The NFL kicks off with several division matchups in Week 1, including New Orleans Saints-Atlanta Falcons, Pittsburgh Steelers-Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens-Cincinnati Bengals and New England Patriots-Miami Dolphins. Which teams will emerge victorious? Don Banks makes his Week 1 picks.
We always call the opening week of any NFL season overreaction week, because of the sweeping generalizations that tend to come forth from its results, despite the ridiculously small sample size. But upon further review, maybe we should give Week 1’s outcomes a little more credence after all.
Take last season, for instance. In 12 of Week 1's 16 games in 2013, the winning team went on to have a better record than the team it beat in that first game, meaning it had real significance in being able to project what was coming. Of the 12 playoff teams from a year ago, eight of them won in Week 1, and two others (Carolina and Green Bay) lost in head-to-head matchups with clubs that were also headed to the postseason (Seattle and San Francisco). The only aberrations with losses to non-playoff opponents were Cincinnati and San Diego.
So pay attention. Week 1 can apparently tell us plenty, and you’re now free to react accordingly.
For Week 1’s picks, see below:
Last week: 0-0; Season: 1-0 (Seattle’s win over Green Bay on Thursday night).
Sunday, Sept. 7
The Saints are 13-3 against the Falcons since Sean Payton was hired in New Orleans in 2006 -- including 6-2 in Atlanta -- so you can’t really call this much of an NFC South rivalry any more. This game will measure the Falcons’ offseason push to improve their toughness quotient, but it’s still going to come down to how much Atlanta can limit the Saints playmakers on offense, and New Orleans simply has too many weapons to contain for four quarters. The matchup problems that Jimmy Graham and rookie receiver Brandin Cooks present should ensure a productive and proficient first day of work for New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees. The Saints are my pick to win it all this season, and the road to Arizona starts with a comfortable division road win at the Georgia Dome.
In the first seven years of the Mike Tomlin coaching era, the story tells itself. When the Steelers have a winning September, they make the playoffs, as they did in 2007, '08, '10 and '11, going a combined 11-3 in the first month of the season. But in '09, '12 and '13, Pittsburgh went a combined 2-8 in September -- including last year’s deep 0-4 hole -- and missed the postseason each year. There are no must-wins in Week 1, but opening up against the perennial last-place Browns at home makes this is an absolute need-to-win game for the Steelers. With Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel at quarterback for the Browns -- or some of both -- the Steelers defense will make sure this season opens in winning style in Pittsburgh.
At long last, it’s Mike Zimmer’s turn to show the rest of the league what it has been missing in bypassing him for head coaching jobs. I’ve got his Vikings pegged to be surprisingly competitive in the NFC North this season, fighting it out with the Bears for second place behind Green Bay. I have no doubt Zimmer will cobble together a solid defense, and I like offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s chances of getting the utmost out of veteran quarterback Matt Cassel -- at least until rookie Teddy Bridgewater is deemed ready to take over. Rams’ new starting quarterback Shaun Hill won’t drop the ball in taking over for the injured Sam Bradford this season, but now Jeff Fisher’s stuck-on-seven-wins team has to get it done even more than expected via defense and the running game.
After a league-high five exhibition games, the Bills still didn’t look remotely ready for the regular season. It’s a broken record by now, but it comes back to the quarterback situation in Buffalo, and EJ Manuel has inspired zero confidence this summer, looking hesitant and afraid to make a mistake at times. The Bills didn’t go out and sign Kyle Orton off his couch last week because they see Manuel taking strides toward living up to his first-round billing; they recognized the potential for disaster and moved to mitigate the damage if Manuel continues to struggle. And there won’t be much reason to believe the script has been flipped on Sunday in Soldier Field. Buffalo isn’t going to match scores with the Bears' potent offense, and I’m expecting the Bills to put their defense in some short-field situations due to turnovers. New Buffalo defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s return to a familiar NFC North setting will not be a successful one.
The more Robert Griffin III talks about not being fazed by his critics, the more he sounds like a player who hears everything and takes the doubts ultra personally. And that’s not going to serve him well as he attempts to put the debacle of 2013 behind him and evolve into the well-rounded quarterback new Washington head coach Jay Gruden is trying to develop. Griffin’s confidence has been shaken, even though he still talks a good game. The only thing that matters at this point is how he plays, and I don’t like his opening-week assignment of having to elude the likes of Texans pass rushers J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, who might just chase him all over the field and make his new pocket-passing style problematic, to say the least.
Nothing about the Chiefs' anemic preseason showing on offense told me they’ve turned the page in the wake of that ghastly second-half collapse at Indianapolis in the first round of the playoffs. With Dwayne Bowe suspended this week and not much receiving depth behind him, look for Kansas City’s offense to be giving Jamaal Charles the ball in everything short of the Wildcat formation. If Titans quarterback Jake Locker can protect the football in new coach Ken Whisenhunt’s Tennessee debut, an upset in Arrowhead is there for the taking.
I was reminded this week that the Jaguars’ Gus Bradley was interviewing with the Eagles for their vacant head coaching job in January 2013 when Chip Kelly doubled back and accepted the gig in Philly. Bradley quickly landed in Jacksonville, and as it panned out, both clubs got the right guy for the necessary turnaround task at hand. The Eagles obviously are further along than the Jaguars, but I’ve got both of these clubs playing into January this season, so the arrow is pointing up no matter what transpires on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field. Philly’s offensive firepower will be too much for the improved Jacksonville defense, but this won’t be the rout some are anticipating.
At the NFL's annual meeting in late March, Raiders third-year head coach Dennis Allen said, "I think Matt Schaub is, and statistics would say it, in the last five or six years, a top 10 quarterback in this league." Allen this past weekend, after naming rookie Derek Carr the team’s starting quarterback for the opener at the Jets, said, "It’s not an indictment on Matt Schaub at all. I still feel very confident in Matt Schaub." I wasn’t buying what Allen was selling in March, and I still don’t in September.
Through his first three seasons on the job, newly-minted Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton is 1-7 in road division games in which he starts and finishes all four quarters. Cincinnati went 11-5 a year ago, but was 0-3 on the road in the division. The Ravens, by comparison, are 4-0 in home openers in the John Harbaugh coaching era. This is Cincinnati’s first chance to prove me wrong, but I’ve got last season’s AFC North champions losing to this season’s AFC North champion in Week 1. And a trend is established.
The high point of an otherwise calamitous season in Miami last year was its 24-20 upset of the visiting Patriots in Week 15 that pushed the Dolphins to 8-6, clinched their first non-losing record since 2008 and seemed to put them in great position to make a belated push for an AFC wild-card berth. But then the Dolphins plunged to earth with losses to the Bills and Jets, and that was that. New England will be more prepared for Miami this time around, and I’m interested to see if the Dolphins’ dramatically rebuilt offensive line -- featuring new left tackle Branden Albert and rookie right tackle Ja’Wuan James -- can stand up to the Patriots defensive front that has a healthy Vince Wilfork back in the middle.
I know the 49ers offense looked ragged in the preseason, and I know San Francisco’s defense has suffered more than its share of body blows from the fourth quarter on of last season’s NFC title game loss in Seattle. But the 49ers have a habit of responding to adversity, and this looks like the kind of game quarterback Colin Kaepernick will put on his shoulders and personally deliver to the win column. Until I see something from a Dallas defense almost devoid of stars, I’m going to assume the Cowboys are every bit as decimated on that side of the ball as they appear to be.
The Bucs are going to be much better, while the Panthers look considerably worse off. And that gap should look even wider in Week 1 if Carolina’s Cam Newton can’t use his size and speed to full potential because of those tender ribs. The Panthers defense is still formidable, but this is a game Tampa Bay should win if the Lovie Smith era holds as much promise as I think it does.
Peyton Manning had all offseason to try and live down a humbling 35-point Super Bowl loss to a Class of 2012 quarterback in Seattle's Russell Wilson, and I don’t think he’s in the mood to add to his funk by seeing Class of 2012 quarterback Andrew Luck come into Denver and improve to 2-0 head-to-head against the quarterback legend he replaced in Indianapolis. Look for the Broncos to make the talented but still not elite Colts pay for Denver’s months of pent-up frustration.
Monday, Sept. 8
How did the NFL decide that two third-place 7-9 teams from a year ago were the matchup we all craved for the season-opening edition of Monday Night Football? I don’t have a lot of faith in either one of these clubs climbing higher than third place in their divisions in 2014 either, but the offensively-loaded Lions should at least be capable of launching the Jim Caldwell era on a high note against a Giants team that put together the most deceptive 5-0 preseason record in NFL history. New York’s best shot for the upset is a low-scoring affair, with a stout running game led by Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams, and plenty of defense.
This just in: For the 49th consecutive year, the Super Bowl champion will not be hoisting the shiny silver trophy on its own home field next February. The Phoenix area always makes for a dandy Super Bowl host city, but the Cardinals will be nowhere in sight that week, an absence they will be able to trace back to their numerous subtractions and setbacks on defense. Carson Palmer and Co. will move the ball and hang up some points against San Diego, but Philip Rivers and the Chargers will out-do them by a field goal, with Keenan Allen, Antonio Gates, Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead taking turns moving the chains.