- The first full Sunday of the NFL season brought plenty of surprising finishes (Ravens 20, Bengals 0? Rams 46, Colts 9?!) What can we expect on this Week 1 Monday Night Football double-header?
The Bills, Jaguars and Rams all stand alone as division leaders, so Week 1 already has been a little wacky. What does the Monday night doubleheader have in store to close the festivities?
The annual back-to-back is, from this vantage point, among the better ideas the league (and ESPN) have come up with in recent memory. I’d take a few more two-game Monday nights over the steady march of ugly one-game Thursdays, but the limited number of West Coast teams—and the money involved with those Thursday nighters—prevents any real shift.
So, we’ll take what we can get. And this year it’s an appealing pair of games: Adrian Peterson’s new team, the Saints, visits his old team, the Vikings, in a matchup of NFC hopefuls, and then the Chargers make their debut as an L.A.-based franchise during a divisional showdown in Denver.
The previews and picks:
New Orleans at Minnesota
Part of what made the Saints’ addition of Peterson so interesting is that Mark Ingram actually was among the most productive backs in football last season. He totaled 1,362 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns, while averaging 5.1 yards per carry—that’s the same clip Ezekiel Elliott produced, behind only Jordan Howard (5.2) and LeSean McCoy (5.4) among backs with at least 200 rushing attempts. In Ingram, Peterson and rookie Alvin Kamara, the Saints have a deep and versatile backfield.
The question is: How much will they use it? This remains a team still very much built around QB Drew Brees, who attempted a league- and career-high 673 passes a year ago. Even after sending Brandin Cooks to the Patriots, New Orleans still figures to air it out when it can.
Its real x-factor is the offensive line, same as Minnesota. Starting left tackle Terron Armstead (shoulder) won’t go Monday night, leaving rookie Ryan Ramczyk to make his NFL debut vs. a Vikings front that can be lethal off the edge—Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen and Brian Robison combined for 28.0 sacks in 2016.
The Vikings, though, will be crossing their fingers up front, too. Their previously Swiss-cheesy offensive line has just one returning starter (Joe Berger, who is sliding from center to guard), two new tackles (Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers) and a rookie in the middle (Pat Elflein). Their own three-headed rushing attack of Dalvin Cook, Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon will run behind that group, with hopes of improving on Minnesota’s league-worst 3.2 yards per carry from last season.
Of course, the way to beat the Saints now could be the same as it’s been for years, which is to say through the air. Rookie corner Marshon Lattimore and rookie safety Marcus Williams are the latest hopes in the Saints’ secondary, but that unit allowed 273.5 yards per game and 7.2 net yards per pass attempt in ’16. The onus, then, could fall on QB Sam Bradford to test the waters.
Impact player: Peterson. It has to be, doesn’t it? The Saints raved about the 32-year-old back all offseason, and even gave him a chance to show off his receiving chops during camp. While odds are Ingram and (possibly) Kamara will remain above Peterson on passing downs, it’s a bit of a mystery exactly how the Saints plan to use the ex-Viking.
Bold prediction: Laquon Treadwell catches a touchdown pass. I still believe. The No. 23 overall pick in last year’s draft made just one catch as a rookie—it wasn’t a TD. But with Michael Floyd serving a four-game suspension, Treadwell should see time outside when the Vikings roll with three receivers.
Prediction: Saints 27–24
Los Angeles Chargers at Denver
Every offseason, the Chargers seem to emerge as a popular This Is The Year sleeper pick among pundits. If The MMQB’s 2017 season predictions are to be believed, we’re not really buying it—only Jenny Vrentas had the Chargers qualifying for the postseason (although she also had them taking down Oakland in the wild-card round).
Still, the San Diego transfers are a tough out, even when the record doesn’t show it. Last season, nine of the Chargers’ 11 losses came in one-possession games. That mark included a 27–19 loss at Denver, in which Philip Rivers fired four consecutive incompletions from the Broncos’ 2 late in the fourth quarter.
Rivers’s undoing, and that of his team, often remains turnovers. He led the league with 21 picks a year ago and the Chargers coughed it up a league-high 35 times in all. Facing an opportunistic, aggressive Denver defense on Monday night, taking care of the ball obviously will be a key. Feeding RB Melvin Gordon could help; it also would allow L.A. to test the Broncos’ reworked defensive front, which now includes Domata Peko in the middle.
The 2017 Broncos have to be better at stopping the run that their ’16 version. They also have to be more productive on the ground themselves. Denver topped 125 yards rushing in just 25% of its games last season, and its leading back finished (Devontae Booker) finished with a measly 612 yards.
The glaring issues there were two-fold: a porous O-line and opposing defenses not being forced to respect the Broncos’ passing game. Those issues went hand in hand last season, hence the use of a first-round pick on left tackle Garrett Bolles plus the free-agent additions of guard Ronald Leary and OT Menelik Watson. In theory, this should be a better, more athletic front. It has to deal Monday night will the likes of Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram and Corey Liuget.
The QB, however, is the same, albeit with more experience. Trevor Siemian, to paraphrase a Seinfeld line, knows how to take the starting job, he just doesn’t know how to hold the starting job. And that’s really the most important part: the holding.
Impact player: Bolles. Bosa was an obvious choice as Defensive Rookie of the Year last season, despite playing just 12 games, and he is capable of making a run at Defensive Player of the Year in ’17. Allowing Bosa to notch a sack or two wouldn’t be an embarrassing development for Bolles, but he and Watson have to ensure that the Broncos’ edge defenders do not take over Monday’s game.
Bold prediction: The Broncos’ secondary scores a touchdown. This matchup will be must-see when the Chargers have the ball. Keenan Allen’s return from injury, the complementary weapons around him (even sans rookie Mike Williams) and what Gordon can do as a pass catcher all add up to provide Rivers myriad options. He won’t face a deeper group of defensive backs all season, though. And that’s on top of having to keep an eye out for Von Miller’s pass rush.
Bradley Roby snatched a pick-six off Rivers last season, and we already covered the Chargers’ QB’s penchant for turning the ball over. If Denver can force Los Angeles to the air, its cornerbacks and safeties can get to ball hawking.
Prediction: Broncos 23–16