The Playbook: Previewing Ravens-Texans, Falcons-Dolphins, other Week 3 games
Houston (2-0) at Baltimore (1-0) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Could this be an AFC title game preview? It might have been a rematch of last season's AFC championship had the Texans not faltered in the divisional round for the second straight year.
The Texans might be feeling a little more heat in the AFC South these days -- Tennessee pushed them to the wire in Week 2, nearly pulling off a win in Houston; and the Colts made what owner Jim Irsay dubbed a "monster trade" Wednesday, landing running back Trent Richardson. We'll find out just how secure is Houston's spot atop its division over the next three weeks in games at Baltimore, vs. Seattle and at San Francisco.
This matchup holds some added emotional significance as current Texan Ed Reed makes his return to Baltimore. A member of the Ravens from 2002-12, Reed helped them to last season's Super Bowl title before departing for Houston.
Reed is beloved in Baltimore. He has been a source of some frustration in Houston thus far. After signing with the Texans, Reed revealed a hip injury that he has yet to shake. Though coach Gary Kubiak declared that Reed may be ready to go Sunday, he has yet to see any action for his new team, either in the regular season or preseason.
With or without Reed, the Texans might have enough to pull off the road win if Baltimore cannot break its early-season sluggishness. The Ravens were waxed by Denver in Week 1, 49-27, then returned home for a rather uninspiring 14-6 victory over Cleveland last Sunday. The defense certainly played better against the Browns than vs. Peyton Manning and the Broncos, but Joe Flacco's offense has yet to click. An injury to RB Ray Rice (one that might sideline him this week) does not do Flacco any favors.
Defenses may rule the day in the Charm City, though both teams -- and especially Houston -- feature intriguing offensive weapons. If Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins, Arian Foster and the Texans' attack go off, is Baltimore capable of answering? -- Chris Burke
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Atlanta (1-1) at Miami (2-0) -- 4:05 p.m. ET, FOX: The suddenly injury-decimated Falcons travel to meet the Dolphins without several key players. End Kroy Biermann is out for the season, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon for eight games and running back Steven Jackson for a shorter time. In addition, offensive tackle Tyson Clabo and cornerback Brent Grimes, important Falcons players last season, are now Dolphins. More than ever, the pressure is on quarterback Matt Ryan to keep Atlanta on the winning track. The Falcons were out-gunned by the Saints in the season-opener, but managed a close win over the Rams last Sunday in which Jason Snelling led the team with 19 rushing yards. Receiver Julio Jones matched a career-high with 182 receiving yards in that contest, and he's the point man for an offense that has moved from run to pass as its primary focus over the last two seasons.
The Dolphins are well-equipped to stop any passing attack, and that starts up front. They're tied with four other teams for the NFL lead in sacks (nine), and of those teams, they have the most interceptions (four). Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan isn't especially mobile; his primary attributes are ball distribution and avoiding mistakes. But his offensive line has allowed pressures on 43.7 percent of passing snaps this season. Cameron Wake is the Dolphins' star pass-rusher, but Randy Starks, Derrick Shelby and Jared Odrick are also contributing consistently.
Miami's offense should have a slightly easier time against Atlanta's defense, though current Falcons and former Dolphins defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has a way of maximizing the talent he has on the field. Most importantly for the Dolphins, quarterback Ryan Tannehill and receiver Mike Wallace seem to be on the same page. Wallace was targeted just five times and caught one pass in the opener against the Browns, but upped that to nine catches on 11 targets last Sunday against the Colts. If Tannehill follows the Ryan paradigm and gets the ball to his playmakers while avoiding too many mistakes, the Dolphins have a serious shot at an upset and a 3-0 record in an increasingly open AFC East. -- Doug Farrar
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Green Bay (1-1) at Cincinnati (1-1) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The onset of Week 3 is still far too early to begin asking if certain players can challenge single-season records. And yet, it's worth noting what Aaron Rodgers has done thus far for the Packers. He scalded Washington for 480 yards and four touchdowns last week, after an admirable 333-yard, three-score showing in Week 1. Add 'em up and Rodgers is sitting at 813 yards passing, most in the league -- one yard ahead of Eli Manning.
At 406.5 per game, Rodgers is currently on pace for 6,504 yards passing this season, a number that would shatter Drew Brees' record of 5,476. He likely will not be able to keep that pace, and the Bengals' stout defense could be the first to really pump the brakes on Rodgers in 2013.
Cincinnati may have more talent up front on D than any team in the league: Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap and nose tackle/occasional fullback Domata Peko will test a Green Bay line that smashed Washington. Running back James Starks hit 132 yards on the ground in that one, becoming the Packers' first 100-yard rusher in three seasons.
The Packers' defense could have its hands full, too, even though Cincinnati's Andy Dalton is hardly the type of fleet-footed, read-option QB that has given them trouble recently. The Bengals found a little offensive spark in Week 2, courtesy of rookie Gio Bernard and Tyler Eifert. Either they will help open up space for A.J. Green or vice versa.
The Packers actually have a bye after this one, joining the Panthers with the earliest week off in the NFL this season. The last thing they want is to sit on a 1-2 record for an extra week, so this is a fairly important early-season test. -- CB
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Indianapolis (1-1) at San Francisco (1-1) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: While the 49ers are set to try to recover from the beating they suffered last Saturday night at the hands of the Seahawks, the Colts are riding high after the trade for ex-Cleveland Browns running back Trent Richardson. It's a big deal for an offense under Pep Hamilton and run by Andrew Luck that would like to rely heavily on play-action and multiple backfield looks, but Richardson will find one of the NFL's toughest tests this week in the 49ers' run defense. He may, however, be up to the task more than one might imagine given his surface stats (31 carries for 105 yards through two games). Richardson is tied with Philly's LeSean McCoy for the league in missed tackles caused with 14, and it will be interesting to see how many more free looks he gets at the line of scrimmage with Andrew Luck as his quarterback.
In 2012, the Colts were a shot-play team with a lot of seven-step drops. This season, things have changed -- Indy's offense is based a bit more on shorter drops and passes, and a great deal of backfield motion. Luck has been far more effective as a passer with play-action, and you can expect to see a lot of it in this game. What Luck will not like to see is the combination of RDT Justin Smith and RDE Aldon Smith against the underwhelming left side of his offensive line.
The 49ers offense has been dealing with an unusual circumstance -- in both of their 2013 games, their offensive line, the best in football last year, has been overwhelmed. First, Green Bay's frontline beat San Francisco's line to the punch over and over. Then, Seattle's multi-faceted pass-rush had that line on its heels. The Colts defense isn't quite as imposing, though Robert Mathis and Jerrell Freeman are adding pass-rush productivity, and first-round pick Bjoern Werner is coming around. The Colts will be tested by San Francisco's option looks, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick can beat a defense in many different ways. The Packers played him passively and watched Kaepernick rip them up through the air. The Seahawks countered by letting him run and shutting down the pass. Indy doesn't have quite the same talent, so a balanced approach might be the order of the day. -- DF
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St. Louis (1-1) at Dallas (1-1) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: One of these teams currently ranks in the top 10 for yards, first downs, passing yards and passing touchdowns. Nope, not that one. It's the St. Louis Rams, with new weapons like Tavon Austin and Jared Cook, moving the chains right now. (Dallas has outscored St. Louis, 52-51, thanks to a few assists from Eli Manning). Of all the Week 3 games, this one might have the most potential for a shootout. -- CB
San Diego (1-1) at Tennessee (1-1) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Philip Rivers put together an Offensive Player of the Week performance against the Eagles, but Tennessee's defense provides a tougher test. Gregg Williams' charges are flying around in different formations, and there are some underrated stars in that secondary. The key to a Tennessee win, however, will be for the good version of Jake Locker to show up. It would help if receiver Kenny Britt wasn't already announcing his 2014 departure. -- DF
Tampa Bay (0-2) at New England (2-0) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The unbeaten Patriots, at home, against an 0-2 Buccaneers team in turmoil. Cakewalk, right? Not so fast. Save for allowing the Saints to march into field-goal range late, the Tampa defense has been stout through two weeks. It could be tough going for Tom Brady and his depleted offense again. The Patriots barely survived the Jets in Week 2, with Brady spending much of the night yelling in frustration at his new receivers. -- CB
Arizona (1-1) at New Orleans (2-0) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX -- The Larry Fitzgerald Hamstring Watch is on in Arizona -- the Cardinals' main man has not been practicing in hope that he can be more ready for the field. Arizona will need all the help it can get against a Rob Ryan defense that has been a pleasant surprise. Pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette will test the Cardinals' iffy offensive tackles early and often. On defense Todd Bowles' squad has been opportunistic, but Drew Brees is operating in his usual zone with the return of Sean Payton and his impressive formation diversity. -- DF
Detroit (1-1) at Washington (0-2) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Robert Griffin III says that if he needs to run to spark his team, then that's what he'll do. It may not be all that easy, with Nick Fairley expected back from injury to join Ndamukong Suh up the middle in Detroit's defense. The Lions aren't exactly coming in guns blazing, either -- Detroit mustered fewer than 100 yards (and no points) in the second half last week, with Reggie Bush on the sideline. -- CB
NY Giants (0-2) at Carolina (0-2) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The Giants are trying to get everything in line after an 0-2 start in which all their previous consistencies have fallen apart. The run game and pass rush are questionable at best, and Eli Manning needs to find his GPS before he throws five more picks on Sunday. Thing don't get any easier this week against a Panthers front seven that is among the NFL's best. The Panthers are also 0-2, but they seem a bit less dysfunctional right now -- we'll see if Tom Coughlin's ability to turn things around in-season will kick in before it's too late. -- DF
Buffalo (1-1) at NY Jets (1-1) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: It's Chapter 1 of Geno Smith vs. EJ Manuel, an AFC East quarterbacking rivalry that could be here to stay. Who gets the edge here: Smith, backed by a home crowd and a top-five defense? Or Manuel, who's coming off a thrilling victory and has a far superior collection of talent around him on offense? Don't look now, but the winner here moves to 2-1 on the young season. -- CB
Chicago (2-0) at Pittsburgh (0-2) -- 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC: These are not your father's Pittsburgh Steelers. The run game is a thing of the past, and there seems to be a disconnect with offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Bad time for them to face a Bears team with a new commitment to pass protection, one that has greatly benefited Jay Cutler this season. Cutler will make the occasional errant throw, but he's got the arm talent and targets to send the Steelers to an atypical 0-3 start. -- DF
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Only For The Faithful
Cleveland (0-2) at Minnesota (0-2) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The post-Trent Richardson era begins in Cleveland, with the Browns pretty clearly looking toward the 2014 draft. Minnesota still has more immediate hopes than that, but it needs to stop the bleeding after losses in Detroit and Chicago. -- CB
Jacksonville (0-2) at Seattle (2-0) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: The line for this game was about 20 in Seattle's favor on Thursday, and it will probably move another touchdown every time someone watches tape of the Seahawks' defense. The Jags are on pace to be the worst single-season offense in the modern era. It's not often that you get an Alabama-Valdosta State matchup in the NFL, but this looks pretty close. -- DF
Oakland (1-1) at Denver (2-0) -- Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: The national NFL audience gets its first real glimpse of Terrelle Pryor, starting quarterback. That storyline may have to be enough on Monday night -- the Broncos are 15-point favorites and this one looks like a complete mismatch in the AFC West. -- CB
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(All stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus unless otherwise indicated.)
• We'll start with a scary stat from Paul Pabst, producer of the always-excellent Dan Patrick Show:
• It means a lot for Andrew Luck to have a great running back, and this is why the Trent Richardson trade is such a big short-term win for the Colts. Luck was far, far better when running play-action than not in his rookie season. With play-action, he completed 65 passes in 102 attempts (a 63.7 percent completion rate) with 9.23 yards per attempt, six touchdowns and two interceptions.
Without play-action? 274 completions in 525 attempts (a 52.2 percent completion rate), a 6.25 yards-per-attempt average, 17 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. The 11.5 percent increase in completion rate with play-action was by far the largest in the NFL last season -- Ben Roethlisberger was second with a 9.5 percent uptick.
• Yes, Robert Griffin III isn't playing as well as he did last season, but his receivers ... c'mon, guys. Throw the dude a lifeline. RGIII has 100 dropbacks through two games, and his targets have dropped 10 of his passes. Receiver Josh Morgan and tight end Fred Davis are the primary culprits with two drops each.
• In a league where you see more three- and four-receiver sets than ever, slot defenders are basically starters. And no slot defender has been more effective than Denver's Chris Harris. He's been targeted 14 times from the slot, and he's picked off two passes to his eight catches allowed. Opposing quarterbacks have a 36.3 rating when they go after Harris in the slot. Harris was also one of the NFL's best slot defenders in 2012, allowing a 60 passer rating on 51 targets.
• Ndamukong Suh is the king of "almost" this season. He has no quarterback sacks through two games, but he leads all defensive tackles with 12 QB hurries, and only Miami's Jared Odrick has more quarterbacks hits than Suh's three. Odrick, by the way, has no sacks either. -- DF
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• Matchup to Watch: Julian Edelman vs. Darrelle Revis. Edelman has inherited the role of Tom Brady's go-to guy. That's a pretty decent indication that Revis will draw the slot receiver as his primary assignment, but Bucs coach Greg Schiano has not been as quick to book guests into Revis Island as Rex Ryan was.
In fact, a report surfaced this week that Revis was unhappy with his role in the defense -- one that often asks him to play zone rather than his preferred man-to-man.
If Schiano opts to go with the man-defense route Sunday, Edelman will have a tough time getting open and Brady may be in for a difficult afternoon.
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• This week's sleeper: Joique Bell, Detroit. Though RGIII's injury has been the main talking point in D.C. so far, Washington's porous defense has been as much (possibly more) of a problem. That bodes well for the Lions.
It may bode especially well for Bell, who has assumed the No. 2 RB job behind Reggie Bush and stepped into a full-time role with Bush sidelined in the second half against Arizona last week. Bell already has 10 catches for 108 yards this season, on top of 56 yards rushing. Stafford will not hesitate to get him the football in space against a Washington D that has had tackling troubles.
• Pressure's on ...: Eli Manning, Giants. The Giants are in a bit of a danger zone already, after opening with losses to Dallas and Denver. A third straight defeat, against Cam Newton and currently winless Carolina, might be too much for New York to overcome. To stop their skid, the Giants need Manning to be far better than the turnover-prone mess he's been thus far (his seven INTs lead the league).
• Rookie spotlight: Tavon Austin, St. Louis. The burner from West Virginia continues to get more and more comfortable in this Rams' attack, and QB Sam Bradford has started looking for him. Case in point: Austin's two TDs last Sunday in Atlanta.
St. Louis has yet to fully unleash him, though, as Austin's 7.3 yards-per-catch average tells. Might the Rams give Austin more of a chance to make plays against a rather up-and-down Dallas defense?
• Washington. Though the defending NFC champs scurried back from 3-6 to win 10 games last season, the schedule does not look like it will allow such a turnaround in 2013. So losing to Detroit on Sunday might bury Washington too deep. It definitely would not cease the calls for Kirk Cousins to spell Griffin at QB. -- CB
• Minnesota. If the Vikings can't land in the win column against a Browns team that is clearly playing for 2014, Minnesota GM Rick Spielman might wonder if it's time for him to put a quarterback at the top of his draft list, as well. Then again, the way Christian Ponder's been playing, that may already be a done deal. -- DF BANKS: Packers over Bengals, Redskins get first win, more Week 3 picks