The NFL season may have technically started on Wednesday, but for the other 30 teams in the league, Sunday and Monday will kick off five months of football bliss.
The first week of the season is a litmus test for the fans. They get to find out if everything they saw in the preseason was a sign of things to come or just a figment of their imagination. It's when hardcore fantasy football players sit back with one eye on the television and another on the waiver wire.
The first week also is the hardest to predict. As much as we think we know about how our teams will do, nobody knows anything until they hit the field.
A good example is this past Wednesday's opener between the Giants and Cowboys. The Giants were riding high after their second Super Bowl win in five years, and they opened up at home against a Dallas team they swept last season.
As tough as division games can be, you had to like New York's chances. Instead, the Giants looked rusty. Victor Cruz dropped a few key passes, and the Giants secondary got torched by Tony Romo and his bevy of talented receivers. Dallas pulled off the upset on the road against the defending champs, marking the first time in nine years a defending champion has lost in the opener.
Despite that opening curveball, I will attempt to predict how the remaining 15 games will go. Increasing the degree of difficulty, I will be making these picks based on the spreads found in Danny Sheridan's odds section in USA Today.
Week 1 presents plenty of intriguing matchups. There's a potential NFC championship showdown with the first two QB's chosen in the 2005 draft squaring off when the Packers host the Niners. The Steelers get their rematch against the team that eliminated them from the playoffs when they take on Denver Sunday night—only this time they get Peyton Manning instead of Tim Tebow.
Let's get this inevitable plate of crow started.
The Pick: Chicago
It's the regular-season debut of the most highly touted QB prospect in decades. Andrew Luck had a solid preseason, given the lack of talent around him, and now gets to show his stuff against a tough Chicago defense.
At first, it was tough to take the Bears giving up nearly 10 points. Their offensive line is shaky, and they'll be going up against two premier pass-rushers in Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney. The Colts may be rebuilding, but if there's one thing new coach Chuck Pagano knows, it's defense.
That being said, this Bears offense has the potential to be explosive if Jay Cutler gets time to throw. He's reunited with former Broncos teammate Brandon Marshall and also has rookie Alshon Jeffery at his disposal. Lest we forget, Chicago also has a guy by the name of Matt Forte who can punish the Colts on the ground or in the passing game.
I see Luck playing well at first, but being forced into throwing a couple costly interceptions thanks to Julius Peppers and this Bears pass-rush. Cutler will take advantage of the turnovers and reconnect with his old pal Marshall in the end zone. He'll also find a way to throw a pick himself.
The Bears passing game will play well, but the story is going to be Forte. Finally paid and miffed over the arrival of Michael Bush, I see him having a big day.
Score: Bears 28, Colts 13
The Pick: Philadelphia
This was the easiest pick to make of all of the Week 1 games.
Cleveland will be trotting out rookie Brandon Weeden against a tenacious Eagles defense, and his receiving corps leaves much to be desired. Weeden will have fellow talented rookie RB Trent Richardson to help him out. However, Richardson is coming off knee surgery last month.
For Philly, the key for this game and for the rest of the season will be keeping QB Michael Vick healthy. Vick should be able to have his way with this Browns defense, but venturing out into the open field one too many times can prove costly for the injury-prone quarterback.
Things could get even easier for Vick if the league upholds its suspension of Browns cornerback Joe Haden. Haden, one of the best young corners in the game, was suspended for four games for failing a drug test. He has appealed the suspension and is still waiting on word from the league about his status for Sunday.
If Haden can't go, Vick will have a field day. The Eagles already are explosive on offense with receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin and RB LeSean McCoy. With the Browns missing their best defender, there's nobody to at least hinder the Eagles from continually going deep.
I think Vick has a huge game and McCoy takes advantage of the attention paid to the passing game. The Eagles defense, which got significantly better this offseason with the additions of MLB DeMeco Ryans and rookie DT Fletcher Cox, will make life miserable for Weeden in his regular-season debut. Richardson will show flashes of brilliance, but will have a tough time finding room to run with the D not respecting the passing game.
Score: Eagles 31, Browns 9
The Pick: Buffalo
The Buffalo Bills spent the offseason bolstering their defense, especially against the pass.
Why wouldn't they? They know the road to an AFC East title goes through New England and QB Tom Brady.
That's why they added pass-rushers Mario Williams and Mark Anderson to a defensive line that already had DT Marcell Dareus. Buffalo also drafted physical corner Stephon Gilmore in the first round.
The New York Jets made a couple of moves this summer, too. You may have heard that they added a popular option quarterback to be a backup to Mark Sanchez—some guy by the name of Tim Tebow?
The Tebow-Sanchez QB controversy is a storyline that will never go away. Sanchez has been too erratic, and Tebow is too polarizing of a figure.
The problem is that all of the attention will be paid to those two men and not paid to the Jets' shaky offensive line.
That might change come Sunday. If Sanchez thought having Tebow breathing down his neck was tough, he's going to really find Williams in his face hard to handle. When healthy, Williams is one of the best defensive ends in the game, and Gang Green doesn't have enough up front to hold him back.
I think this game will be more about defense. Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis is going to be in Stevie Johnson's hip pocket, and that's going to limit Buffalo's passing game. The Jets are pretty stout against the run, so it's hard to see RBs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller having a huge day.
This will come down to who manages to be safer with the football. The Bills have the better pass-rush, and if I had to gamble on which QB is more likely to make mistakes, I'd take Mark Sanchez over Ryan Fitzpatrick. Sanchez won't have much time to throw, and he doesn't exactly have a ton of weapons, either.
Both teams trade field goals early on but Buffalo eventually finds the end zone first, and the defense holds the lead in this one.
Score: Bills 17, Jets 12
The Pick: New Orleans
Redskins rookie QB Robert Griffin III will have a lot of obstacles thrown at him in his regular-season debut. For starters, he has to try pulling off an upset on the road against a potential Super Bowl contender in the New Orleans Saints. Then there's the issue of the noise level inside the loud Superdome, and there's also the daunting task of trying to keep up in a shootout with Drew Brees.
As if that's not enough, the Saints won their appeal of Roger Goodell's punishment for the bounty scandal that will allow DE Will Smith to suit up Sunday. The return of those two gentlemen makes the Saints defense more formidable and more troublesome for a subpar Redskins offensive line.
Welcome to the NFL, RG3!
The Saints will be without head coach Sean Payton and interim coach Joe Vitt, but they still have Brees and one of the most devastating offensive attacks in football. For all the talent Washington has on defense, it's going to be tough to slow the Saints down. It's also unfair to expect Griffin and Co. to be able to match the reigning Offensive Player of the Year's efforts.
The Saints will try to overwhelm the reigning Heisman Trophy winner early by coming at him from all angles. Griffin will make some plays with his feet, but not nearly enough to keep this game close.
I don't see Brees having a field day here, but I think he gets enough opportunities to score and win this one by a couple touchdowns.
Score: Saints 28, Redskins 14
The Pick: New England
I like Tennessee's decision to go with Jake Locker as its starting QB. He has a good arm and is very athletic for a big guy. He's almost like a poor man's Ben Roethlisberger.
That being said, Locker is taking a loss here going up against Tom Brady and the Patriots. We've never really gotten a chance to see how Brady responds in the season after losing the Super Bowl since the last time it happened he blew out his knee. The idea here is that Brady and Co. will come out with guns blazing against a not-quite-there-yet Titans team.
Brady has quite the artillery around him. As if tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez as well as receiver Wes Welker weren't enough, Brady now has deep threat Brandon Lloyd to throw to. Lloyd's best seasons came under the tutelage of Josh McDaniels, and McDaniels is now back in New England.
The Patriots also stocked up on defense this offseason. Rookie pass-rusher Chandler Jones looks like a solid pick for Defensive Rookie of the Year, and fellow rookie Dont'a Hightower bolsters the linebacking corps. New England looks primed for another Super Bowl run if it manages to avoid a repeat of its last Super Bowl hangover.
As for the game, Bill Belichick will confound Locker with a number of different looks on defense. The suspension of WR Kenny Britt certainly doesn't help Locker's cause, and he'll really need RB Chris Johnson to start this season off better than he did last year. I think Locker has a decent game, but makes the kind of mistakes befitting a young, inexperienced QB.
Brady will spread the ball around to all of his toys, and Jones makes Locker's day a bit more miserable with a couple of sacks.
Score: Patriots 34, Titans 17
The Pick: Minnesota
This was supposed to be a showdown between two of the game's premier running backs.
Instead, Adrian Peterson and Maurice Jones-Drew will see limited action thanks to their own distinct difficulties.
MoJo D is coming off a holdout that kept him out of camp all preseason and will be deferring the bulk of the carries to Rashad Jennings. As for AP, he's still on the mend from knee surgery following his ACL tear late last season.
That leaves us with the much-anticipated duel between Christian Ponder and Blaine Gabbert. Both are in their second season, and both were subpar as rookies. Neither quarterback screams out "must-see TV" when you watch them play.
Of the two, Ponder has the better supporting cast and the benefit of a good defense. The Vikings defensive line is one of the best in the league at getting after the quarterback, and Gabbert doesn't have a true go-to receiver to make life easier for him. The hope is that either rookie Justin Blackmon or free-agent signing Laurent Robinson becomes that top target.
Blackmon has looked good in the preseason despite a lengthy holdout of his own, but it remains to be see how he performs when games actually matter. Gabbert has looked much improved this summer as well.
I think this will be a low-scoring affair. With both teams having their two biggest bullets removed from their guns, this comes down to which young QB proves to be the most competent.
My money is on that guy being Ponder since he has Percy Harvin to throw to and doesn't have to worry about Jared Allen chasing him all over the field.
Score: Vikings 16, Jaguars 10
The Pick: Houston
As bad as Robert Griffin III may have it in his debut, fellow rookie QB Ryan Tannehill might have it worse. Tannehill will have to deal with a tough Houston defense on the road without much of a supporting cast around him. RB Reggie Bush, coming off a career year in his first season with Miami, is the only real weapon Tannehill has at his disposal.
Matt Schaub, meanwhile, leads one of the best offensive trios in the NFL. He has former rushing champ Arian Foster to help shoulder the load, and he'll get to throw bombs to Pro Bowl WR Andre Johnson. To help give Foster rest, the Texans could trot out talented running back Ben Tate as well.
If Miami has an advantage, it will be attempting to exploit Houston's revamped right side of the offensive line. The team bid adieu to right tackle Eric Winston and right guard Mike Brisiel this offseason. That new right side will be the Dolphins' best chance at putting pressure on Schaub.
As for Tannehill, the lack of a bona-fide No. 1 wideout will hurt him all season unless someone emerges. Even if Chad Johnson wasn't released, it's a stretch to think Ochocinco could have still been that guy after a disappointing season in New England. The Dolphins will struggle to score early as Tannehill gets better acquainted with Joe Philbin's offense.
This one could get ugly in a hurry. A road game against an aggressive defense is a tough task for a rookie QB with no real weapons. I'd be surprised if Miami finds the end zone once on offense. I see the Texans rolling here with a blowout to help stake their claim as one of the AFC's elite.
Score: Texans 31, Dolphins 3
The Pick: St. Louis
I'm going on a limb here and taking the Rams for the upset. St. Louis is better than last year's poor showing would indicate; it has a good coach in Jeff Fisher, RB Steven Jackson looks to be in excellent shape and QB Sam Bradford has to be better than how he played last year.
The Lions are going to put up points here because not many defenses can combat the Matthew Stafford-to-Calvin Johnson connection. However, the Lions secondary is porous enough to make this game closer than it needs to be. The Rams can bring pressure with a tough front seven, and they upgraded their defensive backfield with the addition of CB Cortland Finnegan.
Detroit doesn't have the running game to help control the clock and keep this from being a shootout. Jackson has another good year or two left in him, and we know how Fisher loves to rely on the running game.
Plus, even with Drew Brees defying the Madden Curse last season, you can never truly rule out the risk of being the Madden cover boy. Is it really impossible to think Megatron has a tough time being matched up with Finnegan all day?
Going forward, the Lions will be a better team than the Rams all season. However, the opening week of the season always has one or two fluke wins that we never see coming. St. Louis isn't as talented as Detroit, but it is better than you think. Eight points is a big spread for a team that can't stop the pass.
I'm taking St. Louis for the upset and the outright win.
Score: Rams 24, Lions 21
The Pick: Kansas City
There's some sleeper buzz with this Falcons team.
Their passing attack will be excellent with WR Julio Jones now having a year of experience under his belt. The defense made a sneaky addition by trading for CB Asante Samuel.
Atlanta is a nice dark horse to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl if things break their way.
So, why do I like Kansas City in this one?
Lest we forget, this is pretty much the same Chiefs team that ended Green Bay's hopes of a perfect season last year. They play hard defensively under head coach Romeo Crennel, and they will be getting a lot of their best players back from injury this time around.
RB Jamaal Charles returns after injuring his knee in the opener last season, and he'll have Peyton Hillis backing him up to help lighten the load.
Hillis' best season was in 2010 when he had offensive coordinator Brian Dobell in Cleveland; Dobell is now the OC in Kansas City. The Chiefs also get talented safety Eric Berry back to make plays in the secondary.
With all these players hurt, the Chiefs still made a run at the AFC West crown last year. They have a puncher's chance of taking the division this year. If Charles stays healthy, he's one member of an offense that could be pretty good. Dwayne Bowe, Jon Baldwin and Steve Breaston make a solid wide receiver trio as well.
The Falcons have their share of stars, too, and this pick may come back to haunt me. I just think it's risky to dismiss the Chiefs, especially playing in Arrowhead. The Packers learned that the hard way last year, and the Falcons could be the next victim on Sunday.
Score: Chiefs 28, Falcons 24
The Pick: San Francisco
Traditionally, a great defense beats out a great offense. That would seem to be the case here in an epic clash between two of the NFC's best.
The Packers have the best QB in football in Aaron Rodgers and an offensive attack that would be a tough task for any defense. The Niners have an excellent defense, especially in their front seven with LBs Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith.
With Green Bay's offensive line in a state of flux, expect A-Rod to try softening up this Niners' D with quick throws to help set up the deep ball later on. We also may get a smattering of new RB Cedric Benson to mix things up and keep San Francisco guessing.
It will all be for naught, however.
The Niners revamped their offense with the additions of WR's Randy Moss and Mario Manningham as well as the drafting of electric RB LaMichael James. Moss has built a reputation for being a Packers killer, and many in Lambeau still remember Moss mooning them years ago.
The Packers defense took a step back last season, and while they focused on defense in the draft, it will take a few games before they are respectable again. With Charles Woodson moving to safety, one of the Packers' young corners will need to step up and fast to fill Woodson's spot.
This has all the makings of being a close game similar to San Francisco's NFC championship clash with the Giants last season. The Packers are a very good team, and a win here isn't inconceivable.
However, whoever wins won't be doing so by more than a field goal. So, I will be taking the points here.
Score: Packers 24, 49ers 21
The Pick: Tampa Bay
Anyone who is familiar with the history of the Rutgers football program understands how huge of an achievement it was for Greg Schiano to turn that program around. In the matter of a few years, he transformed the Scarlet Knights from doormats to a respectable football team.
Did he win a national title? No. Did he even win the Big East? No. But it's the fact that he was able to change the fortunes for a school with decades of mediocrity that is important.
Schiano now gets to do that again in the pros with the Tampa Bay Bucs. Granted, the NFL is a different animal entirely than college football, and coaches more successful than Schiano in the college ranks have choked under the pressure.
However, Schiano brings discipline to a young Tampa Bay team that desperately needed it. He's not quite Tom Coughlin but he's cut from that same mold.
That's why I like Tampa Bay over Carolina in Week 1 and why I like the Bucs' chances of being a playoff team this season. They've always had the young talent—they have just never had their heads on straight.
They'll get a tough task in trying to stop Cam Newton coming off one of the best rookie seasons of all time.
Tampa Bay has a big, young QB of its own in Josh Freeman; the trick is to get Freeman to play more like his 2010 edition than last year's disappointment. He'll get some help from free-agent WR Vincent Jackson and rookie RB Doug Martin. Martin's size and skill set have drawn comparisons to one of Schiano's former Piscataway pupils, Ray Rice.
I think the Bucs show the effects of Schiano's iron fist in this one and win with the old-school combination of defense and running game. Martin and LeGarrette Blount will pound a Panthers defense soft against the run, and the Bucs defense will do its best to contain Newton from running wild.
Score: Bucs 21, Panthers 17
The Pick: Seattle
It's a week of regular-season debuts.
Former Wisconsin standout Russell Wilson will be one of five rookie QBs making his regular-season debut, and his first game is unquestionably the easiest of the five. Wilson beat out prized free-agent signing Matt Flynn to be the Seahawks' top signal-caller, and he'll draw an uninspiring Cardinals team.
Arizona is going through its own QB issues as the battle between John Skelton and Kevin Kolb came down to a lesser of two evils. Skelton ended up with the "win," but it's hard to feel bad for anyone more than WR Larry Fitzgerald.
The Cardinals offensive line is terrible, and the running game leaves a lot to be desired. There's no proven receiver opposite Fitzgerald to make his life easier unless first-round pick Michael Floyd steps up immediately. Making matters worse, the Seahawks have a pretty good defense.
Seattle isn't without its own offensive woes, however. The receiving corps isn't exactly brimming with talent, and RB Marshawn Lynch could be sidelined with back spasms. That would leave Wilson handing off to fellow rookie Robert Turbin. With the offense uncertain, head coach Pete Carroll will probably play it safe and not ask his rookie QB to do too much.
The Seahawks will pressure Skelton into mistakes, and then take advantage of a game of field position. Wilson will get a chance to show off his big arm against a shaky Cardinals defense that let Cam Newton have a field day in the opener last season.
Still, unless Lynch is good to go, I don't see this being a high-scoring affair.
Score: Seahawks 20, Cardinals 10
The Pick: Pittsburgh
It's the Pittsburgh Steelers returning to the scene of last year's playoff upset. It's the return of Peyton Manning on a new team coming off neck surgeries.
So, naturally, it's the first Sunday night game of the season.
Bill Simmons has warned readers and listeners on his podcast numerous times about the risk of picking against Peyton Manning in a night game. I'm throwing caution to the wind here.
Manning will be playing his first regular-season game in a year-and-a-half. While he's looked like he's recovered from his neck injury at times in the preseason, he's been far from stellar. The Steelers defense may not be what it once was thanks to roster cuts, injuries and old age, but they are still the Steelers.
Plus, the Steelers still have the bitter taste in their mouths of losing to the Broncos in the postseason.
However, Pittsburgh's offensive line is in shambles, especially after the injury to rookie guard David DeCastro. That means more pressure in the face of Ben Roethlisberger. RB Rashard Mendenhall is still out following a knee injury late last year, and WR Mike Wallace is coming off a lengthy holdout.
All of these are reasons to like Denver's chances. I'm still going with Pittsburgh until I witness with my own eyes that Manning is back to being the Manning of old, or at least the Manning of 2010.
I want to see how Manning reacts to defenders coming at him. Will he get happy feet? Will he throw it away more?
There are just too many questions with Peyton to jump on the bandwagon in September.
I think Pittsburgh gets revenge here and steals a tough road game against a Broncos team they may see again in the playoffs.
Score: Steelers 21, Broncos 16
The Pick: Baltimore
The window for Baltimore's title hopes is quickly closing. Father Time is catching up to legendary defenders Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, and the team still hasn't made a decision on pending free-agent QB Joe Flacco.
Conversely, the Cincinnati Bengals are a young team on the rise. They found two gems in the draft last season in QB Andy Dalton and WR A.J. Green. They had another stellar draft in 2012 that addressed needs on both sides of the ball.
You can expect them to be on the Ravens' heels all season for the AFC North title.
On Monday night, though, you can expect the Ravens to show the Bengals why they are the defending North champions. Even with their best pass-rusher in Terrell Suggs out, the Ravens defense will bring enough pressure to make "The Red Rifle" uncomfortable. Baltimore found a gem of their own in Alabama LB Courtney Upshaw and he'll get a chance to make teams pay for passing on him in the draft.
The Bengals also will need to find a way to stop versatile RB Ray Rice. Rice is a powerful runner who can beat out on the ground or through the air. The Ravens will be testing out their new no-huddle wrinkle to their offense as well as testing Cincy's secondary by going deep to burner Torrey Smith.
This is going to be one of those classic smash-mouth clashes between two rugged football teams. In the end, Baltimore has the advantage of the home crowd and a superior defense. They also have Rice, who will be the best player on the field.
I see Baltimore making the late Art Modell proud and making a statement in the opener much like they did last year against Pittsburgh.
Score: Ravens 28, Bengals 17
The Pick: San Diego
This is a battle between two teams that could be better than we expect. San Diego has been a disappointment for years, failing to capitalize on having one of the league's best young rosters. Oakland could be solid if RB Darren McFadden manages to stay healthy and QB Carson Palmer doesn't get careless with the football.
The Raiders would appear to have the advantage in this one. They are at home and appear to be the healthier team.
Chargers RB Ryan Mathews will probably miss the opener as he recovers from a broken clavicle. San Diego also will miss left tackle Jared Gaither. Those are two key potential losses for a Chargers offense that is trying to replace departed WR Vincent Jackson.
With all that said, I'm still going with San Diego.
The Chargers are playing with a sense of desperation, as every loss could spell the end of Norv Turner's tenure in San Diego. They have the better QB in Philip Rivers, and they finally have a healthy Antonio Gates. Gates has been hobbled for by foot injuries in the past, but he has looked like a new man this summer.
I also worry about Palmer's tendency to turn the ball over. In 10 games last season, Palmer managed to throw 16 interceptions, while Rivers had 20 INTs the entire season. Both teams are good defensively, so it's not unrealistic to expect both QBs to trade picks.
I think Rivers will be the steadier hand, though.
Score: Chargers 20, Raiders 17