Not counting Thursday’s Jets-Bills game, 12 of the 15 home teams this weekend sat as favorites as of Thursday. That sets up a week where either the results go mostly according to plan or the NFL’s parity takes full control, unleashing a steady stream of upsets.
How will it all play out? The Week 2 picks:
A quartet of players who will be key to this week’s matchups:
1. Jesse James, TE, Steelers: The Bengals were the NFL’s most effective team at keeping opposing tight ends out of the end zone last season—they allowed just one TD to that position group. But they surrendered 101 receptions to tight ends, tied with the Giants for most in the league.
The Jets, Cincinnati’s Week 1 opponent, were not built to take advantage of that matchup (though they did find success with slot receiver Quincy Enunwa). The Steelers are. As SI fantasy expert Michael Beller pointed out in this week’s Target Report, not only did James see seven passes from Ben Roethlisberger (catching five), he was on the field for every Pittsburgh offensive snap.
Replacing Heath Miller this season is a far greater task for the Steelers than replacing suspended receiver Martavis Bryant. James is off to a good start, and he should find a little space against Cincinnati.
2. Sean Smith, CB, Raiders: “I was getting killed. I’m not going to lie to you,” Smith said, via CSN California, of his performance in New Orleans last week. The coaching staff agreed, benching Smith in the second half. Not quite what Oakland had in mind when it signed Smith to a four-year, $38 million contract this off-season.
The Raiders need Smith to bounce back in a hurry because another high-powered NFC South foe, Atlanta, awaits Sunday. Obviously, Julio Jones is the preferred go-to option for Matt Ryan, but 6' 2" Mohamed Sanu is coming off a strong Week 1 (five catches, 80 yards, TD). Smith’s physical presence could help limit Jones and Sanu outside.
3. D’Qwell Jackson, LB, Colts: The Broncos are going to run the football. And if Week 1 was any indication, they’re going to run it well. C.J. Anderson looked spry behind a reworked offensive line, posting 92 yards and a TD against Carolina. He scored on a 25-yard reception, too, as part of a four-catch game. Those numbers should have the Colts uneasy after an opener that saw their defense carved up by Lions backs Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick, who combined for 108 yards rushing (on 5.7 yards per attempt) and 120 yards receiving.
Jackson led all Colts linebackers in snaps last week, yet produced just two tackles. He will have to elevate his game Sunday, along with most of the depleted front seven. Between Anderson, Kapri Bibbs and Devontae Booker, the Broncos have three backs who are capable of hurting defenses on the ground and through the air.
4. Markus Golden, OLB, Cardinals: Tom Brady or not, the Patriots are tough to plan a pass rush against because their offense is so quick to get the ball out of the QB’s hands. Still, Arizona’s inability to generate consistent pressure on Jimmy Garoppolo was troubling. A repeat in Week 2 would be even worse, because Tampa Bay comes to town fresh off a four-touchdown performance by Jameis Winston.
Golden did get to Garoppolo once, forcing a fumble. His counterpart on the outside, Chandler Jones, picked up Arizona’s other sack Sunday night. Both players will have to get to Winston if the Cardinals want to take the heat off their secondary.
• Last week: 13-3 overall, 12-4 vs. the spread.
• Best pick in Week 1: Giants 28, Cowboys 27 (Actual score: Giants 20–19).
• Worst pick in Week 1: Arizona 24, New England 14 (Actual score: Patriots 23–21).
The first-place 49ers visit the last-place Panthers, and all your Week 1 conclusions are invalid. San Francisco’s defense has an intriguing mix of young players up front, plus NaVorro Bowman at linebacker, but going from Case Keenum to Cam Newton is like getting your driver’s license and immediately entering the Indy 500. Bank on the Panthers’ defense to challenge Blaine Gabbert by focusing its attention on RB Carlos Hyde. Quick note: The 49ers upset Minnesota in Week 1 last year, then lost by 25 at Pittsburgh in Week 2.
Watchability Score (out of 10): 2. The watchability score will increase with each quarter the 49ers are able to hang around. By the third, though, Carolina ought to have this in hand.
Still tough to get a read on the Dak Prescott-era Cowboys, despite their Week 1 loss. They never got rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott going (20 carries for 51 yards), virtually ignored Dez Bryant (one catch, five yards) and the terrific O-line lost a lot of battles. Was it all the result of having a rookie QB? Is the Giants’ defensive line just that good? We’ll know more Sunday, although Washington hopes its own Week 1 experience was more mirage than reality. Few defenses have a true answer for Antonio Brown, but the Redskins also failed to stop the run or establish their own ground game. This is a true toss-up.
Watchability Score: 6. While neither team looked much like a playoff contender last week, their schedules are set up so that the winner easily could be 3–1 after the season’s first quarter.
Not much build-up required here. These two are intimately familiar with each other, having last met in a wild, vicious playoff game won by Pittsburgh. The man at the center of that night’s controversy, Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict, remains out through Week 4 due to the suspension he received for a high hit on Antonio Brown. However, present on Sunday will be Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams and Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, both of whom missed the postseason showdown with injuries.
Watchability Score: 10. What more could you want than a matchup of Super Bowl contenders that hate each other? Cincinnati beat the Jets last week on the strength of its Dalton-to-A.J. Green connection, and Pittsburgh can lean on Ben Roethlisberger-to-Antonio Brown, but the team that runs the ball more effectively wins Sunday.
When the Saints and Giants met in New Orleans last season, their offenses combined for 1,024 yards and 101 points. Don’t expect a repeat, but only because the Giants’ defense appears to be—on paper and in Week 1—much improved over the 2015 edition. The Saints? Not so much. New York’s offense is also stronger than it was a year ago, thanks to Victor Cruz’s return and Sterling Shepard’s arrival. Drew Brees will do what he can, but with an already porous New Orleans secondary now missing cornerback Delvin Breaux, his defense won’t do nearly enough.
Watchability Score: 8. If the knock-’em-down Bengals-Steelers matchup does not appeal to you for whatever reason, turn 180 degrees and find this up-tempo alternative.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way with Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski out of the lineup, but the Patriots dictated the flow of their entire game with the Cardinals last Sunday. Miami actually pulled off the same trick in Seattle for about 56 minutes, before allowing a backbreaking touchdown drive late. The Dolphins have to land the first couple punches and do so via their defensive line. They should keep it close. In the end, though, the coaching edge Bill Belichick has on newcomer Adam Gase will be the difference.
Watchability Score: 6. The Dolphins are the first AFC East team to get a crack at the Patriots. They’ll also be the last, when New England visits in Week 17. A win Sunday would go a long way toward ensuring that rematch means anything in the division race.
Houston’s off-season Brian Hoyer exorcism is not the lone reason I’m picking Houston here. The Texans also now have a true No. 1 back again in Lamar Miller (San Diego rushed for 155 yards on Kansas City last week), and the Chiefs’ pass rush is going to be lacking until Justin Houston returns. The 30–0 Kansas City playoff win in Houston last January was more about K.C.’s defense and special teams than it was its offense. The home team can flip the script this year.
Watchability Score: 7. Guaranteed to be better than the wild-card round meeting, which would have broken the watchability index and was just about over 11 seconds in when Knile Davis took the opening kickoff to the house.
A Mike Mularkey vs. Jim Caldwell coaching matchup offers all the excitement of a butter vs. that other brand of butter taste test. Fortunately, there could be a few fireworks elsewhere. Detroit has the best chance to provide them, especially if the Lions can unleash their running backs like they did last week—a challenge, as Tennessee held Adrian Peterson to 31 yards on 19 carries. Of course, Matthew Stafford is on another level compared to Minnesota starter Shaun Hill. The Detroit defense is a major question mark, and it remains vulnerable up the seams—Indianapolis’s tight ends scored three times last week and Delanie Walker could tee off Sunday. He’ll have to if the Titans want to keep pace.
Watchability Score: 3. The Lions should be 2–0 headed to Green Bay next week. They’ve also lost more games they “should win” in their history than just about any other franchise.
Cleveland’s injury-induced shift from Robert Griffin III to Josh McCown at quarterback brings with it a seismic shift in how the offense will operate. Griffin wants to push it downfield, which made him a fit with Corey Coleman, Terrelle Pryor and (in theory) Josh Gordon. McCown leans on his RBs and TEs. Baltimore saw first-hand what McCown’s approach can produce—he threw for 457 yards in a Week 5 win over the Ravens last season. The real challenge for the Browns will be in displaying any semblance of defense after Carson Wentz worked them over last week. This won’t be the blowout the growing spread indicates, but Joe Flacco will hit a home run or two, probably to Mike Wallace.
Watchability Score: 3. If you’re feeling the upset, bump the score up one. Otherwise, a game featuring perhaps the league’s worst team only generates so much juice.
One of the dwindling redeeming qualities of Jeff Fisher’s Rams tenure has been his ability to play the Seahawks tough. The Rams have split the season series with their NFC West rivals in three of Fisher’s four years at the helm. So even though Los Angeles played last week like it was trying to get Fisher fired—he can’t be or else Cthulhu is released from the depths of hell—the Seahawks better be ready. The Rams’ chances, as usual, hinge on their defensive line’s ability to control the line of scrimmage. Given the struggles Seattle had there against Miami last week, this one could go down to the wire.
Watchability Score: 4. The game itself might be close but Los Angeles’s effort last Monday was among the league’s most lackluster in recent memory. This has to be better.
Rather unexpectedly, the Cardinals find themselves needing to make a statement after a miserable Week 1 performance. Easier said than done. The Buccaneers and Jameis Winston are going to bring the heat on Arizona’s secondary, which either needs a new starter or for rookie Brandon Williams to grow up in a hurry. It also wouldn’t hurt Arizona’s outlook if someone other than David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald made an appearance on offense.
Watchability Score: 8. Colts-Broncos is the late-afternoon showcase game, but this has the makings of a gem. The Tampa Bay bandwagon will be loaded if the Buccaneers grab a win.
Since the franchise’s inception, the Jaguars are just 2–10 in the Pacific time zone. Their last win out west came in 2004, over Oakland. That background may not wind up to be all that relevant when they visit San Diego, but those cross-country trips have a habit of doing in teams, no matter which direction they’re traveling. This is a game the Jaguars should win if they really are a playoff-caliber team, but that’s up in the air. Working to their benefit is that Philip Rivers has struggled the past two years without Keenan Allen in the lineup. Allen was lost for the year to a knee injury in Week 1.
Watchability Score: 4. For as much as the Jaguars keep telling everyone their defense is getting better, they’re in for another shootout Sunday.
The beat goes on for Atlanta: Unless Dan Quinn’s defense can start pressuring the quarterback, it is going to have several more repeats of its Week 1 loss to Tampa Bay. The Falcons won’t slow Oakland down if Derek Carr has time to sit in the pocket. Carr and the Raiders hung nearly 500 yards on New Orleans (who hasn’t?) in a thrilling Week 1 win. More than likely, Matt Ryan will have to match Carr score for score.
Watchability Score: 7. You have our attention, Oakland.
For starters, there is this:
This will be the first Colts-Broncos game without Peyton Manning involved since Week 5, 1993, when John Elway was the Broncos starting QB— James Palmer (@JamesPalmerTV) September 14, 2016
The Colts won the final battle with Manning around, 27–24 last season. They held C.J. Anderson and now-free agent Ronnie Hillman to just 35 yards on 14 carries in that game, marking Denver’s second-lowest rushing output of the 2015 season. A repeat performance may be tough to come by, so the Colts—as will be the case just about every week—will have to let Andrew Luck turn it loose. The secondary awaiting in Denver Sunday is a stiffer test than what Luck faced against Detroit in Week 1. The Lions also don’t have Von Miller, so the Colts’ decent O-line play might wind up being a one-game phenomenon.
Watchability Score: 9. How closely will the officials call contact on Luck? The lack of calls in Cam Newton’s favor last week was a source of controversy during Denver’s come-from-behind win.
Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer refuses to reveal his Week 2 starting quarterback because ... well, I’m not really sure. Green Bay’s preparation should not be all that much different whether Shaun Hill gets another go or Sam Bradford replaces him. It has to be Bradford eventually, since the Vikings traded a first-round pick for him. Either way, Adrian Peterson will be the focal point—Green Bay limited him to 112 yards (but two TDs) in two games last season.
How Aaron Rodgers fares against Minnesota’s defense is the real selling point here. Rodgers was up to his old tricks last week, on numerous occasions ripping out the Jaguars’ hearts with his bare hands. The Vikings’ defense could be the best he faces in 2016.
Watchability Score: 8. Again, Minnesota’s lack of talent at QB knocks the tally down. The Vikings are going to have to win this game, and likely any others, the way they did in Week 1: keeping the score low, forcing turnovers and hoping the offense can produce at least a few points.
One win does not a career make. What Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio throws at Carson Wentz this week will test the rookie QB far more than anything Cleveland did in Week 1. A few sacks, maybe even a turnover or two, are inevitable. But the Eagles also should move the football at times, if only because Chicago’s defense can be run on. The real X-factor in this upset pick: Jim Schwartz. The Eagles’ defensive coordinator knows Jay Cutler inside and out from Schwartz’s days in Detroit.
Watchability Score: 7. Wentz made himself a must-see TV QB with his victory over the Browns. Now, he gets the spotlight on Monday night.
Surprise star of Week 2
Tyrell Williams, WR, Chargers. Williams stands to inherit a heavy dose of the passing offense with Keenan Allen out. The former undrafted free agent from Western Oregon caught two passes for 71 yards last week. He has big-play potential for the Chargers.
Upset of the week
Philadelphia (+3) over Chicago. In a string of decisions sure to backfire, I’ve leaned pretty heavily on the chalk this week. Philadelphia over Chicago is the only true upset on the books.
College upset of the week (Season: 1–0)
BYU (+3) over UCLA. Wavered between this game and Missouri-Georgia for the bonus college pick. Eventually settled on BYU, despite the Cougars’ tough loss to Utah last week. Their defense is stout enough to cause Josh Rosen problems, and their run game will grind out yards. Remember, UCLA surrendered 203 yards on the ground to Texas A&M earlier this season.