NFC South battle highlights Week 1
John Clayton highlights the best games of Week 1, including an intense NFC South rivalry between the Falcons and Panthers.
Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's weekly "First and 10" column takes you around the league, with a look at the best game of the week, followed by primers for 10 other games. Here's his look at Week 1 of the 2006 season.
Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers
Despite a tough schedule, the Panthers are favored by many experts to go to the Super Bowl. And it's deserved.
The team is loaded. They added dependable wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson to balance the distribution of passes on the other side of Steve Smith. Their backfield is deeper with DeAngelo Williams behind DeShaun Foster. The defensive line has a much better rotation with Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis added to the already good mix of tackles. Kris Jenkins is back to his dominating self in the interior of the defense. Plus, John Fox is a great coach.
But the Falcons always have given the Panthers a hard time. It took the Panthers three years of drafting speed at cornerback and linebacker to compete with the Falcons and Michael Vick. The Falcons dominated the Panthers even when it appeared the Panthers were the more talented team. From 2000 to 2004, the Falcons beat the Panthers in nine out of 10 games.
By finding cornerbacks who could run with the Falcons receivers, Fox had the freedom to come at Vick and contain him with the blitz. That talent adjustment allowed the Panthers to sweep the Falcons last year, 24-6 and 44-11.
This year we get to see right away if Vick and Jim Mora can make their own adjustments to the Panthers defense. Quietly, the Falcons-Panthers battles have become one of the most heated rivalries in the league. Now that the Panthers have found a way to beat the Falcons, it officially can be called a rivalry.
Vick's had a good offseason. He's worked well with former Panthers assistant Bill Musgrave, his quarterback coach. Vick has worked well with receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins in offseason practices, and the addition of Ashley Lelie gives him more weapons.
But will it all work Sunday? The Panthers should be the ultimate test. For the Panthers, playing at home makes it almost a must-win game. They still have the momentum and confidence from going to the NFC championship game last season. But losing a home game in Week 1 would be a major setback.
It's also an important game for the Falcons. The biggest concern this preseason was the team's inability to stop the run. In response, the Falcons signed massive defensive tackle Grady Jackson, who should help. They've also added strong safety Lawyer Milloy, who is a hard hitter. John Abraham will add pass-rushing ability at defensive end.
Things are already getting heated between the teams. Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall is already calling out Smith in print. Smith was called out last year by Vikings cornerback Fred Smoot and Smith burned him for more than 200 yards. But Smith is bothered by hamstring problems and it's starting to look like he probably won't play.
The NFC South is deep, with the Panthers, Falcons and Buccaneers all having legitimate playoff hopes. It's early, but what happens in September could go along way toward deciding the division winner. The Panthers face the Falcons and Bucs in the first three weeks. While the Falcons follow their game this week against the Panthers with the Bucs in Week 2.
Sunday's game will make an early statement about how one of the NFC's most talented divisions will shape up.
During my training camp tour, which enabled me to see 18 teams in person, the most impressive team I saw was the Bengals. Yet, as much as I believe in the talent of the Bengals and the coaching of Marvin Lewis, I didn't pick the Bengals to make the playoffs. Along with the Giants, the Bengals have the toughest schedule in the NFL, and an opening game against the Chiefs on the road isn't easy. The Chiefs have some of the best fans in the league. They are loud. They are supportive. They force false starts with their noise, and the Bengals can't afford a false start to their season. Carson Palmer is playing his first full game coming off reconstructive knee surgery, and he has plenty of issues. Will he still be able to use the no-huddle offense, which he used 80 percent of the time down the stretch last season? Does he have the durability to play three hours knowing he had only 42 snaps during the preseason? How will his timing be, as some expect he won't be back to his full athletic self until January? The Bengals have plenty of questions and lots of talent heading into the opener. The Chiefs have their own problems. Willie Roaf didn't show up this week, so it looks like he actually is retired. Without Roaf, Larry Johnson might find it a little harder to run to the left. Herman Edwards will try to minimize the loss of Roaf during his team meetings, but Roaf was the one player the team couldn't afford to lose.
9. Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers
Losing Ben Roethlisberger the week before the start of the season is a major problem. Charlie Batch proved over the preseason that he's a good backup, but he doesn't have Jerome Bettis around anymore to just pound the football. Willie Parker is an explosive back but he's not a back to wear down a defense, and the Steelers have to make sure he doesn't wear down himself. It also doesn't help that wide receiver Hines Ward is playing despite a hamstring injury. What helps the Steelers is they are at home and the Super Bowl celebration will be in full swing. For Nick Saban, he knows his team can't get overconfident with Roethlisberger not playing. Daunte Culpepper will be playing his first full game following last season's knee injury. Saban has the team ready to challenge for the AFC East title against the Patriots. This will be a good test. Saban can find out how well he can run the ball against a good 3-4 defense.
8. Indianapolis Colts at New York Giants
This is the long-awaited Manning Bowl, Peyton versus Eli. Both quarterbacks will be pressured. The Colts know they have to get off to a good start. They have three AFC South games in the first month of the season. A win over the Giants could give them the chance to jump out to a 5-0 start, if they can win their three home games against the AFC South. That could give them an early two-game lead in the division if the Jaguars get off to a slow start against a very tough schedule. Coach Tony Dungy's Colts spent most of the preseason nursing injuries, but the roster is getting healthier. Like the Bengals, the Giants face the league's toughest schedule. Cornerbacks Corey Webster and Sam Madison will have a hard time against Peyton Manning's play-action passing scheme. The Giants hope they have the right configuration at defensive tackle to stop the running of Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai. On the other side, Eli Manning looks much more accurate throwing the short passes. He completed just 52.8 percent of his passes last season because he wasn't good on the short stuff. Tom Coughlin added more receiver screens and turns-ins and Eli ate them up. The Giants offensive line has been banged up during the preseason, so it will be a big test going against Dwight Freeney and the Colts quick defensive line.
7. San Diego Chargers at Oakland Raiders (Monday, 10:15 ET, ESPN)
No doubt, this game will scare the Raiders. In 10 career games against the Raiders, LaDainian Tomlinson has averaged 121 rushing yards and four catches. If the Raiders run defense isn't right, Tomlinson, who didn't play a snap during the preseason, could burn them for 200 yards. The Raiders, despite a 4-1 preseason, struggled early in games against good backs, and Tomlinson is arguably the best in the game. The other player to fear is linebacker Shawne Merriman, who is evolving into one of the most feared defenders in the game. Raiders offensive linemen Langston Walker and Robert Gallery haven't gotten into a blocking groove yet, so Merriman and Shaun Phillips, could have big games. Aaron Brooks takes over for Kerry Collins at quarterback and he will have to keep plays alive against the Chargers' pass rush. The Chargers have perhaps the best defensive front seven in football. Brooks will try to get the ball deep a few times for Randy Moss and to win, the Raiders will need a good performance from halfback LaMont Jordan. Art Shell has made the Raiders a more physical defense, but they will have to show it against a tough, physical Chargers team.
6. Dallas Cowboys at Jacksonville Jaguars
Terrell Owens learned during training camp that the Cowboys aren't necessarily all about Terrell Owens. A hamstring injury sidelined him for most of camp, and it forced him to scramble in the last week to earn a starting job in an unfamiliar offense. Once Owens missed a rehab session and a meeting and was fined $9,500, he got the point. Bill Parcells is in charge of personnel and Drew Bledsoe is comfortable throwing to Terry Glenn and tight end Jason Witten, so Owens needs to work well in the system. He's done that the last few days and has a chance to start if his hamstring hold ups. At least the Cowboys know they have added to the receiving corps. With the surprise offseason retirement of Jimmy Smith, Jags coach Jack Del Rio isn't sure what he'll get from his receiving corps. Reggie Williams has been in and out of the starting lineup and still hasn't shown the skills that made the Jags use a first-round draft pick on him. Quarterback Byron Leftwich was pounded at times during the preseason looking for receivers to get open. The Cowboys 3-4 defense could be a major problem for the Jaguars. Parcells has assembled one of his best defenses since his Giants days. They are physical, fast, and could make it a tough day for the Jaguars.
5. Baltimore Ravens at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Ravens have been waiting for a leader at quarterback for years and now they have one in Steve McNair. Facing the Bucs is a good challenge to start with. Monte Kiffin runs one of the league's best pass defenses. Most quarterbacks struggle to get a 60 or 70 quarterback rating againt Kiffin's Cover 2 schemes. McNair's biggest assignment is to keep the Ravens offense calm. They have major concerns along the right side of the offensive line, and Kiffin will try to exploit those holes.The Ravens will try to give the Bucs a steady diet of runs by Jamal Lewis, Musa Smith and Mike Anderson and mix in the passes. For the Bucs, Chris Simms continues to evolve as a starting quarterback. He looked very good in the preseason. Michael Clayton will help more at receiver this year because his knee seems much better than it was a year ago. Joey Galloway remains Simms' main threat. Don't expect a high-scoring game. The Ravens are every bit as good as the Bucs on defense.
4. Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers
The Bears come to Green Bay with a defense loaded with talent. They have six Pro Bowlers on defense. The Packers counter with 14 rookies and a team still reeling from a 4-12 season. Mike McCarthy, the Packers new coach, has a tough assignment. The Packers were good and bad during the preseason but there was more bad than good. Brett Favre still doesn't seem comfortable sitting in a pocket being protected by two rookie guards. Even though it's always hard to win in Green Bay, the Bears can't afford to lose. Backup Brian Griese has outperformed Rex Grossman this preseason but Grossman will be the starter. Thomas Jones lost his starting job to Cedric Benson prior to camp, but a shoulder injury opened the door for Jones to win back the job. Nevertheless, coach Lovie Smith wants to start Benson as soon as he's back to full speed and healthy. The Bears are heavily favored to run away with the weak NFC North, and a win on the road in Green Bay would be a confirmation of that prediction.
3. Denver Broncos at St. Louis Rams
Despite going to the AFC title game, Mike Shanahan tweaked his offense to make it better. He changed starting running backs, replacing veteran Mike Anderson with free-agent rookie Mike Bell. Yes, Mike Bell, who is slated to start ahead of the explosive Tatum Bell. He replaced Ashley Lelie at wide receiver with Javon Walker. He didn't re-sign tight end Jeb Putzier. Shanahan believes he reloaded. The Broncos got off to a great start last season because they won so many key home games in the first half of the season. Shanahan is one of the game's best frontrunners. He usually has his team out to a 10-point early lead and knows how to win games with a first-half advantage. That's why he needs to win this game. The Rams can be dangerous, even though they aren't sure what they have. First-year head coach Scott Linehan has plenty of talent on offense -- Marc Bulger, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Steven Jackson. Though the Rams are better athletically, they still have to do a lot of blitzing to stop the run. Shanahan's running schemes can drive blitzing teams crazy.
2. Minnesota Vikings at Washington Redskins (Monday, 7 ET, ESPN)
A winless preseason has everyone in Washington worried. Joe Gibbs is trying to calm down the panic. New offensive coordinator Al Saunders barely opened the playbook, so it's hard to see what is right or wrong with the Redskins. The biggest worries for Gibbs are how well halfback Clinton Portis can hold up with a dislocated shoulder and whether Portis even can play. If he does, can he hold up against a physical defense? Say what you want about the Vikings, they are physical. It's hard for any blockers to handle an interior defensive line featuring Kevin Williams and Pat Williams. Pat Williams is one of the best run stoppers in the league. This will be an interesting game for Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson. The Redskins let him go in 2000. He's won a Super Bowl and been a good quarterback ever since. This is an important game for Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell to show he still has the legs to go 16 games and take the Redskins to the playoffs.
1. Seattle Seahawks at Detroit Lions
The Rod Marinelli years begin Sunday in Detroit.. He's made practices tougher. He made the team fly to Oakland the same day as a game. He's worked the team tirelessly. Finally, he and president Matt Millen find out if the team is any good after all the changes and all the tough love. The Seahawks nursed a lot of injuries in training camp, and they might not be poised for a fast start. Their best receiver, Darrell Jackson, didn't start practicing on his sore knee until last Monday, missing the entire preseason. The tight end position is thin. The defensive line didn't come together until late in the summer because of injures. But the Seahawks are on a mission to get back to the Super Bowl. Their last game was in Detroit. They failed to overcome mistakes and penalties and lost in the Super Bowl to the Steelers. This is the first step toward getting another chance to win the NFC Championship and making a Super Bowl trip to Miami.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.