1. Aaron Rodgers @ Chi – 10
Assuming Randall Cobb starts, Aaron Rodgers could be the best play of the week. Get this: In his two meetings with Chicago last year, he threw 10 touchdowns. 10. He's topped 300 yards in three straight vs Chicago, and he's thrown three or more touchdowns in over half of his Bears games since 2011. And, there's no reason to think the Bears defense will be any better than last year. It's their very first game converting to a 3-4, and the secondary is filled with unproven kids (Fuller, Vereen) or journeyman veterans (Porter and Rolle).
2. Tom Brady vs. PIT – 9.75
The change of defensive coordinators in Pittsburgh brings a lot of moving parts to a defense that was brutal last year. The personnel hasn't been materially upgraded, and since this is the first game with Keith Butler's new system, there's bound to be mistakes. How bad was Pittsburgh's secondary last year? 9 of the last 10 quarterbacks they faced threw for multiple touchdowns. Only Alex Smith failed to do so, but he threw for 311 yards. Zach Mettenburger lit them up. Mike Vick lit them up. Ryan Fitzpatrick lit them up. Andy Dalton lit them up, twice. The Steelers secondary just got hammered by the Bills quarterbacks in the preseason tune-up game in preseason Week 3. The Bills. And here comes Tom Brady. An angry Tom Brady. I don't care that he'll be without Brandon LaFell and possibly Julian Edelman.
3. Tony Romo vs. NYG – 9.75
Tony Romo absolutely owns the Giants. In last year's two matchups, he threw seven touchdowns. But, beyond that, he's thrown multiple touchdowns in 8 of his last 9 full games against the Giants, and in the game that only featured one touchdown, he threw for 437 yards. The Giants secondary is healthier than last year, but it's still middle-tier unit. Plus, Romo should throw more passes this year, thanks to a middling committee of rushers. In a probable shootout with a dominating offensive line and healthy wideouts, there's a lot to like for Romo in this game.
4. Matt Ryan vs. Phi – 9.5
The Eagles bottom-ranked secondary didn't get much better in the offseason. No team allowed more passing yards per game last year, and I don't see any reason to think their secondary of castoffs will reverse that this year. The Eagles are much more stout up front, and since the Falcons don't (apparently) have a running game, Ryan is going to throw his arm out of socket. Again. He threw the second-most passes last year. He topped 260 yards 12 times last year, and the Eagles allowed 260 yards 10 times. Hopefully, Roddy White will be able to play, but regardless, Julio Jones is in for a monster outing. Start Ryan with confidence.
5. Ben Roethlisberger @ NE - 9.5
You probably don't need me to tell you that Thursday night's season kickoff game has the makings of a shootout. Tom Brady will do his part (see my effusive Brady ranking and writeup for details). And, that's what you want as a Ben Roethlisberger owner. In shootouts where the opponent scored at least 27 points, Ben's output vaulted to a crazy 373 yards and 2.6 touchdowns per game last year. The Patriots are highly likely to score 27 points. So, Ben should be able to deliver in this high-flying affair. Especially without Le'Veon Bell. The loss of Martavis Bryant hurts, but not so much that you should consider benching him.
6. Eli Manning @ Dal – 9.5
These division rivals almost always end up in a shootout. They've combined to top 41 points in 12 matchups, they've combined for 50+ points in 9 of the 12 games. With big points to be had, it's not surprising that Eli Manning's track record against the Cowboys is very compelling. Last year he threw six touchdowns in the two games, and he did the same the previous year. It probably doesn't matter whether Victor Cruz plays or doesn't. He didn't play in either game last year, so don't let Cruz's status effect your thinking on Manning. Last year the Cowboys' corners, Brandon Carr and Morris Clairborne, were brutal, and until they prove themselves to be better, this looks like a great matchup for Eli.
7. Sam Bradford @ Atl – 9.5
We didn't see a ton of Sam Bradford in the preseason, but I liked what I saw. He looked very comfortable in Chip Kelly's offense. And, it's hard to ask for an easier entry point into the regular season than the Falcons. Last year they finished 31st in pass defense. Every opposing quarterback scored or topped 300 yards. Both happened seven times. The Falcons corner Desmond Trufant is good, but Robert Alford is awful. And the situation at safety isn't any better, as Ricardo Allen is expected to start his first game at his new position, safety. Bradford has a ton of pass catching weapons, and could post an explosive game.
8. Andrew Luck @ Buf – 9.25
Last year, no team allowed fewer passing touchdowns than the Bills, and their defense remains largely intact for 2015. And, Rex Ryan has the defensive chops to ensure that the Bills defense continues to play well. How good was the Bills secondary? In the final nine games of the year, they shut out every quarterback but two. Included in that group was Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. So this represents one of Andrew Luck's trickiest matchup of the year. Luck threw touchdowns in 15 of 16 regular season games last year, and threw multiple touchdowns in 13 of them. So, he's mostly matchup-proof, but a two touchdown game is his likely upside.
9. Carson Palmer vs. NO – 9.25
Here's your sneaky option for a surprisingly big game. In his six games last year, Palmer threw multiple touchdowns five times. He's got multiple-touchdown upside against any opponent. But, especially this one. The Saints secondary was bad last year, and barring the unforeseen, they're going to be bad this year. Starting cornerback Keenan Lewis is awful, and his hamstring injury will force an even worse Brandon Browner into the starter's role. Starting safety Jarius Byrd has been nothing but hurt (or lousy) since getting paid by the Saints, and he's not going to start. Backup Rafael Bush will start in his place. Palmer doesn't need Michael Floyd (finger) in this game. Fitz remains, and John Brown is primed for a breakout season.
10. Drew Brees @ - Ari – 9.25
We think of the Cardinals as having a dominating defense. But, mostly, that's against the run, and against lousy quarterbacks. Last year, pretty much every quality quarterback posted solid numbers against this team. And, cornerback Patrick Peterson is one of the most overrated (and overpaid) players in the league. Brees faced the Cardinals a couple years ago, and posted a mammoth game, with 342 yards and three touchdowns. New this year, Brees is without Kenny Stills and Jimmy Graham. But I don’t see those as insurmountable losses, especially with Brandin Cooks on the cusp of stardom. If CJ Spiller can't play, downgrade Brees a bit.
11. Ryan Tannehill @ Was – 9.25
Last year, no team allowed more passing touchdowns than the Redskins. The only quarterbacks who didn't score two or more times against the Redskins last year were: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Chad Henne, Teddy Bridgewater, and Colin Kaepernick. This offseason, the Redskins signed excellent cornerback Chris Culliver from the Niners, which will help. But everyone else in this secondary is straight up bad. Particularly the awful Dashon Goldson at safety. Even with Tannehill's signature dink-and-dunk passing style, he should find plenty of statistical success.
12. Matthew Stafford @ SD – 9
I'm really high on the Lions' offense this year. Detroit's got the best offensive line they've ever had during Matthew Stafford's career. All of Stafford's targets are healthy, which is rare. He's got four pass-catching runners as targets. Last year's first rounder, Eric Ebron, should be ready to contribute. So, it feels like everything is in place for Stafford to take a big jump. Will the Chargers slow him down? I don't think so. Last year, on paper, the Chargers looked like a very good pass defense. But, in 2014 they played, arguably, the league's softest set of quarterbacks of any team. Good quarterbacks, like Stafford, always got their stats, and with the same personnel in the secondary this year, I expect Stafford to get his.
13. Peyton Manning vs. Bal – 8.5
I've spent all offseason talking about my worries for Peyton Manning. Most of my concerns will be illuminated (or not) right here in week one. My top concern, the Broncos offensive line, will be exposed quickly against Terrell Suggs, as he faces rookie left tackle Ty Sambrialo. In fairness, Sambrialo has played well in the preseason. But this is the regular season, and it's Terrell Suggs. Manning won't have time to set up deep passes. The Ravens were an inconsistent pass defense last year, but that was with most of their secondary hurt. Now they've got Ladarius Webb and Jimmy Smith back, and they'll be a lot better this year. Adding to my concern are the losses of Wes Welker and Julius Thomas. Their replacements are fractionally as talented. Lastly, Emmanuel Sanders didn't play all preseason with a hamstring injury. He'll start in this game, but the lack of preseason reps isn’t ideal. Combine all this together, and I see a run-heavy gameplan coming. All that doom and gloom said, it's still Peyton Manning, and anything is possible. But, there are a lot of reasons to be concerned.
14. Andy Dalton @ Oak – 7.75
15. Teddy Bridgewater vs. SF – 8.25
Teddy Bridgewater is coming off a fantastic preseason in which he completed 83% of his passes, didn't throw a pick, and was sacked just once. He's yet to show himself to be a high ceiling fantasy quarterback, but that could change against a defense that has never seen more offseason turmoil. They've lost DE Aldon Smith, ILB Chris Borland, DE Justin Smith, ILB Patrick Willis, CBs Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver, OLB Dan Skuta, their head coach, both coordinators, and most of the coaching staff. The Vikings should be able to score 30+ points, and Adrian Peterson can't get all of those points by himself.
16. Philip Rivers vs. Det – 8
We begin with a quick recap of Philip Rivers' 2014 season: He was scorching hot through the first half of the year (20 touchdowns), and then fell off dramatically in the second half (11 touchdowns). Mostly, the responsibility for the drop off was a battered offensive line that punished Rivers. The line is improved this year, although not enough for my liking. They looked really shaky in the preseason, and the team didn't do enough to address the center and right tackle positions. Fortunately, they won't see Ndamukong Suh or Nick Fairley on Sunday, which opens the door for a decent game, even without the suspended Antonio Gates. Without Suh pressing Rivers, Detroit's secondary will need to hold their coverage longer, which could produce mismatches.
17. Jay Cutler vs. GB – 8.5
It looks like Alshon Jeffery will play, which is pivotal for a Bears offense that is without Brandon Marshall (Jets) and Kevin White (rod in his leg). With Aaron Rodgers scoring at will, the Bears will be hard pressed to keep up without passing copiously. Sure, they'd love to control the ball with Matt Forte's running, while playing keep away from Rodgers, but the porous Chicago defense won't cooperate with that plan. Sooner or later, Cutler is going to need to throw a lot of passes, and the Packers' middle of the road pass defense will yield decent numbers. In the two lopsided losses last year, Cutler threw 34 and 37 passes. That's the target here too, and I expect similar numbers to last year, when he averaged 264 yards and 1.5 touchdowns. And, if the Bears fall behind early (a distinct possibility), Cutler's got higher upside than those numbers.
18. Jameis Winston vs. Ten – 7.75
19. Russell Wilson @ StL – 7.75
I know, I know, what's Russell Wilson doing way down here? My concern level is acute, and here's why: As a team, Seattle's biggest weakness is its offensive line. Meanwhile, as a team, St. Louis' biggest strength is its dominating defensive line. The Rams are four deep across the line of scrimmage with Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, Aaron Donald, and Chris Long. Donald might be the second best defensive player in the league. In the second half of last year, the Rams averaged four sacks per game. I'm nervous that Wilson will be under duress all day, and will end up settling for underneath passes. My hope is that he'll run from crumbling pockets, and help us with some rushing points. If you think I'm overreacting, check out Wilson's line from Week 17 of last year against the Rams: 239 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 7 rushing yards.
20. Cam Newton @ Jac – 7.75
21. Colin Kaepernick vs. Min - 7.75
22. Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Cle – 7.5
23. Joe Flacco @ Den – 7.5