Since the 2011 NFL schedule was released in late April, fans have been counting down the days until Sept. 8 when the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers would begin a new season. With the lockout a thing of the past and the countdown at 38 days, the season is finally within reach.
Unlike the other major sports in the United States, which each have at least 82 regular season games, every game in the NFL truly does matter. Eight of the 16 games during the opening week are divisional games and some of them will have an impact on the playoff picture four months later.
The best part about the first week of the season is that everybody starts off 0-0. It doesn't matter what happened last season and it's too early to start thinking about next season, so fans around the league can just enjoy the games.
With that in mind, here are the top five games to track during Week One of the NFL season.
Just like when the Miami Heat opened their regular season following the formation of the “Big Three,” fans will be tuning in to see how the star-studded Philadelphia Eagles roster takes shape. Their opponent is a St. Louis Rams' squad that came one win away from the playoffs last season.
The Eagles will once again be led by rejuvenated quarterback Michael Vick, who has a myriad of weapons to utilize again this season. LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin will all be at the disposal of Vick, who threw for over 3,000 yards for the first time in his career in 2010.
As for the Rams, they have a glaring hole at the wide receiver position. Sam Bradford is one of the most promising young quarterbacks in the league, but unless they can get him some weapons, his talent will go to waste. St. Louis does have an improving young defense led by James Laurinaitis and Chris Long.
Opening Line: Eagles -4.5
Prediction: Eagles, 28-17
The Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans met in the same situation last season with the Texans prevailing, 34-24. Many people thought it might be a changing of the guard in the AFC South, but the Texans defense failed them and the Colts claimed the division for the seventh time in eight years.
Peyton Manning is struggling with a neck ailment that has been slow to heal without the aid of team doctors. There is little doubt that he will be available for the first week, but he will likely be rusty. The Colts defense is still a major issue, especially when in comes to stopping the run.
Could this final be the year the Texans overtake the Colts? It's well within reason to think so. The Texans defense should be improved with the acquisitions of Johnathan Joseph, Danieal Manning and first-round pick J.J. Watt. Matt Schaub, Arian Foster and Andre Johnson are still an explosive trio on offense.
Opening Line: Texans -2.5
Prediction: Texans, 38-24
The Dallas Cowboys have constantly underperformed in relation to their expectations over the past couple years, but once again field a very talented roster that has the potential to make some noise. The noise coming from the New York Jets usually comes from their head coach, Rex Ryan.
Tony Romo is healthy once again and could be poised for a strong bounce-back season. Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten should provide him with more than enough help. If the Cowboys can find a consistent running game and improve their pass defense, they will be very dangerous in 2011.
Has Ryan made his usual Super Bowl guardsmen yet? If not, it will be coming soon enough. The defense is still one of the best in the league, but the offense is still a major question mark. The receiving corps is strong, but Shonn Greene is unproven and LaDainian Tomlinson isn't getting any younger. Do Jets fans really believe Mark Sanchez can lead this offense to a Super Bowl victory?
Opening Line: Jets -4
Prediction: Cowboys, 20-13
Whenever these two defenses meet, it is always a grind-it-out, big-hitting affair that makes for great television. Both teams should be at full strength, which will make the hits even bigger in what amounts to the most important game of Week One.
The Pittsburgh Steelers offense continues to grow, but lacks depth, so an early season game against their arch rivals might not be the greatest of draws to avoid injuries. The key to their season is making sure Troy Polamalu returns to full strength because their defense isn't the same without him.
Anquan Boldin will struggle to find open space if the Baltimore Ravens don't bring in a more capable number two receiver. That said, Ray Rice returning to 2009 form will be the key for the offense. The Ravens defense continues to fight off old age, but it will eventually catch up with them, just not yet.
Opening Line: Ravens -2.5
Prediction: Ravens, 9-7
Although the Steelers/Ravens game is more important in the grand scheme of things, the first game of the season is a more appealing draw. The New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers—the last two Super Bowl winners—face off in what should be a high-scoring shootout.
Reggie Bush is gone for the Saints, but Darren Sproles is more than capable of filling the void. Drew Brees is probably the most accurate passer in the league and should have another big season. The Saints defense excelled during the regular season before being exposed in the playoffs.
The Packers have the second-best odds behind only the New England Patriots to win the Super Bowl, but they definitely have a chance to form a dynasty. Aaron Rodgers is a top-five quarterback and James Starks was impressive in the playoffs. If the defense can continue to make opportunistic plays, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Packers raising the Lombardi Trophy again in 2011.
Opening Line: Packers -4.5
Prediction: Packers, 34-31