1:00PM ET Games
Indianapolis @ Chicago
When pitting Bears personnel against the Colts' on an offense-versus-defense basis, the one major mismatch that stands out is Chicago's powerful, versatile run game, which should ram the ball down Indy's throat. The Colts lost NT Brandon McKinney (ACL), NT Josh Chapman (knee), and top ILB Pat Angerer (foot) for extended periods in the preseason, and all three were slated to be key cogs in new coach Chuck Pagano's run defense. Keep an eye on Michael Bush's usage while this game is still in doubt, but Matt Forte is an easy top-ten running back play in Week 1. Bush will be Chicago's primary goal-line back, but he's not a flex option until we see him getting a significant piece of the open-field playing-time pie. ... Kellen Davis, Earl Bennett, Devin Hester, and rookie Alshon Jeffery are players to monitor in Week 1, but not start in fantasy leagues. We need to learn more about their roles in the passing game. Jeffery, of course, is the most intriguing prospect in the group after a productive preseason. We just don't even know whether he'll start.
A lot of folks have written off the Colts as a pushover opponent. They're going to surprise some people this year. An immediate strength defensively should be Indy's play against the pass. RCB Jerraud Powers and new LCB Vontae Davis form a dynamic corner duo, and OLB Robert Mathis along with RE/OLB Dwight Freeney can still apply pressure to quarterbacks. I think the Bears will struggle if they get too cute and let Jay Cutler try to win this game with his arm. Brandon Marshall is an every-week fantasy starter, but Cutler is a QB2 and his protection issues aren't going away.
Andrew Luck's preseason statistics don't tell the whole story. His movement inside the pocket, persistence keeping his eyes downfield, and overall awareness are already on par with some of the league's elite signal callers. Luck is going to be a really good rookie starter, and strong QB2. From a fantasy perspective, this bodes especially well for Colts pass catchers. Although he's morphing into a late-career possession receiver, Reggie Wayne still runs precise enough routes with crisp enough footwork to get open for 6-8 catches a game. Austin Collie seems like a "risk" coming off his fourth concussion in 21 months, but he will be an every-week fantasy starter once he resumes a full-time role. Based on game tape, I think there's reason to believe Collie is Indy's best wideout whenever he's playing. The Bears field too stingy a pass defense for Luck to be a top-12 quarterback play in Week 1, but Wayne should be started with confidence in PPR leagues. Give Collie a "wait and see" week, then play him next Sunday against the Vikings if he's active.
Friday Evening Update: Collie was limited in practice Friday and is listed as questionable on the injury report. The Colts say he'll be a game-day decision, but it appears he's yet to receive medical clearance. Wayne is the only start-able Colts pass catcher this week.
Donald Brown was a popular mid-round alleged "value" pick, but Brown drafters are likely to end up disappointed. Rookie Vick Ballard's role will grow by the week, and trusted Bruce Arians third-down back Mewelde Moore will cut sizably into Brown's passing-game role. Chicago fielded a top-five run defense in 2011 and returns all front-seven starters. Brown is a low-end flex against the Bears. Be sure to bail on Brown quick if he somehow delivers a strong performance. Brown's own talent limitations and Indianapolis' impending three-back rotation will be drains on his year-long outlook. ... Luck attempted 62 preseason passes. The target breakdown: Wayne 16, T.Y. Hilton 10, Coby Fleener 8, Donnie Avery 7, Collie 6 (in under three quarters), LaVon Brazill 5, Brown 4, Dwayne Allen 3. ... Colts pass catchers behind Wayne and Collie will likely render each other inconsistent and ultimately fantasy insignificant until one emerges. Keep an eye on the pecking order, but there are no Week 1 fantasy starters here beyond the top two.
Score Prediction: Bears 23, Colts 17
Atlanta @ Kansas City
If you read Rotoworld, you've heard a lot about our belief that Atlanta's passing game will join the league's elite this season. Perhaps the Arrowhead Effect will have something to say about it, but the Chiefs' on-paper pass defense looks like a nice place to start. Kansas City's best defender, OLB Tamba Hali, is out on suspension. Top CB Brandon Flowers (heel) missed all of camp and figures to be a bit rusty out of the gate. FS Kendrick Lewis (shoulder) definitely won't play, and top tackler Derrick Johnson (ankle) is less than 100 percent. Matt Ryan's pocket should be clean as the Falcons' offense starts fast. ... The Chiefs have always "played sides" at cornerback during Romeo Crennel's two years as defensive overseer. Flowers plays all of his snaps at left corner, and Stanford Routt is now on the right. Julio Jones runs the majority of routes on Routt's side and has a more favorable matchup than Roddy White. Routt allowed the second most touchdown passes of any cornerback in the NFL last year. Look for a big game from Julio.
White's game has changed since he entered the league. He's gone from one-route burner at 25 to possession receiver turning 31 in November. I still think White can be an every-week WR2, but expect there to be a changing of the guard in Atlanta's receiver pecking order. Jones will be new OC Dirk Koetter's clear No. 1. ... I've gotten a lot of questions about whether Harry Douglas will "break out" in 2012. People have been saying he might for four years. It never happened, and I doubt it will this season. ... Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner finished 2011 with respectable final fantasy stats, but they are fading veterans who will put you at weekly disadvantages if you count on them to start. Turner will lose significant playing time to Jacquizz Rodgers, who is a better fit for Koetter's offense. Turner will kill your week if he doesn't get a goal-line touchdown. Gonzo has been on fumes for two years. An incredibly pass-heavy offense could keep his production afloat somewhat, but at the same time it wouldn't be surprising if Gonzalez lost snaps in the open field.
I liked the design of Kansas City's run game entering camp, and I liked the on-field product even more in August. Jamaal Charles has been setback free and lost no burst or cutting ability after last September's ACL tear. Peyton Hillis' legs are fresh and he may actually see more field time than Charles early in the season as a superior pass blocker and power-running specialist. Charles and Hillis get Week 1 matchup boosts from the absence of Falcons DT Corey Peters (foot), who will be replaced by 2009 first-round bust Peria Jerry. Kansas City may run the football as often as any team in the game, allowing Hillis and Charles both to pile up substantial week-to-week workloads. A borderline RB1, expect Charles to flirt with 14-16 carries against Atlanta and catch 2-4 passes. I'd look for 10-14 rushing attempts from Hillis, with 3-5 receptions. I like Charles as a borderline RB1 and Hillis as a potentially high-scoring flex. The Chiefs are loaded with talent on the offensive line and in the backfield. They have a ground attack capable of legitimately taking over games.
We'll know more about OC Brian Daboll's offensive mindset after Week 1, but I expect the Chiefs to essentially use the pass as a change-of-pace play this year. I think they're copycatting the 2011 Texans, installing a full-blown zone-run scheme with Charles as a lesser version of Arian Foster, Hillis as a rich man's Ben Tate, and Dwayne Bowe as Andre Johnson. Tony Moeaki can be Owen Daniels, and Kevin Boss the Joel Dreessen. While there aren't enough pass attempts to support more than one fantasy-viable receiver in an offense like this, it certainly can benefit a guy like Bowe. Charles, Hillis, and the O-Line command eight defenders in the box, freeing Bowe from double teams and allowing him to beat defensive backs one-on-one with physicality at the catch point, then RAC ability once the ball is secured. Moeaki, Boss, Jon Baldwin, Steve Breaston, and Dexter McCluster will be complementary players vying for scraps in an offense featuring Charles, Hillis, and Bowe.
Score Prediction: Falcons 28, Chiefs 24
Philadelphia @ Cleveland
Break down this matchup from top to bottom, and the only factor working in Cleveland's favor is the location of the game. No defense was hit harder by offseason and training camp injuries than the Browns, who will be without NT Phil Taylor (pectoral), WLB Chris Gocong (Achilles'), and promising rookie LB James-Michael Johnson (oblique). Replacing Gocong and Johnson, respectively, will be undrafted free agent L.J. Fort and career special teamer Kaluka Maiava. LeSean McCoy should tag this defense for big-time stats. He might be the best fantasy running back play in the NFL this week. ... The Browns' defensive strength is secondary play, but not to the extent that they can stop one of the league's most lethal passing attacks. Michael Vick and Jeremy Maclin should have their way with 33-year-old RCB Sheldon Brown down the left sideline Sunday, using play-action fakes to McCoy to set up vertical connections. Look for DeSean Jackson to spend most of this game in LCB Joe Haden's man coverage, while Jason Avant tries to fight off Dimitri Patterson in the slot.
I like Maclin to lead Philly in receiving by a healthy margin Sunday. He has the best matchup among Eagles pass catchers and is also Vick's most well-rounded receiver. ... Brent Celek was the subject of offseason hype after last year's fast finish, but he's an in-line tight end who does not run consistent pass routes and falls in line fourth or fifth on Philadelphia's passing-game totem pole. Maclin and D-Jax are clearly Nos. 1 and 2. McCoy and Avant each have fair arguments for No. 3. Celek is a better real-life than fantasy player. He's a mid-range TE2, and someone you definitely don't want as your starter. With Jason Peters done for the season and Demetress Bell not panning out, Celek may get stuck helping left tackle King Dunlap block more often than not.
I won't write extensively about the Cleveland passing offense because I wouldn't start any of its members in a fantasy league this week. I do want to discuss the Eagles' fantasy defense. The Browns' first-team offensive line struggled mightily with both interior and edge pressure in the preseason. Rookie RT Mitchell Schwartz and second-year LG Jason Pinkston were the primary culprits, and Brandon Weeden's first instinct was to drift backwards rather than stand tall in the pocket and make a quick decision. Weeden fumbled three times, losing two, in three exhibition games, and committed another turnover on an interception forced into coverage. Weeden's tendency to "drift" away from the pocket is most alarming long term, and something the Eagles surely noticed in the third preseason game, when these same teams squared off. Weeden took three sacks and fumbled twice in less than two quarters. Start Philadelphia's defense in Week 1.
Philly's 9-Technique system in the front four sacrifices running lanes in exchange for lining up defensive ends at advantageous pass-rush angles. It translates to a lot of sacks, but doesn't help in run defense. Unfortunately, we have no clarity in the Browns' Week 1 running game. Rookie Trent Richardson (knee) will likely be active, but rotate with Montario Hardesty on early downs. Look for Brandon Jackson to handle most, if not all of the passing downs. I think Cleveland stands little chance of keeping this game close, and a blowout deficit might lead to Jackson playing the most backfield snaps because the Browns will be in so many obvious passing situations. It's a fantasy headache. As much as I love Richardson's talent and think this is a favorable run-game matchup, I want to see him earn a role in the passing game before I start him as more than a dicey flex.
Score Prediction: Eagles 27, Browns 3