It’s hard to believe that it’s seven months since the New England Patriots pulled off the greatest Super Bowl comeback of all time to claim their fifth Vince Lombardi trophy.
I was one of the lucky 72,000 in Houston’s NRG Stadium that night and the terrifying thing for fans of the other 31 teams in the league is that Tom Brady and company are arguably better on paper this season than they were in 2007, a year they almost went undefeated.
For a start, they face two teams in the AFC East — the Jets and Bills — with more interest in the number one overall pick in the NFL Draft than winning the Super Bowl, and a Dolphins team with the enigmatic and inconsistent Jay Cutler at quarterback.
While the Patriots are missing Julian Edelman on offence, they won a Super Bowl without Rob Gronkowski last year and, if any team can afford to lose a key weapon in their passing attack, it’s New England. Their defence is certainly better than it was last season so there’s little wonder talk of 19-0 is growing.
Sky Game 1 – Pittsburgh Steelers @ Cleveland Browns
The first Sunday Sky game of the new season was supposed to be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers visiting their Florida neighbours Miami Dolphins but, with Hurricane Irma in the region, the NFL took the decision to postpone the game until week 11 when, by happy coincidence, both teams have a bye.
In its place is what should be an intriguing AFC North clash between the Pittsburgh Steelers — a team many suggest will play the Patriots in the AFC Championship game — and a Cleveland Browns team that is better than you think.
Any other year, the line here is maybe -10 or more in the Steelers favour, but it’s worth remembering that, for as much as the Browns have been the punchline of most NFL jokes since they re-entered the league, they’re only three years removed from a 31-10 victory over Pittsburgh. And this is a much better Cleveland team.
Myles Garrett is potentially a generation talent, Corey Coleman — if DeShone Kizer can play the full season — has shown enough in his limited game time that he’s a player defensive coordinators will need to scheme for.
The addition of former Browns first round pick Joe Haden to the Steelers secondary doesn’t add a huge amount, he looks to have lost at least a step of pace, and there are still question marks at nickleback and safety.
That said, nobody’s watching Pittsburgh for their defence, instead focusing on what might be the best quartet of offensive weapons in the league in Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant and, of course, Antonio Brown, arguably the best wide receiver in the game.
If they can keep those four players on the field for the season, there’s no reason Pittsburgh can’t put the Patriots under pressure in the postseason.
The Steelers are 30-5 straight up against Cleveland in their past 35 meetings and I’m not sure that will be changing this week but the Browns +8 is tempting. As is the under (47) points as four of their last five encounters have failed to hit the points total.
Sky Game 2 – Seattle Seahawks @ Green Bay Packers – 9.25pm Sunday
A potential NFC Championship game preview in week one. Thank you very much scheduling gods.
Forget Derek Carr, no injury cost a team a shot at last year’s Super Bowl more than the broken leg suffered by Seahawks all-pro safety Earl Thomas against the Carolina Panthers. Prior to his collision with teammate Kam Chancellor, Seattle were giving up just 17 points per game, making them the stingiest defence in the NFL.
After he went down on 4 December, Pete Carroll’s men gave up 38 points in a blowout loss on the road against Sunday’s opponents, 34 points in the home defeat to the Cardinals on Christmas Eve and even allowed the hopeless San Francisco 49ers to score 23 points on them before the the concession of 36 points to Atlanta brought their season to an end.
The Falcons also ended what was a rollercoaster season for the Green Bay Packers. At times, Aaron Rodgers and his receivers looked unstoppable with Jordy Nelson (14) and Devante Adams (12) finishing first and second respectively in receiving touchdowns.
However, five of their six regular season losses came in a six-game slump in the middle of the season during which time they gave up a whopping 36.6 points per game. But as much as they struggled as a unit last year, the one big game in which the Green Bay defence showed up was against Seattle in a 38-10 win at Lambeau Field.
The same venue plays host to Sunday’s game and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who took three sacks and threw five picks in last year’s match-up, could well struggle again this week as there’s little to suggest Seattle has done anything to address its biggest weakness from 2016, an offensive line that was the worst in the league.
Sure, they’ve moved Mark Glowinski from left to right guard while Germain Ifedi is going from right guard to right tackle and draft bust Luke Joeckel is shifting from a lifetime playing left tackle to left guard, but we’re in shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic territory here. With the home side optimistic Nick Perry and Dean Lowry will overcome injuries to suit up in week one, it could be a long night for the Seahawks.
Though I’m normally wary of a -3 line (because, kickers), so much is trending in Green Bay’s favour. The Seahawks are 0-4 against the spread in their past four, 0-4-1 against the spread in Lambeau and they’ve been outscored 113 to 37 in their past three trips to Wisconsin.
Steve’s Pick: Atlanta Falcons @ Chicago Bears – 6pm Sunday
On paper, you couldn’t imagine a better way to get over a Super Bowl hangover than a week one matchup against a team with one of the worst rosters in the NFL.
But it’s worth remembering that this is not the Atlanta Falcons team we saw last year. Kyle Shanahan, for my money the best offensive mind in the NFL, has taken the top job in San Francisco so, instead, it will be Steve Sarkisian calling the plays for Matt Ryan and company this season.
Sarkisian has actually only called one game — Alabama’s upset loss to Clemson in college football’s National Title game — since he was sacked by the University of Southern California for off-the-field issues in 2015, but his approach to the ground game previously has been to lean heavily on power running plays. Under Shanahan, the Falcons rarely, if ever, ran power plays, sticking instead to outside zone which requires a different set of skills from everyone but especially the offensive line.
This will have an impact on the Falcons passing game too. Outside zone is brilliant at setting up play-action passing and Atlanta led the league in the use of play-action last season, running it on 26% of plays according to Football Outsiders. And while he won Most Valuable Player last year playing under center, quarterback Matt Ryan will take most of his snaps this year in the pistol or shotgun. These are all significant changes.
Though the defence has undoubtedly improved, and head coach Dan Quinn has rightly earned a reputation for developing players who are quick to the ball on that side of the field, the question marks on offence are the reason I’ve chosen this game as one to keep an eye on this week.
If we see anything like the Falcons high-flying offence of last year, then there’s no reason Atlanta can’t make amends for last year’s devastating Super Bowl loss. But if, as I suspect, there will be some teething issues in the transition to a new playbook, then they could very well struggle to reach the postseason in a very competitive NFC South.
Whatever version of the offence turns up, the Falcons defence will comfortably handle a Bears attack that is little more than Jordan Howard on the ground meaning the visitors can stack the box and stifle the run game. We saw in the Super Bowl that Atlanta can force turnovers against the very best offence in the NFL, imagine how they’ll do against one of the worst?
All of which makes the -6.5 spread very generous for favourites backers.