The Playbook: A complete guide to Week 1 action around the NFL
Week 1 is off and running, as the Patriots christened the 2015 season and celebrated their Super Bowl XLIX victory with a 28–21 win over the Steelers in front of a national audience on Thursday night. On Sunday, the nation's focus becomes more fractured, as seven games kick off in the early afternoon window, beginning a 36-hour run of nearly non-stop football in which the league's other 30 teams begin their campaigns. Chris Burke and Doug Farrar preview every game of Week 1 and offer their viewing recommendations, along with number to know, matchups to watch and, most importantly, a Tecmo Bowl prediction.
(All times Eastern.)
Packers at Bears (1 p.m., FOX)
Historically, there is no question this rivalry is one of the greatest in sports. Reality has painted a different picture of late, however, with Green Bay sporting a lofty 9–2 record (including one playoff win) in the past 11 meetings with Chicago.
If the Bears have any plans to reverse the trend, they will need to turn in a much more competent showing on defense than they offered in the preseason. The transition to a new coaching staff—and thus, a new scheme under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio—left the Bears playing catch-up, trying to fit pieces where they may not go. Early returns have revealed a work in progress, at best.
The offense, now led by coordinator Adam Gase, stumbled through August itself, and a string of injuries hasn't helped. The status of No. 1 receiver Alshon Jeffery (calf) is up in the air for Sunday, as is that of veteran Eddie Royal (groin); first-round pick Kevin White already landed on IR-return with a stress fracture in his shin.
Jay Cutler will have to find points somewhere for the Bears to pull the upset—Green Bay averaged 46.5 points in its two-game sweep of Chicago last season.
Of course, the Packers have their own injury woes on offense and, potentially, their own question marks on defense. The former is a more pressing concern. Aaron Rodgers's favorite target Jordy Nelson suffered a season-ending knee injury last month, thereby thrusting 2014 draft pick Davante Adams into a critical role. The general consensus tabs Adams as a rising star, but Nelson's 1,500 yards and 98 catches will be tough to replace. If nothing else, opposing defenses will worry less about Adams than they did about Nelson.
Also bumped up the depth chart is cornerback Casey Hayward. His promotion came via the events of free agency (namely, the departure of Tramon Williams), but nevertheless he's set to take on a critical starting role. With uncertainty at linebacker outside of Clay Matthews, the Packers can't afford any deficiencies in the secondary.
Chicago will try to pressure those linebackers on the ground, where Matt Forte remains a threat. Green Bay's answer when it has the ball: Eddie Lacy, an 1,100-yard rusher during each of his first two seasons and a dark horse for the 2015 rushing title. -- CB
Lions at Chargers (4:05 p.m., FOX)
Both teams are hoping for great early returns from the running backs they selected in the 2015 draft. The Chargers went 9–7 in the tough AFC West with Branden Oliver as their lead back (582 yards and three touchdowns on 160 carries). Not bad for Oliver, an undrafted rookie out of Buffalo, but San Diego took Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon with the 15th pick this spring with the idea that he can deliver on the promise of his incredible 2014 season, in which he led the NCAA with 2,587 rushing yards, 29 rushing touchdowns and 2,740 yards from scrimmage. Gordon is used to doing his thing behind huge, powerful offensive lines, which makes him a great fit in this offense. Similarly, the Lions took Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah with the 54th pick, hoping that he can add consistency to a rushing attack that was all too boom-and-bust in 2014.
It's an important concern for both franchises, because there isn't much else standing between either team and deep playoff success. Both teams have great quarterbacks in Philip Rivers and Matthew Stafford, underrated offensive lines, credible targets and defenses on the rise. San Diego's John Pagano has become one of the league's most respected defensive coordinators with his ability to take little play-to-play tweaks and make them work, while Detroit's Teryl Austin did an amazing job in his first year in charge of the defense. The Lions had been known for their stout front four, but Austin drew out great performances from lesser-known players like linebacker Tahir Whitehead and cornerback Darius Slay.
Similarly, Pagano has benefited from the development of end Corey Liuget and cornerback Jason Verrett. Where this game might turn in Detroit's favor is the simple fact that their front seven is stronger, especially at the linebacker level. There are few 4–3 linebacker units better than the combo of Whitehead, DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch. Detroit will hope that veteran Haloti Ngata can take the place of Ndamukong Suh as a pure run-stopper, though Suh's pass rush will be tough to replicate. That puts the burden on end Ezekiel Ansah, who will be going up against tackles King Dunlap and D.J. Fluker. Both blockers are excellent with power moves but struggle against speed rushers. This could be the most interesting matchup of Week 1, and perhaps a Super Bowl preview if everything goes right for both teams. -- DF
Ravens at Broncos (4:25 p.m., CBS)
“Statement wins” are more a college football phenomenon than an NFL one. There are no pollsters to impress in the pros (unless you count Power Rankings, which you should not) and no playoff committees deciding teams' fates. Still, the winner on Sunday in Denver will stake themselves to an early spot among the AFC favorites.
Despite winning four consecutive division crowns and reaching the Super Bowl two years ago, the Broncos may have more critics to silence entering Week 1. The Broncos made a coaching change (Gary Kubiak for John Fox) after a humbling divisional round defeat, and Peyton Manning's late-season struggles left many wondering if his career had hit the wall.
Somewhat lost amid all the Peyton panic has been that the Broncos may have a standout defense. That unit ranked 16th in scoring last season but third in yards allowed.
How the Ravens attack when they have the football remains to be seen. New offensive coordinator Marc Trestman opted against a complete overhaul of the system left behind by Kubiak when he took the Denver job, but count on some new wrinkles. The strength will remain in the run game, where Justin Forsett returns, as does all of Baltimore's powerful offensive line.
Joe Flacco is no slouch at quarterback, either, although the Broncos would love to force him to win through the air. Aside from Steve Smith Sr., the Ravens are unproven at both receiver and tight end. They're also squaring off with a Broncos secondary, led by Chris Harris and Aqib Talib, that may be one of the NFL's best.
Of course, Flacco should be used to a little scrutiny by now—whether it's fair or not. Manning has been knocked for his alleged struggles in cold weather and even for his postseason play, but he has never entered a season with this large a contingent doubting his game. But let's not forget that he still threw for 4,700 yards and 39 touchdowns last season.
Arguably of greater concern for the Broncos is their offensive line, even with Evan Mathis's arrival. Baltimore had the second-most sacks of any team a year ago, and the Terrell Suggs–Elvis Dumervil tandem would love to start Manning off on an uncomfortable note. -- CB
Giants at Cowboys (8:30 p.m., NBC)
Both of these NFC East teams are under pressure, but for different reasons. The Giants are trying to extricate themselves from a three-year funk in which they've missed the playoffs every year and posted a record worse than the year before: from 9–7 to 7–9 to 6–10. Injuries have given them fits this preseason. Eli Manning didn't throw a touchdown, his receiver corps has struggled to stay on the field (especially Victor Cruz) and the defense will be without end Jason Pierre-Paul for the foreseeable future as the talented pass rusher continues to recover from a very serious fireworks accident. Linebacker Jon Beason has been dealing with a knee sprain, and the secondary—gutted by injuries a year ago—is still learning to work together.
Though Tom Coughlin has won two Super Bowls with the Giants, the NFL is about what you've done lately, and between roster attrition and overall personnel issues, this team simply isn't the force it once was. Coughlin will have to pull some serious rabbits out of his hat to engineer a playoff season, and the Cowboys present a tough first test.
That said, this isn't quite the Cowboys squad that posed such a threat in 2014. Jerry Jones decided to part ways with NFL rushing champ DeMarco Murray, believing that a combination of Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden and the recently-acquired Christine Michael would be good enough to get things done behind a line that is the league's best when it comes to run-blocking. Neither Randle nor McFadden did much in the preseason, and Michael will need time to acclimate. That puts the pressure on Tony Romo and his cadre of receivers, and while Romo and Dez Bryant are up to the challenge, the hidden factor behind Dallas's success in 2014 was the ground game's assistance in keeping the defense off the field, which helped to offset talent was iffy at best.
The acquisition of pass rushers Greg Hardy in free agency and Randy Gregory in the draft will help that unit, although Hardy will miss the first four games with a suspension. Gregory was a preseason stud, and it will be up to him and veteran Jeremy Mincey to put pressure on Eli Manning. That pressure is important, because the Cowboys lost slot cornerback Orlando Scandrick, their best cover man, for the season with a knee injury. Having Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne as your starting cornerbacks requires quarterback pressure and clock management. In truth, this Cowboys team looks like the one we saw before Murray went off last season: too dependent on big plays with the fundamentals askew. -- DF
Eagles at Falcons (Monday, 6:55 p.m., ESPN)
Here we go, folks. After an off-season in which he wrested organizational control from former general manager Howie Roseman and set about re-making the team his way with all kinds of moves, Chip Kelly has an NFL team made in his image for the first time. In Kelly's first two pro seasons, he proved that he was more than a gimmicky college coach. His 20–12 regular-season mark with an offense in transition and a defense that was often a hot mess last year speaks to his football acumen. But did he go too far, too fast? With a new quarterback, two new guards, a redefined running back rotation, a new lead receiver, a new star linebacker acquired for his old running back, a re-tooled secondary ... man, the hits just kept coming this off-season.
However, what we saw in a Week 3 preseason win over the Packers seemed to validate Kelly's moves. New quarterback Sam Bradford completed all 10 of the passes he threw, with three touchdowns and freaky accuracy, giving credence to the belief that as long as Bradford stays healthy and the defense comes around, things could be quite interesting in Philly this year.
The Falcons are dealing with their own changes, though they come from the top with the arrival of new coach Dan Quinn. Seattle's former defensive coordinator, Quinn fields a defense with six new starters and an offense trying to get its head above water after a debacle along the line last season. Quinn is on the right track and will eventually field a team of estimable strength. Problem is, Philly's strengths work directly against Atlanta's weaknesses. The offensive line, with four new starters, will have to deal with an Eagles front seven that could be one of the NFL's best this year. Ends Cedric Thornton and Fletcher Cox are the stars on the defensive front, but it's nose tackle Bennie Logan who will really give Atlanta's blockers fits.
Linebacker Kiko Alonso, acquired from the Bills for former franchise back LeSean McCoy, struggled with injuries all preseason and may not play much, but the linebacker depth keeps that from being a real problem. The Falcons' only hope is to put Julio Jones on newly-acquired cornerback Byron Maxwell and try to engineer a shootout. They don't have the defense to keep it tight—at least not yet—and the Eagles are just further ahead in the game. If DeMarco Murray can torch the Falcons' front seven early, this won't be pretty. -- DF
Colts at Bills (1 p.m., CBS)
This matchup feels more like a main Event than an undercard. Andrew Luck and the revamped Indianapolis offense vs. what is certain to be an attacking Rex Ryan defense should alone be worth the price of admission. (Marcell Dareus's absence due to a one-game suspension does take a little thunder from the Bills' lineup.) Buffalo plays New England next week, then visits Miami. Its playoff fate could be decided by Week 4. -- CB
Chiefs at Texans (1 p.m., CBS)
Kansas City could be a real threat to any opponent this season, with a potentially dominant defense and new receiver Jeremy Maclin ready to make plays. In OLB Justin Houston they have the best pure pass rusher in the NFL not named J.J. Watt. Unfortunately, it will be up to the Chiefs' O-line to handle Watt in this game, and with the addition of Vince Wilfork and a healthy Jadeveon Clowney to that front, look for Alex Smith to check down a lot—even more than he usually does. -- DF
Seahawks at Rams (1 p.m., FOX)
Defensive lines are going to feast in this game. The Rams and Seahawks have two of the best defensive fronts and two of the least established offensive lines in the game today. Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald looks like the league's next true defensive superstar, but the difference in this game could be Seattle's passing attack—not necessarily Jimmy Graham, who was limited to two catches for 25 yards when he last faced the Rams in 2013, but rookie Tyler Lockett, who provides demon speed as a receiver and returner. -- DF
Dolphins at Redskins (1 p.m., CBS)
The Redskins' dance with Robert Griffin III was somewhat lost in a full off-season of Deflategate, but it's Kirk Cousins who's set to be Washington's starter for Week 1 and beyond. After facing a Miami front four of Cameron Wake, Ndamukong Suh, Earl Mitchell and Olivier Vernon, Cousins may want to reconsider his newfound rank. The Redskins' offensive line is not prepared for a defense of this magnitude. On the other side of the ball, a Dolphins offense led by Ryan Tannehill is the main reason many are picking them for a playoff berth this year. Miami on the verge of contention, and Washington still figuring it out? The final score should reflect that disparity.
Saints at Cardinals (4:05 p.m., FOX)
In a Week 1 overtime loss in Atlanta last season, the Saints allowed 37 points and nearly 600 yards. This year's opening opponent may not be quite as explosive offensively, but with a healthy Carson Palmer back, the Arizona offense has enough playmakers—especially at receiver—to knock the Saints on their heels again. Oh, and Drew Brees against Arizona's dynamic secondary might be among the most intriguing showdowns of Week 1. -- CB
Bengals at Raiders (4:25 p.m., CBS)
There would be no better way for the Raiders to declare themselves a team on the rise than by knocking off an AFC North favorite. Make no mistake: Oakland will be a difficult out this year, thanks in large part to its strength along both lines. The Bengals will counter on offense with A.J. Green and a run game that ranked sixth in the league a year ago. A loss here and the Andy Dalton detractors will be out in full force. -- CB
Titans at Buccaneers (4:25 p.m., CBS)
Mariota–Winston 1.0 will be an interesting matchup for that story alone, though quarterbacks don't play each other and it's going to be about overall talent level for last season's 2–14 teams. In that regard, it's the Bucs who have the edge, especially on offense. The question will be whether the Bucs' offensive line can keep Winston upright. Mariota will need to make plays out of structure with the talent around him, and although he's used to that, it's a tough way to live in the NFL. -- DF
Vikings at 49ers (Monday, 10:15 p.m., ESPN)
All eyes will be on Adrian Peterson as Week 1 wraps. The former league MVP did not see any action during the preseason, so Monday will mark his first appearance since Sept. 7, 2014. Matt Cassel was still the Vikings' quarterback then, which means this also will be the unveiling of a Peterson-Teddy Bridgewater pairing. There is a definitive air of expectation surrounding the Vikings. Not so for the 49ers, who merely are hoping to regroup following a miserable off-season. -- CB
Only For The Faithful
Browns at Jets (1 p.m., CBS)
Two first-round picks will be at the center of the action—Danny Shelton along the Browns' defensive line and his counterpart, Leonard Williams, helping anchor the Jets' front. Can either team, each led by middle-of-the-road veteran quarterbacks, move the football? -- CB
Panthers at Jaguars (1 p.m., FOX)
The Panthers' receiver group is so depleted at this point, the team is talking about making fullback Mike Tolbert the “X-iso” receiver on some plays. Tolbert is a great player, but at 5'9" and built like a rusty bucket of bolts, he's not going to give cornerbacks nightmares. The Jaguars continue their seemingly eternal roster rebuild, and it will be up to Blake Bortles to improve on his rookie season against Carolina's sOKtout defense, especially its exciting young secondary. -- DF
• Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant will cover Eagles rookie Nelson Agholor outside, but the real issue for the Falcons is what to do in the slot, where Jordan Matthews makes all kinds of plays. The second-year man from Vanderbilt was the NFL's second-most productive slot receiver in 2014 behind Green Bay's Randall Cobb (64 slot receptions for 835 yards and eight touchdowns), and he continued that mastery this preseason with seven catches for 115 yards. No Falcons slot corner who was targeted more than five times this preseason allowed a passer rating under 95.5.
• How good is Rams second-year defensive tackle Aaron Donald? In his rookie season he tied with Buffalo's Marcell Dareus for third in the league with 24 run stops, and he ranked fifth among all defensive tackles with 44 total pressures. In his two games against the Seahawks last year, Donald put up the same line: one sack, one hit, and three hurries. Seattle's patchwork line is in for it if they can't contain Donald, and few opponents have solved him to date.
• With Jordy Nelson out of commission for the 2015 season, Aaron Rodgers will have to find new targets. Randall Cobb is set as the slot receiver and can do dynamic things outside, but don't sleep on tight end Richard Rodgers. The second-year man from Cal hauled in 30 catches for 225 yards and two touchdowns in his rookie season, but he was a frequent red-zone target in training camp and finished the preseason with five catches for 58 yards and a touchdown. Green Bay's passing game leads to breakout targets, and Rodgers looks like the next one. -- DF
Player with most to prove
Adrian Peterson. The Vikings stood by Peterson through his 2014 suspension and offered him a three-year, $44 million contract extension this offseason. It's now up to him to prove that he's the superstar back he was before. If he does, the Vikings could be playoff-bound. -- DF
Milestone to Watch
If Drew Brees throws four touchdown passes against the Cardinals this Sunday, he'll become the fourth player in NFL history to amass 400 regular-season touchdown passes, following Peyton Manning, Brett Favre and Dan Marino. Tom Brady will be the next to hit that mark, as his four-touchdown performance in the season-opener brings him to 396 regular-season scores. -- DF
Matchup of the Week
J.J. Watt vs. Eric Fisher. The Chiefs made the call to end Fisher's struggles on the left side and move him to right tackle. His first assignment there just happens to be the game's greatest defensive player. So ... good luck with allllll that. Watt can attack from anywhere, but per ESPN.com he took 75% of his snaps last season at left defensive end. Fisher likely will get (and need) help from the Chiefs' tight ends and backs, but he will have his hands full protecting Alex Smith. -- CB
(Update: Fisher has been declared out for Sunday's game. Jah Reid will start in his place.)
The final home openers? All three franchises thought to be considering a possible L.A. move—St. Louis, Oakland and San Diego—will play at their current homes on Sunday, hosting 2014 playoff teams. At least one pitch had two of the Chargers, Rams and Raiders sharing a venue starting in 2016, which means it could be awhile before these clubs all share Week 1 host duties again. -- CB
Burke: 49ers. The correct answer is “No one, it's Week 1.” Saving that, the 49ers could use a feel-good victory in the worst way. Things could turn ugly in a hurry if they fall to Minnesota. Their upcoming schedule: at Pittsburgh, at Arizona, vs. Green Bay. Yikes.
Farrar: Seahawks. It's always tough for this team in the Edward Jones Dome, and if the defending NFC champs come out with a Week 1 loss, they then have to head to Green Bay and face Chicago and Detroit at home. They'll need a strong start against a game opponent with several tricks up its sleeve.
Tecmo Super Bowl Upset Special
We're simulating the entire 2015 season using updated rosters on the classic Tecmo Super Bowl video game. Each week, The Playbook will spotlight the most surprising result:
Not just a win for the 49ers, but a 25-point thrashing of the visiting Vikings on Monday night. Apparently, San Francisco jumping out to a huge lead negated Adrian Peterson's impact—he carried the ball just nine times. (This is probably a good spot to remind everyone that Tecmo Super Bowl quarters are five minutes long.) -- CB
GALLERY: Patriots fans welcome back Brady, pan Goodell