How are you feeling about your preseason predictions? Shaky? Good — us, too. Here’s a look at our top 15 story lines from Week Two, where we expect everything to blow up in our faces once more:
1. What should we make of the Packers’ opening game? Forget the score — if you watched it, you knew what was happening. They were getting pushed around, bottled up and frustrated by the offensively methodical and defensively diabolical approach of the 49ers. For years, that was the Bears’ approach, too: Beat you up front, take away your deep stuff and make you march slowly up the field if you wanted to get points (usually field goals, too, not touchdowns). Will that dynamic repeat itself in this Thursday-night game, the first of many more this season on NFL Network? The Packers’ defense has more to blame (still) right now than the offense, but both sides are culpable. Aaron Rodgers and Co. have now lost their past two games at home, counting the playoffs loss to the Giants, in somewhat lopsided fashion.
2. The Bears had about as miserable a start to their game against the Colts as possible, and about as strong a three quarters as you could have expected against a rebuilding Colts team. The Jay Cutler-Brandon Marshall pipeline is flowing, and there might be some quality runoff for rookie Alshon Jeffrey. Matt Forté did a dumb, me-first thing by bitching about personal glory after a win, as he and Michael Bush seemed to yin and yang well. (What’s the big deal about getting touchdowns when you just got paid, Matt?) Now, can the defense do to the Packers in Green Bay what the Niners did? Not to that same degree, no, but maybe a peeved Brian Urlacher can scare up a vintage effort. If the Bears win, they’d have a two-game lead on the Packers in the division.
3. What, the Saints panic? They’ve already been through the spin cycle a few dozen times this offseason with Drew Brees’ lingering contract status, losing players and coaches and then Sunday’s result, losing to first-gamer Robert Griffin III and the Redskins at home. There were a few funny-looking numbers, such as the 2-for-11 on third down, the 12 penalties, the three drops by Marques Colston and the 10 rushing attempts. But really, it was a feel thing that was most bothersome. Brees and the offense were just out of rhythm all day. The defense had a look of perpetual confusion to it. And interim interim coach Aaron Kromer didn’t exactly have his team prepared for Griffin. Does it inspire things will go better against Cam Newton and the Panthers on the road? Well, some questions tend to answer themselves, but the Saints say they are far from worried. Yet.
4. Speaking of worry … It was a less-than-banner effort from those Panthers in the opener, where the guards were manhandled, the run game was pathetic and Newton appeared to try to do too much at times in the loss at Tampa. Defensively, things were not too bad at all, and really, after the Buccaneers’ third offensive drive, they were completely neutralized. But still, the special teams (blocked punt) let them down, too, and it will take a more cohesive effort all the way around for Ron Rivera’s team to start cashing in on these Super Bowl guarantees. Fun battle to watch: Panthers WR Steve Smith, who had a big debut Sunday, against the Saints’ secondary (Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins, especially). These guys have history.
5. You’ve got to give it up to Kevin Kolb. The guy has been dragged through the dirt (there’s no mud) in Arizona, and he lost the starting job to a guy who played at Fordham and makes one-fifth of what he does. But when John Skelton, who wasn’t exactly lighting the place up, got hurt Sunday against the Seahawks, it gave Kolb his chance. But does Kolb have a chance at New England, or is he unwittingly being thrown to the wolves? We'll see. Skelton is almost certainly out for this one with the ankle injury, and the Patriots will try to tune up their new-ish defense, which featured nice debuts by rookies DE Chandler Jones (strip sack), LB Dont'a Hightower (TFL, TD return) and S Tavon Wilson (INT in the endzone).
6. It’s a good thing that Ronde Barber said, “It felt like old times.” It meant that the Buccaneers’ defense, unquestionally the saddest unit in the NFL last season, has made wholesale changes and appears to be a fired-up group. One major change: attitude, apparently brought in at retail by new coach Greg Schiano by way of New Jersey. The former Rutgers coach’s trip back to Jersey for Sunday’s game against the Giants won’t be for old time’s sake. He’s here to show the Giants that the Bucs have their own mini-Coughlin in the serious, strict, highly organized Schiano. The Giants once more could be shorthanded in the secondary. If Michael Coe (hamstring) and Prince Amukamara (ankle) are not available, it will be Justin Tryon (burned for the game-winner vs. Dallas) who starts at corner. The Bucs were quiet offensively after a few strong early series, but they do have a budding duo with QB Josh Freeman and WR Vincent Jackson.
7. The Eagles say Michael Vick (four INTs, should have been six) was rusty in Sunday’s game against the Browns. He played only 12 preseason snaps, so maybe that’s why. Maybe he does just have to round into form. But Vick was miserable, and the Eagles kept having him throw to win the game until it was almost too late. Andy Reid apparently never thought about replacing Vick, saying he wanted him to work through his problems. That kind of commitment is admirable in a coach, and whatever Reid has done the past 14 years (well, most of them; owner Jeffrey Lurie would keep last year’s 8-8 out of that discussion) has served him fairly well. But at some point you have to think that Reid is going to be facing the decision to go to rookie backup Nick Foles. The good news: The Ravens’ aged defense will have one fewer of day rest, but it still looked pretty fierce Monday.
8. Joe Flacco was pretty tremendous in the opening night of his “Pay Me 2012” tour. “Pay him whatever he wants!” a jubilant John Harbaugh exalted after the game, no doubt receiving a “tsk-tsk” text from Ozzie Newsome a few seconds later. The no-huddle had looked against a top-10 defense (from a year ago) of the Bengals just as it did in the preseason: quite dangerous. It was all humming, and once the Ravens pushed the issue offensively and the Bengals felt threatened, it was advantage Ravens “D.” That group shook off a few early senior moments to turn up the heat. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed make a pretty good supporting act, you know. But for an Eagles-Ravens matchup that normally would be all about the Eagles’ offense vs. the Ravens’ defense, the more intriguing matchup might be the other two units. The Eagles’ defense was smothering in Cleveland Week One.
9. The Rams want to beat the Redskins for two reasons: One, they like winning, but two, it helps their draft position. Next year’s Redskins first-rounder belongs to the Rams from the RG3 trade. After one game, the Redskins are willing to send the rest of their ’13 picks. They’re all in, having seen Griffin outplay Brees in his Dome, putting together a near-perfect opener. He beat the Saints with his arm, feet, with his blocking (taking on Harper, too: brave) and inspired the rest of his teammates to play a strong game. But don’t disrespect the Rams, who battled toe to toe with the Lions in Detroit and came up just short. The Rams might be a bit light of firepower on offense, but they spent a ton of money to upgrade the defense and it appears they are significantly better at corner. Could be a sneaky-good matchup in the other dome, just a steamboat ride up the Mississippi.
10. Even with this one in Seattle, we’re not going to talk about bobbled extra-point snaps. It’s just not news anymore. What is news — still — is Dallas’ big win in Week One. Because of the Wednesday game, they were afforded extra time to rest up body parts (such as Jason Witten’s oft-discussed spleen), find some cohesion on the offensive line and allow Jerry Jones to personally gloat to every media member in the 972 area code. The trip to Seattle can be sneaky, even if the Seahawks disappointed offensively in QB Russell Wilson’s uneven first start. He was game, but too often under fire when he threw. The majority of the route depths were free-throw length, which can’t work all day against corners the quality of Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne (again, ask Jones — he’ll talk these two up 'til he turns the color of the road jerseys). Still, this one carries some upset potential. Keep an eye on the Cowboys slinking back to earth, having trouble with the noise up front and for Wilson to improve.
11. Two premier defenders in Jets-Steelers are going to be up in the air. Jets CB Darrelle Revis (a “mild concussion," per the team, although those two words appear to be antithetical in this NFL day and age) and Steelers OLT James Harrison (knee) might be out. Revis starred in the Jets’ 48-28 drubbing of the Bills, and Harrison didn’t dress in the Steelers’ loss at Denver. So given that Mark Sanchez now is an elite QB, this thing has shootout written all over it, right? More seriously, it will be interesting to see what the Jets do with Tim Tebow and the Wildcat. They clearly kept a lot of it under wraps, and they still might in this game against a disciplined, veteran defense (even if Harrison is out), preferring to keep the majority of the tricky stuff for future opponents. Still, lots of interest in this battle given that the sad Jets’ offense scored 48 in Week One and the elite Steelers’ “D” allowed 31 at Denver.
12. Time has healed all in the Great Handshake Fiasco of 2011 — new rule: don’t just lazily tack on “–gate” to the end of a controversy name, mkay? — that Lions head coach Jim Schwartz says it’s all just water under the Golden Gate Bridge with counterpart Jim Harbaugh. “It happened so long ago that that occurred,” he said. “When these two teams take the field on Sunday, that won’t be on one player’s mind.” We tend to agree: Sure, it makes a fascinating and tabloid-y lead-in, but we’re talking about another finesse-type of passing game with the Lions, and given their relative trouble Sunday vs. the Rams and the 49ers’ dissection of the Packers and their aerial attack, the Lions should be fearful. Some positives are that the Lions were not horrible when they had to run the ball (4.6 yards per carry) in Week One, and QB Matthew Stafford wasn’t too beat up (one sack, three QB hits) on his 48 pass attempts. But he was sloppy with the ball, often staring down receivers badly. Let’s just say that can’t happen on the road against a higher caliber of defensive players in San Fran.
13. Give the 49ers’ offense some credit. Alex Smith played about as clean, efficient and forceful a 211-yard passing game as a QB can have these days. He was terrific, and had OLT Joe Staley not completely unraveled as the game went on, the 49ers might have piled up even more than their 377 yards of offense. As it was, they ran the ball with their usual force — a meaty 5.8 yards per attempt — and finished the Packers off with power and intimidation. Other positive signs include a strong effort from Michael Crabtree and an auspicious debut from Randy Moss, who caught four passes and a TD despite relatively light usage — he was in on 21 of the 49ers’ 67 offensive plays. By comparison, Mario Manningham earned 29 reps and No. 4 WR Kyle Williams was on the field for 16 on offense. Just some interesting WR numbers to chew on heading into a game against a still-suspect Lions secondary.
14. It’s all joy in Denver following Peyton Manning’s excellent debut. Even if the wing is still not 100 percent, the head never has been better. He thought his way through the win over the Steelers in top form, and the Broncos will need him to do so in another great QB battle in a Monday-night barnburner against Matt Ryan and the Falcons in Atlanta, where they seldom lose. Manning and the offensive line looked great, but it was the strong showing by the Broncos' defense that also merits mention. Its five sacks, four yards per play allowed and pick-six by CB Tracy Porter (what a night he had) helped negate what was a clutch performance by Ben Roethlisberger on third downs (11-for-19 conversions on the night). This Broncos’ defense gets another test with those Falcons, who dropped 40 on the Chiefs at Arrowhead and probably eased up some in the fourth quarter once the lead was in hand.
15. Last season, prior to the Falcons-Giants playoff game, in this space I wrote that Ryan’s career to that point had arced quite like the quarterback he’d face off against that day, Eli Manning. But really, following Atlanta’s humbling loss to the Giants that day, it’s Peyton’s career whom Ryan’s ascent currently mirrors most accurately. He has had an excellent career to this point, having won 44 games in four seasons (plus one game) and put up mostly great numbers. He appears poised for his best work to date, having diced up the Chiefs summarily. “This might have been the best game he played,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said afterwards. It might have been. But with the Falcons playing Manning on Monday, Ryan will need to crank it up again. What a fun matchup this will be.