The NFL season is just getting started, but some teams are already prepping for divisional games that may shape the rest of their seasons.
Four games this week will be inter-division matchups, and every one of them is up for grabs with little determined yet this season. This week, teams will have the opportunities to direct their own destinies for the next three months. Let's break down this week's most crucial games.
Neither the Cleveland Browns nor Cincinnati Bengals got off to favorable starts in 2012, but both teams look to bounce back with a victory against an in-state rival.
Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden didn't exactly start off on the right foot. Last week vs. Philadelphia, the team's first-round pick completed only 12 of his 35 pass attempts, while completing passes to Eagles defenders four times.
Opposing quarterback Michael Vick tried his best to hand the game to Weeden's Browns by dishing out four picks of his own, but the rookie couldn't muster a score against the Birds, and Cleveland came out the loser, 17-16.
The Bengals were embarrassed on Monday night in Baltimore by a score of 44-13. Andy Dalton kicked off his sophomore campaign by putting up so-so numbers against the vaunted Ravens defense (22-37 221 YDS 1 INT 0 TD). Dalton was sacked four times, however, as the Cats could only claw out 322 yards of total offense.
This week's game shapes up to be a tight one, but the Bengals are the better team here. Cincinnati is the seven-point favorite, and the Bengals shouldn't have trouble winning by more than that.
According to ESPN's AccuScore projection, the Bengals have a 75 percent chance to take down Cleveland. That sounds like more of a telling forecast. Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson is still getting his feet wet in the NFL, and their quarterback has a lot of work to do to prove he's worthy of playing on this level.
Expect Dalton and BenJarvus Green-Ellis to lead the Bengals offensive attack in the battle of Ohio and to even their record up at 1-1.
Prediction: Bengals 27, Browns 16
This may be the most lopsided of the rivalry battles this week.
The Jacksonville Jaguars weren't able to trump Minnesota last Sunday, despite Blaine Gabbert's best game as a pro. Gabbert went 22-of-39 and threw two touchdown passes against the Vikings D, but a rusty Maurice Jones-Drew could only manage 77 yards on 19 attempts. The Vikings won in overtime 26-23.
The Jaguars defenders just weren't able to stop the Vikes' onslaught, as Christian Ponder converted 20 of his 27 passes for 270 yards and two scores, and Adrian Peterson bounced back in his first game with 84 yards while touching paydirt twice.
The Texans' 2012 debut went just as they planned, with a convincing 30-10 win over Miami. Matt Schaub completed 21 passes—eight of those to a resurgent Andre Johnson for 119 yards—and one score.
Arian Foster began his 2012 campaign with a slow but steady debut. He averaged only three yards per carry (26 ATT 79 YDS), but contributed 12 points to Houston's total. The score was 24-3 by halftime, as it was never really a fair contest from the get-go.
Houston stil isn't facing a tough test the week in Jacksonville. Gabbert is coming off the best performance he's shown as a Jaguar, but he still doesn't have any proven receiving threats to dish it out to. Maurice Jones-Drew showed last week that these first few weeks will act as his training camp, so don't expect gaudy numbers from him this early on.
The Texans' offense will blow the doors off Jacksonville's D, as Andre Johnson will feast on the Jaguar secondary and remind everyone the dominant force he is.
Prediction: Houston 38, Jacksonville 14
Both Carolina and New Orleans look to bounce back from crushing Week 1 losses this Sunday.
In the Saints' 40-32 home loss against Washington, they were stunned by the dominance of rookie Robert Griffin III. Griffin combined for 342 total yards and two touchdowns in his NFL debut, leaving Drew Brees' 339 passing yard performance overshadowed in the Superdome.
Carolina just wasn't able to get anything going offensively vs. Tampa Bay last week. New Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano unveiled the NFL version of the defense that earned him success at Rutgers, and it worked against Carolina. Cam Newton threw for 303 yards but turned the ball over twice and was sacked three times.
Sans Sean Payton, the Saints aren't close to being the Super Bowl contender they've been for years. Their defense will show signs of struggle this season with Jon Vilma missing—he's been placed on the PUP list with a knee injury, according to ESPN—as was apparent in the Redskins' 40-point pounding Sunday.
New Orleans is only a three-point favorite this week in Carolina, but expect Drew Brees to take care of this one on his own. After his disappointing Week 1 showing, second-year Saint Darren Sproles will likely play a larger role in the offense this week, too.
Cam Newton will be at his best against the now-shoddy Saints defense, but it won't be enough. The Saints will come out on top Sunday in Carolina.
Prediction: Saints 27, Panthers 21
Thursday night offers the best matchup of Week 2—Bears vs. Packers at Lambeau Field.
The NFC North foes are following up very different performances this week. The Bears had a complete showing last week at Solider Field against Indianapolis. Jay Culter was able to outshine Andrew Luck in his pro debut, as Cutler amassed 333 yards and put two touchdowns on the board for Chicago.
Brandon Marshall impressed in his Bears debut. The re-kindling of the Cutler-Marshall relationship that enjoyed remarkable success in Denver went just as planned. Marshall caught nine balls from Cutler for 119 yards and scored once against the Colts defense.
The Bears' two-headed rushing monster of Matt Forte and Michael Bush was just as dangerous as suspected. On Forte's 16 touches, he rushed for 80 yards and a touchdown, while Bush scored twice more. Forte also added 40 yards through the air.
The Packers' first game since their home playoff loss to the New York Giants last postseason didn't go as expected. Aaron Rodgers was contained, and the Green Bay defense was nothing special.
The 49ers were able to chip away at Green Bay, as David Akers contributed three field goals—including a record-tying 63-yarder—and Alex Smith threw only six incompletions. Michael Crabtree hauled in seven catches while a 35-year-old, un-retired Randy Moss failed to surprise no one when he made an immediate impact for San Fran, hauling in four catches for 47 yards and scoring a touchdown.
This Thursday night's face-off between the northern rivals will be a bitter one. The Bears are looking to prove that they belong at the division's top, while Green Bay looks to avenge their first 0-1 start since 2006.
The Rodgers-Cutler matchup will be featured this week. Both teams' offenses have been battle-tested in the past, and both teams will live and die by their O in this one.
The Packers rushing game, led by Cedric Benson, was remarkably weak against San Francisco. Trusting the Green Bay backs to put numbers on the board is a tough task. Chicago gets the nod in this category.
Green Bay is the six-point favorite Thursday, but don't be surprised if the final score is much closer than that. Rain is in the forecast, so both team's passing attack's may be affected. Then it all comes down to who wants it the most.
Prediction: Packers 24, Bears 23