THE NFL SEASON kicked off with a bang on Thursday night when Peyton Manning threw a record-equalling seven touchdowns as the Denver Broncos put the defending Super Bowl champions, the Baltimore Ravens, to the sword.
It was an odd game, with uncharacteristic mistakes from a Ravens team that has for so long been built around doing the simple things right and, while seven touchdowns flatters any quarterback, there’s no doubt Peyton Manning laid down a marker for the rest of the year.
This Sunday sees little in the way of marquee games, strange given that it’s the first week of the season, but there are two or three that stand out for various reasons.
Green Bay Packers @ San Francisco 49ers (-4.5), 9.25pm
The last time these two met, Green Bay gave up 579 yards to Colin Kaepernick’s seemingly unstoppable offence and though the Packers have added the speed of Datone Jones to their defence, there should still be plenty of holes for the 49ers to exploit.
For their part, Green Bay will have Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin in the backfield to help take some of the pressure off Aaron Rodgers but both could struggle to find any significant gaps in San Francisco’s disciplined front seven.
When Rodgers does decide to throw the ball, he’ll have the memory of 51 sacks last season in the back of his mind. That won’t be fun to think about when rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari is trying to stop Aldon Smith. The outside linebacker had 19.5 sacks to his name last year and will look to beat that number in 2013.
Verdict: Kaepernick won’t have Michael Crabtree as a safety net for this game and it remains to be seen if he can gel with another receiver as well this year. However, the 49ers should still cover the spread at home. San Francisco by 5+
Cincinnati Bengals (+3) @ Chicago Bears, 6.00pm
I feel like I’ve been waiting for the Bengals to have a break-out year for ages now but something – and no, it’s not Hard Knocks – tells me that this could just be their year. They certainly have a good record on the road to NFC teams lately, winning five of their last six and have only lost once in five visits to the Windy City.
Many in Chicago will be hoping that Jay Cutler, in a contract year, can put together the kind of season that saw Joe Flacco lead the Ravens to an NFL championship last year but it remains to be seen if Brandon Marshall can improve on, or even match, his 118-catch, 1,500-yard performance of last year.
The Bears will also line up without Brian Urlacher on defence and the 13-year veteran’s absence could be exposed by AJ Green through the air and exciting rookie Giovani Bernard on the ground. Whatever happens in this game, expect both teams to be in the mix in their respective conferences come December.
Verdict: One of the tougher games of the weekend to call but the Bengals’ record on their cross-conference travels tips this one in their favour for me. Cincinnati by 3.
New England Patriots (-9.5) @ Buffalo Bills, 6.00pm
Despite the fact that a lot of their attacking threat has been traded (Wes Welker), hospitalised (Rob Gronkowski) or charged with murder (Aaron Hernandez), few are willing to write the Patriots off this year because they still have a certain Tom Brady at quarterback and Bill Belichick has given him a whole range of new toys to play with.
The Bills have offensive weapons of their own and, as I wrote on Thursday, I fully expect them to give CJ Spiller as many touches as he can handle as they look to ease rookie quarterback EJ Manuel into first-year head coach Doug Marrone’s system.
Both teams have issues on defence but Buffalo will feel Jairus Byrd’s absence greatly as the 26-year old ball hawk would have hoped to play a key role in intimidating some of the Patriots’ rookie receivers. However, a plantar fasciitis injury rules him out of the game.
Verdict: The Bills have lost a whopping 23 of their last 25 games against New England and I fully expect the Pats to continue their dominance of the AFC East this Sunday. Patriots by 10.
At the request of some readers over the past few seasons, I’ll now base my pick, the team in bold, on whether they’ll beat the spread, rather than win the game. All games kick off Sunday at 6pm Irish time unless stated.
Tennessee Titans @ Pittsburgh Steelers (-7)
Atlanta Falcons (+3) @ New Orleans Saints
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-3.5) @ New York Jets
Kansas City Chiefs (-4) @ Jacksonville Jaguars
Miami Dolphins (+1) @ Cleveland Browns
Seattle Seahawks (-3.5) @ Carolina Panthers
Minnesota Vikings (+5) @ Detroit Lions
Oakland Raiders (+10) @ Indianapolis Colts
Arizona Cardinals @ St Louis Rams (-4.5) – Sunday, 9.25pm
New York Giants (+3.5) @ Dallas Cowboys – Monday, 1.30am
Philadelphia Eagles @ Washington (-3.5) – Tuesday, 0.10am
Houston Texans (-4) @ San Diego Chargers – Tuesday, 3.20am