By Rich Levine
Its an unwritten law that every website, newspaper, blog and twitter account in the free world must have its own Weekly NFL Picks column. A public forum for one writer to put his pride on the line against an establishment that's pretty much undefeated over time.
So, here we go the inaugural edition of my NFL Picks.
(Note: We missed Thursday nights opener, but I swear I bet on push.)
The Game: Detroit at Chicago (-6.5)
The Receivers: Jay Cutler hasan arm. Mike Martz has an offense. Can they play nice? Nicer, maybe.But theres one thing still missing here: A top-notch receiver.
We know what they have in Devin Hester (very solid, but not greatoption), Reggie Brown (journeyman) and Johnny Knox (young, gettingbetter). Can Devin Aramoshadu develop into the No. 1 guy? Sure, butthat doesnt necessarily make him No. 1-caliber. Just the best optionChicago has. It a dubious distinction. Like being the tallest midget inthe room, or the thinnest Ryan brother.
The Change of Strategy: Isnt crazy how much a team can improve when it stops using every first-round pick on a wide receiver?
The Lions have lost double digit games in eight of their last nineseasons (nine wins in the other), and now, only two years after MattMillen left, they have a blue chip QB, a cornerstone on defense and,most of all, hope. Something tells me that paper bag sales are going todrop dramatically in Michigan this fall. (Or at least until the Pistonsstart.)
The Reputation: I know I wasguilty of this two seconds ago, but at what point do we stop talkingabout Mike Martz like hes the God of Offense? Its the same way thatJohn Lackey came to Boston with the reputation as a big-game pitcherdespite the fact that hes only one won playoff game since his rookieseason. Isnt there a shelf life? Why do we consider it automatic thatMike Martz is going to have a potent offense? Did he in Detroit? Or SanFrancisco?
Imagine if an architect created one unbelievable building mostbeautiful thing ever, won all kinds of awards but then his next twoprojects collapsed under their own weight.
Would you still call him a genius? Would he get a third chance to turn it around?
The Truth: I dont believe theBears will be quite as good as everyone thinks, and I do expect theLions to be much better than they were last year. But Detroits notthere yet. The Lions need a few weeks of hard fought competitive football toconvince themselves that theyre ready, and then it will start totranslate into wins (hopefully not until after Thanksgiving).
The Pick: Bears (-6.5)
The Game: Atlanta (-2) at Pittsburgh
The Quarterback: Id feel better about Dennis Dixon if he had a little bit more time to work with. Lets say, if Big Ben had been suspended for 8, or even 10 games.
Because I like my backups to feel like they at least have a chance to steal the starting job. I want them to think, This is my team. These guys are relying on ME to save this season.
But for Dixon, nothing will change in four games. Even if he goes 4-0, theres a better chance of Troy Polamalu professionally straightening his hair than Roethlisberger losing his starting job.
And that matters, even if its just a little. I have more faith in a backup who believes the team is really his and hes in charge (like a certain kidfuture Audi A8 owner did in New England back in 2001), than I do than a guy who will be reminded every day of whose team it actually is.
The Statement: Maybe my brains too deep into fantasy mode right now, but the Falcons' offense looks stacked. Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez? I can get behind that.
But then you remember that all four of those guys were there last year too, and that those Falcons only went 9-7. Sundays an early chance for them to prove that theyve put last seasons mediocrity behind them.
The Nickname: I hate calling Roethlisberger Big Ben because its a far too fun, amicable nickname for a guy who counts Dodging alleged rape convictions as a hobby. But at the same time, type Roethlisberger enough times and youll be ready to recklessly drive a motorcycle into oncoming traffic. Its lose-lose. (This wouldnt be a problem if Microsoft Word finally sucked it up and came out with a T9 function.)
The Mind Game: When an away team is giving three points or less, its typically a suckers bet. Most of time, the visitors are clearly the better team, have a better record and have the confidence of the general populationcasual fan. Take a look at this weeks ColtsTexans game, thats a textbook example. Basically, when the away team is favored by three or less, taking the home team is supposed to feel like the courageous bet. Youre supposed to think: I got you, Vegas. Im not falling for it. Theres something else going on here.
And thats why this game confuses me.
Even with Big Ben down, are we to believe that the Falcons are that much better than Pittsburgh? Does it really take guts to bet on the Steelers to win the season opener at Heinz Field? Thats suppose make us feel like were making the smart, sound bet?
No, betting on the Steelers to win their season opener, at home, against a team that missed the playoffs feels like the obvious bet. So . . .
The Pick: Atlanta (-2)
The Game: Indianapolis (-2) at Houston
The History: (Last four ColtsTexans games)
October 5, 2008: Houston leads 27-10 in the fourth quarter, loses 31-27.
November 16, 2008: Houston leads 20-16 in the third quarter, loses 33-27.
November 8, 2009: Houston leads 17-13 in the fourth quarter, loses 20-17.
November 29, 2009: Houston leads 20-7 at halftime, loses 35-27.
The Difference: Or more, is there a difference? Is there any reason to think that this is the year Houston has what it takes to finally overcome its demons and knock out the mighty Colts?
For me, it just feels like the same old match-up. Maybe the Texans have gotten a little better, but the Colts certainly havent gotten any worse. They were the second-best team in the NFL!
The Savior: For those who do say this is the Texans year, Arian Foster is often a big reason. The second-year back had a monster end to last season, a very strong preseason, and has shown enough burst that some think hes ready to take Houston to the next level. Me? Ill sit this one out for now. Maybe it means Ill be late on the Arian Foster bandwagon. Maybe hell run for 2,000 yards and this paragraph will haunt me like a chat roulette sex tape. But for now, the guys an undrafted free agent whos not even a year removed from the practice squad. Lets give him a chance to earn all the slobbering.
The Sucker: Thats me, because Im about to go against the very rule I mentioned in the Steelers write-up.
The Pick: Colts (-2)
The Game: Cincinnati at New England (-4.5)
The Gronk: What are we thinking for Rob Gronkowskis line in this one? Six catches, 57 yards and a touchdown? Yeah, that looks good. In fact, theres a good chance that The Gronk finds the end zone before OchoCinco. In which case, nothing would piss off 85 more than The Gronk scoring, grabbing one of the muskets and stealing Ochos stupid celebration.
The Playmaker: Vince Wilfork is New Englands best and most reliable defensive player, but hes also of the size and speed that makes it difficult to earn the playmaker label. Vince will grind a team down over the course of the game, and in the end leave his distinguished mark, but hes not going to make the game-changing strip-sack or (certainly not) turn the momentum with a pick-six. Someone on this team has to do that, and prove that they can do it at least somewhat reliably. (Jerod? Pleeeease?)
The defense isnt going to win any chess matches this season. They dont strike me as a bend, dont break kind of squad. So, theyre going to need a few defensive playmakers and, as great as he is, its not Wilfork.
The Face: Can you imagine Brian Hoyers face when he first heard Tom Brady and car accident thrown together in the same sentence? I cant imagine the instant range in emotions. Youd like to think that first and foremost hes going to be concerned for Brady, and then the team. But at the same time you know hes instantly both ecstatic and about to mess himself over the fact that he might now be making his first NFL start on three days' notice. But I guess he couldnt have been anymore freaked out than Matt Cassel when he was thrown into the fire on three minutes' notice.
The Better Bet: I dont even know what the overunder is, but Id rather bet the over than messing with this spread. And Ill let those winnings ride every week until Vegas adjusts to just how porous the Patriots defense will be. Personally, Im just pissed that the Pats annual cornerback mass suicide came as soon as it did this year. I mean, dont they usually at least wait until Week 5 or 6 to fall apart? At this rate, Hank Poteat will be starting by Week 3.
I dont think that this defense will doom the Pats every week. Their offense will still be dominant (assuming the backs stay healthy, Moss doesnt pout too much, Welkers knee holds up and Brady starts taking the bus), and theyll be able to out duel more than a few teams, but its teams like Cincinnati with an established QB, multiple talented (and tall) receivers, and a bruising running back that scare the hell out of me.
The Pick: Bengals (4.5)
The Game: Cleveland at Tampa Bay (-3)
The Dilemma: OK, so are you taking Jake Delhomme on the road, or a second-year quarterback with a rookie No. 1 receiver?
Hmm, cant I just stick my face into a ceiling fan instead?
The City: The Indians are about to finish in last place. The Blue Jackets (closest NHL team to Cleveland) recently finished in last place. The Browns are all but definitely headed for their third straight last-place finish. And, of course, the Cavs (and the entire city) are still reeling from the departure of Shaquille ONeal.
Lets all print out that paragraph and keep it in our pocket for the next time we feel like complaining about Laurence Maroney, Josh Beckett or Lackey (or all three at once!)
Just kidding. That won't make you feel any better. But, damn, sucks to be Cleveland.
The Deciding Factor: That Mike Holmgren is involved with this mess feels very wrong. Its like spotting Russell Crowe on the set of Dude, Wheres My Car, Too?
(This sequel doesnt exist, but theres 100 percent chance that would be the title.)
(This is also the first and last ever comparison between Mike Holmgren and Russell Crowe.)
Anyway, with Holmgren behind the scenes, the Browns are just a little more prepared for this one, so, as much as I hate rooting for Eric Mangini . . .
The Pick: Cleveland (3)
The Game: Carolina at NY Giants (-6.5)
The Question: Will we remember Victor Cruzs name six months from now? Will we look back on that memorable preseason game as his coming-out party? Or will it be more like:
Hey, what was the name of that kid from UMass who had that ridiculous preseason game for the Giants? Oh, right! Victor Cruz! What the hell happened to him?
The Identity Crisis: It used to be that the best part of having two Steve Smiths in the league was the hope that someone in your fantasy league would be stupid enough to take the wrong one first. (Actually happened in my league; dude amazingly finished in last. Hilariously enough, he's from Cleveland.) But now, its something more. Its a legitimate battle for the rights to the title: NFLs best Steve Smith. Means nothing to us, but I bet it means a little bit to these guys. Especially the one in Carolina, who never would have imagined hed be fighting for the rights to his name.
Not sure if anyones ever made something so stupid sound so dramatic.
The Two-Headed Monster: In a league full of two-headed (or should we call it four-legged?) rushing attacks, the Panthers have one of the best. Both DeAngelo Williams and The Daily Show Jonathan Stewart could star as featured backs, but for now theyll combine to provide the main reason that Panthers fans can still be optimistic despite the fact that Matt Moore is their starting quarterback. Anyway, the Giants were awful against the run last season (at least by their standards), so theyd much rather warm up against a team with a less formidable ground game.
The Pressure: Im sure that Tom Coughlin has politely asked his team not to look past the Panthers, but the Giants are at Indianapolis next week. And considering the way last season ended, combined with the fact that NFC East will be tighter than the skin on Jerry Jones face, the Giants just cant start the season 0-2.
Ok, thats a lie. Of course, they can. There will probably be at least one team to start the season 0-2 and still make the playoffs. It wont be the end of the world, but it does give the Giants a little extra motivation on top of wanting to open their new stadium in style.
The Pick: Giants (-6.5)
The Game: Miami (-3) at Buffalo
The Rookie: The Chargers Ryan Mathews might be the best rookie running back this season, but C.J. Spiller will be everyones favorite. Hell be the guy everyone wants to be in Madden. Hell be the showstopper. Hell be the guy too blame for an increased number of Tom Jackson Whooooops! Hell be fun to have around. And best of all, considering the poor state of the Bills, Patriots fans should be able to appreciate Spillers greatness without having to freak because his 75-yard touchdown run just cut the lead to 38-14.
The Chad: If you had to win a game tomorrow, and Chad Henne and Mark Sanchez were your only two choices at quarterback . . . is there even a question?
Im not breaking any ground with this statement, but Chad Henne can play. He can throw. He can run a team. And with brand new binky Brandon Marshall having taken his talents to South Beach, this is his breakout year.
The Tuna: How much of a back seat do you think Bill Parcells has really taken with the Dolphins? You think Ireland might still run every decision up the Tunas flagpole (that sounds wrong)?
Its just that Parcells name is still attached to this organization, so you know he still going to want it done his way. Hes a man who loves to pick the groceries, so you have to wonder if Ireland is just now the Tunas personal Peapod service.
The Division: Division games are a pain. The line's always smaller than you think, and upsets are more common than you ever believe. If this was at -4 or -5, I might actually be inclined to take Miami, but that -3 is dirty. If theres any game this season that the Bills can steal, its probably Sunday. Or at least thats what Ive convinced myself.
The Pick: Buffalo (3)
The Game: Oakland at Tennessee (-6)
The Phenom: Can you stop Chris Johnson? Thats a serious question. Is there any team, player or scheme in this league right now thats capable limiting this freak of nature? After last season, Im not sure. But its fair to say that he doesnt have another 2,000 yards in him.
In fact, of the five guys other than Johnson to top 2K in a season, none even reached 1,500 yards the following season. But whatever, Im just happy the Patriots wont see No. 28 in 2010. He might go for 2,000 yards in one game.
The Slow Start: New England got up close and personal with the Titans' tough start in 2009, as the Pats plowed over Tennessee 59-0 at snowy Gillette. This is going to sound very Dr. Phil-ly, but the Titans cant afford to do that this year. Theyve got a decent draw with a home opener against the lowly Raiders seven straight losing season and counting but while Vince Young might be the Titans' best and most exciting option at QB, hes not what youd call the model of consistency. Hes not even the hastily drawn stick figure of consistency.
The Draft: There are two teams Patriots fan will root for every Sunday this season. The Pats, and whoever is playing the Raiders. Dont forget, that first-round pick still belongs to New England. Wait, what? Belichick just traded that pick for a first-rounder in 2017?
The Pick: Tennessee (-6)
The Game: Denver at Jacksonville (-2.5)
The Cliff: Weve seen it with Ladanian Tomlinson, Shaun Alexander and nearly every premier running back thats come through this league. There comes a season where they merely fall off the cliff. They go from superstar to not even a shadow of the shadow of their superstar self. Its shocking. It's perplexing. Its (except in LTs case) actually pretty sad.
Heading into this season, the world has Maurice Jones-Drew hanging on for dear life.
Everyone thinks hes in a free fall; that his bum knee and the bum Jaguars will spell the end of his NFL (and fantasy) dominance. On Sunday, Mojo has a chance to climb himself back onto the ledge. Hes facing a Denver D thats susceptible to his powers, but if he doesnt come through, it might be time to wave bye-bye. Im not giving up hope, though. Big game for Mojo.
The Home Field: Can you count a team as having home-field advantage if they dont have any fans? The Jags will be answering this question all season, with what will surely be the weakest 12th Man in the league. The biggest cheers on Sunday might actually be for a Bronco, as Jacksonvilles (and Earths) native son, Tim Tebow, takes the field with Denver. Speaking of which . . .
The Divinity: Still not a fan of Tebow, but Im getting there. Even if he is way too self-righteous, you have to respect what hes done in his short time in the league; first and foremost, hes already proven hell have a career. Hes convinced many a hater, or maybe just me, that despite all the talk that his game wouldnt translate, Tim Tebow belongs in the NFL. Hell get into Sundays game for sure. And the more the Broncos struggle, the more excuse theyll have to get him reps. By next season, Tebows the clear starter. But for now . . .
The Pick: Jacksonville (-2.5)
The Game: Arizona (-4) at St. Louis
The Happiest Man in Arizona: No way Larry Fitzgerald was looking forward to Matt Leinhart Era. In fact, Im not sure anyone in Arizona (outside of Matt Leinhart) was looking forward to the Matt Leinhart Era. Anyway, with Derek Anderson the Cardinals just became a lot more dangerous. Hell, Louie Anderson might have been an improvement. But in Derek, the Cardinals have a guy who can throw the bomb with the best of them, which will surely please Fitzgerald.
Yeah, Anderson will make mistakes, but no fewer than the guy he beat out for the job.
The Temptation: I really want to take the Rams. But, per usual, I am a weak, weak man.
The Pick: Arizona (-4)
The Game: Green Bay (-3) at Philadelphia
The Mexican: Did anyone see Michael Vick on Pros vs. Joes the other week? Dont you have to be retired to get on that show? More importantly, it will be interesting to see what happens with Vick this season. Last year, he had to be OK with taking a back seat. The guy was lucky to even have a job, and with an established star like Donovan McNabb in front of him, there wasnt much Vick could say. He was just happy to be back in the NFL. But this year, Mr. Mexico wants to play football, and the man standing between him and that dream has two career starts. Don't think Mike will be as cordial.
The Gametime Decision: Brian Westbrook did a lot of great things during his time in Philly. He was one of the most dynamic players in the league. A fantasy giant. A HUGE part of the Eagles success. But you cant tell me that Andy Reid isnt a little relieved not to deal with that craziness anymore. Can you imagine if you were an NFL coach and spent nearly every single week of nearly every single season wondering if your best player would be available? That must have added a ton of extra planning every week. Ok, so what if Westbrook plays . . . what if he doesnt play . . . what if he plays one series and twists his ankle again . . . over . . . and over . . .
It also helps that Westbrooks replacement, Lesean McCoy, is legit, but either way, cutting ties with the Gametime Decision has to spell some relief. Never a bad thing when youre talking about Andy Reid.
The Public Perception: Everyones just a little too high on the Packers right now. Yeah, theyre a very good team, but Week 1s a crapshoot. Philly is still a very tough place to play. And I dont mind the Eagles D, even if theyre up against future MVP Aaron Rogers.
The Pick: Eagles (3)
The Game: San Francisco (-3) at Seattle
The No. 1 Pick: Alex Smith was definitely one of the weirdest No.1 overall picks in recent memory. I mean, obviously he had some skills. Obviously he put up the great college numbers. But there was nothing else to him. He was like Tim Couch just kind of blah. But now, after a handful of trying seasons, hes finally figured it out. Hes knows hes not going to be a superstar; that ship has sailed. So hes ready to be consistent. Consistently blah. But still, consistent. Hes the quarterback that wont win you many games, but he wont lose them either. And when you have Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, a dominating D, and one of the leagues best motivators roaming the sidelines, consistently blah can be enough.
The Mystery Mike: Mike Williams was supposed to be a star. I can remember seeing him make that one-handed catch in the end zone his last year at USC and not being able to wait to get him on a fantasy team. Then he had the draft controversy. Then he fell into the Lions abyss. Then he failed in Oakland and Tennessee. And then . . . he was out of football. For two years. We assumed he was just gone forever, the way of Charles Rogers, David Terrell and Freddie Mitchell.
Then the Seahawks hired his former college coach, and now hes going to be a star.
The whole thing seems wrong. Is it really that easy? If so, cant the Pats just hire the University of Minnesotas old running-backs coach?
Either way, Ive finally got Williams on my fantasy team. Not sure if thats a good thing.
The Hunch: The Pete Carroll Era will get off to a promising start. This is so hard for me to say, because Mike Singletary might be one of my favorite coaches in professional sports, and the idea that he can be outdone by Pom Pom Pete is sacrilege. But for some reason I cant chase the image of Pete Carroll running up and down the sidelines in front of his home fans, hugging his players and smiling like he just won his fifth straight game of Beirut. I think the Seahawks steal one.
The Pick: Seattle (3)
The Game: Dallas (-3.5) at Washington
The Shoulder Pads: There was a lot of talk this summer about the Dez Bryant shoulder-pad incident. Some thought a little too much. Not me. You're saying a rookie with questionable character joins a team, immediately disrespects the veteran and hurts the chemistry of the team, and thats not a big deal? What happens if hes bitching in the third quarter of a big game because hes not getting ball enough and Miles Austin or Tony Romo or Jason Witten tells him to shut up and get his head into the game? Hell handle this OK?
The New Era: If this were 2004, the dawn of the Mike ShanahanDonovan McNabb Era might be something truly special. In 2010, eh, special enough. But for a fanbase thats dealt with so much disappointed and disaster (six coaches and two winning seasons over the past 10 years) Shanahan and McNabb might as well be Santa Claus and Superman. This is exciting stuff. So for one Sunday, against the teams most hated rival, the fans will make it hard for the Skins to lose.
The Freak Out: In Week 1 of every NFL season, there needs to be one Super Bowl contender that loses and causes a knee-jerk bandwagon evacuation. There also needs to be one middle-of-the-road team that posts an impressive win and picks up more followers than Ashton Kutcher (Twitter humor, eh?). This game fits both categories. After all, we went the entire preseason without a serious Cowboys scandal it cant be much longer now.
The Pick: Washington (3.5)
The Monday night pick . . .
Baltimore at NY Jets (-2.5) and San Diego (-4.5) at Kansas City
Coming Monday morning . . .