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AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann

2021 NFL Game Picks: Week 1


Last year: 174-94-1

 

DAL @ TB | THU 8:20 PM ET | NBC

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers defend their championship starting tonight, and while it’s almost always the case with Tom Brady’s team, I’m likely not going to pick them to lose a game in 2021. Finding a way to bring back all 22 starters from the Super Bowl hasn’t really been talked about enough, and it’s scary for the rest of the league that Brady now has a full year of experience with the new team under his belt, and he won his seventh ring on a torn MCL—at 43 years old. Dallas being healthy at the tackle spots with Tyron Smith and La’el Collins is helpful, but right guard Zack Martin missing the game as the first of what is sure to be many high-profile COVID losses around the league (most of which will be inexplicable) is a significant blow. The only hope for the Cowboys is Dak Prescott trying to match Brady punch for punch, and that scenario rarely ends up with TB12 on the losing end.

Winner: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

 

JAX @ HOU | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS

I’m sure everyone is very excited to see Trevor Lawrence in real game action, but you also have to feel great for Tyrod Taylor getting another shot to start after the injection debacle led to him losing his job in Los Angeles. As a franchise, Houston’s future outlook doesn’t look overly promising—largely due to the situation their previous quarterback put them in—though it’s worth noting Tyrod went 22-20 for an “overachieving” team in Buffalo a few years ago, and he knows how to take care of the ball. Still, the underrated firepower for the Jaguars may prove to be too much for a Texans defense that just traded away top cornerback Bradley Roby; all three of D.J. Chark, Marvin Jones, and Laviska Shenault Jr. will have a clear size advantage.

Winner: Jacksonville Jaguars

 

LAC @ WAS | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS

This is one of the most difficult games of the week to pick, and we’ll have to keep an eye on the status of Austin Ekeler (hamstring)—who would be a huge loss if unable to go. Either way, the remade offensive line of the Chargers will be tested early against Chase Young and the ferocious Washington front, and my Defensive Rookie of the Year pick Jamin Davis is the prototype linebacker to attack behind them. On the other side of the ball, Washington’s offense has an injury concern of their own with Curtis Samuel (groin) suffering a setback this week, and spotlight will be on Ryan Fitzpatrick early with three opportunistic defenses on the schedule in September (Giants and Bills in addition to the Chargers). The tiebreaker for close matchups is usually the best quarterback or the home team, and I’ll opt for the latter as Justin Herbert hopes to start Year 2 with a victory.

Winner: Los Angeles Chargers

 

SEA @ IND | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX

Another toss up on a strong early slate, Seahawks-Colts feels like it might be somewhat of a slugfest—and Carson Wentz simply can’t catch a break with his first game in Indy coming against a Seattle squad that he’s 0-5 against for his career (including playoffs). That said, Jonathan Taylor being “the guy” on offense will take the pressure off Wentz, and I’m sure Frank Reich will want to make things as easy as possible on his starting quarterback after he missed most of training camp with a foot injury. Russell Wilson and the Seahawks always seem to either come out on fire or very slow offensively in season openers, but the expectation is that a new offense can provide an instant jolt. Again, I’m going with the better quarterback.

Winner: Seattle Seahawks

 

NYJ @ CAR | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS

The game is in Carolina, but Sam Darnold gets an immediate shot at his former team to kick off 2021—and no matter how good of terms they left on, the fact of the matter is that New York got rid of the former No. 3 overall pick. I’m still optimistic that Darnold can be an above-average NFL quarterback, and he couldn’t have asked for a better landing spot operating Joe Brady’s offense with D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, and rookie Terrace Marshall Jr. at wide receiver (not to mention Christian McCaffrey as the game’s best receiving back). Early indications are that Zach Wilson will finally be the answer for the Jets, and even though oddsmakers are counting on a low-scoring game, I think we might be a shootout with New York having explosive players of their own like Tevin Coleman and second-rounder Elijah Moore.

Winner: Carolina Panthers

 

MIN @ CIN | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX

Sunday will be a massive test for Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati offense line, and keeping Danielle Hunter away from the former Heisman winner is key in regards to getting him comfortable not only this week, but the entire season; nothing would be worse than Burrow getting happy feet early on because he takes too many hits playing on a surgically-repaired knee. Zac Taylor should look to create more balance than the Bengals had in 2020, and Joe Mixon being named a team captain is another sign that the team expects a lot from him. For the Vikings, this feels like a season where everything could fall apart, especially if they don’t get a road win this weekend before taking on the Cardinals, Seahawks, and Browns. Tight end Chris Herndon reaching his potential in Minnesota would allow the offense to be more balanced rather than a top-heavy group led by Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, and Adam Thielen.

Winner: Cincinnati Bengals

 

ARI @ TEN | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS

Cardinals-Titans being anything other than a shootout would be a shock to me; I wasn’t sure how Arizona—or anyone for that matter—would stop A.J. Brown and Julio Jones to begin with, and now they’ve lost Malcolm Butler to retirement. Plus, the combination of first-round linebackers Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins will be thrown right into the fire against Derrick Henry, which should be one of the matchups of the week. Fortunately for the Cardinals, the Titans have issues of their own on the backend, but I’m anticipating a bounce-back campaign for star safety Kevin Byard after he had just one interception in 2020, so look for him to try to jump one on Kyler Murray. Consider this the A.J. Brown revenge game for losing out of the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award a couple of years ago.

Winner: Tennessee Titans

 

SF @ DET | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX

The Lions have been mocked for several months since hiring head coach Dan Campbell and trading for Jared Goff, but I’m more optimistic about them than ever. All the pieces are there for them to be the “surprise team” we see every year—proven winner at quarterback, strong offensive line, tough overall mindset—and in an era where many franchises have pivoted to analytics taking over, Detroit brought in a bunch of former players to fill out their coaching staff. For this week, the draw is a difficult one with San Francisco coming to town, and you know top-ten pick Penei Sewell will be tested early by Nick Bosa on the edge. I’m picking the 49ers and think they are the favorites in the NFC West, but I’d have some hesitation about betting the mortgage on them here in the opener.

Winner: San Francisco 49ers

 

PIT @ BUF | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS

The excuses for when Josh Allen and the Bills win a championship are surely being loaded up as we speak (type) by those who simply can’t fathom the former Wyoming gunslinger becoming one of the NFL’s best players, but as someone who used to dislike Tom Brady growing up—it’s much better on the other side of watching greatness. In general, Buffalo’s current core is special, and there is hope that rookie pass rushers Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham will allow them to finally slay Kansas City in the AFC. On Sunday, it should be a battle versus Pittsburgh, and the play of Levi Wallace across from Tre’Davious White is important in slowing down Ben Roethlisberger and the talented group of wideouts for the Steelers. I’m all in on the Bills.

Winner: Buffalo Bills

 

PHI @ ATL | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX

To close out the early games, Eagles-Falcons should be more high-scoring than previous matchups with a new coaching staff for both sides, and I’m excited to watch all the offensive talent on the field: Jalen Hurts as the clear starter, Matt Ryan in Arthur Smith’s system, DeVonta Smith going toe-to-toe with Calvin Ridley, Jalen Reagor hoping to make a Year 2 jump, and Kyle Pitts making a strong first impression. Being at home had me maybe leaning towards Atlanta, but I believe Hurts will have a monster day against a defense that still has questions marks in the secondary despite adding Erik Harris, Duron Harmon, and rookie Richie Grant at safety.

Winner: Philadelphia Eagles

 

CLE @ KC | SUN 4:25 PM ET | CBS

The playoff matchup between Cleveland and Kansas City—with Chad Henne being the hero late in the fourth quarter—was an instant classic, and the rematch is arguably the most highly anticipated game of Week 1. The changes made up front for the Chiefs have been highlighted all across the media, but don’t sleep on the additions made by the Browns on defense with Jadeveon Clowney on the edge, John Johnson on the backend, and rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah as a hybrid, do-it-all player. Also, first-round pick Greg Newsome possesses 4.37 speed and almost never allowed receivers to beat him deep at Northwestern; Cleveland undoubtedly had Kansas city in mind when drafting him to pair with Denzel Ward. However, it’s asking a lot out of rookies to be impact players in the opener, and the home crowd at Arrowhead Stadium will be fired up.

Winner: Kansas City Chiefs

 

GB @ NO | SUN 4:25 PM ET | FOX

The damage from Hurricane Ida wipes out a significant advantage for New Orleans with the game being played in Jacksonville rather than the Superdome, and “The Last Dance” for Green Bay will now begin to a much quieter tune. Jameis Winston will want to get off to a fast start as the starter for the Saints, but it’s crucial that he avoids turnovers, and hitting Alvin Kamara—who absolutely ripped the Packers with 13 receptions for 139 yards and two scores as a receiver last year in a 37-30 loss—is never a bad idea. At receiver, whoever isn’t lined up against Jaire Alexander (likely stationed at left cornerback) out of Marquez Callaway and Tre’Quan Smith should be able to do damage, and overall, Sean Payton will continue to get everyone involved; watch out for Deonte Harris and Juwan Johnson as the unsung options. Rodgers and Davante Adams just might prove to be too much this weekend.

Winner: Green Bay Packers

 

DEN @ NYG | SUN 4:25 PM ET | FOX

I’m sticking with the Giants as my pick in the up-for-grabs NFC East, but that could look foolish by Sunday evening if the offensive line is unable to keep Von Miller and Bradley Chubb from having routine meetings in the pocket. Daniel Jones should at least have his big-time weapons in the lineup with Saquon Barkley (knee) and Kenny Golladay (hamstring) on track to suit up—though Evan Engram (calf) is looking unlikely as the injury issues for New York carry over into 2021. Nonetheless, defense is the main reason I’m high on the Giants, and they can make the Denver debut of Teddy Bridgewater one to forget if the cornerbacks hold up against Jerry Jeudy in particular with James Bradberry potentially taking away Courtland Sutton. New York may be viewed as a top defensive unit by season’s end.

Winner: New York Giants

 

MIA @ NE | SUN 4:25 PM ET | CBS

I know he hasn’t taken a regular season snap, but Mac Jones already looks like yet another quarterback prospect that the media got wrong, and anyone who says he didn’t impress last month has to have blinders on. While the Dolphins are very stingy on the outside with Xavien Howard and Byron Jones, the rookie’s proficiency as a distributor will allow New England to be more versatile with their weekly game plan, and Sunday should be all about running the ball and attacking the middle of the field with Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. On the other hand (no pun intended with a lefty quarterback), Tua Tagovailoa has all the firepower he can hope for with Jaylen Waddle and Will Fuller added in the offseason, but the latter serving the final game of last year’s suspension is bad news ahead of a game in Foxborough. I think Jones will get the edge in Game 1 of what should be the start of a longstanding division rivalry between former Alabama quarterbacks.

Winner: New England Patriots

 

CHI @ LAR | SUN 8:20 PM ET | NBC

The media has done Chicago no favors by pushing for Justin Fields to start (largely based on a few preseason highlights), so it’s important that the team rallies around Andy Dalton on Sunday night to avoid getting blown out; if guys aren’t bought in, it could get ugly—and fast. I personally think there were better options to consider over Dalton this offseason (including Nick Foles, who was already on the roster), but he did nothing to lose the starting job, and there is something to be said about the Bears keeping their word if they promised him he’d start. Now, I’m not sure the results will be very assuring on Sunday night, but Fields—as pointed out by Tom Brady—might not be ready for everything the Rams would throw at him. Hopefully the months to prepare will lead to Matt Nagy having a more creative game plan than usual with David Montgomery, Allen Robinson, Darnell Mooney (the arch nemesis of Jalen Ramsey), and Cole Kmet all needing to get involved, because that’s what it will take to pull off the upset.

Winner: Los Angeles Rams

 

BAL @ LV | SUN 8:15 PM ET | ESPN/ESPN2

The first game with fans at Allegiant Stadium—including team owner Mark Davis—will finish off Week 1, and the atmosphere should be crazy with the Death Star at full capacity. Jon Gruden knows how to put together a game plan with the best of them, so Derek Carr’s steady hand at the controls can get the ball where it needs to go against an opportunistic defense. Darren Waller should have more help if Henry Ruggs III and Bryan Edwards breakout in 2021, but for this week, I think it will be all about the superstar tight end with Baltimore being weaker at linebacker and safety than they are on the outside. Where the concern for Las Vegas really comes is on defense, and this feels like a spot where Sammy Watkins could have one of those signature explosion games as Lamar Jackson faces his cousin Trayvon Mullen Jr.—one of the many recent draft picks for the Raiders that will need to step up if they are going to finally take the next step. I’ll say Gruden’s squad comes away with a narrow victory to open up the new stadium.

Winner: Las Vegas Raiders

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