The year of the Whiners and Cheeseheads- Week 1 preview.

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I’ve watched sports for a long time and I’ve seen off-seasons with labor disputes, free agent movement and even franchise  movement. I’ve seen some crazy things over the last 20 years, but nothing prepared me for how insane the NFL’s offseason was this year. We had an All-Pro and  two young linebackers walk away due to safety concerns, two franchise running backs change teams (Murray and McCoy) and the most asinine court case in recent memory (Deflategate). The only real positives to come out of the offseason were a steadily increasing awareness of the dangers of head trauma and an ever-growing outcry for Roger Goodell’s power to decrease. I already detailed my belief into how the heat and humidity gets us all riled up for the violence of football, but beyond the animalistic desire for blood, everyone is ready to move past the off-field nonsense and just watch the game we love.

I have the same philosophy for every sport- I have teams that I root for, but the key to enjoying each individual game is finding matchups and specific players that I enjoy watching. Whether it’s an elite pass rusher against a stud offensive line or a brilliant quarterback against a high IQ linebacker, individual match-ups make everything more interesting. As I’ve done in the past, I’ll make my predictions for each game (which are sure to be wrong), but I’ll also highlight at least one item to watch for throughout the contest and do a quick preview for each team in 2015. (Note: this ended up being way too long, so we’ve got a two parter)

Thursday Night:
New England vs. Pittsburgh: Seemingly every iteration of the Pittsburgh Steelers since their dynastic run in the 1970’s has seemingly been fueled by an overpowering and aggressive defense. Granted, there have been some down seasons, but we have a tendency to forget those and focus on the dominance of players like Troy Polamalu and James Harrison in the 2000’s, Greg Lloyd and Rod Woodson and the Steel Curtain of the 1970’s. Unfortunately for Steelers fans, those guys aren’t walking through the door anymore. Last year’s team ranked 30th in defensive DVOA (an advanced metric that factors in every play and aspect of a game) and wasn’t able to add a lot of talent thanks to the salary cap hell they’ve lived in the last few years. Even worse for their week 1 prospects is the match-up with a very angry and embarrassed Patriots team.
The last time the Pats were involved with a major controversy, they unleashed hell on the league in the greatest offensive season in league history. This year’s team may not have the firepower that Randy Moss and Wes Welker provided, but with Gronk and Edelman terrorizing defenses, they’re not too shabby. Thanks to the roster turnover, Belichick doesn’t have a lot to work with after the departure of Brandon Browner, Vince Wilfork and Darrelle Revis. The greatest strength of this coaching staff is the ability to make the most of their talent on hand, so the real key will be the utilization of multiple defensive alignments in the front 7. Jerod Mayo and Jamie Collins will need to take a major step forward to keep this defense strong enough to get the Pats back to the playoffs.
What to Watch: I think Ben Roethlisberger has an outside chance to lead the league in passing, and with Leveon Bell out to start the season, they’ll be airing it out early and often. Antonio Brown might be the best receiver in the league, and he’ll get plenty of chances against this secondary.
Prediction: Patriots 34 Steelers 24

Sunday Slate:
Chicago vs. Green Bay: This is one of the oldest and best rivalries in sports, and the Bears have a 93-91-6 edge in the all time series, but last year’s debacles still make me ill to think about. Going into halftime of the first matchup, the Packers held a seemingly shaky 21-17 lead. From that point on, the Packers outscored Chicago 72-14 in a span of 6 quarters of action. I’ve watched some awful football in my lifetime, but that was the first time I felt genuinely embarrassed to be a Bears fan. The endless Jay Cutler jokes and memes are annoying, if,bearable, and I have no choice but to believe that he’ll be better than he was last year. Matt Forte is slowing down, but Jeremy Langford showed some burst in training camp and can help spell Forte from time to time. Vic Fangio and John Fox are known for turning around teams in a hurry, and they have their work cut out for them, especially on the defensive side.
There’s not much to say about the Packers. Even with the loss of Jordy Nelson, their stacked offensive line, tremendous running game and perfect quarterback keep the offense at a terrifying level. On defense, they could use some help in the middle of the formation, but that’s being nit-picky. With the strength of the offense, they know they just have to hold other teams under 3 touchdowns to have a chance.
What to Watch: The game will end up being a blood bath, but there’s still nothing that compares to the atmosphere around the stadium before a Bears/Packers game. From an appreciation standpoint, just sit back and watch Aaron Rodgers in all his glory. He’s a wicked sorcerer and I both despise and admire him at the same time.
Prediction: Packers 42 Bears 24

Houston vs. Kansas City: I often make fun of my wife for her love of  what we call “Trash TV”. Intervention, Teen Mom, Padres baseball and House Hunters are all staples on my TV. I don’t have a whole lot of room to talk, since I fell hopelessly in love with the ‘Hard Knocks’ series on HBO 2 years ago. I know that the players and coaches are playing to the cameras to some extent, but it’s still fascinating to watch these players in a more relaxed atmosphere. They curse, they make fun of each other, they trash talk and talk about food. Basically they’re overgrown boys who never really grew up. No player profited more from this season of ‘Knocks’ than Texans superstar JJ Watt, who didn’t need much help with his public appeal. After watching the full season, I may not know how good the team is, but I know that DeAndre Hopkins wants a tiiny dog to carry in a man-purse, and I’m all in on the Houston Experience. Unfortunately for them, the offensive line is thin and weak, Arian Foster’s groin tore in half and Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett are still their quarterbacks.
With the addition of Jeremy Maclin, the expected step forward by Tight End Travis Kelce and the seemingly endless skill of Jamaal Charles, Kansas City will at least be competent offensively. And while he’s definitely overpaid, Alex Smith gives you everything you want from a C+ quarterback: he can occasionally win a game for you and he doesn’t make dumb mistakes. The defense has the ability to throw pass rushers at the opposition in waves, and the Arrowhead crowd is worth at least 4 or 5 points each home game.  
What to watch: The Texans defense has never had their full complement of players. If Jadaveon Clowney is half of what we expected, the defensive line will be terrifying. WIth Watt and Clowney on one side, and Justin Houston and Tamba Hali ono the other, it’s not a good afternoon for quarterbacks. Poor Alex Smith and Brian Hoyer…
Prediction: Chiefs 23 Texans 10

New York Jets vs. Cleveland: Speaking of tumultuous offseasons, it’s time to talk about the New York Jets. It seemed as though the Jets were moving toward a lower drama season with the removal of media darling Rex Ryan and the signing of Todd Bowles as head coach, but it was not to be. Since last season ended, New York traded for a headache of a wide receiver in Brandon Marshall, had their star defensive lineman lock up his ‘moron’ status and had a scrub linebacker break their starting quarterback’s jaw in a locker room scrum. Despite all that, they emerged as a better team than they were last year. With the additions of Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie and Leonard Williams, the defense could be terrifying, and for all his flaws, Brandon Marshall is a professional wide receiver. Unfortunately, it’s a quarterback league, and their quarterbacks are terrible.
As for Cleveland fans, LeBron still came home, so it’s all okay, right? The Indians are kinda feisty and Ohio State’s really good. Still not buying it? Poor Browns fans, the only things this team has going for it are an all-world left tackle and a recently sober backup quarterback. In Johnny’s defense, if my top wide receivers were Brian Hartline and Dwayne Bowe, I might resort to downing Yuenglings too.
What to watch: With Alex Mack, Joel Bitonio and Joe Thomas, the Browns have an elite offensive line. I always say that if you want to understand football, watch the fat guys. The Jets throw the deepest and best defensive line rotation in the league onto the field, and the winner of that matchup will decide the outcome of this game.
Prediction: Jets 17 Browns 10

Buffalo vs. Indianapolis: As a society, we’re always in a hurry to raise up new heroes, and then replace them just as quickly. Football fans are no exception, especially when it comes to quarterbacks. This drives me crazy, especially since we have a habit of anointing guys a year earlier than we should. It happened with nearly all the “elite” QB’s, and I worried it would happen with Luck as well.  Luck came into the league with the difficult task of replacing Peyton Manning and responded by leading the Colts into the playoffs his first season. Last year’s Colt’s team showed all the signs of regressing from 2013, with their signal caller the likely fall guy from said regression. However, not only did Luck not regress, he made “The Leap”, throwing for 40 touchdowns and leading Indy to the AFC Championship Game. While they were blown out of the water, he firmly planted himself in the top QB tier. With real talent around him, Sunday marks the start of his MVP coronation.
Buffalo has no such luck with their quarterbacks. After wasting picks and cap space on EJ Manuel and Ryan Fitzpatrick, they’ve resorted to unproven Tyrod Taylor to start this season. The defense has a chance to be top-5 in the league, but a terrible offensive line and shaky QB play will doom Buffalo to another season out of the postseason.
What to watch: The Bills have an intriguing set of skill players with Percy Harvin, Sammy Watkins and Lesean McCoy. If Taylor can get them the ball efficiently, they could at least make Indy sweat a bit defensively. There’s plenty of team speed, so I want to see how it all comes together.
Prediction: Colts 31 Bills 17

Washington vs. Miami: You can’t have a discussion about labeling franchise quarterbacks too early without bringing up Robert Griffin. The same year Andrew Luck was leading the Colts to the playoffs, RGIII was electrifying the league in Washington. He rightfully won the Rookie of the Year award, but Washington’s reliance on play action and a dominant running game didn’t bode well for his future development. We all know how it’s played out since then, with a series of injuries, silly media statements and a lack of development, Griffin’s time in Washington is all but done. It really is a shame, because with a decent offensive line, talented skill players and an above average defense, all it would take is decent quarterback play to elevate Washington to relevance. Unfortunately, Kirk Cousins is not the answer. His coaches say all the right things, but he was 45th in the league in QBR last year and hasn’t shown signs of improvement.
Miami made the biggest splash in the offseason by signing Ndamukong Suh to a gigantic contract and extending Ryan Tannehill’s deal. While both moves are justifiable, it’s hard to argue that the funds couldn’t have been allocated more efficiently. The offensive line is still in shambles, I have more playing experience than some of their linebackers and their new tight end probably doesn’t know he’s left Cleveland thanks to all his head trauma.
What to watch: Ndamukong Suh. He’s an absolute monster and he never leaves the field. If you do nothing but watch him play football, you’ll still have an enjoyable afternoon.
Prediction: Dolphins 27 Washington 13

Jacksonville vs. Carolina: Of all the things you can do with your time on Sunday, watching this game is not one of them. Last years’ Panthers team may have won their division and a playoff game, but that’s not as impressive as it sounds, considering they finished with a losing record and beat a Cardinals team led by Ryan Lindley in a game that should be removed from NFL records for public safety reasons. Thanks to some poor cap allocation the last few years (Signing Mike Tolbert, DeAngelo Williams and Johnathan Stewart to guaranteed deals), the Panthers have been up against the salary cap and forced to shop for bargain level talent. They’ve scraped by thanks to Cam Newton’s skill level and the All-World play of Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly at linebacker, but poor Cam is being “protected” by Blindside himself, Michael Oher, along with a bevy of replacement level talent on the offensive line. If that wasn’t enough, he lost his only real receiving threat in Kelvin Benjamin to a torn ACL, leaving him with Ted Ginn Jr., Corey Brown and Jerricho Cotchery in his receiving corps. Woof. Cam is borderline superhuman, but that’s just not enough with which to work.
The Jags won’t be much better off, but it’s not for a lack of spending. After years of not being able to get players to take their money, they dished out $160 million (82 million guaranteed) to bring in Julius Thomas, Dan Skuta, Jared Odrick, Davon House, Jeremy Parnell, Sergio Brown and Stefen Wisniewski. None of those guys are terrible players, but they’re also not the type to reinvigorate a franchise. Granted, the Jaguars have been bad enough that it’s impossible not to improve, but it’s still a lot of money for average players. Year 2 for Blake Bortles is crucial to this franchise’s future; if he takes a step forward, they can feel better about their choice and allocate resources elsewhere. If he doesn’t make a jump up, they’ll have to seriously consider moving toward a new plan. It’s not the most savory option, but it’s better to get out too early than too late.
What to watch: Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly move like a pair of velociraptors in the middle of the field and poor Blake Bortles isn’t exactly known for his accuracy and decision-making. The defensive line for Carolina is garbage, so they’ll count on those two with rookie Shaq Thompson to make this a respectable unit. With Jacksonville, just enjoy the fact that they have a punter named Bryan Anger who they drafted one spot ahead of Russell Wilson. Other than that, don’t watch them, it’s bad for your health.
Prediction: Panthers 28 Jaguars 17

St. Louis vs. Seattle: If you want to finish at 8-8, then Jeff Fisher is the coach for you. However, they’re expecting more than that in St. Louis this year, after the signing of Nick Fairley to bolster an already terrifying defensive line, the drafting of running back Todd Gurley and quarterback swap with Philadelphia, the time is now for Fisher and the Rams. With San Francisco in ruins and Arizona primed for a step back, this is the best chance they’ve had since the Marc Bulger era to make a run. If they don’t make the playoffs, then Fisher will be looking for a new job in 2016.
Seattle has been the most dominant team in the NFL over the last 3 seasons with 2 Super Bowl appearances and 1 championship. The success has been due largely to the roster depth accrued through the best drafting in the league. With late round bargains like Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner and Russell Wilson, they’ve been able to lose players and absorb injuries by replacing guys with adequate talent. Unfortunately for them, players eventually want to get paid what they’re worth, and the time has come on their key players. Sherman, Wagner and Wilson all got paid, and Chancellor is threatening to hold out the entire season. By trading for Jimmy Graham and paying Wilson, they’ve signaled that they’re ready to put the pressure to win on the offense more than they have in the past. St. Louis will be a strong test for what has been a pop-gun attack at times.
What to watch: If you like defensive stars, this is the game to watch. Chris Long, Robert Quinn, Aaron Donald and Nick Fairley will look to punish a weakened Seattle O-Line and there’s little more fun than watching Russell Wilson improvise on the run. If St. Louis is going to be a playoff contender, this is a good way to start.
Prediction: Rams 21 Seahawks 20

Arizona vs. New Orleans: I think I covered Arizona enough in my previous post, but to quickly recap, they’re primed to take a big step back this year.
On the other side of the field, the Saints would be hard pressed to take much of a step back from last year’s embarrassment. After an aggressive offseason that saw them add star Safety Jairus Byrd, there was little reason to think the defense would be less than stellar, but it was an absolute tire fire. Byrd drastically underperformed before being lost for the season to injury, and the lack of depth on both sides of the ball finally caught up with New Orleans. Thanks to some salary cap challenges, GM Mickey Loomis has had to be pretty creative and swallow hard on some players they’ve invested pretty heavily in. After trading away Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills and Carl Nicks, there’s definitely opportunity for some new players to make an impact, but there’s going to be a lot of pressure on Drew Brees to manufacture an elite offense without much support. He’s still one of the best in the game, but there were signs of slippage and deteriorating health for Brees last season. If he can’t be a superstar, they can’t win.
What to watch: With a new defensive coordinator, it will be interesting to see what Arizona brings to the table. Historically Brees has been solid against the blitz, so I’ll be watching how the Cardinals attack what could be a diminished Saints offense. Some coaches believe in playing to their own strengths regardless of the opponent. Reports have shown the Cardinals blitzing even more in the preseason, so I’m excited to watch the chess match between Brees and the defense.
Prediction: Cardinals 28 Saints 24

I know this has been a long start, so take a break, grab a soda and click on over to part two….

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