, especially with fans back in the stands. I’ll be all over the Cardinals to cover the field goal difference, but I’m leaning on taking the outright upset in Nashville.
Dolphins (+130) over Patriots
Spread: Miami +2.5
The Mac Jones era begins in New England one year after the disappointing Cam Newton experience. The Patriots were sure to boost their offense around the rookie QB from Alabama, signing free agent TEs Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry in the offseason. Jones had an impressive preseason insomuch that Bill Belichick decided to cut the former MVP Newton and rely on the young Jarrett Stidham as the backup.
The Dolphins drafted Tua Tagovailoa as the 5th overall pick in the 2020 draft. They wasted no time giving the other former Alabama QB the starting job last season despite owning a .500-plus record. Having failed to make the playoffs over a string of inconsistent starts, Tua will look to make vast improvements this season – especially with all of the DeShaun Watson trade rumors surfacing. The Dolphins quickly drafted the second-year QB some familiar help by selecting WR Jaylen Waddle as the team’s first pick in the 2021 draft.
Given the Patriots’ name and all of Mac Jones’s hype, I can see why the public is siding with New England. Yet, even when Tom Brady was helming the Patriots, New England always seemed to struggle to play down in South Beach. Look for the Dolphins’ potent defense to rock the rookie Jones in his first career NFL start and pull off the upset in Foxboro.
NY Giants (+130) over Broncos
Spread: Broncos -2.5
Full disclosure: I am a Giants fan. However, my bias has nothing to do with picking Big Blue to upset the Broncos in Denver. Not only did the Giants make significant free agency signings on both the offense (Kenny Golladay) and defense (Adoree’ Jackson), but they also welcome the return of RB Saquon Barkley to the lineup. In his third season, QB Daniel Jones is in prime position to make the offensive leap thanks to the Golladay signing, the Barkley return, and drafting WR Kadarius Toney out of Florida in the first round of the NFL draft.
Denver, on the other hand, was relatively quiet in the offseason. Rumored to be in the running for Aaron Rodgers after the Packers QB voiced his desire to be traded at the same time as the draft, the Broncos settled with oft-injured QB Teddy Bridgewater to compete with Drew Lock for the starting job. Though Bridgewater won the position battle, he takes on a team with significant question marks on offense and will have to learn his third system in the last three years.
Expect the Giants to utilize their new offensive weapons and exploit the Broncos’ lack of offseason acquisitions. Add to the fact that the Giants’ defense was one of the most improved and impressive units last season, Big Blue should be able to maintain Bridgewater and co., giving head coach Joe Judge and his team the win at home.
Washington Football Team (+100) over LA Chargers
Spread: Chargers -1
They may have been in the worst division in football last season, but Washington could clinch a playoff berth thanks to Philadelphia tanking in the season’s final game. Still, despite making the playoffs (and putting up a good fight against Tom Brady and the Bucs), Washington saw significant upgrades this past offseason. They signed veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and WRs Adam Humphries and Curtis Samuel to join the dangerous Terry McLaurin and breakout TE Logan Thomas.
The Chargers ended the 2020 season with a 4-0 record down the stretch but failed to reach the playoffs in Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert’s inaugural season. Whether or not the second-year QB suffers the dreaded sophomore slump is still up for debate, but Herbert will have to take on a lethal Washington defense led by second-year DE Chase Young. Though the Chargers have plenty of firepower on offense behind WR Keenan Allen and RB Austin Ekeler, Washington’s front 7 should put plenty of pressure on the young QB and disrupt the run game.
It’s not a huge upset, but take Washington to defeat the Chargers. After being replaced as the starting QB midseason on the Dolphins, Fitzpatrick has a chip on his shoulder to prove he can still work with a young team and lead them in the winning column. LA has all the tools on paper but falls short in its opener.
NY Jets (+190) over Carolina
Spread: Jets +5
New Carolina QB Sam Darnold will be looking for revenge against his former team after the Jets traded him away in the offseason, deciding to draft rookie QB, Zach Wilson out of BYU with the second overall pick in the draft. Yet, Darnold will have to contend against new Jets head coach Robert Saleh, known for his acute defensive mind after several successful seasons as the 49ers offensive coordinator. Look for the Jets’ defense to pounce all over Darnold and rattle their former QB and give Wilson his first career NFL victory in what should be a low-scoring affair.