4:15PM ET Games
Carolina @ Arizona
Newly acquired Chester Taylor didn't begin practicing as a Cardinal until Tuesday, and poses no threat to Beanie Wells' Week 1 workload. There is even chatter that Taylor will be inactive for the game. A darkhorse to lead the league in carries this season, Wells should start quickly against a Panthers first-team defense that was gashed for 216 yards and two TDs on 38 preseason carries (5.68 YPC) by opposing first-team backs. MLB Jon Beason may play after missing all of camp with an Achilles' injury, but Carolina's linebackers aren't the problem. Wells and the Cardinals' interior line will have their way with Panthers rookie DTs Sione Fua and Terrell McClain on Sunday.
The Panthers may field the poorest cornerback depth chart in the league with Captain Munnerlyn, Josh Thomas, R.J. Stanford, and newly acquired draft bust Darius Butler behind Chris Gamble. The worst of it, however, is that Gamble's time as a viable NFL corner may be up. Benched late last season for performance (not John Fox "doghouse" reasons, as was speculated at the time), Gamble looked headed for possible revival when Ron Rivera tasked him with shadowing opposing top receivers. Gamble was subsequently torched by rookie A.J. Green for 45 yards and a touchdown in limited snaps during the third preseason game, not including another 27-yard Andy Dalton-Green hookup that was called back. Green separated with ease from Gamble all game. Larry Fitzgerald has faced Gamble and the Panthers seven times in his career, averaging eight catches for 115 yards with three touchdowns. This one could get ugly.
New coordinator Ray Horton will need to work magic this season, because the Cardinals' defense has a problematic look to it. The back end has nightmare potential with SS Adrian Wilson playing through a partially torn bicep and two first-year starters at corner. 2010 first-round disappointment Dan Williams was handed the nose tackle job unearned, and there isn't an older, slower, less effective pair of OLBs in the league than Clark Haggans and Joey Porter. Unless Horton gets his unit to overachieve, this will be a Grade-A fantasy matchup all year. ... DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart rotated by possession with the first-team offense in the third preseason game. They both play on third downs, and there is no favorite for goal-line carries. Williams, the starter, projects to receive more touches and is a mid-range RB2 play. He should finish with at least 16 rushing attempts. Stewart should flirt with 15 touches, but struggled in August. He's a risky flex.
It would be unreasonable to expect Cam Newton to consistently complete passes after he finished preseason with a 42.1 completion rate. Just realize that there's a good chance Steve Smith will be consistently open on Sunday. An "X" receiver, Smith runs most of his deep routes down the left sideline, meaning he'll face off with Cardinals RCB Patrick Peterson for the majority of the game. At 219 lbs., Peterson is the heaviest corner in football. Highly explosive in and out of cuts, Smith will run circles around the hefty rookie in his first NFL start. Smitty is a boom-or-bust WR3, but this may be his most favorable matchup all season. ... Brandon LaFell and Legedu Naanee rotate at Z in Carolina's offense, with Naanee manning the slot on third down. They have favorable matchups with LCB A.J. Jefferson and slot CB Richard Marshall, but just aren't on the fantasy radar. Keep in mind Arizona's secondary going forward. ... Wilson will match up with Greg Olsen for most of this one. Unfortunately, Carolina won't score or throw much. Olsen is a blind roll of the dice as a TE1.
Score Prediction: Cardinals 20, Panthers 17
Minnesota @ San Diego
The Minnesota secondary will have its hands full with the San Diego passing attack. The Vikings' first-team nickel defense starts 34-year-old Antoine Winfield in the slot, a real waste with Patrick Crayton not expected to play. The LCB is Chris Cook (Vincent Jackson, usually), and RCB Cedric Griffin (Malcom Floyd). Griffin has blown out both ACLs over the past two seasons, and Cook has struggled with chronic knee issues of his own. At safety, the Vikes are breaking in new starter Jamarca Sanford. It's tough to imagine this unit slowing down Philip Rivers, who ended August 31-of-45 (69%) for 377 yards, four touchdowns, and one pick. ... There wasn't a more impressive-looking receiver than V-Jax in preseason. He and Rivers picked right back up where they left off in 2009, when Jackson was the No. 12 overall fantasy wideout. Gregg Rosenthal has pegged V-Jax to lead all receivers in non-PPR scoring. I'll agree and pencil him in for a career-best PPR season.
Antonio Gates avoided the Week 1 injury report after a healthy camp, and he'll be the strongest fantasy tight end play in the league until he proves otherwise. ... Floyd went surprisingly early in drafts for a guy who benefited so much from Gates and V-Jax's 2010 absences. He will struggle for more than 5-6 targets on a weekly basis. ... We devoted a lot of preseason time to covering the Ryan Mathews-Mike Tolbert situation. I can say this with certainty: Mathews will explode if Tolbert gets injured, and you saw a glimpse of it in Week 17 last season. As is, however, Mathews is losing all goal-line and passing-down work to Tolbert. Even with this matchup improved by Vikings DT Kevin Williams' four-game suspension, Mathews is a mid-range RB2 in non-PPR leagues and only a flex consideration in PPR. The RBBC is an upside-sapping fantasy situation.
The Vikings' problematic line will likely catch up to Adrian Peterson at some point this season, but he's a lock for 25 Week 1 touches, particularly with the coaching staff talking up Peterson as a receiver. He's a no-brainer top-five running back play. San Diego has also experienced notable front-seven turnover. Three of the Chargers' starting linebackers are new, as is rookie RE Corey Liuget. This will be a tough run defense in time, but it may struggle a bit out of the chute. ... The Vikings field perhaps the least effective duo of outside receivers in the NFC. Bernard Berrian and Molasses Michael Jenkins combined for a 10.97 yards per catch average and two touchdowns last season. They both struggle to beat man coverage, so look for Percy Harvin to dominate Donovan McNabb's targets. A sleeper to catch 90 passes, Harvin was a steal in fantasy drafts.
McNabb is a clear QB2 in an offense that will focus heavily on the run, and lacks a pass-catching threat on the perimeter. An effective play-action game could translate to a nice week for McNabb here and there, but don't look for it against a Chargers team that led the league in pass defense last season and returns 3-of-4 secondary starters. The turnover is at strong safety, where Bob Sanders is an upgrade on the Paul Oliver-Steve Gregory rotation. ... The Bolts annually stink in tight end coverage, but Kyle Rudolph is a rookie and Visanthe Shiancoe missed camp with a bum hamstring. Look elsewhere for a Week 1 tight end sleeper. They will cancel each other out.
Score Prediction: Chargers 30, Vikings 17
Seattle @ San Francisco
An early preview to the Suck-4-Luck race, the 49ers host Seattle in what projects as an ugly, low-scoring game. Tarvaris Jackson finished the preseason 32-of-55 (58.2%) for 269 yards (4.9 YPA), one touchdown, two interceptions, and seven sacks taken. Alex Smith came pretty close to out-awfulling T-Jack by going 20-of-36 (55.6%) for 198 yards (5.5 YPA), no scores, two picks, and four sacks. The Seahawks are expected to be without Sidney Rice (shoulder), leaving Ben Obomanu to start opposite Big Mike Williams. Williams and Zach Miller will contend to lead the team in targets from an erratic quarterback. If T-Jack struggles in the first half, don't be surprised to see Charlie Whitehurst replace him at intermission. This is going to be a disaster offense.
Cohesion is integral to a zone-blocking run scheme like Seattle's, but the Seahawks didn't have a hint of it in August. LG Robert Gallery (knee) is expected to miss Week 1, the right tackle situation is up in the air, and LT Russell Okung is just now getting back from his third high ankle sprain in two years. Marshawn Lynch did nothing to ease concerns about his lack of starting-caliber talent by running six times for 10 yards (1.7 YPC) in the preseason. He isn't going to have holes, he doesn't make anyone miss, and he doesn't play on third downs. Avoid Lynch.
After an ugly start to preseason, the 49ers' O-Line got it together a bit late in August. The Niners start four former top-40 picks and added a 2009 Pro Bowler in C Jonathan Goodwin, so talent isn't the issue. They should open holes for Frank Gore. Don't be surprised to see a lopsided run-to-pass ratio out of San Francisco, leaning heavily on the former. Preseason rushing leader Kendall Hunter is screaming up the depth chart, and Jim Harbaugh needs to find ways to get him the ball. Harbaugh has a history of going extremely run-heavy, dating back to his Stanford and University of San Diego teams. Gore should easily hit 20 touches, and Hunter will probably be a hot Week 2 waiver pickup when he gets 8-12 himself. Described as a "carbon copy" of Brian Westbrook during his Philadelphia prime by NFL Films guru Greg Cosell, Hunter is going to be very good.
Smith's preseason was alarming, but rookie Colin Kaepernick was far worse and should give the starter a long leash. That's good news for Vernon Davis, easily Smith's favorite target in the pass game. Davis has dropped lines of 5-70-1, 8-73, 6-111-1 in his last three meetings with Seattle. Heavy-legged Seahawks SS Kam Chancellor was projected as a linebacker by teams coming out in the 2010 draft, and Davis should have his way with Chancellor. ... Braylon Edwards will square off for most of Sunday's game with Seahawks RCB Brandon Browner, who was in the CFL last year. The Niners would be smart to pepper Browner with deep pass attempts. Edwards has a good matchup. ... Seahawks LCB Marcus Trufant is declining, but has the size and physicality to keep Josh Morgan in check. Shy away from Morgan, as he also may rotate with Michael Crabtree. Crabtree is expected to play limited snaps after missing training camp with a foot injury.
Score Prediction: 49ers 13, Seahawks 10
NY Giants @ Washington
For the price of a seventh- or eighth-round fantasy pick, you'll get more than your money's worth out of Tim Hightower this season. Hitting on all cylinders behind an offensive line that didn't miss a single training camp practice together -- critical to a zone-blocking scheme -- Hightower rang up 170 yards and a score on 25 preseason carries (6.8 YPC). Hightower faced first-team defenses of the Steelers and Ravens, so this was no fluke. And he will start hot against a Giants front seven reeling with injuries. Sixth-round pick Greg Jones has gone from third-stringer to first-team middle linebacker in a matter of four days. LE Justin Tuck, a beastly run defender, is questionable with a stinger. New starting NT Linval Joseph is 22 years old and lost his rotation partner when Marvin Austin tore his pectoral muscle in camp. The Redskins' coaching staff is well aware that Rex Grossman is a game-blowing error waiting to happen, which is why they wanted John Beck to win the quarterback starting job. Beck didn't, and they'll open the year gashing opponents with the run.
Redskins slot man Santana Moss is one of the least sexy receiver plays going, but he's got an awfully favorable matchup against a Giants team that lost CB Terrell Thomas to a torn ACL in the preseason. Thomas was projected to cover the slot this year, and that's where Moss plays his snaps in three-receiver sets. New York even lost backup slot corner Bruce Johnson to a torn Achilles'. Start Moss. ... In terms of targets, helping to clear the way for Moss is Chris Cooley's balky knee. The coaches won't say whether Cooley will play, and he may be on a snap count if he does. Avoid Cooley and keep an eye on Fred Davis. ... Jabar Gaffney is even less exciting than Moss, and he's likely to spend most of this game in Giants top CB Corey Webster's coverage.
Washington overhauled its secondary in the offseason, acquiring more playmakers (O.J. Atogwe, Josh Wilson) with suspect cover skills. Wilson can run with any receiver, but he's a diminutive gambler at 5-foot-9, 192. Atogwe excels at stripping runners and making plays on the ball, but he's burnable in the back end. Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham need to be locked into lineups. Nicks is a top-five receiver and Manningham top-20 with the potential to flirt with top-10 stats. The Giants have no threat of an inside pass game, so Eli Manning will pepper his outside receivers with targets. Nicks and Manningham are both legit candidates for 100 receiving yards.
Manning should complete enough throws to keep Manningham and Nicks fed, but his awful camp and preseason are causes for serious concern. Eli looked uncomfortable throughout August without slot receiver Steve Smith and TE Kevin Boss, consistently missing easy throws over the middle. He finished the exhibition season 27-of-55 (49.1%) for 314 yards (5.7 YPA), no scores, and two interceptions. We'd call it no big deal if Manning was better in practices, but he wasn't. Eli may be exposed this season as the mediocre NFL quarterback he always has been. ... Not enough was made over the past month of the fact that the Giants are moving toward an even timeshare in the backfield. While it's too early to say how well the revamped Redskins front seven will jell as a run defense, Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs are more low-end RB2/flex types than surefire fantasy starters. Bradshaw isn't going to approach last year's 323 touches.
Score Prediction: Redskins 21, Giants 20