In case you haven't heard, the NFL season starts today. This season, I plan to bring this picks column to the good folks of the Phinsider each and every week. Every post will have a "Game of the Week", "Upset of the Week", and of course, Dolphins game thoughts. Let's jump right in!
GAME OF THE WEEK
Pittsburgh at New England*
Both teams have major questions on the defensive side of the ball after losing key secondary starters from seasons past. Pittsburgh's defense has questions in the front seven as well. Offensively, the Patriots* will dink and dunk as usual, leaning heavily on TE Rob Gronkowski as the rest of the pass catchers are average. Pittsburgh will have neither star running back Le'Veon Bell, nor breakout receiver Martavis Bryant at their disposal. But they will still have some weapons, including top wideout Antonio Bryant. This game has the potential to be a shootout as the defenses will struggle to contain the offenses, which would give the NFL exactly what it wants on opening night: an entertaining offensive game. This game earns Game of the Week honors due to being the opening game and all of the hoopla surrounding the Patriots*.
Steelers 39 - Patriots* 35
Indianapolis at Buffalo
This game is the matchup of the unstoppable force (Indy's offense) and the immovable object (Buffalo's defense). The Andrew Luck led offense will face a very stout Rex Ryan led defense. Luck has weapons galore, but still some major questions on the offensive line. That's not a good thing facing this Buffalo front. That will be interesting to watch. It won't be as interesting to see on the other side. Tyrod Taylor won the Bills' starting QB job and will likely be making plenty of handoffs to the RBs, especially in this game, to keep opposing offenses off the field. Indy's defense isn't very special, but shouldn't be tested too much with the Bills offense, at least not in the air. In the end, Indy should have enough firepower to sneak by the Bills.
Colts 24 - Bills 17
Green Bay at Chicago
The Packers lost a key piece of their offense when Jordy Nelson was injured. They have other weapons though and his loss shouldn't be felt against a Bears defense that isn't very good right now. The Bears offense will be led by the enigmatic Jay Cutler who can look like a top QB at times, but look like a subpar QB other times. Chicago's offensive line will struggle against the Packers' front and if Cutler cannot take advantage of potential mismatches in the secondary, this will be a long afternoon for the Bears.
Packers 35 - Bears 17
Kansas City at Houston
This will be a defensive matchup as both teams have star pass rushers and stout defenses overall. Both teams will struggle to run the ball against stout fronts. Both teams have some good weapons at their disposal, though Kansas City may have a few more with Houston RB Arian Foster out a few games. This matchup boils down to the QBs and Alex Smith is a better QB than Brian Hoyer.
Chiefs 24 - Texans 21
UPSET OF THE WEEK
Carolina at Jacksonville
Jacksonville has the look of a team on the rise. They have a decent defense and sophomore QB Blake Bortles looked good in preseason. They have some developing weapons on offense and a pretty good defensive line. The Panthers will be leaning on their defense led by stud LB Luke Kuechly. The defense should be good enough to get stops against Jacksonville. Their offense? Well their starting WRs are Ted Ginn and Corey Brown. That should say enough. Top WR Kelvin Benjamin is out for the year and rookie Devin Funchess is an unknown at this point. They'll lean heavily on the running game led by Jonathan Stewart and rookie Cameron Artis-Payne. If Carolina's offensive line can protect Newton, they'll have a chance. If not, then the Panthers offense will struggle.
Jaguars 17 - Panthers 14
Cleveland at New York Jets
The most likely reason for this game to garner much interest would be if Johnny Manziel plays. Otherwise, there is not much to get excited about. The Browns have lackluster pass catchers led by former Dolphin Brian Hartline. They'll be facing a revamped Jets secondary led by star cornerback Darrelle Revis. The Browns offensive line is good and should protect projected starting QB Josh McCown well, but it won't matter if no one is open. The Browns may be able to run against the Jets though since star DT Sheldon Richardson is suspended. The Browns have a pretty good defense and should be improved against the run with a revamped front starting rookie nose tackle Danny Shelton and former Dolphins star Randy Starks. They have a stout secondary as well and the Ryan Fitzpatrick led offense may struggle. This one is a toss-up and not likely to see much scoring. Have to lead toward the home team in this matchup.
Jets 17 - Browns 10
Seattle at St. Louis
On paper, this looks like an easy choice. But division matchups are never easy and the Rams have played spoiler before. The Rams swapped starting QBs with the Eagles and now have Nick Foles leading their offense. He has a pretty good WR in former Appalachian State star Brian Quick and some other weapons, but they'll most likely lean on the running game. Unfortunately, they won't have first round pick Todd Gurley at their disposal, so it will fall on the shoulders of sophomore Tre Mason. The Seahawks will do what they do on offense: run with BeastMode and use play option with Russell Wilson. They traded for star TE Jimmy Graham this offseason and he'll get his touches. But the issue is up front as Seattle's offensive line appears very weak and they're facing one of the better defensive fronts in the NFL. Protecting Russell Wilson is the key to a strong offensive day for the Seahawks. Seattle has boasted the best defense in football for the last few seasons, led by a LB corps and secondary that is tops in the league. But strong safety Kam Chancellor may not play and there are injury concerns with star DBs Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman. If they are limited, that could be an issue. However, I don't see the Rams as having the firepower to overcome that issue. This game will be closer than expected, but the more talented overall team will prevail.
Seahawks 21 - Rams 14
New Orleans at Arizona
The Saints have made some questionable moves this offseason, starting with the aforementioned trade of Jimmy Graham. They also sent burgeoning receiver Kenny Stills to the Dolphins. That means Drew Brees will lean heavily on sophomore Brandin Cooks in the passing game. They'll probably run the ball more as well. The offense should still be good, but the defense was awful last season and doesn't appear to be much better. They still have questions in the secondary and lost their best passer rusher Junior Galette, who was released due to off-field issues. Meanwhile, Arizona with QB Carson Palmer at the helm has plenty of weapons to throw to and appears to have some backfield weapons as well. On defense, they lack a solid pass rush, but have a solid secondary. They lost defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to the Jets too. This game has potential to be a shootout, and I think the home team gets the advantage.
Cardinals 27 - Saints 24
Detroit at San Diego
Detroit leaned heavily on their defense to win games last season as their offense fell from 6th best scoring in 2013 to 22nd in 2014. Offseason losses may take their toll as starting defensive tackles, including superstar Ndamukong Suh left in free agency. QB Matthew Stafford will continue to lean heavily on receivers Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, but may have a new weapon in rookie Ameer Abdullah to help out in the ground game. San Diego tried to address their weak offensive line in order to give Philip Rivers more time in the pocket. They also added first round rookie running back Melvin Gordon to help out on the ground. The defense should be solid as they have a decent front and an up-and-coming star corner in Jason Verrett. If Detroit's defense can overcome the loss of Suh, they will stand a chance in this game. If not, San Diego's offense may be too strong for them.
Chargers 28 - Lions 21
Baltimore at Denver
These two teams have some recent history together: the pass play in the playoffs to propel the Ravens over the Broncos and onto a championship; the first game of the next season where Broncos QB Peyton Manning hung a record tying 7 TDs on the Ravens. The Broncos have worked on building around the weakening arm of Peyton Manning. They have built a strong defense and tried to give him a running game. Manning is great at the mental part of the position and will be able to play around his lack of arm strength for a while. The offensive line is a weakness, evident by their recent signing of Evan Mathis. Baltimore will try to get after Manning to limit what he can do. They still have a good pass rush, but need to show they can make up for the loss of Haloti Ngata, whom they traded this offseason. Offensively, QB Joe Flacco will have to lean heavily on the running game and aging WR Steve Smith as Baltimore lacks the outside weapons right now. They drafted WR Breshad Perriman in the first round, but he has been injured most of the offseason. They used a second round pick on TE Maxx Williams, but rookie TEs rarely produce at a high level. This game will be dominated by defense and rushing attacks and the advantage goes to the home team and the better QB. While the opening game of the season is an easy choice for game of the week, this one takes the honor. Both should be fun games.
Broncos 24 - Ravens 21
Cincinnati at Oakland
The question everyone wants to know in Cincinnati: is Andy Dalton THE guy? Can he lead this team to more than just playoff appearances? That quest begins in Oakland against another young QB that wants to prove he is THE guy. The Bengals have enough offensive firepower to overwhelm the Raiders defense with guys like A.J. Green and Jeremy Hill. All Dalton has to do is play smart and don't screw up. The Raiders added talented young wideout Amari Cooper in the draft and he looks like the real deal. Derek Carr should look to him early and often. Latavius Murray is an explosive back that should make some noise this season. The Raiders' offensive line is better than advertised and should open some decent rushing lanes from him. However, the Bengals boast a tough defense and the Raiders just don't have the talent to compete right now.
Bengals 27 - Raiders 17
Tennessee at Tampa Bay
These teams combined for 4 wins last season and earned the top two draft picks. Normally that would indicate a yawner-type game, but both teams picked quarterbacks. QBs taken in the same draft will always be compared to one another. What better way to kick off that discussion than a week one matchup? Both teams have decent weapons to throw to as the Bucs have sophomore standout Mike Evans and the Titans have rookie Dorial Green-Beckham. The Bucs may have a better rushing attack however. The Titans picked up former Pittsburgh defensive guru Dick Lebeau this offseason and LeBeau is renowned for his defensive schemes, which could be the difference-maker when facing a highly questionable offensive line and a rookie QB. Both teams have some good pieces on defense which could make for a highly entertaining game between two bottom-feeder teams from the previous season, regardless how the QBs play.
Titans 17 - Bucs 14
New York Giants at Dallas
These two NFC East foes face of on Sunday Night Football once again. Both teams have good QBs and stud wideouts. The Cowboys have the best offensive line in football and used it to pave the way for Demarco Murray to lead the league in rushing last season. Murray is now with NFC East rival Philadelphia so Dallas has to hope that line can work wonders for whoever is running behind them. The Giants won't have pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul due to the firework hand injury and could struggle to stop the Cowboys offense. On the flip side, the Cowboys lost their best CB to injury and could struggle to stop sophomore sensation Odell Beckham Jr. on offense. Eli Manning will look to him early and often. Receivers Dez Bryant and OBJ will more than likely make some highlight reel catches as they are wont to do, but the Giants just aren't as good as the Cowboys. Division games are always close, but the more talented team gets the nod.
Cowboys 31 - Giants 21
Philadelphia at Atlanta
I'm not sure what to make of Atlanta. Two seasons ago, they were playing for a Super Bowl berth. They've won a total of 10 games since. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones will make the offense go and keep the team competitive. But I'm not sure the offensive line, the running backs, and defense can keep up. Atlanta had the worst ranked defense in the NFL last season and that's after playing in the weakest division in football. They added Vic Beasley in the first round of the draft to enhance the pass rush, but he may not be enough. The defense has some pieces, and they have nowhere to go but up; just not sure how far they can get. On the other side, Philadelphia, led by the mad scientist Chip Kelly, looks like it is already firing on all cylinders. They have some questions in the secondary, but overall they field a pretty good defense. Ryan and Jones will make it interesting, but Atlanta won't be able to hang in this game.
Eagles 34 - Falcons 17
Minnesota at San Francisco
San Francisco may have had the worst offseason in NFL history for a team that didn't leave town in the middle of the night. First, the front office ran off head coach Jim Harbaugh. Then several key players retired. Others were suspended for a variety of reasons. Some left in free agency. What was left was a shell of a team that was plays away from a Super Bowl title a few seasons ago. The 49ers paid Colin Kaepernick like a franchise QB, but he appeared to regress as the season went on last year. With no more Frank Gore, more will be placed on his shoulders and he'll try to connect with newly acquired deep threat Torrey Smith. The defense gained Navorro Bowman back from injury, but the losses on that side of the ball are likely too great to overcome. While teams like Buffalo and Cleveland traded away picks and continue to stay in QB purgatory, Minnesota quietly pounced on Teddy Bridgewater and appears to have found their franchise QB. He looked good as a rookie and has developed a rapport with potential breakout receiver Charles Johnson. Oh, and he gets Adrian Peterson back. The defense continues to get better, especially in the secondary. They'll be a surprisingly tough unit this season. These two teams appear to be heading in opposite directions. The Vikings start a potential run to the playoffs with a victory over the Niners.
Vikings 24 - 49ers 14
Miami at Washington
The 49ers had the worst offseason, but the Redskins weren't far behind. The Redskins sent three precious 1st round draft picks to the Rams in 2012 for the right to draft Robert Griffin III. That bevy of picks left the Skins thin in the talent department. And now RG3 is on the bench, replaced by draft companion Kirk Cousins. On top of that, there have been other issues off the field, including the GM's wife tweeting out inappropriate stuff regarding a female reporter. Injuries have also taken a toll as free agent acquisition Junior Galette is out for the season and receiver DeSean Jackson got hurt in training camp and may not be 100%. On defense, the Redskins have major concerns in the secondary. They have a decent front, led by star pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan. But he'll have to overachieve to make up for the overall lack of defensive talent. On offense, they will lean heavily on running back Alfred Morris to take pressure off the inconsistent Cousins. The offensive line, outside of LT Trent Williams is a major question mark as well.
Miami began the offseason by landing Ndamukong Suh in free agency. They rid themselves of players signed from the previous GM and rebuilt the pass catching unit around rising star QB Ryan Tannehill - both of whom looked good in the preseason. Questions remain regarding the offensive line, but they mostly played well in the preseason, offering hope, especially with the expected return of LT Branden Albert. The defensive line is going to be a devastating force with Suh, Wake, and Vernon wreaking havoc. The LB unit is led by Jelani Jenkins after his breakout sophomore campaign. But coverage issues in that group are a question mark outside of Jenkins. The secondary has some question marks at the #2 CB spot, but Jamar Taylor looks ready to finally seize the opportunity to solidify that spot (he'll be the primary starter regardless of the depth chart). Corner Brent Grimes and the vastly underrated safety Reshad Jones anchor that unit.
I hate to say that an opening day game is a "must-win", but if any game qualified for it, it's this one for Miami. The Skins have major issues with the offensive line and secondary. The Dolphins' strengths are at defensive line and pass catchers. Those are the type of mismatches that the Dolphins should exploit regularly. There is a lot of hype around the Dolphins this year and the team knows that it's playoffs or bust. A loss to a team many consider the worst in the league would not go over well with anyone in Miami. They will look to make a statement with this game.
Dolphins 38 - Redskins 14
Duke's Record: 0-0-0