Boy was I wrong about the Ravens. On Thursday night anyway -- I thought they were a mortal lock to cover a 9½-point spread, even though the Broncos were playing the defending champions in Denver. Sorry for that. But I'm not giving up on picking games this week. After all, I have a title to defend. (And besides, was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no.)
Not to mention, basing my entire season of picks on a single game would be about as silly as everyone giving up on the Ravens for the entirety of the 2013 season simply because Peyton Manning made it rain touchdowns on their secondary in Week 1. Or deciding that Geno Smith can or cannot make it based on his performance against the Buccaneers in Week 1.
We have this bizarre new level of expectations for young quarterbacks thanks to the past two seasons. Cam Newton set the record for most passing yards in his first game as an NFL quarterback (no one saw that coming, though) and Andrew Luck/Russell Wilson/Robert Griffin III basically spoiled us all for the rest of eternity. So if Geno doesn't toss up giant numbers against a good Tampa defense it's a referendum on his career.
That's a mistake, of course. If he comes out and completes 56 percent of his passes and throws three picks (and one touchdown) while racking up 300 yards in garbage-time stats while losing by 10-plus points, he'll get tepid reviews for his rookie performance and people will question whether he can be an NFL quarterback.
Except he shouldn't. Those are the exact same numbers, more or less, that Peyton Manning produced.
How about if the Jets win Sunday, squeaking out a seven-point victory while Geno lobs up a 51 percent completion rate, 129 yards, zero touchdowns and zero interceptions? Is that game-manager-y enough to satisfy everyone? Probably not, no. But those are the numbers that Joe Flacco put up in his first career game. And he seems to be doing just fine, even if he remains a pretty big lightning rod for critics.
The scrutiny surrounding the NFL is vastly different than any other sport. Even if the Yankees lose their opener 16-0, no one thinks that means impending doom for their entire year. "It's a long season, it's only April, etc." In football though, we have such an insane amount of action in such a short amount of time -- both over the course of the season and in the course of each week -- that, combined with teams only playing 16 games, everyone's prone to freaking out and overreacting after each and every game.
Let's take a look at two more ridiculous overhyped, long-range storylines to emerge from Thursday night's game and then we'll do the same thing for Sunday's games while making picks. Predicting what sort of hype might emerge on Sunday is always more fun than getting swept up in it afterwards.
1. Peyton Manning is headed for a historic season: How do we define "historic"? Because right now Manning's on pace for more than 7,000 passing yards and 112 touchdowns. That would absolutely be historic. Does anyone really believe that Manning's going to break any passing yardage or touchdown records after a single game, though? If you do, simmer donna, please, and think back to last year. Manning was actually having the best year of his career (and think about THAT) and was on pace to average over 300 yards per game for the first time in his career. But the Broncos started putting it on cruise control and running the ball when they were dominating inferior opponents later in the year.
If you think Manning cares about single-season passing records, you're insane. He knows Super Bowls define his career and remain most important right now. In fact, we're not even talking about Manning's monster game if it's not for Danny Trevathan's idiotic bumble late Thursday. The linebacker fumbled the ball at the 1, giving the Ravens a brief flirtation with new life. If he scores we don't see Peyton attempt another pass and there's no chatter about records being broken, either Thursday or the future.
2. The Ravens defense will be terrible: This is implausible to me. It's not like Baltimore came out and hemorrhaged points all game long. They were up 17-14 at half. If John Harbaugh challenges a Wes Welker catch early in the third quarter suddenly one of those Broncos touchdowns is a three-and-out (hello Manning passing numbers!) and we might be looking at a totally different game. Things broke the wrong way for Baltimore, the game spiraled out of control and the Ravens were forced out of their game, playing catch-up -- Joe Flacco threw it 62 (!) times Thursday -- and being put in bad defensive spots.
They weren't great and there are clearly problems for this team on defense. James Ihedigbo is a major liability (good call, Pete Prisco) and Jimmy Smith has to keep his head on straight. But when the Ravens held the Broncos to 14 points in the first half, no one was calling for the return of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. This defense will end up being fine, especially once guys like Arthur Brown and Matt Elam are incorporated. I'll stand by my preseason prognostication that the Ravens defense is improved this year over last once it's all said and done.
(PICK IN CAPS)
BUCCANEERS (-3½) at Jets: Too easy. Not the bet, although while I'm not supremely confident in Tampa Bay I see no other option here, honestly. It's all Geno Smith all the time. The rookie is about to get the ultimate trial by fire. It's the first game of his career, the first start of his career, the Jets are playing Darrelle Revis, Geno says it's not "necessary" to study film of Revis (a slap in the face more than a ridiculous remark?) and a host of other factors create a situation where Geno's going to be overanalyzed all day Monday. His biggest issue might be the 50 metaphorical gallons of blood floating in the water when it comes to this team and the New York media. If the Jets lay an egg against Tampa it's going to be on like Donkey Kong and there's nothing Rex, Geno or Mark Sanchez can do to stop it. A win and people will wonder why Geno didn't start sooner. Smith can help himself, but can Ryan? And where would you rank "NY Jets Quarterback" on a list of jobs? Somewhere below "Lamar Odom's publicist" and above "Senior Bowling Blogger" right?
BENGALS (+3½) at Bears: Again, too easy. The quarterbacks on these teams are, like many quarterbacks, lightning rods. And one -- both?? -- of them is going to be responsible for making some really dumb mistakes in the face of a really difficult defense. My guess is Jay Cutler, who's about to square off against a defensive line that is two parts freshly paid (Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins) and one part motivated to dominate in order to get paid (Michael Johnson). Add in that Cutler's reworked offensive line has two guys -- J'Marcus Webb, Gabe Carimi -- already shipped out of town, another two guys -- Kyle Long, Jordan Mills -- who are rookies and you have the recipe for a little tobacco-flavored BBQ on Sunday afternoon:
Cutler's notorious for going at everyone and everything on the sidelines. I'm rooting for Marc Trestman, who has never gotten his just due. Unfortunately, I'm also rooting for a complete and utter meltdown on the Bears sideline that involves Cutler shoving his teammates, choking down imaginary heaters and pouting as America pictures Lovie Smith sitting with his feet up somewhere sporting a "Suck it, Trebek" grin.
But if the Bears bracket A.J. Green and spend all afternoon chasing Andy Dalton into a mess of short throws and big mistakes forget I ever said this.
FALCONS (+3½) at Saints: For some odd reason everyone wants to hate the Falcons. Why is that? They were posers whenever they won the division and now they're RIPE for a fall. Or something. This is a prime game for everyone to get back on the "Matt Ryan can't win big games" bandwagon even though the only evidence that points toward that is bad luck in the playoffs; all Ryan does is win big games. Nevertheless, if they fail to win this game -- and there's good reason to think they will given how difficult the Superdome is to play in -- people will start coming out to party all over the broken bird bones of the Falcons' potential dream season.
PACKERS (+4½) at 49ers: Is the read option dead? Because, yeah, we haven't been asked that enough this offseason, right? WRONG. We're not done here, kids, and not by a long shot. The Packers and 49ers began the week in a contentious debate as to whether or not they can crush Colin Kaepernick at the mesh point. The NFL has alerted them that they can, which means Kaep could face a flurry of fierce hits from Nick Perry and Clay Matthews. Either he's going to get pegged a ton and we'll debate whether or not the hits are legal or he'll prove everyone wrong, run for 200 yards and everyone gets to scream on Twitter about Pistol formations for another week like Peyton Manning didn't use them a few times on Thursday. All the while, we'll have missed the real story: the 49ers secondary isn't that great and Aaron Rodgers just went off.
Seahawks at PANTHERS (+3½): Someone has to be the sophomore slump scapegoat after one week. While Kaep is definitely a candidate, I'm gonna take Russell Wilson. Don't get me wrong: I definitely do NOT think Wilson ends up having a slump. But I have the Panthers winning this one (gut feeling) in front of a rowdy crowd eager to see Cam Newton bust out in his third season.The receivers -- Steve Smith plus a veteran pu-pu platter -- are an issue for sure and I'm not confident about the Cats' running game. But their defense is going to be improved this year if it stays healthy at linebacker and the nice thing about Week 1 is that everyone's healthy. The Seahawks, with Percy Harvin on the mend and Sidney Rice getting some sort of foreign surgery, only really have Golden Tate as a threat and Josh Norman can match up with him. The running game is good but Carolina's front seven is substantially improved and I think they start hot for once against a Seattle team that isn't usually good on the road. If Wilson struggles the hounds will come out.
An equally possible result from this game is that the newly captained Newton does his trademark celebration after a touchdown in a losing effort and people begin to question his leadership again. Fun for everyone!
GIANTS (+3½) at Cowboys: We'll all be living in Jerry's World for this matchup, but all eyes should be on Jason Garrett's pants. Er, wait. His hot pants. No. Dammit. Look, Jason Garrett's job security is going to be up in the air after this game win or lose. That's just the Cowboy Way. And with the ageless Monte Kiffin revamping the defense, Bill Callahan calling the plays and embrace-debate lightning rod Tony Romo being more involved in the offense there's no real potential for this to be a subtle discussion about football. You could honestly spin this against Garrett win or lose. I'm buying Callahan on the offense but I'm selling Kiffin on the defense this year and I think that ultimately leads to a Giants victory.
VIKINGS (+4½) at Lions: Two thousand yards is going to be targeted for hyperbole one way or another once this game ends -- there's ample room to discuss it. There's no real middle ground for either Adrian Peterson or Calvin Johnson; that's what happens after record-breaking seasons. If Peterson goes for 150-plus yards he's going to have a shot at 2,000. If not, WHAT HAPPENED TO HIM? And Megatron -- who should actually see a dip in stats thanks to the presence of Reggie Bush -- better come up with some scores and yardage if he expects anyone to believe that he can get to 2,000 receiving yards this year. Nevermind that neither one of these guys really started out the season bonkers in 2012 and that you can quickly correct an average by throwing up a large digit in the following week. No, no. We should definitely ignore that.
PATRIOTS (-9½) at Bills: Thursday night saw Wes Welker catch nine passes, two of them touchdowns, and that means it's your move, Danny Amendola. Almost every single week this season we'll see a comparison of the two players who, despite the annoying stereotype of Caucasian wideouts, are really quite similar. With Welker blowing up in Denver (despite a few mistakes along the way) Amendola has to put up some numbers if you don't want folks freaking out about what a foolish move Bill Belichick made by letting Welker walk. Fortunately for Amendola the Pats should win this game, so he has some wiggle room. Six catches, 70 yards (and maybe a touchdown?) might serve to satisfy Boston talk radio for a week, provided the Patriots roll. Can you imagine what happens, though, if Amendola and Tom Brady aren't on the same page, Amendola struggles and the Pats fall to the Bills as they trot out a rookie quarterback? Let's go ahead and set the over/under at 379.5 for number of times a Dennis & Callahan caller screams "WELK-AH!" on Monday morning if that goes down.
Dolphins at BROWNS (-1½): This game isn't the sexiest thing on paper and it's not going to draw that many eyeballs, but both Miami and Cleveland went out and dropped piles of cash in free agency this offseason. Whenever teams do that, expectations rise. And when expectations rise on potentially middling rosters it's quite the dangerous setup for the people running the team, not to mention the fans and their feelings. And I have a feeling that when this game ends one of these teams will be absolutely freaking out about the result. Considering the Dolphins expect to be a playoff contender, how could they go on the road and lose to the BROWNS? And if the Browns are supposed to improve, how can a lowly AFC East squad -- a literal underdog -- roll into the Pound and take them down? Also: Brandon Weeden-fueled panic is always potentially right around the corner.
TITANS (+7½) at Steelers: I hate this pick as much as I hate having to start Chris Johnson in a fantasy league. Constantly being teased by potential big runs is the second-worst thing in the world, only behind looking at your fantasy score on Monday morning and staring at this:
It's brutal. I mean, 0.4 yards per carry? I would be mad again if I wasn't still so shell-shocked from the fall of freshman year. Let's say Johnson lays another one of those eggs on the table after Tennessee went out and signed Andy Levitre and then drafted Chance Warmack. Things will get weird, especially if Shonn Greene looks, gulp, good. Either way there's going to be screaming about CJ2K.
Chiefs at JAGUARS (+3½): BLAINE GABBERT BACK? OK, it's hard to be "back" when you were never "here," but an impressive performance by Gabbert in a victory -- yes, that's right -- against Kansas City and a sneaky-good secondary (Brandon Flowers, Sean Smith, Eric Berry are a very nice trio) and people are going to start wondering whether or not Gabbert can become a franchise quarterback. This could get at least as messy as trying to go all Dr. Moreau on a mustachioed Gabbert and an actual Jaguar:
Raiders at COLTS (-9½): The reaction from this game will be two-fold, assuming it plays out in the 35-0 kind of way that I expect, with Indianapolis coming out on top. One: Will the Raiders win a single game this year? This is the question folks will be asking when they're pounded in Indy by the Colts. And two: Can Andrew Luck win the MVP, win the Super Bowl and solve that whole world peace thing before March 2014? Luck should put up some massive and impressive numbers against an Oakland defense that is so bad it's almost impressive. Think 25 for 30 for 285 yards and four touchdowns or something ridiculous like that.
CARDINALS (+4½) at Rams: Geez. Another pick I already hate but won't avoid because more than a field goal in a divisional game against teams I'm not totally sure about. This will be the Carson Palmer Game, even though it's too early to totally judge how the veteran will do in his new digs. My best guess is that he gets bottled up and intercepted by both Janoris Jenkins and Cortland Finnegan, Robert Quinn sacks him twice in the first half and then Palmer piles up a bunch of junk yards throwing deep to Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd in the second half. The result? Arizona covering and fantasy owners being thrilled by Palmer's "big" performance. The result of that? Lots of screaming about whether or not Arizona's improved at quarterback.
Eagles at REDSKINS (-3½): Dual-threat game here as well. There's going to be some reaction from Robert Griffin III's performance and it'll either be a direct attack on RG3 and Mike Shanahan or a full-blown back rub for the pair. If the Redskins offense comes out firing and looks dominant (as I think it will) then Shanny handled the offseason well and RG3 is no longer concerned with himself off the field. But if the offense is rusty and Griffin doesn't look right? Oh Lord. Everything will hit the fan, the Redskins offseason plan will be a disaster and we'll get approximately 5,000 Donovan McNabb soundbites between now and the second game.
Bonus: Chip Kelly's offense! Hopefully everyone's aware that if we don't issue a permanent referendum on the Eagles' new offense after watching it for 60 minutes then we're doing it all wrong.
TEXANS (-4½) at Chargers: It's time for Arian Foster to STEP ASIDE and let Ben Tate tote the rock. That's what people might think after Foster returns for a minimal number of carries, Tate is given most of the load and he ends up having a monster game in a Monday Night Football blowout. There's nothing for people to get that worked up about with the Chargers; Manti Te'o isn't likely to play, Philip Rivers will be sacked into oblivion, etc. Maybe that San Diego's secretly the worst team in the NFL? We could also see some handwringing about Houston not having a good enough quarterback in Matt Schaub but I think he hits both Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins for a teeter in this game. It's a blowout that sees Tate getting carries and people wondering if Foster's 15 minutes are up.