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Weekly Game Breakdowns - Week 1
Bob Cunningham
September 6, 2007

Don’t you just love this time of year?  A new football season is upon us, and everyone is tied for first place… even the Cleveland Browns.  Of course, the Browns are tied for last as well.

As many of you know who have read this space over the last few years, I have a systematic approach to game analysis.  I utilize information I deem to be important, and weigh it with and against other less tangible circumstances.

But when it comes to prognosticating the season openers, there’s not a lot than can be done from an analytical standpoint.  Relying on last season’s statistics is mostly a waste of time, and putting any credence on the preseason numbers is downright foolhardy.

What it comes down to, then, is instinct.  For the season, my goals are to be 67 percent accurate straight-up, and 57-60 percent against the spreads (ATS).  I’ve accomplished the former several times over the years, but managed the latter only twice – the most recent in 2004.

I’m also determined to continue my relatively steady success picking upsets.  My so-called “Upset Special” was successful outright a hardy seven times in 17 weeks last year (11-5-1 ATS).  Honestly, that’s pretty darn good.

By the way, I’m not going to keep tabs on the over/unders.  I finished exactly break-even last year and, well, that means I pretty much wasted your time on that score (pun intended).

For this week, I’m just looking to be on the right side of the ledger.  Anything better than about 9-7 is gravy.  That’s how difficult this gig is, especially with no legitimate info to assist early on.

Here’s how I see Week 1: 

Thursday, Sept. 6, 5 p.m. PT

Line:  Colts favored by 6

Strongest Trends:  The Saints are 7-2-1 ATS in their last 10 road games; Saints are 4-1 ATS in last five meetings.

Last Meeting:  The Colts romped at the Superdome in 2003, 55-21.

Saints Status Report:  Hopes are high for the team after advancing to the NFC Championship Game last season.

Colts Status Report:  The defending champs have issues on defense, but should be just as potent as ever behind Super Bowl MVP quarterback Peyton Manning.

Fantasy Factor:  This contest shapes up as a fantasy geek’s dream – plenty of points scored and big numbers posted by many key guys.  Enjoy the stats feast.

Game Summary:  These teams enter 2007 in similar situations – both coming off extraordinarily  successful seasons, both with high-scoring attacks, and both with defensive questions that may interfere with bids to go deep into the playoffs again.  I like the Colts at home.

Prediction:  COLTS, 31-24

Sunday, Sept. 9, 10 a.m. PT

Line:  Patriots favored by 6½

Strongest Trends:  Road team has covered in three of the last four meetings; Patriots have won eight of the last nine meetings straight-up.

Last Meeting:  The Patriots won in a rout at home in the AFC wild-card playoffs, 37-16.

Patriots Status Report:  Most of the talk this preseason centered on the arrival of WR Randy Moss, but his availability could be limited in this one because of a sore hamstring.

Jets Status Report:  QB controversy?  Not according to head coach Eric Mangini, who insists Chad Pennington is his man – now and for the foreseeable future.

Fantasy Factor:  A sleeper for this game is the Jets’ Leon Washington, with the status of starting tailback Thomas Jones’ calf muscle still in limbo.  Jones is expected to start. Even without Moss, the Patriots passing attack should be effective.

Game Summary:  This is a rivalry game, so I expect it to be close.  The Jets will come in bent on some revenge for the playoff loss and, playing on their homefield, will nearly get it.

Prediction:  PATRIOTS, 20-17

Sunday, Sept. 9, 10 a.m. PT

Line:  Broncos favored by 3

Strongest Trends:  Broncos have won and covered five of the last six meetings;  home team is 8-2 ATS in last 10 meetings.

Last Meeting:  Denver won at Buffalo, 28-17, in December of 2005.

Broncos Status Report:   There’s excitement surrounding the acquisition of ex-Bill Travis Henry to be the featured back.  The question for the Broncos – will QB Jay Cutler step up and be a clutch performer?

Bills Status Report:  RB Marshawn Lynch offers glimpse at what could be an exciting near-future for the Bills.  Like Denver, the Bills have QB questions – J.P. Losman has talent, but can he be an elite leader?

Fantasy Factor:  Denver will try to grind it out, while Buffalo will try for the big plays.  Not a good matchup for fleet-footed Bills WR Lee Evans, who likely will be covered by All-Pro Champ Bailey.

Game Summary:  The Broncos are more balanced – their ability to control the ball will be the difference.

Prediction:  BRONCOS, 24-16

Sunday, Sept. 9, 10 a.m. PT

Line:  Redskins by 3

Strongest Trend:  The home team has won the last six meetings dating back 20 years. 

Last Meeting:  The Dolphins narrowly won at home, 24-23, in 2003.

Dolphins Status Report:  Lots of questions in South Florida, most having to do with the offensive line.   RB Ronnie Brown was forced to compete for a starting job, and QB Trent Green’s true mettle is still to be determined.

Redskins Status Report:  One major question:  Is QB Jason Campbell the real deal?

Fantasy Factor:  Not expecting much from either passing game.  Both teams will go heavy to the running games, although both teams sport a big-play guy coming off a disappointing season – Miami’s Chris Chambers and the Redskins’ Santana Moss.  Both will get early looks.  For Washington, expect Ladell Betts to get the majority of work as the featured back, not still-ailing Clinton Portis.

Game Summary:  Washington is favored only because the game is in Laurel, Md.  The Dolphins defense appears to be the better one, on paper at least, and that’s enough for me to take the small underdog in this one to win outright.  Yeah, I know the home team has dominated this series.  But the visitors have to win eventually, don’t they?

Prediction:  DOLPHINS, 16-13

Sunday, Sept. 9, 10 a.m. PT

Line:  Steelers favored by 4½

Strongest Trend:  The Steelers have won the last seven meetings by an average of nearly 16 points per romp.

Last Meeting:  Pittsburgh won at home, 27-7, last December.

Steelers Status Report:  A new head coach, a healthy QB in Ben Roethlisberger… and they get to start the season with the Browns.  Life is okay.

Browns Status Report:  A new featured back in Jamal Lewis… and they have to start off with the friggin’ Steelers.  But at least it’s a home game.  Charlie Frye starts at QB – and if that is important to you, you might be in for a long campaign.

Fantasy Factor:  It’s not much of a stretch, of course, but I really like Willie Parker in this game.  Still, the defenses will probably rule the day.

Game Summary:  It’s a division rivalry game with a home underdog… and you know how I love home ‘dogs in these circumstances.  But 4½ points really isn’t that many to lay, and the Steelers have been so very dominant.  I have to stay with them.

Prediction:  STEELERS, 21-10

Sunday, Sept. 9, 10 a.m. PT

Line:  Jaguars favored by 6½

Strongest Trend:  The Jaguars have won the last two home meetings by a combined score of 77-20.

Last Meeting:  Tennessee won at home, 24-17, last December.

Titans Status Report:  The running game is in some disarray.  LenDale White is the starter, but there’s been a lot of criticism of the second-year back.  The defense still has issues.

Jaguars Status Report:   David Garrard is in as the starting QB, Byron Leftwich is out – given his outright release.  Jacksonville enters the season with one of more highly-touted defenses in the league.

Fantasy Factor:  Don’t expect too much from the Jaguars passing game, but then they might not need it if Maurice Jones-Drew has a big day.  Tennessee is confident that QB Vince Young will continue to get better after making huge strides down the stretch a year ago.

Game Summary:  I just don’t “feel it” from the Jaguars.  Ousting Leftwich in favor of Garrard may turn out to be a brilliant move, but the Titans are a lot more settled with Young.  On paper, the Jaguars should win at home.  But a hunch tells me the Titans can play them to the wire… maybe even pull the upset.

Prediction:   JAGUARS, 23-20

Sunday, Sept. 9, 10 a.m. PT

Line:  Texans favored by 3

Strongest Trends:  The visitors have won the last three meetings, including two lopsided wins for the Chiefs; The highest score KC managed during the preseason was 12 points.

Last Meeting:  The Chiefs romped at Houston, 45-17, in 2005.

Chiefs Status Report:  The attack is in limbo, with an unspectacular QB in Damon Huard and star RB Larry Johnson still going through his training camp after holding out through the first three weeks of the preseason.

Texans Status Report:  New QB Matt Schaub gets his first test.  Veteran RB Ahman Green has looked fresh, but it’s early.

Fantasy Factor:  This is potentially a juicy matchup for Johnson, but the Chiefs might be cautious regarding the size of the workload.  Schaub and stud WR Andre Johnson should find success against the Chiefs secondary.

Game Summary:  While I believe the Chiefs are in for a sub-par season, I still consider them a cut above the Texans.  Johnson will do damage, and Huard will find Tony Gonzalez more than a few times.  Forget the preseason results – the KC offense will click a little better now that it’s for real.

Prediction:  CHIEFS, 24-17

Sunday, Sept. 9, 10 a.m. PT

Line:  Eagles favored by 3

Strongest Trends:  Philadelphia has won the last five meetings, only one of them at Green Bay however; The Eagles are 7-1 ATS in the last eight matchups.

Last Meeting:  The Eagles won easily at home, 31-9, last November.

Eagles Status Report:  QB Donovan McNabb says he feels good, but acknowledges that he’s unlikely to be 100 percent for much of this season.  Defense strong but seeking new leadership.

Packers Status Report:  QB Brett Favre had a productive off-season physically, and remains a threat to carry an offense on any given Sunday.  The running game is in dire straits, most likely relying on rookie Brandon Jackson.

Fantasy Factor:  The Eagles will put as little pressure on McNabb to perform as they can get away with.  That means lots of Brian Westbrook.  Green Bay is unlikely to run the ball well, so the pressure on Favre will be severe.

Game Summary:  Green Bay just isn’t the slam dunk pick at home it used to be.  The Eagles have dominated this series in recent years – there’s nothing compelling to get me to pick an upset.  The Eagles defense is the dominating group in this one.

Prediction:  EAGLES, 20-13

Sunday, Sept. 9, 10 a.m. PT

Line:  Vikings favored by 3

Strongest Trends:  Atlanta is 9-1 ATS in their last 10 season openers; Minnesota is 12-5 ATS vs. the NFC since 2005.

Last Meeting:  The Falcons won big at home, 30-10, in 2005.

Falcons Status Report:  With Michael Vick headed to jail soon, and likely never to take a snap with the Falcons again, the team must regroup behind Joey Harrington (ugh).

Vikings Status Report:  When was the last time we said the Vikings defense was pretty good and their offense anemic?  Well, that’s pretty much what we have in purple right now.

Fantasy Factor:  The Falcons have run the ball better than anyone the last two years.  Even without Vick, that will continue to be the emphasis.  Minnesota has an inexperienced QB in Tavaris Jackson, no legit go-to guy among the receivers, and a rookie running back who might not get enough carries to be effective.  You try sorting that out before they’ve played a game.

Game Summary:  I know that Vick is gone… but the Falcons still have a defense, right?  Atlanta would be considered a playoff contender with Vick under center, right?  A dome, is a dome, is a dome, right?  Okay, that last one might not be the case… but if Harrington doesn’t lose it for them, I like the Falcons and their two-headed running game (Warrick Dunn, Jerious Norwood) on the road.

Prediction:  FALCONS, 16-10

Sunday, Sept. 9, 10 a.m. PT

Line:  Rams favored by 1

Strongest Trends:  The Panthers have won the last three meetings; The home/road teams have been winning in pairs since 1998 (road team won twice, then home team won twice, etc.) – the home team has won the last two meetings.

Last Meeting:  The Panthers blanked the Rams at Carolina, 15-0, last November.

Panthers Status Report:  All systems are go… fans are waiting to see who gets the bulk of the work in the running game between DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams.

Rams Status Report:  The vaunted St. Louis attack had difficulty scoring points during the preseason, never scoring more than 13, but the flipside is that the defense played well enough for the club to go 2-2.

Fantasy Factor:  Classic confrontation of stellar defense (Carolina) going against multiple offensive weapons (Marc Bulger, Stephen Jackson, Torry Holt).  Personally, I like both kickers a lot.

Game Summary:  Defense trumps offense, especially this time of year.  Carolina has held the Rams to a grand total of seven points in the last two meetings.  More will be scored in this one because it’s being played at St. Louis’ quick-footed dome, but the Panthers will still force enough mistakes to get the road win.

Prediction:  PANTHERS, 27-17

Sunday, Sept. 9, 1:15 p.m. PT

Line:  Chargers favored by 6

Strongest Trends:  The Bears have won the last five meetings;  San Diego has won eight straight at home before losing to New England in last season’s divisional playoffs.

Last Meeting:  Chicago won at home, 20-7, in 2003.

Bears Status Report:  Chicago’s hopes of returning to the Super Bowl rest squarely on the shoulders of QB Rex Grossman… okay, and somewhat on young RB Cedric Benson and the defense, too.  On the injury front, rookie TE Greg Olson is unlikely to play.

Chargers Status Report:  New head coach Norv Turner will operate amidst tremendously high expectations.   But he appears to have the tools.

Fantasy Factor:  San Diego’s LaDainian Tomlinson can run on anyone, especially at home.  The stiff Chargers defense provides a bigtime test for Chicago’s allegedly reborn passing offense.

Game Summary:  The Chargers are on a par with Chicago defensively, and are clearly the superior team on offense – plus they have the homefield advantage for this one.

Prediction:  CHARGERS, 31-20

Sunday, Sept. 9, 1:15 p.m. PT

Line:  Raiders favored by 1½

Strongest Trends:  The home team has won five of the last six meetings; The Raiders have won seven of the last nine meetings.

Last Meeting:  The Lions won at home, 23-13, in 2003.

Lions Status Report:  QB Jon Kitna predicted his team would reach the playoffs.  To do so, all the Lions have to do is drastically improve offensively, defensively, and on special teams.  A jolt in the front office would help, too.

Raiders Status Report:   The defense has looked good in the preseason, but is QB Daunte Culpepper ready to lead a team to victory?  Where might the points come from?

Fantasy Factor:  Detroit’s best chance is Kitna-to-Roy Williams… a lot.  The Raiders will probably try to pound the ball with Lamont Jordan, but Dominic Rhodes isn’t available because he’s serving a four-game suspension to begin the season.

Game Summary:  I like Oakland’s defense enough, at home, to get the Raiders off on a positive note.

Prediction:  RAIDERS, 17-13

Sunday, Sept. 9, 1:15 p.m. PT

Line:  Seahawks favored by 6

Strongest Trends:  The road team has won the last four meetings; Seattle has won three of the last four meetings.

Last Meeting:  Seattle finished off the ’06 regular season with a 23-7 triumph at Tampa Bay.

Buccaneers Status Report:  Although the depth chart is a mess, the Bucs are settled on their starting QB – veteran Jeff Garcia – whose first task should be to try unearth missing wide receiver Michael Clayton.

Seahawks Status Report:  RB Shaun Alexander looks fine, and Seattle still sports most of the players who helped them get to the Super Bowl year before last.

Fantasy Factor:  It will be interesting to see what kind of workload Alexander gets.  For Tampa Bay, Carnell Williams is the regular RB but reports are that Michael Pittman might get the goal-line touches, a la Mike Alstott.  That combined with his propensity for being involved in the passing game makes Pittman more valuable than he’s been since being the featured guy before Williams’ arrival.

Game Summary:  It’s a long trip for a Florida team to go to the Pacific Northwest.  Seattle is the choice at home for a myriad of reasons… the most basic of which is the Seahawks are the better team.

Prediction:  SEAHAWKS, 30-14

Sunday, Sept. 9, 1:15 p.m. PT

Line:  Cowboys favored by 6

Strongest Trends:  The Giants had covered ATS in five straight clashes before Dallas covered in the last meeting;  The road team won both meetings in 2006.

Last Meeting:  The Cowboys won, 23-20, at The Meadowlands last December.

Giants Status Report:  The new backfield tandem of Brandon Jacobs (he’s not new to the Giants, but to the role) and Reuben Droughns are put to the test.  This could be a make-or-break season for the career of QB Eli Manning.

Cowboys Status Report:  Last time we saw QB Tony Romo in a game that counted, he botched a snap on a field goal attempt and the Cowboys lost a playoff game they should have won.  Will he recover? (of course he will).  But he won’t be throwing to Terry Glenn, who probably won’t play.  The defense is expected to be improved as well.

Fantasy Factor:  With Glenn out, WR Patrick Crayton becomes a decent spot start in deeper leagues.  All the key offensive players on both teams garner a look in a game that should have plenty of action.

Game Summary:  The Cowboys are traditionally tough in season openers, and the Giants – to quote Shania Twain – don’t impress me much.  Oh man… did I just quote a country singing female in a football article?  Oh well, at least she’s hot.  Dallas is the pick.

Prediction:  COWBOYS, 28-20

Monday, Sept. 10, 4 p.m. PT

Line:  Bengals favored by 3

Strongest Trends:  The home team has won the last three meetings; Cincinnati has won four of the last five meetings.

Last Meeting:  The Bengals won at home, 13-7, last November.

Ravens Status Report:  The defense remains among the very best in the league, and RB Willis McGahee is the new featured ball-carrier on offense.  Confidence is high for the defending division champs.

Bengals Status Report:  The team looks good despite nearly a fifth of the roster being arrested at some point during the off-season.  There are still defensive questions, but the offense is at full strength.

Fantasy Factor:  The most interesting is the obvious – Cincy’s high-powered attack against the Ravens’ stellar defense.  Neither will win decisively, in all likelihood.  But can Baltimore get some things done against the Bengals defense.  I like WR Mark Clayton in this one.

Game Summary:  **Upset Special** – Siding with the Ravens defense here.  Baltimore can pressure QB Carson Palmer into just enough mistakes to turn the game in the Ravens’ favor, with QB Steve McNair making just enough plays.

Prediction:  RAVENS, 27-21

Monday, Sept. 10, 7:15 p.m. PT

Line:  49ers favored by 3

Strongest Trend:  The Cardinals have won the last four meetings.

Last Meeting:  Arizona triumphed, 26-20, at San Francisco last Christmas Eve.

Cardinals Status Report:  Arizona’s talented young skill players – plus RB Edgerrin James, who isn’t so young – are expected to put the Cardinals over the top and result in a winning record at the very least.  But what will the defense accomplish?

49ers Status Report:  Alex Smith is among the most promising QBs in the game, and RB Frank Gore can churn out the yards with the best of them.  But as with Arizona, it’s unclear how well we can expect the San Francisco defense to perform.

Fantasy Factor:  Expect both passing games to excel.  Unless the weather interferes, both offenses are likely to put up some stellar stats.

Game Summary:  The 49ers are the Cinderella team – good enough to win a mediocre but balanced NFC West.  The first step is holding serve at home against a division rival – before a national TV audience no less.

Prediction:  49ERS, 34-27

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