The Atlanta Falcons led the Super Bowl 28-3. Late in the fourth quarter, they had an 8-point lead with minutes left and the ball just beyond the New England 20-yard line. A field goal seals the game and a Super Bowl title, and yet on second down Kyle Shanahan called a pass play and Matt Ryan took a devastating sack.
Of course New England deserves credit for the comeback, and they’ll get plenty as the New England dynasty and the Tom Brady legacy will be discussed ad nauseum. But the story of this game is the Atlanta collapse.
Falcons vs. Bucs, 1:00PM ET
Can things get any worse for the Falcons this season? They lose Julio Jones to a season-ending foot injury, Roddy White hasn’t been fully healthy since the start of the preseason and the defense has been forced to start undrafted rookies at multiple linebacker spots. Toss in a horrible offensive line, a weak pass rush and a frazzled quarterback and you’ve got the makings of a 2-7 season for a team that was supposed to contend for a Super Bowl. The Falcons are 1-6 against the spread in their last seven games overall, 0-4 ATS in their last four road games and 1-4 ATS in their last five division games. Even when they’re good they’ve struggled in Tampa Bay. FREE PICK: BUCCANEERS -1
Lions vs. Steelers, 1:00PM ET
The Steelers are a shell of their former selves on defense. They can still generate a decent pass rush but they’ve been bad in coverage and even worse against the run (which had been a strength under Dick LeBeau). On the other side, the Lions remain explosive on offense and their defense is dangerous because of their stout pass rush, but they’re far from being a lockdown unit. Even on a soggy field in Pittsburgh, this game has the makings of a shootout. The over is 4-0 in the last four meetings between these two teams and 41-20-2 in the Lions’ last 63 road games. FREE PICK: OVER 45.5
49ers vs. Saints, 4:25PM ET
The Saints have won and covered in 14 straight home games with Sean Payton on the sidelines. That’s an incredible feat, although it’s clear to anyone that pays attention that the Saints are a different team at home than away from the fast carpet of the Superdome. The Niners, meanwhile, are coming off their worst offensive performance of the season when they were held to just 151 yards of total offense. They’ve beaten up on teams like the Rams, Texans, Cardinals, Titans and Jaguars over the past month and a half, but faced with a stiff challenge in the Panthers, they couldn’t muster double-digit points. That kind of effort won’t cut it Sunday against a Saints team that has scored at least 31 points in all four of their last four home games. FREE PICK: SAINTS -3.5
Chiefs vs. Broncos, 8:30PM ET
The Chiefs can’t win in a shootout – that’s not who they are. Thus, their defense will be put to the test tonight against the most explosive offense in the NFL. The X-factor in this game is Peyton Manning’s ankles. If he’s more banged up than he and the Broncos are letting on, then Kansas City’s defense will make this game. Denver hasn’t done a good enough job the past few weeks of protecting Manning and he’s paying the price. Look for the Chiefs to take a page out of the Colts’ playbook and play press coverage on the outside. Disrupting Manning’s timing with his receivers is the only way you’re going to beat him, and that’s easier said than done. That said, the Chiefs’ have the corners and pass rush to keep Manning in check and keep this game close throughout. FREE PICK: CHIEFS +7.5
Michigan State vs. Notre Dame, 3:30PM ET, Saturday
There’s tremendous value in the Spartans on Saturday. Granted, their defense hasn’t been tested yet but they rank fifth nationally with an average of 126.7 passing yards against. Perhaps most importantly is that sophomore Connor Cook emerged last week from a crowded quarterback competition by throwing for four first-half touchdowns and 202 yards against Youngstown State. Running back Jeremy Langford has also scored four touchdowns on the season and is averaging 4.5 yards per carry, so MSU should generate plenty of offense this weekend. The Spartans are 7-1 against the spread in their last eight trips to South Bend, while the road team is 11-2 against the number in the last 13 meetings between these two teams. Granted, Notre Dame is seeking its 10th consecutive win in South Bend but the Irish looked vulnerable on the road last week versus Purdue. This is a field goal game either way and if you like the Spartans, jump on them now. The line has already moved down to 4.5 after opening at 6. FREE PICK: MICHIGAN STATE +4.5
Arizona State vs. Stanford, 7:00PM ET, Saturday
The Sun Devils are coming off of what many would deem as a “gift” win over Wisconsin after the officiating crew blew the end of last Saturday’s game. But ASU will gladly take the victory and will look towards Saturday, which coach Todd Graham says “is a great opportunity for us to take a step forward as a program.” Stanford won’t be easy to overcome. The Cardinal is 8-2 at home against ranked opponents since 2009 and boasts a defense that returned eight starters from a unit that statistically was the best in the Pac-12 last season. That said, the Sun Devils are 4-1 against the spread in their last five games overall and the coaching staff knows what a win over the Cardinal could do for the program. The line has already been bet down two full points in this one – you can expect ASU’s best effort. FREE PICK: ARIZONA STATE +5.5
Falcons vs. Dolphins, 4:05PM ET, Sunday
The Falcons have been absolutely ravaged by injuries in the early going. It was revealed following the team’s Week 1 loss to the Saints that Roddy White suffered a high-ankle sprain in preseason, and just this past week Steven Jackson (thigh), Sean Weatherspoon (foot), and Kroy Biermann (Achilles) all fell victim to serious injuries. Atlanta was already having issues running the ball so without Jackson in the starting lineup, the feat could become impossible. Losing Weatherspoon and Biermann also force DC Mike Nolan to play with inexperienced players at crucial spots defensively, and this was already a unit that struggles to generate pressure. On the other side, the Dolphins have been impressive while winning both of their games on the road. Ryan Tannehill has looked sharp in the early going and finally got on the same page as receiver Mike Wallace, who had a big game in Indy last week. With the public jumping on the underdog Falcons, the Dolphins are a value at under a field goal. Miami goes to 3-0. FREE PICK: MIAMI DOLPHINS -1
Buccaneers vs. Patriots, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
The Bucs have been a mess both on and off the field thus far. They scored a combined 31 points in their first two games and there have been reports questioning Josh Freeman’s leadership and whether or not coach Greg Schiano is a fit. That said, in both of their games they squandered leads with less than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. While the unit has failed to close out games in the final minutes the past two weeks, the Bucs wouldn’t have been in either contest had it not been for Bill Sheridan’s defense. Tampa will play a New England team on Sunday that had issues moving the ball last week against Rex Ryan’s Jets. Tom Brady was visibly frustrated with his young receiving corps during the game and without Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola, there’s reason to believe that the Pats could continue to struggle offensively. New England opened as a 9.5-point favorite but the spread has already been bet down a full point. The Bucs have a ton of issues but their defense should give them a chance on Sunday. FREE PICK: TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS +8.5
Rams at Falcons, 1:00PM ET
The Falcons aren’t firing on all cylinders offensively. Roddy White was relegated to decoy duties last Sunday against the Saints due to a high-ankle injury, and the offensive line is young, vulnerable, and inexperienced. New Orleans pressured Matt Ryan relentlessly last week and the strength of St. Louis’ defense is its front four. Thus, Falcons OC Dirk Koetter might slow things down and build his game plan around Steven Jackson and his running game in efforts to slow the Rams’ pass rush down. On the other side, Sam Bradford and Co. scored 27 points against Arizona in Week 1 but 14 of those points didn’t come until the fourth quarter. The Rams shot themselves in the foot with penalties and turnovers, which halted a couple potential scoring drives. This is a young St. Louis team that will be facing a defense today led by Mike Nolan, who creates a lot of confusion with his schemes. Don’t expect a shootout today in the Dome. The under is 39-18-1 in the Rams’ last 58 road games and 6-2 in the Falcons’ last eight home games. PREDICTION: RAMS/FALCONS UNDER 47.5
Cowboys vs. Chiefs, 1:00PM ET
The Cowboys had to hang on to a 36-31 win despite creating six turnovers last Sunday night against the Giants. They’re also banged up, as Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and Anthony Spencer will play through injuries today in Kansas City. Andy Reid is familiar with the Cowboys’ tendencies after coaching in the NFC East for over 10 years and should put together a quality game plan today. The Chiefs also built some momentum and confidence by spanking a bad Jaguars team in Jacksonville last Sunday, and their defense looks like it could be a strength all season under new DC Bob Sutton. The Cowboys are 4-14 against the spread in their last 18 games following a straight up win and 3-7 ATS in their last 10 games following an ATS win. Chiefs get it done in their home opener. PREDICTION: KANSAS CITY CHIEFS -3
Titans vs. Texans, 1:00PM ET
Two of the bigger surprises occurred in Week 1 as Tennessee went into Pittsburgh and thumped the Steelers, while the Texans had to overcome a double-digit deficit to beat a bad Chargers team on Monday night. The Titans aren’t getting a lot of respect from oddsmakers today despite making additions this offseason to fix the interior of their offensive line and defense. I expect Wade Phillip’s defense to play much better this week, but keep in mind that Houston is coming off a short week after traveling to San Diego in Week 1. They’re 1-4 against the spread in their last five games overall and 0-4 ATS in their last four games following a straight up win. Tennessee keeps pace today. PREDICTION: TENNESSEE TITANS +9
Broncos vs. Giants, 4:25PM ET
“The Manning Bowl” is going to be closer than people think. The Giants aren’t going to turn the ball over six times like they did a week ago in Dallas and Peyton Manning will be hard pressed to throw for seven touchdowns again like he did at home versus Baltimore. Look for Perry Fewell and New York’s defense to keep everything in front of them in efforts to minimize Manning’s effectiveness in the passing game. And if Fewell can drum up pressure, then Manning will also be forced to slow down the tempo of the Broncos’ offense. The Giants are 10-4-1 against the spread versus a team with a winning record and 5-2-1 ATS in their last eight games after allowing more than 30 points in their previous game. Look for New York to rebound today. PREDICTION: NEW YORK GIANTS +4.5
+ At this point it would be an upset if Rex Ryan wasn’t handed his pink slip before the end of the regular season. What he did Saturday night in New York was a joke, inserting his starting quarterback Mark Sanchez into a game that didn’t matter and watching him get planted by Marvin Austin. The result was rather Jets-like: Sanchez was injured and now Ryan will likely be forced to play rookie Geno Smith Week 1. (And that isn’t a good thing, as Smith looked completely overwhelmed in a disastrous performance on Saturday.) What was it all for? Apparently the annual “Snoopy Trophy,” which is handed to the winner of the Jets-Giants preseason game. Ryan and the Jets have progressively gotten worse every year he’s been head coach. He doesn’t have a handle on how to manage quarterbacks, he hires overmatched assistants, and no offensive player has show improvement under his guidance. He should go back to doing what he does best: Coordinate defenses.
+ Don’t fall asleep on the Lions this year. The interior of their defensive line is going to cause headaches for opposing quarterbacks and Jason Jones might turn out to be one of the more underrated signings of the offseason. He had his way with New England right tackle Sebastian Vollmer on multiple plays last Thursday.
+ Speaking of the Lions, they’ve been searching for years for a complementary piece for Calvin Johnson and they may have finally found that weapon in Reggie Bush. He remains a home run threat when he gets the ball in his hands, which Detroit plans on doing plenty of this season. While he still tries to bounce too many runs outside at times, he’s difficult to tackle in open space and the guy has the ability to take a screen pass 60-plus yards in the blink of an eye. He provides the Lions offense with an element they haven’t had since they drafted Johnson in 2007.
+ The Patriots’ passing game will be fine as long as Tom Brady is still under center. He has the rare ability to put the ball in places only his receivers can catch it, including when said wideout otherwise blanketed in coverage. That said, it’ll be interesting to see how much growing pains Brady’s new weapons will go through this season. Kenbrell Thompkins scorched Detroit for eight catches and 116 yards, but he also dropped a pass on a potential first down in the first half and fellow rookie Aaron Dobson needs to play with more physicality. While they should win the AFC East with relative ease, it’s fair to wonder whether or not this new receiving corps will hold the Patriots back this season.
+ Halfway through the first quarter of the Falcons-Titans game I was ready to write about how Atlanta’s reshaped offensive line won’t be as big of a problem as some believe. Then came Tennessee’s five sacks and the police report that Matt Ryan filed on RT Lamar Holmes for the abuse he suffered in the second quarter. The run-blocking was good for a second consecutive week, but pass protection could be a recurring issue for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations heading into Week 1.
+ While new OC Dowell Loggains would be wise to lean on Chris Johnson this season, Jake Locker has improved as a pocket passer. He threw a couple of frozen ropes in his 133-yard, one-touchdown performance on Saturday night versus the Falcons. He remains most effective when he can use play-action, deception and mobility to free up receivers, but his confidence is growing in the pocket. He specifically looked good during a second quarter drive that resulted in him completing all three of his pass attempts for 41 yards and a touchdown strike to Nate Washington off a play-action fake.
+ Opponents will find it difficult to run against the likes of Haloti Ngata, Arthur Jones and Terrence Cody in Baltimore. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil will also continue to be headaches for opposing quarterbacks from a pass-rush standpoint, and getting cornerback Lardarius Webb back from injury will benefit the secondary greatly. The Ravens lost a ton of leadership and experience when Ray Lewis retired and Ed Reed left for Houston via free agency. But from an overall talent perspective, they didn’t suffer much of a drop off and this idea that Baltimore will ultimately sink to the bottom of the AFC North is an overreaction to the losses they experienced this offseason.
+ Luke Kuechly is going to keep plenty of offensive coordinators up at night. Last Thursday he forced a fumble on a perfectly timed read in Baltimore’s backfield, intercepted Joe Flacco in the red zone, and damn near decapitated Aaron Mellette when the receiver went over the middle (which led to a penalty). He plays like a man possessed and he’s seemingly involved in every defensive play Carolina makes. He’s the exception to the current notion that teams should wait to draft linebackers in the middle rounds.
+ The biggest reason the Seahawks will survive Percy Harvin’s injury is because they have a fantastic stable of backs, led by Marshawn Lynch. The trio of Lynch, Robert Turbin and Christine Michael is the best in the NFL and each runner brings something different to the table. Lynch is a bruiser but he’s also versatile in that he can change directions quickly and explode through open lanes. Turbin is more of a plodder but like Lynch, it’s difficult to bring him down on first contact and Michael’s speed and quickness complements the other backs’ styles. Toss in Russell Wilson’s running ability and Seattle’s backfield will once again be a headache for opposing defenses.
+ While nobody will argue that the Cardinals are an improved team, they’re still going to struggle offensively this year. Carson Palmer is a significant upgrade over the signal-callers that Arizona trotted out last year but he’ll have no running game to lean on and he’s likely to face as much pressure as Kevin Kolb and Co. did a year ago. Losing Jonathan Cooper to a potentially season-ending fibula injury was a crushing blow.
+ Some are expecting a massive rebound from the Saints this year and given how much explosion they have offensively, it wouldn’t be shocking to see them atop the NFC South again. That said, they better average 30-plus points a game because the defense is liable to give up 40 on a given Sunday. Former first-round pick Cameron Jordan is emerging as a stud but the Saints are going to need more than him and newly acquired Parys Haralson to drum up a pass rush. Matt Schaub did a nice job of getting the ball out of his hand quickly on Sunday but there were a handful of times when he had all day to allow his receivers to find openings in the Saints’ zone. The first-string wasn’t much better on run defense for New Orleans, which allowed Ben Tate to gash them for 6.7 yards per carry. Rob Ryan is a creative playcaller but he simply doesn’t have the manpower to keep top offenses in check.
+ Rams fans had to be encouraged that four of their offseason additions made impacts on Saturday versus the Broncos. While rookie LB Alec Ogletree continues to struggle getting off blocks, he caused a fumble of Ronnie Hillman, recovered the ball and ran it into the end zone for a touchdown early in the contest. Then later he got excellent depth in coverage and intercepted one of Peyton Manning’s passes down the seam, then nearly had another pick of Manning in the end zone. Fellow rookies Tavon Austin (81-yard punt return) and T.J. McDonald (blocked field goal) also made impacts, as did tight end Jared Cook (4 catches, 50 yards, 1 TD), who could be in store for a breakout season. Throw in another stellar performance by a motivated Jake Long and St. Louis’ collective 2013 offseason had quite a night.
+ There’s little to suggest that Christian Ponder will start all 16 games for the Vikings this season. Thus far, he’s completed 62.2 percent of his passes but his 4.97 YPA average paints a much clearer picture of his abilities. While his mobility is a plus, his slightly above-average arm will continue to hold Minnesota’s offense back. If Adrian Peterson doesn’t rush for another 2,000-plus yards, the Vikings are a horrible bet to make back-to-back playoff appearances.
+ The Bills need to resist the temptation of rushing E.J. Manuel back to the field. He’s their franchise signal-caller and while Week 1 will be an ass-kicking that Jeff Tuel has yet to endure, Doug Marrone and his coaching staff need to keep their eyes on the future. Heading into a season where they’ll be fortunate to win four games, it makes no sense risking further injury to Manuel in hopes of receiving less of a beat-down from New England in the opening week.