NFL opening weekend is also back-to-school time for much of North America, and NFL teams know that if you quit learnin', you quit livin'. The Bears figured out how to work smarter, not harder, on their offensive line. The Bills learned that the best laid plans can unravel quickly at quarterback. The Jets never really learn their lesson, but the Giants have a Ph.D in genetics, while the Chiefs and Jaguars discovered that the whole does not always equal the sum of the parts. Even a doctor can learn something new, especially if that doctor is James Andrews. Those who do not learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them, which is why the Packers went to summer school. Sharpen your pencils and take out your notebooks, because NFL Game Riffs are finally back in session!
Packers at 49ers
4:25 p.m. ET Sunday, Fox
Line: 49ers by 4 ½
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his staff went back to college in the offseason. After bungling against Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers pistol offense in the playoffs like a bunch of 1970s punch-card programmers trying to hack the code to "Skyrim," they decided a little nontraditional education was necessary. So off they went to Texas A&M for a master's course in stopping the read option.
Oh, what adventures they had! Capers pledged a frat. Kevin Greene played some pranks on a frumpy old dean. Professorial Ted Thompson did his best Donald Sutherland impersonation. By the end of the semester, the Packers' knowledge of how to stop modern offenses was no longer stuck at a zero-point-zero. Unfortunately, Capers returned home to find that many of the Packers' wide receivers were gone and key offensive linemen were injured. Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb returned to practice just in time for the opener, but Donald Driver and Greg Jennings are gone, and Bryan Bulaga's injury means that Aaron Rodgers will be too busy running for his life to duel with the newly subdued Kaepernick.
This whole "college course in read option tactics" phenomenon is just begging for abuse by the online degree mill racket. Read three Chris Brown articles, earn three credits! With my luck, I would be stuck on the community college calendar. Reiki Touch and the Read Option: Align your chakras with your alley defenders.
Prediction: 49ers 26, Packers 17
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Bengals at Bears
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Bears by 3
The Bears completely repaired their offensive line under new head coach Marc Trestman and line coach Aaron Kromer. First, they signed Jermon Bushrod, a mid-tier free agent who played for Kromer in New Orleans; and Matt Slauson, one of the few non-embarrassing Jets. Then, they drafted Kyle Long in the first round and Jordan Mills in the fifth. Trestman and Kromer lined them up around center Roberto Garza, let them grow into their roles (Mills had to win his starting job from perma-prospect J'Marcus Webb), and presto! Stable, credible offensive line.
Really, that's all it took: two budget friendly free agents, a first-round pick, a late-round pick and patience. Contrast that with Mike Tice's histrionic "Kitchen Nightmares" approach to managing the offensive line in the last three seasons. Remember when Tice shifted everyone's positions around in the middle of training camp? Remember when he made unprepared, out-of-position linemen block opposing defenders in preseason games without adjustments or help, just to see how they would react, when Jay Cutler was still in the game? Remember when Cutler almost gave Webb an atomic wedgie after a blown block? Remember Chris Williams? Chilo Rachal? Eight-man max-protect packages, which of course only led to more sacks when Cutler had no one to throw to but Brandon Marshall? It was three years of crisis management by someone who managed to create a lot of crises.
Say, where is Tice these days? At the track, naturally: Tice won $100,000 at a racetrack in Del Mar, Calif., on one mid-August Pick-6 bet. "I'm a horse guy," Tice said. That may explain the problems he had coaching human linemen. Or maybe the ponies just run faster when Tice is around.
Trestman and Kroner's new offensive line will be tested right away. The Bengals have the best defensive line in the AFC, and now that tackle Geno Atkins has a new contract, they are being paid like it. It will probably take rookies Long and Mills a few weeks to adjust to blocking the likes of Atkins and the Bengals. The big difference this year is that Long, Mills and the others will probably stay put long enough to actually make that adjustment.
Prediction: Bengals 20, Bears 14
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Giants at Cowboys
8:30 p.m. Sunday, NBC
Line: Cowboys by 3
The Giants are like genetically engineered produce. Tinkering with a tomato's DNA so it tolerates drought or resists blights won't make it taste any better -- it may end up tasting like stale tomato paste smeared over a Styrofoam ball -- but it yields a tomato that can survive poor growing seasons and pests, making it useful for preventing minor agricultural problems like poverty and starvation. The Giants produce a bland, reddish-brown 9-7 performance each year that is low on visual appeal but packs plenty of nutrition and never goes out of season. Year after year, trend after trend, no matter the crisis, you can always find the Giants on the salad bar come mid-December.
To extend this already groaning metaphor, the Cowboys are the organic backyard veggies grown by your brother-in-law. Last winter, he bragged about how he was going pesticide-free and locavore, but his enthusiasm wore off soon after he bought a bunch of seeds, some expensive equipment and two pairs of designer overalls. Tending a garden is sweaty, tedious work, and brother-in-law wanted to skip straight over the labor to the part where his dining room is reviewed as a trendy farm-to-table bistro on UrbanSpoon. September finds him a bushel of mushy, limp zucchini but no dents in his highly sustainable self-assurance.
Last year, the limp zucchini beat the mutant tomato in the season opener, but of course the funky homegrown stuff often tastes better on a summer evening. In January, the tomato will still be palatable; the zucchini will be compost.
This capsule may not have made as much football sense as some of the others, but if you now have an image in your mind of Jerry Jones wearing a hipster hat and holding a limp zucchini, my work is done.
Prediction: Giants 28, Cowboys 20
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Patriots at Bills
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Patriots by 11
EJ Manuel's timely return from minor knee surgery will keep Jeff Tuel out of the record books. Tuel was about to become the first true undrafted rookie ever (as opposed to a CFL veteran like Warren Moon) to start his team's season opener. Manuel won't be good enough to lead the Bills past the Patriots on short notice, but his return does set up a situation similar to the curious case of Tobin Rote, Tom O'Malley and the 1950 Packers.
The Packers were a weak franchise in 1950, and they drafted Rice standout Rote to replace the revolving door of quarterbacks who helmed the team's antiquated offense after World War II. For good measure, they signed O'Malley, a navy veteran who starred for Sid Gilman's Cincinnati Bearcats but went unnoticed through a 29-round (29 round!!!) draft. Rote easily won a starting job and opened the 1950 season with a battle against Bobby Layne and the Lions. Rote led the opening touchdown drive, then injured his shoulder in the second quarter, paving the way for O'Malley and history.
O'Malley completed 10 of 15 passes. Unfortunately, six of those completions went to Lions players. O'Malley's six-pick performance (which included a pick-six) remains a Packers record despite Brett Favre's best efforts. The Lions won 45-7 in one of the weirdest routs in NFL history: The Lions fumbled either seven or 11 times in the game (sources disagree), but recovered every single one of them.
Neither team went anywhere that year, but Layne became an All-Pro and a Hall of Famer, helming the great Lions teams of the early-1950s. Rote came back to throw seven touchdowns and 24 interceptions in 1950. He had a respectable journeyman career but amassed a 26-46-1 record for the Packers. As for O'Malley, he never threw another NFL pass after that game, but he had some success in the CFL.
There is no reason to think that Manuel will get hurt again, have a 24-interception season or end up with a modest Rote-level career. But if Tuel had started, he might well have thrown six interceptions. And frankly, neither Kevin Kolb nor Matt Leinart would have done much better.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Bills 10
Seahawks at Panthers
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Seahawks by 3 ½
The Panthers drove to the Seahawks' six-yard line, trailing 16-12, late in the fourth quarter in Week 5. Suddenly, everything went haywire. Cam Newton gained three yards on a designed run, but De'Angelo Williams gave them right back when Chris Clemons came unblocked through the line. Newton found Louis Murphy on a pass to the one-yard line, but Marcus Trufant wrapped Murphy's legs, Brandon Browner grabbed his shoulders and Murphy could not extend the foot or so he needed for a touchdown.
On fourth-and-one, the Panthers took Newton out of shotgun (?), removed Steve Smith from the game (????) and asked Newton to execute an obvious, ill-advised rollout pass to Ben Hartsock (?????????????). Hartsock actually got open, but a flustered Newton threw an off-balance pass that landed at the reserve tight end's feet. Was this the kind of "cute" play-calling Steve Smith complained about in midweek? Probably not: Smith sounded like he prefers the traditional stuff, though he would also have preferred running a goal-line fade route, if only as a decoy.
One year later, the takeaway from that Week 5 game is that Newton played poorly, Russell Wilson played very well and the Panthers were still one crisp pass or comprehensible play-call away from winning. This year, the Panthers will not rely on the ineffective Murphy: Domenik Hixon and Ted Ginn have added veteran depth to the receiving corps behind Smith. The Seahawks will be without the injured Clemons, as well as injured free agent end Cliff Avril and suspended pass rusher Bruce Irvin, so the older-and-conceivably-wiser Newton will have more time to throw and room to run. Hartsock is still around, but he is some kind of backup tight end vampire.
Upset pick? You betcha. The one cause for concern is Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula, who is far quicker than his predecessors to scrap Newton's shotgun-option packages in favor of something traditional. That might make Steve Smith happy, but a little cuteness is not a bad thing, and Smith plays better when he is angry.
Prediction: Panthers 21, Seahawks 17
Chiefs at Jaguars
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Chiefs by 4
These two teams could combine their 2012 win totals, double the result and still not have a winning season. Therefore, this game would be far more interesting if its individual matchups were broken down into their component parts:
Eric Fisher vs. Luke Joeckel: Tailgate Recognition Steeplechase. The first and second overall picks in this year's draft walk around the stadium parking lots before the game in plain clothes (or Tony Boselli and Willie Roaf throwback jerseys), playing cornhole and mooching barbecue. The first fan to correctly identify both of them gets season tickets to some other team.
John Dorsey vs. David Caldwell: Storage Wars. The new Chiefs and Jaguars general manager compete to find the weirdest item left behind by predecessors Scott Pioli and Gene Smith. Caldwell: "I found a draft board with 30 punters on it." Dorsey: "That's nothing: I found a Ouija board with Bill Belichick's face in the center."
Alex Smith vs. Blaine Gabbert: Community Affairs Roundtable. The NFL's slowest-developing quarterback prospect ever discusses the fine line between encouragement and disappointment with his most promisingly unpromising protégé. To air Sunday at 5:30 a.m. on classic rock radio stations across America.
Jamaal Charles vs. Maurice Jones-Drew: World's Most Put-Upon Man Competition: The running backs race 100 yards while pulling their teammates and coaches on a giant sled. The winner is the first to notice the difference from previous years.
Prediction: Chiefs 20, Jaguars 10
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Dolphins at Browns
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
After much free agent spending and draft-day ballyhoo, the Dolphins begin the season with Dustin Keller on IR, third-overall pick Dion Jordan on the third string and a lineup that looks a lot like the ones that have been going 7-9 since Walter White was an ordinary chemistry teacher.
On the plus side, Dolphins ownership is not under FBI investigation, and the team knew who its kicker was before Tuesday afternoon: Fifth-round pick Caleb Sturgis won the job with a 9-for-9 training camp performance. The Browns, meanwhile, scrambled to sign Billy Cundiff after final cuts; Cundiff was terrible for the Redskins last year and lost his job to Kai Forbath after costing the Redskins a win against the Buccaneers with two short misses. Injuries to Brandon Bogotay and Shayne Graham caused the Browns dilemma, but this classified ad in TruckingJobSeekers.com may have sent a mixed message to non-desperate potential applicants:
Placekicker/Flatbed trucker needed, Northeast Ohio area. Must have two references, accuracy from 40-49 yards, CDL license, ability to keep mouth shut. Knowledge of gasoline voucher accounting a huge plus. Contact J. Haslam, Pilot Flying J/Cleveland Browns Amalgamated. If you are called by a Washington, D.C. area code after applying, DO NOT PICK UP THE PHONE.
Prediction: Dolphins 24, Browns 13
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Falcons at Saints
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Saints by 3
Drew Brees has thrown for 4,505 yards and 30 touchdowns in 15 career games (a season, basically) against the Falcons. Matt Ryan has thrown for 2,528 yards and 14 touchdowns in nine games against the Saints; prorate that to 16 games, and you get a 4,494-yard season. Recent matchups have featured 31-27, 35-27, 29-25, and a pair of 26-23 Saints victories, plus a 27-24 and uncharacteristically low-scoring 23-13 Falcons win. Close, high-scoring, pass-happy games are inevitable when two excellent quarterbacks face one defense severely punished for excessive force and another defense guilty of ineffectual passive resistance. Bountygate is over in New Orleans, but TackleNot is still a problem in Atlanta, and the Saints have the upper hand in this series whenever their coaching staff is allowed within 500 feet of the stadium.
Prediction: Saints 26, Falcons 23
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Buccaneers at Jets
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Buccaneers by 3 ½
While hate-watching the Jets to see if Darrelle Revis gets revenge (or achieves some sort of catharsis) by stamping the smoldering remains of the Jets offense under his heel like an off-brand cigarette, consider this heady concept: Rex Ryan is living his father's head coaching career in reverse.
Buddy Ryan ended his Eagles career as a lovable populist/iconoclast who could beat his team's archrivals but always stumbled in the playoffs. That's how Rex started his career, though he had more playoff success. When Buddy Ryan took over the Eagles in 1986, he was an irascible jerk who kept his quarterbacks in a three-way limbo and forced them to face impossible situations. Rex has finally arrived there after five seasons.
If the trend continues, Geno Smith is Randall Cunningham, doomed to be neglected on the field and endure 71 sacks in a half-season's work, and Mark Sanchez is late-era Ron Jaworski: beat up, used up and unwanted. Matt Simms is Matt Cavanaugh because, why not? The good news is that if Ryan's backward trend continues, he will be defensive coordinator for one of the greatest teams in history next year. Owners should watch for his employment availability, starting just before the Week 10 bye.
Prediction: Buccaneers 30, Jets 13. High Bucs score is due to points off turnovers.
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Titans at Steelers
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Steelers by 7 ½
The Steelers spent last season compulsively juggling running backs Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Chris Rainey and Baron Batch. Giving Todd Haley a backfield committee is like giving Timothy Leary keys to the pharmaceutical R&D lab, and Mike Tomlin treats every fumble as if the player sideswiped his car, so the Steelers knew they had a problem.
The team tried to stabilize the backfield by drafting Le'Veon Bell while jettisoning Dwyer, Batch and the troubled Rainey. Bell looked great, and Tomlin used the term "workhorse" so often that it sounded like he was starting a living history museum. But sure enough, Bell suffered a preseason foot injury. Meanwhile, the team acquired LaRod Stephens-Howling and Felix Jones, who will join Redman in a backfield rotation until Bell returns. The ideal situation for Haley will be a series of 100-yard rushing games, with each back gaining exactly 33 1/3 yards, and he will not rest until he achieves it. Tomlin will just be happy with zero fumbles; don't show him any film of Jones in 2011.
The Titans once again enter the season with Chris Johnson as their featured running back, and look where it has gotten them.
Prediction: Steelers 19, Titans 13
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Vikings at Lions
1 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Lions by 5
Matthew Stafford disagrees with everyone who claims that he throws sidearm, off-balance and off his back foot too often. Like Ron Jaworski, for example. Or me. Or anyone who has ever watched him carefully. Or his back foot, which probably resents working so hard and being dragged into this debate so often. "I understand those guys have a job to do," Stafford said earlier in the week. "They got to talk, and in the offseason there's not a whole lot to talk about." Yep, it's just throwing mechanics of quarterbacks for 4-12 teams, non-stop, 24/7 across all the airwaves in America.
Stafford said that he works on all components of his game, which no one doubts, but of course you cannot solve a problem by denying it. Heaven knows the Lions have tried that often enough. Lions fans must hope they do not read similar headlines this autumn: Ndamukong Suh claims he does not commit too many stupid penalties; Reggie Bush denies running sideways too often; Nate Burleson swears he's a dangerous downfield weapon; and David Akers is still in his prime.
Adrian Peterson, meanwhile, remains flawless.
Prediction: Vikings 24, Lions 21
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Raiders at Colts
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Colts by 10 ½
The Colts spent a reported $134 million on a free-agent haul that included LaRon Landry, Gosder Cherilus, Matt Hasselbeck, Greg Toler, Ahmad Bradshaw, Ricky Jean-Francois and Donald Thomas. The Raiders are coping with $50-million in dead cap money this season because of the bloated contracts they handed out to Carson Palmer, Richard Seymour, Kevin Boss, Aaron Curry, Tommy Kelly and some of their pre-rookie cap first-round picks. There's a pretty obvious cautionary tale here, but we won't learn the moral this week, because the Raiders are stuck fielding a Triple A-affiliate roster while general manager Reggie McKenzie shreds the credit cards. If the tables are turned in three years, Jim Irsay can groove to whichever Steely Dan song best expresses the irony of boom times gone bust. (Hint: it's "Gaucho.")
Prediction: Colts 28, Raiders 10
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Cardinals at Rams
4:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Rams by 4 ½.
The Rams would be trendy playoff picks in any other division: They have an established coach, tough defense, exciting skill-position talent and a quarterback no one has gotten around to hating yet. In the NFC West, they are relegated to a runty spoiler role. There is nothing trendy about the Cardinals. Their skill-position roster looks like it was assembled by the guy in your fantasy league who stopped watching football regularly in 2010. First-round pick Jonathan Cooper, the expected stabilizer of the NFL's worst offensive line, is on IR. New head coach Bruce Arians worked some interim magic for the Colts last year, but he also allowed Andrew Luck to absorb 122 knockdowns. Old quarterback, bad line, sack-prone scheme … at least Larry Fitzgerald got to do some offseason rock climbing.
Prediction: Rams 21, Cardinals 13
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Eagles at Redskins
6:55 p.m. Monday, ESPN
Line: Redskins by 3
One individual dominated the NFL offseason news without taking a single preseason snap. Exceptionally talented but a little too eager to self-promote, he is one of the most important personalities in the sports world, but he contributed to his own over-exposure by courting the media and capitalizing on his own flair for the dramatic. At times, speculation about his relationship with Redskins coach Mike Shanahan and his handling of offseason controversies took on their own life, and football fans became sick of hearing this person's name.
Luckily, the long awful summer of Dr. James Andrews is over.
Ah, Robert Griffin III, metrosexual man-crush of the football universe, repository of the sporting hopes of the nation's capital, buzziest of the currently employed NFL quarterbacks, it will be a joy to watch you play football again. Everyone from your coach to your doctor, from Donovan McNabb to knuckleheads like me, have attached ourselves to your image, milking your ever move for maximum exposure. So far, you have handled the media frenzy the way Siegfried and Roy handled tigers, a tremendous feat while it lasts. Backlash can be brutal, which is what McNabb keeps trying to tell you, though he is such a Debbie Downer/Nattering Nancy/Mary Worth that no blames you for tuning him out.
Oh, Bob the Empire Builder, you do not have to win a Super Bowl on Monday night, or validate your coach's existence, elevate Andrews to Surgeon General, or whatever else is expected of you more-or-less immediately. You just must defeat what you have wrought. Without your quick success with options and pistols last year, there would be no Chip Kelly, no talk of a turning point in the evolution of NFL strategy. The victory itself will be easy -- the Eagles' defense is cobbled together out of journeymen, so the offense might just hurry its way into trouble -- but the season will be long, pressures will be crushing and not everyone standing around with a drawn scalpel is a doctor. Win, run a bit, stay healthy, be amazing. And whatever you do, don't turn your back on the tiger.
Prediction: Redskins 28, Eagles 17
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Texans at Chargers
10:15 p.m. Monday, ESPN
Line: Texans by 4
Nothing says "midnight in early September" like Philip Rivers stumbling around the pocket, searching for Antonio Gates, and bracing for both another sack and another 7-9 season. The Texans have made some important offseason upgrades (DeAndre Hopkins is back from a preseason concussion, Ed Reed is probably out with hip issues), but if you have seen one Texans victory, you have seen them all: a bunch of blitzes, zone stretches and rollout passes. In other words, you can close your eyes and picture how this game will turn out, which considering the start time on the East Coast is not a terrible idea.
Prediction: Texans 21, Chargers 10