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Week 1 NFL cheat sheet
In all of my years watching NFL football, I can’t recall a more intriguing Week 1 slate than the one that awaits us. Of the 16 games in the docket, there’s not a single easy "gimme" pick. Are you in one of those survivor pools? Good luck. To be certain, Las Vegas doesn’t have a single Week 1 spread larger than a touchdown at the moment. In fact, half the games feature spreads that are just 3 points or less.
What’s it all mean? Well, that NFL football is back and the world is all right. Along with an incredible college football Saturday and the U.S. Open semifinals and finals, this weekend is what being a sports fan is all about. Have a friend's birthday party you committed to months ago? Cancel it. Thinking about taking the lady out for a nice 10th anniversary dinner? Push it to Tuesday. Promised your daughter you'd take her to see that "Nanny McPhee" sequel? Nanny McPhee will have to wait. She takes a backseat to Willis McGahee.
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10 hard-hitting predictions for 2010
2. The New York Jets, everybody’s favorite to win the Super Bowl in July, start the season off with back-to-back losses at home to Baltimore and New England and ultimately fail to make the playoffs.
3. Green Bay's Jermichael Finley emerges as the league’s premier tight end in his third NFL season, catching 90 balls, scoring double-digit touchdowns, and winning millions of American men fantasy league titles nationwide.
6. The Bills finish with the league’s worst record and draft either Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett or Washington QB Jake Locker with the first overall pick in next April’s draft.
8. Both receivers named
9. Of all the big-name rookie safeties in the NFL this season — Eric Berry, Earl Thomas, Nate Allen, Taylor Mays — it’s Cleveland’s T.J. Ward who has the best first-year campaign.
10. Everybody’s darlings, the Houston Texans, fail to qualify for the postseason for the ninth straight year.
Offensive Rookie of Year: Ryan Mathews, RB, San Diego Chargers
Defensive Rookie of Year: Rolando McClain, LB, Oakland Raiders
NFL Comeback Player of Year: Mike Williams, WR, Seattle Seahawks
NFL Coach of Year: Tom Cable, Oakland Raiders
AFC Championship: Ravens over Colts
NFC Championship: Saints over Cowboys
Super Bowl: Ravens over Saints
WEEK 1 CHEAT SHEET
Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
Cleveland at Tampa Bay: The combination of Mangini and Holmgren in Cleveland is like some sick Frankenstein-ish football experiment, equal parts Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, features just three active players over the age of 30 and one of the youngest coaching staffs in the entire league. Give me Jake Delhomme, the preseason’s most impressive player not named Victor Cruz, in a tight one down in Tampa. Then give the Bucca-tween-eers some sliced oranges and a The Wiggles CD to listen to afterward in the locker room.
Miami at Buffalo: After Scott Norwood missed wide right in Super Bowl XXV, Bills head coach Marv Levy read a poem to his defeated team: “'Fight on my men,' Sir Andrew said, 'a little I'm hurt, but not yet slain. I'll just lie down and bleed a while and tomorrow I'll rise to fight again.'" The poem resonated with his veterans and every time those early '90s Bills squads suffered a setback or a major disappointment — and as you could imagine, there were many — a player would undoubtedly post ‘Sir Andrew’ on a locker room wall. Alas, the 2010 Bills are going to need a hell of a lot more than a poem to be competitive. They absolutely stink. Sir Andrew wouldn't have paid to watch this squad. Miami wins big on Sunday.
The Pick: Dolphins 31, Bills 13
Cincinnati at New England: Lots of hype around “Batman and Robin” out in Cincinnati this summer. There are even T-shirts of the dynamic duo being sold online. But the two Bengals receiving targets I’m most excited about aren't Batman or Robin, but rather, the Big 12 rookies — Jordan Shipley and Jermaine Gresham. Look for all four players — Ochocinco, T.O., “Ship,” and “Gresh” — to have big days against an inexperienced Patriots secondary. In the end, though, Brady and Welker get the last laugh.
The Pick: Patriots 27, Bengals 24
Indianapolis at Houston: The Texans are a lot like the actor James Franco. The media absolutely loves Franco, everyone in the “industry” tells me he’s uber-talented, and we’ve been reading for years that he’s the most important and transcendent male actor of his generation for years. But aside from a few glimpses ("Milk," “Freaks and Geeks”), I’ve never really been all that impressed with his work. I mean, he’s all right, I guess.
But does he belong in the same conversation with the DiCaprios, Pitts and Philip Seymour Hoffmans of the world? No. If James Franco was an NFL football team, he’d be a steady 8-8 or a 9-7. In other words, he’d be the Houston Texans. The Indianapolis Colts? Well, they’re Robert DeNiro. I can’t pick James Franco over Robert DeNiro, and that’s regardless of how many yards of offense James Franco compiles through the air.
The Pick: Colts 31, Texans 21
Atlanta at Pittsburgh: Matt Ryan spent the entire offseason in the film room, studying the four quarterbacks he admires most — Manning, Rodgers, Brady, and Rivers — and charting every single one of their plays from the 2009 season. Ben Roethlisberger spent his offseason ... well, never mind. As Roethlisberger watches from somewhere (hopefully not a bar in rural Georgia? OK, I'm done.), Ryan leads a revved-up and prepared Falcons team into Pittsburgh for an intriguing battle. If this game was in November, I’d take Pittsburgh at home. In September? Give me Ryan and that high-flying Falcons defense over Dennis Dixon. Watch out for Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud. He's poised for a breakout 2010 season.
The Pick: Falcons 26, Steelers 17
Denver at Jacksonville: Is there any doubt that there will be more Tim Tebow jerseys being worn in EverBank Field — both Florida and Denver ones — on Sunday than all of the Jaguars players combined? Unlike Tebow, Maurice Jones-Drew is expected to start this weekend. Vegas seems to like that fact enough to have the Jags listed as favorites. Denver’s been stung with a rash of bad luck this summer, but I think the Broncos will do just as they did in last year’s season opener at Cincinnati: They find a way to win in the closing moments.
The Pick: Denver 27, Jacksonville 24
Oakland at Tennessee: Though it took a lot of courage, I went public with my love for the 2010 Raiders last week, deeming them my official sleeper pick. Your emails were at times humorous, other times just downright cold (For the record, yes, Al Davis is still running the team. And yes, he’s still alive.) But for as much as I love rookie Rolando McClain and Jason Campbell this season, I’m taking the Titans at home in this one.
The Pick: Titans 24, Raiders 17
Carolina at New York Giants: The Panthers came to East Rutherford in Week 16 of last season and converted 10 of 15 third downs as Jonathan Stewart rushed for 206 yards and a touchdown in a 41-9 win. The real player of the game, though, was unheralded Panthers quarterback Matt Moore, who went an efficient 15-for-20 for 171 yards and three touchdowns. Don’t think the Giants defense — now, finally healthy — hasn’t watched that game tape a few dozen times this offseason. Look for New York to come out angry and hungry, opening up the New Meadowlands Stadium with an impressive victory. As for the Panthers? They failed to score an offensive touchdown in their first 42 possessions of the preseason. I don’t put much stake in preseason numbers, but that one’s pretty glaring.
The Pick: Giants 24, Panthers 13
Detroit at Chicago: Some of my favorite romances of all-time — Vinny Chase and Mandy Moore, Spencer and Heidi, Jake and Vienna — ended in heartache. Sadly, I think this Mike Martz/Jay Cutler marriage — something I’d genuinely love to see work out — is already headed down the same path. The Bears offense looked dreadful this preseason as Cutler threw behind receivers consistently, and was sacked 10 times in three games and intercepted twice. Without a premier offensive line or any trusted wideouts (no, Devin Hester is not Torry Holt), Mike Martz’s timing offense just isn’t the same. If the Bears lose on Sunday, they’ve got dates with Dallas, Green Bay, and New York up ahead. That’s more than likely an 0-4 start. Fortunately, I think they survive a scare from the much-improved Lions at Soldier Field. That is, of course, if Cutler doesn’t spend the entire afternoon on his back and Ndamukong Suh doesn't rip his head off.
The Pick: Bears 28, Lions 20
Sunday, 4 p.m. ET
Arizona at St. Louis: Sam Bradford’s NFL debut makes this the rare Rams-Cardinals game with a bit of national intrigue. But it’s tough to get too excited about any team that’s gone 6-42 over the past three NFL seasons. The Cardinals, on the other hand, start the post-Warner/Boldin/Dansby/Rolle/Leinart Era (the “PWBDRL Era”, if you’re keeping track at home) with lots riding on the cannon arm of Derek Anderson. As any Browns fan will tell you, good luck with that. The Ravens and Falcons won the debuts of Flacco and Ryan in 2008. Mark Sanchez won in his debut in 2009. Hell, even Ryan Leaf won in his NFL debut back in 1998. Give me Bradford in a fourth quarter comeback. The Rams equal their win total from last season in Week 1.
The Pick: Rams 20, Cardinals 17
Green Bay at Philadelphia: Any time I see Green Bay at Philadelphia, I think of 4th-and-26. Seven years since that famous 2003 divisional round fourth-down conversion, Donovan McNabb is a Redskin, Brett Favre is a Viking, and Freddie Mitchell is ... well, does anyone know where Freddie Mitchell is? Hello? Anyone? The fact is, a lot has changed since that fateful day. Now it’s Kolb vs. Rodgers. I’ll give Round One of this budding rivalry to the guy everyone’s picking as their 2010 NFL MVP, Mr. Rodgers. America, meet Jermichael Finley. He's going to go bonkers.
The Pick: Packers 34, Eagles 24
San Francisco at Seattle: My pick for the NFL 2010 Comeback Player of the Year is not 49ers quarterback
The Pick: 49ers 27, Seahawks 23
Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET
Dallas at Washington: There was already one great football game played on FedEx Field this week. How about another on Sunday night? This one’s full of question marks. For Washington, there are still lingering questions about Donovan McNabb’s health, Albert Haynesworth’s head, and who exactly will be running the ball when it matters most. For Dallas, there are concerns over an all but nonexistent first-team offense during the preseason, the left tackle spot, and both starting safety positions. I expect Felix Jones to do some things early, then Marion Barber to grind it out late. Give me Dallas in a tight one.
The Pick: Cowboys 23, Redskins 17
Monday, 7 p.m. ET:
Baltimore at New York Jets: Michael Strahan said it best Monday night when he tweeted to his 7 billion or so followers, “An HBO Show Doesn’t Make You #1!” He’s right. Nor does Darrelle Revis, John Conner, or a wide angle shot of Woody Johnson, Rex Ryan, Mike Tannenbaum, and Braylon Edwards side-by-side-by-side-by-side jogging in unison on treadmills. Super Bowls are won on the field, and for as impressive as last season’s playoff run was, the 2009 Jets were still a 9-7 team helped out by two squads giving them games in Weeks 16 and 17, Mark Sanchez still threw 8 more interceptions than touchdowns, and ... well, HBO shows don’t make you No. 1 All the Jets hype is great for New York and I’m glad the same women that loved Carrie and Miranda on HBO now know Tony Richardson’s name. But I’ll take the Ravens on Monday night. Unlike the Jets, Flacco and the Baltimore offense actually looked good over the past few weeks.
The Pick: Ravens 31, Jets 17
Monday, 10:15 p.m. ET:
San Diego at Kansas City: Though I think the additions of Charlie Weis, Dexter McCluster and Eric Berry will significantly improve the Chiefs' record and overall watchability (new word!), I don’t think they’re the playoff team I’ve seen a lot of pundits peg them as this season. I do think they’ll give the Chargers a game in Arrowhead. In the end, though, look for Rivers to Floyd in the corner of the end zone a few times. Ryan Mathews runs wild in his rookie debut and San Diego prevails in an old-school AFC West shootout.
The Pick: Chargers 41, Chiefs 31
Reader Email of the Week:
What’s with the Bieber haircut on my guy, Tom Brady? I was okay with the faux-hawk a few years ago, but this is really too much. What happened to the days of Johnny Unitas and the buzz-cut? I don't even understand Justin Bieber. Is his music even any good?
-- Doug T., Stamford, CT
What happened to the buzz-cut?! It’s no longer with us dude, along with PF Flyers and the 8-track. Get with the times, my man. Embrace the Bieber. After all, what are your other choices? An Aaron Rodgers mustache? TheCharlie Whitehurst 1990s Vidal Sassoon commercial look ? That Friar Tuck thing that Tebow was sporting? Trust Tom Brady. He usually seems to know what he’s doing. As for Bieber's music? Well, I'm a Mike Posner man, myself.