Previewing the Most Pivotal NFL Matchups of Week 1

Dan Van Wie@@DanVanWieContributor IIIAugust 31, 2012

Previewing the Most Pivotal NFL Matchups of Week 1

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    The 2012 NFL regular season is fast approaching, and there will be 32 charged-up teams wanting to make a statement.

    Week 1 of the 2011 season saw some huge passing numbers put up by the starting quarterbacks around the league. One threw for 500-plus yards, three for 400-plus and 10 threw for 300-plus yards.

    To refresh your memory, here's a breakdown of those numbers: Tom Brady (517 passing yards), Cam Newton (422), Drew Brees (419), Chad Henne (416), Tony Romo (342), Mark Sanchez (335), Philip Rivers (335), Matt Ryan (319), Jay Cutler (312), Aaron Rodgers (312), Kevin Kolb (309), Drew Stafford (305), Rex Grossman (305) and Kyle Orton (304).

    Expect to see more of the same during Week 1 of the 2012 season.

    The funny thing is that out of the impressive numbers put up by the group we just listed, Henne, Grossman and Orton are no longer starters in the league, and there is no guarantee that Kevin Kolb will start either.

    This presentation will preview the most pivotal matchups from all 16 of the Week 1 games, looking at key issues to watch for in every contest.

    With a Wednesday night game, a Sunday night game and two games on Monday night, it should be an exciting week of football.

Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants

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    Cowboys vs. Giants Most Pivotal Matchup: Dallas Cowboys offensive line allowing Tony Romo time to throw the ball versus New York Giants pressure from the defensive line. A close second will be Giants' banged-up secondary trying to control the Cowboys receivers.

    In the 2011 season, the Super Bowl champion Giants swept the Cowboys 37-34 and 31-14. Tony Romo threw for 610 yards in the two games. Eli Manning passed for 750 yards.

    The game at Dallas was the contest when DeMarco Murray broke his ankle.

    Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul saved New York in the first game by blocking a field goal kick, coming up with two sacks and forcing a fumble. The Giants sacked Romo nine times in the two games from last season.

    Injuries will be playing a key role in this game. It's hard to imagine that injuries are so big when the season hasn't even started yet, but that is the nature of the sport.

    TE Jason Witten has a lacerated spleen and CB Mike Jenkins will also probably miss the game due to shoulder surgery.

    Meanwhile, New York will probably be without CB Prince Amukamara (high ankle sprain) and Terrell Thomas is also gone for some time (ACL). LB Mathias Kiwanuka (strained groin) might also be questionable for this game.

    Due to the secondary issues for New York, the Cowboys will look to exploit the cornerback that starts opposite of Corey Webster. That could include either Bruce Johnson or Michael Coe, unless somebody interesting pops up on the waiver wire in the interim.

    The Giants will try to consume the clock with long drives and will grind out some yards with the duo of Ahmad Bradshaw and rookie David Wilson. The Cowboys need to counter with the running of Murray to keep the Giants defensive line honest.

    This should prove to be an entertaining contest to open up the season.

Indianapolis Colts at Chicago Bears

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    Colts vs. Bears Most Pivotal Matchup: How well will Andrew Luck hold up in his NFL debut versus the Chicago Bears' pressure defense? Similarly, can the Bears' woeful offensive line protect Jay Cutler from Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney?

    Although this game is a rematch of Super Bowl XLI, the teams are quite noticeably different when you compare the rosters from then to now.

    The No. 1 overall draft pick of the 2012 NFL draft, Andrew Luck, is in as the starting quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, while Peyton Manning has moved on to the Denver Broncos.

    Speaking of the Denver Broncos, ex-Broncos Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall will be looking to connect with each other early and often in 2012 for the Chicago Bears' revamped offense.

    The Bears have also added running back Michael Bush and rookie wide receiver Alshon Jeffery to take some of the pressure off of workhorse Matt Forte.

    The Bears are sporting their best offense in years—from a skilled players perspective—but that offensive line is clearly the weak link of this offense.

    Freeney and Mathis will be looking to take advantage of the Bears' shaky line to put pressure on Cutler. If they don't put heat on him, Cutler will have a field day throwing against the Colts' weak secondary.

    Meanwhile, Luck will have tremendous pressure on him, as everybody will want to see how he performs in his first NFL game.

    Bears MLB Brian Urlacher hasn't played in the preseason due to knee issues, so nobody knows if he will play and how effective he will be.

    Lance Briggs and Julius Peppers figure to challenge Luck and see what he is made of. So far, Luck has looked very poised in the preseason, but the pressure will be ratcheted up in the regular season.

    Luck will be looking to distribute the ball to Reggie Wayne and his fellow rookie options in Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen and T.Y. Hilton. Vick Ballard and Donald Brown will need to generate some kind of a running attack to keep the Bears front seven honest.

    The Colts lost so many players from the 2011 team that it will be interesting to see how new head coach Chuck Pagano's schemes will work as the Colts begin the long road toward rebuilding the franchise.

    Prior to trimming down the roster, the Colts had 42 rookies on their 90-man roster, with 55 of the players being new from the end of the 2011 season. That is a lot of turnover.

Philadelphia Eagles at Cleveland Browns

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    Eagles vs. Browns Most Pivotal Matchup: How can the Browns' young offensive skill players hold up against the Eagles' aggressive defense?

    The Philadelphia Eagles just played the Cleveland Browns in the third preseason game, so it is an odd scheduling quirk that sees them playing each other again in the regular season just two weeks later.

    It was clear in watching that contest that the Browns offense will be having problems with the Eagles' attacking style of defense.

    In the preseason game, Weeden completed less than half of his passes (9-of-20 for 117 yards), threw no touchdowns and was sacked three times. The Browns are still without running back Trent Richardson, but he is hoping that he can recover from his recent knee scope in time to suit up. 

    For the Browns, their offense is loaded with rookies that will be making their NFL debut.

    Between the nerves and pressure they put on themselves, it would only be natural to expect them to struggle in the beginning. Those rookies include QB Brandon Weeden, WR Josh Gordon, RB Trent Richardson, WR Travis Benjamin and T Mitchell Schwartz.

    Philadelphia's defense started coming on in the second half of last season under defensive coordinator Juan Castillo.

    They will continue to get better throughout 2012 as they learn how to mesh and play together. The Eagles will send waves of defensive linemen at Weeden, and we will see how he holds up to the pressure.

    Should Michael Vick's ribs act up, or if he gets hurt somewhere else, rookie quarterback Nick Foles has demonstrated that he has some skills and is now looking like the No. 2 quarterback option.

    It would be interesting if this game wound up being Foles versus Weeden in the fourth quarter with the game on the line. Based on the way they played in the preseason, my money would be on Foles.

St. Louis Rams at Detroit Lions

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    Rams vs. Lions Most Pivotal Matchup: Can Sam Bradford withstand the pressure of the Detroit Lions pass rush? Another very intriguing matchup will be Cortland Finnegan versus Calvin Johnson.

    Sam Bradford has received more than his fair share of bumps and bruises as the starting quarterback for the St. Louis Rams. He should expect a few more bruises after facing the Detroit Lions pass rush to open up the 2012 season.

    In 2011, Bradford was sacked 36 times, and he played in only 10 games. The Lions were tied for No. 10 in the NFL in sacks last year, generating 36 sacks for the season.

    The Rams have done a poor job of protecting Bradford ever since they drafted him. In the 2012 draft, the Rams didn't address the offensive line until the fifth round, when they selected guard Rokevious Watkins.

    It is clear that Jeff Fisher was faced with a number of holes to try to fill at the draft, but it also means that this could be another long year for Bradford taking a number of big hits. 

    On Sunday, Bradford will have to elude Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Ndamukong Suh. That doesn't bode well for the Rams offense to have a very good day. 

    As for the Finnegan versus Calvin Johnson matchup, look for Finnegan to try and see if he can find a way to distract Johnson and get under his skin. If he can get him to lose his focus and take him out of his game, then chalk one up for Finnegan.

    Now that Johnson has been in the league for five years, he should be aware of the kinds of tricks that Finnegan can pull, so he should be immune to the shenanigans. 

New England Patriots at Tennessee Titans

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    Patriots vs. Titans Most Pivotal Matchup: How effective will the Titans defense be this time against Tom Brady and all the New England Patriots' weapons on offense? 

    The last time that these teams met in the regular season was a game for the NFL history books. It was Week 6 of the 2009 season, and it turned out to be a snowy October day in New England for the fans and for the Titans defense.

    New England scored on the Titans at will, beating them 59-0. The Patriots had 21 first downs passing the ball, while Vince Young and the Titans only managed one. New England's offense set a team record with 619 yards.

    Brady hit on 29-of-34 passes for 380 yards and threw five touchdown passes in the second quarter, which is another NFL record. Brady threw six touchdowns total in the game, and then retired to the bench in the second half to watch the rest of the onslaught.

    This game will probably still resonate in the minds of Titans veterans, but there are obviously a number of new Titans on defense that weren't part of that team.

    While Brady focused on throwing to Wes Welker and Randy Moss back in 2009, the Patriots attack now features Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd, Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley. If that isn't enough to worry about, toss in USA Olympic sprinter Jeff Demps.

    Well, at least the game will be in Tennessee.

    The Titans will have to hope they can control the clock with Chris Johnson running the ball, but if Jake Locker needs to get in a shootout with Brady, this one could get real ugly fast.

Atlanta Falcons at Kansas City Chiefs

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    Falcons vs. Chiefs Most Pivotal Matchup: How good of a job can Eric Berry and the rest of Chiefs secondary do against Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez?

    I'm not sure how often this has been brought up, but I haven't really heard it anywhere else.

    This is the first time that long-time ex-Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez is returning to Kansas City since leaving the team. In what could be Gonzalez's last year in the NFL, it is fitting that he kicks off the campaign where it all began for him. It will probably be an emotional game for Gonzalez.

    Gonzalez will be just one of the weapons that Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan will have at his disposal, as he will also look to distribute the ball to Julio Jones and Roddy White. For the Chiefs secondary, led by safety Eric Berry, they will have their hands full trying to contain the speedy Jones.

    To further complicate the situation, Brandon Flowers has an injured heel that has kept him out of most of the preseason, Kendrick Lewis hurt his shoulder and Tamba Hali will be serving his one-game NFL suspension.

    Coming into the final preseason game, the quartet of Dwayne Bowe, Tony Moeaki, Jamaal Charles and Jonathan Baldwin have caught a combined total of just 14 passes this summer. Meanwhile, the Chiefs defense gave up 75 combined points to the Rams and Seahawks, who aren't known as top-level offenses.

    Adding everything up, it would not be a surprise if the Chiefs drop the home opener like they did last year when they got pounded by the Buffalo Bills 41-7.

Jacksonville Jaguars at Minnesota Vikings

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    Jaguars vs. Vikings Most Pivotal Matchup: Both teams are in a similar situation in Week 1, hoping that their second-year starting quarterback will show growth from last year. Both will also be wondering how much they can get (if anything) from their star running backs. 

    The resemblance of issues for both Minnesota and Jacksonville is quite evident.

    Quarterbacks Christian Ponder and Blaine Gabbert are both trying to take their game to another level this year. Then you have Adrian Peterson's injury versus Maurice Jones-Drew's holdout, so neither team knows exactly what they have in the running game right now. 

    Ponder has targets like Percy Harvin and Kyle Rudolph to throw the ball to, and they also can run the ball with Toby Gerhart if Peterson is not deemed to be ready to play in the opener. 

    Gabbert seems to be connecting well with Justin Blackmon in the preseason, so that bodes well for the pair having some success in 2012. The Jones-Drew situation is still very much up in the air, so nobody knows if he will play or how effective he will be if he does.

    At least the Jaguars have a backup plan with Rashad Jennings, who is looking like he will be the starter for at least the opener and possibly even longer than that. 

    It will be interesting to see how Gabbert reacts when Jared Allen comes crashing in for a sack, and if he starts getting happy feet again. The Jaguars need Gabbert to show that he has learned some lessons from last year. 

Washington Redskins at New Orleans Saints

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    Redskins vs. Saints Most Pivotal Matchup: This game offers us the veteran All-Pro quarterback Drew Brees versus the dynamic NFL rookie Robert Griffin III. Suspended Saints coach Sean Payton will also miss this game thanks to "Bountygate."

    Griffin will look to showcase his unique talents (big arm and his sprinter's speed), while Brees will conduct a seminar on how to move around in the pocket and locate your targets in an efficient manner. 

    Washington has needed to keep its offensive game plan under wraps until the regular season, so it will be learning firsthand if the plays it designed for Griffin actually work or not.

    Based on results from the first half, you might see Washington come out with a different look in the second half. Or it could be more of the same if the Saints had trouble with Griffin in the beginning. 

    For the Saints defense, it will no doubt be harder to contain Griffin without the likes of suspended stars Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma. New Orleans is hoping that Curtis Lofton has recovered from his high ankle sprain to put some heat on Griffin. 

    I suspect that this game will be a ratings hit for the opening weekend. There will be a natural curiosity about how the Saints are doing this year due to the bounty scandal, as well as the pro debut for Griffin. 

Buffalo Bills at New York Jets

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    Bills vs. Jets Most Pivotal Matchup: Will the Bills attack Darrelle Revis with Stevie Johnson again in what is shaping up as one of the best positional duels in the NFL?

    Darrelle Revis is unquestionably one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL.

    Revis has the ability to shut down the top receiver of basically any NFL team as long as they run their pass routes with some degree of predictability. That doesn't define Buffalo Bills wide receiver Steve Johnson, who is anything but predictable.

    In the Bills offense, head coach Chan Gailey gives Johnson the freedom to run his pass routes any way that he wants to. That means that Revis doesn't know what to expect from Johnson from one play to the next.

    Going back to the 2011 season, the Bills played the Jets both times in November.

    In the Week 9 contest, Ryan Fitzpatrick targeted Johnson six times, completing three passes for 84 yards. Johnson averaged 28 yards per catch against Revis, aided by a 52-yard reception.

    In the rematch in Week 12, Fitzpatrick threw to Johnson a whopping 13 times, completing eight of them for 75 yards and a touchdown. Johnson averaged 9.4 yards per catch in that game.

    While the vast majority of NFL teams prefer to not even test Revis due to him being such a standout shutdown corner, the Bills openly welcome the challenge and look forward to seeing who comes out on top. Too bad they only see each other twice a year, because it is a matchup I will be watching closely.

Miami Dolphins at Houston Texans

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    Dolphins vs. Texans Most Pivotal Matchup: Can Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins offense move the ball against the powerful Texans defense?

    On the surface, I think this will turn out to be more of a one-sided game. I think the Dolphins' limitations in the passing game will really hurt them against the Texans' great defense.

    The Texans will look to fill up the box early to stop Reggie Bush, and when they have forced Ryan Tannehill into a number of 3rd-and-long situations, they will send the house.

    The Texans will look to discourage Tannehill early and often, making him feel like he is overwhelmed. If they succeed at doing that, this game could be a blowout.

    In 2011, the Texans were No. 6 in the NFL with 44 sacks, so they shouldn't have many problems in getting to Tannehill in this game. 

    Houston finished last year with the No. 2 overall defense in the league, so it should be coming into this game with plenty of confidence.

    The Dolphins are a young team looking to learn under new head coach Joe Philbin. I suspect this game will be a painful lesson for Miami.

San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers

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    Packers vs. 49ers Most Pivotal Matchup: Can the 49ers' tough defense slow down Aaron Rodgers and the high-octane Packers offense?  

    This is one of those classic matchups of strength versus strength. The Packers offense averaged 35.0 points per game in 2011 (No. 1 in the NFL), while the 49ers defense only allowed 14.3 points per game last year (No. 2 in the NFL).

    The Packers overall offense was ranked No. 3, while the 49ers overall defense was ranked No. 4. 

    Green Bay's offense looks like it might even be a bit better this year due to the additional balance it received with the signing of free-agent running back Cedric Benson. 

    San Francisco brings back its starting unit from 2011, so with another year playing together, the Niners should continue to excel and stay in the top five units in the league.

    The 49ers were ranked at No. 7 in the NFL in sacks last year with 42, so they will need to keep the pressure on Aaron Rodgers and try to keep him contained in the pocket. 

    San Francisco worked hard to upgrade its offense this offseason, while the Packers tried to upgrade their defense.

Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals

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    Seahawks vs. Cardinals Most Pivotal Matchup: Tough decisions at QB for both teams. Who made the right call?

    For the Seahawks, it appears that they are prepared to go with the rookie Russell Wilson, who had a phenomenal training camp and preseason. If he falters for any reason, the Seahawks will turn to Matt Flynn, as their third option is no longer around since the team traded Tarvaris Jackson to Buffalo. 

    For the Cardinals, it looks like the decision is coming down to the wire between John Skelton and Kevin Kolb.

    The Seahawks have an improved defense that will test whoever Arizona starts, and their main objective will be to slow down Larry Fitzgerald

    The Cardinals will counter by trying to slow down Marshawn Lynch and to make life difficult on Wilson by applying as much pressure as they can on the rookie to see if they can rattle him. 

Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Panthers vs. Bucs Most Pivotal Matchup: Will Tampa Bay's new offense be able to keep pace with Cam Newton and the dynamic Panthers attack?

    The Tampa Bay defensive line is hurting coming into the season opener against Cam Newton and the Panthers. They had to put DE Da'Quan Bowers on the reserve/PUP list due to his Achilles tendon injury.

    In 2011, the Bucs could only muster up 23 sacks for the entire year. If they fail to place strong pressure on Newton, he will have a field day picking apart the secondary.  

    The Panthers have a very good running game, and Newton is a force with both his arm and his legs. Carolina shouldn't have that much trouble moving the ball on Tampa Bay's defense, which places a tremendous amount of pressure on the Bucs offense to keep the game close. 

    Tampa Bay was dead last in the NFL last year in points allowed (494), so based on the track record, it can't afford to get into any shootouts. 

    The Bucs have upgraded their offense with the additions of Carl Nicks, Doug Martin and Vincent Jackson. They will employ the duo of Martin and LeGarrette Blount running the ball to try and keep Newton off of the field and from eating up the clock.  

    The Bucs will improve, but they still have a long way to go to repair the damage done last year. 

Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos

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    Steelers vs. Broncos Most Pivotal Matchup: Can Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning hold up to the physical pounding he will get from the Pittsburgh Steelers defense?

    There are plenty of storylines to work with in this game.

    You have Peyton Manning's debut with the Denver Broncos, the first game of the new Pittsburgh Steelers offense under coordinator Todd Haley, the controversy over Mike Wallace's holdout and a playoff rematch from last year.

    Can the Steelers find their running game again? How will the Steelers offensive line survive the loss of David DeCastro? 

    Manning survived a big hit in the preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers, but can he take a four-quarter pounding?

    Everybody is hoping for the best, because who the Broncos have as backups behind Manning is just as scary as who the Colts had behind him last year. 

    In 2011, the Steelers defense came up with 35 sacks, averaging a little more than 2.0 sacks per game. I suspect that the national audience will want to see LB James Harrison hit Manning and see if Peyton can get up from a big hit by Harrison.

    That would probably be as good a test as any. Then everybody can relax and not be so worried about how Manning will hold up.

    As for Harrison, he has his own injuries to deal with. His knee was scoped and, as a result, he has been very limited in the 2012 preseason.

    Week 1 will be his first big test of the year, and he probably won't play his normal number of snaps due to not being all the way back from the knee issues. 

Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens

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    Bengals vs. Ravens Most Pivotal Matchup: Can the Bengals passing attack generate enough success against the Ravens' talented secondary?

    This is the first Monday Night Football game of the 2012 season, and it is also the first of two MNF games for Week 1. This should be a great game with two playoff teams from 2011 and an early showdown out of the AFC North. 

    The Ravens have been the dominant team in the AFC North lately, as they have won eight straight games in the division and 10 out of their last 11.

    The Bengals have trouble repeating playoff appearances in consecutive years, so they will try to end that long streak this year. 

    The Bengals offense finished 2011 ranked at No. 20, and they will be going up against a Ravens defense which was ranked No. 3 last year.

    Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs is on the PUP list, and Jarret Johnson, Tom Zbikowski and Cory Redding left in free agency.

    Baltimore is trying to replace Suggs with either Albert McClellan or rookie Courtney Upshaw, but you can always count on MLB Ray Lewis to keep the Ravens defense focused and motivated. 

    The Bengals passing attack is better than their ground game, but this plays into the strength of the Ravens defense. The Ravens secondary is led by Ed Reed, Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams. They also have Jimmy Smith for additional depth.

    Cincinnati's offense will rely on Andy Dalton throwing the ball to  A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham. Gresham, however, sprained his knee in the preseason, so there are concerns about his availability for the game right now.

    BenJarvus Green-Ellis replaces Cedric Benson as the main running back, so he will need to step up to take some of the pressure off of Dalton and Green. 

San Diego Chargers at Oakland Raiders

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    Chargers vs. Raiders Most Pivotal Matchup: Which veteran quarterback, Philip Rivers or Carson Palmer, will be able to prove that their problems from 2011 are a thing of the past and lead their team to a win in this classic AFC West battle? 

    Both quarterbacks had stretches where they struggled last year, so everyone will be tuning in to see who is looking sharp and who is still dealing with issues. A national audience will be tuning in to watch the final game of Week 1, as this is the second featured contest on Monday Night Football

    Ideally, a quarterback has a ratio of two touchdowns for every one interception, but both QBs missed that mark in 2011.

    Rivers threw 27 touchdowns to 20 interceptions, while Palmer was even worse, throwing 13 touchdowns to 16 interceptions. Both QBs finished the year with a passer rating in the 80s, as Rivers was at 88.7, Palmer at 80.5. 

    Rivers has a healthy Antonio Gates to work this year, which is a huge plus.

    The Chargers replaced the loss of Vincent Jackson in free agency by adding Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal.

    The Chargers offense isn't operating at full strength due to injuries to Ryan Mathews (fractured clavicle), Vincent Brown (fractured ankle) and Jared Gaither (back spasms). 

    For the Raiders and Palmer, the team is crossing their fingers that Darren McFadden can stay healthy for the entire season.

    The Raiders were pleasantly surprised by the play of rookie wide receivers Rod Streater and Juron Criner in the preseason, so we will see if they can continue that level of play in the regular season.

    Denarius Moore (hamstring) and Jacoby Ford (foot) are injured, so the team might need to count on one of their rookies in this game. 

    Thanks for checking out the presentation.