Playoff rematches and divisional showdowns highlight Week 1’s difficult NFL picks.
Baltimore and Denver will kick things off Thursday night in a grudge-match rematch of the AFC divisional round. Broncos fans still haven't gotten over the loss.
There are plenty of other intriguing and too-close-to-call matchups too. We'll highlight the biggest of those marquee games and predict the outcomes below.
Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos (Thurs., Sept. 5)
On the stage of their crushing double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens nearly eight months ago, the Denver Broncos have the chance to get revenge and start 2013 on a high note.
These two teams are different than the last time they met, though. Denver added offensive weaponry but lost Von Miller to a six-game suspension and Elvis Dumervil to the Ravens via free agency.
For the Ravens, the changes have been sweeping. Without Ray Lewis and Ed Reed on defense, they're missing the glue that held it all together. Starters Bernard Pollard, Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger and Cary Williams are also gone.
As a result, it’s hard to see the Ravens walking into Sports Authority Field and achieving a result similar to last year's. Peyton Manning has too much firepower after the addition of free-agent receiver Wes Welker. Baltimore will keep it close without Miller harassing Flacco, but the hosts will get the victory.
Prediction: Broncos 31, Ravens 21
Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers (Sun., Sept. 8)
The Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers will start 2013 the same way they began and ended 2012: pitted against each other. San Francisco won both contests a season ago, albeit in contrasting styles.
Colin Kaepernick torched the Pack for an NFL-record 181 rushing yards in his first playoff appearance. He scored twice in addition to that impressive feat and did it on just 16 attempts.
The Packers have been working on defending the read-option—the play Kaepernick utilized to dismantle their defense in that playoff loss—ever since. Linebacker Clay Matthews Jr. gave some insight about how to stop it when he was on ESPN Radio’s Mike & Mike, (via ESPN’s Rob Demovsky):
One of the things that the referees have told us is that when these quarterbacks carry out the fakes, they lose their right as a quarterback, a pocket-passing quarterback, the protection of a quarterback. So with that, you do have to take your shots on the quarterback, and obviously they’re too important to their offense.
If that means they pull them out of that type of offense and make them run a traditional, drop-back, pocket-style offense, I think that’s exactly what we’re going for. So you want to put hits as early and often on the quarterback and make them uncomfortable.
Call it a guess, but the Packers have too much pride and experience to let a young quarterback embarrass them like that again. Scoring points hasn't been too much of a problem for Aaron Rodgers and Co. I think the defense has learned from last season’s whooping and will do enough to get revenge.
Prediction: Packers 31, 49ers 27
Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints (Sun., Sept. 8)
The Atlanta Falcons took some steps forward in 2012. They even won their first playoff game. But the perhaps the biggest takeaway is that they struggled most with the New Orleans Saints.
Last year, New Orleans fielded the worst defense in the history of the NFL in terms of yards allowed. Their offense is virtually the same coming into 2013, albeit with a few additions at wide receiver. Nick Toon returns after missing last season, and rookie receiver Kenny Stills has been playing well to this point.
Can the Falcons keep up? Offensively, they are a very capable and explosive unit. But can their defense disrupt quarterback Drew Brees enough to slow down the potent New Orleans offense? Adding cornerbacks Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant in the draft was smart, but I'm not sure they did enough up front to make a significant impact.
Look for Brees to find time and pick on those young cornerbacks. They might be able to hold their own on some plays, but there will be times the veteran quarterback takes advantage of their inexperience. In the end, the Saints outscore the Falcons in a shootout.
Prediction: Saints 42, Falcons 35