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Inside the Matchup
Week 1

By: Bill Andereson | Brian Thorne | Nick Caron | Kyle Smith



MIN @ DET | HOU @ SD | GB @ SF | ARI @ STL

 Predictions - YTD
Rk Staffer W L %
- Anderson 0 0 100
- Thorne 0 0 100
- Smith 0 0 100
- Caron 0 0 100

Ravens at Broncos - (Caron)

Passing Game Thoughts: Coming off an impressive playoff run that earned him a massive, long-term contract, fantasy owners of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco are hoping that he can parlay that success into yardage and touchdowns in 2013. Flacco will be without two of his top targets from a season ago as Anquan Boldin moved to San Francisco this offseason and Dennis Pitta fractured his hip in camp. Another year of development from Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones could help fill those voids, but Flacco will really need to prove his worth by putting the team on his back with less-than-stellar options in the passing game.

With Von Miller suspended, Elvis Dumervil gone in free agency and Champ Bailey out with an injury, the Denver defense could be in for a long night on Thursday as they try to keep up with the speedy Baltimore receivers. They struggled to do so a season ago, as Jones and Smith combined for 230 yards and three touchdowns over the two games, doing most of their damage in the playoff game. Denver will be happy that Pitta is out as he beat them up the most; catching 10 passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns in those contests. His replacement, Ed Dickson, is not quite the receiver that Pitta is, but could find some soft spots in the Broncos defense as they try to shut down the deep pass game.

Running Game Thoughts: One of the most consistent fantasy producers in the game, Ray Rice is back again in 2013 and should remain the focal point of the Baltimore Ravens offense. The 26-year-old does have a lot of tread off his tires but is coming off his fourth straight season of over 1,600 total yards and 60+ catches. He is also coming off his second straight season of 10+ touchdowns. While Bernard Pierce did become a more active part of the running game toward the end of the 2012 season, the reality is that his role in the offense is still complementary to everything Rice does, especially this early in the year.

Rice gashed the Broncos for 131 yards and a score in their divisional round playoff game a season ago and Denver’s front seven is in shambles at the moment. While Dumervil and Miller are primarily known as pass-rushers, their presence typically forces opposing running backs to sit back in pass protection more often than usual. With Dumervil now on the Ravens sideline and Miller serving a suspension, the opportunity is certainly going to be there for Rice to make a much bigger impact as a receiver in this contest than he did against the Broncos in 2012. Rice is an elite pass catcher and an obvious must-start in any format. For now, we’ll take a “wait and see” approach for Bernard Pierce and until we see him getting 10+ touches of his own, he remains a very risky option as a flex play.

Joe Flacco: 215 pass yds, 1 TD, 1 INT
Ray Rice: 90 rush yds, 1 TD, 50 rec yds
Torrey Smith: 70 rec yds, 1 TD
Jacoby Jones: 30 rec yds
Ed Dickson: 30 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: A rematch of the AFC divisional playoff game that broke the hearts of Broncos’ fans a season ago could be just what the doctor ordered to get Peyton Manning on track in 2013. Manning did struggle a bit against the Ravens a season ago, as he failed to hit the 300-yard mark in either game he played against them. This season Manning will have a brand new weapon at his disposal in Wes Welker, who is a brilliant compliment to the already stellar duo of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. Look for the Broncos to run as many three-wide sets as any team in the league this season and Week 1 should be no different. It is worth noting that the Ravens largely shut down Demaryius Thomas last year while Eric Decker torched them for 14 catches, 217 yards and a touchdown in two games. Welker also had a big game against Baltimore as a member of the Patriots last season, catching eight passes for 142 yards in their Week 3 contest.

The Ravens defense is expected to regress a bit this season with the offseason losses of future hall of famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, but many of the core players remain that have made Baltimore a quality defense for years. They ranked seventh in the league at shutting down opposing quarterbacks a year ago, but will likely need to get after Peyton Manning if they hope to shut down the Broncos’ high-powered passing game in Week 1.

Running Game Thoughts: We’ll get our first glimpse of one of the most confusing backfields in the league on Thursday night as the Broncos trio challenges the Ravens defense. Denver has been non-descriptive about their running back situation, leading to speculation that Ronnie Hillman, rookie Montee Ball or even veteran Knowshon Moreno could be the team’s primary Week 1 ball carrier. Because we don’t know what the team will do, it is hard to project that any of these backs as a strong fantasy option for Week 1.

Although the Ravens were decent against the run in 2012, they did struggle to slow down the Broncos in each of their two games against them. With Willis McGahee out, it was Hillman and Moreno who combined for 262 yards rushing in those two games; with each runner carrying the bulk of the load in one game. With Denver likely utilizing all three of their backs, they should all remain fresh, even late in the game. We just don’t know if any of them will touch the ball enough to be quality fantasy options in Week 1.

Peyton Manning: 280 pass yds, 2 TD
Montee Ball: 45 rush yds, 1 TD
Knowshon Moreno: 40 rush yds, 20 rec yds
Ronnie Hillman: 20 rush yds, 10 rec yds
Wes Welker: 90 rec yds
Demaryius Thomas: 50 rec yds, 1 TD
Eric Decker: 65 yards, 1 TD
Julius Thomas: 30 rec yds

Prediction: Broncos 30, Ravens 23 ^ Top

Falcons at Saints - (Smith)

Passing Game Thoughts: Led by Matt Ryan, the Falcons had the league’s number six passing offense in 2012. Each of his main weapons – Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez – return, and that trio represents arguably the best wide receiver/tight end combination in the league. They play the Saints this week, a team that represents a juicy match-up for the pass catchers and their quarterback.

New Orleans gave up more offensive yards last season than any team in the history of football. Naturally, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was fired, and Rob Ryan was hired to replace him and install a 3-4 defense. How the switch will shake out over the course of the season remains to be seen, but some rough patches early wouldn’t be terribly surprising, and the Falcons should be the benefactors. After all, in two games against the Saints last season, Ryan threw for 576 yards four touchdowns, White caught eight passes for 134 yards, Jones snared nine balls for 123 yards and Gonzalez annihilated them for 160 yards and three touchdowns on 15 receptions.

Running Game Thoughts: Gone is Michael Turner, whose “Burner” nickname had long since been a moniker he hadn’t lived up to. Steven Jackson, the all-time leading rusher in Rams history, was signed to replace him, and though he’s now 30 years old, there seems to be plenty left in the tank. He has run for 1,000 yards in each of his last eight seasons, caught at least 35 passes in each of those years as well and should continue to play at a level worthy of being a fantasy starter.

It helps that Jackson gets to start the season against the Saints, who were atrocious against the run last season. No team allowed more rushing yards (2,361) than the they did and they were also last in yards per rush allowed, as runners gashed them for 5.2 yards per tote. Moving to a 3-4 defense is supposed to make it more difficult for the opposition to run the ball, but the personnel still has to be there and I don’t think the Saints did enough to become a run-stopping team all of a sudden.

Matt Ryan: 285 pass yds, 3 TD, 1 INT
Julio Jones: 90 rec yds, 2 TD
Roddy White: 85 rec yds
Tony Gonzalez: 55 rec yds, 1 TD
Steven Jackson: 75 rush yds, 1 TD, 20 rec yds
Jacquizz Rodgers: 20 rush yds, 25 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: If Drew Brees isn’t the best quarterback in the NFL, he’s at least in the conversation. He ran the league’s top-ranked passing offense last season and that was without head coach and play-caller Sean Payton, who returns after being suspended last season. Brees chucks it most often to Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham, Lance Moore and Darren Sproles, and each should see their share of passes this week against the Falcons.

Atlanta had their struggles in pass defense last season, ranking 23rd, but they did allow just 14 passing scores, which was best in the NFL. Brees had a 298-yard, three touchdown game against the Falcons when the teams first matched up but had a disaster zero-TD, five-INT game against them a few weeks later. That type of game isn’t likely to happen again, so we’ll put it aside as just one of those games. Each of the team’s top receiving weapons had success against the Falcons last season with Colston catching one touchdown, Graham exploding for 143 yards and two scores in the teams’ first match-up, and Moore hauling in a total of 14 passes for 214 yards.

Running Game Thoughts: Mark Ingram was the top rusher for the Saints last season with 602 yards and five touchdowns, and he’ll play the role of top back again this year. Still, he’s averaged just 3.9 yards per carry in his career, doesn’t catch the ball much and shares the backfield with Pierre Thomas and the aforementioned Sproles, which makes his fantasy value lower than top backs on some other teams.

The Falcons weren’t very good against the run last season, ranking 21st in the league while giving up an average of 4.8 yards per carry. That damage wasn’t done by Ingram however, because in two games against Atlanta he ran for 80 yards and one touchdown with one catch for -1 yards. Sproles missed one of the games against the Falcons, and while he didn’t run it once in the other contest, he did catch five passes for 47 yards, while Thomas had a two-game total of 94 yards on 19 carries to go with two catches for 11 yards.

Drew Brees: 325 pass yds, 4 TD, 2 INT
Marques Colston: 85 rec yds, 1 TD
Jimmy Graham: 80 rec yds, 2 TD
Lance Moore: 65 rec yds
Robert Meachem: 15 rec yds
Mark Ingram: 45 rush yds
Darren Sproles: 15 rush yds, 55 rec yds, 1 TD
Pierre Thomas: 20 rush yds, 15 rec yds

Prediction: Falcons 31, Saints 28 ^ Top

Raiders at Colts - (Smith)

Passing Game Thoughts: Oakland was eighth in the league in passing offense last season, but that was with Carson Palmer under center. They will reportedly start Terrelle Pryor this week against the Colts, and while he certainly adds a running dimension that fantasy owners love, his passing remains a question mark. Oakland doesn’t have dynamic weapons on the outside, with Denarius Moore being the most fantasy-friendly, and the team also features Rod Streater and Jacoby Ford.

The Colts were 21st in pass defense a year ago, but don’t have a lot to worry about this week. They should be able to exploit Oakland’s suspect offensive line and pressure Pryor into taking off and running once he gets uncomfortable.

Running Game Thoughts: The Raiders were 28th in the NFL in rush offense last season, with Darren McFadden running for an abysmal 3.3 yards per carry while gaining 707 yards. When healthy – which is rare – McFadden is a dual running/receiving threat, and he did catch 42 passes last season. The problem this year is that with Pryor under center, teams can put most of their focus on stopping McFadden, making his fantasy outlook hazy.

As for the Colts, they had problems against the run in 2012, as just three squads gave up more rushing yards than Indianapolis last season, and only the Saints allowed runners a higher yards per carry average than the 5.1 Indy allowed.

Terrelle Pryor: 180 pass yds, 2 INT, 45 rush yds
Denarius Moore: 65 rec yds
Rod Streater: 50 rec yds
Jacoby Ford: 20 rec yds
Darren McFadden: 70 rush yds, 1 TD, 35 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: Andrew Luck and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians clicked last season, helping the Colts rank seventh in pass offense during Luck’s rookie campaign. There hasn’t been a more promising young quarterback in years, and fantasy owners know this. He may not improve on his 4,300+ passing yards from last year, but his maturation, plus a quality receiving corps featuring Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Darrius Heyward-Bey (yep, even him) along with tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen should allow Luck to throw more than the 23 touchdowns he tossed last season, and this week the Raiders will be there to help allow it.

Oakland spent their first-round pick on cornerback D.J. Hayden because of their struggles against the pass last season – they were 20th in pass defense and 23rd in passing scores given up. But the bad news doesn’t stop there. They were 25th in yards per pass attempt allowed, 29th in completion percentage allowed and 31st in sacks.

Running Game Thoughts: The Colts, due in part to mediocre personnel, were 22nd in the league in rushing offense in 2012 averaging only 3.8 yards per carry. Vick Ballard led them with 814 yards but scored just twice and averaged fewer than 4.0 yards per tote. The team signed Ahmad Bradshaw in an underrated move during the offseason, and though health problems limited him in the preseason and will cut into his carries this week, look for him to be a fantasy contributor during the year. He should still be a factor against Oakland.

Though the Raiders ranked 18th against the run in 2012, they were tied for 28th in rushing scores allowed. They gave up 4.3 yards per carry, which was 20th in the NFL and though these numbers aren’t horrific, their focus is likely going to be on Luck and Co. meaning Bradshaw and Ballard should be able to find some holes.

Andrew Luck: 290 pass yds, 3 TD, 1 INT
Reggie Wayne: 90 rec yds, 1 TD
T.Y. Hilton: 70 rec yds, 1 TD
Darrius Heyward-Bey: 40 rec yds
Dwayne Allen: 35 rec yds, 1 TD
Coby Fleener: 20 rec yds
Ahmad Bradshaw: 50 rush yds, 25 rec yds
Vick Ballard: 40 rush yds

Prediction: Colts 27, Raiders 13 ^ Top

Seahawks at Panthers - (Smith)

Passing Game Thoughts: As good as Russell Wilson was last season, the Seahawks were a run-oriented team who ranked only 27th in passing offense. Wilson threw 26 touchdowns against 10 interceptions but as a result of his limited pass attempts, he amassed just over 3,100 passing yards. Percy Harvin will not be available at the start of the season, meaning the team will have to rely on Sidney Rice and Golden Tate to be their pass-catchers, with an occasional look for Doug Baldwin and Zach Miller. These are solid players, but Harvin would up the ante and make Wilson that much more valuable as Carolina was above average against the pass a year ago.

The Panthers were 13th in the NFL in pass defense last season, which is impressive in a division that features the Falcons and Saints. They were also tied for 13th in passing scores allowed and gave up fewer than 7.0 yards per pass attempt. Still, stopping the Seahawks’ passing attack isn’t going to be Carolina’s main focus – limiting Seattle’s running game is.

Running Game Thoughts: No team ran the ball more often than Seattle last year, which led to them being the league’s third-ranked rush offense. Fantasy stalwart Marshawn Lynch is the catalyst and he ran for nearly 1,600 yards while scoring 11 times last year, with his only downside being his lack of pass-catching duties. Backing him up will be Robert Turbin, Christine Michael, or more likely some combination of the two. And let’s not forget Wilson, who ran for 468 yards last season, which makes the Panthers’ job that much more difficult.

Carolina was decent against the run in 2012, ranking 14th in the NFL and giving up 4.2 yards per carry while yielding 11 touchdowns, which was tied for 12th in the league. Their biggest defensive addition was defensive tackle and first-round pick Star Lotulelei, who was impressive in the preseason but gets a stiff test against Seattle in his first real competition.

Russell Wilson: 205 pass yds, 1 TD, 35 rush yds
Sidney Rice: 75 rec yds
Golden Tate: 60 rec yds
Doug Baldwin: 35 rec yds
Zach Miller: 25 rec yds
Marshawn Lynch: 105 rush yds, 2 TD
Robert Turbin: 25 rush yds
Christine Michael: 20 rush yds

Passing Game Thoughts: The Panthers never seemed to find much of an identity last year and their lack of outside weapons hurt, which led them to a ranking of 16th in passing offense. Unfortunately, they didn’t address that need in the offseason so Cam Newton will have to rely on essentially the same cast of pass-catchers. That cast is led by Steve Smith, who had 1,174 yards on 73 receptions a season ago, but scored only four times and is 34 years old so there are warning signs. Tight end Greg Olsen is the other main weapon for Newton and his numbers last season were better than most people probably realize: 69 catches for 843 yards and five touchdowns. However, they do have a very tough test this week against an outstanding Seahawks secondary.

Seattle was sixth in the league in pass defense a year ago and had good numbers across the board. Led by uber-talented loudmouth Richard Sherman, they were tied for second-fewest touchdown throws given up, allowed the third-fewest yards per pass attempt, the eighth-lowest completion percentage and tied for eighth in interceptions.

Running Game Thoughts: Carolina’s rushing offense was solid in 2012, ranking ninth in the NFL and averaging 4.5 yards per carry. Jonathan Stewart is probably the most talented member of their backfield but he had injury issues last year and does so once again this season, as he’ll miss the first six games with an ankle injury. Newton was the team’s leading rusher with nearly 750 yards while scoring eight times, which helps make him one of the top fantasy quarterbacks. But fantasy owners often get frustrated with Carolina’s rotating backfield, because even though Stewart is out and DeAngelo Williams will get the bulk of the carries, Mike Tolbert (expected to play – hamstring) is the goal-line back with Newton also being a de facto red zone threat, leaving little promise for Williams to have a big day, especially against Seattle.

The Seahawks were one of just seven teams to allow fewer than 10 rushing scores a season ago and ranked 10th in rush defense, but did allow ball carriers to gain 4.5 yards per carry. I suppose that doesn’t natter a whole lot if teams aren’t getting a lot of yards or putting the ball in the end zone against you.

Cam Newton: 205 pass yds, 1 TD, 1 INT, 45 rush yds, TD
Steve Smith: 75 rec yds
Greg Olsen: 65 rec yds, 1 TD
Brandon LaFell: 35 rec yds
DeAngelo Williams: 55 rush yds, 20 rec yds
Mike Tolbert: 20 rush yds

Prediction: Seahawks 24, Panthers 17 ^ Top

Chiefs @ Jaguars - (Smith)

Passing Game Thoughts: The worst pass offense in the NFL last year wasn’t the Arizona Cardinals as many may reasonably assume. No, that distinction went to the Chiefs, who were dead last in the NFL in passing yards and passing touchdowns – they threw just eight all season. That won’t be the case this year, not with pass-happy head coach Andy Reid calling the plays and not with the accurate Alex Smith under center. Smith is anything but flashy, yet he should fit right in with Reid and most importantly to fantasy owners, improve the stock of wideout Dwayne Bowe significantly with the Jaguars being a perfect first opponent.

Jacksonville was 22nd in the NFL against the pass in 2012 and the rest of their numbers against the pass are below average to poor as well. They were 21st in yards per pass attempt allowed, 25th in completion percentage allowed and no team sacked the quarterback fewer times than the Jaguars. In fact, their 20 sacks were five less than any other team in the league.

Running Game Thoughts: The Chiefs were fifth in the league in rushing offense last year with Jamaal Charles gaining over 1,500 yards and rushing for 5.2 yards per carry despite the fact the team was completely unable to throw the ball. Charles also has the ability to be a weapon as a receiver, though he didn’t show that much last year for obvious reasons. He only scored five times in 2012, but I expect that number to improve and he could have multiple touchdowns this week because Jacksonville has their issues against the run in 2012.

Despite the Jaguars holding opponents to 4.1 yards per carry last season, they were 30th in the league in rushing yards allowed. They also gave up the second-most rushing scores in the NFL and though I wouldn’t be surprised to see a statistical improvement out of them this year, they’ll still have lots of trouble with elite runners like Charles.

Alex Smith: 220 pass yds, 1 TD
Dwayne Bowe: 80 rec yds, 1 TD
Donnie Avery: 45 rec yds
Dexter McCluster: 30 rec yds
Anthony Fasano: 25 rec yds
Jamaal Charles: 115 rush yds, 2 TD, 30 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: The Jaguars haven’t had much of a passing game for years, despite trying to remedy the situation with high draft picks. The picks haven’t worked out and the team was just 21st in pass offense last season. Blaine Gabbert is on track to start if his injured hand is ready to go, but he’s been terrible as a pro and I have no reason to think he’ll suddenly see the light. It hurts that Justin Blackmon is suspended for four games so Cecil Shorts will have to step up his game as much as he can, if that’s even possible with Gabbert under center. Either way, the Chiefs shouldn’t have much to worry about with the Jacksonville passing “attack.”

Kansas City ranked 12th in the league against the pass last year, but gave up an average of 8.0 yards per attempt, which was the third-worst mark in the league. They were also tied for the fewest interceptions in the NFL but if they put even a small amount of pressure on Gabbert, he’ll flinch, leading to some potential picks.

Running Game Thoughts: Only two teams ran for fewer yards than the Jaguars a season ago, which shows just how important Maurice Jones-Drew is. Despite playing in just four games (with only two rushing attempts in a fifth game), his 414 rushing yards were 131 yards more than any other Jaguars back. He’s healthy now and is the sole player on the Jacksonville offense worth being an every week starter for fantasy owners and he has a good opportunity to do some damage against Kansas City.

The Chiefs ranked 27th against the run last season with opponents averaging 4.5 yards per rush. Yet looking at their defensive personnel, they should have been better than that in 2012 and should definitely improve this year, though they have a difficult opening test against MJD, who seems to produce no matter if the other team knows it’s coming based on how horrid his quarterback is.

Blaine Gabbert: 165 pass yds, 2 INT
Cecil Shorts: 65 rec yds
Ace Sanders: 35 rec yds
Denard Robinson: 20 rec yds, 10 rush yds
Marcedes Lewis: 15 rec yds
Maurice Jones-Drew: 85 rush yds, 1 TD, 20 rec yds

Prediction: Chiefs 24, Jaguars 13 ^ Top

Bengals @ Bears - (Anderson)

Passing Game Thoughts: The Bengals passing game has a lot of potential this year with the additions of rookies Tyler Eifert (TE), and Giovani Bernard (RB), and the continued development of Mohamed Sanu (WR) and stud wide receiver A.J. Green. Of course, the biggest hurdle with this team becoming an elite passing team is quarterback Andy Dalton, who enters his third year with great weapons and hope but not very big expectations from outsiders. Last year the Bengals were middle of the road in most passing categories, with solid but unspectacular numbers across the board. While there is certainly room to go up with their solid additions and continued young player development, Cincinnati is still probably going to be a pretty conservative offense full of shorter passes and an emphasis on milking the clock with the run game in order to rest their dominant defense. The bright spot on this unit is Green, who was 10th in the NFL in receiving yards, fourth in receiving touchdowns, and fifth in targets. Green has become matchup proof even with a mediocre quarterback, but the rest of the receiving corps will be hot and cold based on matchups. Speaking of matchups, the Bears pass defense was near-elite last year, finishing eighth best in yards allowed, first in interceptions, and second in quarterback rating allowed. The Bears should be pumped up playing at home for the opener, and I expect a lot of pressure put on Dalton and a good amount of double coverage on his favorite target, Green. If Dalton can get the check downs going early, it may open up the field for Green and some bigger plays later; but if he gets rattled right away, it could be a long day for the Bengals passing game. Like I said, Green is matchup-proof, so you have to start him and hope he breaks a couple of short passes for big yards. As for all other members of the passing unit, I would sit them in this game unless you really have no better option. As the season goes on I expect both Dalton to be a decent QB2 option and one of the two tight ends to step up, but until the matchup is right and we know what we are getting, this unit (besides Green) is avoidable from a fantasy perspective.

Running Game Thoughts: The Bengals run game last year was fairly consistent and productive but also pretty boring and un-explosive with BenJarvus Green-Ellis carrying the bulk of the load. This season, the run game has a chance to be much more exciting, with rookie Bernard adding some lightning to the thunder that BJGE can bring. While the Bengals finished just below the league average in most running categories, they rarely abandoned the run, and with two solid running backs this year, the run game may be featured even a bit more, with hopefully slightly better results. The Bears run defense last season was also very good, finishing eighth in yards allowed and third best in rushing touchdowns allowed. While both BJGE and Bernard will be nothing more than mediocre flex-plays in this game, it will be very interesting to see how the Bengals use the two backs, as it may be a sign of which back will be the better fantasy contributor this year. Pay close attention to the amount of snaps, carries, targets, and goal-line work each back gets in this game, as it is a tough battle to really understand with only a limited amount of preseason tape to look at. I would personally avoid using either back in this game, as it is a tough matchup and a guessing game as to how much work each will get.

Andy Dalton: 220 pass yds, 2 TD, 2 INT
BenJarvus Green-Ellis: 55 rush yds, 10 rec yds
A.J. Green: 70 rec yds, 1 TD
Jermaine Gresham: 35 rec yds
Mohamed Sanu: 30 rec yds
Giovani Bernard: 35 rush yds, 30 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: While Chicago finished near the bottom in most passing categories last year and only produced one fantasy star (Brandon Marshall), this unit’s stock is pointing up and could be one of the nice surprises from both an NFL and a fantasy standpoint. While the addition of tight end Martellus Bennett and the development (and good health) of wide receiver Alshon Jeffery should give Jay Cutler some nice new targets to throw to, the biggest help may be in the form of new coach Marc Trestman, who has had great success with grooming quarterbacks and boosting his team’s passing games to new levels. With Marshall, Bennett, Jeffery, and running back Matt Forte, the Bears should have four legitimate pass-catchers to throw to. The biggest question mark will be if Cutler can stop locking on to Marshall and spread the ball around enough to make it harder for defenses to defend. Speaking of defenses, the Bengals are one of the NFL’s elite, ranking seventh in passing yards allowed, fourth in passing touchdowns allowed, and third in sacking the quarterback last year. The matchup to watch here will be the Bears offensive line, which is improved from last year’s horrible unit but still probably not much above average, versus the Bengals defensive line, which was one of the best last year. If Cutler gets time to throw downfield, the Bears' overall chances of success improve greatly. Being that the line is still gelling and the Bengals line is so good, I certainly give the advantage here to Cincinnati. Look more for a bunch of quick passes and check-downs here rather than an all-out aerial assault. Marshall is still a must-start because of the sheer volume of targets he will get, just don’t expect a monster game. As for the other Bears pass-catchers, I would be a bit hesitant to start any of them—outside of Bennett as a lower TE2, perhaps—until we get a look at how each will be used and whether Cutler spreads the ball around a lot. I would also hold off on Cutler this game in a tough matchup, as he adjusts to a new system, line, and receivers. This is not a good matchup at all but certainly a unit to watch closely this year.

Running Game Thoughts: The Bears finished with the 10th most rushing yards last season despite a very average 4.2 ypc. Forte was once again the focal point of the run game, with backup Michael Bush stealing most of the goal-line work and occasional other carries. This season the players are the same but Forte may be in line for even more work, both at the goal-line and in the passing game, in which he excels but dropped off a bit in production last year. The Bengals have a formidable front seven that finished 12th in the NFL last year in rush yards allowed and may be even a bit stronger this season with some new additions. With the Bengals pass defense and pass rush being so strong, the Bears may emphasize the ground game even more in an effort to protect Cutler. If this happens, look for Forte to get 20 or more total touches and be a solid lower-tier RB1 this week because of the workload he should get. If Forte continues his strong offseason and gets the work that Coach Trestman says he will get, he should be a strong RB1 this year, even in less-than-ideal matchups like this week. Watch how the Bears use Bush in this game, but he is far from anything other than a handcuff right now, as he may even lose most of the goal-line touches which made him an occasional flex-play last season.

Jay Cutler: 235 pass yds, 2 TD, 1 INT
Matt Forte: 70 rush yds, 45 rec yds, 1 TD
Brandon Marshall: 75 rec yds, 1 TD
Martellus Bennett: 35 rec yds
Alshon Jeffery: 40 rec yds
Michael Bush: 20 rush yds, 10 rec yds

Prediction: Bengals 23, Bears 20 ^ Top

Dolphins @ Browns - (Anderson)

Passing Game Thoughts: Miami threw the third fewest touchdown passes in the league last year (13), but there is reason to believe this is a much-improved unit. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is now entering his second year and has looked improved this preseason, throwing three touchdowns and no interceptions. Perhaps more importantly, the Dolphins went out and got wide receiver Mike Wallace to take the top off the defense and open things up both underneath and in the run game. The Cleveland pass defense was nothing special last year, finishing 25th in yards allowed and allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 63 percent of their passes. Despite these poor numbers, the Browns have some real talent on defense and should be improved this year, with stud defensive back Joe Haden leading the way and new addition Paul Kruger rushing the quarterback. The thing to watch in this game will be how the Dolphins and Tannehill spread the ball around, because he has not really developed a strong chemistry with any of his receivers yet this offseason, with slot man Brandon Gibson leading the team in receptions with nine. Of course the guy most fantasy owners are most excited about is Wallace, but he got off to a slow start this preseason and will probably be covered a lot by Haden, making him more of a WR3 in this game and until he really shows us something. As for the other receivers, none are recommended starts, other than maybe Gibson in deep PPR leagues. I look for the Dolphins to throw away from Haden, but who will benefit from this is anyone’s guess at this point in the early season. Owners should be in “wait and see” mode with this unit since they are largely unproven and the Dolphins may emphasize a run-heavy scheme early this year.

Running Game Thoughts: Despite Miami coaches talking up running back Daniel Thomas this preseason, Lamar Miller is fully expected to be the man and carry a big load for the Dolphins this year. With the departure of Reggie Bush, Miller has the tools and the opportunity to be a top 15 fantasy back this year, and perhaps a bit better when the matchup dictates it. This matchup should provide Miller with a decent chance to put up good numbers, as the Dolphins should emphasize the run to protect Tannehill and try to exploit a Browns run defense that let up the 14th most rush yards last year. This will be Miller’s first regular season game as a starter, so there may be some early jitters to get past, but he has looked much improved this preseason and should get involved in all game situations, including third-down and goal-line packages. The Browns defense should be a little tougher than they were last year, but I still see this as a plus-matchup for Miller and therefore he could flirt with low-end RB1 numbers in this first game.

Ryan Tannehill: 230 pass yds, 1 TD, 1 INT, 15 rush yds
Lamar Miller: 80 rush yds, 1 TD, 25 rec yds
Mike Wallace: 40 rec yds
Brian Hartline: 40 rec yds
Brandon Gibson: 50 rec yds
Daniel Thomas: 15 rush yds, 10 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: The Browns passing game was pretty awful last year (16 TD:18 INT, 73.6 QB rating), but there is good reason to believe a big improvement is in store this season. First, quarterback Brandon Weeden is entering his second year as starter and has looked better this preseason (though still inconsistent). Secondly, the talent level should be better all-around, with an excellent offensive line, a running back with good hands (Trent Richardson), a breakout tight end candidate (Jordan Cameron), a super-talented outside wide receiver (Josh Gordon), and a reliable chain mover over the middle (Davone Bess). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the additions of head coach Rob Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner mean the offense should better utilize Weeden’s strength (his arm) and feature Gordon and Cameron, the team’s two most athletic weapons. On the downside, Gordon is suspended the first two games, and it will most likely take this offense a few weeks to gel with so many new parts and plays. Also on the downside for this week, the Dolphins defense is a tough matchup that plays a bend-but-don’t-break type scheme and has playmakers at each level. While Miami let up a ton of yards through the air last year (sixth most), they were ninth best in completion percentage allowed, seventh best in sacks, and perhaps most importantly, sixth best in passing touchdowns allowed. What this all means is that the Browns should be able to pile up some yardage throughout the game, but getting in the end zone and sustaining long drives may be a big problem. Until we see this Browns offense really start to gel, or the matchup is much better, I would not start any Browns player other than Richardson and perhaps Cameron as a mid-level TE2. This offense should put up some decent numbers this year, but in their first game, without Gordon and in a tough matchup, they should be avoided in fantasy circles.

Running Game Thoughts: Despite having a ton of talent, Richardson struggled a bit his first season and the Browns running attack finished in the lower half of the league in most statistics. This season Richardson is healthier than he was for most of last year, still has no competition for carries, is running behind a strong line, and should be helped by an overall improved offense. Thanks to the sheer volume of work that Richardson should get both on the ground and through the air, he is basically matchup-proof, although he will be more of a good RB2 in many matchups rather than the RB1 he is being drafted as. This matchup is one of those tough ones, as the Dolphins ranked among the top 13 teams last year in rush yards allowed, rush yards allowed per carry, and rushing touchdowns allowed. Because Richardson should get 20-plus touches in this game, I still like him as a strong play, but do not expect huge numbers here, as this should be a low-scoring affair with a lot of three-and-outs.

Brandon Weeden: 220 pass yds, 1 TD, 2 INT
Trent Richardson: 75 rush yds, 1 TD, 30 rec yds
Jordan Cameron: 50 rec yds, 1 TD
Greg Little: 35 rec yds
Davone Bess: 40 rec yds

Prediction: Dolphins 20, Browns 17 ^ Top

Titans @ Steelers - (Anderson)

Passing Game Thoughts: Jake Locker has put up some decent preseason stats this year and there is no questioning his arm strength and natural athletic ability. That being said, fans and fantasy owners alike want to see him put it all together when it really counts before we can really trust this unit. Last year the Titans ranked in the bottom half of almost all the major passing statistics, including completion percentage, yards, yards per attempt, and quarterback rating, while compiling an awful 17:16 TD-to-INT ratio. The offensive line should be much better this season, and there is talent at the skill positions with Kenny Britt, Nate Washington, Kendall Wright, Chris Johnson, and rookie Justin Hunter all being above average...yet Locker remains the key to the overall success of this unit. If Locker can continue his hot preseason and throw with more accuracy, this team could really put up a nice balanced offense, which of course could make two or three of these guys fantasy stars. If Locker does not improve, most everyone on this unit will be mediocre boom-or-bust type weekly plays, depending on if their quarterback is on that week or not. This week the matchup does not get much tougher, as the Steelers were last year’s No. 1 defense against the pass. Not only did they let up the fewest passing yards, they ranked in the top 10 in yards per pass attempt allowed, quarterback rating allowed, completion percentage allowed, and passing touchdowns allowed. With a stud defensive back in Ike Taylor and a ball hawk in safety Troy Polamalu (healthy so far), the Steelers will be tough to throw against, especially at home with a loud and raucous crowd in Locker’s ear. While Britt and Washington are listed as the two starters, I actually like Wright the best of the Titans' top three receivers—both this week and for the season. Without a very dependable tight end, and with opposing top corners covering Britt, I like Wright to see the most targets and use his after-catch ability to rack up some decent yards. Against this tough defense, none of the guys in this unit are very exciting this week unless you are in a larger league or in need of an average WR3 or very low end QB2. This unit will produce some great games this year, and Locker, Wright, and Britt all have some breakout potential, but this is not the week to gamble on them.

Running Game Thoughts: It is a shut-up-or-show-up type of year for Chris Johnson, as he has put up back-to-back to back average years after a big breakout campaign in 2009. Last season CJ2K put a lot of the blame on the offensive line as to why the run game was struggling, so the Titans listened and revamped and improved the line, especially the interior. While it is only the preseason, the improvement is very evident, and Johnson is a prime candidate to bounce back into fantasy’s elite RB group. If Locker can get defenses to respect the pass just a little more from last year, Johnson should be able to find some running room and use his elite speed to break multiple long runs each game. On the downside of things, the Steelers defense is not easy to run against, so the Titans offense may sputter a bit this opening week. Last year the Steelers gave up the second fewest rushing yards in the league, and let up a measly nine rushing touchdowns and a very respectable 3.7 yards per carry average. The good news for Johnson owners is that all he really needs is one long run to make it a good fantasy day, but if he does not get that in this one, he may be more of a low-end RB2 rather than the solid RB1 which he can be in better matchups. Start Johnson for sure because he will get the touches, just don’t expect him to carry your team this week.

Jake Locker: 215 pass yds, 1 TD, 1 INT, 20 rush yds
Chris Johnson: 70 rush yds, 1 TD, 20 rec yds
Kenny Britt: 30 rec yds
Nate Washington: 35 rec yds
Kendall Wright: 45 rec yds
Shonn Greene: 20 rush yds

Passing Game Thoughts: The Steelers were about average last season in the passing department, not really struggling in any one area, but not exactly excelling in any either. The faces are a bit different this year, as wide receiver Mike Wallace is gone and tight end Heath Miller is currently hurt, taking away two of Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite targets. In their place, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders will be asked to step up, along with veteran Jerricho Cotchery and rookie Markus Wheaton, who has looked fabulous this preseason. While this unit certainly has talent, and Big Ben is a near-elite NFL quarterback, the distribution of targets and the amount of productivity that this unit will see is somewhat of a mystery. Brown will be asked to be a No. 1 wide receiver but does not really have the traditional makeup of one, while Sanders will be counted on more than ever, even though he has been a bit injury prone. While it may be tough to guess the pecking order of Steelers pass-catchers, the good news this week is that the Titans are not a great defense, having given up an NFL high 29.4 points per game last year. More specifically, the Tennessee pass defense was atrocious, ranking second worst in completion percentage allowed and tied for second worst in touchdown passes allowed. The only thing the Steelers should worry about in this specific matchup is the pressure put on Big Ben, as the Titans do rush the passer reasonably well (ninth in sacks in 2012), and the Pittsburgh offensive line isn’t exactly a strength of the team this year. In this matchup Roethlisberger should be a decent QB1, and while it is tough to say who he will throw to the most, both Brown and Sanders should see enough action to be considered decent WR2s. No other Steeler in this unit is startable at this point until we really see how each player will be utilized.

Running Game Thoughts: The Steelers run game was an absolute mess last season, and with the injury to rookie Le’Veon Bell, that will probably carry into this season for the first couple of weeks. Using a combination mostly of Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, the Steelers managed a pitiful 3.7 yards per carry last season (28th in NFL), eight rushing touchdowns (27th), and a pathetic longest run of just 34 yards (30th). This year, with not much change on the offensive line and perhaps a bit less receiver talent to rely on, the Steelers will roll with Redman as their feature back this week. For some reason the Pittsburgh coaches seem to love Redman despite his lack of production, so with no other real option, he will probably see 15-20 touches in this game. While the Titans run defense was not very good last year (24th in rush yards and rushing touchdowns allowed), the Steelers will still probably do most of their damage through the air in this matchup unless it becomes a blowout, which I do not expect. If you are in a 12- or 14-team league with a flex play, Redman is probably worth a start this week simply because they do not have anyone else and the volume of touches will be there. No other Steeler back is worth a look this week, and until Bell gets back no Steeler back is worth getting too excited about in general.

Ben Roethlisberger: 290 pass yds, 2 TD, 1 INT 10 rush yds
Antonio Brown: 70 rec yds
Emmanuel Sanders: 50 rec yds, 1 TD
Markus Wheaton: 30 rec yds
Isaac Redman: 70 rush yds, 15 rec yds
LaRod Stephens-Howling: 15 rush yds, 30 rec yds

Prediction: Steelers 27, Titans 20 ^ Top

Vikings @ Lions - (Anderson)

Passing Game Thoughts: The Vikings finished at or near the bottom of most all passing statistics last year, as their run-first mindset, limited talent, and injuries severely limited them in the passing game. The light is perhaps a little brighter this year, although this is still a run-first team with big limitations. The additions of wide receivers Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson, along with the development of quarterback Christian Ponder and tight end Kyle Rudolph, should improve this unit slightly from last season, but this is still Adrian Peterson’s team and a unit to mostly avoid in all but the very best matchups. This first week the Vikings draw in-division rival Detroit, who finished about average in pass defense last year but do not really stand out in any area other than their defensive line. While Jennings should lead the team in yardage this season, he is not much more than an average WR3 until we know for sure how comfortable Ponder is throwing to him. We do know that Ponder likes throwing to Rudolph, especially in the red-zone, and that makes him a quality TE1 start this week, even if the yardage numbers won't be huge. Ponder himself should not be started at all, and that is a trend that will continue throughout the year unless he really shows a giant leap in decision making and accuracy. No other Vikings passing game player is recommended this week, as they either lack talent (Jerome Simpson) or opportunity (Patterson) at this point.

Running Game Thoughts: Minnesota finished with the second most rushing yards last season and averaged a league-high 5.4 yards per carry average thanks to Adrian Peterson’s remarkable comeback from ACL surgery. Peterson put up big numbers against weak and strong opponents alike, and this year he sounds hungrier than ever to get better and better. Thanks to a decent defense and a run-first game plan, Peterson has become pretty much matchup proof as a RB1, and with a little improvement in the passing game, he may actually be even more consistent this year. This week’s matchup is a pretty good one for the Vikings, as Detroit ranked about the middle in rushing yards allowed last year, although their yards per carry allowed was below average (4.5) and they gave up a healthy amount of rushing touchdowns (13). Last year versus Detroit, Peterson put up 273 yards and a touchdown on the ground over two games, with the game in Minnesota being better statistically. Peterson is of course a must start this week, and anything less than 100 yards would be a pretty big surprise.

Christian Ponder: 190 pass yds, 1 TD, 1 INT, 10 rush yds
Adrian Peterson: 110 rush yds, 1 TD, 15 rec yds
Greg Jennings: 50 rec yds
Kyle Rudolph: 40 rec yds, 1 TD
Cordarrelle Patterson: 25 rec yds
Jerome Simpson: 25 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: With the addition of Reggie Bush, a (presumably) healthy Ryan Broyles and all-world wide receiver Calvin Johnson, the Lions will once again be one of the premier passing teams in the NFL. In both games against the Vikings last year, Matthew Stafford threw for over 300 yards, with the game in Minnesota actually being a stronger game for him. The only thing really missing last year in the Lions aerial assault was a lot of touchdowns, which was partly a fluke and partly due to some red-zone inefficiencies. With Bush demanding respect from the defense in the short and intermediate areas, and Megatron demanding deep attention, the Lions may actually greatly improve their numbers from last year, at least in touchdowns and efficiency. The Vikings passing defense did not look good statistically last season (other than sacks—fifth in NFL), but they certainly have talent at all levels of the defense, both young and experienced. In this matchup I have to favor the Lions since it is at home and they just have too many weapons that are all healthy and ready to go. While I can see Minnesota forcing a lot of pressure on Stafford, he has too many options to check down to now, and with the volume of passes attempted, I just don’t see how Minnesota can slow them down on a consistent basis. Stafford should be a nice lower-end QB1 this week, with Johnson being an easy WR1 as well. Keep a close eye on how the rest of the targets are divided up in this game, as it may be a sign of how valuable Pettigrew, Bush, Broyles, and company will be for the rest of the year. Until we get a better idea how the targets will be split up, I am sitting Pettigrew, Broyles, and of course Burleson.

Running Game Thoughts: The Lions attempted the eighth fewest rushes last season and were not very efficient when they did run, averaging just 4.1 yards per carry. Thanks to their highly-effective passing attack, however, they did manage to get in the red-zone a lot, where they punched it in on the ground 17 times (tied for sixth in the NFL). This season their run-game depth chart is revamped, where last year’s starter Mikel Leshoure is now third on the depth chart (although probably still first for goal-line carries) and newcomer Reggie Bush is first, with Joique Bell mostly coming in to give Bush a rest. Despite the perceived upgrade in talent, the Lions running attack will probably be used about the same amount and perhaps with about the same efficiency. This team remains highly pass-first, and Bush will probably see as many (or more) targets in the pass game as he will carries per game. The good news for fantasy owners is that Bush is an elite pass-catcher for a running back and, thus, does not have to put up big rushing numbers to be fantasy-valuable. The Vikings should be a very tough matchup on the ground (11th last year in rush yards allowed, seventh in ypc allowed), so expect the Lions to keep their actual rushes to a minimum and instead use screens and swing passes as their version of the run. Bush is a solid start as a mid-range RB2 this week, and it will be interesting to see exactly how much of a total role he will get in the game plan. I like Bell as a deep-league sleeper this year, but at this point he is not startable until we see how much of a role he will have. Leshoure is totally off the fantasy radar at this point, except maybe in deep TD-only leagues.

Matthew Stafford: 310 pass yds, 2 TD, 1 INT
Reggie Bush: 40 rush yds, 45 rec yds
Calvin Johnson: 95 rec yds, 1 TD
Ryan Broyles: 40 rec yds
Nate Burleson: 30 rec yds
Brandon Pettigrew: 35 rec yds
Joique Bell: 15 rush yds, 20 rec yds

Prediction: Lions 27, Vikings 24 ^ Top

Texans @ Chargers - (Caron)

Passing Game Thoughts: The decade-long search for the “Robin” to Andre Johnson’s “Batman” may finally be coming an end as the Houston Texans selected Clemson wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in the first round of April’s NFL Draft. Hopkins, a 6’1”, 215 lb target is the kind of player who is tough enough to make catches over the middle and talented enough to beat defenses down the field as well. We’ll get our first glimpse of him as he lines up opposite Johnson on Sunday against the Chargers. Johnson, who is coming off a career year when he nearly surpassed 1,600 yards receiving, doesn’t appear to be slowing down as he heads into his 11th season as a pro. Although he missed 12 games over the course of the 2010 and 2011 seasons, he remained healthy in 2012, as did tight end Owen Daniels who missed only one game, caught six touchdown passes on the year and turned in the best overall fantasy season of his career. Quarterback Matt Schaub also played all 16 games, which helped earn the Texans the best record in franchise history at 12-4.

The Texans will be up against the San Diego Chargers, who are coming off of an ugly season where they allowed a total of 30 touchdowns to opposing quarterbacks. Although they were able to keep three opposing QB’s out of the end zone, all three were from some of the worst passing games in the league—Brandon Weeden, Mark Sanchez and Matt Cassel. Although Matt Schaub isn’t a top-10 fantasy quarterback, this matchup is a decent one for he and the Houston receivers. San Diego allowed 13 or more fantasy points (standard-scoring) to opposing wide receivers in every game except two in 2012. It is worth noting however, that the Chargers were fourth-best in the league at shutting down opposing tight ends a season ago. Only once did an opposing team’s tight ends score more than 10 fantasy points and although Owen Daniels is a quality player, he’s not particularly known for the big game. He’s a low-end TE1 option at best this week against the Chargers.

Running Game Thoughts: It’s been one of the most prolific running games in the league three years, but nagging injuries to running back Arian Foster have many fantasy experts questioning his ability to touch the ball nearly 400 times again as he did in 2012. Foster’s yards per carry and reception numbers have dropped in each of the past three seasons, although he has remained a fantasy stud simply due to the number of times that he touches the ball. Given the incredible workload he has been given, it’s very possible that the Texans will lean more on other players than they have in recent years. That could mean good things for backup running back Ben Tate whose star has shined bright in the past when given an opportunity to tote the rock in Houston.

It will be particularly interesting to see what the Texans do with their running backs in game they are expected to win by multiple scores. Foster himself carried the ball 20+ times in nine games a season ago. Tate, on the other hand, only took 10+ carries in two games—both of which the Texans won by multiple touchdowns. If the Texans do get out to an early lead in this game, it’s very possible the coaching staff will look to rest Foster, who did not take a single carry in the preseason due to a back injury.

Matt Schaub: 240 pass yds, 1 TD, 1 INT
Arian Foster: 70 rush yds, 1 TD, 15 rec yds
Ben Tate: 35 rec yds, 1 TD
Andre Johnson: 90 rec yds
DeAndre Hopkins: 65 rec yds, 1 TD
Owen Daniels: 30 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: It seems like centuries ago since San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was actually considered to be a top-tier NFL quarterback. In reality, it’s actually only been two years. Two ugly, ugly years. Rivers has thrown 53 touchdown passes over the past two seasons which isn’t too bad, but it’s his 35 interceptions and 79 sacks-taken during that span that are the real concern. Of course, it doesn’t help that Rivers was without his former top target Vincent Jackson in 2012, but things don’t look much better in 2013 as Danario Alexander will miss the year with a torn ACL and Malcom Floyd has already been bitten by the injury bug this preseason as well. Although Floyd is expected to play in Week 1, he and Vincent Brown are Rivers’ top targets and neither player has proven capable of playing that role in an NFL offense thus far in their careers. Antonio Gates showed some signs of life in the preseason but his role in the offense continues to decrease even as the team loses other options in the passing game.

Rivers and the Chargers will have their work cut out for them in Week 1 as they go up against one of the league’s best defenses. Although Houston did allow 29 touchdowns to opposing QB’s in 2012, nearly half of those came in three games. The other side of the coin is that the Texans held opposing quarterbacks to 10-or-fewer fantasy points in half of their regular season games. The Chargers’ passing game did not spent much time working together this preseason and with JJ Watt breathing down his neck all afternoon, expect Rivers to struggle mightily in this one. His best chance to acquire fantasy points may come at the end of the game in “garbage time” with the Chargers down multiple scores.

Running Game Thoughts: Before injuries knocked him down fantasy draft boards, Ryan Mathews was considered by many experts to be one of the potential rock star fantasy running backs in the 2012 season. But even when he came back and was presumably healthy, Mathews was one of the biggest disappointments of the year. His 3.8 yards per carry average is inexcusably bad and his one—yes, one—touchdown on the year was even worse. Although Mathews has flashed the skills that made him a first round pick back in 2010 from time to time, the truth is that fantasy owners are right to have doubts about putting them in their fantasy lineups.

Those doubts should be even stronger once the matchup against the Houston Texans defense is examined more closely. The Texans allowed only five total touchdowns on the ground to opposing running backs in 2012, which helped contribute to them being the third-best defense at shutting down opposing running backs a season ago. In what was the only regular season game that he did not break 100 rushing yards after Week 6, Adrian Peterson needed 25 carries to rush for just 86 yards against the Texans in Week 16. It’s hard to believe that Ryan Mathews is going to touch the ball 25 times…and even if he does, he’s no Adrian Peterson. His ability to catch passes out of the backfield does make him an underrated PPR option but Mathews is only a low-end FLEX play at the moment.

Philip Rivers: 225 pass yds, 1 TD, 2 INT
Ryan Mathews: 45 rush yds, 35 rec yds
Vincent Brown: 50 rec yds, 1 TD
Malcom Floyd: 40 rec yds
Antonio Gates: 40 rec yds

Prediction: Texans 27, Chargers 16 ^ Top

Packers @ 49ers - (Caron)

Passing Game Thoughts: Whether you call him 1A or 1B, Aaron Rodgers is widely considered to be one of the top two quarterbacks in the league coming into the 2013 season—and for good reason. Rodgers has scored a total of 89 touchdowns over the past two seasons while throwing just 14 interceptions over that span. Those numbers are unbelievable when you consider that Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings—Rodgers’ top two options in the passing game—have missed a combined 15 games over the past two seasons. With Nelson ready to go in Week 1 and the emergence of James Jones and Randall Cobb as viable threats in the passing game, Rodgers looks ready to pick up where he left off in 2012. No one was hotter than Rodgers toward the end of the season as the Packers signal caller tossed 10 touchdowns and zero interceptions over his final three regular season games.

Although Green Bay came away with losses in each of their two games against the 49ers in 2012, Aaron Rodgers still came through against one of the league’s premier defenses, throwing for 560 yards, four touchdowns and just two interceptions in those contests. He also added 55 yards as a runner. When looking at Rodgers’ pass-catchers, it might be surprising to note that it was James Jones who produced the most against the 49ers in 2012. The wideout caught eight passes for 168 yards and two scores through the two contests. Meanwhile Randall Cobb, who caught 14 passes in those same games, was only able to turn in a total of 101 yards and was held out of the end zone. Nelson’s 110 yards on 10 catches were serviceable but nothing spectacular. The 49ers defense is very tough and they don’t allow many points against them which could limit the Green Bay passing game to a decent, but not great week.

Running Game Thoughts: After a horrible year of running the ball, the Green Bay Packers have turned to two rookie running backs—Eddie Lacy and Jonathan Franklin—in 2013. With Lacy expected to be the primary ball carrier, he has picked up some steam in recent weeks and started to be looked at as a low-end RB2 or very high-end RB3. Lacy still will have the same problems that the previous Packers runners had, as there haven’t been significant upgrades to the offensive line and with Aaron Rodgers behind center, they remain one of the most pass-heavy offenses in the league.

In Week 1, Lacy will be thrown to the wolves against one of the best run defenses in recent history. The 49ers allowed the second-fewest amount of fantasy points to opposing running backs in 2012 and their young defense is looking to pick up where they left off a season ago. As they did through most of the year, Green Bay struggled to run the ball against the 49ers in either of their two games. Their running backs combined for just 71 total rushing yards in those two contests and although DuJuan Harris got into the end zone once, those numbers can’t give fantasy owners of Lacy much confidence going into Week 1.

Aaron Rodgers: 270 pass yds, 2 TD, 15 rush yds
Eddie Lacy: 50 rush yds, 10 rec yds
Randall Cobb: 75 rec yds, 1 TD
Jordy Nelson: 60 rec yds
James Jones: 50 rec yds, 1 TD
Jermichael Finley: 40 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: It’s not often that a quarterback who played only half of a season gets the kind of hype that Colin Kaepernick has coming into the 2013 season, but this is a case where the hype is justified. He didn’t always look like an amazing precision passer, but Kaepernick made defenses pay time and time again with a big arm and some of the fastest legs of any quarterback in the league. He started just seven games, but Kaepernick still finished fourth among quarterbacks in rushing yards. He also added five touchdowns on the ground—third best at the position. The biggest concern with Kaepernick might not be him, but rather with his receivers. Michael Crabtree is on the IR and although Anquan Boldin is a new addition to the offense, it’s hard to believe that he will be able to fill the void that Crabtree has left.

Even with the loss of Crabtree, Kaepernick’s Week 1 matchup against the Green Bay Packers is a juicy one for fantasy owners. The last time these two teams played was in the NFC Divisional Playoff round. If he hadn’t already arrived, that was when Colin Kaepernick made himself known throughout the league. The second-year abused the Packers defense with 263 yards and two touchdowns in the air, but it was his 181 yards and two scores on the ground that made for one of the most impressive games we saw from any player all year. Although those points really didn’t count for fantasy, they do give us insight as to what Kaepernick is capable of when a defense has no answer for his skills. Although Green Bay’s defense isn’t completely the same, they still have most of the same personnel. If Kaepernick can even do anything close to what he did in the playoff game, fantasy owners will have huge smiles on their faces after Week 1.

Running Game Thoughts: Every year experts predict a massive drop off from Frank Gore. He’s a year older, he’s not as fast, the team has more options in the backfield. Yet somehow he continues to defy the critics. Gore rushed for over 1,200 yards for the second straight season and his 4.7 yards per carry average was his best since 2009. Gore has looked good, but there’s no question that running behind what is perhaps the league’s best offensive line has been a major contributor to the production that we’ve seen from him.

The last time these two teams met, Gore tore up the Packers for 112 yards and a score on the ground. That wasn’t it, though—when they played earlier in the season, Gore was even better, rushing for 119 yards and a score while also adding 48 yards as a receiver. As good as Green Bay’s defense is, they have struggled mightily to slow down the more physical, methodical offenses like the 49ers. And there’s really no reason to believe that those struggles won’t continue again in 2013. The threat of the run from Colin Kaepernick gives Gore even more daylight from the defense, which is all he needs for another productive game.

Colin Kaepernick: 230 pass yds, 2 TD, 60 rush yds, 1 TD
Frank Gore: 90 rush yds, 1 TD, 15 rec yds
Anquan Boldin: 55 rec yds, 1 TD
Quinton Patton: 40 rec yds
Vernon Davis: 60 rec yds, 1 TD

Prediction: 49ers 24, Packers 20 ^ Top

Cardinals @ Rams - (Caron)

Passing Game Thoughts: A season ago, there may not have been a more pathetic passing game in the league than the Arizona Cardinals. Even with one of the league’s best in Larry Fitzgerald and first round rookie Michael Floyd out wide, no one seemed to be able to throw the ball in Arizona. Credit to the Cardinals though, as they went out and addressed the problem by signing former No. 1 overall pick Carson Palmer. Palmer’s best days are behind him, but even with a horrible offense around him, Palmer was able to throw for over 4,000 yards and 22 touchdowns. He does make mistakes, but the fact that Palmer at least possesses the ability to get the ball to Fitzgerald and Floyd is a huge upgrade from what this team had just a season ago.

In Week 1, Palmer and the Cardinals will be up against an underrated St. Louis Rams defense that held the Cardinals without a passing touchdown in either game last year. Although the Rams were beaten up by opposing QB’s in the middle of the season, it’s important to note that they did not allow a single quarterback to throw more than one touchdown pass against them after their bye in Week 9. Although Arizona is unquestionably improved as a unit in the passing game, expecting a big performance from Palmer or any of the receivers is probably too much. There will be better matchups for this team as the season goes on, but this simply isn’t one of them.

Running Game Thoughts: As great as the Arizona passing game has been most years since they acquired Larry Fitzgerald, they simply have not been able to find a quality running back to complement their aerial assault. In 2013, they will look to free agent acquisition Rashard Mendenhall who left a crowded Pittsburgh backfield after an injury-riddled season. Mendenhall failed to hit the 1,000 yard mark in each of his past two seasons and his 3.6 yards per carry average in 2012 was the worst of his career since becoming an every-week starter. It’s hard to argue that he won’t be an improvement from what they had last year, but the it’s hard to be too excited about the fantasy prospects of the Arizona running game. The offensive line is still one of the worst in the league and the injury to first round pick Jonathan Cooper just makes things that much worse.

The Cardinals running game won’t be scaring too many defenses, but hey—their running backs did beat up the Rams defense to the tune of 226 total yards and two touchdowns in their two contests last year. Although we don’t really expect that to happen again and the team will likely lean much more heavily on their passing game this year, owners of Rashard Mendenhall do have to be a little interested in the fact that much worse running backs—on worse overall teams—were able to do something against the Rams.

Carson Palmer: 230 pass yds, 1 TD, 2 INT
Rashard Mendenhall: 45 rush yds, 15 rec yds
Ryan Williams: 20 rush yds
Larry Fitzgerald: 70 rec yds, 1 TD
Michael Floyd: 50 rec yds
Andre Roberts: 45 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: It’s a put-up-or-shut-up season for former No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford as he and the Rams look to compete in what might be the best division in football. St. Louis spent a first round pick on a big-time playmaker, Tavon Austin, who is expected to be a huge part of the offense in 2013. Second-year receiver Chris Givens has also been getting some major hype throughout the offseason as one of the team’s most-improved players. With Danny Amendola now gone in New England, the Rams may not have the reliable over-the-middle receiver that allowed Givens to get deep so many times in 2012.

A season ago, Sam Bradford had two of his ugliest games against this very same Cardinals defense. Although he threw four touchdowns and only two interceptions in those contests, he threw just seven completions in the first game and eight in the second game. He completed just a total of 42.8% of his passes in those games—which were still Rams wins—and looked very bad doing so. Chris Givens, however, was able to get deep for a long touchdown reception in each game, making him an interesting FLEX play in Week 1 for those in deeper leagues. Overall, the Cardinals were excellent against opposing quarterbacks. They allowed the second-fewest amount of points to the position on the year, including a league-best 21 interceptions forced.

Running Game Thoughts: For nearly a decade, one man has held down the starting running back job in St. Louis. That man, Steven Jackson, has rushed for over 1,000 yards in an incredible eight straight seasons, while being a very productive pass-catcher in the process…and he is now a member of the Atlanta Falcons. In Jackson’s absence, the Rams are expected to turn to a committee backfield, led by second-year back Daryl Richardson who was a productive runner as a complementary piece to Jackson a season ago. Richardson rushed for a solid 4.8 yards per carry average and was also utilized some in the passing game. Isaiah Pead is expected to compete for the starting job upon his return from suspension, but with only rookies Bennie Cunningham and Zac Stacy taking carries from him, Richardson could be a decent option in Week 1.

Richardson will be running against a Cardinals defense that began to break down over the second half of 2012. They held opposing teams’ running backs to 10 or fewer fantasy points in four of their first eight games to start the year, but allowed at least 13 in every single game thereafter. The Rams themselves ran for 282 total yards in their two contests against the Cardinals and although they were somehow unable to get into the end zone with that much yardage, there’s still a lot to like for Daryl Richardson in Week 1. Given the lack of competition in the backfield, he may be as good as a low-end RB2 against the Cardinals this week.

Sam Bradford: 195 pass yds, 1 TD, 1 INT
Daryl Richardson: 75 rush yds, 1 TD, 10 rec yds
Chris Givens: 60 rec yds, 1 TD
Tavon Austin: 50 rec yds
Jared Cook: 40 rec yds

Prediction: Rams 17, Cardinals 16 ^ Top

Buccaneers @ Jets - (Thorne)

Passing Game Thoughts: The less passing quarterback Josh Freeman does, the better off his team will be. The wide receiver duo of Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams is formidable and will challenge even the skilled Jets secondary but there aren’t many other quality receiving options beyond those two. Swing passes and short routes will get running back Doug Martin involved out of the backfield, but the downside of those attempts is that they rely on execution from the quarterback. Freeman has shown moments of promise but has also displayed moments of head-scratching decision making. The Jets won’t score enough to force Tampa Bay into a pass-heavy offense, which is a blessing for the Buccaneers.

Defensively, the Jets will field a talented secondary, which can severely limit the passing attack of most NFL offenses. Tampa Bay will find it hard to move the ball through the air but should find moderate success in the short passing game. Unfortunately, the skill set of Freeman isn’t sharp enough to fully take advantage of what the New York defense may give him. Rex Ryan will use aggressive blitzes and wild defensive packages to disrupt Freeman and create turnovers in hopes of helping out the Jets' own anemic offense.

Running Game Thoughts: Thankfully, Doug Martin has recovered from the concussion he suffered in the preseason. His team will count on him to continue the breakout success he saw during his rookie season. He’s a talented young back and the Buccaneers need to give him the ball as frequently as he can safely handle. Unfortunately, it appears that Tampa Bay’s best lineman, guard Carl Nicks, is still recovering from surgery and an infection and may not be available for the opening game. Beyond him, the offensive line is mediocre but should do well enough to give Martin running room more often than not. The O-line isn’t dominant enough to control the trenches, so without any big running plays, Tampa Bay's offensive firepower is limited by the inconsistency of their quarterback.

The strength of the opposing defense used to be their secondary, but with recent draft investments made to the defensive line, it now looks like the Jets are a little front heavy. Because of the limited passing threat posed by Freeman, however, the defense will be able to stay more balanced and force the young quarterback to make plays he likely isn’t capable of making. Tampa Bay should try to pound the ball in the running game, and as long as there are only seven men in the box, I would expect to see moderate success. If Martin is able to break just one long run, the Jets will likely send an extra man to stop the rush, but at the expense of the passing game, the Buccaneers should continue to give the ball to their dynamic young running back.

Josh Freeman: 130 pass yds, 1 TD, 1 INT
Doug Martin: 80 rush yds, 1 TD / 60 rec yds, 1 TD
Vincent Jackson: 40 rec yds
Mike Williams: 30 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: Of all the secondary units to have to face in his debut game, quarterback Geno Smith has to be dreading the Buccaneers. The front seven won’t make many sacks, but they will force enough pressures to allow the secondary to prey on every mistake made by a quarterback. Throughout the preseason Smith has appeared overwhelmed by the speed of the NFL and unable to perform at the necessary level. He isn’t done any favors by his options at wide receiver, even at full strength, and there is reason to doubt that Santonio Holmes, their best receiving option, may not be able to play immediately.

Smith will face a daunting task with each and every pass attempt and may be responsible for more points scored by the opposing defense than he is for his own offense. Tampa Bay made a point of significantly improving their secondary in the offseason, and they will be on full display against the rookie Jets quarterback. The pass rush won’t be overly threatening, but even the slightest amount of pressure will give the opportunistic secondary ample chances to create turnovers and affect the outcome of the game.

Running Game Thoughts: As a mobile quarterback, the best asset to Smith’s passing game may be his own legs. While designed quarterback runs should be kept to a minimum, the ability to buy time or break a run will give him opportunities to contribute with his feet in ways that he can’t with his arm. Recently acquired running back Chris Ivory is unproven and has never been the featured back of his team. In a small sample size his production is encouraging, but his play during the preseason was less than stellar; a committee situation is most likely. His backfield counterpart is Bilal Powell, who is better in the passing game and has looked like the better back through the preseason. Ivory has more upside and Powell is currently producing better, but neither should see much success behind the Jets offensive line. Ivory was brought in to assume the starting role, but according to the Jets website, Powell is listed as the starter. Running back Alex Green was signed this week and may see a handful of touches to spell the two primary rushers.

Much like their defense, the Tampa Bay offense is strongest in the back and more susceptible in the front seven. If the offensive line is able to make any sort of a push against the Buccaneers defenders, the Jets rushers will find openings and may be able to make the most of them. Because of the likely deficiencies in the passing game, I expect to see eight or even nine men in the box to prevent any rushing success for New York.

Geno Smith: 180 pass yds, 4 INTs / 50 rush yds
Chris Ivory: 40 rush yds
Bilal Powell: 50 rush yds / 20 rec yds
Alex Green: 20 rush yds
Stephen Hill: 70 rec yds

Prediction: Buccaneers 20, Jets 6 ^ Top

Giants @ Cowboys - (Thorne)

Passing Game Thoughts: First and foremost, Eli Manning is still the quarterback in New York, and many of the receiving options are still in place from last season. In many ways, the passing game of 2013 should resemble that if 2012, though for the time being Hakeem Nicks is healthy, and that represents an upgrade over the majority of last year. The biggest questions come from the offensive line, particularly with regards to preseason injuries. At full health, the line is mostly serviceable, but depth concerns will be highlighted if starters are forced to miss appreciable time. Expect Manning to lead the Giants to several late-game victories, as he does every year, but don’t be surprised if he and the entire team go through a particularly rough stretch plagued with inconsistency.

Against the Cowboys defense, Manning should have ample opportunities to exploit the weakness of the Dallas secondary. A new defensive coordinator is switching the team to a base 4-3, and if the preseason is any indication, the change is for the better. Pass rushers will challenge the O-line, but under the leadership of their quarterback, the Giants will see good success through the air.

Running Game Thoughts: The Giants suffered a blow to their rushing attack in the fourth preseason game when backup running back Andre Brown broke his fibula. The latest reports suggest he’ll be out ten weeks, but regardless of how long his return takes, it appears David Wilson will be the principle ball carrier against the Cowboys. Over the past few years New York has frequently used two backs in a time share situation, so the absence of Brown will alter that plan to some extent. Wilson is the quicker running back, so he’ll see the most success between the 20’s, though now his red zone carries will likely increase. If he can avoid the fumbling issues that have affected him in the past, he’s a quality runner who the Giants can lean on to complement their passing attack.

Unfortunately for New York, it appears that the Cowboys are built to defend against the run, and with their new offensive coordinator, they’re much more proficient at creating turnovers. On the bright side, the weaker secondary will likely prevent Dallas from loading the box against the run, and that means that Wilson will always have a chance to break free for the huge runs for which he’s become known. All he needs is a seam, and given the likelihood that Dallas will be sending extra rushers, it’s entirely possible that he'll find plenty of running room.

Eli Manning: 260 pass yds, 3 TDs, 1 INT
David Wilson: 60 rush yds / 20 pass yds
Victor Cruz: 90 rec yds, 2 TDs
Hakeem Nicks: 70 rec yds Brandon Myers 30 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: This offseason the Cowboys invested heavily in their quarterback, and he will be at the center of their offense for the foreseeable future. With a number of receiving weapons at his disposal, Tony Romo will throw early and often against the Giants. Wide receiver Dez Bryant is a matchup problem for any secondary and tight end Jason Witten will exploit the weakness the Giants have at linebacker. Dallas has a few areas of concern on the offensive line, but the recent signing of guard Brian Waters will help to bolster those holes created by injuries. Romo was highly proficient last year with a number of O-line problems, so with an intact set of blockers, he ought to only be better in 2013. Starting the season off against the Giants is an excellent way for him to break in his new mega contract.

If the Giants can return to their pass-rushing ways, Dallas will be in a bit of trouble, but luckily for them nothing that New York did in the preseason suggests they’re any better than they were at the end of last season. Assuming the Cowboys' offensive line can neutralize much of the pass rush, there isn’t much behind the front four that should stand in the way of a big passing game from Romo and his receiving options.

Running Game Thoughts: On the ground Dallas has one of the most dynamic running backs in the league, but he does come with durability concerns. Thankfully, this is the first game of the season and DeMarco Murray will be as healthy on Sunday as he’ll be all year. New York has impressive potential on their defensive line if they can live up to it, but if they can’t contain the running game, Dallas will find plenty of success at the second and third levels of defenders. I anticipate that the Cowboys will run enough to keep the defense honest but that the greatest gains will come through the air.

Defense hasn’t been the strong point in New York for several seasons, especially with respect to earned yards, but they’ve usually come up with timely turnovers—nearly the epitome of the “bend but don’t break” philosophy. Eventually the odds will even out and all that will be left is their giving up lots of yardage, especially to high-powered passing attacks that have running backs with elite talent, much like the Cowboys.

Tony Romo: 350 pass yds, 4 TDs, 1 INT
DeMarco Murray: 80 rush yds / 30 rec yds
Dez Bryant: 110 rec yds, 1 TD
Miles Austin: 60 rec yds, 1 TD
Jason Witten: 80 rec yds, 1 TD

Prediction: Cowboys 28, Giants 27 ^ Top

Eagles @ Redskins - (Thorne)

Passing Game Thoughts: The great Chip Kelly experiment begins against a dangerous pass rush and a weak secondary. If tempo truly is the name of the game then the Redskins will have a hard time getting to the quarterback, meaning Michael Vick will throw quick passes on short routes up and down the field. Longer routes and deeper drop backs will present more of a challenge, but Philadelphia has the offensive line to stymie most defensive pressures. I expect to see DeSean Jackson heavily targeted and running backs LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown getting involved in pass catching. Tight ends will be the difference in the game because of the openings that are likely to present themselves in the Washington secondary.

Philadelphia got a little lucky with how injuries and suspensions will affect the Redskins for Week 1. Several starting defensive linemen are unavailable to play, making their pass rush less dominant, but the linebackers are at full strength and will be a force to reckon with. Because of the D-line absences, I anticipate a higher blitz percentage, which will open up the secondary to more of an aerial assault. Michael Vick has the physical talents to take advantage of the new offense and use it against a Redskins defense that won’t be at full strength.

Running Game Thoughts: Using the University of Oregon playbook (circa 2012) as a reference, I have my doubts that the new offense will work at the NFL level, at least as far as the running packages are concerned. That being said, I feel the Eagles offensive line could be one of the best in the league and should provide a number of rushing opportunities for LeSean McCoy against the Redskins. Working sideline to sideline is acceptable at the college level, but professional defenses are too fast and too skilled to let anyone get away with that. McCoy will see success after breaking through the first level of defenders and then making linebackers and defensive backs miss in the open field. New collegiate-style wrinkles will give the offense added dimensions in the running game, but at their core, Philadelphia needs a simple and overpowering rush.

Due to the absences along the defensive line, the Eagles O-line should be able to create running lanes for McCoy. The skilled Redskins linebackers will be active in defending the run and the pass and may be caught out of position on occasion. It will be up to Philadelphia ball carriers to exploit those times when holes open and they have only one man to beat for six points. The Eagles are built to excel in the open field, and Washington does not have the skill in the secondary necessary to allow them to stack the box against the rush.

Michael Vick: 270 pass yds, 3 TDs, 1 INT / 40 rush yds, 1 TD
LeSean McCoy: 130 rushing, 1 TD / 30 rec yds
Bryce Brown: 20 rush yds / 40 rec yds, 1 TD
DeSean Jackson: 90 rec yds, 1 TD
Brent Celek: 60 rec yds, 1 TD

Passing Game Thoughts: Most of the key pieces in the Redskins passing game enter 2013 coming off of injuries, but all have reportedly healed and are set to hit the field at full speed. Quarterback Robert Griffin III is undoubtedly the star, and he should shine brightly against the Eagles. He didn’t play in any preseason games, so I expect him to be a bit rusty, probably making a few questionable decisions and likely accounting for a turnover or two. His offensive line should protect well and his receiving targets ought to see openings in the Philadelphia secondary, so the success of the passing game will be entirely dependent on Griffin and his ability to bounce back from ACL surgery.

All four starting defensive backs from last year have been replaced in one way or another, so the Eagles are likely not as terrible against the pass as they were previously. However, the preseason suggests they aren’t markedly better either. The front seven has a few talented pass rushers, but the Redskins O-line should be up for that task. Turnovers and defensive stops will come primarily from Washington mistakes and not from Philadelphia making outstanding plays.

Running Game Thoughts: Coming off of surgery, Griffin should see very few designed runs, meaning running back Alfred Morris will be the workhorse on the ground. He’s more than talented enough to handle it, and running behind the Washington offensive line makes him even better. Only a small portion of his success came from the read-option with RG3, so having that portion of his game reduced won’t have much effect on his totals. Philadelphia will be focused on not giving up big passing plays, and that will open up things on the ground for Morris to exploit.

The glaring insufficiency the Eagles have is their back four, so much of what they’ll have to do defensively will be protecting against big passing plays; this of course will open holes underneath and in the running game. The safest course of action would be to run Morris as often as possible, but I suspect everyone in Washington will be eager to see how Griffin performs in the passing game. The Eagles won’t provide much resistance defensively in either phase of the game, but they will take advantage of any mistakes that present themselves.

Robert Griffin III: 290 pass yds, 2 TDs, 2 INTs / 20 rush yds
Alfred Morris: 110 rush yds, 2 TDs / 20 rec yds
Pierre Garcon: 70 rec yds, 1 TD Fred Davis: 50 rec yds, 1 TD

Prediction: Eagles 35, Redskins 31 ^ Top

Patriots @ Bills - (Thorne)

Passing Game Thoughts: With Tom Brady at quarterback there isn’t much concern over who lines up as a pass catcher. A number of circumstances have led to the preseason being central in determining several Week 1 starters, and tight end Zach Sudfeld and wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins are the two biggest beneficiaries of that practice time. Brady traditionally spreads the ball around to whoever is open and rarely shows a preference between receivers; whoever has his confidence gets targets, and players without his confidence don’t see the field often. Look for the Patriots to throw passes to all eligible players at some point during the game and to use a variety of different offensive sets to create mismatches, just like always.

Stopping Brady is hard enough with an elite defense, and the Bills are at best mediocre. They have highly talented individuals at a handful of positions, but as a whole the unit is weak and the depth behind the starters is miserable. On top of that, the Patriots are returning all of their offensive linemen and their entire coaching staff, so they’re likely going to be even better than they were last season. I don’t see Buffalo slowing down Brady at all.

Running Game Thoughts: This portion of the New England offense is usually overlooked, but the amount of times they rush and the proficiency with which they do it should not be ignored. Running back Stevan Ridley is a monster between the tackles, the offensive line is wonderfully talented, and Brady audibles into or out of plays to give the offense the best chance of success. I expect the contest against Buffalo to get out of hand and for Ridley and backup Shane Vereen to see a higher number of touches than usual as New England works the clock and holds onto the ball.

Most of Buffalo’s defensive focus will be on stopping Brady and his multitude of receiving options, so rushing lanes should be plentiful through the defensive line and linebackers. Unfortunately for the Bills, they’ll be caught on the losing end of a cat-and-mouse game, between trying to stop the pass and then trying to stop the run. Play calling and changes made at the line of scrimmage will make for a long day for the Buffalo defenders, who will ultimately not be able to stop either facet of the New England attack and will surrender yardage through the air and on the ground.

Tom Brady: 210 pass yds, 4 TDs
Stevan Ridley: 70 rush yds, 1 TD / 10 rec yds
Shane Vereen: 70 rush yds / 30 rec yds, 1 TD
Danny Amendola: 80 rec yds, 1 TD
Kenbrell Thompkins: 40 rec yds, 1 TD
Zach Sudfeld: 40 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: Rookie quarterbacks don’t fare particularly well in the NFL, and having to open the season against Coach Belichick and the Patriots only makes that situation worse. E.J. Manuel comes into the league following a successful college career, but his limited time at the professional level has been predictably uninspiring. He picked up a minor injury and didn’t play in the final two preseason games, so his first real NFL experience will be at full speed on Sunday afternoon. New England has an improved defense, and the heart of it will be lined up with their hands on the ground just waiting to attack at the snap of the ball. I don’t see much hope in Manuel putting together a good first game, and the majority of his gains will come on short routes and check-down passes to his running back.

Every year the Patriots roll out new blitz schemes and defensive plans to find ways of getting pressure on the quarterback. Their defense is built on turnovers and not on preventing yardage, so while Manuel may see small flashes of production, it will likely only be a matter of time until he makes a mistake and gives up the ball. New England got better on defense as last year went on, especially against the pass, and if that carries over into the first game of this year, Buffalo will have a difficult time scoring points, even if they can move the ball down the field.

Running Game Thoughts: Despite having a tragically poor passing offense for the past handful of years, the Bills have still be able to approach statistically average offensive production, primarily due to their ability to run the ball. Once again, running back C.J. Spiller will be the focal point of the offense, particularly on the ground but also through the air. Between the tackles he’s a beast, and out in space he is one of the most elusive players in the league. Barring some sort of rookie quarterback miracle, the offensive production in Buffalo will mirror the production of Spiller; others will be involved of course, but he’s the most gifted player on the roster and the only one capable of carrying the team toward success.

Against New England, however, even the dynamic Spiller will have his work cut out for him. New England's strength is at the front, and Spiller will be facing a front seven that is looking for him to get the ball. I expect his game totals to be impressive, but his averages will not be. He will need to touch the ball frequently to squeeze out any sort of production, though once in a while he’ll find a seam and break it for a huge gain.

EJ Manuel: 140 yds, 1 TD, 3 INTs / 30 rush yds
C.J. Spiller: 120 rush yds, 1 TD / 60 rec yds, 1 TD
Steve Johnson: 60 rec yds

Prediction: Patriots 48, Bills 17 ^ Top