Handicappers side with Pats

As the NFL regular season approaches, let’s look at some big-picture opinions from the oddsmakers at Las Vegas Sports Consultants. It’s probably not surprising to see the focus on the New England Patriots.

With the return of quarterback Tom Brady sealing the deal, the Patriots are on virtually everyone’s short list to win the AFC and reach the Super Bowl.

But the picks for the NFC, where the list of contenders runs deep, are another story. So, without further delay, the guys who create the suggested opening lines take a look into the future:

KEN WHITE: Watch for Philadelphia and San Diego.

“The Eagles look extremely solid, especially on defense. That’s a unit that will be on a mission playing for Jim Johnson, their beloved defensive coordinator who passed away in July. The Donovan McNabb-Michael Vick combination will lead a strong offense with improving weapons at wide receiver.

“The Bears can surprise a lot of people now that they’ve upgraded with Jay Cutler at quarterback, the most important position on the field. Minnesota may be overrated by many. The perception is the Vikings upgraded with Brett Favre, but the reality is Green Bay and Chicago have better quarterbacks.

“In the AFC, it may finally be Philip Rivers and the Chargers’ time to shine, playing in a very weak division.”

TONY SINISI: The Jets are an AFC sleeper.

“I like New England for all the obvious reasons. Bill Belichick is unparalleled as a head coach in the league. I trust he is the one guy who can piece together a suspect defensive group with new faces and suffer little drop-off in relation to earning victories.

“I love Rex Ryan’s attitude, and think it’s a perfect fit for New York. He’s going to prove to be a great head coach, and the Jets have finally found the guy they’ve been waiting for.

“In the NFC, it’s almost a field bet with the number of teams in with a fighting chance.”

DAN O’BRIEN: The Patriots are back.

“The Patriots are the pick in the AFC simply because I think their offense could be better than the record-setting team that took the field two years ago. Their running game will be better, and their depth at wide receiver is significant.

“In the NFC, I’d say the eventual winner in the East would get the nod. They might not end up with the best record but will be better prepared for the postseason.”

MIKE SEBA: It’s the Chargers, Patriots and Giants.

“In addition to New England, which will be tough to beat if healthy, I’d strongly consider San Diego a threat to win it all. Residing in the weakest division in football, they all but have a pass to a first-round bye and an invitation to the AFC Championship Game.

“The Giants get my vote in the NFC, despite not having any star power at wide receiver. On the merits of the defensive unit alone, they have to be considered the favorite. New York’s defense will be dominant.”

Seba’s sleeper in the AFC is the Houston Texans. “Maturity is the main component to success. It’s a group that is growing up together. With everything seemingly in place, the time may be now for the Texans.”

SEAN VAN PATTEN: The Bears are rising, Colts falling.

“Philadelphia, to me, is the team to beat in the NFC East and the conference. The Giants’ offense is going to struggle, and that could be their downfall. Chicago may take a big step forward with Cutler, who seems to be getting acclimated to his new surroundings.

“Pittsburgh and New England are the class of the AFC. I think the Colts are a team that may regress and not be the factor they have been.”

And, finally, my opinions. Without reinventing the wheel, I’ll go with New England in the AFC.

I had Minnesota penciled in as my NFC representative in the Super Bowl, but now with Favre at the helm, I’m not so sure. What a lovely story it would make if old No. 4 wins in a purple jersey. But let’s try a different tale on for size.

The Packers and Aaron Rodgers are my pick to win it all. The defense is still young and aggressive, the wide receiving corps is stout, and running back Ryan Grant could have a huge year.

Give the Packers a pass for the hangover of losing a chance to play in the Super Bowl two years ago and the three-ring circus that Favre created last summer. It stands to reason Rodgers will be significantly better this year, so I’m all in with Green Bay.

Brian Blessing, project manager for Las Vegas Sports Consultants, can be reached at bblessing@lvsc.com. Hear the LVSC oddsmakers on “Sportsbook Radio,” weekdays at 3 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM) and Sirius 98.

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