NFL experts on the schedule: Picking best matchups and biggest winners

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Who’s the biggest winner from the new schedule? Which games should you circle on your calendar? Our panel of ESPN NFL experts weighs in.

Matt Bowen, NFL analyst: Green Bay at Chicago on Thursday, Sept. 5 (Week 1). C’mon — it’s opening night at Soldier Field. That’s old school. And we get a primetime seat to watch Aaron Rodgers — in his first game under new coach Matt LaFleur — match up to the speed and playmaking talent of the Bears defense.

Mike Clay, fantasy writer: Browns at Jets on Monday, Sept. 16 (Week 2). This matchup gave us Baker Mayfield‘s coming-out party in 2018, and perhaps the 2019 version will feature two eventual playoff teams. That might seem optimistic for the Jets, but second-year Sam Darnold finished strong as a rookie, New York has one of the league’s easiest schedules, and, while the defense has holes, it also includes some intriguing star power. If that’s not enough, the Baker-to-OBJ connection under the lights could be entertaining.

KC Joyner, fantasy writer: Steelers at Patriots on Sunday, Sept. 8 (Week 1). Pittsburgh’s entire offseason has revolved around internal battles. Facing New England in the Week 1 Sunday night matchup will let the world know in a hurry if the Steelers were successfully able to refocus their efforts on external battles.

Mina Kimes, NFL writer: Saints at Rams on Sunday, Sept. 15 (Week 2). As we all know, the city of New Orleans is a little miffed about a certain pass interference penalty that went uncalled in the NFC Championship Game; this is their chance for revenge. It’s also a great matchup between two of the league’s most explosive offenses, and a pair of teams that should be favored to return to the playoffs.

Mike Sando, senior NFL writer: Colts at Chiefs on Sunday, Oct. 6 (Week 5). Can one of these emerging AFC teams unseat New England in the conference? Is Patrick Mahomes far better than Andrew Luck? This matchup is about the present and the future.

Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer: Chiefs vs. Chargers in Mexico City on Monday, Nov. 18 (Week 12). This game isn’t just between two fun offenses and division rivals, with timing that could play a big role in determining playoff seeding. It also marks the NFL’s return to Mexico City after last year’s field-related cancellation at Stadium Azteca. The league has a vested interest in cultivating international fans, and it really needs this game to work from a logistics perspective.

Field Yates, NFL analyst: Chiefs at Patriots on Sunday, Dec. 8 (Week 14). This game pits the AFC’s finalists from last season in what was — in my opinion — the best game of the entire season. The chess match between Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes vs. Bill Belichick is something I’m already relishing.


The biggest winner of the schedule is _______________.

Bowen: The Patriots. New England has some holes to fill on the roster before we get to the regular season, but the schedule sets up for them to start the year. After hosting the Steelers in Week 1, the Patriots get the Dolphins (away), Jets (home), Bills (away), Redskins (away), Giants (home), and the Jets again (home) before the Sunday night matchup with Baker Mayfield and the Browns. If New England can beat Pittsburgh on opening weekend, they could go on a significant run to start the season.

Clay: The AFC East. By my metrics, the Patriots, Jets and Bills will enjoy the three easiest schedules. In addition to facing the rebuilding Dolphins twice, the three teams will face off with the NFC East and AFC North, which are arguably the league’s two least-talented divisions (besides he AFC East itself). Playing nearly one-third of their games against the Dolphins, Giants, Redskins and Bengals will certainly help their playoff chances.

Joyner: The Patriots host the Steelers in Week 1 and then arguably don’t square off against another top-tier team until their Week 9 matchup against Baltimore. Add that to closing the season against Cincinnati, Buffalo and Miami, and the road is set for another first-round bye for New England.

Kimes: The Patriots (what’s new?). Glancing at the first few weeks of their schedule, 7-0 is in play. After a couple of challenging matchups vs. Cleveland and Baltimore in Weeks 8 and 9, they have a well-timed bye before a difficult stretch.

Sando: The Rams, with only two games kicking off at 10 a.m. PT, an early start time that teams from the West hope to avoid. Oakland (six), Arizona (five), San Francisco (four), Seattle (four) and the Chargers (four) have more of those early starts.

Seifert: Browns fans. While the prime-time schedule will add pressure and scrutiny to the team, it will give the NFL’s longest-suffering fan base another jolt of excitement. For the first time in more than a decade, the league is taking this franchise seriously. Enjoy it!

Yates: The Browns. And I’m not diving into any reason that ties into who they are playing, where they are playing them or where. This is about the Browns — long the laughingstock of the league — have four games scheduled for prime time. This is the team that people will gravitate toward this season.


Post-free agency win totals are out. What’s the one over or under you feel best about picking right now?

Bowen: Colts over 9.5 wins. Indy gets some early-season tests with the Chargers in the opener and the Chiefs in Week 5. But I see an extremely well coached team here that also took a very smart and calculated approach to free agency, re-signing key veterans while adding some new pieces who can make an immediate impact. Plus, with nine picks in the 2019 draft, general manager Chris Ballard can continue to build-out his roster. I see the Colts taking the AFC South again.

Clay: Cowboys over 8.5 wins. Dallas has reached the nine-win mark each of the past three seasons and four of the past five. The defending NFC East champions improved the roster during the offseason, adding Robert Quinn, Jason Witten and Randall Cobb. All-Pro Travis Frederick is also expected back.

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Ryan Clark makes his predictions for the Rams’ 2019 schedule, including a loss to the Browns in Week 3.

Joyner: Browns under 9 wins. Cleveland’s schedule strongly suggests that nine wins should be considered the high side of their win total projection.

Kimes: Packers over 9 wins. After a disappointing 2018 campaign, the Packers have a relatively easy schedule compared to their division rivals, a new-look defense, and, hopefully, a healthy Aaron Rodgers.

Sando: Seahawks over 8.5 wins. Seattle should hit this for the eighth consecutive season with Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson together.

Seifert: Browns under 9 wins. I reserve the right to change my mind, but while the Browns have made big personnel strides during the past year, external excitement far outpaces reality. Four prime-time games only adds to the pressure that coach Freddie Kitchens already faces. There is a big mix of personalities on this roster, and public scrutiny will be higher than at any point since the Browns returned to Cleveland.

Yates: Seahawks over 8.5 wins. This team will be more talented than the one last season that reached 10 wins and the playoffs. The health of key contributors such as linebacker K.J. Wright and, hopefully, wide receiver Doug Baldwin, gives me faith that this Seattle team will reach 10 wins again.


Bonus! What’s your early Super Bowl pick?

Bowen: Chiefs over Bears. After the Chiefs hired Steve Spagnuolo as their new defensive coordinator, I’m flipping from my pick of the Chargers earlier this offseason. With Spags running that side of the ball, look for Kansas City to have a much improved defensive unit to pair with Patrick Mahomes and that explosive play offense. Give me the Chiefs as the Super Bowl champions over a Bears team that makes it to the final dance because of their top-tier defense and noticeable development from Mitchell Trubisky in his second season under Matt Nagy.

Clay: Saints over Patriots . The Saints were a sky judge overrule away from a Super Bowl appearance last season and improved what was already an outstanding roster during the offseason. They’re arguably the league’s best team on paper. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady return to the Super Bowl for the fourth-consecutive season, but they dynamic duo falls short to MVP Drew Brees this time around.

Joyner: Chiefs over Eagles. The hiring of Steve Spagnuolo should reduce the number of shootout games Kansas City gets into and result in an AFC title for the Chiefs. The Eagles have the most complete team in the NFC as long as Carson Wentz stays healthy.

Kimes: Saints over Patriots. I was tempted to pick the Packers because I like the moves they’ve made this offseason and I think we’ll see a return to form for Rodgers, but the Saints roster is too complete to pick against. In the AFC, I believe Mahomes will continue to shine, but I don’t think the Chiefs defense improved enough to challenge New England.

Sando: Chiefs over Vikings. Kansas City is an easier pick than the Patriots in the AFC at this point, simply because New England is in the early stages of completing its defensive staff and filling out its roster. Minnesota should have a top-five defense, with an offense that should benefit from continuity and more under-center concepts on early downs.

Seifert: Saints over Chiefs. But for a few controversial officiating calls, and a quirky overtime rule, this could have been the Super Bowl LIII matchup. The Saints have been knocking at the door the past few years and have as many pieces in place as they ever had. And you can count on Chiefs coach Andy Reid opening the season with a host of adjustments to counter opposing defenses that spent the offseason trying to stop quarterback Mahomes.

Yates: Patriots over Saints. The Saints return what is one of the league’s most balanced rosters and presuming they can find a boost to complement Mike Thomas in the receiving group, should continue to be explosive offensively. While the Patriots need to continue to beef up their offensive skill group, the team is stacked on defense with what could be the best secondary in the league. 40-plus year old quarterbacks rule.



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