First Tier – Must Starts
- Chicago – What better way to open up with a huge rivalry game against a team that will struggle to move the ball and will turn the ball over frequently?
- Pittsburgh – All eyes will be on the defending champs on opening night. Will Miami QB Daunte Culpepper get off to another rough start?
- Carolina – Tough way to open the season, against a tough divisional foe, but the Panthers have the team speed on defense to keep up with QB Michael Vick.
- Philadelphia – Aside from the top-ranked Chicago defense, Philly opens with the best matchup. The Texans have improved, but they’re still the Texans.
Second Tier – Solid Starts
- Tampa Bay – This should be a defensive battle with Baltimore. But, playing at home will favor the Bucs and they should disrupt new Raven QB Steve McNair’s debut.
- Jacksonville – As long as a “gimpy” T.O. doesn’t burn the Jag secondary, Jacksonville should control the Cowboys at home.
- Washington – Nothing flashy on this defense, but they’re solid. Playing a pretty average Viking team at home in the nation’s capital on national television should bring out the best in the Skin defensive unit.
- Seattle – The NFC champs open in Motor City against an improved Lions team. But they could easily force multiple turnovers and get to QB Jon Kitna a few times..
- New England – The Patriots’ defense no longer dominates, but they still can stop opposing offenses. Especially the inept Buffalo offense.
Third Tier - Best of the Rest
- Baltimore – Going to Tampa to open the season isn’t the most favorable of matchups, but their defense will have to be stout to open the season.
- San Diego – Matchup-based ranking here. The Raiders will again turn the ball over with regularity and everyone knows this rivalry always brings great football.
- NY Giants – Don’t expect to see this unit ranked so low every week. Opening against the Colts is a tough draw.
Note: League scoring used for this column is 2 points for safety, fumble recovery, blocked punt or FG, 1 point for blocked PAT or sack, 6 points for defensive or special team TDs, and anywhere from 10 to 2 points based on points allowed.