In case college football just doesn’t do it for you (A.k.a you don’t live in the Southeast) or if you’ve become disinterested with the voracious following of the legend of “Johnny Football” turned “Johnny Clipboard” or if this is the only time of year your team can claim the top spot in the division or if you’re simply tired of hearing all about what’s wrong with football: Rejoice! Week one is upon us and it could have come any sooner. Set your fantasy lineups, dust off the old RedZone Channel, make sure you don’t have plans from 1pm to 11pm on Sunday and get your popcorn ready, T.O style; the 17-week marathon has begun. Here are the picks for week one (All lines according to SportsBetting.ag as of Monday):
Packers at Seahawks (Thursday 8:30pm)
Pick: Seahawks (-5)
As a natural result of success, contracts were handed out to Seattle’s elite defenders (Sherman, Thomas, Bennett) and thus, Seattle lost a little depth this offseason – losing Clemons, Bryant, Browner and Thurmond among others. Memories of a super bowl beat down will be a distant memory come Thursday, when the title defense officially commences for the Seattle Seahawks in the rematch of the infamous “Fail Mary” game. Aaron Rodgers will have his full arsenal of weapons available at his disposal, including a full-fledged superstar running back. Unfortunately for Eddie Lacy and Green Bay, Seattle had the seventh best DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) ever (!!!!) last season and allowed over 500 total yards fewer than any other team. It’s going to be tough for anyone to leave Century Link Field with a win this season, especially in the opener with the 12th man in full-effect. Seattle wears down the Packers defense on the ground and pulls away late to kick the 2014-2015 season off.
Seahawks: 27 Packers: 14
Saints at Falcons (Sunday 1:00pm)
Pick: Falcons (+3)
In a game that will, in all likelihood, become a typical Falcons/Saints offensive battle with 65+ points on the scoreboard, turnovers will be the key determining factor in who will grab the opener. For the Falcons (and frankly most of the league) turnovers have become the single most important statistic in predicting the trajectory of a given season. In their triumphant NFC Championship Game 2012 season the Falcons finished 5th in the league with a +13 turnover differential. In the 4-12 disastrous 2013 season they were good for 24th in that category at -7. The difference? Perhaps the departure of John Abraham and any formidable pass rush? Injuries? Luck? Yes. Yes. And yes. The Saints, ironically, have been 15th in each of the last two seasons (+2 and 0, respectively) and did not win the division in either of those seasons. Brees has become oddly susceptible to throwing interceptions and the defense hasn’t been good enough to ascend from mediocrity. Both teams have valid evidence of improvement in the turnover department – for the Falcons, the offensive line will pass block much better (an unfamiliar concept) and the Saints, having added Jairius Byrd, will be able to pair him with Kenny Vaccaro and Rafael Bush and create havoc in the secondary. However, the Falcons hardly lose at home under Ryan and Mike Smith (36-12 in such games) and will regain the home field advantage that they lost last year with a victory in an opening week shootout.
Falcons: 35 Saints: 34
Vikings at Rams (1:00pm Sunday)
Pick: Rams (-4)
On the surface, losing Sam Bradford to an ACL Tear two weeks before the season is simply devastating for the organization. While the injury is unfortunate for Bradford, the move from him to Shaun Hill may actually be an addition by subtraction – or at least cause very little net loss. This game will almost certainly be low scoring and whoever can establish themselves on the ground may very well win a 17-13 type of game. While one team has no choice in its quarterback situation, the other is electing to start the wrong one. Sorry, Matt Cassel does not give you a better chance to win than Teddy Bridgewater does, and I don’t buy the notion that he could be “ruined” by a learning curve in his rookie year. I also can’t help but believe starting Matt Cassel could stunt the growth of a budding superstar in Cordarelle Patterson. Expect a heady dose of Zac Stacy in this one and, in the end, Robert Quinn and co. will overwhelm an offense that will be heavily reliant on a (gasp) regressing Adrian Peterson.
Rams: 20 Vikings: 13
Browns at Steelers (1:00pm Sunday)
Pick: Steelers (-7)
Overshadowed by the Johnny craze this offseason was the fact that Brian Hoyer was actually pretty good before his torn ACL last season. Granted a short frame of reference, Hoyer had five touchdowns and 615 yards in with a QBR of 47.5 in just over two games. The Browns won all three games he started. How much of that can be graded on the “Josh Gordon Curve,” however, should be a concern for the Cleveland fans. The wide receiving corps rivals only Carolina’s in its lack of talent. Miles Austin and Andrew Hawkins are going to be lining up on both sides of Hoyer come Sunday. Yuck. Antonio Brown, the best route runner in the NFL, will square off against Joe Haden in a back and forth matchup all day. With Le’veon Bell and Legarrette Blount off the hook (for the moment) for their arrests for marijuana possession, establishing the ground game against a run defense that ranked in the bottom half of the league in both yards and touchdowns last year will be key in opening up play-action. The Steelers take this one at home in a potentially key divisional matchup.
Steelers: 23 Browns: 13
Jaguars at Eagles (1:00pm Sunday)
Pick: Eagles (-10.5)
Yet another team starting the wrong quarterback: the Jacksonville Jaguars. Blake Bortles was drafted 3rd overall and lit up the preseason with 521 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions, yet will be putting on a headset and carrying a clipboard come Sunday. I truly like what the Jags and Gus Bradley are doing – building from the Seahawks mold – but I don’t see them reaping those benefits week one, especially with Chad Henne as the quarterback. I cannot envision any scenario in which the Justin Blackmon-less Jags, a downright putrid offensive team, go to Philadephia in week one and even keep the game close. Fantasy owners, look for Zach Ertz to begin his breakout season with several catches and a pair of touchdowns – the Jags were 5th worst in yards allowed to Tight Ends last season and 2nd worst in receptions allowed. The Eagles’ speed and tempo will be quite difficult for a defense with many new pieces. Philly runs away and hides early on with a big win.
Eagles: 31 Jaguars: 13
Raiders at Jets (1:00pm Sunday)
Pick: Jets (-5)
The Oakland Raiders have the worst roster in the league and it isn’t close. Last season, Matt Schaub threw for just 2,310 yards 10 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in the 10 games he started last season before getting benched for Case Keenum. Case Keenum no longer has a job. 33 year-old quarterbacks who have those kinds of seasons don’t usually end up turning it around. Realizing this, the desperate Raiders now turn to rookie Derek Carr, who is doomed for failure, to start week one with Andre Holmes as his top wide reciever. I actually kinda like what the Raiders did this offseason on defense with their inordinate amount of money that nobody wanted to take – adding Lamaar Woodley, Justin Tuck and Khalil Mack with the 6th pick. Though the Jets are not explosive on offense, they will have the ball for most of the game and will score points. The Jets will suffocate the opposing quarterback into a few turnovers and will take this one.
Jets: 17 Raiders: 6
Bengals at Ravens (1:00pm Sunday)
Pick: Bengals (+2)
In the race to 9-7 to win this division, it would be huge for Cincinnati to steal one in Baltimore from the get go. Giovani Bernard is the swiss army knife that Ray Rice used to be and nobody can contain AJ Green. Honestly, it’s not entirely clear what the Ravens are going to be really good at. They were in the bottom third in the league in total yards and points scored and don’t expect 35 year-old Steve Smith to be able to change that. I would, however, expect the defense to become a top 10 defense in the league this year. Ranked 7th in DVOA last year, expect that to climb into the top five this year with the development of Matt Elam and the drafting of Safety Terrence Brooks and Linebacker CJ Mosely (a solid Rookie of the Year bet). As for Sunday, however, Cincinnati, the more talented team, will win and, as long as they remain healthy, I highly doubt anyone overtakes the Bengals in this division.
Bengals: 27 Ravens: 20
Bills at Bears (1:00pm Sunday)
Pick: Bears (-7)
The Bears are going to score boatloads of points this year. Defending Alshon Jeffrey and Brandon Marshall with Jay Cutler at the helm, Forte in the backfield and offensive guru Marc Trestman calling the plays will give defenders nightmares. Good luck, Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin. If EJ Manuel has become a better quarterback than he was last year, this game could easily become a shootout. I have my doubts. Sammy Watkins is going to be dominant – maybe not right away – but eventually, and Robert Woods could be prime for a good year. But as is the case in this pass-centric league, it all hinges on quarterback play and EJ Manuel doesn’t have enough to match Cutler and his arsenal on Sunday. Bears cruise.
Bears: 34 Bills: 7
Redskins at Texans (1:00pm Sunday)
Pick: Redskins (+2.5)
I must have missed something; since when was Ryan Fitzpatrick or Ryan Mallett good enough to take a two win team to the playoffs? Andre Johnson and Deandre Hopkins will have no problems burning Deangelo Hall and David Amerson, but I’m not convinced Fitzpatrick can get them the ball consistently and neither does the Texans’ front office as evidenced by the trade for Mallett – a gunslinger who isn’t good at anything else. The RG3 preseason is concerning, but not to the extent its being portrayed. He’s going to love having Desean Jackson and Pierre Garcon together and Jordan Reed takes a step up this year. The Redskins go into Houston and diminish the hype surrounding this quarterback-less team.
Redskins: 20 Texans: 17
Titans at Chiefs (1:00pm Sunday)
Pick: Titans (+3.5)
Don’t laugh, but Jake Locker was actually pretty good pre-injury. He threw for over 1200 yards, 8 touchdowns and four interceptions, while maintaining a 58.7 QBR – well above average – and a 3-2 record in his 5 games last season. Who knows how many games Locker plays this season, but he’s playing Sunday and has two wide receivers ripe for big seasons. Along with Bishop Sankey, they have accumulated a solid collection of skill position players. Meanwhile, the Chiefs just gave $45 million guaranteed to Alex Smith. Alex. Smith. They’re a classic overachiever who regresses the next year and I expect them to fall hard. With Dwayne Bowe missing this game, Alex Smith will have to throw to Junior Hemmingway as his top receiver. He may not throw a single pass over 10 yards. Titans win an ugly one in Kansas City.
Titans: 24 Chiefs: 21
New England at Miami (1:00pm Sunday)
Pick: Patriots (-5)
The best Patriots teams since the Randy Moss days should have no problem winning its 11th AFC East title in the last 12 years. Criticizing its wide receiver would be blatantly ignoring the other pass catchers on the team. A healthy Shane Vereen catches 70-80 balls, a healthy cleared-for-week-one Gronk might be the third most valuable non-quarterback in the league, and, oh by the way, Julian Edelman caught over 100 balls for over 1000 yards last year. Miami needs Ryan Tannehill and Mike Wallace to connect on some long balls to stay in this one, but they do usually play New England tough at home. However the offensive line needs to be infinitely better than it was at any point last season as Pro Football Focus ranked them as the 23rd best offensive line in football (and that does not take into account the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito debacle) – not such a great intimation when Sheldon Richardson, Muhammed Wilkerson, Chandler Jones, Mario Williams, Vince Wilfork and others loom on the opposite side of the line twice-a-year. They did add Brandon Albert in free agency and the presence of a stronger running game with Knowshon Moreno could help balance the offense. But the Patriots are more talented on both sides of the ball, not to mention they have the greatest coach since Vince Lombardi.
Patriots: 27 Dolphins:17
Panthers at Buccaneers (4:25pm Sunday)
Pick: Bucs (-1)
I mean it’s almost a little too obvious at this point, right? The Panthers are going to be significantly worse than they were last year. Carolina lost Steve Smith and Brandon Lafell and replaced them with… Jerricho Cotchery? Jordan Gross, their best offensive lineman retired rather abruptly and simply was not replaced. And they couldn’t even reach an extension with Greg “The Kracken” Hardy. So what did go right for the Panthers? They drafted Kelvin Benjamin, who looks to be a solid receiver down the line for Cam Newton. That kind of offseason can happen when you allocate nearly 50 million dollars to a backfield that finished 25th in running back rushing yards last season. The Bucs, Sports Illustrated’s preseason NFC South champions, will have a completely revamped offense with Josh McCown, Mike Evans and Lovie Smith at coach. Evans and Vincent Jackson should form an Alshon Jeffery/Brandon Marshall-like tandem and I can’t see a way Cam beats the Buccanneers in Tampa by himself. Bucs by a field goal.
Bucs: 17 Panthers: 14
49ers at Cowboys (4:25pm Sunday)
Pick: Niners (-4.5)
There will be blood. Lots of blood. Colin Kaepernick must be licking his chops at the scouting report this week while he prepares for the worst defense in the NFL. Dallas was last in total yards allowed last season and 26th in points allowed – and got worse. Losing Demarcus Ware leaves them paper-thin in pass rushing and the secondary is no better. Losing Sean Lee to injury stuck the knife in any chance of improvement from last year. The offense will actually be pretty good – Tony Romo and Dez Bryant are really good at football – but not nearly enough to compensate for the defieicnet play on the other side of the ball, especially against the stout 49ers defense. Four-and-a-half points is simply highway robbery. Niners win, BIIIIIGGGGGG.
Niners: 41 Cowboys: 17
Colts at Broncos (8:25pm Sunday)
Pick: Colts (+7.5)
How many chinks in the armor can the Broncos take before they take a step back? First Knowshon Moreno took his talents South Beach and, in theory, Montee Ball can step into that role, but ball-security and injury concerns could be prohibiting factors. Eric Decker left for New York and, in theory, Emmanuel Sanders should slide into that spot. Noticing a pattern? Now Wes Welker is suspended four games for Amphetamines and leaves Demariyus Thomas and Julius Thomas as the only familiar pass catchers. They’re still going to be good, but I question whether all these moving parts come together right away. The Colts may not be very good but they’re going to win the AFC South by default and Andrew Luck is very very good. MVP caliber this year. It might be a tall task for the Colts to go win at Denver week one, but I think they keep it close on Sunday night. Broncos by 4.
Broncos: 29 Colts: 24
Giants at Lions (7:10pm Monday)
Pick: Lions (-5.5)
Matthew Stafford is at the biggest turning point in his career. A fundamentally sporadic, side arming quarterback with a cannon for an arm, Stafford needs to, not only put up big stats, but lead the Lions to the playoffs this year. Lack of weaponry is not longer an excuse; Golden Tate and Eric Ebron should be sufficient next to the transcendental talent of Calvin Johnson. New York, however, is stuck between a rock and a hard place with its quarterback. Eli Manning was a mess last season and only looked worse in the preseason. If he can’t turn it around, the Giants could be the bottom-feeders on the NFC East. As for Sunday, however, the Lions are going to feed off of their crowd on Monday night and take this one by a touchdown.
Lions: 24 Giants: 17
Chargers at Cardinals (10:25pm Sunday)
Pick: Chargers (+3)
This line (Cardinals -3) is going to look ridiculous a few weeks from now, not only because I expect the Cardinals to take a step back, but because the Chargers are a potent offensive team with defensive upside. Keenan Allen will continue to be the best thing for Phillip Rivers since Vincent Jackson and Allen and faces a proper test against Patrick Peterson. Getting Melvin Ingram back from injury and swindling Brandon Flowers will be crucial for the defense. Meanwhile, Arizona will be longing for the suspended Darnell Dockett when Ryan Matthews is cutting them up in the final game of the week. Who do you want in a quarterback duel in the desert: Phillip Rivers or Carson Palmer? Give me the five-time pro-bowler in a message-sending blowout.
Chargers: 34 Cardinals: 6