Week 3 of the NFL season is a week full of key divisional games that should give us a real look at who's for real in this 2011-12 season. Specifically we get to see the Green Bay Packers play the Chicago Bears in what could be the first game in the battle for the NFC North Crown. We'll also see if the Buffalo Bills are for real as they go up against the juggernaut that is Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
Those aren't the only big games to watch, as the entire NFC East will all be playing each other for the first time this week. Keeping in mind all these important early season games, let's take a look at each game in turn to try and predict who will win in the third week of this young NFL season.
Early in this season Tom Brady has been near perfect in playing the quarterback position. In two games he's already closing in on 1,000 yards for the season and has added seven touchdowns. In usual fashion, Wes Welker has been his top target with 15 catches and two touchdowns. Buffalo's back eight is fairly strong and both cornerbacks have both been fairly solid so far this year, but neither have seen a quarterback anywhere near as good as Brady.
Speaking of quarterbacks, Ryan Fitzpatrick's numbers aren't as gaudy as Brady's, but he has been able to toss seven touchdowns. His team has also been a little more balanced than Brady's, as running back Fred Jackson has piled up 229 yards and two touchdowns.
The Patriots defense is hard to read because they've given up quite a few yards, but also have five take-aways and six sacks. They seem to clamp down in the red zone also, so it's hard to say exactly how good, or bad, they are.
All that said, look for Brady and his receivers to try to turn this game into another shootout. With their high-powered offense the Pats have been basically unstoppable so far this season. The Bills back eight is fairly solid so I wouldn't be surprised to see Brady's overall numbers take a slight hit, but I don't think there's anyway Fitzpatrick can keep up with Brady throughout an entire game. Unless Fred Jackson can have a huge day I'm sticking with my fantasy quarterback.
WINNER: New England Patriots
Both of these teams have been surprisingly competitive so far this season. The 49ers were able to beat their divisional rivals, the Seattle Seahawks and then blew a double digit, fourth quarter lead against the Cowboys last week.
This San Francisco team has been exceptional against the run so far this year, giving up only 54.5 yards per game. However, that's their lone statistical bright spot.
Alex Smith and Frank Gore have been simply average so far this season and star tight end Vernon Davis has yet to get into the end zone. In fact, the biggest way they've gotten their points this year is from Ted Ginn Jr's returns. He already has two touchdowns in this young season.
The Bengals are coming off of a close loss to the Denver Broncos that saw rookie quarterback Andy Dalton throw for 332 yards and a pair of touchdowns. However, this is a team built on the run and they'll need Cedric Benson to get back his Week 1 ways after being stifled last week by the Broncos defense.
The Bengals would look to have a slight advantage in this game, but they're going up against the league's best rush defense. This means Andy Dalton will have to throw quite a bit to try and open up lanes for Benson.
More passes mean more mistakes for a rookie quarterback. Look for Patrick Willis and his defense to capitalize on the young signal caller's inexperience and bring the 49ers a close victory.
WINNER: San Francisco 49ers.
Much to my amazement, the Miami Dolphins boast a Top 10 passing and rushing offense. I'm not saying it's impossible, but when I think of the best offenses in the game, the Dolphins are one of the last teams that come to mind.
The problem hasn't been offensive yards, but turning those yards into points. So far, the Dolphins only have four total touchdowns to their name; that's not going to win you many ball games. The defense hasn't been much better, giving up almost 500 yards of total offense per game and they have yet to keep a team below 23 points this season.
Statistically, the Browns aren't much better, in fact their offense is worse. They're in the bottom half of teams as far as yardage goes and they've only mustered five total touchdowns. However, the defense has been phenomenal, posting the sixth lowest yards per game mark and boasting the second best pass defense.
I don't see how anyone could honestly pick against the Browns in this game. Their offense hasn't been amazing so far this year, but the Dolphins have one of, if not the worst defenses in the NFL. Add to that the fact that the Browns have one of the best defensive games in the NFL and I don't even think this one will be very close. Chalk up a Cleveland victory all the way.
WINNER: Cleveland Browns
Matt Hasselbeck has been quite the revelation so far for the Titans, especially with Chris Johnson underperforming after holding out of training camp this year. Hasselbeck has led the team to the seventh best passing attack in the league and has turned Kenny Britt into one the best young weapons in the game.
Britt has already hauled in three touchdowns and 271 receiving yards this year, good enough to put him in the top five in both categories. The defense has also been outstanding so far as well, holding teams to around 14 points per game and posting the third best yards per game mark.
Denver, on the other hand, has been a little less impressive. With middling statistics across the board the Broncos don't really stand out from the pack. It's not that their terrible, Kyle Orton does possess a great command of the offense, but they just don't do anything that jumps off the page at you.
Until they can show a little more it's hard to find much to say about a team that's been so average this season.
The one thing the Broncos have going for them is an above average pass defense, so expect to see Hasselbeck's numbers take a little hit. However, their run defense is atrocious. If there was ever a game that Chris Johnson was going to break out, this would be it. Expect him to finally break the 100-yard mark and post a solid game in a big Tennessee win.
WINNER: Tennessee Titans.
The Detroit Lions have been virtually unstoppable this year. Matthew Stafford already has seven passing touchdowns in two games and I highly doubt he'll be slowed down by Minnesota's 23rd ranked pass defense. Calvin Johnson is a matchup nightmare and will undoubtedly have his way with the Vikings' weak secondary.
One thing that might surprise is that, even with their much praised defensive line, the Lions are still giving up over 100 yards rushing a game. Usually this wouldn't be a huge problem, but with Adrian Peterson in the building it becomes very important.
Speaking of Mr. Peterson, he's proven through two games this year that he is the most consistent and best running back in the NFL. Unfortunately, the rest of offense isn't nearly as good. Donovan McNabb has shown flashes of being an effective passer, but the fact that he needed Vinsanthe Shiancoe to be there during training camp has become apparent.
In general, a quarterback's best friend is a pass-catching tight end. If McNabb and Shiancoe had any kind of familiarity with each other I have no doubt they could form a dangerous duo. That isn't there yet, but look for it to start developing soon.
As I said in my first paragraph, Stafford and Johnson should absolutely torch the Vikings' terrible secondary. If Antoine Winfield can do the impossible and shut down Johnson one on one, the Vikings might have a chance. That's highly unlikely to happen and, even if Peterson goes off for 200-plus yards, the Vikings are getting steamrolled this week by the much improved Lions.
WINNER: Detroit Lions.
Fact: The Houston Texans have the best defense in the NFL statistically. Fact: They also boast a top 10 scoring offense. Unsurprisingly to some, the Houston Texans have taken great strides this year and looked poised to finally capture their first division crown.
The offense is being led by Ben Tate and his 219 yards rushing, but Andre Johnson is also contributing in the receiving game with two touchdowns on the year. The defense, anchored by run-stuffing Brian Cushing, outstanding corner Johnathan Joseph and sack master Mario Williams, is tearing apart opposing teams every single week. So far in this young season there doesn't seem to be a chink in Houston's armor.
Their opponents aren't too terrible themselves. Drew Brees is back to his old ways, commanding the offense to 32 points and 330 passing yards per game. The running back committee hasn't been as dominant, but they're still rushing for almost 100 yards a game.
The defense has also held up well this year and is sniffing the top 10 in yards per game. Unfortunately, it has been giving up 27.5 points per game, but that's an okay number when your offense is putting up the numbers the Saints are.
This might be the hardest game of the week for me to pick. Both teams come in hot and, while I think the Texans are the better team, the game is being played in New Orleans. That hostile environment is tough for anyone to win in. That said, I think the Texans offense is too balanced and the defense is too good to lose this week, or anytime soon. Look for them to pull out a close win over the Saints.
WINNER: Houston Texans
Both of these teams have been hit hard by the injury bug to varying degrees. The Eagles saw their star quarterback Michael Vick get hit by his teammate last week and go down with a concussion. After that they couldn't hold on to a lead against the Falcons, but one thing they have going for them regardless of Vick's health is that they have the second best rushing attack in the NFL.
The defense has been amazing against the pass and I don't see them doing anything else this week against the banged up Giants. The rushing defense hasn't been quite as good, but they are getting after the quarterback very well.
The Giants have been hit hard with injuries, especially at the receiver position, which makes it much more difficult for Eli Manning to be the elite quarterback he thinks he is. The rushing attack hasn't fared much better, as neither back is averaging over 3.7 yards per carry.
The defense hasn't been bad, giving up less than 70 rushing yards per game. They have also shown their ability to fake injuries to slow down passing attacks. All kidding aside, this team is banged up a bit, but they still have quite a few playmakers, which makes them dangerous.
Even if Michael Vick can't play this week, I think the Eagles will still be able to put Vince Young out there. He's a huge step up over Mike Kafka, who couldn't preserve the Eagles fourth quarter lead last week. I don't think Eli Manning is going to be able to keep up with the Eagles offensively given the injuries to his big receivers. Look for the Eagles to win in a close one without Vick and by double digits with him.
WINNER: Philadelphia Eagles
Blaine Gabbert is now the Jacksonville Jaguars starting quarterback. He does come into a situation that is somewhat manageable because the Jaguars have one of the league's better rushing attacks. Running back Maurice Jones-Drew is going to be asked to tout the rock quite a bit this week while Gabbert adjusts to the speed of the NFL.
The defense is kind of hard to read right now because they were able to hold the Tennessee Titans to only 14 points the first week, but then gave up 32 points the next week. You can't pull all the blame on them for the second game though because quarterback Luke McCown tossed four interceptions and posted a 1.8 quarterback rating. No defense can play well when their offense is giving up the ball that often.
Cam Newton might the biggest surprise of the year so far considering he's already thrown for more than 850 yards and added five total touchdowns. He does need to cut down on turnovers before he can put himself in Tom Brady's league. The Panthers need one of their two running backs to help Newton out if they plan to pick up the win. Neither DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart have been able to be productive, even with Newton racking up the passing yards.
The defense needs to figure out how to hold opponents to less than the 29 points they're giving up currently. This unit isn't terrible, but they are obviously missing team leader Jon Beason. Someone needs to step into his spot and get this unit on track.
Given that his team is at home and he's facing a fellow rookie quarterback, I think Cam Newton finally gets his first career win. Blaine Gabbert will probably be a solid NFL pro, but until he proves that I have to go with Newton's proven play.
WINNER: Carolina Panthers
On offense the Jets have been about average and it all starts with their quarterback play. Mark Sanchez has thrown for four touchdowns this year, which isn't a bad number. However, he's also tossed three interceptions. For those of you keeping score at home, that's almost a 1:1 TD to INT ratio; not great for a starting quarterback of a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
Then there's the running game, which currently sits at 28th in the league at just under 75 yards a game. Again, that doesn't bode well for Rex Ryan's boys.
The defense is another story, which is currently holding opponents to under 300 total yards per game. They've already racked up six sacks; two by Bart Scott, the most underrated defender in the NFL, and seven total takeaways.
The Raiders haven't been great on either side of the ball with the exception of their excellent ground game, which is averaging 160 yards per game. That said, they could be 2-0 if they hadn't blown a late-game lead last week against the Bills.
Yardage wise, the Raiders D hasn't been the best, but they have been able to make some plays. With five total takeaways and five sacks the Raiders have been able to do enough to stay in games, but if they want to win consistently they have to step up.
The Raiders are slowly getting better and Darren McFadden is proving he was worthy of a first-round pick with his play this year. However, the Jets defense is dominant and I don't think they'll let their team lose this week, even in Oakland.
WINNER: New York Jets
After absolutely destroying the Pittsburgh Steelers the Ravens surprisingly dropped last week's game against the Tennessee Titans. One of the bigger reasons was that Joe Flacco was intercepted twice and completed less than 50 percent of his passes.
The Ravens need him to get back to his much more efficient first game numbers if they plan to win many more games. The running game also needs to keep up its strong start. Ray Rice has been especially good so far, putting up three total touchdowns through two games.
The defense has been a little up and down, having the fourth best rushing defense but the 28th ranked passing defense. That could be bad coming into this week's contest considering Sam Bradford's ability to pile up passing yards.
Speaking of Sammy Boy, the young passer has been racking up the yards the last few weeks, but has only been to put the ball in the end zone once. That hasn't been enough with stud running back Steven Jackson out. Cadillac Williams has been solid in Jackson's absence, but the Rams need someone to start scoring points if they plan to win.
The defense is the very definition of an up and down team. They have the fourth best passing defense, but the worst rush defense in the league. Something needs to change up front for the Rams to have a chance to win some games.
If Steven Jackson does indeed play this week the Rams have a much better chance, but without him the Ravens should be able to beat up on the Rams' defense. Look for Ray Rice to have another huge game against the Rams' porous run defense and for Baltimore's veteran defense to give Sam Bradford fits.
WINNER: Baltimore Ravens
With the loss of Jamaal Charles the Chiefs' hopes of another good season (and my fantasy football team) basically went down the drain. Dexter McCluster has been serviceable, but not a top five rusher like Charles was last year. However, I can't figure out what has happened to Matt Cassel. Last year he only threw seven total interceptions, but he's already up to four after two games this year.
The defense hasn't been much better, giving up over 40 points in both games. Now, some of that comes from having to play so much because of how atrocious the offense has been. That said, it looks like they're going to have to put up with this for the rest of the season, so they'll need to step up if the Chiefs plan to win some games.
Phillip Rivers has continued to impress fantasy owners everywhere by putting up huge numbers yet again. His 713 yards passing are good for third in the league and he's added four touchdowns. He's going to need some help from the running as the season progresses though. Ryan Matthews is averaging 4.5 yards per carry, but he has yet to even break 70 yards rushing in a game this year. He and Mike Tolbert have been able to make an impact in the passing game, but the Chargers need a decent running attack to keep teams honest.
The defense has been pretty average so far this year. Those numbers are a little skewed after facing the unstoppable Tom Brady last week, but they still have only been able to manage one takeaway this season. Look for them to capitalize on a weak opponent and improve those numbers this week.
The only people who are going to pick the Chiefs to win are die-hard Kansas City fans. The Chargers should be able to rack up the yards, which means it's a great idea to start Phillip Rivers this week for you fantasy nuts out there.
WINNER: San Diego Chargers
The Packers boast a surprisingly balanced offensive attack. Aaron Rodgers has impressed as usual putting up over 600 yards passing and five touchdowns to no interceptions. What surprised me is that James Starks has put up 142 yards rushing on only 21 carries, good for a 6.8 yards per carry average. Now, he probably can't keep that up for long, but if he can keep getting good chunks of yards on the ground the Packers will be even more dangerous.
The defense is giving up tons of passing yards. In fact, they're giving up the most in the league at 400 yards per game. That's a little strange given how good their secondary has been the past few years. That said, the defense as a whole is making big plays with seven sacks and five takeaways.
The Bears beat the much hyped Atlanta Falcons in the first game of the season, but then did a complete turn around against the New Orleans Saints last week. So which team is going to show up? One thing is for certain, Jay Cutler sure likes throwing the ball to running back Matt Forte, who has led the team in receiving and rushing in both games so far. It would stand to conventional wisdom that the Bears need to find a deep threat to keep things honest, which means either Johnny Knox or Devin Hester need to step up their game.
The defense has been pretty average so far, but has been giving up almost 100 less yards than the Packers per game. It is a bit hard to judge given how different their two games have been so far, but I would guess the defense is closer to the first game than the second.
Given that the game is in Chicago and the first key divisional game of the season for both teams, this is a game that could easily go either way. Usually I would pick the Packers here because I think they have the better team, but my gut tells me to go with Da Bears.
WINNER: Chicago Bears
The Arizona Cardinals aren't quite up to the same level offensively that they were when they were being led by Kurt Warner, but Kevin Kolb looks to have them trending that way. Kolb's 560 yards passing and four touchdowns are very respectable numbers given that he had limited time to learn the offense this season and are a big step up from last year. With Kolb and Larry Fitzgerald opening up defenses, Beanie Wells has been able to post a 5.7 yards per carry average and add two touchdowns.
However, they haven't been nearly as good on the defensive side of the ball. Currently, the team ranks towards the bottom of the league in almost every statistical category. They have been able to get three interceptions and five sacks, but they need to keep teams out of the end zone more to help out the offense.
The Seahawks are pretty much the exact opposite. They have the worst rushing offense in the league and the passing game isn't much better. Tarvaris Jackson hasn't been able to get much going and that means teams can stack up against the run, which is part of the reason the Seahawks are averaging under 50 yards rushing a game.
The defense has been a little better, giving up the 10th least amount of yards per game, but they only have two sacks and have yet to force a turnover of any kind. Add that to the fact that they're also giving up 28.5 points per game and it doesn't seem to matter much.
Seattle is notoriously loud and Kevin Kolb is still learning the offense so there could be a few hiccups on the game plan come Sunday. That won't be enough to help out the Seahawks' woeful offense. I would expect to see a double-digit victory for Cardinals fans this week.
WINNER: Arizona Cardinals.
So far this season Atlanta hasn't quite looked like the juggernaut team I thought they were going to be coming into the season. They began the year with a 30-12 loss the Bears and then needed a Michael Vick injury to pull out a come from behind victory against the Eagles last week. Matt Ryan has been mediocre, but his play is looking up after a career-high four touchdowns last week. His partner in crime Michael Turner has been the heart of the team so far, averaging 6.7 yards per carry to start off this season.
When the season began I thought the Falcons defense would be a strong point, but so far I've been proven wrong. John Abraham has already sacked the quarterback twice this year, but his partner in crime Ray Edwards has been nonexistent. Even with the defensive line getting to the quarterback at a good clip the secondary hasn't been able to stop opponents through the air.
The Bucs fell victim to the Detroit Lions winning machine in the first week of the season and then scored a come from behind victory against the Minnesota Vikings. Josh Freeman has been able to put up yards and is completing almost 70 percent of his passes. However, he hasn't been able to get the ball in the end zone much. That's the most important thing for this team, put the ball in the end zone. Other than that they're doing everything right.
The defense is currently in the bottom half of the league in yards per game, but they've done a decent job of keeping the team in the game. I also think they'll continue to improve as they go along because of how young this team is.
This is, yet another, tough game to pick because I think very highly of both teams. When push comes to shove though I have to go with the team that's been putting the ball in the end zone more lately. I also think Michael Turner is going to continue playing at a high level and help Matt Ryan pick up the victory on the road.
WINNER: Atlanta Falcons
The Steelers were embarrassed by the Baltimore Ravens in the first week of the season, but were able to turn it around with a 24-0 victory against the Seattle Seahawks. The offense hasn't been amazing so far, in fact, Ben Roethlisberger has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns so far this year. He's been able to put up yards, but his inefficiency really hurt the Steelers against the Ravens. The running game hasn't been that much better, only posting 95 yards per game.
The defense hasn't lost a step since last year, allowing the second least yards per game and 17.5 points per contest. As we've come to expect from this Steelers team, the linebackers and Troy Polamalu have been racking up the sacks and big plays.
I really don't want to judge the Colts too harshly because they are without the most important player in the NFL, Peyton Manning. That said, this team is terrible and I don't see that changing anytime soon. The defense has been playing well against the pass, but that's the only bright spot on a team that's obviously lost without its biggest star.
Let's be honest, the Colts have no shot to win this game. Pittsburgh is too good on offense to lose to Kerry Collins.
WINNER: Pittsburgh Steelers
Ladies and gentlemen, the most surprising news of this young season is that Rex Grossman is a legitimate NFL starter. Who would have thought going into this year that Grossman would have 600 passing yards and four touchdowns through two games? I venture to guess that no one raised their hands. This team was terrible last year and now they have a top 10 offense in the NFL and are 2-0 to start the season.
Less surprising is the fact that the defense is solid. They are only giving up 17.5 points per game and have already amassed seven sacks on the year. If they can continue to keep their team in the game by holding the opponent to under 20 points a contest, this team could go far.
The Dallas Cowboy offense have one of the best passing attacks in the game, but can't move the ball on the ground to save their lives. Tony Romo showed off how gutsy he is last week by coming back into the game against San Francisco and getting an overtime win. I've never been his biggest fan, but that performance was impressive. Now if only he could get through a playoff game without choking.
The defense is giving up the fourth least yardage in the league, but is also letting opposing teams score 25.5 points per game. DeMarcus Ware has been his usual self, racking up four sacks in only two games, leading the Cowboys to 10 team sacks already this season. They also have the surprising Sean Lee racking up tackles and big plays in the form of an interception and a fumble recovery.
This is a great game for Monday Night Football's early season slate. A division game between two teams who are off to solid starts in the 2011 season. Depending on how healthy Tony Romo is for this week's game I'm picking them to get the win at home. His performance against the 49ers made me a believer in his abilities and I'm looking for him to carve up the Redskin secondary in the house that Jerry built.
WINNER: Dallas Cowboys