This week's edition will focus on the 2-0 and 0-2 teams as we reach a critical early juncture in the young 2011 season:
1. We start with the 2-0 Packers and their pass-defense concerns (800 yards allowed in two games), following the loss of FS Nick Collins. He'll be gone for the season, the second year in a row the Packers will have to endure the loss of a key member of the secondary. Part of the problem has been coverage by the linebackers and corners, but the Packers can't be too concerned right now. The overall numbers might not show it, but their red-zone defense has been excellent in two games. They made two major late stops against the Saints (including first and goal with time expired) in Week One and on five of the seven Panthers possessions inside the 20-yard line. Head coach Mike McCarthy could care less how many yards his team allows; it's points and turnovers that make the biggest difference. "Two weeks in a row our defense has stood up big in adversity situations," McCarthy said. "Red zone, fourth down. As long as we do that, we're going to be fine." Now, they don't want Bears RB Matt Forté running freely after contact like he has the past two weeks as the Packers and Bears meet in a key early-season showdown in Chicago this week. But McCarthy and Dom Capers can live with a few Jay Cutler completions if it means getting hits on him and turnovers ... and holding the Bears to under 20 points.
2. The Patriots put on yet another offensive clinic, their second in a six-day span, and this one against a more formidable opponent. The Chargers have the best defense the Patriots will face until the Jets come to town in Week Five, and the Patriots were nearly flawless in their execution. But it's their defense that carries the biggest questions right now. The good news is that things have been better than the numbers suggest. The Dolphins were mostly stopped in the second and third quarters in Week One, and the Patriots forced some key Chargers turnovers and held on a few goal-line possessions. They also clamped down on TE Antonio Gates (zero catches), which seemed to throw off the Chargers' rhythm a bit. The big challenge this week in the best showdown against the Bills in several years will be to stop both RB Fred Jackson and that great group of young pass catchers. The Bills' pass-to-score, run-to-win offense will be a tough chore for the Patriots' defense.
3. Just like with New England, the 2-0 Bills have their biggest issues on the defensive side of the ball (really, who doesn't these days?). The run defense appeared to take a big step in Week One, holding Jamaal Charles and the Chiefs (108 rushing yards) in check, and they mostly contained the Raiders' run game in Week Two, even though there were some short-yardage leaks. But they have not seen an offense as diverse as the Patriots', not even close. It appears that DL Marcel Dareus and LBs Nick Barnett and Shawne Merriman are making a difference, but what will the Bills choose to take away first? They likely won't have to worry about TE Aaron Hernandez, who is expected to miss this game. But that only leaves TE Rob Gronkowski and a very good trio of receivers — Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Chad Ochocinco. Expect the Bills to use a lot of six- and seven-DB formations and be willing to give up rushing yards. CB Leodis McKelvin had a tough game vs. Oakland and will need help.
4. The third 2-0 AFC East team, the Jets, coasted to a win over the Jaguars in Week Two. But that's burying the lede; the real news is that C Nick Mangold likely will miss at least two games with an ankle injury. This is your life, Colin Baxter. The undrafted rookie steps into the spotlight, and considering he never had snapped a ball to Mark Sanchez before Mangold went down in the game (not even in practice), the rook did a nice job. Now he has to face a pair of the best defensive tackles in the game in Raiders DTs Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly, with Kelly most likely lined up on Baxter's right shoulder most plays. Sanchez should enjoy throwing against the Raiders' secondary, but the Jets have not been as successful against teams that invite the pass. Don't be shocked if the Jets struggle more than expected in this long road trip.
5. There's no question that an improved defense has been a big reason why the Texans are 2-0, and Gary Kubiak has acknowledged this. "I think we're surprised at how quick the process has taken place with no offseason with really (defensive coordinator) Wade (Phillips) just having those guys for seven or eight weeks," Kubiak said. "When you watch the work that's taking place every day, the energy that we are playing with, how hard we're playing, you know why you are getting much better results." A quick reminder: Kubiak's Texans were 2-0 a year ago, and that defense was a big reason why the team missed the playoffs. As for this season, and as for that improved group, stopping the Colts (minus Peyton Manning) and Dolphins (with, you know, who they have), that's one thing. Stopping the Saints — Sunday's chore in the Superdome — is quite another. This is the start of a four-game stretch (along with the Steelers, Raiders and Ravens) that will test this unit for real. We should know by the end of October if the Texans are a legitimate contender or not.
6. Not ready to buy into the Redskins? Fair enough. If there is one word to describe this team right now, it's aggressive. On both sides of the ball, the Redskins are seeking to take control of games, knowing that their talent probably isn't commensurate with some of the top contenders. Case in point: The Redskins trailed the Cardinals by eight points with just over five minutes remaining, facing a 4th and 3 from the Arizona 18. Last year's Skins would have kicked. This outfit went for it and scored a touchdown. That play embodies the pedal-to-the-metal offense, and it will have to take chances against Rob Ryan's Cowboys defense that ranks fourth in yards allowed. But they could catch a break with the Cowboys having a slew of injuries, including to stars such as Tony Romo (collapsed lung, broken ribs), Miles Austin (hamstring), Dez Bryant (quad) and Felix Jones (shoulder). All four could miss next Monday's game in Dallas, and whether they do or not, you can bet that Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett will be — yep — aggressive.
7. All hail the Lions, who to their credit have done what they should have done in the first two weeks of the season. They are a big-ticket offense now with Matthew Stafford throwing darts and Calvin Johnson, Jahvid Best, Titus Young, the tight ends and Nate Burleson (who says he wants to be the "black Wes Welker") catching them. And what's interesting is that head coach Jim Schwartz isn't afraid to rattle a few cages, benching ORT Gosder Cherilus against the Chiefs because of his boneheaded play against the Buccaneers in Week One. They might not get a great defensive test against the Vikings, but they still will have to stop RB Adrian Peterson, which undisciplined defenses typically cannot. Everyone wants to know if the Lions are for real. Want to know if they are not ready for primetime? Watch them come out flat against the Vikings.
8. The most curious thing about the 0-2 Vikings is that they actually have looked better than expected. That is until the game is on the line. The Vikings have had a bad habit in losses to the Chargers and Buccaneers of taking control on the scoreboard but then blowing leads. The bad part is that it's hard to pinpoint exactly where the breakdowns are; it hasn't been one or two things, but a number of issues that have cropped up. Their next chore will be to slow down Stafford and the Lions' passing game, which appears to be just a shade below that of the Patriots, Packers and Saints right now and perhaps do so without nickel CB Chris Cook. Best of luck.
9. Naturally, when you mention the league's best passing teams, you have to talk Panthers, right? Carolina might be 0-2, but they have achieved those two losses in the most unpredictable way. Really, there hasn't been a team whose offensive identity has been so vastly different than what we expected. And really, what the Panthers might have expected. I am sure that Ron Rivera, Rob Chudzinski and Mike Shula figured out pretty quickly that they have something special in Cam Newton. And they probably knew he could throw it better than people realized. But to be almost wholly dependent on Newton's arm keeping them in games and the run game (minus a few Newton scrambles) doing almost nothing, well that combination has been one of the biggest stunners of the early season. The Panthers have a great chance at their first victory when they host the Jaguars — which could be a showdown of first-round QBs if Jack Del Rio calls on Blaine Gabbert — in Charlotte on Sunday.
10. Yes, the Colts don't have a lot of sure W's that pop off the schedule, certainly not starting with the Steelers in Pittsburgh on Sunday night. In fact, it probably will get ugly. When you hear Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin say that he's "still chewing on last week," meaning the loss to the Ravens, you get the feeling that he's going to milk as much motivation out of that Week One loss as he can. The Colts have plenty of motivation, but how much firepower can they possibly muster up after a double-digit home loss to the Browns? One Indy columnist thinks Brett Favre or Curtis Painter — basically anyone but Kerry Collins — should be playing quarterback. Sorry, but the Colts could resurrect the ghost of John Unitas for this game, and they would not get in the endzone more than twice. The problems roll deep right now, but there is enough talent to get this team semi-turned around down the line. Which brings us to another team for which all hope is lost ...
11. It's getting way past sympathy time for the Chiefs. We already have moved on to whether Todd Haley will keep his job. I think Scott Pioli keeps his because Clark Hunt believes in the GM. I don't know what the owner thinks about Haley, though, and they are down 79 points on the season so far. Winning a division should buy him another season, and compounded with the losses of Jamaal Charles, Tony Moeaki and Eric Berry, you can't say that this is really a coaching thing. But we'll find out how good a coach Haley is. They'll be up against it with an angry Chargers team this week in San Diego, but there are a couple winnable games against current 0-2ers, the Vikings and Colts, in Weeks Four and Five, respectively. The Chiefs, though, set their great season a year ago into motion with a win over the Chargers. Can they get back on track with another one? Haley will need to get Matt Cassel to stop regressing and get his team on the same page. Quickly.
12. When assessing the Dolphins' chances of rebounding, one must first wonder why a head coach whose supposed specialty — offensive line — is also one of their biggest concerns. One also must wonder why the collection of talent seems up there with some of the AFC's contenders — not the Patriots, mind you, but not too much different than, say, the Jets — and yet the results seem to suggest they are steamrolling towards another 6-10 type of season. Don't blame Chad Henne, at least not fully. He's competing and completing passes, and Brandon Marshall's quickness appears to be back. The whole Reggie Bush experiment, running him up the gut? Silly and pointless. Teams know what he can and cannot do. The next three games are on the road (with a bye between the second and third), but maybe that's a good thing. The Dolphins have lost 12-of-13 at home and have not been bad away from Miami, so maybe they catch a Browns team still riding the high of a double-digit win in Indy napping. At this point, the Dolphins need all the help they can get.
13. No one would be stunned if the Seahawks make a QB change, not with Tarvaris Jackson struggling and not with a big home game coming up against the Cardinals. It's not as if anyone thinks Charlie Whitehurst is the savior. But Jackson couldn't lead his team into Steelers territory until the fourth quarter, and he never did get them into the red zone. In this era of offensive explosion, how offensive is that? The news that OLG Robert Gallery is out is disheartening, and all it will take is another week of WR Sidney Rice being hurt to keep up the talk of Seattle being the city where good receivers go to die. But this group needs a spark. They are trying to run the ball with so-so offensive linemen and no good blocking tight ends and no fullback at all. They are trying to throw it with a bunch of complementary pass catchers and a quarterback who needs a simplistic system and a whopping amount of talent. It's head-banging material. As medium cool as the Cardinals have looked in almost losing at home to the Panthers and finding a way to blow a lead in D.C., the Seahawks amazingly still have to think they have a chance in this one. Ah, the wonderful NFC West.
14. Yes, we have not seen the best yet of the Rams, who lost to two NFC East teams. They'll get healthy at some point and they will start to feast on their divisional schedule eventually. But improvement starts from within. The receivers — other than Danario Alexander — need to stop dropping passes. The offensive line must bone up. The defense has to improve the coverage and stop missing tackles, especially when big plays are there for the taking. It will happen. The Cardinals right now look like the only real competition in the division. Sam Bradford hasn't yet taken that step we assumed he would, but it's coming. His stats would look an awful lot better if he was not being let down by those around him. This team's schedule, starting with Sunday's home game against the Ravens, is a bear, and it won't lead to a great record this season, but the Rams will come out of this stronger — if they stop shooting themselves in the feet. The Ravens might have lost embarrassingly on Sunday, but Week One showed us how they can be when they are at their best.
15. With seven 2-0 and seven 0-2 teams, we are left with an odd number and one leftover spot here. So let's take a look at the best battle of 1-1 teams in Week Three: the Giants vs. the Eagles. I'll stay out of the Michael Vick speculation business other than to say that I think he's playing. If not, they are fine with Kafka in a short-term situation. But are the Giants fine with Eli Manning? Yes, he heated up late in the second quarter and made a few nice throws to rally the Giants. But he looks off to me. I respect the Giants and believe they are better than most people give them credit for being. But that's assuming Manning is the good Eli. The defense will get healthier, and the run game appears to be in good shape now. If the passing game jells, watch out. I just don't know if a lukewarm Manning facing a strong Eagles secondary and pass rush is a great matchup. The Giants might want to run the ball like they did in the second half Monday night to ensure victory.