Preseason football—the much maligned and slightly annoying younger brother of regular-season NFL football—has finally concluded, and the return of real football begins Thursday.
It's a doozy of a matchup to open regular-season play. Tom Brady will triumphantly lead the New England Patriots onto the field to face the Pittsburgh Steelers at home, and fans have to be hoping that something newsworthy will happen in the matchup to take the focus off Deflategate.
Just think: Analysts will soon be able to talk about Brady's—and the league's 31 other starting quarterbacks'—play on the field rather than tired offseason storylines!
Everyone enters Week 1 with a clean slate at 0-0, but that doesn't mean every team is equally matched. Let's make some early predictions for each game, followed by an analysis of a few that are sure to be must-see matchups.
|NFL Week 1 Matchups and Picks|
|Thursday, Sept. 10||Pittsburgh Steelers||New England Patriots||Patriots|
|Sunday, Sept. 13||Green Bay Packers||Chicago Bears||Packers|
|Sunday, Sept. 13||Kansas City Chiefs||Houston Texans||Texans|
|Sunday, Sept. 13||Cleveland Browns||New York Jets||Jets|
|Sunday, Sept. 13||Indianapolis Colts||Buffalo Bills||Colts|
|Sunday, Sept. 13||Miami Dolphins||Washington Redskins||Dolphins|
|Sunday, Sept. 13||Carolina Panthers||Jacksonville Jaguars||Panthers|
|Sunday, Sept. 13||Seattle Seahawks||St. Louis Rams||Seahawks|
|Sunday, Sept. 13||New Orleans Saints||Arizona Cardinals||Cardinals|
|Sunday, Sept. 13||Detroit Lions||San Diego Chargers||Chargers|
|Sunday, Sept. 13||Tennessee Titans||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||Bucs|
|Sunday, Sept. 13||Cincinnati Bengals||Oakland Raiders||Bengals|
|Sunday, Sept. 13||Baltimore Ravens||Denver Broncos||Broncos|
|Sunday, Sept. 13||New York Giants||Dallas Cowboys||Cowboys|
|Monday, Sept. 14||Philadelphia Eagles||Atlanta Falcons||Eagles|
|Monday, Sept. 14||Minnesota Vikings||San Francisco 49ers||Vikings|
|Michelle Bruton's Picks|
Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots
As teased above, the season-opening matchup between the Patriots and Steelers has more storylines to follow than anyone could want.
Take your pick: The defending Super Bowl champions take on a tough intraconference opponent; Brady returns with a chip on his shoulder and a target on his back; the Steelers offense figures out its identity without top rusher Le'Veon Bell and wideout Martavis Bryant.
To begin, it might be of interest to explore how the Patriots have typically performed in their season openers following Super Bowl victories; there have been enough of those to make any patterns relevant.
New England won it all in 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2015. The table below lists the outcomes of their Week 1 matchups in the seasons following their Super Bowl wins:
|New England Patriots: Week 1 Results Post-Super Bowl|
|Super Bowl||Week 1 Result Next Season|
|2002||Win vs. Steelers, 30-14|
|2004||Win vs. Colts, 27-24|
|2005||Win vs. Raiders, 30-20|
The Patriots under Brady have won every matchup following a Super Bowl win, but that information tells us only so much. Opponents present unique challenges, and the Steelers will be tough.
Whether the Patriots will experience a Super Bowl hangover could go either way, factoring in the same variable: Brady. On one hand, Brady has shown in the past when faced with challenges that he can rally himself and his team—just think of the 2007 season after the Patriots were hit with league sanctions for Spygate and then proceeded to go undefeated.
On the other hand, the Patriots have been preparing for Jimmy Garoppolo to start in Week 1.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski enters the season healthy, but New England is thin at the other skill positions. Wide receiver Brandon LaFell will remain on the PUP list until Week 7, the team announced Saturday. Julian Edelman can't do it all, but perhaps the Patriots can add a veteran prior to Thursday's matchup.
The Patriots may also be able to take advantage of a Steelers team that struggled during the preseason. The team is attempting to figure out what it looks like on defense under new coordinator Keith Butler and without Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel, Ike Taylor and Jason Worilds.
First-round draft pick Bud Dupree will have to shed his rookie ways fast and become a legitimate contributor for Pittsburgh.
On offense, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is as effective as ever, having completed 67.1 percent of his passes in 2014, a career high. His 32 touchdowns also tied a career high, and his interception rate of 1.5 percent was his lowest since 2010.
However, to open the season, Roethlisberger will be without both Bell and Bryant. The wide receiver group should fare better, given that Roethlisberger can look for Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates. Wheaton and Coates each had a touchdown during the preseason and averaged more than 15 yards per reception.
As for replacing Bell, that will be harder. DeAngelo Williams and Dri Archer may see the Steelers through to Week 3, but the team will miss Bell's production on the ground. That hole in the Steelers offense, combined with the return of Brady, tips the scale in New England's favor.
Prediction: Patriots win 23-17.
Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears
In addition to being another installment in one of the league's oldest and most beloved (or loathed, depending on which side of the Wisconsin-Illinois border you stand on) rivalries, Sunday's matchup between the Packers and Bears has a unique element, featuring teams projected to finish with nearly inverted records.
In his recent predictions for every NFL team, USA Today's Nate Davis saw the Packers ending the season at 12-4 while the Bears, at 3-13, finish as the worst team in the league.
The Packers will be attempting to tweak their offense as they open the season without No. 1 wideout Jordy Nelson, who is out for the season with a torn ACL. Randall Cobb will move into his spot and earn most of Aaron Rodgers' looks, and second-year player Davante Adams is likely to be the No. 2.
Rookie Ty Montgomery out of Stanford earned No. 3 snaps in training camp after Nelson's injury, but now that the Packers have brought back former receiver James Jones, as Ian Rapoport of NFL Network confirmed Sunday, he could slot in outside and leave Montgomery to be used selectively in packaged plays.
But the Packers' problems at wide receiver pale in comparison to those of the Bears. After veteran Brandon Marshall departed in free agency, Chicago drafted Kevin White out of West Virginia in the first round, only to place him on the PUP list after he had surgery on his shin to repair a stress fracture.
That makes Week 7 the earliest he can return, but the Bears might also choose to protect their investment in the long term and keep him out for the year.
Then there's Alshon Jeffery, now the Bears' No. 1 wideout, who hasn't practiced since Aug. 11 because of a calf injury. New head coach John Fox has been "terse and nonspecific" when pressed on Jeffery's return date, per Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune.
It looks like the Bears will be starting Eddie Royal and Marquess Wilson against Green Bay on Sunday—if they're good to go. Both receivers have also struggled with injuries (hip and hamstring, respectively) during the preseason.
The biggest question facing Chicago this season is whether Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase can finally be the staff that maximizes quarterback Jay Cutler's potential. Whether it's apathy or a lack of mental acuity for the position, Cutler's inability to seamlessly and efficiently progress past his initial read has led to countless sacks and interceptions.
While the Bears offense begins and ends with Cutler, if he falls short, running back Matt Forte will be prepared to step in and carry the load.
Neither team has a particularly stout defense, but Green Bay can make up for its defensive shortcomings with its offense. The same is not true for the Bears, especially since Chicago doesn't appear to have the right personnel in place to support its transition to a 3-4 defense.
Thus, Chicago will likely struggle to both slow the Packers offense and generate much of its own in Week 1, which will lead to a lopsided loss.
Prediction: Packers win 31-13.
Tennessee Titans at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Anyone who follows college football or the NFL draft will be excited to see the Titans take on the Bucs, even if he or she is not a fan of either team. In the first week of the regular season, first and second overall picks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota will face off.
Of course, that's not entirely true; Winston will go against the Titans defense, and Mariota will square off against the Bucs defense. Thus, this matchup may not come down to which rookie quarterback is better—but which defense is easier to beat.
The Bucs and Titans were the worst teams in the league in 2014, in part because of their play on the defensive side of the ball. Tampa Bay ranked 25th in the league in total defense in 2014, while Tennessee ranked 27th.
Bringing in head coach Lovie Smith last season was supposed to help the Bucs improve on defense, but so far, there's been no sign of that. The team did sign George Johnson, which should boost the pass rush and help take some pressure off Gerald McCoy.
The team also brought in defensive tackle Henry Melton to improve the defensive front. Additionally, Tampa Bay has been busy claiming players who were waived by other teams, including linebackers James-Michael Johnson and Jeremiah George, as Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Winston went 23-of-47 for 311 yards, zero passing touchdowns and two interceptions in the preseason. He did run for two scores.
Mariota was only marginally better, going 21-of-30 for 326 yards, one touchdown and one interception. It was a disappointing preseason output from the top two picks of the 2015 draft, but it was the preseason, after all; Sunday will be the best barometer so far of how NFL-ready these two quarterbacks are.
Mariota will struggle behind a Tennessee offensive line that is suspect, at best. It features two new faces and one rookie in left guard Byron Bell and right tackle Jeremiah Poutasi. Mariota may take some sacks Sunday—if Tampa Bay's pass rush can generate any.
Both rookie quarterbacks know how to use their legs, which will make this matchup fun to watch. But Winston probably has the better weapons in Mike Evans, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Doug Martin.
Prediction: Buccaneers win 20-16.