Hello CHFF readers, and welcome to the fourth annual season of Slack Lines.

“What the hell is this?” you may ask.

“Why don’t you simmer down, guy, and I’ll tell you,” I would respond.

Over the past three years, I've put together a NFL picks column for an arts and entertainment magazine in Boston. I gather local writers, and together we set out to prove the futility of sports gambling for those painfully unarmed with Cold, Hard Football Facts.

If you want the real scoop on betting on NFL games, become a CHFF Insider. Those guys, unlike us, consistently win.

If you want to suffer painful, financially crippling gambling losses with a smile, read on.

You ever see those gambling chickens on TV? When the producers put a couple choices in the dirt, and the mangy bird randomly pecks at one with its dumb, ugly face? And then the bird ends up beating all the experts?

This column is like that, except we actually put in a modicum of effort in the hopes that we, as grown adult men, can be equally good, if not just marginally better, than a stupid chicken … I’ve never put it in those terms before, but it’s the truth, and now I might need a moment to myself.

But first, allow me to introduce myself and this year’s panel:

My name is Nick Altschuller (@altschuller), and I’m an editor and writer in Boston. Over the course of my career, I’ve written stories on such topics as a black Neil Diamond impersonator and what it’s like to eat four and half pounds of food in under an hour.

That was for the Tasty Burger challenge, and if you go to their Fenway location you can see my picture on the wall. That probably counts as my one award for writing, although I am the reigning Slack Lines champion. To be honest, I feel better about the hamburgers.

Joining this season is Jerry Thornton (@JerryThornton1) from Barstool Sports and Comcast SportsNet.

Returning from last year is second-place finisher Beau Sturm (@beausturm). Beau is a huge West Virginia fan, which qualifies him as our college football expert.

He also co-owns Trina’s Starlite Lounge and Parlor Sports in Somerville, Mass. Whispering into his ear this season is J Bellao, who fits the same description, minus the liking WVU part, which I guess makes him the smart one.

Also returning this year is Matt Roberts (@KidRob21). In his words, he’s a: “B.C. High grad who’s moved up from the world of ditch digging to wall smashing. Demolition professional hailing from Central Square. Boston homer. Handsome devil.” All true.

Finally, we have Luke O’Neil (@lukeoneil47), a longtime contributor to The Boston Globe whose work also appears in Esquire, Slate and many others.

You’ll get to know the gang better as the season progresses, and please follow even more of our idiocy on Twitter (@CHFFSlackLines). But for now, let’s kick things off, and move…

On to the picks!

Nick talks Baltimore @ Denver (-7.5)
Like many of us, I'm sometimes guilty of denial. We're human, after all. But Denver's Rahim Moore is currently on a superhuman level of delusion. 

"It's not about me. It's about the team," said the one player who blew his coverage like the bridge on the River Kwai during the fourth quarter of last year's AFC championship game. Joe Flacco

"We all suffered. But the good thing about it is it's a whole new year. Nobody remembers what you did last year," continued the safety everyone remembers as the guy who killed the Broncos' Super Bowl chances. 

Everyone remembers the Ravens are the reigning champs, too. True, they've lost a lot of starters on defense, including franchise cornerstones Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.

But Lewis had been overrated for years, and he's clearly, to use the technical term, cuckoo bananas. (I think those Old Spice commercials represent how he perceives real life.)

Ed Reed still produces, but he ages in dog years. The man has the salt-and-pepper beard and wizened eyes of an old sea captain, but somehow—and I just looked this up—he's just five months older than I am. I would have been less surprised to learn he fought in the Korean War. 

The Ravens have actually added a lot of defensive talent, as Terrell Suggs and Lardarius Webb are returning healthy, and the team signed former Broncos linebacker Elvis Dumervil in the offseason. (The reasons for his departure from Denver are tragic in their stupidity, but in Dumervil’s ex-agent’s defense, I don’t think anyone’s truly confident when using a fax machine).

The Broncos, on the other hand, are without Champ Bailey and fellow Pro Bowler Von Miller, who was suspended six games by the fashion police for still wearing those hipster glasses. Or it could have been for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.

Regardless, his absence will give more time in the pocket to Joe Flacco—who, after throwing 11 TDs and zero INTs in the playoffs, and winning Super Bowl MVP, has forced people to begrudgingly admit he’s not god awful. I expect a couple long balls to Jacoby Jones, and for Moore to deny any knowledge of that happening by next Sunday.

Nick’s Pick: Ravens

Nick’s Locks:
Cardinals (+4.5) Maybe Rams coach Jeff Fisher finally unleashes Tavon Austin in this game. And maybe pinning all your hopes to a 5’9”, 170 lb. rookie isn’t the most prudent thing in the world. 

Texans (-4) Remember when Ryan Mathews was a sure first-rounder in fantasy football? I blame Peter King for all that hype. I blame King for a lot of things.

Packers @ 49ers (Over 48.5) Because they scored 76 points when they played each other nine months ago. And that’s the extent of my research on this pick. Welcome to Slack Lines


Jerry takes a shot at New England @ Buffalo (+9.5) 
The Patriots have retooled (use of the word "reloaded" is politely discouraged in Foxboro) to the tune of 14 rookies on the roster, seven of whom were undrafted. EJ Manual

Fortunately for New England, none of them will be throwing passes, which is more than Buffalo can say. 

The Bills start rookie EJ Manuel at QB. Manuel narrowly got the edge over undrafted Jeff Tuel. How good of a prospect is Tuel? The Patriots worked him out, and then promptly opted for Tim Tebow (and throughout the preseason, Tebow threw the ball in such a way to make me doubt that he is, in fact, left-handed).

That can't have Buffalo brimming with confidence.  

But with a road team giving away this many points, it all comes down to intangibles. 

In the Bills' case, I recently discovered that if you ever wanted to talk about bison from western New York playing tricks on one another, you can use the sentence "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo," and it’ll be grammatically correct.

The Patriots, meanwhile, will draw inspiration from a sign in their locker room reading "SAFETY FIRST: THIS WORKPLACE HAS NOT HAD AN EMPLOYEE FATALLY SHOOT SOMEONE IN [84] DAYS." Edge: New England.

Jerry's Pick: Patriots

Jerry’s Locks:
Giants (+3.5) Jerry Jones claims a CAT scan proved he has the brain of a 40 year old. He was bragging. Even though that was the age I discovered Scotch, reality TV and internet porn.

Broncos (-7.5) The Super Bowl champion Ravens open on the road because they lost a showdown to the Orioles over a parking lot. They don't deserve to cover.

Washington (-3.5) I finally saw Silver Linings Playbook. If you watch the credits to the end, there's an added scene where they go to an Eagles game, and Riley Cooper hurls racial threats at Chris Tucker.


Beau knows NY Giants @ Dallas (-3)
It’s betting precedent that the home team gives three points simply for being at home. But since moving to Cowboys Stadium, now AT&T Stadium, the Cowboys are 17-14, including 0-4 against the Giants, so let’s scratch that theory.

Jerry Jones can’t sleep he’s so excited! About what? The Cowboys shuffled their coaching staff this offseason, bringing in ol’ leather helmet Monte Kiffin in to help stabilize a defense that gave up the 14th most total yards in the NFL.

They also grounded head coach Jason Garrett from making the offensive calls and brought in a new offensive coordinator in Bill Callahan, who’s been recycled more times than newspapers.

The Giants, on the other hand, made no such moves, welcoming back Perry Fewell after the great job he did coaching one of the statistically worst defenses in the league.

The last time these two teams met tight end Jason Witten had 18 catches. 18!! Of his 806 career catches, 101 are against the Giants. 

Unless Witten gets distracted by the Victoria Secret located in AT&T Stadium—seriously, there’s one located in the concourse—it seems like you can book him for 10 receptions, especially against a Giants defense that couldn’t stop WVU (that’s bad).

Home-field advantage or not, all signs point to the Cowboys. America’s Team brings too many offensive weapons to the table for Fewell to count, let alone stop, and the Giants just have too many question marks on both sides of the ball to keep up.

Tony Romo shreds the Giants secondary with Bryant, Austin and Witten. Eli’s pressured regularly by DeMarcus Ware and Lane Kiffin’s new look Dallas D, and the Cowboys win going away.

Beau’s Pick: Cowboys

J’s Lock:
Bills (+9)
A star is born Sunday when E.J. Manual—Beau says he’s a bum, but they’ll still cover—takes the field for Buffalo. While the Pats still win this game, the Bills will use a solid combination of C.J. Spiller, Stevie Johnson and Manual's legs to put up points against a Patriots defense they averaged almost 30 points against in two meetings last season. Buffalo covers with a late TD 

Beau & J’s Lock:
Tampa (-3.5) BUTT FUMBLE!! HAHAHA!! Seriously, we still laugh out loud every time we see that replay. Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez start their farewell tour against Tampa, and both stand on the sidelines watching a loss. Tampa covers, and Revis wins his first matchup against his old mates.

Beau’s College Lock:
Michigan (+4.5)
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly thinks this isn’t a big rivalry? He’ll find out when he brings his completely green ND offense into the 110,000-seat BIG HOUSE to meet a super-fast/athletic Wolverine defense.

This game could be 3-0 either way. But if you wanna really make some money, take Oklahoma (+21) over the worst team in college football (fighting back tears), West Virginia. 

Matt sizes up Philadelphia @ Washington (-3.5)
For those of you familiar with my portion of last year’s Slack Lines (Ma, Grandma, Aunt Linda), you’ll remember me as the cocksure prognosticator who might have broken even, had it not been for that pesky vig.

Robert Griffin

Apparently, to excel at gambling, one has to do more than lay on the couch eight hours every Sunday watching the Patriots and Red Zone, and continually refreshing multiple fantasy match ups.

This year it’s gonna be late nights and early mornings of Clockwork Orange-style screenings of All-22 film.

New Eagles coach Chip Kelly has everyone’s attention with his fast-paced offense. Like everyone, I think this is great in theory, but with Michael Vick at quarterback it could prove to be a problem.

To paraphrase The Simpsons, there’s the right way, the wrong way and the Michael Vick way, which is the same as the wrong way, only faster.

More snaps, quicker interceptions, more rib injuries. It’s the old “lipstick on a pig” corollary.

On the opposite side of the field, Bobby Griffin (what they call him inside the Beltway) attempts his own A.P.-like comeback from major knee surgery.

What I’ll remember most about his injury saga isn’t the iconic image of Bobby on the turf, the constant quotes from Dr. James Andrews or the rampant speculation as to his recovery time.

No, what I’ll remember is the hard-hitting journalism from the original source to break the diagnosis of a shredded knee (technical term), Fred Smoot.

This was a fleeting return to prominence for the eight most famous person at the Lake Minnetonka sex-boat fiasco. Scoops Smoot, in his beige fedora with a press card tucked into the hat band, was able to outflank the D.C. news hounds and bring us the breaking info. Shame on you, Washington Post.

Washington is a team ascending, and Kellyʼs Eagles will prove to be a work in progress. I can’t imagine a scenario where the Philly D is able to keep enough points off the board for their tempo to have a significant impact.

Mattʼs Pick: Washington

Matt’s Locks:
Buccaneers (-3.5) What Tampa does is irrelevant. This pick is about the pit of sadness that is the New York Jets.

Jaguars (+4) A four-point home dog to a sneaky-terrible Chiefs team? Yes, please.

Texans (-4) DeAndre Hopkins being cleared to play will be a huge boon to the Texans offense.

Luke tackles Houston @ San Diego (+4)
Happy gamblers are all alike; every unhappy gambler is unhappy in his own way, to paraphrase Tolstoy, although I wish it were Dostoevsky, because that dude was a notoriously awful gambler.

The point is, they didn't care about the NFL in turn-of-the-last-century Russia, which shows you how screwed up their priorities were.

The other, more salient point, however, is that there's only one way to be happy as a gambler, and that's to not be a gambler.Danny Woodhead

The rest of us are screwed. My specific form of misery comes in my inability to soberly appraise any given line without filtering it through a Patriots lens.

In this game that means I can't help but think back to the vaunted Houston Texans' utter dismantling at the hands of a relatively mediocre Patriots team not once, but twice last season.

As for how the Chargers fared last season ... who even knows? Did anyone watch a single San Diego game by choice?

But it's a new season, and hope springs eternal in the hearts of football fans everywhere, unless you're a Chargers fan, because your team is awful and you know it.

Then again, they did sign Danny Woodhead, so by my horrible homer betting corollary that means I am inclined to want them to win, which is an entirely different thing than thinking they're going to win, but this is blog is about bad betting advice, right, so screw it.

As usual, it seems to me the hyped team here is overrated, and the bums are better than they're given credit for. Eighty-one percent of bettors are going for Houston, last I checked, but it's a home opener for the Chargers.

It would give me pleasure, as a Patriots fan, to see the Texans, likely to be in the way again toward playoff time, suffer an early loss, so I'm going to bet, as usual, with my heart instead of my brain. Unless this line goes down to 3, in which case get the hell out of there.

Luke's Pick: Chargers

Luke’s Locks:
Ravens (+9.5)
 The Wes Welker factor means I would like to see Denver win, but the Super Bowl winners getting almost 10 on the national opener? No chance.

Ideal outcome is Welker grabs three TDs, draws a caricature of Belichick on the football and punts it into the rafters after his first catch. Barring that, the ideal outcome from a Pats perspective is a tie, and half of both teams retiring in the third quarter.

Buccaneers (-3) They’re playing the Jets. LOL at that circus of fools.

Patriots @ Bills (Over 50) New England's offense should be good for 28 easy, and their defense is always a lock for 24, at least.

Thanks for joining us, folks. Until next week.