NFL Picks Week 1: Bleacher Report's Expert Consensus Picks

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystSeptember 3, 2014

NFL Picks Week 1: Bleacher Report's Expert Consensus Picks

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    It's the most wonderful time of the year.

    No, not Christmas, although stores will probably start putting out decorations any day now.

    It's football season!

    College football got underway last week, and on Thursday night, the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks will kick off the 2014 NFL campaign.

    With the season nearly upon us, 15 Bleacher Report NFL National and Division Lead Writers gathered to offer their predictions for Week 1.

    It's a process we'll repeat weekly throughout the season, and we'll be keeping tabs on the most prescient prognosticators among these pundits.

    And to think they said that word-of-the-day toilet paper I bought was a waste of money.

     

    NOTE: These picks are "straight up," and do not take into account point spreads. Apologies in advance to degenerate gamblers everywhere.

Our Panel

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    This year's picks panel includes 14 of Bleacher Report's best and brightest NFL minds.

    And me.

    That's what they get for leaving the back door unlocked.

     

    Matt Bowen: NFL National Lead Writer

    Gary Davenport: NFL Analyst

    Mike Freeman: NFL National Lead Writer

    Erik Frenz: AFC East Lead Writer

    Brad Gagnon: NFC East Lead Writer

    Andrea Hangst: AFC North Lead Writer

    Christopher Hansen: AFC West Lead Writer

    Zach Kruse: NFC North Lead Writer

    Rivers McCown: AFC South Lead Writer

    Matt Miller: NFL National Lead Writer

    Ty Schalter: NFL National Lead Writer

    Michael Schottey: NFL National Lead Writer

    Chris Simms: Former NFL Quarterback, Video Correspondent

    Brent Sobleski: NFC South Lead Writer

    Mike Tanier: NFL National Lead Writer 

Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Pick: Seattle Seahawks (12-3)

     

    Since the NFL started kicking off the season on Thursday nights, it's become common practice for the game to feature the defending Super Bowl champions.

    This year, not only does the game indeed take place in Seattle, but NFL fans are being treated to a classic battle of offense vs. defense.

    Of course, the hype around the matchup has focused on the infamous "Fail Mary" game that brought about the end of the officials' strike two years ago. But, this contest will really come down to which team is able to impose their will.

    As wide receiver Jordy Nelson told Mike Spofford of the team's website, for the Packers that means ramping up the tempo on offense.

    "They play a physical-type defense. That’s the way they are," Nelson said. "We’re going to do what we do best, and that’s our no-huddle. Speed the tempo up and try to be successful."

    That's going to be easier said than done against the "Legion of Boom," especially in the cacophony that is CenturyLink Field.

    The Seahawks have only lost once at home in the past two seasons, and 80 percent of our voters don't see that trend changing this week.

    Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Ty Schalter, however, is one who feels Nelson and the Packers will spoil the party in the Emerald City Thursday night.

     

    Packers: Freeman, Schalter, Tanier

    Seahawks: Bowen, Davenport, Frenz, Gagnon, Hangst, Hansen, Kruse, McCown, Miller, Schottey, Simms, Sobleski

New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Pick: New Orleans Saints (13-2)

     

    The 2013 season didn't quite go as planned for the Atlanta Falcons.

    The Falcons stormed into the season as a Super Bowl contender in many eyes, only to see injuries decimate the team en route to a 12-loss fiasco.

    The scheduling gods didn't do the Falcons any favors this year, as their attempt at a rebound will begin with an NFC South clash against Drew Brees and the buzz saw that is the Saints offense.

    The Falcons at least enter the game with some positive momentum of their own on offense. As Reid Ferrin of the Falcons' website reports, running back Steven Jackson (who missed nearly all of training camp and the preseason with a left hamstring injury) will reportedly be ready to go against New Orleans.

    "I'm extremely excited for Week 1," Jackson said. "It's been a training camp that I missed the majority of the time, but I've been working hard physically and mentally to prepare for this coming Sunday; I feel good about it."

    Of course, Jackson's return does nothing to address the Falcons' numerous problems on defense, and the phrase "numerous problems on defense" does not bode well heading into a matchup with the Saints.

    New Orleans is the overwhelming pick, with only NFL National Lead Writer Mike Freeman and NFC East Lead Writer Brad Gagnon forecasting an upset.

     

    Saints: Bowen, Davenport, Frenz, Hangst, Hansen, Kruse, McCown, Miller, Schalter, Schottey, Simms, Sobleski, Tanier

    Falcons: Freeman, Gagnon

Minnesota Vikings at St. Louis Rams

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    The Pick: St. Louis Rams (8-7)

     

    It's a new season in the NFL, which means hope springs anew for all 32 teams.

    The hopes of the St. Louis Rams, however, have already been dealt a severe blow, as quarterback Sam Bradford suffered a season-ending ACL tear during the preseason.

    That injury thrusts 34-year-old journeyman Shaun Hill into the starting lineup under center in the Gateway City.

    Head coach Jeff Fisher told Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times that he's confident Hill can do the job:

    Shaun is our guy. We brought him here. He’s got experience. We’ve got all the confidence in the world in him. We have, around our quarterback position now, probably as good of talent as we’ve had since we came here. Shaun is excited about that, and I know we’ll benefit from that.

    The loss of Bradford hurts, but the Rams still possess a solid young running back in Zac Stacy and strong lines on both sides of the ball.

    Just over half our voters, including Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Michael Schottey, think that will be enough to down the Minnesota Vikings at home.

     

    Vikings: Davenport, Freeman, Hansen, Kruse, Miller, Simms, Sobleski

    Rams: Bowen, Frenz, Gagnon, Hangst, McCown, Schalter, Schottey, Tanier

Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Karl Walter/Getty Images

    The Pick: Pittsburgh Steelers (14-1)

     

    For the Pittsburgh Steelers, the 2013 season essentially ended before it started.

    The Steelers lost their first four games last year, and not even a late surge that saw the team go 6-2 over the second half was enough to get Pittsburgh into the playoffs.

    Both teams have had their issues in recent weeks. For the Cleveland Browns, it was the much-publicized battle at quarterback between Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel.

    The Steelers, meanwhile, saw running backs Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount get LeBusted for smoking LeWeed.

    Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin said that both Bell and Blunt (err...Blount) will play against the Browns. He also told Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he expects to see both of Cleveland's quarterbacks:

    When you have a talent like Johnny Manziel, you try to get him on the field. They’re capable of highlighting that. We’re proceeding to prepare for both of those guys. We’re anticipating them utilizing both, in some capacity. That’s the appropriate approach for us to take.

    With the exception of Freeman, our panel doesn't think it's going to matter who the Browns have in the game at quarterback, forecasting a victory for the home team.

     

    Browns: Freeman

    Steelers: Bowen, Davenport, Frenz, Gagnon, Hangst, Hansen, Kruse, McCown, Miller, Schalter, Schottey, Simms, Sobleski, Tanier

Jacksonville Jaguars at Philadelphia Eagles

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Pick: Philadelphia Eagles (15-0)

     

    Bortles! Bortles! Bortles!

    That's been the rallying cry in Jacksonville of late, as rookie quarterback Blake Bortles has captured the imagination of fans with a scintillating performance in the preseason.

    Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley has maintained all along that the team is in no hurry to run the third overall pick in this year's draft out there. However, Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis told Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com that his squad is preparing to face both Bortles and Chad Henne:

    We're looking at all of them. We're looking at both quarterbacks. I don't think it's going to drastically make you have two different type game plans. We're looking at their offense in general, the structures. They're very similar quarterbacks. They really are. I've watched a lot of both of them.

    Unless there's a fairly drastic change of heart from Bradley, it will be Henne who starts for the Jaguars Sunday, and while the seventh-year veteran is many things, scintillating isn't one of them.

    We have our first unanimous call of Week 1, with all 15 writers picking the defending NFC East champs to start off 2014 with a win.

     

    Jaguars: People pick the Jaguars? Really? Who?

    Eagles: Bowen, Davenport, Freeman, Frenz, Gagnon, Hangst, Hansen, Kruse, McCown, Miller, Schalter, Schottey, Simms, Sobleski, Tanier

Oakland Raiders at New York Jets

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Pick: New York Jets (13-2)

     

    Gus Bradley may be reluctant to start a rookie quarterback, but Oakland Raiders head coach Dennis Allen apparently does not share those reservations.

    As Jay Glazer of Fox Sports reports, Derek Carr will be under center for the Silver and Black when the Raiders face the New York Jets on Sunday.

    According to Tadd Haislop of Sporting News, Allen insisted that the move was made because Matt Schaub, who the Raiders traded for in the offseason, is nursing a sore elbow:

    We've seen signs of Derek Carr's development from the day he stepped on campus here to where he is at right now. We've seen him grow by leaps and bounds and I think he's ready to accept the challenge. ...

    ... It's not an indictment on Matt Schaub at all. I feel very confident in Matt Schaub. I think it says more about [how] we feel Derek Carr is in his progression.

    If Allen truly is confident in Schaub, who was God-awful for the Houston Texans last year and maybe even worse in the preseason, that would raise the total number of people on Earth who are to three.

    The other two being Schaub and his mother.

    Carr looked sharp in the preseason finale against the Seattle Seahawks, but there's a world of difference between an exhibition game with no game plan and little blitzing and facing a stout Jets defense in a game that counts.

    AFC West Lead Writer Christopher Hansen and NFL National Lead Writer Mike Tanier think Carr can get it done against the Jets, but the overwhelming majority of our voters picked Gang Green to get the win.

     

    Raiders: Hansen, Tanier

    Jets: Bowen, Davenport, Freeman, Frenz, Gagnon, Hangst, Kruse, McCown, Miller, Schalter, Schottey, Simms, Sobleski 

Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Pick: Cincinnati Bengals (10-5)

     

    The Cincinnati Bengals are the defending AFC North champions. In each of the past three seasons, quarterback Andy Dalton has led the Bengals to the playoffs. It's the first time in franchise history the Bengals have made the postseason three years in a row.

    However, it's still been over two decades since the Bengals won a playoff game, and after receiving a fat contract extension in the offseason, there's a ton of pressure on Dalton to end his winless streak in the playoffs in 2014.

    The quest to do so begins Sunday in Baltimore. As Clifton Brown of CSN Baltimore pointed out, "The Red Rifle" hasn't had much luck there:

    Here’s a statistical look at Dalton’s three career starts in Baltimore.

    2011 – 24 for 45, 373 yards, 1 TD, 3 INT, 60.7 QB rating. Ravens 31, Bengals 24.

    2012 – 22 for 37, 221 yards, O TD, 1 INT, 65.3 QB rating. Ravens 44, Bengals 13.

    2013 – 24 for 51, 274 yards, 2 TD, 3 INT, 52.2 QB rating. Ravens 20, Bengals 17.

    However, despite those rather ugly numbers in M&T Bank Stadium, two-thirds of our voters predicted that Dalton and the Bengals will end that dry spell this week.

    This writer wasn't one of them, joining NFL National Lead Writer Matt Bowen and former NFL quarterback and Bleacher Report video correspondent Chris Simms in picking the Ravens.

     

    Bengals: Freeman, Frenz, Gagnon, Hangst, Hansen, McCown, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski, Tanier

    Ravens: Bowen, Davenport, Kruse, Schottey, Simms

Buffalo Bills at Chicago Bears

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    The Pick: Chicago Bears (15-0)

     

    It's not easy being a fan of the Buffalo Bills.

    The Bills haven't advanced to the playoffs since 1999. The Bills' last moments in a postseason contest?

    The Music City Miracle.

    The Bills' efforts to end that driest of dry spells begin Sunday in Chicago, against a Bears team that's a study in contrasts.

    The Chicago offense, led by quarterback Jay Cutler, has the potential to be as formidable as any in the NFL. They have an elite running back in Matt Forte, and arguably the league's best wide receiver duo in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.

    The defense, as John Mullin of CSN Chicago reports, remains a work in progress. In fact, the Bears have yet to announce their starting safeties for the season opener, although head coach Marc Trestman indicated he isn't overly concerned:

    I think we’re going to still wait and see. We’re rotating the guys around. And we’ll talk more about that on Wednesday. And we’ll get them started in the right direction. I’d just rather wait another day-and-a-half. But we’ve got four guys that we moved around and…he’s been allowed to get work. He got work today, so we have to see where he is as well going into Wednesday’s practice.

    Still, despite the fact that the Bears ranked dead last in the NFL in run defense last year and that no team in the league ran the ball more than the Bills in 2013, not a single Bleacher Report pundit picked the Bills to get a win on the road.

     

    Bills: Sorry Buffalo, no love this week.

    Bears: Bowen, Davenport, Freeman, Frenz, Gagnon, Hangst, Hansen, Kruse, McCown, Miller, Schalter, Schottey, Simms, Sobleski, Tanier

Washington Redskins at Houston Texans

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    Evan Vucci/Associated Press

    The Pick: Houston Texans (10-5)

     

    It's good to be J.J. Watt.

    The Houston Texans defensive end, who was named the AP Defensive Player of the Year in 2012, is now a very wealthy young man. As Jim Corbett of USA Today reports, Watt and the Texans have agreed to terms on a six-year, $100 million contract extension that includes nearly $52 million in guaranteed money.

    It's only the second time in NFL history a defensive player has received a triple-digit contract, and in a way it's fitting that Watt's first game post-deal is against the Washington Redskins.

    After all, it was Washington that gave defensive tackle (and colossal bust) Albert Haynesworth a $100 million deal back in 2009.

    While Watt is no doubt overjoyed with his new tax bracket, there haven't been many smiles in D.C. of late.

    Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin has struggled mightily in his transition to new head coach Jay Gruden's offense in Washington. ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski recently told Colin Cowherd (via Ryan Wilson of CBS Sports) that the problem is in part mechanical:

    His mechanics have regressed, by the way. They have regressed in the fundamental way of throwing the football: his throwing slot, his footwork, his inability to remain consistent in that. When you and I talk all the time, the word that comes up a lot in my mind is consistency. And we see a lot of players in this league, they make great throws. They can make a great play. But you have to do it on a consistent basis. That's what separates the great players from the guys that have short careers.

    In this battle of first-year head coaches, AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz and AFC South Lead Writer Rivers McCown were among five voters who picked Griffin and the Redskins to get the win.

    However, the majority believe that Watt and the Texans will emerge victorious, giving Bill O'Brien his first victory as an NFL head coach. 

     

    Redskins: Frenz, McCown, Miller, Schottey, Tanier

    Texans: Bowen, Davenport, Freeman, Gagnon, Hangst, Hansen, Kruse, Schalter, Simms, Sobleski

Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    The Pick: Kansas City Chiefs (12-3)

     

    Speaking of big contracts.

    Granted, it isn't J.J. Watt money, but Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith isn't exactly hard up for rent money, after inking a four-year, $68 million contract extension a few days ago.

    After leading the Chiefs on a surprise run to the playoffs last year, Smith got his big payday. General manager John Dorsey told Ryan Wilson of CBS Sports that part of the reason for that is Smith's cool demeanor in the heat of battle:

    He doesn't panic. He's flat-lined. In critical situations, you like guys that make really good decisions. Just watching him around his teammates and how much his teammates like him—that speaks volumes because guys go to him. To me, that's a natural thing for that position to have but that quality is very few and far between in certain people.

    Now that Smith's future is settled, the Chiefs can get down to the present, starting Sunday at Arrowhead against the Tennessee Titans.

    Against a Titans team that underwent some big changes in the offseason (including a new head coach and defensive scheme), most of our panelists expect the Chiefs to start the 2014 season on the right foot.

     

    Titans: McCown, Simms, Tanier

    Chiefs: Bowen, Davenport, Freeman, Frenz, Gagnon, Hangst, Hansen, Kruse, Miller, Schalter, Schottey, Sobleski

New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins

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    J Pat Carter/Associated Press

    The Pick: New England Patriots (15-0)

     

    To Gronk or not to Gronk? That is the question.

    As the New England Patriots prepare to open their season in Miami, the biggest storyline surrounding the team is no doubt the playing status of tight end Rob Gronkowski.

    As Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe reports, Gronkowski made it clear on Monday that he intends to be on the field when the Patriots square off with their AFC East rivals.

    "I’m ready to go. I’ll be playing. I’m just getting it out of the way," Gronkowski said. "I ain’t going every single day this week, no way. Getting it out of the way now."

    However, as he always does(n't), head coach Bill Belichick wasn't about to give a straight answer regarding Gronkowski's availability.

    "I’m glad Rob is optimistic about his situation," Belichick said, according to Darren Hartwell of NESN. "We’ll go through the week of practice and take a look at everything … and do what we feel like is best for the team."

    Belichick's evasiveness aside, our voters don't seem to care whether Gronkowski is on the field or not.

    All 15 panelists, including AFC North Lead Writer Andrea Hangst and NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller, picked the Pats to continue their recent dominance over the Dolphins this week.

     

    Patriots: Bowen, Davenport, Freeman, Frenz, Gagnon, Hangst, Hansen, Kruse, McCown, Miller, Schalter, Schottey, Simms, Sobleski, Tanier

    Dolphins: ...Bueller? Bueller?

Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    The Pick: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-6)

     

    Last year, the Carolina Panthers were one of the biggest surprises in the NFL. After starting the season 1-3, the Panthers reeled off 11 wins in 12 games, capturing the NFC South.

    However, after a rocky offseason, the Panthers enter 2014 tabbed as a team likely to backslide in the eyes of many pundits.

    Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers appear headed in the opposite direction.

    With a new head coach in Lovie Smith and a new quarterback in Josh McCown, many of the same folks who are picking the Panthers to take a step back are tabbing the Buccaneers as a dark-horse playoff contender.

    As McCown told Adam Schein of NFL.com, the Buccaneers are trying their best not to listen to the hype:

    (The NFC South) is always competitive. You don't repeat as the division winner. The level of play is remarkable. We understand that. We understand there are going to be six games a year that are going to be fierce and intense and feel like playoff games. Look at the defenses. Carolina's defense is great. The job Rob Ryan has done in New Orleans. Mike Smith in Atlanta. And the great quarterbacks.

    NFC North Lead Writer Zach Kruse isn't buying that hype either, as he's one of six voters who tabbed the Panthers to down the Buccaneers in Tampa.

    With that said, though, 60 percent of our panel, including NFC South Lead Writer Brent Sobleski, are of the opinion that the Lovie Smith era in Tampa Bay is going to begin with a big division win.

     

    Panthers: Freeman, Kruse, McCown, Schalter, Schottey, Simms

    Buccaneers: Bowen, Davenport, Frenz, Gagnon, Hangst, Hansen, Miller, Sobleski, Tanier

San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The Pick: San Francisco 49ers (12-3)

     

    After coming within a few inches of the Super Bowl in 2013, big things are expected of the San Francisco 49ers this season.

    However, some dark clouds have gathered around the team. Star linebacker NaVorro Bowman will miss at least the first six games of the 2014 season as he recovers from an ACL tear. Fellow linebacker Aldon Smith recently received a nine-game suspension as the result of numerous offseason run-ins with the law.

    The 49ers offense isn't as short-handed, but in the preseason, the 49ers' first team had all kinds of problems scoring points. That can partially be attributed to the team's vaunted offensive line looking anything but elite.

    However, if ever there was a Week 1 opponent tailor-made to get quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers offense on track, it's the Dallas Cowboys.

    Dallas fielded the worst defense in the NFL last year. Now that defense is also without defensive end DeMarcus Ware (released), tackle Jason Hatcher (left in free agency) and linebacker Sean Lee (torn ACL).

    Rookie DeMarcus Lawrence, who the Cowboys drafted in the hopes of replacing some of the pass rush lost by the departures of Ware and Hatcher, broke his foot in the preseason.

    It's so bad that not only did the Cowboys trade for linebacker Rolando McClain (who was out of the NFL entirely last year), but McClain will start at middle linebacker for Dallas in Week 1.

    That ain't good, folks.

    Three of our panelists apparently think the Cowboys' potent offense will be enough for the team to eke out a win, but the 49ers are the clear choice of the majority of our experts.

     

    49ers: Bowen, Davenport, Frenz, Gagnon, Hansen, Kruse, Miller, Schalter, Schottey, Simms, Sobleski, Tanier

    Cowboys: Freeman, Hangst, McCown

     

Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    The Pick: Denver Broncos (14-1)

     

    The first Sunday night game of 2014 is a doozy, a matchup of two of the league's top quarterbacks and a pair of Super Bowl contenders in the AFC.

    It's the old guard against the young gun. When last the Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts met, Andrew Luck and the Colts spoiled Peyton Manning's homecoming to Indianapolis, handing the Broncos their first loss of 2013 in the process.

    You can rest assured that Manning hasn't forgotten that, and with this game in the Mile High City, only Sobleski expects the Colts to leave town victorious.

    With that said, though, the week hasn't gotten off to the best of starts for the Broncos.

    As Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today reports, wide receiver Wes Welker, who was already questionable for Sunday night's game after suffering a concussion in the preseason, has been suspended for the first four games of the 2014 season after testing positive for amphetamines.

    With Welker out, Manning will be short one of his top targets in the passing game, leaving him with only star wide receiver Demaryius Thomas.

    And tight end Julius Thomas.

    And free-agent acquisition Emmanuel Sanders.

    And promising rookie Cody Latimer.

    Whatever will he do?

     

    Colts: Sobleski

    Broncos: Bowen, Davenport, Freeman, Frenz, Gagnon, Hangst, Hansen, Kruse, McCown, Miller, Schalter, Schottey, Simms, Tanier

New York Giants at Detroit Lions

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    The Pick: Detroit Lions (14-1)

     

    They say you can't read too much into how a team looks in the preseason.

    The New York Giants had better hope that whoever "they" are, "they" know what they're talking about.

    After leading the NFL with 27 interceptions last season, quarterback Eli Manning has looked horrendous so far this year. The Giants' offensive line, once a strength of the team, has been a sieve.

    As Paul Schwartz of the New York Post wrote, more than a few people have wondered aloud whether the younger Manning's best days have come and gone:

    The statistics were comically poor for Manning, except no one was laughing. He did not complete half his passes in the preseason, his yards-per-attempt (4.59) were miniscule, and the only reason he was not charged with two interceptions was because penalties wiped them out. These results made Manning look inept, incompetent, shot. They made him look as if he never will master the new offense and opened the spigot for all the "can’t teach an old dog new tricks" and "square peg in round hole" doomsayers.

    In short, there's already going to be significant pressure on Manning when the Giants travel to Motown to face the Detroit Lions Monday night.

    If the writers here at Bleacher Report are correct, Manning's seat is only going to get hotter from here, as only Freeman predicted a win for Big Blue.

     

    Giants: Freeman

    Lions: Bowen, Davenport, Frenz, Gagnon, Hangst, Hansen, Kruse, McCown, Miller, Schalter, Schottey, Simms, Sobleski, Tanier

San Diego Chargers at Arizona Cardinals

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    Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    The Pick: San Diego Chargers (10-5)

     

    Just as with the Thursday night season opener, it's become a recent tradition in the NFL for the opening Monday night of the season to feature a doubleheader.

    This year's nightcap features a pair of teams with postseason aspirations in 2014.

    The San Diego Chargers not only rode a white-hot stretch run last year to a playoff berth, but the Bolts then stunned the Bengals in Cincinnati in the Wild Card Round before falling to the Broncos in Denver.

    The Arizona Cardinals, on the other hand, missed the playoffs in Bruce Arians' first year as head coach, but it wasn't for lack of trying. Propelled in large part by the league's stingiest run defense, the Redbirds won 10 games.

    That may be a hard feat to duplicate in the desert, as that vaunted defense has been sprouting holes all offseason.

    Linebacker Karlos Dansby, who led the team in tackles last year, left in free agency. Fellow inside linebacker Daryl Washington will miss the entire 2014 season after being suspended for yet another violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy. Defensive end Darnell Dockett tore his ACL and is out for the year.

    In the eyes of our panel, all those losses add up to a Week 1 loss, with the voters picking the Chargers to win on the road by a ratio of 2-to-1.

     

    Chargers: Bowen, Davenport, Freeman, Frenz, Kruse, Miller, Schalter, Schottey, Sobleski, Tanier

    Cardinals: Gagnon, Hangst, Hansen, McCown, Simms