Questions abound as the first NFL Sunday of the year is finally upon us.
Are Denver and New England going to dominate the AFC, with franchise quarterbacks and much-improved defenses?
Is Seattle going to repeat–they certainly looked capable of it on Thursday night.
The first Sunday of the NFL season is like a holiday in this country, which has a love affair with the league where they play for pay.
Let’s take a closer look at Sunday’s matchups, and some big storylines in these contests . . .
New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons
Falcons owner Arthur Blank felt his club lacked toughness last year, and wants a team in 2014 that “plays to the edge.” Operation Toughness certainly has a difficult first test with New Orleans coming to town. Last year, the Falcons were the last ranked rushing attack in the league, so to help kick start their ground attack, they hope to bolster an awful line with guard Jon Asamoah and tackle Jake Matthews. They would certainly like to run the ball well in this game to keep Drew Brees off the field.
The Bengals are loaded and could be the team to beat in the AFC North.
Baltimore will be playing without running back Ray Rice, who is suspended for the first two games, but Bernard Pierce is a solid backup. No matter who the tailback is, the Bengals are tough to run on, led by the NFL’s leading tackler last year, linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
The Ravens might be a little inconsistent offensively early in the year as they get used to the system of their new coordinator, Gary Kubiak.
Buffalo Bills at Chicago Bears
The Bills had the most rushing attempts in the NFL last year. Look for Buffalo to continue their “ground-and-pound” approach to take pressure off developing quarterback E.J. Manuel. The Bears were awful against the run last year. We will see if they improve.
Buffalo also has a very good pass rush (second most sacks in the NFL last year), so Jay Cutler, who has a tendency to hold the ball too long, needs to make quicker decisions.
Bears coach Mark Trestman is a top-shelf offensive mind, and is great at creating mismatches, so look for him to have a heck of a game plan ready for the opener, which you have months to prepare for.
On offense, they have two explosive wide receivers in Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins, to go along with a terrific featured back in Arian Foster.
As for Washington, it’s pretty simple, RGIII needs to play better than he did last year and in the preseason. If he doesn’t, the Redskins are in trouble.
Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs
It’s fish or cut bait time with Tennessee QB Jake Locker. The Titans didn’t exercise the fifth year option in his contract, so if he doesn’t get it done this year, he’s done in Nashville. New Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt is a great play-caller, so this should help Locker.
As for Kansas City, due to cap issues, they had a quiet offseason, and have major concerns on their offensive line, with two new guards, and unproven Eric Fisher moving from right to left tackle.
The Chiefs will be without their top receiver, Dwayne Bowe, for the first game, due to a league suspension.
The strength of the Chiefs, aside from their talented tailback Jamal Charles, are their two edge pass rushers, Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, who could make life miserable for Locker in this game.
New England at Miami
New Englanders are a little nervous seeing Tom Brady listed as “questionable” with a calf injury that forced him to miss practice on Thursday. Bill Belichick makes the North Korean regime seem open with information, so it’s unclear how bad this injury is.
The Dolphins have a new offensive coordinator in Bill Lazor, who comes from the Philadelphia Eagles staff, so expect a faster-paced offense in Miami.
One match-up that favors Miami is their defensive tackles, Jared Odrick and Randy Starks, against New England’s interior linemen. As they say, you need to get Brady “off his spot,” and the best way to do that is with quick interior pressure.
Oakland Raiders at New York Jets
The Raiders have decided to start rookie Derek Carr at quarterback. Is he ready?
“I think the question with Derek is pocket awareness, some of the intangible things,” said ESPN’s Trent Dilfer. “I think he needed to be handled delicately with the Raiders in his first year. There needed to be a transition time to adapt to the NFL game, to sit back and watch the NFL game, and obviously that isn’t going to happen.”
Rex Ryan, an excellent defensive coach, has a great record against rookie quarterbacks, and there is a good chance that continues on Sunday.
This one could get ugly.
The Eagles were the NFL’s #1 offense last year, and the Jaguars have pedestrian talent at cornerback.
Also, the Eagles like to blitz a ton, and the Jaguars starting right tackle is out, and long-time center Brad Meester retired in the offseason.
This could get out of control if the Jags aren’t careful.
Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers enter this game with some question marks at receiver.
They lost two in free agency, as Emmanuel Saunders went to Denver, and Jericho Cotchery signed with Carolina. On top of that, free agent addition Lance Moore will miss this game with a groin injury, and rookie Martavis Bennett won’t play due to a shoulder ailment.
So expect the Steelers to try to run a lot in this game with the underrated Le’Veon Bell. But this isn’t easy against a Browns team with a lot of talent in the front seven.
Minnesota Vikings at St. Louis Rams
The Rams lost their starting quarterback Sam Bradford to a knee injury in the preseason, so Shaun Hill will start.
Honestly, this likely isn’t a big dropoff. Bradford really hasn’t established himself, and Hill is a savvy veteran who knows what he’s doing out there.
“Shaun is very reliable,” said Rams coach Jeff Fisher. “Everybody knows that we are going to run the football first.”
And they are also going to get after the quarterback. The Rams might have the best defensive line in football, led by end Robert Quinn, who had 19 sacks last year. Vikings QB Matt Cassel better have his head on a swivel.
San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys
The 49ers will be without three key players: right tackle Anthony Davis (groin), inside linebacker Navarro Bowman (knee), and pass rusher Aldon Smith (suspended).
While Dallas has major question marks on defense, they are loaded on offense with a terrific line, an explosive tailback (DeMarco Murray), two freakish athletes at receiver (Dez Bryant and Terrence Williams), and two very good tight ends (Jason Witten and Gavin Escobar).
Expect a lot of shootouts involving the Cowboys this year.
Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Cam Newton missed most of the off-season after ankle surgery, and then time this summer with a fractured rib. He’s considered a game-time decision.
Considering the Panthers turned over their entire receiving corps, and Newton didn’t get to work with the new guys much, chemistry could be a problem early in the year.
Speaking of receivers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh McCown won’t have trouble finding his targets, with a pair of 6-5 starters in Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans. The big concern for McCown is a mercurial offensive line, which will be tested by a terrific Carolina front.
Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos
Peyton Manning gets a break in this game–no Robert Mathis. The stellar pass rusher, who dominated the Broncos last year, will miss the game due to a league suspension.
Manning is lethal in openers because he has so much time to prepare. Last year, he threw seven touchdowns against Baltimore.
Denver’s defense should be better this year with the additions of pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, and defensive backs Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward. Also getting super-talented linebacker Von Miller back from a knee injury will help.