Last Week: 10-6, pushing the season forecast to 21-11. I got suckered into too many road upsets last week, a trend that I continue here. Last week was one of those oddities where I was actually better against the spread than straight up, going 11-4-1 versus the house. I don’t expect that to happen again.
This is the highest scoring first two weeks of any season in NFL history. More passes have been thrown and more yards have been gained than any season kickoff before. Look for that trend to continue, but probably not as dramatically as teams settle into “correction” mode.
New York Giants (9) at Carolina Panthers (18): The injury bug has bitten the Giants, who will be without three starters on offense this week. A lot of teams are walking wounded, but losing their #1 receiver in Hakeem Nicks, their best offensive lineman in David Diehl, and their starting running back in Ahmad Bradshaw, not to mention key reserve receiver and special teamer Domenik Hixon, really puts the Giants behind the eight ball.
Ah yes, the Magic Eight Ball. That bastion of 70s and 80s teen culture, that staple of Spencer gifts back when people actually shopped at malls, that omniscient reporter of riposte responses. I’ll admit it, I had one and used it religiously I high school. Does that cute redhead from study hall like me? Signs point to yes! Will I pass the chemistry test? My sources say no. Is Mr. Suggs hair real? Outlook not so good.
Like Mr. Suggs’ fluffy permed hair, the Giants outlook is not very rosy. It’s real hard to see them overcoming all those losses on a short week after exerting so much energy and emotion in their dramatic comeback last Sunday. The Panthers looked like they found their stride offensively last week too, with a career breakout game from Brandon LaFell and the return of Jonathan Stewart. As long as the Panthers aren’t overconfident, they should prevail. Carolina 24, New York 20.
Sunny Game of the Week:
Atlanta Falcons (3) at San Diego Chargers (4): Amazing stat that floored me: This is Norv Turner’s 15th season as a NFL head coach, and this is the first team he’s had that has started 2-0. It says a lot about Turner’s cockroach-like ability to scurry away from danger even after you chop off a leg that he’s made 15 seasons despite perennially disappointing out of the gate.
The odds favor Turner extending his unprecedented early success. Atlanta travels across the country on a short week after beating the Broncos on Monday night. The Falcons really struggle running the ball, while the Chargers rank first in rushing yards allowed and 3rd in yards per carry defensively. Atlanta beat Denver largely on the strength of forcing early turnovers, but Philip Rivers appears over his penchant for throwing jump balls into triple coverage. San Diego’s return game has been excellent, controlling field position and giving Rivers shorter fields to navigate; only the Texans have made more trips to the opposing red zone (11) than the Chargers.
Yet the Falcons certainly have a chance. The Chargers have some running issues of their own, and it goes beyond the Ryan Mathews’ injury. The offensive line gets bullied far too readily, and it hasn’t taken opposing linebackers to snuff out the runs. Defensive linemen account for more than half the tackles on running plays. There is no way humanely possible that Dante Rosario scores three TDs against anyone but Tennessee, and the Falcons did a great job of shutting down Denver’s tight end attack. The Falcons passing offense looks great, and Matt Ryan appears to have taken the proverbial next step. Plus, does anyone really believe Norv Turner can keep this up? I mean, Norv is a great guy and a proven offensive mastermind, but what in his history inspires any confidence that his Chargers will not fumble away this early prosperity? In that vein, I’ll take Atlanta in what should be a very entertaining affair. Falcons 34, Chargers 30.
Philadelphia Eagles (6) at Arizona Cardinals (10): These two teams draw a great deal more skepticism than their fellow 2-0 brethren. There is an interesting division in the derision, too. Most folks accept that Philadelphia is talented enough to be 2-0 even though they’ve been lousy at converting yards into points and lead the league in giveaways with nine turnovers in those two games.
Meanwhile, people seem downright convinced that the Cardinals are a complete fraud, benefactors of freakish luck and sure to go on a 3-11 bender the rest of the season. Skeptics point out their ragtag offensive line, their moribund rushing attack thus far, and Kevin Kolb at quarterback. All are legitimate points. All also ignore how this team has won nine of its last 11, dating back to last season. The Cardinals’ defense is great, people, get used to it. I wrote about it in this week’s $.10 but it bears repeating: Arizona has legit playmakers at all three levels of their defense. Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell are the best 1-2 DL punch in the league. Patrick Peterson is quickly coming into his own as a dynamic corner, with Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes both playing like they’re 27 again. Daryl Washington is the best linebacker you’ve never heard of, and I’m still amazed that this is the same Paris Lenon who was a weak link on the winless Lions team. Scheme matters, and the Cards play one that is very disruptive and very tough in the red zone.
The Eagles are the better team and have played a more complete game thus far, and that gives them a distinct advantage. But there are two factors that make me think the Cardinals have a great shot here. First, go back to Week 10 last year, when Michael Vick threw for 128 yards and two INTs, less than what Larry Fitzgerald produced offensively (146 yards and 2 TDs) for Arizona in a 21-17 stunner for the visitors in Philadelphia. Second, Eagles center Jason Kelce is out for the season and that means reshuffling, a dangerous proposition when facing Campbell, Dockett, and the blitz-happy Cardinals defense. Still, I think Philly cleans up the turnover issues and converts more of their league-leading yardage into production on the scoreboard. I think having played a similar defense in Baltimore last week helps too. Philadelphia 23, Arizona 18.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (20) at Dallas Cowboys (13): The Cowboys are one of the most schizophrenic teams thus far. In Week 1 they rocked the Giants in New York, with Tony Romo playing like a MVP candidate and the freshly updated defense paying early dividends. Then they went to Seattle and were trailing 10-0 before the early games even ended, completely outclassed by the host Seahawks. Like so many other teams, this is a rudder game. We’ll know a lot more about which is the real Cowboys after this one.
The same could be said for the Bucs, who have played much more cohesively and tightly under Greg Schiano. After pounding a flat Panthers’ team in Week 1, they put up a huge lead on the aforementioned Giants before crumbling late. And they manner in which they crumbled, with Aqib Talib and Brandon McDonald both seemingly unable to cover inanimate object and the offense sputtering to a halt. The Giants laid out the blueprint on how to attack and neuter Tampa Bay. Let’s see if Jason Garrett has enough mettle to follow the blueprint and get his Cowboys to play well at home. I like the concept of the Cowboys playing their home opener, and also knowing that the Bucs are a legit threat to beat them. Even with a beat up secondary, I’ll take Dallas, albeit with low confidence. Cowboys 30, Bucs 24.
St. Louis Rams (22) at Chicago Bears (17): Chicago comes off its mini-bye with a long time to think about Jay Cutler’s churlishness and the wildly inadequate play of their offensive line. One of two things is going to happen there. Either the time off and home cooking smoothes everything over and they recapture the Week 1 form that made the Green Bay disaster all the more stunning, or it caused everything to fester and get even more tense. I’ve never been a big Lovie Smith fan as a coach, but this is where his steady hand and reassuring presence, not to mention his experience in dealing with situations like this before, really comes through for the Bears. I think we’re going to see a focused, united Bears team looking to take out some frustration and aggression on anyone and everyone. The Rams are improved, with Sam Bradford strongly resembling a #1 overall pick thus far, but I have a feeling they get to play the role of subservient victim in this one. Chicago blows out St. Louis in the Windy City, 34-16.
Buffalo Bills (23) at Cleveland Browns (29): My Cleveland people (hello Cleveland!) pointed to this game all summer as the game most likely to win for the home team. The Browns will not be favored to win all season, so this spread (-2.5) is as close as they are going to get. If Brandon Weeden plays more like Week 2 than Week 1, the Browns have a very real chance of winning. What got lost a little in Weeden’s improved play was Trent Richardson smashing, thrashing, and hitting the Bengals for 109 yards and a TD on the ground and another 36 yards and a TD receiving. His screen pass scamper for a TD encapsulates why the Browns traded up from #4 to #3 to get him, juking a defender to the ground, then running past a closing safety and over a corner in his path. Richardson should find similar success against the Bills, but Buffalo has a weapon of its own in CJ Spiller who is also quickly justifying top 10 overall draft status.
Spiller has been a pleasant revelation, emerging in the wake of Fred Jackson’s injury and jumpstarting the Bills offense. He is averaging over ten yards per carry this year, and he’s also chipped in 11.2 yards per reception. The rushing stat simply isn’t sustainable, but in this offense he can keep up the receiving proficiency. That is going to provide problems for the Browns, who have tackling issues on the back end. Buffalo strikes me as another team where we find out who they really are this week. Are they the team that got humiliated by the Jets in the opener or the team that annihilated the Chiefs last week? The answer lies within the two disparate performances, but probably closer to the latter. Probably. Bills 34, Browns 24.
Pittsburgh Steelers (8) at Oakland Raiders (28): I’m probably being charitable by ranking the Raiders at #28. Perhaps it’s because I only saw a smattering of their game action last week, namely the Reggie Bush highlight reel that led Bush to be AFC Offensive Player of the Week. The Steelers don’t have a Reggie Bush kind of weapon, but they do have a bevy of playmaking wideouts that can make life miserable for the Raiders. The Oakland run blocking scheme struggles against 3-man fronts, and few do that as well as the Steelers. How bad has the Oakland running attack been? They have as many fumbles as first downs, four apiece. I wouldn’t discount a spasm of unexpected greatness from Carson Palmer and the Oakland offense here, but Pittsburgh is the much safer play even on the road. Steelers cruise 27-10.
New England Patriots (11) at Baltimore Ravens (7): It’s hard to fathom that the loser here will be 1-2. Nearly every offseason power ranking had the Pats and Ravens as the top two teams in the AFC. It’s also hard to fathom the baffling decline of New England wideout Wes Welker. No player has more catches or targets over the last five years than Welker, and the Pats valued him enough to slap the franchise tag on him last spring. Yet he doesn’t start anymore, ceding that role to Julian Edelman. He didn’t even see the field until Aaron Hernandez got hurt last week. Volumes have been written in New England about Welker’s role, but I think it comes down to this: the TE-centric offense makes Welker’s inability to run downfield patterns a liability in terms of spacing. All those shallow digs and crosses only put him in the way of Hernandez and Gronkowski, both of whom are better, more versatile threats.
This is a rematch of last year’s AFC title game, and the bitterness of the loss clearly resonates in the mouths of the Ravens. They want vengeance, because they (rightly) feel they were the better team and won every battle except the one that truly counts, the scoreboard. If this were a TV show, new Ravens kicker Justin Tucker gets to kick a 32-yard field goal with 24 seconds left to win the game after Joe Flacco masterfully engineers a long drive from the Baltimore 11 to set it up. Hey, I kinda like the sound of that as an outcome. This is a national prime time game after all…Ravens 20, Patriots 17.
Kansas City Chiefs (32) at New Orleans Saints (25): The two most disappointing teams thus far square off in a game where the loser will be 0-3 and potentially three games out of first already. For teams with the aspirations of these two, you might as well throw dirt on the loser. That makes this a contest of desperation, and in times of desperation I always look at two things: the quarterback and the experience.
Both of those factors solidly favor the Saints. Drew Brees is off to an awful (for him) start but he’s still better than Matt Cassel. New Orleans might be down, but there are several on this team who have seen the bottom before and risen up. The Chiefs just don’t have that level of experience or resilience, though they did get off to a similarly wretched start last year before settling into mediocrity. Ordinary is just not good enough to win in New Orleans against the desperate Saints. This is my survivor fantasy pick of the week, great chance to use the Saints. New Orleans 33, Kansas City 20, with the Chiefs scoring the final 13 points to make the score look closer, as is their custom.
Cincinnati Bengals (21) at Washington Redskins (19): Washington suffered a big hit this week with the loss of top pass rusher Brian Orakpo and starting defensive end Adam Carriker, their best run defender up front. Last week’s loss to the Rams showed how immediate the negative impact of Orakpo’s injury could be felt. Washington depends heavily on getting a pass rush to help mask their deficiencies in the secondary, and when they don’t get pressure they are in trouble. Andy Dalton to AJ Green could be very potent this week. The Bengals have been uneven in their two games, both against division rivals. I like Cincinnati to play a more complete game even though it’s on the road, and Geno Atkins & Co. to make life tougher for RG3. Bengals 30, Redskins 27.
New York Jets (14) at Miami Dolphins (24): Raise your hand if you had Miami as the best run defense in the league. The Dolphins have allowed the fewest yards per carry of any team in the league, giving up just 2.2 yards per rush. They also allow a significantly lower completion percentage than the Jets, 55% to 66%.
The point here is to dispel the notion that the Jets are this defensive juggernaut. New York is solidly middle class across the board in defensive statistical metrics. And the infamous “Ground and Pound” doesn’t appear to be an effective game plan against the Dolphins. So why does my gut tell me the Jets are going to steamroll to a pretty easy road win here? I can’t answer that, but I’m not going to fight it.Jets 24, Dolphins 10.
Houston Texans (2) at Denver Broncos (15): There is a real fun sports radio debate here in Houston regarding the strength of the Texans’ defense. Some believe that while they’re obviously talented, their amazing success thus far is just as much a product of playing Ryan Tannehill and Blaine Gabbert as opposing QBs as any legit greatness by the Bulls on Parade. This game will definitively answer that debate, because Denver means Peyton Manning, Demaryius Thomas, and a solid offensive line. It’s also in Denver, a notoriously prickly place to visit.
The bookies still favor the Texans, and I do too. Houston has yet to turn the ball over, and the Broncos defense has not shown much of a propensity to change that. The 1-2 punch of Arian Foster and Ben Tate in the backfield are going to run over better defenses than this one. I also like the Texans’ ability to bring pressure between the tackles, which is the proven way to bother Peyton Manning. Be it JJ Watt and Antonio Smith crashing inside or Connor Barwin looping on a blitz or Brian Cushing playing the “sugar” role that Atlanta so effectively deployed, where he lines up all over the formation and mixes his attack, I like the Texans defense to find enough success here that allows the Houston offense to outscore Denver. There is an understated drive with Houston to prove they belong as an elite team, and a road win over historical nemesis Manning would go a long way towards establishing that credibility around the nation. Houston 20, Denver 17.
Detroit Lions (16) at Tennessee Titans (30): Of all the teams for the winless Titans to play this week, the Lions have to rank near the top of the absolute worst possible opponent. Chris Johnson has just 21 yards on 19 carries and has broken past the defensive line just once all year. Now he has to deal with Ndamukong Suh, Sammie Hill (quietly playing very well) and speedy gap filler Justin Durant behind the deepest DL rotation in the league. Even though Jake Locker has had good protection, he has been unable to attack down the field where the Lions are most vulnerable; Locker’s yards per attempt rank near the bottom and the Titans are 29th in passing efficiency. Detroit will not blink at throwing the ball 40+ times against a Titans secondary that has been routinely out of position and slow to react. Tight ends have proven a major bugaboo, and the Lions have a very good one in Brandon Pettigrew. Even though the game is outdoors in Nashville, the weather should be wonderful, negating that potential. I also like that Detroit gets Mikel Leshoure for the first time, a power runner with something to prove. Look for the Lions to play their best game of the year thus far. Detroit 33, Tennessee 20.
San Francisco 49ers (1) at Minnesota Vikings (27): The Niners sit atop my power poll thanks to their offensive efficiency as much as their defensive prowess. The stingy, tough defense is not a surprise. Alex Smith playing even better than last year surprises me quite a bit. God bless him, but I really didn’t think Smith had it in him to carry over the strong play he finally exhibited a year ago after years of being Blaine Gabbert before we knew who Blaine Gabbert was. Yes, Smith was absolutely thatbad for most of his pre-Harbaugh tenure.
I’ll admit it again: I still don’t believe he can keep it up. But I am more willing to give Smith some benefit of the doubt, and it stems from the overwhelming confidence and trust his teammates have in him. Arguably Jim Harbaugh’s greatest accomplishment in his coaching tenure has been his ability to sell the rest of the team on Alex Smith as Franchise Savior. It might have been even harder to sell Smith himself on the concept. I don’t know how he did it, and Harbaugh is a damned fool if he ever gives up his secrets, but this offense clearly believes in Smith and tried very hard to help him maximize his talents.
This is a game where Smith’s mettle could be tested, because the Vikings are not as bad as many people thought they’d be. Christian Ponder leads the league in completion percentage (you can probably win a bet with that one), and Adrian Peterson looks better every time he touches the ball. The Viking run defense has been solid, ranking 7th in yards per carry, and they’ve been good in the red zone on both sides of the ball. Cashing in those opportunities is paramount to knocking off the Niners, as Detroit showed Sunday night; field goals are not going to cut it. I expect the Vikings to surprise some people here with how well they’ve improved, and this is the sort of statement game that can help a team save an embattled coach’s job. But I think the Niners are just too good to fall prey to the Viking hunt. San Francisco 26, Minnesota 24.
Jacksonville Jaguars (31) at Indianapolis Colts (26): The Colts collected the first win of the Andrew Luck era last weekend. Wait a minute…I actually typed “Peyton Manning” there instead of Luck. It is so hard to mentally process the changing of the guard, even though it’s been 20 months since Mr. Manning suited up for the Colts. I wonder how often the Colts beat writers and even the players themselves get them accidentally transposed. Even with Manning, the Jaguars almost always covered at Indy, and I expect that trend to continue with the 3-point line here. Colts 17, Jaguars 15.
Green Bay Packers (5) at Seattle Seahawks (12): The Packers are well-rested after their defensive domination of Chicago, where Clay Matthews put himself at the top of the Defensive MVP rankings with a bullet. More important to this game, though, is the return of Greg Jennings. Aaron Rodgers has struggled, relatively speaking, without his top wideout. Jennings restores proper order to the wideout pecking chart, and that makes the whole Green Bay offense better. I really like the Seattle secondary, so having all hands on deck is critical for the Packers if they want to pull off the road win.
Unfortunately for Seattle, their own offense is not at 100%. The line is a constantly shifting entity, with bodies coming and going so often that game commentators have to keep referring to their roster cheat sheet to ascertain who is playing where. Russell Okung is slated to start, but a tackle with a bad knee is mincemeat when facing Matthews. As much as Russell Wilson has impressed, the Seahawks passing game has not fared very well. They rank dead last in passing yards per game and 31st in yards per pass. If you can’t beat the Packers down the field, exploiting the oft-horrific safety play in coverage, you’re not going to beat them. Green Bay reasserts itself in prime time, showing the doubters they are just fine, thank you very much. Packers 36, Seahawks 24.
Drinking in the Dorm Room Games
LSU 25, Auburn 10
Baylor 33, UL Monroe 24
Oklahoma 40, Kansas State 31
Oregon 52, Arizona 29
Florida State 29, Clemson 27