Welcome back, football fans! This is now the sixth year in which I have committed myself to picking every single NFL regular season game.
As a reminder, I pick the winners straight-up, without taking the spread into account (although I do offer my best guess as to what the margin of victory will be). My goal, as always, is to beat ESPN’s NFL “experts”: Eric Allen, Mike Golic, Merril Hoge, Ron Jaworski, Chris Mortensen, Adam Schefter, Mark Schlereth, and Seth Wickersham, as well as the “Accuscore” and “Pick ‘em” predictions.
Writing these columns is much more fun when my readers get involved, so please consider offering your own predictions in the comments section below.
Now it’s time for my picks for the NFL’s Week One:
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 8
New Orleans at Green Bay (8:30 PM) [Line: Packers by 4]
Pretty much everyone expects the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers to win the NFC North and make a deep run in the postseason. TE Jermichael Finley and RB Ryan Grant are healthy again, and Aaron Rodgers has proven himself to be an elite quarterback.
The New Orleans Saints are widely expected to be competitive in a tough division. They drafted DE Cameron Jordan and RB Mark Ingram and the first round, and both are likely to be big contributors. They also added two defensive tackles, Aubrayo Franklin from San Francisco and Shaun Rogers from Cleveland.
RJ’s Pick: Green Bay by 8
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 11
Atlanta at Chicago (1:00 PM) [Line: Falcons by 3]
Like the Saints, the Atlanta Falcons are expected to finish at or near the top of the NFC South. They drafted the very talented WR Julio Jones, who can stretch the field with his excellent speed. There is a lot of pressure on QB Matt Ryan to take this team back to the playoffs, and this time actually win a game or two (or three or four).
The Chicago Bears are expected to battle the Detroit Lions for second place in the NFC North. The rule change mandating kickoffs from the 35-yard line largely nullifies Chicago’s excellent return game and therefore puts more pressure on QB Jay Cutler. Speaking of Cutler, he was sacked 52 times last season, and Chicago’s offensive line does not appear to have been upgraded significantly in the offseason.
RJ’s Pick: Atlanta by 9
Cincinnati at Cleveland (1:00 PM) [Line: Browns by 6.5]
The Cincinnati Bengals are expected to be one of the worst teams in the NFL this season. Rookie Andy Dalton will be starting at quarterback due to Carson Palmer’s quasi-retirement. They also lost star wide receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens in the offseason.
The Cleveland Browns look like a safe pick for third place in the AFC North. Judging from the preseason, Colt McCoy seems to be maturing into a solid NFL quarterback.
RJ’s Pick: Cleveland by 11
Buffalo at Kansas City (1:00 PM) [Line: Chiefs by 6.5]
The Buffalo Bills are widely expected to finish in the AFC East’s cellar. However, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick looked halfway decent last season, their defense should be much improved, and they have a relatively easy schedule in 2011. The Bills could surprise a lot of people and end up a .500 team.
The Kansas City Chiefs, on the other hand, have a very tough schedule this year. They should have an excellent running game as long as RB Jamaal Charles stays healthy.
RJ’s Pick: Kansas City by 3
Philadelphia at St. Louis (1:00 PM) [Line: Eagles by 4.5]
The Philadelphia Eagles are widely expected to win the NFC East. But what if QB Michael Vick gets injured? His backups are Vince Young (lol) and Mike Kafka (who has never thrown an NFL pass in the regular season). With a healthy Vick, this is a very good team. Without Vick starting under center, they become a very average team.
The St. Louis Rams are expected to win the weak NFC West. QB Sam Bradford had a solid rookie season in 2010, and he should be even better this year.
RJ’s Pick: Philadelphia by 10
Detroit at Tampa Bay (1:00 PM) [Line: Buccaneers by 1.5]
The Detroit Lions won their final four games last season and went 4-0 in the preseason. They have one of the best defensive lines in the league. Their running game is something of a question mark. But if QB Matthew Stafford can avoid injury, the Lions are poised to make some noise, and possibly make the playoffs.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a pretty tough schedule this season. QB Josh Freeman needs to continue to have the kind of success he enjoyed last season in order for this team to be able to compete in the NFC South.
(Note: I plan on attending this game. So if you see a slightly overweight guy in a Stafford jersey screaming “SUHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH” every time Lions DT Ndamukong Suh gets near the ball, that’s probably me.)
RJ’s Pick: Detroit by 4
Tennessee at Jacksonville (1:00 PM) [Line: Jaguars by 3]
The Tennessee Titans are not expected to do well this year. Matt Hasselbeck is the new quarterback, replacing Vince Young/Kerry Collins. Mike Munchak replaces long-time head coach Jeff Fisher.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are also expected to struggle this season. QB David Garrard is not 100%, but will likely start over rookie Blaine Gabbert. The Jaguars added a lot of defensive players via free agency, so their defense should be improved over last season.
RJ’s Pick: Tennessee by 1
Pittsburgh at Baltimore (1:00 PM) [Line: Ravens by 2.5]
The Pittsburgh Steelers were the losers of Super Bowl XLV. They are expected to compete with the Ravens for first place in the AFC North.
The Baltimore Ravens are hoping QB Joe Flacco will continue to improve, as he has done each year he’s been in the league. And the addition of WR Lee Evans should help.
RJ’s Pick: Baltimore by 6
Indianapolis at Houston (1:00 PM) [Line: Texans by 3]
The Indianapolis Colts could be in trouble this season if QB Peyton Manning is unable to come back from offseason neck surgery sometime soon. He sat out the entire preseason. If Manning cannot play, Kerry Collins will start.
The Houston Texans have high hopes for this season. Wade Phillips is the team’s new defensive coordinator, and he’s made the switch to a 3-4 defense. If the defense is improved over last year (and it certainly should be) and QB Matt Schaub has another 4,000 yard season (a reasonable assumption), this team has a decent shot at making the playoffs.
RJ’s Pick: Houston by 8
New York Giants at Washington (4:15 PM) [Line: Giants by 3]
The New York Giants are widely expected to finish third in the NFC East this season. QB Eli Manning really needs to cut down on the interceptions. This team is banged up already, and the season hasn’t even started. Not a good sign.
The Washington Redskins are likely to finish in last place in the NFC East, according to most prognosticators. There are serious questions at the quarterback position. It does not look like this team is going to have a high-powered offense, so they will have to rely on their defense to keep games close. Expect a lot of low-scoring games this season.
RJ’s Pick: New York Giants by 10
Seattle at San Francisco (4:15 PM) [Line: 49ers by 6]
Most football writers are predicting the Seattle Seahawks to finish last in the NFC West. And with Tarvaris Jackson as the team’s new starting quarterback, that makes sense. This looks like a rebuilding year.
The San Francisco 49ers have usually been predicted to finish second or third in the NFC West, depending on who you talk to. Jim Harbaugh is the new head coach (a reason for optimism), but Alex Smith remains at quarterback (a reason for pessimism).
RJ’s Pick: San Francisco by 13
Minnesota at San Diego (4:15 PM) [Line: Chargers by 8.5]
The Minnesota Vikings are likely to finish last in the NFC North, according to the majority of football analysts who don’t have a crush on QB Donovan McNabb. RB Adrian Peterson would be a wise choice for your fantasy football team.
The San Diego Chargers are viewed as the favorites to win the AFC West. This team has the potential – when you look at the talent they possess on both sides of the ball – to make a Super Bowl run.
RJ’s Pick: San Diego by 20
Carolina at Arizona (4:15 PM) [Line: Cardinals by 7]
The Carolina Panthers will finish dead last in the NFC South, according to most football analysts. Ron Rivera is the new head coach, replacing John Fox. Number one overall draft pick Cam Newton will be starting at quarterback. Look for DE Charles Johnson to have another very good year.
The Arizona Cardinals are predicted to be competitive in the NFC West this season. Kevin Kolb is the new starting quarterback. The offensive line is a concern. RB Beanie Wells could have a breakout year…or he might not.
RJ’s Pick: Arizona by 15
Dallas at New York Jets (8:20 PM) [Line: Jets by 4.5]
The New York Jets are widely expected to finish behind the Patriots but compete for a Wild Card berth. Plaxico Burress is an interesting addition at wide receiver. QB Mark Sanchez will need to improve his accuracy in order for the Jets to make another deep run in the playoffs.
Most football prognosticators are predicting the Dallas Cowboys to finish second in the NFC East behind the Eagles. I believe they could win the division, with a healthy Tony Romo at quarterback and Rob Ryan in as the new defensive coordinator.
RJ’s Pick: Dallas by 3
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 12
New England at Miami (7:00 PM) [Line: Patriots by 7]
The Miami Dolphins are expected to be mediocre and miss the playoffs again this season. QB Chad Henne throws too many picks, and the addition of RB Reggie Bush does not inspire confidence.
The New England Patriots are – as usual – predicted to win the AFC East and have a serious shot at a Super Bowl appearance. Reigning MVP Tom Brady had a passer rating of 111.0 last season. That will be tough to improve on. It will be interesting to see how new Patriot WR Chad Ochocinco performs, both on the field and off.
RJ’s Pick: New England by 14
Oakland at Denver (10:15 PM) [Line: Broncos by 3]
Football analysts have had a difficult time predicting how the Oakland Raiders will fare this season. Some say they are destined for last place; others think they can compete for a Wild Card berth. They lost their best cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha in the offseason. They also lost TE Zach Miller, who caught 60 passes for the Raiders last season. Hue Jackson is their new head coach, replacing Tom Cable.
The Denver Broncos are widely expected to finish in either third or last place in the AFC West. Kyle Orton will start at quarterback, but I suspect he will be replaced by Tim Tebow around midseason.
RJ’s Pick: Oakland by 1