The National Football League has gone old school to mark the beginning of its 100th year of existence, and what better way than to let the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears start things off with their 199th all-time meeting in a heated rivalry that spans back to 1921?
The 2019 season kicks off Thursday night, and while many things have changed over a century of football, more recent things seem to stay the same. Once again, the rest of the league is trying to find ways to knock off the New England Patriots, who lifted the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the sixth time in franchise history by defeating the upstart Los Angeles Rams in February.
Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, who has been coach and quarterback of the Patriots for all six titles in a run of unmatched sustained excellence, return once more. Now 42, Brady can add yet another milestone achievement in a career full of them by appearing in his 10th Super Bowl and help the Patriots become the first NFL team to win a seventh title and move ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers – their Week 1 opponent Sunday night.
All 32 teams are in action over five days, but the focus for this article is on the four nationally televised games on Thursday, Sunday, and Monday nights U.S. time.
Thursday, Sept. 5 – Green Bay (+3/-105) at Chicago (-3/-115), 8:20 p.m. EDT.
The Bears (-166), who won the NFC Central last season but made a wild-card exit after Cody Parkey’s potential game-winning 43-yard field goal hit both the left upright and crossbar to make “double-doink” part of the NFL lexicon, are again the division favorites and darkhorse Super Bowl contenders to emerge from the NFC.
Chicago’s calling card is its defense, which led the league against the run in 2018 by yielding just 80 yards per game and recorded an NFL-best 27 interceptions and 36 takeaways. Edge rusher Khalil Mack showed he was worth the steep price of two first-round draft picks as he finished with a team-best 12.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hurries.
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Mitch Trubisky made huge strides of progress in his first full season under center with first-year coach Matt Nagy, and while the upward trajectory may not be as linear this season, the third-year quarterback must improve to give Chicago a legitimate Super Bowl shot. Trubisky threw for 3,223 yards and 24 touchdowns, but the biggest difference on offense for the Bears will be the increased role of do-everything back Tarik Cohen, who had a team-high 71 catches and will use his speed to create chunk plays in space.
Green Bay (+144) has a new coach in Matt LaFleur, who spent each of the last two seasons as offensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams (2017) and Tennessee Titans (2018). LaFleur’s challenge? To get on the same page with veteran quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whose relationship with LaFleur’s predecessor Mike McCarthy deteriorated in the final seasons over play-call selection.
Rodgers played the entire season with a sprained MCL and fracture in his left knee and still threw for 4,442 yards and 25 TDs with just two interceptions. He and top wideout Davante Adams form a lethal 1-2 punch as Adams is coming off a career season in which he totaled 111 catches, 1,386 yards, and 13 touchdowns.
The X-factor for the Packers will be their defense. Veteran inside linebacker Clay Matthews departed via free agency, and Green Bay upgraded their pass rush on the edge by signing outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith from Baltimore and Washington, respectively.
One interesting wrinkle for this game, which has an over/under of 46.5 points – safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Adrian Amos have switched teams, with Clinton-Dix now in Chicago after spending his first four-plus seasons in Green Bay and Amos on the Packers after four years with the Bears.
Sunday, Sept. 8 – Pittsburgh Steelers (+5.5/-110) at New England Patriots (-5.5/-110), 8:20 p.m. EDT.
The Patriots (-245) will raise yet another championship banner at Gillette Stadium to commemorate their latest title, and they are again one of the favorites to emerge from the AFC. This season, though, has the potential to be more challenging than years past. This will be the first time Brady will be without tight end Rob Gronkowski since 2009, with the 30-year-old Gronkowski opting to retire in the offseason after a series of injuries sidelined him a combined 16 games over the past three seasons when including the playoffs.
Gronkowski’s ability to create mismatches at every vertical level – short, intermediate, and deep – allowed Brady to thrive in a short-passing game in which slot receivers would zip across the field laterally and turn shallow crosses into big gains. Julian Edelman missed some of the pre-season with a fractured thumb, but Brady’s top wide receiver is ready to go following a productive 74-catch season in 2018 after missing the first four games for violating the league’s PED policy.
Brady, who cleared 70,000 yards and 500 TD passes last season, may not have to do as much this year since the Patriots have a solid 1-2 running tandem in Sony Michel and James White. Michel finished his rookie season 69 yards shy of 1,000 despite missing three games, and White was an excellent safety valve for Brady with a team-best 87 catches.
Pittsburgh (+210) missed the playoffs for the first time in five years last season, sorely missing holdout running back Le’ Veon Bell’s dual-threat ability as it stumbled down the stretch with four losses in the final six games. Bell is gone for good – joining the New York Jets in free agency – and so is mercurial wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Brown, who sat out the final game of the season with Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes on the line, had such a strained relationship with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger the Steelers got back only a third and fifth-round draft pick after shipping him to the Oakland Raiders despite a sixth consecutive 100-catch season and league-high 15 TD receptions.
JuJu Smith-Schuster is more than capable of stepping into Brown’s spot as No. 1 receiver after a breakout sophomore season with 111 catches and 1,426 yards, but it will be whether running back James Conner and free-agent acquisition Donte Moncrief can raise their levels to help the Steelers avoid missing the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since 2012-13.
Even with both teams needing to fill sizable holes on offense, the over/under is a healthy 49.5 points.
Monday, Sept. 9 – Houston Texans (+6.5/Even) at New Orleans Saints (-6.5/-120), 7:10 p.m. EDT.
After an egregious missed call in the NFC Championship game arguably cost the New Orleans Saints (-280) a spot in the Super Bowl, the urgency to win a second title with 40-year-old quarterback Drew Brees has taken on added weight in the Big Easy heading into their season opener at home versus Houston.
Brees, who became the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards (74,437) and completions (6,586) last year, is also 20 touchdown passes shy of eclipsing Peyton Manning (539) for that all-time mark and should get there mid-season if he stays healthy and on pace in Sean Payton’s prolific offense. Brees also bettered his single-season record for completion percentage for the second straight year in 2018 at a staggering 74.4 percent.
Bruising inside running back Mark Ingram departed via free agency, but Latavius Murray arrives to take his spot. New Orleans still has Alvin Kamara, who is a nightmare matchup lined up wide or in the backfield because of his pace and has recorded 3,196 total yards from scrimmage his first two seasons in the league.
Brees’ favorite target, though, remains wide receiver Michael Thomas, who is also the highest-paid wide receiver in the NFL after signing a five-year, $100 million extension. Thomas has increased his production in receptions and yards each of his three seasons after setting an impressively high baseline in 2016 with 92 catches for 1,137 yards. He totaled 125 receptions and 1,405 yards with nine TDs last season as Brees had a jaw-dropping 85 percent completion rate throwing in his direction.
The Texans (+280) retooled their offense in the late pre-season deal with the Miami Dolphins that netted them left tackle Laremy Tunsil and wide receiver Kenny Stills. The former should help solidify a porous offensive line that allowed DeShaun Watson to be sacked an NFL-high 62 times in 2018, while the latter gives them a quality No. 2 receiving threat opposite DeAndre Hopkins, who had 115 catches, 1,572 yards, and 11 TDs despite being the focal point of opposing secondaries.
The late changes were not restricted to the offense as the AFC South champions also dealt disgruntled edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney to the Seattle Seahawks for linebackers Barkevious Mingo and Jacob Martin. While Clowney never became the elite pass rusher many expected as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft, he did take the pressure off defensive end J.J. Watt, who stayed healthy for the first time in three seasons and totaled 16 sacks, 18 tackles for loss, and 25 quarterback hurries.
While the Texans do have a solid run defense, the explosive quarterback-receiver combinations in this showdown have prompted oddsmakers to set the over/under at 52.5 points.
Monday, Sept. 9 – Denver Broncos (-1/-110) at Oakland Raiders (+1/-110), 10:15 p.m. EDT.
The AFC West rivals lock horns early in the season, but the focus in the Raiders’ final season in Oakland before they move to Las Vegas is on the sidelines, where Jon Gruden begins his second season after his dealing of Mack to Chicago and subsequently going 4-12.
Gruden also dealt wide receiver Amari Cooper to the Dallas Cowboys last season, getting an additional first-round pick for 2019. The two deals resulted in selecting Alabama running back Josh Jacobs at No. 24 and Mississippi State safety Johnathan Abraham at No. 27, but new general manager Mike Mayock caught everyone off-guard with the selection of Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell with the fourth overall pick.
The Raiders (-102) have been a constant in the headlines, though, because of the antics of the recently acquired Brown, who has been involved in one off-season drama after another from blistering his feet in a cryogenic chamber to his on-going grievances against the league about having to wear the newer type of safety-first NFL helmet as opposed to the older one he prefers – at one point threatening to retire rather than use the new helmet before eventually relenting.
If Brown can put all the distractions behind him, he should be able to form a solid tandem with quarterback Derek Carr, who threw for a career-best 4,049 yards in 2018 but had his touchdown output fall for a second straight season to 19.
Gruden is also going for his 100th career victory as he enters his 13th season overall and sixth with the Raiders around a seven-year run at Tampa Bay that included winning Super Bowl XXXVII.
Denver (-112) is on its fifth different starting quarterback entering its fifth season since the retirement of Manning following its Super Bowl 50 victory, and the hope is Joe Flacco fits the ball. Flacco became expendable in Baltimore when coach John Harbaugh opted to stick with rookie Lamar Jackson after Flacco fully recovered from a hip injury.
The Broncos acquired the 11-year veteran for a fourth-round pick, with team president and former Super Bowl-winning quarterback John Elway hoping the 34-year-old is the answer that Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, Brock Osweiler, and Case Keenum all were not since Manning hung up his No. 18.
Denver also brought in a new coach in Vic Fangio, with the well-traveled defensive mastermind finally getting his first head coaching gig at age 61. Fangio was the architect of the Bears’ stellar defense the past four seasons, and like in Chicago, he has a premier edge rusher with Von Miller plus a second one in Bradley Chubb. The pair combined 26.5 sacks last season, with Chubb recording 12 in his rookie campaign.