Week 3 matchups are vital. This is the first week when teams can begin to define the rest of their season. Some teams are trying to overcome an 0-2 start by inching closer to .500, instead of falling to a daunting 0-3. Other teams are trying to make an early statement by moving from 2-0 to 3-0, while others are just looking to break the monotony of 1-1.
One featured matchup comes from a game between two 0-2 teams. The others involve 1-1 and 2-0 teams who would consider themselves championship contenders.
It may be an insult to the Carolina Panthers and New York Giants to insinuate that they are not championship contenders, but neither has looked like one so far. Both of these teams are desperate to beat each other this weekend, but as he so often does in these matchups, Eli Manning looks set to be the decisive figure.
Decisive figures are plentiful in the Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans matchup. The Texans haven't looked good in their first two games, despite winning both, while the Ravens haven't looked better as they limped to 1-1. Instead of Joe Flacco, Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins, Ray Rice or Torrey Smith, the decisive matchup in this game will likely come in the trenches with J.J. Watt.
Both the Cincinnati Bengals and Green Bay Packers have looked better than the Texans or Ravens, but neither will be happy to fall behind early in divisions with talented teams. The Packers offensive line against the Bengals defensive line will be an important matchup, but how the Bengals handle the Packers receiving threats will be just as important. So far, Randall Cobb has been that player whom the Bengals will be desperate to stop.
Eli Manning vs. the Carolina Panthers Front Four
The Panthers defense has just three sacks this season. Only one of those sacks came from a defensive lineman, Charles Johnson, when he stripped Russell Wilson in the pocket in Week 1. One sack in two games is not acceptable for a group of players with such talent as the Panthers have on their defensive line.
That lack of production isn't completely on the individuals up front for the Panthers, however. Neither the Seattle Seahawks nor Carolina Panthers have exceptional offensive lines, but both teams do different things to slow down the opposing team's pass rush. The Seahawks combined a mobile quarterback, Russell Wilson, with a strong running threat from Marshawn Lynch. The Bills combined a mobile quarterback, EJ Manuel, with a large number of misdirection plays.
Against the New York Giants this weekend, the Panthers won't have to deal with a mobile quarterback, strong running game or a playbook that naturally creates hesitation with misdirection.
Both of these teams met in Week 3 last season, too, but the Panthers only sacked Eli Manning once then. Those numbers suggest that the Giants should be able to keep their quarterback clean this weekend, but the situations are very different.
The Giants have added Justin Pugh to their offensive line, but his impact won't be enough to compensate for the loss of Andre Brown. Brown rushed for over 100 yards last season on 20 carries against the Panthers. This season, Brown is sidelined with an injury and his replacement, David Wilson, is sidelined because of fumbles. Veteran Brandon Jacobs won't do enough to stop the Panthers from unleashing their front four in the passing game.
Furthermore, the Panthers didn't have a respectable interior presence on their defensive line last season. That flaw has been corrected this season by first-round pick Star Lotulelei. The 23-year-old defensive tackle has made a very promising start to his career and is on track to be a candidate for the Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Even though he hasn't sacked the quarterback yet, he has helped the Panthers push the pocket to make things uncomfortable on opposing quarterbacks. With Lotulelei, Johnson and Greg Hardy, the Panthers have three quality players who are mismatches for the Giants offensive line.
The Giants offensive line isn't anything special. Nobody will expect it to contain the Panthers defensive front. Instead, it will be up to Eli Manning to do what he has done so often in the past. Manning will need to consistently make quick decisions and throw the ball under pressure from contorted body positions. If Manning can stand up to the pressure and find his receivers, the Giants should easily win this game.
If he can't, then the Panthers will feel like they have enough to beat the Giants.
J.J. Watt vs. Michael Oher and Kelechi Osemele
The Texans and Ravens faced off in the regular season last year. Watt didn't have a single sack during the game, but the Texans were runaway winners by a score of 43-13. Although Watt statistically wasn't able to contribute to the 20.5 sack total he finished last season with, he was still a disruptive force who helped the Texans win the game.
Watt had just two tackles and two pass deflections. The now-24-year-old defensive lineman tipped 16 passes last season, with many of those tips turning into turnovers. Not only did Watt tip a pass that turned into an interception against the Ravens last season, that interception turned into a touchdown for cornerback Johnathan Joseph.
Because Watt didn't have a sack and the Ravens have an elite right guard on their offensive line, the natural reaction is to think that guard contained him. Marshall Yanda, that right guard, is an elite talent, but he and Watt didn't face off that often last season. Yanda fought him well on the few snaps that they did face off, but the Texans moved Watt away from him and tried to avoid putting him in situations where the Ravens could double-team him.
Instead, Watt faced off against the Ravens right tackle and left guard more often than any other positions. Michael Oher and Kelechi Osemele are playing right tackle and left guard for the Ravens this season. Watt got the best of both players last year in both the run and pass game, but as many teams do, the Ravens ran away from Watt and Flacco was quick to get rid of the ball in anticipation of his rush.
Both teams are in different situations this year. The Ravens are 1-1 and the Texans are 2-0, which isn't too dissimilar from last year, but the Ravens offense is very limited without Anquan Boldin, Dennis Pitta and even Jacoby Jones, while teams are doing even more to neutralize Watt now.
Watt got to the quarterback 24 times last season for 20.5 official sacks. This season, he has been credited with two official sacks, but he has only really got to the quarterback once.
Both of Watt's official sacks came against the Tennessee Titans. On one play, he was too fast for Chance Warmack initially before he used his upper body strength to fend him off. On the other, he used his hands to push Warmack's facemask upwards before tackling Locker when he looked to scramble. The second play was negated by an accepted penalty against Watt for his illegal use of his hands.
With his presence on the field alone, Watt heavily impacts what the offense will do. For that reason, it's hard to criticise him for not sacking the quarterback more in the first two games of the season. Such are the expectations for Watt after last season that some are already wondering if he has fallen off.
On his sole legitimate sack of the season, Watt showed off the burst that terrified offensive linemen last season as well as the strength that allows him to be such a dominant player.
Right guard Chance Warmack was only starting his second game, but as a pure physical talent he is one of the more impressive players at the right guard position in the league. In spite of that, Watt was able to easily brush him aside.
Watt hasn't even hit his prime yet, so his performance on the field is more likely to improve than drop off. His sack numbers may not be there yet, but he is still as disruptive a player as anyone in the league. Against Oher and Osemele, two inconsistent players, he has an opportunity to decimate an offense that is already struggling.
If the Ravens are going to win, they need both of those players and the rest of the offensive line to be at their very best.
Leon Hall vs. Randall Cobb
Cobb is the name that immediately jumps out here. The 23-year-old receiver has had at least seven receptions and 100 yards in each of his games this season. Cobb's ability with the ball in his hands and his quickness in space, combined with the presence of Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, makes him almost impossible to cover for most slot cornerbacks.
Those that press on Cobb will risk being beaten at the line with a quick move. Those who drop off him will risk seeing Rodgers throw him a quick pass allowing him to run in space. A clear game plan to match up to Cobb doesn't exist. He is simply too quick and playing on an offense that will always afford him space to work in.
For the Bengals, that's not a massive problem.
Mike Zimmer doesn't typically adjust to combat the opposition's receivers, so he won't care about what threat Cobb poses. Instead, Zimmer will just tell Hall to cover him like he does every other receiver and continue to work within his defensive scheme.
Hall isn't widely known, but he is the best inside cornerback in football. He has a rare physical build with traits that allow him to play both inside and outside while matching up against any type of receiver. If he needs to fight a defender in the air for the ball, he will. If he has to run with him down the field, he will. If he has to handle a shifty receiver like Cobb in space, he will.
Last season, Hall didn't face Cobb. However, he did shut down some other notable receivers.
Of the receivers Hall faced in 2012, the one who beat him the most was Denarius Moore of the Oakland Raiders. That's not something to boast about. At least, it's not if you just leave it at that. Moore beat Hall twice in seven snaps for a success rate of 28.6 percent. Amongst the receivers who had a worse percentage against Hall were Jason Avant, Malcom Floyd, Antonio Brown, Anquan Boldin, Miles Austin, Davone Bess, Mike Wallace, Danario Alexander, Victor Cruz, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Torrey Smith, Dez Bryant, Andre Johnson and Josh Gordon.
In fact, Bryant, Johnson and Gordon didn't beat Hall on a single snap.
Hall was beaten by a receiver once every 6.675 routes, meaning that he had a successful coverage rating of 85 percent for the season. For comparison sake, Richard Sherman had a success rate of 81 percent, Johnathan Joseph had a success rate of 74.8 percent and Patrick Peterson had a success rate of 62.9 percent.
If you exclusively look at Hall's performance in the slot, he failed to cover 22 routes of 145 total attempts for an 84.8 percent completion percentage. Carlos Rogers of the San Francisco 49ers, who Cobb has already faced this season, was successful on just 65 percent of his attempts in the slot giving up 111 of his 314 total. Casey Hayward, who earned rave reviews for his displays as a Green Bay Packers rookie in the slot, was successful on just 49 snaps of his 212 for a 77 percent success rating.
Hall has the ability to play press coverage against Cobb without giving him easy releases into deeper routes. He won't be able to completely shut down Cobb, the young receiver is too talented and in too good of a situation for that to happen, but he has a chance to limit him enough to help the Bengals contain the Packers offense.
Cian Fahey is the founder of Pre Snap Reads, the Film Room Columnist for FootballOutsiders, a staff writer for FootballGuys and writer for BleacherReport. You can follow him on twitter @Cianaf
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