Weeks 3 and 4 have always been key to my evaluation of who an NFL team really is. And this week 3 is a perfect example of that, because there are a ton of teams who have records that could be considered surprises or which, based on my observation, is masking either serious latent defects or a diamond within the coal. Let’s start with the game I will be absolutely glued to, Browns conflict or not.
THE FOOTBALLSICKNESS.COM GAME OF THE WEEK:
Memory or premonition? (Our guess? Buckle up, Tony.)
DALLAS COWBOYS AT HOUSTON TEXANS: This battle for 2010 Lone Star State supremacy looked interesting to me before the season started. Now? Utterly fascinating on numerous levels. The Texans have come out of the gates strong on what appear to be key adjustments to both attitude and philosophy. They embraced the challenge of the opener against the Colts, and ran the defending conference champions out of the building without Matt Schaub having to do anything besides turn around and extend the ball to Arian Foster. Last week, they came back from seventeen down against a Redskins team that beat these Cowboys in week 1. They’re loaded, they’ve won two tough games in almost polar opposite fashion, and as a result, they’re confident. The Texans have my full attention.
So do the Cowboys, but for very different reasons. They say the more desperate team usually wins. What I can’t decide is: Do the Cowboys know they need to be desperate right now? The “it’s darn near impossible to go 0-2 and make the playoffs” stat that everyone bandies about doesn’t concern me so much with this Dallas team. I think they’ll get the offense together and eventually be the class of the NFC East. But they’ve dug themselves a hole, and though I haven’t seen it, I’m guessing the 0-3 percentage ain’t better than the 0-2 percentage. And the Texans are no joke. You think they don’t want to smack the Cowboys around? And you think they haven’t learned the lesson these past several seasons that, until they’re there, they’re not there? I think they have. The desperate team might usually win, but right now, the Houston Texans are the better team, and they’re at home. Prove me right, boys. TEXANS 24, COWBOYS 20.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS AT SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: The Charlie Whitehurst Bowl! If Ryan Mathews, he of the Dreaded High Ankle Sprain, isn’t ready to go this week, the Bolts are in trouble. The Seahawks present some of the same challenges the Chiefs did two weeks ago- fast, physical defense, a couple of speedy offensive playmakers, and one of the most ruthless home fields in the league. Qwest is just a tough place to play, bottom line. (And, by the way, the 12th Man needs to be marketing itself in some way with “A Tribe Called Qwest.” Who do we talk to?) The Chargers are the better team, but this is still the NFL, and the difference isn’t a chasm. I smell upset. SEAHAWKS 23, CHARGERS 21.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS AT KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: If this game were at the ‘Stick instead of Arrowhead, I’d be picking the Niners by three touchdowns. I know it’s a short week, but after dominating the Saints and losing anyway (sound familiar, Vikings fans?), they’re going to be bitter, and Patrick Willis and Frank Gore bitter is not something I’d want to deal with. What Kansas City does is what the Niners are built to stop. If ever a game screamed out for more Jamaal Charles, this is it (see what Reggie Bush did to Willis before he got hurt? Pay attention, Todd.), and if they don’t get their playmakers the ball in space constantly, they aren’t going to win. The offense hasn’t been running off sustained drives- they only scored one offensive touchdown against the Browns. It’s a soft 2-0, and it’s about to be exposed. NINERS 27, CHIEFS 13.
NEW YORK JETS AT MIAMI DOLPHINS: We’re going to have to start assigning a curse just like the Madden to the Hard Knocks participants. First they lay an egg opening night while losing the centerpiece of their defensive line, then Revis goes down while getting posterized by the Slouch, and now the Braylon Edwards extravaganza. To say they’re dealing with a lot of stuff is an understatement. Meanwhile, the Dolphins, who by the way have won this division much more recently than the Jets, have gone a quiet 2-0 after handling the Vikings. They’re playing solid defense, balanced offense, and have done just enough to win twice. I think they’re itching to prove they’re relevant in a tough division. DOLPHINS 17, JETS 14.
GREEN BAY PACKERS AT CHICAGO BEARS: Fantastic early season Monday Night Football matchup. Let me spare you the suspense: the Pack wins this one. But it might not be easy. The Bears’ offense found some interesting spurts of rhythm against the Cowboys, and Jay Cutler in rhythm is a beautiful thing. Still- they don’t block anyone in pass protection, and they’re going to have to throw, a LOT, to have any hope of pulling off what I would consider a substantial upset. Meanwhile, Clay Matthews has 6 sacks in 2 games and Kevin Shaeffer was the Bears’ left tackle a week ago. The phrase “max protect” cannot be uttered fast enough. But then what? Is Johnny Knox going to beat Charles Woodson (who probably views Cutler’s pick propensity as a sure thing)? And does Brian Urlacher still have that safety speed to run with Jermichael Finley? No. And no. PACKERS 31, Bears 17.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS AT DETROIT LIONS: Here’s a faith tester for Vikings fans: What percentage of “worried” would you say you are about this game? Whatever it is, I bet most of you aren’t answering “zero,” which is what you would’ve answered 9 short months ago. And rightly so, in both cases. What’s clear is that the Vikings are nowhere near the same team they were a year ago without Sidney Rice, and without the seemingly instant chemistry that developed between Brett Favre and Percy Harvin in 2009. What is not at all clear, at least to me, is whether those are the only reasons the Vikings are playing so poorly, at least on offense. I’m deeply unimpressed by the O-line, despite the occasional gaping hole for Adrian Peterson. And Favre himself just doesn’t seem right, does he? It’s not just Rice being gone, and I don’t think it’s just missing training camp. It’s also having a brutally injured and surgically-repaired ankle that’s still healing. It’s also being 41 years old. Remember your dad’s 41st birthday? Riiiiiight. That. Meanwhile, the Lions have had their hearts broken two weeks in a row, and would no doubt love to deliver the kill shot to the Vikings’ season and Favre’s career. I don’t think they’re ready, but I won’t be surprised either way. (In other words, that sound you hear is the distant but distinct echo of a window slamming shut in Minnesota.) VIKINGS 23, LIONS 17.
CLEVELAND BROWNS AT BALTIMORE RAVENS: As a Browns fan, I’m tempted to go with the trusty “let’s just move on” line here. The Ravens should roll all over them. That said, we haven’t seen a very cohesive Ravens offense yet, and I’ll go ahead and wait till they play it to make the leap. The Browns haven’t played great offensive football, but the fact of the matter is this: but for one bad throw in each game, they’re 2-0 right now. But they’ve been awful in the second half, totally uncreative on offense, and devoid of any semblance of a killer instinct. They’re not going into Baltimore and winning. As a sidenote: James Davis might see the ball this Sunday. I’m excited about that. So I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice. RAVENS 23, BROWNS 10.
BUFFALO BILLS AT NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Man, it sucks to be the Bills right now. Last week at Lambeau, this week at Foxboro against a Patriots team that figures to be in the mood to run it up. Word of advice for Chan Gailey: you’re going to need to score in this one, sir. Please get it to CJ Spiller a few more times and prove you care about winning. Thanks. PATRIOTS A LOT, BILLS A LITTLE. (Fine. 34-10.)
ATLANTA FALCONS AT NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: I like the Falcons, but so far they’ve shown me nothing that leads me to believe they’re ready to challenge the Saints for division superiority. They just don’t have enough balance or weaponry on offense. The Saints, of course, have both of those things in spades. And they have an attacking, ball-hawking defense that just makes plays. They’ll struggle to maintain their usual dynamism without Reggie Bush, who aside from Drew Brees is the centerpiece of what they’re doing offensively down in the Big Easy. But they’re still a better team at home against a division foe. That’s a W. SAINTS 24, FALCONS 17.
TENNESSE TITANS AT NEW YORK GIANTS: Interesting matchup here, and one whose outcome will be determined by tempo (unless Keith Bulluck gives the Giants incredible notes). Whichever team can establish their ideal style of play will come out victorious. The Giants figure to come out throwing and try to put early points on the board, in hopes of minimizing the Chris Johnson-related damage. The Titans should, of course, feature a heavy dose of CJ2K, in hopes of minimizing the need for Vince Young to drop back. I like the Titans in a close one on the strength of a better D and CJ’s speed. TITANS 23, GIANTS 21.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS AT TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: This is another one I think merits watching more closely than perhaps the names of the participants might indicate. The way to beat the Steelers is through the air and with as much speed as possible (and get rid of it, Mr. Quarterback. Now.). The Bucs actually have that. Mike Williams is a legit NFL #1 right now, which is incredible for a rookie. Kellen Winslow is a tough cover. Sammie Stroughter and Michael Spurlock aren’t bad. Their run game will do nothing against the Steelers’ dominant front 7, so they’re going to have to chuck it. If they can find a couple of big plays, their D is good enough to keep them in it. They’re at home. And after all, Charlie Batch is playing. All that said, I’m taking the Steelers. That D is BACK. STEELERS 17, BUCS 13.
CINCINNATI BENGALS AT CAROLINA PANTHERS: If I’m reading these two teams right (and I think I am), this is a beatdown. The Panthers are giving Marvin Lewis, Mike Zimmer and their strong Bengals’ D the full week to prepare for Jimmy Clausen’s first NFL start. Good luck with that, kid. Don’t be surprised if either Leon Hall or Jonathan Joseph gets himself a pick six this week. BENGALS 31, PANTHERS 17.
WASHINGTON REDSKINS AT ST. LOUIS RAMS: The Redskins have to feel like they let a big opportunity slip through their fingers last weekend when Houston came back from 17 down to get ‘em. That Washington D is no doubt prepared to take their frustrations out on one Mr. Bradford. And with how impressive McNabb has been putting up yards in the passing game, the Rams will have a hard time keeping up. The Rams need to plan on a steady diet of Steven Jackson to give themselves a chance to win it in the fourth quarter. If it’s close, I think Bradford can win you a game with a little protection. But not this week. REDSKINS 27, RAMS 17.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES AT JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: The Michael Vick Era begins. Of course, the Kevin Kolb Era began and lasted all of 10 pass attempts, so how seriously can we take this whole ‘era’ thing when it comes to Philadelphia quarterbacks at this point? Regardless, the Jags can’t stop them with Michael Vick or Kevin Kolb, so the Eagles are going to get themselves a W this weekend. Just give it to Shady and call the slants to DeSean and Jeremy and get out of the way. Mike will hit them a few times and make a couple plays with his legs and that will be plenty. The Jags are a mess, especially on offense and especially at quarterback. Is that “California Dreamin’” I hear on the jukebox? EAGLES 30, JAGS 20.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS AT DENVER BRONCOS: This could get high scoring. I liked what I saw from both of these teams on offense last week. It was as if the Colts remembered who they were, and the Broncos started discovering it. The appearance of rookie wideout Demaryius Thomas had a visible impact on the Broncos’ O. He stretched the field effectively for Eddie Royal, he got open, he caught a touchdown. Kyle Orton is efficient, so if you have weapons to whom he can distribute the ball, he’ll be a winning quarterback. Speaking of winning quarterbacks, the Colts have Peyton Manning, so they’ll win Sunday. (You can expect similarly brilliant analysis on the Colts every week. You’re welcome. ) COLTS 27, BRONCOS 20.
OAKLAND RAIDERS AT ARIZONA CARDINALS: Last, and quite possibly least, we have a contest between two teams trying new quarterbacks. As a Browns fan, I feel like I can tell both of these franchises that they need to be drafting quarterbacks early next year, because I saw the Derek Anderson and Bruce Gradkowski shows up close not all that long ago, and they were…well, they were just awful. Frankly, I’m surprised the Raiders moved off of Jason Campbell so quickly, but I have to assume Tom Cable (or someone else) simply sees more likable qualities in Bruce Gradkowski at the moment. He does get rid of the ball, he has produced occasionally in limited action, and he’s well versed in the offense. It’s hard to argue too vigorously in Campbell’s favor. Meanwhile, Darren McFadden is making noise and looking to prove he is a feature back in the League, and if he can do ten more times what he did the first two games, I’ll be the first to describe him as such. I have no idea who wins this game. None. But I’m going with the Raiders by an eyelash. RAIDERS 23, CARDINALS 17.