Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints, 8:30p.m. EST
Jan 3, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman (24) celebrates his touchdown reception with fullback Patrick DiMarco (42) in the second quarter against the New Orleans Saints at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Honestly, this is probably going to be the worst Monday Night game we have to endure all year. The Saints were bottom-feeders for all of 2015 and Atlanta took a serious nosedive after week 6. While the Saints addressed some of their defensive woes in the draft this spring, Atlanta chose to get more athletic — this matchup will give us the early indication on who made the right choice.
Keys to the Game
Protect the football. The less time that Drew Brees has the football, the fewer points New Orleans can put on the board. Atlanta has a decent running game, a solid QB in Matt Ryan and the one and only Julio Jones out wide. If they can generate a healthy mix of handing it off and throwing it to Julio without giving Brees extra possessions, this will be an easy victory for them.
Ground and pound, then air it out. Look, they’re not going to stop Julio Jones, but Atlanta’s bad defense can help the Saints keep pace. Mark Ingram is going to be a valuable weapon in the run game and if he can force Atlanta to put eight men in the box, Drew Brees will have plenty of opportunity to pick apart the secondary. Ingram has to get it started for them though, or else Atlanta will drop too many guys into coverage for even Brees to beat consistently.
Chicago Bears at Dallas Cowboys, 8:30p.m. EST
Based on last season, this game looks like a dud, right? Well, it’s not last season. Dallas is one of the teams to watch in 2016 and a matchup with Dallas will gives us a good read on just how competitive the Bears will be. With a decent quarterback in Jay Cutler, the Bears certainly have playoff potential, despite losing Matt Forte.
Keys to the Game
The Bears are going to have to stop the pass. Tony Romo and Dez Bryant have the potential to eat the Bears alive if unchecked. Dallas’ lack of other receiving options will allow Chicago to double cover Bryant on every play — and they should. That will keep them in the game and a strong performance from new starting running back Jeremy Langford will afford the offense enough versatility to put points on the board.
This isn’t your dad’s Chicago defense and the Cowboys know it. The Bears are talented at linebacker but weak in the secondary. Dallas needs to rely on the strength of their offensive line and running game to free up Dez Bryant and Jason Witten down the field. If Elliott is able to gash the Bears for good yardage on the ground, Chicago will be forced to leave Dez in one on one coverage and at that point, it will be game over for them. The Bears don’t have a soul that can cover Dez.
New York Jets at Kansas City Chiefs, 4:25p.m. EST
Both New York and Kansas City edged themselves into the 2015 playoffs via the wild card. Each team has the possibility to make a run at their division crown this year with the incumbents suffering setbacks. A week three victory over a potential playoff team will go a long way in helping them earn a second consecutive playoff birth.
Keys to the Game
The passing game is going to determine this game for the Jets. The Chiefs lost Sean Smith in the offseason but still boast a formidable secondary. If the Jets can have success getting the ball to Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, it will open up lanes for the running game against KC’s tough front line. They need to consistently move the ball forward, obvious passing downs will have the Chiefs’ pass rushers pinning their ears backs and demolishing the Jets’ chances of winning. Also, Matt Forte’s receiving skills could be a game-breaker for New York if KC gets too blitz-happy.
With Jamaal Charles coming off yet another significant injury, the Chiefs will be leaning more and more Alex Smith in the passing game. That being said, the Jets’ defensive line isn’t what it used to be and if KC can have success on the ground, it will go a long way for them. Whether it’s Charles or Charcandrick West or even someone else, the running game will be KC’s biggest factor in whether or not they can earn this early season victory.
Minnesota Vikings at Carolina Panthers, 1p.m. EST
Oh what could have been. The Vikings were a field goal away from advancing in the playoffs last year and potentially going toe to toe with Carolina. Instead, they ended up with extra time off to prepare for this meeting. Minnesota beefed up their offensive line via free agency and added Laquon Treadwell at wide receiver to boost their offense. This could pose a problem for a Carolina team that lost their best cover corner to free agency.
Keys to the Game
The Vikings are going to need Teddy Bridgewater to be effective passing the ball. Everyone in the world knows that Adrian Peterson can run the ball and Carolina’s front seven will be ready. They’re going to sell out to make sure AP doesn’t beat them. Lucky for Bridgewater, he won’t have to contend with Josh Norman on the outside, which will open up his options quite a bit. This would be a great game for Laquon Treadwell to prove Minnesota right for drafting him and pull down a redzone touchdown.
The name of the game will be contain Adrian Peterson. Bridgewater is not one of the league’s elite passers and Carolina has the ability to overwhelm him and pressure him into mistakes. Containing Peterson on the ground will force the Vikings into second and third and long, keeping their offense one dimensional and allowing Carolina to focus on defending Minnesota’s talented receivers.