It is with great reluctance that I inherit weekly NFL prediction duties this season. This was a space formerly occupied by Don Banks, a friend and mentor who has been an influential role model as I try to traverse this business. (If you are not aware, Don, after 16 years with Sports Illustrated, filed his final Snap Judgments last week.)
So, if I finish this week 3–13 on picks, let’s just say I don’t want to show up the person who made this a must-read column on a weekly basis.
Another caveat/excuse up front: Based on what we know of the league’s 32 teams heading into Week 1, this will be a difficult year to throw abundant confidence behind any prediction. There are a handful of teams in each conference that stand out as the ones to beat—Arizona, New England, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Green Bay—but not much on paper separating the teams below them.
The NFL loves parity, and there should be more than enough of it to go around this season. But it is more fun that way, for the most part.
What’s in store for Week 1? Which teams will be a mere 15 victories from an undefeated regular season when the dust settles Monday? The picks are below, after a quick look at four players in the spotlight this weekend:
A quartet of players who will be key to this week’s matchups:
1. Dennis Pitta, TE, Ravens: Despite spending a 2014 third-round pick (Crockett Gilmore) and ’15 second-rounder (Maxx Williams) on tight ends, the Ravens signed veteran Benjamin Watson this off-season to add stability at that position. And then, disaster. Watson tore his Achilles during a preseason game, leaving Baltimore with a still-promising but in-flux situation at TE.
A healthy Pitta could be the rock. He once served that role, catching 61 passes with seven TDs from good friend Joe Flacco back in 2012. He hasn’t been able to stay healthy since—Pitta has played just seven games since 2013, none last year. Gilmore and Williams are developing into a productive duo, but Pitta could buy them a little time.
The Bills were stingy against opposing tight ends last season, allowing just 65 receptions (fourth-fewest in the NFL), per Pro Football Reference.
2. Paul Kruger, OLB, Saints: The Saints’ hopes of improving their underperforming pass rush took a couple hits over the summer, with both OLB Hau’oli Kikaha and rookie DL Sheldon Rankins felled by injury. Kikaha will miss the entire season.
A potential assist to the cause came in late August when the Browns released Kruger. The Saints snatched him up and will start him against Oakland on Sunday. And their only real hope of slowing down the Raiders’ Derek Carr-led offense enough is to pressure the young QB. For that to happen, Kruger, two years removed from an 11-sack campaign, has to take advantage of the extra attention paid Cam Jordan.
3. Melvin Gordon, RB, Chargers: In two losses to the Chiefs last season, the Chargers rushed for a combined 96 yards. The paltry production was more or less par for the course in San Diego, as Gordon endured a miserable season: 641 yards rushing, 3.5 yards per carry.
Maybe Gordon never lives up to the hype of a top-15 pick, but he’s better than that. Having his former Wisconsin teammate, fullback Derek Watt, blocking for him will help. And if the Chargers want to signal a 2016 bounce-back by stealing a Week 1 road win, Gordon has to approach triple digits on the ground.
4. Anthony Hitchens, LB, Cowboys: The Cowboys’ defensive ranks have been thinned out by suspensions—Demarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory and Rolando McClain all must sit to start the year. So, naturally, there will be a lot of focus on how that front can generate pressure. Bank that concern for another week. The Giants’ quick-passing game plan does not take Eli Manning totally out of harm’s way, but it does shield him quite a bit. Despite playing behind a middling line last year, Manning was sacked just 27 times.
The pressure instead this week for Dallas falls on the back seven. It can be tough to play bend-but-don’t-break defense against a team like the Giants that thrives on those short and intermediate plays.
How much of a leap forward Hitchens can take in his third NFL season will go a long way toward determining Dallas’s defensive potential. New York’s desire to get the ball out of Manning’s hands and to use its backs and tight ends represents a nice measuring stick in Week 1.
There was a time not all that long ago when the Falcons made an aggressive move up in the draft to nab Julio Jones, believing him to be the missing piece on a Super Bowl contender. (That trade was with Cleveland, as most draft trades are.) Five years and a coaching change later, Atlanta is riding a three-season playoff-less skid. Tampa Bay’s last postseason trip? You have to go even further back, to 2007. Opening with an intra-division matchup cranks up the need to get a win. Tampa Bay gets it done on the road.
Watchability Score (out of 10): 5. The gap from Carolina to the rest of the NFC South still looks massive, so it depends on how devoted you are to the division’s wild-card hopefuls.
The Six Degrees of Sam Bradford game is going to be fascinating once his career ends. For example: Bradford was traded for Nick Foles, who split time in Philadelphia with Mark Sanchez, whose backup for a time in New York was Kellen Clemens, who then backed up Bradford in St. Louis. That’s only three degrees of separation, but you get the gist.
As for this game, it could be the newly acquired Bradford or long-time veteran Shaun Hill under center for Minnesota. The deciding factor, though, will be whether or not Tennessee’s revamped rushing attack can find any space against the stout Vikings D. It won’t be easy.
Watchability Score: 3. Losing the appeal of a Teddy Bridgewater–Marcus Mariota matchup tanked this mark.
OddsShark has the combined win-total props for these two at 11.5, so if Cleveland and Philadelphia merged, the resulting team might be able to win a division. The Eagles still could pull a minor surprise in the NFC East, if Carson Wentz is more ready than the coaching staff seemed to think he was like a week ago. This is about the cushiest debut Wentz could get, scheduling-wise. Even though the Browns’ record may not show it, they’re finally headed in the right direction. It’s still going to be a long year.
Watchability Score: 8. There is obvious intrigue here, between Robert Griffin III’s first regular season start as a Brown and Wentz’s opener.
If the NFL crowned its champion like, say, the Premier League—i.e., no playoffs—then the Bengals might be a dynasty. As it is, they’ve won double-digit games each of the past four seasons. The Jets hit 10 wins themselves last year, only to miss out on the postseason. The matchup of their defensive front against the Bengals’ two-headed rushing attack of Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill is about as tantalizing as it gets in Week 1. The Jets’ offense, though, will be what pushes them over the top.
Watchability Score: 9. Leave your anti-Andy Dalton stance at the door. This will be an entertaining knock-’em-down battle in the trenches.
No team received as much off-season love as the Raiders, who were pegged by many to ride their resurgence right into the 2016 playoffs. This is still a difficult Week 1 draw for them, even when considering the Saints’ disappointing 7–9 home mark over the past two seasons. Oakland is a legitimate postseason contender, but it also has many new faces on defense. While it all should come together eventually, this shapes up as a D that will be much tougher in October than it is Sunday. That’s a tricky spot to be when Drew Brees is on the other sideline.
Watchability Score: 8. This is a good spot to be if you like offense—the over/under is set just north of 50 points.
That predicted score alone counts as a step forward for the Chargers, who lost their two games to the Chiefs last season by a combined 43–6 count. Kansas City is the better team across the board (and one not receiving enough love as an AFC West/Super Bowl threat), but San Diego is bound to be more competitive than in 2015. One major issue looming for the visitors: run defense. Bringing in Brandon Mebane helps, but with late-arriving rookie Joey Bosa looking doubtful for Sunday the front remains shorthanded. Kansas City RB Spencer Ware could dial up a huge afternoon in place of Jamaal Charles.
Watchability Score: 6. The loser will have dug itself a hole in the AFC West. This also could be Week 1’s biggest upset if San Diego pulls it off.
Rex Ryan is that friend we all have who wants you to be excited about everything as he is. “Dude! You’ll never believe it. I was walking down the street and bam!, there was just a quarter lying on the ground!” He needs to translate that enthusiasm into results. Doing so without Marcell Dareus (suspension), Shaq Lawson (injury) and Reggie Ragland (injury) won’t be easy, although Brandon Spikes’s return mitigates the Ragland hit some. Now healthy, Baltimore will get back to its old, familiar game plan running the ball to set up a Joe Flacco deep shot. That approach will work well enough Sunday.
Watchability Score: 6. The Bills have a sneaky explosive offense, with Tyrod Taylor, LeSean McCoy and Sammy Watkins. Plan on a back-and-forth second half.
It’s the Brock Osweiler Show! Which, I guess, people want to watch? I dunno. I’m approaching all that buzz the same way I view 2 Broke Girls episodes: Don’t necessarily get the appeal, but someone must like it. If Osweiler provides even a slight bump from Houston’s previous QBs, the defense and Lamar Miller-led run game can help carry the Texans a long way. Chicago’s defense has improved again; its offense can hang up points in a hurry through the air. It’s not ready to go on the road and steal one Sunday.
Watchability Score: 3. Houston is among Week 1’s most overwhelming favorites, at nearly a touchdown. If J.J. Watt is on his game, this could get ugly.
Wavered on this pick before locking in the Packers, in a shootout. Green Bay has lofty expectations headed into 2016, but a) let’s not assume the offense has left all of its 2015 problems behind, and b) the Jaguars are going to score some points. Green Bay’s suddenly Josh Sitton-less line also will have its hands full against the likes of Malik Jackson and Dante Fowler. All that said, Jacksonville still has to prove it belongs with the big boys.
Watchability Score: 9. Aaron Rodgers may be the league’s top QB, but Allen Robinson deserves to be mentioned among the best receivers. Talent all over the place here.
The Dolphins may have to wait a couple weeks before fully selling everyone on the Adam Gase era—after this opener in Seattle, they visit the Patriots (sans Tom Brady) in Week 2. In the words of Ron Swanson, “I would wish you the best of luck, but I believe luck is a concept created by the weak to explain their failures.” Gase’s offensive scheme begs for patience. Where Miami might have a chance to make this interesting is up the middle on defense, where Ndamukong Suh might tee off on rookie center Joey Hunt. Granted, getting into the backfield doesn’t mean Suh will be able to chase down Russell Wilson.
Watchability Score: 2. The Dolphins can make this interesting for a while, but the Seahawks are going to pull away before it’s over.
Scratch what I said about the Chargers being capable of pulling Week 1’s biggest upset. The real stunner is that this game is not one of the three Sunday/Monday prime-time affairs. Most eyes will be on Dallas’s Dakstreet Boys anyway. Can rookie QB Dak Prescott carry over his brilliant preseason into a game that counts? He and RB Ezekiel Elliott are going to have to be locked in, because the Giants will move the ball when they have it. Don’t sleep on another potential first-year star, New York WR Sterling Shepard.
Watchability Score: 8. If Prescott finds a comfort zone when facing Jason Pierre-Paul, Olivier Vernon, Jonathan Hankins and Damon Harrison, we can start talking about him as the real deal.
Are you relatively healthy? Do you know how to play football? If so, the Colts could use a lil' help this week. CB Vontae Davis and multiple members of the D-line will be missing Sunday. Heck, even Andrew Luck unexpectedly showed up on the injury report this week (“Andrew Luck, probable, wrapped in a giant ball of pillows to keep him safe”). There’s enough firepower with Luck in the lineup to win on home turf. But the Lions’ offense, in Game One post-Calvin Johnson, will be a handful to match up against for healthy teams.
Watchability Score: 6. He has his critics, to be sure, but Luck’s return could be a game-changer in the AFC ... certainly in the AFC South. Pump the brakes if Detroit steals the W.
Set aside that the Patriots’ QB sounds like a made-up animal from a Dr. Seuss book—“Do I go? Is it so? Why yes, said the Garoppolo.” Bill Belichick’s staff time and again has proven to be the pinnacle of week-to-week game planning, so this won’t be a cake walk for the Cardinals. It also doesn’t figure to be a picnic for Tom Brady’s fill-in. The Cardinals just ooze versatility, on both sides of the ball. And their offense is just too good to let this one get away.
Watchability Score: 8. Would be a 10 if Brady was in the lineup—this could be a very early Super Bowl preview, after all.
Washington feels like it is being overlooked in the NFC picture, if for no other reason that so much has been made of its divisional rivals’ off-seasons. The defending NFC East champs have a chance to make a statement out of the gate by knocking off Pittsburgh. Easier said than done. It’s no secret what the Steelers are capable of offensively, even with Le’Veon Bell out for several weeks and Martavis Bryant absent for the season.
Watchability Score: 8. Hey, if you don’t want to see the Josh Norman–Antonio Brown matchups this game will provide, then the NFL might not be for you.
Week 1 concludes with the NFL’s odd, annual late-night doubleheader. Unfortunately for the ESPN marketing team, the NFC West’s clear top two teams play on Sunday—Seattle vs. Miami and Arizona vs. New England. Who knows what the Chip Kelly regime will bring to San Francisco? In Year One, at least, probably lots of points allowed and double-digit losses. Still calling the 49ers win here. It has become a Jeff Fisher hallmark for the Rams to play to the level of their competition. Which means this game could be hideous.
Watchability Score: 1. There won’t even be the possibility of a Jared Goff sighting if the Rams deactivate him Monday night. Oh, also, Chris Berman is on the call. You’ve been warned.
Surprise star of Week 1
Jerick McKinnon, RB, Vikings. Most teams will stack the box against Adrian Peterson, and the Titans will be no different. Bradford or Hill will have to convert a few difficult third downs, which means plenty of snaps for McKinnon—Peterson is a two-down back at this point. And McKinnon, who averaged 8.2 yards per catch last season, is dangerous is his own right.
Upset of the Week
Detroit (+3.5) over Indianapolis. Health is important at all points of the NFL season, but especially the two bookends: the very start and the playoffs. The Colts are banged up to the point where their depth (or lack thereof) will have trouble overcoming it, even with Luck at the ready.
College Upset of the Week
East Carolina (+5) over N.C. State. Most of the top 25 has a cushy Saturday ahead of it, so we dip outside the rankings for an interesting in-state rivalry game. Both teams have talent—I hope the NFL team that drafts him can figure out how best to use NC State TE/RB/WR/Everything Jaylen Samuels. It’s tough to win at ECU, though.