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Week 3 Game Rankings: Packers-Bengals tops list of prove-it games

This is the week we really start to learn a few things. Everyone has played two games to get the kinks out. Interestingly enough, we get some very intriguing matchups featuring some clubs that have surprised thus far, and some of last year's playoff teams who might not be able to get off the mat (Steelers, Vikings, Redskins, I'm talking to you).

I love the way this week's slate sets up and a lot of these prove-it games are out-of-conference affairs. Often, those are stinkers, but I like the look of this group. Are you buying the Dolphins? Would you be swayed a little more if they, say, beat the Falcons? The Colts could easily be 0-2 with losses to the Raiders and Dolphins, and now have to take on a very physical 49ers team. I bought into the Bengals big time this preseason, but after watching them for two weeks I wouldn't be surprised if the Packers blew them out.

If the Steelers can't find a way to move the ball on the Bears, they're going to be 0-3, a hole I don't think they will get out of. I'm interested to see if the Patriots can muster more offense against the Buccaneers. And then, within the conferences, the Lions have a chance to kick the Redskins while they're down, and few teams have surprised me more thus far than the Titans and Chargers, and they happen to be getting together on Sunday on CBS.

There may not be a bunch of games featuring two teams most are projecting to be in the Super Bowl, but, then, what the hell do any of us really know this early in the season? So give me a week like this to help make a little more sense of things and see who could keep rising, and who may be close to doomed before we even get to October.

Green Bay Packers at Cincinnati Bengals


Green Bay at Cincinnati
Sunday, Sept. 22, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: Two of the more popular Super Bowl picks get together early in the season. The Bengals won't get many style points, even for their victory over the Steelers, with their offense yet to take off and many, many questions still being asked of QB Andy Dalton. Green Bay comes in off a week in which Aaron Rodgers could have thrown for 700 yards if the Packers hadn't run the heck out of the ball after blowing out the Redskins in the first half. This is a litmus test for the Bengals' defense, after blowing a big lead at Chicago in Week 1, and a key moment in Cincinnati's season. I thought I would see more confidence and killer instinct from them after successive playoff appearances, but they seem to still be figuring out who they are, and how good they are or could be. Those still waiting for a signature Andy Dalton win against an elite opponent -- can't count Monday night against sadsack Pittsburgh at this point -- may get it here, with the Packers defense still a work in progress as well.

What to watch for: Can Dalton avoid a slow start and spread the ball around early? How will the Packers play A.J. Green? If they still had Charles Woodson in his prime, they would look at the film of Ike Taylor largely silencing him with a physical man-to-man style and have their answer. This secondary isn't what it once was and remember how another big body, WR Anquan Boldin, tore them up in Week 1? ... Green Bay's Eddie Lacy missed time with a concussion, and even if he is back for this one, James Starks is clearly hot after gashing the Redskins last week. I doubt any Packers RB can do much against Geno Atkins and this Bengals front, however. ... If James Harrison couldn't see the field more than a handful of times against the Steelers, then it's hard to figure we see much of him at all on a short week here. Not a good early sign. ... The Bengals offensive line was bolstered by the return of LT Andrew Whitworth, and he should be in better shape Sunday. ... I would expect the Bengals to keep leaning on rookie TE Tyler Eifert and RB Gio Bernard, after making a concerted effort to have them more involved Monday night.

Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens


Houston at Baltimore
Sunday, Sept. 22, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: The Texans tore through the Ravens a year ago, handing John Harbaugh his worst beating. Of course, that was in Houston, and the Texans don't travel nearly as well, and they have been perhaps the luckiest team in the NFL thus far. They are 2-0 despite being outplayed by opponents most believe are inferior, finding ways to overcome deficits to San Diego and Tennessee. Doing so in Baltimore would likely prove more problematic, not that the Super Bowl champs have looked like anything close to world beaters themselves. Baltimore was blanked by Cleveland for a half last week. Joe Flacco is a one-man army on offense, with the Ravens run game nonexistent and what looks to be among the worst group of receivers and tight ends in the league. If these two teams are legit challengers, one of them should step up and show it this weekend.

Why to watch: Ed Reed, the greatest safety of his generation (and perhaps any), expects to play after missing the first two weeks, returning to the only place he ever played previously. This will be emotional for all involved, and he knows Flacco well and has a way of getting his hands on the ball. Houston's secondary has been awful, and so getting him on the field could be huge, mentally and physically. Reed is as smart as they come. ... Texans WR Andre Johnson, recovering from a concussion, has to be a concern even if he plays, as expected. Rookie WR DeAndre Hopkins could become even more of a marked man. ... The Ravens are getting carved up by TEs, and better find someone capable of manning up on Owen Daniels. S Michael Huff may need to win that battle. ... I continue to like Ravens rookie WR Marlon Brown more each week and if CB Jonathan Joseph takes out Torrey Smith, then Brown and Brandon Stokley will have to continue to show up on third down. ... Ray Rice is dealing with a hip injury and while he could play, I have a feeling RB Bernard Pierce gets a decent workload here as the Ravens try to figure out their run game. ... Ravens LT Bryant McKinnie is not off to the best start, and J.J. Watt and company will be coming after him.

Indianapolis Colts at San Francisco 49ers


Indianapolis at San Francisco
Sunday, Sept. 22, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: I'm not loving what I am seeing from the Colts so far. They are getting manhandled too often at the line of scrimmage and now they face what most believe is the most physical team in the NFL. San Francisco is coming off a humbling butt kicking to its fiercest rival. Jim Harbaugh no likey blowouts. He will have his team fired up, no doubt. The Colts thought they plugged some holes on their offensive line, but from the first two weeks you would have a hard time proving it. Oh, and Harbaugh coached Andrew Luck at Stanford not that long ago, at a campus that is right down the road from San Fran. And Luck's offensive coordinator, Pep Hamilton, coached under Harbaugh at Stanford. So, yeah, that might come up a time or two in the broadcast.

What to watch for: Luck isn't known for his scrambling ability, but he continues to have to keep drives alive with his feet, with the passing game not yet to last year's levels under Bruce Arians. That could be a problem against this defense. ... The Colts say recently acquired RB Trent Richardson will be ready to go on game day, so it will be interesting to see how much they use their new weapon in his first game with the team. ... Will Harbaugh implement more read-option stuff into this week's game plan? QB Colin Kaepernick comes in off his first poor game as a pro, and when the 49ers did flash Monday night it was usually because Kap took off with the ball in his hands. ... If the Colts are able to go toe-to-toe with Anquan Boldin at the point of attack, it's hard to see him breaking away from anyone deep. Could be an interesting assignment for Colts CB Vontae Davis, who just happens to be the brother of 49ers TE Vernon Davis. ... Frank Gore shows signs of all the hits he has taken over the years. If the 49ers can't get the run game revved up, and with top WR Michael Crabtree out for quite some time, if not all season, that could be problematic. I would worry about Gore if he can't show some productivity Sunday against this Colts front.

Atlanta Falcons at Miami Dolphins


Atlanta at Miami
Sunday, Sept. 22, 4:05 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: The Falcons don't seem quite like the juggernaut they were a year ago, and the Dolphins, so far, are living up to the preseason buzz about them maybe finally being a playoff team again. This will be a pretty good test of where they stand. If highly underrated defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle can keep Matt Ryan out of the end zone, then the Dolphins just might be on to something. Falcons coordinator Mike Nolan gets to face his former team, and he will surely have some intel on that group. Atlanta nearly blew a big lead last week to the Rams and, with the NFC South figuring to be more of a true competition this season, beating the teams they're supposed to beat will be high on their agenda.

What to watch for: Ryan Tannehill is making good decisions with the football, not forcing too much, and looks the part of an emerging young quarterback and should benefit from facing a team that lacks a potent pass rush. ... WR Mike Wallace finally broke out last week, adding some depth to the Dolphins' vertical attack, and will probably see a lot of young corners up against him Sunday. ... Still not sure you can expect much from Falcons WR Roddy White as he battles that high ankle sprain. ... The Falcons seem short at blocking tight end and expect Coyle to try to exploit that with rusher Cameron Wake in particular. ... Losing DE Kroy Biermann takes away a depth pass rusher from a group already lacking them, and means Nolan is without his best weapon to drop back off the line and into coverage. Not that the Dolphins have the kind of skill at TE that would create the most issues in that regard. ... Falcons RB Steven Jackson, another back with plenty of wear and tear, is already picking up nagging injuries and he's out for this game. Can someone else provide that pounding presence? ... If there are three better WRs in the NFL than Julio Jones right now, please tell me who they are.

St. Louis Rams at Dallas Cowboys


St. Louis at Dallas
Sunday, Sept. 22, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: Will this be a good week or a bad week for the Cowboys? Should be a good week, as they stumbled last time out at Kansas City, but with this group you never quite know. I want to believe in both of these clubs, but finding consistency on both sides of the ball has been difficult for them, and they tend to progress in fits and starts. In the Rams' case that's beyond understandable as Jeff Fisher has already transformed them 18 games into his regime. For Dallas, it is the essence of their identity since their golden age of the 1990s, and they just can't maintain success in the short or long term. Still, I wouldn't be shocked if one of these clubs reached the postseason, and winning a game like this and going on a little winning streak would be just what they needed to engender more belief. Saying all of that, I could see this game going in 20 different directions.

What to watch for: The Rams are another team that already has had to chase the game through two weeks. As the youngest team in the NFL, that's a recipe for disaster if it keeps up. I expected more from their secondary as well, and opposing passers have carved them up so far. Of course, Tony Romo could put a few balls in their hands this week and help their cause. ... Dez Bryant got heated up last week. Look for that to continue. ... I still believe Bill Callahan will get the Cowboys' run game going, but this is a very tough front they are facing. So in Week 3, it could be more of Jason Witten and Bryant with an emphasis on Miles Austin stepping up as well. ... Tavon Austin will only continue to grow by the week and look for him to be moved around all over the place by coordinator Brian Schottenheimer on Sunday. ... If teams want to focus on shutting down TE Jared Cook, as the Falcons did last week, Sam Bradford must continue trusting guys like Lance Kendricks and Chris Givens, as he did last week. ... The Rams' running game is going nowhere so far. Wonder if they give Zac Stacy more of a look soon? ... The Rams must replace RT Rodger Saffold, or Bradford could be in trouble.

San Diego Chargers at Tennessee Titans


San Diego at Tennessee
Sunday, Sept. 22, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: Philip Rivers, already with seven passing TDs, appears to be enjoying a renaissance. Jake Locker is still Jake Locker but at least he isn't throwing back-breaking picks. Both of these teams probably deserved to beat the Texans, and both wilted late to lose, otherwise both would be 2-0. Not sure how many of us saw that coming. Whichever club wins this game could start to feel a little decent about perhaps having that team of destiny thing going on, especially when you consider that besides Denver no AFC power is looking particularly powerful early on. Gregg Williams has the Titans defense playing with bite again and another newcomer, Chargers head coach Mike McCoy, has Rivers avoiding major mistakes and spraying the ball around. Three weeks ago I would have been hard-pressed to sell this contest, but these two teams have impressed thus far.

What to watch for: San Diego's weak offensive line hasn't been a huge issue yet, but how long can that go on? The Titans are playing a very physical brand of football with their front seven. ... Chris Johnson could have a true breakout game here. The Titans RB has been a slow starter in recent years and I could see a signature long dash in this one. ... The Chargers are back close enough to the East Coast after playing at Philadelphia last week, which generally isn't conducive to putting together a winning streak. ... WR Kenny Britt is a passenger for the Titans these days and struggling with blocking duties. Another Sunday spent largely watching and he could be trade bait. ... You have to love the way WR Eddie Royal is finding seams in defenses and getting it done in the red zone for the Chargers. With Malcolm Floyd ailing he'll have to be big again in this one.

Chicago Bears at Pittsburgh Steelers


Chicago at Pittsburgh
Sunday, Sept. 22, 8:30 p.m. ET (NBC)

Why to watch: Is this the Steelers' last stand? Would an 0-3 start doom them? And will Marc Trestman ever lose a game? So far he has the right touch with quarterback Jay Cutler and the Bears are finding ways to win games. For me, I'm still not sure that the story has been told on either of these outfits. After being so awful at home in Week 1 and inept offensively again in Week 2, I have to think a Mike Tomlin team, if it goes down, at least goes down swinging here. Another relatively listless outing would be entirely out of character. The Bears have been living dangerously but finding ways to win, and they have been known to get off to pretty good starts.

What to watch for: Ben Roethlisberger may not trust his reworked offensive line and he is woefully out of sync with his receivers. That can't continue. His footwork is leading to some sacks, and if nothing else you think he would get on the same page with Antonio Brown, the Steelers' top receiver. ... I know Tomlin doesn't like to play rookies too early, but they need to get WR Markus Wheaton on the field more. ... CB Ike Taylor manned up on AJ Green last week; can he do it on Brandon Marshall? If so, I like their chances. ... The Steelers are trying to get TE Heath Miller back for this week. He could be crucial. ... The Bears' pass protection has been stellar so far, but I still wonder how that goes over time. I have a feeling Steelers rookie LB Jarvis Jones makes an impact here. ... The Steelers are still pretty good against the run. Matt Forte's best action could come in the screen game. ... Look for Cutler to test the Steelers' older safeties. Troy Polamalu just can't cover ground close to what he used to.

Arizona Cardinals at New Orleans Saints


Arizona at New Orleans
Sunday, Sept. 22, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: New Orleans generally puts on a pretty good show at home and the Cardinals are all about chucking the ball all over the field under Bruce Arians. Plenty of deep shots to be had here. The Saints are seeking to keep their Sean Payton mojo going after the Bucs gifted them a game last week and they held off Atlanta at the goal line to persevere in Week 1. Say this about the Saints, they are rarely boring, and they will be looking to try to create some distance from the rest of the NFC South as early as they can. New Orleans' defense is still bending some, but not coming close to breaking under new coordinator Rob Ryan, and they tighten things up in the red zone for sure. The Saints are finally getting more of a pass rush as well, all of which bodes well for a team that generally can put up points in a hurry.

What to watch for: We could have one of the more intriguing matchups of the weekend if the Cardinals decide to put freak-of-nature DB Patrick Peterson on freak-of-nature TE Jimmy Graham. I would love to see it, and I'm not sure they would have to use Peterson on a WR like Marques Colston. ... Cards rookie CB Tyrann Mathieu continues to display an innate ability to make plays and be around the ball. Should get plenty of chances here. ... Will a No. 1 RB emerge for the Saints? ... Rashard Mendenhall is probably due for a decent workload as well. ... I like Saints pass rusher Cam Jordan more each week, and the Cardinals have major protection issues. Ryan will sell out to try to exploit those protection deficiencies.

Cleveland Browns at Minnesota Vikings


Cleveland at Minnesota
Sunday, Sept. 22, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: The Browns don't have a whole lot going for them but they might be the best run stuffers we've seen through two weeks. And this week they get to take it up a notch and face Mr. 2,000, Adrian Peterson (who isn't exactly starting this season in the unreal fashion in which he ended 2012). If nothing else, we'll get a handle on just how good this Browns front seven can be. There also could be a chance former Browns first-round pick Brandon Weeden loses his grip on his starting job, with his thumb ailing and Cleveland exploring other options this week. If Brian Hoyer gives them any sort of life under center, they could end up staying with him for a while.

What to watch for: The Browns turned heads this week by trading RB Trent Richardson to the Colts and replacing him with Willis McGahee. Let's see how fast McGahee acclimates to his new surroundings. ... Josh Gordon, the most gifted of the Browns' receivers, returns from a two-game suspension. After all the dropped balls and general ineptitude from Cleveland's skill players, the pressure will be on this kid to make some plays right away. ... Jared Allen, I think, would be politicking all week long to get lined up against Browns right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. ... Browns CB Joe Haden will have a big day, and may be able to bait Christian Ponder into some picks. ... The Vikings secondary still looks like a mess in far too many big situations, but not sure that's a factor against a foe this limited in the pass game.

Detroit Lions at Washington Redskins


Detroit at Washington
Sunday, Sept. 22, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: The Redskins can't stop anyone and they can't move the ball at all in the first half of games. While the Lions still have their issues, one thing they can do is rack up insane passing yards. Calvin Johnson could be primed to absolutely go off. Washington's secondary is even more vulnerable now with S Brandon Merriweather suffering another concussion, leaving the Skins without any sort of intimidating presence back there. Top corner DeAngelo Hall is going to get shredded again. The Redskins need Robert Griffin III to get back to form, but must continue to protect him from the pistol stuff with him this limited, too. The knee brace, while totally necessary, seems to be weighing him down. Maybe this week the Redskins show the kind of dedication to the run you expect of Mike Shanahan teams.

What to watch for: More of Alfred Morris early? Shanahan isn't afraid to run a back into the ground but Morris isn't getting enough touches early in games to get that perfect feel for the cutback opportunities in the outside zone runs. ... Ndamukong Suh is the best interior lineman in the NFL right now -- I'm giving him the nod over Geno Atkins -- and watching him go against this Shanahan running scheme will be worth your while. ... What unreal way will the Lions concoct to undermine themselves this week? Take multiple safeties? Negate five touchdowns with penalties? Five straight holding penalties to turn an extra point into a 50-yarder? Blink and you will miss something ridiculously sublime with this bunch.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New England Patriots


Tampa Bay at New England
Sunday, Sept. 22, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: The Bucs make the Lions look like a totally disciplined operation. Good grief. Their season could be unraveling before it gets going. The quarterback and the franchise corner they just acquired are less than thrilled about what has been going on with coach Greg Schiano. Schiano meets up with a coaching mentor Bill Belichick at a time when the Patriots are looking far from ready for prime time themselves, and quite lucky to be 2-0. We have Tom Brady on the verge of a sideline breakdown (and old nemesis Darrelle Revis hoping to latch on to the other end of one of his passes) and the Bucs possibly primed for a full-on mutiny. Yeah, I'll tune in for some of that.

What to watch for: The Bucs' defense looks like a much-improved unit but they can't stop the out-of-control illegal hits and they can't hold a fourth-quarter lead. It seems like it's part of their psyche now and I'm not sure how they shake it. ... One of these young receivers has to make a play for the Pats, right? I mean, nine days between games had to create some sort of chemistry in practice, right? ... Pats TE Rob Gronkowski is pushing to get back in the lineup and there is a chance that comes Sunday. If so, how limited is he? Perhaps they save him for the red zone and some third-down situations. ... It's time for Chandler Jones to get to the quarterback with a little more regularity for New England. ... I would expect the Bucs to be feeding RB Doug Martin as much as possible. ... Bucs WR Vincent Jackson is due for a big game as well.

Buffalo Bills at New York Jets


Buffalo at N.Y. Jets
Sunday, Sept. 22, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: The Bills have hope, man. Legit hope. EJ Manuel is clearly a gamer, he gets better as the game goes along and he wants nothing more than the ball in his hands with the game on the line. Poise is an overused term with passers -- Mark Sanchez used to be Mr. Poise back when the Jets were going to championship games, remember? -- but Manuel seems to have that "It" thing going on. While Geno Smith is going to throw some picks and he looks raw, too, there is sufficient clay to mold there. Given the utter lack of weapons around him, he is going OK himself. One of these rookie starters is going to find himself above .500, and both of these teams might end up better than expectations, even if only marginally.

What to watch for: The Jets still seem to favor Bilal Powell to Chris Ivory in the run game, but with the Bills still trying to right that part of their game you would think there will be sufficient touches for both this Sunday. ... When Jets rookie CB Dee Milliner is on the field, quarterbacks are going to take notice and come right after him. The Bills would love to get Stevie Johnson on him if possible, I'm sure. ... CJ Spiller got it rolling last week, and will remain the focal point of this offense. Against the Jets' 3-4 scheme, and those defensive linemen in particular, I would expect tough sledding this weekend.

Oakland Raiders at Denver Broncos


Oakland at Denver
Monday, Sept. 16, 8:40 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Why to watch: The Broncos have been the class of the AFC and the Raiders are looking like they might be more competitive than most expected. Terrelle Pryor is fun to watch and his will to win is obvious. Peyton Manning is on a Super Bowl-or-bust mission and there isn't a mercy rule with this bunch. Just ask Eli. Maybe the Raiders find a way to keep this closer than most expect. Personally, I wouldn't be shocked. There is too much parity in this league to think the Broncos are going to steamroll everyone, every week.

What to watch for: Raiders RB Darren McFadden is a much better fit in the blocking scheme Oakland is running now and he is in a contract year. Denver has been very stout against the run, with Kevin Vickerson flashing frequently. ... Broncos TE Julius Thomas is no longer going to sneak up on anyone. ... Don't underestimate the loss of Denver LT Ryan Clady for an indefinite period of time. He is one of the very best around and Denver is already dealing with backups at center. Manning is so smart and gets rid of the ball so fast that it speeds up the game and keeps him from absorbing big hits, but if the left tackle is a speed bump, then something's gotta give.

Jacksonville Jaguars at Seattle Seahawks


Jacksonville at Seattle
Sunday, Sept. 22, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: A 21-point favorite in the NFL? Really? This is a Sunday, not a Saturday. The Jags definitely stink, and the Seahawks showed why they are a Super Bowl favorite last week by stifling the 49ers. But they also love Jags rookie coach Gus Bradley up in Seattle, where he had served as defensive coordinator, and I don't think they would run up the score much if they could prevent it. Don't get me wrong, this game has all kinds of blowout potential, but I could see Seattle coach Pete Carroll calling off the dogs in the second half.

What to watch for: I was among those convinced after discussions with Seahawks players and staff members that WR Golden Tate was ready to take that next step. Through two games he has been pretty quiet. ... No need to run sledgehammer running back Marshawn Lynch as much as normal in this game. Could see Seattle rookie RB Christine Michael getting more in the mix this week. ... Seattle won't take any chances with stud LT Russell Okung and his injured toe in a game like this. ... Does anyone really care if or when Blaine Gabbert comes back as Jags quarterback, and if Chad Henne remains the starter? This offense is incapable of doing anything regardless.

New York Giants at Carolina Panthers


N.Y. Giants at Carolina
Sunday, Sept. 22, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)

Why to watch: Panthers GM Dave Gettlemen faces the organization for which he served the bulk of his career, and both of these teams need a win. Going 0-3 will hasten the chatter about Panthers coach Ron Rivera's job security and could heighten some rumblings about Tom Coughlin finally retiring after this season as well. If you are a fan of the turnover, this is your game. Eli Manning is in rare form and the Panthers should be good for a few as well.

What to watch for: When does Cam Newton finally just say screw it and run with the ball 20 times? Given all the heat Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula is already under, and the fact that the Giants don't exactly have the most fleet and expert group of linebackers in the league, I would fully endorse Cam going rogue here. I'll keep banging the drum for the read option with this team. ... I can't imagine Giants RB David Wilson doesn't break a few big runs soon, but I don't love him against this Carolina front seven. ... Panthers WR Steve Smith may be overdue for an outburst given the state of this passing offense.

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