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Peek at the Week: Niners-Packers leads, 'Skins-Saints intrigues

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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Game of the week

San Francisco at Green Bay, 4:25 p.m. ET

The line: Packers by 5½

The story: The Packers had the best record in the NFC last year. The 49ers were second. The two were supposed to meet in the conference title game, only the Packers never got the memo. So we fast forward our script eight months to find out what might've happened had Green Bay survived the Giants in the playoffs.

Green Bay is loaded again, and so are the 49ers. The Packers have offensive weapons galore. The 49ers have defensive weapons galore. The Packers have Jermichael Finley. The 49ers have Vernon Davis. The Packers have Clay Matthews. The 49ers have Patrick Willis. The Packers have Aaron Rodgers. The 49ers have ...

Ah, and that's where this game is supposed to be decided ... at quarterback. Conventional wisdom says Alex Smith can't outplay Rodgers, only he doesn't have to. He just can't screw up, and there was nobody better last season at minimizing mistakes than Smith. He had five interceptions in 18 games, including the playoffs.

But there's another factor here that deserves to be addressed -- namely, the 2005 draft. Smith was the first choice of the entire draft. Rodgers, who badly wanted to go to San Francisco, wasn't taken until the 24th pick, and he vowed to remember all those who passed on him ... especially you know who.

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I guarantee Rodgers remembers what happened, even though it was Mike McCarthy -- now his head coach but then the 49ers' offensive coordinator -- who leaned toward Smith.

Hey, whatever works.

The back story: Green Bay has 13 consecutive regular-season victories at Lambeau Field, while the 49ers have lost their past eight there.

Three games I'd like to see

Washington at New Orleans, 1 p.m. ET | Preview

The line: Saints by 7½

The story: I don't care how you want to look at this game -- RG3's debut or the Saints' return from Bountygate -- but it is must see. Robert Griffin III is the guy who's supposed to save the Redskins, only he's playing one of the toughest teams in one of the toughest buildings to win. You can look it up: The Saints did not lose at the Superdome last year and scored 329 points (41.1 per game) there. Plus, Griffin operates behind an offensive line that is ... how shall I put this? ... shaky.

Anyway, if the Saints are anything like the 2007 Spygate Patriots they'll put dynamite to this season, taking out their anger and frustration on opponents to demonstrate they were right. Only one difference: Those Patriots had Bill Belichick on the sideline; these Saints don't have Sean Payton, and, yes, I think that makes a difference.

It won't in this game -- New Orleans should have too many weapons for Washington -- but it will as the season wears on. The key here will be Washington's ability to get Drew Brees and Co. off the field. The Saints last year set a record with 416 first downs and an unofficial league mark of 56.7 percent on third-down conversions, which means the heat is on former New Orleans coach Jim Haslett, now Washington's defensive coordinator.

I want to see how his unit defends Brees, Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles, you name it. I want to see how Griffin operates in his pro debut. And I want to see how the Redskins sort out their running backs. Mostly, though, I want to see how the Saints respond to an unforgettable offseason that tarnished the reputation of its players and the organization.

The back story: Since 2006, the Saints have played four season openers at home and won all of them.

Buffalo at N.Y. Jets, 1 p.m. ET (CBS) | Preview

The line: Jets by 3½

The story: The Bills are supposed to be playoff contenders, and this is their chance to prove it. They have to climb over the Jets to squeeze New England in the AFC East, only these Jets are supposed to be ... what did Rex Ryan say? ... oh, yeah, the club that "has a chance to be the best team that I've had since I've been the coach here."

The key there are the words: Has a chance. As in: It may not have a chance, either.

But it won't be the Bills people study here. It will be the Jets and Tim Tebow. Specifically, we want to see how and when they use the backup QB. He's supposed to handle the wildcat, and I have no doubt he will. Now what I wonder is: How effective will he be? How effective will the Jets be? Will they score a touchdown on offense? Will Darrelle Revis continue to struggle vs. Stevie Johnson? How soon before we hear the first boo?

I don't know that these teams will be all that terrific this season, but I do know I want to see this game. There are just too many subplots to ignore.

The back story: Ryan earlier this summer said he was the game's best defensive coach, and the numbers support him. Dating back to 2005 when he took over Baltimore's defense and including his three years as Jets head coach, his defenses lead the league in total defense, passing defense and third-down efficiency. They also rank third in scoring and fourth in run defense and takeaways.

Pittsburgh at Denver, 8:20 p.m. ET

The line: Broncos by 1½

The story: Normally, you think this would have something to do with Pittsburgh payback for a humiliating playoff loss eight months ago, but there's nothing normal about this game. It's Peyton Manning's return to football and our first chance to see how he throws and withstands the pressure of an all-out assault on the pocket.

For months, I have wondered how Manning reacts when he's hit, particularly if he's hit hard, and this should satisfy that curiosity. Guaranteed, Pittsburgh comes after the guy, and forget sacks; I'm talking about blindside blows to a 36-year-old coming off four neck surgeries.

If he's OK, so are the Broncos, and this is an early barometer of what we can expect. But stay tuned because the schedule doesn't ease up. Six of Denver's first eight opponents are 2011 playoff teams, including Atlanta next week and Houston after that. If there's pressure, it's not so much on Manning as it is on someone like, say, Ryan Clady, the left tackle who protects his back. He's going to make mistakes, but he can't afford to make many.

Most people think both these teams reach the playoffs, but I don't worry about Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers. They're almost always there. I wonder what happens to Manning and the Broncos because ... well, because I don't know what to expect from him or his team.

The back story: The Broncos have a 38-13-1 record in home openers, the best winning percentage in the NFL. They have also won four of their past five at home vs. Pittsburgh.

Monday night lights

Cincinnati at Baltimore, 7 p.m. ET

The line: Ravens by 6½

The story: Cincinnati made the playoffs last year but couldn't beat Baltimore or Pittsburgh. That means the Bengals were 9-3 vs. the rest of the schedule, and, yes, that's impressive ... especially with a rookie quarterback. The odds are against them here -- Baltimore is 27-5 at home under John Harbaugh, including 10 straight victories and 18 wins in their past 19 tries -- but so what? Look at the rest of the Bengals' schedule. They could ... maybe should ... win their next five after this one.

And if they win this one? Make them the early favorite to win the division.

I don't know, there's just something that doesn't feel right about this year's Ravens. I don't know if it's the offensive line or the Ed Reed drama or the Joe Flacco contract or injuries to tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson or the Terrell Suggs setback. It just doesn't seem as if these guys are better than they were a year ago, and a year ago they were within a Lee Evans catch of the Super Bowl, the second time in four years they made it to the conference championship game under Harbaugh.

They look better on offense, and I have no doubt Flacco will have the best season of his career; that Torrey Smith will flourish and that Ray Rice will run for a zillion yards. I'm more concerned about the offensive line and the defense, especially with Suggs out for a prolonged period.

This game is a chance to measure just how good Cincinnati might be and just how vulnerable the Ravens might be, but I'll be honest: The emotional fallout from the passing of Art Modell could push the Ravens to a lopsided win. Linebacker Ray Lewis said the club will dedicate the season to him, and I saw what happened to New England last year after the Patriots did the same thing following the death of Myra Kraft. It could happen here.

The back story: The Ravens are 4-0 in season openers under Harbaugh.

San Diego at Oakland, 10:15 p.m. ET

The line: Chargers by 1½

Darren McFadden vs. an AFC West foe is a win for the Raiders. (Getty Images)  
Darren McFadden vs. an AFC West foe is a win for the Raiders. (Getty Images)  
The story: The last time these two saw each other was the last game of the 2011 season when San Diego stunned the Raiders in Oakland to win embattled head coach Norv Turner a reprieve. Now we find out what he and his Chargers do with that mulligan.

Let's go down the list of musts for San Diego. It's critical the defense gets opponents off the field. It's critical quarterback Philip Rivers stops making mistakes. It's critical Mike Harris does an adequate job of pass protection at left tackle. It's critical Antonio Gates stays healthy, and it's critical Ryan Mathews stays in the lineup, too.

Yep, that's a lot to ask from San Diego, but there's no room for error this season -- not with Peyton Manning in the division. The Chargers missed the playoffs the past two years, and management won't tolerate a hat trick. The problem here is that they run into an Oakland quarterback with a history of success against them and an offense that, when Darren McFadden is healthy, overwhelms them with physical play.

New defensive coordinator John Pagano must straighten out a defense that allowed opponents to convert a staggering 49.2 percent of third downs last year, and he has new players to do it. The question, of course, is: Can he? Turner's job and the Chargers' future may depend on it.

The Raiders have issues of their own, starting with wide receivers. They're hurt there, with Denarius Moore returning to practice this week for the first time since Aug. 4. Jacoby Ford has an injured foot, and rookie Juron Criner is bothered by an ankle injury, forcing the Raiders to re-sign Derek Hagan this week. Guess that means we'll see a lot of McFadden, and we should: He's the Raiders' best playmaker.

The back story: San Diego has won seven of its past eight in Oakland.

Crummy game of the week

Jacksonville at Minnesota, 1 p.m. ET (CBS) | Preview

The line: Vikings by 4½

The story: Minnesota will finish last in the NFC North. Jacksonville could finish last in the AFC South. The Vikings' star player, running back Adrian Peterson, is recovering from torn knee ligaments and said he's ready to play, but Minnesota isn't expected to make a decision until Sunday. The Jaguars' star player, running back Maurice Jones-Drew, is recovering from a summer-long holdout that gained nothing, and he may be relegated to a role as a third-down back. Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder last year looked good and bad. Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert looked mostly bad. If you're still awake, we're available for questions.

The back story: The Jaguars are 11-23 vs. the NFC on the road.

Upset of the week

Buffalo (+3½) over the N.Y. Jets

There's a feeling out there that the Jets can't be as bad as they looked this summer, but seeing is believing. They scored one touchdown, and that was a pass from the third-string quarterback in their final game of the preseason. So, yes, as a matter of fact, they stunk on offense, and to say they have issues is like saying Greece has budgetary concerns.

I mean, duh.

That means the Jets might be ripe for a takeover. OK, so I know their history against Buffalo. They have won the past five. But this is a different Bills team, one that believes it can make it to the playoffs. If so, they can get started here, and let's see what happens when Mario Williams lines up against Austin Howard or Jason Smith.

That matchup favors Buffalo. So does this game.

Five guys I'd like to be

1. Miami QB Ryan Tannehill: He becomes the first rookie quarterback in Dolphins history to open the season. I don't care if he wins or loses. He makes history.

2. Oakland QB Carson Palmer: In five career starts vs. San Diego, he has 13 touchdowns, three interceptions and a passer rating of 122.5. He is also averaging 354.3 yards per game at home as a Raider.

3. New York Jets QB Mark Sanchez: He plays Buffalo, and when the Jets play Buffalo they usually win. At least they have won the past five. Anyway, in his past two starts vs. the Bills Sanchez has five touchdowns, two interceptions and a passer rating of 91.4.

4. Arizona QB John Skelton: He's 5-0 as a starter at home and in six of his past 10 games engineered game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime.

Fan Poll

What is Week 1's best game?

49ers at Packers
57%
Redskins at Saints
5%
Bills at Jets
5%
Steelers at Broncos
22%
Bengals at Ravens
5%
Chargers at Raiders
5%

Total Votes: 7,608

5. Baltimore safety Ed Reed: He has nine career interceptions vs. Cincinnati.

Five matchups I want to see

1. Chicago WR Brandon Marshall vs. Indianapolis: The last time he faced the Colts he wasn't in Chicago; he was in Denver. And Jay Cutler wasn't his quarterback; Kyle Orton was. It didn't matter. He put up a league-record 21 catches ... and still lost. "I hit blackjack," said Marshall. "That was pretty good." It was, but don't expect it to happen again.

2. Oakland RB Darren McFadden vs. any AFC West opponent: McFadden is never better than when he's within the division, and look who's up next: It's San Diego, and consider yourself warned. In 16 career games vs. AFC West opponents, McFadden has run for 1,138 yards, averaged 5.5 per carry and scored five times.

3. San Francisco WR Randy Moss vs. Green Bay: The Packers are used to seeing Moss ... often in their end zone. In 14 career games against them he has 1,273 yards receiving and 13 touchdowns. Of course, 13 of those games happened eight or more years ago. So this is a different Moss, older, slower and with yet another team. But here's the question: Is he still a threat? We're about to find out.

4. Denver QB Peyton Manning vs. Blitz-burgh: Manning has faced the Steelers only four times in his pro career (including playoffs), but in those four games he was sacked 11 times. He's also 2-2, with seven touchdowns and four interceptions. When asked this week if he took a hard hit this summer, he said, "That's not a factor." It could be now.

5. Detroit coach Jim Schwartz vs. St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher: When Fisher was coaching the Titans, it was Schwartz who ran his defense ... and ran it so well he parlayed it into a head-coaching job. "Jim is very talented," said Fisher, his mentor. "I knew from Day 1 when he walked in the door he was going to be successful."

Five things that may interest only me

1. The Raiders are 9-8 in season openers with new head coaches, but have lost three of their last four. New coach Dennis Allen is the third Oakland head coach to open with San Diego, with his predecessors (Mike Shanahan, Mike White) each beating the Chargers.

2. Want to win a Super Bowl? Well then, win your first game. The 46 Super Bowl winners have a 37-8-1 record on opening weekend. Dating back to 1978, when the NFL went to a 16-game schedule (excluding the strike-truncated 1982 season) teams that win in Week 1 are more than twice as likely to reach the playoffs as teams that lose.

3. Peyton Manning needs one more 300-yard game to surpass Dan Marino for the most (64) in NFL history. Manning will also reach 400 career touchdown passes with his next score.

4. New England has eight straight victories in season openers, the longest current winning streak in the NFL. Green Bay is second with five.

5. Since John Harbaugh took over the Ravens in 2008, they have outscored opponents 817-426 in regular-season home games and held 27 of 32 opponents to 17 or fewer points.

Numbers you should remember

4: Most touchdown passes thrown by a rookie quarterback in his pro debut (Fran Tarkenton, 1962)
6.1: Jamaal Charles' career rushing average
7: Consecutive 300-yard passing games for Drew Brees
15: Consecutive Rob Bironas field goals
23: Raiders not with team in 2011
23-0: Atlanta's record when Matt Ryan has a passer rating of 100 or better
24-0: Record of Jay Cutler's teams when he has a passer rating of 100 or more
32: Consecutive games with at least one Tom Brady touchdown pass
102-17: Philadelphia's record under Andy Reid when leading at the half

Sunday's weather

 Chicago: Partly cloudy, high of 75
 Cleveland: Partly cloudy, high of 70
 Detroit: Dome
 Houston: Sunny, high of 86 (retractable roof)
 Kansas City, Mo.: Sunny, high of 86
 Minneapolis: Dome
 New Orleans: Dome
 East Rutherford, N.J.: Partly cloudy, high of 75
 Nashville, Tenn.: Sunny, high of 76
 Glendale, Ariz.: Isolated thunderstorms, high of 102 (retractable roof)
 Green Bay, Wis.: Mostly sunny, high of 70
 Tampa, Fla.: Scattered thunderstorms, high of 84
 Denver: Sunny, high of 85

Where we will be

 I'll be in Green Bay to see if I can catch a bike lift to Lambeau.
 Pete Prisco will be in New Orleans to give away free rolls of Bounty towels.
 Mike Freeman will be in Denver to determine if Pittsburgh's Steelers really are a pain in the neck.
 Gregg Doyel will be in Chicago for the Andrew Luck coronation.

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