Any NFL head coach will tell you a critical component to success in pro football is exploiting matchups.
A perfect example of this came last year in a Week 8 matchup between the Giants and Saints. The Giants had a historically-bad pass defense last season, which wound up allowing just a shade under 300 YPG through the air (298.9). Meanwhile, Drew Brees and the Saints once again had the league's top aerial attack (310.6 YPG). The result? Brees went 39-of-50 for 505 yards and seven touchdowns in a 52-49 Saints win.
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Successful bettors will take note of any decided matchup advantages as part of the handicapping process. With that in mind, each week Doc's Sports will point out select statistical mismatches with analysis from games across the NFL slate. In addition, one "bonus" matchup will be featured that we're calling the week's "most intriguing." This week, it's rookie preseason sensation Dak Prescott debuting against this year's edition of the Giants pass defense.
Of course, this is opening week and surely many teams' strengths and weaknesses have evolved from a season ago. Those areas where improvement or decline is projected will be noted.
New England Patriots vs. Arizona Cardinals (-5)
Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Arizona pass defense
Garoppolo couldn't have drawn a tougher assignment for his first NFL start. The third-year pro from Eastern Illinois must contend with Pro Bowlers Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu and one of the league's best pass defenses. On the road. In primetime.
Last season, the Cardinals ranked eighth in pass defense with 230.4 yards allowed per game. They also had 19 interceptions, which was the fourth most in the NFL.
As for Garrofallo, he threw just four passes all season, completing one for six yards. To make things even tougher for Garrofallo, ESPN reported Thursday All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski continues to deal with a hamstring injury and will not be 100 percent.
Good luck, Jimmy.
San Diego Chargers vs. Kansas City Chiefs (-7.5)
Melvin Gordon vs. Chiefs rushing defense
It's still hard to fathom Gordon didn't score a single touchdown last season after the Chargers had traded up to snatch the former Wisconsin back in the first round of last year's draft. But that's exactly what happened as Gordon, who finished with 184 carries for 641 yards, dealt with injuries and a case of "fumble-itis."
The Chargers finished with the second-worst rushing attack in the NFL last season with a measly 84.9 YPG. Also contributing to that output was a rash of injuries along the offensive line, but the Chargers were obviously expecting more from Gordon.
Gordon and the Chargers run game has looked better in the preseason, which can partially be attributed to the return of Ken Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator. He had good success in that role previously in San Diego before taking over the Titans head job.
Unfortunately, the Chargers open facing one of the league's fiercest run defenses from a season ago. The Chiefs were one of just eight teams in the NFL to allow less than 100 yards per game on the ground last year. Kansas City has one of the most underrated D-lines in the league with NT Dontari Poe and ends Allen Bailey and Jaye Forward, and the linebacking corps has long been a strength of the Chiefs. Unfortunately, linebacker Justin Houston will miss the first six weeks of the season as he's still recovering from a torn ACL.
Can the Chargers turn the tables and actually move the ball on the ground against the Chiefs this season? It seems they can, which makes getting more than a touchdown an attractive proposition.
Pittsburgh Steelers (-3) vs. Washington Redskins
Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown vs. Redskins pass defense
The Redskins were another team with a dreadful pass defense a season ago. They will be banking on high-priced cornerback addition Josh Norman to bolster that unit, but it won't be easy in Week 1 with high-powered Pittsburgh coming to town.
The Steelers had the third-best passing offense in the league last season with 288.0 YPG. A major reason for this was Brown, who tied for the league-lead with 136 catches. He was also second in receiving yards (1,834) behind Julio Jones and scored 10 touchdowns. The one concern with the Steelers is the suspension of their explosive No. 3 wide receiver, Martavis Bryant.
As for the Redskins, they ranked near the bottom of the league last year with 258.0 YPG allowed through the air. Their 30 passing touchdowns allowed was also way above the league average. With that said, Norman is a potentially huge upgrade at corner. This is a huge test for the Redskins revamped secondary.
Most Intriguing Matchup
New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys (Pick'em)
Dak Prescott vs. Giants pass defense
Prescott was the darling of the preseason when completing 29-of-38 for 315 yards with three TDs and no INTs in two appearances. That's all water under the bridge now. The rookie from Ole Miss will be facing live bullets on Sunday, and there figures to be growing pains. Fortunately, he has some things going for him. First, there is loads of talent around him. The Cowboys have the league's best O-line, a Pro Bowl receiver and potential rookie star at running back.
As noted in the intro, the Giants had an all-time atrocious defense last season. As you would assume, they made some moves to address the problem in the offseason. New York, which tallied just 21 sacks all season, added talent along the D-line (Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison) and replaced former first-round pick Prince Amukamara at cornerback with high-priced free agent Jamoris Jenkins. On paper this is an upgrade, but it still needs to be proven on the field. Prescott still seems to have landed on somewhat of a soft spot for his debut, especially being at home.
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