I begin my sixth full season picking games in this space with surprisingly strong feelings for the Browns' chances to get their season started on a strong note. Also, I have visions of Chris Johnson breaking into the open, his quest for the single-season rushing record off to a fast start.
On to the picks:
Oakland (+6½) at Tennessee
Let's see: a .500 team laying close to a touchdown against an intriguing, talented underdog which will be much improved at quarterback this season. Time to take the points, right?
The Raiders are regarded as an AFC West-title contender in some quarters, and while I see the logic, I also see a team that struggled to stop the run last season, lacks a steady cornerback opposite star Nnamdi Asomugha and still doesn't possess the necessary pop on offense. The Raiders might be better than they were a season ago, but they are still rather vulnerable. And this is a bad matchup for them.
The Titans started 0-6 last season, but they finished strongly, winning eight of their final 10 games. QB Vince Young made impressive strides as a passer and leader and is more capable than ever of making defenses pay for selling out vs. the run. Most importantly, third-year RB Chris Johnson punishes unsound defenses like no other back.
The Raiders may be better on defense in 2010, but the Titans and their star back figure to be too much for Oakland to handle.
Wilkening's pick: Tennessee
Cleveland (+3) at Tampa Bay
Beginning the season on the road is not necessarily a terrible thing for the Browns, who have lost and failed to cover in their last five openers — all at home. The Buccaneers may be the NFL's worst team and have been simply awful as hosts recently, covering in only one of their last 11 home contests.
Both clubs finished the 2009 season showing improvement, with the Buccaneers' upset of the Saints in December an especially remarkable effort. The difference between the clubs, in my view, is that the Browns have done more to improve themselves in the offseason, particularly on defense. Make no mistake — Cleveland does not have an elite stop unit, but the Bucs aren't as capable of exploiting the Browns' weaknesses as other opponents.
The pointspread signals that there is little to separate these teams, but the Browns are the better club, and they are getting points. I'm backing the underdog.
Wilkening's pick: Cleveland
Atlanta (-2½) at Pittsburgh
Four days before the 2006 season opener, QB Ben Roethlisberger fell ill and had to have his appendix removed. With Roethlisberger unable to play against Miami, the Steelers turned to Charlie Batch, who threw three TD passes, and OLB Joey Porter secured victory for Pittsburgh with an interception return for a touchdown. Most importantly for handicappers, the Steelers covered the 1½-point spread in winning 28-17.
Four years later, Roethlisberger will miss another home opener, but the Steelers have had far more time to prepare. Moreover, they still possess a very good defense, one capable of stymieing Atlanta's ground game and forcing QB Matt Ryan into some off-target throws.
The Steelers haven't been home underdogs in the regular season since November 2004, when they upset the Eagles. They were also underdogs in the 2007 wild-card round, and they covered against the closing number that day, too.
They have a much better shot at covering in this game than they are being given credit for, in my view. QB Dennis Dixon, who will start for Roethlisberger, played well in the preseason and is far more ready to start than he was when he was forced into the lineup on short notice at Baltimore last season. Also, his mobility will be a major asset against the Falcons, who have two capable edge rushers in John Abraham and Kroy Biermann.
The loss of Roethlisberger cannot be glossed over, but the Steelers are lively looking home underdogs, and I expect them to win outright.
Wilkening's pick: Pittsburgh
San Francisco (-2½) at Seattle
These teams split a pair of games last season, with both clubs holding serve at home. However, I like the Niners' chances to score the straight-up win and cover. In San Francisco's 20-17 loss at Seattle in December, the 49ers missed a couple of opportunities early on to seize control, failing to a convert a 4th-and-1 from the Seattle 1 and fumbling on a trick play on a punt return when a more conservative approach was merited.
The 49ers are the NFC West's most talented club, and they are likely to win if they execute. Seattle, while tough at home, could struggle to score against a stout, talented San Francisco defense.
Wilkening's pick: San Francisco
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