In a sure sign that summer is coming to an end, the NFL season kicks off tonight in Pittsburgh. Hard to believe that when the last NFL regular-season games were played, George W. Bush was still President, Michael Jackson was still alive, and no one was talking yet about “death panels” or attending health care town hall meetings with shotguns (ironic, no?).
Each week I’ll take a look at the upcoming NFL matchups from a fantasy perspective. At the risk of stating the obvious, my recommendations are necessarily general in nature - if you’re in a league with 20 teams that starts 12 players per week, in all likelihood you’ll have to start some players you wouldn’t think about starting in a 10-12 team league that starts 9 players per week. Also, in a forum like this it’s impossible to tailor recommendations to the myriad of scoring systems that exist.
Although a market for them definitely exists, I’m also highly critical of sites that claim to project players’ fantasy points on a weekly basis - that’s just nonsense. Yes, fantasy owners are much more interested in point estimates than in ranges of outcomes, but if you don’t understand the limits of the information you’re using, you’re likely to misuse it. There’s so much variation around a player’s “expected points” for a week that the expected results themselves are practically useless. No one can tell you with anything remotely approaching a high degree of certainty whether Clinton Portis will score more fantasy points this week than Brandon Jacobs or vice versa. To pretend otherwise is doing a disservice to your audience.
That being said, the one thing I can promise you is that I won’t be afraid to make recommendations that go against conventional wisdom when I feel they’re called for. Many fantasy experts will advise you to “always start your studs” - I’m not one of them. If you’re an Adrian Peterson or Drew Brees owner and they have a particularly tough matchup in a given week, you may actually be better off starting a Ray Rice or Jake Delhomme instead. I don’t expect you to agree with or follow all of my recommendations, but at the very least, hopefully I’ll give you some food for thought.
Without further ado, here are my recommendations for Week 1 on the road to Super Bowl XLIV:
Tennessee at Pittsburgh - I don’t expect much scoring in this game from either side - the Defenses should dominate. The Titans have a pair of talented RBs (Chris Johnson & LenDale White), but neither of them is a good play this week. The only Titans I would start this week are TE Bo Scaife and the Defense. I’m slightly more optimistic about the Steelers’ offensive players’ prospects, but only because I don’t have a good sense for the impact of Albert Haynesworth’s departure and Kyle Vanden Bosch’s return on the Titans’ defensive line. Steelers worth starting include RB Willie Parker, TE Heath Miller, WR Hines Ward, and the Defense.
Jacksonville at Indianapolis - Both offenses should have success moving the ball against the opposing Defense, but I suspect Indianapolis will have more success and win the game fairly easily. Jaguars worth starting include QB David Garrard, RB Maurice Jones-Drew, TE Marcedes Lewis, WR Torry Holt, and K Josh Scobee. Colts worth starting include QB Peyton Manning, RB Joseph Addai, TE Dallas Clark, WRs Reggie Wayne & Anthony Gonzalez, and K Adam Vinatieri.
Detroit at New Orleans - As with the previous game I believe both offenses will move the ball successfully, but I expect the home team to win by a substantial amount. Lions’ rookie QB Matthew Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson figure to develop into a top fantasy combo for years to come, and both are worth starting this weekend. RB Kevin Smith, rookie TE Brandon Pettigrew, WR Bryant Johnson, and K Jason Hanson are also good starts. If you have to submit your weekly fantasy lineups before the Titans-Steelers game, I would assume that New Orleans RB Pierre Thomas will not play, so leave him out of your lineups. Saints’ QB Drew Brees, RB Reggie Bush, TE Jeremy Shockey, WRs Marques Colston & Lance Moore, and K John “Methuselah” Carney should all be in lineups for this favorable matchup.
Philadelphia at Carolina - While both teams feature potentially explosive offenses, I expect Philadelphia’s Defense to outplay Carolina’s, resulting in an Eagles’ victory. Eagles worth starting include QB Donovan McNabb, RB Brian Westbrook, TE Brent Celek, WRs DeSean Jackson & Kevin Curtis, K David Akers, and the Defense. The only Panther I’d start this week is WR Steve Smith.
Dallas at Tampa Bay - The Cowboys are finally playing in Tampa, but their rabid fans would have rather been in The Big Guava back in February for Super Bowl XLIII. At least Punters Mat McBriar and Dirk Johnson won’t have to worry about kicking the ball into a scoreboard . . . Tampa’s defense features some talented players, but their offense will probably have a hard time staying on the field, leading the defense to wear down as the game progresses. Cowboys worth starting include QB Tony Romo, RBs Marion Barber & Felix Jones, TE Jason Witten, WR Roy Williams, K Nick Folk, and the Defense. The only Buccaneer I’d consider starting is TE Kellen Winslow.
New York Jets at Houston Texans - Much has been made in the New York City press about the proverbial “change in attitude” that new Jets’ Head Coach Rex Ryan has brought to town. Like his father, Buddy, Ryan is very down-to-earth and gives great interviews. He’s also brought several players with him from his Ravens’ defense, most notably LB Bart Scott. Still, with rookie QB Mark Sanchez and a WR corps that lost its top option (Laveranues Coles) to free agency without replacing him, I expect the Jets to struggle mightily on offense this year and be picking near the start of the draft next April. The Texans, on the other hand, are a team genuinely on the upswing, and if QB Matt Schaub can finally stay healthy for a full season, I believe they’ll represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLIV. The only Jet I’d start this week is TE Dustin Keller, whom I believe will emerge as one of the NFL’s top pass-catching Tight Ends after a promising rookie season. Texans worth starting include QB Matt Schaub, RB Steve Slaton, TE Owen Daniel, WR Andre Johnson, K Kris Brown, and the Defense. Texans’ WR Kevin Walter is listed as Questionable - if you need to submit your lineup for the full slate of games before tonight’s game, I’d err on the side of caution and assume that he won’t play this weekend.
Kansas City at Baltimore - Many would look at this game and label it as a mismatch in Baltimore’s favor - I don’t believe that’s the case. Baltimore’s defense lost several players, as well as Coordinator Rex Ryan, during the off-season, and their offense, which was mediocore last season, doesn’t appear to have improved much. The big question mark for the Chiefs is at Quarterback - Matt Cassel is listed as Questionable. Even though backup QB Tyler Thigpen filled in admirably last season, he’d be playing without standout TE Anthony Gonzalez this season. Chiefs who are worth starting are RB Larry Johnson, WR Dwayne Bowe, and the Defense. The only Ravens I’d start are TE Todd Heap, WR Derrick Mason, and the Defense.
Denver at Cincinnati - There will be two defenses on the field for this game Sunday, but the final score may have you questioning whether either of them actually showed up. Even though the Broncos will be sporting new starters at several key offensive positions, they figure to get off to a fast start against the Bengals’ defense. Although QB Kyle Orton and rookie RB Knowshon Moreno are both listed as Questionable on the injury report, indications are that Orton will play, but Moreno won’t. Broncos who should be started include Orton, RB Correll Buckhalter (assuming he starts in place of Moreno), WRs Brandon Marshall & Eddie Royal, and K Matt Prater. Bengals who should be started include QB Carson Palmer, RB Cedric Benson, WRs Chad Ochocinco & Laveranues Coles, and K Shayne Graham. This doesn’t figure to be one of FOX’s featured games Sunday, but it could easily turn out to be one of the most entertaining. Marshall and Ochocinco may actually garner attention for their football talent rather than their off-field dramatics.
Minnesota at Cleveland - For better or worse Vikings’ Head Coach Brad Childress has put his team’s fate in the hands of drama queen Brett Favre. For better or worse Browns’ Head Coach Eric Mangini has put his fate in the hands of . . . well, we’re not sure yet. Reports indicate that Mangini has chosen Brady Quinn over Derek Anderson as his starting Quarterback, but good luck getting Mangini to confirm that. I don’t buy the notion that adding Favre makes the Vikings’ a Super Bowl contender, but they figure to get their season off to a good start in this matchup. Vikings to start include Favre, RB Adrian Peterson, TE Visanthe Shiancoe, WR Bernard Berrian, K Ryan Longwell, and the Defense. If you’re in a deeper league (i.e.- more than 12 teams), RB Chester Taylor and rookie WR Percy Harvin may also be worth starting. The only Brown worth starting this week is WR Braylon Edwards, who figures to catch his share of passes this season no matter which Browns’ QB is flinging them. Hopefully, he’ll hold onto some of those passes this season too.
Miami Dolphins at Atlanta Falcons - Both these teams took a major step forward last season and finished 11-5, but I expect them to move in opposite directions in 2009. I don’t expect Dolphins’ Quarterback Chad Pennington to stay healthy for a second consecutive season, which indicates that “Quarterback of the Future” Chad Henne will find himself the Quarterback of the Present at some point this season. The Dolphins won’t revert to their 1-15 form of 2007, but I don’t expect them to make the playoffs again this season either. The Falcons are a different story - they are my pick to win this year’s Super Bowl. I believe they will emerge as the top offense in football this season, and the infusion of youth into their defense should also pay big dividends. It may take the Falcons’ defense a good part of the season to come together, so Dolphins worth starting this week include Pennington, RB Ronnie Brown, TE Anthony Fasano, WRs Tedd Ginn & Davone Bess, and K Dan Carpenter. Falcons worth starting this week include QB Matt Ryan, RB Michael Turner, TE Anthony Gonzalez, WRs Roddy White & Michael Jenkins, and K Jason Elam.
Washington Redskins at New York Giants - Both teams feature suspect offenses and stout defenses, so this figures to be a low-scoring game, just as last year’s season-opener was. Redskins worth starting include TE Chris Cooley and the Defense. Giants worth starting include TE Kevin Boss and the Defense. Not much to see or discuss here - let’s keep moving.
San Francisco 49ers at Arizona Cardinals - I’ve seen many football “experts” predicting the Steelers will repeat as Super Bowl champs, but I’ve yet to see anyone predict a rematch of Super Bowl XLIII. That implies that most of these same experts are skeptical about the Cardinals’ ability to repeat last season’s success. Count me among them. Some will point to the departure of former Cardinals’ Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley, who’s know the Head Coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. I think the more likely culprit will be Quarterback Kurt Warner’s inability to stay healthy for a second consecutive season. I’m probably in the minority in believing that Matt Leinart can still be a successful NFL quarterback, but I don’t see it happening this season. Much of the positive buzz surrounding the 49ers has to do with Head Coach Mike Singletary’s “winning ways”. Unfortunately, being a star on the 1985 Chicago Bears doesn’t guarantee success as a coach in 2009. 49ers’ RB Frank Gore figures to have a good game Sunday and is worth starting, but he’s the only San Francisco player I like this weekend. Cardinals worth starting include Warner, RB Tim Hightower (no, I’m not sold yet on Chris “Beanie” Wells in spite of his preseason performance), WRs Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, & Steve Breaston, K Neil Rackers, and the Defense. The Cardinals won’t repeat as NFC champs, but they’ll get their season off on the right foot (my apologies to you Joe Nedney fans out there).
St. Louis Rams at Seattle Seahawks - These two teams combined to win all of 6 games last season, so it’s reassuring to know that one of them will start the 2009 season 1-0 (wait, Donovan McNabb just reminded me of the possibility of overtime ties during the regular season!) Their combined win total could double this season, but if it does, it figures to be the Seahawks contributing the (sea?) lions’ share of that improvement now that Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is back in the saddle again. Call it symbolic, but Rams’ QB Marc Bulger is already banged up heading into the season (injured pinkie on his throwing hand). The Rams figure to rely heavily on RB Steven Jackson (as long as he remains healthy), and he should be started this week. Other Rams to start include TE Randy McMichael, WR Donnie Avery, and K Josh Brown. Seahawks to start include Hasselbeck, RB Julius Jones, TE John Carlson, WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and K Olindo Mare.
Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers - Ever since Brett Favre shocked the world last month by coming out of retirement to play for the Vikings, Packers’ fans have had November 1st circled on their calendars - that’s the Sunday that #4 returns to Lambeau Field to face the team that he led to a Super Bowl victory what seems like 30 years ago. Favre obviously holds no animosity towards his former team, so let the lovefest begin. However, first the Packers have to contend with another division rival, led by the equally loveable Quarterback Jay Cutler. Cutler, Running Back Matt Forte, and Tight End Greg Olsen are undeniable talents, but will the Bears’ receiving corps be able to keep pace? The Devin Hester Project enters Year 3 - results remain inconclusive. Both defenses feature household names (at least if you live in the Urlacher or Hawk households), but I still expect a high-scoring contest. Bears to start include Cutler, Forte, Olsen, Hester, and K Robbie Gould. Packers to start include QB Aaron Rodgers, RB Ryan Grant (one of my favorite “sleepers” for this season), TE Donald Lee, WRs Greg Jennings & Donald Driver, and K Mason “Taken!” Crosby.
Buffalo at New England - Are you ready for some football (squared)? Barring any hurricanes or other “acts of God”, the first Monday night of the season is the only one to feature two games for your
local watering hole’s viewing pleasure. Regardless of whether they love or despise the Patriots, many football fans (Marshawn Lynch among them?) will tune in Monday night to see if The Brady Bundchen can return to their 18-1 heights of 2007. In spite of the recent nonsense culminating in the firing of former Offensive Coordinator Turk Schonert, I still expect the Bills to contend for a wild card playoff spot this season. While both defenses figure to improve as the season progresses, I expect a shootout in this game (with the Bradys winning). Bills to start include QB Trent Edwards, fill-in RB Fred Jackson, WRs Terrell Owens & Lee Evans, and K Rian Lindell. Patriots to start include Brady, RB Fred Taylor (isn’t he older than John Carney???), TE Chris Baker, WRs Randy Moss & Wes Welker, and K Stephen Gostkowski.
San Diego Chargers at Oakland Raiders - The second Monday night game features a team many people feel will be a Super Bowl contender (I’m not among them) versus a team many people feel will never be a Super Bowl contender again until Owner Al Davis “ceases to be involved” (I’m definitely among them). Perhaps roughhousing Raiders’ Head Coach Tom Cable will invite LaGarrette Blount to give a pregame pep talk to get the Raiders fired up. On second thought, that’s about as likely as Chargers’ Linebacker Shawne Merriman inviting Tila Tequila to give a pregame pep talk to get the Chargers fired up. Chargers worth starting include QB Philip Rivers, RBs LaDainian Tomlinson & Darren Sproles, TE Antonio Gates, WRs Vincent Jackson & Chris Chambers, K Nate Kaeding, and the Defense. The only Raider I’d start (and only if I had to) would be TE Zach Miller. In deeper leagues you may also want to start Raiders’ RB Darren McFadden, but since he’ll be part of a Running Back By Committee situation and he’s going against the Chargers’ defense, hopefully you have better options.
That concludes my thoughts on this week’s games. Making predictions about the opening weekend of the NFL season feels a bit like being blindfolded and swinging wildly at a dangling pinata, but that’s the nature of the beast. Preseason football has next to no predictive value (does anybody really expect the Lions to win 75% of their games this season?), so those of us who engage in this weekly exercise have little more to go on at this point than our own analysis and hunches. Hopefully, as the season unfolds, the weight will shift away from the hunches and towards the analysis. Feel free to remind me if my recommendations don’t work out - you know where to find me!
Until next time,
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