The new NFL season kicks off Thursday in Denver, after one of the more eventful off-seasons, at least off the field, that I can remember.
Although concussions, Aaron Hernandez, and Tm Tebow may not quite be forgotten, they will be pushed aside as a grateful America welcomes back its true national sport and obsession.
Week one is always a tough one to pick, because you don't really see what is happening when you watch pre-season. Teams are loathe to give too much away; they run their basic sets, they play vanilla defense, and they evaluate players by projecting their performance in those conditions to their full systems.
Meanwhile, they work in practice, and then when it's time to go for real, hope nothing falls apart. That's why, in week one, we tend to look for the steady teams, who are good year in and year out. And then adjust...
Pittsburgh (-7) vs Tennessee
There are no sure things in week one. New England ought to win in Buffalo, but 9.5 is a lot of points. The Jags are getting 3.5 at home against the Chiefs, which might be tempting.
But I'm going with the Steelers, even though they are (as usual) unsettled in the offensive line, and plugging some new parts into the defense.
I'm not convinced Jake Locker is ready for prime time, and the Dick LeBeau defense is probably as harsh a test as he's going to face. The most interesting thing about watching the Steelers will be to see how much freelancing LeBeau allows Troy Polamalu to do, and how healthy the injury-prone safety is.
Chris Johnson's 2,000 yard rushing season seems a dim memory now, but if he can get over 100, this sure thing could look pretty unsure all of a sudden.
Carolina (+3) vs Seattle at 2.05
I'd like this better if the Panthers were getting a touchdown, but the wise guys have noticed that they will be a much better team this year than they were last.
Seattle are one of the favourites to win it all, which makes the field goal margin all the more flattering to the Panthers, whose only weakness right now is that DeAngelo Williams, who had a disappointing 2012, is their only recognised running back.
But that may be a good thing, as the Panthers' best weapon is QB Cam Newton, and they will get the most out of him if they allow him to play as a quarterback, and not get involved with his option-running as they did to start last season.
Seattle is solid top to bottom, if anything deeper on defense, but they do need Russell Wilson to continue making plays. Which he can do. But watching Luke Kuechly trying to chase Wilson down might be the best subplot of this game. I also like the Eagles getting 3.5 at 2.50, against the Skins in Washington Monday night.
Indianapolis (-10) vs Oakland at 2.05
The Raiders have looked awful in preseason, and though that could change, neither Terrelle Pryor nor Matt Flynn at quarterback is likely to worry the Colt D. Ten points is a big spread, especially in week one, and the Colts were not as good a team as their record indicated last season.
But they were helped by an easy schedule, and it doesn't get much easier this year than the Raiders, about whom the best you can say is that they are rebuilding.
ONE TO AVOID
Denver (-9.5) vs Baltimore
Thursday night's kickoff game will make it the third time these teams have met in the Broncos' last five games, and the last time was in the playoffs, where oddly enough the line was exactly what it is now. At that point, even though I'd picked the Ravens at the start of 2012 as my AFC Super Bowl team, I picked Denver to win, figuring the home field advantage would carry them through despite the spread. Boy was I wrong.
These are different teams now—offensively the Broncos ought to be even better than last year with the addition of Wes Welker, but defensively they will miss Von Miller (suspended) and Elvis Dumervil (signed by the Ravens after the Bronco front office messed up faxing him his renewal) and their pass rush.
The Ravens have lost a lot of veteran big names, all of whom came through big last year in their playoff run, and you can look at their wide receiver situation as rebuilding, but there is still a lot of talent there.
With Dumervil and Tyrell Suggs (who's now back at 100% after playing through injury last year) their pass rush ought to bother Peyton Manning, but without Ed Reed their secondary may have some holes. I think Denver win this game, because of that fourth quarter advantage at altitude in the heat, but I also think the Ravens can hit some big plays and beat the spread. It's no sure thing, so I suggest leaving it alone.
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