Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Week One Picks and Predictions

I know it's a little early (still 16 days away) but I'm really excited. Here are my week one picks. You'll notice I am picking against the spread this year instead of straight-up.

Vikings @ Saints
Line: New Orleans by 4

A great way to kick off the season. Two of the best quarterbacks, two of the best teams. This should be a really fun way to begin football season, although the Favre-frenzy will be predictably nauseating. And you can expect about 25 references to the Gulf Oil Spill.

Minnesota has one of the league’s best defenses, but nobody was able to stop Drew Brees last season and that's not going to change. New Orleans will be smart and only run the ball 10-15 times while Brees completes upwards of 30 passes against a suspect secondary. It should be more of the same for the Saints’ offense – plenty of balls to go around and plenty of yards. The only matchup that should concern New Orleans is LT Jermon Bushrod trying to handle the beastly Jared Allen. But Brees is a master of the pocket and isn’t rattled by anything. RG Jahri Evans matches up against DT Kevin Williams in a clash of two of the NFL's best players.

There’s no question the Saints will light up the scoreboard. They led the NFL in scoring with 32 per games last year. The only problem will be if they can keep the Vikingss from doing the same.

A new-look defense that is without last year’s captain Scott Fujita is a cause for concern, but Jonathon Vilma should step into the MLB position and play well. He’ll have the unenviable task of chasing Adrian Peterson around all night. It’ll be tough for the Saints to get an adequate pass rush on Favre, who should comfortably complete 70% of his passes and control about 90% of the spotlight. But if Brad Childress is smart, and I think he is, they’ll run AP about 30 times up the gut and test an undersized, under-talented defense and try to move the chains slowly but surely. There is no defense for Drew Brees; but you can keep him on the sidelines if you have Adrian Peterson. And that’s just what the Vikings should do.

Everyone is anticipating a barn-burner to kick off the season. Most predictions will fly in the 30-40 range and that’s my first instinct as well. But the more I think about it, this will be a game of controlling the clock, moving the chains, and limiting mistakes. I think whoever gets the ball last will win.

Which means that, against the 4 point spread, I’ll take Minnesota.

Lions @ Bears
Line: Chicago by 7

The Lions haven’t won an interdivisional game since October of 2007, at Chicago, when Jon Kitna outdueled Brian Griese. This appears to be one of the Lions’ few winnable games this season, and playing against one of the league’s worst quarterbacks is highly favorable. But there’s one matchup that flat-out distresses me, and that is Jeff Backus against Julius Peppers.

I’ll get to that in a second. First, let’s get something straight. The key to the Lions offense is Calvin Johnson. Without him, this is the worst offense in the NFL, bar none. When Calvin is double and triple teamed, he’s not effective. This is all obvious stuff. Well, the Lions made some very intentional moves this offseason by adding Nate Burleson, Tony Scheffler, and Jahvid Best, all of whom should contribute to the gameplan – get Calvin the ball. Ideally, it will work. Against bad defenses, it will work.

But against Chicago, who acquired one of the game’s best pass-rushers in the offseason, I see a potential flaw in the strategy. Jeff Backus. He’s okay against mediocre defenders, but against elite pass rushers like Peppers, he gets smoked like a cheap cigarette. The Lions’ management knows this, or at least they should, and they’ll have to gameplan accordingly.

They have two choices. One – leave Backus one-on-one against Peppers and see what happens. Two – double team Peppers using tight ends and running backs. If we chose option one, we lose. End of story. So let’s hope we choose option two.

But if we do that, we’ll have to chip Peppers with a running back and/or put Brandon Pettigrew in his way. (Scheffler is not a blocker). More likely, it’ll be the running back trying to keep Peppers from dismembering our $72 million dollar quarterback. Well, the problem with that is that Jahvid Best and has no NFL experience blocking beasts like Julius Peppers. He’ll get torn to pieces. Or more likely, he’ll just stay out of Peppers’s way. So the Lions will put veteran Maurice Morris out there on passing downs, which will alert the Bears’ defense that it’s going to be a pass. If the Lions opt to run the ball with Morris 10-15 times a game, that’s good news for the punter, but not for anybody else. Morris is a nice guy, a good role player, but he doesn’t have speed, power, or elusiveness, and the Bears will stop him with just a 4 man front. Which means … you guessed it, Calvin Johnson is bottled up by a CB, a safety and a linebacker on short routes. That spells doom.

Or we can try to establish the run before we go to the pass, hoping to spring Calvin into single coverage on the play-action. Even if Jahvid Best is as good as we all hope he is, this still won’t work, for two reasons. One – the Lions stink at run-blocking. And two – we’ve been trying this strategy for 15 years and it’s never worked.

We’re just going to have to suck it up and let Stafford make some throws. Chicago doesn’t have a good secondary. And Stafford, dare I say, has looked pretty good in preseason. Against the Bears of 2009, I’d like our chances to score 3 or 4 touchdowns and stay in this game.

But with the addition of Julius Peppers, a top 3 overall defensive end, you can color me more than just a little nervous. Stafford is a different quarterback when the pocket is collapsing. He’s panicky, not as accurate, and very turnover-prone. Peppers might only have 1 sack in this game, but his presence could lead to 2 or 3 interceptions and plenty of incompletions.

You might say that if they double Calvin Johnson that will leave somebody else open. That’s what Lions’ management have been trying to sell us all summer. It’s not true though. No defense would double team a receiver using two cornerbacks. It doesn’t work like that. It’s a CB and a safety. And the way to beat the double team is by running the ball, thus bringing the safety up into the box. The Lions haven’t done that at all in recent years, and won’t be able to do it as they gameplan around Peppers.

So how will the offense fare? I’m not as pessimistic as I sound. I think we’ll move the ball quite well, score a TD or two, and see immediate dividends from Burleson and Scheffler. I think Stafford will have a better game than most of his rookie games even if we lose. But I think we’ll have several three-and-outs and field position is key when you’re playing against a mistake prone quarterback like Jay Cutler.

A lot of folks love the Cutler-Martz amalgamation in the Windy City, even though they’ve been responsible for more interceptions than any two individuals in the NFL over the past five years. Teaming them up seems like a crazy experiment. But it’s so crazy, it just might work.

Martz’s pass-happy offense relies entirely on timing. I know people always say that about everyone, but it’s totally true. Every pass play in the playbook is “Get to a spot, turn around, and the ball will be there.” As a result, Martz’s quarterbacks have to make split-second decisions and occasionally, suffer the results. If the receiver gets jammed at the line or bumped off his route, the ball is up for grabs. Over the course of the season, that should make for at least 20 interceptions for Jay Cutler, and maybe a whole lot more.

But in week one against the Lions, he’s probably pretty safe to launch the ball 45 times and not have more than 1 or maybe 2 picks. Chicago’s receivers aren’t fantastic, but they’re better than Detroit’s secondary. And if Martz wants to just win the game and not do anything fancy, they’ll let Matt Forte run 30 times and rack up 150 yards and dominate the game in that manner. But fortunately for the Lions, Mike Martz is not smart enough to do that. So we have some hope.

We’re massively mismatched in the secondary, but believe it or not, we’ve got the advantage in the trenches. Ndamukong Suh has been violently double teamed all throughout the preseason and that won’t stop week 1, which means VandenBosch and Avril will have clear shots at Jay Cutler all game. And Chicago has one of the league’s least talented offensive lines, which is a well-kept secret.

So that issue for Cutler, just like Stafford, will be how he responds to the pass rush. And in that case, I like our chances. Because want to know another secret? Jay Cutler stinks.

As a starting quarterback, Cutler has a 24-29 record. His career quarterback rating is an 83 and he has 81 TDs to 63 INTs. And last season, behind a shaky offensive line, Cutler had his worst pro season by far. Against the much improved Lions’ defensive line, he could be in for a disappointing day.

There’s no question that the Bears will score in this game. The Lions’ secondary is simply too bad not to allow a 70 yard TD pass. But if the defensive line plays extremely well, I think we can limit Chicago to just 3 or 4 scoring drives and 21-24 points. All Matt Stafford has to do is match that production and the Lions could be 1-0.

Overall, I think Detroit blows this game in the fourth quarter. But I think we’ll keep it close and competitive, and lose by less than 7. So I’ll take Detroit against the spread, but Chicago straight-up in a 24-20 game.

Dolphins @ Bills
Line: Miami by 3

This is the most shocking line of week 1. How can Miami, a top ten overall team, be only favored by 3 points against the AFC’s worst team, a team with no offensive identity, two injured running backs, and no quarterback to speak of?? They could have made this line 10 and I wouldn’t have been shocked. In fact, I still would have taken Miami.

I think this’ll be a bloodbath. If Miami’s defense is available in your fantasy league, I’d pick them up for a one week play. They’ll win by at least two touchdowns.

Raiders @ Titans
Line: Tennessee by 6.5

This is another shocking line, and another easy pick.

But I guess it makes sense. The betting public still sees Oakland as a laughingstock. But those pathetic Raiders died the day JaMarcus Russell was sent packing, and this is a new team. Jason Campbell does a good job of managing the offense and playing within himself as long as the running game is clicking, and Tennessee’s patchwork defense should make that a pretty easy task. I wouldn’t be surprised if Michael Bush surprises everyone with 100 rushing yards and 2 TDs, while Campbell plays a smart and mistake-free game and the Raiders offense rolls right over Tennessee.

Of course, Chris Johnson might have some slight impact on the outcome of this game. He won’t have a tough time surpassing 100 yards in this game – in fact he might get close to 200. But Vince Young will only have one side of the field to pass to, as Nnamdi Asomugha shuts down the other side. Don’t expect anything from the Titans passing attack – maybe 125 yards. But if Johnson keeps moving the chains, he could keep the game interesting.

I’m not completely opposed to the idea that Tennessee might win this game, but I am opposed to the 6.5 line. I’ll take Oakland.

Bengals @ Patriots
Line: New England by 5

This is another line that is probably inflated because of perception rather than reality. People see the Bengals in the news because of the freakshow at wide receiver, and think that makes them a great team. Cincinnati’s not a great team. They’re an okay team. But New England is still a Super Bowl contender.

If Welker were still expected to miss the beginning of the regular season, I’d give this game some thought and the line of 5 would make more sense. But Welker should be 100% healthy and as Tom Brady’s favorite target, I think he’ll catch 8-10 passes and torment the Bengals’ defense all game. Cincinnati’s defense is better than average, but it’s not quite a top 5 unit. They have no chance to slow down the Brady-Welker-Moss attack.

Sure, I’m intrigued to see how TO and Ocho interact and how Palmer plans to spread the ball around and make both guys happy. My guess is that #3 receiver Antonio Bryant gets completely neglected as does rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham. But this was a run-first team last season, and that should remain the same. However, it’s tough to run against Vince Wilfork and the Pats, and the lack of a pass rusher might encourage Palmer to throw 35+ times, which he only did 3 times last season.

Between TO and Chad, one of them will score and I’m sure they’ll engage in a stupid dance. It will make all the highlight reels and they’ll probably get fined for it. But Tom Brady will calmly go about his business and carry the Pats to a pretty easy win, 34-23.

Panthers @ Giants
Line: NY by 7

According to Vegas, this is only projected to be the 7th highest scoring game of week 1. The over/under for total points scored is set at 41. I’d bet the over.

Why? Because these are two pretty stinking good offenses, and neither defense will be able to keep up. Carolina’s two-headed running attack and elite offensive line will be no match for the blitz-happy Giants who don’t have much at the DT positions and will sorely miss MLB Antonio Pierce. They just signed 33 year old Keith Bullock to patrol the middle, but I don’t think he’ll be able to keep up with the Panthers’ spry duo. Both Williams and Stewart are excellent fantasy plays. The Giants have a very good secondary, but if Matt Moore only attempts 15 passes that won’t be much of a factor.

And on the other side of the ball, I don’t have anything positive to say about the Panthers’ Peppers-less defense. They won’t be able to rush Eli, stop the running backs, or cover the trio of talented receivers. Play all your Giants this week – especially Steve Smith and Bradshaw. I might even play Eli if you have him.

This will be a high scoring affair, but I don’t know if Carolina will be able to keep pace without a passing attack. I see the Giants winning somewhere around 38-27. I’ll take New York and the over.

Falcons @ Steelers
Line: Atlanta by 2.5

Obviously, the only reason the Falcons are favored in Pittsburgh is the absence of Ben Roethlisberger. But the Steelers’ four best players – Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, James Farrior and Lamar Woodley, will all be healthy and ready to go.

Matt Ryan has one heck of a test in his first regular season game. And for that matter, so does the Falcons’ offensive line. It’s going to be paramount for Michael Turner to get established early and keep Troy Polamalu from blanketing Roddy White too much. If they can keep Troy near the line of scrimmage, they can beat the Steelers’ secondary deep. A player to watch is Harry Douglas, who should step past Michael Jenkins as Atlanta’s #2 receiver and will have a favorable matchup against Bryant McFadden. Douglas is extremely fast. McFadden is not.

But again, the key is Michael Turner. Can he move the chains and keep Atlanta on the field? If not, it’s going to be a long day for the offensive line against Dick LeBeau’s relentless blitz packages. .

Byron Leftwich will get the start for Pittsburgh and will be told a simple message – hand the ball off and don’t make mistakes. Atlanta’s best defensive player is CB Dunta Robinson, who will blanket Hines Ward and keep him under 50 yards. The linebackers are also pretty good, but not amazing. Rashard Mendenhall should be able to average 4.5 yards a carry and should go well over 100 yards if he gets enough carries. Mike Wallace, Pittsburgh’s #2 receiver, will only have 2 or 3 catches, but he’ll go for 70+ yards and a score. Leftwich won’t do much, but he’ll do enough to get Pittsburgh off to a 1-0 start. Don’t forget, Pittsburgh is 19-5 at home in the last 3 years.

I’ll take dem Stellers.

Browns @ Buccaneers
Line: Tampa Bay by 3

I’m sorry, but no team that starts Josh Freeman at quarterback should ever be favored by 3. Especially given the fact that Freeman injured the thumb on his throwing thumb and is questionable for this game. The backup? Josh Johnson, who was 0-4 with a QB rating of 51 in his four starts last season. Yeesh.

I know Jake Delhomme was dreadful last season, but he’s a guy who has thrown for 123 career TDs and 20,000 yards. He’s a 12-year vet. He was drafted when Josh Freeman was ten years old. He knows how to manage an offense. And he’s moving from a run-first team with a great offensive line in Carolina to … a run-first team with a great offensive line in Cleveland. Jerome Harrison and rookie Montario Hardesty could very well be a two-headed rushing attack similar to the one Delhomme played with in Carolina. Which means his job is simple – manage the offense, don’t make mistakes.

And with Josh Cribbs and Seneca Wallace, Cleveland could generate a pretty deadly Wildcat attack. They’ve got a possession receiver in Robiskie and a deep threat in Massaquoi. The Cleveland offense at least has potential.

Tampa has a very bad offensive line, below average running backs, two rookie receivers, and Philly castoff Reggie Brown. The best player on their offense is Kellen Winslow. Eeeeeek.

Their defensive isn’t much better. They ranked 27th last year – including dead last against the run, allowing 158 yards per game. Gerald McCoy will help, but he was the only major acquisition to a defense in need of desperate overhaul. The Browns defense, on the other hand, added Sheldon Brown, Scott Fujita, and #7 pick Joe Haden, plus they still have Shaun Rogers in the middle.

This game won’t be pretty, it won’t be memorable, but it will be a win for Cleveland.

Broncos @ Jaguars
Line: Jacksonville by 2.5

This might be the only time all season the Jags are predicted to win, but it’s a good line. It could even be higher. Jacksonville’s not a great team, but they’re much better at home and have revamped their defense just enough that they might be competitive this season.

I’ve made no bones about my contempt for Denver and their stupid coach, and losing their two best players – Clady and Dumervil – for the entire year before the preseason even started was pretty much a nail in the coffin. But they could win 6 or 7 games and be scrappy and annoying. They also have definite 0-16 potential.

But this game fits perfectly for Jacksonville. Denver couldn’t stop the run last year, and rather than draft a linebacker in the first round like they should have, they took Tim Tebow. Maurice Jones-Drew will make them regret that decision. Denver’s strength is the secondary – Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins – but David Garrard only needs to complete about 15 passes to win this game. MJD will do the rest. He should be a safe bet for 200 all-purpose yards.

When Denver does have the ball, they’ll be interesting to watch, mainly because I have no idea who their starting running back or receivers will be. Will Eddie Royal be the top target, or Jabbar Gaffney, or rookie Demaryius Williams? Will Knowshon Moreno get 20+ carries, or will coach McDaniels take a page out of Bill Belichick’s playbook (like he has done so many times before) and split the carries evenly between Moreno, Buckhalter and Fargas? Will Tebow play if the game gets out of hand? And most importantly, how will they slow down Aaron Kampman without a left tackle?

There’s no use going on and on, because obviously I’m taking Jacksonville and the over. Maurice Jones-Drew is the Play of the Week for fantasy football.

Colts @ Texans
Line: Indy by 2.5

Wow. This is definitely the game of the week in my opinion. And the line is curiously low. I know Houston is at home, but are they really such a trendy team in Vegas that Peyton Manning doesn’t even get a +3 line?

This is projected to be the second highest scoring game of week 1, and for good reason. Both teams have good defenses, but both teams have elite offenses. Houston has studs in the front 7 with Mario Williams and DeMecco Ryans, but losing cornerback Dunta Robinson could really come back to bite them in this game. Manning will be his usual deadly self, and of course you must start all your Colts in fantasy. Wayne and Clark should each go for 75+ yards and a score, and it will be really interesting to see if Garcon, Collie, or Anthony Gonzalez is the #2 receiver. It will also be interesting to see if Addai handles all the carries, or if Donald Brown shares the load.

For Houston, a lot of people continue to doubt Matt Schaub’s status as a legit quarterback. We know he’s an elite fantasy option, but is he really at the level to keep pace with Manning for 60 minutes and score against great defenses? Or is he just the benefactor of playing alongside the NFL’s best receiver? Well, this game will tell a lot about Schaub. I don’t think Houston will even bother running the ball more than 15 times, which means Schaub should fling it around 40-45 times.

Last year Indy picked off Schaub 4 times – twice in each game. How well the offensive line can contain Freeney and Mathis will dictate whether that happens again. In any event, it’s hard to pick against Peyton Manning, against the spread or straight up. I love the Texans this season, but I’m not sure about this game. Although if they win, it’s a huge, huge statement.

If the line were 5, I’d think about it. But at 2.5, I’ll take the Colts.

Cardinals @ Rams
Line: Arizona by 4

I’ve had this strange crush on the Rams for about 5 seasons even though they’ve been dreadful. Now that I’m picking against the spread instead of straight-up, I can take them more often without feeling like an idiot. Arizona is obviously a different team than the squad that won the NFC West two years in a row. The defense is decimated, Anquan Boldin is gone, and of course, Matt Leinart must put down the beer keg and pick up the football for the first time since 2006. Over the last two seasons, Leinart has only attempted 10+ passes in four games. The Cards are 1-3 in those games, with the one win coming against St. Louis.

But Matt Leinart does have one thing going for him. Larry Fitzgerald. And St. Louis can throw double and triple and quadruple teams at Larry and still not stop him. They have the most talent-deficient roster in the NFL. And if they do gameplan entirely around stopping Fitzgerald, as I suspect they will, that leaves the middle of the field wide open for Beanie Wells. Oh and by the way, Arizona added Alan Faneca, future Hall of Famer, this offseason to play left guard. Faneca was one of the key pieces behind the Jets leading the NFL in rushing last season. So suffice it to say, Beanie Wells is gonna have a good season, starting week 1 against the Rams. In fact, 150 yards might not be out of the question, as Ken Whisenhunt will want to run early and often to keep the ball out of Leinart’s hands as much as possible.

While the Rams have the ball, expect a heavy load of Steven Jackson in an effort to keep Sam Bradford upright and dirt-free. He’ll probably hit Laurent Robinson or Donnie Avery for a deep ball and score his first NFL touchdown, but I’d except his week 1 stats to look pretty conservative. 12-25, 140 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT. Steven Jackson meanwhile should run 25 times for 120 yards and give the Rams a shot at winning. They’ve been outscored 93-16 in their last three season openers. This one should be a lot closer.

Expect a lot of running for both teams, low scores, and the Cardinals to come out on top, 20-13. Huge games for both running backs.

49ers @ Seattle
Line: San Fran by 2.5

Okay, let me get this straight. The line is only 2.5 points. But San Francisco has a better team than Seattle at literally every single position. Does that make sense?

I guess Seattle is at home, and Alex Smith isn’t exactly Mr. Consistency, and Pete Carroll will have plenty of hoopla surrounding his first NFL game in Seattle. I guess Matt Hasselbeck is probably healthy by now and runs the West Coast Offense pretty effectively. I guess Seattle should have a chance in this game. But I just don’t see it.

In my opinion, Seattle’s best strategy on offensive is to hand the ball to Justin Forsett, their speedy halfback. Let him create plays out of nothing, and hope the offensive line comes together. (Although losing #6 overall pick Russell Okung for a few weeks with a ankle injury does not help).

But while that strategy might work for the season, it won’t work against San Francisco, who will counter with the tenacious Patrick Willis. You can’t run against Willis. You just can’t. So while Forsett might rack up 70 or 80 yards if he gets enough carries, Seattle’s going to have to throw to win. Which means they’ll have to protect Hasselbeck. And it also means someone is going to have to catch the ball. With TJ Houshmandzadeh still suffering from a sports hernia injury (whatever that means), it’s likely going to be rookie Golden Tate opposite Deon Branch for the Seahawks. Nothing too scary for the 49ers. Tight end John Carlson might lead the ‘Hawks with about 6 catches in this one.

I don’t see Seattle scoring more than 20 points against the stout Niners defense. And 20 points should be no sweat for Alex Smith, Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and the gang. Gore might be able to score 20 points singlehandedly. It’ll be interesting to see if Ted Ginn Jr. is the #2 receiver or if it’s Josh Morgan.

I’ll take the Niners in what I believe to be the easiest pick of week 1.

Packers @ Eagles
Line: Green Bay by 2

What an interesting line. With such a low line, it’s like they’re daring me to pick the Eagles. I mean, how often does a team with eight returning Pro Bowlers give two points at home? I am tempted. But with a line of 2, this is basically just a straight pick ‘em game. And it’s hard to pick against Aaron Rodgers.

Philly’s defense seemed to get quite a bit worse in the offseason, and losing Sheldon Brown and Will Weatherspoon could bit them in the butt. Asante Samuel will have his hands full with Greg Jennings, and that leaves Ellis Hobbs to cover Driver. The linebackers will have a tough time against beastly tight end Jermichael Finley. We all know how bad Ernie Sims is in coverage. And the Eagles’ defensive line, which used to be their strength, won’t be very effective against an improved Packers’ O-line.

Rodgers should begin his MVP season on a tear, with 350 yards and 3 or 4 TDs. And don’t sit Ryan Grant if he’s on your fantasy team. He should rumble for 75 yards or so and a score. Philly’s going to have to score a lot of points to win this one.

I don’t see it happening. Nothing against Kevin Kolb, who is a very accurate passer and will have a great career in Philly. Nothing against Jackson or Maclin or Celek or McCoy either. It’s a good all-around offense. But they’re playing a pretty good defense, and the bottom line is Philly’s going to need at least 30 points to win. I don’t see that happening.

Cowboys @ Redskins
Line: Dallas by 3.5

In case you’re not counting along, that’s seven road favorites so far. The only home dog I’ve picked thus far has been the Steelers. I probably should take at least two. But I don’t like the idea of picking against Dallas. I wish this line was a little bit bigger. I think this’ll be a close game. Mike Shanahan has such a colossal coaching advantage over Wade Phillips that it’s ludicrous.

But you can’t pick against talent, and Dallas simply has more than the Redskins. Rookie left tackle Trent Williams gets to face the league’s best pass rusher in DeMarcus Ware and will be lucky if he survives the game. That’s going to make things very uncomfortable for McNabb, who will probably be checking down to Cooley and the running backs quite often. He’s not as strong-armed or fast-footed as he used to be, but I’m sure he still has the accuracy in his short passes. And that’ll be key to Washington moving the ball, because they’re not going to get much production on the ground against DT Jay Ratliff and the stout inside linebackers. Dallas probably has the best front 7 of any defense, but McNabb might be able to outduel them with short little passes and screens.

Few quarterbacks have expectations as high as Tony Romo, who has more weapons than ever before and very few excuses if he doesn’t succeed. Since I predicted Dallas to go 12-4 and win the division, I certainly hope he does succeed. But the Cowboys do have a glaring weakness – at left tackle, where unproven Doug Free doesn’t seem to be the answer. Against teams with great pass rushes, Romo is going to be hurried and hit. But Washington doesn’t have much besides OLB Brian Orakpo; and of course they have a giant question mark at DT where Albert Haynesworth may or may not refuse to play. In the 3-4 system, you need a reliable and large nosetackle. If Haynesworth continues to suffer from rhabdomyolysis (breakdown of muscle fibers in the bloodstream), then Maake Kemoeatu will start at nosetackle, lined up across from two Pro Bowl offensive linemen in Andre Gurode and Leonard Davis. This could mean lots and lots of rushing yards for Dallas’ trio of talented tailbacks.

Despite this game being in Washington, I still like Dallas to win. I’ll say 27-21, and they cover the spread.

Ravens @ Jets
Line: NY by 3

Lots and lots of interesting subplots make this a perfect Monday nighter. Of course the main story is Jets’ coach Rex Ryan making his return to Baltimore, where he was defensive coordinator for many years. He knows Ray Lewis and the Ravens intimately, but the reverse is true. There won’t be any secret strategies in this game – just smashmouth football and lots of violent defense.

This game features three of the best defensive players in the NFL – but two of them, Darelle Revis and Ed Reed, might miss the action. Reed is definitely out for a few games with a hip injury; Revis is holding out. The other aforementioned player is of course Ray Lewis .

If Revis plays, I like the Jets’ chances. Well, let me rephrase that. If Revis doesn’t play, the Jets have no chance. Anquan Boldin will torch them. But if Revis does play, Boldin will be minimized, and the Ravens will have to run.

But the Jets aren’t as defensively impenetrable as people think. They were only 8th best at stopping the run last year, and NT Kris Jenkins is on the PUP list. They’ve got very good inside linebackers (Bart Scott and David Harris) but not a fantastic defensive line. Ray Rice should be mildly successful; the key is that Baltimore has one of the best offensive lines in football. So even against the aggressive blitz schemes of Rex Ryan, I think the Ravens will keep Flacco protected for the most part. He’ll probably take one or two hard hits, but should have a solid game. Revis or not, Baltimore will be able to score some points.

Can the same be said for the Jets? With Santonio Holmes suspended, Braylon Edwards and Jericho Cotchery will be the primary targets. They’re lucky enough to face the Ravens without Ed Reed, not to mention that Baltimore’s top two cornerbacks are both likely to miss this game with injuries. But none of that matters if Marc Sanchez stinks. Which he very well might.

The most interesting thing about this game is that it pits last year’s #1 rushing attack against a defense which has been top 5 against the run since 2006. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata is a bonafide stud. And Ray Lewis is pretty good too. So though the Jets have a Pro Bowl offensive line and a bruiser in Shonn Greene, I think Marc Sanchez is going to have to throw on the injured Ravens’ secondary for the Jets to win. It’s strength against strength, and weakness against weakness.

This game comes down to Sanchez. How will he begin his sophomore season? I don’t know, but I’m taking the Ravens.

Chargers @ Chiefs
Line: San Diego by 5.5

How did Kansas City, who hasn’t played a Monday night game since 2005 when they had Trent Green, manage to host an Monday night game on opening weekend? It makes no sense. You would think this game would be Cowboys/Redskins or Colts/Texans or at least Steelers/Falcons. KC has won 10 games over the last 3 years! How does a team with no playoff aspirations warrant a Monday night game at home on the first weekend of football season?!?

That all being said, I don’t think Kansas City is completely outmatched in this game. The primary reason is injuries and suspensions. Chargers’ starting left tackle and Pro Bowler Marcus McNeil is definitely out for week 1 (he’s on the ‘exempt list,’ whatever that is) and will likely miss most of the season due to his holdout. And star wide receiver Vincent Jackson is out for 2 reasons – he’s holding out, and he’s suspended. So he definitely won’t be playing.

This is great news for KC’s defense. While Phillip Rivers will still be under center and Phillip Rivers will still be extremely good, he’ll be without his best lineman and his best receiver. Antonio Gates is of course still a threat, but neutralizing one Pro Bowler is easier than neutralizing three. Chiefs’ outside linebacker Tamba Hali, an underrated pass rusher with 27 sacks in his 4 year career, will have a field day against Chargers’ untested left tackle replacement Brandyn Dombrowski, who’s parents apparently didn’t know how to spell ‘Brandon.’ Kansas City isn’t great on the defensive line, but they have Mike Vrabel and Derrick Johnson and Demorrio William, three pretty good linebackers along with Hali. The corners are probably good enough to hang with Chargers’ receivers and don’t forget KC has stud rookie Eric Berry at the safety position. He’ll have a fun matchup with Antonio Gates.

I’m not suggesting that the Chiefs’ defense will stifle Phillip Rivers by any means, but I am quite sure that losing McNeil and Jackson will be an issue. Expect San Diego to score about 24 or 27 points in this one; by contrast, they averaged 40 against the Chiefs in two games last year.

A lot of eyes, especially from fantasy owners, will be on Chargers’ rookie running back Ryan Matthews. He should see the ball plenty in this game, maybe as much as 20 or 25 carries. I think he’ll be good. Not amazing. But pretty good. Maybe 85 yards, maybe a score.

The running back who I think will be amazing in this game is Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles, who I think has 1,500 yard potential this season. The dude rolled for 1,120 yards last year on less than 200 carries, and has some serious, blazing speed. He’s probably the second best ‘home-run’ threat among running backs, behind Chris Johnson. The offensive line isn’t great, but it’s pretty decent, particularly on the left side, and Charles should tote the rock about 25 times compared with only 5 or 6 for Thomas Jones. This allows Matt Cassel to limit his passes and slowly start pulling out the play-action later in the game. San Diego’s defense really isn’t very strong (20th against the run last year, 11th against the pass, 16th overall) and losing their #1 cornerback in Antonio Cromartie (now with the Jets) doesn’t help. The defense line is weak, the inside linebackers are mediocre at best, and the secondary is a weakness as well.

With the game being played in Kansas City, and the Chargers' holdouts and sense of entitlement, I like the Chiefs to pull off the shocker. That’s my upset of the week.

And now for a little section called “Fantasy Studs and Duds.” I will let you know which guys who are not typical starters I would recommend starting this week, and which usual starters I’d consider leaving on the bench. The players’ positional ranking for week 1 (in my opinion) is in parentheses.

Quarterbacks –
STUDS: Jay Cutler (#3), Eli Manning (#6), Chad Henne (#8), Alex Smith (#9)
DUDS: Tony Romo (#11) Phillip Rivers (#12), Joe Flacco (#17)

Running backs –
STUDS: Beanie Wells (#4), Jamaal Charles (#7), Matt Forte (#8), Ronnie Brown (#10)
DUDS: Michael Turner (#12), Ray Rice (#17), Ryan Matthews (#21), Shonn Greene (#22)

Wide Receivers –
STUDS: Brandon Marshall (#2), Wes Welker (#7), Steve Smith NYG (#8), Johnny Know (#10)
DUDS: Steve Smith CAR (#19), Roddy White (#22), DeSean Jackson (#24), Mike Sims-Walker (#29), Anquan Boldin (#33)

Tight Ends –
STUDS: Zach Miller (#5), Visanthe Shiancoe (#6), Kevin Boss (#9), Anthony Fasano (#11)
DUDS: Jason Witten (#10), Tony Gonzalez (#14), Todd Heap (#20)

Defenses –
STUDS: Miami (#1), Jacksonville (#6), Oakland (#9), Cleveland (#14)
DUDS: Philadelphia (#23), New Orleans (#25), Minnesota (#29)

Enjoy Week One everybody (even though it's not for 2 weeks).


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