Like a kid on Christmas day, NFL fans everywhere will wake up Thursday morning with an extra pep in their step.
Football has been back in the spotlight with ongoing training camps and preseason games since late July, but for the first time since the Baltimore Ravens' Super Bowl win over the San Francisco 49ers in February, televisions will be graced with regular-season games that actually matter.
Curious to see where your favorite team stands prior to the start of the new year? Bleacher Report's Matt Miller will be analyzing just that after each week's slate of games:
Taking a look at the Week 1 schedule, there are more than a few matchups that demand attention. Between revisiting games from last year's playoffs, longtime division rivalries and the excitement associated with the prospect of reversing past misfortunes, every opening-week tilt has something to offer.
Here are my predictions for how each NFL team will fare in Week 1.
*For a complete look at the Week 1 NFL schedule, visit NFL.com.
Full NFL Week 1 Predictions
Denver 31, Baltimore 20
The last time we saw these two teams on the same field, Joe Flacco and Jacoby Jones hooked up for an improbable connection late in the fourth quarter to force overtime in a game the Ravens eventually won.
Fast-forward to now. The Ravens are the defending champions but are reloading on defense. They're also relying on Jones and Torrey Smith to carry the passing game after trading Anquan Boldin to San Francisco and losing Dennis Pitta to a training-camp hip injury.
Denver, on the other hand, enters the season more lethal than ever, at least on paper. The addition of Wes Welker to Peyton Manning's offense figures to help expand the passing game even more, while Ronnie Hillman and rookie Montee Ball will share the load at running back.
The Broncos have been waiting for this rematch for the last eight months.
As FOX Sports' NFL Twitter account noted, they also have added motivation after a promotional poster featuring a certain Super Bowl MVP was hung outside of Sports Authority Field:
It's not as if the Broncos need any extra reason to treat Week 1 like it's the playoffs.
Defending Super Bowl champions are 13-1 in their opening-week games since 2000, but the New York Giants' loss to the Dallas Cowboys last year on opening night reminded us that past Super Bowl wins mean nothing when a new season begins.
Although Flacco, Ray Rice and the rest of the Ravens' season won't be decided in Week 1, expect an early setback on the road to the franchise's third world championship.
Manning will have a big day through the air on Thursday, setting the tone for what should be a frustrating season for defensive coordinators who have Denver on their schedule.
San Francisco 24, Green Bay 23
It might be too early to call this matchup a rivalry, but San Francisco and Green Bay played two instant classics during the 2012 season and are poised to do more of the same this year.
On both sidelines, the quarterbacks are the top story.
Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers is eager to erase his team's 0-2 record against the 49ers last year by making a statement in Week 1. The NFL's active leader in career pass completion percentage (65.7), Rodgers has a talented group of receivers and two rookie running backs (Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin) poised to make an impact.
Rodgers also signed a five-year, $110 million contract extension this offseason, heightening the pressure he faces in games of this nature.
Elsewhere, reigning NFC champion San Francisco looks as dangerous as ever. QB Colin Kaepernick has had a full offseason to grow and improve, while the defense should continue to stifle opponents if the secondary plays well.
As ESPN's SportsCenter noted on Twitter, Kaepernick and the offense have not skipped a beat in the preseason, either:
Green Bay will be traveling to Candlestick Park to open the season, so the Niners will have home-field advantage yet again. Since Jim Harbaugh took over in 2011, the 49ers have lost just three games at home.
The twists and turns this game provides should be outstanding. Behind a late field goal from Phil Dawson, I see the 49ers besting the Packers by one point on Sunday afternoon.
Dallas 34, New York 17
The Giants have never lost at AT&T Stadium since it first opened in 2009. In four games at the Texas venue, the G-Men have never scored less than 29 points and have a sparkling 4-0 record to boast about as they prepare to travel for Week 1.
According to Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, via beat writer Clarence Hill, there's no rhyme or reason to that record other than the franchise's winning mentality:
The fifth time will be the charm for Dallas.
Injuries and depth issues have dominated early conversation during both Dallas' and New York's training camps; the Cowboys are light on the defensive line without Jay Ratliff while the Giants have seen top names Jason Pierre-Paul, Victor Cruz and Andre Brown make the injury report.
According to NFL.com's Kevin Patra, the Giants expect Cruz to be ready for Sunday night. Pierre-Paul, who came off the PUP list on Aug. 27, reportedly has "a ways to go," according to head coach Tom Coughlin via New York Daily News writer Ralph Vacchiano:
In the end, this game could come down to who battles through injuries more successfully.
Dallas looks primed for a strong season on offense. Tony Romo and Dez Bryant were outstanding in the preseason, while Miles Austin is finally healthy and DeMarco Murray looks to play his first full season, too.
Eli Manning and the Giants also field an impressive offense, but the way in which second-year running back David Wilson responds to a starting role will be the deciding factor in just how lethal that offense can be.
Expect the Cowboys to establish the run early and mix in a heavy dose of Bryant against the Giants secondary. On defense, Dallas has had a strong preseason in terms of forcing turnovers, which is a big part of new coordinator Monte Kiffin's game plan.
The Cowboys might not be Super Bowl contenders, but it's high time they took care of the Giants at home. Taking advantage of the injury issues on the opposite sideline and forcing multiple turnovers, Dallas will record the win.
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