Welcome to Know The Score! Each week of the 2013 NFL season, we'll take a look ahead at every game on the slate to highlight the interesting storylines, advanced statistics and other noteworthy aspects that each contest brings to the table.
When these two teams met last, a proud Packers team suffered a beatdown at the hands of Colin Kaepernick and the Niners. Kaepernick's showing -- 16 carries, 183 yards and two rushing touchdowns -- felt like the ground game version of Rodgers' aerial devastation of the Falcons in the 2010 playoffs. Both performances brought to mind the chest-bursting scene in Alien, too, considering it was something unique and powerful coming to life through the utter destruction of another entity.
Kaepernick and Rodgers have taken on the quality of avatars: the yin and yang of modern quarterbacking. Kaepernick keys a devastating ground attack, but also packs a cannon arm and plenty of deep ball accuracy. Rodgers is a relentless downfield assassin, but has proven more than capable of punishing a defense with his legs. A confluence of rare talent in an era of unparalleled innovation has helped to create a Golden Age of top-tier quarterbacking in the NFL and these two are as good as it gets.
Unfortunately for Green Bay, defensive back Casey Heyward will miss this contest with a bad hamstring. Ted Thompson has the roster stocked with capable backups, but none can match what Heyward brings to the table. New 49er Anquan Boldin and matchup nightmare Vernon Davis could each see plenty snaps in the slot in this contest.
The Packers receivers don’t so much stake a claim to Alpha Male status so much as they pass the conch back and forth. Speedburner Randall Cobb may hold the conch right now, but he does most of his damage from the slot or backfield alignments. 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers handles most of their slot coverage work and acquitted himself well, but he may be starting to lose a gear at 32. And to keep Randall Cobb in check, you need all the gears you can muster.
The Score: San Francisco 27, Green Bay 24
The Sunday morning specials
Falcons at Saints
When Atlanta Has the Ball: Atlanta played in the NFC Championship Game last January, but may have moved in the wrong direction this offseason. On the plus side, they’ve at least upgraded at running back in the person of Steven Jackson, who may get to screen Rob Ryan’s new defense to death. Ryan likes to break out his most crazypants blitzes in his first game in a new stop, so hot reads with a strong dose of yards-after-catch should be the order of the day.
When New Orleans Has the Ball: Sean Payton has the band back together and they should cause as much destruction as the Bluesmobile in a shopping mall. Marques Colston could torment rookie corner Desmond Trufant, while Jimmy Graham tries to prove that last year’s 85/982/9 line was a ‘down season’. Charles Smith steps into the league’s least consequential left tackle job and will try to slow down new Falcon Osi Umenyiora. If he can’t, Brees will have already gotten rid of the ball anyway.
Noteworthy: When it came time to break down and make a tackle last season, the defensive backs for the Falcons and Saints just broke down. Their defensive backfields each tallied a forehead-slapping 75 missed tackles, with only Tampa Bay turning in a worse showing.
The Score: New Orleans 34, Atlanta 31
When Cincinnati Has the Ball: Andy Dalton has accomplished two postseason trips in two seasons, but is still under pressure to prove that he can take the next step. Dalton received some upgrades this offseason so he's likely itching to take Tyler Eifert and Giovanni Bernard out for a spin. He may need plenty of quick-pass outlets, though, as the absence of stud left tackle Andrew Whitworth could mean a whole lot of Julius Peppers in the backfield.
When Chicago Has the Ball: Jay Cutler’s weapons are the same, aside from skillet-handed coach killer Martellus Bennett. What HAS improved are Cutler’s chances of completing an unmolested five-step drop to get them the ball. The additions of Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson to go with rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills have revamped the league’s most revamp-needin’ line. As a group, their new motto could be…"We’re average?" That’s a big step up from "We commit weekly war crimes against our QB," but average may not be enough against a ravenous Bengals’ pass rush.
Noteworthy: Jay Cutler was pressured on a horrifying 37.3% of his dropbacks last season,sixth-most among the league’s starting QBs. He actually managed a 54.5% completion percentage on plays where he was pressured, however, which was fourth-best among starting QBs. That goes to show that A) practice makes perfect, and B) OHMYGODBRANDONMARSHALLHELP!!!! is a pretty effective play.
The Score: Chicago 20, Cincinnati 17
When New England Has the Ball: The faces are mostly new, but the results could be similar for the Patriots’ air attack as they’ll face a Buffalo secondary without second-year corner Stephon Gilmore and possibly without all-everything safety Jairus Byrd. Should they suffer a hiccup in the passing game, New England's outstanding offensive line should still set up a big day for Stevan Ridley.
When Buffalo Has the Ball: Tucked away in his office, in a corner you didn’t get to see in his A Football Life episode, Bill Belichick has a jar filled with the souls of all the rookie QBs he’s faced over the years. E.J. Manuel will try to shake off a few weeks’ worth of injury rust and create some read option magic with C.J. Spiller, but…yeah. soul jar.
Noteworthy: New Patriot Danny Amendola is used to a Wes Welker-caliber workload. Over the last three seasons, Welker was targeted one throw every 6.3 snaps he was on the field. In a far less high-octane offense in St. Louis, Amendola was targeted once every 5.8 snaps. Of course, Amendola's survivability over that -- or any -- volume of throws may be another story.
The Score: New England 31, Buffalo 14
When Minnesota Has the Ball: It will be interesting to see whether Christian Ponder’s arm looks like it will allow the Vikings to recoup even 50 cents on the dollar for their massive investment in Greg Jennings. It will be fun to see if Cordarrelle Patterson can start to cash in on his tremendous athleticism. But the real story – as it will be for most weeks for the Vikes – will be whether Adrian Peterson can bag the 132 yards he’ll need to stay on pace to break the NFL single-season rushing record.
When Detroit Has the Ball: One of the rites of fall is watching how many games it takes for Matthew Stafford to remember that he needs to be throwing the ball to Calvin Johnson 15 times a game. If he figures it out in game one, aspiring shadow corner Chris Cook of the Vikes will have his hands full. Vikings DE’s Brian Robison and Jared Allen will try to overpower Detroit’s new tackle tandem of Riley Reiff and Jason Fox enough to turn some of those attempts into panicked dump-offs to Reggie Bush. On the bright side, Bush should haul in enough passes to stay close to Ray Rice in the chase for the coveted "Dump it to Me!" Trophy.
Noteworthy: ‘Ndamunkong’ means ‘House of Spears’ in the Ngemba language of Cameroon, where Suh’s father Michael grew up. Suh makes it a point to honor this tradition by trying for at least one spearing penalty per week, while also striving to represent his brother Ndamundang (‘House of Late Hits’) and sister Ndamunweng (‘House of Groin Kicks’) on the field.
There is no Ngemban word for ‘trap block’, which might explain why Suh still can’t see one coming in his fourth year in the NFL.
The Score: Detroit 27, Minnesota 24
The Sunday morning relatively less-specials
When Miami Has the Ball: Ryan Tannehill is the Shemp Howard of the 2012 QB class – an afterthought who still has many appreciable qualities once you accept that he’s not Moe, Curly or RGIII. He’ll try to deliver some eye pokes to a robust Browns’ defense, but could receive a mallet to the noggin if Jonathan Martin can't slow down Cleveland's surprisingly deep stable of edge rushers.
When Cleveland Has the Ball: Brandon Weeden is the Curly Joe DeRita of the 2012 QB class - he lacks talent, showed up after it was too late to matter and makes everyone yearn for Shemp. For all that, he showed signs of not-quite-terribleness in the preseason and could be a better fit for the Chud 'N Norval Vertical Extravaganza.
Noteworthy: Trent Richardson brought a warrior's mentality to his rookie season. He needed it, too, as he had to bash and batter his way to 967 rushing yards at a painful 3.6 YPC clip. He's healthier and slimmed down this season. He'll need every bit of trim 'n' healthiness, too, as Cleveland's guards have been dropping like flies in the offseason.
The Score: Cleveland 20, Miami 17
When Seattle Has the Ball: A noon kick makes this the first official chance to see if NFL defenses have conjured up some magic to shut down the read option attack. The Panthers may need less magic than most teams, though, as a newly-ferocious front four anchored by rookie DT Star Lotulelei and emerging badass Luke Kuechly at linebacker could give Seattle’s offensive line all they want. And if they can reach, surround and envelop Russell Wilson in less than 1.5 seconds, they might also be able to keep him from looting their atrocious secondary.
When Carolina Has the Ball: A noon kick also makes this the first official chance to see if the Panthers’ offense has decided to voluntarily keep its own read option attack shut down. Cam Newton and company should look for any schematic wrinkle from the read option to the "Oopty-Oop" from Varsity Blues to survive against Seattle’s destructive D.
Noteworthy: Russell Wilson displayed preternatural poise on deep throws as a rookie, finishing sixth in Vertical YPA, sixth in Vertical Accuracy Percentage and seventh in TDs per Vertical Attempt among all QBs who threw downfield at least 30 times. Carolina’s safeties surrendered 10.5 yards per attempt last season, allowing an aggregate 96.7 QB rating on balls thrown their way. Hmmmm.
The Score: Seattle 24, Carolina 17
When Tennessee Has the Ball: CJ2K, or CJ2.5YPC? That’s the question that will define much of the Titans’ offense this year. Tennessee stocked the OL with high-dollar free agent Andy Levitre and down and dirty road grader Chance Warmack to pave a smoother path for Chris Johnson this season. If Johnson turns in another 18-carry, 44 yard performance against Pittsburgh’s robust D, potential excuses could include "I was blinded by solar flares" and "I was still thinking about Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs".
When Pittsburgh Has the Ball: With Le’Veon Bell on the shelf and a M*A*S*H unit at the tight end position, Ben Roethlisberger will be firing early and often to wideouts Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. The Titans are starting Alterraun Verner at right corner despite apparently really, really hating Alterraun Verner. So whoever he’s covering should probably see the ball earlier and often.
Noteworthy: Per Football Outsiders, Pittsburgh ran between the tackles an incredible 75 percent of the time last season (the league average was 52 percent) despite being kinda awful at running between the tackles. The Steelers promised a full-season commitment to edge-oriented zone blocking to take advantage of more athletic line and Bell’s one-cut skill set. It’s hard to tell how things will play out in Week 1, though, as Pittsburgh’s remaining backs basically have no-cut skill sets.
The Score: Pittsburgh 27, Tennessee 17
When Kansas City Has the Ball: It’s not right to call Alex Smith a reclamation project given his success with the 49ers, so let’s call this season a project to test his survivability outside of the nurturing biosphere created by Jim Harbaugh and an elite line. There’s a (strong) chance that Andy Reid’s pass-tastic ways will over-expose Smith at some point, but that likely won’t be an issue against the Jags’ tepid pass rush and torpid secondary.
When Jacksonville Has the Ball: Pocket Hercules will get the chance to prove that he’s shaken off the Kryptonite or eaten his spinach or whatever Hercules’ thing is because Maurice Jones-Drew should get the ball early and often against the Chiefs. Jacksonville’s draft day thesis was Blaine Gabbert is actually a solid QB when given time, but his new time-givin’ tackle tandem of Eugene Monroe and Luke Joeckel will have their hands full with Tamba Hali and Justin Houston.
Noteworthy: Advanced statistics show that there’s a 62.5% chance that this is the game you’ll be watching if you get to the sports bar late on Sunday and get that crappy table in the back.
The Score: Kansas City 27, Jacksonville 17
Buccaneers at Jets
When Tampa Bay Has the Ball: Tampa will probably be content to lean on the run game while Josh Freeman digs out from under the wreckage of last year’s late-season implosion. Unfortunately the offseason score at One Buccaneers Place was Facilities Staff 0, Actual Staph 2, so the Bucs won’t be running behind Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks. All-around stud DE Muhammad Wilkerson and Tasmanian devil rookie Sheldon Richardson will try to wreak maximum havoc in his absence, however.
When New York Has the Ball: Dysfunction Junction, What’s Your Function? The Jets’ unique brand of Dysfunction Junction may require extreme unction at some point this season. A rookie QB rushed into service, dubious wideouts and a declining line make for a dire proposition even if the locker room isn’t a live feed to TMZ. The prospect of one of those wideouts being erased from the physical plane by Darrelle Revis while going up against the Bucs’ rock-hard run D makes things … dire-er?
Noteworthy: This is the game that you stand a 37.5% chance of watching if you show up late to the sports bar. Seriously – just take it easy Saturday night, wake up early, and get to the bar with like an hour to spare. Maybe an hour and a half to be safe. You don’t want to watch this one.
The Score: Tampa Bay 20, New York 10
When Oakland Has the Ball: If Terrelle Pryor can channel the righteous rage he likely felt when he heard about Johnny Manziel’s comical ‘punishment’ from the NCAA, he might be able to keep the Raiders close for a little while. Unless he can get angry enough to turn green and triple in size, though, he’s unlikely to prevail against a Colts defense that is…not all that good, but worlds better than what the Raiders have cobbled together.
When Indianapolis Has the Ball: If Darrius Heyward-Bey can channel the pure joy he likely feels knowing he’ll be seeing passes from Andrew Luck rather than Terrelle Pryor this season, he may manifest the Spider-Sense and sticky fingers necessary to have a few of them cling to his famous skillet-like hands. If he doesn’t, there will be plenty of other open Colts rampaging through a direly undermanned Oakland D.
The Score: Indianapolis 38, Oakland 13
The (other) afternooner
When Arizona Has the Ball: The quality of the Palmer-Fitzgerald connection will be put to an early test. With TE Robert Housler likely out and Michael Floyd facing a similar talent match in Janoris Jenkins, Fitzgerald should battle the feisty Cortland Finnegan on well over a dozen throws. It will be interesting to see if Bruce Arians caters the entire offense to finding favorable matchups for Fitzgerald as he did for Reggie Wayne in Indy last season.
When St. Louis Has the Ball: The season of 'prove it' begins for former top overall draft choice Sam Bradford. With a rebuilt line and a host of shiny new weapons, Rams fans are ready for Bradford to start producing at an elite level. His tackles should be able to handle Arizona’s edge pressure and, if his interior linemen can keep Calais Campbell from running wild, he should have time to test the Cardinals’ new-look secondary. Any Honey Badger-on-Tavon Austin coverage in the slot should also make for enticing viewing.
Noteworthy: When Punxsutawney Phil -- the charming Pennsylvanian groundhog -- emerges from his burrow sees his shadow, it means that we’re in for six more weeks of winter. When Glendale Gus -- the less charming Arizona kangaroo rat -- emerges from his burrow and sees his shadow, it means the Cardinals are in for four more months of dreadful offensive line play.
It is never cloudy in Arizona.
The Score: St. Louis 24, Arizona 17
The Sunday nighter
When Dallas Has the Ball: Dallas will attempt to hold off New York’s vaunted "somewhere between one-and-a-half and four aces" pass rush long enough to let Tony Romo tear up the Giants’ shoddy back seven. DeMarco Murray should manage some good individual-effort runs behind bad blocking before Dallas abandons all pretense of the ground game sometime in the second quarter.
When New York Has the Ball: Eli’s big arm, Cruz’s big speed and Hakeem Nicks’ big…ness have frequently combined to torture the Cowboys’ secondary with deep outs and corner routes. More of the same should be on the menu this week since the Giants will check the integrity of Dallas’ new-look Cover 2 and test whether the Cowboys’ latest stopgap safeties can make it to the sideline in time.
Noteworthy: According to ProFootballFocus.com, out of the 27 signal callers who threw at least half of their team’s passes last year, Romo finished dead last with a scant 10.5% of his attempts coming from play action. Manning was barely better, finishing 25th with 14.7% play action passing (the average for all QBs was 20.5%). Both teams’ safeties are ripe for the plucking, but the QB who gets them to bite on some well-timed play passes first could come out the winner on Sunday night.
The Score: Dallas 31, New York 27
A two-headed Monday night monster
When Philadelphia Has the Ball: The Chip Kelly Experience takes off in Philly, as he tries to prove that his whiz-kid run schemes can translate to the big leagues. The fact that much of the team got eviscerated by ‘college’ read option offense last season makes for a more welcoming environment than Kelly might otherwise have found, but his general unconventionality could still draw a ton of heat if Philly faceplants out of the gate. The Eagles should have some inside zone/outside zone/read option success against a Redskins’ D that sports an iffy interior line and the ancient London Fletcher at linebacker. Throws to anyone outside of DeSean Jackson could be dicier, though, with Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan ready to give a rude welcome/welcome back to tackles Lane Johnson and Jason Peters.
When Washington Has the Ball: The latest living testament to Dr. James Andrews’ surgical sorcery takes the field, as Robert Griffin III strives for an Adrian Peterson-caliber return from late-season ACL disaster. An Adrian Brody-caliber return might get the job done in this one if the Eagles’ D can’t show at least some signs of life.
Noteworthy: Astonishingly, RGIII threw deep on less than 10 percent of his 2012 passes despite an absurd 15.5 yards-per-attempt figure and 7 TDs on just 36 throws. Given the atrocity that promises to be the Eagles’ secondary, Griffin could approach those numbers in Week One alone.
The Score: Washington 31, Philadelphia 20
When Houston Has the Ball: The Texans will try to shake off the late-season doldrums that beset their offense in 2012, although things remain a tad unsettled in their normally clockwork zone run scheme. The right side of the line is looking for better consistency from Brandon Brooks and Derek Newton and the status of stalwart LG Wade Smith is still up in the air. Add to the mix some early-season health concerns for Arian Foster and it’s not an ideal way to start the season against a better-than-you-think Chargers’ front. Fortunately for Houston, they should be able to throw to Andre Johnson more or less at will against a San Diego secondary full of new and not terribly inspiring faces.
When San Diego Has the Ball: The new Chargers’ brain trust is committed to Philip Rivers for salary cap reasons, at least for this season, so they’ve humanely decided to try and keep him alive by moving to a quick-passing offense behind a San Andreas-shaky line. The plan will be to keep Houston honest with Ryan Mathews, throw slants and hitches to Vincent Brown and see if Antonio Gates can still get up the seam against Houston’s new set of safeties. The reality will likely be Ryan Mathews exploding into a fine, red mist on first contact, with Rivers fleeing from J.J. Watt at the balance of the contest.
Noteworthy: Studies of Circadian sleep rhythms have indicated a massive advantage for West Coast teams playing in night games and the advantage figures to be even stronger given the unusual lateness of this one. It should serve as a great test for this theory, as ordinarily Houston should win this game if it was played on Mars.
The Score: Houston 24, San Diego 16