Thursday’s Preseason Essentials

Preseason NFL betting carries an awful reputation since it's easy to dismiss games that don't count in the standings. That's short-sighted.

Every team carries goals into their games and there are often instances where it's clear that one team will be the aggressor. There are games where it becomes clear going in whether teams are looking to test their offense or put very little on display.

The Hall of Fame game saw the favored Ravens barely hold on over the Bears in Canton, failing to cover despite being in position to win most of the second half. In Week 1, we won't see many starters, but there are plenty of angles worth considering. Here's what I'm looking at as 30 of the NFL's 32 teams take the field for the first time between today and Saturday:

Thursday, Aug. 9

Carolina at Buffalo (-3/34), 7 p.m. ET: The Bills have rotated Nathan Peterman and A.J. McCarron with the first-team offense, so No. 7 pick Josh Allen will play a significant role here with the third team likely deciding the outcome. McCarron and Peterman are looking to impress new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who also has to find receivers he can trust outside of Kelvin Benjamin. Buffalo traded for Corey Coleman this week and got him some practice time, but it remains to be seen if he has any role in this one. It definitely looks like Sean McDermott’s defense, coordinated by veteran Leslie Frazier, is far ahead of the Bills’ offense. Buffalo lost its first three preseason games under McDermott in his first season as head coach.

McDermott was Ron Rivera’s defensive coordinator until 2016, so he knows exactly how his former boss approaches the preseason opener since he’s been a part of more wins than losses in that role. With Norv Turner coming out of retirement to run the offense from the press box and Eric Washington elevated to defensive coordinator to replace current Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks, there is new leadership in place. Cam Newton, called out by former teammate Benjamin for his lack of accuracy, is expected to get at least a series before giving way to Garrett Gilbert, Taylor Henicke and rookie Kyle Allen. Carolina has had awful luck with injuries along its offensive line in camp, so guys who would’ve potentially had little shot at making the team will now be showing out with roster spots on the line.

Chicago at Cincinnati (-2/35.5), 7 p.m. ET: Matt Nagy debuted as head coach of the Bears in the 17-16 Hall of Fame game loss, but since the baseball cap stayed on second-year QB Mitch Trubisky, it’s this next Ohio-based contest, 200 miles southwest of Canton, that truly counts. Nagy hadn’t divulged how long he intended to play Trubisky entering Wednesday but has seen him do his best work of a turnover-filled camp this week, demonstrating an improved grasp on his offense and receivers. Chicago should have an edge on the Bengals considering most of their players have gotten their feet wet and backups Chase Daniel and Tyler Bray each threw for touchdowns, but the Ravens did push the ball down the field against a Bears defense that remains without unsigned top pick Roquan Smith.

While Nagy comes off his first preseason game running his own program, Marvin Lewis will coach in his 62nd, entering his 16th season at 30-31 in exhibitions. This season’s big wrinkles are the addition of defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who was highly coveted once the Lions passed on promoting him to head coach. He’s got a chance to put a special group together, so this will be an interesting opener for them and could set up some must-watch football against Trubisky and a young Bears first-team offense even though linebacker Vontaze Burfict won’t play. Offensively, snapping issues were a concern in the Bengals’ simulated game over the weekend since first-round pick Billy Price is struggling, so that’s something to be aware of if you’re thinking of backing host Cincinnati, who won’t play at home again until the meaningless fourth preseason game.

Tampa Bay at Miami (-1.5/34), 7 p.m. ET: Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill hopes to make his competitive return after tearing his ACL barely a year ago. With Jay Cutler not back, there’s no quarterback controversy despite the acquisition of Brock Osweiler and Bryce Petty, who are looking to push holdover David Fales for the No. 2 spot. Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston won’t play for the first three regular-season games but is expected to get work in behind Week 1 starter Ryan Fitzpatrick. Neither may play much given the team’s lack of depth on the offensive line with Ryan Griffin and rookie Austin Allen expected to finish up. It’s going to be a hot humid night, but thunderstorms should clear out of the area which means rain won’t be a factor.

Miami’s Ryan Tannehill hopes to make his competitive return after tearing his ACL barely a year ago. With Jay Cutler not back, there’s no quarterback controversy despite the acquisition of Brock Osweiler and Bryce Petty, who are looking to push holdover David Fales for the No. 2 spot. Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston won’t play for the first three regular-season games but is expected to get work in behind Week 1 starter Ryan Fitzpatrick. Neither may play much given the team’s lack of depth on the offensive line with Ryan Griffin and rookie Austin Allen expected to finish up. It’s going to be a hot humid night, but thunderstorms should clear out of the area which means rain won’t be a factor.

Cleveland (-1/35) at N.Y. Giants, 7 p.m. ET: Tyrod Taylor will start ahead of Baker Mayfield in the regular-season opener and in this visit to Met Life Stadium, but the No. 1 pick will get more snaps than probably every other QB on the roster as Todd Haley gets his first crack at turning around the Browns offense in his first year as a coordinator under Hue Jackson. With Josh Gordon still away and Coleman traded, this is an opportunity for rookie Antonio Callaway and Rashard Higgins to continue making plays. Veteran Drew Stanton’s experience is a luxury most teams lack in their third-stringer, which should be an advantage. The Browns were perfect last preseason.

Pat Shurmur begins his tenure as New York’s coach knowing he can’t flop quite as spectacularly as predecessor Ben McAdoo, who was replaced by Steve Spagnolo for the final month of action. Both are gone. James Bettcher will run the defense after doing it in Arizona over the last three years. Shurmur will lean on Mike Shula to help with the offense, but he’s calling plays. No determinations have been made about throwing Eli Manning, Odell Beckham, Jr. or top pick Saquon Barkley out there. Manning probably won’t play but has said he’d like more time than usual to get used to the new offense. Davis Webb, rookie Kyle Lauletta and Alex Tanney will see the bulk of the snaps.

Pittsburgh at Philadelphia (-3/33), 7 p.m. ET: The Steelers and Eagles last got together in 2016 in the preseason and Mike Tomlin’s team lost at home 17-0, but don’t expect him to be any more invested than he typically is this time of year over that embarrassment or because his Pennsylvania neighbors finally won a Super Bowl. He doesn’t put much importance on exhibition games and went 3-14 from 2013-16 before a 3-1 finish last season. He’s only won five of 13 career preseason openers and won’t play Ben Roethlisberger or many of his other veterans, ruling out Antonio Brown and staying true to his philosophy regarding this time of year despite the speculation his seat is warming up. There’s been no rotation set, but rookie Mason Rudolph will join veteran backups Landry Jones and Josh Dobbs. Running back James Conner has been the most impressive back with Le’Veon Bell away and could get lots of work.

The Eagles take the field as reigning champs for the first time but probably won’t have Carson Wentz back in the mix at all this preseason. Nick Foles will be prepped to start Week 1 but won’t participate here, which means Nate Sudfeld and Joe Callahan will get all the snaps. It would be surprising to see the team’s top receivers work, but their young players have gotten a lot of reps and welcomed in a crowd of over 40.000 to watch practice over the weekend, an experience likely to serve Philadelphia well here. Doug Pederson has won six of eight preseason games and is working with a new coordinator in Mike Groh since Frank Reich took the Colts’ head job.

New Orleans at Jacksonville (-2.5/34.5), 7 p.m. ET: Sean Payton has coached his team to losses in 10 of his last 12 exhibition games and isn’t expected to expose Drew Brees for even a drive here. While Tom Savage will likely start, Taysom Hill and rookie J.T. Barrett should get the bulk of the work and to decide this game. Neither guy should be able to hurt an NFL defense with their arm but can do significant damage with their legs. One rookie worth watching is wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith (UCF), who has been the talk of camp, which is saying something given the talent available on this roster.

After last year’s huge breakthrough where they fell a fourth-quarter collapse short of a Super Bowl berth, the Jaguars will deal with a target on their backs this season. Doug Marrone returns both of his coordinators and has been pleasantly surprised by a more comfortable Blake Bortles settling in early. At this time last season, it looked like his days as Jacksonville’s starting QB were numbered. Chad Henne was closing in and Bortles played poorly in an exhibition game where he was meant to erase all doubt. Although we should see Bortles start here, backups Cody Kessler and Tanner Lee, a rookie from Nebraska who started at Tulane, will play most of this one. The Jags are hoping for solid play out of unheralded guys who have shined thus far like rookie WR D.J. Chark and running back Brandon Wilds.

L.A. Rams at Baltimore (-3/36), 7:30 p.m. ET: Coaching boy wonder Sean McVay won his first two preseason games last year and then went on to post an 11-5 regular-season record, winning the NFC West. Since the Rams are so early into a preseason where McVay is implementing new wrinkles and installing a lot of offense that wasn’t in the playbook last season. QB Jared Goff played and most of the starters participated, but that isn’t expected to be the case in this first contest. Star DT Aaron Donald remains away from the team and the Rams got a lot of work against the Ravens in joint practices this week, so don’t expect much from them in this game. Sean Mannion, Brandon Allen and rookie Luis Perez, the Harlon Hill Trophy winner from D-II champion Texas A&M-Commerce, will look to show what they can do.

The Ravens escaped after turning away a Chicago two-point conversion in their Hall of Fame game win last Thursday, but Lamar Jackson didn’t exactly light it up after a sharp debut from Robert Griffin III. Since John Harbaugh is one of the NFL’s top coaches in the preseason (29-12, .707) and he’s throwing Joe Flacco in the mix for a drive or two, Baltimore has gone from a 1-point favorite to laying the full three at home. There are a few concerns since the offensive line looked to have protection issues against the Bears and struggled in the joint practices against the Rams, but you can understand why they’re favored here with Goff sitting out and most of their roster already owning a game under their belts.

Washington at New England (-3/37.5), 7:30 p.m. ET: It’s Alex Smith time in D.C., which may not excite most of you but has Skins Nation filled with butterflies. He’ll play at least a series to get his feet wet before Colt McCoy and Kevin Hogan take over. Washington hosts its next two contests, so the team can create some positive momentum with a solid showing if they’re prepared to hit the ground running. There’s healthy competition at running back and receiver, so this is a team to keep an eye on since Jay Gruden will want to get a look at all his toys and generate confidence for his group in an effort to flush last year’s disappointment. Being matched up against the defending champion Patriots, who Gruden beat 23-6 in his first preseason game as head coach back in ’14, could be enough motivation to keep young guys hungry and motivated on the road.

Bill Belichick has more uncertainty surrounding his team that any point in the past five-plus years. Former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will coach the Lions on Friday, so linebackers coach Brian Flores will begin his tenure as the Pats’ defensive playcaller under the same system his predecessor worked with. Because much pressure isn’t applied on the quarterback and the scheme is so vanilla this time of year, New England surrendered 31.5 points last preseason after allowing 19.5 points the year before. Tom Brady won’t play this one, which means we should see Brian Hoyer start and rookie Danny Etling under center for most of the evening. It’s not exactly a mystery that he’s no Jimmy Garoppolo or even Jacoby Brissett.

Tennessee at Green Bay (PK/34.5), 8 p.m. ET: New coach Mike Vrabel has been around the block with this football thing, crossing paths with coaching legends on all levels, so there’s no doubt he’s prepared for his first game in the head seat. Veteran defensive coordinator Dean Pees will join him in attempting to put together a stout defense, so they might be ahead of the offense although early word is new coordinator Matt LaFleur has done a nice job keeping them off-balance. That’s easier to do with Marcus Mariota than, say, rookie Luke Falk, who will likely get the bulk of the action after taking over for second-stringer Blaine Gabbert. LaFleur didn’t call plays in L.A. with the Rams as their OC last season and will want to get up to speed in games, but the next two will offer far more ideal circumstances to do so than this one should, especially on the road at Lambeau.

Cheeseheads likely won’t see Aaron Rodgers doing anything other than holding a clipboard since he hasn’t played in a preseason opener since 2015, but there will still be plenty to look at. There’s a new offense that Mike McCarthy and new coordinator Joe Philbin are putting in place, not to mention a first glance at the Mike Pettine-led defense since the former Browns head coach is back doing what he does best. Brett Hundley is hoping to hold off DeShone Kizer, while a young receiving corps that Rodgers chewed out publicly this week hopes to impress when the lights come on. McCarthy has won seven of nine exhibitions, seven of eight preseason games at Lambeau and hasn’t lost an opener since 2014. The Pack has been working out against the Titans all week, so players will be familiar with one another.

Houston at Kansas City (-2.5/34), 8:30 p.m. ET: We’re expecting to see Deshaun Watson. Having made a speedy recovery after tearing an ACL to spoil what was quickly becoming a special rookie season, the standout QB is expected to make a cameo for Bill O’Brien before giving way to backups Brandon Weeden, Joe Webb and Stephen Morris, each of whom have an NFL start under their belt. O’Brien has liked how his offensive line has improved and was pleased with how camp unfolded. It might be one big party if J.J. Watt is unleashed since the word is he’s ready to play if the Texans will let him. With Vrabel hired by Tennessee, Romeo Crennel will assume defensive coordinator duties once again, so the system will be similar. Houston was perfect in the ’16 preseason but went just 1-2 last year in an August sabotaged by Hurricane Harvey.

This is the biggest preseason Andy Reid has had in Kansas City, more important than even the first back in 2013, when he and then-49ers import Alex Smith got together in the hopes of growing together and building a winner. Smith’s time produced success, but Reid is looking for titles in handing the reins to second-year pro Patrick Mahomes, whose arm talent can get everyone a ring. He’s certain to give Reid his share of headaches too and started early by opening camp with a flurry of turnovers, but the 22-year-old has been given a license to test out the offense. That will continue tonight at muggy Arrowhead, but it remains to be seen how long he plays before giving way to Chad Henne, Matt McGloin and potentially, rookie Chase Litton. Reid has won nine of 20 openers and is 36-40 in exhibitions. There were at least 36 points scored in all of Kansas City’s preseason games last season.

Dallas at San Francisco (-3.5/35), 10 p.m. ET DAL-SF Jason Garrett has been put on notice that it’s playoffs or pink slip. Dez Bryant has been discarded. Giant clouds aren’t encircling Ezekiel Elliott. The Cowboys were back in Oxnard for training camp and have a talented group in place, talking Super Bowl despite failing to make the playoffs again last season. Dak Prescott may get int there for a series, but this matchup with San Francisco will feature Cooper Rush before giving way to rookies Mike White (WKU) and Dalton Sturm (UTSA), both products of Conference USA. We’ll get a good look at Dallas’ depth here since most starters won’t participate. Payton is 23-27 in preseason action and went winless in ’15 and ’16.

Having Jimmy Garoppolo in place for the first time after offering a preview of his capabilities has ramped up the intensity and expectations in Santa Clara. Kyle Shanahan has his quarterback and can make better use of all of his personnel as a result, so it’s no surprise he’s going to get an immediate look at what he’s got on the roster by playing his starters for at least a series. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them out there a full quarter. C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens, both of whom were in the program last year, will wrap up the action and it’s likely that we’ll see a strong effort since the 49ers won’t return home until the fourth and final preseason contest.

Indianapolis at Seattle (-2/35), 10 p.m. ET: Andrew Luck hasn’t taken a snap in a game since Jan. 1 of ’17, so all eyes will be on his return. New head coach Frank Reich’s debut takes a backseat as a result, but it’s not likely that we’ll see much of Indianapolis’ franchise quarterback dropping back to pass since LT Anthony Castonzo was lost to a hamstring issue that will make life more difficult for everyone else this month. Luck will get a quarter, backed by Jacoby Brissett, which means that the Colts will have a chance to test the Seahawks’ defense with their best before giving way to Phillip Walker and Brad Kaaya to split the second half. The Legion of Boom is no more, but Seattle is still going to be tough at home with a loud crowd expected, creating additional obstacles for Reich’s new offensive coordinator, Nick Sirianni, who has worked under Frank Reich and with the Chargers under Mike McCoy and Anthony Lynn. Reich is his mentor, so this will be the beginning of his big break.

The Seahawks have been as reliable a team worth backing this time of year as there’s been since 2012, riding Pete Carroll’s competitive streak and a homefield edge that has shown up despite the games not counting due to the atmosphere at Century Link Field. Seattle has had three perfect preseason runs in that span and will be aggressively carving out what is likely to be a new identity given the loss of leaders like Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, who continues to hold out. Kam Chancellor is unable to perform, so defensive backs must step up and all eyes will be on rookie Shaquem Griffin and brother Shaquill, who stepped up some last year. There’s a new defensive coordinator in Ken Norton, Jr. who will look to help Carroll figure out new wrinkles. The offense will be new as well since Brian Schottenheimer and a new staff are replacing mainstays Darrell Bevell and Tom Cable. It remains to be seen if we’ll see Russell Wilson for even a series but there is a stable of talented running backs to rotate through, so look for a heavy emphasis on the ground game. Rookie Alex McGough out of Florida International (C-USA, Baby!) will likely be on the field at winning time, so keep that in mind if you’re laying the two-spot.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA or e-mail him at

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