NFL Cheat Sheet: With Week 1 upon us, expect some surprises out of the gate
The NFL regular season is finally here.
And so is the sixth year of the NFL Cheat Sheet on FOXSports.com. Every week, we’re going to give you picks for every game, analysis where we can, nuggets for you to drop at the water cooler, and answer your reader emails.
I’ve already been clobbered for predicting 10 wins from the Cowboys, a third-round pick out of Pittsburg State as my Offensive Rookie of the Year, and a playoff season for the Geno Smith-led Jets. I’ve got some pretty thick skin.
What are we waiting for? Let’s do it.
CHEAT SHEET WEEK 1 TRIVIA QUESTION OF THE WEEK
Since 2011, Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson is one of two NFL players with more than 200 receptions and more than 30 receiving touchdowns who also averaged 15 yards per reception. Who is the other player? (Answer at Bottom)
THROWBACK JERSEY OF THE WEEK
Each week, we’ll direct you to a throwback jersey worth purchasing. I found this beauty over the summer, a Cedric Benson alternate blue Packers jersey.
Now, on to the picks.
Season Record: Blank slate, baby!
Green Bay at Seattle: Two of the most electrifying players in the league will be featured in this one, and I’m not even talking about Aaron Rodgers, Richard Sherman, Clay Matthews, or Russell Wilson. I’m talking about Percy Harvin and Randall Cobb. Harvin’s finally fully healthy and not nearly enough has been made of what he’ll bring to an already strong offense. Expect Darrell Bevell, Harvin’s offensive coordinator in Minnesota when the receiver had his career year in 2011, to utilize the $12 million man in the slot, on the outside, and potentially even the backfield. The city of Seattle’s been rocking all week, kicked off by an NFL-organized 5K run that drew thousands of fans on Monday afternoon. I have the Packers winning the Super Bowl this year. But I don’t have them winning this one. Oh, and one request. Can we get a pre-game interview with Lance Easley? Or at least a mention of his name? Who’s Lance Easley, you ask? He’s the replacement official who was responsible for the botched “Fail Mary” call two years ago in the “Monday Night Football” game between these two teams. He wrote a book in the months after the referee strike ended. It’s called “Making the Call: Living With Your Decisions” and I’ve read it.
The Pick: Seahawks 27, Packers 23 (actual score: Seahawks 36, Packers 16)
Jacksonville at Philadelphia: They say the NFL is a fraternity, but in one case this weekend, it actually is. It features two former fraternity brothers squaring off in Philadelphia. Jaguars offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch was a graduate assistant at Florida under Steve Spurrier in the late 90’s. His roommate in the Tau Epsilon Phi house down in Gainesville? Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman. This one’s for all the TEP brothers out there. I’m taking Chip Kelly with an entire summer to prepare a game plan over just about anyone in this league. Brother Roseman will get the best of Brother Fisch.
The Pick: Eagles 30, Jaguars 23
New Orleans at Atlanta: Which Falcons team are we going to get? The one that was one big play away from the Super Bowl in 2012? Or the one that was the softest team in the league in 2013? I’m banking on the former. A healthy Julio Jones, a healthy Roddy White, and a revamped offensive and defensive line should be enough to get Atlanta back in contention for an NFC South title. If everyone’s healthy -- and at this moment, they are -- I’ll take the Falcons and the home crowd over a very good Saints team.
The Pick: Falcons 31, Saints 24
Minnesota at St. Louis: Let me make one thing clear. Shaun Hill isn’t some scrub off the scrap heap. If anything, he was a sought-after free agent in 2014. If Josh McCown didn’t sign with Tampa Bay back in March, there was a good chance Hill would have. I say all this because I don’t think the 2014 Rams season was necessarily lost when Sam Bradford re-injured his ACL in the team’s third preseason game. Yes, Bradford was slinging it this summer before the injury, but Jeff Fisher’s squad wasn’t planning on winning the NFC West on the strength of Bradford’s arm (or the ligaments in his knee) this year, anyway. He’ll give the team a chance to win every game they’re in. And with that D? That could be enough.
The Pick: Rams 20, Vikings 16
Cleveland at Pittsburgh: Ben Roethlisberger has a 17-1 record (.944 winning percentage) all-time vs. Cleveland and is 9-0 in home games versus the Browns. Think that’s going to change this weekend? I don’t. “Manziel Watch” is still on. As of Wednesday, the big question surrounding the Browns was still if/when we’ll first see a “Johnny Package” in which he enters the game. I’ve got bigger questions. Like, who’s catching passes for Cleveland? And is Brian Hoyer even any good? I see this one getting out of hand early on. Give Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau an entire summer to prepare for two untested quarterbacks -- with the starter having been in the facility as a member of the team for a short while -- and I’ll take my chances.
The Pick: Steelers 27, Browns 13
Oakland at New York Jets: I couldn’t imagine a more pressure-packed situation for a rookie quarterback than the one Derek Carr is facing in Oakland. Head coach Dennis Allen and general Manager Reggie McKenzie are now entering their third years in their respective positions, and there’s an expectation from the fan base for the team to do more than merely take the field. Oakland spent big bucks on a list of free agent veterans this offseason that looked more like the NFL’s version of “The Expendables” than a Super Bowl team. Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley, Antonio Smith, Maurice Jones-Drew, Matt Schaub, Carlos Rogers and James Jones have all seen better years than the ones they had in 2013, but that made no difference for the Oakland front office. It’s rare to see one of the oldest teams in the league at every other position go with a first-year signal caller. All the seats are hot in Oakland, there’s a veteran locker room he’s got to answer to, and the schedule has six games against three division opponents that made the playoffs a season ago, and four games versus the loaded NFC West. Good luck, rook. The Jets front seven -- arguably the best in the entire league -- should have a field day with Carr on Sunday.
The Pick: Jets 17, Raiders 9
Cincinnati at Baltimore: The AFC North should come down to these two teams down the stretch and I can assure you that Baltimore still has a bitter taste in its mouth for the way its season ended Week 17 in Cincinnati a season ago. The Achilles' heel for this Ravens team will be its safety play and I can see the Bengals exploiting that early and often. Baltimore’s expecting big things out of rookie safety Terrence Brooks, but the youngster out of FSU probably isn’t ready to step into that role just yet. Second-year man Matt Elam needs to be better, and Darian Stewart, the expected starter at free safety, is a giant question mark. Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson know all this. Look for a few deep balls -- early on -- to do Baltimore in on Sunday.
The Pick: Bengals 27, Ravens 23
Buffalo at Chicago: The Bills’ quarterback room has looked more like a carousel ride than a place of employment. In three weeks, the Bills have released veteran quarterbacks Dennis Dixon, Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel. They’ve also signed and released Jordan Palmer, brought back Tuel on to their practice squad, and inked a deal with Kyle Orton. Oh, and along the way, their starting quarterback -- EJ Manuel -- wasn’t voted as one of six team captains by his teammates. If it all goes terribly this season, at least there’s a quarterback-rich draft class coming into the league in 2015. Of course, the Bills have already traded that pick to the Browns in the Sammy Watkins deal last May. So, yeah, how about those Sabres?
The Pick: Bears 31, Bills 16
Washington at Houston: In a game that features so many big name stars -- RG3! J.J. Watt! Jadeveon Clowney! DeSean Jackson! -- I can’t wait to see what D.J. Swearinger has up his sleeve for Week 1. Who? The Texans safety, that’s who. Though he’s not a household name yet, I’ve taken some informal polls around the league this summer, and he’s one of those guys that just gets under everyone’s skin. The guy who Peyton Manning gladly paid a fine to taunt. The guy who Harry Douglas lost his cool over in Falcons-Texans joint practices a few weeks back. The guy who talks so much junk out there that head coach Bill O’Brien had to defend him in a press conference. Once upon a time, these guys were all over the league. They’d talk all game and back it up on the field. Now, we’ve got Richard Sherman and … D.J. Swearinger. Look for Romeo Crennel’s defense to put the clamps on RG3 and to squeak out a Week 1 victory.
The Pick: Texans 23, Redskins 20
Tennessee at Kansas City: I know we don’t usually take too much time to recognize preseason kicking battles, but there’s a few good storylines heading into this one. After five rather successful (and accurate) years in Kansas City, the Chiefs released veteran kicker Ryan Succop last Saturday. They went with undrafted rookie Cairo Santos out of Tulane, instead. Santos, believed to be the first Brazilian-born player to ever make an NFL opening-day-roster, lost his father in a tragic stunt plane accident last September. He was a long shot to make the team this summer, but simply out-kicked the veteran and earned the job. So, what happens to Succop? Well, he promptly signed with the Titans this week. Who plays each other this weekend? Ding. Ding. Ding. How do I see it ending? You got it. Succop from 50 yards away for the Titans’ win.
The Pick: Titans 20, Chiefs 17
New England at Miami: The Patriots are 63-17 in regular-season AFC East games since 2001, the best division record of any team in the NFL. They’re even more impressive on opening weekend. New England has won 10 straight Week 1 games, with four of those coming on the road. I’ve heard a lot about the new-and-improved Dolphins. Well, the Patriots should be even better this year, too. Give me Bill Belichick and six months of preparation.
The Pick: Patriots 34, Dolphins 17
Carolina at Tampa Bay: My guy Joseph Person at the Charlotte Observer said the flak jacket and shoulder pads Cam Newton’s been wearing this week made him look like “Robocop”. That doesn’t sound too good. I’m also of the belief that it’s going to take a few weeks for Newton and his new receivers to find a bit of a rhythm. I can’t stress just how good and how young this Buccaneers defense is, too. Last year, Carolina was the young defensive unit that came together and made a splash. This season, it’s Lovie Smith's and Leslie Frazier’s Bucs. I like Tampa over the defending division champions in this one.
The Pick: Buccaneers 23, Panthers 20
San Francisco at Dallas: The 49ers haven’t looked the part this preseason and there are legitimate question marks at several key positions. Meanwhile, I think the Dallas offense could be the best outside of Philadelphia in the NFC, and their defensive personnel this season may fit the 4-3 better scheme than who they had on the roster a season ago. My guy to watch? Linebacker Rolando McClain, a former first round pick who hasn't played in a meaningful game since 2012. Out of football a year ago at this time, Mclain may be the most important piece to the Cowboys D this season. I know everyone else seems to think the sky is falling in Dallas. If Tony Romo’s healthy this season, they’re going to put up big points. Terrence Williams and Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Gavin Escobar, coupled with one of the top offensive lines in the game, and DeMarco Murray in the backfield should get it done. Look for them in my upset special on Sunday.
The Pick: Cowboys 34, 49ers 24
Indianapolis at Denver: Fun way to wrap the first Sunday of the season, and I like Denver to get the best of Indianapolis in a shootout. Wes Welker’s absence could be felt, but I loved what I saw out of both Emmanuel Sanders and rookie Cody Latimer when I visited Denver this summer. I believe Robert Mathis -- the defensive lineman who led the AFC in sacks a season ago -- is a bigger loss to Indianapolis than Welker is to Denver. Give me the defending AFC champions in a wild one up in Mile High.
The Pick: Broncos 38, Colts 34
New York Giants at Detroit: I’ve gone back and watched the Giants’ preseason games and it’s safe to say their 5-0 record wasn’t exactly indicative of the way the team performed. A lot will be made of Eli Manning, the new offense, and how he’ll adapt to new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, but I’m almost more concerned about that offensive line. David Diehl, Chris Snee, and Shaun O’Hara aren’t walking through those doors anytime soon and the center and both offensive guard spots will be played by first-time Giants on Monday. Ndamukong Suh could have a field day and don’t be shocked if Nick Fairley makes some hay, too. It could be a very long night for Eli and the Giants.
The Pick: Lions 24, Giants 16
San Diego at Arizona: I’ve been hyping up Cardinals rookie wide receiver John Brown all summer and I think Monday night -- for those on the east coast still awake to see it -- will be his national coming-out party. A third-round pick out of Pittsburg State, expect Brown to be in about 60 percent of the offensive snaps and to make at least one big play. The Cardinals feature one of the best receiving trios in the league, a stout defense, and are an incredibly well-coached team on both sides of the ball. They won’t make mistakes. San Diego made the playoffs a season ago, but Arizona was the better team. They will be on Monday night, as well.
The Pick: Cardinals 34, Chargers 23
I watched “The Big Catch”, the NFL preview show on FOX with you and Randy Moss and Brian Urlacher, and couldn’t get over how bad of a fisherman you were. I know you said it was your first time fishing, but I can’t see that as being true. Are you American, man? Who grows up in this fine country and doesn’t pick up a fishing rod at least once in his life? Where’d you grow up? Guam? Shameful. And oh yeah, tell Randy--Straight Bass Homie!
I will tell Randy you say hello. As for me, I grew up in Central New Jersey, where we hung out at the mall, went to the movies, and listened to music on our Walkmans. I can tell you every player on the 1989 Chicago Cubs roster (Vance Law, hello!), can recite just about every lyric on Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album, and can take a charge on the basketball court as good as, if not better than, Shane Battier. But I can’t fish. Didn’t do it as a kid, and never picked it up as an adult. Not my thing. Didn't grow up by a lake, never cared to find one, and certainly didn't feel like I was missing out. No shame, here, and I must say -- I had a great time with Brian, Randy, and Joel Klatt on the open water. Next time, I’ll be better. And if next year’s Fox Sports 1 NFL preview show happens to takes place in a 1980’s video game arcade and not a fishing boat -- I’ll kick all of their butts.
CHEAT SHEET WEEK 1 TRIVIA ANSWER
Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers