By Jeff Risdon
Football is back baby!
For those new readers wondering about the concept here, it’s pretty simple. During my extended tenure at Ohio University, I minored in climatology and would have had a degree in meteorology if I felt I could have passed physics.
I remain obsessed with weather all these years later, and there is a great symbiotic relationship between forecasting the weather and picking football games. You can plug in all the pertinent information and come out with a very good idea of what is going to happen. You can simulate computer models that produce outcomes with pretty strong degrees of certainty. But you cannot hope to nail the little variables that can dramatically alter the outcome.
In weather, it’s an unexpected drop in pressure, or the wind coming from a different angle, or the morning clouds lingering longer than expected.
In football, it’s an injury to the left tackle, or an official making a tough call, or a kickoff return by the underdog that punches the favorite in the mouth and the bleeding never stops.
The first week is always one of the toughest slates to forecast. While it’s fashionably correct to say “ignore the preseason”, it’s damn hard in reality. It’s also hard to gauge expectations and outcomes for teams that have new coaches, new quarterbacks, new defensive schemes, or in some cases (hello Oakland!) all three. So the write-ups here will be shorter and less analytical than most weeks. While it’s not monkeys with darts, it’s not exactly differential equations either.
Last season: 176-80, my best season yet.
Sunny Game of the Week:
San Francisco at Green Bay: Green Bay’s defense absolutely stunk last season. They aggressively sought out improvements in the draft, using their first three picks on immediate contributors in Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy, and Casey Hayward. They also get healthy returns from a couple of colossal disappointments of a year ago, BJ Raji and Tramon Williams, both of whom were more bothered by nagging injuries than they let on. I strongly believe the Packers defense is going to come out and make a statement in front of the home fans. It helps that I don’t think the Niners offense is going to be very good, with a beyond-his-prime Frank Gore, a well-beyond-his-prime Randy Moss, and Alex Smith coming off a career year he won’t come close to replicating. I like Green Bay to throw down the hammer and pronounce they are the team to beat by pounding San Francisco, a trendy Super Bowl pick with a great defensive front that figures to offer a stiff challenge. Look for Aaron Rodgers to attack early and often and the Packers defense to score a first half TD. Green Bay 29, San Francisco 10.
Miami at Houston: One of my weekly features is my survivor game fantasy pick of the week. You know, the contest where you pick one winner every week but you cannot pick the same team more than once all season. I was strongly considering using the Texans here, and this is probably the safest way to go, but there’s something strangely unpredictable about the Dolphins that makes me pause. I think their defense might give a rusty Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson some issues, and Miami should be able to rush the passer some. If they can force some turnovers and keep Arian Foster from more than one double-digit run, they’ve got a chance to keep Ryan Tannehill in the game. Alas, I have a real hard time seeing a rookie QB with this middling receiving corps playing under a rookie head coach playing on the road against a defending division champion pulling off the upset. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the season’s first run-on sentence and a Texans 24-10 opening win.
Indianapolis at Chicago: What to do with a rookie #1 draft pick quarterback making his first start on the road? Let’s look back at a recent few…
Cam Newton: 24-for-37, 422 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT and a rushing TD in a 28-21 loss at Arizona
Matt Stafford: 16-for-37, 205 yards, 0 TDs, 3 INTs in a 45-27 loss at New Orleans
Sam Bradford: 14-for-25, 167 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT in a 16-14 loss at Oakland
JaMarcus Russell: 7-for-23 83 yards, 1 TD, 3 INTs in a 49-11 loss at Jacksonville
Alex Smith: 8-for-16, 92 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT in a 52-17 loss at Washington
Eli Manning: 12-for-25, 113 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs in a 31-7 loss at Washington
What do all those have in common? Losses. Even Cam Newton’s literally incredible debut a year ago resulted in a loss to an Arizona team that didn’t win again until November. My prediction for Andrew Luck: 25-for-36, 272 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs in a 37-20 loss to the Bears in my survivor fantasy game pick of the week.
Philadelphia at Cleveland: The Browns will start four rookies on offense: QB Brandon Weeden, RB Trent Richardson (if healthy), WR Josh Gordon, and RT Mitchell Schwartz. Twenty-six of the 53 players on the active roster are in their first or second years in the league, making them the least experienced unit in the NFL. They catch a break with top corner Joe Haden being available on appeal of his suspension. They do not catch a break, however, with the schedule makers. Philly is loaded with skill position talent, pass rushing talent, and the motivation to avoid another terrible start that scuttled Dream Team aspirations of a year ago. Riding a big fantasy game from LeSean McCoy, a focused Eagles team with superior veteran talent cruises to a 30-13 road win.
Pittsburgh at Denver: I can spin this matchup any number of ways, but there is an overwhelming bottom line here that cannot be ignored. Peyton Manning is not going to lose his first game in Denver, his triumphant return to the field against his historical nemesis. The Roman God of Football, Testicles (pronounced test-eh-cleez), will simply not allow any other outcome. Denver 26, Pittsburgh 24.
Washington at New Orleans: Much like Testicles will not allow Peyton Manning to lose his home debut and triumphant return from neck surgery in Denver, there is no freaking way the Roman God of Football allows the Saints to lose this game at home. Drew Brees & Co. will be amped beyond belief to make a statement that they will not be thwarted by the Bountygate scandal and associated suspensions. They also have a sense of civic duty to bring joy back to the lives of so many in the region who are trying to piece their lives back together after another devastating hurricane, a job the Saints take quite seriously. It’s also a road game for a rookie QB making a debut. The Skins are going to be better than you might think, and Robert Griffin III will be a good one, but this is a near-impossible draw for an opener. New Orleans 24, Washington 17.
Buffalo at New York Jets: Very tough opening draw for the Jets, for a couple of reasons. First, Bills coach Chan Gailey knows himself some gimmick offenses like the Wildcat; he’s one of the most innovative and creative offensive minds in the game. Second, the Bills defense looks to be very difficult to attack with a “ground and pound” mentality, especially with the lackluster Shonn Greene at running back, no reliable vertical passing game to ease the safeties out of the box, and Buffalo having one of the most talented defensive lines in the league. No team needs an opening weekend win more than the Jets, who are already in desperation mode. I think that plays to their advantage, as does their sleepwalking through the preseason. Buffalo should be better but this Jets defense has a chance to be special. I think they show that here and get a couple of big plays from The Sanchize on what will be an otherwise statistically meh game. Jets 19, Bills 13.
St. Louis at Detroit: As a Lions fan, I’m more than a little worried about this game. If it’s possible to have a trap game for an opener, this is it. The Rams have a new coach, a seemingly awful offensive line, two rookies playing in the secondary, a receiving corps that makes Miami’s seem talented, and it’s at home in front of the Ford Field faithful ready to blow the lid off after the first playoff season in over a decade. Easy win right?
As Lee Corso would say, “not so fast my friend”. The Rams still have Steven Jackson, the type of powerful runner with vision that is going to give the Lions fits. They have a solid defensive line and James Laurinaitis clogging the middle. The starting corners, Cortland Finnegan and rookie Janoris Jenkins, have a chance to be very good and they (should) play a physical style that could give receivers not named Calvin Johnson trouble. I can easily see the Lions being overconfident, especially at home. In Stafford I trust, but not as much as I would like. Lions 36, Rams 28.
New England at Tennessee: What is with Bill Belichick’s obsession with tight ends?!? Every single TE on the waiver wire or hitting the street finds refuge in Foxboro. Kellen Winslow, Daniel Fells, Michael Hoomanawanui, Viasnthe Shiancoe, all have worked out or signed for a team that already has two excellent tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. They also have a tackle in Nate Solder who can capably play tight end as well. I get the feeling if Belichick had his way he would run an offense with Brady, Welker, two fullbacks, and seven tight ends all as eligible receivers. Tennessee has a pair of talented tight ends in its own right, but Jared Cook and Taylor Thompson have yet to demonstrate they can go mano a mano with the dynamic duo in New England. This one could be a shootout. New England 34, Tennessee 28.
Seattle at Arizona: The Cardinals opened as 2.5 point favorites when this game was first posted back in June. But a funny thing happened on the way to the ticket window. Seattle seemingly solved its QB quandary with rookie Russell Wilson, who tore it up during preseason with a panache and headiness that belies his inexperience and lack of height. On the flip side, Arizona vacillated between the timid Kevin Kolb and the erratic John Skelton at QB, both of whom were inferior to 6th round rookie Ryan Lindley in preseason action. I like Arizona’s defense quite a bit, but I like Seattle’s defense against Skelton even more. The Seahawks are now three-point favorites thanks to the QB fluctuation and I’ll follow the money. Seattle 20, Arizona 17.
Carolina at Tampa Bay: It’s always difficult to forecast how a team fares with a new coach making a radical cultural change like what Greg Schiano is trying to do in Tampa Bay. They could be markedly improved, but they’ll have to be to slow down Cam Newton. Last year Newton produced 8 TDs in the two contests versus the Bucs, four on the ground and four in the air, as the Panthers won by a combined 86-35 margin. It’s a great week to have Newton in salary cap fantasy games, though asking for four TDs might be greedy. Carolina 31, Tampa Bay 20.
Jacksonville at Minnesota: I’m very anxious to see the progress of the two starting QBs here. Rookies a year ago, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder have both looked better this preseason and promise to have stronger sophomore seasons. I’m also anxious to see how two of the best RBs in the game, Adrian Peterson and Maurice Jones-Drew, perform under circumspect circumstances. Peterson is coming back very quickly from knee surgery, while MJD is a handful of days off a puzzling contract holdout that blew up in his face. On a gut hunch, I’ll take the Jaguars to pull the mild upset on the road…but only against the four-point spread. Vikings win but fail to cover, 21-20.
Atlanta at Kansas City: This is another game where the line has moved substantially. When the books opened this was a pick ‘em game, but a strong preseason performance by Falcons QB Matt Ryan and WR Julio Jones convinced the money to flock to Atlanta, even on the road. Having Kansas City’s top pass rusher, Tamba Hali, suspended for this game probably had something to do with that as well. I’ll follow the big money and flock to the Falcons, albeit tentatively. Atlanta 27, Kansas City 23.
Cincinnati at Baltimore: Get set for a defensive struggle as these two returning playoff teams from the AFC North square off. The Bengals have injury issues at running back, and during the preseason it sure looked like something was wrong with stud LT Andrew Whitworth. Even with Terrell Suggs out, the Ravens will be able to beat the Whitworth we saw in preseason and give Andy Dalton trouble. I see this one coming down to which playmakers can make the most plays, and I’ll take Ray Rice and Ed Reed at home over AJ Green on the road. Ravens 16, Bengals 14.
San Diego at Oakland: Four years ago on the opening Monday night, my daughter Elizabeth was born. I’ll never forget lying in the hospital room with my beautiful infant daughter snuggled into my arms, my incredible wife beaming from her maternity bed, enjoying the bliss of being a father for the second time. It was a truly magical scene that is forever etched into my memory. That night the ladies of my family and I flipped on the Monday Night Football matchup between these Raiders and the Broncos, indoctrinating our little Lizzie to the football family. The Raiders got annihilated 41-14 that night, a brutal effort that still stains my memories from that night. Was it really too much to ask for the Raiders to show up on such a joyous and momentous life occasion? Happy 4th Birthday Elizabeth! Here’s hoping the Raiders don’t lay down another meconium stain and keep this one interesting. Chargers 20, Raiders 17.
Drinking in the Dorm Room Games
Pretty middling slate of games here…
Iowa State 28, Iowa 25
Florida 20, Texas A&M 17
LSU 32, Washington 6
Nebraska 27, UCLA 24
Mississippi State 30, Auburn 24