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Friday, November 17 2017

NFL Predictions 2014: Week 1

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Another football season is here already? Well, here I go again then, trying to make sense of the nonsense and predict the unpredictable. 

Green Bay @ Seattle: I know the league wants to go after the biggest ratings in their TNF season opener, but wow does this game have potentially massive impact on the NFC playoff seeding several months from now. Personally I would like a game with this magnitude played after the teams have a few warmups under their belt. It is the same for both sides, but clearly the Seahawks have an edge considering the history of defending champs in this game. Most of them win, and given their massive home field advantage it would take a really big effort for the Packers to come here and knock them off.

Do you know who Letroy Guion is? Most fans do not. They will after this telecast. In B.J. Raji's spot at nose tackle he is probably the biggest reason not to call for a road upset here. Seattle loves to run the ball, and without a plugger in the middle it will be easier for them to set up the rest of their offense by giving the rock to Marshawn "Beast Mode" Lynch on early downs. This is a key matchup and while one player does not win or lose a game, I expect this to be significant.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers and company are likely to come in with motivation after losing a widely covered MNF game here two years ago when "scab" referees blew a call on the game final "Hail Mary" touchdown. Coupled with running back Eddie Lacy, they form one of the league's best backfields. Wide receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb figure to have room to operate thanks to the league cracking down on defenders mugging offensive players. So maybe karma is on the side of the visitors when it comes to the zebras. 

I see more scoring than most people would think here. Green Bay has a good pass rush and can get after Russell Wilson, forcing him to scramble and make plays. We all know San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick gives this defense fits, so either running or passing it figures to be a long night for this defense dealing with Wilson. Early scores loosen things up, and there is a steady pace throughout the game. I look for the champs to get this done, but it's a long season and in no way does this secure the top seed in January: Seattle 24, Green Bay 20 (GB +6/under 46)

Oakland @ NY Jets: If during the NFL draft you predicted Derek Carr would be the first, and only, rookie quarterback to start in week 1 take a bow and please tell me how you did it. Matt Schaub can collect his money and relax because I do not foresee him getting this job back. Carr does face a tough task here going east with a team historically very poor in this situation. He also goes up against a Rex Ryan defense known for making life hard on rookie signal-callers. On the flip side, second-year quarterback Geno Smith is no rock star. He has to find a way to make plays against a defense rebuilt with veteran talent looking to prove they were cast aside prematurely. 

In general, this is set up for the Jets to win. They found a way to win close games last year, while the Raiders did not. New York has the home field and will not be shaking off cobwebs in the first half as the visitors will. Typically teams hope to run the ball in order to protect a young quarterback. Oakland has a good offensive line bolstered by ex-Jet Austin Howard and rookie Gabe Jackson. They have two running backs trying to show they are not finished. New York's offensive line is not as good, and Chris Johnson is unlikely to transform into a high-effort guy with a change of scenery. 

I am looking for the Raiders to come out aggressive, kind of the way they did in their preseason finale against Seattle. They know the Jets are scary thin at cornerback and have decent options outside to expose their weakness. Conversely, New York has the same thin secondary staring at them, but safety play and pass rush figure to mask it for Oakland. The travel and coaching edge are too much for me to overlook, so as much as I want to go with the hot rookie freshly anointed starter to revive the Raider faithful I just can't: NY Jets 20, Oakland 17 (OAK +5.5/under 40.5)

New Orleans @ Atlanta: The Falcons are a few seasons away from opening a new stadium, and in the meantime they still have a solid home field advantage at the Georgia Dome. However, the Saints come here every season and know what to expect. Plus, as we all saw on Hard Knocks there are key injuries stinging Atlanta before the first game has even taken place. Left tackle Sam Baker is gone, as is linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. This team is not deep enough to deal with losses like this. New Orleans moved on from playmaker Darren Sproles, but rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks is looking special and can get lost on an offense with tight end Jimmy Graham, wide receiver Marques Colston and running back Mark Ingram around not to mention Drew Brees at the controls.

Usually when a pick is too easy I start to second guess myself. I really like the Saints here. The NFL is tight from top to bottom in the regular season, and home teams have a nice edge. Atlanta is not going to roll over and die here. They have wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White healthy and while it hurts quarterback Matt Ryan to lose his safety valve, future HOF tight end Tony Gonzalez, this offense still has some pop. Not enough here I say. The Saints have turned things around on defense, which is why I see them bearing down on the NFC's top seed for their run to Arizona: New Orleans 28, Atlanta 21 (NO -3/under 51.5)

Buffalo @ Chicago: I might as well get this out of the way early. If you do not have a top-level quarterback it is tough to win in this league. The Bills have E.J. Manuel. To their credit they have given him talent at wide receiver with Robert Woods, ex-Buc Mike Williams and now rookie Sammy Watkins. The backfield of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson is also effective. However, Manuel does not cut the mustard. His career arc is not progressing quickly enough to capitalize on the parts around him. The same cannot be said for Jay Cutler. He has an elite group of players around him and knows how to get them the football. His only issue is a killer mistake here or there, and trying to do too much when his porous defense puts the team behind by double digits.

In this situation, I see Chicago being able to control the game with their offense early to get the lead. Buffalo is certainly going to counter with a ground game capable of keeping them within striking distance. Unfortunately for them, on the road trying to come from behind is not a good spot to be in with Manuel chasing Cutler. I look for the Bears to lead throughout and get a key turnover or two from their defense to seal the deal: Chicago 27, Buffalo 17 (CHI -7/under 47.5)

Tennessee @ Kansas City: This is the first tough call of the season, and I am very serious about that statement. The Chiefs clearly had a better season last year, securing a wild card and nearly advancing until Andrew Luck started torching a defense unable to rush him with Tamba Hali and Justin Houston out. The Titans are what I call a tough out. They are feisty, even on the road. Wide receiver Justin Hunter looks ready to break out and quarterback Jake Locker has to let it all hang out if he wants to secure his future on the team past this season. 

Rookie Dee Ford figures to help Kansas City rush the passer and compensate for a weakened secondary that is carried by stud safety Eric Berry. On offense their line has a lot of turnover and not much help for all-world running back Jamaal Charles. Tennessee will have an opportunity to win this game, and I expect points to be at a premium. However, the Chiefs have a true home field advantage and enter this one with a bit of a chip on their shoulder. No one respects them after their playoff collapse and everyone seemingly expects them to fade back to the pack. Quarterback Alex Smith is worth his new contract because of games like this. He helps them win the turnover battle and squeeze out a victory: Kansas City 23, Tennessee 14 (KC -3/under 43.5)

Minnesota @ St. Louis: If you want to know why quarterbacks are protected so much in the NFL, consider this matchup. Does anyone want to watch Matt Cassel and Shaun Hill go at it? Sure, the Vikings are prepping Teddy Bridgewater, but that's not the point. Now that Sam Bradford has gone down the Rams are hoping Hill can stay upright or they may need to hand things over to freshly claimed Case Keenum. This is not 1999 so spare me the Trent Green goes down and Kurt Warner steps up dialogue. 

The one thing working for the Rams is their defense. Their pass rush is phenomenal because the line is filled with young talent. Linebacker James Laurinaitis cleans up the trash effectively and they figure to be in some 13-10 games along the way. It is never too early for "must win" games, and for them this qualifies. Their schedule is brutal. If they drop a home game to a bad team, the "Don't win for Winston" campaign should start in week 2. St. Louis has a good offensive line, and a veteran quarterback like Hill should be able to get some things done if he is put in good field position by a dominant defense.

As for Minnesota, they have one of the league's best running backs in Adrian Peterson who just allegedly had a conversation with Dallas owner Jerry Jones professing his desire to play for the Cowboys. Fans of the Vikings should be outraged. The face of their franchise basically wants out. New head coach Mike Zimmer is going to do some things with this defense, but he needs "All Day" to carry the offense. I am not seeing it here in the road opener. St. Louis 24, Minnesota 17 (STL -3/under 43)

New England @ Miami: I am unable to decide if this is a tough draw for the Patriots or not. They are the better team, so getting a division rival early in the season should be an advantage for them. However, Florida is a tough place to play in September. The Dolphins have a pretty good team and generally play their hated rivals tough. This year I am not so sure. New England is loaded with first-round talent on defense, and made it to the final four last year even with a bunch of key injuries. Tight end Rob Gronkowski makes their offense and different animal, and newly acquired cornerback Darrelle Revis does the same for the defense. 

Beating the Patriots is all about rushing Tom Brady. Yes, the Dolphins are capable of getting after him. However, he has so many offensive options around him, including a loaded backfield, I see him being able to distribute the ball at will. Miami has an eager young quarterback Ryan Tannehill fighting to make his team relevant. Wide receiver Mike Wallace is still trying to live up to the hype of his free agent contract, and the running back situation is unsettled with veteran Knowshon Moreno and inconsistent Lamar Miller. There are not enough weapons for them to keep up: New England 27, Miami 21 (NE -3.5/over 46.5)

Jacksonville @ Philadelphia: I love the potential of the Jaguars this season. They are a real sleeper. Even though Chad Henne will start at quarterback over rookie Blake Bortles, their defense is going to make it easy on either guy to pull out an unexpected win here and there. The Eagles are a known animal now. Everyone has seen their fast-paced attack with quarterback Nick Foles flawlessly at the controls. There are plenty of reasons to still like their offense, even with deep threat DeSean Jackson gone to Washington. Running back Darren Sproles is an intriguing addition to a backfield anchored by the dynamic LeSean McCoy. Rookie Jordan Matthews and veteran Jeremy Maclin are going to make up for the loss of Jackson at receiver, and then some.

This looks like a close game to me. The Eagles are not strong on defense. Toby Gerhart is a sneaky strong running back capable of churning out yardage. Henne lacks a strong set of targets in the passing game, and ultimately that is what costs them a win here on the road. There is no chance the Jaguars can match scores with the home team here. A team fresh off a playoff berth will look like it in the opener, handling a spunky upstart with nothing to lose: Philadelphia 30, Jacksonville 20 (JAX +10.5/under 52)

Cleveland @ Pittsburgh: Perhaps in a year or two this will go back to being somewhat of a rivalry. The Browns have been mostly on the wrong side of the scoreboard when these teams meet, especially since their reincarnation in 1999. Now they have Johnny Football, but he's on the sidelines to start the season. Instead they are going with Brian Hoyer at quarterback and hoping their defense can carry the day. The Steelers know a bit about strong defense. They have a nice set of linebackers, as has been their trademark, and appear to be overcoming that whole "too old" thing. Yes, they have some players on the wrong side of 30, but this year I see enough youth to make it work.

On offense Ben Roethlisberger has another bruising running back in LeGarrette Blount ready to smash defenses in the mouth as a complement to Le'Veon Bell. This isn't the best group of receivers he has ever had, but it is certainly better than anything his counterpart Hoyer will be looking at. As is often the case, I look for a low scoring game here and a lot of punts. The Steelers are going to be in control throughout, probably up by 7-10 points most of the way. It should be a comfortable win, and they might even blow them out: Pittsburgh 23, Cleveland 10 (PIT -7/under 41.5)

Cincinnati @ Baltimore: Suddenly the Bengals are a perennial playoff team, and the weight of expectations could make their shoulders sag this season. Conversely, people seem to have forgotten about the Ravens even if it was just two seasons ago they were winning it all. Massive roster losses helped ruin their 2013 campaign, but I see them bouncing back this year to make this a three-way race in the AFC North. Home field is big. They did not get to open last year at home and paid the price, getting hammered in Denver. I think they want to make up for that embarrassment. 

Looking at Cincinnati, I see a really good offense that just changed coordinators and a great defense that also just changed coordinators. It might take them a few games to adjust, and there is really no time to wait in the NFL. I want to go with the road team here because I feel as if they have the better roster. However, the new schemes on both sides of the ball worry me. Baltimore should be fired up for this game, and my gut tells me they squeeze out a win: Baltimore 21, Cincinnati 19 (BAL +0/under 43.5)

Washington @ Houston: These teams are down. Last year both had high expectations and fell flat on their respective faces. The Texans probably fell farther and harder. Luckily for them, they earned the top pick and used it on Jadeveon Clowney to help their defense return to form. The Redskins had improved draft position as well, but that wound up helping the Rams thanks to the Robert Griffin III trade. In a battle of new coaches I believe Jay Gruden has a lot more pressure on his shoulders. He inherited a franchise quarterback who really has not proven he is worthy of that title. Bill O'Brien has a savvy veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick and he knows how to steal wins in the NFL.

On defense the Texans might be ready to put Griffin away early. At the very least their front seven will make life very difficult on him, limiting the time he has to get the ball down the field to new speedster DeSean Jackson. Fitzpatrick has his own receiver with wheels, DeAndre Hopkins, and he will have the benefit of a defense focusing on Andre Johnson. I like Alfred Morris over Arian Foster at this stage of their careers, and see both teams having some success running the ball. I could talk myself into either team winning, but early in the year defense wins and home teams have the edge so that's my logic: Houston 27, Washington 21 (HOU -3/over 44.5)

San Francisco @ Dallas: There has not been much fire in this matchup of late, but I am very intrigued with the possibility here The Cowboys are stuck in mediocrity, and my expectation of their outcome this season is that at best they can hope for another average season. However, the season is now underway and predictions are out the window. In their minds they can compete for a division title. The 49ers have been on the championship doorstep three seasons running, but they are falling apart from the inside. Injuries, suspensions and departures have left their defense a totally different unit than the one that carried them to the precipice of a championship several times. Now, at least early on, the offense has to carry their weight.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has at times been electric, and other times extremely inaccurate. He has mostly leaned on the running game, which in fairness he has been a part of, while leading this team that past season and a half. The addition of veteran receiver Steve Johnson and health, they hope, of Michael Crabtree figure to bolster their ability to throw the ball. I am a little skeptical. Anquan Boldin is at the age where receivers tend to fall off a cliff, and if that happens, coupled with any injury whatsoever and they are in 2013 territory all over again, or worse. The good news for them is that Dallas has an awful defense. Their best player, linebacker Sean Lee, is done this year. Can Rolando McClain really revive his career? I could care less because San Francisco will score a lot on this defense. They probably will give up a lot to a very good offense as well. Tony Romo had an epic shootout last year against Denver and it will not be that crazy, but should be exciting nonetheless before they fall short: San Francisco 34, Dallas 31 (DAL +4.5/over 51)

Carolina @ Tampa Bay: Predictions are no fun when a starting quarterback's status is in question. To be honest, I am not using Cam Newton's presence or lack thereof as an excuse for being wrong about this pick. Right off the bat I will declare the Bucs as the better team here, even if Newton is himself. New head coach Lovie Smith matches up well with Ron Rivera. These defensive minds will butt heads a couple times per year for at least a few more years starting now, and it should be entertaining if you like low-scoring games. New quarterback Josh McCown has his twin towers as rookie Mike Evans joins Vincent Jackson at wide receiver. Guard Logan Mankins is a key addition, albeit late, to the offensive line hoping to revive the running game now that lead back Doug Martin is healthy.

I acknowledge what a great run the Panthers put together last year, riding their stout defense to the playoffs. However, it is a new year and momentum does not carry over. Their offense is still soft. Rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin might turn out to be a fine player, but counting on him to carry their passing game in his first year is crazy. Even if Steve Smith clearly had run his course after a great run with the team, they were not prepared for the transition. Their running game is not good enough to go to Florida in September and take over a game. I like the home team to turn in a sound victory here that may surprise a few people: Tampa Bay 24, Carolina 16 (TB -2.5/over 37.5)

Indianapolis @ Denver: If you wonder why I am crazy enough to pick the Colts to do so well this season, winning the AFC, consider a three-week stretch last year when they knocked off the Seahawks, Chargers and these Broncos consecutively. All of those teams were in the last eight, and of course two of them met in the Super Bowl. My statistics intern quit, but suffice it to say very few teams beat both Super Bowl entrants in a given season. They have a lot of talent and while I am concerned about losing pass rusher Robert Mathis, particularly in this matchup, I do like them quite a bit in the long run. From Denver's perspective, they are a much more difficult schedule than Indianapolis and must realize this is a pivotal early game for them in the race for home field in the AFC.

Quarterback Peyton Manning is coming off an epic season, and now has another rules "change" on his side. It is of course not a change and rather a more strict implementation of the "hands off" rule when it comes to mugging receivers. If Manning is not pressured, and his targets are allowed to get even a little breathing room, it's over. He is without Wes Welker who really benefits a ton from this set of circumstances, so in a small sense it offsets the absence of Mathis. On the flip side, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware form a daunting pass rush for Andrew Luck to deal with. Luck has a new option in Hakeem Nicks who is trying to get his career back on track. He also has Reggie Wayne, Manning's old friend, ready to roll. I think it's Peyton's turn more than anything. This should be a fun one to watch on SNF, but I have little doubt the home team gets it done as will be the pattern for the opening week: Denver 34, Indianapolis 20 (DEN -7.5/under 55.5)

NY Giants @ Detroit: I think the network might be wishing they had 49ers-Cowboys for the first half of their MNF doubleheader after the week is in the books. The Giants are just not looking very good right now. Their offense is in a serious rut. Eli Manning has two Super Bowl rings, and he deserves them, but he is not his older brother by any stretch of the imagination. He will not carry a bad offense and elevate role players. Last year it was all he could to avoid interceptions thanks to all the pressure on him, and against this front line, in a dome on the road I have to believe he is in for a long night. The Lions have a motivated front line ready to come after him with bad intentions.

As for Detroit's offense, they are even scarier than usual. Rookie tight end Eric Ebron was not very popular in fantasy football because people are afraid he will not get enough targets. That is frightening, and true. They have Brandon Pettigrew playing in line on the opposite side of him, and he can catch the ball just fine thank you very much. At receiver, Calvin Johnson is the best in the business. He is now joined by Golden Tate via Seattle. Their backfield tandem of Joique Bell and Reggie Bush round out a well balanced group at the skill positions. Matthew Stafford directs it all. This season I believe head coach Jim Caldwell provide a calm influence over an excitable team that was prone to bad decisions under Jim Schwartz. He joins a team that has not, other than Gary Moeller's brief 4-3 run, had a head coach depart with a winning record since 1972. After this he is 1-0: Detroit 31, NY Giants 17 (DET -6/over 47)

San Diego @ Arizona: The Cardinals have already suffered a loss before a game as been played. Andre Ellington was being counted on as a breakout star out of the backfield, but his status is in doubt. This is a tough blow for them if it turns into a long-term thing. In this game I think they can weather it. They are home under the lights of MNF and for this franchise that is rare. It is a big deal and I expect a team that is steaming mad after missing the playoffs at 10-6 to respond with a strong opener. The Chargers are no slouches. They won a playoff game on the road last year and have a lot of talent.

Defense is a key factor on both sides in this one. Darnell Dockett's loss is probably overblown for Arizona while San Diego's defense really tightened up during their run to the playoffs. On offense for the visitors, Philip Rivers will get a second option in the backfield should Ryan Mathews revert to his oft-injured ways because Donald Brown has joined them.  The home team still has veteran wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald making plays, but Michael Floyd is ready to break out and rookie John Brown looks good. Quarterback Carson Palmer just needs to avoid turnovers and his team will be in great shape. I see a great fight in this one. Again, home field is pretty big. I like both head coaches. It should be tight: Arizona 23, San Diego 21 (SD +3/under 46.5)

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