As I indicated eight months ago, I’m going to pick games this year fresh off a very strong 2012 of picking games against the spread on ESPN’s Pigskin Pick’em. Just for the sake of those interested, FalcFans will have its own group this year. Don’t worry if you don’t get your group in before tonight, as we drop your worst week. And if you join by next Thursday, you shouldn’t be too affected by missing the first week. So by all means, join up and test your knowledge. For now, the prize to the winner is just bragging rights. But it’s certainly possible that by year’s end, I might be able to dish out a better prize. I just don’t want to make any promises now and not be able to deliver come January.
Since it’s the first week of the season, I need a bit more time to pick this weekend’s games. Perhaps in future weeks I might pick all of the weekend’s games on Thursday, but that probably won’t be the case because I’ll want to see some of the final injury reports before going out on the limb that is picking games. I’ll be using the lines on ESPN for the predictions in case you were wondering.
Tonight’s season-opening contest features the Denver Broncos hosting the Baltimore Ravens. If you didn’t listen to this week’s latest podcast episode, then you probably aren’t aware of my vitriol about this matchup. But more on that later…
Baltimore Ravens (0-0) at Denver Broncos (0-0)
Thursday, September 5 at 8:30 pm ET on NBC
Line: Broncos -8.5
That’s a fairly big line if you ask me for the defending Super Bowl champs on the road. Oh, that’s why I was ticked off about this game. In the NFL’s infinite wisdom, the Baltimore Ravens won’t be able to raise their banner until Week 2 rather than Week 1. Yes, I know the league has made it a tradition for the defending Super Bowl champs to open the season on their Thursday night kickoff game. But this year, the Ravens couldn’t play at home because the Orioles have a home game tonight and Roger Goodell didn’t want to make Baltimoreans choose between the two. Because everybody knows that they would have definitely chosen the Ravens. So as a courtesy not to bitch slap Major League Baseball, they made it so the Ravens open up on the road. They should have just made the Ravens open up at home on Sunday Night. Yes, I realize that most years this Thursday night game is the Sunday Night game. But guess what? This year, there is a Sunday Night game, and it features Dallas Cowboys hosting the New York Giants. Why couldn’t the Ravens be slotted in that game at home against the Steelers, Texans, Packers, or Patriots?
Okay, before I burst a blood vessel about the idiocy of NFL scheduling, let’s actually discuss tonight’s game.
Like I said earlier, that’s a fairly big line to open up the season. Denver is a very good team and with the addition of Wes Welker they are going to be tough to stop for any defense. But the Ravens defense despite all of their losses still match up fairly well with them. The one player that the Ravens didn’t lose was Lardarius Webb, who was arguably the best slot corner in the biz until he went down with injury last season. He’ll be tasked with containing Welker for much of the night. No easy task, but I expect Webb to handle himself. What is more concerning is the corners that will be lining up outside him, which are Corey Graham and Jimmy Smith when the Ravens use their nickel. Graham is a fine corner, that if he can play at a similar level he did in 2012 should be OK against Demaryius Thomas (is anybody ever good against Thomas?). Smith is the main concern. Eric Decker isn’t dynamic, but he’s big and very good at moving the chains and making tough grabs in traffic. He worked over Cary Williams last year, and Williams is a much better player than Smith who is stiff and lacks suddenness in man coverage. James Ihedigbo is slated to start at strong safety. Obviously I didn’t pay enough attention to the Ravens training camp/preseason because I thought Matt Elam balled in all the games I saw this summer. Apparently, he hasn’t earned the trust of the coaching staff to get the start over Ihedigbo who is purely a run stopper with very limited coverage ability. Those are match ups that Peyton Manning should exploit to great success.
But the reason why I think the line might be too big is because of the injuries the Broncos have on their defense. Champ Bailey is out with a foot injury and Von Miller is suspended. That leaves the top cover men on Denver to be Chris Harris and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Their top pass rushers are Shaun Phillips and Robert Ayers. Now Harris is arguably in contention with Webb for the league’s top slot corner, but he doesn’t have a lot of experience playing on the outside in the pros. Now it’s much easier to translate inside-out as opposed to the other direction, but covering speedy Torrey Smith is not the ideal first assignment to ease yourself into the role. Smith roasted Bailey last year in the playoffs, and Smith is expected to have a breakout season.
Without Miller and Elvis Dumervil, who is now playing for the Ravens, I don’t see the Broncos getting much of a pass rush against the Ravens. That should give quarterback Joe Flacco plenty of time to find wideouts like Smith and Brandon Stokley, who is another Broncos defector.
The question is going to be whether or not Joe Flacco is going to be more effective on the road this year than he was last year during the regular season. Flacco was 14 passer rating points better at home than on the road. Another way to slice it: at home Flacco was Matt Ryan with a 99 rating, but on the road he was Jake Locker with a 75 rating. And it definitely affected the Ravens’ scoring output, as they scored on average 13 points less on the road than at home. That changed in the playoffs thanks in part to the late-season change at offensive coordinator from Cam Cameron to Jim Caldwell. I do have a question whether Caldwell can continue his “magic” from last year’s postseason run given that he doesn’t have a ton of play-calling experience. If Caldwell picks up where he left off, the Ravens can make this game close because they can score on that injury and suspension-weakened Broncos defense.
Ray Rice should also fare better than the Broncos’ committee of rushers. Peyton Manning only runs when it’s advantageous for the offense, which I’m not sure will ever be the case given that they are breaking in a brand new center in Manny Ramirez, and he’ll be going up against Haloti Ngata. The Ravens will also be breaking in a new center in Gino Gradkowski, but Terrance Knighton isn’t as fearsome. I also like that Chris Canty, Dumervil, and Terrell Suggs should be able to generate some pressure.
In the end, I don’t expect the Ravens to win this game, because who would pick against Peyton Manning in a primetime game at home? But I do expect Baltimore to cover.
Spread Pick: Ravens
Straight Pick: Broncos
I should get this weekend’s picks up Saturday.