Football fans awoke this morning very excited. That’s because the NFL is back for another season that begins this evening in Chicago where the Green Bay Packers and the Bears renew a rivalry that began in 1921 and the two teams will play tonight in the 199th game of their long series.
The Packers have won 97 of those 198 games played losing 95 and there have been six ties. Come Sunday, the rest of the league will be playing their games with two games set for Monday night. The kickoff for MNF 2019 will be the Houston Texans visiting the New Orleans Saints and in the second game the matchup is between the Denver Broncos who are on the road in Oakland to face the new look Raiders.
For the Pittsburgh Steelers, it is a HUGE opening game as they visit the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots. All my picks for the remaining 15 games appear below but first a preview of what I expect from Sunday night when Devin Bush and other new members of wearing Black and Gold for the first time make their debut.
For the Pittsburgh Steelers most of Steelers Nation dreads having to travel to New England to play the Patriots. The series between the two teams is actually tied at 16 including playoffs and during the regular season, the Steelers hold a 15-12 advantage. It’s in the post-season where New England has the Steelers number. In the playoffs, the Patriots OWN the Steelers with four victories in five meetings.
When the schedule has had Pittsburgh on the road playing New England, the Steelers have lost six of 10 played in Foxboro. Some of those were bad losses, having been dropped 36-17 the last time Pittsburgh played on Patriots’ turf, that coming in the post-season on January 22, 2017. The Patriots have also dumped the Steelers by scores of 55-31, 34-13, 30-14, and 28-3 in games played in New England.
So why should the 2019 season opener be any different? Obviously, Tom Brady is back for another season. He still has some very good weapons on offense but gone is the “Steelers killer” named Rob Gronkowski. For me, New England’s offense is beatable. It’s their schemes and the combination of smarts and adjustments between Brady and head coach Bill Belichick that makes this team so good.
Defensively, New England is strong and they have proven they can switch game plans while on the field to ensure the can stop any bleeding that begins. But have they improved since winning the Super Bowl last February? I argue no. Have the Steelers improved since having their dismal season of 2018 and missing the playoffs? That’s a definitive YES. Some crafty veterans came in, the draft was strong, and two cancers are no longer with the team the B&B duo of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Ben Roethlisberger gave the impression in training camp and in the pre-season that he was as excited about this forthcoming season as any season prior. Why? Perhaps it’s because he knows there won’t be the drama of an Antonio Brown or Le’Veon Bell. But also because he has a few new toys to work with. James Conner returns from injury and if he picks up from where he left off in 2018 then the Steelers running game will be in excellent shape.
Backing up Conner is Jaylen Samuels who was impressive last season and then there is rookie Benny Snell Jr. who earned a spot on the roster in his first-ever NFL season. Snell played his college ball at the University of Kentucky where he set or tied 14 school records. In 39 games with the Wildcats, Snell rushed for 3,873 yards which is nearly 100 yards per game.
One of Big Ben’s new “toys” is veteran receiver Donte Moncrief who comes in from Jacksonville and will take over for JuJu Smith-Schuster in the #2 wide receiving role and JuJu replaces A.B. as the #1. James Washington seems to have found himself playing well in the preseason and Diontae Johnson opened eyes in the pre-season to the point it cost Eli Rogers his spot on the regular season roster.
Expect the Steelers to come out running and test New England’s secondary first with some slot patterns then when the time is right sending Washington deep but also keep your eyes open for a Diontae Johnson splash play. I think the Steelers can certainly move the ball downfield on New England but no matter what happens, keep in mind this is only game #1. As indicated, the Patriots defense is solid. But usually, it takes the Patriots time to jell and by near season’s end that is when they are most dangerous.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
There is no more “Steelers killer” named Rob Gronkowski. He retired following the Super Bowl. Steelers Nation, you can now say WHEW. But does that mean New England’s offense all the sudden becomes dramatically more inept? Don’t count on it. Tom Brady still has a dangerous Sony Michel in his backfield with James White to spell him. Michel is coming off a fantastic rookie campaign that saw him rush for 931 yards.
On the receiving end, Julian Edelman is the primary weapon and as he plays the slot, Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton will be on defense for many of the expected slot patterns. Hilton described what he expects:
“He’s one of the top, if not the top slot guy in the league. So you know I’m excited for the challenge. I feel like I’m one of the better slot corners in the league, also, so I feel like it’ll be a competitive matchup. He reads coverages real fast. He sits in zones. Knows how to read defenses, break it down quickly. The connection him and Brady have, it’s right spot, right time, ball’s going to be there. Barbecue or mildew. Are you going to ball up and make plays or ... is it just not going to go well for you?”
Josh Gordon backs up Edelman and then on the other side is Phillip Dorsett. The New England Patriots have always played methodical football. They beat you with schemes and not big plays most of the time. They key to beating New England is obviously stopping their offense. While the Steelers defense blew leads on all three of the four AFC west division teams last year, this year’s version of the defense has a new look.
Returning the front line of Pittsburgh’s defense is Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave, and Stephon Tuitt. That’s pretty formidable in itself. But at linebacker, it won’t be long before top rookie Devin Bush moves past veteran Mark Barron on the depth chart and becomes a starter. But for now, Barron is coming off a Super Bowl appearance and a season that saw him register 53 sacks in 12 games. The other three spots are manned by Vince Williams on the right inside (and Williams says he is going to have his best season yet), Bud Dupree to the right outside, and of course T.J. Watt on the left outside.
Anthony Chickillo is a scrapper and a fine backup as is Tyler Matakevich both cut from the same mold. But at the right inside linebacker position keep your eyes open for Ulysees Gilbert III who was drafted in the sixth round this year and had jaws dropping in the preseason and during training camp.
In the secondary, Artie Burns survived training camp and saved his spot on the roster but he failed to win back his starting job which goes to veteran Steven Nelson coming in from the Kansas City Chiefs. Sean Davis, Joe Haden, and Terrell Edmunds round out the cornerback and safety positions. This defense should be solid and is absolutely being disrespected. That’s to Pittsburgh’s advantage.
The Steelers believe they can defeat New England on the road or at home. In last year’s meeting the Steelers prevailed at Heinz Field by a score of 17-10. The record speaks for itself unfortunately for Steelers fans because just like how Pittsburgh owns the Cleveland Browns, the Patriots have owned the Steelers for the last several seasons. In fact, New England has won seven of the last 10 meetings that includes a playoff loss in 2017. Prior to last year’s victory, the Patriots won five straight meetings.
The crowd in Foxboro is going to be LOUD, vocal, and in a frenzy from New England raising yet another championship flag one which puts them in a tie with the Steelers at six Super Bowl triumphs. Now the race is on to see who reaches seven first. It will be one of the most difficult atmospheres the Steelers have been in for a very long time.
My gut is telling me that the Steelers can do this. My brain speaks otherwise. When you are owned by a team, it’s hard to break out of the rut. I’m going to go the way of the gut and say the Steelers win a very close and toughly fought battle here and the start of proving all the naysayers wrong begins. Steelers 24 Patriots 21.
Now for my crystal ball selections on NFL week #1.
Green Bay at Chicago
I t all begins with ‘Da Bears. Green Bay strolls in with a new head coach the first time someone other than Mike McCarthy has been at the helm since 2006. That man is Matt LaFleur and he has the job of resurrecting the Pack and extending the NFL life of Aaron Rodgers getting him back to form. The Bears were a big surprise in 2018 and now it remains to be seen if they can have a repeat performance. For this game at least they should rise up. Bears 27 Packers 17.
Tennessee at Cleveland
The biggest question in the NFL for this season might be, how good are the Cleveland Browns…really? I say better but not a playoff team…yet. Opening at home against the very tough Titans, as much as I want a Tennessee victory just to prove that the Browns aren’t for real, I think they win this one. Browns 30 Titans 23.
Baltimore at Miami
Down in Miami, Ryan Tannehill is gone, Josh Rosen comes in and subsequently can’t beat out Ryan Fitzpatrick for the starting quarterback role. Baltimore is clearly the better team but I like the upset here. Dolphins 23 Ravens 17.
Atlanta at Minnesota
The Falcons are one team many are expecting to bounce back and be a playoff contender. I don’t buy it. Vikings 41 Falcons 21.
Buffalo at New York Jets
Fasten your seatbelts Steelers fans. We will all be focused on how Le’Veon Bell does in his debut. This guy cried about being overworked when in Pittsburgh now he wants the ball 500 times. He’ll have success wearing Green and White but I believe he will never achieve the yardage he had behind the Steelers offensive line. This Jets team is simply not that good. One man won’t make the team a winner no matter how great he is. But, the Bills are no better. Jets 28 Bills 14.
Washington at Philadelphia
With Alex Smith sidelined with a serious fractured leg injury, Case Keenum is the man on the spot with rookie Dwayne Haskins looking over his shoulder. The Eagles are prepared to make another run at the Super Bowl and it begins here. Philadelphia no longer has a quarterback controversy with Nick Foles in Jacksonville. Eagles 33 Redskins 14.
Los Angeles Rams at Carolina
The Panthers are another once playoff contending team looking to bounce back big in 2019. The Rams have a stifling defense that should get the job done on this day. Rams 24 Panthers 10.
Kansas City at Jacksonville
Many are picking the Chiefs as Super Bowl champions of the 2019 season. I’m not onboard with that. The Jaguars have a fantastic defense that hits hard and are ball hawks. Their offense with Nick Noles may not be much better than what it was with Blake Bortles. There just aren’t enough weapons. But I think defense will rule the day here. Upset special…Jaguars 20 Chiefs 17.
Indianapolis at Los Angeles Chargers
The Colts will near quickly about life without Luck. Andrew Luck has retired and that leaves Jacoby Brissett in charge. Good luck with that. Chargers 45 Colts 13.
Cincinnati at Seattle
The Steelers need not worry about the Bengals as a threat in their division this season. For that matter, no one in the NFL does. Cincinnati is not going to be a very good team. Even with a new coach in Zac Taylor it won’t matter. The Seahawks on the other hand are in the conversation for Super Bowl contenders in the NFC. Seahawks 47 Bengals 9.
New York Giants at Dallas
The question in New York is when does Daniel Jones take over for Eli Manning? A few New York losses and some bad performances from Manning and it’s on. It begins on this day. Cowboys 33 Giants 17.
Detroit at Arizona
It’s the Kyler Murray show. Overall number on pick Murray is the starter at quarterback although Brett Hundley did play well in the preseason. But the Cards are going with the kid with new head coach Kliff Kingsbury making his NFL debut. This could be Larry Fitzgerald’s final season and what might turn out to be a growing pains season for Arizona may just add more fuel to the fire for the great Fitzgerald to walk away from the game. Cardinals 24 Lions 21.
San Francisco at Tampa Bay
New head coaches are everywhere this season in the NFL and down in Tampa, former Steelers offensive coordinator and ex-cardinals head coach Bruce Arians takes over with the Bucs. Many are expecting him to get great production our of Jameis Winston and for the Niners, they are hoping for a rebound season from Jimmy Garoppolo. The better defense wins this one. Buccaneers 27 49ers 21.
Houston at New Orleans
As it has been for several years now, the opening of the NFL season treats us to TWO Monday Night Football games. The first is in New Orleans where the Saints are expecting nothing short of a Super Bowl appearance. For Houston they received a devastating blow when Lamar Miller went down and out for the season with a torn ACL. In comes former Brown Duke Johnson with Carlos Hyde backing him up. DeAndre Hopkins remains one of the best receivers in the league but the Saints are just too much. Saints 35 Texans23.
Denver at Oakland
What a way to close week #1 than to have the final game featuring the debut of Antonio Brown wearing something other than Black and Gold. For Raiders fans just get ready for the circus. I’m waiting patiently for A.B. to blow up on the field and in the locker room because Derek Carr did not get him the ball enough for made some type of mistake that involves Brown. Oakland will find out what it’s like to have a real locker room cancer for at least for their season opener, I like them to win this one. Don’t be surprised if Antonio Brown scores at least once and maybe more than starts showboating like he’s the greatest receiver in the league. But my expectation is that he is going to have a long season and not as a productive one that he is used to. Raiders 31 Broncos 21.
This week I’ll post some expert’s predictions for the Steelers/Patriots game but for now here’s a little taste:
NFL Week 1 underdog plays: Jags to stun Chiefs, Pats on upset watch
Alex Moretto, theScore.com
Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots
Line: Patriots -5.5
There are few teams the public loves more than the Patriots. Despite bets flooding in on the Super Bowl champs, the line has shifted from a -6.5 open down to -5.5, and even at -5 in some spots. Books are expecting a big liability on the Pats this week, as the betting split should be even more lopsided by kickoff. There's nothing more predictive in betting than people chasing their Sunday losses with the prime-time favorite. Don't fall into the trap this week.
Ask anyone in the Steelers organization how excited they are to get this season underway, and you'll probably see a massive smile creep onto their face. The Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown drama is behind them, and they're a better team without those distractions. Ben Roethlisberger's toughness, James Conner's fighting spirit, and Juju Smith-Schuster's infectious personality define this team now. Pittsburgh can score with just about anyone, and an already underrated defense will be that much better after trading up to draft Michigan linebacker Devin Bush 10th overall in April. He's my pick for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Bill Belichick has been known to use September to evaluate his roster, and his offense has been hit by a couple of injuries. New England will struggle to move the ball here, and the line is more about public perception than the actual gap between these two teams.
Pick: Steelers +5.5
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