As if the simple fact football is back is not enough, the NFL has lined the Week 1 schedule with critical divisional contests that will have a ripple effect on the landscape of the league and the rest of the season.
Some of the contests seem to be ho-hum affairs, but a few in particular stand out as duels between teams that will fight it out over the course of the next 17 weeks for divisional supremacy.
Of course, a lot can change between now and then, but with only the offseason to go by, the top contests on the Week 1 slate with more implications than the rest are plain as day.
Let's take a look at those after marking down picks for all 16 games.
NFL Week 1 Picks
|Green Bay at Seattle (Thurs., Sept. 4)||Seattle||Seahawks don't lose at home, and Aaron Rodgers has to break in a new center.|
|New Orleans at Atlanta||New Orleans||Drew Brees has more weapons than ever, and that Rob Ryan defense will be nothing short of improved.|
|Minnesota at St. Louis||Minnesota||Mike Zimmer defense, no Sam Bradford and Adrian Peterson? Easy.|
|Cleveland at Pittsburgh||Pittsburgh||More no-huddle for Ben Roethlisberger means plenty of scoring.|
|Jacksonville at Philadelphia||Philadelphia||Chip Kelly's offense will prove too much for a mediocre Jacksonville defense.|
|Oakland at NY Jets||NY Jets||A Rex Ryan defense awaits Derek Carr's debut.|
|Cincinnati at Baltimore||Cincinnati||See analysis below chart.|
|Buffalo at Chicago||Chicago||The Bills are a mess, and Marc Trestman's offense won't skip a beat.|
|Washington at Houston||Washington||Unless Ryan Fitzpatrick can outgun RGIII, this one may get ugly.|
|Tennessee at Kansas City||Kansas City||Defensive-centric contest with Jake Locker able to keep the Titans close.|
|New England at Miami||New England||See analysis below chart.|
|Carolina at Tampa Bay||Tampa Bay||See analysis below chart.|
|San Francisco at Dallas||San Francisco||Defense will keep Tony Romo and Co. in check.|
|Indianapolis at Denver||Denver||Indianapolis has done little to improve an already leaky defense from a season ago.|
|NY Giants at Detroit (Mon., Sept. 8)||Detroit||Lions offense is too explosive for Giants to keep up.|
|San Diego at Arizona (Mon., Sept. 8)||Arizona||Forced to pick, home team with a great defense seems the likely bet.|
Chris Roling's picks.
Cincinnati at Baltimore
New contract in hand, Andy Dalton is tasked with getting the Cincinnati Bengals back to the postseason for a fourth consecutive year. In order to do so, he has to improve when it comes to facing off against Baltimore.
Last year, these two AFC North rivals split the season series. In the first contest in Week 10, Dalton threw for 274 yards and completed just 47.1 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and three picks. Week 17 was a 34-17 win despite his 58.3 completion percentage, 281 yards and two touchdowns to four interceptions.
Which teams wins?
Luckily for Dalton, who is very much the key to the game for both sides, he has looked much better this preseason under the guidance of new coordinator Hue Jackson. In three games, he went 24-of-34 for 372 yards and a touchdown.
"He's been outstanding," Jackson said, per Paul Dehner Jr. of Cincinnati.com. "I think he's getting better and better and better in all the different situations that happen. This guy is on his way. He really is and I'm excited for him."
The first true test for the Dalton-Jackson pairing could not come in a more critical contest. Not only is Baltimore known for its elite defense, but it did nothing short of improve this offseason thanks to the draft selection of Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley, who already has some major names such as CBS Sports' Dane Brugler in his corner:
I'm sticking w/ Cooks for OROY, but with Lawrence out injured, I'm going with #Ravens LB C.J. Mosley as my DROY (just ahead of Clowney)— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) August 28, 2014
Offensively, the Ravens get a boost thanks to the arrival of veteran wideout Steve Smith, but much of his ability to make an impact hinges on Joe Flacco's ability to get rid of the ball before his offensive line gives up pressure to the likes of Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins and Margus Hunt.
While the contest is in Baltimore, the Bengals are the safe bet. This is especially the case with running back Ray Rice watching from the sideline and backup Bernard Pierce working his way back from a concussion.
Prediction: Bengals 24, Ravens 17
Carolina at Tampa Bay
On one hand, a battle between the fourth-place finisher in the division at 4-12 just one season ago and the overall winner with the inverse record would not be all that appealing, right?
Well, this is the NFC South, a locale known for flipping things on its head with some regularity, and Tampa Bay might just be that very trend personified.
Which team wins?
Lovie Smith, known by fans for his dominant defenses most recently seen in Chicago, is now at the helm of a unit that touts Lavonte David and Gerald McCoy, two of the very best defenders in the NFL who both ranked in the top 20 at their respective positions last season at Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Smith was mostly given the boot from the Windy City because of his ineffective offenses, but that figures to change, as Josh McCown, who experienced a career renaissance last season under Marc Trestman, is now under center and can spam the ball to Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, who both measure in around the 6'5" range.
It helps that Smith will also have star running back Doug Martin around, who missed 10 games a season ago but the year before that posted 1,454 yards and 11 scores.
For all the good news emanating out of Tampa Bay, the inverse seems to be true in Carolina, as the Panthers open the season on the road.
Quarterback Cam Newton has been hobbled all preseason, so the fact his status for the game is even part of the discussion is disconcerting, as captured by Joe Person of The Charlotte Observer:
Cam: "No doubt in my mind" he'll play vs Bucs.— Joe Person (@josephperson) August 27, 2014
It's not that Newton cannot be trusted to stay healthy—it's that he has little in the way of timing down with his retooled wideout corps, which includes rookie Kelvin Benjamin and veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant.
On the flip side, the only defensive upgrade to speak of came at safety with the additions of veterans Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud. The former ranked as the No. 54 overall safety last year at PFF, while the latter came in at No. 82.
Tampa Bay will get the win via a strong running game and the occasional lapses by a hobbled Newton and a new-look offense.
Prediction: Buccaneers 20, Panthers 17
New England at Miami
Believe it or not, the Miami Dolphins, fresh off a .500 season in which quarterback Ryan Tannehill was sacked the most of any player at his position behind arguably one of the worst lines in league history, actually appear to be pretty strong contenders in the AFC East.
Of course, the division still runs through Foxborough.
Which team wins?
To counteract this issue and a revamped line that still needs to build more chemistry, Tannehill and the offense will lean on free-agent acquisition Knowshon Moreno for production out of the backfield despite what many consider to be fluky production last year in an offense led by Peyton Manning.
The hope is that coordinator Bill Lazor, who spent last season in the confines of Chip Kelly's innovative offense, will get the most out of the talent on the roster and keep pace with Tom Brady's offense.
As if that does not open things up enough for Brady, who has a true No. 1 in Julian Edelman and a sure-handed wideout in Danny Amendola, elite tight end Rob Gronkowski will be on the field as well, as noted by Phil Perry of CSNNE.com:
Gronkowski says he's playing Sunday. "It's gonna be an honor to be back out there with my teammates." pic.twitter.com/5E6INBnuz9— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) September 1, 2014
A depleted Miami defense that would otherwise be quite strong is going to get gashed routinely to start the season. Really, it is hard to roll with the Dolphins in any contest until the new offensive line can prove efficient.
Prediction: Patriots 30, Dolphins 20