Realistically, every game is a must-see during the first week of the season. But some are a bigger draw than others. Here are the games that I’m most/least excited for.
DEFINITELY WATCHING THAT ONE
Denver over Carolina
The weirdest thing about this game is despite being a Super Bowl rematch, the teams feel completely different from the ones we saw in February. No Josh Norman, no Peyton Manning, and the Denver’s already mediocre offensive line is now without two of its best players (Evan Mathis and Louis Vasquez).
Replacing Norman and Manning are a bunch of rookies. Carolina triple-dipped on corners in the draft, so you should expect to see two of them — Daryl Worley and James Bradberry — a lot tonight. What could go wrong?
Meanwhile, the Broncos let Brock Osweiler leave in free agency and brought in a rookie first round pick (Paxton Lynch) and a veteran cast-off (Mark Sanchez) to compete for the starting job. Yet somehow, their seventh round pick Trevor Siemian will start the season under center.
Usually a game with this many uncertainties wouldn’t pique interest. Luckily for both teams, the rest of their roster is pretty good.
Green Bay over Jacksonville
I’m not saying that this will be Jacksonville’s year. In fact I’m comfortable saying that it won’t be. But they should take another step toward relevancy this season, which is a place they haven’t visited since 2007 when they last made the postseason.
With such a long playoff drought you’re forgiven if you can only name none of their players. Blake Bortles was less bad at quarterback last year and they actually have a lot of talent to throw to (Allen Robinson, Julius Thomas, Allen Hurns, Marqise Lee, Rashad Greene, among others believe it or not). On defense, they’ll get a look at their last two first round picks for the first time. They took Dante Fowler Jr. third overall in 2015 and he promptly tore his ACL on the first day of mini-camp. This year, they picked up Jalen Ramsey who — by my account — was the best defensive player in the draft. With any luck, Jaguars games may be good for more than just a trip to the pool in the near future.
For Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers was leading a corpse of an offense last year and still pulling off amazing plays. He’s still the best quarterback in the league and one of the best at masking his team’s deficiencies and front office decisions.
So yeah…there’s intrigue there.
Detroit over Indianapolis
The reason that Aaron Rodgers is only one of the best at covering up mediocrity is because Andrew Luck has been doing it in Indianapolis since he came into the league. His offensive line has been at peak offensiveness for awhile and the hits finally caught up with him as he missed nine games last season. He has to be healthy if they want to make it to January. Their division won’t automatically wet the bed anymore.
The Lions are playing their first season without Calvin Johnson, who pulled a Barry Sanders and retired early so his greatness wouldn’t be wasted on a sub-par team. Matthew Stafford can’t just chuck it in Megatron’s direction this season, but I think they may be ok. Golden Tate is still there and they added Marvin Jones from Cincinnati, who is a pretty good receiver in his own right. Defensively, they have some talent too. Ziggy Ansah is their best defensive lineman and they drafted A’Shawn Robinson to help plug the interior with Haloti Ngata. So yeah, it’s plugged.
Arizona over New England
Garappolo? Garoppollo? Garapallo?
Call me selfish but I’m ok with Jimmy Garoppolo failing during these four games if it means not having to spell his last name anymore. It’s a Roethlisberger-level nightmare.
Anyway, it looks like Brady is actually going to miss four games for deflating those footballs prior to the Super Bowl before last, which makes the Patriots sort of an interesting watch.
Rob Gronkowski is healthy kind of, so there’s a little bit of a “get out of jail free” card for Jimmy G. (Update: No he isn’t. And neither is the rest of the team, apparently. They’re setting him up to fail.)
But Arizona is the real draw here, specifically Carson Palmer. Back in 2009, the Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme imploded during a playoff game against Arizona, committing six turnovers in a 33-13 loss. The first game of the next season he was on the bench after spiraling even further downward. It would be amazing if Palmer suffered a similar fate at the hands of Carolina, but I truly hope that isn’t the case. They have one of the most talented rosters in the league, but as they’ve learned in past years, it’s hard to play like it with a dumpster fire of a quarterback.
Buffalo over Baltimore
During the 2015 offseason, Baltimore let longtime backup Tyrod Taylor enter free agency. Buffalo signed him for like $5 over three years and he flourished. Now with a five-year, $90 million deal in his lap, people are finally coming around to the idea that Taylor is a good quarterback.
If only Baltimore had recognized it earlier. Or at least recognized what Joe Flacco was. Super Bowls and good postseason performances can cure all ills and Flacco achieved both in 2013. But he still remains an average/sometimes above average guy in the regular season. And after signing an extension of his own this offseason the Ravens are married to him for at least the next three years.
There are other players in this game too (namely the return of Flacco’s receivers Steve Smith and Breshad Perriman from injury), but it’s mostly those two guys that I want to see.
Houston over Chicago
Barring injury, Houston is going to have star power all over the field this season. J.J. Watt is coming off of back surgery, but if he’s at 50% he’s still one of the best defensive linemen in the league. Those waiting for Jadeveon Clowney to break out should have paid more attention to last season. When healthy, he was a terror.
Then there’s the Houston offense. DeAndre Hopkins was the most underrated receiver in the league last season, but his play has elevated him to simply one of the NFL’s best. Running back Lamar Miller is finally free from Miami and can hopefully get more than 12 carries a game. If you haven’t seen him play yet, you must. Brock Osweiler is there too. If he doesn’t wet the bed, Houston could repeat as division champs.
Chicago could surprise this season. Kevin White, their first-round pick from a year ago, will make his NFL debut giving Jay Cutler another option at receiver. They let Matt Forte go in the offseason, so their run game has some question marks, but they added Josh Sitton from Green Bay and drafted Cody Whitehair to boost their interior offensive line. They also signed Danny Trevathan, Jerrell Freeman, and any other linebacker they could find to help shore up the middle of their defense.
Philadelphia over Cleveland
So Robert Griffin III is finally away from Washington and we’re all better because of it. Landing in Cleveland is probably a lateral move on paper, but he’ll enjoy throwing to Corey Coleman, Terrelle Pryor, and Josh Gordon when he returns from suspension after Week 4. Watching Griffin start is enough intrigue on its own for me, but his opponent also has a ton of question marks.
Philadelphia has done an obscene amount draft pick trading to get where they are today. Letting go of Sam Bradford is a move I think they’ll regret this season, but if someone offered me a 1st and 4th rounder for a guy who has trouble staying healthy, I would probably wave goodbye to him too. Maybe rookie Carson Wentz can be acceptable and their defense can carry them to eight or nine wins. I’m not optimistic though.
New Orleans over Oakland
If not for Oakland, this game wouldn’t be of interest. Yes, Drew Brees is still good (and will basically die a Saint now) but the rest of the team is still mediocre. Their defense will be better, but mostly because they were historically bad last season. Delvin Breaux is one of the league’s up and coming DBs. In short, they had a chance to move on from Brees in the near future and put money toward other players, but they chose not to. Hope they drafted well.
Everyone is picking Oakland to be this year’s breakout team so they probably won’t be. But they have talent. Khalil Mack was one of the best defenders in the league after his rookie season. Now entering his third, that hasn’t changed. They also added defensive backs during the offseason to create somewhat of a new-look secondary.
And then there’s Amari Cooper and Derek Carr. Cooper had a great rookie season besides the dropped balls and Derek Carr has a great chance to improve behind a good offensive line. They both have to stay healthy though. There isn’t much depth behind either of them.
New York Giants over Dallas
So are Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott the next great rookie QB and RB. They better be if Dallas wants to stay competitive in this open division. They Cowboys are obviously better off with Romo under center, but their offensive line should allow any competent backup to at least not fall flat on their face. Defensively, they probably won’t make the grade. Rolando McClain and Randy Gregory are suspended until god knows when and the Brandon Carr/Morris Claiborne cornerback tandem is back to be burned again.
Eli Manning should be jumping for joy this season. Odell Beckham Jr. is still great, Victor Cruz is healthy (at least at this very second) and rookie Sterling Shepard could do meaningful things in the slot. Dallas-New York is usually good for entertainment.
Pittsburgh over Washington
Kirk Cousins may have made the right decision not accepting the long-term extension. With Washington’s receivers, he could be competent again for 16 games and earn even more money next offseason. At the same time, their front office was probably right not to offer him more money. He isn’t all that great. Can’t wait to see how that marriage unfolds this season.
A few analysts picked Pittsburgh to win it all this season and for good reason. They’re strong all around. Le’Veon Bell is doing his now-annual four game suspension for failed drug tests, but when he returns their offense will be complete again. Antonio Brown is still the best receiver in the league and watching him line up against Josh Norman will be a treat when it happens. Their front seven should eat offenses alive this season, starting with Washington.
Tampa Bay over Atlanta
Is Matt Ryan going to average to slightly above average forever now? If so, that’s depressing.
An equally strong case could be made for both of teams going 10-6 and 4-12. My luck, we’ll see the 4-12 sides this week.
Minnesota over Tennessee
Teddy Bridgewater goes down for the season, derailing Minnesota’s playoff hopes. So they trade a first round pick and a possible second for Sam Bradford. And yet they decide to start Shaun Hill in the opener over Bradford.
Sorry, Adrian Peterson.
Cincinnati over New York Jets
I will shout “Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t good” from the rooftops until I’m hoarse.
Kansas City over San Diego
FREE PHILIP RIVERS!
Seattle over Miami
The Seahawks are doing a demonstration during the national anthem? That’s good TV.
…oh, they’re locking arms? Never mind.
THIS IS THE WORST ONE
Los Angeles over San Francisco
Unless something spectacular happens, the Rams and 49ers will finish third and fourth in the NFC West. Not just because Seattle and Arizona are miles ahead of them, but because they are so far behind the rest of the league.
I’m mainly speaking on San Francisco here. They would be better off tanking this season and drafting a quarterback in 2017. Colin Kaepernick is better off sitting through every anthem and this entire season. I don’t think any quarterback can operate with those receivers to throw to.
Plus, Chris Berman is calling the game. I don’t want anything to do with this one.