The NFL Week 1 Undercard

The NFL season kicks off tonight, and with it TheSportsNotebook’s weekly game previews begin. The format for previewing each week will be as follows—We’ll start with an opening preview of the midweek game (normally Thursday nights) and include the undercard games of Sunday, which will be defined as those just being shown to the local market. Then on Friday we’ll come back with a preview of the nationally televised games, the four on Sunday (two early, one late, one prime-time) and Monday night. Here we go with NFL Week 1…

Dallas-NY Giants (Wed night, 8:30 PM ET, NBC)
The Cowboys are back to the scene of the crime in a lot of ways here. Their season came to an end in a winner-take-all finale at the Meadowlands in the final Sunday night game of the season in 2011 when the Giants took the NFC East and springboarded to the Super Bowl. Just a couple weeks earlier, Dallas coughed up a home game to New York that made the finale necessary. Jerry Jones has done some trash-talking in the offseason about how they’re going to beat the Giants. They might do it in Big D later this season, but I just see a lot of problems for the Cowboys tonight.

These season-opening games tend to work to the advantage of the home team. Unlike the NBA, which has a record of the defending champ getting its props from the home crowd and then dumping the opener, the Super Bowl champ has fared well since the NFL started this tradition of having them host the season opening game in prime-time. Green Bay won last year, New Orleans before that, Pittsburgh prior to that, the Giants as defending champs in 2008. That’s just off the top of my head.

In addition to the emotional advantage, Dallas has got matchup problems. The interior of the offensive line is very weak. While the Cowboys can seal the edge with Doug Free and Tyron Smith, I’ll be curious to see if the Giants try stunts that get Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck some pass-rushing opportunities up the middle on Tony Romo. Dallas is further banged up at the skill positions. Jason Witten’s not going to play and a short pass to the tight end would be Romo’s best exit strategy against the pass rush. Demarco Murray and Dez Bryant probably will, but contrast that with the Giants’ perfect health. Put all this together and it’s tough to see New York not winning the opener.

We should note that most of the previous openers I mentioned have been close, so if you do believe in Dallas, the fact you’d be getting (+4) on the Vegas line might be attractive. But  at night’s end, it’s New York that prevails in the battle of two cities who need a distraction from potentially seeing their baseball teams blow big divisional leads.

The best two games on the Sunday undercard are:

Atlanta-Kansas City—I like the Chiefs this season and they are playing at home, but they are also without outside linebacker Tamba Hali, who was suspended one game for a minor drug infraction. Given the Chiefs’ one weakness is the corners, that the Falcons can spread the field as well as anyone with Roddy White and Julio Jones and now Hali is not on hand to rush the passer and it looks like Kansas City better hope for a windy day that prevents Matt Ryan from throwing the ball. Maybe if this were November. Not in September and the Falcons open up strong.

Buffalo-NY Jets: Rex Ryan has reclaimed defensive play-calling duties this year after surrendering the job a year ago and the word is that New York’s going to get back to blitzing more, especially up the middle with David Harris and Calvin Pace. I’m skeptical of the Jets’ overall defensive talent, but nearly as skeptical as I am of the Buffalo offensive line. New York will get to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the track record is clear that mistakes happen when Fitzpatrick is pressured. Darrelle Revis can lock down on Steve Johnson and take away the one weapon the Bills have for big plays. I’ll leave the Sanchez-Tebow speculation for another day—and the one million other media outlets already dealing with it. The Jets, in spite of their flaws, in spite of their quarterback situation, match up well with Buffalo at home.

Other games in the 1 PM ET time slot…

Indianapolis-Chicago: The porous Colt offensive line deals with Julius Peppers and Israel Idonjie at the edges of the Bears’ 4-3 pass rush and the results are likely to get ugly. Andrew Luck will spend the game running for his life and I’m setting the early Over/Under on sacks at 4.5—and taking the Over.

Philadelphia-Cleveland:  Cleveland’s offensive line is almost as mismatched as Indy’s although at least left tackle Joe Thomas can make sure that of the numerous hits rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden is going to take, there won’t be many from the blind side. This should still be a field day for a talented Eagle front four.

Jacksonville-Minnesota: No two running backs got more attention this training camp than Maurice Jones-Drew and Adrian Peterson, one for his holdout, the other for his rapid recover from knee surgery. It looks like we’ll see very little of Jones-Drew and none of Peterson, though that’s all subject to change the next few days. It’s an interesting game from this standpoint—both teams are pretty good in both lines, both teams have young quarterbacks trying to overcome skepticism and both teams lack playmakers outside of the running backs. The guess here is that Jaguar receiver Justin Blackmon, a first-round pick, makes an immediate impact against the soft Viking secondary and tips the balance.

St. Louis-Detroit : Any chance the Rams have for the road upset depends on exploiting a questionable Lion offensive line and with touted rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers unlikely to play, their ability to do that is hindered. And even with Brockers, the Lions have too many weapons and too many expectations to lose a game like this at home.

Miami-Houston: The Texans are going to win this game—Andre Johnson should be able to beat a problematic Dolphin secondary and the aggressive Houston defense is going to give Ryan Tannehill a “welcome to the NFL kid” kind of afternoon. But I find the gambling angle on this one interesting—Houston’s a hefty 13-point favorite, the biggest spread of Week 1 and Miami has a good team in both lines and at linebacker. They may have zero chance of winning this game, but a team that hit in the trenches can often find ways to keep games respectable. I’m weaseling out of an actual pick against the spread here, but Miami is a team I would at least keep an eye on to offer value in spots like this.

The non-marquee 4 PM ET games…

Seattle –Arizona: Arizona can keep this game close thanks to a pretty good defense, and as much as I like Russell Wilson at quarterback for the Seahawks, he’s going to have to play conservative to avoid the possible game-changing play from someone like corner Patrick Peterson. But Seattle’s offense can at least trade jousts with the Arizona defense, whereas it becomes a complete mismatch in the Seahawks’ favor when their own defense takes the field. A season-long quarterback controversy in Arizona starts here as the visitors pressure John Skelton into mistakes and pull away.

Carolina-Tampa Bay: I share the general optimism about Carolina, but also feel like Tampa Bay’s going to have a bounceback year, aided considerably by quality free-agent pickups like Vincent Jackson, Dallas Clark and Carl Nicks. With Tampa playing at home, I’m taking the Bucs to pull the outright upset (albeit a modest upset, as the Panthers are favored by 2.5).

The prime games of Week 1 that we’ll look at Friday are…
CBS Early: New England-Tennessee
Fox Early: Washington-New Orleans
Fox Late: Green Bay –San Francisco
Sun Night: Pittsburgh-Denver
Mon Night: Cincinnati-Baltimore & Oakland-San Diego