The Baltimore Ravens should use their seven-point underdog status for the season opener as a rallying cry. The defending Super Bowl champions are expected to lose by a touchdown on the road against the Denver Broncos on Thursday night to kickoff the NFL season.
There is plenty of turnover on the Ravens defense and not the kind that leads to the team's offense taking the field. "Out with the old and in with the new" could have been the theme for the Ravens defense this offseason. Mainstays like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard have all moved on.
Will this defense still be the engine that drives the Ravens, or will Joe Flacco and the offense have to put up 25-plus points per week to return to playoffs with hopes of defending the team's title?
That's just one of the questions that'll take an entire season to answer. In the immediate. the Ravens-Broncos matchup is one of the premier games of the NFL's opening week, and it is easy to see why the Broncos are favored.
They are at home, and all the new faces on Baltimore make the Ravens a bit of a question mark. I expect Baltimore to play with pride, but ultimately winning in Denver will be too tall of a task for the defending champions this early in the season.
The story may be different should the teams meet in the playoffs. The Ravens have proven they can gel and hit their stride when they have to, but in Week 1, the Broncos will reign supreme. Lock in Peyton Manning and Co. as winners in the season opener, 24-14.
Looking for more locks in Week 1, check out my other predictions for other easy wins in the season openers, followed by predictions for the games that the oddsmakers figure to be close. You'll also find my upset pick of the week.
Cincinnati Bengals at Chicago Bears (Bears -3)
One of the teams that will surprise this season is the Chicago Bears. Everyone knows the team has defensive standouts on every level of its defense, but the offense has improved and will be the key to the team's improvement.
New head coach Marc Trestman has implemented a West Coast offense that fits the Bears personnel, and the offensive line has been upgraded.
Jay Cutler is getting the ball out of his hands quicker, and running back Matt Forte is going to be used in a way that highlights his diverse skill set. The Bears don't have an easy assignment in Week 1, though.
That new-look offensive line will be tested by perhaps the best defensive line in the NFL. Led by recently re-signed defensive tackle Geno Atkins, per Kevin Patra of NFL.com, the Cincinnati Bengals will force the Bears O-Line to deliver.
The Bengals had 51 sacks in 2012; only the St. Louis Rams and Broncos had more, as those teams had 52 apiece. Despite the pass-rushing prowess of the Bengals, the Bears will do a solid job protecting Cutler, and Chicago will not only win, but they will cover.
The Bears will prevail 28-14.
Here are picks from the other games with teams favored by three points or less.
The Upset Picks of the Week
Seattle Seahawks at Carolina Panthers (Seahawks -3.5)
The Seahawks are a legitimate Super Bowl contender, but this is going to be a tough game for them. The Panthers have one of the best linebacker corps in the NFL, led by second-year stud Luke Kuechly (103 tackles and two interceptions in 2012). Their defensive line is unsung with sack master Charles Johnson (12.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles in 2012) and rookie Star Lotulelei as anchors.
They will be charged with containing Marshawn Lynch and the Seattle Seahawks running game. This is key; if the Panthers can slow the Seahawks' ground game, it will stymie Russell Wilson's ability to hurt them with play action.
In addition to that, the Panthers' front seven have the speed to contain Wilson's mobility.
On the offensive side of the ball, Cam Newton was exceptional in the last seven games of the 2012 season. The light really seemed to come on for him, and he shook the sophomore slump. In that span, he threw 11 touchdown passes to only two interceptions, and the Panthers were 5-2.
Seattle's secondary is the best in the NFL, but the Panthers' running game, Newton's versatility and the explosiveness of wide receiver Steve Smith will allow Carolina to pull the upset. Carolina wins 21-17 at home.
All point spreads and lines per Bovada.lv
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