NFL Week 1 predictions: Our picks against the spread

Key matchups and picks for Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season. (Courtesy NFL)

By Emmanuel Morgan

New York Times

It’s back.

The NFL regular season is upon us with an additional 17th game for every team, with some hard-earned certitudes. From now until February, the league will try its darnedest to again complete its schedule without interruption — from COVID-19, hurricanes, whatever — until Super Bowl LVI can be played at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood.

What happens between now and then, though, is up to variables on and off the field. It’s fair to assume that only a handful of contenders have a shot at a championship, but what about as a week-to-week chaos agent? Well, that role could be filled by nearly any team. This week’s matchups include playoff rematches, the debuts of rookie quarterbacks and the returns of star players from injuries.

Here’s a look at Week 1, with all picks made against the spread by a new columnist who takes over the duty for the 2021 season.

THURSDAY’S OPENER

Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 5:20 p.m., NBC

Line: Buccaneers -8 Total: 52

Dak Prescott’s welcome back assignment from an ankle injury that ended his 2020 season will be to outperform Tom Brady while evading the pass rush of the Buccaneers, the defending Super Bowl champions. The Bucs retained all 22 starters from last season, including the defense that sacked Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes twice and hit him nine times in last season’s title game.

Protecting Prescott will be trickier without right guard Zack Martin, who tested positive for the coronavirus Saturday and is unlikely to play. Dallas’ defense, which ranked 28th last season in points allowed, has a new coordinator in Dan Quinn and added linebacker Micah Parsons via the draft. But will that be enough to consistently stop Brady? Pfft. Pick: Buccaneers -8

SUNDAY’S BEST GAMES

Cleveland Browns at Kansas City, 1:25 p.m., CBS

Line: Chiefs -6 Total: 53

A rematch of last season’s AFC divisional playoff gives new players on Cleveland and Kansas City the opportunity to show their value. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, a three-time Pro Bowl selection who is playing for his fourth team in four years, will attempt to pressure Patrick Mahomes. Kansas City’s upgraded offensive line — it has five new projected starters, including tackle Orlando Brown and guard Joe Thuney — looks to prevent jarring hits like the one in last season’s playoff game that sent Mahomes into the concussion protocol.

Odell Beckham Jr.’s return from a knee injury will give Kansas City’s defense another threat to account for. But if Mahomes is well protected, it will be risky to bet against him. Pick: Kansas City -6

Green Bay Packers at New Orleans Saints (kinda), 1:25 p.m., Fox

Line: Packers -4 Total: 50

Hurricane Ida’s devastation in New Orleans caused this game to be relocated to Jacksonville, Florida, adding another disruption to teams whose offseasons were full of them. The Packers and a disgruntled Aaron Rodgers finally settled their differences for perhaps one final try at a Super Bowl. The Saints, who have operated in Texas since late August, begin the post-Drew Brees era with Jameis Winston at quarterback. His test will be finding targets to carry the load of Michael Thomas, the team’s top receiver who is out for six weeks after having foot surgery in the offseason.

The Packers have had roster continuity and have not dealt with similar logistical hurdles. Pick: Packers -4

Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills, 10 a.m., CBS

Line: Bills -6.5 Total: 49

The Steelers deteriorated toward the end of last season while the Bills improved. Pittsburgh drafted Najee Harris in the first round to boost an abysmal rushing attack that netted only 3.6 yards per attempt, ranking last in the league. But quarterback Josh Allen’s ascent into one of the league’s best players should continue with Buffalo’s addition of wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to complement Stefon Diggs, who led the NFL in receiving yards and catches last season. Bills fans should get their tables ready. Pick: Bills -6.5

Arizona Cardinals at Tennessee Titans, 10 a.m., CBS

Line: Titans -2.5 Total: 52

Julio Jones. Derrick Henry. A.J. Brown. The Cardinals’ defense will be the first unit to try to contain Tennessee’s new-look offense. Will it focus on stopping Henry and creep defenders close to the line of scrimmage? Will it double-team Jones and leave Brown in man coverage? Vice versa? Regardless of the strategy, Arizona will do so with a young linebacker corps and questions at cornerback after Patrick Peterson departed in free agency and his replacement, Malcolm Butler, retired during training camp. Even with J.J. Watt now on the edge, countering the Titans’ attack will be more than the Cardinals can handle so early in the season. Pick: Titans -2.5

Chicago Bears at Los Angeles Rams, 5:20 p.m., NBC

Line: Rams -7.5 Total: 45.5

The Rams and the Bears added veteran quarterbacks in the offseason and received different receptions from their fans. Los Angeles fans embraced Matthew Stafford as their hope to reach the Super Bowl, while the Bears faithful called unsuccessfully for Andy Dalton to be benched for rookie Justin Fields. Perhaps coach Matt Nagy is showing Fields mercy as he starts Dalton against a Rams defense anchored by Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. That unit led the NFL in nearly every statistical category last season and, despite losing some free agents, there is enough talent to frustrate Dalton in prime time. Pick: Rams -7.5

Seattle Seahawks at Indianapolis Colts, 1o a.m., Fox

Line: Seahawks -2.5 Total: 49.5

The Colts hoped new scenery would resurrect the 2017 version of Carson Wentz, who helped lead the Philadelphia Eagles in the regular season on a run to a title, but a foot injury and a stint on the COVID list robbed him of valuable training camp reps with his new teammates. He’ll face a Seahawks defense that surrendered the second-most passing yards in the league to opposing teams last season but that hopes linebacker Bobby Wagner and safety Jamal Adams can turn the unit into a more consistent threat. (Adams’ 9.5 sacks last season were the most ever by a defensive back.)

Seattle will lure opponents into trying to keep up with the scoring pace of Russell Wilson, D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, as it did last year. Wentz will be the first to find out how much tougher that has become. Pick: Seahawks -2.5

SUNDAY’S OTHER GAMES

Los Angeles Chargers at Washington Footballers, 10 a.m., CBS

Line: Chargers -1 Total: 44.5

Oddsmakers predict this will be a tossup because the Chargers enter this season as an unknown under new coach Brandon Staley. On paper, the team should improve with quarterback Justin Herbert, the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year award winner; a remodeled offensive line; and the return of safety Derwin James. But it may take time for the team to fully grasp Staley’s system and for the offensive line to jell. Blocking Washington’s pass rush, led by Chase Young, last season’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award winner, is a tough first task. Pick: Washington +1

Philadelphia Eagles at Atlanta Falcons, 10 a.m., Fox

Line: Falcons -3.5 Total: 48

The Eagles placed their faith in Jalen Hurts when they traded Wentz to the Colts, and selected his former Alabama teammate DeVonta Smith in the first round of the draft to boost a receiving corps often criticized for its lack of production. They’ll relish going up against a Falcons defense that allowed the most passing yards in the league last season.

Atlanta focused on improving its offense in the draft, selecting tight end Kyle Pitts with the No. 4 overall pick, and it’s possible that could carry the Falcons in this game. But it is also possible that Philadelphia can upset a team that is somewhere between rebuilding and contending. Pick:Eagles +3.5

Minnesota Vikings at Cincinnati Bengals, 10 a.m., Fox

Line: Vikings -3 Total: 48

The Bengals elected to reunite quarterback Joe Burrow with his Louisiana State teammate receiver Ja’Marr Chase in the draft rather than pick up an offensive lineman to protect their second-year quarterback as he returns from major knee surgery. Chase caught only one of five targets in the preseason; the rookie attributed the drops to a lack of concentration. That excuse makes sense with Chase adjusting to playing again after opting out of the 2020 college football season. But his acclimation to the NFL intensifies against a secondary which now includes cornerback Patrick Peterson, an eight-time Pro Bowl selection. Pick: Vikings -3

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, pictured here in a 2019 game against the Cleveland Browns, will get the start as the Niners kick off the 2021-22 season in Detroit against the Lions.<ins> (Chris Victorio/Special to The Examiner)</ins>

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, pictured here in a 2019 game against the Cleveland Browns, will get the start as the Niners kick off the 2021-22 season in Detroit against the Lions. (Chris Victorio/Special to The Examiner)

San Francisco 49ers at Detroit Lions, 10 a.m., Fox

Line: 49ers -7 Total: 45

It’s full rebuilding mode in Detroit, where new coach Dan Campbell helms a defense that ranked last in yards allowed last season and will try to restore the confidence of Jared Goff, 26, a franchise quarterback the Rams sent packing in the offseason.

That fledgling experiment will be fodder for the 49ers’ elite motion-based rush and a San Francisco defense sharpening its teeth after being wiped out by injuries last season. Coach Kyle Shanahan has elected to start Jimmy Garoppolo over rookie Trey Lance, but either quarterback could win this one. Pick: 49ers -7

New York Jets at Carolina Panthers, 10 a.m., CBS

Line: Panthers -5.5 Total: 45

Sam Darnold gets an early opportunity to show his former team what he could have been with quality coaching and a consistent receiver. Rusher Christian McCaffrey is back after missing much of the 2020 season with various injuries, and Darnold has one of the league’s most underrated receiving duos in D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson, who both posted 1,000 yards last season.

Zach Wilson, whom the Jets drafted with the No. 2 overall pick to replace Darnold, has his work cut out for him. Pick: Panthers -5.5

Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots, 1:25 p.m., CBS

Line: Patriots -3 Total: 43.5

The Dolphins added receiving threats in Will Fuller V and Jaylen Waddle to help second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s development as a downfield passer. But that may not be evident in his first game this season against the Patriots, as coach Bill Belichick will surely employ a plan to confuse the young passer.

Tagovailoa faces his successor at Alabama, Mac Jones, who so impressed the New England coaching staff with his ability to process information before and after the snap that they released Cam Newton at the end of camp. Jones will need to draw on that savvy against Miami’s aggressive defense. Pick: Patriots -3

Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans, 1 p.m., CBS

Line: -2.5 Jaguars Total: 44.5

The Texans officially named veteran journeyman Tyrod Taylor as their starting quarterback, relegating Deshaun Watson to the bench. Their cloudy quarterback situation directly contrasts with Jacksonville’s. The Jaguars’ optimism over Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, is high. The buzz surrounding him and first-year NFL coach Urban Meyer should pick up even more after they face a Houston defense that ranked 30th in yards allowed last season and got worse after releasing J.J. Watt. Pick: Jaguars -2.5

Denver Broncos at New York Giants, 1:25 p.m., Fox

Line: Broncos -3 Total: 42

The Giants’ assessment of Daniel Jones as the franchise’s future gets real insight as he faces a Broncos defense rife with talent. Linebacker Von Miller returns from an ankle injury that sidelined him last season, and his presence could disrupt Jones from finding new teammates like receiver Kenny Golladay and tight end Kyle Rudolph. Those additions, along with Pro Bowl running back Saquon Barkley returning to the lineup, should help the third-year starting quarterback as the season progresses. But against the Broncos’ defense, which should be on the field less because of the risk-averse play of Teddy Bridgewater, it may not be enough. Pick: Broncos -3

MONDAY’S MATCHUP

Baltimore Ravens at Las Vegas Raiders, 1:55 p.m., ESPN & ABC

Line: -4.5 Total: 51

The Ravens lost depth at running back when starter J.K. Dobbins and reserve Justice Hill both sustained season-ending injuries in training camp. But quarterback Lamar Jackson still commands respect as a runner and passer, and Monday provides him and the team an opportunity to showcase the evolution of their scheme with the addition of veteran receiver Sammy Watkins. Las Vegas gave up 389 yards per game last season, ranking 30th in the league. The unit hopes to have improved under new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and defensive lineman Yannick Ngakoue, but the Ravens’ experience should give them an edge. Pick: Ravens -4.5

How Betting Lines Work

A quick primer for those who are not familiar with betting lines: Favorites are listed next to a negative number that represents how many points they must win by to cover the spread. Baltimore -4.5, for example, means that Baltimore must beat Las Vegas by at least 5 points for its backers to win their bet. Gamblers can also bet on the total score, or whether the teams’ combined score in the game is over or under a preselected number of points.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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