With his collarbone intact and a stronger defense for support, the stage is set for Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers to make a big comeback.
But while Rodgers has been away, a couple of other teams in the NFC North have improved. Minnesota is the division favorite, and Chicago finally has hope. This is the beginning of a new era for the Bears, who should be legit threats with new coach Matt Nagy, second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and a new pass rusher wearing No. 52.
Eight days after the Bears’ blockbuster deal with the Oakland Raiders, Khalil Mack will debut at Lambeau Field on Sunday night. His playing time might be limited, but Mack should make an immediate impact on a good defense. Rodgers surely will have an eye on him.
Of course, Rodgers has owned the Bears, posting a 16-4 record in the one-sided rivalry. He led the Packers to a 35-14 victory last September at Lambeau. When the teams met again in Week 10, Chicago was favored over Green Bay for the first time since 2008, and the Packers prevailed 23-16 with Brett Hundley at quarterback.
The Bears were a bad joke under the misdirection of former coach John Fox. With more offensive weapons and more creative play-calling by Nagy, expect to see Trubisky take a leap forward this season.
It’s unlikely Trubisky will outduel Rodgers, but I bet the Bears at plus-8 and still will recommend a play with the line dropping to 7 at most books. Packers, 24-20. (I also played a Green Bay-Baltimore-Minnesota 6-point teaser.)
The Packers are my pick to win the NFC. Four more plays for Week 1 of the NFL season (home team in CAPS):
* GIANTS (plus-3) over Jaguars: A year ago, Jacksonville ranked No. 2 in scoring defense, allowing just 16.8 points per game. That defense looks even better on paper now and, as cornerback Jalen Ramsey has pointed out, the Jaguars will not face an opposing quarterback who is worth a damn. And that could prove true in Eli Manning’s case. But with Odell Beckham Jr. running routes again and rookie Saquon Barkley making plays out of the backfield, the Giants have the potential to be a top-10 scoring offense, a year after ranking 31st at 15.4 points per game. With a new coach and new-look offense, I’m buying the Giants’ improvement and expecting some regression from Jacksonville.
* Texans (plus-6½) over PATRIOTS: Cincinnati was one of my five plays before the Bengals’ line dropped from plus-3 to 2½. Instead, I’ll go with Deshaun Watson and the Houston defense. Watson passed for 301 yards and two touchdowns at New England in his second career start last September. Tom Brady spoiled the Texans’ upset bid with a 25-yard touchdown pass with 23 seconds remaining for a 36-33 win. Brady is working with mediocre receivers, and Bill Belichick’s defense has some soft spots. (Side note: Betting against Brady and Rodgers might not be the best way to open the season.)
* Chiefs (plus-3½) over CHARGERS: Andy Reid rarely gets it done in the playoffs, but this is the regular season and this is an opponent he dominates. The Kansas City coach is 8-0 straight up and 6-2 against the spread versus the Chargers since 2014. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is not only surrounded by speed and playmakers, he catches a break with Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa ruled out for this game. Philip Rivers might rip a weak Kansas City defense, but take the points in what should be a shootout.
* CARDINALS (-1) over Redskins: Sam Bradford is an accurate passer who’s still capable of winning. He’s got a good set of receivers and running back David Johnson is returning to the backfield. The Patrick Peterson-led defense will be more aggressive and should be Arizona’s strength. The ability to contain new Washington quarterback Alex Smith will determine the outcome, and I’m cautiously optimistic about the Cardinals.
Last season: 47-32-6 against the spread