Since it’s my first week with PFF, I want to give readers some insight into how I pick the winner of each NFL game and identify my favorite bets of the Week 1 slate.
Every week, I look at who has the edge in these five categories: quarterback, defense, offensive talent, play in the trenches and coaching.
Let’s get to my favorite bets.
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Green Bay Packers (-3.5) vs. New Orleans Saints
The Packers have the clear-cut edge at the quarterback position, with the reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers returning for his “last dance” with a couple more weapons on offense.
Rodgers' 94.3 passing grade led the NFL a season ago. He came away with 48 touchdowns along with the highest big-time throw rate in the league (7.7%), with just five interceptions and the second-lowest turnover-worthy play rate working against him.
Speaking of new weapons, a matchup I will be keeping my eye on is the Green Bay Packers' slot receivers vs. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. The Saints' third-year defensive back is one of my favorite slot defenders playing the game right now, but he is a taller/longer defender, which can be a challenge when matching up with compact wide receivers such as Randall Cobb and rookie Amari Rodgers in the slot. I am going to give the edge to Green Bay going into this game.
Green Bay Packers wide receivers: Highest passer rating generated with Rodgers at QB (min. 100 snaps)
These defenses match up pretty evenly. The biggest difference between these two, at least in my opinion, is the play they get from their secondaries. Green Bay has one of my favorite duos at the safety position in Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage. The Packers also trot out one of the best corners in the game in Jaire Alexander, who surrendered 20 or fewer yards in coverage 11 times during the entire 2020 season, allowing a passer rating of just 54.3 on the year.
That makes Joe Barry's job very easy coming into a game against a team with zero top-tier pass catchers on offense. I expect them to mix it up up front and keep a ton of pressure on the mistake-prone Jameis Winston.
Los Angeles Rams (-7.5) vs. Chicago Bears
This is a pretty easy pick for me.
I see this game ending in a two-score victory for the Rams in the opener at home — because Los Angeles has the advantage across the board.
Most importantly, I'm taking Stafford over Dalton at quarterback, and it’s not even close. The new Rams signal-caller has graded above 75.0 in each of the past five seasons, while Dalton has hit that mark just once over that same timeframe.
Stafford vs. Dalton: PFF statistics on passes thrown 10 or more yards downfield
|Matthew Stafford||Andy Dalton|
|11.3||Yards per attempt||9.8|
|5.0%||Turnover-worthy play %||7.0%|
Sean Desai's first game as Chicago's defensive coordinator will come against a Sean McVay Coached Offense with an energized Matt Stafford at the helm — good luck.
On the other side, Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris will be trotting out a defense led by Aaron Donald, who is arguably the best defensive player ever, and a star at cornerback in Jalen Ramsey who allowed 11 or fewer receiving yards in eight games last season.
Justin Fields entering the game in the second half is the only way I see this thing being interesting.
Carolina Panthers (-3.5) vs. New York Jets
Ahhhh, the Sam Darnold Bowl.
The first thing I always look at is the QB battle. And honestly, it was hard for me to give an edge to either quarterback here.
Zach Wilson was sensational this preseason, earning an 85.7 overall grade on 20 dropbacks, but there's no guarantee how he'll fare in his regular-season debut. Darnold has shown flashes, but the former USC Trojan will need to find what made him the third overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft after several disastrous seasons in New York. His 63.1 PFF grade since 2018 ranks last among 32 qualifying starting quarterbacks, notably behind Case Keenum, Mitchell Trubisky and Joe Flacco.
So, let’s skip ahead to those offensive weapons. I think Darnold and Carolina have the clear edge at the wide receiver position and in the backfield with the return of star running back Christian McCaffrey. PFF's fantasy projections have CMC going for 19.6 PPR points this week against the Jets, the most at the position.
The Jets could potentially create some havoc up front, but I can’t see them consistently generating enough pressure without prize free-agent signing Carl Lawson in the lineup. I expect a heavy dose of McCaffrey along with some calculated shots down the field to expose Jets cornerbacks — really quick, and without using Google, who are the Jets' starting corners? Yup, you failed! I think Sam Darnold starts the year off right with a pretty efficient game against his old squad.
Defensively, the clear edge here goes to the Carolina Panthers. Head coach Matt Rhule has invested a ton of resources to this side of the ball in his first two seasons in charge, drafting Brian Burns (76.8 PFF grade in 2020), Derrick Brown (61.0), Jeremy Chinn (59.0) and most recently with 2021 No. 8 pick Jaycee Horn (79.4, No. 18 on PFF's final 2021 NFL Draft Board).
I am excited to see these guys play against Jets rookie sensation Zach Wilson.
Dog of the Day: Pittsburgh Steelers (+6.5) vs. Buffalo Bills
Josh Allen is coming off of an MVP-caliber season at the QB position. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a jump in production and efficiency like I saw last year with Allen. I expect this offense to air it out early and often.
Josh Allen: PFF grade and rank since 2018
|2020||90.9||5th of 42|
|2019||64.2||28th of 39|
|2018||65.3||27th of 39|
Pittsburgh’s defense has led the league in sacks for a record four consecutive years and lead the league in both pressure rate (39.8%) and pass-rush win percentage (60.1%) over that span. And the fact that they will be playing against a team with zero threat of a run game doesn’t add up to a runaway victory for the Bills in my book.
The biggest weakness for this Steelers team is their lackluster offensive line. However, I have faith in Big Ben to keep this thing close down the stretch despite his lack of protection up front. I expect a combination of the quick-passing game to Diontae Johnson, JuJu Smith Schuster and Najee Harris combined with a few speed sweeps and shots down the field to Chase Claypool.
I’d be shocked if the Steelers don’t cover this 6.5-point spread.
Darius Butler is a former NFL free safety. He was drafted by the New England Patriots in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft. He has also played for the Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts.