NFL Game Previews, Week 1

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterSeptember 12, 2015

NFL Game Previews, Week 1

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    Associated Press

    Finally, after months of giving us what we don’t want (investigations, depositions, appeals, cross-examinations, cellphone transcripts, garbled high school science lessons, endless meditations about collectively bargained points of procedure), the NFL is giving us what we want: great matchups!

    Few rivalries in sports are as old and storied as Packers-Bears or as heated as Cowboys-Giants; so what if each game pits a likely contender against an opponent riddled with injuries and questions? Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston battle each other to learn who will be the best rookie quarterback this year, while the Jets and Browns battle to learn who will draft the best rookie quarterback next year.

    The most compelling matchup of all pits the Broncos' past and future against the Broncos' present as Gary Kubiak and Peyton Manning collide...on the same sideline!

    The following previews are presented in the order you are supposed to read them! All times Eastern.

Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Gary Kubiak was in Denver since before even John Elway arrived.

    Kubiak was an eighth-round draft pick by the Broncos in 1983. The Broncos, remember, did not draft Elway that year; the Colts did. For a few heady weeks before the blockbuster Elway trade, Kubiak was the Broncos’ selection from that quarterback-rich draft class.

    Kubiak was there to win a game when Elway had the flu in 1983. He was there to win Offensive Player of the Week honors for a spot start in 1984. He was there to mop up Super Bowl losses, there to nearly lead a heroic comeback in the 1991 AFC Championship Game.

    Kubiak was there when Mike Shanahan married Elway’s arm with Bill Walsh’s offense, Alex Gibbs’ blocking schemes and Terrell Davis’ rushing. However, Kubiak received little of the credit (there wasn’t much left once Shanahan took his cut) for a pair of Super Bowls. He was there when Jake Plummer mysteriously became good enough to beat Tom Brady in the playoffs.

    When Kubiak finally escaped from Elway and Shanahan’s shadows, he built Texans teams and a Ravens offense that looked suspiciously like displaced Denver Broncos teams.

    So Kubiak is as “Denver” as Rocky Mountain oysters. Why does he feel like such an outsider? The answer, of course, is Peyton Manning.

    Kubiak returns to Denver, as the head coach, with a traditional Kubiak offense. Last year’s Ravens used the shotgun just 24 percent of the time, the lowest rate in the NFL, courtesy of Football Outsiders Almanac. They used three or more wide receivers just 38 percent of the time, the second-lowest rate in the NFL. They ranked third in the league in their use of two-man backfield formations, at 40 percent.

    It was old-school Kubiak football: two backs, two receivers and a tight end, zone blocking and play-action passing. And it nearly took the Ravens past the Patriots in the playoffs.

    But Peyton Manning always runs a Peyton Manning offense. Last year’s Broncos used three-plus receivers 72 percent of the time (fourth in the NFL), used the shotgun 73 percent of the time (fifth) and used single-set backs 89 percent of the time (second).

    Manning is more familiar with commercial directors than with fullbacks. And yet Elway recruited his former backup, coach and wingman to coach Manning, despite the fact that Kubiak is just about the only coach left in the NFL who is still all about fullbacks and under-center snaps.

    We have no clear idea what the Kubiak-Manning offense will look like or how the coach and quarterback will jell. We do know that anything short of a Super Bowl victory will be considered a failure. But we also know that Kubiak is at his best when paired with an Elway, Shanahan, Gibbs or John Harbaugh, someone whose strengths he can accentuate and weaknesses he can compensate for.

    Maybe Manning will be Kubiak’s next great collaborator, and maybe a jolt of old-school Denver-style football is just what the Broncos need.

    Prediction: Broncos 27, Ravens 17

New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys, Sunday, 8:30 p.m.

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    Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

    It’s not easy coining a nickname for a great offensive line.

    “The Hogs” worked well for those old Redskins lines, but now it is theirs forever. “The Electric Company” turned on the Juice for O.J. Simpson, but if they blocked for someone with a name such as Lawrence McCutcheon, we’d be stumped for a catchy nickname. “Seven Blocks of Granite” was a great name during the New Deal era, but what’s the modern equivalent, Five Internet Firewalls?

    Actually, there is a far worse choice than that: “The Great Wall of Dallas 2.0.” Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?

    The Dallas Morning News called the Cowboys offensive line the Legion of Room for most of the offseason: catchy, if a little derivative. But it then decided to put the nickname to a reader vote. The Great Wall of Dallas 2.0, which sounds like a Chinese restaurant that just got rebuilt in a strip mall off I-635 that recently burned down, won 13.73 percent of the popular vote.

    Guardians of the Gridiron earned 11.25 percent of the vote and an argument over which Cowboys lineman is the wisecracking raccoon. (Travis Frederick, obviously.) Legion of Room finished third. The Plowboys, which sounds like the best selection until you really start to think about it, finished fourth.

    My choice did not merit serious consideration: FredMartinSmith Cleary-Free. Admit it. You love it. It sounds like a '70s prog rock band with a cello player and a double album about an eternal dragon war. It’s better than Jerry’s Angels, which actually received 1.55 percent of votes. Whatever Jerry’s Angels might be—and my wife would ask that very question if she saw it on my credit card statement—they are not sweaty, 320-pound dudes.

    Anyway, Great Wall of Dallas 2.0 it is. That leaves the Legion-based nickname open to non-Seahawks teams. So we can safely christen the Giants defense as the Legion of Who?

    Markus Kuhn is the starting nose tackle for New York. Who? J.T. Thomas starts at weak-side linebacker. Who?? Cooper Taylor is the strong safety. Who??? If Jon Beason doesn’t play (he missed practice time early in the week), Uani' Unga is the middle linebacker. Who????

    This is the defense you get when your star pass-rusher plays with fireworks, all of your safeties leave via free agency, you think free-agent spending is one of the seven deadly sins and your weekly injury report has come with a cross-referenced index for three seasons.

    The Giants scarcely have enough healthy, experienced bodies to cover Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and the committee of second-chancers at running back, let alone deal with the Legion...er, the Plowb...sigh, the Great Wall of Dallas 2.0.

    Tune in next week when we learn if Dallas voters name their running back committee the Blind Gophers because they can never find a hole.

    Prediction: Cowboys 34, Giants 21

Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears, Sunday, 1 p.m.

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    Mike Roemer/Associated Press

    Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler battled in the NFC Championship Game five seasons ago, though it feels like 50. They entered that game as peers, a pair of young Pro Bowlers who were looking to take the next step.

    Rodgers, of course, won the game, led the Packers to a Super Bowl victory and ascended to unqualified, un-ironic elite status.

    Cutler suffered an MCL sprain in that playoff game, but we slid our fingers along the grid that compares quarterback injury levels with quarterback popularity (it’s like a mortgage amortization table, except with Geno Smith holding his jaw in the bottom left corner) and decided that he wasn’t injured enough to leave the game without criticism. Cutler’s reputation never recovered, and his on-field performance hasn’t always set the league on fire, either.

    Five seasons later, Rodgers and Cutler face a situation in which:

    •The Packers do everything possible to surround Rodgers with the best available talent to win the Super Bowl in 2016; while...

    •The Bears almost go out of their way to promote as many young players as possible to pave the way for a post-Cutler 2016.

    The Packers retrieved James Jones from the waiver wire this week to give Rodgers a familiar target in the wake of Jordy Nelson’s ACL tear and Randall Cobb’s shoulder injury (Cobb was practicing as of midweek). Bringing back a veteran is an unusual step for the Packers, who would rather promote Ted Thompson’s grocery-baggers into the starting lineup than spend any unnecessary money. But the Packers are in Super Bowl mode and don’t want to lose a game because rookie Ty Montgomery runs the wrong route.

    The Bears, on the other hand, have three veteran wide receivers (Alshon Jeffery, Eddie Royal and Marquess Wilson) in various states of infirmity, while top rookie Kevin White is on the PUP list. Their response during the preseason was to take the field with Marc Mariani types as starting receivers.

    Granted, Jeffery returned to practice on Wednesday and the others will soon return, so perhaps there was no need to scour the waiver wire. But the Bears also released veteran right tackle Jordan Mills, a projected starter. Charles Leno, a seventh-round pick last year, was named the probationary starter early in the week, though most observers expect Kyle Long to slide from guard to tackle with a journeyman veteran such as Vladimir Ducasse or Patrick Omameh (who was waived by the Buccaneers) to take over at guard.

    Meanwhile, the Bears defense features rookie starters Eddie Goldman at tackle and Adrian Amos (a fifth-round pick) at safety. Second-year players Ego Ferguson and Christian Jones have also been promoted to the starting lineup.

    You can almost see John Fox and his staff gazing wistfully toward a future when Jeffery and White are healthy, the young defenders have learned from the lumps Rodgers gives them on Sunday, Cutler is just a manageable wad of dead salary-cap money and the starting quarterback is...David Fales? Connor Cook? Jimmy Garoppolo? Robert Griffin?

    Ah, there’s the rub. Veteran quarterbacks are not easily replaced, even if they are named Jay Cutler. He and Rodgers may no longer be peers, but Cutler is just about the only reason the Bears have a chance against the Packers. It’s not a great chance—that championship game was the great chance—but it’s enough to throw a scare into a contender that looked much more dangerous a month ago.

    A Bears upset is too much to ask for, but a duel would help kick-start the Bears' rebuilding project while reminding fans that the golden boy and the prodigal son stood on equal footing not so long ago.

    Prediction: Packers 28, Bears 23

Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills, Sunday, 1 p.m.

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    Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

    Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush tweeted earlier this week that he had too many Buffalo Bills on his fantasy football team.

    I have waited my entire life to type a sentence like that.

    Bush further tweeted that he had the 14th and 15th selections in his fantasy draft and took Rob Gronkowski and Peyton Manning. He revealed that Ryan Tannehill was his backup quarterback. The “too many” Bills he selected consisted of Charles Clay and LeSean McCoy, though Bush may have drafted other Bills that he failed to mention.

    While the Game Previews staff strives to be as apolitical as possible, when a major presidential candidate talks fantasy football, we listen. So let’s parse Bush’s fantasy football experience:

    •Bush was clearly in a 14-team league with a snake draft. Leagues that size are often confusing and cumbersome. When there are too many individuals vying to gain an edge by drawing from the same pool, talent gets diluted, and philosophies and strategies become muddled. The winner of a 14-person battle of wits and wills is usually not the individual with the best ideas or plans, but the one who gets lucky at the right time and made the least bad moves instead of the most good ones. There’s a metaphor here somewhere.

    •Despite picking last in a 14-team league and picking a quarterback and a tight end with his top picks, Bush snagged McCoy, a certified RB1, with what was at least the 42nd selection. Maybe Bush’s league is not full of fantasy junkies. Or maybe he took advantage of his big brother, who took Dez-Romo-Witten 1-2-3.

    •Bush did not use Gronk’s well-known, easy-to-remember @RobGronkowski handle in his tweets, but he used Clay’s more obscure (@C42Clay) handle. As governor of Florida, it’s Bush’s business to know the Twitter handles of even former Dolphins tight ends. The Gronk snub may have been because of Gronk’s recent endorsement of controversial presidential candidate Deez Nuts.

    •Bush is worried about drafting too many Bills. Donald Trump, of course, recently tried to buy the Bills. The Bills are becoming a GOP wedge issue. Tune in next week when Chris Christie gets criticized for hugging Marv Levy on a beach.

    •Bush is candid and transparent about his fantasy selections. We can only speculate about Donald Trump’s fantasy team, which is probably named Trump: The Fantasy Team.

    Reaction to Bush’s Bills ambivalence by other presidential candidates was swift. Hillary Clinton drafted all of the Colts backup running backs to promote a new health-care reform initiative that extends coverage to “individuals injured for unnecessary and ridiculous reasons.” Joe Biden announced that Joe Flacco is elite. And 2020 presidential candidate Kanye West showed up three hours late to his fantasy draft with no cheat sheet, blaming “haters.”

    Prediction: Colts 31, Bills 27

Tennessee Titans at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The winner of Mariota-Winston I will go down in history as one of the greatest sports figures of all time, completely and eternally validating all of his predraft scouting reports and vanquishing all of his critics. The loser will bring nothing but shame upon his organization and family name.

    No, this is neither a premature conclusion nor an exaggeration.

    With so much at stake, let’s take a closer look at Jameis Winston’s and Marcus Mariota’s supporting casts. They may look different, but they are more similar than you think.

    Running Backs: Doug Martin (Buccaneers) and Bishop Sankey (Titans) are a pair of draftnik-and-insider darlings who have ruined more fantasy teams than predraft vodka shooters. Advantage: Buccaneers, because Martin remembered how to break tackles in the preseason.

    Wide Receivers: Mariota has Kendall Wright, who was Robert Griffin’s big-play target in college, and Harry Douglas, your basic veteran possession receiver. Winston has Mike Evans, who was Johnny Manziel’s big-play target in college, and Vincent Jackson, who would probably make a pretty good NFL commissioner. Advantage: Buccaneers. Jackson can still play, despite the occasional easy drop.

    Tight Ends: The Titans officially list five tight ends on the active roster plus Jalston Fowler, who could be a tight end but is more of a fullback. If you are wondering where Anthony Fasano or Brandon Myers wound up, check one of these rosters. Also: Why are you wondering where Anthony Fasano or Brandon Myers wound up? Advantage: Titans, with six freakin’ dudes.

    Offensive Line: The Titans have lots of homegrown players who are always on the verge of meshing into a strong unit. The Buccaneers have lots of homegrown players who are always on the verge of getting replaced by Patriots or Colts castoffs. Advantage: Even.

    Defense: The Buccaneers have an underrated defensive tackle (Gerald McCoy), an unsung hero at outside linebacker (Lavonte David) and one of the strangest collections of street free-agent talent ever assembled in a non-expansion year. (Seriously: Danny Lansanah? T.J. Fatinikun?) The Titans have an underrated defensive lineman (Jurrell Casey), an unsung hero at outside linebacker (Derrick Morgan) and the best defense a team can assemble while still paying Jason McCourty and Michael Griffin like they are Robert Downey Jr. and George Clooney. Advantage: Buccaneers, because McCoy and David kick butt.

    Special Teams: The Titans have veterans Ryan Succop and Brett Kern kicking and punting, with reliable-and-semi-dangerous Dexter McCluster handling returns. The Buccaneers jettisoned pricey veteran punter Michael Koenen in favor of Jake Schum, then traded late in the preseason for rookie kicker Kyle Brindza. Advantage: Titans, because the Bucs are sure to encounter schum setbacks.

    Coaching: Ken Whisenhunt reached the Super Bowl when Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner caught fire but is married to an offense that went out of vogue about a decade ago. Lovie Smith reached the Super Bowl when everyone on the Bears but quarterback Rex Grossman caught fire but is married to a defense that went out of vogue about a decade ago. Get ready for pocket passing against zone coverage, featuring a mobile quarterback and a defense full of guys who would be more comfortable attacking! Advantage: Even.

    Prediction: Four interceptions, six sacks and lots of talk about “learning from mistakes.” And those may just be the Buccaneers totals. Titans 20, Buccaneers 17

Seattle Seahawks at St. Louis Rams, Sunday, 1 p.m.

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    The Rams are like your old gym teacher who thought that all problems could be solved through pushups.

    Lack energy? Do more pushups! Failing chemistry? Pushups! Feeling systematically persecuted by an educational and social system that values conformity and superficiality over creativity, compassion and substance? You won’t feel that way when you have the rippling biceps and abs that come from...pushups!

    The Rams solve all problems by upgrading their defensive line. Problems at quarterback? Draft Aaron Donald! Offensive line never quite jells? Sign Nick Fairley! If the Rams could have wrested Fletcher Cox away from the Eagles instead of Nick Foles as part of some wild Sam Bradford-Marcus Mariota Lollapalooza, they would totally have done it, started the season with Case Keenum at quarterback and tried to win exclusively through safeties.

    At least the Rams know simple solutions when they see them. The Seahawks, basking in the infallibility that comes from reaching a pair of Super Bowls, are now too clever and resourceful to draft and develop offensive linemen. Their right tackle, Garry Gilliam, is a converted college tight end. New center Drew Nowak played defensive tackle in college before moving to guard for the Jaguars. Justin Britt, last year’s starting right tackle, is now the starting left guard. If anything happens to Russell Okung, look for the Seahawks to fatten up an undrafted punter.

    The operative plan for the Seahawks appears to be for Marshawn Lynch to break 25 tackles while Russell Wilson runs for 60 scramble-and-option yards per game. The team can then point to the rushing yardage total and say, “What offensive line problem?”

    Seahawks-Rams games have ended with final scores of 19-13 (a Rams win), 20-13, 14-9 and 20-6 (all Seahawks wins) in recent years. Combine the “first team to reach 20 points wins” nature of the matchup with the Rams’ overwhelming advantage in the defensive trenches, and this game is the official Game Previews Upset of the Week.

    Prediction: Rams 20, Seahawks 13

Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans, Sunday, 1 p.m.

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    Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    The big news here, besides J.J. Watt and Jamaal Charles meeting to discuss how nice it is to be their teams’ MVPs but how much nicer it would be for a quarterback to come along and share a little of the burden, is the anticipated appearance of Javaporware Clowney in the Texans lineup.

    Javaporware is not expected to start. He will be on what Bill O’Brien calls a “pitch count,” which is a baseball metaphor for a snap count.

    “I think we’ve got to be smart about that,” O’Brien said in a press conference. “I think if it’s 75-play game, 80-play game, I don’t think that’s the amount of snaps he can play in the game. He hasn’t played football in a long time.

    In other words, expect Javaporware to appear about as much as Rogue in the theatrical version of X-Men: Days of Future Past.

    Three-second cameos aside, Watt and the Texans defense will dominate an offensive line that Andy Reid is still shuffling, while Justin Houston and Tamba Hali will spend the afternoon as the two best players in the Texans backfield. The first team to six sacks will walk away with the victory.

    Prediction: Chiefs 22, Texans 17

Cincinnati Bengals at Oakland Raiders, Sunday 4:25 p.m.

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    Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

    Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson told reporters at the start of training camp that he plans to “open Pandora’s Box more” this season. "We tickled it a little bit last year. We're going to open it up a little bit more this year and be who I think we can be.”

    As the image of a man tickling a box suggests (Jackson must be a hoot when pouring cereal in the morning), football coaches and Greek mythology don’t mix very well. In fact, the conversation at Bengals headquarters about Pandora’s Box probably went something like this:

    JACKSON: Marv, I plan to open Pandora’s Box this season.

    MARV LEWIS: What’s inside? Giant foxy blue alien babes?

    JACKSON: Not Pandora from Avatar, Marv. Pandora from the ancient Greeks. Look it up on the computer.

    LEWIS: OK, let me fiddle with this contraption. P-A-N-D-O-R-A...wow, any music I want for free? Great idea opening this box, Hue! Let’s see: M-I-L-E-S-D-A-V-I-S-B-I-R-T-H-O-F-T-H-E-C-O-O-L and...what? The Dave Mathews Band? What slacker Grateful Dead wannabe noise pollution is this?

    JACKSON: No, no, no, Marv: It’s an old myth! Here’s a book that crosses Bulfinch’s Mythology with an old Sam Wyche playbook.

    LEWIS: “And lo, Pandora was created in heaven and sent down as a companion for Epimetheus, and the gods gave her a box of blessings as a wedding dowry, with such blessings as peace, charity, accurate downfield passing, receivers who do not get injured and trick plays that opponents do not see coming from a mile away, unlike that Mohamed Sanu option pass. But curious Pandora opened the box early, and all the blessings did escape and flee mankind forever, leaving only hope. And hope stayed with humanity forever in the form of a gritty backup quarterback who 'just wins,' preferably from a program like Alabama.”

    So yes, opening Pandora’s Box means allowing heavenly blessings to float away (or in some translations, the evils of mankind to spread across the world). It’s not a good thing, people. Jackson may want to stick to tickling.

    Jackson let loose a different set of evils during his brief tenure as the Raiders’ benevolent dictator in 2011, filling the roster with expensive veterans while gutting both the salary cap and draft-pick cupboard. The Raiders have since recovered, and that’s a good thing. No matter what sins you committed in the past, no one should have his liver pecked out by vultures for all eternity.

    Prediction: Bengals 28, Raiders 20

Cleveland Browns at New York Jets, Sunday, 1 p.m.

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    Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
    • Outstanding secondary anchored by All Pros and proven veterans? Check.
    • Nasty pass rush, with exciting rookie defensive linemen (Leonard Williams, Danny Shelton) ready to make an immediate impact? Check.
    • No-nonsense, defense-oriented head coach who gets stuck playing the straight man in a slapstick comedy? Check.
    • Thirty-something-year-old journeyman quarterback who makes a living providing “gutsy leadership” to desperate organizations? Check.
    • Collegiate superstar backup quarterback whose jersey might as well read “Cautionary Tale”? Check.
    • Organization in perpetual turmoil that cannot seem to go two weeks without generating some sort of negative publicity? Check.

    We’re ready for Jets-Browns football. The winner gets a much-needed dose of self-esteem. The loser gets a leg up on drafting Cardale Jones. It’s a win-win for everyone except Cardale Jones.

    Prediction: Jets 23, Browns 10

Miami Dolphins at Washington Redskins, Sunday, 1 p.m.

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    Matt Hazlett/Getty Images

    It’s time for one of those fun Facebook quizzes your sister-in-law always shares. But instead of Disney princesses, it’s time to find out: Which Redskins Character Are You?

    Question No. 1: You are most likely to be seen:

    A) On a “Hope” poster buried under old rags in the garage.

    B) Diving into a swimming pool full of gold coins.

    C) Making passive-aggressive remarks at a press conference, then stepping off the podium and thwacking yourself in the head with a rake.

    D) In an ESPN The Magazine profile that makes you sound like the F. Scott Fitzgerald of third-day draft picks.

    E) Starring in the fever dream of a midday sports-talk caller.

    Question No. 2: What do you think of when you hear the word “potential"?

    A) Squandering it.

    B) What do you want for it? Players? Draft picks? A front-end loader full of $100 bills?

    C) That's the word that always comes before "disaster," right?

    D) Richard Sherman, buddy. I discovered Richard Freakin’ Sherman. Is that enough potential for you?

    E) How many times do I have to win and lose the same starting job before people realize I really don’t have any?

    Question No. 3: What are your secret inner demons?

    A) I sometimes open my sock drawer and sob uncontrollably for hours.

    B) No matter how hard I try, I realize that I will never be Richie Rich.

    C) When visiting my brother, I steal playbook pages so I can pass them off as my own.

    D) I married an Internet troll. Also, you read that ESPN The Magazine article, right?

    E) I secretly dream of someday playing for a professional football franchise.

    Now let’s add up the scores.

    If you answered “A” more than once: You are Robert Griffin, and your friends have lost all respect for you.

    If you answered “B” more than once: You are Dan Snyder, and Albert Haynesworth wants to speak to you about some money you still owe him.

    If you answered “C” more than once: You are Jay Gruden. Ask a friend or loved one to help you log out of your computer.

    If you answered “D” more than once: You are Scot McCloughan, and those Richard Sherman free-lunch coupons will run out pretty fast if your wife keeps making more headlines than your acquisitions.

    If you answered “E” more than once: You are Kirk Cousins. Sorry to be the one to break it to you.

    If you selected three different letters, then you are scattered, confused and have gone years without a true direction and identity, so you really belong on the Miami Dolphins.

    Prediction: Dolphins 26, Redskins 21

Carolina Panthers at Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, 1 p.m.

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Ron Rivera named Ted Ginn and Philly Brown as the Panthers' starting wide receivers. Ginn is a 30-year-old kick returner who was the Panthers’ third receiver in 2013 and the Cardinals' fifth receiver last year after spending a few seasons below Kyle Williams on the 49ers depth chart. Philly Brown replaces Corey Brown, who caught two passes but dropped three in the preseason, according to Pro Football Focus (and they were being generous about some borderline cases). Corey could not possibly be considered a starter on a team with playoff aspirations, but Philly made a few plays for the Panthers last year and could be a decent prospect.

    Actually, Philly Brown is Corey Brown. Brown ditched the nickname in the offseason, but Rivera used his emperor-like name-changing powers to bring Philly back to Charlotte after the drops. “I’m going to call him Philly,” Rivera said.“Philly catches the ball. Corey’s a nice young man.”

    It’s all part of the Panthers’ new strategy of renaming current players instead of acquiring better ones. Soon, the roster will be full of “Gronk” Olsen and Fozzy “Marshawn” Whittaker types. The last names will not change, because sewing those new jerseys is expensive. If anyone suggests that Cam Newton needs better weapons than an old return man and a guy with 10 thumbs, general manager Dave Gettleman can shrug his shoulders and point to the Bersin Sextuplets.

    Speaking of Newton, he called Corey Brown “Philly” throughout the offseason, according to the Charlotte Observer, but Panthers organizational policy forbids Newton from getting credit for anything. 

    The Jaguars are perennial doormats who lost their two top offseason acquisitions (rookie Dante Fowler Jr. and free-agent tight end Julius Thomas) to injury long ago, but at least they haven’t put sunglasses and fake moustaches on a bunch of return men and called them a receiving corps.

    Prediction: Panthers 16, Jaguars 14

New Orleans Saints at Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.

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    ISHARA S.KODIKARA/Getty Images

    Sean Payton left an alligator head on the podium after his midweek press conference to scare Drew Brees.

    A Cajun-style Godfather warning? Not at all. Well, maybe a little.

    Drew Brees wrestled a crocodile on reality television this summer, and he didn’t fill Payton in on the full details. The Saints coach and the rest of America found out what really happened on Running in the Wild with Bear Grylls this week: Brees actually had to stab the reptile in the head (and later cook and eat it) while exploring the jungle with the famous survivalist.

    Hence, the crocodile head. Or alligator head. The New Orleans press identified it as a gator, and they know their gators. Payton may have had a hard time finding a croc head, but he could probably pull a gator head off an appetizer menu.

    Payton didn’t sound completely amused by Brees’ offseason brush with danger. "What I saw the other night was completely...it was a lot different than how it was described to me...I'm sure that we will look closely at the structure of his contract,” he told reporters Wednesday. (Quotes via WWLTV.) Payton may have been joking a bit. (If he really wanted to scare Brees, he would have left a PETA activist on the podium.) But the truest things are said in jest.

    Imagine: a no-reptile-stabbing clause in an NFL contract! That can only lead to a #GatorGate scandal in 2017, with Roger Goodell trying and failing to suspend Russell Wilson for six games because of an appearance on Swamp Loggers and a 273-page Ted Wells report in which the investigator takes depositions from a nutria.

    So yes, Brees put the Saints in jeopardy by wrestling a croc. Brees also has four young children. But anyway...he put the Saints in jeopardy!

    But maybe not that much jeopardy. Grylls has been caught fudging the real dangers of his show in the past. So maybe Grylls and Brees just spent a few hours at Bayou Zipline Adventures, then wrestled a bouncer in a groovy alligator jacket, then sent everything to the editing department to be spliced with some Jurassic World outtakes. Brees would probably spill the beans if that much fakery were involved; it would appease Payton, no doubt calm Mrs. Brees and cool the enthusiasm of some overeager general managers around the NFL...

    BEARS GM RYAN CASE: Hello? Is this Bear Grylls’ producer? Do you need a quarterback for sweeps week? Something for the piranha episode? What about that new Naked and Dating a Polar Bear show I heard about. Hello? Hello?

    In other news, Carson Palmer spent the offseason rehabbing injuries and preparing to play behind the rebuilt and injury-riddled Cardinals offensive line, which is quite enough danger for a man in his mid-30s, thank you very much.

    Prediction: Saints 27, Cardinals 20

Detroit Lions at San Diego Chargers, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.

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    Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    It’s hard to get excited about this matchup, despite the fact that both teams are solid playoff contenders. Maybe it’s because the Chargers and Lions have met just twice in the last decade, and neither game (a 38-10 Lions win in 2011 and a 51-14 Chargers win in 2007) was particularly memorable.

    Maybe it’s because the Chargers have been relegated to The Late Show with Philip Rivers post-10 p.m. East Coast-time kickoffs for season openers since 2012. The Chargers didn’t earn a normal start time this year because they got better. The 49ers just got worse.

    Or maybe the problem is that both the Chargers and Lions are solid playoff teams, no more and no less. Rivers, Antonio Gates and Eric Weddle are fun to watch, but the Chargers offer few new thrills: Melvin Gordon averaged 2.3 yards per carry in the preseason and is still looking for those Big Ten running lanes.

    The Lions, meanwhile, have shed both Ndamukong Suh and their bad-boy image. They now model themselves after head coach Jim Caldwell, a graduate of the Keep Calm and Carry a Headset school of modern coaching.

    “When your coach is a level-headed clear thinker, you can't help but take on his personality, safety Don Carey told Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News. 

    Are you ready for some level-headed, clear-thinking football? It should be good, but not as good as, say, Rivers and Suh in a late-night steel cage match.

    Prediction: Chargers 24, Lions 21

Philadelphia Eagles at Atlanta Falcons, Monday, 7:10 p.m.

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    It’s hard for an NFL coach to be much cooler than Chip Kelly, the up-tempo Knute Rockne of the millennial generation, the geek-chic guru of scientific football for the 21st-century athlete who doesn’t have the attention span for huddling.

    Kelly may have met his match, however, in Falcons coach Dan Quinn. Quinn tweeted Tupac lyrics on the late rapper’s 44th birthday and also tweets practice set lists heavy on the DMX and Common. That makes Quinn modern marketing’s greatest conundrum, as well as the secret weapon of every middle school faculty: an old white guy who likes rap.

    So forget Joe Philbin, who watched Straight Outta Compton but wondered which guy would grow up to be Marvin Gaye. Quinn is the reason why term life insurance commercials will soon have a Digable Planets soundtrack, why arch-supporting Run-DMC “My Adidas” insoles will soon be pitched on MeTV and the Military Channel.

    Kelly may have blared hip-hop at Eagles practices while Quinn was grooving to Pete Carroll’s old Fleetwood Mac LPs, but even Kelly’s mildest critics agree that he could use about 6.25 percent more street cred, and Kelly’s set lists are carefully programmed, like some soulless corporate radio station. Quinn isn’t afraid to shift gears from Fetty Wap to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Flosstradamus, the rapper who dares to make bold predictions about gum disease.

    Quinn may have the cooler MP3, but Kelly has the much better team. The Eagles secondary is thin, and Matt Ryan will have fun targeting rookie cornerback Eric Rowe. But Kelly’s offense will cruise past Quinn’s inexperienced defense. And Kelly won’t let up on the up-tempo tactics, even with a lead. After all, he’s too crazy to be humble.

    Prediction: Eagles 37, Falcons 24

Minnesota Vikings at San Francisco 49ers, Monday, 10:20 P.m.

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Adrian Peterson, a guy most of us thought would retire, or hold out, or be traded to Dallas, or be trapped in the NFL’s Phantom Zone for all eternity, is healthy, well-compensated, content and ready to contribute for the Minnesota Vikings.

    Most of the recognizable veteran stars of the San Francisco 49ers left the franchise by every conceivable means: retirement, free agency, door, window, laundry chute, throwing a smoke grenade to the ground and slipping away ninja-style.

    The Vikings starting lineup features seven first- or second-round draft picks from the last four years: Teddy Bridgewater, Matt Kalil, Kyle Rudolph, Sharrif Floyd, Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes. Three other recent high draft picks—return man Cordarrelle Patterson and rookie defenders Trae Waynes and Eric Kendricks—will play significant roles off the bench.

    A few of the most recognizable 49ers draft picks of recent years—Chris Borland, Marcus Lattimore—have already retired. Others like A.J. Jenkins are working their way out of the NFL. It’s best not to think too hard about Aldon Smith (let the Raiders fans do that).

    The Vikings have a budding young star at quarterback, a well-regarded head coach, a roster brimming with homegrown talent and an organization that seems to have all the right answers for everything from appeasing a controversial and disgruntled superstar to managing a stadium building project.

    The 49ers have Reggie Bush and a coach who sounds like a Led Zeppelin record played backward when he gets flummoxed answering basic press conference questions. But just three years ago, they had everything the Vikings had and much, much more.

    Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Vikings. Old time is still a’flying.

    Prediction: Vikings 24, 49ers 16

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