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First Fifteen: Early look at Week Two games

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Posted Sept. 13, 2011 @ 12:37 p.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

Every Tuesday during the NFL season, we script out the 15 most compelling story lines in the upcoming week's games.

1. The Falcons had some hiccups last season, but at no point were they so thoroughly outplayed from start to finish as they were in Sunday's loss to the Bears — not even in the playoff loss to the Packers, in which they were just overwhelmed in the second half. This was a four-quarter debacle, and now they must come home, wounded, and face an Eagles team that was sloppy but still managed to win on the road by three scores. "Let's not say the sky is falling," head coach Mike Smith said after the loss in Chicago. "I know that we will get things fixed." But can they be fixed internally? They might be having a bit of an identity crisis. No one questions the move to draft WR Julio Jones, who had an auspicious debut with 71 yards receiving and already looks seasoned. But the defense doesn't appear significantly upgraded, and the power run game of yore looks gone. They moved on from free-agent OG Harvey Dahl, a big slobberknocker, in the offseason and saw C Todd McClure's 144-games-started streak end. Dahl's replacement, Garrett Reynolds, had trouble keeping Bears DT Henry Melton (two sacks, seven QB hits) out of QB Matt Ryan's face much of the day. The Eagles are not big defensively, so perhaps a dose of the old run game in the first quarter — like the Rams used effectively early on — might be on the menu.

2. The Eagles simply had more speed than the Rams. Michael Vick (several back-breaking escapes from pressure; 97 yards rushing) and LeSean McCoy (17 touches, 137 yards, two TDs) just sucked the wind out of the Rams' defense, and DeSean Jackson, despite a sure TD drop, also came up with some big catches downfield. The Falcons not only have to pressure Vick, but they have to take him down and not let McCoy leak out as a safety valve. Easier said than done. LB Sean Witherspoon was out of position on a few plays in coverage Sunday. Vick's accuracy was poor Sunday, and it might hover around the 50-percent mark as WRs Jeremy Maclin and Steve Smith work themselves into game shape and the offensive line works out its significant kinks. But I don't think the emotional factor of returning to Atlanta will have an effect. Vick now has played the Falcons twice since his release from prison, once in Atlanta in 2009, and should be able to keep things in check. What he must do, though, is worry less about making the heroic plays and focus more on being effective on the little stuff. Sunday's game tape showed there were plenty of things to clean up.

3. Right now, the Rams are feeling a lot worse about themselves than they did a week ago. It appears the injury to QB Sam Bradford (finger) isn't serious, but RB Steven Jackson (quadriceps) probably is out for Sunday and CB Ronald Bartell (neck) and WR Danny Amendola (elbow) could be out for significant time, perhaps the season. ORT Jason Smith (ankle) also left the game Sunday. This is a big early test in Steve Spagnuolo's tenure, as his Rams have gone from prohibitive favorites in the NFC West to suddenly having the floor drop from beneath them. He also has to battle emotions as he returns to New York to face his old Giants club where he made a name for himself under Tom Coughlin. Defensively, though, Spagnuolo might have more success scheming against Eli Manning than he did against Vick, who simply ran away from a dozen pressures.

4. The Giants are clearly no healthy unit, either, but they did not suffer any more losses Sunday other than on the scoreboard. The run defense was pretty good, and there were pressures despite the absence of DEs Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, but the pass coverage was subpar for this group. CB Corey Webster had an up-and-down day. Offensively, though, it was rough to watch. Eli Manning just doesn't look like himself; he hasn't since football has come back. No doubt the loss of his safety net, WR Steve Smith, contributes to his lack of confidence. Hakeem Nicks is great, and Mario Manningham is a talented No. 2, but there is nothing happening in the middle of the field. Opponents can play outside leverage on Nicks and Manningham and use safeties over the top because there is no tight end to fear and no slot guy to worry about working the underneath stuff. When the run game stalls, as it did Sunday, the Giants are not going to win a lot of games. Despite the Rams' injuries, this will not be a cakewalk for the Giants.

5. Chargers-Patriots will feature two great offensive teams playing in New England, but each team has a few other things to clean up after Week One. The Chargers, plagued so much by special teams a year ago, got off to a nightmare start, allowing a 103-yard KO return and losing their kicker (Pro Bowler Nate Kaeding) on the same play. Things settled down after that a bit, but the groups are still a weakness until proven otherwise. And the early returns on the Patriots' new 4-3 defense were mostly good after the first game — even though it gave up 488 yards, mostly through the air — but that was against Chad Henne and the Dolphins. Philip Rivers and the Chargers obviously provide a different animal of a challenge, but the Vikings did have success hemming the passing game in for three quarters by playing deep safeties and getting pressure with their defensive ends. Can the Pats get pressure? It didn't happen early in Miami, but their front seemed to wear down the Fish by the end of the game.

6. So when was the last time a team went on the road, beat a division winner the previous season by 34 points and get less national ink than the Bills? Even here, I am listing them sixth. So what's the deal? People might not be able to name a lot of Bills players if you spot them Ryan Fitzpatrick, and quite frankly there are not a lot of believers until they beat someone else. But this offense might be quite for real, and here's doubting that the Raiders, coming off a 23-20 win over the Broncos and traveling on a short week, can do much to stop it. The Bills' offensive line is far from a name group, and the run defense needs to turn in more impressive performances before I am convinced that major change has occurred. But this team is competitive and looks to go 2-0 in a very winnable situation.

7. Rex Grossman might not inspire a lot of confidence outside of Redskins Park, but in the building everyone is on board. There appears to be a bit of a culture change in D.C. with the players, for the first time since before Jim Zorn was coach, refusing to take their Monday off following a victory. The troops reported back to work, wanting to build on their 28-14 Week One victory. And Grossman is winning over people one at a time. He was not perfect Sunday, but he was darned good, moving the offense with aggressive, attacking throws. Against the Cardinals, who blitzed the heck out of Cam Newton in Week One, Grossman might have some very favorable coverages to exploit. That defense is bad.

8. Perhaps the most impressive team in Week One, the Ravens will have to show they were not merely feeding off the energy of the Steelers rivalry. But they looked about as good as a team can look in all three phases, taking control of the game from the first snap and pushing down on the Steelers' necks. So what in the heck could the Ravens do against the Titans? I'll give Tennessee credit: It has some fight in that dog. But if the Jaguars were able to find a pass rush against the Titans, good God, what are Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs going to do against them? And offensively, the Ravens were a different team. Lee Evans caught zero passes Sunday, but I can tell you his presence was felt. Just having that deep threat there opposite Anquan Boldin changes the playbook. And who needs Todd Heap? Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta showed they can be factors, too. I don't smell a letdown from the Ravens.

9. I also can't imagine the Steelers playing any worse. If there is a young coach better at fixing problems and motivating veteran players than Mike Tomlin, then I haven't seen him. It's not like we haven't talked about the Steelers' deficiencies in the secondary or on the offensive line before, either. But Sunday felt a little different in that the Steelers' defense hasn't looked this old in a long time. Yes, teams such as the Packers have spread them out and exposed their lack of speed. But Sunday, Ravens receivers, backs and tight ends were running freely — and away from Steelers defenders. I have no doubt that their pride and talent will show up in a big way against the Seahawks. These are the types of games they almost always dominate. But this might be a long-term story worth keeping an eye on.

10. After an extra few days of rest, the Saints will have regrouped from Green Bay with some clear missions: improve the pass rush, get more from the run game and find a way to replace Marques Colston for the next month or so. But they also have some interesting motivation against their Week Two opponent, the Bears. Seems that many Saints fans who made the trip north to Chicago five years ago for the NFC title game felt that a number of Bears fans made some classless Katrina comments before, during and after the game in Chicago. Saints fans are some of the best in the league, but they haven't forgotten, I am told; expect a very loud, lusty cheering section on Sunday. And oh, yeah, the game: The Bears showed they are better than about 90 percent of the country thinks they are, and they handled the passing game of the Falcons quite well, abusing Matt Ryan and that offensive line. So whom do the Bears get to attack on Sunday? Old friend Olin Kreutz, who had a nasty divorce from the team in August, is the Saints' starting center. Lots of anger could be in the air for what should be a very hard-fought game in the Dome.

11. The Bears might be atop the NFC North, but it's a three-way tie atop the division with the Lions and Packers, and each was impressive in Week One. The Lions were the better team in Tampa in Week One, but they also were the most mistake-prone. One of Lions head coach Jim Schwartz's key goals this season is to make this a smarter team, one that can finish off wins (a problem during last season's 2-10 start but less so during the 4-0 finish) and not beat itself with mistakes. After surviving a few early miscues (a pick-six and a breakdown on punt coverage), the Lions almost committed their biggest boner when Gosder Cherilus was called for unsportsmanlike conduct and gave the Bucs a better chance to win. That led Schwartz to say, "There are some things that happened in this game that are inexcusable and will not continue." I expect a cleaner game from these hypertalented Lions Sunday against the Chiefs, who had about as bad an opening week (34-point home loss, Eric Berry out for the season) as any team in the NFL.

12. It feels like about three weeks ago that the Packers finished off the Saints in the terrific season opener, and the talk about 16-0 has already started — in hushed voices, of course — in some parts of Wisconsin. It probably won't happen if history is any indication, but it has been a few seasons since we have seen an offensive team with this kind of talent playing at this level of execution. Other than a few penalties on the offensive line and maybe some things in the run game, there's not much to complain about. They'll have no problems moving the ball against the Panthers, who just lost their defensive heart and soul, MLB Jon Beason, to a season-ending injury. But what should be interesting to watch is how their defense attacks the run game and Cam Newton. The Packers came away saying they allowed too many yards and big plays against the Saints, and Newton's unique skills will provide a nice challenge for a group that eventually will regain its Super Bowl form in time.

13. I already wrote a lot Sunday night about Newton's debut. Just throwing his name out there in a few conversations with league people on Monday, and most were impressed. Heard a lot of "didn't know he had it in him" comments, expecting him to run more and throw with far less accuracy. But he will come down to Earth this week, and, if so, the question will be: How far? Can he make a few plays against the world champs? In terms of confidence, we know he will be high early, and maybe he can scramble successfully against a few of those semi-slow Packers linebackers. But I'll be watching his demeanor after a turnover, a bad play, some kind of adversity. I want to see how he handles pressure against a better team in his first home game. The Panthers' coaches have done a great job of keeping the playbook fairly basic right now and yet still allowing Newton to play to his strengths.

14. It's hard to make excuses for Tony Romo when he continues to undermine his own play with one or two key mistakes in crucial situations. Heck, Dez Bryant might have indeed been supposed to sit down on that route in front of the bracket coverage. But there's no way that Romo can make that throw, regardless. And the red-zone scramble and fumble is just careless football. Some Cowboys folks I have talked to over the years say it's not stupidity; they insist Romo is as football-smart as some of the coaches. But his overconfidence that he can make any play at any time — and many times, he has made those plays — might be Romo's Achilles' heel. Will that manifest itself against the 49ers on Sunday? Perhaps not. But anyone who can remember the first three quarters of Sunday night's game saw a Cowboys team that, if its depth isn't too thin and injuries don't kill it, can win the NFC East. As we have said before and will continue to say: It all falls on Romo.

15. The Texans might coast to the AFC South title, but they are far from a perfect team. The Kevin Walter injury hurts (although it's not nearly as serious as initially thought), especially considering that his would-be replacement, Jacoby Jones, is also their primary punt returner. But they will go to Miami a confident team, one that still can get better offensively (imagine that) and is still leaning Wade Phillips' defensive scheme. Defensively, they are trying to create mismatches, and someone else is likely going to have to step up with Mario Williams (two sacks as a linebacker in Week One) going up against Dolphins OLT Jake Long. But we might see Arian Foster back on offense, and if not, Ben Tate showed he could be a darned good replacement — maybe even better. Yeah, I said it.

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