Pittsburgh @ Baltimore (-2??)
In a rematch of last year's classic AFC divisional playoff game, the Ravens host the Steelers in what is arguably the NFL's most heated rivalry. Last year, the Steelers beat the Ravens to advance to the AFC Championship game.
"That loss still eats at us," Ray Lewis said. "But I don't expect the same outcome come Sunday. Just as Ben Roethlisberger said to his new bride, 'Things will be different.' I congratulate Big Ben on his marriage. Frankly, I'm surprised a woman said 'I do' to Big Ben. I'm even more surprised that Ben actually gave a woman a choice."
Speaking of "choices," the Steelers are the choice of many to repeat as the AFC's representative in the Super Bowl. A win in Baltimore would be an important first step toward that goal.
"There's always a lot of trash talk when the Steelers and Ravens meet," Mike Tomlin said. "This game is no exception. Already, players have been insulted on both sides. And that's just taking into account what's come out of James Harrison's mouth. James makes Triumph the Insult Comic Dog sound like a mute. In his interview in Mens Journal magazine, it was 'James Harrison: Uncensored.' After I had a talk with him, it was 'James Harrison: Censured."
The Ravens raise Harrison's hackles when, during player introductions, the public address system plays the Gap Band's "Oops Upside Your Head." Harrison strikes back by casually riding a stretcher driven by a Hines Ward onto the field. A shoving match ensues, and the dugouts empty, resulting in a ****-clearing brawl.
Order is restored, and after three quarters, the game is tied 17-17. Billy Cundiff gives the Ravens a late 20-17 lead with a 33-yard field goal. But, the Steelers march down the field quickly, and Roethlisberger finds Hines Ward for a 10-yard score. Ward celebrates by walking a straight line on the Ravens goal line.
Pittsburgh wins, 24-20.
Cincinnati @ Cleveland (-6??)
The Browns open the season by welcoming their in-state rivals the Bengals to the Dawg Pound, where fans are excited about the possibilities of a team led by second-year quarterback Colt McCoy. McCoy spent a few days in July in Mississippi learning the nuances of the West Coast offense from Brett Favre. Reportedly, Favre evaluated the young Brown's performance and later texted McCoy his grade.
"Unlike Jenn Sterger," McCoy said, "I didn't get a 'D.' I got an 'A.' Favre is all business on the field, but I must say, he knows how to have a good time off it. When I found out I was meeting Favre in Mississippi to train, little did I know I'd also get to run one.
"But what a difference a year makes. This year, I picked the brain of Favre. Last year, I had 'QB Camp" with John Gruden while he picked my brain. In both cases, the brain in question had nothing to hide."
In Cincinnati, the Bengals are a team in transition, a transition, one may suggest, from a 4-12 last year to one even worse this year. Marvin Lewis kissed Chad Ochocinco's ass "goodbye," but Carson Palmer wasn't allowed to escape, as owner Mike Brown failed to acquiesce to Palmer's trade demands. Now the offense will be even more reliant on running back Cedric Benson, who, despite his age (28), is still considered "fresh out of the box."
"That's right," said Marvin Lewis. "Cedric spent five days in jail for a misdemeanor assault charge before being released early for good behavior. I've always said Cedric was a good short 'yard-age' back. In this day and age of text messaging and short Twitter updates, it's good to see a 'complete sentence' out of someone."
McCoy is solid for the Browns, with one passing score, a rush touchdown, and a filthy post-game text message. But Benson keeps the Bengals in it, rushing for two short scores and taking much of the pressure off of quarterback Andy Dalton. In the end, Phil Dawson's game-winning field goal gives the Brown a 23-20 win.
Indianapolis @ Houston (-6)
It's difficult to imagine the Colts being quarterbacked by anyone other than Peyton Manning. Offseason neck surgery has sidetracked Manning's offseason preparations, and it appears that doctors won't clear him to play against the Texans.
"My streak of 208 consecutive starts may be ending," Manning said. "That means Brett Favre's 292-game record will remain intact. But don't despair Colts' fans. The Indy offense will be in capable hands with Kerry Collins behind the wheel, provided he's not drinking. However, I'm not sure who my mere presence on the sideline strikes more fear into - the Texans, or my own team."
The Texans finished 6-10 last year, well behind Indy's 10-6 division-winning record. This year, nothing less than the AFC South crown will suit Gary Kubiak, or the man paying his salary, Bob McNair, as many contend it's a "playoffs or your job" ultimatum for Kubiak.
"I've won 37 games as Texans coach," Kubiak said, "but there's one victory that has eluded me. I've yet to 'win over' McNair.
"Sure, it's a game against the Colts, but it's only the first game of the season. I hesitate to call it a 'big' game, if for no other reason than Houston has never won a big game."
Can the Colts win without Manning? Not as easily as the New York Giants, but it can be done. Anyone can pass on the Houston secondary, so Collins should have success, especially with a number of weapons at his disposal. Unfortunately, no Peyton is as much a detriment to the Colts defense as it is to the Indy offense.
Matt Schaub throws for 301 yards and 3 scores, one to Arian Foster, who is all smiles after the game, and posts his dental X-rays on Twitter to prove it.
Houston wins, 34-30.
Tennessee @ Jacksonville (-3)
New Titans head coach Mike Munchak breathed a sigh of relief when running back Chris Johnson signed a contract extension in late August after a long holdout.
"Kerry Collins and Vince Young have found new teams," Munchak said, "and I'd like to wish them 'well' by saying 'good' riddance. In addition, Randy Moss has retired. Finally, an instance of Moss 'quitting' that no one will complain about. But we shouldn't be surprised if Moss makes a comeback at some point this year. He retires much as he played - half-heartedly.
"Johnson will carry this team, but we expect major contributions from Matt Hasselbeck, our prized free agent acquisition. Matt will be asked to do a lot, but not too much. That's why we'll leave the calling of coin tosses to someone else."
Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio enters his ninth season as the Jaguars head coach, and much like fellow AFC South coach Gary Kubiak, anything short of a playoff berth may mean the end of Del Rio's tenure in Jacksonville.
"Tenure?" said Del Rio. "That sounds an awful lot like '10-year,' which is an anniversary I won't be seeing unless this team produces. If we make the playoffs, it will be without quarterback David Garrard, whom we released on Tuesday. Obviously, we wanted to head in different directions - David's heading north, and we're going south.
"But don't discount our quarterbacks. Luke McCown, one-half of the 'Insane McCown Posse,' is serviceable, and here's hoping his capability outweighs his culpability. Waiting in the wings is rookie Blaine Gabbert, who goes by the nickname 'Yo Gabba,' the franchise's quarterback of the future. He's the long-term solution, a solution that comes in a 'can,' my firing."
McCown is KO'd early, and Gabbert soon finds the NFL learning curve is steep, much like Del Rio's impending downfall.
Johnson rushes for a quiet 95 yards, and catches a TD pass from Hasselbeck, who throws for 210 yards.
Tennessee wins, 24-17.
Buffalo @ Kansas City (-6??)
Can the Chiefs duplicate last year's surprise division title? After all, it's the AFC West, where, much like a date with Sebastian Janikowski, anything is possible. The Chiefs, behind first-year coach Todd Haley, won the West with a 10-6 record, then lost in the wild card round to the Ravens.
"This year," Haley said, "the sky's the limit. We just hope the sky isn't falling. Much has been made of Matt Cassel's rib injury suffered in our last preseason game. It's not an issue. Matt will play. Luckily, our offensive line is impregnable, but Matt will wear protection anyway."
In Buffalo, year two of the "Chan Gailey Project" begins in Buffalo, which, if one year is any indication, will be a bigger bomb than the "Manhattan Project." Despite a 4-12 record last year, Gailey was retained by owner Ralph Wilson to lead the team again.
"At 92," said Gailey, "Wilson is the oldest owner in the league, and it shows. He still thinks he hired Champ Bailey last year. But wise acquisitions aren't exactly what the Bills are known for. After all, Shawne Merriman is our starting linebacker. As one would expect, the Bills front office was 'on something' when they made that deal."
The Chiefs offensive line dominates, opening the way for 128 yards on the ground for Jamaal Charles and 278 through the air by Matt Cassel. Merriman, the Bills main pass rush threat, is shut out, and later complains that the K.C. offensive line is a lot like the Canadian border - he "can't get through."
Chiefs win, 34-21.
Atlanta @ Chicago (+3)
The last time we saw Jay Cutler on Soldier Field, he was living his NFC Championship dream vicariously through backup quarterback Caleb Hanie after Cutler injured his left knee. The Bears eventually lost to the Packers, and Cutler faced a firestorm of criticism, from the media and fellow players alike, most questioning his toughness.
"That's something I have to live with," Cutler said, "which was exactly what I said to myself before calling off my engagement to Kristin Cavillari. We just didn't have enough in common. For instance, she never faked it. But she does have a lot in common with Bears fan - they'll never look at me the same again."
After being dismantled by the Packers 48-21 in Atlanta in the divisional round, the Falcons realized their offense was sorely lacking in big-play capability. In hopes of remedying that, Atlanta drafted Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones and Oregon running back Jacquizz Rodgers. The duo should improve the potency of an already-solid offense led by Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, and Roddy White.
"We expect big things from Jones and Rodgers," Mike Smith said. "Julio is big and physical, and makes a great red zone target. Jacquizz is an elusive, powerful runner who unfortunately seems to have been named after a failed 1970's funk band. I can't speak for his worth as a fantasy player, but his value is off the charts in Scrabble."
The defending NFC North champs don't appreciate being considered underdogs on their home field, and in turn, the Falcons don't take too kindly to only being listed as three-point favorites over a Cutler-quarterbacked team. Luckily, a happy compromise is reached.
Falcons win, 24-21.
Detroit @ Tampa Bay (-1??)
By some accounts, the Lions and Buccaneers are two teams on the verge of greatness. By other, and more reasonable accounts, they are two teams on the verge of goodness. The Lions finished 6-10 last year, and appear ready to contend for a playoff spot, as do the Bucs, who won ten games in 2010.
"The success of our season hinges on the health of quarterback Matthew Stafford," said Jim Schwartz. "If Matthew's shoulder joint remains intact, we have a great chance of dislocating the Bears and/or Packers from playoff teams last year to playoff spectators this year."
Unfortunately for the Bucs, they reside in the NFC South, arguably the NFL's toughest division, which features the Falcons and Saints, both of which made the playoffs last year.
"I concur with Coach Schwartz's statement of the importance of staying healthy," Raheem Morris said. "Of course, dislocated shoulders don't concern us as much. When something pops out of place around here, it's usually the firearm of Aqib Talib."
The Bucs come out firing, taking a 10-0 first quarter lead. But the Lions, behind Stafford and Calvin Johnson Johnson storm back. Ndamukong Suh menaces the Tampa offense, with a bevy a brutal, yet legal, hits that Roger Goodell can't help but take a personal interest in.
Detroit wins, 27-25.
Philadelphia @ St. Louis (+4??)
In a shopping spree that a dim-witted Kardashian could surely appreciate, the Eagles bagged a bevy of free agent in the offseason, including cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, quarterback Vince Young, defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins, and defensive end Jason Babin, among others.
"Don't forget," said Andy Reid, "we also landed Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the Kevin Kolb trade. Cromartie is a second-cousin of the Jets Antonio Cromartie. And you know what that means - good coverage skills run in the family, and Dominique has a buttload of third-cousins.
"Plus, we also signed wide receiver Steve Smith. That's a Steve Smith, not the Steve Smith. And, as has been widely reported, we signed Michael Vick to a $100 million contract extension. Sure, it's a huge risk/reward scenario, but so is running an illegal dog-fighting operation, and look how that turned out for us-a huge reward."
After narrowly missing the playoffs last year, the Rams are on a quest to win the NFC West and make some noise in the postseason.
"So, Michael Vick says there isn't a defense that can be designed to stop him?" said James Lauriniatis. "I think what he meant is there isn't a defense that can be designed to acquit him."
The Eagles brush off an early 9-0 deficit, and pull away for a 26-16 win.
NY Giants @ Washington (+3)
Rex Grossman will start at quarterback for the Redskins after winning the job over John Beck. In July, Grossman predicted Washington would win the NFC East.
"Coach Mike Shanahan told me I bit off more than I could chew," Grossman said. "To that, I simply replied to Shanny, 'Touche.' But don't knock my prognostication. For as long as I can remember, I've always been right ... handed."
In stark contrast to the Redskins unstable quarterback situation, the Giants have the luxury of Eli Manning, who is in his seventh year as New York's starter. Like Grossman, Eli Manning made waves this summer when he boldly stated he felt he was "in the same class" as Tom Brady.
"Peyton won't let me live that one down either," Manning said. "He calls me 'Eli-ar.'
Eli is not in a class with Brady, and he's definitely not in a class with Grossman. Manning throws for two scores, and Grossman tosses two interceptions.
Giants win, 27-16.
Carolina @ Arizona (-7)
The Cardinals landed quarterback Kevin Kolb from Philadelphia, trading cornerback Dominique Rogers-Cromartie and a 2012 second-round pick. Kolb will add some stability to Arizona's quarterback situation, which has been unstable since Kurt Warner's retirement.
"Warner led us to the 'promised' land," Ken Whisenhunt said. "Kolb may, in fact, lead us there, but as of right now, he's only taken us to the 'promissory' land, because we gave up a lot to get him. Hopefully, in this case, payback won't be a ****.
"It remains to be seen whether we've found our quarterback of the future. I do know this: we have Philadelphia's quarterback of the future. Kurt Warner had his 'come to Jesus' moment. We hope acquiring Kolb is ours."
The Panthers think they've found their own quarterback of the future in Cam Newton, who gives Carolina mobility at the position they have lacked in recent years. New head coach Ron Rivera knows Newton will face some growing pains, but feels the experiences will contribute to Newton's long-term growth.
"Newton will either make fans forget Jake Delhomme," Rivera said, "or remember him fondly. Obviously, he'll face some growing pains, but the Newton's are a resilient clan. Cam faced teething pains as a baby, while his father Cecil recently dealt with some tithing pains. And they both eventually came out smelling like roses."
Expect fireworks in Glendale. Not in the game, mind you, but from the Panthers cheerleaders, two of whom are sure to get frisky after cheering for the Cats in a building that was almost named the "Pink Taco."
Kolb is a hit, passing for 268 yards and 2 touchdowns, one to Larry Fitzgerald. "America's Tweetheart" Darnell Docket sacks Newton twice, then gives a running account of his post-game shower on Twitter.
Arizona wins, 31-13.
Seattle @ San Francisco (-5??)
Jim Harbaugh takes over in San Francisco with the task of turning around the recent fortunes of the 49ers, a task that proved too difficult for Mike Singletary, who was fired in late December. San Fran finished 6-10 last year, remarkably only one game out of Seattle's 7-9 division-winning record, so Harbaugh knows just a little improvement could easily result in a West crown.
"A little improvement?" Harbaugh said. "How about no improvement? We can win this division with a 6-10 record. That's why our motto for the year, with a new regime in mind, is 'The more things change, the more we hope they'll stay the same.'
"We, along with the Seahawks, Rams, and Cardinals, consider ourselves lucky to play in the NFC West. We concern ourselves only with winning the division; a wild card berth is beneath us. We can only be bothered to compete for a single playoff berth. That's why this division's official motto is 'How the West Was One.'"
The Seahawks became the first team to make the playoffs with a losing record, winning the NFC West with a 7-9 record. If they are to repeat as West champs, they'll have to do so without quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who signed with the Titans in free agency.
"Matt was gracious in his departure," Pete Carroll said. "He packed his things and said 'Seahawk, out!' Not long after that, I named Tarvaris Jackson the starter. In my days of coaching at USC, naming a starter so early was something I only did when I wanted to trick a recruit into committing to the program. And like any quarterback with high school skills, Tarvaris took the bait."
San Francisco wins, 22-19.
Minnesota @ San Diego (-9)
Donovan McNabb is a Vikings! No, he didn't discover some unknown Norse bloodline perusing Ancestry.com. He simply joined the Vikes as a free agent, handed the starting position vacated when Brett Favre retired.
"There was no mention of air travel involved in convincing McNabb to join us," Leslie Frazier said. "All it took was a phone call, one in which I disguised my voice and said to Donovan, 'Hi. This is Leslie. Care to join me in Minnesota for a boat ride on Lake Minnetonka?'"
The Chargers again enter a new season as the favorites in the always competitive AFC West, where the balance of power shifts as often as Al Davis' blood pressure. Norv Turner has emphasized turnover margin as the key to the Chargers' fortunes.
"Preferably," Turner said, "we'd like our defense to be as efficient as our offense in creating turnovers."
Chargers win, 31-28.
Dallas @ NY Jets (-4??)
Expectations are high in Dallas and New York, and many experts contend there's a strong possibility these two teams could meet in February ... when the Mavericks and Knicks battle, assuming there's an NBA season.
"We'll be playing come February," Rex Ryan said. "This is my third consecutive year of guaranteeing a Super Bowl win for the Jets. Either I'm much too confident, or I don't mind putting a foot in my mouth. Or both.
"But this is the year. We've now got Plaxico Burress, who brings a wealth of Super Bowl experience to the team. Not many people know this, but Plaxico is an avid sky diver. However, I've ordered him to only jump only in tandem, because I don't want him to 'chute' himself."
The Cowboys should challenge for the NFC East title, or at the very least a wildcard spot, barring an injury to Tony Romo.
"Tony got married in May," said Jason Garrett. "It was a beautiful ceremony, one that brought tears to many eyes, or should I say many tears to only two eyes - Jason Witten's. But seriously, this team is as talented as any team I've ever coached, and we'll play our hardest with one common goal in mind-to keep Jerry Jones off our sideline."
It's a barnburner to the end, and even into the extra period, but Nick Folk's 51-yard field goal with 9:55 left in overtime gives the Jets a 27-24 win.
New England @ Miami (+7)
In Miami, the Dolphins could immediately make an impact in the AFC East with an upset victory over the favored Patriots. The 'Fins were a woeful 1-7 at home last year, and as a former waste management consultant in the New jersey garbage industry, Tony Sparano understands the importance of "defending your turf."
"You've got me confused with Tony Soprano," Sparano said. "That's a common mistake. And speaking of 'common mistakes,' we made several at home last year. For example, letting officials decide who recovered a Ben Roethlisberger fumble in the end zone.
"But this is a new year, with new faces. Ricky Williams is out, and Reggie Bush is in. I'm sure Ricky of all people can appreciate the importance of a '40-pound exchange.'"
In New England, the Pats have welcomed newcomers Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth. And just recently, Tom Brady said he would welcome Randy Moss back "with open arms" if Moss decided to come out of retirement.
"Ochocinco is the 'clown prince of clown princedom," Brady said. "And I love him for that. But he's no Randy Moss. And I love him for that. Anyone who believed I was sincere when I said I'd welcome Moss back is crazy. Of course, it could just be a nefarious plot concocted by Bill Belichick to drum up interest in Moss. In that case, we'd pick him up, then trade him to the Vikes for a fifth-round pick."
Brady throws for 3 scores, and the Patriots roll, 31-20.
Oakland @ Denver (-3)
The John Fox era began in Denver just minutes after the Panthers fired him in December, when the Broncos jumped at the chance and hired Fox to turn around a team that finished 4-12 last year.
"What a whirlwind it's been," Fox said. "First, we try our best to trade Kyle Orton in order to anoint Tim Tebow our starter. Then, when all is said and done, Orton's our clear starter, and Tebow's third on the depth chart behind Brady Quinn. Amazingly, 'Brady got backup.' Anyway, Orton saw both ends of the job security spectrum - from trade bait to being backed up by Quinn and Tebow. That, my friend, is job security."
Like the Broncos, the Raiders have a new head coach in Hue Jackson, Oakland's offensive coordinator who took over when Tom Cable was fired.
"Hue Jackson?" said running back Darren McFadden. "I loved him as the 'Wolverine.' What? That was 'Hugh Jackman?' Oh well. I think the first thing we asked about Hue was, 'What color is he?' Get it. That's called 'Hue-mor.'"
Broncos win, 27-26.