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Inside the Matchup
Week 1
9/7/12

By: Bill Andereson | Sal Marcoccio | Nick Caron | Kyle Smith



DAL @ NYG | IND @ CHI | JAX @ MIN | PHI @ CLE

STL @ DET | SF @ GB | CIN @ BAL | NE @ TEN

WAS @ NO | MIA @ HOU | CAR @ TB | ATL @ KC

SEA @ ARI | PIT @ DEN | SD @ OAK | BUF @ NYJ
 Predictions - YTD
Rk Staffer W L %
- Anderson 0 0 100
- Marcoccio 0 0 100
- Smith 0 0 100
- Caron 0 0 100

Cowboys @ Giants - (Marcoccio)

Passing Game Thoughts: This will be a make or break year for Tony Romo in the eyes of many Cowboy fans and perhaps Cowboy management as well. While Romo has statistically been one of the better QBs in the league during his years as a starter, his team has generally disappointed. Whether you consider it fair or not, the burden of disappointment usually falls on the QB’s shoulders. Romo is mobile in the pocket and has one of the quickest releases in the league allowing him to function behind what is a less than stellar o-line in front of him. When all are healthy, he has one of the best group of pass catchers, led by Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. Unfortunately for Romo, none of his targets have been healthy this offseason. Austin (hamstring) and Bryant (knee) have been back in practice this week and are expected to play, but unfortunately Jason Witten, who suffered a lacerated spleen is likely to miss the opening contest. Second year TE Jason Phillips would start in Witten’s place, but rookie James Hana may see some action as well. Neither is a recommended starter for your fantasy team. There was a battle for the WR3 spot all offseason with veteran Kevin Ogletree coming out ahead, but he really didn’t separate himself from rookie Cole Beasley and the explosive Dwayne Harris, so it will be tough to count on Ogletree for consistent production. When healthy, Bryant has by all accounts looked uncoverable in practices, and Austin has always been a Romo favorite. Both should be excellent starts against a once again suspect Giants’ secondary.

The Giants were prone to giving up big plays in the passing game last season, finishing the year as the 29th ranked pass defense. They allowed 255.1 yards per game and 28 TDs through the air. The team played much better pass defense as the season wore on however, once DC Perry Fewell decided to abandon the complicated coverages he was trying to install and simplified the defensive schemes. It also helped that Justin Tuck got healthy and the Giants’ vaunted pass rush (33 sacks on the season) stepped up big time. DE Jason Pierre-Paul played like a beast in 2011 and with Tuck healthy and Umenyiora happy, it’s will once again be very difficult for opposing teams to keep their QB’s pocket clean. The problem however is in the secondary, where an already weak unit has been hit by injuries. Terrell Thomas is once again on IR, and second year CB Prince Amukamara is expected to miss at least the first week, leaving journeyman Michael Coe a likely target to attack for Romo and the ‘Boys.

Running Game Thoughts: Second year RB DeMarco Murray should be one of the few valuable bell cow type backs still left in the league. A broken ankle brought his impressive rookie season to an end last year, just as it was getting started, but by all accounts he’s fully healed and ready to pick up where he left off. According to Fox Sports Matt Mosley, Murray was "the most impressive offensive player to watch in training camp" and HC Jason Garrett has stated that he will be a major part of the offense. As an adept pass catcher and a powerful inside runner Murray should be a true three-down back which should lead to impressive statistics in a high powered offense. Felix Jones should spell Murray on occasion and should be a fine handcuff for Murray owners. Other than his injury history, the only other thing potentially holding Murray back is that the Cowboys' interior offensive line has struggled in the preseason, but Murray has shown an ability at times to cut upfield and make something out of nothing.

The Giants’ run defense allowed 121.3 ypg and 15 rushing TDs on the ground during the 2011 regular season, placing them 19th in the NFL. At times they looked like a decent unit, but for the most part their front seven talent was more suited for getting to the QB than for stopping the run. Veterans Michael Boley and Kenny Phillips will need to stay healthy in order to keep the Giant run defense respectable this season.

Projections:
Tony Romo: 305 yds passing 3 TDs, 1 Int. / 20 yards rushing
Miles Austin: 95 yds receiving, 1 TD
Dez Bryant: 70 yds receiving, 1 TD
Kevin Ogletree: 35 yds receiving
Jason Phillips: 30 yds receiving
DeMarco Murray: 85 yds rushing / 35 yds receiving, 1 TD
Felix Jones: 20 yards rushing / 25 yards receiving

Passing Game Thoughts: Eli Manning was one of about 5 QBs that put up an MVP caliber season in 2011. Manning was amazingly cool in pressure situations and led the Giants to several comeback wins. He finished the year with just under 5,000 yards passing and 29 passing TDs. Second year WR Victor Cruz broke out against Nnamdi Asomugha and the Eagles in Week Three and from there went on to be one the most surprising players in the league. Cruz finished third in the league in with 1,536 receiving yards and scored 9 TDs. He is tremendously quick and is a skilled runner after the catch. He showed an amazing tendency to make big plays out of nothing - like his 99 yard TD reception against the Jets where he caught a short pass between two defenders, broke through and was off to the races down the sideline avoiding a diving attempt by safety Erik Smith along the way. WR Hakeem Nicks (76-1192-7) was somewhat of disappointment to those that drafted him, as injuries and some untimely drops led to the former Tarheel not reaching the lofty expectations thrust upon him by most prognosticators during the preseason. During the playoffs though, he was a dominant force breaking the 100-yard mark in three out of his four games. He’s poised to have a tremendous year. The Giants seemingly have a new TE every season, and this time its former Cowboy Martellus Bennett – who may be the most skilled TE the team has had in years. His floor should be the 604 yards and 4 TDs that the solid but unspectacular Jake Ballard put up last season, but his ceiling could be closer to 850 yards and double the amount of TDs. The rest of the pass catchers should be solid, but off the fantasy radar. Veteran Domenik Hixon was named as the WR3, but rookie Reuben Randall and second year receiver Jerrel Jernigan should see some time in that slot as well.

The Cowboys pass defense was not very good last season, allowing 244.1 ypg and 24 TDs. Their defensive backs had trouble staying healthy and were inconsistent at best. To rectify this problem the team signed UFA Brandon Carr and drafted the talented Morris Clairborne with their first round pick. On paper, this should be a vast improvement. The most important player on the defensive side of the ball, however, is outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware who in his first seven seasons trails only Reggie White for most sacks (during that seven year time frame) in NFL history. Ware’s quickness will most likely be a problem for journeyman LT Sean Locklear forcing the Giants to keep Bennett or RB Ahmad Bradshaw into block on passing downs.

Running Game Thoughts: Ahmad Bradshaw is supposedly 100% recovered from his cracked foot after taking injections into said foot this offseason – but he’s had chronic foot injures throughout his career. When healthy he is one of the most well rounded running backs in the league. He has big play potential as a runner and pass catcher and the strength to gain the difficult inside yards as well. The issue though has been his inability to stay completely healthy, and his foot may never allow him to run completely pain free. On the positive side, Brandon Jacobs is gone, which should mean more goal-line carries for Bradshaw. However, the Giants did spend a first round pick of Virginia Tech product David Wilson who runs a lot like Bradshaw only faster and more explosive, so Bradshaw will likely still split carries with another back. Wilson is a powerful back that led the nation in yards after contact during the 2011 NCAA season, despite being only 205 pounds. Wilson’s pass protection will relegate him to only being used to spell Bradshaw on a few running plays early in the season, but keep an eye on carry distribution as the season wears on.

The Cowboys were the No. 7 ranked rushing defense last season, but could be without NT Jay Ratliffe to start 2012. While Ratliffe is undersized for the position, he’s a disruptive force and would be missed should he not play. Linebacker Sean Lee lead the team in tackles last season and is a guy the Giants will need to get a helmet on if/when they try and sweep the ball to the outside, as his pursuit is top notch. In a game that could be a shoot-out, this matchup of the Giants running game against the Cowboys defense could be an under-rated factor that comes into play more than one might expect.

Projections:
Eli Manning: 285 yds passing 1 TD
Hakeem Nicks: 105 yds receiving, 1 TD
Victor Cruz: 65 yds receiving
Domenik Hixon: 10 yds receiving
Martellus Bennett: 45 yds receiving
Ahmad Bradshaw: 65 yds rushing, 2 TDs / 20 yds receiving
David Wilson: 40 yards rushing

Prediction: Giants 27, Cowboys 24 ^ Top

Colts @ Bears - (Anderson)

Passing Game Thoughts: All eyes will be on Andrew Luck as he makes his first regular season start as a pro. Luck looked like a seasoned vet for most of the preseason, finishing 40 of 64 (62.5%) for 514 yards with three touchdowns and two picks. In his first regular-season game, however, Luck will face starters all game long and will have to deal with the pressure of the spotlight being on him in a road game. While the Bears finished last season ranked among the league’s worst defenses in passing yards allowed, they do know how to put pressure on the quarterback and will test a below-average Colts offensive line. The Colts look to be a pass-heavy team, but the preseason can be deceiving, so we will have to see how it plays out to start the season. Reggie Wayne should be their most targeted WR, but the rest of the pecking order is yet to be determined since Austin Collie is banged up and decent contributions have been made this preseason by Donnie Avery, T.Y. Hilton, LaVon Brazill, Coby Fleener, and Dwayne Allen. From a fantasy perspective, starting any Indy WR other than Wayne is a big risk until we see who emerges as Luck’s favorite targets.

Running Game Thoughts: The Colts backfield is already one of the league’s worst, especially from a fantasy perspective, and it could be very ugly this week as they face one of the top five run defenses from last year. Donald Brown had a decent preseason but is far from explosive, and while he should get the bulk of the work, he will probably need a touchdown to make him starter-worthy in this game. Behind Brown, the depth isn’t exciting; Delonte Carter is banged up and Vick Ballard is an underwhelming talent in a bad matchup. If the Colts get behind early, which is very possible considering their defense, the running game may be entirely abandoned by the second half. Unless Brown gets that aforementioned touchdown—or a good amount of check-down receptions—this is probably a fantasy situation to avoid entirely.

Projections:
Andrew Luck: 275 pass yds, 2 TD, 2 INT
Reggie Wayne: 85 rec yds, 1 TD
Austin Collie: 45 rec yds
Coby Fleener: 40 rec yds
Donnie Avery: 30 rec yds
Donald Brown: 55 rush yds, 28 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: With some new weapons and a new offensive coordinator, it will be interesting to see how the Bears offense looks in this first regular-season game. Jay Cutler hasn’t shown great accuracy this preseason but has put up decent yardage totals and some big plays in limited action. With his new/old best friend, Brandon Marshall, Cutler finally has a true No. 1 wide receiver in Chicago, and he should target Marshall early and often against the Colts' mediocre defensive backs. While the Indianapolis defense is nowhere near great, they do have a few playmakers that can pressure Cutler behind his porous offensive line, so I would not expect a historic day from the Bears passing game. Much like the Colts receivers, the Bears wideouts (other than Marshall) are pretty much a mystery for fantasy purposes. It will probably take a few weeks before we know who Cutler’s real second and third options are, so it is best to avoid all other Chicago receivers until further notice.

Running Game Thoughts: The Colts rushing defense was one of the absolute worst last season, and there is little reason to expect otherwise this year. Matt Forte is one of the better running backs in the league and should be pounding the rock all day, as the Bears are expected to win this game without much trouble. Look for Forte to get a healthy amount of touches both on the ground and through the air, probably as Cutler’s second option on passing downs. Backup Michael Bush might be a sneaky flex play, as he should get a fair share of work, some of it possibly near the goal line. If the Bears get out to an early lead, as I expect they might, Forte and Bush should become the fantasy stars of this game.

Projections:
Jay Cutler: 255 pass yds, 2 TD, 1 INT
Brandon Marshall: 90 rec yds, 1 TD
Devin Hester: 40 rec yds
Alshon Jeffery: 35 rec yds
Matt Forte: 120 rush yds, 1 TD, 40 rec yds
Michael Bush: 55 rush yds, 1 TD, 20 rec yds

Prediction: Bears 31, Colts 20 ^ Top

Jaguars @ Vikings - (Anderson)

Passing Game Thoughts: The Jaguars had the worst passing attack in the NFL last year thanks to an inferior receiving corps and an ineffective rookie quarterback. The Vikings pass defense was below average on the whole, although they did manage to tie for the lead league in sacks. On paper, the Jags should be better this year thanks to a full year (and an offseason) under Blaine Gabbert’s belt and an improved group of receivers, led by first-round pick Justin Blackmon and newly acquired Laurent Robinson. But there are new questions: Has Gabbert improved after his awful rookie campaign? Will the pass offense gel quickly? And will the new receivers prove their worth? In limited preseason action, Gabbert looked better than last season but far from good. And it does look as though Blackmon will be the team leader in targets right from the start. From a fantasy standpoint, Gabbert should be nowhere near your starting lineup. And unless you want to gamble on Blackmon right away as maybe a WR3, the Jags passing offense is near irrelevant in fantasy right now, even in a decent matchup against the Vikings' subpar pass defense.

Running Game Thoughts:
While the Jags will probably put up some decent rushing numbers in this game, it is a dangerous situation to get involved in from a fantasy perspective. Everyone knows that MJD held out for most of the preseason, but he will play in this game. The Vikings run defense was one of the league’s better units last year, holding opponents to less than four yards per carry. With MJD and Rashad Jennings, the Jaguars should still lean heavily on the run game, and both players should see a good amount of action. The issue here is how the running back workload will be split up, thus making it a risky play to start one of these runners over the other. The word from Jacksonville is that MJD will be used more to spell Jennings this first week, but Jones-Drew is clearly the more talented back and will be hard to keep on the sidelines if he shows he is in mid-season form already. If you have to start one or the other, go with Jennings, but don't be surprised if there is more of a 50-50 split this first week.

Projections:
Blaine Gabbert: 200 pass yds, 1 TD, 2 INT
Justin Blackmon: 75 rec yds
Laurent Robinson: 50 rec yds
Marcedes Lewis: 20 rec yds, 1 TD
Rashad Jennings: 75 rush yds 1 TD, 25 rec yds
Maurice Jones-Drew: 40 rush yds, 35 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: While the Vikings did not put up great passing numbers last year (28th in pass yards), there is reason to believe improvement is on its way. First, they improved their offensive line by drafting Matt Kalil in the first round, giving them what should be their franchise left tackle. Second, Christian Ponder has had a full offseason as the starting quarterback and has looked improved as a passer and a leader. With the addition of Jerome Simpson (suspended this game), the near-elite talent of Percy Harvin, and the development of Kyle Rudolph, Ponder should have some decent weapons to throw to. Despite their poor record, the Jacksonville pass defense was actually above average last year, ranking in the top 10 in total yards allowed. The good news for the Vikings, however, is that both Harvin and Rudolph will present mismatches throughout the game. From a fantasy standpoint, Ponder has some upside here but not enough to be a starter in 12-team or smaller leagues. Both Harvin and Rudolph should see plenty of targets, so both are recommended in this matchup.

Running Game Thoughts: The Vikings' run game resembles the Jaguars' in that they are both going to be hard to predict this first week. While Adrian Peterson will most likely dress, and is clearly the superior talent, Toby Gerhart is expected to get the bulk of the work. The Jacksonville run defense was surprisingly stout last season, also ranking in the top 10 in rush yards allowed. Watch the injury report closely in this one. If AP is ruled out, Gerhart becomes a very safe start. The water gets much murkier if he is splitting reps with Peterson.

Projections:
Christian Ponder: 225 pass yds, 2 TD, 1 INT, 20 rush yds
Percy Harvin: 85 rec yds, 1 TD, 28 rush yds
Kyle Rudolph: 65 rec yds, 1 TD
Toby Gerhart: 75 rush yds, 1 TD, 15 rec yds
Adrian Peterson: 25 rush yds, 10 rec yds

Prediction: Vikings 27, Jaguars 20 ^ Top

Eagles @ Browns - (Anderson)

Passing Game Thoughts: It’s no secret that the Eagles love to pass the ball. And with the weapons they have, why wouldn’t they? A healthy Jeremy Maclin, a happier DeSean Jackson, a talented LeSean McCoy, and a nice compliment of other veteran pass-catchers make this passing offense one of the best in the league. And while this matchup looks incredible on paper for fantasy purposes, there are reasons to expect only a good—not great—day. For one, the Browns pass defense is legit, as in second best last year in pass yards allowed. Second, the Eagles may lean a little more on the run to protect a still-sore Mike Vick from taking hit too many times. Third, the Eagles should dominate most phases of this game and therefore get up early and become more conservative as the game goes on. I’d still start Vick, Maclin, Jackson, and maybe even Celek, but don’t expect a ridiculous amount of fantasy points this week.

Running Game Thoughts: Only two teams last year averaged more yards per carry than the Eagles, and only one team scored more rushing touchdowns. Add this to the fact that the Browns gave up the third most rushing yards in the league, and you have the recipe for a huge day on the ground for the Eagles. While the depth behind McCoy is still a big question mark as far as talent and playing time, there is no question that, when given the rock, McCoy knows what to do with it. Look for the Eagles running game to be churning on all cylinders Sunday, and just hope you’re not playing a LeSean McCoy owner this first week.

Projections:
Michael Vick: 220 pass yds, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 40 rush yds
Jeremy Maclin: 75 rec yds
DeSean Jackson: 70 rec yds, 1 TD
Brent Celek: 45 rec yds, 1 TD
LeSean McCoy: 150 rush yds, 1 TD, 40 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: Last year the Browns passing game was a mess. They were one of the worst 10 teams in passing yards and were second worst in yards per attempt. Even after spending draft picks to help the passing game, this year’s Browns will probably not strike fear into most pass defenses, at least not yet. While they have some legitimate talent in quarterback Brandon Weeden, wide receivers Greg Little and Josh Gordon, and tight end Jordan Cameron, they are all very raw, inexperienced players. The Eagles pass defense was far from elite last year, but they certainly have some elite playmakers in the secondary and some guys up front that can pressure the quarterback (tied for lead league in sacks in 2011). While the Browns may be forced to air it out in this game, don’t expect big fantasy numbers from any member of their passing offense, and don’t start any of them until we know who (if anyone) will emerge as a consistent fantasy threat.

Running Game Thoughts: While the Browns run game may actually be a source of good fantasy production through the course of the season, proceed with caution this week. Since Trent Richardson’s status is still up in the air, we don't really know how the backfield workload will be split up against the Eagles' average rush defense. The word is that Richardson will play, but there are serious doubts that he will get a heavy workload in his first real NFL action. Behind Richardson, Brandon Jackson and Montario Hardesty are average talents, and neither has asserted himself as a viable RB2 thus far. If you drafted Richardson and it is verified that he is playing, you have to start him, but expect low-end RB3 numbers rather than the low-end RB1 numbers you expected when you drafted him.

Projections:
Brandon Weeden: 220 pass yards, 1 TD, 3 INT
Greg Little: 55 rec yds
Josh Gordon: 40 rec yds
Mohamed Massaquoi: 35 rec yds
Trent Richardson: 55 rush yds, 30 rec yds
Brandon Jackson: 25 rush yds, 20 rec yds
Montario Hardesty: 20 rush yds, 15 rec yds

Prediction: Eagles 30, Browns 16 ^ Top

Rams @ Lions - (Anderson)

Passing Game Thoughts: The Rams passing offense was horrible last year, ranking 30th in pass yards and dead last in passing touchdowns. The Lions pass defense was mediocre, but they do have the personnel to wreak havoc on an already weak offensive line. Add this all to the fact that the Rams still do not have a proven playmaker at wide receiver, and you have the makings of a pretty lousy pass offense for fantasy purposes. While Sam Bradford does finally look healthy, and the quantity of passes should be there in a game that will probably see the Lions go up big early, don't look for a lot of fantasy points in this facet of this particular game. I would not play Bradford or any Rams WRs this week, with perhaps the exception of Amendola in a PPR league. Wait to see after this game whether Bradford has progressed enough to make this offense fantasy relevant again.

Running Game Thoughts: While the Rams have a decent set of running backs this year, they may have to abandon the run after halftime if Detroit scores the way many think they will in this game. The good news for Steven Jackson owners is that he is still the Rams' best offensive player, so he should be involved all game long, one way or another. If the Rams do manage to keep the game close, the good news continues for SJax owners, as the Lions defense gave up a healthy 5.0 yards per carry last year. We might be saying this a lot this year (again), but on a lackluster St. Louis offense, Steven Jackson looks like the only safe fantasy start at this point.

Projections:
Sam Bradford: 230 pass yards, 2 TD, 2 INT
Steven Jackson: 75 rush yds, 1 TD, 35 rec yds
Danny Amendola: 65 rec yds
Steve Smith: 50 rec yds
Brandon Gibson: 35 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines! The Lions have one of the most exciting and explosive passing offenses in the league, plus they are healthy and they are playing at home. In other words, look out Rams! While St. Louis did rank in the top 10 in passing yards allowed last year, and they do have a decent defensive front, they will simply be overmatched by the Detroit receivers. With perhaps the best wide receiver in the game (Calvin Johnson), an up-and-coming explosive force (Titus Young), a savvy veteran (Nate Burleson), and a consistent tight end (Brandon Pettigrew), Matt Stafford should be able to pick and choose the open man each week. And hosting the Rams should prove one of his better matchups. It should be a no brainer to start Stafford and Johnson, but I would say Young and Pettigrew are also safe starts this week as decent WR3 and low-end TE1 options.

Running Game Thoughts: Because the Rams have a difficult time stopping the run, and because the Lions should be up big at home, you would think a huge day is coming from the Lions backfield...but not so fast. While the final rushing numbers in this game may look decent, remember that Kevin Smith is the Lions' only eligible running back right now that is healthy and trustworthy. No offense to Smith, he can be good in limited action, but he is injury-prone and not a true workhorse type, so his upside is limited even in a juicy matchup like this. Look for the Lions to spell Smith with backups (mostly Keiland Williams) and lean heavily on the pass like they did all of last year. I would still start Smith in this game, but even though the matchup may say he is an RB1, I would expect more of an RB2 performance.

Projections:
Matthew Stafford: 290 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT
Calvin Johnson: 120 yards, 1 TD
Titus Young: 70 yards
Brandon Pettigrew: 40 yards, 1 TD
Kevin Smith: 70 rush yds, 1 TD, 25 rec yds

Prediction: Lions 31, Rams 20 ^ Top

49ers @ Packers - (Anderson)

Passing Game Thoughts: There are a couple of things that are holding back the Niners passing offense from being really productive from a fantasy standpoint, namely Alex Smith and the coach’s game plan. While the team certainly boasts some talented playmakers in the passing game (Randy Moss, Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham), the conservative approach set forth by Coach Harbaugh calls for a lot of running, with the occasional 10-yard pass attempt mixed in. The lack of elite arm strength and a hesitancy to go deep by Smith does not help matters either. While the Packers actually ranked dead last a year ago in pass yards allowed, they do have a number of playmakers on defense and actually ranked first in interceptions (by eight picks more than the next team!). Other than the usually reliable Davis, I would advise benching all other San Fran passing game members until another WR separates himself from the pack, or until the team shows a tendency to be a little less vanilla and a little more aggressive.

Running Game Thoughts: The good news for the 49ers in the run game is that only two teams attempted more runs than they did last year, and they finished eighth in run yardage. The somewhat bad news is that they only managed 4.1 yards per carry (tied for 19th in NFL) and ranked just 12th (tied) in rushing touchdowns despite all those carries and yards. In other words, the 49ers win their games with defense, special teams, and some old-school smashmouth football. For entertainment purposes this is fine, but it makes for a pretty boring fantasy team. Since this game should be close, look for Frank Gore—and to some extent, Kendall Hunter—to get their share of touches on offense, just don’t expect either to carry your fantasy team against a relatively stout Packers run defense.

Projections:
Alex Smith: 210 pass yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Vernon Davis: 50 rec yds, 1 TD
Michael Crabtree: 45 rec yds
Mario Manningham: 35 rec yds
Randy Moss: 30 rec yds
Frank Gore: 65 rush yds, 1 TD, 15 rec yds
Kendall Hunter: 25 rush yds, 25 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: There are few quarterbacks in the league who can sling it like Aaron Rodgers, and having one of the league’s best receiving corps doesn’t hurt Green Bay either. The Packers ranked third in the league in passing yardage last year and first in both yards per pass and passing touchdowns. With everyone on offense healthy and with still no dominant run game to speak of, look for the Pack to come out firing through the air, especially since the 49ers' biggest strength is their run defense. I would easily start Rodgers, Jennings, Nelson, and Finley in this game and expect each to contribute in a pretty big way. This, by the way, will probably be a trend this year.

Running Game Thoughts: With the signing of Cedric Benson, the Packers finally have a big name in the backfield. The problem is that Benson is far from elite, he has been with the team only a short while, and the 49ers will most likely be near or at the top of all run defenses in the league once again. They gave up less than 80 yards on the ground per game in 2011 and just three rushing touchdowns all of last year, both tops in the NFL. Add this to the fact that the Packers should be pass-heavy anyway, and you have a fantasy situation to avoid completely, unless you have no other option. Benson may have a few nice games this year, but this won't be one of them.

Projections:
Aaron Rodgers: 310 pass yds, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 15 rush yds
Greg Jennings: 85 rec yds
Jordy Nelson: 70 rec yds, 1 TD
Jermichael Finley: 40 rec yds, 1 TD
Cedric Benson: 50 rush yds

Prediction: Packers 26, 49ers 20 ^ Top

Bengals @ Ravens - (Anderson)

Passing Game Thoughts: The Bengals pass offense can be summed up in one word: Young. They are led by a second-year quarterback (Dalton), a second-year wide receiver (Green), a third-year tight end (Gresham), and probably a rookie wide receiver (Sanu). The defense they are facing is not only experienced, they were one of the top 5 pass defenses last year. While the Bengals do have some playmakers, most notably A.J. Green, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize this is not a favorable matchup. Dalton, who faded a bit the last half of the 2011 season, has not looked much better this preseason and still lacks a proven playmaker to throw to opposite Green. The results against the Ravens last year were mixed. In those two games, Dalton did manage to throw for 602 combined yards, but he threw three picks to just one touchdown. The only guy worth starting in this pass game is Green, and even he may struggle with constant double teams.

Running Game Thoughts: It's hard to tell whether the Bengals upgraded their running attack this season, but if they did, it wasn't by much. After letting 2011 starter Cedric Benson walk, they signed BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who put up decent numbers in the Patriots explosive offense but is far from an elite talent. The only other guy in the backfield who may get some touches is Brian Leonard (Bernard Scott is out), who is a marginal talent to begin with. The bad news for the Bengals is that they will be going against a run defenses that let up a league-low (tied) 3.5 yards per carry last year. With no real breakaway homerun threat in the Bengals' running back stable, do not expect big fantasy numbers on the ground. If you’re going to start BJGE (you could do worse), you'll have to hope for a goal-line touchdown. The Ravens do not give up a lot of yards on the ground, period.

Projections:
Andy Dalton: 200 pass yards, 1 TD, 2 INT
A.J. Green: 75 rec yds, 1 TD
Jermaine Gresham: 30 rec yds
BenJarvus Green-Ellis: 55 rush yds, 1 TD, 20 rec yds
Brian Leonard: 15 rush yds, 20 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: People have been waiting for Joe Flacco to have that breakout year since the season following his impressive rookie campaign, and this just may be the start of it. The Ravens have an emerging explosive talent in Torrey Smith, a wily consistent veteran in Anquan Boldin, and one of the best pass-catchers out of the backfield in Ray Rice. They apparently have opened up the playbook, included more no-huddle, and given Flacco full control of the offense, so we will soon see if this passing offense can live up to its potential. With the Bengals' first-round pick (defensive back Dre Kirkpatrick) out, the Baltimore wide receivers should be able to get open—even if the Bengals pass defense was in the top 10 last year. Look for the Ravens to put up very respectable numbers through the air, although certainly not on par with some of the more pass-happy teams around the league. Flacco and Smith are both very startable in this matchup as decent QB2 and WR2 options.

Running Game Thoughts: The Ravens running game once again carried their offense last year, finishing 10th in total rushing yards. With Ray Rice to hand the ball to, there is no doubt they will lean on the run again, but perhaps not as much as in years past. The Bengals do have a fairly stout run defense, ranking in the league’s top 10 last year while holding opposing running backs to less than four yards per carry. While Baltimore drafted Bernard Pierce to take some of the pressure off Ray Rice and lighten his workload, he has shown little this preseason and will likely not be much of a contributor anytime soon. Start Rice, as always, with confidence.

Projections:
Joe Flacco: 235 pass yards, 2 TD, 1 INT
Torrey Smith: 85 rec yds, 1TD
Anquan Boldin: 50 rec yds.
Jacoby Jones: 25 rec yds
Ray Rice: 85 rush yds, 1TD, 40 rec yds

Prediction: Ravens 27, Bengals 20 ^ Top

Patriots @ Titans - (Smith)

Passing Game Thoughts: Tom Brady was no worse than the fifth quarterback taken in fantasy drafts, though almost certainly higher. He was second in the league in passing yards last season, and fourth in touchdown throws, and this season has been reunited with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Brady still has Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to throw to, but added a new weapon in Brandon Lloyd, who has had great success with McDaniels, so the Patriots passing game will remain elite.

They face the Titans in Week 1, and Tennessee was solid against the pass in 2011, ranking 14th in passing yards allowed while giving up the 12th-fewest fantasy points to opposing QBs and the fifth-fewest fantasy points to opposing WRs, but the eighth-most fantasy points to opposing TEs.

Running Game Thoughts: With the law firm – BenJarvus Ellis-Green – having moved on to Cincinnati, the Patriots should employ a dual-back set with Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. But Vereen is injured and has missed practice, so Ridley is likely to be the workhorse for this week.

Ridley will go up against a Tennessee defense that was 24th in rushing yards allowed last season while allowing the ninth-most fantasy points to opposing RBs.

Projections:
Tom Brady: 295 yds passing, 3 TD, INT
Rob Gronkowski: 95 yds receiving, TD
Wes Welker: 70 yds receiving, TD
Aaron Hernandez: 55 yds receiving, TD
Brandon Lloyd: 40 yds receiving
Stevan Ridley: 80 yds rushing, TD / 25 yds receiving

Passing Game Thoughts: Second-year pro Jake Locker takes over under center for the Titans this season, and his arm and athleticism has made him a popular target as a backup for fantasy owners. Locker will be without Kenny Britt against the Patriots, but he’ll still throw to capable pass-catchers, most notably rookie Kendall Wright and tight end Jared Cook, who seems primed for a breakout season.

The Patriots were 31st – or second to last – in passing yards allowed last season, but allowed the second-most fantasy points to opposing QBs and the most fantasy points to WRs. They did manage to hold TEs in check, giving up the third-fewest fantasy points to players at that position.

Running Game Thoughts: Chris Johnson returns as the Titans top rusher, and a top-five fantasy option at the position. Even though he ran for over 1,000 yards in 2011, Johnson was hot and cold last season, with 10 games of less than 60 rushing yards, but a trifecta of games with at least 130.

Johnson shouldn’t have a huge challenge this week, as he faces what was an average New England run defense in 2011. They were 17th in rushing defense last year and allowed the 12th-fewest fantasy points to opposing RBs.

Projections:
Jake Locker: 250 yds passing, 2 TD, 2 INT / 30 yds rushing
Nate Washington: 70 yds receiving, TD
Jared Cook: 65 yds receiving, TD
Kendall Wright: 55 yds receiving
Damian Williams: 25 yds receiving
Chris Johnson: 85 yds rushing, TD / 25 yds receiving

Prediction: Patriots 31, Titans 21 ^ Top

Redskins @ Saints - (Smith)

Passing Game Thoughts: Robert Griffin III makes his regular season debut, and it comes in a hostile venue in New Orleans. There have been mixed feelings from fantasy owners about who will have a better rookie season – he or Andrew Luck, but don’t look for either to do what Cam Newton did last year. That’s especially true because Griffin has no Steve Smith-type to throw to. His best weapon is tight end Fred Davis, who should turn into an elite fantasy option at tight end now that Chris Cooley is no longer around.

Only two teams allowed more passing yards than the Saints last season, who also gave up the sixth-most fantasy points to opposing QBs, the ninth-most fantasy points to opposing WRs, but the 12th-fewest fantasy points to opposing TEs.

Running Game Thoughts: There is no more frustrating coach in the NFL to fantasy owners than Mike Shanahan. Running backs are like napkins to him – once he feels they’ve lost their usefulness, it’s on to the next one. Fantasy owners were atwitter about Roy Helu this offseason, but he’s not even the top back on the ‘Skins depth chart right now. We still think he’ll get most of the work, though. Sorry, but Evan Royster just doesn’t do much for us.

Whoever will lead the Washington rushing attack faces a New Orleans team that was 12th in rushing yards allowed last season while allowing the 13th-fewest fantasy points to opposing RBs.

Projections:
Robert Griffin III: 230 yds passing, TD, 2 INT / 35 yds rushing
Fred Davis: 70 yds receiving, TD
Santana Moss: 40 yds receiving
Pierre Garcon: 35 yds receiving
Josh Morgan: 30 yds receiving
Leonard Hankerson: 20 yds receiving
Roy Helu: 65 yds rushing, TD / 25 yds receiving
Evan Royster: 30 yds rushing

Passing Game Thoughts: Saints quarterback Drew Brees led the NFL with 46 touchdown throws and nearly 5,500 passing yards in 2011. He’ll be without play-caller and head coach Sean Payton this year, but we aren’t sure that’ll make much of a difference in his stats. Brees still has a load of weapons to throw to, with tight end Jimmy Graham leading the way, as well as top wideout Marques Colston, wideout Lance Moore and running back Darren Sproles.

The Redskins have a big challenge ahead of them against the Saints, but they were solid against the pass last season, ranking 12th in pass defense while also ranking 16th in fantasy points allowed to opposing QBs. Washington allowed the eighth-fewest fantasy points to opposing WRs, but the third-most fantasy points to opposing TEs.

Running Game Thoughts: Once again, the Saints will employ a multi-faceted running attack. Sproles will get his share of runs but is most effective catching the ball, while Pierre Thomas will do a bit of both, and Mark Ingram will be used mostly as a runner. It’s a conundrum for fantasy owners on who to employ in their lineups on a weekly basis, but the safest bet should usually be Sproles, and that goes for this week as well.

Washington ranked 18th in rushing defense last season, and allowed the 11th-most fantasy points to opposing RBs.

Projections:
Drew Brees: 335 yds passing, 3 TD
Jimmy Graham: 105 yds receiving, TD
Marques Colston: 75 yds receiving, TD
Lance Moore: 40 yds receiving
Devery Henderson: 25 yds receiving
Darren Sproles: 55 yds rushing / 60 yds receiving, TD
Mark Ingram: 45 yds rushing, TD
Pierre Thomas: 25 yds rushing / 20 yds receiving

Prediction: Saints 34, Redskins 20 ^ Top

Dolphins @ Texans - (Smith)

Passing Game Thoughts: The Dolphins are one of five NFL teams starting a rookie under center this week, and though Ryan Tannehill was with offensive coordinator Mike Sherman last year at Texas A&M, this isn’t the Big 12, and success shouldn’t be immediate. If he had any weapons whatsoever to throw to, we’d be a little more enthused, but the Fins have the worst collection of pass-catchers in the league.

Those receivers and tight ends will be tested mightily by Houston. Just two teams allowed fewer passing yards than the Texans in 2011, who also gave up the fourth-fewest fantasy points to opposing QBs, 11th-fewest fantasy points to opposing WRs, and fourth-fewest fantasy points to opposing TEs.

Running Game Thoughts: Miami got a great season out of Reggie Bush last year, as he ranked 11th in the NFL in rushing yards at just over 1,000, while also scoring six times on the ground and catching 43 passes. He floundered against the Texans in Week 3 of last season however, rushing for only 18 yards and catching one pass, gaining nine feet in the process.

Bush wasn’t alone in being held down by the Texans. They had the fourth-best run defense in the league last year and only the 49ers gave up fewer fantasy points to running backs.

Projections:
Ryan Tannehill: 150 yds passing, TD, INT / 20 yds rushing
Davone Bess: 55 yds receiving
Legedu Naanee: 35 yds receiving, TD
Anthony Fasano: 25 yds receiving
Reggie Bush: 45 yds rushing, TD / 25 yds receiving

Passing Game Thoughts: Houston quarterback Matt Schaub was having a good year in 2011 before getting hurt, having thrown for nearly 2,500 yards and 15 touchdowns in 10 games. His main target is wideout Andre Johnson, who fantasy owners would love to see get through a season totally healthy. A rookie that those owners should keep an eye on is Keshawn Martin, who had a very impressive preseason.

Schaub shouldn’t have a big challenge against the Dolphins, who were 25th in passing yards allowed last season, allowed the 10th-most fantasy points to opposing QBs, the 10th-most fantasy points to opposing WRs, and the 14th-most fantasy points to opposing TEs.

Running Game Thoughts: If Arian Foster wasn’t the first player taken in your fantasy draft, he almost certainly didn’t make it out of the top three. Despite missing three games last season, he was fifth in the league with over 1,200 rushing yards and scored 10 times, and also had over 600 receiving yards.

Foster and his backup, Ben Tate, will be tested by the Dolphins, who had the No. 3 run defense in the league in 2011 and gave up the third-fewest fantasy points to opposing RBs.

Projections:
Matt Schaub: 225 yds passing, 3 TD, INT
Andre Johnson: 95 yds receiving, 2 TD
Keshawn Martin: 45 yds receiving
Kevin Walter: 30 yds receiving
Arian Foster: 75 yds rushing, TD / 35 yds receiving, TD
Ben Tate: 35 yds rushing / 10 yds receiving

Prediction: Texans 31, Dolphins 14 ^ Top

Panthers @ Buccaneers - (Smith)

Passing Game Thoughts: Cam Newton had a remarkable rookie season in 2011, and some of that came at the expense of the Buccaneers. In two games against his division foe last season, Newton threw for 375 yards and four touchdowns while rushing for 119 yards and another four scores. He still has wideout Steve Smith to throw to, and tight end Greg Olsen should see his numbers increase now that Jeremy Shockey is gone.

Tampa was 21st in passing yards allowed last season, gave up the fourth-most fantasy points to opposing QBs, were 16th in fantasy points allowed to opposing WRs, and 14th in fantasy points given up to opposing TEs.

Running Game Thoughts: Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams return to the Carolina backfield to drive fantasy owners crazy, as there is no telling which one will be the more productive on any given day. Each can run the ball and is a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield, but if last year is any indication, Stewart will have the better game in Week 1, as he ran for 188 yards and a score in two games against Tampa last season, while Williams ran for only 82 yards.

The Bucs were dreadful against the run last season, ranking dead last in rushing defense last while also allowing the most fantasy points in the league to opposing running backs.

Projections:
Cam Newton: 260 yds passing, 2 TD, INT / 45 yds rushing, TD
Steve Smith: 90 yds receiving, TD
Brandon LaFell: 65 yds receiving
Greg Olsen: 50 yds receiving, TD
Jonathan Stewart: 55 yds rushing, TD / 25 yds receiving
DeAngelo Williams: 35 yds rushing / 20 yds receiving

Passing Game Thoughts: Plain and simple, Josh Freeman stunk last season, throwing 15 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. He should be better this season now that Vincent Jackson is in the fold, and he wasn’t bad against the Panthers in 2011, with two touchdowns and two picks while throwing for 473 yards in a pair of games against them.

The Panthers were 24th in passing yards allowed last season, allowed the eighth-most fantasy points to opposing QBs, 14th-fewest fantasy points to opposing WRs, and 14th-fewest fantasy points to opposing TEs.

Running Game Thoughts: LeGarrette Blount ran for 781 yards a season ago, but he killed fantasy owners way too often, with seven games of fewer than 35 rushing yards. Doug Martin was the team’s first-round pick, and will be Tampa’s feature back. He adds a pass-catching threat out of the backfield that Blount was incapable of, and is a solid RB2 this week when you consider how bad the Panthers were against the run in 2011.

Carolina was 25th in rushing yards allowed last season and allowed the second-most fantasy points to opposing running backs.

Projections:
Josh Freeman : 235 yds passing, 2 TD, 2 INT
Vincent Jackson: 90 yds receiving, TD
Mike Williams: 55 yds receiving, TD
Arrelious Benn: 45 yds receiving
Dallas Clark: 15 yds receiving
Doug Martin: 70 yds rushing, TD / 20 yds receiving
LeGarrette Blount: 25 yds rushing

Prediction: Panthers 28, Buccaneers 21 ^ Top

Falcons @ Chiefs - (Caron)

Passing Game Thoughts: The Atlanta passing game is expected to be one of the most dynamic, high-powered attacks in the league this year. The addition of rookie Julio Jones last season made a big splash, as the always consistent Roddy White finally had a counterpart who could pull coverage away from him and exploit the single coverage that often comes when lining up opposite one of the league’s top pass-catchers.

Matt Ryan set a career-best in both passing yards and passing touchdowns in 2011, and it's believed he will only expand on those numbers in 2012. That starts with a game against a Kansas City Chiefs defense that lost Brandon Carr, their best cornerback from a year ago, to Dallas in free agency. The Chiefs will have safety Eric Berry back from injury to start the season, but he will likely have his hands full with future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. It will be interesting to see how effective the Chiefs are in slowing down perhaps the league’s top one-two punch at wide receiver.

Running Game Thoughts: Though the days of Michael Turner being a top 5 fantasy back are likely in the past, the rumors of the Burner’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. The 247-pound tailback notched double-digit touchdowns for his fourth straight season as a Falcon and turned in over 1,300 yards rushing for the third time during that span. Jacquizz Rodgers has stepped in to spell Turner on some third down situations, as he notched 21 receptions in limited time during his 2011 rookie campaign. His value is mostly in PPR formats for the time being, but if Turner does start to slow down, look for the Falcons to lean even more on their passing game, which could lead to additional opportunities for the 5’6” back.

Though the Chiefs performed relatively well against the pass in 2011, their run defense certainly left something to be desired. They were eighth worst in rushing touchdowns allowed to running backs, and they had one of the easiest schedules in the league in that regard.

Projections:
Matt Ryan: 255 pass yrds, 2 TD, 1 INT
Roddy White: 100 rec yrds, 1 TD
Julio Jones: 85 rec yrds, 1 TD
Tony Gonzalez: 35 rec yrds
Michael Turner: 105 rush yrds, 2 TD
Jacquizz Rodgers: 25 rush yrds, 20 rec yrds

Passing Game Thoughts: After an injury cut Matt Cassel’s season short midway through 2011, the Chiefs passing offense spiraled into mediocrity. Even perennial top 10 wideout Dwayne Bowe saw a drop-off in his stats, as he failed to reach 100 yards in any game after his quarterback went down and caught only one touchdown after Week 9. Cassel is not an elite option at quarterback, but he does make the Chiefs offense significantly better than what we saw down the stretch last season.

Though they don’t have the big names that some of the other top secondaries do, the Falcons were a solid pass defense in 2011, having held opposing quarterbacks to two or fewer touchdown passes in all but two games. Expect Kansas City to move the ball through the air, but a big game from Cassel and the receivers probably isn’t in the cards for Week 1.

Running Game Thoughts: One of the biggest hit-or-miss players of this fantasy football season could be Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles, who suffered a season-ending ACL tear in Week 2 last year. Charles was coming off a monster year and was a consensus top 5 fantasy pick, thus inspiring major hate from unlucky owners who lost their first-round pick so early in the season. The addition of Peyton Hillis could cut into Charles’ touches in 2012, but he should still be the guy unless he proves that he is no longer capable of carrying a full load.

As good as the Falcons were against the pass in 2011, their run defense was even more impressive. Atlanta ranked sixth in the league in points surrendered to opposing backs. They held opponents to under 100 rushing yards in 11 of 16 games, even holding five of those teams to under 50 yards. Kansas City has two solid backs, but they will likely struggle to hold the Falcons offense in check, which could mean that Charles and Hillis touch the ball less in Week 1 than they will throughout most of the rest of the season.

Projections:
Matt Cassel: 215 pass yrds, 1 TD, 1 INT
Dwayne Bowe: 80 rec yrds, 1 TD
Jonathan Baldwin: 35 rec yrds
Tony Moeaki: 25 rec yrds
Jamaal Charles: 75 rush yrds / 30 rec yrds
Peyton Hillis: 30 rush yrds, 1 TD / 20 rec yrds

Prediction: Falcons 31, Chiefs 20 ^ Top

Seahawks @ Cardinals - (Caron)

Passing Game Thoughts: Matt Flynn was expected to take over as the team’s top quarterback when the Seahawks signed him in free agency, thus removing Tarvaris Jackson from the equation. Though the second part of that came true, we recently learned that rookie quarterback Russell Wilson will actually start the season atop Seattle's quarterback depth chart.

The Seahawks passing attack lacks the big-name weapons that would make Wilson an obvious fantasy starter so early into his career, but with a healthy Sidney Rice back in the lineup, there could be some sleeper potential against a Cardinals defense that has been known over the years to give up big games to opposing quarterbacks. Still, given the inexperience of Wilson, it’s hard to believe that Pete Carroll will feel comfortable completely handing over the reigns to his rookie quarterback, so look for the Seattle offense to be fairly conservative in Week 1.

Running Game Thoughts: One of the biggest surprises of the 2011 fantasy season has to be the emergence of Marshawn Lynch. Though no one questioned that he had the talent to be a productive fantasy back, Lynch struggled mightily to be a consistent, top fantasy producer during his time in Buffalo and never reached double-digit touchdowns in his first five seasons in the league. Lynch finally got over that plateau in Seattle, though, rushing for career-bests in both yardage (1,204) and touchdowns (12). Monitor the injury report over the weekend as Lynch is questionable with backs spasms. Robert Turbin would get the start if Lynch can't go.

Arizona’s defense was actually fairly solid in slowing down opposing running backs through the air last season, with a league-best 326 yards and zero touchdowns allowed out of the backfield. When it came to actually stopping the ground game, however, they weren’t quite as effective, having allowed 12 touchdowns and over 1,700 yards to opposing backs. Given Lynch’s effectiveness on the ground—and lack of it as a receiver—in addition to his having a rookie quarterback playing in front of him, he should be in for a nice day against the Cardinals.

Projections:
Russell Wilson: 165 pass yrds, 1 TD, 1 INT
Sidney Rice: 75 rec yrds, 1 TD
Braylon Edwards: 40 rec yrds
Zach Miller: 25 rec yrds
Marshawn Lynch: 105 rush yrds, 2 TD / 10 rec yrds

Passing Game Thoughts: There might not be a worse quarterback situation in the NFC than that of the Arizona Cardinals, who will start the season with John Skelton behind center after Kevin Kolb failed again to impress coaches. Though Skelton has one of the best offensive weapons in the league to throw to in Larry Fitzgerald, it’s hard to believe that he has any real fantasy value other than in two-quarterback leagues. Even then, he’s probably a low-end option.

The ineffectiveness of the Cardinals passing game could be multiplied this week as they go up against one of the best passing defenses from a year ago, the Seahawks. Seattle held opposing quarterbacks to just 17 touchdowns on the year while intercepting an impressive 22 passes. Though Skelton did throw for 271 yards in his one game against the Seahawks in 2011, he had only one touchdown and threw a pick. Expect a somewhat similar performance in Week 1.

Running Game Thoughts: The Cardinals offense has a lot to work on, much of which stems from a painfully deficient offensive line that failed to give Beanie Wells much to work with in 2011. Though Wells himself has a lot to work on when it comes to pure skills as a runner, it’s hard to be very impressive when you’re constantly getting hit in the backfield. Wells made it to the 100-yard mark just twice in 2011, and with the addition of Ryan Williams to the backfield mix, his numbers will likely slump further in 2012.

Wells missed two full games last year, both of which were against the Seahawks, so we have to go all the way back to 2010 to analyze the last time the former Ohio State Buckeye played against Seattle. And it wasn't pretty. In his last game against the Seahawks, Wells rushed for just 54 yards and caught zero passes, though he did get into the end zone. Unless the Cardinals get down close to the goal line and need to punch in a short yardage touchdown, it’s hard to believe that he’s going to have many opportunities to do even that in Week 1.

Projections:
John Skelton: 240 pass yrds, 1 TD, 2 INT
Larry Fitzgerald: 90 rec yrds, 1 TD
Andre Roberts: 50 rec yrds
Beanie Wells: 60 rush yrds / 15 rec yrds
Ryan Williams: 30 rush yrds / 10 rec yrds

Prediction: Seahawks 21, Cardinals 13 ^ Top

Steelers @ Broncos - (Caron)

Passing Game Thoughts: For awhile, it looked as though the Steelers might be without their top threat at wide receiver, Mike Wallace, as the speedster held out the majority of the preseason in an effort to get a new contract. Now that he is back on the field and ready to play in Week 1, the Pittsburgh passing game will be in full effect, as a healthy Ben Roethlisberger is always a threat for a big game.

He’ll have a good chance in Week 1, too, as the Broncos were one of the league’s worst pass defenses in 2011, allowing opposing quarterbacks to throw 24 touchdowns while they intercepted just nine passes on the year. Given the addition of Peyton Manning to the Broncos offense, there should be even more incentive for opponents to score quickly through the air on the Denver defense this season. Look for Roethlisberger to air the ball out quite a bit to try to keep up with what could be a high-powered Denver passing game.

Running Game Thoughts: With Rashard Mendenhall still recovering from a knee injury he suffered late last season, the Steelers running game will rest on the shoulders of Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer in the early goings. However, neither has the kind of talent it takes to be a top fantasy back, and given the split backfield and Redman’s nagging injuries, it's even more unlikely that either is in store for a big game in Week 1.

After having one of the worst run defenses in the league in 2010, the Broncos bounced back (to an extent) in 2011, turning in a middle-of-the-pack performance. Though they did allow more than 1,700 yards on the ground to opposing backs, the five rushing touchdowns they allowed on the year was among the very best in the league and makes it even more difficult to trust Redman or Dwyer in Week 1.

Projections:
Ben Roethlisberger: 260 pass yrds, 3 TD, 1 INT
Mike Wallace: 90 rec yrds, 1 TD
Antonio Brown: 85 rec yrds, 1 TD
Emmanuel Sanders: 30 rec yrds
Heath Miller: 40 rec yrds, 1 TD
Isaac Redman: 50 rush yrds / 5 rec yrds
Jonathan Dwyer: 45 rush yrds

Passing Game Thoughts: As fun as Tim Tebow was to watch, everyone in Denver is significantly more comfortable with a future Hall of Famer behind center than with a guy who has completed less than 50 percent of his passes as a pro. Peyton Manning was the biggest story of the offseason and one of the biggest free-agency acquisitions in the history of the league. Given Denver’s investment in wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, as well as the acquisition of Manning’s former teammates, Jacob Tamme and Brandon Stokley, it’s safe to assume that the run-heavy offense of 2011 is a thing of the past.

Manning and the Broncos passing game will be tested right off the bat as they go up against one of the top pass defenses from a year ago. The black and gold have been perhaps the best defense of the past decade, but they haven’t had much work against Manning. It’ll be interesting to see just how game-ready Peyton is for the regular season.

Running Game Thoughts: After putting together the league’s best rushing attack in 2011, much on the legs of Tim Tebow, look for the Broncos to scale back the running game a bit in 2012 as they opt to give Peyton Manning full control of the offense. Willis McGahee could still have some nice value as an RB2, but the chances for him to reach the 100-yard mark, as he did seven times in 2011, will be few and far between.

There may not be a better, more consistent run-stopping defense in the AFC than the Steelers. Pittsburgh allowed just seven total touchdowns to opposing backs during the entire 2011 campaign, and while Willis McGahee had a career resurgence last year, he's unlikely to break through the Steel Curtain for a big game in Week 1.

Projections:
Peyton Manning: 310 pass yrds, 3 TD, 2 INT
Demaryius Thomas: 90 rec yrds, 1 TD
Eric Decker: 80 rec yrds, 1 TD
Andre Caldwell: 40 rec yrds
Brandon Stokley: 20 rec yrds
Jacob Tamme: 25 rec yrds, 1 TD
Willis McGahee: 60 rush yrds / 15 rec yrds
Ronnie Hillman: 20 rush yrds / 25 rec yrds

Prediction: Broncos 30, Steelers 27 ^ Top

Chargers @ Raiders - (Caron)

Passing Game Thoughts: Philip Rivers took a step back in 2011 after nearly establishing himself as an elite quarterback over the previous three seasons. Rivers tossed a career-worst 20 interceptions while throwing just 27 touchdowns—his worst total since the 2007 season. Although most expect a bounce-back season from the nine-year veteran, the loss of Vincent Jackson this offseason could mean a less dynamic passing attack for the Chargers as a whole.

Once considered one of the most difficult teams to pass on in the league, the loss of Nnamdi Asomugha has quickly turned the Raiders into one of the worst secondaries. The black and silver allowed a ridiculous 31 touchdowns through the air in 2011 and had just one game where they held the opposing quarterback without a score. Philip Rivers threw five touchdowns against them in two games in 2011, so expect a nice game from him this week.

Running Game Thoughts: Is there a more injury-prone back in the league than Ryan Mathews? After missing six starts and being knocked out early in numerous games throughout his first two seasons as a pro, Mathews continued the trend quickly this year by breaking his collarbone before the regular season even began. With Mathews out, the Chargers will turn to journeyman back Ronnie Brown, who has actually looked decent in the preseason even though he hasn’t seen significant work since 2010.

As bad as the Raiders were against the pass in 2011, they didn’t fair much better against the run, as opponents repeatedly had their way with a weak Oakland defensive line. Runners averaged nearly five yards per carry against the Raiders. The Chargers running backs alone beat them up to the tune of 278 total yards and a pair of touchdowns in 2011. Though Ronnie Brown is not Mike Tolbert or Ryan Mathews, he may be a decent start this week if you’re a Mathews owner who was smart enough to handcuff him.

Projections:
Philip Rivers: 280 pass yrds, 2 TD, 0 INT
Robert Meachem: 50 rec yrds, 1 TD
Malcom Floyd: 70 rec yrds, 0 TD
Eddie Royal: 25 rec yrds
Antonio Gates: 90 rec yrds, 1 TD
Ronnie Brown: 65 rush yrds, 1 TD / 15 rec yrds

Passing Game Thoughts: After trading what essentially amounted to the world for Carson Palmer, the Raiders did see a noticeable improvement in their passing game during the final 10 games of the 2011 season. Unfortunately, it came with the side effect of 16 interceptions during that short period. As talented as Palmer is, his mental game just doesn’t appear to be there anymore, and with young receivers like Denarius Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey catching passes from him, Palmer needs to be more accurate and less of a risk-taker if he hopes to return to anywhere near his prime in Cincinnati.

The good news is, he’ll get a chance to start off strong against a team he lit up in 2011. In two of his better performances last year, Palmer threw for a total of 716 yards and four touchdowns with two interceptions against the division rival Chargers.

Running Game Thoughts: With Michael Bush now in Chicago and out of the picture, the backfield has opened up for one of the league’s most talented backs, Darren McFadden. Now the only question is whether he can stay healthy while taking on a full-time workload. If he can, Run-DMC has the potential to be not only one of the most explosive backs in the league, but perhaps one of the top fantasy scorers.

Though he missed both games against the Chargers in 2011, McFadden has been effective against them in the past, and the Raiders ran for nearly 200 yards against them in Week 10 without McFadden. San Diego isn’t a bad run defense, but they’re not particularly great either. If they don’t get out to an early lead, the Chargers could have a tough time keeping No. 25 in check for an entire ballgame.

Projections:
Carson Palmer: 280 pass yrds, 1 TD, 2 INT
Darrius Heyward-Bey: 70 rec yrds, 1 TD
Denarius Moore: 60 rec yrds
Rod Streater: 50 rec yrds
Darren McFadden: 85 rush yrds, 2 TD / 50 rec yrds

Prediction: Chargers 24, Raiders 21 ^ Top

Bills @ Jets - (Marcoccio)

Passing Game Thoughts: For the second season in a row Ryan Fitzpatrick got off to a hot start then faded in the second half of the season. Last year the Buffalo brass blamed it on a rib injury suffered in Week 8, however Fitzpatrick was clearly struggling before that contest. He signed a rather large contract extension right before his swoon, so for better or for worse the Bills will be married to him for a while. The team quickly swooped up Tarvaris Jackson after he was released by Seattle, but if he’s the answer, I don’t even want to know the question. Stevie Johnson is on the verge of stardom but has been banged up this offseason following groin surgery and is still feeling the effects. He’s been the only WR over the past two seasons however who has managed to have any significant success against Jets CB Darrell Revis. He’ll look to continue that trend on Sunday if he plays. Last season the coaching staff was attempting to turn C.J. Spiller into a slot WR thinking he would help with depth at the position with his quickness and agility, but after Fred Jackson’s injury they needed to move him back to RB, and he proved his worth. David Nelson and Donald Jones make up the other 2/3 of the Bills top three wideouts. They are both big bodies with decent speed but have not shown any consistency during their brief careers. You have better options. TE Scott Chandler will likely not see many fantasy starting lineups since he’s generally drafted as a backup, if at all, but the Jets have struggled mightily trying to defend TEs over the last two seasons, so he could find some success.

Stevie Johnson must beware of Revis Island, but as previously stated he is not a “must bench” in this difficult matchup. Johnson had 3 receptions for 84 yards in Buffalo and 8 catches for 75 yards and a TD at the Meadowlands – although some of that success came at the expense of Antonio Cromartie. As stated, the Jets have famously struggled in trying to cover TEs and slot receivers the last couple of seasons, but did upgrade at the safety position signing LeRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell, who are upgrades against the run and in pass coverage from Erik Smith and Jim Leonard who started at safety for the Jets last season. The Jets added DE Quinton Couples in the draft to help bolster the team’s pass rush. Second year players Kenrick Ellis and Muhammad Wilkerson, along with reclamation project OLB Aaron Maybin, have looked good this preseason and have the ability to put pressure on opposing QBs without the need to constantly blitz.

Running Game Thoughts: Fred Jackson was having an MVP caliber season before breaking his leg in Week 10. Jackson accumulated nearly 1,400 total yards and 6 TDs in those 10 weeks and should once again be a big part of the Bills offense, even at age 31. C.J. Spiller picked up the slack once Jackson went down and showed why the Bills spent a top-10 pick on him. Spiller has great speed, and can turn a corner quickly. The Bills o-line showed vast improvement last season, but will have a tough match up trying to run inside with the Jets interior linemen, Sione Po’uha and Mike DeVito, and linebackers Bart Scott and David Harris.

The Jets’ run defense was a strong suit in 2010 and a major disappointment in 2011. They did show improvement after a bad start to the season however. As previously stated the Jets did add two hard-hitting run stuffing safeties and could be a top unit against the run once again if they can stay healthy. The talent is there for this to be one of the top defenses overall in the league this year.

Projections:
Ryan Fitzpatrick: 215 yds passing 1 TD, 2 Ints. / 35 yds rushing
Steve Johnson: 85 yds receiving
David Nelson: 30 yds receiving
Scott Chandler: 25 yds receiving, 1 TD
Fred Jackson: 65 yds rushing, 1 TD / 10 yds receiving
C.J. Spiller: 40 yards rushing / 35 yds receiving

Passing Game Thoughts: Jets fans grew frustrated with Mark Sanchez last season, as instead of making strides after leading the team to two consecutive AFC Championship games, he regressed in many ways. Sanchez began the year looking much improved, but after getting beat to a pulp by the Ravens in Week 4, Sanchez looked shell-shocked for the rest of the season. He showed little pocket presence and made maddeningly poor decisions. As a result, the coaching staff became hesitant to unleash the passing game, and the Jets rarely, if ever, took shots downfield This preseason the Jets famously failed to score a TD over their first three games, but all may not be as bleak as every media pundit has lead us to believe. Outside of a terrible pick six against the Giants in game two,Sanchez actually looked sharp (completing 70% of his passes) and attacked downfield despite being without most of his supporting cast in the passing game. Santonio Holmes will need to shut his mouth in order for this passing game to have any semblance effectiveness. While probably not a true No. 1 WR, Holmes does have great speed and quicks and is a dependable pass catcher. Gone is Plaxico Burress and in steps second round pick Stephen Hill. Hill is a massive WR with tremendous speed but is very raw, coming out of a read-option offense in Georgia Tech and is being prematurely forced into the starting lineup due to a lack of options. Jeremy Kerley was effective as a rookie but has missed most of training camp and will likely be no more than a possession slot receiver over the course of his career. Chaz Schilens has spent more time in the trainer’s room than on the field during his career and that trend continued during the preseason. TE Dustin Keller will likely remain Sanchez’ most dependable target. He’s expected to play this Sunday, despite leaving the third preseason game with a hamstring injury. He’s not a bad option for those that punted on TE during their draft.

The Bills were the 19th ranked pass defense in 2011 after allowing 232.0 ypg. They also allowed the third most passing TDs in the league with 30, but continued to be opportunistic grabbing 20 interceptions. The biggest news this offseason for the Bills was the addition of DE Mario Williams who is one of the top pure pass rushers in the league and should help make the Bills a better unit right away. He’ll be lining up across the inexperienced Austin Howard who is massive in size but raw in technique. He did look far better than turnstile Wayne Hunter who was the starting RT last season before being shipped off to St. Louis in a deal for former No. 2 overall pick, OT Jason Smith. Mark Sanchez can be sloppy with the ball, and if he continues that trend, the Bills’ could get off to a fast start in a season where most prognosticators like their playoff chances. It’s always possible that a Sanchez interception goes for a defensive touchdown this week, as the Bills managed to do just that three times last season.

Running Game Thoughts: Rex Ryan has announced his intention to return the Jets back to their “ground and pound” identity on offense. As everyone is aware, the Jets brought in backup QB Tim Tebow to help make that a reality by running a wildcat package at least a handful of times per game. The o-line must do a much better job of creating running lanes in order for the Jets to establish any type of running game, however. Shonn Greene lacks the lateral movement or the “wiggle” to make things happen on his own, but can gain yards with his decent burst, power and straight line speed. If all goes to plan, Green should be a solid RB2-3 most weeks based purely on volume, albeit Tebow could end up stealing a good number of his goal-line opportunities. Second year running back Bilal Powell has earned the 3rd down back role and looks much better than he did as a rookie where he ran with hesitancy and showed little power. He’s one to keep an eye on as the opportunity to shoulder a bigger load is there if Green fails to step up and deliver a ground game. The Jets have run well against the Bills traditionally, so Greene owners should consider him a good bet.

The Bills presented an easy matchup for running backs all of last season - allowing 139 ypg on the ground while allowing 19 rushing TDs. They may improve a bit while moving second year defensive end/tackle Marcell Dareus inside to tackle full time, but the Jets with Nick Mangold at center should be able to control Dareus and keep their running game motoring.

Projections:
Mark Sanchez: 235 yds passing, 1 TD, 1 Int. / 15 yds rushing
Santonio Holmes: 65 yds receiving, 1 TD
Stephen Hill: 45 yds receiving
Jeremy Kerley: 40 yards receiving
Dustin Keller: 50 yds receiving
Shonn Greene: 75 yds rushing, 1 TD / 5 yds receiving
Bilal Powell: 30 yds rushing / 15 yds receiving

Prediction: Jets 17, Bills 14 ^ Top