NFL Week 1 cheat sheet
Welcome back for another season of the weekly NFL Cheat Sheet on FOXSports.com.
If you’re a returning customer, you know this column is good for a few “Bachelorette” comments a season, a handful of Howard Stern references (“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Stop the clock!”), and more than a fair share of quirky stats and NFL factoids. Occasionally — very occasionally — we’ll provide accurate predictions, too (2010 overall record: 158-98). We pick winners each week (OK, that wasn't the case in the Saints-Packers opener Thursday, though we did expect a shootout), share your best emails and do some trivia. It’s fun. It's glorious.
Let’s dig into Week 1:
The last quarterback other than Peyton Manning to start a game for the Indianapolis Colts was Jim Harbaugh in Week 17 of the ’97 season. Harbaugh was knocked out of that game twice by Minnesota Vikings defenders. Which former Browns and Bills quarterback replaced him in the lineup that afternoon? (See below for answer.)
Sunday’s 1 p.m. ET games
Falcons at Bears: I’m traditionally skeptical of August media darlings. Every year there’s a team that fell short in the previous postseason that has the pundits foaming at the mouth in August. They’ve grown! They’ve matured! They’ve addressed needs! Almost always, that team falls short of expectations. Everyone — and I mean everyone — has the Falcons going deep into the playoffs this season. Gimme the Bears in the rare Week 1 defending division champion home “upset.”
The pick: Bears 23, Falcons 16
Steelers at Ravens: Despite three trips to the playoffs in three years as the team’s starter and four impressive playoff victories on the road, Joe Flacco still has never beaten Ben Roethlisberger head to head in an NFL game. Big Ben went 3-0 vs. Baltimore in Flacco’s rookie campaign, missed the Steelers’ loss to the Ravens in ’09 because of injury, and missed last year’s Week 3 loss because of his four-game suspension. That streak comes to an end on Sunday, with Flacco connecting with Lee Evans late for a go-ahead touchdown.
The pick: Ravens 23, Steelers 17
Eagles at Rams: One of my favorite things to do prior to the start of a new season is attempt to predict which Week 1 storyline the national media is going to go overboard with on that first Monday morning. This year? “The Dream Team is overrated!” storyline is going to dominate airwaves after Sam Bradford and the Rams knock off the Eagles. I already can hear Skip Bayless screaming at no one in particular on ESPN2 Monday morning about Super Bowls “not being won in August.” Yes, I think the Rams will win this one. But no, I don’t think it’s the end of the world if Philly loses.
The pick: Rams 27, Eagles 17
Lions at Buccaneers: Nobody loved the Baby Bucs last year more than me. The youngest team in the league in 2010, Raheem Morris’ kids came just one win shy of a wild-card berth. This year? The schedule’s far more difficult, they’re not sneaking up on anybody, and the lack of a real offseason will only hurt a team so young. I like the Lions in this one; a matchup between two of the three quarterbacks taken in the first round of the 2009 Draft.
The pick: Lions 27, Buccaneers 17
Bills at Chiefs: The last time the Bills played the Chiefs in a game of actual significance, Joe Montana and Jim Kelly were the starting quarterbacks and Tag Team’s “Whoomp! (There It Is)” was the No. 1 song in America. Last year’s matchup wasn’t quite the 1993 AFC championship game, but The Bills gave the Chiefs a real scare, nearly toppling the AFC West champs in an overtime thriller last Halloween. This year, KC — with Matt Cassel suiting up, bruised ribs and all — takes care of business in regulation.
The pick: Chiefs 24, Bills 16
Bengals at Browns: The Browns and Bengals may very well be two of the best teams in the NFL … in 2015. Alas, 2011 will mark another rebuilding year for two of the league’s youngest squads. Marvin Lewis says he likes this year’s Bengals squad and expects them to be better than 2010’s, but I just don’t see it. The Browns aren’t all that much better, but they’ll take care of business at home on Sunday. Browns fans, savor the win. It might be the only time your squad is above .500 all year.
The pick: Browns 16, Bengals 14
Colts at Texans: Here’s a good fact, courtesy of the guys at the 18 to 88 Colts blog: Since 1988, every defense Wade Phillips has taken over has shown statistical improvement in the following season. Here’s a better fact, courtesy of me: The Colts stink without Peyton Manning under center.
The pick: Texans 31, Colts 16
Titans at Jaguars: I’m not sure why nobody’s talking about the Titans. They’ve got a speed demon running back who told his followers to “STFU” on Twitter just two days prior to signing a mega-deal, a 36-year-old quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, who’s always great for a media sound bite, and a first-year head coach who thanked Jeff Fisher, the team’s coach for the past 17 years, for "taking a chance on a retired offensive lineman that never coached before, except for his daughter's softball teams." They’re also sneakily quite solid across the board. I like Tennessee to get the best of the Luke McCown-led Jaguars in Jacksonville on Sunday.
The pick: Titans 27, Jaguars 22
Sunday’s 4 p.m. ET games:
Panthers at Cardinals: Though it seems like decades ago now, the Panthers and Cardinals actually played in an NFC divisional-round playoff game just three seasons ago. The stakes aren’t quite as high in this one, but all eyes will be on the quarterbacks: Cam Newton and Kevin Kolb. Look for Kolb, who has three 300-yard games in his seven career starts, to put up better numbers and get the W over the 2010 Heisman winner.
The pick: Cardinals 27, Panthers 17
Vikings at Chargers: The last time the Vikings and Chargers played, in 2007, Adrian Peterson set the NFL record for rushing yards in a game with 296 and scored three touchdowns. I imagine fantasy owners who took Peterson first overall over the likes of Chris Johnson and Ray Rice would take that stat line Sunday. It won’t happen. San Diego’s defense is much improved, and though former defensive coordinator Ron Rivera is now coaching the Panthers, the ‘Bolts upgraded their D with the addition of veteran defenders Bob Sanders and Takeo Spikes up the middle. Minnesota’s D? Eh, let’s just say it leaves a lot to be desired.
The pick: Chargers 30, Vikings 17
Seahawks at 49ers: If this game involved any two other head coaches on the sidelines, I’d say stay far away from this one. But the potential for fireworks — between the coaches, not the players — makes this one worth tuning in for. Dating to their time in the Pac-10, in which Jim Harbaugh once attempted a 2-point conversion after his Stanford Cardinal scored its seventh touchdown and took a 30-point lead over Pete Carroll’s USC Trojans, these two cats have been anything but Jay-Z and Kanye. Do I expect a fistfight at midfield after the game? Probably not. But we can hope, right? As for the game itself, give me Harbaugh’s Niners in a heinous 60- minute affair.
The pick: 49ers 20, Seahawks 16
Giants at Redskins: Sure, New York has beaten Washington in nine of the past 10 meetings. And no, Rex Grossman isn’t exactly the next Joe Montana. And I’m not as excited about Tim Hightower as my man Peter King is. But I like the Redskins in what will make for an incredibly emotional Sunday afternoon in DC. A matchup to watch in this one? Look for DeAngelo Hall to handle Hakeem Nicks. I’m not sure why, but the enigmatic Hall has had success vs. Eli Manning over the years.
The pick: Redskins 24, Giants 20
Sunday night's game
Cowboys at Jets: The last time the Cowboys played the Jets in East Rutherford, Troy Hambrick — yes, the Troy Hambrick — rushed for 127 yards in an ugly 17-6 Cowboys win over Gang Green. This time around, the media’s going to make it all about the Ryan brothers, Rex and Rob, but I’ll be more interested in the Cowboys’ new-look offensive line. Will it be able to withstand the pressure of the Jets’ pass rush? Give me Rex and New York in a tight one. Santonio Holmes could go bonkers on overmatched Orlando Skandrick.
The Pick: Jets 24, Cowboys 20
Monday night's games
Patriots at Dolphins: I can’t wait to hear Jon Gruden do his first, second, third, fourth and fiftieth “This guy is a football player” spiel on Tom Brady Monday night. I’m also excited to see how Chad Ochocinco fits into the Patriots offense. The Dolphins always give the Pats trouble in Miami. Well, except for last year, when the Patriots overwhelmed the Dolphins’ special teams so badly it cost a coach his job.
The Pick: Patriots 24, Dolphins 13
Raiders at Broncos: From the sabremetrics/stat geek department of my brain, I look at Jason Campbell being 3-0 versus the Broncos and 5-0 as a Raiders starter vs. AFC West opponents and think “I’m going with Oakland.” From the “Don’t be a schmuck and pick against the Broncos at home on ‘Monday Night Football’” department of my brain, I like Denver. The latter is beating the former in this tug of war. Give me Kyle Orton, rookie Von Miller and my man Eric Decker in a late night Trent Dilfer/Brad Nessler special.
The Pick: Broncos 27, Raiders 17
Reader email of the week
I went to your beloved Jersey Shore last weekend and saw three fights in about two hours in a bar on the Point Pleasant boardwalk. I also saw a guy with a giant tattoo of Robinson Cano’s face on his forearm. I must say, though, the pizza was pretty good. Please pick against my Jets every weekend again this year, pal. That’s worked out just fine for us the past two seasons.
Brandon, Little Neck, NY
I’m glad you’re so satisfied and fulfilled by those consecutive trips to the AFC Championship Game. Typical Jets fan, I see. As for the scene you’ve painted of the Jersey Shore, it’s unfair and inaccurate. In a two-hour span during any night over Labor Day weekend, you’re certain to see more than just three fistfights in a Point Pleasant bar. C’mon, now.
Kelly Holcomb, the Browns quarterback who threw for nearly 600 yards vs. the Steelers in the 2002 wild-card round of the playoffs, filled in for Harbaugh after the Vikings knocked him out of the game. How’d Holcomb fare? Well, in limited action, he accounted for five turnovers (three interceptions and two fumbles) in a 39-28 loss.