The first NFL Sunday of the 2016 season only features one game between two teams that reached last year’s playoffs, but two postseason teams will go head-to-head on Monday night when the Pittsburgh Steelers visit the Washington Redskins. With unblemished records, both Pittsburgh and Washington are hopeful about their Super Bowl chances, though the Week 1 matchup could show why only one of the teams is considered to be a legitimate championship contender.
The Redskins are coming off an NFC East title and Kirk Cousins’ breakout season, but they find themselves as home underdogs to start the year. The Steelers are favored by three points at Las Vegas and online sportsbooks, via OddsShark.
In order for Washington to compete with Pittsburgh, they’ll have to prove that Cousins’ 2015 season wasn’t a fluke and the defense is much improved. Cousins posted a 101.6 passer rating after throwing more interceptions than touchdowns in his first three NFL seasons, and the Redskins managed to go 9-7 despite having the league’s 28th ranked defense.
The Redskins made arguably the biggest addition of the offseason, signing All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman. He joins a defense that was 25th against the pass in 2015, ranking 22nd in opposing quarterback rating. When Washington last played a meaningful game, Aaron Rodgers threw for two scores as the Green Bay Packers rolled past the Redskins 35-18 in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
Much of the attention will be on the matchup between Norman and Antonio Brown, arguably the NFL’s top cornerback and No.1 wide receiver, respectively.
“When you look at a wide receiver in the NFL, you don’t have to stop anywhere other than Antonio Brown. It starts and it ends with him,” Norman said, via the team’s official website. “That’s going to be a tall task to take on and I respect that 110 percent. I’m looking forward to what he will bring because that matchup is obviously going to be a physical one and it’s going to be a fun one.”
Norman has become known for slowing down the league’s top playmakers, but few cornerbacks have been able to prevent Brown from putting up big numbers. He surpassed the 100-yard mark nine times in 2015, and he caught all 10 passes that were sent his way when the Steelers faced Norman and the Carolina Panthers in 2014.
Keeping Pittsburgh out of the end zone will be a difficult task for even the NFL’s best defenses in 2016. The Steelers ranked third in total offense last year, despite Ben Roethlisberger’s absence for one-fourth of the season.
When Roethlisberger was healthy, Pittsburgh scored more than 28 points per game, and the Steelers should be near the top of the league in scoring this season. Pittsburgh scored 34 against the Denver Broncos’ top-ranked defense, and they put up 30 points against the Seattle Seahawks, who were second in total defense.
Le’Veon Bell is suspended for the first three games of the season, but Pittsburgh’s offense didn’t miss a beat as he sat out most of last season. Running back DeAngelo Williams rushed for 11 touchdowns and 907 yards on 200 carries, and he could run for 100-plus yards against the defense that ranked second-to-last in opponents’ yards per carry a year ago.
Cousins should be able to have his share of success against Pittsburgh in what could be a high-scoring affair. The over/under of 50 points is the third-highest on the entire Week 1 schedule.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 35, Washington 24