Division matchups spice NFL openers

September 6, 2014

The NFL has spiced up the end of the regular season with a steady diet of division matchups. It hasn't done a bad job of juicing the opening weekend with just that, too.

New England is at Miami in a very early AFC East showdown, while the entire AFC North faces off, with Cincinnati at Baltimore and Cleveland at Pittsburgh. The NFC South has the same setup, with New Orleans at Atlanta and Carolina at Tampa Bay.

''It's a great opportunity for us to have another growing step,'' Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth said of visiting Baltimore, where Cincinnati has dropped its past three games.

''We've talked about it over the years. We've had this little step here or that little step there where this team's continued to improve. But we haven't won in Baltimore.

''So what a great opportunity for us to go and try to get that milestone out of the way.''

It's also a critical game in what could be the tightest three-team race in the league. Of course, Pittsburgh would need to avoid stumbling against Cleveland to validate its place in that race.

Yet the main focal point at Heinz Field could be whether Johnny Football gets to play any football. Will first-round pick Johnny Manziel, a backup to Brian Hoyer, get some snaps at quarterback for Cleveland?

''I said that I expect them to utilize him in some way during the course of the game,'' Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. ''I didn't say they were going to start him.''

The season kicked off Thursday night when defending champion Seattle ran around, over and through Green Bay, 36-16. Marshawn Lynch rushed for 110 yards and two touchdowns, Russell Wilson threw a pair of touchdown passes, and the Seahawks kept Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' offense off-balance much of the night. Rodgers threw for only 189 yards.

Also Sunday, it's Indianapolis at Denver in the only matchup of 2013 division winners; San Francisco at Dallas; Jacksonville at Philadelphia; Buffalo at Chicago; Washington at Houston; Minnesota at St. Louis; Tennessee at Kansas City; and Oakland at the New York Jets.

The Monday night doubleheader has the New York Giants at Detroit, followed by San Diego at Arizona.

New England at Miami

Tom Brady remembers the Patriots' trip to Miami last December, although he'd prefer to forget it: a 24-20 defeat.

''We put a lot of work in over the course of the offseason and the summer to put ourselves in a position to capitalize on this game,'' Brady said. ''There's not much more you could ask for than to have such a great opportunity.''

Miami's revamped offensive line, coming off the bullying scandal, will be a focal point.

New Orleans at Atlanta

Here's an immediate chance for the Falcons to show 2013 was a fluke. They'll have to come up with a running game, better blocking and certainly a stingier defense, beginning with this meeting against their archrivals.

It's a tough assignment, particularly trying to slow the Drew Brees-to-Jimmy Graham combination.

Carolina at Tampa Bay

There's a school of thought that the Panthers are headed downward after a surprise division title, and the Bucs under new coach Lovie Smith are ascending. This opener could reveal plenty, and Panthers QB Cam Newton is on the mend from a rib injury.

Two of the league's best linebackers will be on display, 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly for Carolina and Lavonte David for Tampa.

Indianapolis at Denver

No question that Peyton Manning vs. Andrew Luck belongs in the Sunday night game. Spotlighting the Broncos always makes sense, particularly coming off that shellacking in the Super Bowl.

Ignoring Indy's chances would be unwise, though. Since Luck replaced Manning, the Colts have been on the rise.

''To be honest, even since Day 1 here, it hasn't been an issue. I never came in saying, `Oh, I have to replace a legend, one of the greatest of all time,''' Luck said. ''Professional sports people, they come and they go. Someone's going to replace me eventually, hopefully later rather than sooner.''

San Francisco at Dallas

For once, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones isn't talking Super Bowl. He could be talking first pick in the draft after this season, especially if Dallas is as weak defensively as many project.

San Francisco's defense has been hit hard at linebacker by injuries (All-Pro NaVorro Bowman) and suspension (Aldon Smith). There's a sense the 49ers have taken a step back, so a top-level performance Sunday would temporarily silence some critics.

Jacksonville at Philadelphia

We're already gasping for air in anticipation of the pace the Eagles play in Chip Kelly's second season as coach. Most intriguing is how much Philly gets from Darren Sproles, a perfect fit for this offense and a great partner for All-Pro RB LeSean McCoy.

The big question with the Jaguars: How soon does No. 3 overall draft pick QB Blake Bortles play?

Buffalo at Chicago

An awful offseason for Buffalo, including the death of owner Ralph Wilson, a Hall of Famer, couldn't end soon enough. The regular season doesn't show a lot of promise, either. Also, and a meeting with the seemingly vastly improved Bears doesn't bode well. The Bills' new prize, wideout Sammy Watkins has rib issues.

If Chicago's defense, with the additions of Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston, can complement the strong offense featuring Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte, the Bears could make lots of noise in the NFC.

Washington at Houston

Bounce-back themes rule for two teams that plummeted last season and made coaching changes. The Redskins' offense under Jay Gruden will be designed to keep Robert Griffin III in the pocket more often, but without completely constricting his running skills.

Houston needs its talented defense, led by star end J.J. Watt and top overall draft choice Jadeveon Clowney, to revitalize the franchise in Bill O'Brien's first year at the helm.

Minnesota at St. Louis

With Rams QB Sam Bradford (knee) gone for the season, a conservative attack is likely for St. Louis. When opponents have the ball, the Rams will unleash what could be a tenacious pass rush led by Robert Quinn.

To combat that, the Vikings need Adrian Peterson to perform as he did in his 2012 MVP year. That certainly could happen.

Tennessee at Kansas City

The Chiefs began last season 9-0 before slumping, and they did little to the roster in the offseason because of salary cap constraints. They do have some dangerous difference makers in RB Jamaal Charles and LB Justin Houston, and coach Andy Reid re-established his excellent credentials last year.

Ken Whisenhunt takes over in Tennessee with a young team featuring plenty of changes. One constant: strong safeties in Michael Griffin and Bernard Pollard.

Oakland at New York Jets

The Raiders have lost 13 straight games in the Eastern time zone.

Second-round pick Derek Carr gets the start at quarterback over Matt Schaub, and he'll face a Rex Ryan defense that figures to make him uncomfortable and perplexed. But the Jets have deficiencies in the secondary, so if Carr gets some time, he could have a successful debut.

New York needs to unleash its three-pronged running game behind Chris Johnson, Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell to prosper.

New York Giants at Detroit, Monday night

Eli Manning and the Giants are adjusting slowly to the West Coast offense installed by new coordinator Ben McAdoo. Even though the Giants won all five preseason games, their starters did little with the ball.

Under new coach Jim Caldwell, Detroit needs to be more disciplined. The talent is there to be a contender.

San Diego at Arizona, Monday night.

A nice way to finish off the opening weekend. The Chargers closed with four wins to make last season's playoffs and then won a wild-card game at Cincinnati. If their pass defense has improved, they could reach the postseason again.

The Cardinals won 10 games and it got them only a quick trip home in the tough NFC West. Another 10-win season might not be enough again.


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