NFL Analysis: The Four National TV Games Of Week 1

There are four games in NFL Week 1 that the nation will see, starting in the late afternoon window on Sunday afternoon and rolling through the now-traditional Monday Night Football doubleheader on ESPN. TheSportsNotebook’s NFL analysis concludes it’s Week 1 coverage with a look at the four money games…

As we did in our previews of the 12 Week 1 undercard games on Sunday, or on the high-profile Baltimore-Denver Thursday night opener, TheSportsNotebook will post the moneylines for each team involved—their odds of winning outright, and make a pick on each game. The visiting team is always listed first.

GREEN BAY (+180) SAN FRANCISCO (-220) (4:25 PM ET, Fox)

Joe Buck and Troy Aikman are in the booth to call what’s now kind of a grudge match in the NFC. These are two teams that have both been Super Bowl contenders each of the last two seasons. They’ve got an extensive playoff history, in the 1990s, and built on last season. And they’re both in what we’ll call “The Gang of Five”, the early betting line favorites to reach this year’s Super Bowl (along with Seattle, Denver and New England).

Green Bay’s offensive line was a problem area in the 2012 season, and it only got worse with the loss of tackle Bryan Bulaga for the season. I don’t see how the Packers are going to block Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks attacking on the edges of the 49ers’ 3-4 defensive scheme.

Packer coach Mike McCarthy likely has to resort to last year’s tactic of rolling his pocket, but that in turns cuts the available space to Aaron Rodgers in half. But if the coach doesn’t want Rodgers himself cut in half I’m not sure what other choice there is…unless rookie running back Eddie Lacy, an Alabama product, can make something happen. There will be games when Lacy’s talent will overcome the lack of an offensive line, but I’m not persuaded that the 49er game would be one of those times.

San Francisco looked to juice up its passing game by signing Anquan Boldin away from the Baltimore Ravens. Boldin is getting up there in years and won’t stretch the field. But he is a big, possession target and he bailed out Joe Flacco a lot of times last season. With the Packer secondary a little hicked up—nothing serious long-term, but a potential problem on Sunday—Boldin could have himself a nice day.

The media attention is going to understandably be on the Packer defense’s efforts to defend Colin Kaepernick on the read option, after the 49er quarterback ran wild in last year’s second-round playoff win. I think this is an overblown story—the read option was new to the NFL in 2012 and the Packers had a week to prepare. Now they’ve had a year.

I think they’ll contain Kaepernick from running like crazy, but the issue is going to be whether that comes at the expense of pressure (almost certainly), and whether the quarterback can then use the defensive passivity to play at a high level of efficiency (we’ll see).

The 49ers beat the Packers in last year’s opener and again in the playoffs, and I don’t see a lot of reasons on paper to think that would change, especially in Frisco. There is the legitimate question about beating a good team with a great quarterback three times in the same calendar year, which is what this would amount to. But it’s not a compelling enough reason for me to not pick the home team to hold serve here.

NY GIANTS (+155)-DALLAS (-175) (8:30 PM ET, NBC)

Two enigmatic quarterbacks, two questionable lines and two franchises who went into the offseason frustrated over late season failures that cost them each a playoff berth. One team will have even louder questions by the end of Sunday night, while another will get a one-week respite.

Eli Manning and Tony Romo are both roller-coasters, but in different ways. Romo is a wild up-and-down ride, the”Romo-Coaster” as he’s been called. But he also completes a high percentage of his passes and does it with impact, getting the ball down field to Dez Bryant and Miles Austin. Manning, on the other hand, is just to erratic with his completion percentages. His inconsistency is easier to predict, if that makes the slightest amount of sense.

The New York defensive line was a disappointment last year, and we need to see Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck establish a pass rush on the ends of their 4-3 scheme, especially Pierre-Paul. The Cowboy offensive front is not so much a question mark—we already know the answer, and they’re just bad. The issue will be whether Jason Garrett can find a way to coach around it, something not easy to do.

Both teams have question marks with the running game. With Dallas, it’s a direct consequence of their lousy offensive front. The Giants still have a stable, veteran line, but never really got any consistency going in the backfield. That needs to change this season, and a road environment against a potentially explosive passing offense would be a good place for Tom Coughlin’s team to start controlling the trenches.

I don’t have a strong opinion on this game, but I’ll take a flyer on the underdog here. If it’s a close, I have every confidence Romo can implode at the wrong time. And if he’s hot, I won’t have to wait long to know my pick isn’t going to win.

PHILADELPHIA (+165)-WASHINGTON (-185) (Monday, 6:55 PM ET, ESPN)

Robert Griffin III makes his return, as his “All In For Week 1” ad campaign of the summer has been vindicated. He hasn’t played a preseason game though, and I suspect it will take the quarterback a little time to get his sea legs under him. The Redskins were a much different—and better—team in the second half of 2012, and I expect the same to be the case this year.

What I do want to see is if the Washington defense will be better now that outside linebacker Brian Orakpo is back in the fold. With both Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan at outside linebacker, the ‘Skins have the potential to pressure the passer from both sides, something they did not have last year, and it showed in the poor numbers posted by the pass defense.

With Michael Vick a little older, and more mistake-prone if he gets on the run, the Redskins should not hesitate to attack, and risk possible breakdowns in containtment. Against a younger Vick, I wouldn’t suggest that, but right now I want to make Vick prove he can still destroy a team outside the pocket. My guess is he’d make some plays, but a few of those would be fumbles or interceptions.

We also need to see if Washington will get the same kind of quality running from Alfred Morris they did a year ago, when the rookie went for over 1,600 yards and finished second to Adrian Peterson in the rushing totals. Given Mike Shanahan’s historical track record in developing a running game, this partisan Redskins fan is optimistic.

I’m leery of this game, given we don’t know how up to speed RG3 will be, and even with Orakpo, the ‘Skins defense is never going to dominate anyone. But with a running game, a defense that should at least be competent and a homefield crowd, I expect Washington to get a win.

HOUSTON (-220)-SAN DIEGO (+180) (Monday, 10:15 PM ET, ESPN)

The one downside to a Monday night doubleheader is that the second game has to be on the West Coast, and that’s led to too much Chargers and Raiders in this time slot over the years. This year is no exception, as this game is far more about whether Houston can be taken seriously as a Super Bowl contender.

If the Texans are going to take the next step, they need to provide some help to two of their stars, receiver Andre Johnson and defensive end J.J. Watt.

Houston drafted DeAndre Hopkins to line up opposite Johnson and the Clemson product has to show he can give Matt Schaub a reliable second target and second big-play threat, something the Texans have been lacking. And Houston’s outside linebackers—Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus—have to show they can get after the quarterback and loosen up the pressure on last season’s Defensive Player of the Year.

San Diego’s biggest question is simple—does Philip Rivers have his arm back? The quarterback looked like a pitcher who’d lost his heat a year ago, and new head coach Mike McCoy needs to find out right away if Rivers can still be a premier quarterback or if a new solution has to be found.

This is an area where I think Houston is just too big a favorite given their question marks. I’ll take a flyer on the Bolts, just to try and cash on that +180 number.