There are six games on the NFL Week 1 schedule that will draw national coverage, excepting in cases where the local team is playing in the same time slot. We’ve already previewed the nine undercard games. Here, TheSportsNotebook will focus on the core six games, which include the now-traditional Monday Night Football doubleheader to open the season.
Fox Early: Washington-New Orleans
I’m a Redskins fan, and I’m not optimistic about the Saints’ prospects for this season. But I don’t know that this is really the spot for RG3 to start making his mark, or the New Orleans problems to be really exposed. The weakness of the Washington defense is the secondary, which is less than ideal when the opponent is Drew Brees in his own building.
The strength of the Washington defense is the ability of Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan to create pressure on the edges. Because the New Orleans offensive line is beatable in these spots, there’s some hope of getting after Brees. But when you have an elite tight end in Jimmy Graham as a bail-out option, it limits what can be done by blitzing. A lot is going to have go right for Washington to play a good defensive game (i.e., holding New Orleans to around 21 points) and if that’s the case, it puts a lot of pressure on the rookie quarterback to keep up.
CBS Early: New England-Tennessee
Both teams made changes to upgrade the pass rush during the offseason. Tennessee moved outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, their best pass rusher to a down position, and New England drafted defensive end Chandler Jones in the first round. For today though, suffice it to say there’s more urgency on the Titans to make sure the move works. Even allowing they have a pretty good secondary, Tom Brady can’t be allowed time to scan the field. Even if counterpart Jake Locker does have that luxury, we don’t know that he’ll be ready to do anything about it.
What Tennessee does have going for them is the ability to run the ball with Chris Johnson, some potential weakness in the Patriot safeties that Kenny Britt may be able to exploit deep, and the homefield advantage. All are reasons why that I think that even though New England will win, the (-6) line in Las Vegas looks a little high.
Fox Late: San Francisco-Green Bay
Defensively, San Francisco can match up with Green Bay’s offense, if only because the ability of outside linebackers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks to get to the quarterback and one of them will be able to work against Green Bay question mark, left tackle Marshall Newhouse. But the Niner secondary is beatable and the Packers can certainly do the beating. Aaron Rodgers won’t get a lot of time in the pocket, but nor does he need much. On the other side, this game is a test for the revamped Green Bay secondary and the rebuilt San Francisco receivers’ corps.
The Packers have shifted Charles Woodson to strong safety and that will work out well in this game, as Woodson can assume more responsibility for Frisco tight end Vernon Davis. But Woodson’s absence on the corner puts a burden on new starter Jared Bush. We don’t know about him, nor do we know about the new 49er receivers, especially Randy Moss. If Moss is even a little bit of what he used to be, if Michael Crabtree is ready to get his act together and if Mario Manningham is ready to be “the man” after being a second and third option in New York, then Alex Smith will have some open receivers. If not, Packer defensive coordinator Dom Capers can cover up for his new corner. Finally we come to the question mark of Alex Smith. He’s playing in an offense that’s presumably going to be more wide open after the additions of Moss and Manningham, and playing against a defense that will get after him with Clay Matthews on the blitz. Can Smith play the kind of mistake-free football he did a year ago with greater responsibility against a good opponent. I say no, and expect Green Bay to start the year off with a decisive win.
NBC Sunday Night: Pittsburgh-Denver
Both teams have big expectations—the Broncos through signing Peyton Manning and the Steelers because they always do, but each team has some significant problems to work through. Each is susceptible on the offensive line and each will go against defenses that have players who can get after the quarterback.
But the edge Sunday night belongs to Denver. At the very least, their O-line is tough on the blind side, with Ryan Clady having Manning’s back. And Pittsburgh outside linebacker James Harrison is questionable with a knee injury—even if we assume he’ll play, will be at full strength. Pittsburgh’s offensive tackles are problematic and there are no health concerns with Elvis Dumervil or Von Miller for Denver, so we can expect Ben Roethlisberger to see a steady diet of pressure. That’s why, along with the home field, I give the Broncos an edge here.
ESPN Monday Night Early: Cincinnati-Baltimore
These cities can get set to battle all year in the AFC North and maybe their baseball teams are headed for an unlikely World Series showdown (this line is a hat-tip to a friend who likes the Reds & Orioles). I expect the Ravens to regress significantly this year and the Bengals to win the division. But does that mean Cincy wins a road game in prime-time in front of a jacked-up opening night crowd? The Bengals are susceptible in the interior of their offensive line, something that can be considered a mild problem if Ray Lewis is the inside linebacker looking to blitz and fill the gaps. Nor do the Bengals have the depth at receiver to exploit the Raven secondary—assume corner Lardarius Webb is a wash with receiver A.J. Green and the rest of the players on both sides are mediocre.
But the mismatch when Baltimore has the ball is even more significant. The Raven offensive line was a question mark to begin with and they released offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie late last week. The Bengal front four is very good and can get after Joe Flacco and at least contain Ray Rice. I’m looking for a hard-hitting defensive game—along the lines of the Ravens-49ers game last Thanksgiving night—but for Cincinnati to scrape out a 13-10 kind of win.
ESPN Monday Night Late: Oakland-San Diego
The downside of the MNF doubleheader is that a 10:15 PM ET start time basically ensures we get stuck with a pedestrian West Coast game for the nightcap. Quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Phillip Rivers might want to make sure their life insurance is paid up—both defenses are good in the front seven and both offensive lines have problems. But the Raider secondary is a big liability, so any time Rivers does get is going to mean big plays. Add that to San Diego’s homefield edge and the Bolts get the win.