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Before you know it, September will be here and the first games of the 2018 NFL season will be underway, so we thought we’d go through all sixteen of the opening day matchups and offer a little background and perspective on each game.
This is the AFC.
As football fans know, on opening day every team is equal, but some games are potentially more exciting than others. For that reason at the end of each preview we offer advice as to whether you should watch the game live, record it and view it later or just wait for the highlights. Feel free to add why you think a game is watch-able or skim-able in the comments down below.
Did you know the NFL is moving up the kickoff times for its prime-time games?
Adjust your DVRs accordingly.
Now let’s check out some NFL games.
Sunday, Sept. 9, 1 p.m. ET
Over the last five seasons, the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts have met up three times and the Bengals have won two of those games.
During that half a decade, the Bengals went from being the 11-5 AFC North champs to being 7-9 third placers in 2017. In that same stretch, the Colts have made a similar downward spiral from their 11-5 perch atop the AFC South to having a 4-12 record last season and being tied for the divisional basement.
With some improvements made to both offensive lines over the offseason, the Bengals and Colts are hoping that it was enough to improve their 32nd- and 31st-ranked offenses, respectively. And that it was enough to finally protect the Colts’ (possibly) returning quarterback, Andrew Luck.
Last season in Week 8, quarterback Andy Dalton’s mediocre Bengals barely managed to squeak by the Luck-less Colts 24-23. Bengals sacked backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett 4 times that game, a problem familiar to the Colts weak offensive line who gave up 52 sacks last season and 41 the year before.
The Colts addressed this issue during the offseason with their first round pick (sixth overall), Notre Dame’s tough offensive guard Quenton Nelson. They also grabbed Auburn’s Braden Smith in the second round. They’ll join center Ryan Kelly, tackle Anthony Castonzo and free agent tackle Austin Howard to keep Luck safer than in the past? Can new offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni wrangle this upgraded line together by Week 1?
And speaking of ineffective front lines, head coach Marvin Lewis’ Bengals gave up 40 sacks of last year and came up weak on second-half scoring, so they drafted tough Ohio State center Billy Price to help maintain Dalton’s pocket better than in the past. They also traded for two veteran offensive tackles – with the Buffalo Bills for Cordy Glenn and the New York Giants for Bobby Hart. Will this lead to less sacks, incompletions and a better turnover ratio than their -9?
How this 2018 reunion ends up for either team depends entirely on the health of Luck.
Luck hasn’t played since the 2016 season and there’s no real guarantee he’ll be back by Week 1. Now that one of the great minds behind the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory, Frank Reich, is the Colts’ new head coach, the hope is that the success he had with quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Nick Foles will now transfer to Luck and Brissett. But that only helps if new defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus’ squad can keep Dalton’s Bengals offense off the field.
Dalton’s 2017 quarterback rating against the Colts was 62.9, which was only enough to score a one-point victory against Brissett, whose QB rating was a dismal 15.4. Regardless of who’s at the Colts’ helm for this opening day matchup, expect them to rate a lot higher than that under Reich’s solid leadership. Especially given that the Bengals’ 18th ranked defense could be a whole lot weaker for that particular game because menacing linebacker Vontaze Burfict faces a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s Performance Enhancing Drug policy.
Football fans are going to want to see if Luck starts, and if he does, if he at all resembles his 2014 self that threw for 4,761 yards, 40 TDs and had a QB rating of 96.5.
Without Luck playing, though, this game is a matchup between two middling teams that’s best taken in by watching highlights, particularly of Pro Bowl receivers A.J. Green (CIN) and T.Y. Hilton (IND).
Sunday, Sept. 9, 1 p.m. ET
Two seasons ago, the Baltimore Ravens opened up at home with a 13-7 victory against the Buffalo Bills, the key play being a 66-yard touchdown bomb from quarterback Joe Flacco to newly arrived receiver Mike Wallace. Last year the two teams didn’t play each other at all.
The Ravens usually start off strong at home under head coach John Harbaugh, yet they’ve not been to the playoffs in the last three seasons. Will Flacco return to form in 2018 or will the 10-year veteran’s numbers continue their downward spiral?
The Bills finally managed a playoff spot last season after a record-setting 18-season drought, but they did it with a different quarterback and as a total underdog, a tough role to play two seasons in-a-row. Their big question to answer is who’s going to start behind center now?
Last season each team’s defense ranked better than its offense, but that wasn’t hard to do with Buffalo’s 29th and Baltimore’s 27th ranked offensive units. In Buffalo’s case, they spent the offseason trying to replace departing quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who signed with the Cleveland Browns.
The quarterback choices for second-year head coach Sean McDermott are now:
McCarron the veteran backup is currently listed as QB1 on the roster, but if he starts out slowly, the calls for Allen will no doubt come quickly and loudly.
Since 2008, Baltimore is 5-1 in season openers played at M&T Bank Stadium. Add to that their home record of 5-3 last season and compare it all to the Bills’ 3-5 road record and the outcome of this opening day matchup seems pretty predictable.
But Bills’ 10,000 yard rusher LeSean ‘Shady’ McCoy might just defy those odds.
He did all last season when McCoy, who turns 30 in July, rushed for 1,138 total yards and 6 TDs. Plus, this offseason the Bills added punishing running back Chris Ivory (another 30 year old) to back him up after Ivory was cut by the Jaguars. If they can give whomever their starting quarterback is the same strong counter-punch to the passing game that Baltimore’s running back Alex Collins (973 yards and 6 TDs) gives to Flacco, it will make the offensive part of this matchup a lot more interesting.
Since chances are the Patriots and Steelers will lead their divisions, this Bills and Ravens game is basically the beginning of the battle for an AFC Wildcard spot.
Some NFL fans will want to see whether McCarron or Allen starts for Buffalo and if Ravens’ first round pick tight end Hayden Hurst measures up to his hype as a pass catching star. College football fans will want to watch as former Alabama Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Brian Daboll makes his NFL debut doing the same job for the Bills.
Everyone else will probably just watch the highlights.
Sunday, Sept. 9, 1:00 p.m. ET
The last time the Houston Texans and the New England Patriots met up was last season in Week 3 at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots won 36-33, but they almost didn’t for one very talented reason, that being Texans All Rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Watson finished 22-of-33 for 301 yards in that game with two touchdowns and two interceptions, while adding 41 yards on eight carries. The Patriots Tom Brady finished 25-of-35 for 378 yards with five touchdowns, but guess how many interceptions he threw? Zero.
This highly anticipated opening day re-match features an important NFL quarterback battle.
Chances are Watson would have been the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year last year if his season hadn’t ended early with a torn ACL. Since then Watson has undergone successful surgery and rehab and looks to restart his phenomenal NFL career that was so painfully interrupted. Can he beat the mighty Patriots in Week 1 and prove to the world he’s back?
Brady will be 41-years-old at the start of the season, but with his uber-healthy lifestyle and ultra-demanding training regimen, Brady’s age really doesn’t seem to matter. Last season he threw for 4,577 yards and 32 touchdowns with only 8 interceptions for a QB rating of 102.8. For the third time in his career, Brady was voted NFL MVP even though his team came up short against the Eagles in Super Bowl LII by a score of 33-41.
Some say Brady’s one more Super Bowl ring away from retiring, while others (mostly in New England) are counting on him to play forever. Can he outplay a healthy Watson?
Texans general manager Brian Gaine improved his 24th ranked passing offense by drafting athletic Stanford safety Justin Reid and signing free agent safety Tyrann Mathieu who became available when the Arizona Cardinals released him after he refused to take a pay cut. They’ll work with new defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel to keep opponents from scoring 27.3 points per game, worst in the league last season.
Matt Patricia, the defensive coordinator responsible for the Patriots’ 29th ranked defense last season, has left to head coach the Detroit Lions – but Belichick didn’t replace him. Instead, being a defensive genius himself, Belichick will run the defense and linebackers coach Brian Flores will call the plays. This opening day matchup against Watson’s offense will be a great test for the Patriots’ new defensive leadership combo. Will they pass or fail?
This is a must-watch game for hardcore NFL-ers and casual fans alike.
Will Brady continue to impress or finally show his age? Will he be able to find a win without talented slot receiver Julian Edelman, who’s in the middle of appealing a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance enhancing substances policy? Will Watson return to All Rookie form and hook up with All Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins or was Watson’s knee injury too much? Will the healed J.J. Watt get back to tackling and sacking like he did for the Texans before his injured back and leg let him down?
Absolutely watch this matchup live. Then watch the highlights, there’s bound to be plenty.
Sunday, Sept. 9, 1 p.m. ET
Last season in Week 5, the Miami Dolphins beat the Tennessee Titans 16-10 at home.
This was despite having to use thought-to-be-retired (and out of shape) quarterback Jay Cutler instead of their injured starter Ryan Tannehill who had torn his ACL in a pre-season practice. Tannehill will start for Miami in this opening day matchup and look to prove he’s still a rising star ready and able to take his team to a Wildcard playoff game, the best any AFC East team can hope for with the New England Patriots’ divisional domination still ongoing.
Tannehill will go against Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, a fourth year veteran whose numbers took a downswing last season. New head coach Mike Vrabel has vowed to do a better job than his predecessor of developing Mariota and says he wants to run a more assorted offense that plays to Mariota’s strengths, like screens and play-action. How will Mariota respond?
Last year under new defensive coordinator Matt Burke, Miami had seven fewer interceptions than the previous year and the opposing passer rating blew up. Somehow college superstar free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick was still available in the first round of the 2018 draft so now the Dolphins have one of the five best players in that draft – can he help grab more interceptions?
The Titans’ defense was ranked 13th overall, but they allowed 239.3 passing yards per game, which was 25th worst. The solution was to sign cornerback Malcolm Butler, the player who was mysteriously benched in the Super Bowl by Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick. Butler gives Logan Ryan an equally effective cohort in the secondary. All Pro safety Kevin Byard returns, and with first round linebacker picks Rashaan Evans from Alabama and Harold Landry from Boston College. Can they shut down a healthy Tannehill?
Actually it’ll be hot and humid. This is the fourth consecutive season these teams have played each other, and third in a row at Miami in the first five games of the season, so both teams should be familiar with how to play in the miserable heat. Besides, heat would be nothing compared to last season, when hurricane Irma kept the Dolphins from playing their regular-season opener.
Miami has won four of its past five games to begin the season, while the Titans have won three, but Tennessee was only 3-5 on the road last season. They’ll only have to be above average to top the Dolphins on their home turf where they went 4-4 in 2017. But can they take the heat?
Football fans who dig a good comeback will want to watch Tannehill’s first game back on the field. They’ll also want to see if Mariota’s new head coach and new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur (formerly with the Los Angeles Rams) have been able to return his direction to forward and back towards the playoffs.
And football fans who followed the draft will want to watch how Fitzpatrick and the other rookies adjust to the NFL. These are two teams with playoff aspirations and an opening day win would be the perfect way to start.
Definitely record this one for later but save your live-view-time for more electrifying match-ups.
Sunday, Sept. 9, 1 p.m. ET
In the old days, NFL fans considered the matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns to be the ultimate AFC North rivalry. In this case, ‘old days’ means prior to 1996, the year former Browns owner Art Modell relocated the team to Baltimore.
Before that, the Browns had a decent edge in the rivalry (52-41), but since Cleveland’s return to the league in 1999 the Browns have only won 6 of these matchups versus the Steelers’ 33 wins, two of which happened last season.
But after going 1-31 over the last two seasons, the Browns have big plans to turn all that around.
When it comes to NFL teams, the saying, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ surely applies, but last season the 0-16 Browns were completely broken. Their offense ranked 24th in the league, though their defense was a respectable 14th. Their newly hired general manager John Dorsey got busy improving the team on both sides of the ball this offseason. A few of the highlights:
Can so many new Browns faces come together by Week 1 and defeat the almighty Steelers?
On the other side, the 13-3 Steelers, with their offense ranked 3rd and their defense ranked 5th, were obviously not broken at all, so their general manager Kevin Colbert didn’t do too much offseason tinkering. Notably he drafted safety Terrell Edmunds and receiver James Washington.
And just in case quarterback Big Ben Roethlisberger (36) needs some extra motivation to stay as sharp as he was last season when he was named to his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl after throwing for 4,281 yards, 28 TDs and 14 picks, Colbert drafted a killer backup, Mason Rudolph. Do Big Ben and company still have it in them to conquer the world, or at least the Browns?
With their roster in such transition, it would take a minor miracle for the Browns to beat (arguably) the second best AFC team to get their first win since 2016. But in two games last season, the Browns played them tight, and that was with a rookie quarterback and none of the shiny new tools they’ve just acquired. Can Taylor make it happen? After all, last season he brought his previous team, the Buffalo Bills, to the playoffs after an 18-year hiatus, and that was while being surrounded by far less talent than he now has in Cleveland.
But, and it’s a big but, the Steelers have the Killer B’s to contend with. Besides Big Ben, there’s one of the league’s top running backs, Le’Veon Bell, who ran for 1,291 yards and 9 TDs and caught for 655 yards and 2 TDs last season. There’s also the league’s top receiver, Antonio Brown, who caught for 1,533 yards and 9 TDs. The last thing in the world these three want to happen is for their playoff bound team to get beaten by a rebuilding unit like the Browns, but how exciting for football fans would that be to see happen?
If the Browns happen to overcome the odds and make NFL history by beating the Steelers in this opening day matchup, you’ll have wished you’d seen it live.
But if they don’t, or worse, if Cleveland gets smoked by Pittsburgh, then you’ll probably wish you’d just recorded this one and watched the Killer B highlights later.
Sunday, Sept. 9, 4:05 p.m. ET
Head coach Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs have won eight straight against the Los Angeles Chargers, five of those times by double-digit margins.
But in this 2018 opening day matchup, the Chiefs will no longer be led by crafty veteran quarterback Alix Smith, who’s now playing for the Washington Redskins. Their leader will be second year franchise man Patrick Mahomes, and this game will be his second career start.
Coach Anthony Lynn’s Chargers, on the other hand, have the advantage of continuity and experience with their 36-year-old veteran quarterback Phillip Rivers who threw for 4,515 yards, 28 TDs, and ten interceptions last season.
This game will be an exciting battle to begin the quest to be champions of the AFC West.
Last season, these two offenses were dynamite – the Chargers were ranked 4th in the league while the Chiefs were ranked 5th.
Mahomes, however, had little to do with the Chiefs’ success since he stood on the sideline clipboarding it for 16 weeks. When he did finally start a game in Week 17 against the Denver Broncos, he put up respectable rookie numbers – 22/35 for 184 yards, no TDs and an interception – and the Chiefs won and now Mahomes has the job. In addition to free agent receiver Sammy Watkins and Second Team All Pro tight end Travis Kelce, Mahomes will also have Tyreek Hill as a target, who had 75 catches for 1,183 yards and 7 TDs last year. But can second-year Mahomes take over an offense used to veteran Smith?
On the other side of the field is Rivers, a quarterback with 14-years of experience with a passer rating last season of 96.0. In 2017, Rivers became only the 9th quarterback in NFL history to reach 50,000 career passing yards. He should have no trouble hitting wide receiver Keenan Allen (102 catches for 1,393 yards and 6 TDs in 2017) and his crew of receivers who led the league by catching for 276.9 yards per game. Will Mahomes & Co. manhandle the Chiefs’ weak defense?
Last season, the Chargers defense was ranked 15th overall, while the Chiefs were in the NFL basement at 28th. Good news for Mahomes, better news for Rivers.
The Chiefs attempted to improve defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s squad this offseason by releasing some veterans (linebacker Tamba Hali and guard Brian Waters) and signing free agent nose tackle Xavier Williams (ARI), linebacker Anthony Hitchens (DAL) and cornerbacks Kendall Fuller (WAS) and David Amerson (OAK).
Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s squad needed help against the rush – they allowed 131.1 yards per game, 31st in the NFL. General manager Tom Telesco drafted free safety Derwin James in the first round and edge rushing linebacker Uchenna Nwosu in the second.
With so many personnel changes in place, which defensive squad will be more effective?
If you’re a fan of offensive football, this should be a fun, high-scoring game to watch live. Will the young Mahomes measure up? Will old man Rivers show his age? Will the Chiefs’ All Rookie running back Kareem Hunt re-impress? Will Chargers receiver Keenan Allen continue to have an impact, last year accumulating 1,393 receiving yards, ranked third best in the league?
For those who prefer defensive battles, spend your live time elsewhere and wait for the Chiefs/Chargers highlights – there should be more than a handful.
Sunday, Sept. 9, 4:25 p.m. ET
This opening day cross-conference matchup will be the Seattle Seahawks’ first trip to Denver since 2010.
Head coach Pete Carroll’s Seahawks went 9-7 last season, the first time they failed to get a 10-win season since 2011. With an upgraded offensive line and a brand new running game in place, the Seahawks are expecting to snag themselves an easy early win against a Broncos team that didn’t do well in 2017.
Except don’t judge the 2018 Denver Broncos based on their 5-11 record from last season. Second year head coach Vance Joseph was working with a carousel of ineffective quarterbacks and a constantly double- and triple-teamed second team All Pro linebacker.
But both of those problems have been addressed in the offseason.
For the two seasons since Peyton Manning retired, the Broncos have been struggling to find an effective quarterback. General manager John Elway feels he’s found their man – free agent Case Keenum, who almost took the Vikings to the Big Game last season until the Eagles crushed them 38-7. Keenum threw for 3,547 yards and 22 TDs with 7 picks in the regular season and 589 yards, 2 TDs and 3 interceptions in the playoffs. Can he put up those same numbers or better and establish himself as Denver’s new man?
The Seattle Seahawks, on the other hand, have one of the NFL’s top ten quarterbacks, Russell Wilson, whose 2017 season numbers – 3,983 passing yards and 34 TDs with 11 picks and 586 rushing yards and 3 TDs – were actually his lowest in three seasons. Wilson fumbled the ball 14 times (lost 3) and was sacked 43 times, so why was the only change general manager John Schneider made to the offensive line this offseason to sign free agent guard D.J. Fluker (NYG)?
Both quarterbacks will face respectable opponents.
The Seahawks defense was ranked a respectable 11th last year, but they have taken apart the so-called Legion of Boom, having released Richard Sherman and traded Michael Bennett. All Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner and second team All Pro safety Earl Thomas return as part of a squad that only allowed 209.2 passing yards per game last season, 6th best in the league.
Tired of all the double- and triple- teams opponents have put unanswered on 2nd All Pro linebacker Von Miller, Elway used the fifth pick in the first round to select the highly sought after pass rushing defensive end Bradley Chubb hoping he’ll force offenses to pay attention to him, too. Elway also signed cornerback Tramaine Brock and drafted Isaac Yiadom to help replace the departing Aqib Talib and to enhance a secondary that only allowed 200.6 passing yards per game in 2017, 4th best in the NFL.
Who’s going to be sacking who during this matchup?
For those football fans looking for a decent defensive matchup, this might be a good one to watch live. Can the Broncos D shut down Wilson? Will the Seahawks D prevent Keenum’s magic from transferring to his new home in Denver?
NFL fans who followed this year’s draft will want to know: can Seahawks’ first round pick Rashaad Penny be their running back? Will the Broncos’ highly touted Chubb distract attention away from Miller so he can dominate?
If those questions don’t inspire you to watch live, at least record this one for later.
Monday, Sept. 10, 10:20 p.m. ET
This is the type of matchup that’s going to cause a lot of football fans to stay up late and call in sick Tuesday morning.
Last season, the Los Angeles Rams went 11-5 after going 4-12 in 2016, and for the first time in 12 seasons they made the playoffs. New head coach Sean McVay has figured out how to audible his franchise quarterback successfully and together they’ve turned the Rams’ offense completely around.
On the other side of the gridiron is the Oakland Raiders now led by new (old) head coach Jon “Chucky” Gruden, who has returned to the team that in 2002 oddly traded him to Tampa – as a coach. Now with his 10-year, $100 million contract with a no-trade clause that closes the loophole that allowed the trade, fans can rest assured the fiery Gruden is there to stay.
But can he help quarterback Derek Carr return to his 2016 form with that 96.7 passer rating?
Rams’ head coach McVay was a college wide receiver and more recently the Redskins’ offensive coordinator. With McVay calling plays and last minute audibles that quarterback Jared Goff is able to effectively relay to the team and execute, the Rams have gone from 32nd in total offense in 2016 to becoming the highest scoring team in the league in 2017 with an average of 29.9 points per game and 478 total points scored – both best in the NFL and a lot of fun to watch.
This time last year Raiders’ head coach Gruden was not on the gridiron but in the Monday Night Football booth. Some detractors think he’s been out of coaching for too long, but Gruden won a Super Bowl with Tampa, the team he was traded to. His supporters expect him to do the same for the 2018 Raiders, and beating the Rams on MNF would be an impressive way to start.
Rams Running back Todd Gurley ran the ball 279 times for 1,305 yards (87 per game) and 13 TDs, second best in the NFL last season. He also caught 64 passes for 788 yards and 6 TDs. Also fun to watch: All Rookie wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who caught 62 balls for 869 yards and 5 TDs in 2017 and Robert Woods (56 catches for 781 yards and 5 TDs) and the newly acquired Branin Cooks, who with the Patriots last season, had 65 catches for 1,082 yards.
The knock on the Raiders’ offseason is that they’re bringing in a lot of veteran players who they’re counting on to play at their previous levels. That’s true of wide receivers Jordy Nelson (GB), Martavis Bryant (PIT) and running back Doug Martin (TB), who – at peak form – could all really add to new coordinator Greg Olson’s offense that already includes receiver Amari Cooper and running back Marshawn Lynch. At less than peak form, though, they’ll just be a group of older players putting up unimpressive numbers.
Regardless, both offenses will be ready to rumble – which defense has improved enough to shut it down?
Absolutely watch this matchup live – it’s the second game of a must-see Monday Night Football double-header, so take an afternoon nap, fan-up and tune in.
Have a blast watching Gruden’s triumphant return and Carr’s chance to shine on a national stage. See if McVay and Goff score big again and if the Rams’ pumped up D now starring Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib can shut the Raiders’ old timers down.
If you wait to watch the highlights on this one, you may wake up the next day with regrets.
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Mike Lukas is a retired standup comedian turned freelance writer now living in Dallas, Texas, originally from Cleveland, Ohio. His love for the game of football and all things Cleveland Browns turned Mike into a pro blogger years ago. Now Mike enjoys writing about all thirty-two NFL teams, hoping to help football gamblers gain a slight edge in their pursuit of the perfect wager. Email: [email protected]More info on Mike Lukas
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