Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 9:57 AM

Sunday's Essentials

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Falcons at Vikings (-4/47), 1 p.m. ET: Running back Dalvin Cook’s return to full strength will be the x-factor set to separate the Vikings from the elite team they were in 2017 (13-3) and the mediocre 8-7-1 unit they were last year. Although he only played in four games as a rookie before tearing his ACL and got into 10 last season, he’s showing off the burst that he brought into the league and should give the offense the boost it was missing in scoring just 10 or fewer points in three of the last five. Receiver Stefon Diggs missed practice earlier in the week but is expected to play through a hamstring issue. Corner Mike Hughes, who shined as a rookie, is coming off a knee injury and may be the only player not ready to go in this opener.

Atlanta is mostly healthy too, but may have to start a rookie at right tackle in late first-round pick Kaleb McGary, who dealt with an injury in camp, so it is dealing with uncertainty up front. WR Julio Jones is expected to play despite his contract situation remaining unsettled. The Falcons lost four of their first five last season and have never defeated Minnesota in September, losing all eight all-time meetings. The Vikings went just 5-3 SU (4-3-1 ATS) at home last season after putting together a 9-1 run (7-3 ATS) spanning the end of the US Bank Stadium’s first season and its second.

Redskins at Eagles (-10/45), 1 p.m. ET: Carson Wentz will play in his first game since being shelved last December and didn’t get in during the preseason. Per Philly observers, he’s looked sharp in joint practices and looks noticeably leaner, losing the brace he was playing with to help protect him last season after his ACL surgery. He’ll have two new running backs to hand off to with Bears import Jordan Howard and rookie Miles Sanders taking over. New deep threat Desean Jackson has returned to Eagles nation and is expected to play after dealing with a hand issue late in the preseason.

Colt McCoy was the frontrunner to start this one when camp began but couldn’t get on the field to prepare and is still strengthening his leg. Case Keenum gets the nod and will work with a receiving corps featuring four players whose next catch will be their first as pros. Paul Richardson and rookie third-round pick Terry McLaurin are expected to be his top targets at wideout. Tight end Jordan Reed should play despite coming off a concussion. Derrius Guice won the running back job over Adrian Peterson, but both are worse off for tackle Trent Williams’ continued holdout. Philadelphia has won the last four meetings between these NFC East rivals, capturing each by double-digits.

Bills at Jets (-3/41.5), 1 p.m. ET: Sam Darnold and Josh Allen will be tied together as long as they’re at the helm for their respective teams. They were the second and third quarterbacks taken behind Baker Mayfield in the 2018 draft and started against one another in Week 14 last December. Darnold picked up the win while Allen ran for over 100 yards and threw for more than 200. Combined, they threw three picks. Since both teams were going nowhere 10 months ago, this contest will have a completely different feel as the season opener.

The Adam Gase era begins against a Greg McDermott’s Bills, who beat Miami in three of four head-to-head meetings over the past two seasons but stunningly cut LeSean McCoy in the preseason, moving forward with veterans Frank Gore and T.J. Yeldon in addition to rookie Devin Singletary. Le’Veon Bell joining the Jets is even bigger news that Gase’s hiring and should further aid Darnold’s progression. The ‘over’ is 4-2 in the last six meetings between these teams, cashing in each of the last three games.

Ravens (-6.5/39.5) at Dolphins, 1 p.m. ET: Baltimore has won its last three season openers under John Harbaugh by a combined score of 80-10 and has produced victories in eight of 11 under their long-tenured head coach. Flacco started every one of those, capturing the first as a rookie, but he’s set to debut under center for the Broncos on Monday night.

South Florida native Lamar Jackson looks to improve on a 6-1 regular-season record as the Ravens’ starter and will look to ruin Brian Flores’ coaching debut with the Dolphins. Miami’s personnel moves point to it tanking for Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa this season, and that includes riding with veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick over Josh Rosen. RB Kenyan Drake is expected to get a lot of touches after being cleared from a foot injury that has bothered him the past few weeks. After dealing star left tackle Laremy Tunsil, Julien Davenport is likely to replace him on Miami’s new-look offensive line. The Ravens will have everyone on the roster available so long as rookie WR “Hollywood” Brown plays through a foot issue. This is a homecoming game for him too.

Chiefs (-3.5/51.5) at Jaguars, 1 p.m. ET: Kansas City WR Tyreek Hill avoided suspension and now gets another matchup with Jalen Ramsey, who called him a “return specialist” last season and held him to just four catches and 61 yards when they matched up for the first time last season. Ramsey is expected to shadow him throughout the field, so reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes should have the option to again feature Travis Kelce and take new toy LeSean McCoy out for a spin.

Jacksonville lost at Arrowhead 30-14 last Oct. 7 in a game where former starter Blake Bortles was intercepted four times. Former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles was acquired in the offseason and looks to pull off a home upset to set the tone for a big year. After limited action in the preseason, we’ll finally get to see him debut despite abdominal soreness. Left tackle Cam Robinson (knee) and his backup, Cedric Ogbuehi (hamstring), appeared on this week’s injury report. The Chiefs are 5-1 in openers under Andy Reid, winning the last four. Four of those victories have come on the road, including the very first, a 28-2 rout in Jacksonville. The Jaguars have lost their last four matchups against Kansas City, last winning in 2009.

Titans at Browns (-5/45.5), 1 p.m. ET: Baker Mayfield looks to build on a spectacular rookie season by helping the Browns open a season with a victory for the first time 2004 after watching last season’s 20-20 tie against Pittsburgh as Tyrod Taylor’s backup in his debut. A lot has transpired over the past 12 months and new weapons Odell Beckham, Jr. and Kareem Hunt will be deployed here to try and help Mayfield move the ball against one of the NFL’s most talented secondaries. ODB is reportedly still dealing with a hip issue but should debut for the Browns. Safeties Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro could ruin the party in Cleveland, where its team being favored at home was news less than a year ago.

Marcus Mariota held off the charge of the newly acquired Ryan Tannehill and has a new coordinator calling the shots with Arthur Smith replacing current Packers head coach Matt LaFleur. The game plan is expected to be heavy on ball control and running back, who broke out as a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time, scoring 12 touchdowns. He’ll be running behind a line that will have tackle Jack Conklin in the mix but could be without projected starting right guard Kevin Pamphile.

Rams (-1.5/50) at Panthers, 1 p.m. ET: Cam Newton has come through shoulder surgery and feels he’s sufficiently healed from a foot injury suffered in the third preseason game, so the Panthers’ offense should have some bite since he’ll be able to throw the ball downfield for a change. TE Greg Olson is also healthy, WR Curtis Samuel is expected to take a step forward and Christian McCaffrey emerged as one of the league’s best weapons, so Norv Turner has plenty to work with as he looks to match wits with Sean McVay.

The Rams gave Jared Goff $110 million guaranteed this past week, extending him in the hopes he’ll have more productive Super Bowls ahead of him. Todd Gurley, whose lack of involvement in the most recent NFL title game due to a knee injury was glaring, isn’t going to be on a pitch count as he attempts to pick up where he left off pre-injury. Carolina has won four of its past five season openers. The Rams went 7-2 SU (5-4 ATS) on the road last season.

Bengals at Seahawks (-9.5/44), 4:05 p.m. ET: With A.J. Green out for at least another month, the Bengals have had to install new head coach Zac Taylor’s offense with key receivers sidelined. The expectation is that they’ll unveil elements of his up-tempo offense that should feature backs Joe Mixon, Giovani Bernard and Samaje Perine. Undrafted rookie Damion Willis will fill in for Green opposite Tyler Boyd and top tackle Cordy Glenn could be sidelined with a concussion that would make an already unstable offensive line situation even worse.

Pete Carroll hasn’t gotten enough credit for rebuilding Seattle’s defense on the run the way he has, but they’ll be tested to start the season with games against the Steelers, Saints, Rams and Browns. We’ll see whether newcomers like Jadeveon Clowney, Ziggy Ansah, Al Woods and rookies L.J. Collier and Marquise Blair hit the ground running. Offensively, Russell Wilson has a new red-zone weapon in second-round pick D.K. Metcalf. The Seahawks have won 10 straight home openers, the last nine under Carroll, and have given up 16 or fewer points in all of them.

Colts at Chargers (-6.5/44.5), 4:05 p.m. ET: The Colts were just a three-point underdog when this line was released and Andrew Luck’s inclusion was still expected. After announcing his retirement, L.A. became a much heavier favorite despite the increasing likelihood that star RB Melvin Gordon wouldn’t be involved either. Still holding out and likely to be traded, Gordon will be absent as Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson try to replicate his production.

Indianapolis won’t find it as simple to replace Luck, although Jacoby Brissett has plenty of experience doing so after starting most of 2017. The Colts went 4-11 with him as the starter and saw him complete just two passes for two yards last season, but they’re hopeful that he can help salvage the season. Another former Pats backup, Brian Hoyer, will be the No. 2. The Chargers are 10-6 SU (6-10 ATS) at the Stub Hub Center, struggling to find a true homefield advantage in a building where opposing fans often outnumber those rooting for L.A. This will be the Colts’ first visit to this stadium after losing three of four in San Diego over the past 15 years.

49ers at Bucs (-1.5/50.5), 4:05 p.m. ET: Jimmy Garoppolo had a miserable preseason, both in games he played and in practices where he battled turnover issues. Coming off a torn ACL, he’s having trouble getting his timing back and could have a difficult time getting settled in if the Bucs are able to get after him as Todd Bowles debuts as Bruce Arians’ defensive coordinator. Rookie top pick Devin White debuts next to Lavonte David, who has been cleared to play after a knee issue.

Last year’s first-rounder, Vita Vea, also practiced in full. The 49ers will have center Weston Richburg available in addition to Joe Staley up front, but their defense could have issues in the back with Jimmie Ward (hand), Jason Verrett (ankle) and K’Waun Williams (knee) all questionable. No. 2 overall pick Nick Bosa is likely to debut as a third-down pass rusher despite being sidelined for weeks by a high ankle sprain. Since losing his first start, Tampa Bay QB Jameis Winston has won three straight openers.

Lions (-2.5/46) at Cardinals, 4:25 p.m. ET: For months, we’ve heard all about the Cardinals working in secret to get top pick Kyler Murray up to speed running Kliff Kingsbury’s high-octane offense. Can a college offense flourish in the NFL? Unsurprisingly, Kingsbury didn’t divulge much during the preseason, putting together vanilla game plans and essentially hiding how far along Arizona really is in installing his concepts in Year 1 of a very interesting experiment. The Lions open their second season under former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who has had months to decipher what might be coming in Glendale on Sunday by combing through Texas Tech and Oklahoma film. It’s certainly not ideal, but he should be prepared for what should be a chess match.

The Lions added Arizona training camp backup QB Charles Kanoff to their practice squad, hoping to seek further insight into what might be coming. Lions standout linebacker Jarrad Davis is questionable with an ankle injury while Arizona could be without LB Hassan Riddick. Cards’ right tackle Marcus Gilbert and Detroit center Frank Ragnow are expected to play through lower body injuries. If Matthew Stafford is coaxed into a shootout, he’ll be working against a secondary missing top corners Patrick Peterson (suspension) and Robert Alford (broken leg).

Giants at Cowboys (-7/45.5), 4:25 p.m. ET: Ezekiel Elliott probably won’t see his usual workload after just returning this week after signing a six-year $90 million extension, but he’ll start and is expected to have enough juice to help Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper fuel Dallas’ offense. Jason Witten is making his return to the NFL and Randall Cobb debuts. It remains to be seen how everything comes together since there hasn’t been much time devoted to working as a unit given Elliott’s holdout and Cooper’s heel injury. The Cowboys defense also has a few question with Robert Quinn suspended and Randy Gregory still not reinstated. New York will have Eli Manning at the controls for at least one more season opener as it looks to turn the page from the Odell era.

The Giants have dropped seven of their last eight openers and have dropped nine of 12 against the Cowboys, including four in succession. New York has won only one of its last six at AT&T Stadium, winning in Week 1 of 2016 thanks to a late TD pass from Manning to the now-retired Victor Cruz. We’ll see whether New York has solved its offensive line woes. It should help matters that new right tackle Mike Remmers (illness) is expected to play next to new right guard Kevin Zeitler.

Steelers at Patriots (-5.5/49.5), 8:20 p.m. ET: Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger will both be Hall of Famers and have eight Super Bowl wins between them but there’s an obvious pecking order that has really shone through in Foxboro. Although Pittsburgh won last season’s meeting in Week 15 last December, Brady has won all five games he’s played in against the Steelers at Gillette Stadium, throwing 18 touchdowns without being intercepted.

The 42-year-old Brady led New England to a 28-21 win over Pittsburgh in Week 1 of the ’15 season and has won three of his last four openers. He’ll have Demariyus Thomas as a target in addition to the recently reinstated Josh Gordon but Julian Edelman should remain his security blanket with Rob Gronkowski gone. Roethlisberger is expected to ride with Juju Smith-Schuster as his go-to with the trifling Antonio Brown causing headaches with the Raiders. With James Conner back, expect Pittsburgh to try and shorten the game by running the ball and attempting to control time of possession.

Brady should be able to excel through the air by picking on the fact the Steelers will have to start an inexperienced free safety in AAF product Kameron Kelly, who should start with Sean Davis unlikely to return from an ankle injury.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA

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