The first game of the new season delivered the drama and now Paul Higham is here with his NFL Redzone preview.
This is the biggest NFL season ever with the 32 teams playing an expanded 17-games schedule over 18 weeks and 272 games – and all with one goal in mind, and that’s making Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles in February.
One of the beauties of the NFL is that the scores a reset and every summer brings widespread hope that this could be a magical year. There’s plenty of reasons for hope too as this game is a hard one to dominate.
No team has defended a Super Bowl since 2004, although that was Brady who did that with his Patriots, while each year, although the cream does rise to the top, there’s plenty of turnover in the play-offs.
For 31 straight seasons in fact there have been four new play-off teams, last year with two extra spaces available it was seven – including eventual champions Tampa Bay.
So the first Sunday of the season is always filled with hope, and this season it’s filled with quality match-ups as well with the fixture computer throwing up five games between play-offs teams and five games between two new starting quarterbacks.
A win on opening weekend is not the be-all-and-end-all but it’s been a pretty good indicator over the years, with 11 of the 14 play-off teams last season winning their first game and since 1978 on average you’re twice as likely to get to the post-season if you start 1-0.
So now we know what’s at stake, let’s get stuck in to some of this week’s best bets on Sunday’s NFL action..
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Buffalo Bills
Najee Harris to score a rushing TD
You could easily forget given much the Steelers are being overlooked, but Pittsburgh started the season 11-0 last year and their veteran QB Ben Roethlisberger still has the arm to put up some fantastic numbers, but they’re form underdogs against many people’s pick for the Super Bowl this year.
Buffalo’s QB Josh Allen was having an MVP type of season last year when setting team records for passing yards (4,544) and passing TDs (37), while no QB can match his 25 rushing touchdowns in the last three seasons.
It’s a bit attack v defence as the Steelers had the second-best defensive record in terms of yards per game allowed and the third-best in points allowed last season.
The Bills attack was second in both yards per game and points per game, and in their 26-15 win last season they really had to grind out that win after the Steelers defence gave them all they could handle in the first half.
Pittsburgh have their main defensive star back in the ranks after TJ Watt signed a huge $112m deal that will see him figure in Buffalo. His presence alone means another game with less than 50 points in (4/6) is highly likely.
Allen has everything you could want from your quarterback, with a solid arm and obvious physical attributes, but he’ll have to get them over the hump at some point.
Look out for first round rookie running back Najee Harris for Pittsburgh, who has looked quick, elusive and strong in pre-season and can also catch passes out of the backfield. He should have plenty of yards and plenty of chances to get his first NFL touchdown.
Jacksonville Jaguars @ Houston Texans
Jaguars (-5.5) to beat the Texans on the handicap
All eyes will be on Jacksonville quarterback Trevor Lawrence after the Jaguars made him the No.1 Draft pick this year, along with celebrated college coach Urban Meyer making his NFL debut.
The last 12 top overall picks dating back to 2004 who started at QB in Week 1 have all lost, but Lawrence has a great chance to snap that streak against a Texans team in disarray at the start of a very lengthy rebuilding process.
It could hardly be a kinder debut for a player many believe will be the next great quarterback in the league but it is a bit of a shame that a generational talent’s NFL debut has a bit of the two bald guys fighting over a comb about it.
Because these are two bad teams after all, with Jacksonville losing their last 15 games while the Texans have lost their last four season openers. At least the Jags are building for the future, while Houston have one of the oldest rosters in the league, and have even used a spot up on their star QB Deshaun Watson, he is refusing to play for them this season.
Things are really bad in Houston, they certainly have big problems, and the scale of it is that the Jaguars are road favourites in a division game for just the third time in 15 years.
Neither of these will win too many this season, and this one could get ugly, but Lawrence should show us enough flashes to win the visitors the game by a touchdown. This will not be the last time you can profit from Houston losing this season.
Seattle Seahawks @ Indianapolis Colts
Colts to beat the Seahawks
The Seahawks make the ling trip to Indianapolis but will arrive as three-point favourites but I think they’re one of the most vulnerable favourites on the Sunday schedule.
They do, however, have QB Russell Wilson who has gone 12-1 in games over in the Eastern Time Zone of the USA and usually comes out of the gate flying to start the season. He didn’t play a snap of the pre-season though.
Indianapolis had a great defence last season that allowed just 22.6 points per game and with the home crowd behind them they could give Wilson a tough time.
Carson Wentz is the QB charged with getting the Colts over the hump after they came up just short against the Bills in Buffalo in last season’s play-offs. Seattle went 12-4 last season but lost at home to the Rams in the play-offs.
Wentz was in MVP form when he got injured during the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl-winning season, and he’s not quite been the same since with injuries and a lack of form. It’s a big risk by the Colts to turn over the keys to a championship-calibre squad to a QB with so many question marks.
He has an excellent running back to help him though in Jonathan Taylor, who ran for 1,169 yards and scored 11 rushing TDs in his rookie season last year. He’s facing a Seahawks defence though that was in the top eight in limiting opposing running backs, so that contest here could be key.
Seattle are 8-2 as away favorites over the last two years but with the combination of a first-timer calling the plays on the offence, the off-season rumblings about Wilson’s relationship with the team and his lack of pre-season activity – all coming against a top 10 defence on the road – means the Colts are a worthy opening day bet.
San Francisco 49ers @ Detroit Lions
49ers (-8.5pts) to beat the Lions on the handicap
In February 2020 the San Francisco 49ers lost the Super Bowl to an amazing Patrick Mahomes-inspired Kansas City Chiefs comeback, but they were robbed of the chance of making a return bid by a huge list of injuries last season.
They have their star men back now though and are tipped to be right up there in the Super Bowl conversation, even more so if they get the expected one-sided victory in Detroit against a Lions outfit starting from almost rock bottom.
Niners defensive end Nick Bosa will be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate this season upon his return from injury, and new Detroit QB Jared Goff will get to know all about him on Sunday. Goff made a Super Bowl with the LA Rams before being traded for Detroit’s more dynamic Matt Stafford in a huge transfer move this summer.
San Francisco also made waves by trading up in April’s NFL Draft in order to sign exciting quarterback Trey Lance, despite already having Jimmy Garoppolo on a big contract. It looks like Jimmy G will start the season but we’ll see both men with head coach Kyle Shanahan no doubt planning some special plays for Lance to ease him in.
Despite all the talk of quarterbacks though, it’s San Francisco’s running game that could do all kinds of damage here with Detroit ranking a lowly 28th in run defence last season and conceding the most rushing touchdowns in the league (27) and without making any significant improvements for this year.
The 49ers have owned the Lions with their 15-2 record since 1998 the best of any team against an opponent in that time, and while I’m usually wary of wide-margin spreads on opening day this could be a signal of intent from San Fran and -8.5pts seems reasonable.
Mostert & Henry to score a rushing TD and McCaffrey to score a receiving TD
For week one we’re going with a hat-trick of touchdown scorers as a special multiple, kicking off with 49ers running back Raheem Mostert, who has devastating speed and line-breaking ability and goes up against one of the worst teams at stopping the run and allowing rushing touchdowns – a no-brainer.
Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey is just as good catching the ball as he is running with it, he’s a pocket rocket with 16 receiving touchdowns in four seasons and against the Jets he is a nightmare match-up for their linebackers who won’t have the speed to cover him.
Titans running back Derrick Henry is the double defending rushing champion who scored 17 touchdowns last season. This game with Arizona will see both teams throwing it plenty with the Titans having signed dominant receiver Julio Jones, but if you take your eye off Henry for a second he’s gone