Most of us are craving some sense of normalcy right now, and a few hours of football every Sunday might give us that. But football has not been a huge priority for the last six months, so forgive yourself if you feel behind on this offseason’s biggest NFL news. Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, and Cam Newton changed teams; the Raiders changed cities; Washington changed (or rather got rid of) its name. The league added two playoff spots. Patrick Mahomes signed a contract worth almost a half billion dollars, and he will now probably finish his career in Kansas City. The Packers drafted Aaron Rodgers’s replacement, and he will now probably not finish his career in Green Bay.
But weightier conversations also loom over the NFL. Commissioner Roger Goodell said this week that the season will start on time, but due to COVID-19 and the resulting health concerns, he does not know whether it will end on time—or whether teams will play all 16 games. Even if all of those games do happen, they will look and sound different than in the past. Fans will be limited or prohibited in stadiums depending on local regulations. And the pregame ceremonies will look different too. Hundreds of players are expected to kneel during the national anthem in protest of police brutality and systemic racial oppression, and NFL owners are expected to stop pushing against the practice after Goodell (kind of) apologized to Colin Kaepernick last month for not listening when Kaepernick initially explained why he knelt.
With all of that going on, not to mention everything else happening in the world, keeping up with what’s going on in sports is harder than ever. So with this weekly preview, we hope to provide a guide that puts the important information in one place, along with some suggestions on which games and matchups are (or aren’t) worth your time. And while there will be plenty of football worth skipping this year, the one game we can promise will be worth the wait is...
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ New Orleans Saints
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Saints -4.5
One day, you’ll be able to tell your grandkids you watched this game. (They won’t care, because the ice caps will have melted and the coral reefs will be dead, but the point of being old is telling whatever stories you want.) Six months after Tom Brady signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it still feels gobsmacking that he is going to walk onto the Superdome field on Sunday as Tampa Bay’s starting quarterback. Brady left the best dynasty in NFL history to play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007. Not only that, but Brady convinced Rob Gronkowski to come out of retirement and join him.
There were dozens of questions when Brady made the move: Why the Bucs? Did he have disagreements with Bill Belichick? Why the Bucs? Is he going to wear Creamsicle-colored uniforms? Where will this late-career change land on a scale from Michael Jordan on the Wizards to Peyton Manning on the Broncos? No, really, why the Bucs? But the most pressing question is one we’ll get an answer to this week: Can Brady still sling it as the first 43-year-old franchise quarterback in NFL history?
Tampa Bay has talent. With Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, this is the best skill group Brady has had since he was throwing to Randy Moss (though Evans might miss this game with a hamstring injury). There have been questions coming in about Brady’s deep ball, which is understandable given that Bruce Arians’s offense calls for a lot of vertical plays, and Brady has been throwing NFL passes since before the release of the iPod. But Brady actually threw seven touchdowns that traveled 20-plus yards in the air last year, the most he’s had since 2006. Tampa Bay is betting that he can still rip it, and the Saints will be a great test for his arm—and the Bucs’ Super Bowl prospects.
Brady has gone from his annual AFC East cakewalk in New England to the NFC South, where he will now play Drew Brees and the Saints twice a year. New Orleans has the most wins in the NFL over the last three regular seasons and won the NFC South division three straight times. It is a quirk of history that these two players will become division rivals after securing the top two spots in NFL history for completions, passing yards, and passing touchdowns. But each is chasing Super Bowls, not individual accolades, and the Saints have the superior all-around squad. New Orleans is known for its offense, but the Saints have been in the top quarter of defensive teams by efficiency for two years in a row and just added safety Malcolm Jenkins to one of the deepest secondaries in football.
Usually meetings between NFL legends like Brady and Brees are symbolic. But this game has a tangible impact on their divisional-race playoff seeding, and is an immediate test of whether the Buccaneers are a Super Bowl–caliber team. And even if the Bucs end up sucking, that will be fun to see too.
The Early Games
Miami Dolphins @ New England Patriots
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Patriots -5.5
The Patriots rebounded from the Brady breakup by signing Cam Newton, who will serve as New England’s starting quarterback this season. Newton underwent a series of surgeries on his throwing shoulder over the last few years, but a foot injury last summer ultimately ended his Panthers career. The 2015 MVP was a free agent for months before he eventually signed with New England for a pittance. If Newton can return to health and form this season, he’ll be a legitimately game-changing player.
Newton has already been named a team captain and received high praise from Belichick, but we’ll see how effectively Newton replaces Brady on the field (and in fans’ hearts) on Sunday as the Patriots take on Miami.
This is also the Tony Romo Game of the Week, meaning Romo and Jim Nantz are on the call for CBS. Important note: Tony Romo makes roughly $900,000 per game, almost as much as Cam Newton’s base salary of $1.1 million for this entire season.
Cleveland Browns @ Baltimore Ravens
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Ravens -9
The Baltimore Ravens were the best team in the regular season last year, with a 14-2 record and a 12-0 winning streak to end the campaign. But the Ravens squandered their no. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs by falling to the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round. Entering this year, the Ravens are expected to be the main challenger to the Chiefs for the AFC’s spot in the Super Bowl, but Baltimore isn’t just going for one championship—this team is trying to change the sport.
Last year, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said the team’s offense would be the football equivalent of Apple releasing the iPhone 1. To hear Harbaugh tell it, every NFL team has been trying to find its own Joe Montana for the last 30 years. Rather than chase the Montana model, Harbaugh believes Baltimore has the next quarterback prototype in Lamar Jackson. And proving that starts with winning a Super Bowl.
This year’s redemption tour begins against Cleveland, a team that was responsible for one of Baltimore’s two losses last year. The Browns were largely a disappointment in 2019, but with new head coach Kevin Stefanski calling plays, they may be in a better position to win than they were under head coach Freddie Kitchens.
Baltimore has vowed not to underestimate its opponents this season, and the offense is looking to get even more dangerous by adding more deep passes to the play-calling repertoire. If Jackson can adapt to that shift and get those passes to Baltimore’s blazing-fast receivers, get ready to see the football equivalent of the iPhone 2.
Green Bay Packers @ Minnesota Vikings
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Vikings -3
After Green Bay went 13-3 and made the NFC Championship Game last season, the Packers were expected to get Aaron Rodgers some much-needed offensive reinforcements in the draft. Instead, they traded up in the first round to draft a quarterback: Utah State’s Jordan Love. Rodgers is still the unquestioned starter, but even he acknowledges that his dream of ending his career as a Packer now seems unlikely.
This new, strange chapter of the Packers’ history begins on Sunday at Minnesota. Rodgers is 14-8-1 against the Vikings in his career, with 43 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. This particular Viking defense is a ripe target for Rodgers. Minnesota got rid of three of its top cornerbacks from last year (Xavier Rhodes, Mackensie Alexander, and Trae Waynes), and now every member of that group is 23 or younger. Rodgers might be able to pick them apart, but only if he has time. Minnesota traded for disgruntled but disruptive defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, who will be the Vikings’ primary pass rusher with Danielle Hunter out.
In a different year, the Packers and Vikings kicking off Week 1 would be an NFC North story. But Green Bay’s internal divisions are more interesting than their divisional rivalries.
Seattle Seahawks @ Atlanta Falcons
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Seattle -1
The Seahawks traded two first-round picks to the Jets for star safety Jamal Adams this offseason. In a division where Seattle will now face George Kittle and DeAndre Hopkins four times per season, the Seahawks added one of the few players who can cover both guys.
The Falcons got a more famous but less impactful player this offseason when they signed former Rams running back Todd Gurley. He was released by the Rams due to knee issues, but he returns to Georgia after starring for the Georgia Bulldogs in college.
New York Jets @ Buffalo Bills
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Bills -5.5
Both of these teams face the same question entering this season: Is our quarterback good? The difference is that the Bills have surrounded Josh Allen with a smart coaching staff and a strong supporting cast, including former Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs, whom the team acquired in a splashy trade this offseason.
Meanwhile at the Legion of Gloom, Sam Darnold’s head coach is Adam Gase, who has been something of a cartoon character for much of his Jets tenure. Darnold is protected by an allegedly rebuilt offensive line, will throw to a ragtag group of wide receivers, and hand off to a running back (Le’Veon Bell) whom Gase doesn’t seem to want. One of these teams looks ready to pounce on the power vacuum created by Tom Brady leaving the AFC East. The other team is the Jets.
Chicago Bears @ Detroit Lions
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Pick ’em
Mitchell Trubisky is somehow still the Bears’ starting quarterback. He reportedly “won” a quarterback competition with Nick Foles this summer, despite having shown little promise as an NFL player. It is not Trubisky’s fault that the Bears traded up to draft him instead of Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson. But it is Trubisky’s fault that he has barely shown improvement through three seasons. Take this play from Week 7 last year against the Saints. Trubisky is standing in a clean pocket and has two receivers standing wide open on the 20-yard line. He got sacked.
And that's how I ended up here: underneath Cameron Jordan.— seth galina (@pff_seth) October 21, 2019
Successful NFL quarterbacks don’t do that in their 31st NFL start. Yet Bears general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy seemingly have their job security tied to a Trubisky-shaped anchor, which they appear to be wholly relying on in the hopes that they won’t go overboard. Nagy says Trubisky has turned a corner this offseason. That’s what we call a “big if true” statement.
The Lions will be a good test for Trubisky’s Year 4 debut. Matt Patricia’s defense is supposedly rejuvenated in Detroit, but Trubisky has made a splash against the Lions with 11 touchdowns to just four picks and more than 8 yards per pass attempt across five games. After Trubisky’s disastrous performance in the Bears’ season-opening loss to the Packers last year, he could use a strong start to this season. It won’t be enough for him to just keep his head above water—he needs to help keep his whole team afloat.
Philadelphia Eagles @ Washington
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Eagles -5.5
Washington owner Dan Snyder finally dropped the team’s offensive name in July after pressure from corporate sponsors, so this year, this group will simply be called “The Washington Football Team.” Days and weeks after that news, The Washington Post published multiple stories detailing a culture of sexual harassment within the organization. It’s hard to discuss real football topics, like whether second-year passer Dwayne Haskins can be a franchise quarterback, as long as Snyder remains in control of such a dysfunctional mess.
The Eagles are a real football franchise, and they’re starting off this season with real injury issues. Sound familiar? Left tackle Andre Dillard and right guard Brandon Brooks are already out for the season, and right tackle Lane Johnson is dealing with an ankle injury. Receiver Alshon Jeffery (foot) and Jalen Reagor (shoulder) are questionable for the opener, and running back Miles Sanders is also dinged up. The Eagles nearly blew a Week 1 game to Washington last year—they’re certainly hoping not to repeat that experience this season.
Las Vegas Raiders @ Carolina Panthers
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Pick ’em
When the Raiders moved into their new Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, they had to conduct a “super flush test” when they flushed every toilet in the building at the same time. The stadium passed the test. This game is in Carolina, but it also feels like a flush test. Except in this case, there will probably be a clog.
Indianapolis Colts @ Jacksonville Jaguars
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Colts -7
Philip Rivers will be under center for Indy this season, and though the 38-year-old looked awful last year, there are some signs he could improve in 2020. First, he worked with a few of Indy’s key offensive coaches in San Diego a few years ago. Second, he’ll be playing behind the best offensive line he’s had in years.
Rivers’s best chance at a big game might be this week against the Jaguars, a team that’s created a culture so toxic that cornerback Jalen Ramsey referred to the day Jacksonville traded him as “one of the best days of my life.” In just the past month alone, three other players who left Jacksonville expressed their glee at ditching the franchise. When people are literally thanking God to not be a Jaguar, that is a bad sign.
The Late Games
Arizona Cardinals @ San Francisco 49ers
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: 49ers -7.5
If a great football game happens but everyone is watching Tom Brady’s Bucs debut, does it make a sound? We’ll never know, but regardless, this might be the best game of the week. The 49ers were a Jimmy Garoppolo overthrow from taking a lead in February’s Super Bowl with under two minutes to go. They will try to fend off an Arizona team that gave San Francisco two really close games last season, and oh yeah, added DeAndre Freaking Hopkins in a trade this offseason. Check on this game when the Brady-Brees Bowl goes to commercial. It’ll be worth it.
Los Angeles Chargers @ Cincinnati Bengals
Time: 4:05 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Chargers -3.5
Last season, Joe Burrow set the college football record for touchdown passes while leading LSU to an undefeated season, a national title, and the most points for any college football team ever. He is a legend in Louisiana, but Burrow still grew up in Ohio. Now, in something of a Kirkland-brand version of LeBron James being drafted by the Cavaliers, the 2020 no. 1 overall pick will make his debut for Cincinnati. His first opponent is the Chargers, who will not have Philip Rivers starting at quarterback for the first time since December 31, 2005. Instead, Tyrod Taylor will be at the helm, though expect him to eventually be overtaken by Justin Herbert, the Oregon QB the team drafted with the no. 6 pick in April.
Sunday Night Football
Dallas Cowboys @ Los Angeles Rams
Time: 8:20 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Cowboys -2.5
Ding dong, Jason Garrett is gone. The Cowboys fired Garrett after the 2019 season—following a lengthy decision-making process—and hired Mike McCarthy, who was fired from the Packers job in the middle of 2018 and sat out the 2019 season. The Cowboys are an American institution, and McCarthy campaigned for the job like a politician. He told Jerry Jones he studied every play from every team in the 2019 season. Then, minutes into his introductory press conference, he admitted he lied to get the job.
“You do what you gotta do,” McCarthy said. What he has to do next is make the Super Bowl, and likely make Dak Prescott an MVP candidate along the way. That’s ironic since Prescott is playing on the franchise tag that will pay him $31 million this season, or more than five times his career earnings to date. Due to the franchise-tag rules, the Cowboys can’t negotiate a long-term deal with Dak until after the season, putting them in a paradoxical position: The better Dak does, the worse Dallas’s negotiating position becomes. Not signing Dak to a long-term deal this offseason might have been a screwup by the Cowboys. But Dallas is in a prime place to win the NFC East, and losing this division to the Eagles—or somehow the Giants or Washington—would be devastating. Garrett’s Cowboys beat the Rams 44-21 last season, so a loss here would be a bad start for McCarthy.
The Rams are coming off their first nonplayoff season of the Sean McVay era, but this game is less of a season premiere than it is a four-hour commercial for their new building, SoFi Stadium. The project cost more than $5 billion, or more than double the next most expensive NFL stadium, and was approved in large part because of Jerry Jones, who guided the Rams’ divisive relocation bid to Jones’s hometown of Los Angeles. It is no accident that the stadium Jones pushed through on behalf of Rams owner Stan Kroenke will feature the visiting Cowboys on Sunday Night Football in Week 1. This game is an L.A. production, and Jerry Jones is the executive producer. We’ll see if the Cowboys can handle business on the field as well as Jones does off of it.
Monday Night Football
Pittsburgh Steelers @ New York Giants
Time: 7:15 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Steelers -3
Ben Roethlisberger is back and says he is healthier than he has been in years. That’s good news for Steelers fans, because their offense collapsed without Roethlisberger last year. In 2018, Roethlisberger led the league in passing yards per game. In 2019, backups Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges ranked 31st and 35th in yards per game out of the 35 quarterbacks with six starts. Roethlisberger gets to ease in against the Giants, who lack players who can rush the passer or cover receivers.
New York is entering its first season under head coach Joe Judge, the anonymous former Patriots special teams coach who was hired by the Giants this season (he also hired Jason Garrett as offensive coordinator). Bet your mortgage that ESPN will show a graphic of Joe Judge as an actual judge in a courtroom at some point during this game.
Tennessee Titans @ Denver Broncos
Time: 10:10 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Denver -1.5
The Titans somehow made the AFC championship game last year after beating the Patriots and Ravens in the playoffs. They were one of the most efficient offenses in football with Ryan Tannehill at quarterback, and offensive coordinator Arthur Smith will try to repeat last year’s success.
The Broncos, meanwhile, are already reeling from injuries after star defender Von Miller suffered a leg injury this week that might keep him out for the season and top receiver Courtland Sutton is also being evaluated after a shoulder injury. Can Drew Lock be the QB that finally brings GM John Elway some stability? Maybe the seventh time is the charm.