So, who'll be the most scrutinized rookies during the opening week of the 2012 NFL season?
Sure, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin will undeniably be closely watched as the heads of this year's draft class attempt to ace their first major tests in challenging road assignments against a pair of expected contenders over the coming weekend, but that's not the answer.
How about Brandon Weeden, the neophyte Cleveland Browns quarterback who's actually considerably older than a number of vested veterans in starting his pro career at the advanced age of 28?
Could it be Russell Wilson, the undersized but incredibly poised and gifted young passer who took advantage of Pete Carroll's open-minded policy and wrested the Seattle Seahawks' starting signal-caller job away from expected heir apparent Matt Flynn?
Nope, when fans and observers are all gathering around the water coolers on Monday morning, it's almost a given that the hot topic of conversation will be the performance of the replacement officials that will almost assuredly be working the first wave of games as the NFL continues to be at loggerheads with the Referees Association over compensation and retirement benefits. And regardless of whether or not the substitute refs actually handle their temporary promotions capably, the league has left itself vulnerable to a Pandora's box of criticism from the media masses due to its stubborn stance on the matter.
It's unfortunately a no-win situation for the guys (and one gal) who'll be wearing the zebra suits in place of the regular officials. Even if the fill-in crews get 99 out of 100 calls right and without incident, you can bet the one that isn't will be lambasted and overanalyzed to no end by the television talking heads and radio loudmouths the day after.
And if there's a controversial ruling made, or a lack of one that should have been called, that impacts the final outcome of one of the Week 1 games? Boy, will the gloves be coming off.
Of course, there's still a chance a resolution can be reached with the Referees Association prior to Sunday's session, and the league does have a history of reaching 11th-hour agreements in labor talks (remember last year's players lockout?). But with the two sides reportedly as much as $10 million per year apart in salaries and benefit packages, it's a major long shot.
There's already no chance that the regular refs will be on the field for Wednesday's gala season opener between the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys, in essence putting the league in the peculiar position of rooting for a blowout game in order to delay the inevitable backlash it's about to get over its decision.
Well, at least the world won't have to be further subjected to tedious debate over the Cowboys' adventures in babysitting with sophomoric wide receiver Dez Bryant for a couple of days.
Here's to hoping the standoff doesn't linger on, so the pundits can devote all their energy to more important matters. Like Tim Tebow. And Dez Bryant.
Enjoy the games.
NFL POWER POLL
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SUICIDE SELECTION OF THE WEEK
There appear to be quite a few strong options among the opening-week games, with Chicago, Houston, New Orleans and Philadelphia all drawing appealing matchups against rookie quarterbacks and the Eagles the lone member of that cast to begin on the road. The Texans seem like the safest bet with a home draw against a Miami team that will likely need considerable time to get an overhauled offense untracked. However, the pick here is Detroit, which shouldn't have too many problems at home against a St. Louis outfit that's practically starting from scratch under Jeff Fisher. Houston may be better off saving for one of the divisional layups the defending AFC South champions will have down the road.
THE GAMES (All Times Eastern)
Dallas at N.Y. Giants, Wednesday, 8:30
LINE: Giants by 4
KEY INJURIES: Cowboys -- OUT: NT Jay Ratliff (ankle) DOUBTFUL: TE Jason Witten (spleen) QUESTIONABLE: CB Mike Jenkins (shoulder) PROBABLE: WR Dez Bryant (knee), WR Miles Austin (hamstring), OLB DeMarcus Ware (hamstring), C Phil Costa (back); Giants -- OUT: CB Terrell Thomas (knee, IR), CB Prince Amukamara (ankle), DT Chris Canty (knee, PUP), DT Shaun Rogers (leg, IR), DT Marvin Austin (back), TE Travis Beckum (knee, PUP) QUESTIONABLE: WR Hakeem Nicks (foot), OT Will Beatty (back), LB Michael Boley (hamstring), LB Mathias Kiwanuka (groin), CB Jayron Hosley (toe) PROBABLE: RB Ahmad Bradshaw (hand)
THE SKINNY: Heated NFC East rivals last squared off in the final game of the 2011 regular season, with reigning world champion Giants earning a 31-14 home victory to edge Cowboys for division title en route to winning Super Bowl XLVI...New York quarterback Eli Manning threw for a combined 746 yards and five touchdowns in last year's two meetings with Cowboys, including a 400-yard effort to rally Giants to pivotal 37-34 decision in Dallas during December...Cowboys triggerman Tony Romo put up 321 yards and had four scoring strikes in that loss...New York has won four of last five meetings in the series, though Dallas did register 33-20 triumph at MetLife Stadium in 2010...With Witten unlikely to play, Cowboys claimed tight end Colin Cochart off waivers from Cincinnati on Saturday...Fifth-year special-teamer Michael Coe to make first career start at quarterback for Giants with Thomas and Amukamara sidelined, with veteran Sean Locklear to take Beatty's spot at left tackle...New York tight end Martellus Bennett spent first four seasons with the Cowboys before signing with Giants in March...New York released backup running back D.J. Ware during Friday's final cutdown...Giants trying to become 12th straight defending Super Bowl champ to win season opener the following year, with 1999 Denver Broncos the last such team to lose in Week 1.
PREDICTION: Cowboys certainly have the weapons to give the 2011 champs a scare, especially with the Giants thin in the secondary. However, New York's powerful pass rush and Manning's knack for coming through in crunch time may make the difference. Giants 27, Cowboys 24.
Atlanta at Kansas City, Sunday, 1:00
LINE: Falcons by 3
KEY INJURIES: Falcons -- OUT: DT Corey Peters (foot, PUP), FB Bradie Ewing (knee, IR) DOUBTFUL: RB Jason Snelling (leg); Chiefs -- OUT: OLB Tamba Hali (suspension), NT Anthony Toribio (ankle) DOUBTFUL: FS Kendrick Lewis (shoulder) QUESTIONABLE: CB Brandon Flowers (heel), QB Brady Quinn (neck) PROBABLE: ILB Derrick Johnson (ankle)
THE SKINNY: Falcons begin quest for third straight playoff appearance behind quarterback Matt Ryan, who amassed 549 passing yards and had 75 percent completion rate in preseason, while second-year wideout Julio Jones racked up 240 yards on 13 catches during warm-up period...Chiefs finished 7-9 in injury- plagued 2011 campaign, but won two of final three games under then-interim head coach Romeo Crennel...First regular-season outing for Kansas City signal- caller Matt Cassel, who missed last seven games of 2011 with broken hand, since November, while star running back Jamaal Charles back from ACL tear suffered in Week 2 of last year...Chiefs have won five of seven all-time meetings with Falcons, who are 0-3 all-time at Arrowhead Stadium...Atlanta lost three of its last four away tilts last season, including 24-2 setback at New York Giants in NFC Wild Card Playoffs...Falcons have also dropped two straight season openers, both of which came on the road...Kansas City finished 31st in scoring (13.3 ppg) and last in red-zone touchdown percentage (33.3) in 2011...Hali, suspended one game for violating NFL's substance abuse policy, had 12 of Chiefs' 29 sacks last year.
PREDICTION: Chiefs are traditionally tough at home, but their conspicuous absences on defense make for a challenging afternoon against an Atlanta attack that looks like it could be explosive. Falcons 20, Chiefs 13.
Buffalo at N.Y. Jets, Sunday, 1:00
LINE: Jets by 3
KEY INJURIES: Bills -- DOUBTFUL: WR/QB Brad Smith (groin) QUESTIONABLE: CB Terrence McGee (knee), RT Erik Pears (hernia surgery), DE Mark Anderson (groin); Jets -- QUESTIONABLE: RB Joe McKnight (hamstring), WR Chaz Schilens (ankle), S Eric Smith (knee) PROBABLE: TE Dustin Keller (hamstring), WR Jeremy Kerley (hamstring), ILB David Harris (ankle), NT Sione Pouha (back), RG Brandon Moore (knee), DT Mike DeVito (calf)
THE SKINNY: Regular season debut for popular Jets backup quarterback and offseason addition Tim Tebow, expected to be used in Wildcat packages in new coordinator Tony Sparano's offense, while Bills added prized defensive end Mario Williams in free agency to bolster defense that ranked 26th overall and 30th in points allowed (27.1 ppg)...New York has won five straight and seven of eight most recent meetings in series and dealt Bills 28-24 defeat at MetLife Stadium last November in addition to 27-11 setback in Buffalo during Week 9...Buffalo's lone win over that span was 16-13 road overtime triumph in 2009...Both teams went 0-4 in preseason, with Jets scoring just one touchdown and managing NFL-low 31 points and Bills allowing league-high 119 points...New York quarterback Mark Sanchez did throw for career-best four scores in Week 12 victory over Buffalo in 2011, however...Jets led NFL in red zone touchdown efficiency (65.5 percent) last season, while Bills yielded touchdowns on 64.4 percent of such possessions, worst mark in league...Buffalo wide receiver Stevie Johnson had 11 catches totaling 159 yards and one touchdown in two 2011 games against Jets...New York claimed wide receiver Clyde Gates off waivers from Dolphins on Saturday.
PREDICTION: Jets may not be yet able to cure their offensive ills, but should be able to count on Rex Ryan's usually sturdy defense stifling a Buffalo squad that wasn't exactly in top form during the preseason either. Jets 17, Bills 10.
Indianapolis at Chicago, Sunday, 1:00
LINE: Bears by 9 1/2
KEY INJURIES: Colts -- OUT: ILB Pat Angerer (foot), NT Brandon McKinney (knee, IR), NT Josh Chapman (knee, PUP) QUESTIONABLE: WR T.Y. Hilton (shoulder), RB Mewelde Moore (ribs), RB Delone Carter (ribs) PROBABLE: WR Austin Collie (concussion), DE Cory Redding (knee), CB Jerraud Powers (knee), LG Joe Reitz (knee), RG Mike McGlynn (ankle); Bears -- OUT: WR Johnny Knox (back, PUP) DOUBTFUL: P Adam Podlesh (hip) QUESTIONABLE: MLB Brian Urlacher (knee), FS Chris Conte (shoulder), NT Stephen Paea (ankle)
THE SKINNY: Highly anticipated regular-season debut of Colts rookie quarterback and 2012 No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Luck as Indianapolis officially christens post-Peyton Manning era and attempts to improve on dreadful 2-14 campaign of year ago with first-year head coach Chuck Pagano now at helm...First regular-season start for Chicago signal-caller Jay Cutler since suffering broken right thumb last November, with team going 1-5 in his absence to fall out of NFC playoff race, while marquee offseason acquisition Brandon Marshall set for initial outing as a Bear...Chicago also to unveil new running back tandem of 2011 Pro Bowl selection Matt Forte and free-agent addition Michael Bush, who be attacking Indianapolis defense ranked 29th against rush last season...Bears have allowed NFL-high 140 sacks over past three years and face Colts' accomplished pass-rush duo of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, now deployed as outside linebackers in Pagano's new 3-4 alignment...Chicago re-signed defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, a member of Bears in 2011, on Monday while releasing defensive lineman Brian Price.
PREDICTION: Luck won't disappoint in his introduction as the Colts keep it competitive, though the Bears should be able to run wild on an Indianapolis defense that's still a considerable work in progress. Bears 24, Colts 16.
Jacksonville at Minnesota, Sunday, 1:00
LINE: Vikings by 4
KEY INJURIES: Jaguars -- OUT: G Will Rackley (ankle, IR), DE Austen Lane (ankle), LB Clint Session (concussion, PUP), TE Zach Miller (calf, IR), DE John Chick (knee, PUP) DOUBTFUL: CB Derek Cox (calf) PROBABLE: RB Maurice- Jones Drew (held out), OLB Daryl Smith (groin); Vikings -- OUT: WR Jerome Simpson (suspension), WR Greg Childs (knees, IR) QUESTIONABLE: RB Adrian Peterson (knee), SS Mistral Raymond (back), TE Rhett Ellison (knee) PROBABLE: TE John Carlson (knee), CB Chris Cook (concussion), NT Letroy Guion (knee), CB/PR Marcus Sherels (ankle)
THE SKINNY: Clash of 2011 also-rans housing two of the NFL's premier running backs, though Peterson to be a game-time call while still recovering from ACL and MCL tears sustained last December and defending league rushing champion Jones-Drew to be used sparingly after just ending a 38-day holdout over a contract dispute on Sunday...Rashad Jennings to start in Jones-Drew's place, with Toby Gerhart in line to get most of backfield work for Vikings...First game for new Jacksonville head coach Mike Mularkey, who posted 14-18 mark in same position for Buffalo from 2004-05...Battle of second-year quarterbacks seeking to improve off rough rookie campaigns also on tap, with Vikings' Christian Ponder and Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert placing 30th and 32nd, respectively, in passer rating among starters...Jaguars finished last in the NFL in both total offense (259.3 ypg) and passing yards (136.2 ypg) while compiling 5-11 record in 2011...Minnesota ranked fourth overall in rushing offense (144.9 ypg) during last year's forgettable 3-13 season, which matched franchise record for losses in a single year, while Jags' defense ended ninth against the run (104.2 ypg) and sixth overall in 2011...Vikings released veteran quarterback Sage Rosenfels and acquired cornerback A.J. Jefferson from Arizona during Friday's roster reductions.
PREDICTION: Neither star running back winds up being a factor as the outcome comes down to which of the two young quarterbacks shows more improvement. The feeling here is it will be Ponder, who benefits from better offensive continuity and a superior pass rush from Jared Allen and the rest of his Minnesota teammates. Vikings 20, Jaguars 13.
Miami at Houston, Sunday, 1:00
LINE: Texans by 12
KEY INJURIES: Dolphins -- QUESTIONABLE: LT Jake Long (knee), MLB Karlos Dansby (knee), WR Brian Hartline (calf), DT Tony McDaniel (leg) PROBABLE: OLB Kevin Burnett (back), RG Artis Hicks (neck); Texans -- OUT: OT Rashad Butler (triceps, IR), ILB Daryl Sharpton (hip, PUP PROBABLE: DE J.J. Watt (elbow), NT Shaun Cody (back)
THE SKINNY: First foray as a head coach for new Miami sideline boss Joe Philbin and initial NFL regular-season start at quarterback for Dolphins' 2012 first-round pick and Texas native Ryan Tannehill...Rookie will face rugged Houston defense that helped spur reigning AFC South champion Texans' first- ever playoff berth in 2011 by ranking second in the league in yards allowed (285.7 ypg), third against the run and fourth versus the pass...Houston coming off franchise-best 10-6 regular season and advanced to Divisional Round of conference playoffs despite quarterback Matt Schaub, who'll make first regular-season appearance since November, missing eight games with foot injury...Texans own 6-0 lifetime record in series and handed Dolphins 23-13 loss in Miami during Week 2 of last season...Dolphins finished third overall in run defense (95.6 ypg) a year ago, but allowed 103 yards on the ground to Houston No. 2 back Ben Tate in last September's encounter...Miami released veteran quarterback David Garrard on Tuesday while claiming safety Troy Nolan off waivers from the Texans following final cuts...Dolphins also awarded ex-Washington wide receiver Anthony Armstrong on waivers...Houston signed veteran offensive tackle Ryan Harris to fill Butler's roster spot on Saturday.
PREDICTION: A real tough spot for Tannehill, who figures to be handed a hard first lesson at the hands of Wade Phillips and Houston's exceptional defense. Texans 23, Dolphins 6.
New England at Tennessee, Sunday, 1:00
LINE: Patriots by 6
KEY INJURIES: Patriots -- OUT: TE Jake Ballard (knee, PUP), DT Myron Pryor (pectoral, PUP), FB Spencer Larsen (undisclosed, IR) DOUBTFUL: TE Visanthe Shiancoe (undisclosed) QUESTIONABLE: SS Patrick Chung (shoulder), FS Steve Gregory (leg), RB Shane Vereen (foot) PROBABLE: RB Stevan Ridley (knee), RT Sebastian Vollmer (back); Titans -- OUT: WR Kenny Britt (suspension), C Eugene Amano (triceps, IR), DE Dave Ball (concussion, IR), KR Marc Mariani (leg, IR), DE Leger Douzable (shoulder, IR) PROBABLE: DT Jurrell Casey (elbow), DT Sen'Derrick Marks (knee)
THE SKINNY: 2011 first-round pick Jake Locker set to make first career start for Titans after winning preseason competition with 15th-year pro Matt Hasselbeck, and goes up against New England defense that placed last in the NFL in both total yards (411.1 ypg) and passing yards allowed despite team reaching Super Bowl XLVI...Patriots triggerman Tom Brady coming off personal- best 5,235-yard season, the second-highest total in NFL history, and threw for 380 yards and a career high-tying six touchdowns in 59-0 rout of Titans in teams' last meeting, which took place in Foxborough in 2009...Brady led New England offense to No. 2 overall ranking in total yards (428.0 ypg) and passing as club averaged 32.1 points per game en route to 13-3 record and third straight AFC East title...Pats ended 2011 regular season on eight-game winning streak...New England released veteran wide receiver Deion Branch, center Dan Koppen and backup quarterback Brian Hoyer during final cuts while acquiring second-year wideout Greg Salas from St. Louis on Saturday...Tennessee finished 31st in NFL in sacks (28) last year, but added ex-Raiders pass rusher Kamerion Wimbley in free agency...Titans 2012 first- round choice, wide receiver Kendall Wright, slated to start for Britt, while rookie high picks Chandler Jones (defensive end) and Donta' Hightower (linebacker) have earned regular roles on revamped New England defense.
PREDICTION: Patriots may be more methodical than usual after making a few surprising deletions at wide receiver, but it's still hard to bet against Brady with a first-time starter at quarterback on the opposing side. Patriots 27, Titans 23.
Philadelphia at Cleveland, Sunday, 1:00
LINE: Eagles by 8
KEY INJURIES: Eagles -- OUT: LT Jason Peters (Achilles, NFI), DT Mike Patterson (brain surgery, NFI) DOUBTFUL: WR Riley Cooper (collarbone), S Colt Anderson (knee) PROBABLE: QB Michael Vick (ribs), DE Jason Babin (calf), FS Nate Allen (hamstring); Browns -- OUT: OLB Scott Fujita (suspension), OLB Chris Gocong (Achilles, IR), DT Phil Taylor (triceps, PUP), DE Marcus Benard (elbow, IR) DOUBTFUL: CB Dimitri Patterson (ankle) QUESTIONABLE: RB Trent Richardson (knee), OLB James-Michael Johnson (oblique) PROBABLE: TE Ben Watson (leg)
THE SKINNY: Browns begin second year of rebuilding plan under head coach Pat Shurmur, an assistant under Eagles head coach Andy Reid for 10 years from 1999-2008, with 28-year-old rookie Brandon Weeden to start at quarterback and 2012 No. 3 overall draft choice Richardson tentatively expected to see time after sitting out all of preseason recovering from a knee scope...Vick on track to play despite leaving pair of tuneup games with bruised ribs and an injured throwing hand...Teams also met in preseason on Aug. 24, with Eagles posting a 27-10 victory, and Philadelphia is 3-0 against Cleveland in regular- season play under Reid...Browns haven't beaten Eagles since 1994 and have dropped seven consecutive Week 1 openers, six of which took place at home...Fujita to begin serving three-game penalty for role in New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal during previous tenure with that team...Patterson one of five former Eagles on Cleveland roster, along with cornerback Sheldon Brown, defensive end Juqua Parker, tight end Alex Smith and wide receiver Jordan Norwood...Philadelphia had minus-14 turnover margin during disappointing 8-8 campaign in 2011, but closed out season with four straight wins and went 5-3 on road...Cleveland defense was third-best in NFL in red zone touchdown percentage (40.8), while Eagles were 30th in that category (59.6 percent)...Browns traded reserve safety David Sims to Philadelphia during Friday's roster cutdown.
PREDICTION: Familiarity will breed contempt for the hard-luck Browns, who simply don't have the skill or experience to hang with a far more loaded Philadelphia team. Eagles 30, Browns 17.
St. Louis at Detroit, Sunday, 1:00
LINE: Lions by 8 1/2
KEY INJURIES: Rams -- OUT: DT Michael Brockers (ankle), WR Austin Pettis (suspension), DT Trevor Laws (knee, IR), DT Darell Scott (knee) QUESTIONABLE: DT Matt Conrath (knee) PROBABLE: C Scott Wells (knee), WR Brandon Gibson (hamstring), S Darian Stewart (hamstring); Lions -- OUT: RB Jahvid Best (concussion, PUP), RB Mikel Leshoure (suspension) QUESTIONABLE: FS Louis Delmas (knee), CB Chris Houston (ankle), CB Dwight Bentley (shoulder) PROBABLE: RB Kevin Smith (ankle), DE Kyle Vanden Bosch (knee), RB/KR Stefan Logan (ankle)
THE SKINNY: Rams' first regular season game under head coach Jeff Fisher comes against the former Tennessee commander's onetime assistant Jim Schwartz, who spent 10 years with the Fisher-led Titans as a defensive aide from 2001-08 before becoming Lions' head coach...Schwartz guided Detroit to 10-6 record and franchise's first playoff berth since 1999 last season, with quarterback Matthew Stafford throwing for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns and star wideout Calvin Johnson gaining league-best 1,681 receiving yards to lead NFL's fifth- ranked offense...Rebuilding Rams to field seven new starters on defense that finished 31st against the run during last year's 2-14 disaster, including 2012 first-round choice Brockers, second-round cornerback Janoris Jenkins and free- agent corner Cortland Finnegan...The injured Brockers and Jenkins are two of 17 rookies to make St. Louis' Week 1 roster...Rams allowed league-high 55 sacks in 2011 and face potent Detroit pass rush led by Vanden Bosch, end Cliff Avril and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh...Smith to start at running back for Lions with Best sidelined and Leshoure serving two-game ban for offseason drug arrest...Detroit signed veteran cornerback Drayton Florence on Saturday to shore up banged-up secondary...St. Louis released projected backup quarterback Kellen Clemens at final cuts and let go of offensive lineman Quinn Ojinnaka on Sunday, while trading wide receiver Greg Salas to New England over weekend.
PREDICTION: A makeshift St. Louis offensive line won't have an answer for the Lions' persistent pass rush, and Rams don't have the horses to give a Detroit team that can light it up a serious run anyhow. Lions 31, Rams 13.
Washington at New Orleans, Sunday, 1:00
LINE: Saints by 9
KEY INJURIES: Redskins -- OUT: RT Jammal Brown (hip, PUP), NT Chris Neild (knee, IR) QUESTIONABLE: LG Kory Lichtensteiger (knee) PROBABLE: OLB Brian Orakpo (shoulder), SS Brandon Meriweather (knee), FB Darrel Young (hamstring) Saints -- OUT: DE Will Smith (suspension), OLB Chris Chamberlain (knee, IR), WR Nick Toon (foot, IR), CB Marquis Johnson (knee, IR) QUESTIONABLE: MLB Curtis Lofton (ankle), OLB David Hawthorne (knee), WR Adrian Arrington (knee) PROBABLE: RB Darren Sproles (knee), CB Jabari Greer (hernia surgery)
THE SKINNY: Rookie sensation Robert Griffin III to make eagerly awaited first career start at quarterback for Redskins against defending NFC South champion Saints squad to be led by Aaron Kromer, filling in for interim head coach Joe Vitt with both the latter and usual man in charge Sean Payton suspended in the wake of the NFL's offseason crackdown of the team's bounty program...Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma to sit out all of the 2012 schedule as punishment, with Smith getting a four-game penalty...New Orleans coming off 13-3 season in 2011 in which quarterback Drew Brees set league single-year record with 5,476 passing yards along with 46 touchdown throws...Including playoffs, Saints went 9-0 while averaging 41.6 points per game at home last season...Washington making first trip to Superdome since posting 16-10 win there in 2006...Redskins released veteran running back Tim Hightower during Friday's cuts, with second-year pros Evan Royster and Roy Helu and rookie Alfred Morris expected to rotate in team's backfield...2011 Heisman Trophy recipient Griffin produced a 103.3 passer rating and completed 64.5 percent of his throws in the preseason.
PREDICTION: Griffin's dangerous scrambling skills will pose some problems for a New Orleans defense with some health issues at linebacker, but outgunning Brees and the Saints' vast array of playmakers inside the Superdome still doesn't appear realistic. Saints 31, Redskins 24.
Carolina at Tampa Bay, Sunday, 4:25
LINE: Panthers by 2 1/2
KEY INJURIES: Panthers -- OUT: WR David Gettis (hamstring, PUP), CB Brandon Hogan (knee, IR), DT Andre Neblett (suspension) QUESTIONABLE: RB Jonathan Stewart (ankle), MLB Jon Beason (hamstring) PROBABLE: WR Steve Smith (foot); Buccaneers -- OUT: G Davin Joseph (knee, IR), DE Da'Quan Bowers (Achilles, PUP), CB E.J. Biggers (foot) QUESTIONABLE: WR Arrelious Benn (knee) PROBABLE: MLB Mason Foster (hamstring)
THE SKINNY: Greg Schiano has his official coronation as an NFL head coach as the former Rutgers program architect leads an overhauled Buccaneers team that ended last season on a brutal 10-game losing streak that included a pair of lopsided losses to the upstart Panthers in December...Carolina cruised to a 38-19 victory at Raymond James Stadium in Week 13 and delivered a 48-16 throttling of the Bucs in Charlotte three weeks later, rushing for a combined 433 yards in the two games...Panthers quarterback and 2011 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Cam Newton accounted for eight touchdowns (4 passing, 4 rushing) in those two triumphs...Carolina has prevailed in seven of its last nine trips to Tampa...Wide receiver Vincent Jackson and All-Pro left guard Carl Nicks to make their regular-season debuts as Buccaneers after joining the club as high-profile free-agent signings during the offseason...2012 first- round pick Doug Martin expected to open at running back for Tampa Bay as one of three rookie starters, along with heralded safety Mark Barron and linebacker Lavonte David...Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, taken two spots behind Barron at ninth overall in April's draft, also tabbed for a regular role on his new team...Buccaneers allowed league-worst 494 points during last year's 4-12 season while finishing last in run defense (156.1 ypg) and 30th in total defense, while Carolina ranked 28th in total yards allowed.
PREDICTION: Panthers ran all over the Bucs in last year's two meetings, and should be able to do so again with Tampa's defense still in a state of flux. Panthers 34, Buccaneers 24.
San Francisco at Green Bay, Sunday, 4:25
LINE: Packers by 5
KEY INJURIES: 49ers -- OUT: OLB Parys Haralson (arm, IR) QUESTIONABLE: RB Brandon Jacobs (knee), WR Ted Ginn Jr. (ankle); Packers -- OUT: ILB Desmond Bishop (hamstring, IR), TE Andrew Quarless (knee, PUP), OLB Erik Walden (suspension), OT Derek Sherrod (leg, PUP) QUESTIONABLE: RB James Starks (toe), CB Davon House (shoulder) PROBABLE: NT B.J. Raji (ankle)
THE SKINNY: High-profile Week 1 matchup between the top two seeds of last season's NFC Playoffs that features a pair of quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 2005 draft in the 49ers' Alex Smith (No. 1 overall) and 2011 league MVP Aaron Rodgers (No. 24) on the Packers' side...Green Bay coming off stellar 15-1 regular season and owns 13-game non-playoff winning streak at Lambeau Field, where San Francisco hasn't won since 1990...Including playoffs, 49ers have lost eight straight times in Green Bay since that victory and have dropped nine in a row overall to the Packers in regular-season play, most recently a 34-16 setback in Lambeau in 2010...Game pits a contrast in styles, with Green Bay topping the league in scoring (35.0) and ranking third in both total offense (405.1 ypg) and passing yards (307.8 ypg) last season, while stout San Francisco defense yielded the second-fewest points (14.3 ppg) and fourth-fewest total yards to fuel team's run to NFC Championship Game...Packers also third overall in red zone touchdown percentage (65.2) in 2011, while Niners 30th in that category (40.7 percentage) and received league-record 44 field goals from clutch kicker David Akers...San Francisco offseason pickup and seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Randy Moss returns to NFL after opting to sit out entire 2011 season...49ers signed veteran outside linebacker Clark Haggans after placing Haralson on IR Monday.
PREDICTION: San Francisco's rugged stop unit is more than capable of slowing down a Green Bay offense that appeared out of sync for much of the preseason, but the Niners won't win if they're settling for Akers field goals like they did much of last season. Packers 20, 49ers 16.
Seattle at Arizona, Sunday, 4:25
LINE: Seahawks by 2 1/2
KEY INJURIES: Seahawks -- OUT: CB Walter Thurmond (leg, PUP), G James Carpenter (knee), LB Matt McCoy (knee, IR) PROBABLE: RB Marshawn Lynch (back), WR Doug Baldwin (hamstring), DT Jason Jones (knee), QB Matt Flynn (elbow); Cardinals -- OUT: LT Levi Brown (triceps, IR), OT Jeremy Bridges (thumb, IR) PROBABLE: RB Beanie Wells (knee), RB Ryan Williams (knee)
THE SKINNY: Clash of NFC West members with surprising starters at quarterback, with exciting rookie Russell Wilson overtaking free-agent addition Flynn for the Seahawks' No. 1 job and Cardinals tabbing John Skelton over pre-camp favorite Kevin Kolb...Both teams put forth strong finishes in 2011, with Arizona winning five of its final six outings and Seattle going 5-3 over season's second half...Cardinals have come out on top in five of six bouts with Seahawks held at University of Phoenix Stadium, including 23-20 overtime decision in last season's finale...Seattle 3-1 in series over head coach Pete Carroll's first two seasons, however, and posted 13-10 home victory over Arizona last September...Seahawks went 4-0 during the preseason and outscored opponents by a 122-44 margin in those contests...Skelton produced 5-2 record in seven starts a year ago and was under center for Cardinals' Week 17 triumph over Seattle...Lynch rushed for career-best 1,204 yards last season and averaged 104.6 yards and 23.4 carries over final nine weeks...Seahawks released tight end Kellen Winslow on Saturday while signing ex-Brown Evan Moore to fill spot...Arizona has won two straight and three of past four season openers.
PREDICTION: Cardinals seem to find a way to overcome their constant quarterback problems and pull out close games, and Wilson and the Seahawks may be primed for a bit of a comedown after soaring through the preseason. Cardinals 20, Seahawks 17.
Pittsburgh at Denver, Sunday, 8:25
LINE: Broncos by 1
KEY INJURIES: Steelers -- OUT: RB Rashard Mendenhall (knee), RG David DeCastro (knee), TE Weslye Saunders (suspension), ILB Sean Spence (knee, IR) DOUBTFUL: FS Ryan Clark (medical condition) QUESTIONABLE: OLB James Harrison (knee), OLB Jason Worilds (wrist) PROBABLE: RB Isaac Redman (hip/ankle), DE Brett Keisel (ankle), NT Casey Hampton (knee); Broncos -- OUT: OLB D.J. Williams (suspension), RG Chris Kuper (arm), DE Jason Hunter (triceps), TE Virgil Green (suspension) QUESTIONABLE: OLB Keith Brooking (hamstring) PROBABLE: RB Lance Ball (ribs), S Quinton Carter (knee)
THE SKINNY: Rematch of January's thrilling AFC Wild Card Playoff encounter that will offer added intrigue with Peyton Manning's much-billed Broncos' regular-season debut and first meaningful action since the 2010 postseason...Denver ended Steelers' 2011 campaign with memorable 29-23 overtime playoff upset at Sports Authority Field, with deciding points coming on 80-yard touchdown pass from since-departed quarterback Tim Tebow to Demaryius Thomas on first play of extra time...Thomas ended with 204 receiving yards on just four catches in that win, while Broncos defense sacked Pittsburgh signal-caller Ben Roethlisberger five times...Redman rushed for career-high 121 yards on only 17 carries for Steelers in losing cause...Pittsburgh has also lost in four of its last five non-playoff visits to Denver, but did record 28-10 victory in most recent trip in 2009...Broncos went just 3-5 at home during last year's unexpected Tebow-led march to AFC West title, however...Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace to play despite rejoining team in late August after staging prolonged holdout over dissatisfaction with contract, while Harrison to be used only situationally if active after missing entire preseason...Manning to face Pittsburgh defense that surrendered league lows in passing yards (171.9 ypg) and points (227) during last year's 12-4 campaign...Broncos ranked first in rushing offense (164.5 ypg) but 31st in passing yards (152.1 ypg) in 2011.
PREDICTION: Manning will make a difference, but the thin Denver air may prove to be the Broncos' best advantage with the Steelers experiencing some depth concerns at a number of key spots. Broncos 24, Steelers 19.
Cincinnati at Baltimore, Monday, 7:00
LINE: Ravens by 6
KEY INJURIES: Bengals -- OUT: C Kyle Cook (ankle), G Travelle Wharton (knee, IR), DT Pat Sims (hamstring, PUP), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (knee) DOUBTFUL: DE Carlos Dunlap (knee) QUESTIONABLE: RB Bernard Scott (knee), CB Jason Allen (leg), CB Adam Jones (calf) PROBABLE: QB Andy Dalton (arm), TE Jermaine Gresham (knee), MLB Rey Maualuga (knee), DE Robert Geathers (knee); Ravens -- OUT: OLB Terrell Suggs (Achilles, PUP), DT Ryan McBean (ankle, IR), S Emanuel Cook (leg, IR) DOUBTFUL: OLB Courtney Upshaw (shoulder), S Sean Considine (concussion) PROBABLE: TE Ed Dickson (shoulder), TE Dennis Pitta (hand), RG Marshal Yanda (knee)
THE SKINNY: Clash of AFC North inhabitants and 2011 playoff participants with strong defenses, with Bengals aiming to halt three-game losing skid in series...Ravens intercepted Dalton three times en route to 31-24 decision at M&T Bank Stadium last November, and have won 11 straight and 19 of last 20 outings at home including postseason...Baltimore also bested Bengals by 24-16 count in Cincinnati during Week 17 to clinch division title and extend current winning streak over AFC North foes to eight games...Ravens finished second in NFL in run defense (92.6 ypg) and allowed third-fewest points (266) and total yards (288.9 ypg), but will be without reigning league Defensive Player of the Year Suggs until at least November...Cincinnati ranked seventh in total defense last season, but surrendered combined 295 rushing yards and four touchdowns to running back Ray Rice in two meetings with Baltimore...First NFL game for Ravens rookie kicker Justin Tucker, who won preseason battle with incumbent Billy Cundiff, best remembered for missing short field goal attempt that would have forced overtime in 23-20 loss to New England in January's AFC Championship...Veteran center Jeff Faine, signed by Bengals last week, expected to fill in for Cook...Ravens signed ex-Patriots safety James Ihedigbo Saturday with injuries thinning team's depth on back end.
PREDICTION: Ravens won't miss Suggs a whole lot this week, as the Bengals don't appear to have the firepower to put much of a dent in a Baltimore defense that's still got plenty of bite. Ravens 24, Bengals 13.
San Diego at Oakland, Sunday, 10:15
LINE: Chargers by 1
KEY INJURIES: Chargers -- OUT: LT Jared Gaither (back), WR Vincent Brown (ankle), OT Brandyn Dombrowski (foot, NFI) DOUBTFUL: RB Ryan Mathews (collarbone) QUESTIONABLE: RB Jackie Battle (foot) PROBABLE: CB Quentin Jammer (hamstring), WR Eddie Royal (groin), C Nick Hardwick (concussion), OLB Melvin Ingram (thigh), TE Dante Rosario (leg), RB Curtis Brinkley (thigh), CB Marcus Gilchrist (hamstring); Raiders -- OUT: OLB Aaron Curry (knees, PUP) QUESTIONABLE: WR Denarius Moore (hamstring), WR Jacoby Ford (foot), C Stefen Wisniewski (calf) PROBABLE: DT Richard Seymour (knee), K Sebastian Janikowski (groin)
THE SKINNY: Longtime AFC West foes renew rivalry in first game for Raiders rookie head coach Dennis Allen, team's seventh man in charge in last 10 seasons that includes a two-year stint from current Chargers boss Norv Turner from 2004-05...Both teams finished 8-8 a year ago but lost out to Denver in tiebreaker for division crown, with San Diego denying Oakland outright title with 38-26 victory at Coliseum in season finale...Raiders had won three straight in series before that defeat, including 24-17 triumph in San Diego last November, but Chargers had bested Oakland 13 consecutive times prior to that streak...Veteran Ronnie Brown expected to take Mathews' place and faces Raiders defense that allowed 136.1 rushing yards per game (27th overall) in 2011, while undrafted rookie Mike Harris to make first career start subbing for Gaither...San Diego State product and 2012 fourth-round selection Miles Burris gets nod for Oakland at weakside linebacker with Curry out...Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer owns 122.5 passer rating and 13-to-3 touchdown-to- interception ratio in five career starts against San Diego...Oakland signed experienced cornerback Joselio Hanson on Monday while waiving two 2011 draft picks at the position, DeMarcus Van Dyke (3rd Round) and Chimdi Chekwa (4th).
PREDICTION: Raiders don't do many things that well, but can put pressure on the quarterback and are far more difficult to defend with a healthy Darren McFadden at running back. The Chargers' injury problems could very well lead to another slow start out of the blocks. Raiders 30, Chargers 24.
2011 record (straight up): 165-102 (.618) 2011 record (vs. spread): 128-130-9 (.496)
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