Thursday, September 30
Jacksonville Jaguars @ Cincinnati Bengals
The NFL world will be watching on Thursday night as Joe Burrow, the 2020 first overall pick, faces Trevor Lawrence, the 2021 first overall pick. Lawrence will be looking for revenge from the last time these quarterbacks played in the 2020 CFP National Championship, a game in which LSU won 42-25. Burrow contributed 5 passing touchdowns for LSU while Lawrence had no passing touchdowns for Clemson. Jacksonville has put together a strong group of skill position players for Lawrence to work with in incumbents D.J. Chark and Laviska Shenault as well as veteran offseason acquisition Marvin Jones. Running back/slot receiver Travis Etienne, a former teammate of Lawrence at Clemson, was also drafted in the first round. However, Burrow also has plenty of talent at his disposal, including his former LSU teammate in Ja’Marr Chase. The standout wide receiver prospect had 9 catches for 221 yards and 2 touchdowns against Clemson in that CFP Championship. Burrow also has Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd at receiver. I don’t have a lot of faith in either of these defenses, but I’m looking forward to Burrow and Lawrence putting on a show on Thursday Night Football.
Matchup to watch: Ja’Marr Chase (CIN WR) vs. C.J. Henderson (JAX CB)
Sunday, October 3
Tennessee Titans @ New York Jets
Corey Davis revenge game! One year after his best professional season with 65 catches for 984 yards and 5 touchdowns, Davis signed a 3-year, $37.5 million deal with the Jets. New York will be hoping Davis can provide a steadying veteran presence at wide receiver for rookie quarterback Zach Wilson as, outside of Jamison Crowder, the pass-catchers are younger and unproven in Denzel Mims and rookie Elijah Moore. Unfortunately for the Jets in this game, the Titans replaced Davis with Julio Jones who is a future first-ballot Hall of Fame wide receiver. Jones joins a potent offensive attack led by Ryan Tannehill with A.J. Brown and Derrick Henry among the best players in the NFL at their respective positions. The Jets allowed the 7th-most points per game in the NFL last year, and while new head coach Robert Saleh will bring toughness and grit to this defense, this will not be an easy task for them. Zach Wilson will have an opportunity to succeed against a Tennessee defense that allowed the fourth-most passing yards and second-most passing touchdowns last year, but outdueling Tannehill with the weapons the Titans have at their disposal will be no simple feat.
Matchup to watch: Taylor Lewan (TEN OT) vs. Carl Lawson (NYJ DE)
Kansas City Chiefs @ Philadelphia Eagles
Andy Reid has faced the Eagles, the team he formerly coached, twice since joining the Chiefs, and he has beaten them twice. The gap in talent may never have been this staggering between these two teams. Philly has yet to bring back Nickell Robey-Coleman, one of the better slot cornerbacks in the league, which leaves them in quite the precarious position against Tyreek Hill. Their safeties in Rodney McLeod and Anthony Harris are solid, and their linebacker corps is fine, but covering Travis Kelce is going to be a major challenge. On the other side of the ball, the other Kelce brother could be in trouble in this game. The Eagles’ center has been one of the best players in football at his position for the past decade, but he’ll have to contend with arguably the best interior defensive lineman tandem in the league in Chris Jones and free agent pickup Jarran Reed. With little hope of covering Hill and Kelce and not much pass-rush juice to pressure this stout Kansas City offensive line, Patrick Mahomes is due for a massive performance here. The Eagles’ run-heavy offense could keep things close early, but the talent gap is just too much to overcome.
Matchup to watch: Jason Kelce (PHI C) vs. Chris Jones (KC DT)
Carolina Panthers @ Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys took a page right out of the Panthers’ playbook with their draft last year; in 2020, the Panthers used all of their draft picks on the defensive side of the ball, and in 2021, the Cowboys used their first six picks on defense. Micah Parsons is the standout here, as the first-round linebacker figures to immediately transform this team’s front seven in pass coverage, pass rush, and run defense. Watching him lead the front seven against Christian McCaffrey, arguably the best running back in the NFL, should be very interesting. Carolina hopes to have transformed their secondary after drafting Jaycee Horn in the first round and bringing in veteran A.J. Bouye to play across from Donte Jackson, who had a standout 2020 season. Those corners could be in trouble against Dallas, though, as Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup could be the best trio of wide receivers in football. Carolina does have the ability to get after the quarterback, primarily through Brian Burns, but Dak Prescott will get this offense moving regardless. Carolina could pull a win off here but it all depends on how the remade Dallas defense looks and whether or not Sam Darnold and Christian McCaffrey can move the ball.
Matchup to watch: La’El Collins (DAL OT) vs. Brain Burns (CAR DE)
New York Giants @ New Orleans Saints
Giants’ offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has to be thrilled about the additions of free agent Kenny Golladay and rookie first-round pick Kadarius Toney to the wide receiver room as well as the return of Saquon Barkley from a season-ending injury last year. If Daniel Jones can’t break through this season, it may just never happen for the young quarterback. This Saints’ defense won’t prove to be easy sledding, however, as they ranked top five in both points and yards allowed. The Saints have one of the best front sevens in the NFL featuring Cameron Jordan, Marcus Davenport, and Demario Davis, among others, and the Giants’ offensive line is a major question mark entering this season. On the other side of the ball, New York has the defensive pieces to challenge an offense in transition. James Bradberry, A’Doree Jackson, and the team’s young depth in the secondary give them plenty of options to throw at Michael Thomas while Leonard Williams leads a fearsome defensive front that is one of the few that can give a talented Saints’ offensive line some problems. This figures to be a grind-it-out defensive game between two fringe playoff teams in the NFC.
Matchup to watch: Nate Solder (NYG OT) vs. Cameron Jordan (NO DE)
Cleveland Browns @ Minnesota Vikings
Cleveland head coach Kevin Stefanski should be thrilled to take on the Vikings, the team he used to be the offensive coordinator for. Stefanski has remade the Browns into a run-first, highly-efficient offense with a defense that has talent and depth at all three levels. The Vikings were a bottom-third defense in both rushing yards and rushing touchdowns allowed, although they do return Danielle Hunter and Michael Pierce who missed all of 2020. Still, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt should succeed on the ground in this game. Cleveland’s top-notch offensive line gives them the upper hand in most matchups. Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook could have plenty of production of his own, though; the Browns were a top-ten run defense last year but Cook can roast most any defense in the NFL. The Vikings drafted Christian Darrisaw in the first round this year to be their left tackle of the future, but he’s going to have a tough time against defensive end Myles Garrett. Minnesota’s wide receivers will face Denzel Ward, Troy Hill, and rookie Greg Newsome, and I’d give them the upper hand in those matchups, but Cleveland should be able to trouble Kirk Cousins with their pass rush. Cleveland is likely the more talented team overall, but on the road with Stefanski returning to his former team should make things very interesting.
Matchup to watch: Christian Darrisaw (MIN OT) vs. Myles Garrett (CLE DE)
Detroit Lions @ Chicago Bears
The Bears had the Lions number with five straight wins heading into late last season, but Detroit finally reversed the trend with a victory over Chicago last year. However, these are two teams headed in opposite directions. Detroit lost quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receivers Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones, leaving their offense light and overly reliant on running back D’Andre Swift and tight end T.J. Hockenson. Penei Sewell gets thrown into the fire early in his rookie year against premier pass-rusher Khalil Mack, and that test should showcase his talents early in the season. However, the Lions just don’t have enough offensively to move the ball against a strong Bears defense. It’s unclear whether it will be Andy Dalton or Justin Fields under center for Chicago in this game, but either player should see a decently easy matchup against the Lions. Allen Robinson, a top-level Pro Bowl wide receiver, had a combined 11 catches for 149 yards in two matchups against Detroit last season. The Lions will be hoping their offseason of retooling defensively helps them improve, but they allowed the most points per game in the NFL last season and the Bears averaged 28.5 points per game against them last season.
Matchup to watch: Penei Sewell (DET OT) vs. Khalil Mack (CHI OLB)
Houston Texans @ Buffalo Bills
With Deshaun Watson’s legal issues ongoing, it could be Tyrod Taylor under center for Houston this season, and that would set him up for an intriguing revenge game against his former team in the Bills. Taylor was a starter for three seasons in Buffalo and threw for an average of 2,952 yards and 17 touchdowns across that span. However, Taylor has limited pass-catching at his disposal outside of Brandin Cooks and would be facing a stout Buffalo secondary featuring Tre’Davious White, Levi Wallace, Micah Hyde, and Jordan Poyer. Buffalo’s pass rush isn’t great, even after drafting Gregory Rousseau, but the Texans’ offensive line is a mess outside of Laremy Tunsil. Josh Allen should have no problems moving the ball against a defense that allowed the third-most yards in the NFL last season. The Bills will be grateful to have re-signed right tackle Daryl Williams as he will block arguably Houston’s best pass rusher in Shaq Lawson. Stefon Diggs could be in for a huge game as neither Terrance Mitchell nor Bradley Roby has the stones to hang with him on the perimeter. One of these teams is a dark horse Super Bowl contender, one is arguably the worst team in football; this could be a blowout.
Matchup to watch: Stefon Diggs (BUF WR) vs. Terrance Mitchell or Bradley Roby (HOU CBs)
Indianapolis Colts @ Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins will hope they did enough over the offseason to surround second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa with talent, but the likes of Will Fuller, DeVante Parker, Jaylen Waddle, and Mike Gisecki may not be enough to overcome a Colts’ defense that ranked top ten in both points and yards allowed. Indianapolis allowed the second-fewest rushing yards last year, so Myles Gaskin and Malcolm Brown could have some issues in this game. What I’m most looking forward to here is the Colts’ offensive line, a group exemplifying talent and consistency, going against a Miami defensive line that is among the deepest in football. Jonathan Taylor ran for 1,169 yards and 11 touchdowns in his rookie season behind this elite offensive line, but the Dolphins have a strong run defense. The only new addition to the Colts’ offensive line is Eric Fisher, a former Chiefs’ offensive lineman who is working his way back from an Achilles injury. The Dolphins drafted Jaelan Phillips in the first round, a potential top-five pick who fell in the draft due to iffy medicals. His matchup with Fisher will be very interesting here. Carson Wentz is looking to rejuvenate his career after flaming out with the Eagles last season, and a matchup with the Dolphins’ stellar defense should be an intriguing early-season challenge.
Matchup to watch: Eric Fisher (IND OT) vs. Jaelan Phillips (MIA OLB)
Washington Football Team @ Atlanta Falcons
Even after the Falcons traded away Julio Jones, they’re left with plenty of offensive talent including some top-notch pass-catchers in Calvin Ridley and rookie tight end Kyle Pitts. However, the Falcons’ offensive line has some real question marks. Jake Matthews, Chris Lindstrom, and Kaleb McGary are locked in at their respective positions, but the interior offensive line is questionable and could be in trouble against this Washington defensive line. Jonathan Allen and Da’Ron Payne are elite defensive tackles, while Chase Young and Montez Sweat are stellar pass-rushers on the outside, so Atlanta could have a hard time keeping Matt Ryan upright. This could also be a great opportunity for Ryan Fitzpatrick to continue building chemistry with his new offensive pieces featuring Terry McLaurin and Curtis Samuel as the Falcons allowed the most passing yards in the NFL last year. Washington’s offensive line went through some transition this offseason, but they still figure to be very solid. Chase Roullier and Brandon Scherff are elite interior linemen who will be tasked with defending one of the best nose tackles in football in Grady Jarrett. Washington’s defense could be a lot to overcome for Matt Ryan’s bunch, but this should be a fun game in Atlanta.
Matchup to watch: Chris Roullier and Brandon Scherff (WAS IOLs) vs. Grady Jarrett (ATL DT)
Seattle Seahawks @ San Francisco 49ers
Must. See. TV. That’s been the hallmark of Seahawks-49ers games over the past few years, and this season is no different. The Seahawks will hope to have addressed their biggest weakness, their pass defense, as they allowed the second-most passing yards in the NFL last year. Regardless of whether it is Jimmy Garoppolo or rookie Trey Lance under center, Seattle could have a hard time dealing with pass-catchers George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, and Brandon Aiyuk. Seattle added cornerback Akhello Witherspoon, a former 49er, and will be hoping for improved play from Tre Flowers. Seattle’s pass-rush is still a little light, and while Carlos Dunlap was a strong addition last year, he’ll struggle against Trent Williams, one of the best offensive tackles in the NFL. However, the Seahawks have one of the best run defenses in the league led by Bobby Wagner that can neutralize an elite Niners rushing offense. On the other side of the ball, Russell Wilson excelled against San Francisco last year with 6 touchdowns to no interceptions in two games. However, the 49ers were dealing with a bunch of injuries on defense, and in 2019, Wilson threw for 3 touchdowns to 1 interception against the Niners. Seattle’s offensive line is still very much a work in progress, and they’re going to struggle to keep Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, and Arik Armstead away from Wilson. San Francisco also has Jason Verrett, K’Waun Williams, Emmanuel Moseley, and Dontae Johnson to throw at D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. Both of these teams are highly talented, and both should be playoff teams this year, so this should be an excellent game to watch.
Matchup to watch: Trent Williams (SF OT) vs. Carlos Dunlap (SEA DE)
Arizona Cardinals @ Los Angeles Rams
The Rams have won eight straight games against their divisional foes in the Cardinals, and after upgrading at quarterback from Jared Goff to Matthew Stafford. The Cardinals retooled their defense, though, and Sean McVay’s offense could struggle to keep up the scoring pace against Arizona. With J.J. Watt and Chandler Jones, two of the premier defensive linemen in the league, Los Angeles’s offensive line will need to step up in this game. The Cardinals also added Zaven Collins, a rookie linebacker, into the fold along with veteran cornerbacks Robert Alford and Malcolm Butler. Those two corners will be tasked with keeping Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, and DeSean Jackson in check. I can see the Cardinals fielding one of the most improved defenses in the NFL this year. However, they don’t come anywhere close to the level of talent the Rams possess. Aaron Donald is arguably the best defender in the NFL while Jalen Ramsey is one of the best cornerbacks the league has to offer and one of the few players who can really slow down DeAndre Hopkins. Kyler Murray is evolving into one of the best quarterbacks in football, but this will be a tough test for him. The NFC West is arguably the best division in football, and this is the second divisional game on the slate that provides a ton of excitement.
Matchup to watch: DeAndre Hopkins (ARI WR) vs. Jalen Ramsey (LAR CB)
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Green Bay Packers
Since the Packers defeated the Steelers 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV, the two teams have faced off twice with Pittsburgh winning both games. The Packers do lead the all-time series 19-16, but the Steelers could have the upper hand once again with their elite wide receiver trio in Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Packers will be hoping rookie Eric Stokes is finally the high-level complement to Jaire Alexander they’ve been searching for on the outside, but I have little faith in Chandon Sullivan’s ability to cover Smith-Schuster in the slot. The Packers had an above-average run defense last season and their defensive line features some top talent in Kenny Clark, Za’Darius Smith, and Rashan Gary, all of whom should have the upper hand against a middling Steelers’ offensive line. On the other side of the ball, the Packers’ offensive line will be put to the test against Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, and Stephon Tuitt, especially with the question mark at center following the departure of First-Team All-Pro center Corey Linsley. Assuming Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams are back in Green Bay, the Steelers’ secondary could have some issues in this game. However, I believe this contest is won in the trenches, and the Packers have the much better offensive line between the two teams.
Matchup to watch: Diontae Johnson (PIT WR) vs. Jaire Alexander (GB CB)
Baltimore Ravens @ Denver Broncos
The Ravens will be hopeful that Lamar Jackson can produce more through the air after the additions of veteran Sammy Watkins and rookie Rashod Bateman along with Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews. However, the Broncos could make that difficult with their defensive talent. They arguably have the best and deepest secondary in the NFL featuring cornerbacks Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby, Bryce Callahan, and rookie Patrick Surtain as well as safeties Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons. Baltimore returns Ronnie Stanley at left tackle and replaced Orlando Brown with Allejandro Vilanueva and added Kevin Zeitler to the interior offensive line, making this one of the best offensive lines in the league, but Denver can generate pass rush from the interior and outside with Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, and Shelby Harris. Drew Lock has plenty of talent at his disposal in this Denver offense, but Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton will need to work hard to produce against Jimmy Smith and Marcus Peters on the outside. Denver’s offensive line is set up for success across the field including left tackle Garrett Bolles, an All-Pro player last season. Baltimore’s front seven features some phenomenal depth, but Denver’s offensive line should be able to keep Lock upright. As with most games this season, the Broncos’ great talent will only be able to show out if their quarterback succeeds.
Matchup to watch: Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy (DEN WRs) vs. Jimmy Smith and Marcus Peters (BAL CBs)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ New England Patriots
Welcome to the most significant revenge game in NFL history. Tom Brady, after winning six Super Bowls in New England, is returning to his former stomping grounds to face his former head coach in Bill Belichick. The Patriots’ defense knows better than anyone how to slow Brady down, but the real question is whether or not they have the pieces to do so. Mike Evans, Antonio Brown, and Chris Godwin are a phenomenal wide receiver trio and they’ll be facing Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, and Jonathan Jones in some incredibly interesting matchups across the board. New England will be hoping Matt Judon and Kyle Van Noy can provide more pass rush juice along with Chase Winovich, but Tampa’s offensive line is one of the best in football. The Buccaneers’ pass rush racked up 48 sacks last year, the fifth-most in the NFL, led by Jason Pierre-Paul, Shaquil Barrett, Ndomakung Suh, and Vita Vea. However, New England has one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. The best way to beat Tampa is to keep the ball out of Brady’s hands with a run-heavy offensive approach, but Damien Harris could really struggle against Tampa’s top-notch run defense. Bill Belichick will be desperate to exact a measure of revenge against his former quarterback, but Tampa just has the much better roster overall and I’d be surprised to see the Patriots pull off an upset even at home.
Matchup to watch: Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown (NE OTs) vs. Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett (TB OLBs)
Monday, October 4
Las Vegas Raiders @ Los Angeles Chargers
The Raiders have had the Chargers’ number lately, winning three straight games against Los Angeles prior to an overtime win for the Chargers in December of last year. However, the Chargers are a team on the rise with Justin Herbert excelling as a rookie with 4,336 passing yards and 31 touchdowns to 10 interceptions, one of the best rookie seasons in NFL history. Keenan Allen, Austin Ekeler, Mike Williams, Tyron Johnson, and Jalen Guyton headline a talented pass-catching corps for LA that should challenge a confusing Raiders’ secondary. The Chargers’ remade offensive line with rookie first-rounder Rashawn Slater and All-Pro Corey Linsley transforming this team’s ability to protect Herbert. On the other side of the ball, the Raiders’ offensive line is a bit of a mess and they will be heavily-reliant on rookie offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood, who was a bit of a reach in the first round. Joey Bosa was a Pro Bowl pass-rusher each of the past two years and should overwhelm a mediocre group of pass-blockers in front of Derek Carr. I’m very excited to see what the Chargers’ defense looks like with Brandon Staley leading the charge, and Carr could really struggle to move the ball in this game.
Matchup to watch: Kolton Miller (LV OT) vs. Joey Bosa (LAC DE)