The preseason games are mercifully over. The cuts have been made. The rosters are finalized and the games finally begin for real starting Thursday in Chicago.
The NFL is ready to kick off its 100th anniversary season. Before previewing and selecting a six-pack of opening week games, here are my picks to make the playoffs, following up on the division previews of last week.
My NFC calls are for Philadelphia, Minnesota, New Orleans and Seattle to be division winners with Chicago and the Rams to earn Wild Cards. In the AFC, I’m going with New England, Pittsburgh, Houston and Kansas City to win their divisions with Baltimore and the Chargers as Wild Cards.
In the playoffs, I have New Orleans defeating Seattle to advance to Super Bowl 54 where they’ll face Kansas City, victors over Pittsburgh in the AFC.
In a QB matchup of old (Drew Brees) vs. young (Patrick Mahomes) I see experience besting potential as New Orleans wins its second Super Bowl Trophy in what could be Brees’ last game.
So much for looking down the road. As for the present, two common themes run through every game this week. Teams have been preparing for this week’s opponent since April. And accord little relevance to what you saw in the preseason aside from considering injuries to key personnel expected to miss all or part of this season.
Titans +5.5 at Browns: The “under the radar” Titans have gone 9-7 for three straight seasons, winning a Wild Card game in 2017. They’ve an elite RB (Derrick Henry), a capable QB (Marcus Mariota) and a solid defense that excels against the run.
Cleveland has to prove all the hype is warranted. With new players and a new coach, It may take time for all that new talent to mesh. Three of the last four games between these teams have been decided by a FG or less. TITANS
Bengals at Seahawks -9.5: Cincinnati finally made a coaching change with Zac Taylor replacing Marvin Lewis after 16 years in charge. Lewis oversaw the emergence of the Bengals as a playoff team followed by a regression the past three seasons (19-28-1).
QB Andy Dalton will be without premier WR A.J. Green and the defense fell off greatly in 2018. Seattle was rebuilding last season yet made the playoffs, winning nine or more games for a seventh straight season. The QB/Coach combo of Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll may be second only to New England. Seattle’s won five of its last seven home openers by double digits. SEAHAWKS
Giants +7 at Cowboys: The Cowboys enter this season as the team in turmoil with RB Ezekiel Elliott holding out and QB Dak Prescott also pouting over a desired new contract.
Meanwhile the Giants have traded away their biggest distraction, Odell Beckham Jr, and both QBs — veteran Eli Manning and rookie Daniel Jones — have been sharp in preseason play which has led to internal harmony surrounding the position.
These division rivals have a history of close games. Since 2009 15 of 20 meetings have been decided by seven points or less, including both last season and 11 of the last 14. GIANTS
Steelers +6 at Patriots: The Le’veon Bell/Antonio Brown drama of last season has been exorcized and Pittsburgh can concentrate on just winning football games.
Last season’s 9-6-1 record was the first time in five seasons the Steelers won fewer than 10 games. QB Ben Roethlisberger has not shown signs of slowing down. His young, talented receivers give him multiple options.
The Patriots are the Patriots but New England’s started slowly recently — beginning 2-2 the past two seasons (3-5 ATS) and in four of the last seven. Pittsburgh’s defense remains a strength whereas the Pats have been vulnerable to the run the past two seasons. STEELERS
Texans at Saints -7: Houston coach Bill O’Brien has done less with more than most coaches. Their window of opportunity may be closing with an aging and injury-prone defense that has been a strength.
Given how they’ve been ousted from the playoffs the past two seasons, New Orleans will play with the proverbial “chip on the shoulder” all season. Surprisingly, the Saints have lost four straight home openers, including three in which they were favored (twice by -10).
They’ll be looking to avenge that Rams loss when they face L.A. next Sunday. All of which suggests support for the Texans. But Houston lost top RB Lamar Miller for the season and the Saints’ Sean Payton has a huge coaching edge over O’Brien. He’ll have his team focused and ready playing at home and with the entire nation watching on Monday night. SAINTS
Broncos Pick’em at Raiders: Given their brutal early-season schedule this may well be the only game the Raiders will be favored to win in their first seven. The money has nevertheless come in on Denver as the game opened with Oakland favored by a FG.
Still, coach Jon Gruden likes the makeup of his roster and the intensity shown throughout the summer. Denver breaks in a new QB (Joe Flacco) and coach (Vic Fangio).
Oakland has beaten Denver on this field each of the last three seasons. And playing on Monday night, where Gruden held court in the ESPN booth for so many years, will no doubt have Oakland’s loyal fan base fired up. RAIDERS