If mediocrity is what you're looking for in the NFL, you're going to love this season. The stronger teams from last year are weaker. Most of the weaker teams are a little stronger. Twenty of the 30 squads could wind up anywhere from 6-10 to 10-6, depending on injuries and the bounce of the ball.
Take a quick look at the opening week's point spreads. Eleven of the 15 games have the favorite at less than five. It's going to be that kind of year, from a betting standpoint.
The best advice, in terms of trying to build a bankroll, would be to proceed cautiously during the early going. Having suffered through a nightmare last season, when the column's mythical lifetime earnings dropped from $37,630 to $32,625, I'm going to be more patient than ever.
But, first, a couple of observations about the NFL:
There is no depth. Anywhere. Free agency has gutted the rosters of what, as recently as two years ago, were clearly the superior clubs. The Dallas Cowboys' bench isn't much better than the Carolina Panthers'.
The Quarterback Lack. The league's over-the-hill passers don't retire. They just turn up in another city.
This week's picks
Bills (-4 1/2 ) at Giants: The Bills opened at -3 1/2 . I couldn't think of a better story line this season than for the Bills to win the Super Bowl, and it could happen, given the AFC's lack of a standout while the Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers suddenly appear to be much more vulnerable in the NFC. Then again, given their age at several vital positions, the Bills could be hurting by midseason. But I love Steve Tasker's emergence as a top receiver from the special teams, and the departure of linebacker Cornelius Bennett shouldn't be considered critical. Here's hoping Bruce Smith is ready to rip.
Take the Bills, for a mythical $500.
Bengals at Rams (-3): Steve Walsh probably will be replaced by rookie Tony Banks as the Rams' starting quarterback by October. Till then, St. Louis doesn't figure to put too many points on the board. Jeff Blake keeps coming on at quarterback for the Bengals, who have a defense that can only improve and a good group of receivers headed by Carl Pickens.
Take the Bengals, for a mythical $100.
Patriots at Dolphins (-3): Yes, Jimmy Johnson will get the Dolphins to the playoffs soon, if not this season. He's determined to build a running game, but, right now, Miami doesn't have the runners, and the offensive line made its reputation protecting Dan Marino, not blocking for the run. The Patriots are fortunate to catch Miami early.
Take the Patriots, for a mythical $100.
Jets at Broncos (-7 1/2 ): I spent much of last season giving points with the Broncos at Mile High. They'd be favored by seven or more, open up a 14- or 21-point lead, then fail to cover because of a poor secondary. The Jets have beefed up their offensive line, a good idea if they want to keep Neil O'Donnell alive.
Take the Broncos, for a mythical $100. Some people never learn.
Cowboys (-2 1/2 ) at Bears: Everything points to a victory by the Bears. Poor little Dallas has lost most of its passing game, Emmitt Smith is hurting and defensive end Charles Haley is getting old. Just keep an eye on what happens when Ray Donaldson is ready to go again at center. Judging by the pre-game jazz, Chicago is going to be overconfident.
Take the Cowboys, for a mythical $100.
Gerald Strine has written a football betting column for 23 years. "On the line" will appear Fridays in The Sun's Ravens Extra.
Pub Date: 8/30/96