Finally, the 2012 regular season is upon us.
Starting Wednesday night, 32 teams will begin their quest for a Super Bowl title. While every one of them wants to get off to a good start, by Tuesday morning, 16 teams will have lost their first game. The other 16 will be basking in the glory of a win.
Still, it's only one game, and I'm here to tell you which teams will come out victorious.
The Cowboys have offensive line problems, and one of the teams you least want to face in that situation is the Giants who have defensive linemen to spare. Giants defensive ends Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora have to be licking their chops. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo will be getting chased all over the field all game.
Cowboys tight end Jason Witten may miss the game with an injured spleen, and even if he does play, I don't see how he could be very effective. He is normally Tony Romo's security blanket when he gets in trouble, so that spells trouble for the Cowboys offense.
The Giants, on the other hand, come into the game relatively healthy. Their only major concern is wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, who may still not be ready after injuring his foot this offseason. Fellow Giants receiver Victor Cruz showed he is more than ready to be the No. 1 option this preseason, however.
With the Giants playing at home, I don't think the Cowboys offense will be able to get much going. The Cowboys defense will keep it close by blitzing a ton, but in the end the Giants will pull away for good in the second half.
Prediction: Giants over Cowboys
The Bears are going to give Colts rookie and No. 1 pick quarterback Andrew Luck a baptism by fire. I look for the Bears to put tremendous pressure on Luck and hide their coverages well to confuse him. Bears defensive end Julius Peppers will be all over Luck for most of the game.
When they pass, I look for the Bears to max protect to keep the Colts' only real playmakers on defense, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, in check, which will let Cutler connect down the field with wide receivers Brandon Marshall, Devin Hester, Earl Bennett and Alshon Jeffery.
With the Bears defense dominating, there should be several opportunities for Hester or Eric Weems to bust a big punt return as well.
This game should end up being a blowout. The Colts just don't have enough pieces to contend with a team as talented as the Bears right now.
Prediction: Bears over Colts
The Vikings still can't be sure how running back Adrian Peterson will perform at the beginning of this season coming off a torn ACL. His backup, Toby Gerhart, is good, but not a game-breaker. The Jaguars, on the other hand, are pretty good at playing the run on defense. They will force the Vikings to beat them through the air, and I don't trust Christian Ponder to do so.
On offense, the Jaguars potentially will have the services of reigning rushing champion Maurice Jones-Drew, who just reported to the team after a lengthy holdout. If not, they will be handing off the ball to Rashad Jennings for most of the game, and he is pretty good in his own right.
Blaine Gabbert has done nothing to make me believe he will set the world on fire this year either. With the additions of wide receivers Justin Blackmon, a rookie and first-round pick, and Laurent Robinson, a free-agent pickup, to go along with tight end Marcedes Lewis, Gabbert finally has some game-breakers to deliver the ball to.
Gabbert will have to weather a relentless pass rush effort from Vikings defensive end Jared Allen just to get the ball down the field, however.
This game should go down to the wire with both defenses looking dominant. In the end, I will choose the Jaguars because of the uncertainty with the Vikings running game.
Prediction: Jaguars over Vikings
I don't know if this Jets defense will be the best in team history as their starting middle linebacker Bart Scott recently boasted, but I do know they will be very good if they can stay healthy. The Buffalo Bills are starting a rookie left tackle in Cordy Glenn, and the Jets will look to exploit him early and often.
Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick only has wide receiver Stevie Johnson as a legitimate big-play threat in the passing game. That's going to be hard to overcome with a secondary as talented as the Jets' unit.
On offense, the Jets will have to help new starting right tackle Austin Howard block Bills defensive end Mario Williams, or it's going to be a long day for quarterback Mark Sanchez. Sanchez's best friend will be the running game, and new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano is committed to getting back to ground and pound.
I look for Shonn Greene and Bilal Powell to have big days running the ball. That will set up the play-action pass, and Jets wide receivers Santonio Holmes and rookie Stephen Hill will make just enough plays in the passing game.
This should be a low scoring game with the Jets winning by a field goal or more.
Prediction: Jets over Bills
The Texans will look to get a lot of pressure on Dolphins rookie quarterback and first-round pick Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill will be running for his life whenever he drops back to pass. With so few weapons at the skill positions, he still won't find someone to throw to most of the time.
Offensively, the Texans are going to run the ball right down Miami's throats with Arian Foster and Ben Tate. With the Dolphins transitioning from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense, they will have to prove they can defend the run before the Texans even consider throwing the ball around.
When the Texans do get around to throwing the ball, there aren't many better wide receivers in the NFL than Andre Johnson. He and quarterback Matt Schaub will hook up plenty of times after the Dolphins have to load the box to try to defend the run.
The Texans also have Trindon Holliday as a dynamic return man now. If the Dolphins aren't careful, he may pop a big one for a touchdown.
This game won't be close, and Tannehill will need a lot of Advil afterward.
Prediction: Texans over Dolphins
The Patriots' re-tooled offense line will have some trouble dealing with the Titans' improved defensive line. Defensive end Kamerion Wimbley will make an impact getting after Patriots quarterback Tom Brady all game.
Unfortunately for them, the Titans won't be able to defend the Patriots' tight end tandem of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Patriots free-agent wide receiver acquisition Brandon Lloyd will make it even harder for the Titans to focus on the tight ends with his ability to get down field in a hurry.
Johnson will have a rough time getting past Patriots middle linebacker Brandon Spikes all game, however. The Patriots will want to force Locker to make plays in the pocket, and rookie first-round defensive end Chandler Jones will be applying pressure all day.
The wild card for the Titans on special teams is returner Darius Reynaud. He showed big-play ability in the preseason and could put the Titans in favorable field position.
I think this game will be close because of the Patriots' offensive line woes. But in the end, big plays by Gronkowski and Hernandez will be too much for the Titans to overcome.
Prediction: Patriots over Titans
There isn't much to say about this game because the Lions are the far superior team.
The one area of weakness on the Lions team is the secondary, but the Rams don't have any wide receivers to challenge them, and quarterback Sam Bradford will be too busy trying to get away from the Lions' ferocious pass-rushing front four to throw the ball downfield much anyway.
The Rams still have Steven Jackson at running back, and he is always a threat to have a big day. Even if he breaks some big runs, I don't think it will be enough to carry the whole team, however.
Combine all that with the fact that the Lions are playing at home, and this shouldn't be much of a game at all.
Prediction: Lions over Rams
It will also be the regular-season debut for new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, and it's hard to say how he will attack Redskins rookie first-round quarterback Robert Griffin III. I would expect Spagnuolo to send a lot of pressure, as that is the thing most rookie quarterbacks struggle with most.
On offense, the Saints will run the ball right at the Redskins early and often. With Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory, the Saints boast one of the deepest running back stables in the NFL.
Once the running game has been established, I look for Saints quarterback Drew Brees to start picking apart a Redskins secondary dealing with the year-long suspension of potential starting safety Tanard Jackson.
I don't think the Saints offense will be hitting on all cylinders without Sean Payton calling the shots, but I still think they will put up plenty of points over the course of the game.
For the Redskins to have a shot at winning this game, Griffin will have to be steady and play mistake free. The Saints will take advantage of any turnovers, and it's hard to believe he won't have any in his first game.
Both teams have explosive return men with the Saints' Sproles and the Redskins' Brandon Banks, but Banks will have a harder time getting good opportunities to return with the Saints enjoying better field position most of the game.
This won't quite be a blowout, but the Saints should be in control for most of the game and win handily.
Prediction: Saints over Redskins
The Browns are another team starting a rookie first-round quarterback in Brandon Weeden. Weeden will have a rough game against an Eagles defense that should be much improved over last season. Trent Cole and Cullen Jenkins will lead the way getting pressure on Weeden all day.
Browns rookie first-round pick running back Trent Richardson might play after sitting out most of training camp due to "minor" knee surgery. I doubt that he will be able to get much going, however.
According to Tom Reed of The Plain Dealer, Haden doesn't know if he will play in this game because of, as Reed wrote, "a possible suspension for reportedly failing a drug test."
Otherwise, the Eagles have a decided advantage over the Browns defense. They shouldn't have any problem at all moving the ball down the field.
Eagles new return man and nickel cornerback Brandon Boykin should get plenty of opportunities to break one on punt returns.
The most important thing for the Eagles in this game, as it is for every game for the rest of the year, will be keeping Vick upright and healthy.
I think they will get that done, and this game will be a blowout.
Prediction: Eagles over Browns
This game may be the marquee matchup of the first weekend. Both the Chiefs and Falcons will contend for their respective division titles this year. If you could only watch one game this weekend, this is the one I would recommend.
The Falcons offense looked a lot more explosive in the preseason, willing to take shots down the field no matter the situation in the game. Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones is going to be a tough cover for a Chiefs secondary that has some key guys recovering from injuries. Roddy White is no slouch either.
I don't think the Chiefs will have much of a problem defending the Falcons running attack, but if they can't cover their wide receivers, it's going to be a long day.
By the same token, the Chiefs are going to be tough to deal with on offense also.
The Falcons are stacked at corner with Dunta Robinson, Brent Grimes and Asante Samuel. For that reason, they may be able to keep Chiefs wide receivers Dwayne Bowe, Jon Baldwin and Steve Breaston somewhat in check. They still are going to have to deal with Chiefs wide receiver Dexter McCluster in the slot, however.
Even if they can pull that off, they will still have to try to find a way to slow down the Chiefs running game with Jamaal Charles and Peyton Hillis. With Charles returning to form after missing much of the 2011 season because of a torn ACL, the Chiefs will be dangerous on the ground.
If the Falcons have a hard time stopping the run, it will put more pressure on the secondary to get involved there. That will eventually open up the passing game, and at that point it will become a chess match. I don't have confidence that new Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will find a way to adjust his game plan accordingly.
This game could truly go either way, but I give the Chiefs the edge because they are at home.
Prediction: Chiefs over Falcons
This game is going to be a classic clash of styles: The hard-nosed defense of the 49ers against the pass-happy offense for the Packers, as well as the downhill running of the 49ers offense against the blitzing style of the Packers defense.
I'm a little old school and maybe that's why I see the 49ers being able to go into Lambeau Field and get the win. The 49ers are going to get after Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and put hits on him all day. When he completes those quick slants to his receivers, the 49ers are going to come up and punish them also.
I'm sure that sooner or later Rodgers will catch them slipping and hit them for a few big plays, but for most of the game, I believe the potent Packers offense will be bottled up.
The 49ers offense, on the other hand, will try to wear the Packers defense down over the course of the game. They will keep handing the ball off to Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter over and over again until they finally break a big one.
Once the Packers decide to load up the box to try to stop the run, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith will have opportunities to make them pay with shots down the field. Wide receivers Mario Manningham, Randy Moss, Michael Crabtree and rookie first-round pick A.J. Jenkins can all make big plays in the passing game.
The best big-play weapon the 49ers have on offense, however, is tight end Vernon Davis. I can see the Packers putting safety Charles Woodson on him, but I don't think Woodson is big enough to get the job done.
Still, that matchup in and of itself will be worth the price of admission.
The Packers have gotten younger on defense with rookies at outside linebacker in Nick Perry and at defensive end in Jerel Worthy. Younger isn't always better, however, and they will struggle a bit this game.
This game will go back and forth for the full 60 minutes. By the end, the 49ers will have sucked the Packers into playing their smash-mouth style of game, and they will come out on top, but just barely.
Prediction: 49ers over Packers
The Cardinals have some pretty good weapons on offense, but their offensive line is weak, especially after losing left tackle Levi Brown for the season to injury. And their quarterback, John Skelton, is average at best. The Seahawks have a strong, young defense that will give Skelton headaches all day.
Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is one of the best in the business, but he will have a hard time getting open against a Seahawks defense that boasts the best young safety tandem in the league between Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.
When the Seahawks are on offense, they will be led by rookie Russell Wilson, and I expect him to struggle a little bit. The Cardinals' defense is the heart and soul of that team, and it can look dominant at times, especially up front.
Wilson has some big targets that can go up and get the ball in wide receivers Sidney Rice and Braylon Edwards, who should help Wilson complete some easy passes. He is going to have to use his feet to get away from the likes of Cardinals defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett, however, just to get some of those passes off.
Because the Cardinals' offense will struggle, their defense will be on the field too much, and eventually, they will start to wear down. That's when you can expect Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, if he's healthy enough to play, to go into beast mode and close out the game.
The Cardinals do have a major wild card with cornerback Patrick Peterson returning punts. I don't think the Seahawks will take a chance punting to him, though, so he shouldn't get many opportunities to be a game-changer.
I look for this game to be pretty boring for about three quarters, with both teams struggling on offense. In the fourth quarter, the Seahawks should pull away.
Prediction: Seahawks over Cardinals
The Panthers' offense will dominate the Buccaneers' defense in the running game. The Bucs will be starting a rookie at one linebacker spot in Lavonte David, and he is bound to make a bunch of mistakes. That will be magnified against an offense like the Panthers' unit that thrives on misdirection and has so many different blocking schemes.
If the Bucs can put the Panthers in 3rd-and-long situations, I can see them having some success, however, with an improved secondary led by rookie safety Mark Barron. But if the Bucs choose to only rush three linemen like they did quite a bit in the preseason, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is going to make them pay big-time.
The Buccaneers' offense will have a chance to carry the team in this game. Even with Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph lost for the season, the Bucs have a chance to do well running the ball with the running back tandem of rookie first-round pick Doug Martin and LeGarrette Blount.
I don't see anyone in the Panthers' secondary who can match up well with Vincent Jackson, either. He will have opportunities to hit them for big chunks of yardage all day.
Then there is tight end Dallas Clark, who still knows how to get open with the best of them, and he has some great hands.
Unfortunately, I don't think those weapons will matter much because Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman still isn't consistent enough playing the position.
One of the most frustrating things about watching Freeman is that he just about refuses to run when a defense gives him the opportunity to do so. It makes no sense when almost every other quarterback in the league these days runs when the defense gives them the chance.
Freeman, on the other hand, will throw into triple coverage at times before running for an easy first down.
Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson will be pressuring Freeman all day, while rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly will make a ton of tackles and pounce when Freeman stares down his receivers in the passing game.
The Panthers won't shut down the Buccaneers' offense, but they will make just enough plays to minimize the Bucs' scoring.
This game will be pretty close all the way to the end, and Freeman will make some plays along the way. But the Bucs will eventually lose because he just won't make enough of them.
Prediction: Panthers over Buccaneers
The Steelers head to Denver once again without starting safety Ryan Clark, who can't play there because he has a sickle-cell trait. Pro Bowl outside linebacker James Harrison and his backup, Jason Worilds, also may be out for the game after nursing injuries all offseason.
Even if either of them play, they aren't likely to be at full speed.
None of this is exactly good news for a team about to play against Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
The Steelers still have some talented players on defense, like outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley and safety Troy Polamalu, but they are in for a long day trying to shut down the Denver Broncos' offense. Manning is going to spread the ball around and make good decisions.
He will have opportunities for big plays in the passing game with wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, and Willis McGahee will have the running game going. I expect to see the Broncos put up more points than we are used to seeing the Steelers give up.
The Steelers' offense has worries of its own with an offensive line that looked shaky in the preseason, leading rusher Rashard Mendenhall remaining sidelined after last season's ACL tear and a brand-new offensive coordinator in Todd Haley that players are still getting adjusted to.
They did have a bit of good news recently with big-play wide receiver Mike Wallace rejoining the team after missing all of training camp. The offensive line also got a little bit better when the Steelers recently brought back left tackle Max Starks.
Still, they are going to have a rough time going against that aggressive Broncos defense.
Broncos linebacker Von Miller, who is once again healthy, is a big-play machine. Defensive end Elvis Dumervil is going to give whomever the Steelers trot out at left tackle fits all game. And future Hall of Famer cornerback Champ Bailey will be looking to take Wallace completely out of the game.
If the Steelers were complete going into this game, I would give them a shot to win it. As it stands, they will go back home with a loss to the Broncos in their first game.
Prediction: Broncos over Steelers
Blocking Ravens defensive end Haloti Ngata is always a difficult proposition. It will be an even harder task for division foe Cincinnati with guard Travelle Wharton lost for the season. Newly signed center Jeff Faine is a smaller offensive lineman who will have his hands full all day with Ravens nose tackle Terrence Cody.
The Bengals will have a hard time throughout the game dealing with the Ravens' defensive line.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton will have more time than usual to throw, but he will still have a hard time finding anyone open against that strong Ravens secondary. Future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed already makes quarterbacks think twice about throwing the ball deep.
Fellow safety Bernard Pollard is playing at a high level, too, and will help on the underneath coverage. Cornerback Ladarius Webb is likely going to match up with Bengals wide receiver A. J. Green for the duration. Green, along with tight end Jermaine Gresham, are the only major threats in the passing game for the Bengals, and they will have a hard time getting open against the Ravens.
On defense, the Bengals come into this game pretty banged up. Defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Robert Geathers are both dealing with leg injuries. Cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick, Adam Jones and Jason Allen are nicked up as well. That doesn't bode well heading into this game against a Ravens offense that finally looked to be gelling in the preseason.
Ravens running back Ray Rice should have a field day running the ball. Quarterback Joe Flacco should finally look like the franchise quarterback the Ravens drafted him to be, hooking up with wide receivers Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin.
Smith, in particular, looked much improved in the preseason and isn't just a deep threat anymore.
With the Ravens' offense dominating, this game shouldn't be close.
Prediction: Ravens over Bengals
With new general manager Reggie McKenzie and new head coach Dennis Allen, the Raiders have begun a new era after the passing of Hall of Fame owner Al Davis. The hope is that it means a team with a lot more discipline and fewer turnovers.
The new way of doing things will be on full display against their division rival, the San Diego Chargers.
A formidable Raiders defensive line will harass Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers all day.
He will still hook up early and often with tight end Antonio Gates, who is healthy now and appears to be back to Pro Bowl form. However, he won't be able to count on the Raiders' defense imploding like they normally would. That means the Chargers' offense will have to earn every yard it gets, which won't be easy.
Running back Ryan Mathews has been out with a broken collarbone and may not play in this game. If he does, there is no way to tell how effective he will be with all the time he has missed in the preseason.
That means the Chargers may have to rely on Ronnie Brown, Jackie Battle and Curtis Brinkley to carry the running game. That doesn't inspire a lot of confidence that they will have success on the ground.
In the passing game, Rivers will have plenty of weapons to throw to. Wide receivers Malcom Floyd, Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal and Vincent Brown are all pretty good options. However, Rivers will miss having wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who signed with the Bucs this offseason, and his big-play ability down the field.
The real problems for the Chargers will be on defense, where they don't have a lot of playmakers. Rookie first-round pick Melvin Ingram is a superb pass-rusher, but he isn't starting at this point, so he probably won't make much of an impact on this game.
The Raiders have an abundance of talent at wide receiver, but several of them have been injured during training camp. Running back Darren McFadden is a beast when healthy like he is now, but it's keeping him healthy that has been the problem. For now the Raiders are stacked at the skill positions, and they are going to light the Chargers' secondary up if given the chance.
Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer is the only question mark in my mind because although he can make any throw and has a cannon for an arm, he also occasionally makes bad decisions at critical points in the game.
If Palmer is on, the Raiders will move the ball up and down the field and score a lot of points in the process. If he is off, then the offense will sputter at times, but still score enough to win this game.
Prediction: Raiders over Chargers