By RALPH VACCHIANO
Six months ago, there was no guarantee this would ever happen. Yet here we finally are, in opening week. The lockout scared everyone and threatened take away football, but in the end the NFL hasn’t missed a beat.
In fact, it sure looked just as exciting as ever on Thursday night when the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers opened with a thrilling, 42-34 win over the New Orleans Saints and Lambeau Field. The action figures to be just as thrilling on Sunday, especially in these five big and interesting Week 1 games:
PITTSBURGH STEELERS AT BALTIMORE RAVENS
The Steelers will win if… they get RB Rashard Mendenhall going early. Roethlisberger is often the difference in these games (he’s beaten the Ravens seven straight times) but the best way to keep the Ravens’ pass rush off him is to soften it by pounding the ball on the ground. If Mendenhall gets going, the Steelers have plenty of passing weapons to make the Ravens pay.
The Ravens will win if… they get their own passing attack going. Joe Flacco hasn’t had much success against the Steelers, but he has plenty of weapons with Ray Rice, Anquan Boldin and Lee Evans. He’s poised for a breakout year, too.
What probably will happen: Forget all the points these two put up in the playoffs, this still has the makings of a defensive battle where they slug it out on the ground. The Steelers are more equipped for that kind of game.
Prediction: Steelers 17, Ravens 13
ATLANTA FALCONS AT CHICAGO BEARS
The Falcons will win if… they rattle Jay Cutler. In their playoff loss to the Packers, the Falcons couldn’t get near Aaron Rodgers. Cutler is more vulnerable, and he’s shaky enough that he could be thrown off his game if he’s forced to run.
The Bears will win if… they run the ball effectively with Matt Forte, which won’t be easy if Marion Barber misses the game. Forte can be boom or bust sometimes, but he needs to be more of a grinder to keep the Falcons’ high-powered offense off the field.
What probably will happen: The Falcons loaded up on a pretty good team this offseason and they’re ready to show off all their weapons. Matt Ryan, Roddy White, rookie Julio Jones and Michael Turner will be way too much for the Bears defense.
Prediction: Falcons 31, Bears 14
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS AT HOUSTON TEXANS
The Colts will win if… they figure out a way to really run the ball and protect QB Kerry Collins. This is a team in trouble without Peyton Manning, so they need to scale back to a very basic offensive attack. No more wide-open passing game. Collins has a big arm, but can make the big mistake. Plus he’s not as young as he used to be.
The Texans will win if… they turn this into an offensive shootout, which they are perfectly capable of doing. With running back Arian Foster, quarterback Matt Schaub and receiver Andre Johnson, they can put up points in bunches. If they do that early, Collins won’t be able to keep up.
What probably will happen: The Colts will be better than most people think without Manning, but this is too tough a test right off the bat. At some point, Collins will throw an untimely interception that will set the Texans off on an unstoppable run.
Prediction: Texans 37, Colts 20
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES AT ST. LOUIS RAMS
The Eagles will win if…Michael Vick picks up where he left off. He was the NFL’s most unstoppable weapon last season. He could throw on the run, run on his own, or sit in the pocket and dissect defenses. The Rams’ defense is improving, but if Vick is on, it won’t be pretty.
The Rams will win if… they turn up the heat on Vick. Pressure is a specialty of defensive-minded coach Steve Spagnuolo. His offense can score, but he’s got to stop Vick and the best way to do that is make him move out of the pocket. Sometimes that doesn’t help, but better that than letting him sit in the pocket with plenty of time.
What probably will happen: The Eagles didn’t really click like a “Dream Team” should in the preseason, but they are still pretty loaded on offense. It may take a while and it may not be pretty, but eventually they’ll get it going. Vick will find a way to make it work.
Prediction: Eagles 24, Rams 20
OAKLAND RAIDERS AT DENVER BRONCOS
The Raiders will win if…Darren McFadden stays healthy and the Raiders lean on him. The Broncos defense is vulnerable and not overloaded with talent, despite John Fox’s best efforts. Their line could be pushed around and McFadden could end up with a very big night.
The Broncos will win if… they control the game with a power style of their own. This won’t be the old aerial Broncos. Kyle Orton is efficient and the Knowshon Moreno, Willis McGahee combination should be the strength of the Broncos’ offense. They may have trouble with the Raiders’ defensive line, but if they don’t they’ll have a shot.
What probably will happen: This will be the Raiders’ coming out party and McFadden will show he really is an elite running back. For a change, the Raiders really might be for real.
Prediction: Raiders 31, Broncos 14