This launches our 22nd season of Friday Page NFL predictions, something we began as a lark in 1991 and never imagined carrying into a third decade. (Hey wasn’t ’91 around when the Dolphins last won a playoff game? Guess it only seems that long ago). We take our picks seriously but also have fun, which might help explain the return engagement of our ever-annoying yet somehow charmingly erudite sidekick, the Upset Bird. Now let the guesswork begin! [Note: We missed on Wednesday’s game. Had Giants (-4) winning 27-20. Cowboys won 24-17].
This week's selections:
DOLPHINS AT TEXANS
Miami is Week 1’s biggest underdog with good reason. Dolphins looked shades of bad to awful in the warmup month, and Houston presents an opponent plenty of sober folks see with Super Bowl potential. The combination makes a postgame smile unlikely for Joe Philbin, one of five rookie head coaches debuting this season. This game may have a homey feel for Ryan Tannehill – one of five rookie quarterbacks starting this week – because he’s from Texas A&M and ended his college career with a bowl win in this very stadium. Alas, a blitz-heavy Texans defense of varied looks will strip those comforts of home and make Tannehill appear every bit the inexperienced QB he is. Miami’s defense will face an equally tall challenge in Matt Schaub, Arian Foster and Andre Johnson, who are good as most any pass-run-catch troika in the league. Houston is 6-0 all-time in this series, but that trend doesn’t shape this pick. The Texans’ outright superiority does. The Dolphins begin the year in that category of teams rattling around in the NFL basement until which time they enter into evidence some reasons to believe.
STEELERS AT BRONCOS
The Game of the Week committee was raging and brawling, but ultimately the slim majority raising hands for Peyton Manning’s ballyhooed comeback shouted down the vocal minority incredulous that 49ers-Packers wasn’t this week’s pick. Hey, bottom line: Manning returning from a year lost to neck surgeries, and in a different uniform, is the story of the year out the gate. Why do you think this one owns a prime-time stage? Whether Manning unveils himself heroically or is made to look old and rusty by Pittsburgh’s tough defense, his 2012 debut will be the talk-story Monday morning. Denver (and Tim Tebow) upset the Steelers in last year’s playoffs, but I like Pitt enjoying its revenge, even if RB Rashard Mendenhall sits out, and even though Denver is a league-best 38-13-1 (.745) in home openers. See, Manning might be the story of this game, but he isn’t the best quarterback in this game. Ben Roethlisberger is. Upset!
JAGUARS AT VIKINGS
Any game voted the week’s Least Likely to Produce a Playoff Team has the Dog committee’s undivided attention. (Our Dog of the Week refers to the lousiest matchup, of course, not to a betting underdog). The fact both teams’ offensive engines are running in idle-mode further siphons interest. Minny’s Adrian Peterson, coming back from serious knee surgery, might or might not play. Jax’s Maurice Jones-Drew, just back from a holdout, won’t start and could play sparingly. Make it a venue call, although the bet-line seems plump in what should be a points-shy affair.
The Andrew Luck Era in Indy sets sail, but there are far easier places for a rookie to debut than vs. the Bears’ D at Soldier Field. These clubs met in the rained-soaked Miami Super Bowl after the 2006 season. Neither looks Super this season, but Chitown is miles closer. Side note of interest to Miami: WR Brandon Marshall (CHI) vs. CB Vontae Davis (IND). Sad when the ex-Dolphins seem better than the Dolphins.
Philly’s supposed “Dream Team” went bust a year ago but comes back improved. The Eagles’ fairly awesome pass rush will crush the Earthtones’ rookie QB, Brandon Weeden. And LeSean McCoy will put up XXL fantasy numbers vs. Cleveland’s soft run-D. Brownies kept 15 rookies and plainly are in re-start mode. They’ve lost seven straight openers. Make it eight.
A duel of overall No. 1-drafted QBs in Motown’s Matthew Stafford (2009) and St. Lou’s Sam Bradford (2010). Difference is Stafford has more surrounding talent including some guy named Calvin Johnson. Jeff Fisher, who spurned Miami, makes his coaching debut for Rams. He’s good and STL has some talent. Expect an ‘over’ number and a close game.
Curtain rises on RGIII, Skins rookie QB Robert Griffin, but the arm that steers this result will be that of Drew Brees, whose offense still looks prolific. And the secondary is the worst part of Washington’s defense. (Uh oh). Bountygate was a mess that cost the Saints coach Sean Payton, linebacker Jonathan Vilma and others – shouldn’t the team be sponsored by Bounty paper towels? – but N’Awlins remains formidable.
Dog of the Week panel gave this one a hard glance if only for both teams’ 0-4 preseason records and emaciated offenses. The Planes’ new offensive chief, our friend Tony Sparano, can’t find the end zone and has a Mark Sanchez/Tim Tebow QB mess-in-waiting but otherwise is having a wonderful time in New York! NYJ has won five straight in series but on a plain hunch give me Bison in an upset.
Patriots won 59-0 when these teams last met in 2009. That should light a big home fire under Titans, but no amount of incentive makes up for the likelihood Tom Brady will have a day that makes his fantasy owners do handsprings while counterpart Jake Locker makes his first NFL start. So Pats win a ninth straight opener. Side note: It’s the Twins Bowl, with cornerbacks Devin McCourty of NE and bro Jason of TEN.
Bird Bowl finds Seahawks flying in off a 4-0 preseason in which they outscored opponents 122-44 and rookie QB Russell Wilson looked great. Time for a bubble burst? Could happen. Cards a very tempting home ’dog, especially with John Skelton 5-0 in career starts in the desert, and with top SEA back Marshawn Lynch iffy with back spasms. But my chips are in with Seattle’s defense.
Here is as likely an NFC title-game preview as any, with trends piling up for the Gee Bees. Pack has won five straight openers and has won nine in a row over the Frans. Need more convincing? How about Aaron Rodgers vs. Alex Smith. SF defense is great but nobody stops Aaron, first in your alphabet, first to your end zone. Niners must force Pack turnovers to have a real chance.
The Upset Bird was circling over this game as if it were roadside carrion. Bucs a ripe home dog if you’re feeling saucy. The thing is, Carolina put up 86 points on TB in two wins last year, and Cam Newton 2.0 should be even better than the rookie version. Plus Josh Freeman is struggling in Greg Schiano’s new offense. For these reasons I chased away the cawing Upset Bird with a BB gun.
Season debut of Monday Night Football offers a good one as Cincinnati – seeking its first consecutive winning years since 1981-82 – arrives hoping to show it can hang with Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the AFC North. Doubts remain. Ravens are 4-0 in openers under John Harbaugh and couldn’t stop Ray Rice in last meeting. Also, Crows are a mighty a strong home team that has won 10 straight in Crab City. See it inside the bet-line, though.
Monday’s late game should find Oakland’s freakazoid fans in full 1974 KISS concert-on-Halloween regalia. Near pick-’em game could be a wild affair, with Philip Rivers and Darren McFadden both stat-padding. Chargers have won seven of past eight meetings played in Oakland, but that feels like a trend about to end under the law of averages. When in doubt, go home.