~Editor's Note: This is a straight-up pick 'em column, not against-the-spread~
The Broncos' win got us off to a good start to the season, although I didn't expect Denver to to keep swinging the tire iron after Baltimore stopped defending itself. Baltimore isn't as bad as they looked last night, but there's no question who the better team is this year.
To the rest of the picks!
Despite the fact that the Falcons were the NFC's #1 seed last year and were one play away from the Super Bowl, Atlanta enters their opener as the underdog against a division foe coming off a 7-9 season. Much of the reasoning behind favoring the Saints comes from the reconnection between Drew Brees and Sean Payton. New Orleans was a fractured team last year and the cracks showed in the inability to play sustained stretches of good football. The defense was terrible to the point than anything less than a virtuosic performance by Brees usually meant defeat.
The defense promises to be better this year, but don't forget how far they have to go to be even an average unit. The hope of the Saints season rests, as it has for years, on the shoulders of the offense. A full compliment of weapons like Darren Sproles, Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Mark Ingram, and Lance Moore means Brees is poised for another huge season; a team capable of outscoring any team in the league on any given week.
The Falcons offense ain't slouchy either. Atlanta averaged nearly four TDs/game last season despite ranking 29th in rushing. Matt Ryan showed no hesitation taking deep shots to Julio Jones and Roddy White, opening up the middle of the field for Tony Gonzalez and others to the tune of 280 yards passing per contest. Now, take that same offense, mature it a year, and swap out Steven Jackson for Michael Turner. The Falcons are no longer just a team that can score quickly, they're a team that can control possession as well.
The Falcons defense is no great shakes either, but the margin by which Atlanta's D is better than New Orleans' D is a lot bigger than the advantage (if any) the Saints hold on offense. Emotion will be high in the Superdome on Sunday, but you don't win 75% of your games over three seasons like the Falcons have without being able to overcome that. My money is with the Dirty Birds this week.
THE PICK: FALCONS
Whether it's EJ Manuel or Jeff Tuel, the Bills will be opening up against one of the best teams in the AFC and against a coach that is notoriously hard on rookie QBs. New England is more talented from top to bottom. Don't get cute.
THE PICK: PATRIOTS
I'm a believer in the Bengals as a 10-win team with a good luck at playoff run but the Bears, in Chicago, with a healthy Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall, and Jay Cutler will make Cincy wait a week to notch their first victory. The Bengals are a project that's developing nicely and it wouldn't surprise me if they are better than the Bears by season's end but Chicago is a known commodity; a team whose biggest impact players have been playing together for years. The Chi-town defense is still legit and I don't see Andy Daulton and the Cincinnati backfield doing enough to best it.
THE PICK: BEARS
It's games like these that I feel safest taking the home team. We don't know much about either team, given the respective stages of their development, and it's not likely that we will for a few weeks. One of the tenets of this column is that in the case of two bad teams playing each other, take the HFA and move on. I'm not ready to say that either of these teams are bad, but they're even enough in talent and far enough away from the top tier of teams that I'm comfortable applying the same strategy.
THE PICK: BROWNS
I'm not crazy about the Lions this year, but I'm really really excited about Reggie Bush as a Lion. In addition to showing that he can be an effective between the tackles rusher in Miami, Bush's greatest abilities are showcased in the open field. Detroits offense is built to do exactly that with their tailbacks, completing nearly 100 passes to running backs last season, none of which were as electric as Bush. Plus, I don't see the Vikings secondary being able to a thing about Calvin Johnson, meaning they'll need to score plenty of their own to have a chance of stealing a road win.
Which brings us to the fact that Christian Ponder is the Vikings QB and that his only receivers are an Aaron Rodgers-less Greg Jennings and a guy that had 46 catches last year. In college. This is a team that was 31st in passing in 2012 on the back of Ponder's flaccid 6.07 YPA. Of course, Adrian Peterson is gonna get his and probably in a big way, but I don't see this team that struggled to score consistently last year with Percy Harvin doing much better this year without him.
THE PICK: LIONS
Not buying the Steelers this year, but I'm gonna have to see a lot more from Jake Locker before I feel comfortable picking him to win at Heinz.
THE PICK: STEELERS
Right now, casinos in Vegas are laying 25/1 that no team will go 0-16. I'm not saying the Raiders will go 0-16, I'm just saying they've got a better than 4% chance of it. Terrelle Pryor And The Quest For Zero begins in Indianapolis where the Colts, who I firmly believe overachieved last year*, should have no trouble disposing of the Raiders at home.
*11-5 despite finishing in the bottom fifth of the NFL in DVOA
THE PICK: COLTS
Last year, this would have been Exhibit A of the "Bad Teams? Home Team." strategy, but I don't think the Chiefs will be bad in 2013. Jamaal Charles may very well be the best running back on the planet not named Adrian Peterson and new head coach Andy Reid has been a master at exploiting the mismatches caused by his best players. Dwayne Bowe is still a very talented receiver who's put up good numbers with bad QBs, except now he gets a pretty good one.
Jacksonville, meanwhile, still just has so far to go, you guys.
THE PICK: CHIEFS
If I had any confidence at all that New York was going to have anything resembling competent NFL QB play, I'd be tempted to pick them. The Bucs, while not great, are too good to be beaten by a team with no quarterback. Doug Martin is basically Ray Rice circa 2009 and Vincent Jackson is a monster when he wants to be. I'm not saying it will be pretty, but I am saying that Tampa Bay leaves with a win.
THE PICK: BUCCANEERS
The Panthers are perhaps the most natural read-option team in the NFL and they run it with a QB perfectly suited for the scheme. The offense that Ron Rivera has built around Cam Newton is designed to maximize pressure on the defensive line, more specifically, on the defensive ends. Seattle spent much of it's offseason stash bolstering that particular part of their defense, signing Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to join (eventually) Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin.
Unfortunately for the Seahawks, Bennett and Avril have been banged up all preseason, Irvin is suspended, and Clemons is still working his way back from the knee injury he suffered on that ridiculous jello pan the Redskins try to pass off as a field. This means a lot of pressure may be put on a lot of guys that are unaccustomed to the sort of multi-pronged attack Carolina will use.
Still, I trust that Seattle's defense, which promises to at least come close to repeating last year's league-leading performance, will keep Newton from going too crazy. Furthermore, only one team on that field will have Russell Wilson and, unlike last year when Seattle won in Carolina, Wilson will be operating with a full playbook.
Expect Marshawn Lynch and Golden Tate to leave their mark on the box score and look for the adjustments Seattle's defense makes over the course of the game. One of the highlights of this game for me will be watching the two middle linebackers, Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner, the top two finishers for Defensive Rookie of the Year last season. I don't think the Seahawks roll, but I do think they win.
THE PICK: SEAHAWKS
Given their opening matchups, it's a very real possibility that the loser of next week's Sunday Night game between the Niners and 'Hawks will have to climb out from under an 0-2 start. The 49ers are going to be an excellent football team, as any squad with the best offensive line in the league should be, but I also think it's going to take some time to sort out a Michael Crabtree-less passing game.
Colin Kaepernick is explosively dangerous and nobody knows that more acutely than his Week 1 opponent. We all remember Kaepernick laying waste to the Packers defense last January en route to amassing a playoff record 444 total yards to accompany his 4 TDs. While Kaep is certainly capable of repeating that performance, he's going to have a hard time doing so without the only receiver he seemed comfortable with last year.
Much like the what we saw Denver do last night in avenging (I use that word with all possible lightness) their playoff loss to Baltimore, Green Bay will make adjustments and the defense should look more like a defense than an outtake real this time around. Besides, the Pack still has the best QB in the league on their team and he has a healthy receiving corps for the first time since 2011.San Fran is a very tough place to win, but Rodgers and Co. have won in tough places before, including all three playoff games en route to their championship three years ago.
I have no doubts that the 49ers will have their offense tuned in short order, but I think Green Bay will take advantage of the kinks in Week 1.
THE PICK: PACKERS
The Cardinals will be better than they were last year because this year they actually have a real life quarterback instead of a heap of tuna cans with blanket thrown over it. That should translate into a bit of a resurgence from Larry Fitzgerald (who hasn't gone anywhere, trust me) in 2013 but the Cards are still a team without a running game and who just lost the cornerstone of their offensive line (1st round pick Jonathan Cooper) for the season. Their defense should be stout again, but that offensive line is just a mess. I mean, Carson Palmer might die this year.
The Rams were a very good seven win team last year, if such a thing can exist. They added a nice little parcel of playmakers in Tavon Austin, Jared Cook, and Stedman Bailey to go along with Chrsi Givens. The loss of Steven Jackson will hurt this team, but it will hurt them a lot more in other games than it will in this one. St Louis defense stands a good chance of being excellent this year and they're going to look elite against the Slinky orgy that is the Cardinals offense.
THE PICK: RAMS
These are two teams that I feel like I'm supposed to have stronger feelings about. I think both are capable of winning a lukewarm NFC East division but right now I don't view either as a serious threat to do much more. The Cowboys are favored by three, which essentially means the sharps see them as a push on a neutral field. Typically, I've found it best to take the home team in that situation but I have major, major concerns about Dallas' leaky O-line and their ability to stop a tsunamic Giants pass rush. I like Tony Romo, and I love Dez Bryant, but I don't trust their protection.
Eli Manning is more than good enough to win this game and if he's got a healthy Hakeem Nicks opposite Victor Cruz, things should be wide open for him and star-in-the-making David Wilson. I'm taking the Giants on Sunday Night.
THE PICK: GIANTS
The Eagles will be the funnest not-good team in the NFL this year. They're gonna run a billion plays per game with a cast of video game characters while making opposing offenses look like they have a Game Genie. I expect something of a bounceback year from Michael Vick and I think Le Sean McCoy is gonna go bonkers, but they're gonna have trouble scoring in the red zone when the field is squished, given the paucity of big receiving options in Philly.
Washington is going to do everything they can to keep the ball away from Chip Kelly for as long as possible, which I imagine will meana heavy dose of Alfred Morris. The Eagles disorganized defense should provide a soft landing spot for Robert Griffin III in his first action since his knee injury.
THE PICK: REDSKINS
Don't overthink it. Take Houston.
THE PICK: TEXANS