Colin Kaepernick rushed for a postseason-record 181 yards against Green Bay last year. (John W. McDonough/SI)
Chris Burke and Doug Farrar get you ready for the weekend with The Playbook, a detailed weekly preview that gives you everything you need to know about the upcoming slate of games.
Green Bay at San Francisco (4:25 p.m. ET, FOX): When we last saw the Green Bay Packers, their defense was flailing away at Colin Kaepernick in the playoffs. Helpless to stop the 49ers' offensive onslaught, Green Bay watched Kaepernick roll up 181 rushing yards -- a postseason record for a quarterback -- en route to a 45-31 win.
Having used a first-round pick on DE Datone Jones and with OLB Nick Perry back from injury, the Packers swear they're now better equipped, physically and mentally, for San Francisco. We shall see.
Part and parcel of slowing that San Francisco attack will be keeping it off the field. Green Bay should have more of a chance to do so in 2013 thanks to the arrivals of rookie running backs Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin. Save for an 18-yard TD run from DuJuan Harris, the Packers' run game was fairly nonexistent against the 49ers, both in that playoff setback and in a 30-22 Week 1 loss.
San Francisco rushed for 186 yards in that first meeting, which occurred several weeks before Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith at QB. The 49ers certainly will challenge Green Bay's rush defense early and often Sunday afternoon.
For Green Bay, this is the first of a brutal three-game stretch to open the season that subsequently includes a home game with Washington and trip to Cincinnati. The opportunity is there for the Packers to send a resounding message to the NFL about their legitimacy ... or to head into a Week 4 bye reeling. Aaron Rodgers' presence at QB makes it hard to envision too much misfortune befalling this team, especially if he gets a little more help from the ground game.
And the San Francisco secondary is still finding its footing as Rodgers looms. The 49ers replaced veteran safety Dashon Goldson with rookie Eric Reid, then brought in Nnamdi Asomugha (and Eric Wright, who's on the Non-Football Injury list until Week 7) to bolster the CB spot. The corners will have their hands full with Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and James Jones in this one.
San Francisco's Week 1 win last season helped bring that playoff game to Candlestick -- the 49ers, at 11-4-1, finished just ahead of the 11-5 Packers. This outcome could hold similar weight in early 2014. -- Chris Burke
NY Giants at Dallas (8:30 p.m. ET, NBC): The Giants' passing attack might be a bit rusty to start -- Eli Manning never had Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks on the field in the preseason at the same time. Third-down and goal-line situations were problematic for the G-Men in the exhibition campaign, and with running back Andre Brown out, David Wilson will be the main man in the backfield. Offensive linemen David Baas and David Diehl are not expected to play against the Cowboys. On defense, New York is hoping for the best from two pass-rushers dealing with injuries -- veteran Jason Pierre-Paul and rookie Damontre Moore.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys are going through changes of their own. New defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin will show all the wrinkles for the first time as Dallas moves to more of a base 4-3 defense. There's more to Kiffin's schemes than a bunch of Tampa-2 coverage, though. On offense, Bill Callahan takes over play-calling duties from head coach Jason Garrett. No matter who's in charge of the schemes, pass protection looks to be the same problem it was last season. Dallas signed guard Brian Waters, who didn't play at all in 2012, to a contract, but he'll need time to get up to speed. Right now, the plan seems to favor former tackle Doug Free at right guard with Jermey Parnell taking Free's old spot. Left tackle Tyron Smith, who had a great 2012 season under the radar, is the only sure thing.
Both teams are hurting in the secondary -- especially at the safety position -- and both offenses have the vertical threats to attack those weaknesses. New York's Stevie Brown is out for the season with a torn ACL, which leaves Ryan Mundy and Antrel Rolle to cover Dez Bryant and Miles Austin upfield and help with Jason Witten in the intermediate game. The Cowboys are going with a patchwork (at best) safety rotation, so look for Cruz to test it early and often with his patented speed seam routes.
Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray will face a very effective Giants front against the run with more looks than in years past (they've been experimenting with 3-4 packages), which puts more pressure on Romo. Dallas' quarterback is better under pressure than people generally think, but if the Cowboys are to pull out this key divisional home game, he'll have to play with his head and avoid the few plays per game that put his team in danger. -- Doug Farrar
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Atlanta at New Orleans (1 p.m. ET, FOX): The dividing line in the NFC South last season was pretty clear. Atlanta finished 13-3 while everyone else went 7-9. That group of also-rans included the Saints, who would like to pretend the 2012 season never happened.
From the bounty scandal to Sean Payton's suspension to a defense that allowed more yards than any NFL team ever, New Orleans slipped into a nightmare during the 2012 offseason and never woke up. Toppling the rival Falcons in Week 1 would go a long way toward getting the Saints back on track.
Easier said than done. The Falcons, yet again, believe that this is the year they finally get over the top and get back to the Super Bowl. They had that goal within their sights last season only to cough up a 10-point lead to San Francisco in the NFC title game.
Both of these teams are built around dynamic passing attacks -- the host Saints with Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston leading the way; the Falcons featuring Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. The question on the New Orleans sideline: Is the defense capable of holding its own?
Atlanta was far from perfect on that side of the football last season but still managed to cobble together a unit that finished fifth best in points allowed. The Saints, off that disastrous defensive showing in 2012, already have lost three key contributors to season-ending injuries, and a fourth (Jonathan Vilma) for several weeks. The remaining pieces, including burgeoning star Cam Jordan and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, will look to new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan for guidance.
The Falcons, meanwhile, used their first- and second-round picks in the 2012 draft on CBs Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, respectively. That duo will be tasked with replacing Dunta Robinson, just as ex-Giant Osi Umenyiora has to fill John Abraham's shoes up front.
We've come to expect exciting, high-scoring clashes when these teams meet. The season-opening showdown in the Superdome ought to be no different. -- CB
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Philadelphia at Washington (Monday, 6:55 p.m. ET, ESPN): The most interesting matchup in this game might be London Fletcher vs. the mesh point. The Redskins' veteran linebacker will be responsible for diagnosing a new Philadelphia offense with backfield looks and disguises that have already caused trouble for experienced defensive coaches. The Redskins kept backup quarterback Pat White on the roster to simulate Michael Vick in practice, and perhaps no NFL defense gets more looks at a tricked-up backfield than Washington's.
With all the talk about Robert Griffin III, some are overlooking the Redskins' front seven, but the Eagles will not be. Jim Haslett's 3-4 defense has two outstanding outside linebackers in Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, a criminally underrated penetrating defensive tackle in Barry Cofield and an inside linebacker duo of Fletcher and Perry Riley that can do most anything. Look for Philly to take the fakes outside, test the Redskins in the perimeter game and move away from an inside run game that Washington can handle. Running back LeSean McCoy is as elusive as any back in the league, and Washington will have its fill of him through the game. He is the key to Chip Kelly's offense. If the Redskins follow one aspect of the run more than another, McCoy and Michael Vick will make plays to exploit that mistake.
The Eagles have the advantage of knowing what base offense the Redskins run, though they've never really stopped it to any great degree. In 2012, Griffin tormented Philadelphia's safeties with his play fakes, ran all over the place against their undisciplined fronts and threw for six touchdown passes and over 10 yards per attempt in two games. Washington head coach Mike Shanahan will likely look to establish the run early, and this is an ideal defense for that strategy -- the Eagles allowed 5.3 yards per carry and six rushing touchdowns in the preseason. In that span, they frequently lost battles at the point of the attack, and the Redskins have the kind of physical run game to make them pay for any weaknesses.
Philadelphia will try to press Washington's receivers with cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams. Safeties Patrick Chung and Nate Allen have the tougher task: Stay assignment-correct against Griffin, don't peek into the backfield too much and be ready when the coverage switches. The Eagles must contain Griffin with their front seven and let at least one of their safeties roam in the defensive backfield. Washington's iffy secondary has the same test with Vick. -- DF
Cincinnati at Chicago (1 p.m. ET, CBS): How far along is ex-CFL coach Marc Trestman's Chicago offense? The Bengals, considered by some a legitimate Super Bowl threat, will provide a significant measuring stick. The Bears' O-line features two rookies (Kyle Long and Jordan Mills) up against what may be the NFL's premier defensive front, led by Geno Atkins. If Chicago cannot protect QB Jay Cutler, it will not matter what sort of plays Trestman calls. -- CB
New England at Buffalo (1 p.m. ET, CBS): Look for a no-huddle vs. no-huddle matchup here. The Patriots are on the vanguard of today's speed offenses, and they'll want to keep Buffalo's multi-tiered defense in base nickel coverage. The Bills are starting rookie quarterback EJ Manuel, who will benefit from quicker action and timing passes to his targets. Running backs could be the key -- Bill Belichick knows how dangerous C.J. Spiller is, and Pats back Shane Vereen can line up all along the formation. -- DF
Tennessee at Pittsburgh (1 p.m. ET, CBS): Chris Johnson and the revamped Titans line run into a strong Week 1 test -- the Steelers allowed just 90 yards rushing per game in 2012. Pittsburgh's two big storylines boil down to who's there (Troy Polamalu, after missing nine games last season) and who's not (Mike Wallace, gone via free agency; rookie RB Le'Veon Bell, out with a foot injury). -- CB
Tampa Bay at NY Jets (1 p.m. ET, FOX): If Geno Smith really isn't watching tape on Darrelle Revis ... well, that's not good. Smith will have his hands full with the Bucs' rebuilt secondary, featuring Revis and safety Dashon Goldson. He'll see a lot of looks he hasn't seen before. The Jets have a decent defense, especially up front and with cornerback Antonio Cromartie, but Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano has a great back in Doug Martin and two matchup-beating receivers in Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. This could be the first of many long Sundays for Rex Ryan in 2013. -- DF
Arizona at St. Louis (4:25 p.m. ET, FOX): The San Francisco-Seattle rivalry has dominated preseason headlines in the NFC West. But could the Cardinals or Rams spoil the party? The winner here will have a leg up, and the Rams appear to be closer to competing following a 7-8-1 season. Arizona should be much better than in 2012, though, especially if Carson Palmer has any juice left in his right arm. -- CB
Minnesota at Detroit (1 p.m. ET, FOX): The running back to watch in this game? It's actually Reggie Bush, who brings a new and dangerous target in the short passing game for Matthew Stafford. You'll see the NFL's two best offensive players (non-quarterback division) in Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson, but Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder is the key to this game and Minnesota's season. He must read blitzes with better results and upgrade his long passing game. -- DF
Houston at San Diego (Monday, 10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN): The Week 1 finale pits a Houston team that's among the AFC favorites against a Chargers squad working on a three-year playoff drought. This will give us the first real evidence of new coach Mike McCoy's impact on QB Philip Rivers. San Diego did have the league's sixth-best rush D in 2012, so Houston's dynamic duo of Arian Foster and Ben Tate may have to work for its yards. -- CB
Seattle at Carolina (1 p.m. ET, FOX): The Seahawks are well aware that Cam Newton can eat their lunch in the run game -- they've talked about assignment-correctness all week. The Richard Sherman-Steve Smith matchup is always one of the NFL's best. Carolina's defense will be tempted to load up for Marshawn Lynch, but they can't go too heavy, or Russell Wilson will kill them with play action. Both teams have great inside linebackers (Luke Kuechly for the Panthers, Bobby Wagner for the Seahawks) who will spy mobile quarterbacks. -- DF
Only For The Faithful
Kansas City at Jacksonville (1 p.m. ET, CBS): The two worst teams from a year ago kick off the season under new leadership -- Andy Reid in K.C.; Gus Bradley in Jacksonville. The expectations are much higher for Reid in Year 1. The winner of this one will be halfway to its 2012 victory total. -- CB
Miami at Cleveland (1 p.m. ET, CBS): The Browns put a lot of money into their defense and hired Ray Horton to run it. Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill, still learning to play within structure, will be challenged to the hilt against Horton's crazy blitzes. Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden can hit vertical strikes but is still learning to make multiple reads. -- DF
Oakland at Indianapolis (1 p.m. ET, CBS): According to the Vegas oddsmakers, this is the biggest mismatch of Week 1, with the Colts around 10-point favorites. Can Terrelle Pryor, expected to be make his second NFL start, inject some life into the Raiders? -- CB
(This week, all stats are courtesy of Pro Football Focus, and all are from the 2013 preseason unless otherwise indicated).
• Ryan Tannehill had the highest percentage (76.4 percent) of air yards, or yards before the catch, of any starting quarterback. It would certainly seem that the Dolphins are preparing him to hit a bunch of deep strikes to Mike Wallace, though Wallace caught just one pass of 30 yards or more.
• Looking for a sleeper deep threat? Try Seattle's Stephen Williams, who caught five of the seven passes of more than 20 yards that were thrown to him. Williams scored three touchdowns and gained 213 yards on those plays.
• Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins is already proving the team's wisdom in signing him to a five-year, $56.4 million contract extension. In 43 preseason pass-rush snaps, Atkins racked up 11 quarterback hurries, which is fairly amazing for an interior lineman facing double-teams all the time.
• If you want sacks from a defensive tackle, look to Tennessee's Jurrell Casey, who led the league this preseason with three, matching his 2012 regular-season total. The 2011 third-round pick out of USC is one of the real risers among young defensive linemen -- he brings a great combination of pass-rush penetration and run-stopping ability.
• Washington Redskins rookie safety Bacarri Rambo still needs to learn how to slow down and make tackles in space, but he's been pretty good in the box so far. He led all at his position with a 25 percent stop rate (the prevention of productive plays) within eight yards of the line of scrimmage. Baltimore Ravens rookie Matt Elam, however, had a 20 percent stop rate on 15 such plays to Rambo's four. If Elam can calm his own kamikaze tendencies, he's got Defensive Rookie of the Year potential.
• Phillip Tanner may be the key to Dallas' power running game. The third-year undrafted free agent led the preseason with 2.95 yards after contact per carry and caused 12 missed tackles on 37 rushing attempts.
• Another good number for Cowboys fans -- Dez Bryant dropped 11 passes in his 137 targets in 2012 but didn't drop one of his 14 targets this preseason. -- DF
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• Matchup To Watch: Adrian Peterson vs. Ndamukong Suh/Nick Fairley.
Fairley said this offseason that the Lions have the best DT tandem in the league. There's little question Peterson is the top running back -- and arguably top player -- out there. The NFC North matchup between Minnesota and Detroit could be decided by which side gets the better of this showdown in the trenches.
If the preseason was any indication, Fairley is knocking on the door of becoming a star. The Lions utilized a wide variety of looks and tactics with both him and Suh to put pressure on opposing offenses. Fairley and Suh responded by consistently making their way into the backfield. Minnesota averaged 161.5 yards rushing in two wins over the Lions last season. Detroit's front will be focused on substantially lowering that number.
• This Week's Sleeper: Mike Tolbert, Carolina.
The Panthers have upset on their minds in Week 1 as Seattle makes the cross-country trip to Carolina. Churning out some steady yards on the ground could be the key to accomplishing that goal. DeAngelo Williams will be in the lead role for the Panthers, with Jonathan Stewart opening the season on the PUP list. Tolbert, though, will be worked into the mix, especially on short yardage and in the red zone. His ability to keep the chains moving -- and thus keep Seattle's potent offense off the field -- could be a key variable.
• Pressure's On ...: Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay.
Week 1 is hardly do-or-die for any team. But for Freeman, who enters the 2013 season trying to prove he's worthy of remaining the Bucs' guy at QB, losing to Geno Smith and the Jets would hand plenty of ammo to his critics. The Buccaneers also have a Week 2 matchup with New Orleans and a Week 3 trip to New England, so stumbling Sunday might set the table for a tough first half.
• Rookie Spotlight: Bacarri Rambo, Washington.
When Chip Kelly's offense ran well at Oregon, even the best collegiate defenders had trouble diagnosing the plays and getting to the football. So Rambo, the Redskins' rookie safety, will have his work cut out for him Monday night against Michael Vick and that wide-open Eagles attack.
Rambo impressed the Redskins enough this preseason to nail down a starting job. He struggled at times, however, in preventing big plays in the secondary. Similar issues Monday would make life tough for Washington's defense. -- CB
St. Louis: If the Rams really think they can contend in 2013, they can ill afford a home loss to Arizona out of the gate. Back-to-back trips to Atlanta and Dallas after this one make it all the more imperative that St. Louis starts 1-0. -- CB
Seattle: If the Seahawks lose on the road to Carolina, there's a pretty good chance they start 2-2 out of the gate. They have the 49ers at home and Houston on the road in September, and the second half of their schedule (Bucs, Falcons, Vikings, Saints, 49ers, Giants, Cardinals, Rams) is even more brutal. -- DF
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