It’s September. Temperatures are dropping, the leaves are changing, but most importantly, football is BACK! We have a slate of four primetime games that feature two divisional matchups, a powerful AFC rivalry and some interesting interconference play between Houston and New Orleans. Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Deshaun Watson headline primetime as five of the best quarterbacks in the league. Vegas predicts that all four games will be decided by one possession, so prepare for some close and exciting games.
Thursday at 8:20 p.m.: Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears
The NFL regular season kicks off with perhaps the most storied rivalry in the league’s rich history. The only thing colder than these two cities is the teams’ attitudes towards each other. There is no love lost, bad blood and all of the other cliches.
Last season, these two teams faced off on Week One at Lambeau Field for Sunday Night Football. Kalil Mack was making a fool of not only the Packers’ offensive line, but also of Jon Gruden in his Chicago debut.
A relentlessly beaten Rodgers was carted off of the field in the first half down 10-0, and limped back out for the second half with his team down 20-0. Then the hobbled Hall of Famer did what he does best: He made a miracle comeback that was equal parts exciting as it was unlikely.
Though we didn’t know it yet, that Bears defense would go on to be the best in the league with an NFL-low 17.7 points allowed per game. With nerves of steel, Rodgers led Green Bay on to 24-3 run in the second half to squeak away with a 24-23 win. This time around, I expect another close and exciting game.
The Bears defensive unit is mostly the same from last season with the exception of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Regardless, head coach Matt Nagy proved himself as competent after leading the team to a 12-4 record and an NFC North title, so I expect the defense to remain one of the best in the league.
While the Bears exercised the classic “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” technique, the Packers improved their 22nd ranked defense in free agency. They added pass rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, as well as safety Adrian Amos. They also spent two first round picks on their defense, drafting outside linebacker Rashan Gary at No. 12 and defensive back Darnell Savage at No. 21.
With Mitchell Trubisky going into his third NFL season and Rodgers totally healthy for the first time since 2016, the quarterback play on both sides is bound to be improved. However, Green Bay has a revamped defense and a mustachioed legend under center, so they hold a slight advantage against an opponent that somewhat overachieved last season. My pick is 24-21 Packers with Chicago doinking the potential game-tying field goal.
Sunday at 8:20 p.m.: Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots
Even without Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell taking the field, a 42-year-old Brady and a 37-year-old Roethlisberger can still light up the scoreboard. Plus, these teams won’t be totally weaponless.
JuJu Smith-Schuster is an electric young playmaker, and James Conner proved to be a reliable backfield threat during Bell’s holdout. The big target tight end Vance McDonald also projects to have a good season as Pittsburgh’s No. 2 threat in the passing game.
On the home team, Sony Michel helped carry the Patriots offense to a Super Bowl in his rookie season. Combined with pass-catcher James White and versatile spell-back Rex Burkhead, Bill Belichick will have a lot of options out of the backfield in both his rushing and passing attacks. Plus, New England has reigning Super Bowl MVP and slot receiving extraordinaire Julian Edelman and brought back veteran deep-threat Demaryius Thomas.
Brady is able to make good things happen regardless of who’s on the field, but I’d be foolish to dismiss Gronk’s impact on this offense. Though he didn’t have a great season statistically, he was still one of the best blockers in the league and attracted so much attention while running routes.
While I imagine Belichick and Brady have an answer for his absence, I doubt it’ll come from a tight end unit that consists of Matt Lacosse and Ryan Izzo. 38-year-old tight end Benjamin Watson is suspended the first four games of this season, but who knows what the savvy vet has left in the tank to contribute to the team that drafted him back in 2004.
The Steelers are at the lowest they’ve been in quite some time. They missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013 and lost their two biggest stars. The Patriots are coming off of a Super Bowl victory that their stellar defense made possible. Cornerback Stephon Gillmore proved to be worth every penny and I expect to see him sticking to JuJu all game long. Plus it’s really hard to beat the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots take this one with great defense and timely offense, 24-10.
Monday at 7:10 p.m.: Houston Texans at New Orleans Saints
The Saints might have been the best team in the NFL last season, as they were denied a Super Bowl appearance thanks to the infamous Nickell Robey-Coleman no-call. However, a lot is stacked against them in this one.
First of all, the Saints haven’t won a season opener since 2013, and are 5-12 in September over that span. For some reason, it usually takes Sean Payton a few games to get his guys going. Secondly, they lost longtime running back Mark Ingram, who had a solid career with New Orleans before signing in Baltimore.
Losing Ingram has a silver lining, though. Third year all-purpose back Alvin Kamara will get that much more of an opportunity to shine in 2019. Through his first two seasons, Kamara has already gained 1611 yards on the ground with 5.1 yards per carry. Through the air, he’s gained 1535 yards on 162 receptions. Most impressively, he’s racked up 31 total touchdowns. Over 3000 scrimmage yards and 31 touchdowns in just two seasons is remarkable, and one can expect him to somehow improve from there.
Houston traded away Jadeveon Clowney and just got two mid-tier linebackers and a third-round pick in return. However, I expect their defense to remain among the best in the league. Led by J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, this unit is still really scary to play against. Their first task of the season is figuratively tall, but not literally.
Brees made the Saints the third-highest scoring offense in the NFL last season and finished second in MVP voting to some kid named Pat. It’s really hard to pick against him, even against an elite defense. Watson will be the x-factor.
Like Brees and Michael Thomas, Watson and DeAndre Hopkins are one of the deadliest quarterback-wide receiver duos in the league today. Watson’s ability to make throws from outside the pocket and scramble with the ball will spread the Saints’ talented but inexperienced defense thin, opening things up for Hop.
I also believe that the Texans defense will come out strong with something to prove after losing Clowney. There are few motivators better than Watt, who will rally his troops to stop New Orleans’ dangerous weapons. The Saints’ season opener woes will continue, and Houston will win the day 20-13.
Monday at 10:20 p.m.: Denver Broncos at Oakland Raiders
Here we have a really odd matchup that I predict few will stay up late to watch. Joe Flacco versus Derek Carr… womp. However, Vegas has an even spread on this game, meaning that they are perfectly neck-and-neck. Hopefully we get a tightly contested game and some soundbites from Gruden.
All eyes will undoubtedly be on Antonio Brown. The league’s best receiver for the last half-decade forced his way out of Pittsburgh, citing a feud with Roethlisberger and head coach Mike Tomlin as the reason. If a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback and coach frustrated Brown, it’s hard to imagine how upset Carr and Gruden can make him. At least early in the season, I expect Brown to wear a chip on his shoulder (and a regulation helmet on his head) and make the most of the heavy volume he’s expected to receive.
It may be difficult for Carr to get the ball to Brown in this one, though. Von Miller and Bradley Chubb are blossoming into one of the deadliest pass rushing duos in the league. Plus, Brown is bound to get shadowed by the elite veteran Chris Harris Jr. with help over the top from corner-turned-safety Kareem Jackson. While there are few defenses equipped to stop a receiving threat like AB, the Broncos may be one of them.
Though you could say the Broncos offense is certainly crusty, the same can be said about the Raiders’ defense. Joe Flacco’s only weapon is Emmanuel Sanders (ew). The Raiders’ defense surrendered the most points per game last season, but have made a few key additions.
They signed Rams safety Lamarcus Joyner, who was one of the best safeties in the league last year. They signed Vontaze Burfict, who is talented and looking to make contributions while shedding his title as one of the league’s dirtiest players. First round picks Clelin Ferrell (No. 4) and Johnathan Abram (No. 27) will also look to contribute right away to a defense that needs them to.
Unfortunately, I think it’ll take a while for the Raiders to figure out their new-look defense. Plus, the Broncos defense will make it difficult for Gruden to get Carr and Brown on the same page. I expect a frustrated Raiders team to drop this home game to their division rivals, 14-10.
Sean Janos is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.