If your team lost last weekend — or, in the case of the Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, didn’t play — there’s still reason to believe the 2017/18 season can be a successful one.
Of the 12 playoff teams in 2015/16, five lost their opening regular season game. Last year, seven of the sides who recorded an opening day victory were watching the playoffs on TV.
But what’s really important is to look past the box score, to find out the reason your team lost. If you think they can fix it, great, you can go into this week pretending it’s a 15-game season and, by late December, you might even struggle to remember who you played way back in early September.
But some things are not so easily fixed. Six teams failed to hit even double digit scores last weekend, one (the Bengals) failed to score at all, and it wasn’t down to great defense. In almost every instance it was because of terrible offensive line play.
For years, we’ve blamed the trend towards spread offense in college for poor quarterback play but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the players suffering most are offensive linemen. With college spread offenses requiring smaller, faster pass blockers, by the time they get to the NFL they’ve never learned how to block for more than 2-3 seconds at a time.
And, breaking news, if the guys up front can’t block for him, then your quarterback gets hurt. If your quarterback gets hurt, your team is not winning the Super Bowl.
Sky Game 1 – New England Patriots @ New Orleans Saints
The New England Patriots lost by 15 points at home to the Kansas City Chiefs last Thursday, despite going in as 9.5 point favourites. Upon reflection, this result shouldn’t have a been a huge surprise.
Just three years ago, the Chiefs hammered the Pats in a week four game, a performance that prompted a million column inches telling the world that 37-year old Tom Brady was done as an NFL quarterback.
He’s won two Super Bowls since that game.
Now, there are legitimate concerns for the Patriots. Brady is 40 and quarterbacks — we’re looking at you Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, et al — don’t suffer gradual decline, they fall off a cliff.
There’s not enough evidence to suggest that is what’s happening with Brady yet and, in truth, had Rob Gronkowski’s touchdown grab stood and put New England 14-0 midway through the first quarter, we’re probably dealing with a very different result.
There was, however, ample evidence to suggest there is work to be done on a Patriots defence that should have been better on paper this year compared to last and the loss of Dont’a Hightower to a sprained MCL that could keep him out for a couple of weeks has already prompted a call for Rob Ninkovich to come out of retirement.
For the home side in this one, many will focus on the fact that the Saints only found the end zone once in five scoring drives against the Vikings on Monday night. However, a bigger problem for New Orleans was their inability to stop either the pass or the run.
Giving up 346 yards (and three touchdowns) through the air was bad enough, but the Saints allowed the Vikes to rush for a further 124 on the ground and kill the clock. After finishing in the bottom two in defensive DVOA over the past three years, there’s little to suggest that their defense will be any better this season.
The Patriots are 17-3 in their last 20 games following a loss so a straight-up victory is almost a given. The -6.5 point favourites should also cover the spread but much more tempting is the over (54.5), not just because both teams have question marks over their defense but also because they’ve hit the over in nine of their past 10 games combined.
Sky Game 2 – Dallas Cowboys @ Denver Broncos – 9.25pm Sunday
According to Pro Football Focus, Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian completed 13 of 20 throws for 143 yards and two touchdowns when given time in the pocket against the LA Chargers in the late Monday Night game. However, when under pressure, he completed just 50% of his eight pass attempts for 76 yards and no score.
That stat is particularly worrying when you consider what the Dallas Cowboys defense did to the New York Giants on Sunday Night Football. They first sacked Eli Manning during his offensive line’s TV introductions and floored the quarterback twice more as New York managed just two first downs and 50 yards from scrimmage in the opening half.
On the other side, Sunday night’s second Sky Sports game is a battle between the Broncos’ elite front seven and what remains, despite some turnover, one of the best offensive lines in the league.
Indeed, nobody protected the quarterback better than the Cowboys in week one, giving up just one quarterback hit and one quarterback pressure on 41 passing attempts against last year’s number two ranked defense in terms of DVOA.
And there’s no chance for Dallas to rest on their laurels as they face last year’s number one defense and the Broncos showed just how good they still are against the Chargers; Von Miller and Shaq Barrett alone combining for one sack, a quarterback hit and nine quarterback hurries.
Zeke Elliott — whose six-game suspension remains up in the air amid legal wranglings — had a huge influence last weekend, with 104 rushing yards on 24 carries, adding 36 more yards on five pass receptions.
Melvin Goron managed half of Elliott’s yardage on six fewer carries against a Denver defense ranked 21st against the run last year so expect Dallas to put a heavy workload on number 21 this week.
It’s 22 years since Dallas last beat Denver, losing five on the spin, and though I love taking the home team when they’re getting points, it’s very easy to see why the Cowboys are a 2 point favourite in this one.
The under (43) is also very tempting when you consider these teams have failed to hit the over in nine of their past 13 games combined.
Steve’s Pick: Green Bay Packers @ Atlanta Falcons – 1.30am Sunday
Last Sunday, the Falcons failed to cover the spread against a Chicago Bears outfit that, on paper at least, has no business hanging with a Super Bowl caliber team. Indeed, if Mike Glennon’s team-mates showed better hands in the redzone, the Bears could easily have come out of week one with the win.
This weekend, Atlanta will seek home comforts in the brand new $1.2 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but they’ll need to be a lot better on offense in week two if they’re to live with Green Bay.
Previewing the Falcons game last week, I suggested that Matt Ryan and company could struggle with a new offensive scheme under Steve Sarkisian and, for a lot of the day, they did. Indeed, if it wasn’t for a coverage bust by the Bears and pathetic attempt at a tackle from Quintin Demps, last year’s MVP might not have had a passing TD to his name.
For their part, the Packers continued their home dominance over the Seahawks, forcing lots of three-and-outs in the early stages. In fact, Seattle didn’t manage a first down until five minutes into the second quarter.
Aaron Rodgers’ own stat line didn’t exactly set the world on fire either, but he completed two-thirds of his passes for 311 yards, a score and a pick against a defense many consider the best in the NFC. He’ll face a similar style defense this Sunday — Falcons head coach Dan Quinn is a former Seattle defensive coordinator after all — in what could be second NFC Championship game preview in as many weeks for Green Bay.
The Packers at +2.5 is a steal when you consider how well their own defence played last year and what they’re capable of doing on offence but, while the teams have combined for an average of 70 points per game in their three match-ups since 2014, I’m going to go against conventional wisdom and suggest it will be a lower-scoring affair than some suspect and that laying the total (54) could be a savvy play.