Green Bay Packers @ Seattle Seahawks
Start-time: Friday, 01:30
TV: Live on SS1
Having advised everyone aboard the good ship Green Bay in their quest to lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy, Week One hardly seems the time to abandon it. However, even Super Bowl XLIX itself will likely prove a comparative walk in the park next to the Packers' opening assignment against the Super Bowl champions in their own back yard.
Seattle's CenturyLink Field is the most intimidating arena in the game. World record decibel levels confuse rival quarterbacks in a blizzard of barracking so loud that it has even been known to start a series of mini-earthquakes underneath the shaking stadium.
It all equates to a peerless homefield record for the Hawks, combining the regular season and beyond to the play-offs. This match-up marks the third consecutive season that the Packers have traveled to face the defending champs (squared off against the NY Giants in 2012, and Baltimore Ravens in 2013), so they've clearly done something to offend the schedulers.
That said, perhaps now is the perfect time to face to most daunting challenge on turf. The Pack were white-hot in pre-season and have nothing to lose, while their opponents and fans are still basking in the reflected glow of their victory at the Bowl. Cold, hard hitting never felt so warm and fuzzy.
Much of Green Bay's dazzling performance in rehearsals can been staked on the return to peak condition of their quarterback Aaron Rodgers. A broken collarbone reduced Rodgers to photo-bombing his teammates on the sideline for seven games last year, but now he's relaxed, recharged and ready to rock 'n' roll.
Making up for lost time in a hurry is not necessarily his plan. After all, he's already a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame (a career completion percentage approaching 66% sees to that) and panic-throwing has never been his style. However, there is some sense of urgency both on and off the pitch. For Rodgers is at the wheel of an up-tempo offense which doesn't break for pedestrians and is keen to reassert his name atop the QB bill after it was relegated from the headlines last season.
The slow and steady development of a gifted receiving crew (Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson are now in their prime and getting wide-open for business), coupled to the meteoric rise of Rookie of The Year Eddie Lacey, has put Mike McCarthy's offense on the threshold of greatness. They now just need to go out and cross it.
Rodgers has been dissecting defenses downfield all pre-season and has seldom been a slow-starter. He registered his most yards ever (333) in 2013's pipe-opener at San Francisco - and the Niners rank second to the Hawks for defensive thrift - so expect this slugger to come out of his corner swinging.
Lacy is a running back who can get the first-down marker moving with hard yards, but he can break out on the seam as well. His powerful, boring style allows Rodgers even more time to pick his targets and this is an O which even the Seattle D may only manage to slow, not stop.
Of course, after last year's heroics, Seattle are the 1.422/5 favourites to win the game. And while they have a healthy squad, there's been little off-season activity on the roster to excite supporters. One could counter they don't need to improve. While that's unequivocally true of their relentless rearguard, surely this is the season where Russell Wilson must make a leap.
For too long this raw recruit (in his third year) has tried to minimize the mistakes, hand it off to Marshawn Lynch and let his defense keep rivals off the pitch. Now offensive play-caller Darrell Bevell is set to relax the reigns on Wilson's throwing arm and we'll see if he can finally find his wideouts on a consistent basis. Despite having seven of them in their squad, the jury is out on whether Jermaine Kearse and Doug Baldwin can fill the boots vacated by Sidney Rice and Golden Tate.
So with an element of the unknown prevailing, let's stick with what we know. At his best, Rodgers can rout his rivals. He now looks back to it. His red-zone numbers (a staggering 133 touchdowns for just five interceptions) suggest another red-letter opening day is coming Green Bay's way. Lacy's presence should only free up A-Rod's options, whereas Wilson may struggle since his main man Lynch has been geared back in training camp.
Consequently, the Hawks' defense will have to be on their mettle to restrict Rodgers. And even if they succeed, the Pack's defense has also manned up in the off-season with Clay Matthews and first-round draft pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix displaying breakthrough mobility.
The last time Green Bay made the journey to CenturyLink, they were confounded by two types of racket (a refereeing fiddle and an infernal din). This time, however, Seattle's Cathedral of Cacophony could fall silent. Back the Pack with confidence at a few handicap rates. They should receive the ball at kick-off, too, which also gives them a decent edge on the first-half line (crucially, in receipt of over a field goal).
Back Green Bay Packers (+6.5) to win on the Match Points Spread @ 1.9110/11 or better
Back Green Bay Packers (+3.5) to win on the First Half Points Spread @ 1.9110/11 or better
Back Green Bay Packers to score Over 20.5 Points @ 2.111/10 or better
Back E. Lacy to score First Touchdown 9.08/1 or better