Picking Week 1 games in the NFL is as precarious as it gets, because we’re all going on preconceptions based on the preseason and the off-season, and those generally get fairly well exposed as fallacies once the games start counting. But you’ve got to start somewhere, and this season’s slightly later than usual start has only heightened the anticipation for meaningful football.
Let the quest for that golden anniversary Super Bowl 50 next Feb. 7 begin...
Below are my Week 1 picks. And here is my pick for Thursday night's game between the Patriots and the Steelers.
• This week: 1–0; Season: 1–0.
The Packers have absolutely owned the league’s most historic rivalry starting with that Green Bay win at Soldier Field in the 2010 NFC Championship Game, and there’s no reason to pick against the club I have winning it all on Super Bowl Sunday in Santa Clara next February. The Bears will put up much more of a fight on defense with John Fox and Vic Fangio on the coaching staff, but Chicago’s offense won’t be able to match weapons with a Packers offense that is about to discover what life without Jordy Nelson in the lineup is like. (Spoiler alert: It’s not that bad).
A pair of 9–7 clubs that just missed the postseason dance last year meet in Week 1 and will start making up for that narrow margin of failure. I don’t have either one of these teams getting to the playoffs this season either, but both will be in contention all year. I’m giving the Texans just enough of an edge due to the home-field advantage, and I’ll expect we’ll see a fairly strong regular-season debut by new Houston starting quarterback Brian Hoyer.
With the Jets’ defensive strength and the Browns’ dearth of play-makers on offense, this is a game New York has to win if the Todd Bowles era is going to show improvement over last year’s 4–12 fourth-place finish in the AFC East. The quarterbacks, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh McCown, are both journeymen extraordinaire, having played for a staggering 13 teams combined (seven for McCown, six for Fitzpatrick). But here they are, still standing and still starting, and one of them is about to go 1–0 with his latest new team.
After predicting that Washington could well be the worst team in the league this season and earn next April’s No. 1 pick in the draft, I can’t really start showing confidence in Jay Gruden’s club now. The Dolphins’ Ndamukong Suh-led defensive front should have a fun day against a Washington offensive line that hasn’t done much pass blocking to speak of lately. At quarterback, we get a matchup of 2012 draft classmates (Ryan Tannehill and Kirk Cousins), just not the one we expected for most of the preseason (whither RG3?)
Logic says the Andrew Luck versus Tyrod Taylor matchup at quarterback spells success for Indianapolis, with Taylor likely due to make his fair share of mistakes in the first start of his five-year NFL career. But I think the Bills will be jacked sky-high (maybe too high) for the dawn of the franchise’s much-anticipated Rex Ryan era, and I’m projecting Buffalo’s talented defense to make just enough happen to protect its home turf. The Colts get an early season wake-up call in their Super Bowl-or-bust season.
I’m not going to read too much into this outcome no matter who comes out of this game a winner, but the Jaguars will give their long-suffering fans something to celebrate with a home-opening victory, and the Panthers will re-enforce the widely held belief that they don’t have enough offensive firepower surrounding franchise quarterback Cam Newton. For second-year Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles, a victory over a 2015 playoff team will keep alive the momentum generated by his strong preseason.
Very tempted to pick the upset because the Rams are improved and play the NFC West champs very tough in their building, beating them twice in the past three seasons. But even without Kam Chancellor reporting for work at safety, Seattle has enough talent on defense to hold down a Rams offense that will be better once rookie running back Todd Gurley is fully recovered and ready to join the lineup. The Seahawks begin the process of shaking off their Super Bowl devastation with a gritty road win.
If the Chargers are who I think they are—my predicted AFC champion—they’ll take care of business at home against a Lions team that lost a good bit of its ferociousness on defense. The whole relocation to Los Angeles story still has months to unwind, but San Diego is excited about this edition of the Chargers, and not just in a nostalgic, one-last-long-goodbye sort of way. One sub-plot I’ll be watching: rookie running backs Melvin Gordon of the Chargers and Ameer Abdullah of the Lions. The last time they met, this past November in Madison, Wis., Gordon broke the NCAA’s single-game rushing record with 408 yards on 25 carries, with Gordon’s Wisconsin Badgers thumping Abdullah’s Nebraska Cornhuskers 59-24. I was at that game, and I haven’t completely thawed out yet.
Neither one of these teams looks befitting of the playoff berths I have forecast for them, but they’ll get there in time. Arizona has had problems in pass protection this preseason, and the Saints secondary has been besieged by injuries, so I’m not expecting either club to put on a sharp opening performance. At home in their dome, I like the Cardinals to feed off their crowd and squeak past a New Orleans club that knows how difficult indoor football can be as a visitor.
This has statement-game potential for the Raiders and new head coach Jack Del Rio, and Oakland’s aggressive young defense looks legit to me. But the Bengals can play a little defense themselves, and now that Geno Atkins is back in elite form, Cincinnati will find just enough to survive this scare and spoil the Raiders’ upset bid.
You won’t know these downtrodden teams went a combined 4–28 last season from watching this game, which could be the most entertaining of the day. Look for both rookie quarterbacks to make some big plays and keep inspiring hope, but I have Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota taking care of the ball better than Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston, with the Titans going on the road to pull a Week 1 upset for the second year in a row.
Peyton Manning won’t hang a seven-touchdown-pass performance on the Ravens this time, like in the 2013 NFL opener, but he’ll assuage the doubts that surfaced about his game with that ugly end to his 2014 season. New Denver head coach Gary Kubiak hangs up his first win with the Broncos and it comes against a Baltimore team he just did superb work for last year, as offensive coordinator. The Ravens defense will rough up Manning a bit, but the Broncos’ new Wade Phillips-coordinated defense will give Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco even more problems with which to contend.
The Giants will move the ball against a Dallas defense that some think has improved over last year’s strong showing, but New York’s defense isn’t anywhere near ready to contend with Tony Romo and the rest of the defending NFC East champs. The Cowboys are starting to dominate this division series, and will keep Jerry Jones smiling throughout the Sunday Night Football opener with a fifth consecutive vanquishing of their rivals.
I like where Falcons rookie coach Dan Quinn has his team headed over the long haul. But in the short term, the Eagles and Chip Kelly look ready to make some serious noise in the NFC, and I have them slotted as my projected top seed in the conference. Sam Bradford had some miserable prime time experiences in St. Louis, but the ex-Rams quarterback will thoroughly enjoy his Monday night in the Georgia Dome, and his gaudy stat line will be the story of the game.
A nationally televised blowout loss in his 49ers coaching debut will be a portent of things to come for Jim Tomsula in 2015. The Vikings are going to be very formidable on defense this season in Mike Zimmer’s second season, and the tandem of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and running back Adrian Peterson is going to bring a superb sense of balance to the Minnesota offense. I don’t think the depleted 49ers are going to win a game in the first half of the season, and this one won’t be close, or worth staying up way past your bedtime to watch.