Romilly Evans previews a tricky tandem of live TV games for the opening Monday Night Football of the regular season, where he expects Joe Flacco to regain some of his lost lustre
"Houston’s running man Lemar Miller was carted off with a torn ACL pre-season, leaving Carlos Hyde with a crammer’s guide to learning the syllabus before kick-off"
Saints can quickly remedy the sins of yesterday
Houston Texans @ New Orleans Saints
Start-time: Tuesday, 00:10
TV: Live on Sky Sports Action
It's a long and rocky road to redemption, if the New Orleans Saints are to atone for last year's heartbreak and the flag that never flew (for blatant pass interference) against the LA Rams in the NFC Conference Championship. And that's without even mentioning the previous season's agonising play-off reversal, more commonly referred to as the Miracle of Minneapolis. If you're a Vikings fan, that is - the Saints call it something different.
Yes, if stoicism and the Superdome are polar opposites for emotion, impassioned New Orleans fans need a leader who can handle the scar tissue and the flashback feelings of injustice still surging around the Saints' homefield. Fortunately, at a seasoned 40 years of age, they can draw some solace from having Drew Brees' steady hand at the tiller. Defying his years and height as per usual, Brees is really weathering well thanks to arguably the strongest roster on both sides of the ball - above all, on offense.
Time was, of course, when all the Saints did was air it out inside the rarefied air of their Thunderdome. Now, though, thanks to the one-two knockout combo of Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray, they can also operate as a run-first, grind-it-out outfit who just move the chains with relentless ground gains. Kamara could again prove the game-changer late Monday night. Expect him to bear the burden for workload here, with his twin-threat duties as both a
All of which will naturally open up Brees' own playbook for some deep downfield strikes to a crack corps of rapid receivers, featuring the welcome addition of Jared Cook at tight end. Make no mistake, even with all-time defensive end JJ Watt leading the line for Houston's defense, Brees holds the aces to see Watt and raise him to the discomfort zone of a higher stakes table.
The Texans can also compete on offense. The talented Deshaun Watson also has a variety of skilled receivers at his disposal, but the odds are stacked against them keeping pace with the New Orleans juggernaut. Especially after Houston's running man Lemar Miller was carted off for the campaign with a torn ACL in pre-season, leaving Carlos Hyde with a crammer's guide to learning the syllabus before kick-off.
At the end of the day, the Saints have won 15 of their last 17 home games, including the play-offs, if you discount an erroneous 2018 season finale in which Brees and several other key personnel were rested with hometown advantage already secured. Fifteen out of 17? Plus, they were robbed in the other two, and comfortably exceeded the spread for double-digits in those encounters.
No need to over-analyse, then. The Saints are at home and have all the motivation to initiate another Super Bowl push. After all, the Vince Lombardi Trophy has a tendency to focus the mind.
Oakland may not be prepared for Denver's raiding party
Denver Broncos @ Oakland Raiders
Start-time: Monday, 03:15
TV: Live on Sky Sports Action
All hail the false dawns and broken dreams of supposed elite quarterbacking in this pipe-opener. I'm not saying Derek Carr (Oakland Raiders) and Joe Flacco (Denver Broncos) were ever suffering from delusions of grandeur under center, particularly with the savage passage of years and constant niggles, but the reality has seldom matched the hype amid their admittedly glittering credentials.
At 34, six years Carr's senior, at least Flacco has a Super Bowl MVP gong from his Baltimore days to rebut the naysayers. Now rehomed in Denver, however, the ageing quarterback will have to win over the Broncos' faithful. That said, he has form at Mile High altitude, and memories endure of Von Miller's D helping another doddery old-timer in Peyton Manning to Super Bowl glory. Any legitimate comparisons between Flacco and Manning, though, end there.
More pressingly, the Broncos are on the road here, and up against an Oakland outfit running out of time to sign off in style before moving to Las Vegas. It's a similar story for Carr, of course. Once the promise of a better tomorrow, the 28-year-old needs to rebuild a compelling narrative around a QB who appears to have lost his big-game bottle. The arrival of Antonio Brown's cosmic powers at wideout could elicit some much-needed chemistry, but Brown cannot be trusted long-term as a team player after his antics in Pittsburgh.
Sure, Oakland do sport three first-round draft picks on a promising roster, but one wonders if John Gruden's defense will ever truly recover from trading the great Khalil Mack to Chicago last year. Granted, the Raiders have endured a year of injury woes, set against the backdrop of a broader comedy of errors. So, luck hasn't been on their side. Pressing problems include, but are not limited to: pass rush, disrupting the pocket and slowing the run.
For all his positive soundbites, Carr appears to be fighting through lingering aches (and hasn't seemed sharp in any game since 2016), so the suspicion persists that he'll come apart when it matters most. In short, Oakland is currently the kind of town where early-season blips can quickly escalate into season-defining trends.
In theory, therefore, all Flacco has to do is resolve to tune out the roar of the Coliseum, pop on his hard hat and simply go to work. If he can minimise the mistakes, mostly by handing the pigskin off to a pair of up-and-comers in Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman at RB, Miller and Bradley Chubb can do the rest by slowing, or better yet stopping, the Oakland assault.
It may not be the most thrilling spectacle you'll witness all season. Yet there're still some cheap thrills - and lines, for that matter - to be had from genuine Carr-crash TV.
Back New Orleans (-6.5) to win on the Match Points Spread @ 1.9620/21 or better
Back New Orleans (-3.5) to win on the First Half Handicap @ 1.855/6 or better
Back Over 30.5 Total New Orleans Points @ 1.9420/21 or better
Back A.Kamara to score First / Anytime Touchdown 8.07/1 / 1.84/5 or better
Back Denver (-2) to win on the Match Handicap @ 20-23 on the Betfair Sportsbook
Back Back Denver to win the First Half (Moneyline) @ 8-11 on the Betfair Sportsbook
Back First Scoring Play Margin to be a Denver Field Goal @ 10-3 on the Betfair Sportsbook