Friday September 21st, 2012

Dwayne Bowe Dwayne Bowe and the Chiefs would fall to 0-3 and in danger of missing the playoffs should they lose to the equally winless Saints on Sunday. (Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

It may still be too early in this NFL season to separate the true contenders from pretenders -- 20 teams were 1-1 heading into play this week, after all.

Still, for a few teams with Super Bowl aspirations, it's beginning to feel later than it really is. The Chiefs and Saints sit at 0-2; Dallas, Chicago, Denver and New England at 1-1 but coming off eyebrow-raising losses in Week 2.

Week 3 may help us sort through the wreckage a little bit better. Here are the storylines to watch on Sunday and Monday:

Desperate times for Kansas City, New Orleans

The Chiefs were a popular pick to surprise in the AFC, and plenty of people (including yours truly) tabbed the Saints as the NFC South favorites despite Sean Payton's suspension. So far, both teams look more like they'll race for the No. 1 pick than a playoff spot.

Romeo Crennel's Chiefs have been blown out of the water in their first two games -- 40-24 by Atlanta, then 35-17 at Buffalo last week. New Orleans, meanwhile, boasts the worst defense in football at a staggering 37.5 points per game, thanks to losses against Washington and Carolina.

Since the NFL playoffs expanded in 1990, only three teams have started 0-3 and still made the postseason. The loser of this one faces that daunting history.

RGIII finally gets his home opener

It feels as if Washington fans have been waiting for this one almost as long as they've been waiting for a baseball playoff berth. The nation's capital saw its 79-year MLB playoff drought end Thursday when the Nationals clinched a spot, and now Robert Griffin III gets his turn on Sunday against Cincinnati.

RGIII opened his NFL career on the road with a win in New Orleans, then with a narrow loss at St. Louis. The latter was not really his fault, but with injuries mounting on Washington's defense, will it even matter how well the rookie star QB plays on Sunday?

Cincinnati (1-1) could use a victory here, too, to keep pace in the AFC North.

Jay Cutler begging for better O-line play

In the midst of being sacked seven times and hit about 100 more by Green Bay two Thursdays ago, Jay Cutler bumped his offensive tackle J'Marcus Webb and let fly with a few choice words. The method of delivery was a bit questionable, but the message was clear: Protect the quarterback.

The Rams, Chicago's opponent Sunday, have registered just two sacks this season, so this might be an opportunity for Cutler & Co. to right the ship.

Which Dallas team is the real one?

In Week 1 the Cowboys went into New York and took down the defending champion Giants. In Week 2 they were manhandled by the Seahawks. Like their division rival, the Redskins, Dallas gets its first home game of 2012 on Sunday, and the Cowboys' fans are anxious to find out what their team is all about. Losing to Tampa Bay would be a huge setback for America's Team.

San Francisco's next target: Christian Ponder

Good luck, kid.

Ponder has played fairly well to start his second season, especially late in games. But that's been against Jacksonville and Indianapolis. The 49ers present a more difficult challenge.

San Francisco knocked Green Bay around in Week 1 and followed that up by shutting down Matthew Stafford's Lions in Week 2. Unless Ponder gets a ton of help from Adrian Peterson and finds some way to avoid the 49ers' pass rush to move the ball through the air, the 49ers' demolition tour through the NFC North will continue.

Super Bowl preview in San Diego?

OK, OK, let's not get ahead of ourselves with the 2-0 Chargers -- it's a team that few people even pegged as playoff-worthy, and we've seen the San Diego disappearing act more than a few times.

Atlanta, though, appears to be the real deal. If the Falcons' Week 1 win in Kansas City did not impress you, then its Week 2 shutdown of Peyton Manning may have done the trick. Matt Ryan could be on the verge of becoming the NFL's next elite quarterback (if he's not there already), and the Falcons are following suit.

Philadelphia, Arizona try to stay perfect

No matter what happens this NFL season, there may not be a more surprising upset than the one Arizona pulled off at New England last Sunday. But then, maybe the Cardinals simply are better than anyone expected.

They can take a big step toward securing their spot as a playoff contender this week by knocking off Michael Vick and the 2-0 Philadelphia Eagles.

Of course, Vick's team has somehow found a way to win its first two games despite a whopping nine turnovers. The high turnover rate is a terrible sign, but the Eagles' ability to win in spite of those mistakes might signal that this team is ready to take charge of the NFC East. Philadelphia hosts the Giants in Week 4, but taking care of business Sunday is the first priority.

Will Peyton's change of scenery change Houston's luck?

Two and 16. That was the Houston Texans' record against Peyton Manning, when Manning was a Colt: 2-16.

Manning, obviously, has moved on to Denver, and the Texans will now get a crack at him in a non-division game. The stakes may not feel any lower. Houston enters Sunday as one of just two 2-0 teams in the AFC (San Diego is the other), but the Broncos will be itching to bounce back after a nightmarish start led to a loss in Atlanta last Monday.

Houston wants to get over the top this year. Gaining some confidence against Manning early would make any potential playoff matchups down the road feel less daunting.

AFC powers clash on Sunday night

Baltimore bounced New England from the playoffs in 2009; the Patriots returned the favor last year, holding on for a 23-20 win in the AFC title game. Despite each team taking a loss last week (Baltimore at Philly, New England in that stunner against Arizona), there's little question that these two are among the AFC's teams to beat again.

But the loser will be 1-2 and carrying a two-game losing streak -- definite roadblocks in the race to the playoffs and home-field advantage.

Can Seattle do it again?

The Seahawks took it to the Cowboys last Sunday in an impressive 27-7 win. Seattle was physical at the line, aggressive on defense and did more than enough on offense with Marshawn Lynch leading the way. Rookie QB Russell Wilson will get his first national TV shot on Monday night, and the Seahawks would love nothing more than to hand him and their raucous home crowd a win over the potent Packers. Green Bay played the Thursday nighter in Week 2, so that tallies up to a 12-day gap between then and this one. Considering the Packers play Houston next week, then embark on a three-game road swing, this one feels pretty important for Week 3.

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