By: Dave Baker
It’s football season. That means 1) life doesn’t have to suck as much and 2) between NFL Red Zone and season three of The Walking Dead my Sundays are fucked. There’s been a dearth of meaningful headlines in sports this summer. To sum up: the Jamaican Track team burned world records like cheap joints, the U.S. Men’s Basketball team put on a shooting clinic against Nigeria and scrimmaged the D-III point guard for Great Britain on their way to a gold medal, LeBron James won his first ring in a lockout year, Dwight Howard reached Kardashian-level media whoring, and baseball season happened. I need football back in my life.
With the preseason winding down, rosters shaping up, and America anticipating the opening kickoff, September is the perfect time for misguided optimism and blind, unapologetic fandom. Whether it’s witnessing your team’s return to dominance or hoping to not suck as bad as Trent Dilfer says your team will, September gives fans something to believe in. Let’s put off work for an hour and talk Week One matchups. And get excited, people – it’s football season.
Three games America will be watching
Wednesday, 9/5 8:30 ET
Dallas Cowboys @ New York Giants
Match Up: The NFC East remains an always-competitive division featuring three solid, evenly matched football teams and the Washington Redskins. This season, the Giants launch their second Super Bowl defense in five years, while Tony Romo begins another season of defending his title as the greatest regular season quarterback of all time. The Giants’ defense and their frighteningly good front four will continue to make life a living hell for opposing quarterbacks, but an injury to cornerback Prince Amukamara could expose an already banged up secondary that finished 29th in the league last season. Of course, when it comes to the G-Men, the regular season doesn’t really matter. Oh, and in case any Giants fan hasn’t told you, Eli Manning is the greatest. Quarterback. Ever. Peyton’s really lucky to have him as a brother.
The Cowboys are gearing up for a run at a division crown, as long as they stay healthy and overcome an absolute buzz saw of a schedule. Romo is a straight up regular season warrior. He spreads the ball around, keeps turnovers to a minimum, and manages an offense that has the potential to be downright dangerous – if running back DeMarrco Murray can stay on the field, and wide receiver Dez Bryant becomes the absolute beast the Cowboys expected when they picked him in the first round of the 2010 Draft.
Players to Watch: Giants RB David Wilson and Cowboys CB Morris Claiborne
Giants rookie RB David Wilson looks to be in the mix of a resurgent ground game. Like last season, expect the Giants to operate much of their offense through a strong passing attack; they are loaded at the receiver position, but they have to find away to climb out of the basement of NFL rushing offenses. The Virginia Tech product could be their guy.
The Cowboys traded up in this year’s draft to grab LSU’s Morris Claiborne, the top DB in the nation, second only to teammate and Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu. (Miss you, Honeybadger. Miss you everyday.) Claiborne is a raw talent and will need time to acclimate to life in the NFL. Eli Manning will no doubt pick on this kid opening night, and the Giants receiving corps will be a good test for him – it’ll be interesting to see how the former Tiger responds.
Prediction: Cowboys 27 Giants 24
The Cowboys crash the party at New Meadowlands and come away with a Week One victory. Both squads were wildly mediocre last season (until, ya know, the Giants did Giants stuff and tore up the postseason) and should be locked in for another tight division race with the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington RG IIIs.
Sunday, 9/9 4:25 ET
San Francisco 49ers @ Green Bay Packers
Match Up: This game might very well be a postseason preview. Two division champs, the Packer’s explosive offense, and the Niners staunch defense, both teams enter the 2012 season as early Super Bowl favorites. The league’s MVP in 2011, Packers QB Aaron Rodgers threw for 4,643 yards and 45 touchdowns on his way to a 15-1 record and comes under center of an offense that has the potential to be even better in 2012. That’s scary. Newly acquired running back Cedric Benson is out to prove he has something left in the tank, and the Packers return an already-elite receiving corps. Their defense was suspect at best last season, but they’re hoping a draft class featuring USC DE Nick Perry can boost play on the defensive side of the football.
The Niners were a Kyle Williams muffed punt away from a Super Bowl berth last season. Rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh assembled a stud defensive unit and somehow got 13 wins out of QB Alex Smith, a guy who’s star-crossed career dictates he should be a backup in this league, not a playoff quarterback. The Niners added WRs Mario Manningham and Randy Moss to an outfit already featuring Frank Gore and Vernon Davis. Ultimately, Smith is going to have to ascend to game manager if the Niners hope to reclaim Super Bowl glory.
Players to Watch: Packers QB Aaron Rodgers and 49ers RB Kendall Hunter
I hate Aaron Rodgers. I hate his arm, I hate his mobility, I hate his affable demeanor. He’s a classy dude and the face of a highly respected franchise. He’s owned my Bears in their last four meetings, and he’s set the Packers up to contend for the better part of a decade. I despise Aaron Rodgers at a cellular level. But goddamn it do I respect him. We are truly watching one of the greats play quarterback.
Kendall Hunter quietly had a phenomenal training camp. The second year rusher out of Oklahoma State saw limited action as a situational back last season, and could likely see an expanded role on offense. He has feature-back potential and averaged a respectable five yards per carry last season. The bad news: the Niners backfield is pretty crowded. Former Giants RB Brandon Jacobs was signed to add depth behind an aging Frank Gore, and rookie LaMichael James is an intriguing long-term project, so Hunter might get lost in the shuffle. He’ll have to capitalize on every touch to earn his place in the run-heavy Niners offense.
Prediction: Packers 35 Niners 20
The Niners’ defense is good enough to keep them in any game, but this is Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. The Packers can get into shootouts with anybody, that’s their game. San Francisco needs to break out of the conservative game plan they employed in 2011. Added talent at wide receiver and a solid run game put them in position to contend in the NFC and run a way with their division, because let’s be real here: the NFC West kind of sucks. Still, the Niners have the makeup of a one-dimensional team. That just doesn’t cut it in today’s game.
Sunday, 9/9 8:20 ET
Pittsburg Steelers @ Denver Broncos
Matchup: Next to finding out you spent $500 at a Marvel Comics-themed strip club in Montreal (weird night, different story), there is nothing worse than getting Tebowed. Steeler Nation knows that feeling well. Giving up an 80-yard touchdown pass to DeMaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime, the Steelers defense became central figures in the Gospel according to Tebow. On week one, the Steelers won’t face the kid from Gainesville with a big heart and a weak arm; they’ll face one of the greatest QBs of all time in Peyton Manning. The most sought-after talent to ever reach free agency, Manning inherits a Broncos team that ran all over the league, mostly out of necessity. Tim Tebow was utterly inept in the passing game. Manning’s surrounded by a few familiar faces from Indy, like wide receiver Brandon Stokely and tight end Jacob Tamme, and starting wide receivers DeMaryius Thomas and Eric Decker will only benefit from Manning’s arrival.
In 2012, expect the Steelers to be the Steelers. Their defense will rank among the league’s best, Ben Roethlisburger will continue to be the least-talked about quarterback with two Super Bowl rings, and head coach Mike Tomlin will keep them in contention for an AFC North title. There are plenty of question marks surrounding this team. Can the offensive line mesh? Will they find a running game? Can their defense find a way to directly impact games? Having to play the Ravens and Bengals twice a year won’t be easy, but this Steelers team is no stranger to adversity.
Players to watch: Steelers WR Mike Wallace and Broncos LB Von Miller
Mike Wallace’s contract holdout almost reached Dwight Howard proportions as the most irrelevant headline in football. He’s a wide receiver. His only job is to be really fast, get open, and catch balls. New Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley put it best when he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “You’re talking about a guy who’s a wide receiver, a pass-catcher. It’s not a running back or someone who has to be in the action of the game. I think it’s feasible he’s ready to go when we start this thing up.” Wallace signed his franchise tender and will need a big year if he wants a contract extension. After posting a 2011 campaign of 72 receptions for 1193 yards and eight touchdowns, he’s capable of it.
Von Miller played out of his mind last year. Despite being hampered by injuries, the second overall pick in the 2011 Draft was voted to the Pro Bowl his rookie year after registering 64 tackles and 12.5 sacks. This kid is the focal point of a rising Broncos defense.
Prediction: Steelers 28 Broncos 21
A year away from football is going to show for Peyton Manning. He’s looked sharp in preseason, but he’ll need time to establish a rhythm amidst the grind of a full NFL season. Coming off of neck surgery, his health has to remain a paramount concern. Broncos GM John Elway bet the house when he signed Peyton Manning, and if something happens to that investment, it’s going to be a cold winter in the Mile High City.
Games America won’t be watching but you should still give a shit about
Atlanta Falcons @ Kansas City Chiefs
I’m not drinking the Cam Newton Kool-Aid. Early on, the Atlanta Falcons look like the class of the NFC South. After a disappointing season filled with blown games and failed fourth-and-short conversions, the Falcons offense and the Matty Ice-to-Julio Jones connection is primed for a big year. Watching Chiefs interim head coach Romeo Crennell and replacement QB Kyle Orton end the Packers’ run at perfection last season falls somewhere between the 2004 Boston Red Sox World Series and that time I scored six points in a JV basketball game on the list of most memorable moments in sports I’ve experienced. I think the Chiefs ultimately take the AFC West and the Falcons should be a stiff test out of the gate.
Prediction: Chiefs 27 Falcons 26
Indianapolis Colts @ Chicago Bears
Colts rookie QB Andrew Luck has been touted as an NFL-ready prospect since he was like, I don’t know, 12. The big arm, experience in a pro-style offense, the Colts more than likely have the heir-apparent to Peyton Manning. The Bears, though, have Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, and Lance Briggs. Andrew Luck is going to be a stud in this league for a long time, but facing the Bears’ defense in his first NFL start? That’s just mean. Even if Luck gashes the Bears secondary, Jay Cutler and the Super Best Friends (yes, the Bears offense will be referred to as the Super Best Friends from here on out) will impose their will on a Colts’ defense I could start on.
Prediction: Bears 38 Colts 17
Philadelphia Eagles @ Cleveland Browns
Last season, the Philadelphia Eagles referred to themselves as the NFL’s “Dream Team,” all but guaranteeing a Super Bowl. The result: an absolute implosion and an 8-8 finish. It’s not that I like when the Eagles fail to meet expectations. I’m just used to it. Like the constant threat of terrorism or somebody telling me I have to watch Breaking Bad any time the topic of quality television comes up, I expect the Eagles to disappoint. The facts point to the Eagles getting it together this year. For now, it’s a safe bet they’ll roll in Cleveland.
Prediction: Eagles 41 Browns 14
Washington Redskins @ New Orleans Saints
It’s a Tale of Two Offseasons in the Superdome. The Redskins got a Heisman Trophy winner and a quarterback for the future in Robert Griffin III, while the Saints got the NFL-equivalent of a death sentence. With virtually no coaching staff to speak of and a season-long suspension to defensive captain and starting LB Jonathan Vilma, it’s going to fall on Drew Brees to act as Pro Bowl QB and de-facto coach. The Saints are a team built on offense, an offense that is arguably the best in the league, so Brees and Co. will keep New Orleans in the mix. One ridiculous aspect of the bounty scandal was the fact that the Saints defense wasn’t exactly killing it. They ranked 24th in total defense last season and apart from beating up Brett Favre in the 2010 NFC Championship game, who were the Saints hitting? Defense or not, the Saints simply don’t lose in the Dome.
Prediction: Saints 42 Redskins 21
St. Louis Rams @ Detroit Lions
Look for a lot of Matthew Stafford-to-Megatron touchdowns, Sam Bradford turnovers, and Ndamukong Suh to do something stupid.
Prediction: Lions 34 Rams 14
New England Patriots @ Tennessee Titans
Tom Brady is on a crusade this season after falling to 0-2 in Super Bowls against Tom Coughlin and Peyton Manning’s kid brother. The Patriots added WR Brandon Lloyd and have two of the league’s best TEs in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. This organization is the picture of consistency, and any team coached by Bill Belichick and quarterbacked by Tom Brady is a lock to be a contender. The Jake Locker era begins against a new look Patriots D, and while this young offense shows promise, we’ll see just how far Chris Johnson can fall before everyone agrees that he’s overrated and grills are stupid.
Prediction: Patriots 28 Titans 16
Jacksonville Jaguars @ Minnesota Vikings
Blaine Gabbert vs. Christian Ponder? Ew.
Prediction: Vikings 13 Jaguars 10
Buffalo Bills @ New York Jets
Seeking their first playoff appearance this century, the Bills defense looks scary. They’ll unveil a revamped defensive unit, featuring prized free agent acquisition Mario Williams, against a Jets offense that failed to find any consistency in the preseason. The Jets front office rewarded QB Mark Sanchez’s 8-8 record and 26 turnovers with a three-year, $40 million contract. They also added Tim Tebow, the league’s most talked about backup, and head coach Rex Ryan has tempered Super Bowl talk, for now. It’s early, but I think I hear the “TEBOW” chants drifting up from New Meadowlands, faintly, but distinctly. “…Tebow…Tebow…Tebow…”
Prediction: Bills 23 Jets 16
Miami Dolphins @ Houston Texans
Week One marks a merciful end to the worst season of Hard Knocks ever. Honestly, could Joe Philbin have any less personality? It’s going to be a rough few years in rebuilding hell for the Dolphins. Playing the Texans at Reliant Stadium won’t be any fun, either.
Prediction: Texans 35 Dolphins 13
Seattle Seahawks @ Arizona Cardinals
After hard-fought training camp battles, QBs Russell Wilson of the Seahawks and John Skelton of the Cardinals clash in Week One. While both coaching staffs spent countless hours deliberating over these difficult decisions, the rest of the nation was shocked to hear that teams from the NFC West not located in San Francisco weren’t relegated to the CFL.
Prediction: Seahawks 16 Cardinals 14
Carolina Panthers @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Cam Newton’s sophomore slump starts in Tampa Bay against, ironically, Josh Freeman; a guy who knows a bit about the age-old curse. Thankfully for Cam, these teams meet twice a year and I’ve heard Josh Freeman is a great listener. I’m sure there will be plenty of late night heart-to-hearts from the hotel room. “Are you there, Josh? It’s me, Cam…”
Prediction: Bucs 24 Panthers 20
Cincinnati Bengals @ Baltimore Ravens
Kicking off the return of Monday Night Football is an AFC North matchup featuring conference finalist Baltimore against upstart Cincinnati, which means 1) Ray Lewis will be mic’d up – Awesome – and 2) Everyone’s favorite Ginger will be on national television taking snaps for the Bengals. Keep shattering expectations, Andy Dalton. Gingers can play quarterback in the NFL – and they do have souls.
Prediction: Ravens 27 Bengals 21
San Diego Chargers @ Oakland Raiders
Why is Carson Palmer still allowed to start in the NFL? When will the Chargers fire Norv Turner? Can Run DMC stay healthy? Will Philip Rivers find a way back into the postseason? The questions abound in the AFC West and with the addition of Peyton Manning to this division, things are only going to get more complicated.
Prediction: Chargers 21 Raiders 17