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The National Football League: it's the bread and butter of the sports gambler.

By Mike Hayes - 6/23/06

The National Football League: it's the bread and butter of the sports gambler. Sharp or square. Man or woman. It doesn't matter. It's the perfect recipe. Sunday Ticket, a cooler full of beer, a bowl full of wings, a few over-unders, a parlay or two and a teaser mixed in. For the sports gambler the world just seems to be a better place during the NFL season. And the good news is that it's back. Well, almost.

For those of you suffering withdrawal from the aforementioned paradise, the early lines on opening week NFL action have been set and its time to start betting. Of course you'll have to wait a bit to collect, but there's bound to be some value waiting to be had when betting on point spreads three months before the season actually kicks off.

The flip side is that you can make a wager on what appears to be a juicy line, but end up watching Charlie Batch under center on opening day rather than Ben Roethlisberger when the Steelers meet the Dolphin's on September 7. Laying that 5.5 doesn't look quite the same with Charlie at quarterback, does it?

That Miami-Pittsburgh match-up in the Steel City opens the city on Thursday, September 7. The Steelers were 5.5-point favorites, but the game has been off the board since Big Ben's motorcycle mishap.

Of the remaining opening weekend contests, nine have a point-spread of 3.5 points or less, a tribute to increased parity and just how early these lines are being posted.

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Here's a look at the rest of the Week One contests:

Buffalo at New England -- The Pats are the biggest favorites on the board at -7.5, perhaps more attributable to their popularity among bettors than what is likely to happen in a few months, especially off a sub-par year.

Cincinnati at Kansas City -- Chiefs are 3.5-point favorites at Arrowhead, one of the toughest places to play in the league. Totals aren't up yet but this one looks like it has the potential to go way over wherever the number is set.

Denver at St. Louis -- One of the few road favorites for Week One, this could be an early bargain for Bronco backers as they are only laying a field goal. This spread figures to swell by Labor Day.

Chicago at Green Bay - Brett Favre might be asking himself why he came back. An opening week game against one of the best defenses in the league could spell the beginning to another long season for the Pack. Bears are the early 3-point choice.

Atlanta at Carolina - The 4.5-point favorite Panthers appear to be poised to make a strong run at another appearance in the conference championship, while the Falcons hope to rebound from a disappointing season.

Baltimore at Tampa Bay -- Quarterback questions haunt both teams. The 4.5-point favored Bucs will be looking for some consistency from Chris Simms while the Ravens are hoping Steve McNair has something left. Both teams are capable of surprising some people if their QB does come through.

New Orleans at Cleveland -- The Reggie Bush Era begins. The Saints figure to be better with Bush lining up behind Drew Brees, but how much better remains to be seen. If they are significantly better the field goal they are getting from the Brownies might be an early steal.

New York Jets at Tennessee -- Titans are a 3-point favorite but this is a tough one to handicap this early on with huge question marks with both teams. Specifically will either Chad Pennington or Vince Young be ready when this one kicks off?

Philadelphia at Houston -- Eagles are just 3.5-point favorites over what has been a woeful Texan franchise. The big question here is whether the Eagles can regain even some of the form that sent them to four consecutive NFC championship games prior to last year's 6-10 meltdown. This game would be a lot more interesting from a Texan standpoint if they drafted Bush instead of Mario Williams.

Seattle at Detroit -- Defending NFC champs just a 4-point favorite in the early wagering. Seattle figures to be every bit as good as last season, but one of these years the Lions have to be competitive, don't they?

Dallas at Jacksonville -- A match-up of two teams with definite championship aspirations. Jags are 3-point home favorites in what looks like it could be a toss-up.

San Francisco at Arizona -- Is this the year the Cardinals finally get it together? The early line has them a touchdown better than the 49ers, the second-largest spread on the board.

Minnesota at Washington -- After an awful 2-5 start last year the Vikings overcame their "Love Boat" scandal and got themselves into playoff contention. A match-up of two teams on the upswing. The Skins are a 6.5-point favorite.

Indianapolis at New York Giants -- The Manning brothers square off in what will begin a new era of Sunday-Monday night football. Peyton is a 3-point favorite over Eli in what marks NBC's return to the NFL after an eight-year hiatus, replacing ESPN as the Sunday night network.

San Diego at Oakland -- The first-ever Monday Night Football game to be televised by ESPN. Chargers-Raiders usually figures to be entertaining. San Diego is a slight 3-point favorite.

Send questions and comments to mike@docsports.com

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