photo courtesy of: http://sportsmediamasters.com
Cowboys @ Giants
The 2012 NFL season begins the same way the 2011 season ended, with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and “America’s Team” visiting the Big Apple to renew their rivalry with the Super Bowl champion Giants. The Giants have owned this rivalry lately, having won four of the last five contests, dating back to the 2007 Divisional Playoffs. How long ago was that? Well, to put it in perspective, Terrell Owens still had a star on his helmet.
Dallas quarterback Tony Romo is coming off of his best statistical season—a season that ironically left him watching in January and February as his New York rivals upset their way to their second Lombardi Trophy in four years. Romo has had only limited practice time with his top receivers this offseason; tight end Jason Witten, unquestionably Romo’s safety net, had his spleen lacerated in preseason and is not guaranteed to play Wednesday night. Miles Austin is still recovering from a hamstring injury he suffered early in training camp, while Dez Bryant is nursing a knee injury; both, however, are expected to play in the season opener.
As for the Giants, they will look to pressure Romo early and often. It is a formula that has succeeded for them in the past and I fully expect Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora, and Justin Tuck to be in the backfield much more than Cowboys coach Jason Garrett would prefer. Cowboys running back Demarco Murray is expected to have a breakout season this year, but if the Giants’ front seven plays at all like they did in the playoffs last season, it will have to wait.
The Giants will be starting Sean Locklear at left tackle on Wednesday night instead of usual starter Will Beatty, who is having issues with his back. This will not make things easier for reigning Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning as he tries to elude perhaps the league’s finest pass rusher DeMarcus Ware. Working in Eli’s favor, however, is a receiver tandem that is suddenly one of the premier corps in the league: Hakeem Nicks, and Victor Cruz. That’s where the Cowboys’ shiniest new toys come into play: cornerbacks Morris Claiborne (making his NFL debut) and free agent pickup Brandon Carr. Their work is cut out for them with Nicks and Cruz on the field.
I’ve got to give the edge to the champs. The Cowboys proved to me too many times last season how good they are at letting things slip away. The Giants, under Tom Coughlin, are far more disciplined, and have the tools on defense to shut down Dallas’ mediocre offense.
Colts @ Bears
This is the game of the week for those in Bloomington as the region’s two most beloved football franchises go head to head in the Windy City. The question on most minds now is how good will Andrew Luck be when it really counts? In preseason, he was impressive, but how much can preseason really tell us?
The Colts defense is also going to be a question mark. Their defensive bookends, Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, return (surprisingly, after the personnel facelift the team received over the offseason), but Mathis will move to outside linebacker under the Colts’ new hybrid defensive scheme. The secondary recently turned to Vontae Davis, via trade with Miami, for an upgrade. Still, the Colts defense will need one of 2011’s worst offenses to be able to convert. Behind Curtis Painter last season, Indianapolis’ offense was awful, often leaving the defense with bad field position and a lot of time on the field caused by their failure to move the ball.
The Bears are looking to finally take flight in their passing game this year with offseason addition Brandon Marshall, who reunites with his former teammate in Denver, Jay Cutler. It was with Cutler in Denver that Marshall had his best years and is looking to rebound from two disappointing seasons in Miami under what figures to be a run-heavy scheme from new offensive coordinator Mike Tice. Earlier this offseason, Tice stated that he wanted both running backs (Matt Forte and Michael Bush) to eclipse 1,000 yards on the ground.
The Chicago defense is still in good shape, if only on talent alone. They are getting a little long in the tooth, so to speak, but on paper, this is still one of the league’s premier defensive squads with Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs, and Brian Urlacher (even if he is injured). They shouldn’t have a problem with the Colts’ young and inexperienced rebuilt offense.
Eagles @ Browns
Like the Colts, the Cleveland Browns will be heading into the 2012 season with a rookie quarterback under a lot of pressure to succeed immediately. Brandon Weeden is 28 years old—the same age as Aaron Rodgers. The Browns are hoping that he will grasp the game quickly because he is virtually already in the middle of his career. Unfortunately for Weeden, he comes to an offense with little going for it aside from tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack up front. Joshua Cribbs is an excellent special teams player but has been an inconsistent contributor on offense. This dumps a lot of pressure on Weeden, and his fellow rookie and Heisman winner, Trent Richardson, who just returned to the practice field this week after knee surgery kept him out of preseason action.
On defense, there is reason for Cleveland to be a bit more optimistic. Linebacker D’Qwell Jackson is coming off of a career year with a new contract, and promising young defensive end Jabaal Sheard should only get better in his second season. Meanwhile, Joe Haden has emerged as one of the AFC’s top cornerbacks; if he can keep his off-the-field issues in check (he faces possible suspension after a failed drug test), he too should improve and perhaps vault himself into the elite class of his position.
The Eagles, on the other hand, will once again be expected to contend for a title. They almost salvaged last season as it appeared no one else wanted to win the NFC East, but in the end, the “Dream Team” was a nightmare (yes, I know that one’s been used before). Philadelphia, in 2011, was one of the most disappointing squads I have ever watched; even seasoned pros like Nnamdi Asomugha, DeSean Jackson, and Ronnie Brown played uncharacteristically mistake-filled football.
One reason for Philadelphia’s woes in 2011 was one of the NFL’s worst linebacking corps. This began in week one when it was decided that Casey Matthews would start on the inside—just because he’s a Matthews doesn’t mean he’s going to be a stud! This year, the spot will be filled by DeMeco Ryans—a tackling machine acquired via trade with Houston. The defensive line remains stacked with Jason Babin, Trent Cole, and rookie Fletcher Cox.
The Eagles should soar on offense if, and only if, Mike Vick stays healthy. Behind him on the depth chart are Nick Foles and newly acquired Trent Edwards—that alone should be motivation enough for Philly’s suspect O-line to step it up and give Vick the time and protection he needs.
And, oh yeah, Philadelphia has one of the best and most versatile running backs in the league. I just thought I’d throw that out there, too.
Philly’s got this one in the bag.
Rams @ Lions
It wasn’t so long ago that this would have been the NFL’s worst game. Detroit and St. Louis (until last season) used to fight it out between themselves to claim the title of the NFL’s crappiest team. Of course, Detroit’s winless 2008 season takes the cake. But, as John Lennon said, “hard times are over,” and Detroit has a much better team these days.
St. Louis, however, continues to rebuild. Quarterback Sam Bradford had a sophomore slump for the ages in 2012 and head coach Steve Spagnuolo was sacked, in favor of Jeff Fisher of Titans fame. Following Fisher from Tennessee is cornerback Cortland Finnegan, who is expected, and has been paid, to give the Rams secondary a much-needed boost. The front seven, meanwhile, is anchored by James Laurinaitis, who continues to play well amid the mediocrity around him; same goes for defensive lineman Chris Long, who will be joined up front eventually by first-round draft pick Michael Brockers, who is on the mend from a recent high-ankle sprain.
Injuries plagued the Rams’ already-lukewarm receiving corps last year prompting a desperate mid-season trade for Brandon Lloyd, who has already departed via free agency. Reliable slot man Danny Amendola will return from an ACL injury and join Steve Smith as the probable starters in 2012 with second-round pick Brian Quick waiting in the wings.
The questions swirling about Detroit’s revitalized franchise do not concern talent, but rather discipline. Detroit’s mental breakdown against New Orleans in the Wild Card round of the playoffs last season was almost difficult to watch, but it was a fitting end to a season rampant with character questions not only about the players, but also head coach Jim Schwartz, who nearly got into it with Jim Harbaugh after a now-infamous handshake-gone-wrong. I mean, we’ve all been there, right?
I’m looking for Matt Stafford to follow up his 5000-yard campaign from 2012 with another stellar season. Look for “the other Lions receiver,” Titus Young, to break out as teams will consistently devote double and triple coverage to Calvin Johnson, alias Megatron.
Lions will take this one by more than 20 points.
Dolphins @ Texans
I had an opportunity to watch Ryan Tannehill up close when the Dolphins visited the Panthers in preseason (hey, maybe they caught me on Hard Knocks). I have to say, out of all the rookie starting quarterbacks, Tannehill looks the worst. You can’t blame it all on him though; until the Phins picked up Legedu Naanee in free agency (whoop-de-doo…), their best receivers were Davone Bess and Brian Hartline. Ouch. Head Coach Joe Philbin is an offensive wizard, but without any viable weapons, what can he do? There’s talk of Philbin going after his former pupil in Green Bay, James Jones. Why not? Pull the trigger, Philbin! You don’t want to be relying on Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas to carry the offense all season, do you?
Meanwhile, the Texans are returning one of the NFL’s top defensive units under coordinator Wade Phillips. Johnathan Joseph leads from the outside, while Brooks Reed and Brian Cushing form a linebacking tag team on par with Briggs and Urlacher in Chicago five years ago; then you’ve got J.J. Watt up front, who is, in a word, beastly. Phillips loses DeMeco Ryans and Mario Williams, but Williams didn’t play much last year anyway, and Ryans had become expendable in a crowded and very deep linebacking corps; his talent will be missed, but it is replaceable.
On offense, Houston will welcome back Matt Schaub at quarterback. Who knows what this team could have done in 2011 had he not gone down with a foot injury before the playoffs? T.J. Yates did his best, but the Schaub/Yates transition never developed into a Bledsoe/Brady situation and we’ll leave it at that. If Andre Johnson can stay healthy, he and Schaub should once again form one of the NFL’s best quarterback/receiver tandems. I look for rookie receivers Keyshawn Martin and Lestar Jean to step up and draw coverage from Johnson, something veteran Kevin Walter has never been able to do all that much.
This game has blowout written all over it. We’ve got quite possibly the best defense in the league facing quite possibly the worst offense. And Miami has no viable answers on defense either (nope, not even Cam Wake). Houston will be unstoppable at home this Sunday.
Falcons @ Chiefs
This game will mark Tony Gonzalez’s first game in Arrowhead since he left the Chiefs after the 2008 season to continue his first-ballot Hall-of-Fame career in Hot ‘Lanta, where he has tried in vain to win his first championship. In fact, Gonzalez has still never been on the winning sideline of a playoff game. The Falcons look to change that this season, as this could likely be the Great Gonzo’s last flight. Gonzalez said in late July that he was “95 percent” sure that the 2012 season would be his last.
The pieces are in place for Atlanta and they have been for some time. Mike Smith has turned the Falcons into a consistently winning franchise, always battling New Orleans for top-dog status in the NFC South. In 2012, the Saints will be without their mastermind coach Sean Payton, who is serving a suspension for his role (or lack thereof) in “Bountygate” making this division the Falcons’ to lose. The time is now for Atlanta stars like Gonzalez, defensive end John Abraham, and running back Michael Turner. Luckily for Atlanta though, young prospects like Julio Jones and Jacquizz Rodgers could take huge strides forward in their games this year.
The Chiefs have flown under the radar this offseason, coming off of a disappointing 7-9, injury-plagued 2011, in which the highlight win came against the then-undefeated Packers. I mention this because it is probably the main factor that landed Romeo Crennel the head-coaching gig in Kansas City. Crennel last held the position with Cleveland, and it did not go well. However, Crennel has a more talented team in Kansas City and could easily compete for the AFC West title in 2012.
Among Chiefs returning from injury are tight end Tony Moeaki, quarterback Matt Cassel, pro-bowl safety Eric Berry, and running back Jamaal Charles, who is poised for a breakout year. Cornerback Brandon Carr was lost to the Cowboys in free agency; to replace him, Stanford Routt was brought over from division rival Oakland to join Derrick Johnson and sack-specialist Tamba Hali on an underrated Chiefs defense.
Although it hasn’t made many headlines, this will be one of the weekend’s more competitive games. I’m going to go with the visiting Falcons, but the Chiefs could surprise people down the line this year.
Jaguars @ Vikings
The state of Florida could be in for a long professional football season in 2012. The Dolphins, we’ve discussed, the Buccaneers are clearly the worst team in the NFC South, and the Jaguars might be The Dolphins’ closest competition for worst team in the NFL (although the Rams make a strong case yet again). It does help that Maurice Jones-Drew has returned to the team after a lengthy and pointless holdout. Without him, Jacksonville might not have won a single game, with unproven rookie receiver Justin Blackmon as their only real offensive threat.
Blaine Gabbert is getting an undeserved and merciful second chance at quarterback. In his second season, Gabbert will have better options at his disposal in Justin Blackmon and Laurent Robinson, but look for the offense to run primarily on a heavy dose of MJD again.
The Vikings, too, are welcoming back the centerpiece of their ground attack as Adrian Peterson completes his miraculous comeback from December’s ugly ACL tear. Quarterback Christian Ponder can breathe a sigh of relief.
The Vikings have the disadvantage of being an okay team in a really good division. They could easily win eight games in a division like the NFC West, but in the black and blue NFC North, they are a doormat and are in serious jeopardy of a winless division record in 2012.
The Vikings have better odds against Jacksonville, as this game is a gift to both teams in that they have fairly easy season openers. I give Minnesota the edge only because they are the home team. This one could go either way.
Redskins @ Saints
Bountygate. There, I’ll just address the elephant in the room right off the bat. The Saints have lost their head coach Sean Payton and their defensive captain Jonathan Vilma; it’s a big blow to a team that was a serious Super Bowl contender, but come on, the Saints still have Drew Brees. They might as well make him the interim head coach. They will be fine without Payton and Vilma.
Especially against a Redskins team that has failed to be a significant force in recent years. There was a time (the late ‘80s/early ‘90s) when the Skins shared the bill with the 49ers and Giants as the powerhouses of the NFC. Now, they are the punching bag of the NFC East. Everything in 2012 hinges on the play of 2011 Heisman recipient Robert Griffin, III. He has Cam Newton-like athletic abilities; he could immediately turn this franchise around, like Newton has done in Carolina, but they have a long way to go before they can roll with the likes of the Saints.
The Saints offense is still maybe the best, bar the Packers, in the NFL. The Redskins have a solid linebacking corps but keeping up with Jimmy Graham is no short order for a safety or even a cornerback, much less an aging inside linebacker like 37-year-old London Fletcher.
The Saints will have plenty of mismatches like this to draw upon with their arsenal of Graham, Marques Colston, and “Mighty Mouse” Darren Sproles.
It’ll be interesting to see what Robert Griffin can do against the Saints’ weak defense, but in the end, I don’t see him and the Skins being able to outscore New Orleans.
Bills @ Jets
Is this the year that The Bills finally emerge from obscurity? Like the Redskins in the NFC West, they have long been the little brother of their division, while the Patriots have won championships, the Jets have gone to conference title games, and the Dolphins have, well, the Dolphins are still trying to replace Dan Marino.
Regardless, I like the Bills to take second place in the AFC East this season. The Dolphins, as we have mentioned, could be in for a long one, while the Jets are too busy trying to make the headlines rather than the playoffs (you tell ‘em, Broadway Joe!). I have faith in head coach Rex Ryan, but I cannot say the same for quarterback Mark Sanchez. These days, a team must be able to pass the ball in order to compete, and the Jets can’t. Making matters worse is the ineffectiveness of the running game. Shonn Greene has been disappointing and it’ll only get worse with an aged but reliable Ladainian Tomlinson out of the picture. The Jets have made desperate attempts to accommodate the right tackle position that Wayne Hunter so hopelessly tried to fill, turning frantically to the likes of Jeff Otah and Jason Smith—first-round busts from Carolina and St. Louis, respectively. For now, the job is Smith’s, but there’s no guarantee that he’ll be any better than Hunter. Across the offensive line, Nick Mangold and D’Brickashaw Ferguson are as solid as ever.
The Bills, on paper, have one of the scariest defensive lines in football: Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, and newly acquired all-pro Mario Williams. The linebackers are a different story as Buffalo has finally given up on Shawne Merriman, and will start Kelvin Sheppard, Nick Barnett, and Arthur Moats in the three linebacker positions of the new 4-3 scheme being implemented by defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt (who might be the only coach in the NFL who can challenge Jeff Fisher to an awesome mustache/Tony Orlando look-alike competition).
I’m going with Bills! Why? Because no one circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills! The sad thing is that no one will actually see this game because all cameras will be undoubtedly locked onto the Jets backup quarterback/first-string publicity stunt (he who shall not be named) as he loiters on the sideline.
Patriots @ Titans
The good news: Jake Locker gets to make his first NFL regular season start against one of the worst secondaries in recent memory. The bad news: he is without his top wideout Kenny Britt (who really just can’t get his Britt together). Britt is serving a one-game suspension for misconduct and in his place, rookie Kendall Wright will get the start opposite Nate Washington.
Jason McCourty (whose brother Devin will take the field across from him with the Pats) will lead the Tennessee defense against Tom Brady and his outstanding tight end/receiver militia, featuring Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, and, most frighteningly for the Titans, Rob Gronkowski—a mismatch no matter how you look at it.
There are two ways in which the Titans can win their home opener: one, put Brady on his back early and often. The Pats’ offensive line is talented but vulnerable, with guard Logan Mankins and tackle Sebastian Vollmer returning from injuries, center Dan Connolly moving to a new position, and Nate Solder taking over left tackle full-time; the duty will fall upon pass-rushing specialists Kamerion Wimbley and Derrick Morgan to exploit it. The second way in which the Titans can steal the game from the Patriots is to simply try and outscore them… long-shot, I know, but who knows? Locker looks promising, and there are no glaring weaknesses on the Titans’ offense. Strange things can happen in week one.
Does that mean that I’m picking the upset?
No. Pats win.
Seahawks @ Cardinals
So it looks like John Skelton will get the nod in week one as Arizona’s starting quarterback. Will it really matter? Probably not. Kevin Kolb is no better. Larry Fitzgerald could be the most dominant receiver in the league, but he has had no help at quarterback ever since Kurt Warner retired. The Cardinals made a grab at Peyton Manning in the offseason, but came up empty. It’ll be up to Skelton to get the ball into the hands of Fitzgerald and draftee Michael Floyd. With Ryan Williams returning from a season-ending injury in 2011, the Cardinals will try to establish a three-man ground threat, with Beanie Wells and La’Rod Stephens-Howling alongside him.
The defense will still be a bit of a question mark. The talent has been there for some time, but the execution has not. Cornerback Patrick Peterson could be the catalyst the Redbirds need to mend their defensive troubles; even if he struggles on defense, however, he gives the Cardinals a special teams threat, the likes of which have not been seen since Devin Hester’s glory days.
The Seahawks are the closest competition to the 49ers for the NFC West crown. Marshawn Lynch is as advertised, a beast, but Seattle has had a lot of inconsistency elsewhere on the offense. They are hoping that surprise rookie standout quarterback Russell Wilson will change all that, and that wide receiver Sidney Rice will move past his injury woes to put up the kind of numbers he has long been expected to.
This game figures to be competitive, but a clash of mediocrity. I like Seattle because Lynch has proven himself, and, quite honestly, Seattle has two quarterbacks better than Arizona’s best.
49ers @ Packers
Now, THIS is the game of the week. This matchup is what the NFC championship should have been last season, but the both teams thoroughly shot themselves multiple times through both feet against the G-Men, and were relegated to simply watching Super Bowl XLVI.
So what can we expect when the best defense in the NFL meets the best offense? Fireworks. And I’m talking San Diego on Independence Day fireworks. This is going to be a great game.
Green Bay has, without doubt, the best receiving corps in football, and arguably the best quarterback too. Where they are weak—or I should say “were” weak—is running back, but Cedric Benson may be just what the doctor ordered for the Packers’ lackluster run game. The defense was atrocious in 2011. The losses of Cullen Jenkins to free agency and Nick Collins to injury had magnanimous impacts. With Jenkins gone, offenses locked onto the Pack’s only pass-rushing threat, Clay Matthews, and kept him largely at bay all season with double- and sometimes even triple-team blocking. Collins’ loss made things even worse, particularly for the secondary, for which it was all an aging Charles Woodson could do to muster seven picks, two sacks, and one forced fumble. Not too shabby for a 35-year-old cornerback, but let’s be realistic here; at some point, Woodson is going to show his age. The Packers have taken steps to gradually switch Woodson to safety, which creates a prime opportunity for Jarrett Bush, Sam Shields, and rookie Casey Hayward to start opposite Tramon Williams. As for the pass rush, they brought in rookies Nick Perry and Jerel Worthy to help Matthews shoulder the load.
Perhaps the preseason’s most devastating injury came when Packers inside linebacker Desmond Bishop injured his hamstring against San Diego last month. He will not play in 2012; D.J. Smith will get the nod.
On the other side of the ball is Alex Smith, the man who was supposed to be what Aaron Rodgers is now. This is Smith’s chance to shed that perception and to beat the man who everyone says San Francisco should have drafted. He’ll have his chances, no doubt, against the Packers’ soft secondary with his brand new weaponry consisting of Mario Manningham, Randy Moss, and rookie A.J. Jenkins—not to mention tight end Vernon Davis, who is finally realizing his potential.
Not much can be said about the San Francisco defense. They proved themselves as one of the league’s finest in 2011, but can they keep up with Green Bay? Well, they kept up with New Orleans, didn’t they? It all depends on the type of day Green Bay’s receivers choose to have. Though they are immensely talented and deep, they have been known to drop balls on occasion. If they eliminate the drop, they can exploit any defense, even San Francisco’s.
Green Bay wins this one narrowly.
Panthers @ Buccaneers
Suddenly, Carolina has an offense. Everybody wants to know if Cam Newton can stay one step ahead of the competition as he did in his phenomenal rookie season; and does Steve Smith have another 1000-yard season in the tank? Just when we think he’s done, the old man comes around again. Carolina will need him to step up again if they want to challenge Atlanta and New Orleans in the NFC South. It would certainly help if a young receiver like Brandon LaFell could draw coverage and have a Victor Cruz-type of season.
The Carolina running game is still one to be feared. Carolina has one of the finest offensive lines in football, spearheaded by center Ryan Kalil and veteran standby Jordan Gross. They excel in run-blocking as well as they do protecting the passer—an excellent skill set for an offensive line that already has the luxury of playing with an athlete like Newton. Then, of course, there’s the ground ‘n’ pound combo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Put it all together, Carolina may have themselves a top-five offense in 2012.
The Buccaneers had a tremendously disappointing 2011, resulting in the firing of coach Raheem Morris in favor of Greg Schiano. Schiano began his tenure in Tampa Bay by drafting safety Mark Barron in the first round. Barron is a trendy pick to win Defensive Rookie of the Year. He will join Aqib Talib and Ronde Barber in a talented defensive backfield. The front seven are much less trustworthy, however. Despite addressing the defensive line in the draft with high picks like Gerald McCoy, Adrian Clayborn, and Da’Quan Bowers, the Bucs have seen player after player go down with injuries, never reaching their full potential.
The cure for running back LeGarrette Blount’s fumble-itis is expected to come in the form of rookie Doug Martin, who has supplanted Blount in the role of starting tailback. As for the Bucs’ lethargic receiving corps, they have received a jolt from former Charger Vincent Jackson. The Bucs could be a better team in 2012 than they were in 2011, but have around the same 4-12 record. They are undoubtedly the worst team in their division.
The Panthers’ ground game should roll all over Tampa Bay, keeping V-Jax, who does have a considerable advantage over Carolina’s porous secondary, off the field.
Steelers @ Broncos
There’s a new sherrif in the Wild West—a sheriff with a Super Bowl ring, four MVP awards, and a spot waiting for him in Canton; a sheriff with a surgically repaired neck. Peyton Manning and his iffy neck will be tested early against Pittsburgh’s ferocious defense. Luckily, Manning has the luxury of one of the best tackle tandems in the league in Ryan Clady on his blind side and young Orlando Franklin on his right. The pressure’s on for this Denver offensive line; if Steelers linebacker James Harrison gets through, it could be ugly—Harrison has unwillingly become the poster boy for the NFL’s changes in unnecessary roughness policies.
The Steelers defense, though still immensely talented, is aging quickly. Future hall-of-famer Troy Polamalu was a non-factor in 2011, and he, along with five other notable defensive players, is on the wrong side of 30. Young talent like Cameron Heyward, Lamarr Woodley, and Lawrence Timmons, however, will keep the Steeltown defense sturdy.
Speaking of young defensive talent, Denver has plenty of it. I speak mainly of Elvis Dumervil and reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year, Von Miller, who bookend the Denver linebackers. They will be a mighty challenge for the much-maligned—yet still woefully under-addressed—Pittsburgh offensive line.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will probably be moving around a lot to escape pressure, as he will not have Rashard Mendenhall available in the running game.
I think this one will be close, but I’m going with Denver.
Bengals @ Ravens
The Monday Night doubleheader begins with an AFC North rivalry that surprisingly does not include Pittsburgh. Instead, it will be Marvin Lewis leading his youthful Bengals squad into M&T Bank Stadium to test the much more experienced Baltimore Ravens.
Experience can go two ways. The more experienced a football player is, the older he is, so having that been said, what can we expect from Ray Lewis and Ed Reed (they’re so old I remember playing as them in Madden 2003—for Playstation)? With a quarter-century of experience between the two future hall-of-famers, it will be imperative that some young guys begin to assume leadership, especially with reigning Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs on PUP. All things considered, the Ravens still have one of the best defensive units in the NFL (let’s not forget that one guy up front, Haloti Ngata).
The Ravens swept the Bengals en route to claiming the AFC North title last season, but that didn’t stop Cincinnati from showing up in the postseason. Another offseason for the electrifying tandem of Bengal quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green will only make them better, and with an unnoticed, but very, very stout defense under coordinator Mike Zimmer, the Bengals should give the Ravens (and Steelers) a run for it in 2012.
If the Ravens want to hold off the upstart Bengals, Joe Flacco must improve upon his 80.9 quarterback rating from 2011, his lowest since his rookie season. The emergence of young wideout Torrey Smith might help, as now the Ravens have a viable duo of receivers in Smith and Anquan Boldin.
Andy Dalton is still young, and though I think he’ll only get better in his second season, the Ravens’ defense is still just too much for him. I’ve got the Ravens in a close one.
Chargers @ Raiders
To finish off the weekend, Philip Rivers leads the Chargers into Oakland’s hallowed Black Hole where Bolts coach Norv Turner will officially take his place on a very hot seat.
If the Eagles were the 2011 season’s most disappointing squad, the Chargers were the past decade’s most disappointing. They have been absolutely bursting with talent for years and have barely won any playoff games, much less a ring. Two seasons of underperforming have left the Chargers somewhat estranged from their fan base and consequently on the verge of moving to L.A. in the near future—a place where many people happen to be Raiders fans.
Regardless, the Raiders have looked pitiful in preseason, particularly Carson Palmer who failed to throw a touchdown. He’s working with a less-than-great group of receivers, featuring starters Darrius Heyward-Bey and Denarius Moore. This means that the Raiders offense is going to lean heavily on the legs of Darren McFadden, who might or might not be able to remain healthy. It’s a tough league for workhorse backs these days.
The Chargers don’t have much to boast about in terms of receivers either, as Robert Meachem and Malcom Floyd are expected to line up as starters on Monday. In years past, Rivers has thrown his receivers open though, so it may not matter how talented they actually are in the long run. Antonio Gates at tight end will still be the primary target in the passing game, but one has to wonder how much the injury-prone 32-year-old has left in the tank.
On defense, both teams are still looking for answers. Oakland lost their best defender in Kamerion Wimbley through free agency, while San Diego simply underperforms on a consistent basis (a microcosm of the franchise).
The Chargers should win this game, but they have let me down before. Oh, what the heck—I’m still going with the Bolts.