The 2012 NFL season kicked off last night, starting the weekly grind for teams competing for the Super Bowl.
At TSN.ca the grind means we're going to be providing more and better football coverage every week throughout the season. As usual, I'll be doing weekly Power Rankings, based on statistical production of all players in the lineup (accounting for injuries and suspensions) and Player Rankings.
For the fantasy players, we'll also be providing fantasy depth charts and tracking targets and touches for receivers, tight ends and running backs. We all see the catches, carries and yardage, but sometimes it pays to go beyond the surface numbers to find out who is playing a significant role in their respective team's game plan.
I'll also offer up weekly previews (what follows below), looking at the weekly matchups and what to watch for in each game, as well as reviews, reacting to each week's results, breakthrough performances and injuries.
What's really boosting our coverage this year, however, is that NFL Editor Justin Boone has joined the fray as well and we'll both contribute our weekly fantasy rankings, then debate some of our differences of opinion in Three and Out.
Justin will also break down matchups to avoid and exploit, so when all that gets rolled together, we are going to have more information and analysis than ever before so that you'll be prepped for TSN.ca Fantasy Football or making your picks in Schultz Against the World (or both).
With that out of the way, my look at the first weekend of games in the 2012 NFL season:
DALLAS (+3.5) at N.Y. GIANTS
Health is a big issue for the Cowboys offence, with TE Jason Witten still considered a game-time decision due to a lacerated spleen and if Witten can't go, that puts more on wide receivers Dez Bryant and Miles Austin. Both have had their own injuries (and Bryant has been beset by off-field injuries), but going up against the Giants' secondary is a fair opportunity to be productive if they can stay on the field. Perhaps a bigger issue will be keeping QB Tony Romo protected, as the Giants rush the passer as well as any team and the Cowboys' offensive line has been an area of concern, with newcomers in the middle three spots (if recently-signed Ryan Cook lines up at centre).
From Dallas' perspective, the Cowboys bolstered their secondary in the offseason, adding free agent Brandon Carr and using a first-round pick on Morris Claiborne to upgrade a glaring weakness on the corners, but they'll get tough matchups right out of the gate against Giants receivers Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, who combined for 2728 yards receiving last season. As if shutting down the Giants' passing game won't be challenging enough, the Cowboys are missing NT Jay Ratliff, which could open more lanes for Giants RB Ahmad Bradshaw.
INDIANAPOLIS (+9.5) at CHICAGO
In the first game for No.1 pick Andrew Luck, the Colts have a lot of players that should benefit from competent quarterback play this season, including running back Donald Brown, veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne and rookie Coby Fleener, who played with Luck at Stanford, but opening against the Bears defence isn't an easy matchup by any stretch. Even with MLB Brian Urlacher coming off knee surgery, the Bears still have DE Julius Peppers, who should wreak havoc in Indy's backfield.
On the other side of the ball, the Bearsi improved offence should overwhelm the Colts, whose new-look 3-4 defence isn't a feared unit. If, for example, the Colts can take WR Brandon Marshall out of the passing game, maybe they have a chance, but what about the running tandem of Matt Forte and Michael Bush? Can the Colts get pressure with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis rushing from OLB?
PHILADELPHIA (-9) at CLEVELAND
The Eagles have vastly more talent, especially if QB Michael Vick is healthy, and the Browns are missing shutdown CB Joe Haden, so this looks like an opportunity for wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Macklin to get loose. LeSean McCoy, one of the most productive runners in the league, also figures to have a game, presuming that the Eagles will have a sizeable lead.
The Browns are trying to rebuild and 28-year-old rookie QB Brandon Weeden will likely be a manager, with rookie RB Trent Richardson expected to carry the mail offensively. The good news is that Richardson, who has missed most of camp due to knee problems, has been practicing and appears healthy enough for Week One. WR Greg Little is a fantasy sleeper, but could be locked down by Eagles CB Nnamdi Asomugha.
ST. LOUIS (+7) at DETROIT
It's possible that the Rams could surprise some thsi year if Sam Bradford is healthy and on top of his game, but they are in for a tough Week One matchup at Detroit. The Rams offensive line could get overrun by the Lions' D-line, making it tough for veteran RB Steven Jackson to come up with a big game, unless they work the edges effectively.
It will be fascinating to see who emerges as Bradford's top targets, however. Danny Amendola will get a lot of looks in the slot and Brandon Gibson can down the field, but rookie Brian Quick has upside and veteran Steve Smith has 1220 yards for the Giants in 2009 before requiring microfracture surgery on his knee.
The Lions exploded offensively last season and now have a passing attack that will be tough for the Rams' secondary to keep pace with. St. Louis did add CB Cortland Finnegan, who could spend the day trying to mug Lions WR Calvin Johnson, but even if that somehow works, that leaves Nate Burleson and Titus Young to go against lesser Rams corners. With Jahvid Best sidelined and Mikel Leshoure suspended, RB Kevin Smith is in position to have a productive start to the season for the Lions.
MIAMI (+12) at HOUSTON
Two teams at the opposite end of the spectrum, with the Texans healthy and perhaps bidding for a championship, while the Dolphins could be in the running for the top pick in the 2013 draft.
Houston's running game is enough to make the difference as Arian Foster and Ben Tate combined for 2931 yards from scrimmage last season, but with QB Matt Schaub and WR Andre Johnson healthy, they really should be too much for the Dolphins to handle. It's not as if the Dolphins defence can't be pretty good, because it can, but with rookie QB Ryan Tannehill directing an offence that has barely any threats in the passing game, the Texans's defence may swallow him whole.
ATLANTA (-2.5) at KANSAS CITY
The Falcons are expected to have a more aerial attack this season, with the wide receiver tandem of Roddy White and Julio Jones potentially the best in the league. Brandon Flowers is one high-quality corner for the Chiefs, but that still leaves Stanford Routt on one of those dangerous weapons and an opportunity for the Falcons to take advantage of the matchup. Having playmaking FS Eric Berry back after he missed virtually all of last season, could help the Chiefs defend against the Falcons' attack, though that's likely to be countered by the Chiefs missing OLB Tamba Hali, their pass rusher who is suspended for the first game of the year.
Additionally, some might be inclined to write off, or at least downgrade, RB Michael Turner due to an increased passing game, but if the Falcons are moving the ball, there will be touchdowns for Turner and yards to gain when the clock needs to wind down.
Kansas City doesn't have the same explosive offence, but they should be better with RB Jamaal Charles and TE Tony Moeaki back from injuries that cost them last season,. They also added RB Peyton Hillis to share carries with Charles and their pair of big, physical wide receivers, Dwayne Bowe and Jon Baldwin, could pose matchup problems for Falcons corners (Brent Grimes, Dunta Robinson, Asante Samuel) that are each under 6-feet tall.
JACKSONVILLE (+4) at MINNESOTA
Considering their lack of difference-makers on the roster, it's good news for Jacksonville that they get RB Maurice Jones-Drew back after his contract holdout. He's in a third-down role, at least to start, so Rashad Jennings may have value this week, but if the Jaguars are going to have a chance, they'll need second-year QB Blaine Gabbert to improve and his odds of success might be improved with rookie WR Justin Blackmon putting pressure on a shaky Vikings secondary.
Minnesota is also likely to get a significant return to their backfield, as RB Adrian Peterson expects to play, even though he is considered questionable. The Vikings, like the Jaguars, need better play from second-year QB Christian Ponder, who at least has WR Percy Harvin as his go-to target.
WASHINGTON (+7) at NEW ORLEANS
In a game that should be a wide-open offensive affair, the Redskins turn loose hyped rookie QB Robert Griffin III and he gets the benefit of facing a Saints defence that is at least a little depleted. WR Pierre Garcon has been RGIII's favourite target and the Redskins are going with a running game by committee. Alfred Morris is at the top of the depth chart now, but don't discount Evan Royster or Roy Helu because Mike Shanahan obviously hates fantasy football.
For all the turmoil in New Orleans in the offseason, they still have the vast majority of their offence in tact. True, they don't have head coach Sean Payton, and that should have some effect, but if QB Drew Brees is manning the controls, and he still has TE Jimmy Graham, receivers Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Lance Moore and a stable of running backs (Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram, Chris Ivory) that are all familiar with the offence, then the Saints should be able to score enough to overcome defensive deficiencies.
BUFFALO (+3) at N.Y. JETS
Ryan Fitzpatrick might be the best QB in this particular game, which sounds like offensive struggles waiting to happen because both the Jets and Bills should be decent defensively. A healthy RB Fred Jackson could be the difference-maker for the Bills and there is the possibility that WR Steve Johnson could have a productive game against the Jets' Darrelle Revis. While Revis shuts down some of the game's best, Johnson has 19 catches for 262 yards and two touchdowns in four games over the last two years against the Jets.
The Jets have a miserable offence, with few threats in the passing game, so QB Mark Sanchez will have his hands full trying to create offence against a Bills defence that should be fortified with DE Mario Williams rushing the passer. Williams is given a sweet matchup right out of the gate since right tackle has been a major issue for the Jets too and they dealt Wayne Hunter to St. Louis for 2009 second overall pick Jason Smith, but the current starter is slated to be Austin Howard, a 25-year-old who has appeared in four career games.
NEW ENGLAND (-6) at TENNESSEE
After experiencing such success with their double tight end offence last season, the Patriots are tight end heavy, with Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Visanthe Shiancoe and Daniel Fells all threats in the passing game. Can the Titans find enough big, fast guys to match-up defensively? The Titans' starting safeties, Michael Griffin and Jordan Babineaux, are both in the 6-foot, 200-pound range, which could make it daunting for them to handle Gronk or Hernandez one-on-one
The Titans are an interesting young team, with second-year QB Jake Locker and rookie WR Kendall Wright playing prominent roles offensively (talented ne'er-do-well Kenny Britt is, of course, suspended), but they're going to have to be in peak form to keep up with the Pats.
SEATTLE (-2.5) at ARIZONA
Third-round pick Russell Wilson is getting the start at QB for Seattle, winning the job in camp over free agent signing Matt Flynn, but the Cardinals have a strong secondary, so the Seahawks may not have an easy time passing.
With RB Marshawn Lynch questionable due to back spasms, rookie Robert Turbin may be the one carrying the mail at Arizona. In his last two seasons at Utah St. Turbin rushed for 2813 yards and 32 touchdowns, averaging 6.2 yards per carry. The NFL isn't the WAC, to be sure, but the rookie could be a serviceable fill-in at the very least.
John Skelton is starting at QB for the Cardinals, pulling ahead of Kevin Kolb the Cards' quarterback competition. It's the quarterback situation in Arizona limits the upside of WR Larry Fitzgerald, who won't have an easy time getting open against a Seahawks secondary full of playmakers including CB Brandon Browner and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.
SAN FRANCISCO (+5) at GREEN BAY
A battle of NFC powerhouses goes at Lambeau, where the 49ers are going to bring their defence to the game, trying to lock down Aaron Rodgers and his array of offensive weapons. As great as the Niners are defensively and their ability to stop the run could lock down the Green Bay running game (to that end, who is going to run the rock for Green Bay -- Cedric Benson? Alex Green? James Starks? I like Benson.), will the Niners have enough in the secondary to keep up with a Packers passing game that can go six deep with Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Donald Driver and Randall Cobb along with tight end Jermichael Finley.
The Niners have improved their own offensive depth, with Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Brandon Jacobs (all options behind starting RB Frank Gore, while Randy Moss and Mario Manningham upgrade the receiving corps. Will it be enough? Against a Packers defence that was porous at times last season, it could be a matchup that allows QB Alex Smith to have some success. Of course, I'm still a skeptic when it comes to Smith, so it's tough to like his -- and, therefore, the 49ers' chances.
CAROLINA (-2.5) at TAMPA BAY
Carolina's loaded to run the ball, even if Jonathan Stewart's status is up in the air thanks to a lingering ankle injury. DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert can handle the running, at least when QB Cam Newton isn't steamrolling his way around the field. When Newton drops back to pass, he still has Steve Smith as his primary target, but the Bucs have ballhawks in the secondary. Corners Aqib Talib and Eric Wright have 29 picks in 115 games over the last four seasons, while veteran Ronde Barber (fifth among active players with 43 INT) moves to free safety, alongside first-round pick Mark Barron, who has 12 interceptions in his last three years at Alabama.
Rookie RB Doug Martin and newcomer WR Vincent Jackson give the Bucs some reason for optimism offensively, but have enough holes, particularly on the offensive line, that they're going to be hard-pressed to create holes for Martin and protect QB Josh Freeman effectively in the debut for new coach Greg Schiano.
PITTSBURGH (+2) at DENVER
The Steelers running back situation is undecided. Rashard Mendenhall, the incumbent starter is coming back from knee surgery and, while it would be awfully quick for him to be ready in Week One, it's not impossible and he has worked with the first team in practice this week. In the meantime, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman will get touches. Denver's front seven is the most vaunted of run-stuffers, though, so this may not be the crucial factor to this game, particularly if the Steelrs can still move the ball through the air to wideouts Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace.
This will be Peyton Manning's regular season debut in Denver and while there is skepticism regarding his unproven receiving corps, there's a good chance that (as long as he stays healthy), Manning can drag Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas along with tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen to productive years. Can they take advantage of a Pittsburgh secondary that will be missing FS Ryan Clark, who can't play at Mile High due to health risks related to a sickle cell blood trait. Steelers hitman, OLB James Harrison, is hoping to play though he's still recovering from a knee injury. If Harrison isn't around to get in Manning's face, that improves the Broncos' chances.
CINCINNATI (+6) at BALTIMORE
The Bengals have promise, but this isn't an easy matchup because their best weapon offensively, second-year WR A.J. Green, is going to have to create space against Lardarius Webb, the Ravens' top-notch, if somewhat underrated, corner. If Green can't get loose, who will step up against the Ravens' D? TE Jermaine Gresham or RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis? One of them will likely need to have a big game to support Green.
Similarly, the Ravens may believe that they have more of a passing game, with second-year WR Torrey Smith emerging in a bigger role, but the Bengals have a solid secondary. Leon Hall is very good on one corner and though veterans Terence Newman and Nate Clements have seen better days, they're not done yet. Even if the passing game is covered, though, the Ravens have Ray Rice, their do-everything running back whom the Bengals will have to chase around the field.
SAN DIEGO (pick) at OAKLAND
Coming back from a broken collarbone, Chargers RB Ryan Mathews expects to play in the opener, though Ronnie Brown could see a little more action in a backup role. With Vincent Jackson gone and Vincent Brown injured, the Chargers turn to Malcom Floyd and Robert Meachem at wide receiver against a Raiders secondary that has fallen off significantly.
With a healthy RB Darren McFadden and deep threats at receiver -- Darrius Heyward-Bey and Denarius Moore -- the Raiders can push the Chargers if QB Carson Palmer can play well and San Diego's secondary has only been decent and as the Bolts' pass rush gets less formidable, that puts more pressure on the corners to cover.
As the season is about to get started, I've finally finished my own fantasy drafts, picking four teams in different leagues that all have slightly different rules and structure. That presents some variance in strategy and players available, but this accumulation of my rosters should give an indication which players might have some value. (Numbers in parentheses reflect number of teams for those players that I own in more than one league.)
BenJarvus Green-Ellis (2)
Donald Brown (2)
Cedric Benson (2)
Hakeem Nicks (2)
Justin Blackmon (2)
Randy Moss (2)
Green Bay Packers