Top storyline for each Week 1 NFL game

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

From the defending champion New England Patriots hosting a reigning division champ on Thursday night to two other up-and-coming teams taking on one another, there’s plenty of stories in the AFC heading into Week 1 of the 2017 NFL season.

Over in the NFC, the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks will renew what has been a dramatic rivalry. This time, it will come in Lambeau Field with both teams looking to prove they can contend. The same can be said for the New York Giants as they travel to Dallas to take on the defending NFC East champion Cowboys. These are among the top storylines for each Week 1 NFL game.

Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots: Early-season statement game

Courtesy of Kirby Lee, USA Today Sports

More so for the Chiefs than the defending champs, this has to be considered a statement game. It’s coming in New England on national television. It’s the first real game of the NFL season. And it comes in the midst of questions about Alex Smith’s future as the Chiefs’ starter after rookie Patrick Mahomes impressed during the preseason.

Even as the defending AFC West champions, some are taking the Chiefs for granted. They’re not as hot of a buy as the Oakland Raiders. The likes of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans might be sexier picks to compete for a conference title with New England.

This makes Thursday’s Week 1 game in New England that much more important for the Chiefs. Can Smith stave off a potential coup at the hands of another young quarterback? Can the Chiefs head into Gillette and hand the Patriots a surprising early-season loss? That’s the biggest storyline for what could be the best Week 1 NFL game.

New York Jets at Buffalo Bills: The battle for AFC East’s cellar

Based on what the Bills have done recently, it’s safe to say the team is in full-scale tank mode. At the very least, the team should definitely be tanking. On the other hand, we already know the Jets have already done everything possible to make sure they field the most talent-stricken roster in the NFL this year. Needless to say, the defending champion Patriots have already broken two teams in the AFC East.

In what could very well be an early-season battle between two teams vying for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, there’s really not much else to look at here. Maybe we should be interested in the Bills’ quarterback situation. After struggling during the preseason, is there a chance Tyrod Taylor is benched in favor of rookie Nathan Peterman? If so, could that come Week 1?  The same could be said with the Jets and veteran Josh McCown. He barely played in the preseason, only to be handed the starting job due to the injury to Bryce Petty and absolutely dreadful performance from Christian Hackenberg. Fun times for these two AFC East rivals, indeed.

Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans: Immediate test for Blake Bortles

No rest for the weary. Coming off a preseason in which he struggled to retain the starting job in Jacksonville, all eyes are going to be on this former top-five pick. It was so bad for Bortles during the summer that his No. 1 receiver showed outward frustration with the quarterback during practice. In reality, Bortles has regressed to a level where there’s justifiable questions about whether Chad Henne should start over him this season.

Bortles’ first test comes on the road against a defense we project to rank among the best in the NFL this season. It starts with the return of three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. Though, the progression we’ve seen from both Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney also lead us to believe Houston will field the best pass-rushing trio in the NFL. Now heading into what promises to be an electric environment in Houston, Bortles is facing a pretty huge Week 1 test. How he performs will tell us a lot about the Jaguars’ quarterback situation and the ability of this team to contend in 2017.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns: DeShone Kizer’s NFL debut

Browns QB DeShone Kizer looked the part in his NFL debut.

We’d be hard-pressed to expect too much from the rookie second-round pick in his first regular season NFL start. At just 21 years old, Kizer is one of the youngest quarterbacks to come down the pike in some time. In fact, he was just eight years old when Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made his first career start. That’s some wild stuff right there.

This starts Week 1 against a defending AFC North champion Steelers squad that yielded an 87.3 quarterback rating last season. For Kizer, it’s going to be all about getting the ball to running back Duke Johnson in space and finding a way to beat the Steelers over the top with what has to be considered an accurate deep ball. It’s something we saw the Notre Dame product flash multiple times during the preseason. Head coach Hue Jackson has gone all in with Kizer. It’s now time to see the quarterback flourish in the regular season.

Arizona Cardinals at Detroit Lions: Early-season playoff positioning

We fully expect both Arizona and Detroit to vie for a wild card spot should they lose out in their respective divisions. It’s something that came to fruition up until December of last season when the Cards themselves bombed out. Now, with everyone back healthy and a dynamic David Johnson set to dominate, Arizona is looking to return to the postseason after a one-year hiatus.

For the Cardinals, a lot of that will be dependent on the performance of Carson Palmer under center and who steps up behind future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald at wide receiver. Sunday’s road game against a Lions defense that yielded an absurdly high 106.5 quarterback rating last season should be a good test for Arizona. Can the team take advantage of a perceived weak pass defense? On the other hand, the Lions want to prove that their struggles in this area last season are long forgotten.

Atlanta Falcons at Chicago Bears: Easy early-season game for defending NFC champs

Easy being the operative word here. There’s absolutely no reason to believe that Atlanta won’t go into Soldier Field and absolutely dominate a bad Bears team. We’re talking about a squad running out this version of a quarterback under center. Add in the complete lack of weapons at wide receiver following the season-ending injury to Cameron Meredith, and the Bears’ offense will be a hot mess. Defensively, there’s also no real reason to believe Atlanta’s top-ranked unit from last season can’t run all over a talent-stricken defense.

But this is why we play the games. What if, for some reason, Chicago pulled off the upset at home? Let’s say Atlanta doesn’t show up in its first meaningful game since a blowing the biggest lead in Super Bowl history. Could this set into motion yet another Super Bowl hangover, much like what we saw from the division-rival Carolina Panthers last season? Unlikely, but definitely possible.

Oakland Raiders at Tennessee Titans: Two up-and-coming AFC contenders

This promises to be a prime early-season matchup. Two young quarterbacks in Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota going at it. Two of the best receiving groups in the NFL. And two potentially dominating offensive lines. The defenses? Well, not so much. That’s what will make this game so darn exciting. A lot of points, guys and gals.

Following a 12-win 2016 campaign, the Raiders are looking to take that next step and contend with the New England Patriots in the AFC. It’s something Vegas has apparently taken a liking to. Meanwhile, Tennessee is coming off a strong nine-win season and added reinforcements in the passing game for Mariota in the form of top-five pick Corey Davis and veteran Eric Decker.

It would not be an absolute shock to see both the Raiders and Titans win their divisions this season. If that’s the case, this Week 1 matchup takes on even more importance when it comes to seeding. That’s just how good these two young teams are. Have fun. It will be a blast.

Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals: Breaking from mediocrity

History tells us that one of these teams will challenge Pittsburgh in the AFC North. After all, that’s been among the most-competitive divisions (minus Cleveland) in the NFL over the past decade-plus. We just don’t know which one of these teams will break from last season’s mediocrity.

Baltimore has a ton of question marks on the offensive side of the ball after both Dennis Pitta and Steve Smith retired. Add in the season-ending injury running back Kenneth Dixon suffered, and that’s magnified even further. While Joe Flacco will be back for Week 1, the Ravens’ opportunity at contention in 2017 will be dependent on a potentially dominant defense.

On the other hand, Cincinnati is coming off its first non-playoff season since 2010. It is doing so with both Andy Dalton and Marvin Lewis clearly on the hot seat. The team did add talented young playmakers Joe Mixon and John Ross to the mix in the draft, but it will be more dependent on A.J. Green remaining healthy and performing at an elite level. Should that not happen, the Bengals will be in trouble. This is a tremendous Week 1 test for both teams, as they look to see where they’re at early in the season.

Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins: Carson Wentz looks for consistency

Now in his second season, the Eagles are hoping the inconsistencies they saw from Wentz as a rookie are behind him. Here’s a guy that started out his initial NFL campaign strong, throwing seven touchdowns compared to one interception in his first four starts. He then followed that up by tossing nine touchdowns and 13 picks in his final 12 starts. Needless to say, that’s not going to get it done for an Eagles team that has playoff expectations in 2017.

Flush with a new supporting cast at receiver in Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, the second-year quarterback will take on what promises to be a stout Redskins pass defense on Sunday. It’s a nice first test — one that will tell us whether the quarterback’s maturation process has moved forward without a hitch.

Indianapolis Colts at Los Angeles Rams: Luck-less Colts

Andrew Luck

Scott Tolzien will be under center Week 1 for Indianapolis. That sounds like a whole lot of fun for the Wade Phillips-led Rams defense. It also has us wondering when Luck will actually see the field again after undergoing off-season shoulder surgery. There’s no timeline for his return to practice, which makes us think this could be a long-term injury.

Without Luck, Indy is one of the least-talented teams in the NFL. It boasts a 34-year-old Frank Gore at running back. Sure Gore has continued to prove himself at this advanced age, but he’s going to have to slow down at some point. The Colts also run out one of the worst offensive lines in the league and has seen its newly-formed defensive front seven struggle big time this summer. Add in the injury to corner Vontae Davis, and the Colts are a hot mess right now. That should come out in full force Sunday in Los Angeles.

Carolina Panthers at San Francisco 49ers: Big early-season test for Shanahan and Co.

San Francisco looked like a well-oiled machine in its biggest preseason tune-up against the Minnesota Vikings a couple weeks back. Is that indicative of how this previously downtrodden team will play during the regular season? Unlikely. Realistically, 49ers are still nothing more than a five or six-win team. But the mood in Santa Clara has been one of optimism under first-year head coach Kyle Shanahan and rookie general manager John Lynch.

In order for this optimism to continue, San Francisco will have to put up a good effort against Cam Newton and a talented Panthers team. Carolina has its MVP quarterback back healthy. Said quarterback also has new toys to play with on offense, including rookie running back Christian McCaffrey. More than anything, Sunday’s game against the Panthers will be a huge test for San Francisco’s revamped defense. It will be interesting to see what comes of this.

Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers: Potential playoff preview?

Touchdown, Seahawks. We all remember that game not too long ago when replacement officials screwed the pooch in a big way. It came back in 2012 and impacted the playoff race in a big way that season. The Seahawks’ win forced Green Bay into a road playoff game against a then dynamic Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers. We know how that turned out.

Then, back in 2014, the Packers themselves fell victim to their own dreadful mistakes to blow the NFC Championship Game against the Seahawks in Seattle.

The moral of the story is obvious here. Green Bay and Seattle have a history of impacting each team’s chances of earning a Super Bowl appearance. Both are seemingly among the top rung of NFC contenders this season. Needless to say, this Week 1 game is going to be absolutely huge.

New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys: Dak looking to get over this one hurdle

Dak Prescott Dallas Cowboys

Even with Ezekiel Elliott in the mix Week 1,  the onus is on Dak Prescott to put up a stellar performance against the one team that handled him as a rookie last season. Prescott lost both of his starts against the Giants as a rookie, putting up one touchdown compared to two interceptions in the process. In his other 14 starts, Prescott tallied 28 total touchdowns compared to two interceptions.

This game presents the youngster with an opportunity to prove that he’s taken the next step to elite status. It’s also his chance to prove that the Cowboys’ offense isn’t super reliant on Elliott. It will be a great test against one of the best defenses in the NFL.

New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings: Adrian Peterson returns home

AD definitely wants to exact revenge against the team that kicked him out of Minnesota quicker than a Prince tribute band. He’s already gone on record saying as much, pretty much indicating he wants to put on a show in front of a nationally televised audience Monday night.

The issue for Peterson is two-fold. He put up 15 yards in six preseason carries and is coming off yet another serious knee injury. Just how much does the future Hall of Famer have left in the tank? Secondly, he’ll be splitting carries with incumbent starter Mark Ingram. The good news here is that Minnesota finished last season 20th against the run. If there’s one game this season where Peterson will put on a show, it will be against his former team. That much is almost a certainty.

Los Angeles Chargers at Denver Broncos: Questions abound

Both teams enter the 2017 season a rung below the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders in the AFC West. For the Broncos, it’s all about the offensive backfield. Trevor Siemian won the starting quarterback job during the preseason by default after Paxton Lynch struggled big time. Meanwhile, the team just recently brought in a familiar face in Brock Osweiler. That’s a hole bunch of average at quarterback.

Add in the fact that injury-plagued veterans Jamaal Charles and C.J. Anderson will share touches at running back, and the Broncos’ offense could be scary bad in 2017.

As it relates to the Chargers, they’ll be making their regular season debut in Los Angeles next week. But for now, the team needs to prove that last season’s struggles are behind them under first-year head coach Anthony Lynn. This includes Philip Rivers progressing from three consecutive turnover-prone seasons. It also includes keeping the team healthy. The final game of Week 1 should definitely be intriguing.