Early divisional games in the NFL are particularly critical for establishing the season's tone, and there are seven such matchups in Week 2.
Three prime-time showdowns headline the slate, beginning on Thursday evening, when the New York Jets and rookie quarterback Geno Smith take a trip to Foxborough to take on the mighty New England Patriots.
Then there's the Sunday-night clash between two of the best teams in football, both of which reside in the NFC West—the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks—a matchup taking place at the latter's raucous CenturyLink Field.
The action then wraps up with the struggling Pittsburgh Steelers hitting the road to Ohio in an AFC North clash with the Cincinnati Bengals. All four teams in the division are winless, so it's anybody's title to take at the moment.
Below is a more detailed analysis for the aforementioned nighttime showcases, followed by complete picks for each divisional game.
New York Jets vs. New England Patriots
Smith has his work cut out for him in this one. Even though he looked strong in going 24-of-38 for 256 yards and a touchdown in an 18-17 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, this is an entirely different atmosphere.
Few would wish a rookie to have his first road start under center against the likes of the Patriots and Tom Brady, but that is the situation that befalls Smith—and on a short week.
A couple of factors are working in the Jets' favor, though. The Patriots are dinged up significantly, and it looks like receiver Danny Amendola—who led New England with 10 catches for 104 yards in Week 1—won't be able to play:
#Patriots WR Danny Amendola, who turned in a gutty 104-yard performance in the opener, is almost certain to miss the Jets game, source says— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) September 10, 2013
Versatile running back Shane Vereen is also going to be out for at least eight weeks, per the NFL Network's Albert Breer:
Patriots place RB Shane Vereen on injured reserve with designation to return -- So he's out at least eight weeks.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) September 10, 2013
As much trouble as Jets head coach Rex Ryan tends to give Brady with complex defensive schemes, there could be a huge upset brewing. However, look for Smith to regress, especially without a competent running game to support him, and for the Patriots to sneak away with a win.
Prediction: Patriots 20, Jets 13
San Francisco 49ers vs. Seattle Seahawks
The two teams split games last season, but the first one came when Russell Wilson wasn't fully competent or playing at nearly his highest level.
In fact, Alex Smith started the first contest for the 'Niners and won, while Colin Kaepernick struggled in a Week 16 blowout loss at Seattle.
What the Seahawks have proven is that they can get by without Pro Bowl cornerback Brandon Browner and still be a formidable defense. The matchup to watch in this one will be Richard Sherman against 'Niners receiver Anquan Boldin, who caught a league-best 13 passes for 208 yards last week.
Another element to consider is that veteran defensive lineman Justin Smith is now healthy for San Francisco, which wasn't the case in the previous 42-13 defeat.
These teams are known for physicality and running the football, but neither established the run well in its respective opener. It remains to be seen how that will affect the game plans on both sides.
Since both Kaepernick and Wilson are so athletic and can extend plays with their feet, it will likely come down to which defensive backfield can hold up enough in coverage.
Seattle seems superior in that regard, and with zero losses in their home stadium last year, it's unlikely the Seahawks will drop this one, either.
Prediction: Seahawks 27, 49ers 23
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cincinnati Bengals
A rash of bad luck hit the Steelers in an ugly 16-9 loss at home to the Tennessee Titans this past Sunday.
Three-time All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey, running back LaRod Stephens-Howling and linebacker Larry Foote are all on injured reserve:
Steelers have placed LB Larry Foote, C Maurkice Pouncey and RB LaRod Stephens-Howling on the team’s Reserve/Injured List.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 9, 2013
That makes the job for QB Ben Roethlisberger all the more difficult. His protection had already been shoddy before Pouncey went down, and Big Ben was sacked five times in the first week.
Which prime-time road team is likeliest to pull the upset?
It's a disturbing start, and a trend the Steelers need to immediately reverse. Doing so may be easier said than done against Cincinnati, which has stud defensive tackle Geno Atkins coming off a quiet performance in its loss to Chicago.
Atkins will be eager to prove himself, especially after being rewarded with a contract extension recently. Combine that with the presence of Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson coming off the edge, and Roethlisberger could be in trouble.
Bengals superstar receiver A.J. Green was a monster even against the Bears' stout secondary, catching nine passes for 162 yards and two touchdowns.
Andy Dalton will be chucking plenty of passes his way and should continue to find rookie tight end Tyler Eifert, who had five catches for 47 yards in his first true taste of the pros.
All signs are pointing to the Steelers dropping to 0-2. Barring a resurgence from Isaac Redman in the Pittsburgh backfield or a serious upgrade in pass protection for Roethlisberger, the home team should emerge victorious on Monday night.
Prediction: Bengals 24, Steelers 17
|New York Jets||New England Patriots||Patriots|
|Minnesota Vikings||Chicago Bears||Bears|
|Cleveland Browns||Baltimore Ravens||Ravens|
|Tennessee Titans||Houston Texans||Texans|
|New Orleans Saints||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||Saints|
|San Francisco 49ers||Seattle Seahawks||Seahawks|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||Cincinnati Bengals||Bengals|
Picks are strictly opinion