The 2012 preseason reaches its pinnacle this week. Game 3 is typically a dress rehearsal for the regular season, the one game during the preseason for which most teams actually draw up a game plan.
It is also the most telling for many roster hopefuls as they try to eke out an existence on a NFL team. Those on the bubble or fighting to climb depth charts will have their best opportunities.
We will learn the most about each team this week. Here are my bold predictions for these games.
Last season's game between the Lions and Raiders was a thriller as Matthew Stafford led the Lions to a come-from-behind victory in the Black Hole. This may not be a regular season game, but these two teams meet again in the preseason's most important game for each.
Stafford and Calvin Johnson are already in midseason form, thrilling fans with fantastic play and showing why they will be a force again this season.
In contrast, the Raiders have not been terribly sharp this preseason, starting with Carson Palmer. Look for him to turn it around here.
The Cardinals got hosed when they traded for Kevin Kolb. Not only did they give up a second round pick and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie for the unproven quarterback, they handed him a massive contract that included a $7 million roster bonus paid out this past March.
What has he done to reward their faith? Almost nothing. His first season with the Cardinals was an injury-marred snoozefest exacerbated by the fact John Skelton played much better and led the Cardinals to a 7-2 finish, one game out of playoff contention.
At least Arizona is not too proud to admit their mistake. Kolb and Skelton were shunted into a genuine quarterback competition this preseason, and it looks as though Skelton will win out.
He will cement that status this week against the Titans.
This is the first meeting between this year's top two draft picks, and defenses have started to catch up to them.
Robert Griffin III had a good start to his career against the Bills, but he was flustered by the Chicago defense and generally underwhelmed in that game. Andrew Luck has been great thus far in the preseason despite what his Game 2 stat line might indicate, but this will be the kid's biggest test thus far.
Both are rookies, however, and it will show this week. Both defenses will be ready and eager to shut down the opponents' top pick, leading to a rather lackluster show.
For all the hullabaloo surrounding Peyton Manning's graduation from Colt to Bronco, he has had a rather underwhelming preseason thus far.
He might be going up against a vaunted San Francisco defense, but things will take a turn for the better this Sunday for the elder Manning. If there is anything that can be said about him, it is that he is a terribly hard-working quarterback, and he will be doing everything he can to get back to form.
All the worse for the 49ers, who will bear the brunt of Manning's preseason wrath.
Look for some unexpected players to make a name for themselves in Miami with their wide receiving corps looking more like a chorus line of Walking Dead characters.
One name who has surprised lately is Jeff Fuller, the undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M. Ryan Tannehill's main target in college was brought on after an underwhelming senior season with a lot to prove. His fall out of the draft came just a year after he was discussed as a potential first-round pick after a fantastic junior season.
Odds were long that Fuller would make the active roster despite a dearth of talent at the position. The hill to climb was steep for the rookie with Brian Hartline, Davone Bess, Legedu Naanee, Roberto Wallace, Julius Pruitt, Rishard Matthews, B.J. Cunningham and even Chad Johnson ahead of him on the depth chart.
He seems to have climbed that hill in recent weeks, even getting some run with the first-team offense against the Panthers in preseason Week 2. He had a good performance in the game, and another one will seal his spot on the team.
However unlikely it will be that Colt McCoy actually catches Brandon Weeden this preseason, his performance will begin to plant seeds of doubt in many a Dawg Pound resident.
The buzz surrounding rookie quarterbacks has not gotten to Weeden, the last first-rounder of his kind in the 2012 draft. His opening game was forgettable, and an improvement in the second game fell short of his peers.
A lopsided comparison in the preseason's dress rehearsal could spark a real debate about whether Weeden is better than McCoy in the short term.
Buffalo has not exactly performed up to expectations thus far, preseason or not. That changes this week against a stout Steelers defense.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Fred Jackson, Steve Johnson, C.J. Spiller and Co. need to get the offense in gear sooner than later, and what better time than, you know, before the season actually starts.
Like their NFC North rival Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers have not exactly had a good defensive preseason thus far. While this means little in the grand scheme of the 2012 season—it is the preseason and much of that is on the backups—it does mean the Bills will have an easier time than they would if these two met during the regular season.
Justin Blackmon, Kendall Wright, A.J. Jenkins and even Josh Gordon have gotten more run in the headlines than Michael Floyd has this preseason. The rookie out of Notre Dame is keeping a low profile thus far.
It is time to break out of that shell.
Floyd was the second receiver drafted in the 2012 draft, and he has yet to really show it. A good outing is coming, but he will have to do it against the preseason's top-ranked defense. The Titans will be all over Larry Fitzgerald, making it Floyd's time to shine.
A couple of seasons removed from microfracture surgery and with a career on life support, new life has been breathed into Steve Smith's tenure in the NFL in St. Louis.
Very strong buzz about WR Steve Smith here. Having another strong practice. Bradford excited to see Smith and Amendola both in slot
— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) August 15, 2012
Smith will continue his good preseason play against the Cowboys this week, solidifying his place on the depth chart and giving Bradford another weapon after a dismal sophomore season.
Much was made about the Chiefs drafting Dontari Poe with the XXth pick in the 2012 draft. Many thought they reached on the workout warrior with the pick despite a need at nose tackle.
He has proven the doubters right thus far, starting the preseason as the third nose tackle on the depth chart and unable to do much about it.
The rookie will change his fate Merida style this week—well, perhaps without the witch and the accent.
You have to figure that at least some of the talk about Poe being a third-stringer has been part of a ploy to motivate the young defensive lineman. Being a first-round pick guarantees nothing, but the Chiefs did not take him with a high draft pick for nothing.
Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow have been sacked an average of once every 4.3 dropbacks this preseason—Wayne Hunter is responsible for roughly 98 percent of that—and the Jets have simply been the worst team of the preseason thus far.
It ends now.
Rex Ryan might be presiding over a team with more GQ spreads than playoff appearances, but he is not The Dude—he will not abide this debacle. The Jets will put last week's unmitigated disaster behind them and take their frustration out on the unwitting Panthers.
Playing in the NFC North is going to be like playing Halo on Legendary. Now imagine doing that with a broken thumb.
That is the Minnesota Vikings right now. Despite a decent offseason that has seen improvement from second-year quarterback Christian Ponder, the Vikings are behind the eight ball in a NFC North that is packed with competition.
Rooting interests will point out they lost nine games by seven points or less last season, but there is no such thing as a moral victory in the NFL. The more telling stat comes on defense, where the Vikings gave up the second-most points in the league last season—a foreboding statistic considering they must contend with Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler each twice a year, barring injury.
One of the NFL's more intriguing storylines this preseason has been the emergence of a 5'10" rookie quarterback in the Pacific Northwest.
Russell Wilson has played his way to a starting gig in the NFL despite his diminutive stature and rookie status. The third-round pick has done so well that the Seahawks have tapped him to start Seattle's third preseason game, indicating he will probably start Week 1 in the regular season.
The dynamic quarterback will affirm that decision with another dazzling game this week.
The football community collectively cringed when Austin Collie went down with another head injury. His fourth concussion in 21 months is not a good sign for the receiver, despite going through 2011 without major injury.
If he is out for a significant time—and there are those who think he should hang it up permanently—the Colts will be left with a major void opposite Reggie Wayne.
Look for rookie LaVon Brazill to step into that void and fill it.
Fellow rookie and higher draft pick T.Y. Hilton has been disappointing thus far for the Colts, and Brazill has seized an advantage as a result.
The Bills have a bit of a conundrum behind Stevie Johnson at wide receiver. Donald Jones and David Nelson seem to be the guys behind him, but T.J. Graham is coming on strong this preseason (via Tim Graham of Buffalo News):
But those are just numbers. What has impressed the Bills so far is how well Graham has adapted to the NFL. He played four years at North Carolina State, but until his senior season he was more of a return man than a receiver.
Graham conceded Friday night in the visitors' locker room the Bills have "put a lot of weight on my shoulders" because they want him to be a threat the New York Jets must worry about in the season opener Sept. 9.
Graham is getting more attention in the Bills' offense than other receivers.
Graham will be a part of that offensive awakening for the Bills this week, and he will solidify his spot on the depth chart as a result.
How much more will be made about the replacements in stripes this preseason?
They stink, though really not much more than the regulars if you think about it. They are slow, but new rules that require a review of everything down to how many breaths a quarterback takes before he hikes the ball are the major culprits.
Still, that will not stop folks from complaining on Twitter. With fantasy drafts approaching, more and more fans will start to pay attention to the games this week. A world record is falling.
Mays could do without taking out one of his teammates this week. The aggressive safety knocked Rey Maulaga and Vontaze Burfict out of games this week because he was overly ambitious, even injuring himself on a play.
His teammates will breathe a sigh of relief when he tones it down this week and avoids getting another one of his own guys.
Perhaps it was fait accompli that Ryan Tannehill would wind up the Week 1 starter for the Dolphins. With all the rumors about owner Stephen Ross' desire to draft him and GM Jeff Ireland's purported year-long affinity for the Texas A&M product, is it a surprise the Dolphins find themselves staring at Tannehill at the top of the depth chart?
It may have been a foregone conclusion considering the Dolphins are planning to start the rookie in the third game of the preseason, but Tannehill will take the opportunity and run with it.
Joe Philbin has confidence enough in the rookie to name him the team's starter before the team's third preseason game, and veterans already have his back.
Ahmad Bradshaw is the starter in New York, but Wilson is being given a shot with the starters this week.
David Wilson expects his reps with the first team will continue into Fri's game. "They're giving me my opportunity this week." #nyg
— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) August 21, 2012
Wilson has been a lightning bolt in the Giants backfield at practice, and he will get his opportunity to show that this week against the Bears.
Draftniks knew about Marvin Jones and were flabbergasted when he fell all the way to the end of the fifth round. The Bengals were all the better for it, and he is showing why this preseason.
Mohamed Sanu has also had a strong preseason, but Jones has put on a full-court press in recent weeks. He has a couple of 40-plus-yard grabs in consecutive games, and another strong showing will have him leapfrogging his fellow rookie on the depth chart.
There is no better time to shine, and Nick Foles will seize the moment.
Foles is just one of a bevy of rookie quarterbacks who have looked good this preseason, but he was not supposed to be one of them. His first good game could have been written off as a fluke against third-stringers, but he came into the second game early because of a Michael Vick injury.
With Mike Kafka out with injury thus far, Foles could be backing Vick up come Week 1. This has major implications considering Vick's penchant for getting hurt.
Locker was named the starting quarterback for the Titans just before their second preseason game. He proceeded to douse the excitement over that announcement with a sub-par performance against the Buccaneers.
The sophomore quarterback completed just 4-of-11 passes for 21 yards and an interception against the Buccaneers, not exactly the start you want to get as a newly minted starter and the future of your franchise.
Can he bounce back against the Cardinals? Locker has never been a terribly accurate quarterback, and Arizona could expose him again. Considering the Titans probably do not want him to do much running, he will be in for another rough night.
Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten are all out for the Cowboys. Sam Bradford is the quarterback for the Rams. (Though, in fairness, he looked pretty good in Game 2 of the preseason).
This game just has the look of a snoozefest. There will be little intrigue and less offense. Unless you are a fan of America's Team or that other team from the Midwest, it might be one to gloss over this week.
Nate Solder. Wayne Hunter. Jonathan Martin.
These are just some of the offensive tackles who have struggled mightily thus far this preseason. Some have done so more than others, but offensive linemen have seemed unusually poor to date.
That will change this week because they must. Starters along the offensive line cannot be giving up sacks at the same rate that Facebook stock keeps falling. It will improve because it has to.
The stark difference between the perception about Blaine Gabbert's play and reality is only invisible to those who are too stubborn to see it.
His rookie season was forgettable, and training camp got off to a rocky start, or so it seemed. The media sharks smelled blood after a few misconstrued or erroneous tweets from one early practice led them to believe Gabbert was still terrible.
Those sharks have been subdued for now after Gabbert's fantastic 11-of-14, two-touchdown performance against the Saints. He must and will build on that and cow the sharks even more this week against the worst defense in the preseason.