- Before two months of bye weeks begin, NFL fans get to see 30 teams in action over 36 hours one last time. Which 15 teams have the upper hand?
The Eagles and Packers drew the short straws this year. They will be the first teams to take their bye weeks, in Week 4. And with those off days, the NFL will not have a full slate of 16 games again until Thanksgiving weekend (Week 12).
So, enjoy this weekend while it lasts. It could be a good one, if all the games that are supposed to be nail-biters wind up paying off.
The Week 3 picks:
A quartet of players who will be key to this week’s matchups:
1. Janoris Jenkins, CB, Giants: The main event Sunday at MetLife Stadium will pit Odell Beckham Jr. against Josh Norman, but Jenkins against DeSean Jackson shapes up as a strong undercard. Jenkins called into question Jackson’s skill set this week, saying, “It’s different when you can go against a guy that’s got speed and quickness and that can run routes. But with DeSean, I think he’s just kind of fast and a deep guy.”
How much Jackson will be able to do Sunday is up in the air—he’s listed on the injury report with foot and ankle issues, and he missed Wednesday’s practice. An active Jackson, though, still has the goods to flip a game with one play. He may have done that last week had Kirk Cousins not missed him downfield a couple of times.
Whether Jenkins and the Giants believe Jackson can handle the full route tree or not, they can’t afford to lose him deep, if he’s in the lineup.
2. Jared Cook, TE, Packers: The Lions struggle to cover opposing tight ends as it is, having allowed four TDs to that position group already (three in Indianapolis, one to Tennessee’s Delanie Walker). And in their defense’s current state, well ...
Detroit suited up two linebackers for practice Wednesday: Tahir Whitehead and Thurston Armbrister, who in his spare time is president of a preppy frat in an ’80s movie. That’s going to be a problem against Eddie Lacy and James Starks when the Packers run the ball, but it also shapes up to be an issue when it comes to defending Cook and Richard Rodgers.
Cook caught four passes for 31 yards last week and appears to have leapfrogged Rodgers in the pecking order. This could be his breakout game as a Packer.
3. Vincent Rey, LB, Bengals: The Cincinnati defense was better across the board last season when Vontaze Burfict was in the lineup. After he returned from a six-game injury absence, the Bengals promptly held five of their next six opponents to 10 points or fewer. That wasn’t all Burfict, and the defense doesn’t fall apart when he is out, but he is an important piece.
Unfortunately for the Bengals, they won’t get Burfict back until next week against Miami. So Rey again will get the starting nod Sunday. He’s been a surprise standout for the Bengals early, notching 15 tackles. He was all over the field last week at Pittsburgh, defending the run and pass.
Denver has dangerous receivers, but its offense very much relies on winning inside. All of its backs can slip out for receptions, tight end Virgil Green is already approaching career high stats, and the run game puts a ton of pressure on opposing LBs to step up.
4. Zach Fulton, G, Chiefs: Fulton is the only Chiefs guard who did not appear on the midweek injury report. Projected starter Parker Ehinger (concussion) and fill-in veteran starter Jah Reid (knee/ankle) both did not practice Wednesday; Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (ankle) was limited.
The situation could change in the coming days, but Fulton is on track for his second straight start. While he has starting experience (six games in 2015, all 16 in 2014), he’s not the Chiefs’ first choice. And Kansas City has to be on its A-game this weekend with the Jets’ imposing front coming to town.
• Last week: 11–5 overall (24–8 season), 8–8 vs. the spread (20–12 season).
• Best pick in Week 2: Ravens 27, Browns 23 (actual score: Ravens 25–20).
• Worst pick in Week 2: Raiders 31, Falcons 21 (actual score: Falcons 35–28).
Eventually, the Bills will get Marcell Dareus back from suspension and Shaq Lawson back from injury and be able to trot out some semblance of the defense they expected to have in 2016. It won’t happen this week. And that’s a problem with the Cardinals coming to town off a 41–7 win over Tampa Bay. The Jets nearly had three 100-yard receivers against Buffalo last week—Quincy Enunwa fell just three yards shy of joining Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker in triple digits. Arizona does need to get someone else hot in the passing game. Larry Fitzgerald has been dominant, but no other receiver has more than five grabs.
Watchability Index (out of 10): 5. This looked like a more intriguing matchup two weeks ago, before the Bills starting ditching dead weight.
The Titans have scored exactly 16 points each of the first two weeks, so in that way their offense has been consistent. Otherwise? Not quite. A matchup with the Raiders’ reeling defense could be the ticket toward finding that balance, particularly if they find more touches for Derrick Henry. DeMarco Murray’s rushing numbers are inflated by one 67-yarder—without it, he’s averaging 2.7 yards per carry. Oakland has to find a way to free up Khalil Mack this week as he hunts his first sack of 2016. The Raiders also have to stay hot on offense, and they should Sunday.
Watchability Index: 3. Tennessee could bypass Oakland in the “playoff sleeper” rankings with a win here.
The Indians are about to clinch their division and the Cavaliers’ first game is in about a month, so keep that in mind, Cleveland fans, if Cody Kessler’s debut is a nightmare. Corey Coleman’s broken hand does open the door for another young WR, be it Jordan Payton or Rashard Higgins. No Arian Foster for the Dolphins, but if they can’t generate something on the ground between Jay Ajayi and Kenyan Drake against this Cleveland defense, the problems are bigger than anyone thought.
Watchability Index: Negative-two Kesslers. Miami should bury this one early.
The Jaguars already find themselves up against it, and things are only going to get worse if they cannot rediscover their 2015 offensive success. For a team that was so deadly down the field last season, the Jaguars have played it very close to the vest thus far. Per Sporting Charts, Blake Bortles’s Air Yards per Attempt (the distance a pass travels from QB to receiver) sits at 3.38 this season, among the lowest totals in the league and down almost a full yard from 2015. Quite simply, the offense is not taking advantage of the weapons it has. That was not a problem for Philip Rivers last weekend against the Jaguars’ defense. We’ll see how Joe Flacco fares. Flacco likes to play more vertically than Rivers, but Jacksonville gave up big plays both underneath and deep last week.
Watchability Index: 6. Jacksonville is in an early must-win spot against one of the NFL’s eight undefeateds. Time for Gus Bradley’s team to snap out of its funk.
The next five weeks—which feature four Green Bay home games plus a bye—offer Aaron Rodgers a chance to put the kibosh on those repetitive questions about his struggling offense. Cook and the run game will be instrumental against a Lions defense that’s almost out of healthy linebackers. Detroit is capable of countering with its own points, no matter what a Week 2 home loss to Tennessee may say. Theo Riddick is now the team’s No. 1 back with Ameer Abdullah on IR, but it’s unclear how much of a workload he can handle as an actual runner; we know he can catch the ball. An angry Rodgers usually gets the benefit of the doubt.
Watchability Index: 6. It’s going to be a loooong week off in Green Bay if the Lions manage to swipe their second straight win at Lambeau Field.
The most surprising aspect of Cincinnati’s 1–1 start: How utterly nonexistent the run game has been. Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard have combined for 95 yards on 30 carries through two weeks, leaving Andy Dalton responsible for moving the ball. It worked late against the Jets; it didn’t in Pittsburgh. Being one-dimensional against a Von Miller-led pass rush is a bad place to be. The flip side, though, is that Cincinnati’s defense has been stingy, so Trevor Siemian will have his hands full in his first road start.
Watchability Index: 8. Two of the AFC’s obvious contenders. How will A.J. Green find openings against Denver’s secondary?
From Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson to Sam Bradford and Jerick McKinnon (with a little Matt Asiata or Ronnie Hillman sprinkled in), the Vikings’ offense has been cursed with bad injury luck in 2016. Also gone is embattled left tackle Matt Kalil, leaving 2015 fourth-rounder T.J. Clemmings to take over. Those are all subplots to the real gem here, which is Minnesota’s defense vs. Cam Newton and the Carolina offense. Few teams have the speed in the front seven to lock up Carolina’s rushing attack, but Minnesota is in that category, especially with Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart sidelined.
Watchability Index: 9. We’ll get excellent football when the Panthers have the football, with matchups to track all over the field. Can the Vikings come up with any offense of their own?
Washington’s players and coaches spent the week reaffirming their faith in Kirk Cousins. Offensive coordinator Sean McVay could do Cousins a solid by kickstarting the run game this week—Matt Jones, who dealt with a shoulder injury in the preseason, has just 20 carries for 85 yards this season. Jones may stay stuck in neutral another week if the Giants’ defense plays as it did against Dallas and New Orleans. A lot of eyes will be on the Odell Beckham Jr.–Josh Norman matchup here, but a couple factors: 1) Norman likely won’t follow Beckham into the slot, and 2) Bashaud Breeland, opposite Norman on the defense, still has to contend with either Victor Cruz or Sterling Shepard.
Watchability Index: 7. The Giants have shown signs of brilliance on offense but haven’t maintained anything yet. Is this the week?
Look, Los Angeles, keep Jared Goff on the bench for as long as you want ... but please don’t ruin Todd Gurley for us. The 2015 Offensive Rookie of the Year has been buried by an invisible passing game. (In case you’re noticing a theme, by the way, there are a lot of teams struggling to run the ball right now. Only Pittsburgh’s DeAngelo Williams is averaging better than 100 yards per game through two weeks.) Tampa Bay’s run game is hurting itself with Doug Martin banged up, so the key here will be how the Bucs’ O-line can hold up against Aaron Donald and the Los Angeles front.
Watchability Index: 2. Until the Rams score a touchdown this season, they’re not going to be recommended viewing.
Two teams tied for first place but also tied for last place, so I guess it all depends on how you look at it. Remarkably, the 49ers have been the more impressive of the two in a lot of ways, including on offense. They haven’t been good, mind you—Blaine Gabbert remains the random number generator of quarterbacks—but the 49ers have hung up 40 more points than Seattle so far. Flip side, Seattle has allowed just 19 total points; San Francisco coughed up 46 last week. Chip Kelly’s team will struggle to move the ball at times, which is just part of its reality right now. San Francisco’s hope of keeping it close rests in its underrated front seven. If the 49ers can keep Russell Wilson pinned in the pocket, they might make a game of it.
Watchability Index: 3. This technically qualifies as an important, early-season NFC West contest. It’s a mismatch on paper.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is a quarterback who will get flustered and make mistakes under pressure. The problem for the Chiefs, then, is figuring out how exactly to get to the Jets’ QB. They were not able to get in the face of either Philip Rivers or Brock Osweiler consistently in Week 2—a problem that’s neither surprising nor easily fixable with Justin Houston out. This also is a tough matchup for Kansas City in the opposite trenches. Last week, the Texans were all over the Chiefs, who played without either of their starting guards. Muhammad Wilkerson, Leonard Williams and the rest of New York’s front does not exactly qualify as a breather.
Watchability Index: 8. Kansas City can reassert itself as an AFC West (and AFC) threat by handing the Jets their first loss. But the Jets are legit.
The Chargers now have 14 players on injured reserve, including their star receiver (Keenan Allen) and most reliable pass catcher (Danny Woodhead). Tight end Antonio Gates (hamstring) is in doubt for Sunday, as well. The Colts still probably won’t be able to stop Philip Rivers, not with the issues they have in the secondary, but they at least have an injury-induced shot. More likely, they’ll need a heroic outing from Andrew Luck, who is missing one of his own weapons in Donte Moncrief. Nevertheless, Luck tends to be at his best when the Colts throw caution to the wind and play with tempo, which might be their approach from the start.
Watchability Index: 8. The records don’t look like much, but this will be entertaining. It has all the makings of a game in which the Chargers grab a double-digit lead, then let it slip late.
The Steelers’ last win in Philadelphia came back in 1965, when the Eagles’ starting quarterback was the misleadingly named King Hill. The expectations are slightly higher for Philadelphia’s current QB, one Carson Wentz. Pittsburgh’s D-line has been stout, and its disguised coverages in the secondary created issues for Andy Dalton last week, so this will be Wentz’s stiffest test yet. The Steelers could not get Antonio Brown going in the rain against Cincinnati, so he’s due for a bounce-back outing. He’ll need his line to keep Philadelphia’s pass rush at bay.
Watchability Index: 10. This is the game of the week, period.
A second consecutive prime-time game for the Bears, just so the NFL can test the ol’ “‘Why am I watching?’ ’Because it’s on TV’” strategy. In true Rod Marinelli form, the Cowboys’ defense has been a bend-don’t-break operation, but Brian Hoyer’s presence at QB for Chicago should let Marinelli tee off a bit. As usual, though, the Cowboys’ No. 1 priority will be to establish its run game—Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 83 yards last week after a sluggish Week 1. The Bears’ Jerrell Freeman-Danny Trevathan combo at linebacker will have to rack up the tackle numbers.
Watchability Index: 3. The Bears are not yet No. 1 pick bad, but they’re starting to look like they could make a run at it.
Atlanta has ample flaws, but it does possess a healthy collection of playmakers on offense, from Julio Jones to the Devonta Freeman/Tevin Coleman backfield tandem. How is New Orleans’s depleted defense going to slow down those weapons? It probably won’t, so this will have to be a Drew Brees special. Feeding Mark Ingram would help, though. The Saints RB has 21 carries through two games, as the Saints have continued their tradition of bailing on the run. Atlanta is missing some of its newfound speed at linebacker with rookie De’Vondre Campbell out (ankle).
Watchability Index: 8. It might not be a showcase of defensive fundamentals, but a shootout would be a fun way to close the week.
Surprise star of Week 3
Phillip Dorsett, WR, Colts. Dorsett hauled in four passes for 94 yards in Week 1. He could top 100 for the first time in his career if the Colts-Chargers game turns into the pass-happy showdown it’s expected to be.
Upset of the week
Jets (+3) over Chiefs. Kansas City is an extremely tough spot for a road team to win, but New York could have an edge up front on both sides of the ball. Which QB will make the crushing mistake?
College upset of the week (Season: 1-1)
Central Michigan (+3) at Virginia. The Chips won’t need a Hail Mary this time. They’re the better team.