Submitted by Jim Hurley on Sunday, September 9, 2012 at 8:12 AM
Quick: Who's gonna have the biggest NFL Week 1 upset when all's said and done following these Sunday/Monday games?
In case you had forgotten, last year the then 7-point road underdog Cincinnati Bengals bopped the Cleveland Browns 27-17 thus marking the single-biggest Week 1 upset in 2011 - heck, already there's one upset in the books as the 3 ½-point underdog Dallas Cowboys surprised the New York Giants this past Wednesday night and the way things feel these days in the league where they play for pay you do get the sense that the NFL will have its greatest season of pure competition in years.
Go ahead and ask yourself:
Is there really all that much that separates the defending Super Bowl champion Giants with, let's say, a few of those other 9-7 or 8-8 teams that didn't make the playoff a year ago?
In short, there's probably a legit 12 or 13 teams that can win it all in New Orleans come February and surely there will be a team (or two) that comes from absolutely out of the blue to make a major run for it.
Conversely, NFL'12 will also likely feature a couple of "high-profile" teams that stagger badly.
Maybe no one right here and right now is calling anyone a "Dream Team" but could it really have been at this very time a year ago when everyone was pronouncing the Philadelphia Eagles as the greatest collection of players on one single team and all they did was go 4-8 SU (straight-up) in their first dozen games?
The NFL comes upon its opening weekend with a lot of names we've heard about all summer long like Peyton Manning and Tim Tebow and Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III - but now the games count and we're quite sure a slew of names that were hidden away from media folks will be stepping up front-and-center beginning here in Week 1.
Meanwhile, let's turn our early-season attention to a couple of NFL head coaches that - for their sake - better get off to good starts:
Arizona boss-man Ken Whisenhunt - who did guide the Cardinals to the Super Bowl back in the 2008 season - comes off back-to-back non-playoff campaigns and rumors are heating up in the desert that the sixth-year coach is on that proverbial "hot seat".
The Cards believe that young QB John Skelton can lead them out of the wilderness but the early sked is tough with Sunday's Week 1 home tilt against favored Seattle followed by a road game in New England and a Week 3 home tilt against Philadelphia. If the Redbirds happen to be 1-4 SU following their early-October game in St. Louis, Whisenhunt likely will be shown the door.
In San Diego, sixth-year head coach Norv Turner has dodged the firing line bullets for years now but if these 2012 Lightnin' Bolts have a losing mark while heading into their Week 7 bye than there's a good chance Turner will get axed.
Note the Chargers play each of their AFC West rivals in the first six weeks of the season (at Oakland and at Kansas City and home to Denver) and getting swept by that trio probably will grease the skids for Mr. Turner. Stay tuned.
THE NFL WEEK 1 SUNDAY AFTERNOON PREVIEWS
SAN FRANCISCO at GREEN BAY - 4:25 p.m. ET, Fox
The marquee matchup of this Week 1 Sunday card is packed with meaning - like the winner of this game might just wind up hosting the NFC Championship Game in late January!
No doubt the Green Bay Packers - fresh off a 15-1 regular season but nonetheless known more for that playoff thud loss to the Giants - are in a something-to-prove mood here and QB Aaron Rodgers (4,643 yards passing and 45 TDs last year) is looking to light up NFL defenses beginning here against a San Fran stop unit that held 11 foes below the 20-point mark a year ago.
Consider that the Packers' defense allowed 4,924 yards passing a year ago (an NFL record) and you get the sense that the visiting Niners would very much like to turn the tables here on Mike McCarthy's squad.
Will SF's more conservative offensive approach change here while facing a Packers defense that gave up oodles and oodles of passing yards a year ago?
And will Niners' second-year head coach Jim Harbaugh trust QB Alex Smith to target new wide-outs Mario Manningham and Randy Moss more here and thus rely less on hard-charging RB Frank Gore?
It's worth noting that the totals price on this NFC tilt has risen a bit from an opening-line price of 45 points up to 47 points and maybe nobody should be shocked if there's close to 100 aerials thrown here. If Smith - who didn't throw a single regulation time completion to any of his wide receivers in last year's NFC Championship Game loss to the Giants - is able to hit a "home run" ball to Manningham or Moss early, it could set the Pack reeling.
Spread Notes - Green Bay is a collective 35-18-1 vig-wise since the start of the 2009 season (that's a sizzling .660 winning rate) and that includes three consecutive Week One covers against Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans. Meanwhile, San Francisco is coming off an electric 12-5-1 ATS (against the spread) season that featured four outright upset wins - including that 36-32 triumph over New Orleans in the NFC Divisional Playoff round - and the 49ers are 10-5-3 ATS overall as pups dating back to the start of the 2009 season.
INDIANAPOLIS at CHICAGO - 1 p.m. ET, CBS
The Andrew Luck Era officially opens in Chitown - but might it be a pitch/catch combo that plays for the home team that steals the show in this interconference clash?
While Luck - the Heisman Trophy runner-up a year ago while starring at Stanford - is getting all the pre-game glory here, it's Bears QB Jay Cutler and WR Brandon Marshall (his old running buddy in Denver) who could make Solider Field their personal playground here.
Keep in mind that Cutler is playing his first regular-season game since suffering a broken right thumb in a Week 11 game against San Diego last season but all reports are that he's fine and now that Marshall's on board there is a sense that RB Matt Forte won't have all the team's offensive weight on his shoulder pads
If the Bears can just hold their blocks on DE/LB Dwight Freeney, than Chicago could be hot stuff here. Note that Forte also is coming back from injury as he missed the last four games a year ago with a sprained knee ligament.
But back to Luck for a moment:
No doubt he's looking to sizzle in his pro debut as he officially replaces long-time Colts icon P. Manning but if does anything here it's steer clear of holding the ball too long - so watch for that this weekend.
Spread Notes - Chicago floundered down the stretch last year while going 1-4-1 versus the vig en route to a sub-par 7-8-1 ATS campaign. On the flip side, Indianapolis actually covered four of its final five tilts a year ago en route to a 6-10 ATS season. Note that the Indy Colts have failed to cover their last four consecutive Week 1 games.
WASHINGTON at NEW ORLEANS - 1 p.m. ET, Fox
If Indy's Luck is the crown jewel of NFL rookies this year, than what's Redskins' QB Robert Griffin III?
Last year's Heisman Trophy winner from Baylor already is being called the most exciting player to step into this league since Michael Vick a decade ago but how will he handle things indoors at the Louisiana Superdome facing an angry/ornery Saints team that surely is using this BountyGate thing as their us-against-the-world anthem?
The Saints figure to throw the proverbial kitchen sink at Griffin here and so expect clever'Skins boss-man Mike Shanahan to call for lots of draws and screen passes but probably the only way "RG3" and friends steal this one is with a solid vertical passing game and we'll see if that preseason rapport between Griffin and WR Pierre Garcon continues here.
Meanwhile, keep in mind the Saints averaged 41.5 points a game in last year's nine home tilts and QB Drew Brees says nothing will change here even though head coach Sean Payton has been suspended for the year. Interim boss Aaron Kromer - who's actually stepping in for suspended interim coach Joe Vitt - will let the N'Orleans offense do its thing under well-respected offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael but look for RB Darren Sproles to be a large part of this Week 1 game plan.
Spread Notes - New Orleans banged out a perfect 9-and-oh spread mark at home last year and did you know the Saints are 28-16-2 ATS versus non-NFC South foes the past four years? Meanwhile, Washington registered a rotten 3-7 ATS mark in non-divisional games last year.
IT'S THE SUNDAY NIGHT PREVIEW AS STEELERS-BRONCOS COLLIDE IN "PEYTON MANNING'S NEW BACKYARD" ...
COLLEGE FOOTBALL QUICK NOTES: BOO-HOO TO PIG SOOEY!
Okay, so maybe it didn't exactly go by in a "blink of an eye" but Peyton Manning was the quintessential sports star in the city of Indianapolis for some 13 years - and now he's someone else's icon.
Manning - who played in two Super Bowls but won just one of 'em (see 2006 season) in his time in "Nap City" - has been front-and-center on every NFL highlight show for the past few weeks as folks examine whether or not he'll be able to lead the Denver Broncos back to the promised land for the first time since the 1998 season. Manning - as everyone well knows - didn't play a single down for the Colts last year after undergoing four different neck surgeries but he shook off the rust early in this past preseason and really had things rolling a couple of weeks back in an exhibition game against the San Francisco 49ers.
But now tonight it counts.
The Broncos believe Manning has plenty left in a pro career that's already featured four MVP awards but beginning this evening we shall see how Manning handles the hits, the takedowns and the oncoming heat from a Steelers squad that promises to play full speed ahead.
A new era dawns in Denver and - for that matter - in the NFL.
Whether there is a championship or two ahead is a whole other question but keep in mind a Manning has won three of the last six Super Bowls and you just know Peyton is gonna do everything in his power to "get even" with New York Giants slinger Eli Manning one of these days, right?
Tonight, it's ...PITTSBURGH at DENVER - 8:25 p.m. ET, NBC
No question that Manning has been the single-most scrutinized player in this man's NFL lately but what about the guy who chucks it for the "other team" here
Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger - yes, a two-time Super Bowl champion himself just like Eli - wound up throwing for 4,077 yards a year ago (the second time in three seasons he has surpassed the magical 4,000-yard passing mark) and you could make the case that the real key here isn't necessarily what Manning accomplishes with his new AFC team but rather how does Roethlisberger fare with wide-out threats Mike Wallace and Santonio Brown back in the saddle after they snagged more than 1,100 yards receiving apiece last year.
Keep in mind who we won't see tonight and that's Steelers OLB James Harrison (knee) and not likely that RB Rashard Mendenhall (knee) will play here either and so that makes gimpy RB Isaac Redman (ankle) a key component but don't look for the Steelers to ask him to run more than 10-to-12 times.
Note that Manning won't ever tuck it and run like that last Broncos quarterback - Mr. Tim Tebow - but it's said Denver's new slinger already has a favorite target in WR Eric Decker and so let's see if the Steelers play some bump-and-run at the line of scrimmage with the smallish Decker. If he gets loose 12-to-15 yards down the field, watch out!
Spread Notes - Denver's an ugly 14-33-2 ATS (against the spread) in all home games while dating back to the start of the 2006 season but keep in mind the Broncos have covered two-of-three home games against Pittsburgh during this time span (including last year's thrilling 29-23 overtime win in the AFC Wild Card round. Meanwhile, the Steelers have notched spread wins in six of their last nine season-opening games but note the AFC North crew was a rotten 2-7 vig-wise away in 2011.
THE COLLEGE GRIDIRON UPDATE
Hey, lots to say about the "college kids" in tomorrow's Jim Sez but when exactly did you ever think you'd see the day when UL-Monroe led off the ESPN SportsCenter highlights on a Saturday night?
The Warhawks shocked 29 ½-point fav (and #8-ranked) Arkansas 34-31 in overtime last night and please let's not here any bellyaching by Hogs fans that wish to point out star QB Tyler Wilson missed a chunk of time because of an in-game concussion.
The fact of the matter is there were a few ranked teams that suffered terrible losses in the second full week of college play including #13 Wisconsin who managed just 35 yards rushing in its 10-7 loss at 6-point pup Oregon State (say goodbye to those Heisman Trophy hopes, RB Montee Ball who rushed for 61 yards on 15 pops).
And let's not forget #16 Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers couldn't stop a soul in 24-all first half en route to their 36-30 loss at 4-point underdog UCLA and we still don't know what 'Husker QB Taylor Martinez was thinking with some of his ill-fated second-half throws. Martinez completed just 4-of-14 tosses following the halftime break and his one late-game pick was absolutely horrible ... hate to kick a guy when everyone else is criticizing him but Martinez does seem to do enough bad plays to ruin lots of otherwise great efforts and it's already starting to look like one of those ho-hum 7- or 8-win seasons for the gang from Lincoln.
NOTE: There's Monday Night Football Previews plus NCAA/NFL wrap-ups in the next Jim Sez.