You know that “Back to Football’’ ad campaign the NFL uses every year, just before the regular season opens? It still has some serious shelf life even in mid-September this year, because it hasn’t been possible to focus much on the actual games so far through the season’s first two weeks, for reasons that need no explanation at this point.
So getting back to football sounds quite appealing about now. And maybe this week’s glamor game -- a Super Bowl rematch in Seattle -- will be everything last February’s Broncos-Seahawks showdown wasn’t. Suspenseful. Dramatic. We’d even settle for watchable.
Then again, if Atlanta’s complete 56-14 demolition of Tampa Bay on Thursday night is any indication -- bet there’s no breathless CBS press release forthcoming on the overnight ratings for that one -- perhaps Week 3 won’t be the respite we could all use.
• Last week: 10-6; Season: 20-12 (.625).
• Best pick in Week 2: Green Bay 26, N.Y. Jets 21 (actual score: Packers 31-24).
• Worst pick in Week 2: Tennessee 27, Dallas 17 (actual score Cowboys 26-10).
Below are my Week 3 picks. (Here was my pick for the Thursday night game between Tampa Bay and Atlanta.)
I’ve got friends who are Buffalo fans, and I know it’s difficult for them to buy in completely when it comes to their 2-0 Bills. Can you blame them? The memory of 2011 -- when Buffalo started 3-0 and was 5-2 when November arrived, only to collapse with eight losses in nine games for a 6-10 last-place finish -- is probably too fresh. But I do believe in the talent on Buffalo’s Jim Schwartz-coordinated defense this season, and if quarterback EJ Manuel can stay away from turnovers and keep distributing the ball to his playmakers, that’s a decent formula for success for Buffalo. The Chargers last week proved they can beat anyone in the league when they’re on their game, but I sense a San Diego letdown coming against a Bills team that has gotten a taste of winning and likes it.
Welcome to the Michael Sam Bowl, as the two NFL teams to employ the league’s most well-known practice squad member collide after posting impressive road victories last week to even their records at 1-1. I’m going to take a shot and predict plenty of DeMarco Murray in the game plan for Dallas, given the Cowboys running back and NFL leading rusher has destroyed St. Louis in two previous meetings, rolling for 253 yards in 2011 and another 175 in a 31-7 Dallas beatdown of the Rams last year. The Cowboys called 43 runs and just 33 passes in last week’s 26-10 victory at Tennessee, and it’s easy to wonder why Dallas took so long to figure out the wisdom of that ratio. The Cowboys are 7-1 under Jason Garrett when they run more than they throw.
When you win, you can make the rules, and Chip Kelly is clearly the undisputed king in Philadelphia, by virtue of 12 victories in his first 18 regular-season games as the Eagles' head coach. But with the DeSean Jackson homecoming on tap this week if the Washington receiver somehow manages to play through a shoulder injury, did Kelly really have to insult our intelligence by claiming the only reason Philadelphia released the dangerous Jackson in March was because Kelly prefers bigger receivers? Jackson had a career year in 2013 with 82 catches for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns, and was targeted 126 times -- leading the team by a whopping 42 in that department. And last I checked, the diminutive Darren Sproles seems to be doing just fine in the Eagles' passing game, no matter where they list him on the depth chart. It’s your world, Chip, and what you say goes, but better to say nothing than to construct cover stories that strain credulity.
The Saints haven’t lost a home opener with Sean Payton on the sideline since 2007, and New Orleans will be extremely eager to wipe out the bitter taste of losing twice on the road by a combined five points in Weeks 1 and 2. The Adrian Peterson-less Vikings will be walking into that buzz saw after one of the most challenging weeks in the team’s existence. The Saints know they’re better on defense than they’ve showed, and this could be another tough matchup for Minnesota quarterback Matt Cassel, who might have gotten the Vikings looking in rookie Teddy Bridgewater’s direction with that four-pick day against the Patriots last week. Nobody has overcome an 0-3 start to make the playoffs since the Doug Flutie-led 1998 Bills, but New Orleans won’t have that piece of history to worry about after registering a blowout win.
Quirky scheduling note of the month: The Raiders travel to New England this week and Old England next week for their Week 4 "home game" against Miami in London’s Wembley Stadium. Oakland’s out to prove it can lose in any time zone, and it’s not going to be denied. It's not looking good for Raiders third-year head coach Dennis Allen, who is 8-26 in his tenure and starting to look like he might get the Lane Kiffin treatment any day now -- minus the overhead projector. Can you imagine if Allen is 0-4 and gets fired immediately after losing in London? Talk about a long flight home. The Patriots figure to make it a long afternoon for the Raiders this Sunday, because Tom Brady and the New England passing game is poised to finally bust out.
I think we all owe Ryan Fitzpatrick an apology. The groupthink in the NFL this offseason was that Houston could rebound from last year’s 2-14 disaster and compete once again in the AFC South if only the Texans had acquired a legitimate starting quarterback. Fitzpatrick, who is playing for his fifth NFL team, was not what we had in mind. But Houston’s rookie head coach Bill O’Brien didn’t agree, and he wins this one by knockout so far. Fitzpatrick is doing exactly what the Texans want him to do: distribute the football to the playmakers and avoid mistakes. His average completion has been for only 6.3 yards, the shortest in the league, but his passer rating of 118.4 is second only behind Peyton Manning. Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton and Fitzpatrick are the only two starting quarterbacks in the NFL who still haven’t thrown an interception or taken a sack. The Texans are thriving with short completions and plenty of yards after the catch, and they’ll stick with that methodology this week to keep themselves undefeated and the mistake-prone Giants winless.
The Titans could have landed Andy Dalton in the 2011 quarterback class, but instead went with Jake Locker at No. 8 overall, while Dalton lasted until the Bengals at pick No. 35. Advantage: Cincinnati. Dalton has played two efficient games for the Bengals thus far, and he’s making team owner Mike Brown look smart for the recent contract extension he gave his starting quarterback. Even if No. 1 receiver A.J. Green can’t go this week because of a toe injury, Cincinnati has enough weapons to earn an 11th consecutive regular-season victory at Paul Brown Stadium, a streak that started late in 2012. Tennessee had better be ready for the Bengals' backfield duo of Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, because after giving up 167 yards rushing to the Cowboys’ DeMarco Murray last week, the Titans are going to have that weakness exploited until they prove they can address it.
The Browns have been a totally different team since trailing 27-3 at halftime of their opener at Pittsburgh, giving up just 27 points in the ensuing six quarters of play against the Steelers and Saints. But can they handle success and keep building on the momentum and confidence generated by last week’s upset of New Orleans? That’s the next challenge for Mike Pettine’s intriguing team, and in Baltimore it will be facing a quarterback in Joe Flacco who has owned the Browns, going 11-1 against them in his career. But that one loss came last November in Cleveland, so perhaps the mystique has worn off. The Baltimore defense is flat getting it done, having allowed just seven field goals and one touchdown thus far, and if the Ravens can grind out a win here, they will have survived a rugged opening three weeks -- playing all three division opponents -- with a solid 2-1 showing.
I probably went too conservative with the combined 53 points in this pick, because neither the Lions nor the Packers have a secondary capable of stopping the other’s passing game. In particular, the Aaron Rodgers to Jordy Nelson connection has come out on fire for Green Bay, racking up 18 completions for 292 yards, including last week’s 80-yard touchdown strike. That’s countered, of course, by Detroit’s Matthew Stafford-Calvin Johnson tandem, which has produced 13 catches for 247 yards and a pair of touchdowns. These division rivals have some nasty recent history, but there has been one near-constant: Rodgers usually makes the plays he has to make to beat the Lions. Green Bay is 14-2 against Detroit under Mike McCarthy, and it’s worth remembering that Rodgers was still sidelined when the Packers absorbed that 40-10 Thanksgiving Day drubbing from the Lions last season.
Thursday was the one-year anniversary of the Colts’ Trent Richardson trade, and here’s hoping Indy didn’t get him a cake, because he might have dropped it. Richardson actually ran hard in Monday night’s loss to visiting Philadelphia, with his team-leading 79 yards gained, but after two more fumbles by him, how much longer can the Colts continue to trust him with the football in key situations? And the same short leash has to be applied here to Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne, who has taken a whopping 13 sacks in the first two weeks, some of which were on him for holding the ball too long and being indecisive. I can understand Jacksonville doesn’t want to make the Blaine Gabbert mistake all over again and throw Blake Bortles to the wolves behind a shaky offensive line, but if Henne struggles mightily in the team's home opener, how can Gus Bradley not consider getting the rookie ready for a start at San Diego in Week 4? These Colts are simply too good to remain winless and desperate. Alas, the same cannot be said for the outclassed Jaguars.
Here’s an idea: Maybe we should stop trying to put 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the league’s elite quarterback class until he’s earned it (Are you listening to me, Ron Jaworski?). That was a brutal showing by Kaepernick last Sunday night in the 49ers’ much-anticipated stadium opener, with San Francisco frittering away leads of 17-0 and 20-7 to the Bears thanks to three interceptions and a lost fumble by the fourth-year quarterback. But as much as that one had to leave a mark on Kaepernick’s confidence, San Francisco can’t afford to let last week’s disaster affect this week’s trip to Arizona, the division opener for both teams. San Francisco has been good at that sort of thing in the Jim Harbaugh era, going 9-2 in games after losses. If Carson Palmer were healthy and ready to go for this one, I’d give the 2-0 Cardinals a good shot to stay perfect. But Drew Stanton doesn’t beat the 49ers. Especially an agitated and highly motivated version of the 49ers.
It is a stunner to learn we haven’t been treated to a regular-season Super Bowl rematch since New England and Green Bay met in 1997, which seems an NFL lifetime ago. Who won that one, you ask? The Packers, just as they did the previous Super Bowl, picking up a 28-10 victory in Foxborough on a Monday night in Week 9. Any guesses who the New England coach was in that game? None other than one Peter Carroll, who took over the club Bill Parcells had led to the Super Bowl and went 10-6, winning the AFC East. He’s on the defending champion side of this Super Bowl rematch, but he’s still bouncing up and down and chewing that gum for all its worth.
The Dolphins are a maddening team bedeviled by a lack of consistency. The Dolphins can look utterly legit one week (see that upset of New England) and utterly suspect the next (see last week’s defeat in Buffalo). But if you want to step back a bit and truly appreciate some inconsistency, behold the Chiefs, a team that hasn’t strung together consecutive playoff trips since 1994-95 and appears headed for its fifth consecutive losing season in a year after making the playoffs. So the roller-coaster effect is all relative in that respect. The Dolphins won’t dominate a Kansas City team that more than held its own in Denver last week, but they’ll use their home-field advantage well and climb back over .500 in the AFC East. At 0-3, the Chiefs will see things get worse before they get better, with matchups against the Patriots, 49ers and Chargers just ahead.
Even without Greg Hardy coming off the edge in the pass rush, the Panthers defense is getting it done and making me rethink my preseason perception of Carolina as third-place material in the NFC South. The Panthers have forced a league-high six turnovers and are making opponents work for everything they get. As for the Steelers, they’re just not the Steelers anymore. They’ve scored all of nine points in their most recent six quarters, have yet to register a takeaway on defense and are averaging 170 yards rushing allowed per game. Creating turnovers and stuffing the run were long the calling cards of a Dick LeBeau-coordinated defense, but those days seem farther away all the time. Even with the extra rest afforded them after their Thursday night loss at Baltimore in Week 2, the Steelers won’t be able to out-muscle Cam Newton and a better-than-we-thought Panthers team.
Monday, Sept. 22
The Jets have already surrendered five touchdown passes in the season’s first two weeks, so their issues at cornerback appear to be every bit as problematic as was feared. This is clearly not the best opponent for New York to be welcoming to MetLife Stadium in that regard, given the damage the Bears passing game can do with big, physical receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Chicago used that team strength superbly in overcoming a 17-point deficit to win at San Francisco last Sunday night. The Jets saw their most glaring weakness exposed in losing an 18-point lead and the game in Green Bay last week at the hands of Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' dangerous passing game. Neither team will be able to open up that much of a gap this week, but look for the Bears to make a play in the air that secures Chicago’s second straight primetime road win.