SportsPulse: Our experts weigh in on who makes the playoffs and which team is holding the Lombardi Trophy. Some of their picks might shock you.
With all 32 NFL teams starting with a clean slate, Week 1 is full of mysteries.
The prevailing trends of last season have given way to fresh opportunities. And while some players and teams might find themselves in similar positions as the ones they faced last season, an offseason full of changes could produce a sea change for several others.
Here are eight questions that will shape Week 1:
1. Will Khalil Mack attack the Packers? The Bears are understandably excited to put their new defensive star to work against their rival after engineering a stunning trade on Saturday and giving him a six-year, $141 million extension. First-year coach Matt Nagy, however, said Chicago will be “smart” in utilizing Mack as the pass rusher learns a new scheme.
For the Bears to beat the Packers for just the third time since 2011, generating pressure on Aaron Rodgers will be key. The two-time MVP has a 15-4 record against Chicago with a 42:9 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
2. Are the Steelers running out of time with Le’Veon Bell? The clock is ticking for Pittsburgh and its all-pro running back, who has yet to report to the team or sign his one-year franchise tender. Even if Bell makes his way back in a timely fashion, it remains unclear how quickly he can get into top form. Even after reporting to the team on the Friday before Labor Day last year, Bell logged a career-low 47 total yards in the 2017 opener against Cleveland.
Coach Mike Tomlin has touted the ability of backup James Conner, who could still be in line for a significant workload. Bell would likely be the primary option should he rejoin the team before the weekend in good shape, but that possibility is fading with every passing moment.
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3. Can Nick Foles break Eagles’ offense out of preseason funk? With Carson Wentz still recovering from last December’s knee injury, the Super Bowl MVP is back in the saddle as the substitute starter for the defending champs. But there’s considerable question about whether he can extend the magic of last postseason, as Philadelphia’s offense was off-kilter throughout the exhibition slate.
Coach Doug Pederson might look to replicate the game plan he utilized for Foles in last season’s divisional playoff win over the Falcons, when the quarterback had 20 of his 23 completions (on 30 attempts) come within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Expect a similar diet of run-pass options, quick strikes and screens.
4. How will the Redskins utilize Adrian Peterson? Despite signing with Washington in August, the 33-year-old running back already has dismissed any notion of being relegated to a rotational contributor role and seized the starting job. But only once in the last four years has Jay Gruden’s offense ranked higher than 21st in rushing attempts, and integrating Peterson will require some recalibrating.
Meshing Peterson’s skill set with the rest of the offense could prove challenging, as he’s not a natural fit for what should be a shotgun-heavy approach with Alex Smith. And while Chris Thompson and Rob Kelley can provide relief on passing downs, Washington will have to avoid telegraphing its play calling based on personnel.
5. Are Odell Beckham Jr. and Jalen Ramsey bound to produce some fireworks? There might be no better individual matchup than the all-pro showdown between the Giants receiver and the Jaguars cornerback. Both are among the elite players at their position and have a well-established record of running hot in fierce competition.
Ramsey upped the intrigue with his offseason assertion that Beckham was largely responsible for Eli Manning’s success, with the Giants quarterback returning serve by asking “who?” when informed of the comments. Fellow Pro Bowl cornerback A.J. Bouye will also find himself in coverage against Beckham, but it’s the receiver’s clashes with Ramsey that will spark the most fanfare on Sunday.
6. Can Deshaun Watson land a knockout punch against Tom Brady? In the second start of his career, Watson came within a minute of dethroning the then-defending champions last season before Brady put New England over the top by capping an eight-play, 75-yard drive with his fifth touchdown pass of the day. Going toe-to-toe with the eventual MVP was one of the many accomplishments that built hopes for Watson before a torn ACL cut his season short.
Eager to show the progress he’s made while rehabbing the injury, Watson could again be a thorn for the Patriots defense if he can continue to extend plays — something he might have to do consistently given the haphazard state of the Texans’ offensive line. Brady will have his own challenges as he adjusts to a shifting supporting cast and receiving corps depleted by Julian Edelman’s four-game suspension.
7. Will Earl Thomas’ return help the Seahawks’ revamped defense hold together? The Legion of Boom is no more, as Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor are among the key figures no longer with a once-formidable unit. But Seattle is getting one of its stars back in Thomas, the three-time all-pro safety who on Wednesday ended his offseason-long holdout. Even though his return is a game changer for an overhauled secondary, he needs the rest of the group to stand firm.
Denver, however, has to prove it can take advantage of the Seahawks’ changes as Case Keenum takes over as the starting quarterback for what has been a flagging passing attack.
8. Will Jon Gruden prove the doubters wrong? Skepticism is surging in Oakland after Gruden resolved a standoff with Mack by sending the former defensive player of the year to Chicago. With a defense that ranked No. 26 last year now missing its cornerstone, the Raiders have a murky outlook for a
Knocking off the Rams in the second half of Monday night’s doubleheader would be a surprising start for Gruden’s second stint in Oakland — though it’s clear he’s sticking around for the long haul after signing a 10-year, $100 million deal. With a roster that ranks as the oldest in the NFL, the Raiders will provide quite a contrast in style to a Los Angeles team known for young stars, splashy signings and the defending coach of the year in Sean McVay.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.