NFL WEEK 2: We’re off and running with this 2023 NFL season… everybody except for Aaron Rodgers, that is, whose season-ending injury just four plays into his Jets tenure was the story of opening weekend. It was downright Shakespearian– Rodgers led his team out of the tunnel like a conquering hero, running at a brisk pace while carrying an American flag that was blowing in the wind on the anniversary of 9/11. Just minutes later he was down on the turf grabbing at an Achilles tendon that had snapped in half, one of the worst injuries an athlete can sustain. Rodgers will turn 40 in December so this certainly could be a career-ender for him, although he’s saying all the right things at the moment about coming back stronger than ever. Any way you slice it, it’s a disaster for the Jets, who have an excellent defense and solid skill-position talent but now must rely on turnover-prone Zach Wilson to lead them the rest of the way.
Things are looking grim for New York’s other team as well after Dallas dealt the Giants a humiliating 40-0 stomping in front of a prime-time audience on Sunday Night Football. Despite that outcome the G-Men are road favorites this week in Arizona, which pretty much tells you all you need to know about the sorry state of the Cardinals. That one might not generate too much excitement from unaffiliated fans, but there are several good ones on the slate this week and a few where opportunity shines bright. Here are my favorites:
Baltimore Ravens @ Cincinnati Bengals (CIN -3, 46.5)
Recommendation: Cincinnati -3 at 1.91
This game will determine who the early favorite is in the AFC North and Cincinnati has dominated this matchup recently, winning 4 of the last 5 meetings dating back to 2021. That said, the Bengals put forth a putrid performance in Cleveland last Sunday, mustering just 142 total yards in a 24-3 blowout loss. That game was played in a steady rain, however, and it was Joe Burrow’s first action after sitting out the entire preseason with a calf injury. Burrow has had great success against this Baltimore secondary and I strongly suspect that he’ll bounce back with a big-time performance in this game.
On the other side of the ball, the Ravens will be without two of their best offensive linemen (and the two who play the most critical positions on the line) in left tackle Ronnie Stanley and center Tyler Linderbaum after both sustained injuries in Week 1. That means Lamar Jackson will be running for his life back there, something he does better than most, but it’s going to be really difficult for the Baltimore offense to get any rhythm and consistency going with Bengals defenders bearing down on Jackson all game. The Ravens will instead be reliant on the big play, and while I have no doubt that Jackson and Zay Flowers will produce some highlights, I do have serious doubts as to whether it will be enough to overcome a division rival on the road. It just seems like a good spot for the Bengals…
Kansas City Chiefs @ Jacksonville Jaguars (KC -3.5, 51.5)
Recommendation: Jacksonville +3.5 at 1.91; Jacksonville moneyline (to win) at 2.61
Come, friend, and join me aboard the Jacksonville bandwagon. There’s still some room, but I have a feeling that after this Sunday most of the seats will be taken. The Jags will welcome the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs to sunny Florida, where it expected to be around 88 degrees Fahrenheit with the heat index pushing 100. This will be a less than pleasant experience for the Chiefs, particularly those on the defensive side of the ball, as the Jags offense is an elite unit led by an elite play-caller in Doug Pederson. Trevor Lawrence will be able to exploit a Kansas City secondary that is vulnerable over the middle, and his new toy Calvin Ridley showed last week that he’s still at the peak of his game, giving the Jags the true No. 1 wideout that they lacked in 2022.
Kansas City’s prowess on offense is well known and they should get it cranked up a bit more than last week now that Patrick Mahomes has primary target Travis Kelce back in the fold, but the re-built o-line looked awfully shaky in last week’s loss to Detroit, particularly on the right side. Aidan Hutchinson spent much of the game in Mahomes’s lap, and while Jacksonville doesn’t have a pass-rusher of Hutchinson’s caliber, I’m sure those Jags edge rushers are licking their chops for a shot at ex-teammate Jawaan Taylor, who now anchors the right side of the Kansas City line. This feels like one of those early season deathtraps where even a great team like the Chiefs won’t be able to escape a beating. Mahomes-to-Kelce will not be enough to overcome everything else. Jaguars moneyline is the bet.
Washington Commanders @ Denver Broncos (DEN -3.5, 38.5)
Recommendation: Washington +3.5 at 1.95
Denver’s gotta win this one, right? I mean, it’s a home game against a punchless team that is projected to finish last in its division. Sean Payton is in town now to right all the wrongs perpetrated by his predecessor Nathaniel Hackett, Russell Wilson is at the controls and we were told all offseason to expect Seahawks Russell Wilson and not 2022 Broncos Russell Wilson (Hackett’s fault, remember?), and the defense should return to form and once again be one of the best units in the league.
But what if… the defense isn’t all that good? After all, they couldn’t stop a pedestrian Raiders offense in the 4th quarter of last week’s game– first the Raiders drove the length of the field to take the lead, then they took the air out of the ball for the last 5 minutes of the contest with an 11-play drive. What if Russell Wilson is actually washed up and Pete Carroll knew it, which is why the Seahawks moved on from Wilson and handed the reins to journeyman Geno Smith, a decision that was widely ridiculed at the time but now looks brilliant? What if Sean Payton himself didn’t realize what he was inheriting with Wilson until after he took the job? What if Payton’s offense isn’t so “revolutionary” without Drew Brees at the helm, and without some of the elite offensive talent that he had for years in New Orleans but now lacks in Denver? And what if… Washington isn’t all that bad? The defense is stout, and Sam Howell appears to be a poised young quarterback who is surrounded by some legit weapons in guys like Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson, and Curtis Samuel. The Commies may win this one outright, but those 3.5 points could come in handy in what should be an ugly, low-scoring game.
Cleveland Browns @ Pittsburgh Steelers (CLE -2.5, 38)
Recommendation: Cleveland -2.5 at 1.9; Cleveland moneyline (to win) at 1.73
Earlier in this column, in the write-up of the Ravens/Bengals game, I stated that the winner of that game will determine the early-season favorite in the AFC North. In the strictest sense, I expect that to be correct: whoever wins that game, I believe, will be the betting favorite in the AFC North come next week. But that doesn’t mean I expect either of those teams to win the division, because I do not. The best team in the North this year is the Cleveland Browns, and over the next few weeks I think you’ll see that reality set in with both the markets and the talking heads.
It’s true that Deshaun Watson still didn’t look like his old Houston self in last week’s 24-3 thrashing of Cincinnati, but he doesn’t have to with this team, as he has the best running back in the league behind him in Nick Chubb. Watson did show that he still has plenty of juice in his legs and I expect the passing game to look a lot different when they’re not playing in driving rain. That said, a great running game, strong defense, and the occasional big play from Watson might be the winning formula for these Browns. I understand why the line is what it is in this game– many people expected these teams to be very similar heading into the season and the Browns have historically struggled in Pittsburgh. These are different caliber teams, though– that Steelers offense just isn’t ready. The running game is mediocre, the passing game is worse. Mike Tomlin will have to work some miracles to get his team to .500 this year. Gimme the Browns in this one.