Fake football is over. Games now count. Teams now turn from a preseason with expectations to a regular season when said expectations become reality.
Week 1 of the regular season offers a ton of great games. It starts with a major test for the Atlanta Falcons on the road against the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. It then concludes with the Los Angeles Rams heading to Oakland in a game that will represent Jon Gruden’s return as the Raiders’ head coach.
In between, Deshaun Watson and the Texans will be looking to make a major statement against Tom Brady and the Patriots. Meanwhile, Kirk Cousins makes his Vikings debut at home against Jimmy Garoppolo and the up-and-coming 49ers.
These are among the top storylines for each Week 1 NFL game.
Atlanta Falcons at Philadephia Eagles: Early-season statement game
With Carson Wentz still not cleared for contact as he recovers from a torn ACL, reigning Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles will be on the field for Philadelphia as the team celebrates its first ever Lombardi.
That’s not necessarily the top storyline here. Rather, it’s all about Atlanta proving itself early in the season. Here’s a team that fell short of expectations last year after a surprise run to the Super Bowl in 2016. Second-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is facing a ton of pressure after struggling in that role last season. Given the nature of this opening Thursday Night Football game, it’s a major statement game for the road team.
Buffalo Bills at Baltimore Ravens: New-look Ravens offense
Joe Flacco played lights out during the preseason, leading to speculation that he might be primed for a breakout season. Then again, Flacco has not even been a mid-tier starting quarterback since leading Baltimore to the Super Bowl in 2012. Why are we prepared to believe he’s going to turn it around at the age of 33?
It’s rather simple. Baltimore boasts a new trio of receivers in that of Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead. For his part, Brown performed well with Flacco under center during both camp and the preseason. With young running back Alex Collins coming off a tremendous 2017 campaign, Baltimore has the pieces to make it work. It’s now all about Flacco continuing his red-hot preseason performance into the regular year.
Jacksonville Jaguars at New York Giants: Saquon Barkley’s regular season debut
Newly extended Odell Beckham Jr. will see his first action in an NFL game since October of last season. That in and of itself is a major storyline for a Giants team attempting to recover from a disastrous 2017 campaign. But that’s not the biggest storyline here. Rather, it’s all about rookie No. 2 overall pick, Saquon Barkley.
How Barkley performs after seeing limited preseason action will be telling in Week 1. He’s going up against the NFL’s most talented defense and a front seven that has made running backs look silly in the past. New York selected Barkley to be a dominant player. A way to help Eli Manning navigate through the latter years of his career. Week 1 will be a nice stepping stone for Barkley and the Giants, even if they fall short against a legit Super Bowl contender.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints: Fitzmagic’s time to shine
Ryan Fitzpatrick started Tampa Bay’s first three preseason games. It was a way to give him run with the first-team offense now that starter Jameis Winston is suspended for the first three games of the regular season. Unfortunately for the Buccaneers’ early-season hopes, Winston completely outplayed Fitzpatrick during the exhibition slate.
With the Buccaneers’ rushing attack looking like one of the worst in the entire NFL, the onus is going to be on Fitzpatrick to actually win games. That starts on the road against a legit Super Bowl contender in that of the reigning NFC South champion Saints. Needless to say, this is a major first test for the Buccaneers under Fitzpatrick.
Houston Texans at New England Patriots: Deshaun Watson’s statement
In his first regular season action since suffering a torn ACL last October, Watson has an opportunity to mak a major statement here. New England has won the past two AFC titles. It’s been pretty darn dominant at home under Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. But the team appears to be more vulnerable this year than ever before. Taking to Gillette Stadium, Watson can show that there’s a new lead dog in the AFC.
Making just his second career start in a game against the Pats in New England last September, Watson tallied 342 total yards and two touchdowns. He was also picked off twice in a narrow 36-33 loss. He’ll have to avoid the mistakes in order for Houston to come out on top. But the picking is certainly ripe for an upset here.
San Francisco 49ers at Minnesota Vikings: Big test for Jimmy GQ and Co.
Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers couldn’t ask for a bigger test as they enter the season with playoff aspirations. It comes against a downright dominant Vikings defense with one of the best defensive lines in recent NFL history. How will a 49ers offensive line with four new starters perform against this unit? Can they hold up in front of Garoppolo? If not, can Jimmy GQ utilize his quick-strike ability to overcome what promises to be a ton of pressure?
San Francisco’s young defense is also in for a major test here. Kirk Cousins will make his regular season Vikings debut with second-year back Dalvin Cook playing his first real action since suffering a torn ACL last year. How will Richard Sherman and young corner Ahkello Witherspoon hold up against the game’s best duo of receivers? The answers to these questions will tell us whether San Francisco starts the season with a bang or a thud.
Tennessee Titans at Miami Dolphins: Mike Vrabel’s coaching debut
Tennessee’s first preseason under this young head coach did not go too swimmingly. Marcus Mariota was rough under center after struggling big time last season. Meanwhile, second-year receiver Corey Davis failed to show anything of real substance.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the likes of veterans Delanie Walker, Rishard Matthews, Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan open the season banged up, along with rookie Harold Landry. Taking on a less-talented Dolphins team on the road in Week 1 will tell us where Tennessee stands in an ultra competitive AFC South this coming season. Obviously, Vrabel would like to notch his first win in his regular season coaching debut, too.
Cincinnati Bengals at Indianapolis Colts: MVP, Andrew Luck?
It’s not really out of the realm of possibility here. We saw just how bad the Colts were with Luck sidelined last season. They were among the worst teams in the NFL. This comes after Luck opened his career by winning 11 games in each of his first three seasons. Overall, he’s 43-27 as a starter. In games Luck has been sidelined during that span, the Colts boast a 10-16 mark. That’s the sign of a valuable player.
For the most part, Luck looked great during the preseason. His last action of the exhibition slate, Week 3 against San Francisco, was the best indicator of success moving froward. He looked completely healthy, did well with his legs and saw the field at an elite clip. Indy might not be a legit playoff team. But it has talent. And if the squad somehow earns a postseason spot, Luck will be bandied about as an MVP candidate. That starts against a great Bengals defense in Week 1.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns: Searching for that elusive win
Cleveland has not won a regular season game on a Sunday since December 13th of 2015. It is coming off just the second winless 16-game regular season in NFL history. This squad has also lost its past six games to the division rival Steelers. What’s to stop Cleveland from dropping yet another against a more-talented squad?
For one, there’s a ton of optimism that Cleveland will be much more competitive this season. It added a Pro Bowl quarterback in Tyrod Taylor and might have the deepest backfield in the NFL. Historically speaking, Cleveland’s last three losses to the Steelers have come by a total of 10 points. It has been competitive while throwing less-talented teams out there. Hue Jackson needs that signature win. Cleveland needs to start the season strong. At home, with the backdrop of what promises to be a exuberant home crowd, this game offers the Browns a major opportunity.
Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers: Early-season AFC West showdown
Fans in Oakland and Denver might not agree, but these are the two best teams in the division. They’ll likely battle for the division title down to the wire. That’s where tie-breakers and the like come into play. It’s in this that the Chargers, playing at home, are facing more pressure than their rivals in this early-season game.
Los Angeles finished last season by winning nine of its final 12 games. Philip Rivers is playing elite football. He has a tremendous group of skill-position players. Meanwhile, Los Angeles’ defense was among the best in the game last season. Making his second career regular season start, this is what Patrick Mahomes will be up against come Sunday. It promises to be fun.
Seattle Seahawks at Denver Broncos: So much going on here
We’re a little concerned about Russell Wilson’s livelihood heading into this Week 1 bout. There’s not a single objective person who believes that Seattle’s offensive line will hold up against a dominant pass rush duo of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. It’s not happening. Russ will be under duress the entire game. How he performs in such an hostile environment will be telling.
On the other hand, Case Keenum will make his regular season Broncos debut against a Seahawks team that is without six starters from the artists formerly known as the Legion of Boom. Can Seattle’s youngsters step up against the career journeyman? If so, will it be enough for the fledgling Seahawks to start the season on a high note? So much to look at here for both teams.
Dallas Cowboys at Carolina Panthers: Early-season barometer for both teams
Dak Prescott will have a healthy and rested Ezekiel Elliott in the backfield with him. That’s been a boon for the young quarterback, who has struggled mightily without his fellow 2016 draft class member in the backfield with him. Prescott will also have to navigate up and down the field without franchise greats Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. In their stead, Dallas will be asking Allen Hurns, Cole Beasley and others to step up big time.
The situation is a bit different in Carolina. Cam Newton has all the weapons he needs to be successful. Unfortunately, the former league MVP will be without starting tackles Matt Kalil and Darryl Williams. That’s a major issue given Dallas’ improved pass rush and the lack of pass-protecting talent in Carolina. It’s in this that both teams will understand better where they stand after Week 1 comes to a conclusion.
Washington Redskins at Arizona Cardinals: Veteran QBs on new teams
Alex Smith will begin his Redskins career against a familiar opponent. Having played the first eight years of his career with the 49ers, Smith boasts a 6-6 record in 12 starts against the Cardinals. He’ll now be tasked with starting the season off successfully on the road against an extremely talented defense. If that wasn’t a story in and of itself, Adrian Peterson makes his return to Arizona in his regular season debut with the Redskins.
For the Cardinals, it’s a bit different. They signed Sam Bradford to a one-year, $20 million contract to act as a stopgap while rookie top-10 pick Josh Rosen gains experience. Not really in the playoff conversation heading into Week 1, it will be interesting to see how Bradford performs in his debut with the team. Early struggles from the veteran and his team could make the transition to Rosen rather early in the season.
Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers: Tough road test for Mr. Trubisky
Green Bay’s young defenders showed really well during the preseason. That included rookie cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson. It’s now seemingly going to be an above-average unit, especially with free agent acquisition Tramon Williams playing well after signing with the team during the spring.
What does this mean for Chicago? Well, it’s going to be a rather huge test for young quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and Co. First-year head coach Matt Nagy surprisingly limited Trubisky’s preseason reps, which might make it a big more difficult. But the team’s offense as a whole showed well during the exhibition slate.
New York Jets at Detroit Lions: It’s Sam Darnold time
Training camp started with a ton of drama in Jersey. Darnold himself was a holdout right into the start of camp, leading many to believe he might be taking a backseat to veterans Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater. That did not happen. The former USC standout performed extremely well during the preseason slate and was named the team’s starting quarterback for Week 1.
Darnold’s regular season debut will be interesting in that it comes on the road against an average Lions defense, one that relied on Darius Slay’s eight interceptions to even be mediocre last season. Darnold will certainly make his mistakes as a rookie. Though, he faces a good matchup to open what promises to be a stellar career.
Los Angeles Rams at Oakland Raiders: Road to the Lombardi starts in Oakland
It certainly feels like Super Bowl or bust for the Rams. They yielded multiple valuable draft picks to acquire veterans such as Brandin Cooks, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib this past offseason. GM Les Snead and Co. also doled out a ton of cash by extending Todd Gurley, Aaron Donald and the above-mentioned Cooks. All of this was with Lombardi on the mind.
The 2018 season starts with these Rams heading to Oakland against their former Los Angeles rivals in what will be their final game against one another as California teams. Los Angeles has the talent advantage here, but the black hole in Oakland has not proven to be an inviting place in the past. If the Rams come up short or show some struggles here, it could potentially be a harbinger of things to come.