As a diehard football fan, there is one time where I envy baseball fans despite their following what is, in my mind, an inferior sport. During July and August demonstrations on the diamond are taking place in full swing while football followers starved for pigskin get only the table scraps of contract negotiation, OTAs and Preseason games. But as September 5th rolls closer to us, I am prepared to become gorged with gridiron goodness for the first time since the draft. In this, the first edition of the Student of the Game’s Match-up Mania, I bring you what I believe are the most delectable delights on the menu for the NFL’s Week 1.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Denver Broncos
This is the first game of the season so it deserves a certain level of hype already, but don’t pin me as a pundit professing pro pigskin propaganda — this is also a contest featuring the defending World Champions and the popular pick to win the next Super Bowl.
Leading up to the season opener, the Ravens have already faced skepticism from the fan public. QB Joe Flacco posted some impressive numbers in the playoffs after an inconsistent regular season performance where the Ravens snuck into the playoffs. After signing a contract worth up to $120.6 million, fans may be asking him for improved production even though he just brought the Lonbardi trophy back to Baltimore. That being challenge enough, key weapons are lost to him as well now thanks to the departure of Pro Bowl caliber WR Anquan Boldin to San Francisco and an injury that has taken TE Dennis Pitta out for the year. However, the Broncos defense is not a bad opportunity for Flacco to put points on the board. While Denver’s secondary isn’t bad, their front 7 is a mere shadow of it’s former self after losing LB Elvis Dumervill based on a contract clerical error and LB Von Miller to a substance abuse suspension. This gives Baltimore’s WRs Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith more time to complete passing routes and less pressure against star RB Ray Rice on the ground.
Dumervill is also part of the reason that Bronco fans need be worried on offense as well. The end result of the clerical error mentioned before was Elvis’s addition to the Raven roster. He’ll be harassing his former team’s offense as part of an unheralded defensive front that includes himself, DT Haloti Ngata, LB Terrell Suggs, DE Marcus Spears from the Cowboys, as well as Chris Canty from the Giants.
That’s not to say that QB Peyton Manning and Denver are helpless to move the ball. Already featuring a strong WR duo in Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, they since got better in the air by landing WR Wes “the Weapon” Welker.
The defending AFC West Champs are no joke on the ground either. RBs Ronnie Hillman and Knowshon Moreno have a history of solid production when healthy. Even if the injury bug should bite again, the running committee still holds rookie Montee Ball out of Wisconsin to pick up any slack missed time may bring.
Overall, the main reason to watch this game is to take all of the hype on various pages and airwaves and answer the questions posed. Is Flacco really worth the contract? Has the Ravens’ “D” really fallen off with the exodus of Hall of Fame talent in LB Ray Lewis and S Ed Reed? Can the Denver Defense improve on stopping big plays? Can the Bronco Offense pick up the slack of defensive shortcomings and suspensions? Does either team belong in the 2014 Super Bowl? I think evidence will support the claims of both sides being slightly better than advertised, but on this night I see the scoreboard favoring the Broncos offering them a touch of revenge from last year’s divisional playoff loss to Baltimore.
Falcons vs. Saints
My preseason predictions have these 2 teams 1 game apart to decide the NFC South winner and 1 game away from Wild Card elimination. If I’m correct, in Week 1 of a 16 game season we already have a match-up that has a great impact on the post season. Even if you don’t believe that to be true, we still get the exhilaration of a high-flyin’ shootout between 2 division rivals giving us plenty to watch.
This time last year we were freshly shocked by the bounty scandal which led to the suspension of Saints’ Head Coach Sean Payton during the 2012 season. Without that leadership, even Hall of Fame quality QB Drew Brees and that talented offense couldn’t return to the playoffs. As I see it, this can serve as a motivational point that Payton can use to focus stars like TE Jimmy Graham or WRs Maquese Colston and Lance Moore to return the Saints to lighting up the scoreboard as before.
However, for every number they make flash on the jumbo-tron, Falcon QB Matt Ryan can sling the ball to WRs Julio Jones and Roddy White as well as Future Hall of Fame TE Tony Gonzalez. This isn’t even considering solid run support from the newly acquired workhorse RB Stephen Jackson joining Atlanta’s backfield corps. With his teammates RBs Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling, they make for a versatile bunch that enables a truly balanced offensive.
New Orleans’ backs themselves aren’t lacking talent either featuring Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, and Darren Sproles offering various skill sets offering multiple dimensions to the Black and Gold attack.
As in many contests where these offensive forces collide, the defense that does just a little bit more to slow the opposing offense will find the ‘W’. While I believe the “Dirty Bird” Defense a more dominant squad on paper, the roar of the “Who Dat” nation at the Mercedes Benz Superdome is a difficult presence to overcome. I see the Saints still standing as this southern shootout subsides.
Packers vs. 49ers
A rematch of 2012′s Week 1 and the NFC Divisional Playoff, this is a solid test to see how the 49ers will play when teams have had time to prepare for QB Colin Kaepernick going into his 2nd year starting. We’ll also have a glimpse as to whether the Packers are a dark horse Super Bowl candidate.
Giants vs. Cowboys
This NFC East rivalry is also a Week 1 revisiting of a 2012 match-up where the Cowboys dominated in a game that helped keep the Giants of out the playoffs. Featured as the Sunday night game, this contest will likely have the same weight within that divisional race.
Kyle Nash — @TheSoTG on Twitter
Founder and host of The Student of the Game show
VP of Operations and Editor for The National Gridiron Network
NFL Contributor for The Sports Chronicles
Special Contributor for Pro Player Insiders.
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