Week 1 kicks off with the Super Bowl champion, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as they face the Dallas Cowboys, who have Dak Prescott back in action. There are plenty of enticing games as Julio Jones makes his first regular season appearance with Tennessee against the Cardinals and Justin Herbert squares off against Ryan Fitzpatrick in Washington. Sam Darnold gets his revenge game out of the way early, taking on the Jets at home. There is no MNF doubleheader this year, but the Ravens will face the Raiders on Monday Night Football. Matthew Stafford sees a familiar opponent despite moving out west, as the Rams face the Chicago Bears.
Thursday, Sept 9th
Dallas Cowboys @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The NFL did well for itself with the first game of the season as two of the early favorites to come out of the NFC will play in primetime. Of course, this will also be the ring ceremony and the beginning to the title defense for the Buccaneers. Tampa quarterback Tom Brady found himself towards the end of last season as he threw for 22 touchdowns to just 4 interceptions over the final eight games of the year, including four playoff games and a highly-efficient Super Bowl MVP performance. The Cowboys spent their offseason remaking their defense, signing a bunch of depth players headlined by former Falcons’ safeties Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee. Dallas also drafted stud linebacker Micah Parsons in the first round and spent their first six picks in the draft on defensive players. However, this remade unit still isn’t nearly good enough to contend with the likes of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown on the outside.
It wound up being a lost season for the Dallas Cowboys in 2020 as their offensive line was decimated by injuries and Dak Prescott only saw the field for five games before suffering a compound ankle fracture. With the O-line back intact and Prescott back in action, Dallas’s offense should be able to shine with some of the best skill position talent in football between Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup. In 2019, the Cowboys fielded the 6th-highest scoring offense in football, and I believe in their ability to get back to around that territory this year with their guys getting healthy. This will certainly be a tough test for them early on, though, as Tampa allowed the 8th-fewest points per game. The Buccaneers fielded an especially dominant run defense in allowing the fewest yards and touchdowns on the ground as Lavonte David and Devin White formed arguably the best interior linebacker duo in the NFL. However, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean, and Carlton Davis will have their work cut out against Cooper, Lamb, and Gallup.
Both of these offenses are likely to get off to hot starts in this game, and Vegas has recognized that likelihood with a staggering over-under total of 51.5 points. I have a lot of faith that Dak Prescott, fresh off a six-year $240 million contract with the Cowboys, will lead this Cowboys team to one of the best records in the NFC behind one of the highest-scoring offenses in football. However, I expect the Buccaneers to come out firing on all cylinders and a full offseason of work in Tampa will work wonders for Brady in terms of continuity and confidence. Tampa Bay is the favorite to be the #1 seed in the NFC, and they kick off their Super Bowl defense with a win here.
Matchup To Watch: Lavonte David and Devin White (TB LBs) vs Ezekiel Elliott (DAL RB)
My Pick: Buccaneers win 30-24, Cowboys cover, over 51.5 points
Sunday, Sept 12th
Jacksonville Jaguars @ Houston Texans
These two AFC South teams are headed in completely opposite directions at the moment. At the time of this writing, it is unclear if quarterback Deshaun Watson will suit up for Week 1 or even play another snap in the NFL. He’s facing 22 active civil lawsuits, each filed by a woman claiming Watson engaged in sexual misconduct. It’s unclear whether or not those lawsuits will be settled in time for the start of the NFL season. It feels like ages ago, but before Watson was embroiled in a complex legal process, the former Clemson quarterback seemed to be halfway out the door of Houston. Even if he manages to settle all of the lawsuits and suit up for this season, there’s a good chance he never plays another game in a Texans’ uniform. This roster is scarred by the remnants of a series of awful decisions made by former head coach/general manager Bill O’Brien, and I’m of the opinion that the Texans have the worst roster in the NFL. The offensive line is a mess beyond Laremy Tunsil, the receiving corps is totally underwhelming, and the running back room is full of washed-up veterans like Mark Ingram and David Johnson; Philip Lindsay, who’s 26 years old, is the youngest RB on the roster. Jacksonville may have one of the worst defenses in the NFL this season, but they still have the upper hand over this Houston offense, especially if it’s Tyrod Taylor instead of Watson under center.
The Texans may not win a single game this season and they’re really set up for an epic tank job. It’s just too bad that didn’t happen one year earlier as they could have been in the sweepstakes for new Jaguars’ quarterback Trevor Lawrence. The number one overall pick is ready to usher in a new era of football in Jacksonville alongside new head coach Urban Meyer, and you really couldn’t ask for a better matchup to start the young passer’s career. Houston cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell and Bradley Roby had fine seasons last year, but the Texans have a complete lack of pass rush off the edge and Lawrence will likely have all day to sit in and throw the ball to D.J. Chark, Marvin Jones, Laviska Shenault, and fellow first-round pick and former Clemson player Travis Etienne. The Texans allowed the 4th-most passing yards and the 8th-most passing touchdowns in the NFL last year, making this a beautiful matchup for a rookie quarterback to start with.
Trevor Lawrence accumulated a 34-2 record while at Clemson with both losses coming in the postseason and he’s ready to start winning some games in the NFL as well. Deshaun Watson is a proven winner in his own right, but this has been a bizarre offseason and it really doesn’t feel like he’ll be on the field for Houston in Week 1. New Texans’ head coach David Culley has a brutal uphill battle to turning this team around into a winning club, and that won’t be made any easier without the superstar Watson. These are likely the two bottom-half teams in the AFC South this season, but Jacksonville is quite a bit better and it will show in Week 1.
Matchup To Watch: Trevor Lawrence (JAX QB) vs. Texans’ pass defense (4th-most passing yards allowed last season)
My Pick: Jaguars win 27-20, Jaguars cover, over 45.5 points
Los Angeles Chargers @ Washington Football Team
Justin Herbert is coming off an outstanding rookie season for the Chargers in which he broke almost every rookie record conceivable including 396 passing completions, 4,336 yards, and 31 touchdowns. The Chargers will be hoping their offseason moves to reshape the offensive line will make his life easier in 2021, as well. Formerly one of the worst O-lines in football, Los Angeles now boasts one of the best featuring former All-Pro center Corey Linsley, a free-agent pickup this offseason. First-round pick Rashawn Slater may end up being a steal at left tackle and he’ll provide an excellent bookend across from Bryan Bulaga. The Chargers still have some excellent skill position talent, even after losing tight end Hunter Henry. Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Austin Ekeler provide an explosive trifecta of pass-catchers. This offense has the potential to be one of the league’s best this season, but they got a brutal Week 1 draw in Washington. Slater and Bulaga will have to contend with Chase Young and Montez Sweat, arguably the best edge-rushing tandem in the NFL, while Linsley will be up against Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne. Los Angeles just won’t have the requisite level of continuity to deal with that type of talent up front this early in the season.
Washington will be debuting new quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in this game. The journeyman quarterback will make a start for the 9th team of his career and has exceeded anyone’s expectations as a 2005 7th-round pick. Even after losing Trent Williams and Morgan Moses over the last two offseasons, Washington should feel good about their offensive line, especially after the resigning of offensive guard Brandon Scherff. Former Bears left tackle Charles Leno Jr. will likely be matched up with former Defensive Rookie of the Year and two-time First-Team All-Pro defensive end Joey Bosa, a monster of a matchup. New Chargers’ head coach Brandon Staley was the defensive coordinator for one of the best units in the NFL in the Rams last season, and he’ll be hoping to lead a similarly elite group with the Chargers. A healthy season from Derwin James seems like a tall order at this point, but that would go a long way towards making this defense one of the better units in the NFL. The second-round pick of Asante Samuel Jr. was awesome in the sense that he’s a highly-talented player who fills a major need. However, this cornerback group will be up against some talented wideouts, primarily Terry McLaurin and Curtis Samuel. RB Antonio Gibson also proved in his rookie year that he has what it takes to succeed in the NFL.
All of the hype for this game will be surrounding Justin Herbert kicking off his sophomore season in the NFL behind one of the best offensive lines in football. However, I have legitimate concerns about the Chargers’ offense in this matchup. We saw the Washington defensive line win games on its own last season, and the offense should be much better as Ryan Fitzpatrick represents a significant upgrade over the turnstile that was the quarterback position for Washington last year. Fitzpatrick gets a win in his first game with his new team.
Matchup to Watch: Rashawn Slater and Bryan Bulags (LAC OTs) vs. Chase Young and Montez Sweat (WAS DEs)
My Pick: Washington wins 23-20, Washington covers, under 44.5 points
Seattle Seahawks @ Indianapolis Colts
No quarterback has a wider range of outcomes for the upcoming season than Carson Wentz. In 2017 he put up MVP-level numbers as he threw for 33 touchdowns to 7 interceptions and led the Eagles to an 11-2 record before an injury cut his season short. Last year, he completed just 57.4% of his passes and threw just 16 touchdowns to 15 interceptions on his way to a 3-8-1 record before being benched for Jalen Hurts down the stretch. Luckily for Wentz, Indianapolis head coach Frank Reich is the offensive mind who unlocked his high-upside potential in 2017, and Colts fans will be hoping Reich can pull a rabbit out of a hat with Wentz again this season. Wentz is surrounded by talent in this Colts’ offense and is backed by one of the most talented offensive lines in the league. Eric Fisher is coming off a torn Achilles, and the former Pro Bowler will be tasked with replacing a stalwart in Anthony Costanzo. However, with Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Mark Glowinski, and Braden Smith back in tow, the Colts have some of the best offensive line continuity in the league. With Jonathan Taylor and Marlon Mack forming a powerful 1-2 punch at RB, the Colts should have a great rushing offense, although the Seahawks allowed the 5th-fewest rushing yards in the league last year.
While Seattle’s defense is incredibly inconsistent, their offense is one of the most powerful in the league. Russell Wilson played at an MVP level for much of last season on his way to 4,725 combined passing and rushing yards and 45 combined touchdowns. D.K. Metcalf broke through in a way most weren’t expecting with 83 catches for 1,303 yards and 10 touchdowns while Tyler Lockett put up 1,054 yards and 10 touchdowns of his own. Stud corner Xavier Rhodes will likely be tasked with shadowing Metcalf on the outside, while Lockett likely sees an easier matchup in this game against Rock Ya-Sin or Kenny Moore. The Colts have strong defensive personnel at all three levels headlined by Rhodes, Darius Leonard, and DeForest Buckner; Leonard and Buckner were First-Team All-Pro players last season. Buckner is joined by first-round defensive lineman Kwity Paye on the line, and those two will have a field day against an offensive line that Russell Wilson sort of threw under the bus earlier this offseason.
It’s hard to envision a better starting point for Carson Wentz in his first season in Indy as the Seahawks allowed the 2nd-most passing yards in the NFL last year and couldn’t stop a blind snail from putting up 300+ passing yards and 100+ rushing yards last season. Akhello Witherspoon could be a crucial signing at cornerback and Jamal Adams will hopefully play a full season, but this Seattle defense is still very beatable. On the other end of the ball, Xavier Rhodes is one of the few corners in the league who can hang with D.K. Metcalf and the Colts’ offensive line is a tremendous match for a strong Seattle front seven. Both of these teams should be playoff squads this season with fringe Super Bowl hopes, but I’ll give the slight Week 1 edge to the home team in Indianapolis.
Matchup to Watch: D.K. Metcalf (SEA WR) vs. Xavier Rhodes (IND CB)
My Pick: Colts win 27-23, Colts cover, under 52 points
New York Jets @ Carolina Panthers
REVENGE GAME! In Sam Darnold’s first NFL game not in a Jets uniform, the Panthers’ new quarterback will take on his former team. It’s hard to remember, but Darnold was a former first-round pick with all sorts of hype for his career. I love the landing spot in Carolina for him as head coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady will craft an offense catered to his strengths that will help him succeed. Darnold also has plenty of pass-catching talent at his disposal between D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, and second-round rookie Terrace Marshall Jr. at receiver as well as the elite Christian McCaffrey at running back. McCaffrey’s 2020 season was cut short, but in 2019 he put up 1,000+ rushing and receiving yards. Darnold will be thrilled to play with a former teammate in Anderson, and Marshall has plenty of experience in Joe Brady’s offense from their time together at LSU. Carolina’s offensive line is a bit of a mess, but I have faith in the coaching to make this offense hum. New York’s defensive line is stacked with talent between Quinnen Williams, Carl Lawson, Folorunso Fatukasi, and Vinny Curry, and Robert Saleh is going to quickly transform this into an above-average defense, especially against the run. The team’s cornerbacks are overmatched against Carolina’s pass-catchers, however.
On the other side of the ball, I absolutely love what the Jets have done this offseason. Zach Wilson has phenomenal upside and I love the fit with West Coast offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur. Fellow first-round offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker is going to form a lockdown pairing on the left side with tackle Mekhi Becton. Elijah Moore is a speedy, shifty slot receiver who has a bright future, and he’ll join a talented group of pass-catchers with Corey Davis, Jamison Crowder, and Denzel Mims. The running back group is underwhelming, but this offense is absolutely headed in the right direction. First-round cornerback Jaycee Horn will join Donte Jackson and A.J. Bouye is a talented crop of corners, but outside of Brian Burns this team doesn’t have much in the way of pass rush. Carolina was a bottom-half defense in both passing and rushing yards allowed, so this provides a nice opportunity for this fresh group of players to get some reps under their belt.
Sam Darnold has one heckuva chance to prove his former team wrong for letting him go this past offseason, and the Jets’ defense is susceptible to allowing big gains by the great talent in this Carolina skill position group. Both of these teams have a lot more talent than perhaps the national media would have you believe, and both are capable of shock playoff bids in 2021. I have high hopes for Zach Wilson and I love the hire of Robert Saleh as the team’s new head coach, but I’m rolling with Darnold’s Panthers here.
Matchup to Watch: Sam Darnold (CAR QB) vs. the Jets (his former team)
My Pick: Panthers win 26-23, Jets cover, over 43 points
Minnesota Vikings @ Cincinnati Bengals
Bengals fans have been waiting for Joe Burrow to take the field again following a gruesome injury to his left knee that ended his rookie season after 10 games. Luckily, it sounds like he’s well on his way to full recovery and should be good to go for Week 1. Burrow threw for 13 touchdowns to 5 interceptions in his rookie year, and I’m expecting a sizable second-year jump for him. The Bengals spent this offseason acquiring more offensive pieces for Burrow to benefit from. Riley Reiff will provide a stabilizing presence on the offensive line and rookie Jackson Carman will likely start from Day 1. A full season of health from left tackle Jonah Williams would make this O-line more than serviceable. The Bengals also drafted Ja’Marr Chase, a former LSU teammate of Burrow’s, in the first round. Chase is one of the best receiver prospects I can remember scouting in quite a while and the added chemistry with Burrow means he should be able to produce right away. He joins Tyler Boyd and second-year pro Tee Higgins in one of the best receiver rooms in the league; Minnesota cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland, Patrick Peterson, and Cameron Dantzler are going to have their hands full with this crew. The Bengals will be hoping for a breakthrough season for running back Joe Mixon, and this could be a great place to start as the Vikings allowed the 6th-most rushing yards in the NFL last season. However, they do get key players Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr back from injuries as well as nose tackle Michael Pierce back from an opt-out of last season.
Minnesota had one of my favorite picks of the first round of this year’s NFL draft as they landed stud left tackle Christian Darrisaw while trading back and picking up extra draft compensation. Darrisaw is a much better run-blocking tackle than Reiff was (now with the Bengals) and that means Dalvin Cook should have even more opportunities on the ground. The Vikings saw incredible production from their skill position players last season and that should have Bengals’ defenders more than a little nervous. Dalvin Cook had over 1,900 yards from scrimmage and 17 total touchdowns, Adam Thielen had 925 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns, and Justin Jefferson made the Pro Bowl as he put together one of the best rookie seasons in recent memory, catching 88 passes for 1,400 yards and 7 touchdowns. Cincinnati allowed the fourth-most rushing yards in football last season and haven’t done enough to improve a shaky front seven. Trae Waynes is back after missing all of last season with an injury while Cincy will be hoping free agency signings Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton help improve this pass defense, but I don’t have high hopes for this defense overall. With Kirk Cousins fielding an efficient offense with plenty of talent across the field, I believe the Vikings could run the score up in this game.
The big media storyline here will be the return of second-year quarterback Joe Burrow from injury and the debut of his former teammate, rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase. While the Vikings’ defense could have some issues with those two, their front seven will shut down Cincy’s run game and could make their offense rather one-dimensional. The Bengals don’t have the answers for the Vikings’ talented skill players and I expect Minnesota to kick off their season with a decisive win at home.
Matchup to Watch: Christian Darrisaw (MIN OT) vs. Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard (CIN DEs)
My Pick: Vikings win 30-20, Vikings cover, over 48 points
Arizona Cardinals @ Tennessee Titans
I had my doubts about this Titans team after they lost two key pass-catchers in Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith as well as offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, the new head coach of the Falcons. Then, they traded for Julio Jones to form the best wide receiver tandem in the NFL with A.J. Brown. Julio only played in 9 games last year, and he sadly broke his streak of six seasons with 1,300+ receiving yards, but the future Hall of Famer still has plenty left in the tank. A.J. Brown has surpassed 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first two NFL seasons and has scored 19 touchdowns through 30 professional games. There are only a handful of teams in the NFL who can reasonably defend against this pair, and the Cardinals aren’t one of them. Robert Alford hasn’t seen meaningful playing time since 2018 and free agency signing Malcolm Butler is hit-or-miss. Byron Murphy, a tremendous slot corner, doesn’t have the chops to guard either Brown or Jones on the outside. Arizona will be excited about the potentially potent pass-rushing duo in J.J. Watt and Chandler Jones, but I believe Tennessee’s offensive line can hold up. Right tackle is still a bit of a question mark, but with Taylor Lewan returning from his ACL injury, the rest of the offensive line comes in with strong continuity. Arizona’s front seven will be boosted by the presence of first-round rookie Zaven Collins, but slowing down a freight train in Derrick Henry is no easy feat. Ryan Tannehill has been one of the most efficient quarterbacks in football since joining Tennessee and he’ll be excited to take on a beatable Arizona defense.
I’m very excited for Kyler Murray’s continued elevation into the ranks of the best quarterbacks in the NFL this season. The former #1 overall pick in 2019, Murray still hasn’t produced the MVP-level numbers I know he’s capable of. However, he leapt from 20 passing touchdowns to 26 last season and clearly benefited from the addition of DeAndre Hopkins, one of the best receivers in the NFL. In his first season in Arizona, Hopkins caught 115 balls (2nd-most) for 1,407 yards (3rd-most). He only landed with 6 touchdowns, but Murray took away some of those opportunities with his legs as he ran for 11 touchdowns. Hopkins will be joined by A.J. Green, a free agency addition, and Rondale Moore, the team’s second-round pick this year. The Cardinals’ offensive line comes in with some nice continuity and the Titans’ front seven is weak even after the addition of Bud Dupree. Janoris Jenkins was a nice pickup in free agency, but it’s unclear if Caleb Farley will be ready to play across from him in Week 1. The Titans’ defense has some decent players in Kevin Byard, Jeffery Simmons, and Jayon Brown, but I don’t see them being much of a juggernaut this season. They allowed the 9th-most points in the NFL last year.
With the incredibly exciting offensive talent on both sides of the ball matched up with two very beatable defenses, this could be the highest-scoring game of Week 1. Between A.J. Brown, Julio Jones, and DeAndre Hopkins, this matchup features some of the most exciting receiving talent in the NFL and not a whole lot of defenders who have a chance of stopping them. This feels like the type of game where the team who has the ball last will win, and I’ll give a slight edge to the Titans on account of their ability to control the ball with Derrick Henry. However, I can’t say I’d be shocked if the Cardinals win here and this is one of the games I’m most looking forward to in Week 1.
Matchup to Watch: A.J. Brown and Julio Jones (TEN WRs) vs. Robert Alford and Malcolm Butler (ARI CBs)
My Picks: Titans win 30-28, Cardinals cover, over 51.5 points
San Francisco 49ers @ Detroit Lions
It was quite the offseason of transition for the Lions as they’re hoping to lay the foundation for a new era of football in Detroit. New head coach Dan Campbell brings with him an old-school, smashmouth mentality and that shone through all of the team’s offseason decisions from drafting three offensive/defensive linemen with the team’s first three draft picks to bringing in running back Jamaal Williams and defensive tackle Michael Brockers in free agency. Offensive tackle Penei Sewell fell into Detroit’s laps in the first round, and the front office was stoked. He’ll be thrown into the fire against the 49ers, though, as Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, and Dee Ford make this one of the better defensive lines in the NFL. Bosa, in particular, is a potential DPOY candidate. Sewell is joined by Taylor Decker and Frank Ragnow in a surprisingly solid offensive line. Unfortunately, the rest of the offense lacks juice. Jared Goff is a notable downgrade from longtime quarterback Matthew Stafford, and I have little faith in his potential to turn his career around and become a solid starter at the position. Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones left in free agency and were replaced by Breshad Perriman and Tyrell Williams. Tight end T.J. Hockenson and running back D’Andre Swift are the most talented skill players in Detroit, but this offense is going to struggle, especially against a defense that allowed the 2nd-fewest yards in the NFL in 2019 before an injury-riddled 2020 season.
Jimmy Garoppolo’s future in San Francisco is highly questionable after the team traded up to draft Trey Lance in the first round. Lance, a North Dakota State product, is pretty raw and likely not ready to start right away. Regardless of which quarterback is under center, this offense is going to be very exciting. Resigning Trent Williams, arguably the best left tackle in the game, was a huge priority and he’s joined by a solid offensive line across the board. I also have high hopes for what the trio of Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and George Kittle can do if all three stay healthy. Kyle Shanahan is an offensive genius, and the 49ers’ run game should be among the league’s best again as well. The Lions allowed the most rushing touchdowns and the fifth-most rushing yards in the league last year, and while a combination of new coaching and new players should help the front seven improve this season, it’s unlikely it all comes together right away. The Lions also really struggled to cover wide receivers and tight ends in the slot last season, and the Niners can absolutely exploit that weakness.
After making a run to the Super Bowl in 2019, the 49ers had a depressing come-back-to-earth season in 2020 as they were crushed by injuries more than any other team in the NFL. However, with a clean bill of health, talent all over the team, and some phenomenal coaching top-to-bottom, I believe the Niners are a playoff team again and potentially a dark-horse Super Bowl contender. They get off to a hot start in the 2021 season with a decisive win over what might be one of the worst teams in football this season.
Matchup to Watch: Nick Bosa (SF DE) vs. Penei Sewell (DET OT)
My Pick: 49ers win 27-13, 49ers cover, under 46 points
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Buffalo Bills
The final score of the Steelers-Bills game from last year suggests Buffalo earned a convincing victory as they won 26-15. However, a Taron Johnson pick-six of Ben Roethlisberger right before halftime gave the Bills a 9-7 lead and their offense only contributed 6 points outside of a quick 2-touchdown burst in the third quarter. The game could have easily gone the other way, and I expect this one to be very competitive. Josh Allen had a down game against Pittsburgh last year as he threw for just 238 yards and completed just 55.8% of his passes. Allen threw for 4,544 yards and 37 touchdowns to 10 interceptions across the whole season, completing 69.2% of his passes, so Pittsburgh challenged him in a way few other defenses could. With T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Tyson Alalu, the Steelers have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. Devin Bush will be healthy to shore up the linebacker corps and the secondary is very solid overall. Josh Allen is well supported with Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley returning, both of whom were All-Pro talents last year. Gabriel Davis will take over much of John Brown’s responsibilities on the outside while Emmanuel Sanders provides a steadying veteran presence at receiver. Devin Singletary and Zack Moss were very inefficient last year and Buffalo may have a one-dimensional offense, something that could prove problematic against Pittsburgh’s ferocious pass rush.
Ben Roethlisberger did throw for 33 touchdowns to 10 interceptions last year, but the 39-year-old quarterback is clearly starting to fade into the distance and it’s a bit surprising that the Steelers didn’t do more to try to identify a long-term replacement for him. They did, however, spend a first-round draft pick on a running back capable of shouldering a 300+ touch burden in Najee Harris. The Bills were a middle-of-the-pack run defense last season, so this is a great launching-off point for Harris’s career. Buffalo does, however, have some top-end secondary talent in cornerbacks Tre’Davious White, Levi Wallace, and Taron Johnson as well as safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. Pittsburgh has a dynamic three-headed monster at wide receiver with Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and JuJu Smith-Schuster that Buffalo will need to keep in check. However, Roethlisberger only threw for 187 yards the last time these teams played and had 2 interceptions to match his 2 touchdowns.
This will be an intriguing rematch between two playoff teams from last season, and the Bills will be hungry for a win after falling just short of a Super Bowl appearance last season. These are two interesting offenses, but the Steelers could need some time to integrate their new offensive coordinator in Matt Canada and I just don’t have the same level of confidence in a 39-year-old Ben Roethlisberger as I do in a young gun MVP candidate in Josh Allen.
Matchup to Watch: Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson (PIT WRs) vs. Tre’Davious White and Levi Wallace (BUF CBs)
My Pick: Bills win 28-21, Bills cover, under 50 points
Philadelphia Eagles @ Atlanta Falcons
The Julio Jones trade threw a wrench into the Falcons’ offense just a bit, but I’m still very excited to see what Matt Ryan can do in new head coach Arthur Smith’s system. Kyle Pitts, the team’s #4 overall pick, is not your typical rookie tight end. The 6’6”, 240 lb behemoth ran a 4.4 40-yard dash; he can split out wide and should be a high-impact pass-catcher right away for this team. Calvin Ridley will step up and become the #1 overall receiver, and he proved he’s capable of that last year when he caught 90 balls for 1,374 yards and 9 touchdowns. While Darius Slay is a solid cornerback and Rodney McLeod and Anthony Harris have been serviceable safeties, I don’t believe the Eagles have the guys to hang with Ridley or Pitts. There’s a reason the Falcons, who had needs on the offensive line and all over the defense, prioritized the lethal pass-catcher out of Florida. Mike Davis will take over the lead back spot after an ineffective season from Todd Gurley, and he’ll have opportunities to run against what was a bottom-half run defense last season. Philly still has talent on the defensive line, but Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham aren’t getting any younger and the linebacker corps is weak. Russell Gage may have the best matchup against Avonte Maddox as the Eagles attempt to use their top defensive backs on Ridley and Pitts.
Eagles fans should be excited to see what Jalen Hurts can get done after he earned the starting quarterback job with some solid play down the stretch. Rookie first-round pick Devonta Smith, a player who Hurts is familiar with from their time together at Alabama, will demand targets right away. Jalen Reagor, a first-round pick from 2020, still has a ton of intrigue as well. This may finally be the season that Dallas Goedert takes over as the lead tight end as Zach Ertz is starting to fade in his career. The Falcons don’t get great pass defense out of their defensive backs – they allowed the most passing yards in the NFL last season. The real question can be whether or not Hurts can take advantage, and I believe he can. Atlanta will be hoping A.J. Terrell can progress in his second season, but this is still very much a defense in progress. Atlanta did allow the sixth-fewest rushing yards last season, however, on the back of a solid front seven led by elite nose tackle Grady Jarrett. That sets up a challenging test for Miles Sanders and company in Week 1. Philly will get guard Brandon Brooks back from an Achilles injury and Lane Johnson is still dealing with a long-term ankle injury; if those two are healthy, the Eagles could have one of the better offensive lines in the NFL.
In this matchup of the dirty birds, the Falcons and Eagles are both teams who have been real Super Bowl contenders in recent years but are clearly in transition at the moment. I believe the Eagles, in particular, are one of the worst teams in football this season. This could turn into a shootout as both defenses could be overmatched, but I’ll roll with Matt Ryan and friends putting up some stellar offensive output early on in this game and getting the Week 1 win.
Matchup to Watch: Calvin Ridley (ATL WR) vs. Darius Slay (PHI CB)
My Pick: Falcons win 31-23, Falcons cover, over 48 points
Cleveland Browns @ Kansas City Chiefs
The Browns are coming off their best season in at least a couple of decades and it ended at the hands of the eventual AFC Champion Chiefs in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. That was far more of a defensive slugfest than anyone saw coming between two high-powered offenses as Kansas City won 22-17. Cleveland will have left that game feeling like they left a lot out there as Patrick Mahomes left with a concussion late in the game and they couldn’t take advantage. Of course, Mahomes is one of the greatest quarterbacks in the league and he threw for 38 touchdowns to just 6 interceptions in 15 games last season. He’s well-supported by Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, arguably the best receiving tandem in the NFL and a pairing that very few teams in the league can defend against. The Browns suddenly could be one of those teams, though, after an offseason in which they added a ton of coverage talent to their roster. Rookies cornerback Greg Newsome and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah will start right away and provide high-level coverage, as will safety John Johnson III and slot cornerback Troy Hill, two free agency signings who came over from the Los Angeles Rams’ elite defense. The Browns are also well-positioned to take advantage of a transitioning Chiefs’ offensive line. Orlando Brown, a trade acquisition from the Ravens, will have his hands full at left tackle against Myles Garrett, one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL. Mike Remmers was overmatched in the Super Bowl and he’ll have to contend with Jadaveon Clowney in this game.
Cleveland should also be incredibly excited for how they can put pressure on Kansas City on offense in this game. The Chiefs had a below-average run defense last season and while Chris Jones is arguably the best non-Aaron Donald defensive tackle in the NFL, the front seven is pretty weak overall. The Browns’ offensive line returns all five starters and with Jedrick Wills Jr. entering his second professional season with more reps under his belt, the unit could be even better than they were last year. Guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller were both All-Pro players, as was right tackle Jack Conklin, and J.C. Tretter was no slouch either. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt would be a potent RB tandem for any team, but are especially deadly behind this top-notch offensive line. Cleveland is a run-first team, but Baker Mayfield shouldn’t be discounted as a passer and Odell Beckham Jr.’s return to health is an exciting proposition. OBJ and Jarvis Landry should be able to beat some middle-of-the-pack cornerbacks in Charvarius Ward and L’Jarius Sneed.
Patrick Mahomes is a force of nature at quarterback, there’s no doubt about it. But top-to-bottom there are very few rosters in the NFL who can compete with this Cleveland bunch, and I believe they have the pieces to knock off the reigning AFC champions. On the back of a massive effort on the ground and an efficient afternoon by Baker Mayfield, I’m taking the Browns to pull off an impressive Week 1 upset.
Matchup to Watch: Orlando Brown Jr. (KC OT) vs. Myles Garrett (CLE DE)
My Pick: Browns win 27-24, Browns cover, under 52.5 points
Green Bay Packers @ New Orleans Saints
The last time the Packers took on the Saints, we were treated to a remarkably efficient passing performance by both Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, two surefire first-ballot Hall of Famers. There’s now a good chance neither of those two passers is on these teams next year. Brees retired this offseason after a phenomenal career while Rodgers is currently not reporting to mandatory team camp amidst reports he wants out of Green Bay. Rodgers threw for 48 touchdowns, a career-high mark, to just 5 interceptions last season on his way to his third career MVP trophy. The 37-year-old quarterback is still in the prime of his career, but he evidently wants that career to wrap up somewhere other than Wisconsin. Green Bay still has some highly-talented skill position players on the roster including Davante Adams led the NFL with 18 touchdown catches in just 14 games and was also a First-Team All-Pro player. The Saints lost Janoris Jenkins this offseason and I’ve never totally bought in on Marshon Lattimore, so this is a beatable pass defense for Adams and friends. The Packers spent a third pick on Amari Rodgers, a former Clemson receiver who is a slot technician, and he’ll join Allen Lazard and Robert Tonyan as the ancillary options to Adams in this offense. New Orleans will also be hoping first-round defensive lineman Payton Turner can replace some of Trey Hendrickson’s 13.5 sacks from last season, and the rest of the front seven is still intact as one of the better front lines in the league. The likes of Cameron Jordan, David Onyemata, and Marcus Davenport should be able to create some pressure against this team, especially after the Packers lost First-Team All-Pro Corey Linsley in free agency.
Will it be Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill under center for the Saints this season? That still remains to be seen, but this offense will have some work to do to integrate a new quarterback after being led by Drew Brees since 2006. Hill was the first-choice quarterback last season when Brees was injured, a stretch during which the Saints went 3-1. Hill is a do-it-all offensive weapon, and even if Winston is named the starting quarterback, Hill will be involved regardless. Jameis Winston threw for a whopping 5,109 yards and 33 touchdowns just two years ago, but he also threw for 33 interceptions. He has since received LASIK surgery to help repair his vision, and that will hopefully allow him to see the field better. New Orleans will offer whoever their starting quarterback one of the best receivers and running backs in the NFL in Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. Green Bay does have Jaire Alexander, an elite cornerback, to throw at Thomas, but the CB2 spot has been weak in recent years and rookie Eric Stokes will likely fill that spot early on. Headlined by Kenny Clark and Za’Darius Smith, the Packers have a talented front seven that could make life difficult for Kamara on the ground.
This Packers Saints game could look completely different than the 37-30 shootout we saw a season ago, and it’s hard to get a handle on what either of these teams will look like as we don’t know who will be either squad’s starting quarterback. If Rodgers and Green Bay get things sorted out, I will pick the Packers to get the win here. However, if Jordan Love or someone else is the Packers’ starting quarterback, I have enough faith in Sean Payton to project a home win even without Drew Brees.
Matchup to Watch: Michael Thomas (NO WR) vs. Jaire Alexander (GB WR)
My Pick: Packers win 23-20, Packers cover, under 50.5 points
Denver Broncos @ New York Giants
It’s too bad that the quarterback position is the most important in the NFL because outside of QB, the Broncos have one of the best rosters in the NFL. Alas, quarterback REALLY matters and I’m not sure how much faith I have in Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater. Lock completed just 57.3% of his passes last year for 2,933 yards and 16 touchdowns to 15 interceptions. Bridgewater offers more on the ground as he can make plays with his legs, and he also completed 69.1% of his passes last year but threw for just 15 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. While this is very much an open quarterback competition, what is set in stone is the talent surrounding the QB in this offense. Courtland Sutton is working his way back from a significant knee injury, but he should be good to go for Week 1. He’ll form a dynamic pairing with Jerry Jeudy, a second-year pro with plenty still to prove as a former first-round pick out of Alabama. Those two will be matched up with James Bradberry, a top-notch cornerback on the Giants, but Bradberry can’t guard both guys and Adoree’ Jackson will struggle at just 5’11” to compete with two physical, big-bodied, contested-catch receivers. Denver’s offensive line includes All-Pro tackle Garrett Bolles as well as solid veterans in Graham Glasgow and Bobby Massie – the line will be competing with Leonard Williams, Deter Lawrence, and Lorenzo Carter in a strong D-line. In his first season as the defensive coordinator, Patrick Graham led the Giants to a top-12 finish in both points and yards allowed, so this could be a slower start for a talented Denver group.
The Giants could also have some struggles on offense as they go up against what should be one of the best defenses in football this season. Denver could have drafted Justin Fields in the first round, but new general manager George Payton instead went with the surefire first-round cornerback Patrick Surtain. The Alabama product will join Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby, and Bryce Callahan, Justin Simmons, and Kareem Jackson in the deepest and most talented defensive backs group in the NFL. New York’s high-priced free agency acquisition Kenny Golladay may need to wait a week to really make his presence felt on his new team. Denver’s pass rush should also benefit greatly from the return of future Hall of Fame veteran linebacker Von Miller. He’ll join Bradley Chubb, Shelby Harris, and Dre’Mont Jones in a potent defensive line. You can make the case that no team combines the level of talent and depth in both the secondary and pass rush as Denver, so Daniel Jones could be in trouble in this game. The Broncos allowed the eighth-most rushing yards per game in the NFL last season, so perhaps New York can get some offensive momentum on the ground with the return of Saquon Barkley. However, the Giants have an underwhelming offensive line that’s going to struggle with the Broncos’ front seven.
These are two teams that could make upset playoff bids this season, mostly on the back of two highly-talented defenses. Both teams have issues offensively, however, and it’s no surprise that this game has such a low over-under points total. I’ll roll with the Broncos, even on the road, as I just believe they’re the better team overall, but in a slow, grind-it-out affair, this game could go either way.
Matchup to Watch: Garrett Bolles (DEN OT) vs. Leonard Williams (NYG DE)
My Pick: Broncos win 23-20, Broncos cover, over 42.5 points
Miami Dolphins @ New England Patriots
This could be quite the interesting game between two former Alabama quarterbacks. Tua Tagovailoa, a first-round pick last year, is the presumed starter for Miami this year while Mac Jones, a first-round pick this year, could win the starting quarterback job over veteran Cam Newton. Whether it’s Jones or Newton under center, they’ll be well-supported by arguably the best offensive line in the NFL. Tackles Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown, guards Michael Onwenu and Shaq Mason, and center David Andrews are all amongst the best players at their respective positions. Miami will be introducing first-round pick Jaelan Phillips in this game as a highly enticing pass rusher. He and Emmanuel Ogbah will be hard-pressed to create pressure against this stout offensive line. New England has a completely remade offensive skill position group after bringing in free agents Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne at wide receiver as well as Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith at tight end. Miami could struggle to defend against the pass in this game as elite cornerback Xavien Howard continues to hold out of camp. Damien Harris, a 2019 third-round pick, is the likely starter after leading the team with 691 rushing yards in just 10 games last season. Dolphins’ head coach Brian Flores and defensive coordinator Josh Boyer, two former Bill Belichick disciples, led Miami to allowing the sixth-fewest points in the NFL last season. It will be fun to see this new-look Patriots offense take on a familiar foe.
Miami also had quite the offseason on offense as they made every effort to support Tua Tagovailoa with more talent. Will Fuller V was brought in as a free agent and Jaylen Waddle was the team’s first-round pick – those two will bolster the wide receiver room alongside DeVante Parker. Tight end Mike Gesicki should continue to elevate his game as well. These pass-catchers will be up against some high-level secondary talent in Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Devin McCourty, Jalen Mills, and Kyle Dugger. I have concerns about this offensive line, however, even after the Dolphins signed Matt Skura and D.J. Fluker and drafted Liam Eichenberg. In offensive coordinator Chan Gailey’s West Coast offense, Tua will get rid of the ball quickly and accurately. New England added Matt Judon and Kyle Van Noy as free agents to bolster the pass rush alongside Chase Winovich. Dolphins’ running back Myles Gaskin should be able to keep that pass rush honest against a beatable run defense, although the return of D’Onta Hightower should reinvigorate the Patriots’ front seven. Miami will be excited to debut some of its new offensive weapons, but this won’t be an easy matchup to do so in as these teams often play low-scoring contests.
The Patriots and Dolphins have split their season series in every season since 2017, and I believe the same will happen this year. Both will come in with playoff expectations, and both should have two of the stronger defenses in the NFL. This matchup will be especially intriguing if it features Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones, the two most recent starting passers for Alabama. I’ll pick the Patriots to win in a tight one at home.
Matchup to Watch: Jaylen Waddle (MIA rookie WR) vs Jonathan Jones (NE slot CB)
My Pick: Patriots win 22-20, Dolphins cover, under 45 points
Chicago Bears @ Los Angeles Rams
Bears fans everywhere will moan and groan about head coach Matt Nagy’s insistence that veteran Andy Dalton will be the starting quarterback at the beginning of the season over rookie Justin Fields, but the Ohio State product could benefit from some time on the bench. What he will certainly benefit from is not having to debut against this deadly Rams defense. LA led the NFL in both points and yards allowed last season as they featured dominant personnel at all three levels. Jalen Ramsey and Darious Williams are arguably the best cornerback pairing in the NFL, and while the Rams did lose slot corner Troy Hill and safety John Johnson over the offseason, Jordan Fuller and Taylor Rapp should help replace that production. Outside of Allen Robinson, Chicago has little in the way of reliable pass-catching, so I definitely think the Rams have the upper hand there. In the front seven, there’s nobody quite like Aaron Donald and there may never be again with his ability to take on double and triple-teams and still wreak havoc. Chicago is undergoing some transition on the offensive line after moving on from Charles Leno and Bobby Massie in the offseason. Rookie Teven Jenkins will likely start at left tackle right away and he’ll be thrown into the fire in this matchup. The Bears will be hoping from some breakout seasons by wide receiver Darnell Mooney and tight end Cole Kmet, but it likely won’t happen in this game. David Montgomery could also struggle given the matchup, despite his 1,500 yards from scrimmage last season.
Chicago’s defense slipped quite a bit last season as they were a top four scoring defense in 2018 and 2019 before ranking 14th in scoring last season. In three matchups with the Bears since moving to LA, the Rams have averaged just 15.6 points per game. However, that could very well change as the team transitions to Matthew Stafford under center, a clear upgrade over Jared Goff. The former Lions’ passer should be able to elevate the games of Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods and take the Rams’ offense to new heights with Sean McVay. The Bears’ defense is going to have to contend with the departure of Kyle Fuller, a top-level cornerback, as they attempt to replace him with Desmond Trufant who flamed out in Detroit last year. There will be a lot of pressure on second-year corner Jaylon Johnson. Khalil Mack had a down season last year with just 9 sacks in 16 games as the Bears struggled to find consistent pass-rushing out of the remainder of the defensive front. Los Angeles will also be looking to implement second-year running back Cam Akers further into the offense this season. The former Florida State RB is very talented and is likely going to help make this team a lot more balanced on offense this season. I have a lot of faith in Matthew Stafford to run a balanced, efficient offense this season with Sean McVay in his ear and plenty of skill position talent surrounding him.
Bears fans should be excited for the future with Justin Fields, but it feels like upper management is just throwing Andy Dalton to the wolves in this game. The likes of Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, Leonard Floyd and Darious Williams should make Dalton’s life miserable in this game, especially with a shifting offensive line and unproven pass-catchers on the roster. Seven points is a big spread, but I’ll give the Rams the benefit of the doubt here and take them to earn a big primetime win in Stafford’s first game with his new team.
Matchup to Watch: Allen Robinson (CHI WR) vs. Jalen Ramsey (LAR CB)
My Pick: Rams win 30-21, Rams cover, over 45 points
Monday, Sept 13th
Baltimore Ravens @ Las Vegas Raiders
The Raiders had another head-scratching draft this season that they kicked off by drafting Alex Leatherwood, a consensus second- or third-round offensive lineman, 17th overall. Not that Leatherwood can’t wind up a high-level starter, but the value there was odd. Las Vegas did need to remake their offensive line after losing three of their five starters, returning left tackle Kolton Miller and offensive guard Denzelle Good. The Raiders have a lot of question marks on the offensive line, and there likely aren’t many teams they’d less like to see in Week 1 with that problem in mind. The Ravens have a cadre of talented pass-rushers including Pernell McPhee, Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe, Tyus Bowser, and first-round pick Jayson Oweh. Baltimore also has one of the best trios of cornerbacks in football in Jimmy Smith, Marcus Peters, and Marlon Humphery. I have high hopes for Henry Ruggs in his second pro season, but this is not the matchup he’s going to excel in. John Brown is coming off a disappointing year and could struggle as well. Darren Waller led the team with 107 catches for 1,196 yards and 9 touchdowns last season and made the Pro Bowl; Josh Jacobs was a Pro Bowler as well with 303 touches for 1,303 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns. The Ravens allowed the second-fewest points per game in the NFL last season, however, so Derek Carr and friends should have a tough time in this one.
On the other side of the ball, I loved the work Baltimore did this offseason to help out Lamar Jackson. Free agency acquisition Sammy Watkins and first-round draft pick Rashod Bateman bolster a receiving group missing some talent outside of Marquise Brown. Las Vegas did bring in Cameron Heyward Jr., but I don’t have a lot of faith in Trayvon Mullen or Damon Arnette. Ronnie Stanley’s return from injury will see him return to being one of the best left tackles in the game, and the signing of Alejandro Vilanueva will make up for the team trading away Orlando Brown. Kevin Zeitler will also help boost the interior offensive line and the team’s run game. Lamar Jackson should see his passing production improve with the addition of those pass-rushers, but his primary usage in this offense is in the run game. Jackson ran for over 1,000 yards and 7 touchdowns in each of the last two seasons. He keeps defenses off-balance, and that opens up some great opportunities for running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, both of whom ran for over 5.0 YPC last season. The Raiders were a bottom-ten defense in both rushing yards and rushing touchdowns allowed last season, so Baltimore should have plenty of room to run in this game.
The last time the Ravens played the Raiders, they ran up the score in a 34-17 win with a balanced offensive approach led by a rookie Lamar Jackson and a rushing attack that totaled 242 rushing yards. It’s easy to argue this Raiders defense is better than that group, and I expect significant progression with new defensive coordinator Gus Edwards. However, I don’t believe the Raiders come close to the Ravens in terms of overall talent and this should be a comfortable win for Baltimore with a run-heavy offense and lockdown defensive effort.
Matchup to Watch: Ronnie Stanley (BAL OT) vs. Yannick Ngakoue (LV and former BAL DE)
My Pick: Ravens win 30-23 Ravens cover, over 51 points