NFL

Top matchup for each Week 1 NFL game

Vincent Frank
Written by Vincent Frank

Week 1 of the 2017 NFL regular season is here and it promises to be a blast. From a Thursday night game between two AFC title contenders to an early Monday evening game that pits Adrian Peterson against his former team, there are a ton of great matchups on the slate.

How will the Kansas City Chiefs stop a healthy Rob Gronkowski when they head into Gillette Stadium to take on the defending champion New England Patriots? Can Josh Norman shut down yet another No. 1 receiver in the NFC East with his Washington Redskins taking on the Philadelphia Eagles?

These are among the top matchups for each week 1 NFL game.

Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots: Rob Gronkowski vs Eric Berry

Eric Berry

We were going to go with new Patriots No. 1 receiver Brandin Cooks taking on Marcus Peters, but that would be too easy. Instead, we get a tremendous opening-night matchup between two of the best players at their respective positions in the NFL.

Fresh off inking a six-year, $78 million extension with Kansas City, Berry remains one of the top cover safeties in the league. He put up nine passes defended, four interceptions and two touchdowns en route to earning All Pro honors last season.

Meanwhile, Gronkowski averaged an eye-opening 21.6 yards per catch and 14.2 yards per target during an injury-shortened 2016 campaign. How this specific matchup plays out will tell us a whole lot about which reigning division champ comes out on top Thursday.

New York Jets at Buffalo Bills: Cordy Glenn vs Muhammad Wilkerson

Likely, two of the worst teams in the AFC this season. It was difficult to figure out an elite-level matchup between two potential bottom feeders. But this doesn’t mean these two New York-based teams don’t have top-end players. They’re just limited in that area.

In Wilkerson, the Jets have a former Pro Bowler that’s coming off a down season that saw him rack up just 4.5 sacks. That came on the heels of a 2015 season in which he recorded 12 sacks and a whopping 78 quarterback pressures. With Sheldon Richardson now in Seattle, the Jets will be relying on Wilkerson to rebound big time.

This week, it comes against a Bills left tackle in Cordy Glenn that has performed well in the past but continues to deal with a lingering foot injury. While Glenn should be ready to go Sunday, there has to be concern that he won’t be able to handle Wilkerson off the edge. If that’s an issue, expect the Bills’ preseason struggles to continue into Week 1.

Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans: DeAndre Hopkins vs A.J. Bouye

How many times did these two go at it in practice with the Texans? After a breakout 2016 season in Houston, Bouye signed a lofty five-year, $67.5 million deal with the Jaguars back in March. It’s a move that enables Jacksonville to throw out one of the best corner tandems in the game with Bouye and youngster Jalen Ramsey. It also means that Ramsey won’t have to mirror the opposition’s No. 1 receiver.

Last season saw Bouye yield the fewest yards per target in the NFL. That list includes the likes of Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson. Meanwhile, Hopkins himself had a down season. Tasked with catching passes from Brock Osweiler, the newest highest-paid receiver in the NFL put up less than 1,000 yards. It will definitely be interesting to see if Hopkins has built a connection with a quarterback in Tom Savage he endorsed during the summer.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns: Alejandro Villanueva vs Myles Garrett

Not too often do we look at a rookie and claim him to be the be the best defensive player on his team. But that’s exactly what Garrett is after the No. 1 overall pick impressed a great deal during the preseason. He’s also going to have to bring that consistent pressure if the Browns expect to improve off their 31st-ranked defense from a season ago.

Garrett will have an unbelievable first test against one of the most-underrated left tackles in the game. After dealing with a contract stalemate throughout the offseason, Villanueva inked a well-deserved four-year, $24 million deal.

This comes on the heels of a dominating performance from the former Army service member last season. It’s going to be an incredible first test for Villanueva in his new role as franchise book end in front of Ben Roethlisberger. Should he continue what we saw last season, Big Ben and Co. will eat a weak Browns secondary alive in Week 1.

Arizona Cardinals at Detroit Lions: Golden Tate vs Patrick Peterson

Here’s a matchup that we saw take place many times over when both Tate and Peterson were going at it in the NFC West. And now, in Week 1, it returns with two teams likely battling for a playoff spot taking on one another.

Unheralded in the grand scheme of things, Tate is averaging 93 receptions and just under 1,100 yards in his three seasons with the Lions. He’s also catching a solid 69 percent of the passes thrown in his direction since moving on from Seattle. To say that Tate has been a consistent weapon for Matthew Stafford would be an understatement.

It’s going to be an especially difficult task for Tate to keep up this level of production against a corner in Peterson who has earned a Pro Bowl trip in each of his first six NFL seasons and is targeted less than any other corner in the game not named Richard Sherman. And if Stafford decides to test Peterson, the corner’s 20 career picks could loom large in this important early-season game.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Miami Dolphins: Mike Evans vs Byron Maxwell

After showing himself to be a high-priced free agent bust in just one season with the Eagles, Maxwell returned to form this past year in South Beach. The former Legion of Boom member recorded 15 passes defended, four forced fumbles and two interceptions en route to finishing as one of the best cover guys in the AFC East. In fact, he yielded an absurdly low 0.51 yards per snap in the second half of the season.

Maxwell will have his hands full in Week 1 against a big-bodied Mike Evans, who is coming off a career-best 1,321-yard, 12-touchdown performance. With DeSean Jackson now on the other side of the field, teams won’t be able to throw double coverage Evans’ way. This will lead to a better success rate when Jameis Winston throws to his favorite target. It should also help the two connect in a big way come Sunday.

Atlanta Falcons at Chicago Bears: Charles Leno vs Vic Beasley

Fresh off signing a massive four-year, $38 million extension with Chicago, Leno’s first order of business will be to go up against a pass rusher in Beasley who led the NFL with 15.5 sacks last season. Leno wanted to be paid like a big boy, it’s now his opportunity to prove he’s worth it.

For the Bears, it’s going to be all about creating off the run with Jordan Howard on the ground. Simply put, Mike Glennon has not yet proven he can shoulder the load on offense. But his ability to succeed as a one-year stopgap measure will be reliant on Leno at left tackle and Bobby Massie at right tackle. They get a huge test at home against the defending NFC champs.

Oakland Raiders at Tennessee Titans: Amari Cooper vs Logan Ryan

This promises to be a tremendous all-around matchup between two teams that surprised big time last season. Two teams that are looking to take the next step in 2017. For Oakland, it’s now all about contending with New England for the conference title. In Nashville, the Titans will look to unseat the Houston Texans in the AFC South.

This one specific matchup could go a long way in determining who comes out on top here. Tennessee didn’t sign Ryan away from the aforementioned Patriots at $10 million per season for him to fail in improving a lackluster pass defense.

After putting up 25 passes defended and six interceptions in full-time starting duties the past two seasons, his first task will be to stop the dynamic duo of Derek Carr and Amari Cooper. It won’t be an easy task. Last season saw Carr completed 63 percent of his passes for a 107.1 quarterback rating when targeting Cooper. For his part, Ryan graded out as the 17th-best cover corner in the NFL last season. This is defintely going to be an intriguing matchup.

Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals: A.J. Green vs Jimmy Smith

We’re now at the point in Cincinnati where Green needs to do whatever possible to help out a struggling Andy Dalton under center. It’s not a coincidence that Dalton put up the worst performance of his career with Green missing six games to injury last season. It’s not as much as Dalton struggled statistically, he just could not put up the points consistently without Green.

With Green healthy following an offseason in which Cincinnati added multiple playmakers to assist him on offense, he should be back up to his old tricks in 2017. Averaging north of 120 receiving yards in his past five games against Smith and the Ravens, Week 1 should afford Green the opportunity to start the season strong.

Then again, Smith was one of the most-improved corners in the NFL last year. He saw his Pro Football Focus grade rise dramatically and will definitely be looking to build off that with a strong safety tandem in Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson behind him. Week 1 will be a good test for Smith and a strong Ravens defense.

Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins: Alshon Jeffery vs Josh Norman

Josh Norman

We didn’t see a whole bunch from the newly formed Carson Wentz-to-Alshon Jeffery connection during he preseason. But it promises to be an interesting storyline to follow in Philadelphia this year. The Eagles made sure to give the second-year quarterback more receiving options with both Jeffery and fellow veteran Torrey Smith. It’s definitely an upgrade over what we saw from the team last season.

Now slated to go up against another proven No. 1 receiver in the NFC East, we’re pretty sure the boisterous Josh Norman will want to send a message early on. He might not have been selected to the Pro Bowl in his first season in the nation’s capital, but Norman was still darn good. He allowed just 45 receptions in 600-plus coverage snaps. That’s darn good. In a game that pits two teams looking to catch up with Dallas and New York back east, this one matchup will play a huge role in the outcome.

Indianapolis Colts at Los Angeles Rams: Sammy Watkins vs Rashaan Melvin

Aaron Donald’s presence on the Rams’ defensive line would have been felt big time here. But with him holding out, we’re going to go in another direction. That comes in the form of Melvin having to take over as the Colts’ No. 1 corner with Vontae Davis injured. It also comes against a player in Watkins making his first regular season appearance with the Rams.

It will be interesting matchup to pay attention to in Los Angeles. Has Watkins built a strong relationship with second-year quarterback Jared Goff in the short time they have been together? Is Melvin ready to take that next step after performing pretty well in his first starting role as an NFL player last season? In a game between two potential cellar dwellers, this is the one intriguing matchup.

Carolina Panthers at San Francisco 49ers: Kelvin Benjamin vs Rashard Robinson

Yes, another wide receiver-cornerback matchup. But it seems we have a whole heck of a lot of great individual duels when it comes to these two positions in Week 1. Specifically, this one is likely going to fly under the radar. It shouldn’t.

As we saw during the preseason, Benjamin has already rebuilt a strong relationship with Cam Newton after the latter missed the entire off-season program following shoulder surgery. Having averaged nearly 1,000 receiving yards and eight scores in his first two NFL seasons, Benjamin remains Cam’s favorite target.

It most definitely won’t come easy Sunday against a revamped and improved 49ers defense. That starts with a player in Robinson that this one elite-level defender thinks is the best in the NFC West. While that might very well be premature, Robinson allowed the third-lowest completion percentage in the NFL as a rookie last season. With confidence to go with this on-field ability, he could become the league’s next best shutdown corner. How the second-year player performs in Week 1 will tell us a lot about where he is at.

Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers: Martellus Bennett vs Earl Thomas

The Bennett brothers will surely see some of one another Sunday at Lambeau. In his first game as a member of the Packers, Martellus Bennett faces the daunting task of taking on what still looks to be an elite-level Seahawks defense. Though, his biggest individual matchup will be against one of the best safeties to ever roam an NFL field.

It also comes with Thomas himself returning from a serious leg injury that cost him five games at the end of last season. A true center fielder in every sense of the word, Thomas’ primary task on Sunday will be to stop the Aaron Rodgers-to-Bennett connection from taking hold out of the gate.

Sure Richard Sherman will have to handle Jordy Nelson on the outside. And in reality, Seattle’s other corner position remains unsettled with Randall Cobb and Davante Adams staring them right in the face. But if Thomas is able to minimize what Bennett does in the middle of the field, it will help the rest of the Legion of Boom overcome a potentially dominant Packers aerial attack.

New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys: Dez Bryant vs Janoris Jenkins

We know Jenkins will be hyped about another matchup against Bryant. The two went up against it twice in Jenkins’ first season in the NFC East, with the corner holding his equally talented counterpart to two catches on 14 targets.

We can point to Bryant’s then minimal relationship with Dak Prescott, but it was still an impressive all-around performance from Jenkins. It’s also not a coincidence that two of the Cowboys’ three regular season losses came against these very same Giants.

It’s going to be important for Prescott to build that relationship with Bryant. Based on what we saw during the preseason, it’s already improved. Week 1 on Sunday Night Football will be a huge opportunity for the two to prove they can be a dynamic connection.

New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings: Adrian Peterson vs former team

It couldn’t possibly be anything else, right? The idea of this future Hall of Fame running back playing his first game with the Saints in Minnesota had to be scripted directly from a Hollywood blockbuster. To say Peterson ended his Vikings career on less-than-stellar terms would be a major understatement. This doesn’t mitigate the fact that he ended said career as one of the greatest players in franchise history.

Sure Peterson has slowed down. Sure he looked pretty bad during the preseason. Sure Minnesota boasts one of the best defensive fronts in the game. None of that will matter come Monday night. Peterson will want to show his old team (and fans) what they’re missing out on. And based on what we’ve seen from the running back during an all-time great career, we wouldn’t put it past him to dominate on a nationally televised stage.

Los Angeles Chargers at Denver Broncos: Keenan Allen vs Aqib Talib

When healthy, Allen has proven himself to be one of the most-consistent possession receivers in the game. He has also built up a strong relationship with quarterback Philip Rivers. Consider this: Allen put up 67 receptions and an absurd 75 percent catch rate in the first half of the 2015 season.

Multiple injuries have limited him to just nine games since November 1st of 2015. Needless to say, Rivers has to see a healthy Allen on the field this season in order for the Chargers to find their way out of the AFC West cellar.

It’s not going to be an easy task Monday night against Talib, who Pro Football Focus graded out as the third-best corner in the NFL last season. In fact, Talib led a Broncos secondary that yielded a 55.4 completion mark and 69.7 quarterback rating to opposing teams last year. Whew.

About the author

Vincent Frank

Vincent Frank

Editor-at-large, Sportsnaut.

“You were born with wings, why prefer to crawl through life?” Rumi