NFL Week 1 Essentials
September 7, 2017
By Tony Mejia
Editor's Note: Tony Mejia started 2-0 on Thursday is 9-3 over his last 12 NFL guarantees. Don't miss out on more winners from him this football season on VegasInsider.com Click to win!
The 2017 regular season is here. Schedule makers deserve a pat on the back for putting together some complex, attractive matchups. Let's get into thought process mode in handicapping Week 1's offerings:
Thursday, Sept. 7
Kansas City at New England: Coming off a season where they covered 16 of 19 and a record-setting Super Bowl where they staged a comeback that seemed impossible, the Patriots may as well be wearing a cloak of invincibility. The betting public has invested heavily in this perception, causing the line to move from 7 points to 9-9.5 approaching game day. Tom Brady turned 40 early last month and is driven enough to think he has something to prove entering his 16th season opener as a starter. The Chiefs ended his 2008 season prematurely in an opener, but that coincidence isn't something that's going to factor in here. Having a healthy Rob Gronkowski in addition to new weapons Brandin Cooks, Dwayne Allen and Phillip Dorsett will test where his chemistry currently stands with all those guys against a Chiefs defense that forced an NFL-high 33 turnovers last season. After cutting Jeremy Maclin, Kansas City has to count on Travis Kelce to continue his ascent as one of the game's top tight ends in addition to relying on young receivers like Tyreek Hill, Chris Conley and Albert Wilson. Can they make enough plays to help Alex Smith hang with a Brady-led offense? Expect Andy Reid to take his shots since a conservative approach on the road is likely to get his team beat.
Sunday, Sept. 10
N.Y. Jets at Buffalo: The Sean McDermott era officially opens at home with Tyrod Taylor under center after he cleared concussion protocol. He had a rough preseason even before the Ravens knocked him out early in their Aug. 26 dress rehearsal win. Rookie Nathan Peterman, a fifth-round pick from Pittsburgh, was one of the few bright spots alongside fellow first-year wideout Zay Jones, so given the decision to move on from the oft-injured Sammy Watkins, this looks like a rebuilding season in Buffalo. The Jets made no secret that's what is in store for them, dealing Sheldon Richardson to Seattle and moving off of veterans like Darrelle Revis, Nick Mangold, David Harris, Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker and disappointing QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. Josh McCown will take over to start the season until Bryce Petty inevitably gets his shot, which makes this the week's ugliest matchup. Todd Bowles is 1-1 (SU/ATS) in openers and swept the Bills last season for two of New York's five wins.
Atlanta at Chicago: Reigning MVP Matt Ryan and his teammates can finally turn the page on their Super Bowl disappointment and will be close to full strength since Devonta Freeman returned after missing a few weeks with a concussion. Only rookie RB Brian Hill is questionable, so the Bears will have to deal with an attack that entered the Patriots loss averaging 39 points per game and would've captured a championship had they broken 30 in regulation. Chicago surrendered 30 or more points in each of its last three games but returns Top-10 pick Leonard Floyd to help Vic Fangio's unit turn things around. Offensively, the Bears suffered a major setback in the preseason when top wideout Cameron Meredith was lost to a knee injury, putting pressure on former No. 7 pick Kevin White to emerge as Mike Glennon's go-to option following two seasons ruined by injuries. It will be interesting to see how he handles being covered by the likes of Marcus Trufant, but he's likely to get opportunities to show what he can do.
Baltimore at Cincinnati: The Ravens didn't expose Joe Flacco in the preseason due to a painful disc issue in his back but always held out hope that he'd be ready when the season rolled around. That faith was rewarded when he returned this week, joined by newly acquired Danny Woodhead and Breshad Perriman, both of whom were dealing with hamstring injuries. Although Baltimore was again greatly affected by injuries in training camp, its prospects look better than they appeared a month ago and improve since Bengals defensive standouts Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones are suspended and safety Shawn Williams is out at least a month with an elbow dislocation. The Bengals did get good news on Jeremy Hill (ankle), who is healed enough to round out a running back rotation alongside rookie Joe Mixon and the versatile Giovani Bernard that will try and crack a Baltimore run defense that allowed the NFL's fifth-fewest yards in '16. Because of the continuity of both coaching staffs, there doesn't figure to be a lot that will surprise the opposing side, but Cincinnati has won six of seven meetings between these AFC North rivals since 2014.
Pittsburgh at Cleveland: The other half of the division is also pitted against each other as the Steelers look to get off to a strong start by extending their winning streak over the Browns to five. Mike Tomlin is 17-3 against the AFC North's resident doormat since taking over in '07. All the losses have come at FirstEnergy Stadium, but Cleveland is starting rookie DeShone Kizer and only won last Christmas Eve over its last 19 games. Although this season also figures to be an uphill climb, the emergence of Kizer this preseason and an improved-looking defense fortified by the presence of first-round picks Myles Garrett and Jabril Peppers has the franchise optimistic. Garrett suffered a high ankle sprain in practice and is out for the first few weeks, so Ben Roethlisberger will have one fewer playmaker to concern himself with and now has Joe Haden on his side. He's also got Martavis Bryant back to help stretch the field after he was reinstated following a season-long suspension last year. Le'Veon Bell ended his holdout on Sept. 1 and reported to camp in shape, so it's unlikely not being around this preseason will hold him back.
Arizona at Detroit: It was an eventful offseason for the Lions with Matthew Stafford getting his lucrative extension and the opportunity to test themselves against the Patriots in the preseason's most important week blowing up in their face. Detroit comes into this one with DE Ziggy Ansah, LB Tahir Whitehead and TE Eric Ebron ready to play after camp ailments, so there can be no excuses if they fail to protect their homefield in this first test. The Cardinals defense will be missing key cog Deonne Bucannon (ankle) and may be without DT Robert Nkemdiche, who is struggling to overcome a calf injury. Since both teams are expected to compete for playoff berths despite not being their division's favorite, getting a leg up immediately would provide a huge boost to whoever gets it together first. The Lions have lost seven consecutive games against Arizona after winning back in 2005. Stafford himself is 0-5, throwing just four touchdowns against 10 interceptions.
Jacksonville at Houston: Tom Savage held off rookie Desean Watson's charge to win the Texans' starting QB gig, while Blake Bortles did the same against Chad Henne with the Jaguars. Neither inspires a ton of confidence, particularly Bortles, who followed up a brutal 2016 season by looking extremely shaky in camp, holding on to his job only after a strong fourth quarter against Bucs backups. He'll have Marquise Lee back in the mix from an ankle issue in addition to No. 4 pick Leonard Fournette debuting next to him at running back, so he'll at least have a fighting chance against a fierce looking Houston defense. The Texans are likely to have a conservative game plan in place since receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Braxton Miller are banged up and Jaelen Strong (suspended) and Will Fuller (collarbone) are ruled out. If Savage's game management skills don't pan out, there's a chance Watson joins Kizer as rookies seeing action under center on the NFL's opening Sunday.
Oakland at Tennessee: These teams are each favored to win their AFC divisions, led by elite young QBs that have already made significant strides to prove their legitimacy. That makes this a great early test for both that could have homefield implications come playoffs. Marcus Mariota had a shaky training camp, but could look sharper given time to cram for this one with veteran Eric Decker (ankle) and rookies Corey Davis (hamstring) and Taywan Taylor (calf) set to return. With David Amerson (concussion) and rookie Gareon Conley (shin) missing time of late and Khalil Mack (knee) coming in with a pre-existing issue, Oakland may not be ready to defend on the road like they managed to last season in winning six of eight. Derek Carr has made some plays in his return from a broken fibula suffered last Christmas Eve, and he'll have a loaded, healthy offense that includes wrecking ball Marshawn Lynch to rely upon.
Philadelphia at Washington: Seeing the Eagles open as an early road favorite is certainly disrespectful to the 'Skins, but indicative of the direction bookmakers see these franchises going this season. Carson Wentz is expected to make a jump with veteran receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith coming on board and LeGarrette Blount around to gain tough yards. Kirk Cousins will have to succeed without veteran weapons DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, giving Terrelle Pryor, Jamison Crowder and Josh Doctson more of a stage. The Eagles haven't defeated Washington in their last five meetings and have won only once in Landover since 2011, so this would be an important first step if they are to have a breakout year.
Indianapolis at L.A. Rams: The best players on both sides here, QB Andrew Luck and DT Aaron Donald, won't be a part of the action. Luck is hurt and Donald is holding out for the paycheck he's earned himself, so both teams will have to tune into their inner MacGyver to emerge from Week 1 unscathed. Indianapolis will also have to replace center Ryan Kelly and top corner Vontae Davis in addition to relying on Scott Tolzien to help produce a road win. 30-year-old Sean McVay is under the microscope as the youngest head coach in NFL history and matches minds with beleaguered veteran Chuck Pagano in a favorite's role. If L.A. can generate pressure and make like difficult on the Colts without the esteemed Donald, they could win a home game at the Coliseum for the first time since shocking the Seahawks in last season's home opener.
Seattle at Green Bay: The Packers got great news with tackle Brian Bulaga returning to practice and feeling no ill effects from his sprained ankle, suggesting he'll be out there helping protect Aaron Rodgers against a fierce-looking Seahawks decent fortified by the addition of a healthy Sheldon Richardson. (Sunday update: Bulaga is now expected to miss the contest.) It wouldn't be surprising if Seattle gets immediate production given his desire to fit in on another elite line after a great run when healthy in New York. It's looking like this is going to be a fair fight between the two teams that entered the week as 7-to-2 co-favorites (Westgate Superbook) to get out of the NFC. Russell Wilson spent his senior season at Wisconsin and helped beat the Packers as a rookie on that Hail Mary that should've never been called a touchdown by replacement refs, but he's suffered blowout losses in his two trips to Lambeau the last two seasons, throwing six interceptions.
Carolina at San Francisco: Cam Newton threw two passes in a preseason win as the Panthers rightfully kept his focus on healing up his surgically repaired throwing shoulder. That's provided little opportunity to gel with new weapons Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel, so you can count on Ron Rivera placing the burden of getting off to a strong start on his capable defense. Key DT Vernon Butler is wearing a heavy brace on a sprained knee he hurt early in the preseason and may not move around normally if he plays at all. 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan wouldn't commit to starters beyond starting QB Brian Hoyer and former All-Pro tackle Joe Staley, so he's looking for individuals to prove they deserve playing time on this team he's inherited. Shanahan, who has to take a lot of blame for Atlanta blowing the Super Bowl, is San Francisco's fourth head coach in as many seasons. Making sure no one comes into the season comfortable is probably right the strategy since there are few guys on the roster who have consistently brought it on the field.
N.Y. Giants at Dallas: Ezekiel Elliott's immediate future may extend beyond this game if he wins his legal battle to put off a six-game suspension, but with nothing guaranteed there, the Cowboys really need to lock in on putting this divisional home game in their pocket. That's especially true since New York comes in vulnerable due to Odell Beckham Jr.'s potential absence and the fact other receivers come in banged up. Ben McAdoo ended a winless three-game run for the Giants in Dallas by surviving 20-19 in his head coaching debut last season. He then snapped the Cowboys' 11-game winning streak with a 10-7 comeback win in December. New York hadn't swept Dallas since '11, so the fact both games were so close and ended in disappointment is certain to be a driving force for the host Cowboys. Head coach Jason Garrett is 3-3 in season openers, with victimizing the Giants accounting for all his victories.
Monday, Sept. 11
New Orleans at Minnesota: While Adrian Peterson returning to Minneapolis clad in black and gold is the primary story line, his production isn't likely to be the determining factor in this matchup. Or maybe it will be. In that regard, it's going to be riveting to see what Sean Payton has in store for a new-look offense that will be breaking in Peterson and rookie back Alvin Kamara while also missing their second and third-leading receivers from last season with Cooks gone and Willie Snead suspended. Complicating matters, left tackle Terron Armstead will miss at least the first month with a shoulder issue, so squaring off with a fantastic defense on the road right off the bat isn't ideal. Payton hasn't won a season opener on the road since 2006, but his Saints could feel comfortable in a dome despite a daunting road atmosphere that Drew Brees is certainly experienced enough to handle. The Vikings are confident rookie DT Jaleel Johnson can adequately replace the injured Sharrif Floyd, but the starting offense struggled in the preseason and is loaded with question marks. Can rookie RB Dalvin Cook execute at a high level immediately? It seems fitting that A.P. will be in the building to see how his replacement fares.
L.A. Chargers at Denver: The Broncos decided Trevor Siemian was their QB early on in this preseason, so we'll see whether increased reps will pay off for all involved. There have been conflicting reports over how hampered Demaryius Thomas has been by a groin injury suffered in the Aug. 26 dress rehearsal, but he's going to be out there. Denver was perfect this preseason under new head coach Vance Joseph, while the Chargers won only once as they transitioned to L.A. under first-year head coach Anthony Lynn. Feel free to dismiss all that if you want because Philip Rivers completed all but one of his 12 passes and directed touchdown drives in each of his three possessions. He was a part of a 9-2 run against the Broncos from '06-'11, but has most recently dropped nine of 11 head-to-head meetings. With Keenan Allen back, there's cause for optimism, but we'll know a lot more about how seriously to take these Chargers after this one.
Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA
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