Week 1 of any NFL season is filled with excitement and can be a good indicator of how the season is going to play out. Last year, the final four teams in the conference championship games all won on opening day. The four teams that couldn't generate one touchdown on opening day went on for a combined record of 17-47 and none of them finished with a winning record.
So as I try to get my arms around Week 1 of the 2007 season, here are 10 things to look for this weekend:
1. How will the new head coaches fare?
There were 10 new head coaches last year and they went 4-6 on opening weekend. The Vikings, Saints, and Jets all won on the road for their new coach, which is the hardest situation to get a 'W.' This year, four new coaches hit the road and two open at home. Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh has a hard act to follow but should get his first win (at Cleveland). Ken Whisenhunt in Arizona has history on his side because the Cardinals have had the Niners' number in recent years -- but this is an improved 49ers team. If the new coaches split and go 3-3, it will be a good day. I like the two at home (Oakland's Lane Kiffin vs. Detroit, Dallas' Wade Phillips vs. the Giants) to join the Steelers.
2. Will the loss of Richard Seymour (PUP) and Rodney Harrison bring the Pats down?
Harrington is a pocket passer who works off the play-action pass to get the ball down field. In that sense he may be a better fit in the Bobby Petrino offense. But the Falcons' run game, which was tops in the NFL last year, got 1,023 yards on the ground from Michael Vick. Those yards are gone and the Vikings stop the run. The story is now whether Harrington can pass his way to a win. I believe the Vikings will send inside pressure in pure pass situations in the noisy Dome and make it very tough on Harrington, who has never had much success in Minnesota.
Quinn is not leaving the bench this week but in the second half there could be a full stadium screaming for him. The pressure defense of the Steelers will make things tough on Charlie Frye, but Romeo Crennel and Phil Savage have a plan and they're sticking to it at least for a little longer.
5. Will Larry Johnson get right back on the torrid pace he's been on the past two seasons?
Johnson has touched the ball 826 times in the last two seasons. That works out to be 26 touches a game and there's no chance he doesn't pick up where he left off. The quarterback, Damon Huard, needs all the LJ he can get to move the chains and score points. Herm Edwards needs LJ to get another 400-plus touches this season just to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot.
In 2002, the Packers were 8-0 at home and most teams took the trip to Lambeau Field with very little optimism. In the last three years, the Pack has gone 10-14 in title town. The defense is underrated, but Brett Favre threw 10 interceptions to just eight touchdowns at home last year. Also, Favre was sacked 16 times at home to just eight on the road. Home-field advantage is missing in action and visiting teams don't come to Green Bay in awe of Lambeau Field anymore. The Packers have their work cut out for them in reestablishing home-field advantage with the Eagles coming to town.
7. How will the NFC do against the AFC this year?
Last year, every AFC division had a combined winning record against the NFC. The AFC East was 12-4, the North and South were 9-7 and the West was 10-6. There are only four inter-conference games on opening weekend, with the real test being the Bears going into San Diego. The Saints visit Indianapolis, the Dolphins are in Washington, and the Lions enter the Black Hole to face the Raiders. I think the NFC will still lose the season-long battle, but they may get off to a decent start this year.
8. Can defensive coordinators design a plan to stop Vince Young?
Young is a great athlete and he made it look easy running over and around NFL defenses last season. But the word out on the camp tour this summer was that there will be scheme changes to make Young beat teams with his arm. Easier said than done, but NFL defensive coordinators are well known for taking away an opponent's best weapon. Young has a big test right away when the Jaguars come to town. These teams split last year, but the Titans' win was the result of three defensive touchdowns. One coordinator told me, "The Jacksonville package is the way to go." In two games against the Jaguars, the NFL Rookie of the Year rushed just eight times for 18 yards and no touchdowns and he completed just 23 of 51 passes for 248 yards with three interceptions and one touchdown. Lots of coaches will be watching this game tape early next week.
9. My favorite matchup to watch this weekend:
BRIAN URLACHER vs. LaDANIAN TOMLINSON: The best defender against the best weapon in the NFL. The Chargers averaged 31 points a game at home last year and LT is the reason. He can beat you as a receiver (56-501-3 last season), as a runner (348-1,815-28), or even as a passer (2-for-3, 2 TD). If Urlacher drops too quickly in coverage, here comes the draw. If he hangs in there for the run, it could be a pass behind him. If he doesn't react right away on the goal-line toss play, LT runs it in. I think LT at home wins this battle one way or another… and I haven't even discussed him as a decoy.
10. Six other key matchups to watch:
WILL SMITH vs. TONY UGOH: Smith is quickly emerging as one of the elite pass rushers in the NFL. He lines up against a rookie who was supposed to sit for a season behind Tarik Glenn. But things changed when Glenn retired. Blocking for Peyton Manning helps because Manning gets rid of the ball faster than most quarterbacks ( he was sacked 14 times all of last season). But even hits on Manning are a no-no for the offensive linemen. The Saints are hoping the young tackle needs help. reducing the eligible receivers out on patterns. The rookie goes to school this week and may not get a passing grade.
DeMARCUS WARE vs. DAVID DIEHL: Ware led the Cowboys with 11.5 sacks last year and the Wade Phillips 3-4 defense is supposed to be more aggressive. Diehl is a guard who moves out to left tackle on a permanent basis. Eli Manning needs time to throw and the new Dallas defense is supposed to turn Ware loose. I think Diehl will hold his own and the Cowboys may have to scheme Ware to rush from other places to make his presence felt.
IKE TAYLOR vs. BRAYLON EDWARDS: There's a story floating around that Taylor may get a significant number of one-on-one matchups with Edwards so the Steelers can bracket tight end Kellen Winslow. Taylor was in the doghouse last year but this could put him in the penthouse. Edwards did catch 11 for 223 yards against the Steelers last year. Charlie Frye is going to have to look for this matchup and put the ball up for Edwards to bring down.
GAINES ADAMS vs. WALTER JONES: Adams struggled at practice earlier this summer but when the game lights went on he "flipped a switch" and looked very promising. Adams is listed behind Patrick Chukwurah, who can't go this week because of injury. So Adams makes his NFL debut on the road against one of the best tackles in the game. I'm looking for him to be more than a one-dimensional pass rusher and deal with all the tricks Jones has to offer. This game is going to be an eye-opener for the rookie.
KRIS JENKINS vs. MARK SETTERSTROM: I watched Jenkins this summer. Down 40-plus pounds from his reported weight of a year ago, he looks very tough to block. Marc Bulger is a pocket passer and the Rams tackles need help on Julius Peppers, so the guard Jenkins lines up on is flying solo. I expect the big man in the backfield a lot this week.
NATE CLEMENTS vs. LARRY FITZGERALD: The Niners backed up a Wells Fargo truck to Clements' house and didn't stop unloading money until he said yes and left Buffalo. Mike Nolan's team has never beaten the Cardinals and Larry Fitzgerald is a big reason. Last year, he caught 13 for 226 yards in the two wins and now Clements has to earn his money. This matchup is too close to call.