UPDATE #3: News just broke that Peyton needs more medical treatment and is out "indefinitely". I hope you all jumped on HOU before it was -7. The whole world jumped on DET +3 and the line has dropped. I like DET to win this game straight up, so if you got the +3 you're sitting on bonus points.
Philadelphia Eagles @ St Louis Rams: PHI -4.5
The hype regarding the "dream team" got a little out of control, but a large proportion of it is legitimately justified. They didn't spend irresponsibly like a lot of other teams in the league (hello CAR/WSH). The last time they made this kind of splash in free agency they started the year 7-0 and went on to appear in the Super Bowl.
PHI is still fielding calls about Samuel, but at this point it looks like they will keep him. This isn't good news if your name is Sam Bradford. I've very, very high on the kid, but he has a sub-standard receiving corp to throw to and he forget about throwing towards Asomugha. STL's best chance will be to ride Steven Jackson all day long and try to hit rookie Kendricks in the middle of the field against a young group of linebackers. Adding a mauler like Dahl to the line should improve a running game that lacked consistency last year and Sims-Walker will give Bradford at least one "name" receiver to make some plays. Look for Bradford to find guys like Amendola in the short-passing game as they try to keep the ball away from Vick and company. Can this strategy work? Absolutely it can. Will it? I'm banking that it won't. PHI's defense is designed to play with the lead and I'm not sure how long STL can hold them off the scoreboard. Guys like Babin, Cole, Jenkins, and Patterson are going to push up the field and let Samuel, Rodgers-Cromartie, and Asomugha pick off errant throws.
The true test for STL will be whether or not their defense can contain all the weapons they'll see across the field. Coach Spags is very familiar with PHI and should be able to come up with schemes to give PHI some trouble. Adding Mikell gives them an added dimension to stabilize the secondary and they'll need his experience to slow down a versatile PHI offense. Maclin will be back, but it's uncertain how effective he'll be after dealing with significant health concerns this offseason. But this offense can hurt you in so many different ways. If D-Jax isn't open on the deep routes, they'll get him the ball on end-arounds. Celek and Avant are great options to have and should be open on critical 3rd down plays over the middle.
STL will undoubtedly attack PHI's offensive line. It appears as though they will start two rookies at C and RG respectively. Todd Herremans has been temporarily moved to RT while Winston Justice recovers from injury. It won't matter how many flashy names a team has on the field if the O-line is riddled with holes. Yet, despite all the headlines this group has garnered, I trust in the new O-line coach Howard Mudd to have a plan for opening day. Vick isn't the greatest at picking up the blitz, but he has one of the best up and coming check down guys in Lesean McCoy to bail him out. He had more catches than any other RB last year and that trend will continue for the first month of the season as this team continues to iron out the kinks.
STL should hang in there for a while and could make it interesting, but at the end of the day PHI will show the league that they only have one goal for 2011--to win the Super Bowl. Prediction: Bank PHI -4.5.
Detroit Lions @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers: DET +3
This is a game I had circled on the board the day it went up. 69% of the action has come in on DET and I couldn't agree more. Giving them 3 points against an overrated TB team is like Christmas in September. Both teams bring stability and continuity into 2011, but DET has the better group of young players, a returning starting quarterback, and a better offseason. Wright, Durant, and Tulloch aren't additions that will garner front page news, but they are really solid moves for a defense that needed all the help it could get. Bringing back Houston was also a smart choice. I expect a big collective improvement from the defense and they will give Freeman and company problems in the season opener.
TB's offense relies a lot on smart decisions, discipline, and efficiency. Freeman, Blount, and Williams is an impressive trio of youngsters, but the dropoff is notable after that. Game-breakers and quality depth guys are in short supply.
Yet, the bigger problem for TB will come from their defense. This unit will have its hands full with Stafford, Johnson, Burleson, Pettigrew and Best coming to town. Losing Leshoure was a setback for DET, but they brought in an underrated Harrison to shore up the position. TB's pass rush and run-stopping were major questions marks in the offseason and not much was done to fix the situation. They drafted two DT, but both have durability issues and it's doubtful either one will turn things around in week 1. Look for Stafford and company to win the time of possession, get the lead, and let their D-line tee off on Freeman. Prediction: Bank DET +3.
Atlanta Falcons @ Chicago Bears: ATL -2
This is another matchup that brings a good amount of continuity into 2011. 79% of the bets are coming in on ATL and we've seen the line move accordingly. It appears as if I'm not the only one who views CHI as the average team that they are. I won't be surprised if ATL is favored by a field goal sometime before kickoff arrives.
The offseason strategy for ATL was very interesting. Instead of focusing on the defense in the draft, they decided to sell the farm for Julio Jones and make the offense more explosive. In free agency, they managed to get Ray Edwards to team with Abraham on the D-line. They could have lost up to 3 O-linemen, but only lost Dahl. Almost all the boxes in the "needs" department have been checked. The only thing ATL need to do now is take the next step.
They should be able to get off to a good start against a very overrated CHI team. Right away they'll be able to give CHI problems as they lineup against a scotch-taped O-line. Abraham, Edwards, Babineaux, and Jerry can all get to the quarterback. Cutler now has Willaims to throw to and Barber in the backfield, but do either of these additions strike fear into anyone? CHI has huge problems controlling the clock and sustaining drives and it's doubtful Martz is going to warp this group into the "greatest show on grass" in week 1. Grimes and Robinson are going to give CHI's sub-par receiving corp a long afternoon. On the flip side, CHI's secondary will have trouble matching up against White, Jones, and Douglas. Gonzalez is the perfect safety vale for Ryan and Turner/Snelling can pound the rock keeping the defense honest.
The only thing CHI have going for them outside of home field advantage is the possibility of a return game. Bryant hasn't been driving the ball out of the end zone like most kickers. Prediction: Bank ATL -2.
Indianapolis Colts @ Houston Texans: HOU -5
I thought HOU was going to win the AFC South this year before the Peyton news and now I think it's a foregone conclusion.
The main challenge will be slowing down Peyton and company if he plays because of the brand new defensive scheme under Wade Phillips. Their new shiny secondary will be tested from the get-go and no one knows for sure how Mario Williams will adjust to the OLB position. He was up and down in the preseason so that's a situation to keep an eye on. The key question though is have they closed the gap enough for their offense to win them games? I originally thought that IND would be able to exploit HOU's new scheme to start the year, but now I'm not so sure. Peyton won't have much practice time and if he does play he'll be behind an O-line with big, big question marks on it--not to mention a rookie starting LT to protect his blind side. HOU piled up a lot of sacks in the preseason so there is hope on the horizon that this team can get turned around.
Making matters worse is the fact that they still have problems on the defensive side. Losing Session and replacing him with depth guys isn't the best blueprint. HOU should have plenty of opportunities for big plays and attacking them up the middle. Freeney and Mathis's effectiveness will be reduced a lot of IND fall behind in games and that could be the case in this matchup. Foster is nursing a hamstring injury, but even if he is out Tate can carry the load for a game and provide enough balance for the win.
I realize that 5 is often considered a "dead number", but I believe this is a calculated risk. IND wouldn't have gone out and spent the kind of money on Kerry Collins if they believed Peyton was going to be fine, and even if he does play there will be timing and protection issues. I feel confident that HOU can cover with Manning, and if he doesn't suit up in week 1 this line will be considered a serious bargain. In fact, I consider anything under a touchdown has value. Prediction: Bank HOU -5.