New Orleans Saints @ Green Bay Packers -4.5
GB have questions at G and T and might start the year with 3 high draft picks on the line, but NO failed to get a strong push up front last year. Rodgers did get knocked around too much in the preseason though and that will be a concern given the QB's concussion history. Franklin will help NO's pass rush a lot and should be back from his MCL sprain. They might even get some good production from Shaun Rogers, but will it be enough to slow down Rodgers? When you consider that they resigned Jones, and get Finley and Grant back healthy, it's scary to think how much greater this offense will be. Special teams should also be much improved thanks to the change in kickoff rules, the addition of the explosive rookie Cobb, and getting depth guys back from injury.
But the same questions can be asked about GB. Can they do enough to slow down Brees? No one really emerged in the preseason to replace Jenkins up front and who will play opposite of Mathews at LB? NO didn't do very well against top teams last year, so this will be a big opportunity to get the train back on the tracks for 2011. Their offense won't lose much with Sproles/Ingram in the backfield, but can they keep up with GB? I think the value here lies with NO at +4.5, but I also think GB is still the best team in the NFL and the record of Super Bowl champs in week 1 scares me. I would play GB if it was -3, but the current line has me taking a pass.
Buffalo Bills @ Kansas City Chiefs -6.5
KC are in pretty good shape despite not making many big moves in free agency. They added McClain which should dramatically help them in short yardage situations. There were many key times in games last year where they went for it on 4th and 1 and failed. Charles, Jones, McCluster, and McClain will give BUF all they can handle schematically on the ground, and Breaston was a critical addition for the passing game. Now they have someone to compliment Bowe on the other side, but keep in mind Bowe faded from relativity in the final half of the season. Fans in BUF are excited about RC Dareus and they are confident Barnett and a healthy Merriman can improve this defense and make people forget about losing Posluzsny. Keeping Florence at CB was an underrated move as well.
On the flip side, BUF didn't do much to improve a porous O-line, CJ Spiller is unproven, and Fitzpatrick is still an average QB at best. He does have savvy and smarts though, so he could be effective if the team around him picks it up. Trading Evans didn't go over well in the locker room and you have to wonder how they will deal with adversity if things don't go their way early on. BUF should have opportunities to get the ground game going as KC don't have a stud nose tackle to man the middle. Hali, Berry, and Jackson are locked up and form a potent core on KC's defense. KC will be a tough road stadium to open up in and even if BUF improve their porous run D, Charles and Thomas can still control the game. Look for McCluster to be an X-factor as he's lined up all over the field. KC remains a strong candidate for a week 1 teaser.
Tennessee Titans @ Jacksonville Jaguars -3
JAX opened at -2.5 but it has since been moved to -3. That usually happens around a key number when 76% are on the favorite. Vegas actually have TEN higher in their season win totals power rankings, but give the edge to JAX for home field advantage. Is 3 a soft number? It could be--especially if CJ doesn't end his holdout.
I hate what TEN have done this offseason and I think they are in for a tough year. Their passing game sucked last season and Hasselbeck isn't a big improvement in my eyes. JAX was equally worse defending the pass, but they added 4 potential starters on defense after the lockout. Posluzsny, Session, Landry, and Coleman should make an immediate impact on a defense that needed every bit of help it could get. Alualu and Knighton will force whoever is at RB outside where the new line-backing core will be able to make plays. This is going to force Hasselbeck into some mistakes in the air as he adjusts to the new system.
MJD will be running behind 4 returning starters on the O-line. Losing Sims-Walkers left this offense at a disadvantage, but they won't have Washburn's defensive line to contend with in 2011. TEN is also relying on Ruud to replace Tulloch, but they'll have trouble covering Lewis in the middle of the field. The concern now is that Garrard still have injury issues and hasn't looked great when he has been on the field. Kampman is returning from a 2nd knee operation and needs to be healthy to improve their lackluster pass rush. Even without CJ I don't feel strong enough about JAX to make this a play. TEN seem rejuvenated with the new changes and won't make this an easy game for the home team.
Cincinnati Bengals @ Cleveland Browns -6.5
The only hope CIN have this season will come from the defense. I like what they did in 2009, but they laid the proverbial egg last year. I first thought that their continuity will have an advantage on CLE's new offense to start the year, but now I have my doubts. They lost Joseph in free agency and downgraded with Joseph. Now they've traded for Kelly Jennings for some much needed speed. What they couldn't figure out was how to improve their pass rush. This should give McCoy the kind of breather he'll need to learn the new WCO being implemented. McCoy looked lights out in the system until he ran into a brick wall in PHI. They are missing a reliable deep threat at WR, but they should be ok with the pieces they have against a team like CIN. Cribbs looks like he can create separation in the passing game and if Moore can overcome his concussion problems he'll be a legitimate option as well.
On the other side, CIN has its work cut out for them on offense. Joe Haden will be licking his chops with a rookie QB opposite of him. At the same time, Dalton showed some flashes of potential against the NYJ and was much improved against a soft CAR defense. AJ Green has also shown his raw ability in the preseason. Benson and Scott have a nice mix going on at RB and will take a lot of the pressure off Dalton early in the season. Jay Gruden is installing his variant of the WCO, but his system is apparently simpler and he has some nice prospects to work with. CLE is also riddled with changes and they won't be defensive stalwarts to start the season either. Switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 with a bunch of holes in the lineup isn't the best recipe for success. Patterson was signed to replace Wright, but that will be an experiment in motion. Their punting situation is also a nightmare. This could be a very ugly game all the way around and I'm not sure how often I'll switch over to watch it. I don't have a lean on it either way, but I will say that CLE isn't a slam dunk to cover. CIN might be a good sneaky underdog play, but at this point I'm taking a pass to see how these teams start the year.
New York Giants -3 @ Washington Redskins
This doesn't mean I didn't like WSH's offseason. They kept Moss and added a bunch of free agent wide receivers to provide some depth. Bringing in Cofield, Bowen, and Wilson will help the defense and rookie LB Kerrigan looks like an impact player. Losing Jenkins to a torn ACL hurts though. Getting rid of Mcnabb and Haynseworth eliminates a lot of unnecessary drama. Hightower isn't the answer at RB, but he's better than what they had and looked good in preseason. The archilles heel for WSH will continue to be their O-line and QB. NY will have little difficulty pressuring Grossman/Beck and limiting any chance of any offensive rhythm.
On the bright side for WSH is that NY's secondary has been absolutely decimated by injuries this preseason. This turn of events makes this matchup a little bit more interesting than it was on paper. Eli has looked confused without having Smith or Boss to bail him out. I expect Coughlin to rely heavily on Bradshaw/Jacobs in this one and hope Eli can get enough balls to Nicks/Manningham. Pass protection has been an issue and it will take some time before they regain that same kind of cohesion they enjoyed in previous years.
NY did have some losses and questions linger on the O-line, at LB, and special teams, but they have much less turnover than WSH and more stability in their schemes. Then again, these kind of NFC East games are usually competitive and WSH's motivation will be high to start the season. This might not be the kind of "lock" that it appears to be on paper. The best play might be the under.
Carolina Panthers vs Arizona Cardinals -7
The line for this game opened at -3, moved all over the place, and now has settled around -7. People seem to be buying in on the Kolb train as 73% have action on ARI. Personally, I'm far from sold.
Both teams came into the offseason with a ton of needs and it's debatable about who really was the worst in 2010. The biggest challenge for ARI will be solidifying their O-line for newcomer Kevin Kolb. This core doesn't have a great deal of time to gel and figure things out. Heap was a good addition to give Kolb a safety net underneath, but it's unsure how the rest of the changes will shake out. They brought in a new defensive-coordinator in Horton and he wants to play an aggressive blitz-happy attack. Do they have the components to make it work? Newton has had a lot of trouble with pressure packages in camp and didn't look very good in game action, but he does have a strong running game to keep ARI honest.
Things don't become any clearer on CAR's end. Rivera has brought new schemes to both sides of the ball and they've hitched their wagon to a RC QB. Signing Anderson to mentor the kids is a head scratcher and Edwards is already out for the year with an injury. Beason's injury is more of a concern than originally thought. They overpaid all over the roster to keep their guys and paid kicker Mare as if he is a future Hall of Famer. Olsen will give Newton an important passing option and they should be able to take advantage of ARI LB Stewart in the middle. McDermott will transform the defense into a blitz-heavy approach, but he's light years away from his mentor Jim Johnson. He also doesn't have the same caliber of CB's to make the risks worth the reward. There are far too many holes and questions on both teams to make sense of this matchup.
Kolb and Peterson provide hope for a turnaround and Wells seems to be running strong, but Wilson has a biceps tendon problem and RC RB Williams was lost for the season. ARI is justifiably favored thanks in large part to the QB discrepancy, but it's not enough for me to pull the trigger.
Seattle Seahawks vs San Francisco 49ers -5.5
Staley needs to overcome his concerns about his archilles because it has affected his pass protection in the preseason. There are just as many questions about the other side of the line too. But will any of this matter given SEA's sub-par pass rushing ability? Can SEA's O-line protect their own QB? Yes there is long-term potential there, but all I see is growing pains to start the year.
Perhaps two of the primary reasons SEA is such an underdog is a) they are going with Jackson at QB and b) they are notoriously bad on the road. On the flip side, they can roll out Rice and Miller to challenge SF's questionable defense. But what about SEA's defense? Can they stop Gore? Someone will need to step up and take a leadership role with the departure of Tatupu. Carroll will also need to figure out how to limit the mistakes from another big roster turnover. The secondary is unproven, but can Smith make them pay? Gallery has essentially been promoted to coach the O-line. The new kickoff rules will limit Washington's value as a returner. Just like ARI/CAR and CIN/CLE, this one has the makings of an ugly low-scoring game. I think there is value on SEA, but they don't have a legitimate running game to match Gore. Hoping for a 2nd half cover from Jackson is asking a lot.
Dallas Cowboys vs New York Jets -4.5
In the good category, Romo and Jones have looked great in the preseason. Bryant is a physical beast and provides a great compliment to Austin on the outside. One of them will get opportunities against an overrated Cromartie. Witten will catch a ton of balls over the middle and might be a bigger red zone threat this year. None of this will matter though if their O-line is inconsistent. Thankfully for DAL it doesn't appear that NY will have a fearsome pass rush. The potential is there, but the young guys need to step it up.
NY also kept the status quo, which needs they'll need to fix their red zone problems from within. It was very uncharacteristic for them to be so bad in 2010(at both ends of the field). The good news is Revis should be fully fit and healthy for week 1, unlike last year. Offsetting this is the questions around Sanchez. Burress commands respect on the outside and should help Holmes, but what about Mason? Can Sanchez get it to these guys on a regular basis? Last year I thought the team had enough to overcome his short-comings, but now they'll need him to take the next step if they hope to go anywhere this year. The chances will be there against a suspect DAL secondary, but NY need to prove to me that they are anything close to the team I thought they were going to be in 2010. There is some value on DAL, but enough to make them a play?
Oakland Raiders vs Denver Broncos -3
Fox knows how to turn around a program, but his challenges are endless with this cast of characters. Luickly for them they are hosting a sub-par OAK team that no longer has Asomugha to lock down half of the field. Whoever is at QB, they'll have plenty of options. Teams only threw Asomugha's way 33 times last year and none of them resulted in a touchdown. The DEN RB situation does not appear as bad as it did heading into the season. Moreno has lost weight and running better than he ever has and McGahee is trying his best to prove that there is still some gas left in the tank. Fox will change the approach of this offense from a pass-first team to a run-first. This will suit DEN well because OAK's front is going to give them pressure.
On defense, DEN continue to bring in new defensive coordinators and they continue to ship them out. Now they are trying to convert to a 4-3 and this won't happen overnight. Dumervil is the rock up front, but he's also playing a new role. RC LB Miller has the potential to make an impact right away and has looked great in the preseason. However this shakes out, one thing is certain--they can't be much worse than 2010 and they'll have the benefit of lining up against a very questionable offensive line.
Granted, OAK's O-line did appear to make some strides in the preseason, but I'm not going to draw any firm conclusions based on vanilla schemes. Campbell needs to get on the same page with Boss and that will be tougher since Boss is "week to week" with an injury. OAK will test DEN's new scheme with the running game because there aren't great options to throw to on the outside. Assuming McFadden will be healthy, he along with Bush could give OAK a potent combination to ride into the end zone.
I'm not as down on DEN as I was to start the year, but this is still a significant work in progress. Some think that this is a "revenge" situation thanks to OAK's drubbing of DEN last year, but I'm not buying that. I do think that OAK is vulnerable if for no other reason than they are a horrible organization. When you take away all the preparation time from the lockout, I think that is going to affect a team like OAK. At the same time, this is a divisional game on Monday Night Football. The motivation will be there for the underdog. I'll be taking a pass.