Sunday, September 12, 2010

Week 1 picks: no double-digit favorites

Here are my picks for the first week of NFL games:

Vikings (+6) over SAINTS

Already picked this one here.

Panthers (+7) over GIANTS

The Panthers have Matt Moore as their starting quarterback now, and they go on the road the first week to play a healthy Giants team playing its first regular season home game in a new stadium. Uh oh. Still, Moore has some help: the always-explosive Steve Smith and the solid running back tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The Giants defense, more than likely, will be looking to stuff the run to force Moore to make some throws. In seven games last season, Moore completed 85 of 138 passes for 1,053 yards (150.4 per game), eight touchdowns, and two interceptions -- good enough for a 98.5 QB rating. He was also sacked just nine times and didn't lose a fumble. Even if he didn't throw for a ton of yards or touchdowns, that's still an efficient job of taking care of the ball. So will the Panthers open up their passing attack under Moore, or will they be content to hand the ball off a ton to Williams and Stewart, even if the offensive line can't open up holes early in the game?

The Panthers defense will also have their hands full with Eli Manning and a receiving corps -- Steve Smith, Hakeem Nicks, and Mario Manningham -- with the potential to have an outstanding season. Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs also form a solid backfield duo, assuming Jacobs stops sulking after losing his starting job to Bradshaw.

I think the Giants will put out the W, but the Panthers will keep it close. Unless, of course, Moore starts playing like Jake Delhomme.

Dolphins (-3) over BILLS

The Bills are really bad. They'll start C.J. Spiller at running back, and he's really exciting to watch, but even with his Chris Johnson-like moves and quickness, he's still a rookie. Besides, can he really make up for Trent Edwards being their starting quarterback? I doubt it. Also, the Bills team website lists Steve Johnson as the starting wide receiver opposite No. 1 option Lee Evans. Can other people who follow the NFL closely honestly admit that they know who he is? I'm not so sure.

The Dolphins may not be world-beaters, but they're more talented than the Bills. And after all, if they can't take down a flawed Bills team in Week 1, even if the game is on the road, the potential for a great season may just not be there.

STEELERS (+1.5) over Falcons

The Steelers are going to be without Ben Roethlisberger for four games -- Dennis Dixon will get the start in Week 1 -- meaning that they're going to have to get back to their roots. That will likely mean a steady dose of Rashard Mendenhall and solid, hard-hitting defense. Mendenhall seems to be up for the challenge, and if Troy Polamalu truly is back to being 100 percent, the Steelers may be ready to boast a formidable defense again.

The Falcons, meanwhile, will have their starting quarterback ready to go to start the season, but still face the question of whether or not Matt Ryan is ready to take the leap to the next level of quarterbacks. Ryan had a fantastic rookie season and exceeded all expectations, posting a 87.7 QB rating and leading the Falcons to the playoffs. They didn't get out of the first round, but Falcons fans were confident in the team's future with Ryan under center. Then, Ryan took a bit of a step back last season, posting a lower QB rating (80.9), throwing for fewer yards per game (from 215.0 to 208.3), and throwing more interceptions (from 11 to 14). He did throw six more touchdown passes (from 16 to 22), but he also completed a lower percentage of his passes (from 61.1 to 58.3). Some of that can be contributed to Michael Turner getting hurt and playing in only 11 games, but it's at least worth noting that Ryan took at least a small step back. With Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez as receiving threats and Turner healthy, the Falcons need Ryan to step up in his third season.

Anyway, back to this game: If anyone can win a grind-it-out, ugly game, especially at home, it's the Steelers. Not having Roethlisberger definitely hurts their offense, but they still should find a way to run on the Falcons defense. And if the Steelers defense is completely healthy, even a rejuvenated Falcons attack will have trouble putting points on the board.

BEARS (-6.5) over Lions

I like what the Lions are doing. Matthew Stafford seems to be a competent quarterback, and he's still just 22 years old. The offensive line is slightly improved, and they drafted running back Jahvid Best, who will likely see a ton of work this year because of the current shape of Kevin Smith's knee. The Lions also have one of the best wideouts in the league, Calvin Johnson, and a few other decent receiving options like Nate Burleson, Brandon Pettigrew, and Tony Scheffler. They were also smart and brought in Shaun Hill, an experienced backup quarterback. And on defense, the Lions more than upgraded their defensive line, bringing in Kyle Vanden Bosch from Tennessee and drafting the monstrous Ndamukong Suh with the second pick in the 2010 draft. But how long will it take for all of these young pieces to mesh together? Stafford has a lot of promise, but he still threw 20 picks in his rookie season (also 13 touchdowns) and missed six games because of injuries. Best and Suh are also both rookies, and it'll be tough to expect too much of them out of the gate, even though they're both extremely talented.

The Bears did a little offseason work of their own, with their two biggest additions probably being defensive end Julius Peppers and offensive coordinator Mike Martz. With Peppers, the Bears hope to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks and force more turnovers. And with Martz now calling the plays, the Bears expect to put more points on the board and make things easier for Cutler, who had the lowest QB rating of his career (76.8) last season (his first in Chicago). Cutler threw for 229.1 yards per game and had 27 touchdown passes last season, but he also threw 26 interceptions and was sacked a whopping 35 times. That'll have to change.

I'll take the Bears in this game, especially since they're at home, but I wouldn't be all that surprised if the Lions kept it close or even won -- and finished something like 5-11 or 6-10 on the season, which would be a significant improvement after their 2-14 record last season and, of course, their 0-16 2008 season.

Bengals (+5) over PATRIOTS

A few questions for the Patriots: 1) Is the real Randy Moss going to show up this season despite not having a new contract? 2) How healthy is Wes Welker, and how long will it take for him to return to form? 3) How much will Bill Belichick be able to get out of his defense, especially an unproven secondary? Still, as long as Brady stays healthy, the Patriots should be in a battle with the Jets to win the AFC East.

As for the Bengals, many people are overlooking them in the AFC North (in favor of the Ravens and Steelers) even though they were 10-6 last season and won the division. Then again, maybe that's because they won several close games and outscored their opponents by only 14 points -- by far the lowest point differential among all division winners. The Bengals decided to upgrade their receiving corps both in the draft (receiver Jordan Shipley and tight end Jermaine Gresham) and in free agency (Terrell Owens). Even if Owens has lost a step, his presence on one side of the field, with Chad Ochocinco on the other side, should give Shipley, Gresham, and any other slot receivers plenty of chances over the middle of the field. If Carson Palmer can use all of his weapons effectively and start throwing the ball down the field again, it'll do wonders for Cedric Benson and the Bengals running game, which, along with their defense, carried the team last season.

The Bengals have a knack for keeping games close, and I'd like to see how Welker looks in a real game before believing the Patriots can easily throw the ball up and down the field, let alone against a strong Bengals defense.

Browns (+3) over BUCCANEERS

The Browns boast a small dose of sleeper potential: They finished last season on a four-game winning streak, including a stunning 13-6 win over the Steelers; they found out last season that Jerome Harrison, now the unquestioned lead back after the season-ending ACL injury to Montario Hardesty, is capable of handling a full workload; and they picked up a solid backup quarterback in Seneca Wallace. But there are at least two problems: 1) Jake Delhomme is now their starting quarterback, and 2) they still play in the ultra-competitive AFC North. Delhomme may play well for a week or two, but don't be surprised if he stinks up the place and gets replaced by Wallace at some point in the first few weeks of the season.

The Bucs, likewise, don't have much of a chance of winning their division. Quarterback Josh Freeman, now in his second season, has a lot of work to do to improve on his awful rookie campaign: 59.9 QB rating, 54.6 completion percentage, 10 TD, 18 INT. Rookie receiver Mike Williams has a lot of promise, and Cadillac Williams is easy to root for and should get the majority of the team's carries, but other than tight end Kellen Winslow, the Bucs don't have many offensive threats.

The Browns are better than the Bucs and should be able to run the ball. But who really knows with these two teams.

Broncos (+3) over JAGUARS

Did either one of these teams really improve that much in the offseason? The Broncos, who started out the season hot and then faded to an 8-8 finish, traded away Brandon Marshall and currently have Brandon Lloyd listed as their No. 2 wide receiver opposite Eddie Royal. Yes, that Brandon Lloyd. Knowshon Moreno is an impressive talent and should be able to play in this game, but his main problem has been able to stay healthy. Their defense will also miss linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who's out for the year.

The Jaguars may be a little better than they were last season when they finished 7-9 but were still outscored by 90 points. Maurice Jones-Drew, as long as he's healthy, is always a big-play threat, and the defense should be improved as well. To have a chance at making the playoffs, they're going to need David Garrard to play like he did in 2007 instead of how he's looked the last two seasons. Unfortunately, while he hasn't been bad the last two seasons, he hasn't been great either -- and that just might not be enough for this team.

As long as Jones-Drew doesn't have a huge day, the Broncos should be able to contain the Jaguars offense and at the very least keep this game close. Kyle Orton may also put together a decent performance if the Jaguars can't put much pressure on him.

Colts (-2) over TEXANS

I could write a lot more about this game, especially since a lot of people believe this will be the year the Texans overtake the Colts in the AFC South, but I'll just say this: The Texans are certainly getting better and building a formidable team. But they're going to have to knock off the Colts first, at least before I believe they're taking that next big step. And they won't get a much better opportunity than playing the Colts in Week 1 in front of an excited home crowd.

TITANS (-6) over Raiders

The Raiders defense will keep them in a lot of games, but will their offense be able to put points on the board? Who knows? Jason Campbell provides an upgrade at quarterback, but he's already banged up and has certainly taken plenty of hits from his last few seasons behind Redskins' offensive lines. Darren McFadden gets the start at running back with Michael Bush out, but he hasn't necessarily showed a whole lot in his first two seasons. He's also injury-prone and has missed several games himself. Sooner or later, Campbell may be handing the ball off to Rock Cartwright again -- not necessarily the best of backfield options.

As for the Titans, their game plan hasn't changed that much: 1) get Chris Johnson plenty of carries, 2) don't ask Vince Young to do too much or force the ball down the field very often, and 3) play solid defense.

The Raiders defense is going to have their hands full with Johnson, but they still have the ability to keep the game close. I'd just like to see how well that Raiders offense performs first.

Packers (-3) over EAGLES

Another great matchup in this opening week. The Packers look like a Super Bowl contender with a high-powered offense, while the Eagles have a lot of great pieces with one giant question mark: How good is Kevin Kolb? If Kolb turns out to be a star, the Eagles may very well win the NFC East. But if he's not, he's going to have his hands full -- not just with opposing defenses, but with impatient Philly fans who will be wondering why Donovan McNabb isn't still in an Eagles uniform. Unless the Eagles defense plays a perfect game, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are going to put up plenty of points, so Kolb should have his chances in this game and get tested from the beginning.

49ers (-3) over SEAHAWKS
Cardinals (-4) over RAMS

It's the NFC West, so sure, anything can happen. But a pretty good defense, a solid running game, and a few talented receiving options should be enough to put the 49ers on top of the rest of the division.

REDSKINS (+3.5) over Cowboys

With two offensive linemen out, the Cowboys are wounded heading into the season. Still, with Tony Romo under center and lots of talent at the skill positions, the Cowboys should still be able to score at least a couple of touchdowns against the Redskins new, (potentially) ball-hawking 3-4 defense. The Redskins weren't particularly good at stopping the run during the preseason, but the injured Dallas linemen may play a factor in how well Marion Barber and Felix Jones perform.

On offense for the Redskins, McNabb isn't 100 percent and the offensive line will be tested by the Cowboys stout front four, led by DeMarcus Ware. The Redskins have a lot of questions on offense, so who knows how well all of these new pieces will respond in a rivalry game on Sunday Night Football in the season's first week.

This may be an ugly game played by two teams who look completely different by the time they meet again in December. And that's not necessarily a good thing for either team.

Ravens (+2) over JETS

This game may be the best of Week 1, and for me, the outcome comes down to this: I'd rather roll the dice with Joe Flacco against the Jets defense than Mark Sanchez against the Ravens defense. Regardless, both teams are very good, and they may end up meeting again in the playoffs. Sure, it's Week 1, but with Rex Ryan facing his former team and plenty of other storylines, stay tuned.

CHIEFS (+5) over Chargers

This Chiefs team seems a little different than in previous years. Matt Cassel is still under center, which isn't really all that great, but he's got some talent around him: Jamaal Charles, Thomas Jones, Dwayne Bowe, Chris Chambers, and rookie Dexter McCluster. McCluster is sick and will likely miss this game, but that's still an impressive collection of skill players. Their defense may not be all that improved, but the addition of rookie safety Eric Berry certainly helps.

While the Chiefs have improved their overall talent, the Chargers may have taken a step back. The selection of running back Ryan Mathews in the draft filled a huge need with the departure of LaDainian Tomlinson, and Antonio Gates may still be the best tight end in the NFL. But with tackle Marcus McNeill holding out and wide receiver Vincent Jackson out for at least the first six games (with the possibility that he may never play in San Diego again), the Chargers will be missing two steadying forces on offense. Mathews's presence allows Darren Sproles to keep returning kicks and punts and be the third-down back, so that's one positive, at least. But without Jackson, either Malcom Floyd or Legedu Naanee needs to step up as a reliable target for Philip Rivers.

I'm a fan of what the Chargers do on offense, and as long as Rivers and Gates are both healthy and Norv Turner is in charge of calling the plays, scoring points shouldn't be a problem. But sometimes, even the best teams need more talent, and having two very good players on the sidelines will come back to hurt them.

I think the Chargers will win this game, but I expect the Chiefs to be fired up at home on Monday Night Football.

As always, enjoy the games.

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