Game of the week
The line: Ravens by 3½
The story: Hard to believe, but one of these teams starts the season 1-2, and you make the call. New England is 7-1 vs. the Ravens and has never lost a regular-season game to them. Baltimore won its past 11 at home, and quarterback Joe Flacco is 28-5 there.
Plus, there's this: Few opponents flummox Tom Brady like Baltimore. You can look it up. The Ravens have seven interceptions in their past three games vs. Brady, and in six starts against Baltimore the future Hall of Famer has been reduced to a 56.6 completion percentage, six touchdowns, eight interceptions and a passer rating of 69.1.
OK, so he won five of those games. Winning is what he does. But it has been tough getting there, and it could be tougher Sunday. Brady was just sacked four times by Arizona.
Baltimore is in the midst of a brutal grind that has it playing four times in 18 days, which isn't supposed to happen in a league concerned about player safety. But take a look at the Ravens' schedule. It's full of potholes, including two games vs. Pittsburgh in three weeks.
That's why I think this is a bigger game for Baltimore than it is for New England. We all know the Patriots are going to win their division. But Baltimore? We're not so sure. That's why a victory here is important, only the Ravens don't win if they forget about running back Ray Rice again.
Yeah, the offense belongs to Joe Flacco, and Flacco is terrific in the no-huddle, and this is another chance for him to demonstrate why he should be paid a megabucks contract. I get all that. I also get that Rice is the team's best playmaker on offense ... so give him the ball on third-and-short. Baltimore didn't last week and suffered for its mistake.
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The Patriots, meanwhile, have no trouble running the ball. In fact, it appears offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is more inclined to feature the run than his predecessors, with Stevan Ridley producing five carries of 15 or more yards in the season opener vs. Tennessee. According to Elias Sports Bureau, no Patriots back in the past 25 years has done that in one game. But don't expect an encore here: Opponents are averaging 3.7 yards per carry vs. the Ravens.
The back story: The Patriots are 15-4 vs. the AFC North (since 2002) in the regular season, with losses to Pittsburgh (3) and Cleveland (1).
Three games I'd like to see
The line: Eagles by 3½
The story: This is all about Kevin Kolb and his future with the Cardinals. Kolb's the guy Arizona acquired last summer to become its starting QB ... only he lost the job to John Skelton, who subsequently got hurt in the season opener.
Sound familiar? It's the same thing that happened to Kolb when he was in Philadelphia, losing his job to Michael Vick after Kolb bowed out with a concussion in the 2010 opener against Green Bay. Vick led the Eagles to the playoffs that season, and Kolb could do the same -- if, that is, he plays as he has the past six quarters.
What I like most about his performances is that he's not screwing up. He doesn't have an interception, and he's producing critical touchdowns. Philadelphia will pressure the pocket, especially against an offensive line that is vulnerable at the tackles, which is why I would expect Kolb to throw off three-and-five step drops, hoping to eliminate the mistakes that dogged him last season and this summer.
But look closer, people. Over his past four games Kolb doesn't have an interception, and that's a start -- especially against a Philadelphia club that can't hold on to the ball. The Eagles have an NFL-high nine turnovers, yet they're unbeaten. That tells you something about the talent and confidence of a team that looks vastly improved over the 2011 edition.
Philadelphia can beat you in so many ways, and I'm not talking only about offense. I'm talking about a defense that last week produced takeaways that led to 14 Eagles points and a defense that held off Baltimore down the stretch.
But there's a history here, and it's not good for Philadelphia. Arizona has won three of its past four against the Eagles, including two in Phoenix, where the Cards are a tough out for anyone. Their six-game home winning streak is second only to Baltimore among today's clubs, and their 9-2 record over the past 11 games is tied for best in the league.
So the Cards are no fluke, especially on defense where since the middle of last season they've been among the league's best. Arizona entered the season confident it had the defense to play with the NFL's premier teams. What it didn't know was if it had the quarterback to do it.
We're about to find out.
The back story: In four career games vs. Philadelphia, Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has 26 catches for 456 yards and eight TDs. In his past two, he has 16 receptions for 298 yards and five scores. Including the playoffs, Fitzgerald has more TDs (8) vs. Philadelphia than he does vs. any team outside the NFC West.
The line: Chargers by 3½
The story: San Diego had never won the first two games of any season under Norv Turner -- until now. OK, so the opponents haven't exactly been formidable, but last time I checked a win is a win. Only a win here would be more meaningful -- and I'm not talking about in the standings; I'm talking about over the water cooler.
Yep, a victory here might convince critics who stand around hammering the Bolts that maybe this is the year these guys overachieve. I mean, for the first time in years the Chargers weren't a preseason favorite to win the AFC West, so little was expected. And maybe little is produced. But so far so good, and now they meet a playoff-caliber team that just came off a signature victory vs. Denver.
The Falcons have it all. Matt Ryan is the NFL's highest-rated passer. They can run the ball. They have two of the best outside receivers in the game. Tight end Tony Gonzalez is going to the Hall of Fame. Their defense just frazzled Peyton Manning. Basically, everything's in their corner except ... well, except the schedule. The Falcons must make a cross-country trip on a short week, and that will make this game difficult.
So will the Chargers' defense. Under John Pagano, it is doing what it couldn't a year ago -- namely, hold fast on third downs and keep opponents off the scoreboard. But that's against Oakland and Tennessee, both winless. Now comes the litmus test, with the Chargers expecting tight end Antonio Gates and running back Ryan Mathews to play, and you would think Chargers fans would be juiced. Apparently not. The game will be blacked out on local TV.
The back story: Dating to 2009, Atlanta leads the league in two-minute defense, allowing just 17 points in 54 possessions in the final two minutes of each half. A year ago, the Falcons allowed just three points all season in the final two minutes.
The line: Texans by 2½
The story: The last time we saw Peyton Manning in Denver he looked marvelous. But the last time we saw him at all he looked dreadful. Let's be honest, folks: If that were anyone but Manning on Monday, critics would've been excoriating the guy for bad decisions, poor throws and overall lackluster play.
But Manning's one of the game's best, so you cut him some slack ... which is why I'm not sure what happens here. Basically, that's because I'm not sure about the real Peyton Manning. The questions about arm strength are back, and fair enough. It didn't look as if he threw with authority Monday.
But that was Monday. The week before he seemed fine.
"I am what I am, it is what it is," Manning said of his arm. "Whatever expression is appropriate for that."
All I know about Manning is that I wouldn't undersell him vs. Houston. He's 16-2 against the Texans, with 42 TDs and eight interceptions. Then there are the Broncos at home. Since 2002, they're 16-3 there in September and, dating back to 1996, have the best record at home in the first month of the season (41-19).
All of that bodes well for a Denver victory. But this is Houston, and these aren't the Texans that Peyton Mann-handled for most of his career in Indianapolis. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips runs the league's top-ranked unit, and, trust me, it will study videotapes of Monday's game to see what Atlanta did that flustered Manning.
And it will do it, too.
Houston has an elite defense. It has one of the game's premier backs and wide receivers. Its quarterback looks recovered from a serious foot injury. In short, the Texans look like a team that will lap its division and push deep into the playoffs. First, though, they must demonstrate they can beat a quality opponent -- and that's why we're here.
The back story: In his past six road games, Houston's Matt Schaub has 10 touchdowns and one interception.
Monday night lights
The line: Packers by 3½
The story: This looks more like a measuring stick for Seattle than it does Green Bay. Yes, the Seahawks just beat Dallas, and the Cowboys seemed so promising after beating the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants in the season opener. But Dallas is Dallas, and inconsistency is the norm for these guys. It isn't for Green Bay, which was anything but inconsistent in last week's demolition of Chicago.
Nobody questions Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' ability to manufacture points. Nope, if there's supposed to be a hole in this team it's the defense -- only that defense responded with seven sacks and four interceptions of Jay Cutler.
|Russell Wilson will have to be on his toes against the Packers' dangerous pass rush. (AP)|
The key here is how effective Seattle's defense will be against Rodgers and the Packers' attack. The Seahawks can't afford to get in a tennis match with these guys, because Rodgers will win in straight sets. So it's defense where they must make an impact, and it worked vs. Dallas.
The Cowboys scored once.
It must work again for Seattle to pull the upset, only the odds are against the Seahawks. Reason: Green Bay has victories in its road opener in every season under coach Mike McCarthy -- a six-game streak that is the NFL's longest. What's more, the Packers have a league-best 8-2 road record in September under McCarthy.
The back story: The Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch aims for his seventh straight home game with at least 100 yards rushing.
Crummy game of the week
The line: Saints by 9½
The story: Neither team has a win, and both are front and center when talk gets around to the season's biggest disappointments. But at least New Orleans has an excuse: It doesn't have its head coach. Heck, it doesn't even have its interim head coach. It has an interim-for-the-interim, and so far that "flawless transition" Aaron Kroner talked about before the season hasn't happened.
But it could now. That's because Kansas City is next up, and there has been no one less impressive than the Chiefs. Not only are they 0-2; they've been hammered by Atlanta and Buffalo.
Granted, the same thing happened last year, and the Chiefs finished a game out of first in the AFC West. But this club looks crippled, with 13 guys on the injury report and the situation so bleak that Romeo Crennel postponed Wednesday's padded practice.
That's not good when you're up against Drew Brees, though he's another guy who hasn't delivered. It's time he does something, anything, to put New Orleans back on the map. The Saints vowed to respond to Bountygate with a start people would remember, and they're living up to their word.
Unfortunately for them.
The back story: Combined, these two teams have no takeaways and 10 turnovers.
Upset of the week
The story: I like Arizona at home, and I like Arizona when it plays an opponent that makes mistakes. That makes Philadelphia -- with an NFL-high nine turnovers -- ripe for the upset.
I know, at some point the Eagles will learn how to hold on to the football, but until that happens I'll look for the shocker -- and it's not Kolb that makes me think it can happen here; it's the Arizona defense. In nine of the Cards' past 11 games, they gave up less than 20 points.
That includes the Eagles, who not only lost to Arizona last season but whose quarterback, Michael Vick, produced his lowest passer rating (32.5) since 2006.
But there's more. Arizona is home, riding a six-game winning streak there. Furthermore, the Cards are coming off an emotional upset in New England that could do for this team what last year's upset in Philadelphia did for the San Francisco 49ers. Add it all up, and you have an upset in the making.
Five guys I'd like to be
1. Dallas QB Tony Romo: He's 3-0 vs. Tampa Bay, with 11 TDs, no interceptions and a staggering passer rating of 144.8. Romo aims for his fourth straight game against the Bucs with at least three touchdown passes and a passer rating of 130 or higher.
2. Miami RB Reggie Bush: He aims for his fourth straight game at home with at least 100 yards rushing.
3. San Francisco WR Michael Crabtree: In his past four games indoors, he has 25 catches for 333 yards and four touchdowns.
4. Detroit WR Calvin Johnson: He aims for his fourth straight game vs. the AFC with at least 100 yards receiving. In his past three, Johnson has 19 catches for 441 yards (an average of 147 per) and four TDs.
5. Atlanta QB Matt Ryan: He's 14-4 vs. the AFC and in his only start against the Chargers had a 130.2 rating.
Five best matchups
1. Arizona QB Kolb vs. Philadelphia: Kolb's first game vs. his ex-team, and he's in the right place. The Cards have won their past six at home. This is a big game for Arizona and a bigger game for Kolb, who could shut up his detractors with another win -- though that's not exactly how he approaches his next start. "I think for the most part people just try to criticize everybody in the world nowadays," said Kolb. "So I don't even pay attention to [criticism] and move on with my life."
2. San Francisco WR Randy Moss vs. Minnesota: It's the first time Moss faces his ex-team, and it might be the last. So I would imagine he wants to make an impression, and I'm not alone. "I'm sure he is motivated," said Minnesota defensive end Brian Robison."I know if I was a guy who was here, I'd want to come back and make a statement."
3. Chicago QB Jay Cutler vs. Chicago DB D.J. Moore: It was Moore who criticized his quarterback for shoulder-bumping tackle J'Marcus Webb last week, and it was Moore who was taken to the woodshed this week by his head coach. Essentially, the message was this: Knock it off. So Moore has, and let's see what happens next. At some point, it's up to Cutler to prove he deserves the support of anyone, starting with his teammates.
4. N.Y. Jets offensive coordinator Tony Sparano vs. Miami: Sparano coached these guys last season. In fact, he coached them from 2008-11 and won the only division title New England did not during that span. Now he returns to face the club that was 30-32 under him and says, "I have no bitter feelings toward anybody there." Maybe, but you know he would love nothing better than to leave here a winner. First things first, however, and somebody please tell Sparano where to dress. "I couldn't tell you where the visitors' locker room is," he said. "But once the ball drops we're there to do a job."
5. New England WR Wes Welker vs. New England WR Julian Edelman: Welker led the league in catches last year; Edelman led these two in playing time last weekend. I'm serious. He was in for 75 snaps; Welker was in for 63. Huh? What in the name of Josh McDaniels is going on? Don't ask Baltimore. The Ravens are prepared for Welker, and they should be: He's the better player and the more dangerous threat. And Edelman? "He's not Wes," said Baltimore cornerback Cary Williams.
Five things that may interest only me
1. Since the current playoff format was adopted in 1990, 22 teams that started 0-2 made it to the playoffs. Of that group, four made it to the Super Bowl and three (the 1993 Dallas Cowboys, 2001 New England Patriots and 2007 New York Giants) won it.
2. Good news for those teams that make it through this weekend unscathed. Since the current playoff format was adopted, 75.7 percent of clubs starting 3-0 reached the postseason.
3. With two catches Sunday, Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald becomes the youngest player to reach 700 receptions. He would be 29 years and 23 days old Sunday, over a year younger than the current record holder, Dallas tight end Jason Witten.
4. The Houston Texans are the only team in the NFL to start each of the past three seasons 2-0.
5. Philadelphia is the first team since the 1983 Los Angeles Rams to win its first two games while committing at least nine turnovers.
Numbers to remember
5: 100-yard games for Tony Gonzalez vs. San Diego
9: Consecutive games where Drew Brees has at least 300 yards passing
18: 300-yard passing games in the NFL this season, the second-highest total through two weeks
21: Chris Johnson yards rushing this season
28: Career runs of 30 or more yards by Johnson and San Francisco's Frank Gore, tied for most among current NFL running backs
111.6: Robert Griffin III's passer rating
216: Consecutive Alex Smith passes without an interception, a San Francisco record
861-439: Point differential in Baltimore between the Ravens and their opponents since 2008
1974: Last time Arizona started 3-0
• Chicago: Mostly sunny, high of 61
• Cleveland: Few showers, high of 59
• Dallas: Sunny, high of 86 (retractable roof)
• Indianapolis: Sunny, high of 63 (retractable roof)
• Miami: Scattered thunderstorms, high of 84
• Minneapolis: Dome
• New Orleans: Dome
• Nashville, Tenn.: Sunny, high of 70
• Washington, D.C.: Sunny, high of 71
• Glendale, Ariz.: Partly cloudy, high of 105 (retractable roof)
• San Diego: Partly sunny, high of 79
• Denver: Partly cloudy, high of 81
• Oakland, Calif.: Partly cloudy, high of 74
• Baltimore: Sunny, high of 72
Where we will be
• I'll be in Baltimore to worship at the statue of Johnny U.
• Mike Freeman will be in Denver to arm wrestle Peyton Manning.