It’s still too early to definitely we know anything about anything, except one thing: the San Diego Chargers defense is going to suffer due to the absence of DT Jamal Williams. Williams is one of the more imposing 3-4 anchors in the league. His best years are probably behind him, but he drew double teams and created open pathways to running backs for San Diego’s interior linebackers. At this point, I believe Williams’ injury is as big for the Chargers as the injury to Brian Urlacher is to the Chicago Bears. Last year, the Chargers had trouble stopping the run and stumbled to an 8-8 record. This season is likely to be just as challenging; and here come the Ravens.
Let’s get to it…
CAROLINA PANTHERS at ATLANTA FALCONS
Last year, Jake Delhomme threw for over 250 yards on only 3 occasions. Two of those games were against the Atlanta Falcons. Last year, the Carolina Panthers played only 5 games in which the offense did NOT turn the ball over. Two of those games were against the Atlanta Falcons. Even with all of those positives, the Panthers managed to get smoked in Atlanta in Week 12. If you haven’t noticed, the Falcons look much tougher on defense than in 2008. Don’t think of the historically weak Falcon defenses. Think of the tough Jacksonville Jaguar defenses. Mike Smith and Mike Peterson are putting down a blueprint: pressure from the front four; sure tackling from the linebackers; and, opportunistic play in the secondary. I’ve already posted a couple of times on huge hits delivered by Mike Peterson and Jonathan Babineaux. The addition of Tony Gonzalez and the continuing maturation of the Ryan-Roddy Express spells doom for the Panthers. Atlanta 35, Carolina 23.
ST. LOUIS RAMS at WASHINGTON REDSKINS
There are high expectations for the Redskins all along the Beltway and in many other parts of the nation. The story couldn’t be more different in St. Louis. The Rams are going to play hard for new coach Steve Spagnuolo. The Redskins are the type of team that might play hard for Jim Zorn. They are the type of team that should play hard for themselves. They are also the type of team that must play hard if they are to win these types of games. You are going to know absolutely everything you need to know about Washington after this game. In 2008, the Redskins opened the season with a loss to the Giants, then won 6 of their next 7 games before facing that second half buzz saw (Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Dallas, Giants, Eagles, 49ers). The first half game that they lost which may have cost them a playoff bid was to the lowly Rams — AT HOME. If they lose this game again, everyone should lose their jobs. Washington 41, St. Louis 13.
HOUSTON TEXANS at TENNESSEE TITANS
The Houston Texans, like the Cincinnati Bengals, have the unenviable task of trying to become relevant in a division with two established powers. And, like the Bengals, the Texans feature a high-powered offense; a young defense; and a quarterback who cannot stay on the field. Neither the Texans nor Bengals will surpass teams like the Titans with injured passers. Matt Schaub has to stand and deliver. When he plays, this team moves the ball. Last year, the Texans were 3rd in total yards, but only 17th in points. It will be a tall order to beat the Titans in Tennessee, but the last time these teams met, the Titans walked away losers. The Titans, at the time, were playing for homefield advantage in the AFC. The Texans didn’t allow a touchdown and received a 200 yard effort from Andre Johnson. I’m going to go with the Texans to pull off the shocker. Here’s why: In the Titans last five games, they’ve scored 10 (lost 13-10 to Pittsburgh), 10 (lost 13-10 to Baltimore), 0 (lost 23-0 in Indianopolis: starters sat), 31 (forced 4 Pittsburgh turnovers), and 12 (lost 13-12 to the Texans). Even when the Titans broke free for 31 points last year, the game was close. In fact, they had only 10 points at halftime and only led 17-14 at the end of 3. Kerry Collins is on the verge of a Jake Delhomme experience. The return of Kevin Walter means Houston should have more room to operate. Houston 19, Tennessee 17.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS at PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
If Donovan McNabb were playing in this game, the pick would be simple. He’s not playing. Even he does manage to will his way into the game, he’ll be less than his best. The Eagles just need someone to distribute the ball effectively. The problem is that the Saints have someone who is doing that as well as it has ever been done in the history of the league. Drew Brees is at the top of his game. That means the premier matchup of the game: Brees, Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Lance Moore, Robert Meachem and Jeremy Shockey vs. Asante Samuel, Sheldon Brown, Ellis Hobbs, and the rest of the Eagle defense remains intact. The Saints have added a power running dimension. The Eagles have two stout defensive tackles and the means to bring pressure from anywhere. Did I mention Reggie Bush or Pierre Thomas? It’s just hard for me to picture the Eagles’ DB getting torched at home. I’ll take the Eagles by a whisker: Philadelphia 27, New Orleans 23.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS at NEW YORK JETS
There is nothing wrong with talking smack in the NFL. People have done it for decades. Coaches do it. Players do it. Fans do it. It’s part of what makes the game so compelling. The New York Jets, winners of absolutely nothing for the past 40 years, have decided to talk a little smack about the New England Patriots. Why not? They have nothing to lose. They enter the game with a brand new head coach and a rookie quarterback who wasn’t at USC long enough to take a 400-level class in his major. What do they know? What could they know? The Jets are going to have to decide which weapons to remove from Tom Brady’s arsenal. If you leave Randy Moss in the toolkit, you will surely die. Welker, Faulk, and Benjamin Watson are all dangerous and must be reckoned with. The Jets must capitalize on the absence of Jerrod Mayo and pray for rain. (If I remember correctly, that was a decisive factor in their last win over a Brady-led Patriot team.) If the Jets are the Ravens with a less experienced quarterback and a poor man’s version of Ed Reed (Kerry Rhodes), they’ll probably lose handily. New England 31, New York 17.
OAKLAND RAIDERS at KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Rivalry Week in the AFC West continues in fine fashion. It would have been finer if the Raiders had found a way to beat the Chargers last Monday night. Since the Raiders found an innovative way to lose, they squandered an opportunity to roll the Chiefs and enter the “Surprise Team of ’09” after getting to 2-0. I suspect the Raiders will beat the Chiefs because of the power and physicality with which they assaulted the Baby Blue Chargers. Darren McFadden and Michael Bush are on the verge of a real break out. If the Chiefs drop this one, the number of teams they can reasonably expect to beat this season becomes very, very small. JaMarcus Russell has to get it together. His footwork and accuracy will cost the Raiders some wins this season. He can play much better this and needs to close the gap between his potential performance and his actual performance. With Nnamdi Asomugha on Dwayne Bowe, where would you throw the ball? Oakland 22, Kansas City 14.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS at DETROIT LIONS
There’s nothing to see here. It’s too premature to restore the roar. “Keep it moving people.” Minnesota 45, Detroit 7.
ARIZONA CARDINALS at JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
If the 49ers defense could consistently get pressure on Kurt Warner; turn Tim Hightower into Keith Byars (12 catches) and win in the desert, I’m sure Jacksonville has a plan. Whisenhunt and Grimm weren’t particularly adept at dealing with the Jaguar defense. Where the Cardinals have shown considerable improvement, however, is on defense. Karlos Dansby in the middle of the defense makes them smarter, faster, stronger and more imposing. The improvement of Calais Campbell, in tandem with Darnell Dockett and Gabe Watson mean Arizona should be able to put the “Gore-tex” (22 carries, 30 yards) on Maurice Jones-Drew. David Garrard tends not to throw interceptions. Teams making cross-country trips tend to have trouble on those trips and in subsequent weeks. In 2008 regular season, the Cardinals lost 5 of 5 games played out East. I expect the streak to continue. Jacksonville 26, Arizona 23.
CINCINNATI BENGALS at GREEN BAY PACKERS
I’ve probably had more confidence in the Bengals defense than most. I’ve never been a fan of Kyle Orton, but the Broncos have some talented offensive players and will probably average more than 12 points per game this season. Last season, the Bengals ended on a high note defensively by holding Washington (13), Cleveland (0) and Kansas City (6) down. Last season, only Donovan McNabb was able to beat this defense for more than 300 yards — and it cost him 3 interceptions. The Eagles managed to tie the Bengals, but this game was the precursor to his benching the following week vs. the Ravens. The Bengals got younger and stronger on defense. If they can stop the run, it will be surprisingly difficult for Green Bay to move the ball. I suspect the game will be low scoring, but the venue allows the Packers to sqeeze through. Six fields and lots of Red Zone disappointment. Green Bay 26, Cincinnati 20.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS at BUFFALO BILLS
In the same way that Washington’s game vs. St. Louis will provide insight to their mental toughness, this game will speak volumes about the psychological fibre of the Buffalo Bills. The Bills lost a tough game to the New England Patriots last week. They led by 11 points with five minutes remaining and lost. (I wonder if any of them actually believed they could hold on to win that game. They lost in classic fashion. On NE’s first drive to get back in contention, Brady completed 9 passes (3 each) to Kevin Faulk, Wes Welker and Benjamin Watson. They were wide open as the Bills were preoccupied with Randy Moss.) I like the Bills. I thought they were headed for big things last season before Trent Edwards had his eggs scrambled by Adrian Wilson.
The Patriots had the appropriate focus last week. They put their best corner, Leigh Bodden, on the Bills most dangerous threat — Lee Evans. That’s the key to beating the Bills offense. Evans is the spark plug for this team and when he gets loose, it makes them very difficult to contain. Last season, the Bills played 7 games where Lee Evans averaged more than 16 yards per catch. Their record in those games was 5-2. One loss was the aforementioned brain scrambler vs. the Cardinals in which Edwards was injured. Edwards missed the other loss as well. Tampa’s defense is not well-suited to contain Lee Evans. They don’t have a corner that can chase him around all day. If the Bills exploit the underneath zones and get the ball to Terrell Owens early (Isn’t that what he asks for?), it should create room for Evans over the top. I like Buffalo here, but Tampa will compete. Buffalo 33, Tampa Bay 21.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS at SAN FRANCISCO 49ers
I think this game will go a long way to determining the winner of the AFC West this season. San Francisco has already gone on the road and won in Arizona. If Seattle can win in San Francisco and replicate the 49ers feat when they head to the desert, they’ll have the inside track on the division. To do that, they’ll need to bring their best game. The 49ers are aggressive and they hit hard. They have youth, but they also have a nice bit of experience on their roster: former Bengal DE Justin Smith and LB Takeo Spikes, former Bill CB Nate Clements, former Eagle safety Michael Lewis, journeyman CB Dre Bly and others. With Singletary’s leadership and the youth of players like Patrick Willis, this team presents a challenge every week. Seattle cannot expect Julius Jones to pop off big runs against this group. Seattle also needs to have a plan to deal with SF’s commitment to get Frank Gore off. After his dismal 22 carry, 30 yard effort last week, he’ll be right in the center of the bullseye. This is as big of an early season game as the 49ers can play. I like them to hit first with the most. San Francisco 27, Seattle 13.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS at CHICAGO BEARS
The NFL “Scheduling Gods” probably figured they couldn’t lose with an early season matchup featuring two household names like Troy Polamalu and Brian Urlacher. In Week 2, what could go wrong? The Real Gods knocked out both of these headlining players. Urlacher’s done for the season. Polamalu may not play again until Thanksgiving. After calculating the impact of these subtractions, I think the Steelers still have a better defense. I also think they have a better offense. Matt Forte is superior to any of the Steeler backs, but it won’t matter on Sunday. Roethlisberger, Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward should be fine. The Cover-2 scheme is intended to slow down teams that throw as much as the Steelers are expected to do. Pittsburgh would be wise to feature Heath Miller in the zones patrolled by Urlacher’s replacement. Pittsburgh 30, Chicago 10.
CLEVELAND BROWNS vs. DENVER BRONCOS
If it were the 1980’s, this would be a classic matchup. It’s not, so it’s not. Denver 14, Cleveland 13.
Thanks for the memories.
BALTIMORE RAVENS at SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
No Jamal Williams, no run defense. Ray Rice left, right, middle. Willis McGahee left, right, middle. Le’Ron McClain middle, middle, middle. What I wouldn’t do to see a video compilation featuring the Best of Ozzie Newsome, Kellen Winslow, Shannon Sharpe and Antonio Gates. Baltimore 35, San Diego 24.
NEW YORK GIANTS at DALLAS COWBOYS
I could say a lot about this game, but I won’t. The Cowboys are overrated. Giants 31, Cowboys 17.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS at MIAMI DOLPHINS
Miami isn’t ready. The 2008 fluke meets the first place schedule of 2009. Nothing but pain. Indianapolis 35, Miami 10.