The long wait is over. Professional football is officially back. Week 1 kicks off Thursday night with a showdown between a Dallas Cowboys team eager to have starting quarterback Dak Prescott back under center following last year’s season-ending injury and the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are, of course, led by Tom Brady.
Then comes Sunday, which features 2020 NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers taking on a Drew Brees-less Saints team, No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence’s highly anticipated debut, a potential AFC Championship preview between Cleveland and Kansas City, and much more.
All eyes in the Pacific Northwest will be focusing on Seattle’s matchup in Indianapolis, where Russell Wilson and Co. take on newly acquired quarterback Carson Wentz, whom the Colts traded for during the offseason. Seahawks fans will surely be keeping an eye on how the rest of the NFC West – San Francisco, Arizona, and the LA Rams – fare in their openers as well.
Opening week concludes with a Monday night showdown between Baltimore and Las Vegas, as the Ravens and Raiders kick off the first-ever game at Allegiant Stadium in Vegas. It will mark the first time since 2005 where the opening week of the NFL season won’t involve a Monday night doubleheader.
Without further ado, let’s make some picks.
My season picks record: 0-0
Dallas at Tampa Bay – Thursday
Dak Prescott was leading the league in passing four weeks into last season before breaking his ankle against the New York Giants in Week 5. Despite his stellar play, as well as an inspired 37-34 victory over New York following the QB’s gruesome injury, Dallas sat with a mere 2-3 record and went on to finish 6-10. Star running back Ezekiel Elliott missed his quarterback dearly as he had a forgettable season, to say the least. His 979 yards and six touchdowns were both the lowest of his career.
While Prescott will be warmly welcomed back by everyone in the Cowboys organization, a matchup with the champs will be a tough test. Tampa Bay kept its Super Bowl-winning core in place as the seemingly never-gonna-retire Tom Brady will once again have an arsenal of weapons on offense – wideouts Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, and Antonio Brown, running backs Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones II, and another season of Rob Gronkowski – to go along with a stalwart defense that held Patrick Mahomes and the high scoring Chiefs to nine points in the title game.
Even with Prescott under center, Tampa finds a way to outlast Dallas.
Pick: Buccaneers 34, Cowboys 24
Seattle at Indianapolis
It was an up and down season for the Seahawks in 2020. The team started 5-0 but lost three of its next four games before closing out the season 6-1 to finish 12-4 and win the NFC West. However, Seattle lost 30-20 to the division rival Rams in the Wild Card round to end its season. Russell Wilson played like an MVP candidate most of the year and finished with 4,212 yards, and a career-high 40 touchdown passes. Second-year receiver DK Metcalf broke out with 1,303 yards and 10 touchdowns on 83 receptions, while the ever-dependable Tyler Lockett hauled in 100 catches for 1,054 yards and 10 scores.
The Colts made a surprising trip to the playoffs in 2020, finishing 11-5 behind the play of 39-year old quarterback Philip Rivers and boasting one of the top defenses for much of the season. Rivers retired in the offseason and was replaced by former Philadelphia QB Carson Wentz. Indy will look for last year’s breakout running back Jonathan Taylor to carry a major load this season, hoping to build on the 1,169 yards and 11 touchdowns he totaled as a rookie last season.
Give me Wilson over Wentz in this one.
Pick: Seahawks 27, Colts 23
Philadelphia at Atlanta
We are officially entering the Jalen Hurts era in Philly. The 23-year old quarterback started the final four games for the Eagles last season, replacing the aforementioned Wentz and going 1-3. Philly finished 4-11-1 in 2020, good enough for dead last in the NFC East. Hurts tossed six touchdown passes to go along with the three he ran in himself, sparking interest and excitement to close out an otherwise dismal 2020 campaign.
In Atlanta, Matt Ryan and the Falcons will be without star-wideout Julio Jones for the first time since 2010. Ryan has seemingly already moved on, as the 13-year veteran enjoyed Calvin Ridley’s breakout campaign. Ridley finished with 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns on 90 catches in just his third season. It wasn’t enough to garner wins, however, as Atlanta ended the year 4-12. The addition of rookie tight end Kyle Pitts will give Ryan another enticing receiving threat.
I think experience wins out in this one.
Pick: Falcons 30, Eagles 24
Pittsburgh at Buffalo
Perhaps the 2020 Steelers’ season slogan should be, “what just happened?” The team stormed out of the gate and won its first 11 games. Then reality curb stomped them out of the unbeaten dream world they had once resided in. Pittsburgh lost five of its last six games, including a 48-37 loss to rival Cleveland over Wild Card weekend. Most of Pittsburgh’s successful history has featured punishing rushing attacks, and that need was addressed on draft night in the form of Alabama running back Najee Harris.
Last season’s Bills enjoyed their best year since reaching four straight Super Bowl appearances from 1990 to 1993 as they went 13-3 and lost 38-24 to Kansas City in the AFC Championship game. Quarterback Josh Allen erupted in 2020, easily compiling the best season of his career to date as he threw for 4,544 yards and 37 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions on 69.2 percent completions. He also ran for 421 yards and eight scores, and he even took the single catch he had for a 12-yard touchdown. Allen’s favorite target was Stefon Diggs, who hauled in 127 receptions for 1,535 yards – leading the league in both categories – and eight scores.
Buffalo should be the better team, but I’m sensing an upset.
Pick: Steelers 31, Bills 28
Minnesota at Cincinnati
When it comes to the Vikings, two names stand above all others: Dalvin Cook and Justin Jefferson. Cook exploded out of the gate on his way to 1,557 yards and 16 touchdowns while averaging 5.0 yards per carry. Jefferson didn’t earn a starting role until Week 3, but he racked up 1,400 yards, and seven scores on 88 catches once inserted into the lineup. However, all that production only amounted to a 7-9 record.
Cincinnati’s buzz surrounding heralded No. 1 overall draft pick Joe Burrow quickly fizzled following the rookie quarterback’s devastating knee injury in Week 10 of last year. Burrow was among the leaders for Rookie of the Year, but his torn ACL knocked him out of the running. The team finished 4-11-1. To help the healing process, the Bengals gifted their young QB a former teammate in LSU wideout Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth pick in the draft.
Minnesota’s Jefferson also attended LSU with Burrow and Chase two years ago, but the lone ace trumps the pair in this one.
Pick: Vikings 34, Bengals 20
San Francisco at Detroit
Last season, the 49ers were the defending NFC champions and were one second-half collapse away from a Super Bowl title. But injuries absolutely devastated their roster, resulting in a 6-10 season. A healthy San Francisco roster – especially on defense – spells trouble for not only the NFC West but the rest of the NFL. Last season’s first-round pick, wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, will likely see passes from both incumbent starter Jimmy Garoppolo and the third overall pick in this year’s draft, North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance. Aiyuk missed four games due to injury but led all Niners receivers with 748 yards and five touchdowns on 60 catches.
The Lions had another dismal year, finishing 5-11. But for the first time since 2008, Matthew Stafford will not be under center as Detroit traded its longtime starter to the Rams in exchange for Jared Goff during the offseason. The Lions also lost standout receiver Kenny Golladay, who, before a season-ending injury, had posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Golladay will now be suiting up for the Giants.
Even with a new QB, Detroit won’t withstand a swarming San Francisco defense paired with its creative offense.
Pick: 49ers 33, Lions 17
Arizona at Tennessee
2020 saw a big leap by Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray. The 2019 No. 1 overall pick increased his production all over the stat sheet, throwing for more yards (3,971) and touchdowns (26) than his rookie campaign while tossing the same number of interceptions (12). He also increased his rushing totals, going from 544 yards and four scores on the ground in 2019 to 819 and 11, respectively, in 2020. Plus, he gets to throw to DeAndre Hopkins, who caught 115 passes for 1,407 yards and six TDs in 2020, his first year in Arizona. The Cardinals also picked up a guy named JJ Watt over the offseason.
In Tennessee, it’s the Derrick Henry show. Sure, the Titans have a stacked offense that features wideouts AJ Brown (70 catches, 1,075 yards, 11 touchdowns) and newcomer Julio Jones (51 catches, 771 yards, 3 TDs with Atlanta), as well as the revitalized Ryan Tannehill (3,819 yards, 33 TDs, 7 interceptions) under center, but Henry’s play last season was simply dominant. The 6-foot-3, 247-pound back out of Alabama became just the eighth player in NFL history to eclipse 2,000 yards rushing, as he finished with 2,027. He also found the end zone a league-leading 17 times and had a defense-crushing 5.4 yards per carry.
Arizona is gonna have an awfully tough time slowing down Henry, Brown, and Jones.
Pick: Titans 30, Cardinals 23
Los Angeles Chargers at Washington
Enticing second-year quarterback Justin Herbert started all but the first game of the season in 2020, and the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year will look to improve upon some lofty first-year stats. The former Oregon Duck finished with 4,331 yards and 31 touchdowns through the air while only being intercepted 10 times. With running back Austin Ekeler returning from injury, LA could have a top-five offensive unit.
The Washington Football Team completed one of the rarest feats in 2020 – winning its division with a losing record (7-9). Washington added to its already stout defense by selecting Kentucky linebacker Jamin Davis in the first round of this year’s draft. The team finished fourth in points allowed per game at 20.6. Alex Smith, last year’s Comeback Player of the Year, decided to retire. Enter, Ryan Fitzmagic… I mean, Fitzpatrick.
Offense vs. defense in this one, and I believe offense is going to win.
Pick: Chargers 27, WFT 21
New York Jets at Carolina
Only a team as futile as the Jets can be so bad that it can’t even lose correctly. New York was well on its way to landing coveted Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence as it lost its first 13 games. Then the Jets did what the Jets do – they failed. New York won two straight games and finished 2-14, allowing Jacksonville (who won their first game of the season) to swoop in and snag the first overall pick in the draft by losing 15 straight. New York’s consolation prize? BYU quarterback Zach Wilson.
Carolina’s season was the definition of mediocre. After starting 3-2, the Panthers lost five straight and ended up 5-11 overall. A big reason was the absence of perennial All-Pro candidate Christian McCaffrey, who only played in three games. Mike Davis did an admirable job filling in but left for Atlanta during the offseason. However, wideouts DJ Moore and Robby Anderson put together solid seasons, finishing with 1,193 and 1,096 yards, respectively. Oddly enough, New York Jets castoff QB Sam Darnold now takes the reins for Carolina.
It’s a showdown of mediocrity, but Darnold gets revenge… barely.
Pick: Panthers 24, Jets 21 (OT)
Jacksonville at Houston
As mentioned above, the Jaguars won the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes by being better at losing than the Jets. And to be safe, Jacksonville traded away the quarterback that won its only game in 2020 – Gardner Minshew – to the Eagles. The Jags will feature running back James Robinson yet again, whose 1,070 yards and seven touchdowns in 2020 were supposed to be replaced by Lawrence’s teammate at Clemson, running back Travis Etienne. But the fellow rookie will miss the entire season after undergoing foot surgery.
There isn’t much more to say when it comes to the Texans than they’re a mess. Even before Deshaun Watson became a distraction (to put it nicely), Houston had little to be happy about. While Watson put up big numbers – a league-leading 4,823 yards to go along with 33 touchdowns against just seven interceptions – Houston finished 4-12. To add to the disaster, they traded away what would become the No. 3 overall pick to Miami and didn’t have a first-round pick this offseason.
Bad beats out horrid in this one.
Pick: Jaguars 23, Texans 17
Cleveland at Kansas City
For the first time in a long time, there was optimism in Cleveland as the Browns had one of the most talented rosters on paper heading into the 2020 season. With a couple of less-than-stellar seasons under his belt, third-year quarterback Baker Mayfield was asked to do less… and it worked. Despite Mayfield putting up the fewest passing yards of his career (3,563), he also threw fewer interceptions (8) by a long shot. Baker threw 14 picks in 2018 and 21 in 2019. The result? Cleveland improved from 6-10 two seasons ago to 11-5 with a playoff appearance in 2020. With Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt manning the backfield, a healthy Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry at wideout, and a potentially stout defense led by Myles Garrett, the Browns could be really good.
Speaking of stacked rosters, have you met Kansas City? Patrick Mahomes has been the full-time starter for three seasons, which have resulted in an AFC Championship game loss in 2018, a Super Bowl win in 2019, and a Super Bowl loss in 2020. Mahomes scorched the league for 4,740 yards and 38 touchdowns against a mere six interceptions. It helps when you have the best tight end in the game in Travis Kelce, who grabbed 105 catches for 1,416 yards and 11 touchdowns. There’s also speedy receiver Tyreke Hill, who added 1,276 yards and found the end zone 15 times on 87 receptions. Clyde Edwards-Helaire will look to improve upon his rookie campaign, which saw him rush for 803 yards and four TDs in 13 games.
In what many believe to be an AFC Championship preview, Mahomes out-duels Mayfield.
Pick: Chiefs 41, Browns 34
Miami at New England
The Dolphins achieved a rare feat in 2020; they finished with double-digit wins but failed to make the playoffs – they went 10-6. After starting 4-3 with journeyman Ryan Fitzmagic… I mean, Fitzpatrick (I did it again)… Miami switched quarterbacks, turning to the fifth overall pick in last year’s draft, Tua Tagovailoa. The rookie had ups and downs but led the Phins to a 6-3 record. Miami drafted a new toy for the second-year QB’s efforts – Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle.
Waddle’s college quarterback – rookie Mac Jones – earned the starting role for the Patriots, who released 2020 starter, Cam Newton following the preseason. New England selected Jones 15th overall after Newton’s mediocre season resulted in a 7-9 record. 2020 also marked the first season in the post-Tom Brady era. How’d that turn out? Oh yes, Brady hoisted the Lombardi trophy while Bill Belichick’s squad missed the playoffs.
Jones could turn out to be a franchise QB, but Week 1 will belong to Miami.
Pick: Dolphins 26, Patriots 23
Green Bay at New Orleans
Following a 13-3 regular season, the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, and a 31-26 loss to eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship game, it was an interesting offseason in Green Bay. Reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers threatened to never suit up for the Pack again, only to return during training camp and end all trade speculations (for now). Rodgers’ favorite target, Devante Adams, also commented that he might be done with the organization, but the duo remains in Wisconsin. Adams missed two games due to injury in 2020 but still caught 115 passes for 1,374 yards and 18 touchdowns. Rodgers totaled 4,299 yards and 48 TDs while only being picked off five times. He led the league in scoring tosses, completion percentage (70.7), and passer rating (121.5). The Packers also rely heavily on Aaron Jones, who finished with 1,104 yards and nine TDs on the ground.
For the first time since 2005, Drew Brees won’t be slinging the ball around in New Orleans. The future Hall of Famer called it quits following an injury-riddled past two seasons. In the 12 games Brees started in 2020, the Saints went 9-3. The team finished 12-4 overall, good enough to win the NFC South. Jameis Winston steps in as the starter for New Orleans, but the offense will run through running back Alvin Kamara, who rushed for 932 yards and 16 touchdowns while adding another 756 yards and five scores on 83 catches.
This could be a shootout or a blowout depending on how many touchdowns and/or interceptions Winston throws. Regardless, I see the Cheeseheads winning.
Pick: Packers 37, Saints 23
Denver at New York Giants
The Broncos have had one looming problem since Peyton Manning retired – finding a franchise quarterback. After a 5-11 record in 2020, Denver has now missed the playoffs each year since winning Super Bowl 50 following the 2015-16 season. This comes despite sporting an otherwise talented roster. Rather than selecting a quarterback at pick No. 9 in this year’s draft – with both Justin Fields and Mac Jones on the board – the Broncos decided to bolster one of their strengths by taking Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II. The team traded for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who started for Carolina in 2020. He beat out the incumbent Drew Lock and has plenty of talent surrounding him with pass catchers like wideouts Courtland Sutton – who was lost for the year during the first game of the season – and Jerry Jeudy (52 catches, 856 yards), tight end Noah Fant (62 catches, 673 yards), as well as running backs Melvin Gordon III (986 yards, 9 TDs) and rookie Javonte Williams. Aided by the return of Von Miller, who missed all of 2020 due to injury, Denver’s defense is ranked among the league’s best heading into 2021. Can it replicate what the “No Fly Zone” defense of 2015 did and carry the team to a Super Bowl? We’re about to find out.
The Giants had injury problems in 2020 as well, namely in the form of their highly touted running back, Saquon Barkley. Taking Barkley second overall in 2018 looked to be a solid choice as the 5-foot-11, 233-pound back pounded out 1,307 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie. He missed three games in 2019 but still finished with 1,003 yards and six scores. Barkley played in just two games in 2020, touching the ball a total of 25 times – 19 carries for 34 yards and six receptions for 60 yards. New York started last season 0-5 and finished 6-10 but won four straight games between Weeks 9 and 13. Daniel Jones enters his third season at quarterback but needs to find more production. In 12 starts during his rookie season, he tallied 3,027 yards, 24 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. His production dropped during the 2020 campaign as he finished with 2,943 yards, 11 TDs, and 10 interceptions in 14 starts. He does have a shiny new receiver in former Lion Kenny Golladay, though.
Barkley should suit up, but he’ll be on a snap count, which bodes well for Denver.
Pick: Broncos 24, Giants 17
Chicago at Los Angeles Rams
Despite making the playoffs in 2020, the Bears pounced on the aforementioned Justin Fields at pick No. 11 in this year’s draft. And the rookie dazzled in the preseason. Over the three warm-up games, Fields completed 30 of 49 passes for 276 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions. He also took 11 carries for 92 yards and a score. Chicago could have quite the ground attack by combining Fields and David Montgomery (1,070 yards, eight touchdowns). The Bears also welcome back Allen Robinson II, who had 102 catches for 1,250 yards and six scores.
Finally, we get to the second half of the Matt Stafford/Jared Goff trade. Following a 10-6 regular season and a postseason victory in Seattle before falling to No. 1-seeded Green Bay in the divisional round, trading away Goff seemed somewhat surprising. Goff also led LA to a Super Bowl appearance following the 2018-19 season. Stafford inherits a talented roster with the Rams, which has an abundance of pass catchers, namely Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods. Kupp hauled in 92 catches for 974 yards while Woods was close behind with 90 receptions and 934 yards. Last season’s leading rusher, Cam Akers (625 yards), suffered a season-ending injury over the offseason. Still, Darrell Henderson Jr. finished one yard behind Akers at 624 and averaged more yards per carry – 4.6 ypc to Akers’ 4.3.
Stafford may be new in town, but he played against Chicago twice a year throughout his entire 12-year Detroit career. LA should reap the benefits this week.
Pick: Rams 26, Bears 20
Baltimore at Las Vegas – Monday
It’s not often a quarterback leads a team in rushing, let alone that quarterback finish with over 1,000 yards. Well, Lamar Jackson has accomplished both feats each of the last two seasons. The Ravens QB followed up his 2019 MVP season of 1,206 yards with 1,005 more in 2020 – leading Baltimore in the category both years. He found pay dirt on the ground seven times each season as well. However, he wasn’t quite as efficient through the air as his yardage (2,757) and touchdown passes (26) dropped from the previous year – 3,127 and 36, respectively. He also threw more interceptions (9) than in 2020 (6). While Baltimore has one of the game’s top tight ends in Mark Andrews (58 catches, 701 yards, seven touchdowns), it lost its top running back, JK Dobbins, to injury. Gus Edwards will do his best to fill the void as the lead back.
For the first time since relocating to Las Vegas, the Raiders will actually play in Las Vegas. Led by seventh-year quarterback Derek Carr, the Raiders will look to improve on their 8-8 finish in 2020, which was good for second place in the AFC West. Last year, Carr had his most productive season, throwing for 4,103 yards and 27 touchdowns against nine interceptions, resulting in a career-best 101.4 passer rating. His favorite target is tight end Darren Waller, who finished with 1,196 yards and nine scores on 107 catches. The team will also rely on running back Josh Jacobs, who rushed to 1,065 yards and 12 TDs in 2020.
While Vegas desperately wants to break in its new stadium with a win, this one goes to Baltimore.
Pick: Ravens 33, Raiders 16