The opening week of a survivor pool is always a dangerous one because you just don’t know which teams predicted to be playoff contenders will fall off in a given year and which expected non-contenders will have breakout seasons.
For example, many thought the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would be a playoff club in 2011. Josh Freeman was a rising star quarterback and the Bucs had gone 10-6 the season before. So what happened in Week 1? The Bucs were beaten 27-20 at home by Detroit, which proved to have its breakout season. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, finished 4-12 and fired its coach. The Kansas City Chiefs also were a chic playoff pick a year ago after winning the AFC West in 2010. But Kansas City opened its season with a 41-7 blowout defeat to Buffalo, its worst home loss in 35 years. The Chiefs would miss the playoffs and fire their coach.
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Probably the biggest surprise in Week 1 in 2011 was Washington beating the New York Giants, 28-14 – the Skins would win both meetings over the team that would become the Super Bowl champions.
There are a handful of key injuries that could affect Week 1 games. Both All-Pro backs in the Minnesota-Jacksonville game are going to play limited roles if at all. The Vikings’ Adrian Peterson is working his way back from last season’s major knee injury and will play a “minimal role” in the opener if he’s even active. And the Jaguars’ Maurice Jones-Drew, last season’s rushing king, just ended his holdout and will back up Rashad Jennings in the opener. That Vikes-Jags game is a dog I wouldn’t have picked anyways. The Chargers aren’t likely to have starting running back Ryan Mathews for their Monday opener at Oakland.
Defensively, Pittsburgh won’t have star safety Ryan Clark in Denver because of his sickle-cell condition that could put his life in jeopardy in the thin air. Clark missed the Steelers’ playoff game there and who knows if Tim Tebow completes that long game-winning TD pass in overtime if Clark is on the field. Certainly Pittsburgh will miss him more vs. Peyton Manning. Cleveland apparently will have running back Trent Richardson vs. the Eagles but maybe not star cornerback Joe Haden. He’s appealing a four-game suspension from a failed drug test. It’s not clear if a decision on that appeal will come this week (he can play while it’s pending). And the Bears apparently will have linebacker and heart-of-the-defense Brian Urlacher vs. Andrew Luck and the Colts, but Urlacher won’t be anywhere near 100 percent.
Just a reminder this season that my picks will be classified under “good” (so a wise choice), “bad” (potential upsets or too close to call) or “ugly” (think Vikings-Jaguars). I am passing on this week’s Wednesday night opener because of how early in the week it is (not to mention some key injuries).
Houston vs. Miami: If you have watched any of Miami this preseason or on “Hard Knocks,” you know that the Dolphins are going to be pretty lousy in 2012. Houston, in fact, is the biggest favorite on the board for Week 1. Texans QB Matt Schaub can make an early statement for league MVP – in last year’s opener vs. Miami, Patriots QB Tom Brady threw for 517 yards and four scores.
Chicago vs. Indianapolis: Do I worry that Luck could be an all-time great quarterback right off the bat? A little bit, as he has looked like the real deal in the preseason. Thus, it wouldn’t shock me if the Colts covered here. However, I can’t see them winning.
Detroit vs. St. Louis: I am guessing most in your pool will jump on the Lions this week. But remember that their running game is still a mess – Jahvid Best on the PUP list and Mikel Leshoure suspended the first two games. Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson alone should be enough for a victory, although the Rams will be much better in 2012.
New Orleans vs. Washington: This game scares the life out of me if I am a Saints backer. Yes, New Orleans was literally unstoppable at home last season. But all those suspensions now are in effect from the bounty scandal and I’m not sure how the Saints respond. Plus, maybe Robert Griffin III tears up that suspect New Orleans defense. Stay far away.
Philadelphia at Cleveland: The Eagles frankly terrify me this season every week because you just never know when Michael Vick leaves the game injured – he barely played this preseason due to injury. I’m pretty sure the Browns will be lousy again, but if Vick is knocked out early and the Eagles have to turn to rookie Nick Foles, then Philly is in trouble.
Baltimore vs. Cincinnati (Monday): How will that Ravens defense adjust without reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs? I think the Bengals overachieved last year in reaching the playoffs and will slide back a bit, but this one is still too close to risk it.
San Diego at Oakland (Monday): Simply no reason to take a road team in Week 1 and not having Mathews will hurt. Plus, I’m a big Darren McFadden guy and believe the Raiders can beat almost anyone when he’s healthy.
Denver vs. Pittsburgh: Either team winning this Sunday nighter wouldn’t surprise me. Steer clear of the Broncos for at least the first month, regardless, until we see what Peyton Manning has left.
Carolina at Tampa Bay: Definitely don’t think the Bucs were as bad as they looked last year and that new coach Greg Schiano will have this group duly motivated. They quit on Raheem Morris in 2011. Can Newton and Co. crushed Tampa Bay twice last year, but I want to see Newton show his rookie year was no fluke before I get on the 2012 Carolina bandwagon.
Green Bay vs. San Francisco: Obviously, this is the marquee matchup of Week 1 but it would be silly to take the Packers against such a great defense.
New England at Tennessee: I know the preseason means squat, but New England didn’t look very good in it, especially that offensive line. The Titans were a solid 9-7 last year and have a running back in Chris Johnson, who can win a game by himself. The Patriots don’t have to deal with suspended Titans WR Kenny Britt, but there’s no reason to take the Pats on the road.
Kansas City vs. Atlanta: Two good teams and could go either way.
Jacksonville at Minnesota: Doubt these teams combine for double-digit wins in 2012 as they start second-year quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder, respectively. Shoot, they may not combine for double-digit points on Sunday with their running back issues.
Seattle at Arizona: Rookie QB Russell Wilson vs. John Skelton. Yikes. I honestly don’t yet know what to make of either team. I would presume Seattle is better, but stud RB Marshawn Lynch might miss the opener with back spasms. He hasn’t played since the second week of the preseason with the problem.
NY Jets vs. Buffalo: The only reason to watch this game is if you live in New York and/or want to see how the Jets use Tim Tebow. No clue what either of these teams are yet, but it doesn’t look very good for the J-E-T-S after a wretched offensive showing in the preseason.
The Lions are tempting, but I have to go with Houston. I like this pick even more if Dolphins Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long has to sit out, which is possible. But Miami did lose starting right guard Artie Hicks to IR this week and his potential backup, John Jerry, is “iffy” with his own injuries. Remember to wait until the last minute to make your choice – if the Texans suffer a serious injury between now and Sunday, I will be switching likely to Detroit.
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