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.
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.
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.
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.
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.