At long last, another NFL season is upon us. There are few instances during the course of the year that get me as pumped up as the opening week of a new football campaign.
And of course, with another new season come my weekly ramblings… in the form of game breakdowns and predictions. This year’s format will be similar, but not identical, to what I’ve done during past seasons – quick-hitting information and insight that you, hopefully, find an enjoyable read.
If you’ve perused my season preview story, released last week, you know that I’m picking the Colts win it all. This is a prediction made with a fair amount of hesitancy, because I’ve always been a defense-first guy when it comes to assessing what it takes to win a championship. But Indy is a team with such talent, and top-notch coaching, with a guy in charge who sports a decidedly defensive background and a QB who defies logical explanation. I just believe it’s their time, and the Patriots can’t stay on top forever (can they?).
So let’s see what transpires. Are you ready for some football? Me, too.
Oakland (5-11 in 2004) at New England (17-2)
Line: Patriots favored by 7 1/2 (total points line is 50)
Series: New England won the last meeting, at home in the 2002 divisional playoffs. The Raiders had won the previous two meetings.
Raiders Status Report: WR Jerry Porter probably will play sparingly, if at all.
Patriots Status Report: Lots of turnover with the champs. LB Tedy Bruschi is ill, LB Ted Johnson retired, and both coordinators left to become head coaches elsewhere.
Other Noteworthy Info: The last four meetings have come in under the total.
Game Summary: Oakland managing general partner Al Davis is so confident his team will pull the upset, he was quoted this week as saying that the NFL “was out for revenge” by scheduling the Raiders to play the champs on the road in their opener. Despite all the changes, the Patriots are still mostly the same team that has won three of the past four Super Bowls and is coming off a 17-2 campaign. The Raiders are improved… but not that much.
Prediction: PATRIOTS, 24-13
Houston (7-9) at Buffalo (9-7)
Line: Bills favored by 5 1/2 (total points line is 38 1/2)
Series: The teams have split two meetings, with the road team prevailing each time. That includes a 12-10 Houston upset at Buffalo in 2003.
Texans Status Report: Not many off-season changes, especially on offense. This team is expected to take the next step – contention for a playoff berth.
Bills Status Report: The defense is considered among the NFL’s best, but an inexperienced QB is running the show on offense.
Other Noteworthy Info: TE Billy Miller is the only skill position starter from last season not returning for the Texans.
Game Summary: I fully expect both defenses to control this game. Bills QB J.P. Losman has received mixed grades from scouts during the preseason. But certainly, the weapons are there for Buffalo. QB David Carr is expected to become an elite QB this season, and a victory in this game would be an impressive first step toward that potential development. But the Bills at home are the pick.
Prediction: BILLS, 20-13
New York Jets (11-7) at Kansas City (7-9)
Line: Chiefs favored by 3 (total points line is 47 1/2)
Series: The teams have split the last six meetings, with the visiting team winning four of the six. They haven’t met since 2000.
Jets Status Report: After making it as far as the divisional round last season, the Jets are primed to take the next step. But division rival New England looms.
Chiefs Status Report: Explosive on offense, and RB Priest Holmes appears healthy. But will the defense really be better?
Other Noteworthy Info: Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil is again pondering retirement. If KC wins the AFC West, this season could be his last. If it doesn’t… uh, it might be his last anyway.
Game Summary: As tough as the Chiefs are at home, the Jets have been the ultimate road warriors under coach Herman Edwards. If it’s really true that defense beats offense, the Jets should find a way to win this one… and that’s what I’m predicting.
Prediction: JETS, 23-20
Denver (10-7) at Miami (4-12)
Line: Broncos favored by 4 ½ (total points line is 38 1/2)
Series: The Broncos held off the Dolphins at home last December, 20-17, but Miami had won five of the previous six meetings.
Broncos Status Report: Who will get the bulk of the rushing load, Mike Anderson or Tatum Bell? Otherwise, everything is set.
Dolphins Status Report: Veteran Gus Frerotte won the QB battle… for the time being. Rookie RB Ronnie Brown should quickly develop into the featured guy at least until Ricky Williams officially returns to action in Week 5 after serving a four-game, drug-related suspension.
Other Noteworthy Info: Broncos coach Mike Shanahan actually reported that all his players are healthy. No Shanahan shenanigans.
Game Summary: I believe the re-establishment of a strong running game will lead to significant improvement for the Dolphins, but Denver is much more loaded on both sides of the ball at this time and has developed into a more reliable road favorite in recent seasons.
Prediction: BRONCOS, 17-10
Cincinnati (8-8) at Cleveland (4-12)
Line: Bengals favored by 3 1/2 (total points line is 44)
Series: The teams split last season, and there were lots of fireworks. At Cleveland, the Browns won 34-17. Then later in the year at Cincy, the Bengals held on for a wild 58-48 victory.
Bengals Status Report: Many pundits are predicting the Bengals offense to be downright explosive this season. Might just happen against Cleveland, too.
Browns Status Report: A new QB (Trent Dilfer) and the ol’ running back-by-committee... it’s going to be a tough season in Cleveland.
Other Noteworthy Info: Last year, the home teams swept. The year before, the visitors prevailed twice, the year before that it was the home teams. A trend?
Game Summary: There’s two reasons why this game might stay close throughout – first, it’s a rivalry game. Second, it’s the Bengals who are favored. But from an analytical perspective, the Bengals have too much on both sides of the ball. Not so much scoring this time, though.
Prediction: BENGALS, 28-17
Tennessee (5-11) at Pittsburgh (16-2)
Line: Steelers favored by 7 (total points line is 40)
Series: These franchises are former division rivals, but now have played only once in the last four seasons. In 2003, the Titans routed the Steelers at Pittsburgh, 30-13.
Titans Status Report: Coming off a last-place finish, the team still seems to have numerous shortcomings on defense. But as long as QB Steve McNair is at the helm, the Titans have a chance.
Steelers Status Report: A sophomore slump for QB Ben Roethlisberger? The starting RB is Willie… who? Willie Parker? What a difference a few months can make.
Other Noteworthy Info: RB Duce Staley might play for the Steelers, but Jerome Bettis is out.
Game Summary: With all the season-opening questions the Steelers have on offense, they still have the bulk of that terrific, No. 1-rated defense of a year ago. At Pittsburgh, even with McNair at his best, I can’t envision Tennessee doing a lot of scoring, whether it’s Travis Henry or Chris Brown running the rock. But Tennessee is game for this former rivalry clash. I say it’s tight.
Prediction: STEELERS, 20-17
Seattle (9-8) at Jacksonville (9-7)
Line: Jaguars favored by 3 (total points line is 39 ½)
Series: Seattle has won three of the four previous meetings, the last in 2001.
Seahawks Status Report: Everything’s a go in defense of their NFC West crown of a year ago. No huge changes.
Jaguars Status Report: Are they as good as last year’s winning record would indicate?
Other Noteworthy Info: RB Fred Taylor is actually expected to be healthy and start the opener.
Game Summary: In my opinion, both of these clubs are difficult to figure for 2005. The Seahawks have some talent, and a great offensive mind in head coach Mike Holmgren, but they’re not really special anywhere save for RB Shaun Alexander. The Jaguars have a young QB in Byron Leftwich, still trying to prove his mettle, and not a lot else. Defensively, they’re solid… but boast few standout individuals. If Seattle’s defense is improved at all, the Seahawks can take this one.
Prediction: SEAHAWKS, 24-21
Chicago (5-11) at Washington (6-10)
Line: Redskins favored by 6 (total points line is 33)
Series: Washington has won five of the last seven meetings, all but one of them decided by a TD or less. Last season, the Redskins prevailed at Chicago, 13-10.
Bears Status Report: Rookie RB Cedric Benson reported to camp late after holding out and won’t be ready for this game. Thomas Jones gets the call, with the QB being unheralded Kyle Orton.
Redskins Status Report: The second season of the second Joe Gibbs era. May it be better than the first season, and as promising as the first era.
Other Noteworthy Info: The Bears’ new acquisition, WR Muhsin Muhammad, led the NFL in receiving yards and TDs last season.
Game Summary: If you’ve read my column the last few years, you know I’m always in search of the big upset. Virtually every NFL week includes a doozie. Because of their very respectable defense, I like the Bears to pull off the shocker here. Yes, Washington’s D is also quite good. But with the Bears offense, you pretty much know what you have – which isn’t a lot. Washington’s attack is so unpredictable, it might actually start the season worse than bad.
Prediction: BEARS, 16-13
Tampa Bay (5-11) at Minnesota (8-8)
Line: Vikings favored by 6 (total points line is 43)
Series: These teams haven’t met in four years but, predictably, this series was decidedly in the home team’s favor when they were NFC Central Division rivals.
Bucs Status Report: Coming off a losing season just a year after winning its first Super Bowl, Tampa Bay is a consensus NFC sleeper pick.
Vikings Status Report: Look for QB Daunte Culpepper to flourish in the post-Randy Moss era, primarily because now that he has receivers who will actually allow him to be the leader on offense.
Other Noteworthy Info: From one problem child to another… the Vikings, who traded Moss to Oakland over the off-season, signed ex-Seattle wideout Koren Robinson this week.
Game Summary: It wouldn’t surprise me a bit to see Tampa Bay win, because I won’t believe that the Vikings have a defense until I see it for myself. And I’m among those who believe the Bucs will be a factor in the NFC playoff chase this season. But I’m also a big believer in the abilities of Daunte Culpepper, who will be quite happy throwing to Nate Burleson, Marcus Robinson, rookie Troy Williamson… even Koren Robinson, eventually. I’ll take the dome team in their home dome, but it should be a close game.
Prediction: VIKINGS, 27-24
New Orleans (8-8) at Carolina (7-9)
Line: Panthers favored by 7 (total points line is 45)
Series: New Orleans won at Carolina last season, 21-18, but the Panthers had prevailed in the three previous meetings.
Saints Status Report: They’re expected to be distracted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and being displaced from The Superdome, but the opposite could take place.
Panthers Status Report: Lots of optimism after a 6-2 finish to last season, and RB Stephen Davis is thisclose to being a factor in the running game again.
Other Noteworthy Info: The visiting team has covered against the spread in each of the last five meetings.
Game Summary: Why is everyone so high on the Panthers? Sure they finished strong last season… but the end result was 7-9. The Saints were 8-8 a year ago including a season-ending four-game winning streak, and yet just about everyone expects them to be dogs. I don’t buy it. On paper, the Panthers’ defense is better, true. But the Saints have athletes that simply need to mesh. And on offense, the core talent remains to a pretty decent attack. This is my Upset of the Week, as an emotional Saints team uses New Orleans city pride to its advantage and spanks the hosts.
Prediction: SAINTS, 23-16
Dallas (6-10) at San Diego (12-5)
Line: Chargers favored by 4 1/2 (total points line is 40)
Series: These teams have played only twice since 1989, splitting those games.
Cowboys Status Report: Drew Bledsoe takes over at QB, throwing primarily to old men Keyshawn Johnson and Terry Glenn, but also to Peerless Price and TE Jason Witten. The key? RB Julius Jones.
Chargers Status Report: Team was sloppy in the preseason but this a defending division champ which lost no key components.
Other Noteworthy Info: The Chargers are having trouble getting due respect. Consider that they are a team that won 12 games and a division title last season, pitted against a team which won half that many and is on the road. The 4 ½-point spread is barely more than a swing to the home team. Apparently, the line would be roughly even on a neutral field. Huh?
Game Summary: I admire Dallas coach Bill Parcells as much as anyone. The guy is unquestionably a winning football coach. But I don’t see how the Cowboys are going to be significantly better than they were last year. The Chargers are eager to prove that last season wasn’t a fluke. I like San Diego handily in its opener.
Prediction: CHARGERS, 31-17
Arizona (6-10) at New York Giants (6-10)
Line: Giants favored by 2 1/2 (total points line is 37 1/2)
Series: The Cardinals won at home last season, 17-14, but the Giants have won 9 of the last 11 meetings at The Meadowlands.
Cardinals Status Report: A new QB, a new featured runner… and a new air of confidence. We’ll see.
Giants Status Report: QB Eli Manning will now be expected to lead scoring drives on a regular basis.
Other Noteworthy Info: Kurt Warner’s last NFL start came for the Giants. His last one for someone else (St. Louis) came against the Giants. Kurt Warner knows the Giants.
Game Summary: I’m guessing that the Giants’ defense is very, very fired up to face Warner. Certainly, they have a better idea of how to take him out of his game than anyone. And they will. The Cardinals will be better this year, but these things do take time.
Prediction: GIANTS, 19-10
Green Bay (10-7 in 2004) at Detroit (6-10)
Line: Lions favored by 3 (total points line is 46)
Series: The Packers won in a rout at Detroit last season, 38-10, but barely held on for the 16-13 victory at Green Bay. In the last 20 meetings, Detroit is 11-9 straight-up, 14-6 against the spread at home against the Pack.
Packers Status Report: Brett Favre’s last hurrah. Should be fun.
Lions Status Report: Joey Harrington’s first hurrah, perhaps? It’s time for the kid to produce or step aside.
Other Noteworthy Info: Detroit WR Charles Rogers hasn’t broken his collarbone in several months.
Game Summary: Hey, I know the Lions are supposed to be improved. Heck, they’re my surprise pick to win the NFC Central. But they’re favored? Against Favre and the Packers? Nah, I’m not ready for that conversion just yet. The Lions were unimpressive during the preseason, especially on defense. The experienced Packers will find a way to get it done.
Prediction: PACKERS, 28-20
St. Louis (8-9 in 2004) at San Francisco (2-14)
Line: Rams favored by 6 (total points line is 46)
Series: The Rams swept the season series a year ago, by scores of 24-14 and 16-6.
Rams Status Report: Everyone is healthy, but that’s not necessarily a good thing when it comes to the special teams.
49ers Status Report: Rookie QB Alex Smith will sit for now, Tim Rattay anointed by first-year head coach Mike Nolan as the starting signal-caller.
Other Noteworthy Info: The 49ers were 2-0 last season against Arizona, 0-14 against everyone else.
Game Summary: The 49ers have a shot because they’re at home and this is a rivalry game, but they’re so green… and the Rams had a solid preseason on both sides of the ball. Their offensive personnel is simply too good. I like this to be close, though.
Prediction: RAMS, 22-19
Indianapolis (13-5) at Baltimore (9-7)
Line: Colts favored by 3 (total points line is 46 1/2)
Series: Indy won at home last season, 20-10, but the Ravens won the two other previous meetings, both at Baltimore.
Colts Status Report: WR Brandon Stokley will reportedly be listed as questionable… he’s likely to play, according to the team’s website.
Ravens Status Report: RB Jamal Lewis is healthy and rarin’ to go.
Other Noteworthy Info: The day’s best individual match-up – Peyton Manning vs. Ray Lewis.
Game Summary: I love the Ravens as home ‘dogs… quality teams who win consistently and play great defense are sound picks. It would hardly be a surprise for the Colts to win, of course, but smashmouth usually beats the aerial circus. How the Indy defense performs will be interesting for the long-term.
Prediction: RAVENS, 27-20
Philadelphia (15-4) at Atlanta (12-6)
Line: Eagles favored by 1 (total points line is 41 1/2)
Series: The Eagles won the last meeting, 27-10, in last season’s NFC Title Game at Philadelphia. Philly also captured the last meeting at Atlanta, 23-16, in 2003, and has won five of the last six clashes.
Eagles Status Report: Lots of distractions, WR Todd Pinkston and RB Correll Buckhalter are out. Terrell Owens is listed as questionable.
Falcons Status Report: Looking to quickly and decisively dismiss the talk of Carolina as NFC South favorite.
Other Noteworthy Info: Falcons have won four in a row at home in primetime.
Game Summary: At any other point this season, this would probably be a fascinating clash. But right now, with all that’s happening in Philadelphia, I’ll be surprised if the game is close. Atlanta is healthy, and ultra-motivated as well as at home.
Prediction: FALCONS, 30-14