NFL Nation: 2013 NFL Week 1 Double Coverage

Gud Bradley, Andy ReidAP PhotoGus Bradley and Andy Reid are looking to get off to fast starts with their new teams.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Fans know a lot about their favorite teams, but they don’t have the same depth of knowledge of the 31 other teams in the NFL. That’s not going to be a problem any longer.

Each week the NFL Nation writers will team up Q&A style to help you get a handle on each team. Today, Kansas City Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Jacksonville Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco help break down Sunday’s matchup.

Michael DiRocco: Is Alex Smith really an upgrade over Matt Cassel?

Adam Teicher: He had better be or the Chiefs are in some trouble. Cassel and Brady Quinn turned over the ball far too many times last season. One thing we know about Smith is that he hasn’t thrown many interceptions. He threw just 10 in his last 25 starts with the 49ers. So he’s been a quarterback who protects the ball, and if he can just do that, he’s already an upgrade over Cassel and Quinn. Another thing: Andy Reid’s West Coast offense will succeed if the quarterback completes a high percentage of throws. Smith completed 70 percent last season. If he can get close to that number this season, he’s even more of an upgrade.

Teicher: How patient will the Jaguars be with Blaine Gabbert on Sunday and this season?

DiRocco: This is a make-or-break season for Gabbert, who must prove he’s capable of being a franchise quarterback. That’s the team’s No. 1 goal for the season, so there will be a certain amount of patience. It does no good to give him a half or one game and yank him because the team will essentially be where it was heading into the season. That being said, if Gabbert really struggles during the first two months of the season, then the team will have its answer and may turn to Chad Henne or the recently signed Ricky Stanzi for the remainder of the season.

DiRocco: What’s the biggest change Andy Reid has brought to Kansas City?

Teicher: It’s a change brought by Reid and John Dorsey, the new general manager. Everybody seems to be pulling in the same direction. The Chiefs went through plenty of infighting the past few years and it was dragging them down. People often had their own agendas or felt they had to align themselves with one person or another. Dorsey and Reid swept that out the door. Winning looks to be the only goal and it certainly appears everybody is on board with that. Of course, it’s easy for a new administration to have everybody on board when it’s undefeated. So it’s an issue to keep an eye on once the Chiefs start losing some games.

Teicher: What are the biggest changes Gus Bradley and Dave Caldwell have brought to the Jags?

DiRocco: On the field, it’s on defense, where Bradley is implementing a more aggressive attitude and trying to rebuild the secondary with bigger, more physical cornerbacks -- essentially what he did in Seattle. Off the field, Bradley and Caldwell have changed the culture in the locker room. There’s a lot of energy and enthusiasm around the franchise even though everyone knows that the talent level needs a significant upgrade and the team likely isn’t going to reach .500. It was a much-needed boost, because the atmosphere around the team the past few seasons under Jack Del Rio and Mike Mularkey had become somewhat stale.

DiRocco: Some NFL experts have pegged the Chiefs as a playoff team just one season after finishing 2-14. What are a few things that have to happen for that to become a reality?

Teicher: They have many good players, but from the GM to the coach to the coordinators to the offensive and defensive system to the quarterback to 29 other players who didn’t play for the Chiefs last season, there’s a lot new here. How quickly Reid and his staff can pull everything together will be a key. The Chiefs have a favorable schedule the first half of the season and they need to take advantage because it gets more difficult after that. On the field, the Chiefs have to fix a turnover differential that was minus-24 last season. Their defense and special teams have to do a better job of providing better field position for the offense. This offense won’t make a lot of big plays, and if it has to go 80 yards on every possession, it will be a struggle.

Teicher: What are realistic expectations for the Jags this season in terms of number of wins?

DiRocco: I kind of let that slip in my earlier answer, but a six-win season would be the best-case scenario for the Jaguars. Four or five victories seems more likely, though, especially considering the team has back-to-back road games on the West Coast, plays San Francisco in London, and has to play at Denver, Indianapolis and Houston.

Double Coverage: Texans at Chargers

September, 6, 2013
9/06/13
12:01
PM ET
JJ Watt and Philip RiversGetty ImagesJ.J. Watt and the Texans could make it hard on Philip Rivers if San Diego's offensive line does not hold up.
In the second half of the opening Monday night doubleheader, Houston is traveling to San Diego to put an end to NFL Week 1. The Chargers are in rebuild mode, while the Texans are looking to take the next step this season and become true Super Bowl contenders. While the Chargers’ fan base should be revved up for this prime-time contest, getting J.J. Watt blocked could be a very futile effort for San Diego’s offensive line. ESPN.com’s Matt Williamson and Houston Texans reporter Tania Ganguli bring you their Double Coverage preview.

Tania Ganguli: How has the atmosphere in the organization changed with GM Tom Telesco and coach Mike McCoy taking over?


Matt Williamson: A change in San Diego was certainly needed. The environment had become stale and the once wide-open window under former coach Norv Turner and a roster stocked with great players has closed. A rebuild is needed, and a new general manager and head coach are what is needed to potentially get this team back where it once was -- or maybe beyond. Has the right side of the Texans’ once-great offensive line been fixed?

Ganguli: It's certainly on its way. The Texans are rightfully very high on right guard Brandon Brooks, and right tackle Derek Newton is healthy. They didn't mind rotation in those spots last year, but stability will definitely help.

Can McCoy turn Philip Rivers (back?) into an elite quarterback?

Williamson: I feel as though we have seen the best of Rivers’ impressive career, unfortunately. That being said, the scheme change, which stresses getting the ball out of Rivers’ hands quicker, could be an advantageous move to boost Rivers. He does have a quick release and makes quick reads, making him a good fit for what McCoy is looking to accomplish.

What is the status of Arian Foster, and might Ben Tate have an expanded role for the season and to open the year?

Ganguli: Tate will have an expanded role, especially early in the year. The Texans won't ride Arian Foster too much given he missed all of the preseason, training camp and most of organized team activities (OTAs). He was working, but they're intent on being smart with his return to make sure they have him at full strength late in the season.

What are the biggest problems with the Chargers' offensive line?

Williamson: Once again, the scheme switch to a short passing game should help the protection of this line -- a line that is better-equipped to run block than protect. Still, the true problem with this line is they simply lack good players up front. They added a few free agents, but no one that is even a league-average starter, and they used their first-round pick on D.J. Fluker to play right tackle. However, I have my doubts that Fluker is quick or light enough on his feet for edge protection. Instead, I think Fluker could be a Pro Bowler at guard.

What impact does first-round pick DeAndre Hopkins have on the Texans' offense?

Ganguli: It's difficult for rookie receivers to put up big numbers, but Hopkins will have a major impact on the Texans' offense. He'll take pressure off Andre Johnson, on whom the Texans were overdependent last season in their passing game. He is very skilled on contested catches and will help Houston's red zone efficiency.

What impact does Dwight Freeney have in San Diego?

Williamson: Can he still be productive at 33? Of course it would be ideal to have Melvin Ingram in the fold as well as Freeney, who could be the perfect mentor, but Freeney has looked quite spry through the preseason and should have plenty left in the tank. The concern for me is that San Diego will be forced to play the 33-year-old too many snaps, which could lead to less effective play late in games and especially late in the season.

How big a boost to this team -- tacitly and emotionally -- is it to get Brian Cushing back on the field?

Ganguli: Cushing makes a difference in both ways. He creates mismatches in the pass rush that free up the outside linebackers. His presence in the middle makes things easier on the Texans' defensive backs, too. Emotionally, Cushing provides an edge for the Texans' defense. His maniacal intensity is contagious and the Texans feed off it.

How will Danny Woodhead and Ryan Mathews impact each other?

Williamson: While Mathews is a decent pass-catcher, Woodhead is an exceptional all-around contributor in the passing game. Their roles should be very distinctive, with Mathews -- who has looked excellent this preseason -- as the early-down workhorse (if he can hold up) and Woodhead being the specialty movement player that is equal parts running back and slot receiver.

Watt is a rare interior pass-rusher, but does Houston have enough pressure coming from their 3-4 outside linebackers?

Ganguli: That remains to be seen. It's definitely been a focus for the Texans' outside linebacker group. Whitney Mercilus, now in his second year, has taken over as a starter opposite Brooks Reed after the departure of Connor Barwin. Mercilus set a franchise record for rookies with six sacks last season, but he missed most of training camp and the preseason. Reed is healthier than he was at the end of last season when he returned from a groin injury. He had an offseason surgery to repair it fully.

Cam Newton, Russell WilsonAP Photo, USA TODAY SportsCarolina puts Cam Newton's athleticism on the line versus confident Seattle QB Russell Wilson.
The Seattle Seahawks are the sexy pick to win the Super Bowl, with the hot quarterback featured in GQ magazine. The Carolina Panthers are the wannabe team with the once-hot quarterback who has lost some of the luster off his cover-boy status.

But there's one thing these teams have in common as they prepare to open the 2013 NFL season on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.

Slow starts.

Carolina has the worst opening-day record in the league at 6-12. Seattle ranks 30th, with only the New Orleans Saints and Panthers behind them. The winner will at least emerge with a chance to change that.

So how do they stack up in what appears a mismatch? Panthers team reporter David Newton and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount are here to tell you.

Let's get right to the question most people are asking: Who is the better quarterback? Carolina's Cam Newton or Seattle's Russell Wilson?

Newton: I know Wilson and the Seahawks are the sweethearts of the league after making the playoffs last season. But if I were starting a team, I'd take Newton, and not because we share the same last name. I know the Panthers would. They talked last season about drafting Wilson to back up the first pick of the 2011 draft before Seattle got him in the third round. Backup! Look, Wilson is a solid player who is surrounded by a better supporting cast than Newton has had in his first two seasons and has again this year. Wilson does some great things with his arm and legs. He makes good decisions. Newton would kill for his completion percentage of 64.1 last season. But Newton is one of those special players who, at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, can do things the 5-11, 206-pound Wilson can only dream of. Go back and look at the 72-yard touchdown run Newton capped with a flip into the end zone in a 30-20 victory against a one-loss Atlanta team last season and you'll see what I'm talking about. Wilson's biggest edge comes in leadership, and I believe you'll see Newton step it up in that department this year. I see his stock on the rise. Of all the first-year quarterbacks who made the playoffs last year, Wilson is my choice to have a sophomore slump.

Blount: Newt, I honestly tell you that the Seahawks coaches and players would take Wilson every day of the week, and frankly, I think so would most NFL coaches. In the more than 30 years I've covered sports, I've never met a more impressive young man than Wilson. He's just one of those once-in-a-generation-type athletes who you look at him and listen to him, then you say, "This guy is going places in life." Yes, Cam has more experience, and, obviously, more size. He's an exceptional athlete, a man that Seattle coach Pete Carroll called "a phenomenal talent." But he isn't the team leader that Wilson is, and won't make as many good decisions at key moments as Wilson will.

Let's turn to a team question. Which team will show more improvement this season? Not the better record, but bigger step forward? The Seahawks, who were 11-5 and a playoff team? Or the Panthers, who were 7-9?

Blount: That's a tough one. I think Carolina could finish with a winning record this season and possibly make the playoffs, which would be a nice improvement over 2012. But since I picked Seattle to go 12-4 and reach the Super Bowl this year, I'll have to go with the Seahawks.

Newton: Definitely a tough one. I don't see Carolina making the playoffs, but I do see the Panthers coming close to a winning record. And they will improve on defense with the return of Jon Beason at linebacker and more talent at tackle. How much they improve overall depends on the progression of the offensive line, which didn't look good during the preseason. Seattle has all the pieces to make a Super Bowl run, but I still think the Seahawks are the second-best team in their division, behind San Francisco. They did so many good things last year it's hard to see them making a substantial improvement. If they do, it really will be Super Bowl or bust.

Now to the game. Last year, Seattle won 16-12 in a defensive struggle in Week 5. Do you see this game being similar?

Newton: Definitely. And if it's not, Seattle could make it ugly, because Carolina can't win a shootout. The strength of both teams is defense. We're probably looking at two of the top 10 units in the league. Both are used to practicing against the run-option that Newton and Wilson ran well at the end of last season, so they'll be prepared to handle it. The key for Carolina to make this a defensive battle will be the secondary. Will it be the unit that had a league-high 10 interceptions during the preseason, or the one that was soft most of last season?

Blount: The defenses typically are ahead of the offenses at the start of the season, so that could play into a matchup with two strong defensive units. However, I do expect this game to have a little more scoring than the one last year, because I think both quarterbacks will play better than they did in that game. You're spot-on about the secondary, Newt. I think both secondaries are the key. Seattle might have the best defensive backs in the league and the Panthers looked much improved. But no secondary can cover these receivers forever. What this could come down to is which defensive unit does a better job rushing the passer and which is better able to contain two of the best running quarterbacks in the league.

Michael Vick and Robert Griffith IIIGetty ImagesThe Eagles' Michael Vick and Washington's Robert Griffin III meet in an important early showdown.
A matchup between the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles doesn’t always need extra sizzle. It’s not the main rivalry for either team, at least in the eyes of the fans, but it is one that has been entertaining and memorable over the years.

This game will be different. This time, it’s the NFL debut for Eagles coach Chip Kelly. Not that anyone in Washington is paying close attention to Kelly. They’re too distracted by the fact that quarterback Robert Griffin III will be playing in the opener exactly eight months after surgery on his right knee. ESPN.com’s Redskins reporter John Keim and Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan provide their Double Coverage preview.

Sheridan: How will Griffin’s lack of live action since his knee surgery affect the Shanahans’ approach on offense?

Keim: I don’t think it will have a major impact. Last year Griffin’s first game back after his initial injury was against the Eagles. The Redskins did not use the zone-read option all that much and Griffin ran only one time in that game. They admitted that Griffin’s knee situation affected what they called. But Griffin is healthy now, so I don’t think they’ll limit what he can do at all. If they don’t run a lot of the zone-read, or if Griffin doesn’t take off, I think it will have more to do with what the Eagles are trying to do defensively (or in what they’re unable to stop: the run) than anything. They didn’t use the zone-read a lot last season against the Eagles (Alfred Morris ran it from this look four times combined in their two meetings; Griffin threw five passes from the zone-read fake in those two games -- all in the second meeting when he was still hurt).

Keim: How much of what we saw Chip Kelly run at Oregon will be used in Philly?

Sheridan: My guess, and there can be nothing but guesswork at this point, is quite a bit. Kelly ran the ball a lot more at Oregon than is widely understood, and he has very good backs in LeSean McCoy, Bryce Brown and Chris Polk. There will be package plays and some read-option and some gimmicky stuff as well. I get the feeling Kelly sees this season as a kind of test kitchen to see what works and what doesn’t in the NFL. So I think he’ll run much of his Oregon offense and adjust as he goes.

Sheridan: Will the Eagles see the Robert Griffin III who dominated them so thoroughly last season?

Keim: A tough one off the bat, only because we really haven’t seen him in live action since the Seattle game. When we saw him in 11-on-11 this summer, it was against the scout team. Last summer we had a strong idea of what he could do (and what they would run in the regular season). But the key for Griffin is that he’s not limited in any way, and when we would see him run in practice, he clearly still has his speed. In some ways they’ll see an improved version of the player they saw last season, thanks to an offseason devoted to film study. So I think they’ll see someone even more committed to throwing the ball; last season at this time he was more apt to take off running even in practice. I didn’t see him do that; again, it was against the scout team but even in 7-on-7 last season he would sometimes run. This year he’d find his checkdown. And the last reason he’ll be helped: The Redskins have a healthy offense, something they never fully had in 2012. Receiver Pierre Garcon, tight end Fred Davis and third-down back Roy Helu are all healthy and key parts of the passing game.

Keim: What do you think will pose the biggest problem for defenses?

Sheridan: The Eagles’ speed, and I’m not really talking about the no-huddle, go-go tempo here. That will be part of it, for sure. The Eagles will push the pace and try to wear defenders down, no doubt about that. But from Michael Vick to DeSean Jackson to McCoy, this is a fast team. Kelly’s scheme is built on creating mismatches and turning that speed loose in space. If he’s able to do that, then the Eagles will be able to score a lot of points.

Sheridan: How much better will the Washington defense be with a healthy Brian Orakpo?

Keim: The hope for the Redskins is that it’s a lot better. I think that’s a legitimate hope, because of the trickle-down effect. Orakpo is not DeMarcus Ware, and his career-best sack total is 11 (as a rookie). But Orakpo is good at setting up others, and he allows the Redskins to use more four-man rushes than they did a year ago in trying to generate pressure without him. They won’t always get to the passer doing this, but it will provide needed help for the coverage and a secondary that struggled in 2012. In the rush, Orakpo’s impact will be big on end Stephen Bowen. They work well on stunts, and with the line paying extra attention to Orakpo more often than not, it should allow Bowen to face more one-on-one blocking than he did last season. That allows him to collapse the pocket. On the other side, Ryan Kerrigan will be helped for two reasons: One, he’s not the focal point of most blocking schemes now; two, he’s excellent at getting to the quarterback after others have collapsed the pocket. But the defense will also be helped by Kerrigan’s increased versatility -- he and Orakpo will line up in a variety of spots to rush. And by nose tackle Barry Cofield’s continued improved play. Those factors, plus Orakpo’s return, should elevate the defense from the back end of the pack to the middle.

Keim: Vick says he feels rejuvenated -- is he playing that way, and does he look good in this offense?

Sheridan: It must be remembered that Vick says he feels rejuvenated or reborn or rededicated every summer. Kelly rekindled Vick's love for football just as Andy Reid rekindled it several years running. The proof will be in the pudding, as they say. Vick’s stellar performance in the first two preseason games was reminiscent of his breakout in 2010 -- Washington fans might remember that especially well. It’s hard not to believe a similar decline -- injuries, turnovers, erratic play -- will follow. That is his challenge, to prove that this time he really has gotten a handle on how to prepare and perform like a consistent NFL quarterback.

Sheridan: NFL defensive coaches must be champing at the bit to take on Kelly (and his reputation). How will Jim Haslett handle being first up?

Keim: It’s a tough task, and one the Redskins put New Orleans in a year ago. You wrote about this in a column the other day, and I think it’s probably accurate: You focus on how you’ve dealt with certain players, like a Vick, in the past. Blitzing him has worked in the past; if they do that now, I’d guess they would try more overloads just to keep six or seven in coverage. I also think you have to show them different looks, get Vick to pause because his first read isn’t there. Then I think Haslett will have to rely on preparation. When Kelly goes up-tempo, the players can’t hesitate when lining up or in playing. He’s fortunate to have a player such as linebacker London Fletcher inside. Few in the NFL are more prepared than Fletcher.

Keim: The Eagles struggled to stop the run this summer, and had moderate success in this area last season. How will they approach defending Morris?

Sheridan: Moderate success? You kill with kindness, my friend. The Eagles were 23d in the league in terms of rushing yards allowed. That doesn’t mean they were stopping the run, though, as much as it meant they were ridiculously easy to throw the ball against. They gave up 33 passing touchdowns (against just eight interceptions) and a passer rating of 99.6. Teams threw early, got the lead and then ran just to kill time. The buzz phrase this season is “gang tackling” -- Kelly and new defensive coordinator Bill Davis have been preaching it all summer. Get to the ball carrier in waves. That has to be their approach with Morris. In the preseason, the Eagles gave up long runs way too often for anyone to feel too confident about them.

Sheridan: What impact will the presence or absence or limited availability of Brandon Meriweather have on Washington’s ability to counter the Eagles’ speed at the skill positions?

Keim: He played part of one game last season, the first meeting against the Eagles. In that game the Redskins blitzed the cornerback from the numbers, a spot they had not previously done (always had been from the slot). This left DeSean Jackson free for a moment. But the Redskins had done so because of Meriweather’s speed and ability to rotate over quicker than their other strong safeties. The blitz worked. They ran this blitz a couple times in ensuing games, but not against a speed guy like Jackson. Even if he plays, I don’t know if Meriweather will be 100 percent. He hasn’t been since early in camp last summer. But he adds speed in the secondary, and when facing a team that makes you defend sideline to sideline that’s a necessary element.

Keim: Is this a better team? If so, in what ways other than a fast-paced offense?

Sheridan: It probably will be a better team, if only because the snowball-rolling-downhill aspect stopped with the change at head coach. There is a palpable change in the atmosphere around the Eagles, and that should translate into a better product on the field. How much better? Probably not dramatically better in the win column, not in the first season. The defense still lacks proven playmakers, and the shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 is bound to result in some growing pains. On offense, the expectation is that Kelly is innovative and novel enough to make an immediate impact. The return to health of the offensive line will help enormously there. But it is the same quarterback, with the same history of injuries and turnovers, behind center. All in all, this year is a stepping-stone. To what? Well, we should know better after Monday night.

Bonus stat of the week: -15. That’s the drop in rushing touchdowns for McCoy from 2011 (Eagles' record 17) to 2012 (2). Third biggest year-to-year decline in NFL history.

Mathews-KaepernickAP PhotoClay Matthews and Green Bay had all offseason to digest what Colin Kaepernick did to them in January.

The final season at venerable Candlestick Park begins in style as the San Francisco 49ers host the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.

It is a rematch of an NFC divisional playoff game in the same building. The 49ers completely outclassed the Packers on Jan. 12, as first-year starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick and crew had their way with a defense that looked slow and lost in a 45-31 San Francisco victory.

Packers team reporter Rob Demovsky and 49ers team reporter Bill Williamson have plenty to discuss. To the questions:

Williamson: Rob, I think we have to start this off with this simple query: Can the Packers stop the read-option of a Kaepernick-led offense?

Demovsky: Bill, that’s what everyone has wanted to know since Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards against them in the playoff game. The number 579 -- the total yards of offense the 49ers piled up that day -- has been burned into the brains of the Packers’ defensive players. Almost every day in practice during training camp, the defense went off to one end of the field by itself and worked against the read-option. But the Packers haven’t seen any of it in live action since that playoff game, so at this point, there’s no way to know whether they’re any better equipped to handle it now.

Williamson: That’s the thing. Green Bay will be coming into this game nervous. The read-option has been on the minds of this coaching staff and its players all offseason, yet the Packers don’t know for sure if they can handle it any better than they did the last time they saw Kaepernick. Kaepernick and his coach, the always-confident Jim Harbaugh, believe in their system and their personnel. They are going to challenge the Packers right away. I fully expect Kaepernick to come out gunning to make a statement -- a full-tilt San Francisco offense. If Kaepernick has early success, it could open the offensive floodgates. Now, if the Green Bay defense holds Kaepernick early, the Packers will get a confidence boost and should hang around all day.

Rob, just how confident do you think the Packers will be if they get a ton of read-option right away?

Demovsky: Clay Matthews said this week that the Packers know they have to take their shots at the quarterback when he tries to get outside the pocket, and if they do, perhaps they can get Kaepernick to sit in the pocket more, which ultimately is their goal. They want to make him a pocket passer if at all possible. That’s their best chance for success.

There are other issues to this game, of course. Bill, considering the fact that the Packers will start a rookie, David Bakhtiari, at left tackle and a former undrafted free agent, Don Barclay, at right tackle, how big of an advantage does a pass-rusher like Aldon Smith have against Green Bay?

Williamson: Other than Kaepernick and Aaron Rodgers, Smith might be the most important player on the field Sunday. He can change the game by himself, as his 33.5 sacks in two NFL seasons attests. Bakhtiari and Barclay have an incredible challenge ahead of them. It is also bad news for Green Bay that 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith is healed from a triceps surgery. Aldon Smith had all 19.5 of his sacks in the regular season with Justin Smith playing with him, and none in 2012 without him. Having the Smith & Smith show together could mean a long day for Rodgers.

Demovsky: But won’t the 49ers have to respect the Packers’ running game a little bit more with the addition of rookie Eddie Lacy? He looks like their first legitimate running back since Ryan Grant in 2009. If the Packers can establish Lacy on first down, they might be able to keep themselves out of obvious passing situations, and then Aldon Smith wouldn’t be able to tee off and jet-rush up the field on every second and third down.

Williamson: That is certainly the Packers' hope. It is clear that getting their ground game back on track was a focal point of the offseason. This is a passer’s league, but getting yardage on the ground and keeping Kaepernick off the field will surely help Green Bay’s cause as much the relief that it would give Rodgers. But here’s the rub -- San Francisco is a monster against the run. The 49ers allowed just 3.7 yards per rush last season, third-best in the NFL. The Packers will be hard-pressed to break their streak of 43 regular-season games without a 100-yard rusher.

Demovsky: Bill, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about how the Packers are going to defend Kaepernick & Co., but don’t forget that January's playoff game was tied 24-24 midway through the third quarter, and the Packers' offense was having a decent day -- Rodgers throwing for 257 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Can the 49ers secondary hold up against Rodgers and the likes of Randall Cobb, James Jones and Jordy Nelson?

Williamson: A fine point. Look, the Packers are legitimate. They will not be embarrassed in this game. Rodgers is the best player on the planet. He and his receivers must be accounted for. If the 49ers are vulnerable on defense, it might be in the secondary, where they have the oldest defensive backs in the league. Can older players like Carlos Rogers and Nnamdi Asomugha (who may be slowed by a collarbone injury) keep the Green Bay passing game honest? If Green Bay is going to win this game, it’s going to be because Rodgers is unstoppable. That’s possible.

Rob, as we have discussed the major talking points of this anticipated matchup, an intriguing side story has developed. The Packers have brought in a pair of former 49ers backup quarterbacks in Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien. Do you think they can help Green Bay pull out a victory from the meeting room?

Demovsky: I doubt Wallace can. He wasn’t even with the 49ers for a full week. But you'd better believe they’ve grilled Tolzien about the 49ers. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the biggest reason they brought him in, and if they end up cutting him from the practice squad in a week or two. Now, Tolzien probably won’t know much about the 49ers' game plan for this week, but considering he was with them for both meetings against the Packers last season, he likely has a good working knowledge of how Harbaugh wants to go after Green Bay.

Williamson: I’m with you. These moves add some strategy elements, but this is going to be a big-boy game pitting two of the NFL’s finest teams against one another. Once the game starts, this thing is going to all about Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis, Kaepernick, Rodgers and Matthews.

Tavon Austin and Carson PalmerUSA TODAY SportsTavon Austin and Carson Palmer were part of overhauls on offense for the Rams and Saints.
The St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals are widely regarded as the afterthoughts of the difficult NFC West Division.

Sure, both teams have done enough to draw optimism from their respective fan bases but when it comes to high expectations, neither team is supposed to keep pace with chic Super Bowl picks Seattle and San Francisco.

If the Rams or Cardinals intend to keep pace with the Seahawks and Niners, it would serve them well to beat the other to open the season.

Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss discuss the important topics that will shape Sunday’s outcome.

Nick Wagoner: Sitting here in St. Louis, it looks like it’s been a busy offseason out there, the type that I’m used to seeing around here. The Cardinals had a major makeover in the front office and with the coaching staff. The obvious first question here is what type of impact has new coach Bruce Arians made since his arrival?

Josh Weinfuss: Pretty much from the get-go, Arians has changed the culture throughout the organization. He’s not a micromanager. All he cares about is winning football games. Arians cleaned house almost immediately and brought in his own staff, save for two holdovers -- quarterbacks coach Freddie Kitchens and defensive assistant Ryan Slowik. But it was more than the personnel he changed. The mindset was different, too. Players were excited again after losing seasons two of the past three years, and Arians established respect throughout the locker room quickly. He was open and honest with the players, even if it wasn’t what they wanted to hear, and the players appreciated it, some even relished in it.

It’s not like you haven’t seen some change there in St. Louis. With the loss of Steven Jackson and Danny Amendola, how has the Rams' offensive identity changed this season?

Wagoner: After eight years of Steven Jackson punching the clock and picking up 1,000 yards or more on the ground, things are quite a bit different in that regard. The Rams are faster with tight end Jared Cook and receivers Tavon Austin and Chris Givens. They’ve added those guys to give quarterback Sam Bradford every chance to succeed. The offense has been rebuilt to feature Bradford and allow him to take the next step. While offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer says the tempo and style of offense will change from game to game and be more game-plan specific, there’s little doubt the offense will look much different than it has been around here in some time.

Speaking of building around quarterbacks, Carson Palmer is an obvious upgrade at quarterback but how much will that improve the offense?

Weinfuss: I think it’ll improve the offense more than most people think, but for a few reasons. Not only will the Cardinals now have a capable quarterback who threw for 4,018 yards and 22 touchdowns last season -- they’ll have consistency. The Cardinals trotted out four different starters in 2012 and there was no unity that kept the offense together. Combined, they threw for 3,383 yards and 11 touchdowns -- that’s 635 fewer yards and half as many scores. In Arians’ downfield offense, having a big arm and a smart quarterback is as important as any factor. And Palmer showed during the preseason that he can launch it.

You talk about the new weapons around Bradford, but how will the addition of left tackle Jake Long help the Rams' offense, specifically the running game?

Wagoner: The Rams did everything they could during the preseason and training camp to ensure Long is healthy and ready to go when the season begins. They limited his reps in practice to keep him fresh, and he responded with solid performances in the three preseason games in which he appeared. He says he feels as good as he has in three years and from talking to him, he’s got something of a chip on his shoulder. He was told for years he was an elite tackle then people began doubting him last year. He looks poised to bounce back and be effective in pass protection and the run game.

While we’re on the topic of offensive lines, it certainly seems to be the ongoing saga out there. The Rams had nine sacks last year when Arizona came to town. Has the offensive line improved enough to keep Palmer upright on a consistent basis?

Weinfuss: The short answer is yes. The long, complicated answer is we’ll see. Last year the Cardinals allowed a league-high 58 sacks, but that was with a patchwork offensive line that saw seven different starters. This year, the unit is more solidified with the return of Levi Brown, who missed last season with a torn triceps, and the addition of free agent right tackle Eric Winston, who has started every game since 2008. The biggest question mark will be the interior. First-round pick Jonathan Cooper is out for the year with a broken leg, which forced Daryn Colledge to move from right guard back to left and opened the door for Paul Fanaika at right guard. He was out of football last season. Overall, this year’s line is a veteran, improved unit and I expect it to protect Palmer, who was sacked 26 times last year, better than he’s seen in a while.

Let’s flip to the other side of the ball. How much can the Rams rely on solid corner play to make up for having no starting experience at safety?

Wagoner: Well, the Rams have talent and experience returning at every position on the defense except for safety. Rookie T.J. McDonald and second-year undrafted free agent Rodney McLeod are the likely starters Sunday and they have a total of zero starts between them. They do have veteran Cortland Finnegan to provide leadership in the secondary and McDonald seems wise beyond his years. Still, it may be tough on those young safeties against Arians’ vertical passing attack. McDonald figures to play more of the box safety role and McLeod is a better fit as a center-field type on the back end.
Terrelle Pryor and Andrew LuckUSA TODAY SportsTerrelle Pryor will lead a rebuilding team while Andrew Luck and the Colts will try to build on last season's success.
The Indianapolis Colts surprised the league by finishing with an 11-5 record and making the playoffs behind rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. The Oakland Raiders struggled with a 4-12 record. They're expected to have problems again this season as the rebuilding project continues for the Raiders. The teams open the season facing each other on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Mike Wells: So much was made about who the Raiders would start at quarterback earlier this week. It looks like it’ll be Terrelle Pryor. Does he give Oakland the best chance to win, and if so, what makes him so dangerous as a quarterback?

Paul Gutierrez: It appears as though it will be TP2 Time for the Raiders in the opener. And really, it should be. Now, that’s not necessarily an endorsement, but with this team, at this moment, Pryor does at least represent some semblance of hope, what with his skill set. His ability to run should keep the Colts' front seven honest and they won’t be able to simply pin their ears back and rush, like they could Matt Flynn. I believe Flynn is probably a better NFL quarterback at this stage, but with the deficiencies around Oakland’s pocket -- leaky line, inconsistent receivers, injury-prone running back -- Pryor gives the Raiders a better chance. And being that this is a quarterback-driven league, how has Luck dealt with stepping into those huge shoes left by Peyton Manning, and how can Luck avoid the sophomore jinx?

Wells: I’m sure you probably watched Luck one or two times out there in the Bay Area while he was at Stanford, so you know his work ethic should never be questioned, and his demeanor doesn’t allow him to get caught up with the hype. The offensive weapons the Colts put around Luck will make it difficult for him to struggle. Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton and Oakland’s favorite former receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey at receiver; Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen at tight end to go with the duo of Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard at running back. So the words “sophomore slump” and “Andrew Luck” shouldn’t be on anybody’s mind. Of course that’s if the offensive line does its job and blocks. A lot is being made of Pryor’s ability to be creative with his feet, but what about Darren McFadden -- isn’t he the real threat with running the ball, especially with the Colts being near the bottom of the league in rush defense last season?

Gutierrez: No doubt, especially in a perfect world for the Raiders' offense. If all is working right, and opposing defenses have to at least respect the quarterback’s ability to take off, they can’t key on the quarterback. And that sets up the play-action pass. But for the Raiders to have any success offensively this season, it all starts and ends with a guy who has yet to play more than 13 games in a season.

Yeah, Run DMC had been more Limp DMC of late, but when he’s right, he’s nice. Two years ago, he was playing like a league MVP candidate. Then came the Lisfranc injury that ended his campaign after just six-plus games. And last year, in perhaps the greatest failing of the Raiders’ new regime’s plans, they changed the offense on McFadden from a power scheme to the zone-blocking philosophy. McFadden’s average yards per carry went from a career-high 5.4 yards to 3.3 yards. McFadden is also entering a contract year so yeah, he has something to prove as the Raiders return to the power running game. Speaking of something to prove, you mentioned him earlier: The artist formerly known as DHB around these parts left a lot to be desired after four nondescript seasons in Oakland. Hey, it wasn’t his fault he was drafted so high. How has he adapted to a change of scenery, and how strong is his desire to prove something to the Raiders after they cut him this spring?

Wells: I thought Heyward-Bey would come to Indy with a chip on his shoulder because, well, he did play for the Raiders, where more bad than good comes out of that organization. But Heyward-Bey has only good things to say about the Raiders. He blames himself for a lot of his struggles during his four years in Oakland. He also knows he needs to produce to get rid of that “bust” label. As you know, Heyward-Bey has an incredible work ethic.

The biggest difference here is that he now has a mentor. Wayne is the perfect veteran to guide him. The future Hall of Famer's professional demeanor is exactly what Heyward-Bey needs. The other thing is, Heyward-Bey doesn’t have the pressure of being the No. 1 receiver. Wayne isn’t slowing down any time soon, and the Colts have so many other offensive weapons, as I mentioned earlier, that Heyward-Bey can just let the game come to him. Fans will likely see a number of those weapons because the Raiders don’t have much of a defense. Will nine new starters help them from giving up almost 28 points a game again this season?

Gutierrez: That’s the plan. At least, that’s the hope for the Raiders. Yeah, they have nine new starters on defense, with the only two returning starters being defensive end Lamarr Houston, who is moving from the left side to the more pass rush-specific right side, and strong safety Tyvon Branch, who endured an injury-plagued season for the first time in his career. Of course, a million times of course, the Raiders kept their defense vanilla in the preseason ... and not just for what coach Dennis Allen would term "competitive reasons." In fact, Sunday will be only the first time the Raiders will field their entire starting defense at the same time. Injuries wreaked havoc in exhibition games.

There was a glimmer of hope, though, with the run-stuffing play of defensive tackle Pat Sims in the exhibition finale. And if Nick Roach, who will wear the green dot on his helmet, can rally the defense from his middle linebacker position, the Raiders' defense should be better this season. Emphasis on "could." Can the Raiders -- with virtually an entire new defense and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, who schemed daily against Luck at Stanford -- be a detriment to the Colts? Or are they simply of the mindset that they have to worry only about themselves?

Wells: The only way the Raiders will be able to rattle Luck is if the offensive line doesn’t do its job and allows its quarterback to take a pounding all game long. And even then, that may not be enough to beat the Colts. Let’s not forget, Luck was sacked 41 times and hit more than 100 times last season. That didn’t stop him from setting a rookie record for passing yards, attempts and 300-yard games. So I don’t think the Raiders will be to do much against Luck & Co. on Sunday afternoon.

Troy Polamalu and Jake Locker Getty ImagesJake Locker will have to face a fresh Troy Polamalu and one of the league's top defenses.
Pittsburgh is a tough place to play. The Pittsburgh Steelers don't often stay down long. The Tennessee Titans will bring a lot of unknowns to Heinz Field.

It’s an intriguing opening day matchup for two teams looking to bounce back from seasons that didn’t meet standards and fell short of expectations.

ESPN.com Steelers' blogger Scott Brown joins me for his first edition of Double Coverage, and I know he’ll understand if we skip the pleasantries and dive right in.

The Titans' rebuild is centered around their offensive line. They’ll be way more physical with a new interior of Andy Levitre, Rob Turner and Chance Warmack.

Scott, I know the offensive line has been an issue in Pittsburgh, too. What’s the status of things there, and how much better can we expect the Steelers to be up front?

Scott Brown: Paul, that is one of the biggest questions facing the Steelers. The offensive line is one of the youngest and most inexperienced the Steelers have assembled in decades. But the group is athletic and has plenty of what coach Mike Tomlin likes to call "pedigree."

Two of the starters are first-round draft picks. Two others are second-round selections. The Steelers have clearly made a big investment in the offensive line, and they need a major return on that investment for this team to return to the playoffs.

I think the interior of the line with Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey and guards David DeCastro and Ramon Foster has a chance to be really good. I'm not as sold on tackles Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams, who will protect Ben Roethlisberger's blind side.

The Titans, I'm sure, will test that line with plenty of blitzes, as the first-team offensive line struggled with pass-blocking in the preseason.

Speaking of blitzes, Titans quarterback Jake Locker will see his share with the ageless wonder Dick LeBeau still calling defenses in Pittsburgh.

How is Locker progressing, and is he the long-term answer at quarterback in Tennessee?

Paul Kuharsky: The verdict on whether Locker is the guy for the long haul won’t come until after we see this season.

He steadily improved in camp and the preseason and has reason to feel good about the state of things. I don’t think he’s going to have many games in his career in which he throws for 300 yards, but the Titans aren’t built to ask that of him. They’ll get him on the move to make simple throws and decisions, especially early, when he often needs to settle down and find a rhythm.

That line will give him time and be far better at creating space for Chris Johnson and newcomer Shonn Greene. If the Titans run effectively -- and the preseason suggested that’s one thing they are definitely good at -- they can build play-action off that and Locker will be in a perfect setting to succeed.

The two big questions are about his accuracy and how he will react to new, unforeseen circumstances. You know, the kind of stuff Lebeau has designed for this game especially for him.

Does LeBeau have the pieces to do the sort of things to confuse a young quarterback?

Brown: He has one of the most valuable pieces of all in Troy Polamalu. The dynamic strong safety allows LeBeau to do so much because he plays all over the field and opposing quarterbacks don't know where he is going to be from snap to snap.

Polamalu missed nine games last season because of a recurring calf injury, but he looked like his old self in training camp and the preseason. In that sense, the timing isn't good for the Titans to play the Steelers because Polamalu is at full strength. Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley also seems poised to bounce back from an injury-plagued season in which he registered just four sacks.

With those two and other players such as inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons and rookie outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, LeBeau won't hold back -- particularly against a relatively inexperienced quarterback who is still finding his way in the NFL.

Paul, the Steelers have never lost at Heinz Field in September under Tomlin. My question for you is what will it take for the Titans to pull off the upset on Sunday?

Kuharsky: I think it’s possible. They’d have to show poise, withstand the bad moments, minimize mistakes. You know the drill.

This is a team that has been run on by lesser running backs in the recent past, so it can’t take Isaac Redman lightly, and we’ll find out fast if Sammie Hill and Ropati Pitoitua are going to help answer the run-defense deficiencies.

The Titans must get Roethlisberger to the ground when they have the chance. After an offseason talking of press coverage, they haven’t changed at all at cornerback, and I imagine Roethlisberger will find things to attack. He knows Titans strong safety Bernard Pollard from his time in Baltimore. I won’t be surprised if the Steelers plot to get Pollard in coverage situations they feel they can exploit.

The other big question here, the elephant in the room: Your first game for ESPN.com? You ready?

Brown: To help myself to some Tomlinisms: This is where the rubber meets the road, but this is not my first rodeo. I believe I have sharpened my pen (does that still apply in the dot.com world?) for battle, but I will have to pay attention to detail. Ultimately, it comes down to making plays (or deadline in this case) inside stadiums with the lights on (yes, I know it is a 1 p.m. start, but gray days in Pittsburgh are as noteworthy as grass on a golf course). Such is life in the National Football League (and ESPN.com), and I embrace the challenge.

Steven Jackson, Mark IngramGetty ImagesSteven Jackson and Mark Ingram will try to bring more balance to two pass-heavy offenses.
Sean Payton is back to right the wrongs of last season, when his New Orleans Saints went off the rails in his absence. The first test of the season is a fitting one: The Saints open against their hated NFC South rivals, the Atlanta Falcons, who ran away with the division last season even though they split with New Orleans.

Have Payton and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan fixed that horrid defense of a year ago? Will the Saints have much of a running game? Can the Falcons protect their franchise quarterback and give him time to find his myriad weapons?

ESPN.com NFL columnist Ashley Fox and NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas discuss what Saints and Falcons fans can expect from the latest installment of this heated rivalry.

Fox: He’s back. It is redemption time for Payton after missing a year because of the bounty scandal. I’m sure, given how beloved Payton is in New Orleans, that the Mercedes-Benz Superdome will be so loud it might lift off. I’ve seen different estimates for Payton’s worth. How many wins do you think he’s worth to the Saints?

Yasinskas: I think Payton's presence instantly takes the Saints from a nonplayoff team to a playoff team. His skills as an offensive guru are well known, and that certainly will help. But I think the more subtle benefit to having Payton back is his skill as a motivator. He's a master in that area, and he'll have his team ready for big games. Speaking of changes that came in the offseason, what do you think was the biggest move for the Falcons?

Fox: To me, the biggest change was the addition of Steven Jackson. As you well know, the Falcons struggled to run the ball late last season, when Michael Turner clearly had nothing left in the tank. I know Jackson has hit the age when running backs typically decline, but the Falcons don't need him to carry the load. They're going to pass to get a lead and run to win the game. As long as he can stay healthy, Jackson should be able to do that. How effective do you think the Saints' running game will be?

Yasinskas: That's a very timely question. Several times this offseason, Payton has said he wants more out of his running game. The Saints always are going to be a pass-first team. But if you look back at their Super Bowl year, their running game ranked in the top 10. Payton wants to get back to that, and I believe he has the tools to do that with Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram. I think you'll see more of Ingram this year. He's a guy who needs 10 to 15 carries to get going, and he can bring more balance to the offense. Speaking of balance, the Falcons seem to have plenty of that. How potent is their offense going to be?

Fox: I think they have a chance to be as potent, if not more so, than last season. The newly signed Matt Ryan has all of his toys back -- Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez. He threw for more than 4,700 yards last season and set career highs for completion percentage, attempts and completions. He could break those again this season. It will be interesting to see if the preseason, when the Falcons were flagged for countless penalties, was an aberration. They were the least penalized team in NFL history last season. As far as setting NFL records, the Saints' defense did last season and not in a good way. Do you think it is going to be any better this season under Ryan?

Yasinskas: It's hard to imagine the New Orleans defense being any worse than it was a year ago. Things just never worked for former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. I think there will be improvement with Ryan, but I'm not sure how significant it will be. The Saints are switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme, and I'm not sure they have all the personnel they need to be successful. Time will tell, but it's more than fair to say the defense is the biggest question mark for the Saints. Speaking of question marks, do the Falcons have any glaring weaknesses?

Fox: It is the offensive line. If Ryan is worth his salt as a defensive coordinator, he will strike the right side of the Falcons' line. That’s where the potential problems are. After 13 seasons and 194 starts, center Todd McClure retired after last season. Peter Konz, who started nine games as a rookie at right guard, slides back to his natural position at center. Left guard Justin Blaylock and left tackle Sam Baker are veteran rocks. That’s not the problem. The Falcons let right tackle Tyson Clabo walk in free agency. His replacement, Mike Johnson, broke his leg during training camp. Johnson's replacement, Lamar Holmes, was bad enough in the preseason that the Falcons signed Jeremy Trueblood earlier this week. Right guard Garrett Reynolds missed the second half of last season with an injury. How do you think Ryan will try to exploit the weakness?

Yasinskas: I agree with what you said about Atlanta's offensive line. It potentially could be a huge problem, and I'm sure Ryan is well aware of that. I'd look for him to try to exploit the right side of the line as much as possible. But the Saints have had their share of injuries on defense, and it still isn't clear how they'll apply pressure. Defensive end Cameron Jordan really is the only proven commodity as a pass-rusher. The Saints have big hopes for outside linebackers Junior Galette and Martez Wilson, and those guys need to become forces in a hurry. Atlanta has so many offensive weapons that the Saints need to get some pressure on the quarterback. Speaking of Atlanta's offensive weapons, is White completely healthy?

Fox: The Falcons better hope so. And they say he is, more or less. White sprained an ankle in the second preseason game but finally returned to practice this week. He is Mr. Reliable, having started 128 straight games, and had only two drops last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Only Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald had fewer among receivers who were targeted at least 100 times. So the Falcons need White to be healthy and productive. What’s up with the Saints’ third receiver situation?

Yasinskas: The Saints just brought back Robert Meachem, who didn't work out as a free agent in San Diego. I think Meachem can get back to being an impact player as a third or fourth receiver in time. But I think the Saints will open the season with rookie Kenny Stills as their third receiver. He has big-time speed, and the Saints need a downfield weapon to go along with Marques Colston and Lance Moore. Stills is an under-the-radar player who could have a big impact on this game. Do you see any Falcons who fall into that same category?

Fox: There are two undrafted rookie free agents on defense who won’t start but should see plenty of action. One is Joplo Bartu, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound linebacker out of Texas State. The other is Paul Worrilow, a 6-foot, 230-pound linebacker out of Delaware. Both are unheralded guys who are big and strong and really caught the coaches a little by surprise. Remember those two. OK, so give me a prediction. Who wins?

Cutler-DaltonGetty ImagesChicago's Jay Cutler, left, and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton lead their respective offenses against very stingy defenses.
Two strong defensive teams led by highly scrutinized quarterbacks in Jay Cutler and Andy Dalton set the scene for what should be a hotly-contested matchup between what are expected to be ascending clubs.

Marc Trestman makes his debut as an NFL head coach at Soldier Field on Sunday, leading a Bears team with plenty of roster turnover on offense, including a totally revamped line expected to better protect Cutler as he operates the club’s new scheme. That group will be tested by a Bengals defensive line, led by Geno Atkins, that accounted for 43 of the team’s franchise-record 51 sacks in 2012, and also paved the way for the defense to finish the season ranked No. 6 for fewest yards allowed.

Chicago’s defense in 2012 was even better, finishing fifth in net defense, third in scoring defense (17.3 points per game) and No. 2 in turnover differential while leading the NFL in interceptions (24) and total takeaways (44).

While home-field advantage can be key for teams, it's certainly been a factor in this series. The Bengals hold a 4-1 road record against the Bears and own a 6-3 series lead, which includes victories in their last outings (2005 and 2009).

Chicago hasn’t beaten the Bengals since 2001.

ESPN.com’s Matt Williamson and Bears team reporter Michael C. Wright discuss the matchup.

Wright: The Bears hope they fixed the offensive line with a combination of scheme (shorter drops for Cutler), beefed up protection with Jermon Bushrod at left tackle and a pair of draft picks in Kyle Long (first round) and Jordan Mills (fifth) at right guard and right tackle, and another weapon for Cutler to find down the middle of the field when he’s in trouble. But the inexperience of Long and Mills will be question marks against Cincinnati’s active defensive line.

It seems Cincinnati’s defense is built around Atkins, but how much of a factor are guys like Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson?

Williamson: Atkins is the foundation of the defense for sure and everyone thrives off his presence, but the Bengals have a lot invested in the defensive line now in terms of finances and draft picks. This is an extremely deep and talented group that makes the entire defense go. Dunlap might be a little underrated and Johnson a little overrated, but they form an impressive pair of defensive end. These three players, along with the rest of Cincinnati’s defensive front, will prove a very steep challenge for Chicago’s rebuilt offensive line in Week 1.

What can the Bengals’ defense expect from this new Trestman offense?

Wright: The Bears will utilize zone blocking in the running game, which should allow Matt Forte to pick his own holes. That should open up the passing game, where the Bears will use West Coast philosophies such as shorter routes and drops for Cutler so he can get rid of the ball quickly. Look for the Bears to also try to use Earl Bennett down the seams to exploit potential matchup problems, especially on traditional running downs where the Bengals might be using base personnel.

Speaking of the Bengals, they’ve made the playoffs in three of the last four years, but really haven’t made much noise. What are the expectations for this team now?

Williamson: Expectations must go up. They had yet another high-quality offseason and this team has an exceptional young core of players on both sides of the ball. They clearly play in a tough division, but going one-and-done in the playoffs yet again will not be considered a successful season in Cincinnati. I fear they will only go as far as their quarterback will take them. But Bengals fans have a lot to be excited about.

Do you think this Bears defense can defend A.J. Green?

Wright: They should be able to keep him from dominating the game. It’s likely the Bears match Charles Tillman up against Green, but if the receiver winds up in front of Tim Jennings, the team is confident he can get the job done, too. The Bears typically don’t double or shade coverage against players such as Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, so don’t count on seeing the Bears try that against Green. Cincinnati’s tight ends could be an issue now that they’ve got two good ones in Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert.

With such a talented supporting cast, do you see Dalton as just a guy surrounded by weapons, or a blossoming young quarterback?

Williamson: He shows signs of blossoming into a solid young quarterback, and has been especially adept in the red zone, which is very noteworthy for a young quarterback. But I think he is more of the former. He is a limited passer who lacks great tools, and isn’t as accurate or on time with his throws as you would like for someone with his limitations. The Bengals knew this and landed two very “Dalton-friendly” receivers for him in Eifert and Giovani Bernard. Eifert should develop into an exceptional target in the middle of the field as well as the red zone, while Bernard provides an easy dump-off option for Dalton. With all the Bengals’ resources over the past two offseasons, it really surprises me that Cincinnati didn’t do more to challenge Dalton or greatly improve its backup quarterback spot.

Double Coverage: Vikings at Lions

September, 5, 2013
9/05/13
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Leslie Frazier, Jim Schwartz AP Photo Neither Leslie Frazier nor Jim Schwartz enters the season with much long-term job security.
Two teams in win-or-else mode will open the season Sunday at Ford Field.

In 2012, the Detroit Lions had their third losing season in four years under coach Jim Schwartz. A fourth in five years could end his tenure.

The Minnesota Vikings, meanwhile, decided not to extend the contract of coach Leslie Frazier after his 10-6 breakthrough season last year. His deal is up in 2014, and assuming the Vikings don't want to bring him back in a lame-duck situation, Frazier will either get a contract extension or be fired after this season.

The Vikings swept the Lions in the 2012 regular season after the Lions did the same in 2011. ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and ESPN NFL Nation writer Kevin Seifert discuss the matchup:

Kevin Seifert: Ben, the Lions have had all offseason to prepare for Adrian Peterson, who gashed them for 273 yards in two games last season. They've got Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley playing next to each other on the inside and overall have a bigger and more physical defensive line than they had last year. I'm not saying the Lions are going to shut down Peterson on Sunday, but I do think the Vikings can't go into the game relying on him to carry their offense. So that brings me to the big question surrounding this team: Do you think the Vikings' passing game has improved enough to do its share?

Ben Goessling: They'd certainly have to hope so based on what they did for Christian Ponder this offseason, adding Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson to their group of receivers. But the thing that concerns me with Ponder in this matchup is how he'll respond to the pressure the Lions will bring. He still seemed to struggle with that in the preseason, though he had one of his best games of the year against the Lions in the Metrodome last November. The Lions pressured him on just 11 drop-backs in both games last season, but if they can get to him more often than that, I don't like Ponder's chances of carrying the Vikings, should he need to do so. And if the Lions can exploit the Vikings' new-look secondary, Ponder could find himself playing from behind, where he hasn't been terribly good. The question is, will the Lions be able to burn the Vikings with their passing game enough to put Ponder in a hole?

Seifert: That's a fair question, Ben. The Lions seemed to do what they needed to this offseason by signing running back Reggie Bush, who would presumably keep defenses off balance and give the Lions a big-time outlet for all those times when Calvin Johnson was in the middle of some kind of exotic coverages.

But for many reasons, the offense never really looked sharp in the preseason. The most obvious factor was that Johnson didn't play much, of course, but Bush had almost no running room behind a still-evolving offensive line. It also seemed pretty clear that the Lions don't have a No. 2 receiver to play alongside Johnson, a role that was once targeted for Titus Young before his well-publicized off-field issues.

With all that said, however, the connection between Stafford and Johnson is real and special. There is every reason to consider them a formidable challenge for the Vikings -- especially considering the state of their secondary. Why don't you fill in our good readers on that situation, Ben?

Goessling: I'd be happy to. Essentially, it's my opinion that the Vikings' secondary depth might be the biggest issue facing their defense headed into the season. As a whole, it's probably the second-biggest concern behind Ponder.

The Vikings let Antoine Winfield go in March, moving ahead with a secondary that features one injury-prone corner (Chris Cook), a second-year man trying to replace Winfield's excellent slot coverage skills (Josh Robinson) and a rookie (Xavier Rhodes). There's enough talent and size to make it work, especially with safeties Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford offering help in coverage, but the Vikings are rolling the dice with the cornerbacks they've got. The Lions might not be deep enough at receiver to fully test the Vikings' depth, but Calvin Johnson is as big of a challenge for Minnesota as Adrian Peterson is for Detroit.

The Vikings bottled Johnson up at Ford Field last year, bracketing him with Smith or Sanford on top of Cook and hitting him throughout the game. But with Cook injured at the Metrodome, Johnson went wild for 207 yards. It will be interesting to see how the Lions use him, and what kinds of matchups they can generate against an inexperienced secondary.

You brought up Bush earlier, too, Kevin. The Vikings' run defense isn't what it used to be, and it looks like they could be dealing with injuries at the defensive tackle position this week. Stafford threw the ball a combined 93 times against the Vikings last year, and lost both games. Will Bush be effective enough to give the Lions the balance they need to win?

Seifert: Let's put it this way. If the Vikings use the typical kind of defense the Lions usually see for Calvin Johnson, and Bush still can't get any yards against a depleted defense, then the Lions are going to have problems this season. The Lions have to be able to run the ball this year better than they did in 2012. Teams gave them more six-man boxes than any team in the NFL and they still couldn't get it done. It was a primary offseason goal and it has to be better this season.

Any last words, Ben? You're going to be out there in Detroit. I'll be elsewhere. What's the one thing that has to happen to ensure a Vikings victory? From the Lions' perspective, I'll say it will be Bush getting 100 rushing yards.

Goessling: I think it's Ponder playing like he did in the second game against the Lions last year. The Vikings don't need to get into a shootout -- and if the game turns into that, they probably won't be able to keep up anyway -- but they need confident, reliable quarterback play this season, and this game seems as good as any for him to start it.

Tannehill-WeedenGetty ImagesSecond-year quarterbacks Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden will be worth watching Sunday.

The Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns finished with a combined record of 12-20 last season, so both teams have plenty to prove and are looking for fast starts in 2013.

Cleveland will host the Dolphins on Sunday in an interesting matchup of AFC teams. Both are starting second-year quarterbacks who are looking to take the next step.

Can the Browns utilize their home-field advantage? Will Miami pick up a key road win to start the season? ESPN.com's Matt Williamson and Dolphins team reporter James Walker debate.

James Walker: Matt, we can't start this debate without examining both second-year quarterbacks in this matchup. Miami's Ryan Tannehill and Cleveland's Brandon Weeden were forgotten players in the famed 2012 quarterback class. Neither put up numbers or led their teams to the playoffs, like Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson did. Tannehill and Weeden, however, showed flashes at different times throughout their rookie seasons. I've watched Tannehill up close since the day he arrived in Miami. You can see he has all the tools. Tannehill can make every throw and is a solid athlete who can use his feet when needed. Consistency is where he needs to take the next step in Year 2. Tannehill did a lot of good things in the preseason and had a 98.6 passer rating in exhibition games. He is coming into this Cleveland game with momentum, but I still want to see it in the regular season. Matt, what's your take on Weeden entering his second season?

Matt Williamson: I, too, am high on Tannehill and think this will be the season he puts himself squarely in the conversation with those names you mentioned as young star quarterbacks in this league, for now and the long term. I am also growing fond of Weeden. There wasn't a quarterback and offensive group -- personnel wise -- as miscast as this one in last year's West Coast offense. Weeden, with his big arm, is much better suited to stand in the pocket and make downfield throws -- which is exactly what quarterback guru Norv Turner will have Weeden doing behind an excellent offensive line. While I wish Weeden, 29, was a younger quarterback like Tannehill, I do expect a major step forward from Weeden in Year 2.

Walker: For Weeden to be successful, it will up to Browns tailback Trent Richardson to set the tone and keep Miami's defense honest. I really like this matchup between Cleveland's running game and the front seven of Miami's defense. I'm an old-school guy at heart, and this part of the game will be vintage, tough-man football. I've talked to various defensive players in Miami's locker room this week, and all of them have great things to say about Richardson. The Dolphins' defense prides itself on not allowing 100-yard rushers, and keeping Richardson bottled up will be a challenge. I think the winner of this battle at the line of scrimmage between Miami's defense and Cleveland's running game will heavily impact the outcome of this game. Matt, what is the biggest single matchup you look forward to watching?

Williamson: James, that is a great one for sure, and let's not overlook what an effective receiving threat Richardson can be as well. But I would say the matchup I most look forward to is Cleveland's top cornerback, Joe Haden, against Miami's No. 1 receiver, Mike Wallace. These two know one another well from numerous AFC North battles when Wallace played for Pittsburgh. If Haden, who is among the best in the league at his position, can more or less handle Wallace one-on-one, the Browns should be able to bring T.J. Ward into the box with regularity to stifle Miami's running game. If that is the case -- and I have my doubts how well the Dolphins will be able to run anyway in this contest -- Miami could be in for a long day trying to generate consistent offense and points.

Walker: Good point, Matt. I also think home-field advantage could be a factor in this game. If you look on paper, I don't think many can argue against Miami having more talent. But when you consider a young quarterback (Tannehill) going on the road to Cleveland, where the Browns will be hyped up with a rowdy environment for their opener, anything is possible. The Dolphins were 2-6 on the road last year. Miami was competitive in some road games but failed to do the little things and pay attention to detail. I don't know if the Dolphins have matured on the road in one offseason, and that will be one of the under-the-radar storylines to keep an eye on for Miami. Finally, Matt, what under-the-radar element of this game do you consider important?

Williamson: I am eager to see the play in the trenches on both sides of the ball. I have plenty of questions about Miami's offensive line, and the Browns are stout and powerful up the middle with Phil Taylor leading that charge. Cleveland also was highly dedicated to improving its pass rush this offseason and that could pay off immediately in Week 1 against Miami's protection. On the other side of the ball, Cleveland has a great offensive line that doesn't get talked about enough. But Cameron Wake should prove to be a massive challenge, and the rest of the Dolphins' defensive front is also quite impressive. The team that wins at the line of scrimmage should win this contest.

For the third time since 2007, the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants will meet in a regular-season opener. The Giants have never lost at AT&T Stadium (4-0) but the Cowboys are 6-0 all time against the Giants in season openers, including last year's game at MetLife Stadium. ESPN Giants reporter Dan Graziano and Cowboys reporter Todd Archer bring you their Double Coverage preview:

Archer: The Cowboys are looking to get off this 8-8 train they have been on the past two years. I'm curious as to where the Giants are entering 2013, two years after winning a Super Bowl.

Graziano: Well, Todd, Cowboys fans may not want to hear it, but the Giants are trying to get off this 9-7 train. Because the team got raging hot at the end of the 2011 season and won the Super Bowl, people forget that the Giants finished that regular season 9-7, the same record as the 2012 season. The difference is, 9-7 wasn't good enough last season to win the NFC East and get into the playoffs. So the Giants want to stop leaving this thing to the whims of fate. When they beat teams like the Packers and 49ers, as they did last season, that makes them feel as if they can beat anyone. And because they feel that way, they believe they should be better than 9-7 every year. So their goal, they would tell you, is to play more consistently week-in and week-out so that they get up into that 11-win, 12-win range that pretty much guarantees you a playoff spot without having to sweat out the final weeks of December hoping other teams lose.

Can they do it? I'm not so sure. The pass rush really tailed off last year. They had 33 sacks after posting 48 in 2011. The Giants' defense is based on the ability of its front four to pressure quarterbacks, and when it's not doing that, it's a pretty ordinary team. So they're hoping Justin Tuck has a bounce-back year and Jason Pierre-Paul recovers soon from back surgery. I don't think Pierre-Paul is going to be ready to play Sunday night, but he could. Which reminds me: What's the state of that Cowboys' front four as the start of the season looms?

Archer: The Cowboys are seeing if they can get Randy White and Ed "Too Tall" Jones out of retirement to help out, which tells you about the state of the defensive line. It’s not good right now, and it looks like even if Anthony Spencer can play, he will be severely limited by his July 25 knee surgery. The earliest we’ll see Jay Ratliff is October. So there’s DeMarcus Ware, who looks great in this move to defensive end, and Jason Hatcher, a favorite of yours, I know. Other than that, you’re talking about Nick Hayden, who wasn’t in football last season, and George Selvie, JPP’s running mate at South Florida.

The backups look even shakier with Landon Cohen, Kyle Wilber, Ben Bass, Edgar Jones (picked up Aug. 31 in a trade with Kansas City) and Caesar Rayford (picked up in a trade with Indianapolis on Tuesday). Not exactly the Purple People Eaters there, huh? But they must believe defensive line coach Rod Marinelli is a genius. They didn’t go after a lineman in the draft and they haven’t gone after anybody of note in free agency. I’ve referred to Marinelli as a pass-rush whisperer. If he can make this group work, then that 0-16 mark in Detroit could be erased. So if the Cowboys can’t get to Eli Manning, then what can we expect from the Giants' receivers, Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz?

Graziano: If Manning has time to find his receivers, he is of course dangerous. But the questions with those receivers is health. Nicks was banged up all last year with leg injuries and has been taking it very slowly all offseason, as he's determined to try his best to stay healthy throughout the final year of his contract. Based on the way he's looked in preseason, he's either not fully healthy or he's keeping something in reserve because he didn't want to overtax himself and risk injury in meaningless games. I have a hunch it's the latter, and that he'll be great -- at least until his next leg injury. Cruz is another matter. He bruised his heel 2 1/2 weeks ago in a preseason game against the Colts and didn't return to practice until Monday. He's feeling good, though he remains concerned about keeping the swelling down in that heel as the week goes along. We'll know after a couple of practice days whether he'll play, but at this point I expect that he will. The question is whether he'll have that explosive speed, if he's not sure he can make those hard cuts on a still-sore heel.

Receivers make for an interesting topic in this game. When people ask me which team in the NFC East has the best wide receiver corps, I never know what to say. These days, though, if Miles Austin is healthy, I'm inclined to say the Cowboys, because I'm a big fan of Dez Bryant. How's he been looking these days?

Archer: Who is this Bryant guy? Never heard of him. Oh, wait, yeah, now I remember. He’s been pretty good this summer. Actually, better than that. Actually, really, really good. He has picked up where he left off last year when he was, to me, the second-best receiver in the NFL, behind Calvin Johnson, in the second half of the season. Bryant’s confidence has never been higher. Tony Romo's confidence in Bryant has never been higher.

That’s not to say there won’t be issues, but Bryant looks as if he’s ready for a monster season. I’m curious as to how the Giants will defend him. For all of his physical abilities, he still needs to work on beating press coverage. Can the Giants be physical with him? Maybe that’s how they go. But the key, in a way, will be Austin. He’s healthy, and I say that without the “for now” added to it. If the Giants want to take away Bryant, then that’s leaving Austin alone because you know they have to pay attention to Jason Witten, too. The Cowboys would appear to have it set up pretty well in that regard, but ... the offensive line. It’s a mess, and the addition of Brian Waters is probably too late for this week.

What’s the state of the Giants’ line?

Graziano: The Giants' line is not in great shape. They lost starting right tackle David Diehl and starting center David Baas to injury two weeks ago and have had to do a lot of reshuffling. This year's first-round pick, Justin Pugh, is now the starting right tackle. Left guard Kevin Boothe moved inside to play center, and James Brewer, a fourth-round pick from 2011, is starting at left guard. Brewer had never played left guard in a game until last week's preseason game in New England. He was drafted as a tackle and worked some at right guard in the spring. It's an issue worth watching, because they lost a lot of blocking help when they cut running back Ahmad Bradshaw and let Martellus Bennett leave as a free agent, and they're also without fullback Henry Hynoski, who has a knee injury.

Manning, to me, looked uncomfortable at times in the preseason with his protection. He's fine shuffling receivers in and out all of the time. He can make that work. But if he doesn't trust the folks in front of him to keep him from getting hit, it's another matter. Even the backups in Dallas should be able to find a way through that line early, and if they can, they could potentially get in Eli's head and find him in a generous mood. I heard they were working on forcing turnovers out there this year, which is nice, the way they're embracing such new, cutting-edge concepts. Are you seeing a difference in the way the defense goes after the ball?

Archer: Absolutely. It started at the rookie minicamp when defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and Marinelli had the players pick up every loose ball, even after an incomplete pass. They wanted to establish a mindset. It’s worked. The Cowboys showed they could take the ball away. I remain a little skeptical because the core of these defenders has been around for some time, and only DeMarcus Ware and Sean Lee have shown they have a nose for the ball. Maybe throw in Brandon Carr, too. But until the whole unit does it, I can’t believe these guys will all of a sudden turn into the Bears from last season. They need to have more than last season's 16 takeaways. More possessions equal more points. The offense rarely has been handed short fields to work with after turnovers, or even returns in the kicking game. Too often, the Cowboys have had to drive 80 yards, and we know that’s a hard thing to do in this league. Defenses basically wait for the offense to have an unforced error and punt the ball. But the preseason was a good sign that they can take the ball from the defense.

The question is whether Romo & Co. can stop turning it over to the opponents.

I’m interested in the Giants' running backs. Brandon Jacobs has been gone for a season. Now Bradshaw is gone. So this is David Wilson’s club now?

Graziano: They are expecting big things from Wilson, yes. The initial plan was for him to get the early-down work and Andre Brown (eight touchdowns in 10 games last season) to get the goal-line work and the passing-downs work because they trusted him more in pass protection. That's what they'll miss most with Bradshaw -- he's as good a blitz-pickup back as there is in the league. Anyway, Brown broke his leg in the final preseason game last week in New England, and he's going to go on short-term IR. So Wilson likely gets those goal-line touches back, and they'll hope he's mastered the protection schemes enough to handle third downs as well. They have Da'Rel Scott and rookie Michael Cox to spell him, and they worked out Beanie Wells and some other vets this week, but as of now it does look as though the run game is in Wilson's hands.

He's a heck of a runner, Todd. Can break a big one at any time, and was really effective between the tackles last year, too. Explosive, high-end speed and runs with more power than people realize. He's got to show he's not a liability in pass protection, and if he does show that, he has a chance to be special. His biggest problem right now may be the absence of Hynoski, the great blocking fullback who's still out with a knee injury. The Giants are a passing offense built around Eli, but they wouldn't mind a more representative run game than they've had in recent years.

Darrelle Revis, Dee MillinerGetty ImagesDarrelle Revis is now with the Buccaneers and rookie Dee Milliner is helping to take his place.
The NFL knows how to create a dramatic storyline, and it created a dandy for opening day -- the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the New York Jets, meaning the return of star cornerback Darrelle Revis.

For the Jets, Revis symbolizes good times from the past. They enjoyed a lot of success together, everything but a Super Bowl, before the ugly divorce last April. Things aren't looking so good for the Jets anymore. For the Bucs, Revis represents hope, perhaps the final piece in an expensive championship puzzle.

Rich Cimini and Pat Yasinskas, the Jets and Bucs team reporters, respectively, discuss Sunday's matchup at MetLife Stadium:

Cimini: There will be a lot of "24" jerseys in the crowd, as Revis was an enormously popular player in New York. The success-starved fan base embraced the "Revis Island" concept, convinced he was theirs forever. Forever ended when owner Woody Johnson refused to pay $16 million a year and traded him. New Yorkers know what Revis can do when healthy, but that's the question: Is his surgically repaired knee all the way back? No one has seen Revis in a game for nearly a year, so there's a natural curiosity. Will he be the Revis of old? Will he play his customary role, covering the No. 1 receiver? Do tell, Pat.

Yasinskas: Rich, the Bucs are fully convinced Revis can be what he used to be. He's had nearly a full year to rehab after surgery and there have been no setbacks. It's true the Bucs have brought him along slowly. He was limited at the start of camp and didn't appear at all in the preseason games. But the Bucs were deliberate in increasing his workload throughout the summer and it was clear all along that the goal was to have him ready for the season opener. The Bucs have high hopes for Revis and believe he'll help fix a pass defense that ranked No. 32 in the league last season. The belief is that Revis can shut down the other team's No. 1 receiver and also allow linebackers and defensive backs to blitz quarterbacks. The Bucs would have drafted a cornerback if they had stayed put at No. 13 in the draft. But they felt Revis was better than any corner they could have selected. They used their second-round pick on cornerback Johnthan Banks, who may be in the starting lineup Sunday. If he is, both the Bucs and the Jets will be starting a rookie cornerback. How has Dee Milliner been doing so far in New York?

Cimini: I'd love to tell you how he's doing, Pat, but I haven't seen a whole lot of him lately. Milliner missed the last two preseason games with a strained calf, although he told us Monday he'll definitely be ready to play. Obviously, he'll be rusty and his conditioning could be an issue as well. In his last game, nearly three weeks ago, he appeared tentative in coverage. Maybe he was concerned about the calf, I don't know, but he gave way too much cushion. Rex Ryan wants his corners to be aggressive in man-to-man coverage, and Milliner was anything but that. In fact, he received an earful from fellow corner Antonio Cromartie during the game. Obviously, the Jets think Milliner has a ton of talent or else they wouldn't have drafted him ninth overall, basically handing him a starting job even though he showed up a few days late because of his contract. But he has a lot to learn. I think he'll have problems with Mike Williams, assuming Cromartie covers Vincent Jackson. But I wonder, can the Bucs get consistent quarterback play out of Josh Freeman to exploit the Revis-less defense?

Yasinskas: Consistency is the big issue when it comes to Freeman. He got off to a great start last year and had the Bucs at 6-4. At that time, it looked like the Bucs certainly wold lock up Freeman with a long-term contract. But Freeman cooled off late last season. He had 10 interceptions over three disastrous games. That convinced the Bucs to hold off on signing him for the long term. They're letting him go into a contract year and it's a "prove it" situation, especially after the Bucs used a third-round pick on Mike Glennon. But Freeman's the starter for now and I think he's ready to become a good quarterback. He has good talent at the skill positions and needs to rely on those players instead of trying to carry the team by himself. In the past, that's when Freeman has gotten himself in trouble. Speaking of quarterbacks, how ready is Geno Smith to lead the Jets?

Cimini: First, a quick story about Freeman. The Jets' scouts actually had him graded higher than Mark Sanchez before the '09 draft, but they adjusted the grades after Sanchez's personal workout and interviews. I wonder how things would've played out if the Jets had picked Freeman. As for Smith, he's not ready, no way, but the Jets have no choice because Sanchez's throwing shoulder is banged up. Smith played less than four quarters in the preseason (69 snaps, to be exact) and he played poorly in his only extended outing -- three interceptions and a safety. He could've benefited from a few weeks on the bench, learning his craft. He has no experience in a pro-style offense. At West Virginia, he played in the "Air Raid" attack, working exclusively out of shotgun. The coaches will simplify the game plan, but he'll still be seeing a lot of stuff for the first time. He has an electric arm, but there will be growing pains.

Double Coverage: Patriots at Bills

September, 5, 2013
9/05/13
12:00
PM ET

The Buffalo Bills on Wednesday named rookie quarterback EJ Manuel their starter, and he won't have to wait long to face his first major test in the NFL. The Bills are hosting the New England Patriots in their opener Sunday, pitting Manuel against one of the league's most accomplished passers, Tom Brady. With Brady adjusting to the absence of last season's top five receivers, there's no shortage of intrigue in this tilt between division rivals.

Let's dive into this one:

Mike Rodak: Mike, we've seen Brady put on some passing clinics against the Bills in his career. In 2007, he threw for five touchdowns and nearly 400 yards at Ralph Wilson Stadium, as one example. Yet his past two trips to Buffalo have been different. In 2011, he threw four interceptions, and the Patriots lost. Brady looked much better in his visit last season, but it was largely the running game that powered the Patriots to a second-half comeback and the win. With so many new faces on offense, what can we expect out of Brady on Sunday?

Mike Reiss: We've seen an invigorated Brady this year, Mike, and it's probably because he knows more is being asked of him. In a way, he's not just the team's quarterback, but also another coach with all the new faces at receiver and tight end. He's 36 years old, but he looks like he's about 26 in terms of the way he's playing. As you know from your time around the Patriots, this is an attack that takes pride in tailoring itself on a week-to-week basis in hopes of exploiting the opponents' weakness. That's why they were so content to run the ball out of their two-TE package last year in Orchard Park when the Bills went to their small nickel defense. Given what you've seen from the Bills' defense, what might be the weaknesses the Patriots will target?

Rodak: A few weeks ago, Mike, my reaction would have been that the Patriots should try to do what they did last season, and test the Bills' run defense. But a few things have changed recently that may have offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels pondering more of a passing-based attack. First, the Bills lost their top cornerback, Stephon Gilmore, for the first six to eight weeks of the season. That's a huge blow, and the Bills are struggling to find a capable replacement.

Second, safety Jairus Byrd is dealing with plantar fasciitis. His foot injury kept him sidelined even during some light warm-up drills at Monday's practice, and ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reports that Byrd's injury could affect his ability to play Sunday and beyond. Without Gilmore and Byrd, the Bills have what could be a porous secondary. There are matchups there the Patriots can take advantage of. Speaking of matchups, Bills receiver Steve Johnson said this week that he believes the Patriots "don't have anybody to stop him." Is he right?

Reiss: Hard not to appreciate Johnson's sense of humor. He was kidding, right? He had me right up until the point that he was listing off Patriots defenders and mentioned safety Patrick Chung, who is now with the Eagles. Johnson had six catches for 86 yards in November 2012; one difference this time around for the Patriots is the presence of top cornerback Aqib Talib, who didn't play in that game and has been a difference-maker since his arrival.

Overall, there hasn't been as much attention placed on the Patriots' defense because so much focus has been on the new faces at receiver and tight end, and maybe there should be. It's hard to tell if this unit will be better than last year's; it's almost the same defense, and they're banking on the development of some younger players, like defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower to elevate them. The main thing that stands out to me in this matchup is that the Bills have impressive speed and playmaking ability with running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson and multiple weapons that can hurt a defense in tight end Scott Chandler and receivers Johnson, T.J. Graham, Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin. I want to see if the Patriots can match their speed while in their sub defense. Will we be seeing Spiller throwing up on the sideline by the end of this one because he was used so much?

Rodak: I don't think so, Mike. I think the Bills want to air it out and test the Patriots' defense. The Bills started the preseason by staying conservative with their offensive game plan, but they mixed in a lot more "go" patterns later. One thing is clear: The Bills have the speed at receiver to be a major threat to the Patriots. While Woods and Graham may work more in the short-to-intermediate area, I can see the Bills trying to hit some home runs, as Patriots coach Bill Belichick called them Monday, with Johnson and Goodwin. As we saw last season in Seattle, it's possible to get behind the Patriots' defense, and when an offense can make those big plays in their own stadium, it gets the home crowd going.

I won't go as far as saying the Bills will defeat the Patriots, but the big play is something the Patriots will have to look out for. But beyond that, Mike, I think the Bills' offense may be dangerous for its pace. I know the Patriots are thin at defensive tackle and made some surprising moves at defensive end during final cuts last weekend. When the Bills turn the dial up on offense Sunday, how do the Patriots compensate on defense?

Reiss: Every season, it seems Belichick has a more liberal substitution pattern defensively in the opener because it's the first time all of these players will be going wire-to-wire. So I'd expect some element of that. But if the Bills quicken the pace, the substitutions might have to be more on a series-by-series basis than within a particular series. Overall, this isn't something that will be new to the Patriots' defense; they see it themselves, to a degree, in practice each day while going up against Brady and New England's fast-paced offense. Linebacker Jerod Mayo said Monday that Belichick makes sure players are in physical condition to answer such a challenge.

But like you, I do think it's fair to question how they handle the deep ball and some of the other threats the Bills present. Even if it's Jeff Tuel throwing it, we saw in the third preseason game that he can get the ball downfield -- his first pass attempt against the Redskins was a completed long bomb down the left side to Graham (called back because of offensive pass interference). I'd sum up thoughts on the Patriots' defense this way: It's a unit that has thrived off turnovers. But if those aren't there, the question is if it's a unit that still can control a game.

This has been fun; let's wrap it up with a final thought.

Rodak: Mike, I think it’s important not to overlook Mario Williams in this game. Williams was limited by a wrist injury the previous time he played the Patriots, and despite coming into training camp with a sore foot this season, he should be ready to go Sunday. We've seen top-end pass-rushers like Terrell Suggs and Jason Taylor be effective against the Patriots. I think Williams’ presence makes Patriots left tackle Nate Solder a player to watch. If Brady's timing with his new group of receivers is off slightly -- as is to be expected at this point -- then it could give Williams that extra second to beat Solder and get to Brady. Just like the big play on offense, getting sacks and pressures on defense will make the Buffalo crowd a part of this game. What’s your final thought, Mike?

Reiss: The Bills are the Patriots' most frequent season-opening opponent, this being the ninth time. We remember what happened the previous time a Patriots-Bills opener took place in Orchard Park. It was 2003, and the Bills, lifted emotionally with Drew Bledsoe at quarterback and just-released Patriot Lawyer Milloy at safety, recorded a rousing 31-0 victory. Ten years later, can the Bills pull the surprise again? The Patriots are heavy favorites, but there’s always an element of the unknown with a season-opening game. Will look forward to seeing you there.

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