Week 1 can be strange. Not everything goes to plan and, for NFL coaches and fantasy owners alike, it's best not to overreact to the weekend just gone.

However, avoiding falling 0-2 is just as important as keeping your cool. In the high-pressure world of the NFL and amid the considerably lower stakes of fantasy football, nobody wants to fall into a hole early in the season.

And, in both cases, identifying the players who can be relied on to produce a big performance is the key to victory.

In this week's edition of Fantasy Picks, Stats Perform looks at the players who should be considered sure things to deliver the goods.

QB: Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks vs. Tennessee Titans

Wilson could hardly have been more impressive as the Seahawks swept aside the Indianapolis Colts on the road in Week 1.

Continuing his remarkable rapport with Tyler Lockett, who had two receiving scores, Wilson threw for 254 yards and four touchdowns as his marriage with new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron got off to a spectacular start.

Second in air yards per attempt (10.43) among quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts, Wilson carries substantial upside as one of the best deep-ball throwers in the NFL and should receive ample opportunity to demonstrate that prowess against an extremely vulnerable Titans defense shredded by the Arizona Cardinals for 280 net yards passing and four touchdowns through the air in their opener.

RB: Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers vs. Detroit Lions

Nothing went right for the Packers in their 38-3 loss to the New Orleans Saints, with Jones held to nine yards on five carries on a miserable day for the entire offense.

Yet a Week 2 clash with the Detroit Lions should prove the perfect tonic. Detroit gave up 131 yards on the ground to the San Francisco 49ers in the opener, with sixth-round rookie Elijah Mitchell gashing the Lions for 104 yards and a touchdown at a rate of 5.5 yards per carry.

The Packers operate a zone running game akin to that of the Niners, so Jones should be confident of finding room to rack up similar numbers. Jones has topped 100 yards in two of his past three games against the Lions, including a 168-yard, two-touchdown effort at Lambeau Field last year.

WR: Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers vs. Dallas Cowboys

Justin Herbert's rapport with a receiver who has a case for being the premier route runner in the NFL continues to blossom, with the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year going to Allen time and again as the Chargers edged out the Washington Football Team in their opener.

Allen was targeted 13 times and caught nine passes for 100 yards in a 20-16 victory. He registered a burn, which is when a player wins his matchup with a defender on plays where he is targeted, on 12 of those 13 targets.

He did that against a Washington defense that allowed the second-fewest yards per pass play (5.33) in the NFL last season. Now he gets to face a Cowboys defense that ranked 21st in that same metric with 6.69 yards and gave up 7.58 per play in their opening loss to the Buccaneers. Book in Allen for another big day.

TE: George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers @ Philadelphia Eagles

Deebo Samuel overshadowed Kittle in the Niners' win in Detroit, but the top all-round tight end in football still produced with four catches for 78 yards and should be salivating at the prospect of facing the Eagles.

Last season, in a home loss to the Eagles, Kittle hauled in all 15 of his targets from Nick Mullens for 183 yards and a touchdown.

He might not see the same level of targets at Lincoln Financial Field this year but, with a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo under center, he should see enough of the ball to excel in a matchup with an Eagles defense that has consistently struggled to defend tight ends.

Defense: New England Patriots @ New York Jets

The Patriots may have come up short against the Miami Dolphins, but there was much to admire about their performance on defense.

With the likes of Matthew Judon and Josh Uche excelling at getting pressure on Tua Tagovailoa, New England's front is likely to have great success against the Jets' offensive line, which will be without left tackle Mekhi Becton.

Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson was sacked six times in their loss to the Carolina Panthers, which saw him throw an interceptable pass on 5.56 per cent of his attempts, according to Stats Perform data.

Expect New England's defense to create more interception opportunities and make it another long afternoon for Wilson and the Jets.

Lionel Messi is in line to make his 150th Champions League appearance and his first with Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday.

Mauricio Pochettino's men travel to Club Brugge and Messi is about to partake in his first European campaign without Barcelona, while Manchester City host RB Leipzig.

Liverpool and Milan renew rivalries in the competition for just the second time since the 2004-05 final between the pair but the Serie A side have a woeful record against English teams.

Inter have a similarly poor record against Spanish teams and they face Real Madrid, with Karim Benzema edging towards another goalscoring landmark.

Here, Stats Perform takes a look at the key Opta data ahead of Wednesday's fixtures.

Inter v Real Madrid: Benzema looks to edge past former Galactico Raul 

Inter have lost four of their last five against Real Madrid but Los Blancos have only won one of their previous eight away games against Wednesday's opponents as they prepare for a replay of last year's group stage outing.

However, Inter have not won against a Spanish team in Europe's premier competition since 2010 and Madrid have been victorious in 12 of their last 13 against Serie A outfits.

Carlo Ancelotti has Karim Benzema among his ranks and the forward will appear in his 17th consecutive campaign as he looks for his 72nd goal to move ahead of Raul (71) into fourth in the all-time scoring list.

 

Manchester City v RB Leipzig: Guardiola's group stage dominance

Manchester City are unbeaten in their last 17 group-stage ties and, since Pep Guardiola was appointed, they have lost just three of 30 at this stage of the competition.

The hosts are eyeing their 50th win in their 91st game as they look to become the second fastest to the half-century, while RB Leipzig have lost three of their last four against English opposition.

City's attacking riches could thrive at Etihad Stadium, too, Ferran Torres has scored four in his last six appearances in Europe - a goal every 90 minutes - and Riyad Mahrez has been involved in 22 goals in 28 starts for Leicester City and his current side in the Champions League.

 

Liverpool v Milan: Istanbul replay ends Rossoneri's seven-year wait

Milan will appear in their first Champions League since 2014, their first fixture a replay of the memorable 2004-05 final that saw Liverpool triumph.

Stefano Pioli's men have won just one of their last 13 against English opponents in European competition, while the Reds have lost just one of their last 12 group-stage games at Anfield in Europe under Jurgen Klopp.

Mohamed Salah (25) is one of two Liverpool players – along with Steven Gerrard (21) – to score 20+ times in the competition but Sadio Mane (19) could join them with a goal on Wednesday to become the fourth African to the 20-goal mark.

 

Club Brugge v Paris Saint-Germain: Pochettino's attacking riches

Paris Saint-Germain have netted 21 goals across six games against Belgian opposition – winning five and drawing once – while Club Brugge have only won one of their six opening games.

Lionel Messi – the second all-time leading scorer in the competition – could make his first PSG continental appearance, having scored 120 goals and provided 35 assists in 149 games for Barcelona against teams from 17 nations.

The visitors also boast half of the six players to be involved in 30+ goals in the competition in the last four seasons, with Kylian Mbappe (37), Messi (36) and Neymar (31) all doing so.

Other fixtures:

Atletico Madrid v Porto:

41 – Diego Simeone has won 41 of the 79 Champions League fixtures he has managed since 2013-14, with only Pep Guardiola (56) picking up more wins in this period.

4 – Porto have won four of their last five away games in the competition, their only loss coming against eventual runners-up Manchester City last term.

Besiktas v Borussia Dortmund:

1 – Besiktas have only collected one win in their last 10 home games in the Champions League and two of four defeats in that run have come against Bundesliga sides.

100 – Borussia Dortmund have a 100 per cent record against Turkish opposition in the Champions League, though all four wins have come against Galatasaray.

Sheriff Tiraspol v Shakhtar Donetsk:

1 – Sheriff Tiraspol are the first ever Moldovan team to feature in the Champions League proper. They are unbeaten in their last nine in European competition.

3 – Shakhtar Donetsk have only been beaten three times in their last 11 games as they went unbeaten against Real Madrid and Inter in the group stages last season.

Sporting CP v Ajax:

36 – Aged just 36, Ruben Amorim becomes the second youngest Portuguese manager in the competition's history, after former Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas (33) in 2011.

2 – Ajax have only lost two of 10 games against Portuguese opponents since the inaugural European Cup. However, just two of these games have taken place this century.

Each of the top three wide receivers taken in the 2021 NFL Draft entered Week 1 of the season facing pertinent questions. Could Ja'Marr Chase shake off his drop-laden preseason and revive his rapport with Joe Burrow? Can DeVonta Smith excel despite his slender frame? Will Jaylen Waddle be able to mesh with Tua Tagovailoa again amid concerns over his college quarterback's arm strength?

It is important not to be a prisoner of the Week 1 moment. With the opening slate of games notorious for enticing observers into mistaken conclusions.

However, after all three played major roles in wins for the Cincinnati Bengals, Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins, respectively, the answer to each of those queries is, for now, a confident yes.

The trio all found the endzone in their NFL debuts, making league history in the process.

Indeed, the 2021 season is the first in common-draft era in which three rookie wideouts that were each selected in the first round scored on a touchdown reception in Week 1.

And their performances provided plenty of encouragement they will each vindicate their lofty draft statuses.

Chase the ace

The highlight of Chase's 101-yard showing in Cincinnati's win over the Minnesota Vikings was a 50-yard touchdown catch from college team-mate Burrow on a perfectly thrown ball on which the fifth overall pick took advantage of soft coverage from Bashaud Breeland.

But a receiver whose ability to separate was questioned prior to the draft also excelled at getting free from coverage on third down. Registering a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup on a play where he is targeted, on four of his seven targets, Chase finished the game with 14.43 burn yards per target -- ninth among receivers who were thrown to at least five times -- with an average depth of target of 15.7 yards.

His debut effort and the numbers he produced should raise hopes he can rely more on his route-running to beat defenders rather than the physical approach that defined his success at LSU.

Crimson Tide connection returns

Separating from defenders was never an issue for Waddle at the college level, with preseason concerns aimed more at his quarterback than the former Alabama star.

As a rookie, Tagovailoa did not produce much to suggest he would gel with a speedster who won his matchup with a defender on 78.1 per cent of his 2020 targets and averaged 19.96 burn yards per target to lead the Power 5 in his final year with the Crimson Tide.

Yet this pair of college team-mates also had their connection from 2019 cooking again as the Dolphins knocked off the New England Patriots in Foxborough.

They did so largely through intelligently adapting Waddle's traits to the short passing game, giving him chances to run after the catch and using him in motion to stretch and deceive the Patriots' defense, as they did on his touchdown that eventually proved the game-winner.

There was also a play that could have been plucked straight from Waddle's Alabama tape as he got a step on a defender while running vertically and worked his way back to the ball, leaping over the covering cornerback for a 36-yard reception.

With a burn on four of his six targets and 13.09 burn yards per target, Waddle's numbers did not quite match up to those of Chase but, if he continues to stress defenses working horizontally and vertically, he will be a substantial asset to the Miami passing game. 

Smith shreds Falcons

Waddle will have hot competition for the title of best Alabama receiver from this draft, though, at least if Smith continues on his early trajectory from the Eagles' 32-6 defeat of the Atlanta Falcons.

Open on six of his eight targets, Smith's six-catch, 71-yard showing was not one in which he relied on his excellent route-running ability, instead finding holes in the Falcons' zone coverage in a game where he was a favoured receiver for Jalen Hurts, who was second among quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts with a well-thrown ball percentage of 87.5.

Yet his 19-yard touchdown offered a snapshot of what he can do in that regard as he patiently released to the outside against man coverage, sending his defender into a pick play from tight end Zach Ertz. With open space now at his disposal, Smith accelerated before expertly tracking the ball into his grasp in the corner of the endzone.

For both Smith and Waddle, their early success was a continuation of how they performed in college, while Chase demonstrated encouraging progress in an area of the game considered to be a weakness.

Selecting a wide receiver in the top 10 is considered a gamble by many but the early payout from this trio suggests they may prove worth the risk.

Barcelona host Bayern Munich as two Champions League heavyweights headline the first round of matchday one fixtures on Tuesday.

Barca will be without Lionel Messi for a European campaign for the first time since 2003-04 as they seek revenge against the Bundesliga outfit.

Manchester United – armed with the competition's all-time leading scorer Cristiano Ronaldo – travel to Young Boys while reigning champions Chelsea begin at home to Zenit.

Italian giants Juventus make the trip to Sweden's most successful team Malmo, who are making their first appearance in the group stage since 2015-16 following their title win in 2020.

Here, Stats Perform takes a look at the key Opta data ahead of Tuesday's fixtures.

Barcelona v Bayern Munich: Blaugrana out to make amends

Barcelona and Bayern Munich have not met in the group stages since 1998-99, but the Bundesliga side did inflict Barca's heaviest defeat since April 1951 with an 8-2 crushing in 2019-20's quarter-finals.

There are remarkable records at stake for both sides as well, Bayern boasting the longest unbeaten away run in the history of the competition (18), while Barca are unbeaten in their last 22 group-stage openers – stretching back to 1997-98.

However, Julian Nagelsmann's side have won 17 opening games in a row and they also have Robert Lewandowski to call upon, the forward scoring 28 times since the start of 2018-19 – eight more than any other Champions League player.

 

Young Boys v Manchester United: Ronaldo returns for another record

Young Boys have won only one of 13 games against English opponents in European competition as they prepare for Manchester United, who have lost just one of their last 21 openers.

However, United have been beaten in six of their 10 Champions League matches under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – as many as they did in their last 20 under Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho.

Having not appeared for the Red Devils in 12 years and 110 days – the fourth longest gap between appearances for the same club – Cristiano Ronaldo could equal the all-time appearance record in the Champions League, moving level with Iker Casillas on 177.

Chelsea v Zenit: History favours the champions

The reigning Champions League champions have only lost two of 27 games when starting their title defence, with no side ever losing a home game immediately following continental success.

Zenit face an uphill battle, given they are winless in their last seven fixtures, while Chelsea are unbeaten in 11 games in the group stage.

Indeed, the Blues are unbeaten in six matches against Russian teams and, since the start of last season, no team have lost fewer matches (1) or kept more clean sheets (9).

 

Malmo v Juventus: Allegri's away-day specialists

Tuesday will be Malmo head coach Jon Dahl Tomasson's managerial debut in the competition after last appearing as a player for Milan in the 2005 final.

The hosts, though, have scored just three goals across 10 previous appearances, while Juventus have won their last five group stage away games.

The visitors will also have Alvaro Morata available, the forward one of only three Spaniards to score more than 20 Champions League goals after netting six times in eight matches last term.

 

Other fixtures:

Dynamo Kyiv v Benfica

143 – Dynamo Kyiv manager Mircea Lucescu (76) and Benfica's Jorge Jesus' (67) combined age of 143 is the oldest of two managers to face off in the Champions League.

25 – The hosts are one of 25 teams to play 100 or more fixtures in the competition, but they have the third worst loss percentage (49) behind Olympiacos (52) and Galatasaray (51).

Lille v Wolfsburg

1 – Lille have only managed one win against German opposition in nine attempts in European competition, last prevailing in 2002.

5 – Wolfsburg have won five of their last six Champions League games and have scored twice in four of those victories.

Sevilla v Red Bull Salzburg

64 – Sevilla's Youssef En-Nesyri is averaging a Champions League goal every 64 minutes, recording three braces for his six goals in eight games last campaign.

2 – Red Bull Salzburg have only won two of their last 15 matches in the competition, but both of them have come away from home against Genk and Lokomotiv Moscow.

Villarreal v Atalanta

15 – Villarreal forward Gerard Moreno has 15 Europa League goals but has never played in Europe's premier competition – since 1992-93 only three players have scored more and not played in the Champions League.

5 – Atalanta have won five of their last six away games, only losing against Real Madrid, while they have also progressed from their two previous group stage campaigns.

It just had to be, did it not? Cristiano Ronaldo, back at Old Trafford, of course he would get on the scoresheet.

Ronaldo netted not once, but twice in United's 4-1 defeat of Newcastle United on Saturday, announcing his return to the Premier League in style.

Meanwhile, a player who has established himself as one of the possible heirs to the Ronaldo (and Lionel Messi) throne at the pinnacle of the game reached a century of goals in the competition.

And after their worst start in generations, Arsenal finally found a way to win.

Here are some of the more curious Opta facts from the latest round of games.


Age is just a number for evergreen Ronaldo

Aged 36 year and 218 days, Ronaldo became the oldest player to score a Premier League double in over a decade.

The last player of more advancing years to do so? Well, another of the league's greats, of course. That being Graham Alexander of Burnley, who scored twice in a match against Hull City in April 2010 at the age of 38 years and 182 days. 

On the same day as Alexander was leading Burnley to a 4-1 win over the Tigers, Ronaldo played his second LaLiga Clasico. Real Madrid lost 2-0, following on from Barcelona's 5-0 victory earlier in the season.

Back to Old Trafford on Saturday, where Newcastle's dismal run continued. They have only managed one win at the Theatre of Dreams in their last 27 league attempts, while Steve Bruce, a former United stalwart, has lost 12 of his 13 games at his old stomping ground as a visiting manager, with his teams scoring just six goals over that run.

Ronaldo's gap of 12 years and 124 days between goals is the second-longest between two strikes by the same player in Premier League history, after Matt Jackson, who went 13 years and 187 days in between netting for Everton and Wigan Athletic respectively.

The Portugal superstar also broke Damien Delaney's record (11y 155d) for the biggest gap between Premier League appearances, with Ronaldo turning out for Manchester United again 12 years and 118 days since his previous game in May 2009.

Paul Pogba stands out on his own at the top of the assist charts with seven to his name already. He is the only player to have recorded as many as 10 assists in the Premier League in 2021, while his tally across the opening four games is the most any player has registered in the first four games of a Premier League season.

Mo moves into the 100 club

Liverpool's 3-0 win over Leeds United was somewhat marred by a horrid injury for Harvey Elliott. But the Reds were nevertheless convincing winners, with Mohamed Salah opening the scoring with his 100th Premier League goal.

Salah has reached his century in 162 games, with only four players getting there quicker. His team also moved onto a century in terms of attempts on goal across their four league games so far this season.

Their tally of 30 shots was quite remarkable, though Jurgen Klopp will want an improvement on the 10 per cent conversion rate. 

Sadio Mane had a game-leading 10 shots, yet only two of those hit the target – the Senegal star finally scoring in second-half stoppage time. It was the most attempts he has ever had in a Premier League game, and more than any other player has managed in any match so far this season (Romelu Lukaku having had eight for Chelsea against Arsenal last month).

Villa left reeling by Rom yet again

There must have been a collective sigh of relief around Villa Park when, as Aston Villa were preparing for life back in the top flight, Lukaku left the Premier League to join Serie A giants Inter.

But now the Belgian has returned to England and, as he has a knack of doing, back to finding the net against the poor old Villans.

He scored twice in Chelsea's 3-0 win on Saturday, his first goals at Stamford Bridge for any team, in what was his 15th appearance at the ground.

Lukaku has now scored in each of his last six Premier League appearances against Villa (eight goals) – only against West Ham has he had a longer run of scoring in consecutive games against a specific opponent in the competition (seven, between 2013 and 2016).

Arteta finally gets off the ground

The pressure might well have been too much had bottom-of-the-pile Arsenal failed to beat Norwich City on Saturday, but fortunately for Mikel Arteta, his Gunners side came up with the goods.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang sealed a 1-0 win in a match that saw Arsenal have 30 attempts, the most they have had in a league game since producing 33 against Manchester United in December 2017.

Remarkably, with Liverpool also having 30 shots against Leeds, the record from last season (29, set by Manchester City against Leeds in April) has already been surpassed twice.

This is Norwich's worst ever start to a league campaign after four games (zero points, -10 goal difference) and just the third time they have started a season with four league defeats.

Aaron Ramsdale, meanwhile, became the first English goalkeeper to make a Premier League appearance for Arsenal since David Seaman way back in May 2003.

Barcelona and Bayern Munich will lock horns on Tuesday in a tantalising Champions League group game at Camp Nou.

It will be the first meeting between these sides since last August in Lisbon, when they served up a 10-goal contest that will live long in the memory – although that's something Barca fans must wish were not so. 

Bayern were 8-2 winners in that quarter-final, utterly dismantling a Barca side who looked increasingly lost at sea with every goal that went in. It was a match with seismic repercussions, too: while the Bundesliga giants went on to win the treble, Barca sacked head coach Quique Setien, Lionel Messi asked to leave and the end of Josep Maria Bartomeu's presidency was hurried along.

It was also a statistical outlier in terms of more than a mere (massively) one-sided scoreline...

31 minutes of infamy

It was 1-1 after just seven minutes, a David Alaba own goal cancelling out Thomas Muller's opener, but that was about as close as the contest ever got.

Ivan Perisic, Serge Gnabry and Muller again scored before the break. It was the first time a team had conceded four goals in the first half of a Champions League knockout match for five years, and the fact all four of Bayern's first goals came inside 31 minutes was a record in the competition.

Luis Suarez got a goal back, but the game quickly descended into farce for Barca, with Joshua Kimmich, Robert Lewandowski and Philippe Coutinho – on loan from the Catalans – adding to the scoresheet. It meant Bayern became the first team to score eight times in a knockout game in the modern competition, as Barca conceded eight goals for the first time since an 8-0 Copa del Rey loss to Sevilla in 1946.

Expect the unexpected

Barca faced 26 shots in total, the most they have ever faced in a Champions League match along with a game against Bayer Leverkusen in December 2015, when they had already won their group. Their expected goals against figure of 5.72 was by far the highest they have posted in a game in this competition, the nearest being 3.44 against Borussia Dortmund in the group stages. Perhaps that was a warning...

It was certainly a game to forget for Marc-Andre ter Stegen in Barca's goal. He had never before conceded more than four in a Champions League match for the Catalans, saving just 38 per cent of Bayern's attempts. By contrast, he saved all but one of the 26 shots Leverkusen had in that game six years ago.

Big hero six

Of course, it was an occasion to savour for Bayern and their forwards. Muller's double took him to six goals in five games against Barca, more than any other player has managed in the Champions League (Andriy Shevchenko scored five against them). It also took the Germany international to 23 career goals in the knockout phase, a tally at the time bettered only by Messi (47) and Cristiano Ronaldo (67).

Lewandowski's goal took him to 50 in the competition for Bayern in just 60 matches. Ronaldo is the only player to have achieved the milestone in fewer games for a single side, having done so in 50 appearances for Madrid. Lewandowski also became the first Bayern player to score in eight consecutive games in the tournament, and the fifth overall.

Nelson's solemn

Even Coutinho enjoyed himself against the club where he has barely made an impact since his mega-money move from Liverpool. He has only ever scored more in a single Champions League game once – a hat-trick for Liverpool against Spartak Moscow in 2017 – and he had only managed four goals in his previous 20 appearances in the competition.

For Barca, the game descended into disjointed chaos after that end-to-end opening. Suarez ended up touching the ball in his own box as often as he did in Bayern's (three times), while Nelson Semedo endured a torrid outing a right-back, giving up possession 10 times and being dribbled past on three occasions. On average, he completed fewer than three passes for every one instance he lost the ball.

As for Messi, who probably thought this would be his last Champions League game for his boyhood club, he managed just 59 touches of the ball, his lowest figure in a game he started since the 4-0 loss to Paris Saint-Germain in February 2017. In the end, Bayern scored more goals than Barca managed shots (seven) in the contest.

On Sunday, four of the five quarterbacks selected in the first round of this year's NFL Draft will take the field for their debuts.

A quintet of franchises capitalised on what many considered to be an historic class at the position to select the prospects they hope will prove to be the long-term future of their respective teams.

However, so much of a quarterback's success is dependent on situation and it is likely the quarterback from this crop of rookies that initially stands out will be the one with the best supporting cast around them.

The consensus is that Trey Lance, the third overall pick of the San Francisco 49ers, is in the best spot. For now, he will have to play second fiddle to Jimmy Garoppolo and settle for only sporadic action as the Niners look to make use of his running threat.

When Lance does take over full-time, he will be playing the most important position on a roster that was seven minutes from Super Bowl glory two seasons ago.

While he may have landed in the most favourable scenario, 11th overall pick Justin Fields appears to have been dealt the worst hand, with the Chicago Bears unwilling to risk putting him out there in Week 1 with a talent-poor offense against the Los Angeles Rams despite a strong preseason.

Do the numbers back up the statements that Lance is in the best situation with Fields in the worst? And where do Trevor Lawrence, first overall pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets rookie Zach Wilson and New England Patriots starter Mac Jones stack up in terms of supporting cast?

Stats Perform analysed its advanced metrics to find out.

RUNNING GAME

1. Patriots 2. 49ers 3. Jaguars 4. Jets 5. Bears

The running game can be an excellent safety net that takes the pressure off a quarterback's shoulders.

Rushing the ball effectively is contingent on an offensive line that can open the holes and a back that can not only take advantage of those lanes but also create for himself.

In terms of run blocking, the Patriots are the standouts among the teams to select a signal-caller. Second in Stats Perform's projected offensive line rankings, put together using combined run blocking and pass protection data over the past three seasons, only two offensive lines league begin the season better prepared to provide the foundation for a successful ground game than that of New England.

Led by center David Andrews - whose run disruption rate allowed of 5.3 per cent was the best in the NFL at his position - and right guard Shaq Mason (6.3%), the Patriots' O-Line is one that should continue to excel at creating running lanes.

Damien Harris showed his ability to take advantage of those lanes last season when he averaged 3.11 yards before contact from a defender, 10th in the NFL, while making things happen for himself with 3.15 yards per carry on attempts where there was a run disruption from a defender.

When Jones makes his first start against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, he should have full confidence in being able to lean on Harris and the line to make his life easier.

The 49ers, whose starting running back Raheem Mostert averaged 3.28 yards before contact last season, might have a strong case for having the top running game should Lance's dual-threat ability take their ground attack to the next level.

Third-round pick Trey Sermon (4.85 yards before contact, 2.77 yards after contact for Ohio State in 2020) could prove an astute selection, though an offensive line 18th in run blocking in Stats Perform's rankings will need to take a step forward.

Still, their position is significantly more favourable than that of the Bears, who rank last in run blocking, making David Montgomery's 1,000-yard 2020 season all the more surprising.

Yet Montgomery was below the league average in yards before contact (2.54 per attempt) and after contact (1.84), hardly inspiring confidence that he can lighten the load on Fields when the Bears finally commit to him as the starter.

PASS CATCHERS

1. 49ers 2. Patriots 3. Jets 4. Bears 5. Jaguars

There isn't much use investing in a potential franchise quarterback if you cannot put weapons around him upon whom he can rely.

In terms of players he can target and trust, Lance has the edge over his fellow rookies, though no team to take a quarterback in the first round landed in the top half of Stats Perform's rankings by collective open percentage.

The Niners landed 18th on that list but conventional wisdom says they will be much higher should tight end George Kittle and top wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk stay healthy.

All three endured injury-hindered 2020 seasons, though Kittle still led all tight ends in adjusted open percentage (45.03%). He was first among tight ends with 3.9 burn yards per route (a burn is a target where the receiver wins his matchup with a defender).

Samuel's burn yards per route rate of 3.0 was particularly eye-catching because his average depth of target of 2.3 was the lowest in the NFL, the former second-round pick showing his skills with ball in hand with 12.1 yards after the catch per reception, best in the NFL.

Aiyuk, meanwhile, produced a big play on 33.1 per cent of his targets, third among rookie receivers with at least 50 targets, a breakout year appears on the horizon for the second-year wideout.

With an elite tight end and two promising wideouts, the Niners' situation is substantially better than Jacksonville's. The Jaguars' pass-catchers ranked last by collective open percentage.

Late free-agent addition Tyron Johnson is the sole wide receiver on the Jaguars' roster to have posted a burn percentage above the average of 62.5 per cent last year.

Johnson did so on 69.2 per cent of his targets and was first in burn yards per target (19.89) and second in burn yards per route (3.6) with an average depth of target of 20 yards.

This evidently skilled deep separator will be tasked with stretching opposing defenses while D.J. Chark (30.33% adjusted open) and Laviska Shenault (27.44%) must do a better job of beating coverage and taking advantage of the stress Johnson can put on opponents to lift this group from the cellar and give Lawrence more to work with.

PASS BLOCKING

1. Patriots 2. Jets 3. Jaguars 4. 49ers 5. Bears

Though most accept Fields is the most exciting quarterback on the Bears' roster, Matt Nagy's decision to not start him and protect him from an offensive line that can hardly protect anyone may be an astute one with Chicago facing Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and the Rams Week 1.

Eventually, Fields will have to take his lumps. There are good defensive players across the NFL by which he will one day be confronted, but a reticence to put him out there behind a line ranked 30th in pass protection by Stats Perform is understandable.

Starting left tackle Jason Peters is 39 and allowed a pressure rate of 12.4 per cent last term, the 10th-worst in the league. The interior of the line is also a substantial concern.

Right guard James Daniels is coming off a year where he gave up a pressure on 11.3 per cent of pass protection snaps. Cody Whitehair is at left guard having played center in 2020, when only three players at his former position allowed a higher adjusted sack rate than his 1.9 per cent. One of those players was this year's starting center Sam Mustipher (2.3%).

While Fields would have the NFL equivalent of a turnstile in front of him. Jones will head on the Gillette Stadium field with an O-Line that is the definition of solidity.

Though not quite the brick wall he had the benefit of at Alabama, the Patriots' line should provide Jones with excellent protection, ranking fifth in pass blocking.

Mike Onwenu ranked as the best pass-protecting left guard in the NFL and in Trent Brown, credited with one adjusted sack allowed on 162 pass-block snaps in his final season with the Las Vegas Raiders, and Isaiah Wynn, the Patriots have a solid pair of tackles to give Jones the time to prove his pre-draft doubters wrong.

The left side of the Jets' line could rival that of the Patriots. Mekhi Becton's pressure rate allowed of 5.5 per cent was ninth among left tackles in 2020. On his inside shoulder, rookie left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker conceded only five pressures on 387 pass protection snaps the last time he played that spot for USC in 2019. Wilson can afford to have great faith in that duo.

DEFENSE

1. 49ers 2. Bears 3. Patriots 4. Jets 5. Jaguars

Defense is often neglected when it comes to talking about a quarterback's supporting cast but, if a team has one that can stifle opposing attacks, it leaves more wiggle room for a young quarterback to endure the 'rookie mistakes' and not sink his team's chances of competing.

Lance's performances during the preseason, while exciting, indicated he is a quarterback who could be a little turnover-prone as he adapts to reading defenses at the NFL level.

San Francisco's is a defense that is strong up front and better than given credit for in the secondary. The 49ers ranked eighth in pass coverage grade, which was produced by multiplying each player's coverage baseline by a projected target share for 2021 with the results then aggregated at the team level.

On the front, Stats Perform projected the average Niners defender to produce a pressure on 11.5 per cent of pass rush attempts, putting them fourth in the NFL.

Though there is great depth on the defensive line, much of that projection is built on Nick Bosa, getting back to his Defensive Rookie of the Year levels of 2019, when he had a pressure rate of 28.3 per cent, after suffering a torn ACL in Week 2 last year. With Bosa healthy and Fred Warner the premier all-round linebacker in the NFL, the Niners have a defense that could help them contend amid bumps in the road for Lance.

The Bears don't have many areas where they can be considered to be the best in the NFL, yet their front seven has a strong claim. The average Chicago pass rusher is projected to produce a pressure on 11.4% of pass rush attempts and the average run defender is forecast to cause a run disruption 10.2% of the time.

While Chicago's front may be well-rounded, their secondary looks extremely shaky, as illustrated by the Bears' ranking of 22nd in pass coverage grade. Jaylon Johnson enjoyed an encouraging rookie season at corner yet, with Kindle Vildor set to start across from him having only started one game in his brief career, there is clear a potential weakness for opponents to target.

The Patriots have no such problems on the back end, at least when the absent Stephon Gilmore is on the field. New England are seventh in coverage grade, and with linebacker D'Onta Hightower returning and the addition of edge rusher Matthew Judon, they will hope their front seven can dramatically outperform the projection of a pressure from a defender on just 9.51% of attempts.

New York's pass rush suffered a substantial blow when free agent signing Carl Lawson, who had a pressure rate of 22.3% that was seventh in the NFL last season, was lost for the year due to a ruptured Achilles. Without him, the average Jets defender is predicted to cause pressure 10.34% of the time, and there is an even greater onus on defensive tackle Quinnen Williams to carry his 2020 emergence into this year.

The Jets' hopes of the defense offering support to Wilson may be dashed should the front prove unable to lift a secondary bereft of talent beyond safety Marcus Maye, New York entering the season 23rd in pass coverage grade.

A lack of pass-rushing options beyond Josh Allen, who took a step back in an injury-affected 2020, contributed to the Jaguars' mediocre projected pressure rate of 10.18% and, with Jacksonville just above the Jets and Bears in 21st in coverage grade, they need cornerback Shaquill Griffin to live up to his lucrative free agency pricetag to elevate the play in the defensive backfield and ensure Lawrence is not tasked with coming through a shootout every week.

OVERALL

1. Patriots 2. 49ers 3. Jets 4. Bears 5. Jaguars

Aided by an offensive line that excels in both facets, a running back seemingly primed for a breakout year and a defense restocked with players returning from opt-outs and quality free agents, Jones will head into his NFL debut with the top supporting cast of any of the rookies.

The most important thing in Jones' favour, though, is his head coach, as he will benefit from playing for the greatest coach of all-time in Bill Belichick, whose incredible expertise on the defensive side of the ball should prove a significant help to the former Alabama star as he adapts to different looks from opponents.

Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan's play-calling acumen will give Lance an advantage most quarterbacks in the league do not enjoy when he hits the field, with the weapons they boast on both sides of the ball meaning he will likely take over a team headed for the playoffs when he eventually displaces Garoppolo.

Wilson has the luxury of playing for two Shanahan disciples in head coach Robert Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur. The early signs have been promising in terms of him settling into LaFleur's offense but Saleh will need to do a particularly impressive coaching job on defense to turn them into a unit capable of making Wilson's life easier.

Fields may get help in that respect from the defensive front and will have one of the most underrated wide receivers in the NFL in Allen Robinson. He and Lawrence were deemed by many to be the best quarterbacks in the 2021 class, however, due to the holes on both sides of their respective rosters, it is they who have the most obstacles to immediate success in front of them.

Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Odell Beckham Jr, Nick Chubb. Sunday's enticing playoff rematch between the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns at Arrowhead Stadium is one swimming with star names.

Yet the X-factor of a matchup that could prove pivotal in the AFC postseason race may be a right tackle who has not played an NFL regular-season game.

Chiefs offensive lineman Lucas Niang opted out of the 2020 season but now has been entrusted with helping protect Patrick Mahomes.

In fairness to Niang, he is not alone in being an inexperienced player on a Kansas City O-Line remodelled after the Chiefs gave up 33 pressures in their Super Bowl LV loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Chiefs are set to start two rookies on the interior of the line in center Creed Humphrey, a second-round pick, and sixth-round selection Trey Smith.

But Niang, who is for all intents and purposes a rookie after his decision not to play last year, is the player with the most difficult task.

On the right side of the line, he will be tasked with shutting down the Cleveland Browns' left defensive end, Myles Garrett.

Sixth in sacks since entering the league as the consensus best player in the 2017 draft with 42.5 in 51 games, Garrett has established himself as one of the most feared pass rushers in the NFL.

His pressure rate last year was 21.5 per cent, a drop-off from a 2019 season when he posted a 26.7% pressure rate that was eighth among edge rushers with at least 200 snaps at that position in a Defensive Player of the Year calibre campaign ended by suspension.

In other words, Niang will be facing an elite pass rusher who, unlike last season, has had the benefit of a full offseason.

There is only a limited sample size to judge Niang's ability to keep Garrett in check, though the numbers from his last college season at TCU in 2019 are encouraging.

He allowed nine pressures on 126 pass protection snaps and was not credited with giving up a single adjusted sack.

With the size and arm length to lock on to pass rushers, theoretically Niang has the tools he needs to nullify defenders as he did in college.

Yet, Garrett represents a massive step up from what Niang faced at TCU. As such, expect him to receive plenty of assistance against Garrett from tight end Kelce and from running backs when they are drafted in to help in protection.

Garrett had seven pressures, his fifth-most in any 2020 game, and a sack in the Browns' 22-17 playoff loss to the Chiefs. However, he is a player who can decimate bad offensive lines, as evidenced by his 15 pressures against the Cincinnati Bengals last year.

The challenge for Niang is to prevent him from having such a telling impact. His success in doing so will have a significant influence on the Chiefs' ability to maintain superiority over one of their key AFC rivals.

There was more than a hint of inevitability about the impact of Cristiano Ronaldo on his second Manchester United debut, as his two goals inspired a 4-1 victory over Newcastle United at Old Trafford on Saturday.

Wearing United red for the first time since May 2009, Ronaldo looked eager to impress right from the start as he ran at the Newcastle defence and went for goal at almost every opportunity.

His first attempt of the day was one he would have wanted to get past quickly – a wild, left-footed air kick saw him completely miss the ball and fall on his backside, much to the amusement of the visitors' supporters.

But he did find the net late in the first half and then again in the second, setting United on their way to an ultimately straightforward win, even if Newcastle gave them something to worry about with Javier Manquillo's equaliser.

Following his second United 'debut', Stats Perform looks at the data behind his display.

Woodman topples

It's worth saying nice and early that Ronaldo was fortunate with his two goals on this occasion. Freddie Woodman endured quite the nightmare in Newcastle's goal.

While the former England youth international had generally acquitted himself well during the early weeks of the season, on Saturday he palmed Mason Greenwood's effort right to Ronaldo for the first goal, and then saw the Portugal captain shoot through his legs for the second.

While only the first counts as an 'error' in Opta definitions, the fact xGOT (expected goals on target) conceded data puts him at fault for 1.89 goals in that game is rather damning.

In that sense, it was the third-worst goalkeeping performance of the 2021-22 season to this point.

There's debuts and then there's debuts

Cast your mind back to August 2003. Alex Ferguson brought on this gangly teenager, with blond streaks in his hair that made it seem like he'd had chewing gum rubbed it in by the school bully.

Bolton Wanderers were party to a dazzling array of party tricks and stepovers in Ronaldo's 29-minute cameo on that occasion.

He attempted seven – and completed five – dribbles in that brief outing as Ronaldo gave the Bolton defence the runaround. But, now 36, this Ronaldo is entirely different.

While he still undoubtedly looked comfortable on the ball, Ronaldo didn't attempt a single dribble against Newcastle on Saturday, instead his focus very much on finding the back of the net.

Back in 2003 he was all about the flash, those seven dribbles not supplemented by a single shot, whereas this time he had six goal attempts. Sure, only two were on target and, as we've said, Woodman gifted him both goals, but you have to speculate to accumulate.

Longevity quantified

Ronaldo's finishing has drawn praise since his scintillating 2007-08 season, where he scored 42 goals, but if there's one aspect of his on-pitch significance that his United return has highlighted the most, it's arguably his longevity.

Of course, Serie A experts may tell you Ronaldo's presence was at times to the detriment of the team effort at Juventus. That may be true, but his ability to keep plundering the goals was undeniable.

He may be 36, but Ronaldo has arrived at United on the back of a season in which he was unmatched in front of goal in Italy's top flight.

Ronaldo's longevity is best identified by the fact he set a new record for the gap between two Premier League appearances (12 years, 118 days).

On top of that, his goals came 12 years and 124 days after his last in the English top flight – only Matt Jackson (13 years, 187 days) has gone longer in Premier League history.

This rolling back of the years made Ronaldo, at 36 years and 218 days, the oldest player to score a double in a Premier League match since Graham Alexander for Burnley against Hull in April 2010. Alexander was 38 years and 182 days old. Few at this stage would bet against Ronaldo remaining a goal threat by the time he reaches a similar age.

The NFL returned in spectacular fashion on Thursday as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers edged the Dallas Cowboys in a thriller.

It is a remarkable appetiser to the main course of Week 1, which sees 14 more games on Sunday and another on Monday between the Baltimore Ravens and Las Vegas Raiders.

There is a mouth-watering playoff rematch to behold at Arrowhead Stadium, while a clutch of rookie quarterbacks will attempt to make sure their first steps in the league are successful ones.

Ahead of what should be an enthralling opening week, Stats Perform looks at some of the most interesting facts from Sunday's biggest games.

Cleveland Browns @ Kansas City Chiefs

Revenge will be on the minds of the Browns in the most enticing matchup of the opening week, Cleveland aiming to upset the odds after falling short against the Chiefs in the Divisional Round of last season's playoffs.

History, though, is firmly against Cleveland. The Chiefs have won three straight games against the Browns dating back to 2013, while Andy Reid is 7-0 in his career as a head coach versus the Browns, one of three teams he is undefeated against. The others are the Chiefs (3-0) and his former team the Philadelphia Eagles (2-0).

Kevin Stefanski led the Browns to an 11-5 record in 2020, his first year as an NFL head coach. It was the most wins in a season by the Browns since 1994 (also 11 wins). The last time the Browns won at least 10 games in back-to-back seasons was 1986 to 1988 (three straight).

The Chiefs set a franchise record with 14 wins in 2020 and played in the Super Bowl for the second straight season, with Kansas City the favourites to be the AFC's representative in the February showpiece yet again. Only three teams have ever made the Super Bowl in three straight seasons – the Buffalo Bills (four, 1990-93), New England Patriots (three, 2016-18) and Miami Dolphins (three, 1971-73).

Pittsburgh Steelers @ Buffalo Bills

The Bills were a game away from the Super Bowl last season and enter this clash between a new AFC heavyweight and a seemingly fading force on a regular-season winning streak.

In a campaign that saw them go 13-3 and post their best record since 1991, the Bills finished the regular season with six straight wins averaging an NFL-best 38.2 points during that span.

Pittsburgh began last season 11-0, then dropped four of their last five games, finishing with an opening-round exit to the Browns in the playoffs. The Steelers were the first team to start 11-0 since the 2015 Carolina Panthers.

And the Steelers will be looking to avoid a third straight defeat to the Bills, who made it two successive wins over Pittsburgh with last season's 26-15 victory in Week 14. The Steelers had won nine of the previous 10 meetings dating back to 1993. 

Green Bay Packers @ New Orleans Saints

The Drew Brees era is over for the Saints, who have selected Jameis Winston as his successor at quarterback. The Packers have a talented defense but the often-erratic Winston's past form suggests he should move the ball against them. Winston has averaged 12.62 yards per completion over his career, the highest mark by any QB who has debuted in the past 30 years (minimum 1,500 completions).

Two perennial NFC powers, games between New Orleans and Green Bay have been consistently high-scoring affairs. The Saints and Packers have combined to average 52.0 points per game in their 26 all-time meetings, the highest average between any two NFL teams who have met at least 20 times.

Green Bay won 13 games in each of the last two seasons but failed to make the Super Bowl in either one. The Packers joined the 2018-19 Saints as the only teams in the Super Bowl era to win 13+ games in back-to-back seasons but miss the Super Bowl in both.

Elsewhere...

It will be a season partially defined by the performance of the rookie quarterbacks, with four of the five drafted in the first round seemingly set to feature in Week 1.

The Jacksonville Jaguars drafted Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence with their first-ever number one overall pick. When he lines up against the Houston Texans, Lawrence will be the eighth different QB to start a season opener for the Jaguars since 2010, tied for second most in the NFL behind the Browns (nine). 

Second overall pick Zach Wilson is set to become the 49th starting quarterback in New York Jets history when they face the Carolina Panthers and his predecessor Sam Darnold. No Jets quarterback has started every game of a season since Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2015, which happens to be the last time the Jets had a winning record (10-6).

Trey Lance will likely see sporadic action for the San Francisco 49ers versus the Detroit Lions. However, if Jimmy Garoppolo's spotty injury history continues in 2021, Lance could soon become the undisputed starter. Garoppolo was limited to six games last season. In three of the games, Garoppolo passed for multiple touchdowns with no interceptions. In the other three, Garoppolo had no touchdown passes and at least one interception.

The New England Patriots have used just four starting quarterbacks in their season openers since 2000, with Mac Jones poised to be the fifth as he looks to become the long-term successor to Tom Brady. Only the Packers (two) and Saints (three) have had fewer season-opening starters in that span – the NFL average in that time is 7.5 quarterbacks.

Cristiano Ronaldo will pull on the Manchester United shirt for the first time in over 12 years on Saturday, with the five-time Ballon d'Or winner all set for his second Red Devils debut.

Ronaldo secured his return to United at the end of the most recent transfer window, with the deal reportedly set to cost an initial £12.9million (€15m).

But it's fair to say the player United have re-signed is rather different to the one they sold for a then world-record fee.

Then a flying winger, Ronaldo has adapted his game as he's grown older and is now a clinical penalty box poacher – diminishing goal returns he may have, but 36 in all competitions last season would still have had him as the leading goalscorer in English football.

Saturday's visit of Newcastle United will provide Ronaldo with the opportunity to make his return, and ahead of that match, Stats Perform has used Opta data to look at how the formerly flamboyant trickster has altered his game since his Old Trafford departure in 2009.

Positional sense

In his final league game with United – a goalless draw against Arsenal in May 2009 – Ronaldo played on the right, though was given license to roam infield and exert his influence, as had been the case for much of a season in which he scored 26 goals across all competitions. 

However, only five of his touches on the day came inside Arsenal's penalty area, with the majority out on the right wing and a cluster from an advanced, central position. 

Contrast that appearance with his final Serie A start for Juve back in May, when he scored in a 3-2 Derby d'Italia triumph against Inter: only three touches in the area but fewer overall, heavily weighted to the centre of the pitch.

It speaks to the way Ronaldo has greatly changed his game over the past 12 years. 

During his time at United, he netted 115 goals in all competitions, making him the club's leading scorer in that six-year span from 2003 to 2009. In his final season at Old Trafford, Ronaldo scored eight goals from outside of the area – a feat he matched in four of the next five seasons and surpassed in the other, with 10 in 2011-12 (his third season at Madrid).

Yet by his final season at Juve, Ronaldo had refined his game to become the poacher United are adding to their squad. Across his three seasons at Juve, the 36-year-old scored just seven times from outside the area, from a total of 101 goals.

Wing wizard to penalty box king

During his formative years at United, Ronaldo's mazy dribbling and eye for a showboat caught the eye. It is no surprise, then, to see the numbers back this up. In 2004-05, he attempted 9.55 dribbles per 90 minutes, a career high. 

As he grew in stature, adapted to the rigours of English football and became a more powerful presence, rather than the wiry winger that burst onto the scene, Ronaldo's dribbling figures dropped – 8.22 in 2005-06, 5.65 the following year and 6.28 in 2007-08.

By 2008-09, Ronaldo's attempted dribbles per 90 were down at a relatively modest 4.73, completing 1.92. By the end of his last year at Juve, Ronaldo was down to 3.07 dribbles per 90, though his success rate of 61.7 per cent ranks as the highest in his career. He has not lost the ability to dribble, but rather picks his moments to do so.

Of course, there is less need for taking on the opposition when you are positioned in the opposition's area, ready to pounce on a cross or run onto a throughball.

Ronaldo's adaptation into a number nine had started before his move to Turin. Indeed, in his final campaign with Madrid, Ronaldo registered 1,913 touches in total, with 409 of these coming in the opposition's area – his highest total in the box in a single campaign.

Contrast that figure with his totals from his second season in the Spanish capital – just 82 of his 3,344 touches came inside the opponent's box as he scored 60 times in all competitions, a tally he bettered in 2014-15 (61).

The 2014-15 season was undoubtedly Ronaldo's zenith. Turning 30 halfway through the campaign, he was at his best in front of goal and creatively. His 21 assists were a career high, as were the 97 chances created.

If United are looking for a creative force now, though, they have chosen the wrong forward.

Ronaldo's 2008-09 season saw him create 82 opportunities and lay on 10 assists (at an average of 1.71 and 0.21 per 90). Last term, he created a career-low 1.15 chances per 90, with his average of 0.12 assists each game better only than the previous campaign with Juve.

Ronaldo averaged 50.6 touches per 90 in 2020-21, with 6.8 in the penalty area. In only four seasons, all at Madrid, did the Portugal captain touch the ball less on average, though his figure of penalty box touches ranks as the fourth-highest across his career.

Heads up

Looking back at images of Ronaldo's early days at United, it is hard to imagine how that rapid, tricky winger developed into one of the most feared headers of the ball in world football.

Ronaldo's leap – his ability to almost hang in the air at great height, while generating unbelievable power – is something few players have come close to emulating. It might as well be trademarked, at this stage.

If his all-round array of talents were not already enough, Ronaldo also gives Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's team an aerial threat that only Edinson Cavani brings. Cavani, another veteran at 34, can no longer play every game.

Ronaldo scored seven headed goals across all competitions in 2020-21, as many as Cavani and Everton's Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who were the leading players from Premier League clubs in that regard.

Since he left United, 70 of Ronaldo's 450 club goals have come with his head – no player across Europe's top five leagues has scored more, with Bayern Munich talisman Robert Lewandowski ranking second with 57.

With Luke Shaw rejuvenated as an attacking force and Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, Jadon Sancho and Paul Pogba all capable of brilliant deliveries, Premier League centre-backs should fear Ronaldo's leap in 2021-22.

Freddie Woodman could be excused for having nightmares on Friday night as Cristiano Ronaldo prepares for his second Manchester United debut against Newcastle United.

The 24-year-old goalkeeper has the unenviable task of attempting to stop one of the greatest players of all time – the newly crowned leading scorer in men's internationals – in front of a jubilant United home crowd.

It is a challenge that has proved beyond many of the world's best number ones, including former Newcastle stalwart Shay Given.

The last time Ronaldo faced Newcastle at Old Trafford, in January 2008, he scored three and United hit six...

RONALDO GOAL GLUT

This was a landmark game in a landmark 2007-08 season for Ronaldo, still less than a year on from his first Champions League strike and only now establishing himself as a prolific goalscorer.

The winger had an outstanding 19 goals in 24 games ahead of the visit of Nigel Pearson's Newcastle – days out from Kevin Keegan's second managerial stint at St James' Park – but was still waiting on a first career hat-trick.

Ronaldo was without a league goal against Newcastle, too, and that trend continued until half-time.

But the Magpies knew only too well how quickly he could take the game away from them; in the 2004-05 FA Cup semi-final, Ronaldo was booked for diving in the opening stages, then provided sublime assists for Ruud van Nistelrooy and Paul Scholes before adding a clinching fourth himself in United's 4-1 win.

Sure enough, a second-half onslaught was led by Ronaldo, whose free-kick crept past Given for the 49th-minute opener.

Carlos Tevez made it two following an awful clearance from Given – actually one of Newcastle's better performers, with seven saves – and then sent Ronaldo through for his second.

Rio Ferdinand grabbed the fourth, but all eyes were on Ronaldo again as he chopped past Jose Enrique and fired in a deflected effort to complete the treble.

"This is a very special day for me," he said afterwards. "It makes me feel very proud to score a hat-trick for this great club."

Ronaldo followed in the footsteps of Andy Cole, Van Nistelrooy and Scholes in scoring a Premier League hat-trick against Newcastle for United, a record number for one club against another that remains unsurpassed (matched by Arsenal v Leicester City, Liverpool v Arsenal and Tottenham v Southampton).

A controversial Tevez finish, which prompted Alan Smith's red card, had completed the scoring and made this a day of firsts, with no previous examples – and only one since, Hull City versus Fulham in 2013 – of a Premier League game goalless at half-time ending 6-0. It also equalled United's 1968 record win against Newcastle.

THE FIRST OF MANY

The hat-trick was not just a first for Ronaldo but also a last – at least until now. He did not score another treble in his initial United stint, although a trip to Tyneside a month later brought two goals and an assist.

Ronaldo will expect to improve that haul on his return, though. There were 44 hat-tricks in his nine years at Real Madrid and a further three in three seasons for Juventus.

His 48 since the Newcastle game leads players in Europe's top five leagues across all competitions, just ahead of great rival Lionel Messi's 46.

In fact, until now, Ronaldo's final season at United was the last campaign in which he did not net a hat-trick. That is a streak he will be keen to preserve – perhaps as soon as in this friendly first fixture...

MORE MAGPIES MISERY?

Ronaldo is yet to lose to Newcastle in all competitions, with his 11 such outings coming in the middle of a 19-game unbeaten stretch for United in this fixture – their best ever sequence.

Newcastle won four times against post-Ronaldo United, however, while the hosts' long undefeated run at Old Trafford – spanning all 23 home meetings under Alex Ferguson – was ended during David Moyes' tenure.

But the Magpies, now led by former United captain Steve Bruce, should again make for accommodating party guests.

Woodman has shipped eight goals already this season, becoming the 13th keeper to concede at least two in his first three Premier League starts, although little blame can be laid at his door – the one-time Under-20 World Cup winner has actually prevented 0.11 goals, according to expected goals on target data.

The Newcastle man has matched Declan Rudd's miserable record in facing a penalty in each of his first three Premier League outings, beaten on the rebound against West Ham on the one occasion he was able to add to the four spot-kick saves he tallied in the Championship with Swansea City across two loan spells.

Only three Premier League teams have given away penalties in four or more matches in succession, but Newcastle's haphazard defending suggests Ronaldo may well get an opportunity from 12 yards on Saturday.

Regular taker Bruno Fernandes' only miss in 22 attempts for United was against Newcastle, while nobody has dispatched as many penalties as Ronaldo (84 – 31 clear of second-placed Messi) in Europe's top five leagues since he left England.

On his big day, who could possibly deny the 36-year-old that sort of opportunity?

Domestic football returns this week after the international break, and with it being the first set of matches since the transfer deadline passed, there are some new faces to consider.

Though one of them will be very familiar to everyone – Cristiano Ronaldo is back at Manchester United and an interesting option for fantasy teams.

Newcastle United are the visitors at Old Trafford in what many may be predicting to be a one-sided encounter, though Ronaldo's by no means the only threat to Steve Bruce's men.

Stats Perform has picked out seven players potentially in action over the weekend who could be worth signing up to give your fantasy team a boost.

HUGO LLORIS (Crystal Palace v Tottenham )

Spurs have enjoyed a solid start to their new era under Nuno Espirito Santo, winning all three league games to make themselves early leaders.

They've also not conceded a single goal, with Hugo Lloris the only goalkeeper in the division to already have three clean sheets.

Up next is a trip to Crystal Palace, and while you can never guarantee anything in football, Patrick Vieira's men have struggled during the early weeks of 2021-22. Lloris is surely a strong shout for a clean sheet.

TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD (Leeds United v Liverpool )

The international break saw Alexander-Arnold become a hot topic of conversation again as his England career continues to stall – this time his performance in midfield attracting criticism.

Nevertheless, at club level there's little question that he'll return to his usual right-back berth, where he has excelled so far this term.

Leeds should offer the Reds stern opposition, but their style of play means Liverpool could be afforded a lot of space – if anyone can exploit that, it's Alexander-Arnold, given he has created five more chances (15) than any other player in the league and his six successful open-play crosses is a joint-high.

REECE JAMES ( Chelsea v Aston Villa)

If you're the type of fantasy football manager who loads their team with full-backs in the hope of the goal involvement/clean sheet double-threat, then you've probably already got James in your team.

But if you haven't, you may want to consider it.

The Chelsea wing-back is already on three goal involvements (one goal, two assists), the most among defenders and anyone in Thomas Tuchel's squad, and is part of a team that wouldn't expect to concede regularly.

ILKAY GUNDOGAN (Leicester City v Manchester City )

Leicester City have often been seen as a bit of a bogey team for Manchester City, so perhaps this is a bit of a wildcard choice.

However, Gundogan's enjoyed a stellar 2021 to date. His 12 Premier League goals is second only to Harry Kane (14) and has become an influential player in City's attacks over the past year.

He's probably not in the conversation to be anyone's captain, but his goals haul makes him a strong contender to at least get in your XI.

BRUNO FERNANDES ( Manchester United v Newcastle United)

Man Utd have averaged 2.9 goals per game over their previous 14 Premier League home matches, and with Newcastle taking just 10 points from the past 15 away games, the omens look good for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men.

With that in mind, the man usually behind many of United's goals is Fernandes, who is just two goal involvements from reaching 50 – only three players will have hit that mark quicker than him if he gets a couple against Newcastle.

Similarly, since the start of 2020-21, Fernandes' 10.3 expected assists (xA) is the highest in the Premier League and his 12 actual assists haul is level with Kevin De Bruyne as the most among midfielders.

IVAN TONEY ( Brentford v Brighton and Hove Albion)

He was the man who propelled Brentford into the Premier League with his goals, so when Toney got off the mark in the Premier League last out time out against Aston Villa, many will curiously wait to see if the floodgates now open.

That took him to 56 league goals (excluding play-offs) since the start of 2019-20, more than anyone else in the top four tiers of English football.

Granted, those came in lower divisions, but others before him have adapted to the Premier League – why can't Toney be the next Jamie Vardy?

CRISTIANO RONALDO ( Manchester United v Newcastle United)

Solskjaer's already said Ronaldo hasn't return to United to sit on the bench, so there's every chance the Portugal captain could make his second debut as a starter against Newcastle.

If he does, he will complete a formidable frontline for the Red Devils, regardless of who he's joined by, and given the mauling they handed out to Leeds United on matchday one, they certainly have big wins in their locker.

It's also worth noting that Ronaldo scored his very first club hat-trick against Newcastle back in 2008 – he couldn't do it again, could he? Either way, Ronaldo as captain this weekend looks a smart choice.

The consensus in recent years has become that the very best in the NFL predominantly reside in the AFC. It is a claim that is difficult to argue, given the Kansas City Chiefs' emergence as the most explosive team in the league, the rise of the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns and the consistency of the Baltimore Ravens with their dynamic running game.

Yet, in terms of sheer depth, the NFC might have the edge. It may be tough to look beyond the reigning champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and too many find teams that can legitimately hope to be lifting the Lombardi Trophy come February, but this is a conference swimming with playoff calibre competitors.

That plethora of contenders will all be hoping to topple Tom Brady and the Buccaneers after they crushed the Chiefs 31-9 in Super Bowl LV to claim their second title in franchise history.

The Bucs are still the unquestioned class of the conference, but who are teams with the best shot of usurping them and playing in Super Bowl LVI in February? Stats Perform attempts to answer that question as we preview the NFC ahead of Tampa Bay's season opener against the Dallas Cowboys.

Favourites

With Brady's arm seemingly somehow getting stronger in his mid-40s – he averaged 9.5 air yards per attempt, the fourth-most in the NFL, in 2020 – and the Bucs doing an excellent job of retaining a host of free agents that formed the core of their championship roster, Tampa Bay stand as the clear favourites to be the NFC's Super Bowl representative.

Yet it is important to remember the Green Bay Packers and MVP Aaron Rodgers were perhaps just a fourth-down conversion in the red zone away from knocking off Brady and the Bucs in last year's NFC title game. Save for departed center Corey Linsley and injured left tackle David Bakhtiari – not insignificant absentees – Rodgers will have predominantly the same supporting cast as he had last year, including Davante Adams, who led the NFL in receiving touchdowns (18) last term.

The pressure is on defense that forced only 72 negative plays (tied 26th) last term to provide assistance reflective of the talent the Packers have on that side of the ball.

Sean McVay's Los Angeles Rams have rarely had to worry about getting impactful defensive contributions. Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald is coming off a year that saw him post a monstrous pressure rate of 28.2 per cent while Jalen Ramsey is still one of the most feared cornerbacks in the league.

If the defense can continue to thrive without coordinator Brandon Staley – who will coach in the same stadium but as the head man with the Chargers – and the marriage of new quarterback Matthew Stafford and innovative play-caller McVay proves successful, the Rams could be the team that defies Brady having failed to do so against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.

In the mix

The San Francisco 49ers were seven minutes away from ending the 2019 season with triumph in Super Bowl LIV, only to be undone by a stunning late barrage from Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.

Their hopes of going one better were decimated by a relentless wave of injuries, however, the Niners are healthy going into this season and offer one of the deepest rosters in the NFL along with the league's most compelling quarterback situation.

It is unclear when rookie third overall pick Trey Lance – an exciting dual-threat quarterback who tallied 42 total touchdowns and no interceptions in his only full season of college football at North Dakota State – will be ready to take over from Jimmy Garoppolo. Yet, as long as one of their quarterbacks can elevate a talented cast of skill-position players and an extremely well-stocked defense that gets edge rusher Nick Bosa – 28.3 per cent pressure rate in 2019 – back from a torn ACL can stay in the league's top 10, San Francisco will be a threat.

The Niners do have the inconvenience of being in the same division as the Rams and the Seattle Seahawks, whose head coach Pete Carroll may be starting to feel the pressure to deliver with his team having consistently reached the playoffs but failed to go beyond the Divisional Round since their Super Bowl loss at the end of 2014 season.

Seattle do not possess a roster as well-rounded as that of the Niners, yet quarterback Russell Wilson is one who can keep them in any game. Wilson, and therefore the Seahawks, cannot be counted out.

The Dallas Cowboys are more of a longshot and their defense is one ill-prepared to go deep into the postseason. Still, in a league where offense is king, the Cowboys have the attack – provided Dak Prescott is healthy – to outduel opponents having put up 509.5 net yards per game before their quarterback's 2020 season was ended by injury in Week 5.

Sleeper team to watch – Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons appear to be a franchise resisting the reality staring them in the face. Having replaced Dan Quinn with former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, the Falcons had the chance to get a jump-start on a rebuild by taking a quarterback with the fourth overall pick in the draft as the successor to the 36-year-old Matt Ryan.

Instead, the Falcons settled on Florida's stud tight end Kyle Pitts, a move more in keeping with a team ready to win now. With Pitts, who won his matchup with a defender on 70.1 per cent of targets in 2020, joining Ryan and an already talented cast of pass-catchers, the Falcons arguably have an offense that can score at a rate to keep them in the mix.

Wide receiver Calvin Ridley is one of the most dynamic weapons in the conference who racked up 1,374 receiving yards (tied fifth in the NFL) last year. Having to defend both Ridley and Pitts will present a massive dilemma for opposing defenders and, if blitz-heavy new Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees can improve a unit that was tied-20th in the NFL last year with 29 sacks for negative yardage, Atlanta could have the ingredients for a successful season.

The Falcons are stuck in a void between wanting to contend and needing to rebuild. Should the success Smith had as a play-caller in Tennessee continue in Atlanta, their dreams of contention could be realised.

Best Division – NFC West

The biggest barrier to the Rams, Seahawks and 49ers posting a record to put themselves in the conversation for the number one seed in the conference is that they all reside in the same division, one which also contains an Arizona Cardinals team that was 6-3 at one point last campaign before collapsing to an 8-8 record.

With the Cardinals possessing one of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in the league in the form of Kyler Murray and an All-Pro wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, the NFC West is a division that houses four playoff calibre teams as well as arguably the two best play-callers in the game in McVay and 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.

Blowouts in the division are rare and all four have proven in recent times that they can deal damaging blows to each other. As this quartet feels the pressure to make the postseason, they promise to produce some of the most fascinating matchups of 2021.

Worst Division – NFC East

The East is the antithesis of the West, with four flawed teams and questionable quarterback situations for every team except Dallas.

Prescott's injury helped the Washington Football Team reach the playoffs with a 7-9 record in 2020, illustrating just how far what was once seen as the league's glamour division has fallen.

Washington will have the entertaining but erratic Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback while New York Giants signal-caller Daniel Jones and his offensive line look ill-prepared to propel them to the playoffs. Jalen Hurts brings dual-threat intrigue for the Philadelphia Eagles, yet theirs is a roster that likely has too many holes for him to overcome.

This is a division that will likely hinge on Prescott's ability to stay healthy and the performance of Washington's young and talented defense, but do not expect it to be an entertaining battle.

MVP Candidates

His offseason staring contest with the Packers in the rearview mirror, Rodgers will be in the running for his fourth MVP award should Green Bay again go deep into the playoffs and he replicates a 2020 campaign that saw him deliver an accurate well-thrown ball on 82.4 per cent of attempts, the third-highest ratio in the league.

Aaron Donald perennially loses out to quarterbacks, and it is tough to see what else the Rams' All-Pro defensive tackle can do to put himself over the top. Donald led the league with a remarkable pressure rate of 28.2 per cent in 2020 as he took home Defensive Player of Year honours.

His new team-mate Stafford could be in the mix if the former Detroit Lion proves the major upgrade on Jared Goff many expect him to be while Wilson will surely have a compelling claim if the Seahawks offense can sustain the level that saw Seattle lead the league with 298.1 net passing yards per game last year from Week 1 to Week 9 in 2020 for the entire season.

The elephant looming over the conference, though, is Brady and the Bucs, whose offense took over the league in the final four weeks of last season season, Brady enjoying a deep-ball renaissance that, if it carries into 2021 and Tampa remain best in the NFC class, will make him a tough candidate to beat.

The NFL is back and, for so many across the globe, that means it's time to examine the matchup data and prepare fantasy rosters for Week 1.

Unless you've left it remarkably late, fantasy drafts are in the rear-view mirror and it's time to set the best line-up to deliver an opening-week win.

But which players are ideally positioned to help fantasy managers start the year with a victory?

Here, Stats Perform looks at four players and a defense poised to deliver big fantasy points.

Quarterback – Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals @ Tennessee Titans

The pressure is firmly on Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury and Murray to deliver in year three of their partnership after they collapsed from 6-3 to miss the playoffs.

But if the Cardinals make a disappointing start to 2021, it is more likely to be because of their defense than Murray, who can do great damage against a Tennessee defense vulnerable to the ground game and to what the Arizona quarterback can do with his legs.

Tennessee gave up the fourth-most fantasy points per game to opposing quarterbacks last season. The Titans' 6.84 yards per pass play allowed was the 11th-worst rate in the NFL, while they were tied for the 10th-most rushing touchdowns conceded with 18.

Murray, who had 31 passing plays of 25 yards or more, ninth-most in the league, and averaged the second-most yards per carry (6.15) last season, is ideally equipped to take advantage of those vulnerabilities and put together a substantially productive fantasy day.

Running Back – James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars @ Houston Texans

Robinson's stock looked to have been dealt a major blow when the Jaguars drafted Travis Etienne in the first round having selected his former Clemson team-mate Trevor Lawrence first overall.

But a season-ending foot injury to Etienne ruled him out for the year, meaning Robinson will get the bulk of the carries in the Jacksonville backfield.

He is coming off a tremendous rookie year that saw him rack up 1,070 rushing yards while averaging 2.34 yards after contact per attempt, the sixth-best rate in the NFL.

And he has the perfect matchup to carry that momentum into the new season, facing a Texans team in disarray amid the Deshaun Watson saga that gave up a league-worst 5.2 yards per rush last season.

If you have Robinson, start him.

Wide Receiver – Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers @ Detroit Lions

Week 1 often delivers some weirdness but, on paper, the Niners could not have asked for a better matchup than the rebuilding Lions.

The Lions gave up 7.85 yards per pass play, the most in the NFL last season, and their young secondary is one San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan should have little trouble exploiting.

Jeff Okudah, the Lions' first-round pick from 2020 and starting cornerback, gave up a burn – when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted – on 68.2 per cent of his targets. He conceded 15.28 burn yards per target, the third-most in the NFL.

As the 49ers' top wideout, Aiyuk will be frequently matched up with Okudah and, after producing a big play on 33.1 per cent of his targets – the third-most among rookie wideouts with at least 50 targets – in his first season, this extremely gifted route-runner has a clear opportunity to make a hot start to a potential breakout year.

Tight End – Dallas Goedert, Philadelphia Eagles @ Atlanta Falcons

It's difficult to get too excited about the Eagles offense, given it averaged 224 net passing yards per game since Jalen Hurts took over as the starting quarterback in Week 14 last year, 21st in the NFL.

But the two players who averaged the most targets per game for the Eagles in that time were their tight ends, Zach Ertz and Goedert. Ertz averaged 5.8 targets and Goedert 5.7 while playing a game fewer.

Goedert is the younger and more explosive of that pair and should command a higher share of the targets going forward. Facing a Falcons team that gave up 7.18 yards per pass play last year and conceded the third-most fantasy points per game to tight ends, Goedert's role in the offense is a recipe for him opening the season in stunning fashion.

Defense – Los Angeles Rams vs. Chicago Bears

Justin Fields will not be starting for the Bears against the Rams, and the first-round rookie might consider himself fortunate given the discrepancy between the talent on the Rams' defensive front and the Bears' offensive line.

The Chicago O-Line is 30th in Stats Perform's rankings, which is a poor position to be in at any point of the season but is especially troubling ahead of a matchup with a Los Angeles team that tallied 50 sacks for negative yardage in 2020.

Chicago allowed 23.8 per cent of points on giveaways last season and, with their O-Line facing reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, who beat a pass protector on 94 of his 103 pressures last term, the Bears appear poised to concede more points in that manner and reward fantasy players who invested in the Rams' defense.

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