NFL Picks Week 1: Bleacher Report's Expert Consensus Picks
It's that most wonderful time of the year.
No, not Christmas. Although some stores already have decorations out.
It's football season!
No more speculation. No more training camp. No more awful preseason games.
It's time to get down to the business of determining the participants in Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, California, beginning with Thursday's season opener between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots.
That means it's also time for the National Lead Writers and NFL Analysts here at Bleacher Report to once again gather to offer their take on how Week 1 will play out.
Here's what that esteemed group had to say.
As I mentioned in the intro, just as we did last year during each week of the 2015 NFL season, the National Lead Writers and Analysts here at Bleacher Report will make their picks for the upcoming games. This year's group includes (with 2014 standings):
Gary Davenport: NFL Analyst (174-81)
Mike Freeman: NFL National Lead Writer (163-92)
Brad Gagnon: NFL Analyst (173-82)
Matt Miller: NFL National Lead Writer (173-82)
Ty Schalter: NFL National Lead Writer (157-98)
Brent Sobleski: NFL Analyst (161-94)
Mike Tanier: NFL National Lead Writer (159-96)
Sean Tomlinson: NFL Analyst (150-73)
Yes, I won last year. I'm as surprised as anyone.
Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots
The Pick: New England Patriots (7-1)
Final: Patriots 28, Steelers 21
You know, there are those who think the deck is stacked in the NFL. And that the deck favors the New England Patriots.
Given how Thursday night's season opener has shaken out, it's sort of hard to argue with them.
After all, the Steelers will be short a pair of suspended offensive starters in tailback Le'Veon Bell and wideout Martavis Bryant. Meanwhile, Tom Terrific will be under center for the Pats, after Tom Brady's four-game "Deflategate" suspension was overturned.
Even the injury bug has hit Pittsburgh harder. Sure, the loss of wide receiver Brandon LaFell is a blow to the Patriots. But the loss of Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey was an even bigger one for the Steelers.
Then there's the matter of how a Steelers secondary that is the defense's weak spot will account for tight end Rob Gronkowski. Linebacker Ryan Shazier told Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com the Steelers intend to get physical with the All-Pro pass-catcher.
"You just have to jam him up a little bit, mess with his timing," Shazier said. "If you mess up their timing, they are really time-oriented. You have to mess up their timing and get in his face with pressure, then I feel we can slow him down a little bit."
With the exception of NFL National Lead Writer Mike Tanier, our voters just see too many questions facing Pittsburgh for the Steelers to pull off the upset on the road.
Patriots: Davenport, Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski, Tomlinson
Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears
The Pick: Green Bay Packers (8-0)
A lot of ink was dedicated over the past few weeks to how the Packers would replace injured wide receiver Jordy Nelson.
The Bears wish that was their only problem.
Injured wide receivers? The Bears have those in spades. Alshon Jeffery is nursing a sore calf and leaning against playing, per Bleacher Report's Jason Cole. Rookie first-round pick Kevin White is out indefinitely after surgery on his shin. Eddie Royal and Marquess Wilson are at least practicing, albeit with a sore hip and hammy, respectively.
Royal told Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune that he hopes to take the field Sunday against the Bears' most hated rivals.
“It was a good start, and I'm excited about Sunday and hopefully being out there,” he said.
So at least Jay Cutler will have Royal to throw to.
Oh yeah. The Bears have Jay Cutler, as opposed to Aaron Rodgers. And a defense made of papier-mache headed into a game against arguably the NFL's best offense.
But other than that, Chicago fans, all is well!
Packers: Davenport, Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson
Bears: Ditka himself couldn't pick Chicago here.
Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans
The Pick: Houston Texans (4-4) ***COIN FLIP***
With an even number of pollsters this year, it was bound to happen. Especially in a game featuring evenly matched teams, such as when the Kansas City Chiefs travel to Houston Sunday to face the Texans.
The game will feature the Houston debut of quarterback Brian Hoyer. As John McClain of the Houston Chronicle reports, head coach Bill O'Brien is confident the veteran will help the Texans weather the storm until injured running back Arian Foster returns.
"Brian has progressed every day. His last two to three weeks of camp have been very good," O'Brien said. "Brian has been accurate and smart with the ball. He’s worked very hard. He’s got leadership qualities we like. It’s (football) very important to him."
The Chiefs, on the other hand, have no such hole at tailback. What they do have is an offense that appears to be much more potent this year with the addition of wide receiver Jeremy Maclin.
Still, watching Hoyer and Alex Smith of the Chiefs toss the ball around isn't going to be the thing to watch on Sunday afternoon.
No, the real fun will be watching those signal-callers flee in terror from the likes of Houston's J.J. Watt and Kansas City's Justin Houston.
There are going to be some quarterbacks getting dirty in this one.
Chiefs: Davenport, Freeman, Schalter, Sobleski
Texans: Gagnon, Miller, Tanier, Tomlinson
Cleveland Browns at New York Jets
The Pick: New York Jets (6-2)
There's something unfamiliar wafting through the air around the New York Jets.
No, not that. That's always been there. Spray some Febreze.
Upgrades to the offense. An overhaul of the defense that included the return of cornerback Darrelle Revis. A bright young head coach in Todd Bowles. Even the loss of defensive end Sheldon Richardson to suspension and quarterback Geno Smith to a broken jaw hasn't dampened the belief that the Jets might just make some noise in 2015.
ESPN.com's Rich Cimini may not share the optimism of some (I picked the Jets as a possible surprise playoff time on NBC Sports Radio Sunday. Out loud. On purpose.), but Cimini thinks the Jets have enough to get past the Cleveland Browns in Week 1:
The Jets couldn't have handpicked a better opponent to start the Todd Bowles era. This is one of the few Sundays in which they won't be at a disadvantage at the quarterback position. The Browns don't have any receivers either, which should allow Darrelle Revis & Co. to dominate. But at the same time, Browns coach Mike Pettine, a former Jets assistant, will keep the pressure on Ryan Fitzpatrick with his blitz schemes.
With a couple of exceptions, our experts agree.
J-E-T-S! Jets! Jets! Jets!
Browns: Gagnon, Sobleski
Jets: Davenport, Freeman, Miller, Schalter, Tanier, Tomlinson
Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills
The Pick: Indianapolis Colts (6-2)
Make no mistake, the Indianapolis Colts can talk all they want about "one game at a time," but Western New York isn't where the team has its sights set to kick off 2015.
Those eyes are cast a bit further west, to Santa Clara, California, and Super Bowl 50.
Of course, teams in the NFL that look past opponents often run into trouble. And the Colts could find themselves in just that predicament if they can't contain Tyrod Taylor, who won the starting job under center in Buffalo.
The Colts were dealt a blow in that regard when defensive end Arthur Jones was placed on injured reserve, but head coach Chuck Pagano told reporters that he's confident Indy will win the battle at the point of attack:
I love the mixture of veteran guys like [Kendall] Langford to go with the youth in David Parry and Henry Anderson and Zach Kerr. We got guys that can play, guys that can fit our scheme. These guys are going to go and they're going to play tough and play smart.
Of course, while the Colts are tasked with slowing down Taylor and wide receiver Sammy Watkins, the Bills have to try to slow down Andrew Luck and a Colts offense that's as loaded as any in football.
The Bills have arguably the NFL's top defensive line. They will get pressure on Luck. And that defense could easily make this a closer game than some expect.
But the Colts just have too much firepower for Taylor's first NFL start to be a huge upset.
Colts: Davenport, Freeman, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski, Tomlinson
Bills: Gagnon, Tanier
Miami Dolphins at Washington Redskins
The Pick: Miami Dolphins (8-0)
You don't even need Google Maps or the signs by the side of the freeway to find FedEx Field anymore. All you have to do is follow the warm glow from the dumpster fire that is the Washington Redskins.
The Robert Griffin saga in Washington officially hit farcical levels this preseason. The player the team mortgaged its future on is still with Washington, but in name only. In fact, it's hardly a stretch to say that we won't ever see Griffin take another meaningful snap for the team.
Still, despite the blaring carnival music and piles of elephant poop, Washington head coach Jay Gruden insisted to NBC 4's Larry Allen (via Scott Allen of the Washington Post) that his decision to start Kirk Cousins over Griffin was all about football:
I think, based on all of the evidence, and all the time that we’ve put in, this was not an overnight decision. This was a lot of work that we put in over the last year-and-a-half, and based on all of the evidence, it was easy. Kirk really came out here and did everything right, and we feel like he made the biggest jump from a talent standpoint, from a knowledge [standpoint], from a comfort standpoint in our system from Year One to Year Two, and it showed on the game day. So, it wasn’t that hard for us. It was maybe hard for people to grasp, but everybody in the building who saw it and witnessed it, it wasn’t that hard.
Of course, Gruden didn't say anything about winning football.
And that's good. Because there isn't going to be much of that going on in D.C. in 2015.
Dolphins: Davenport, Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson
Redskins: I'd sooner vote for Donald Trump.
Carolina Panthers at Jacksonville Jaguars
The Pick: Carolina Panthers (5-3)
Can you catch? Think you're pretty fast?
If you live in the Charlotte area, you might want to give the Carolina Panthers a call. Because after losing Kelvin Benjamin to a season-ending injury, the Panthers are about as thin at the position as any team in the league.
When the Panthers face the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, it will be with the dynamic duo of Corey Brown and Ted Ginn Jr. lined up at wide receiver.
That isn't a pairing that's going to intimidate many defensive coordinators, but as Bryan Strickland of the team's website wrote, you won't hear head coach Ron Rivera crying about the team's rough luck at the position:
Corey knows all three positions, and then the one thing you talk about is Corey's speed. Now he's got to go out and perform, but that's the bottom line. You have to be productive, and you can't miss opportunities.
I thought Teddy Ginn had a really nice training camp, did some really nice things. He played the role that we're looking for him to play for us.
The team's deficiencies at that spot are going to cost it down the line. Our scribes just don't think it will be this week against a Jaguars team with plenty of problems of their own.
Panthers: Davenport, Freeman, Miller, Tanier, Tomlinson
Jaguars: Gagnon, Schalter, Sobleski
Seattle Seahawks at St. Louis Rams
The Pick: Seattle Seahawks (6-2)
Last year, the St. Louis Rams stunned the Seattle Seahawks at the Edward Jones Dome in Week 7. The loss dropped the Seahawks to 3-3 and started a whole boatload of "what's wrong in Seattle?" talk.
The Seahawks, of course, then went on to narrowly miss winning a second straight Super Bowl, so it appears the answer to that question was "nothing."
OK, maybe "Malcolm Butler."
This NFC West tilt features a pair of stout defenses, with ESPN.com's Sheil Kapadia predicting that will lead to a low-scoring affair:
This one might not be pretty. It will be two of the best defensive lines in football going up against a pair of offensive lines that have serious question marks entering the season. The Seahawks lost in St. Louis last season and won ugly there in 2013. A game similar to that contest two years ago (a 14-9 Seahawks victory) would not be surprising.
Kapadia looks for the Seahawks to pull out a narrow win, and while NFL National Lead Writers Ty Schalter and Mike Tanier hopped on board the upset express, the majority of our panel is in agreement.
Seahawks: Davenport, Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Sobleski, Tomlinson
Rams: Schalter, Tanier
New Orleans Saints at Arizona Cardinals
The Pick: Arizona Cardinals (6-2)
For much of last season, the Arizona Cardinals looked like a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Twelve weeks into the season, the Redbirds sat at an NFL-best 9-2.
Then the team started hemorrhaging quarterbacks, and by the time Ryan "Really?" Lindley started the team's playoff loss to Carolina, the wheels had officially come off.
The Cardinals have Carson Palmer back under center to start the 2015 season, and Palmer wasn't shy when telling Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic that he knows Arizona's window of opportunity won't stay open forever:
I don’t think Bruce is going to coach for 20 more years. I’m definitely not going to play for 10 more. We have a lot of older coaches who aren’t going to go coach at three more organizations, or two more, or one more. There are a lot of players who aren’t going to play for other teams. It’s very evident, and everybody understands the opportunity we have.
A patchwork offensive line is an ongoing concern for Palmer and the Cardinals, but their more immediate concern is a New Orleans Saints team with all sorts of questions on the defensive side of the ball and a changing identity on offense.
In front of a raucous crowd at University of Phoenix Stadium, the NFL writers here at Bleacher Report expect Palmer and the Cardinals to address that immediate concern in the affirmative Sunday.
Saints: Tanier, Tomlinson
Cardinals: Davenport, Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski
Detroit Lions at San Diego Chargers
The Pick: San Diego Chargers (5-3)
This was one of the harder games of Week 1 to figure out—if only because the Detroit Lions and San Diego Chargers are two of the harder teams to figure out in the NFL.
One week, Matthew Stafford and the Lions, or Philip Rivers and the Chargers, can look like a team capable of making a deep playoff run. Neither team is hurting for talent on either side of the ball.
But neither team, at least in recent years, has been able to take the proverbial next step. They lose games they should win, back into the playoffs (or miss them altogether) and then make a quick exit.
And as Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com reports, the 33-year-old Rivers is running out of bites at the apple:
Rivers' second-half decline was dramatic last year. It was injury related and due to a weakened offensive line, but there's no guarantee those issues will improve this season. The Chargers have been shuffling their line throughout camp, with 2013 first-round pick D.J. Fluker moving inside to guard. Joe Barksdale will be at right tackle. While the right side is a concern, the team's left side, anchored by King Dunlap and (Orlando) Franklin, looks better than it has in a long time.
However, against a Lions team that was 7-1 at Ford Field last year but only 4-4 away from it, our experts narrowly predict that the season will start out sunny in San Diego.
Lions: Miller, Schalter, Tomlinson
Chargers: Davenport, Freeman, Gagnon, Sobleski, Tanier
Tennessee Titans at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Pick: Tennessee Titans (5-3)
Last year, this matchup would have generated all the excitement of watching a coat of paint dry. Of course, that was before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans used the first two picks in the 2015 NFL draft on quarterbacks Jameis Winston of Florida State and Marcus Mariota of Oregon.
Now, the two will square off on the playing field as the starting signal-callers for franchises that are desperate for the youngsters to lead them from their respective division basements.
No pressure, guys.
Of the two, it was Mariota who fared better in the exhibition season. Adam Schein of NFL.com predicts that will continue both Sunday and for months and years to come:
I said it in February. I said it multiple times before the draft. I said it right after the draft. And I pointed out Mariota's immense promise throughout the preseason.
I believe that everyone will believe in the Titans QB after this year. He's a savvy, versatile and tremendously gifted player. A guy without any baggage. The exact kind of guy you want to build a team around. Marcus Mariota will have a better rookie season than Jameis Winston, a harbinger of things to come for both in their respective careers.
Mind you, this is probably going to be an ugly game featuring two young quarterbacks leading teams that are, shall we say, not good.
But one of those teams will get to savor the joy of being undefeated for at least a week, and our panel believes it will be Mariota and the visiting Titans.
Titans: Freeman, Gagnon, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson
Buccaneers: Davenport, Miller, Schalter
Cincinnati Bengals at Oakland Raiders
The Pick: Cincinnati Bengals (5-3)
The Cincinnati Bengals have been to the playoffs in each of the past four seasons. It's an impressive achievement. Sort of.
I say "sort of," because over that span the Bengals have the same number of playoff wins as the Cleveland Browns. And the Jacksonville Jaguars. And the Oakland Raiders, for that matter.
That number is zero.
If the Bengals are going to make it an even five in a row, they'll have to overcome the NFL's second-toughest schedule, but that brutal slate begins with what looks like a gimme win against a Raiders team that's been glued to the AFC West cellar for years.
ESPN.com's Coley Harvey predicted a two-touchdown win for the Bengals on the West Coast swing:
Maybe they've been relative pushovers in recent seasons, but the Bengals will want to take the Raiders seriously on this road trip. Quarterbacks Derek Carr and Matt McGloin were reasonably impressive throughout the preseason, as was second-year linebacker Khalil Mack, who has become an enforcer in Oakland's defense. The Raiders still don't have much of a running game. That bodes well for Cincinnati's secondary, particularly if the Bengals' offense can get off to a fast start and score early.
Our panel sided with Cincy as well, but it's hardly a ringing endorsement.
More like one vote from a coin flip.
Bengals: Davenport, Miller, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson
Raiders: Gagnon, Freeman, Schalter
Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos
The Pick: Denver Broncos (6-2)
This is not a matchup that is going to inspire tons of warm and fuzzies from fans of the Denver Broncos, many of whom are still just a touch upset about the "Mile High Miracle."
For my money, Tim Tebow winning a playoff game was the real Mile High Miracle, but whatever—I don't name these things.
Of course, this also won't be the first time in recent years these teams opened the season against one another in Denver. That also happened in 2013, a game in which Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning laid 49 points on a supposedly stout Ravens defense.
In fact, as Joe Serpico of FanSided wrote, Manning has made a habit of having his way with the Ravens since joining the Broncos in 2012:
It is easy to say that Manning always puts up points, but in the last three matchups between the two teams, the Broncos have put up at least 34 points. Denver has had success moving the ball against the Ravens defense in the three games with Manning under center. Peyton should be 3-0 against Baltimore, but a Mile High Miracle got the Ravens the championship that Manning and the Broncos are craving for.
There are certain realities where Manning is concerned, His forehead is...pronounced. He's in approximately every commercial ever.
And getting into a shootout with him is a good way to get beat.
Ravens: Miller, Schalter
Broncos: Davenport, Freeman, Gagnon, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson
New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys
The Pick: Dallas Cowboys (6-2)
The Dallas Cowboys enter the 2015 season with the same mantra as every other season since Jerry Jones bought the team.
Super Bowl or bust.
Last year, a career season from running back DeMarco Murray and a surprisingly stout defense propelled the Cowboys further than they've come in some time—to an NFC East title and a playoff win over the Detroit Lions.
In the opinion of David Helman of the team's website, the 2015 incarnation of America's Team might be even better. Operative word being "might":
There might not be a more polarizing team than the 2015 Dallas Cowboys. They’re either a Super Bowl contender or a safe bet to miss the playoffs, depending on who you ask.
There’s plenty to feel good about – Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, the monstrous O-Line, the revamped pass rush and Sean Lee’s return. And yet there’s no shortage of question marks – an unproven running game, a terrifying lack of depth at offensive tackle, Lee’s inability to stay healthy and a lack of confidence in the secondary.
It might seem odd to call a Week 1 matchup pivotal, but in some respects for the Cowboys, their Sunday night NFC East showdown with the New York Giants is just that. Especially when you consider all the public fawning over the Philadelphia Eagles over the last month.
And this week, at least, the pundits here at B/R think Jerruh's Boys will be up to the task.
Giants: Davenport, Freeman
Cowboys: Gagnon, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson
Philadelphia Eagles at Atlanta Falcons
The Pick: Philadelphia Eagles (5-3)
The first Monday night game of 2015 has the potential to be a barnburner.
In the red corner, we have the Philadelphia Eagles, quite possibly the single most talked-about team in the National Football League. First there was Chip Kelly's offseason roster overhaul. Then an offensive buzzsaw in the preseason that has some, including Grantland's Bill Barnwell, predicting that the Eagles could be a Super Bowl team.
"Best-Case Scenario: ...The Eagles win 14 games, Sam Bradford wins comeback player of the year, Chip Kelly wins coach of the year, the Eagles win the Super Bowl," Barnwell wrote. "No big deal."
Of course, Barnwell also predicts that if quarterback Sam Bradford gets hurt and the defense fails to jell, the Eagles could go 5-11.
However, much like the Eagles, the Falcons' biggest question is whether they can stop anyone from returning serve.
Given that, this game has all the makings of a shootout—a shootout our experts believe will be won by the visiting Chipsters.
Eagles: Davenport, Miller, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson
Falcons: Freeman, Gagnon, Schalter
Minnesota Vikings at San Francisco 49ers
The Pick: Minnesota Vikings (8-0)
As has been the case the past several years, Week 1 concludes with a Monday night double-header. The second of those contests features a pair of teams heading in very different directions.
The Minnesota Vikings are a trendy pick as a surprise playoff team this year. So trendy that it really wouldn't be a surprise. And it isn't hard to see why.
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has carried his strong stretch run last year into the preseason. With Adrian Peterson back in the fold, Bridgewater will have a running game at his disposal in 2015 he could only dream of a season ago. And a young Vikings defense anchored by end Everson Griffen, linebacker Anthony Barr and safety Harrison Smith appears set to take a big step forward.
The 49ers, on the other hand, have been barreling in the other direction seemingly since the moment their 2014 season ended. The departure of head coach Jim Harbaugh. Surprise retirements. The release of linebacker Aldon Smith. Upward of 40 percent of the 49ers player snaps last year are just...gone.
As ESPN.com's Paul Gutierrez reported, there are just too many holes in the boat and not enough fingers with which to plug them:
Remember that whole exodus of Biblical proportions business? Yeah, it's simply too much for the Niners to overcome. And make no mistake about it, this is a rebuilding project, not a reloading situation. There are simply too many holes and Aldon Smith was supposed to be a building block. So, too, was Ahmad Brooks, and now his status is in the air. Look at it this way -- the Niners were 8-8 last year and can you honestly say they got better this offseason?
Gutierrez is hardly alone in predicting a rough season for the 49ers in 2015, and the writers here at Bleacher Report were unanimous in predicting a bumpy start to that campaign Monday night.
Vikings: Davenport, Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson
49ers: It's going to be a long football season in the Bay Area.