Now that the initial week of the 2012 NFL regular season is done with, it is time to get down to brass tacks. Some teams are going to be in as much of a must-win situation as you can get in September. Odds for teams making the postseason after losing their first two games just aren't too great.
While I fell flat on my mug in projections last week, that is to be expected. After all, most writers are guilty of utilizing preseason performance a little more than they should.
I am going to give you a prediction for all 16 games on the schedule this week, starting with the Chicago Bears traveling to Lambeau Field to take on the Green Bay Packers on Thursday. That is one of the many marquee matchups on the slate.
So let's take a look.
The Green Bay Packers cannot be happy about losing their season opener at home against another Super Bowl contender in the San Francisco 49ers.
They still understand that a loss in September against an elite football team isn't going to make or break their season. Green Bay now needs to focus on getting it together and avoiding two consecutive losses to start the season.
On the other hand, the Chicago Bears are in a good spot right now. They have a one-game lead against a stellar division opponent and will look to take an early stranglehold on the NFC North battle come Thursday night.
Aaron Rodgers was definitely spooked in the pocket Sunday against San Francisco. He won't have an easier go at it against the Bears, who possess a front seven nearly as good as the Packers' last opponent.
With that in mind, Chicago will struggle covering Randall Cobb in the slot and Jordy Nelson outside. The defense doesn't have the capability of lining up one-on-one against those two players. If Rodgers is on his game—something I fully expect—he should be able to take advantage of those matchups.
Meanwhile, Chicago's defense will force the Packers to become one-dimensional, just as San Francisco did last week. This could cause Rodgers to be a sitting duck in the backfield.
I also expect Matt Forte and Michael Bush to continue what was an impressive season-opening performance against the Indianapolis Colts. They will take pressure off of Jay Cutler to shoulder the load. The veteran quarterback has also found a very nice rhythm with Brandon Marshall on the outside.
While all that could give the Packers fits, I just don't see them losing a second home game in less than a calendar week.
Prediction: Packers 31, Bears 24
Final Score: Packers 23, Bears 10
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers rush defense wasn't just good against the Carolina Panthers last week; it was downright stunning. They allowed a total of 10 rushing yards, containing Cam Newton and DeAngelo Williams, among others.
More importantly, they did so with a unit that finished dead last in that category a season ago.
Don't expect the New York Giants to fare a whole lot better either. Ahmad Bradshaw and David Wilson, despite being a solid one-two punch, aren't on the same level as Carolina's backfield.
The major difference here is going to be Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks on the outside. They pose a tremendous amount of matchup problems against Eric Wright and Aqib Talib. Expect Eli Manning to have a big game against Tampa's secondary.
I also don't expect Josh Freeman and company to have the same success against the Giants defense that they had last week against Carolina. New York boasts one of the best front sevens in the entire NFL, and that unit will get in Freeman's face consistently. This will force the quarterback into a couple mistakes and mask a weak Giants secondary.
Prediction: Giants 28, Buccaneers 17
Final Score: Giants 41, Buccaneers 34
The Oakland Raiders looked pretty good in their opening-game loss to the San Diego Chargers. While they were a bit sloppy, mostly on special teams, this young team can take a lot out of the loss.
Carson Palmer avoided mistakes, while Darren McFadden seems to be at 100 percent. Those are two huge cogs in the success of the Raiders this season. If they play up to form, this team could contend in the AFC West.
Meanwhile, the Miami Dolphins were an absolute disaster against the Houston Texans on Sunday. They committed turnovers on four consecutive possessions, including three straight plays at one point.
Ryan Tannehill is every bit the raw quarterback that everyone expected coming out of Texas A&M. He also lacks the necessary weapons to succeed in the passing game.
You can expect Oakland to be able to handle the Dolphins passing game. Offensively, Palmer should be able to pick up where Matt Schaub left off last week against what is suddenly a lackluster Miami secondary.
Prediction: Raiders 27, Dolphins 13
Final Score: Dolphins 35, Raiders 13
The Jacksonville Jaguars are a vastly improved football team. It all starts with Blaine Gabbert, who looks like a completely different quarterback after a disastrous rookie campaign in 2011. I also really like the running back tandem they have in Maurice Jones-Drew and Rashad Jennings.
Despite an upward trajectory for this struggling franchise, they still lost to a less-than-stellar Minnesota Vikings team and struggled a great deal on the defensive side of the ball. In total, Minnesota put up nearly 400 yards of offense and 20 first downs.
It is going to get much more difficult against a Houston Texans team that seems to possess one of the best overall offenses in the National Football League. The Jaguars are going to have a difficult time accounting for Andre Johnson on the outside. They will also have to account for Arian Foster in the running game.
I just don't see Jacksonville hanging with one of the best teams in the NFL this week. It really is that simple.
Prediction: Texans 34, Jaguars 17
Final Score: Texans 27, Jaguars 7
The Cincinnati Bengals might have been embarrassed against the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night. Their defense was beyond putrid and made Joe Flacco look like a reincarnation of Dan Marino. It was pretty bad from the onset.
The good news for Cincinnati is that it is going up against a Cleveland Browns team with a quarterback that boasted a QB rating of 5.1 against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. Talk about a recipe for recovery here.
While Cleveland might hold its own against the Bengals offense, this game shouldn't be close. I cannot envision the Browns compiling multiple extended drives. Heck, even one would be something to write home about.
The loss of Joe Haden to a four-game suspension is also going to hurt Cleveland here. Who doesn't like A.J. Green going up against either Sheldon Brown or Dimitri Patterson?
Okay, put your hands down, I get the point.
Prediction: Bengals 31, Browns 10
Final Score: Bengals 34, Browns 27
Two teams that desperately need early-season wins going up against one another. Both the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs came into the initial week of the 2012 season with high expectations, but both were handily defeated.
The Bills were supposed to have a dramatically improved defense this year. That all came crashing down as hard as Charlie Sheen's stand-up career. There was nothing "winning" about their performance on Sunday. They allowed 21 first downs and nearly 400 yards against what has to be considered a mediocre Jets offense.
Ryan Fitzpatrick struggled with accuracy and understanding where to actually throw the football, throwing three interceptions and completely falling on his face.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs kept it close against a stellar Atlanta Falcons football team, only to collapse in the second half and get blown out at home. Their performance was eerily similar to what we saw early last season under Todd Haley. In short, Kansas City needs to ride out these struggles and come together if it's going to have any shot at contention in the AFC West.
I am going to go with the home team here. While the loss of Fred Jackson might hurt moving forward, C.J. Spiller should be able to find holes against a questionable Chiefs defensive line. Additionally, you can expect the Bills to be able to match up well on the outside against the likes of Dwayne Bowe and Dexter McCluster, among others.
Expecting a close game, but Buffalo will pull it out at the end.
Prediction: Bills 27, Chiefs 23
Final Score: Bills 35, Chiefs 17
Two teams that won in completely different ways last weekend. The Philadelphia Eagles relied on horrendous play on the offensive side of the ball by the Cleveland Browns and a pretty stout defense on their part. Overall, Philadelphia allowed just 210 yards of offense and forced four turnovers.
Meanwhile, Michael Vick threw four interceptions, and the Eagles committed 12 penalties. Needless to say, it wasn't a pretty win.
The Baltimore Ravens, on the other hand, dominated the Cincinnati Bengals and showed exactly why they are a top contender to capture the AFC Championship in 2012. Joe Flacco has progressed a great deal and now appears ready to take that next step.
I have the road team taking this game. Expect Baltimore to force multiple Eagles turnovers and come away with a win. At this point, it is hard to project Philadelphia having much success against a good team. It needs to get things fixed in short order, as talent isn't enough to overcome turnovers, penalties and untimely mistakes.
Prediction: Ravens 27, Eagles 20
Final Score: Eagles 24, Ravens 23
Unfortunately for the New Orleans Saints, they are going to have to stop another young quarterback in Cam Newton after getting absolutely blown up by Robert Griffin III last week at the Superdome. It is hard to have much confidence in this defense going in and slowing down a Carolina Panthers offense that is looking to rebound from a disappointing opening-weekend performance.
While the Panthers won't be able to do much in order to stop Drew Brees and company, I envision them being able to do just enough to come away with their first victory of the 2012 season.
After all, how can we possibly believe New Orleans will be able to go into Carolina and come away with a win after what we saw last week?
Starting 0-2 would be disastrous for a Saints team that was coming into the season reeling from a spring and summer of controversy. I just don't see them being able to rebound this week.
Prediction: Panthers 31, Saints 28
Final Score: Panthers 35, Saints 27
Okay, Kevin Kolb, you get yet another chance to prove you are a viable starting quarterback in the National Football League.
The bad news is that it comes against a New England Patriots team that rarely loses at home. The worst news is that it comes against a Patriots defense that has confidence growing at every level following a superb performance against the Tennessee Titans last week.
This doesn't even take into account the fact that Arizona will have trouble slowing down a methodical Patriots offense led by the venerable Tom Brady. New England put up nearly 400 yards and 25 first downs against what was supposed to be an above-average Tennessee defense.
This game shouldn't even be that close.
Prediction: Patriots 37, Cardinals 6
Final Score: Cardinals 20, Patriots 18
I picked the Indianapolis Colts last week—you don't have to tell me how that went. Andrew Luck looked every bit the part of a rookie against the Chicago Bears in his debut, turning the ball over four times in a lopsided 41-21 loss.
Christian Ponder was able to—with help from Adrian Peterson—lead the Minnesota Vikings to an overtime victory against a below-average Jacksonville Jaguars team. The second-year quarterback from Florida State put up his best game, throwing for 270 yards and compiling a 105.5 quarterback rating.
The difference here? While Indianapolis had to travel to Soldier Field to take on a good Bears team, Minnesota stayed in the friendly confines of its dome to host a lackluster Jacksonville team.
The tides will change this week.
You can expect Indianapolis to give the 2012 No. 1 overall pick more protection at the line, which will allow him to pick apart a suspect Minnesota secondary. The Vikings will have major issues covering the middle of the field, as their safety play just isn't that good in coverage at this point. Coby Fleener should be able to exploit that.
While Peterson might get his yardage against Indianapolis, I am banking on Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney (assuming he plays) putting consistent pressure on Ponder. This will affect the timing of Minnesota's passing game and cause the young quarterback to make some mistakes in front of a hostile crowd.
Luck will be able to progress from an inconsistent debut and take home his first NFL victory.
Prediction: Colts 28, Vikings 24
Final Score: Colts 23, Vikings 20
Both of these teams were impressive in their season openers. Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins went into New Orleans and handily defeated the Saints. The rookie quarterback put up 362 total yards and two touchdowns, dropping 40 on the home-standing Saints.
Meanwhile, the St. Louis Rams nearly pulled off an amazing upset at Ford Field against the Detroit Lions. Relying on three timely interceptions of Matthew Stafford, the Rams defense was able to keep it close until Detroit broke through in the last minute.
Sam Bradford managed the game extremely well, but he didn't overly impress against what has been a weak Detroit pass defense. Instead, St. Louis relied mostly on intermediate routes.
This won't work against a Redskins team that is, all of a sudden, as dynamic as they come on the offensive side of the ball.
I have Washington taking its second consecutive road game to start the season 2-0, while St. Louis drops another competitive game.
Prediction: Redskins 31, Rams 20
Final Score: Rams 31, Redskins 28
Anyone who thought Russell Wilson would be able to come into the regular season and continue what he did during the exhibition slate was extremely disappointed last week against the Arizona Cardinals.
Pete Carroll and company decided it made more sense to take it slow with Wilson. They didn't look down the field too often and played with a rather conservative offensive philosophy. This didn't work against Arizona and probably won't against a Dallas Cowboys team coming off a surreal victory against the New York Giants last Wednesday.
While the Pacific Northwest is one of the hardest destinations for opposing teams to come into and win, Dallas proved it can come into a hostile environment and grab a victory. Tony Romo is playing his best football of an already stellar NFL career.
The Cowboys defense seems to have progressed a great deal with the additions of Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr in the secondary. I just don't envision a scenario where Seattle is going to get a whole lot going in the passing game.
Dallas does have to be worried about pressure from Seattle's front seven, but Romo's field awareness and ability to escape the pocket will be the difference here.
Prediction: Cowboys 20, Seahawks 16
Final Score: Seahawks 27, Cowboys 7
No one had the New York Jets dropping a 48 spot last weekend—absolutely no one. If you did, I am pretty sure that the padded room you escaped from is looking for a permanent occupant. Mark Sanchez delivered the ball on time and accurately against what was supposed to be an improved Buffalo Bills defense.
It will definitely be slimmer pickings against a stout Pittsburgh Steelers defense in Week 2.
Meanwhile, the Steelers are out for revenge after a disappointing season-opening loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday night. They struggled protecting Ben Roethlisberger, something that will be a continuing theme throughout the 2012 season. Equally as important is the fact that Pittsburgh wasn't able to stop Peyton Manning in his return to action after 18 months of inaction.
Expect Pittsburgh to bring that heat against Sanchez and company this upcoming weekend. If the defense able to throw the Jets' timing off, I can easily envision Sanchez struggling to find open receivers and making a few mistakes.
I'm going to take the Steelers in their home opener here.
Prediction: Steelers 28, Jets 17
Final Score: Steelers 27, Jets 10
It looks as if Jake Locker (shoulder injury) will be able to play this weekend against the San Diego Chargers. Either way, the Tennessee Titans are going to have to improve on offense this time around. They put up just 16 first downs and less than 300 total yards last week against the New England Patriots.
More alarming is the fact that Chris Johnson ran for just four yards on 11 attempts. If he isn't able to get it going against San Diego, we could be looking at a long day for Tennessee's offense. It needs to be balanced on that side of the ball in order to succeed.
On the other hand, the San Diego Chargers looked comfortable on offense and handled the Oakland Raiders relatively easy Monday night. Philip Rivers avoided the mistakes that seemed to plague him throughout the entire 2011 season.
San Diego didn't get much from the running game, but it has the firepower in the passing game to make up for it. On that note, the Chargers could likely have Ryan Mathews back this week.
Prediction: Chargers 24, Titans 21
Final Score: Chargers 38, Titans 10
Alex Smith outplayed Aaron Rodgers last week as the San Francisco 49ers went into Lambeau Field and pretty much dominated the Green Bay Packers. Scoreboard aside, they were a better team.
Smith, who boasted a 125.6 quarterback rating in the opener against Green Bay, shouldn't have a major issue with an equally pedestrian Detroit Lions secondary. He completed 15 of his 19 passes to wide receivers, including a perfect 8-for-8 to Mario Manningham and Randy Moss.
Defensively, the 49ers were stout against one of the best offenses in the National Football League as the Packers were only able to accumulate two scoring drives.
While the Detroit Lions were able to pull off a close victory against the St. Louis Rams at home in the season opener, they were less than impressive. Matthew Stafford was intercepted three times as Detroit allowed a Rams team that went 2-14 last season to possess a lead into the last minute of regulation.
If Detroit plays the same Sunday night against San Francisco, this game won't even be close. That being said, I fully expect Jim Schwartz and company to bring their A-game. There is a certain level of animosity between these two teams, which will lead to an electric atmosphere.
In the end, I am going to take the best overall football team in the NFL in their home opener. Including the postseason, Smith has won 11 of his last 13 home starts, throwing 24 touchdowns compared to three interceptions.
Don't expect that to change this weekend.
Prediction: 49ers 31, Lions 20
In what could possibly be a Super Bowl matchup, Peyton Manning leads the Denver Broncos to the Georgia Dome to take on the Atlanta Falcons.
It is amazing that Manning was able to go in against a stout Pittsburgh Steelers defense last Sunday and not show any ill effects of missing the entire 2011 season. He was damn near the same quarterback that we saw for so many years in Indianapolis.
Meanwhile, Matt Ryan and company completely destroyed the Kansas City Chiefs in Arrowhead in their season opener. After a close first half, Atlanta picked it up big-time on both sides of the ball, grabbing a 16-point victory and dropping 40 on Kansas City.
While the Falcons will be without Brent Grimes, who is going to miss the remainder of the 2012 season, they should be able to hold Manning and company in check just enough to grab a narrow victory in their home opener.
It should be fun.
Prediction: Falcons 34, Broncos 28
*All photos edited by Vincent Frank.