Week 1 is for defying expectations. Spare me the talk about all the potential "upsets" that could happen this week when there is so little separating most NFL teams. With the possible exception of Washington visiting Philadelphia, most of the matchups on the opening slate are much closer to a coin flip than the talking heads admit.
That's one way of saying that no one has any clue what's going to happen in any week, but especially this one. So let's have some fun previewing the best week on the NFL calendar, the one where stale offseason assumptions go to die, the one with the longest horizon of glorious football stretching in front of us.
SUNDAY, SEPT. 8
1 p.m. ET (FOX) | Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte, N.C.)
Great coaches adjust. The Panthers' Ron Rivera, author of one of this decade's most consistent defenses, transitioned this offseason into incorporating more 3-4 looks to fit his personnel and make Carolina's unit tougher to prepare for. Rams coach Sean McVay will undoubtedly tweak some of the offensive hallmarks that defined his first two Rams teams, possibly with fewer three-wide formations or more shotgun snaps. But the Rams' foundation of throwing play-action passes while creating advantageous matchups through pre-snap disguises should remain, as will Rivera's ability to maximize talent in the secondary. Great coaches don't change what makes them great.
I expect to see both of these teams in the playoffs. Cam Newton's foot sprain shouldn't be a major factor, but its impact on Carolina's red-zone rushing is just enough for me to give the slight edge to L.A., with McVay out to prove he's long past adjusting from the Super Bowl loss.
1 p.m. ET (FOX) | Lincoln Financial Field (Philadelphia)
While these organizations are uneven in so many ways, the battle up front when the Eagles have the ball will reveal much about where both squads are headed in 2019. If Eagles left tackle Jason Peters and right guard Brandon Brooks put their injury concerns aside well enough to handle the Redskins' rugged defensive line, led by Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, Philadelphia's offense will look primed to steamroll its schedule. If the Redskins' compelling front seven has any chance of keeping its team in playoff contention, the 'Bama big uglies need to dominate.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Monday he expects Brooks, linebacker Nigel Bradham, cornerback Ronald Darby and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox to return to the field after the quartet collectively missed much of August rehabbing various injuries, a major boon for a team that is also welcoming back quarterback Carson Wentz and safety Rodney McLeod from season-ending ailments. Better injury luck may be all the Eagles need to earn a playoff bye.
1 p.m. ET (CBS) | MetLife Stadium (East Rutherford, N.J.)
This early heat check for two young coaches and their younger quarterbacks is a sign of the changing AFC East times. It might just be the most interesting division game not involving the Patriots since Buffalo's Drew Bledsoe and New York's Chad Pennington faced off 15 years ago. Sean McDermott's defense entering Year 3 should have an advantage over Adam Gase's offense entering Game 1. The underrated Bills secondary, led by safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, can limit big plays, while Sam Darnold and his new caddy, Ryan Kalil, will have their line protections challenged by a Bills pass rush bolstered by the ninth overall pick in the 2019 draft, Ed Oliver. When Buffalo has the ball, the new backfield of Frank Gore and rookie Devin Singletary should have a similarly difficult time dealing with the Jets' stout line, even if No. 3 overall pick Quinnen Williams rotates off the bench.
All this defense could lead to a final score that resembles so many others in the previous dreary decade of AFC East play, but the playmaking quarterbacks on both sides make this one far more watchable.
*1 p.m. ET (FOX) | U.S. Bank Stadium (Minneapolis) *
Dalvin Cook's arms quietly made the case for Preseason MVP last month. New Vikings maestro Gary Kubiak could make the case for Assistant Coach of the Year in the coming weeks. Kubiak, Minnesota's assistant head coach/offensive advisor, has something better than the coordinator title: hiring power. Kubiak brought offensive line coach/running game coordinator Rick Dennison (who spent two seasons with Kubiak in Denver) to Minnesota, and their success building strong running games and improving line play is nearly without equal this century. The Vikings, with first-round center Garrett Bradbury, have enough O-line talent to transform a major weakness into a strength, making Kirk Cousins' life easier.
This matchup sets up as a terrific first showcase for these new Vikings. The Falcons' defense flies around, but it is often soft up front under coach Dan Quinn. Atlanta's defense also has a habit of starting the season slowly. Beating Matt Ryan and friends usually requires a shootout, and the Vikings are now built to win high-scoring affairs.
*1 p.m. ET (CBS) | Hard Rock Stadium (Miami Gardens, Fla.) *
The Dolphins' offensive line, which wasn't exactly the Seven Blocks of Granite a year ago, is dramatically diminished: Miami traded left tackle Laremy Tunsil last week after allowing right tackle Ja'Wuan James to walk in free agency. The Ravens' defensive front seven was similarly reduced after C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs and Za'Darius Smith signed elsewhere in March, but that doesn't make this an equal matchup when Ryan Fitzpatrick steps behind center for the Dolphins on Sunday.
While Miami's latest biannual exercise in a total organizational shift has support from the analytics community, the Ravens have a time-tested infrastructure in place. They know how to replace departed talent, they know how to cover up weaknesses and they know what their players can do best. They know their secondary is still deep as hell. The Dolphins are winging it.
1 p.m. ET (CBS) | TIAA Bank Field (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Week 1 is often about unknowns. But the explosive Chiefs offense -- the best in the AFC -- is a known quantity by now. So is the Jaguars' defense -- the best in the AFC -- which is loaded for battle, especially along the D-line, where rookie Josh Allen is providing new flexibility.
It's easier to imagine the Jaguars' defense slowing down reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes because the unit did it a year ago. Mahomes was picked off twice during a game in which the Chiefs' offense scored just 23 points, recording its third-lowest offensive efficiency of the regular season, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA. This game, then, could come down to Nick Foles versus Steve Spagnuolo's Chiefs defense. These are the unknowns. While the Jags' offense and the Chiefs' defense should show meaningful progress this year, I'll take a regular-season MVP over a Super Bowl MVP any day.
1 p.m. ET (CBS) | FirstEnergy Stadium (Cleveland)
Hype versus anti-hype. Tasty (Baker Mayfield) versus flavorless (Marcus Mariota). Boundless potential versus 9-7 'Til Infinity. Strip away the narratives, and these teams aren't so mismatched, although Tony Romo isn't spending the weekend in Cleveland to watch the Titans.
The best chance for a Tennessee upset is for Mike Vrabel and Dean Pees' defense to grow up fast in Year 2. Their deep veteran secondary can compete with Cleveland's weapons, and the Titans' linebacker corps (Cameron Wake, Harold Landry, Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown) could expose the Browns' biggest team weakness: the offensive line. Look for Tennessee to keep it close, but picking against the Browns in this opener would be like picking against Santa Claus on Christmas.
4:05 p.m. ET (CBS) | ROKiT Field at Dignity Health Sports Park (Carson, Calif.)
These are not the same Colts and Chargers teams everyone expected in June. The Bolts are missing three of their cornerstone players in left tackle Russell Okung, safety Derwin James and running back Melvin Gordon. The Colts are embarking on something called The Jacoby Brissett Era.
There was reason to expect some regression from the Chargers after they finished last season 12-4, based predominantly on their record in close games (5-1 in matchups decided by 7 points or less). The missing players only exacerbate that concern, with an offensive line that collapsed late last season looking even worse with Okung on the non-football illness list. It's fair to wonder whether the Colts have the right pass rushers to take advantage, just like it's fair to wonder if the team's exuberant rallying around Brissett just makes for good preseason copy. If it is, I'm buying what Chris Ballard, Frank Reich and T.Y. Hilton are selling.
4:05 p.m. ET (CBS) | CenturyLink Field (Seattle)
Traveling to Seattle isn't such a bad opening assignment for incognito Bengals coach Zac Taylor. New Seahawk Jadeveon Clowney will still be learning the playbook and getting into game shape. Even following the outrageous pilfering of the Texans, Pete Carroll is coaching up a top-heavy defensive line and a shaky Seahawks secondary. Rookie receiver D.K. Metcalf is coming off knee surgery for one of the league's thinnest wideout groups.
Taylor wants to construct long drives based on short Andy Dalton throws, while the Seahawks' defense is willing to give up yardage in an effort to prevent big plays and look for turnovers. Combine that with Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's new-wave run-run-pass offense, and you have a recipe for a close game filled with long field goal drives and late Russell Wilson heroics. Same as it ever was!
4:25 p.m. ET (FOX) | Raymond James Stadium (Tampa, Fla.)
49ers linebacker Kwon Alexander gets the rare opportunity for a Week 1 revenge game in a new uniform. He's part of a boom-or-bust 49ers defense full of players returning from injury, including No. 2 overall pick Nick Bosa. They will try to stop Bruce Arians' boom-or-bust offense, which figures to include plenty of deep strikes and plenty of hits on quarterback Jameis Winston.
Winston is two years younger than Jimmy Garoppolo, with 44 more career starts. But they occupy a similar place in the NFL landscape, needing strong seasons to ensure they keep their current gig. No final score in this game would surprise me unless it included a shutout.
4:25 p.m. ET (FOX) | AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas)
For more than two decades, the Cowboys have struggled to handle success. The gap between making the playoffs and its inherent challenges appears smaller in Texas than anywhere else. Ezekiel Elliott, who's unlikely to be ready for a full workload after ending his holdout on Wednesday, could be in a similar boat as the many Cowboys who are easing their way back from injury. That list includes cornerback Byron Jones, guard Zack Martin and defensive linemen DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford. From the Giants' perspective, this could be a good week to catch the 'Boys.
Then again, every week could be a good week to catch this Giants defense. There are few expectations for Big Blue this year, perhaps why this matchup is a late-afternoon game rather than the traditional Al and Cris Invitational. The Giants don't have much of a pass rush, the linebackers can be blown off the ball and the secondary is uneven at best. Coach Pat Shurmur's best chance at escaping Dallas with a win will be for Saquon Barkley to make an early statement. The 2018 Offensive Rookie of the Year is the best back in the division, if not the league.
4:25 p.m. ET (FOX) | State Farm Stadium (Glendale, Ariz.)
In a week full of unknowns, there are no offenses more mysterious than Arizona's and Detroit's. Envisioning Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury's take on an NFL attack is mostly guesswork because he didn't show much in the preseason. The Lions under new coordinator Darrell Bevell have a similarly opaque identity. Will they go run-heavy like Bevell did in Seattle or get funkier like he did with Brett Favre in Minnesota?
Bevell and Matthew Stafford couldn't ask for a better opening assignment. With all the attention on Kingsbury's offense, it's been easy to miss that the Cardinals' defense may be the most poorly constructed group in football. This is what happens when teams change coaches and schemes every year, then lose three starters to suspension (Patrick Peterson), injury (Robert Alford) or release after an arrest (Darius Philon) before the season even starts. Arizona's offensive line also is overmatched by Detroit's D-line talent. Expect this Matt Patricia season to get off to a better start than last year's Week 1 disaster against the Jets.
8:20 p.m. ET (NBC) | Gillette Stadium (Foxborough, Mass.)
Mike Tomlin's defense should be ahead of the Patriots' offense, a sentence that hasn't often been uttered over the last decade. (Although it was also true in Week 15 last season, when the Steelers held the Patriots to 10 points in a game that should have ended Tom Brady's streak of playoff byes.) This Patriots offense is undercooked. Ted Karras is expected to start at center for David Andrews, who will miss the season. Brady didn't get much practice time in August with his top receivers (Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon, Demaryius Thomas) and the Patriots routinely spend September figuring out what they have and what they don't.
Tomlin's group is flying high after a productive camp where rookie Devin Bush emerged, Pittsburgh's strong defensive line stayed healthy and the team's young secondary talent stepped up. The Patriots should be similarly optimistic about their defense's prospects with a potential hotshot new play-caller named Bill Belichick and the deepest linebacker group and secondary since Willie McGinest patrolled the field. The Patriots love to accumulate information and find advantages within. Week 1 has the smallest body of work to learn from. Those were the many reasons the Steelers are dangerous, yet picking against Brady in Foxborough remains a fool's errand.
MONDAY, SEPT. 9
7:10 p.m. ET (ESPN) | Mercedes-Benz Superdome (New Orleans)
There's no logical reason for the Saints to miss the playoffs. There are illogical ones, like, "Hey, it's football!" and "Drew Brees will fall off a cliff" after one of his best overall seasons. The Saints' defense has never been more talented, and the star power alongside Brees has never shined brighter. With 13 wins, this group would match the Sean Payton/Brees era's 2009-2011 peak in regular-season victories. But the regular season only means so much to these Saints, which brings up another illogical theory about potential struggles: Only the playoffs matter to this heartbroken fan base.
The Texans' problems are easier to diagnose. Even after the tsunami of Texans trades last week improved the team's 2019 outlook, Bill O'Brien is still coaching a top-heavy roster with depth-chart potholes on the offensive line, at tight end and in the secondary. The process to acquire Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills was problematic, but that doesn't quell my excitement to see Deshaun Watson play with this group of pass-catchers, including trade acquisition Duke Johnson. Expect a fireworks show.
10:20 p.m. ET (ESPN) | Oakland Coliseum (Oakland, Calif.)
Long live the Week 1 nightcap. Matchups like this one -- involving two fascinating, if incomplete, roster renovations -- should make the case for more doubleheaders on the "Monday Night Football" schedule. Jon Gruden, fresh off his star turn on "Hard Knocks," transitions back to his previous (and future?) TV property on ESPN with a vastly improved arsenal of players around Derek Carr.
This is a tricky first test in Carr's season-long audition to make it to Las Vegas. While Gruden spent much of the last decade chopping it up with Mike Tirico, Broncos coach and defensive play-caller Vic Fangio was cutting the latest offensive trends down to size. The pass-rushing duo of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb should force Carr into making too-quick decisions and Fangio will disguise coverage behind them. The leap from dreadful to entertaining has already taken place in Oakland, but the leap to winning consistently may take more time.
Soldier Field (Chicago)
A lot can change in a year. Bears coach Matt Nagy went from an unknown Andy Reid acolyte to the reigning NFL Coach of the Year. Packers coach Matt LaFleur journeyed from an unproven play-caller for a mid-level Titans quarterback to an unproven play-caller for a two-time MVP. The Bears quickly transformed from huge underdogs in last season's opener against the Packers to NFC North favorites in 2019. It's not a crown, awarded because of an unsustainably brilliant defense, that I expect them to wear well.
One matchup in this game that hasn't changed is Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's DB-heavy group facing Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky. No team used six defensive backs more often, and the safety duo of rookie Darnell Savage and former Bears starter Adrian Amos should help unlock Pettine's coverage options for a Green Bay group that held Trubisky to 6.44 yards per attempt over two games a year ago before it underwent a dramatic personnel upgrade this offseason. What better way to kick off the NFL's 100th season of unpredictability than to start it just like the 99th, with Aaron Rodgers leading a comeback victory in this rivalry.
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