Romilly Evans previews a mouthwatering dynamic duo of live TV games for the opening weekend, where he expects the newly rehoused Chargers to bolt out of the blocks at Mile High...
"The Seahawks' secondary swarm and converge like bees on a honey-laced pigskin"
Green Bay have the key cogs back in place to whirr in Week 1
Seattle Seahawks @ Green Bay Packers
Start-time: Sunday, 21:25
TV: Live on SS1
Call it what you will: reciprocity, the law of averages, even a reversal of the natural cycle. But for my money, the Seattle Seahawks are about to suffer a reality-check campaign, and their frailties could start to show as early as this seasonal curtain-raiser at historic Lambeau Field.
Pipe-openers don't come any tougher than this road-trip, which pits the Super Bowl second favourites against the market's number-four picks in Green Bay. Indeed, it's a wonder why the NFL schedulers, in their questionable wisdom, haven't saved this this main-course feast for later on a Harvester hotplate, instead of making it a Week One starter.
The Packers' holy trinity of custodians - Aaron Rodgers, head coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson - consistently put team GB in the play-off mix, but this is the year their foundations could reap their richest harvest since 2010. Sure, Seattle have been even more prolific as postseason perennials of late. However, to my jaundiced eye, the suspicion has been that the long arm of Russell Wilson has been misfiring, as rival defenses grow accustomed to managing the 28-year-old's twin-threat moves.
To which end, cue Haha Clinton-Dix, the Pack's stud safety who has been maturing in both his work-ethic and anticipation. Clinton-Dix could prove the vital cog to shore up Green Bay's occasionally porous D, finally allowing them to add up to more than the sum of their collective parts.
On the other side of the ball at Lambeau, Rodgers needs no introduction. Off the charts when he's had the reins in pre-season, A-Rod's distribution to a crack receiving crew (led by the restored a rejuvenated Jordy Nelson, fresh off his first full training camp in years) is quick-fire and laser-like in its delivery.
Granted, opening exams don't come much harder than the Hawks' defense, whose feared Legion of Boom under Kam Chancellor have now been bolstered by that Sheldon Richardson trade. This is perhaps the toughest secondary and front four that Rodgers and his merry men will face - an outfit which swarm and converge like bees on a honey-laced pigskin. Nevertheless, Mr Make It Up You Go Along has demonstrated the ability to pick them apart, simply by sticking to his playbook, or improving with his versatile wideouts.
So expect a fit and firing Aaron and Jordy, like Kevin and Winnie, to rekindle their Wonder Years romance by getting back to what they do best: just scrambling and tossing the ball around for fun in their own backyard. And it's high time that backyard of Lambeau Field became a fortress again. So after two unseemly defeats here last year, I'm backing the Pack to run the tables at home, if they can overcome this awkward first obstacle. In fact, number-one play-off seeding in the NFC could very well hinge on this match-up.
Take the Pack with confidence (I know it's only Week One) on a series of prosaic handicaps, instead relying on that old-school Rodgers-to-Nelson connection for some fancier prices. In short, Eddie Lacy's homecoming may not be the retribution tour the running back expects. Lacy may even be left comfort-eating again on the sidelines with the Cheeseheads. Well, for Eddie, there are worse fates.
Back Green Bay Packers (-3) to win on the Match Points Spread @ 1.9310/11 or better
Back Green Bay Packers (-1.5) to win on the First Half Handicap @ 1.84/5 or better
Back Under 51 Total Points @ 1.9420/21 or better
Back J. Nelson to score First / Anytime Touchdown 9.08/1 / 2.56/4 or better
Chargers can forge a new beginning on the long road to Mile High
LA Chargers @ Denver Broncos
Start-time: Tuesday, 03:20
TV: Live on SS1
If the Seahawks at the Pack is the forerunner to an NFC Conference Championship Game, last year's standings would opine this is bargain-basement stuff by comparison in the AFC.
That said, I've an uncanny feeling that the changeable West division (whence both these two outfits hail) may prove more loaded than limp this term. The Kansas City Chiefs have already done their bit for ramping up AFC West expectations, by making the Super Bowl champs look like chumps on their seasonal debut, and there may be a few more surprise break-out stars on show this evening, as the Denver Broncos host the rehomed Chargers of Los Angeles.
Sports Authority Field opens its doors to some fresh faces on both sides of the coaching park, but it's the new bloodlines from LA (some green, others returning from injury) under head coach Anthony Lynn which really get my pulse racing. Bolts' defensive end, Joey Bosa, who enjoyed his first full stint at camp (after last year's contractual issues) partners up with his pal Melvin Ingram to form the best pass-rushing combo in the league. They ham-'n'-egged it for 20.5 sacks last time, with Bosa bagging the clinching 10.5, despite missing the initial four games of the regular course. They are arguably the finest for in-your-grill go-getting (just wait for the statistical column). Now they have a chance to prove it unequivocally, on week-in-week-out basis.
With Bosa and Ingram at the pass-rushing pivot, the Chargers should boast one of the tightest Ds in the NFL, for once keeping the pressure off Phil Rivers' broad shoulders on offense. Rivers, of course, is the veteran talisman who brings an air of assurance to this squad of youngsters. Yet even this seasoned campaigner might struggle to contain his excitement and impetuosity when he sees star receiver Keenan Allen returning at wideout, while running man Melvin Gordon could prove the difference-maker at RB. Gordon belatedly tied up his tripping laces last season, and stepped it up with 12 touchdowns 13 games for somewhere north of 1,400 yards. Maintain similar ground gains, and Rivers should enjoy an enviable balance under centre - even at fabled Mile High stadium, where the rarefied air can often get to the uninitiated.
Denver quarterback Trevor Siemian (who's won the starter's spot more through default than towering talent) will certainly be hoping the opposing secondary misjudge a few of his trademark drifting throws. Otherwise, Siemian will simply have to rely on legendary linebacker Von Miller riding the Broncos' dominant defense to another homefield shutdown. Then again, for all their hard work, the Denver D only ranked 28th against the rush last year. So the aforementioned Gordon could quickly flash his brilliance.
Remember, the Chargers were banged up across the roster in 2016. And despite producing a woeful 5-11 campaign, nine of those 11 losses came by eight points or fewer. With the dazzling firepower Rivers now has at his disposal, these fast-maturing Bolts are soaring like a Millennial Falcon about to make the jump to hyperspace. So may the new Star Wars of the AFC West continue in Week One. The early episodes are always the best, you know.
Back LA Chargers (+3.5) to win on the Match Points Spread @ 1.774/5 or better
Back LA Chargers (+1.5) to win on the First Half Handicap @ 2.56/4 or better
Back Under 24.5 Denver Points @ 1.9420/21 or better