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Week Three handicapping column

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Posted Sept. 20, 2012 @ 3:44 p.m. ET
By Mike Wilkening

As was the case last week, I like a pair of home underdogs this Sunday. One of these underdogs is led by a future Hall of Fame quarterback, which sure is nice. The other underdog looks lively, and I do have a good deal of points to work with, and really, handicappers will take what slivers of sunshine they can get.

My other selections are a pair of road favorites, both of which are .500, and both of which lost by more than two TDs in their defeats.

This is an interesting card, to say the least.

On to the picks:

Houston (-2) at Denver

I covered the Texans for PFW for several seasons, and I very much enjoyed it. I'd guess the beat writers based in Houston feel similarly, too. My encounters with players, coaches and other team personnel have always been pleasant and professional. Reporters are conditioned not to root for teams, and I certainly don't pull for any team to win or lose, but it was hard not to be happy for Houston finally breaking through to win the AFC South a season ago.

The two major reasons the Texans finally made the leap were 1) their defense drastically improving and 2) the Colts losing Peyton Manning for the full season. In previous years, the Texans' defense just couldn't get enough stops, and it really had its problems with Manning. With Manning out, the Colts fell apart, knocking Houston's top competition out of commission. And when the Texans' defense improved dramatically thanks to an infusion of talent and the addition of coordinator Wade Phillips, we had a regime change atop the AFC South. 

Every pointspread tells a story. This one reflects the feeling that the Texans, whose defense is playing out of its mind right now, has arrived as a legit power. The number also reflects some uncertainty about Manning, who threw three first-quarter picks at Atlanta on Monday night.

However, I'm becoming convinced the Broncos can be a very good team. I'm giving Manning the benefit of the doubt. He is, you know, Peyton Manning.

Here's another thing: The Broncos, even after that slow start, weren't blown out at Atlanta. Some of that is due to Manning finally getting it together, but don't overlook the play of Denver's defense, either. The Broncos are playing very, very well on that side of the ball through two games. Note that the Broncos are allowing only slightly more yards per play (4.11, compared to 4.08) than Houston.

The Texans are in top form, and I wasn't looking to pick against them after they crushed the Jaguars, whom I liked a week ago. However, there's a good deal of value in the Broncos getting points. I believe Denver is better than perceived.

Wilkening's pick: Denver

N.Y. Jets (-2½) at Miami

I have a healthy respect for the Dolphins after they convincingly defeated Oakland in Week Two, and their running game (led by the spectacular Reggie Bush) and their run defense (2.2 yards per carry allowed!) could give the Jets some trouble.

Nevertheless, I'm inclined to back the favorite. The Jets' defense isn't perhaps what it was, but the return of CB Darrelle Revis surely will help. I believe the Jets will be able to key on the run and force rookie QB Ryan Tannehill into some unfavorable down-and-distance situations.

Two long Bush TD runs put Miami in control last week; I'm banking on the Jets, who have allowed 261 rushing yards in two games, not giving up any game-changing big plays and grinding out a road win. I'm aware of the risks I'm taking, but at this price, the Jets are the play. If Tannehill further improves, and if Bush breaks a few long runs, so be it. 

Wilkening's pick: N.Y. Jets

Buffalo (-3) at Cleveland

Here's another instance of me taking a position against a rookie quarterback. I watched Browns-Bengals closely last Sunday, and I loved what I saw from Cleveland's Brandon Weeden. He was exceptional. He really was. He stood in against the rush, made accurate throw after accurate throw and didn't turn the ball over once.

Weeden's performance, coupled with the strong running of Trent Richardson, made me re-evaluate Cleveland from  a season-long perspective. In the right spot, I would be open to picking the Browns. They will be a thorn in the side of some teams this season.

That said, I don't like them in Week Three. Including the preseason, Weeden has yet put two good starts together. He has struggled holding onto the ball, and his accuracy has been hit-or-miss. If he plays like he did in Week Two, then the Browns could have a chance, but even in that case, the Bills might still have too much punch on offense. Buffalo has scored five more offensive touchdowns than Cleveland through two games.

While the Bills' defense has been a little disappointing to this point (806 yards allowed), it has some potential to improve. If it does, and if Weeden regresses, then the Bills are probably in good shape.

Wilkening's pick: Buffalo

San Francisco (-7) at Minnesota

I entered the season believing the Vikings would really struggle, but they may be better than I believed. Through two games, they are gaining 5.82 yards per play and surrendering only 4.59 yards per attempt. Granted, it's early, and the Vikings have played two teams (Indianapolis and Jacksonville) without exceptionally powerful offenses, but the early returns suggest I may have underrated them a little bit.

No one is underrating the 49ers, who have started the season in stellar fashion. But this looks like a tougher-than-expected game for them. The Vikings rallied to tie the Colts late in Week Two before falling late, and I would be surprised if they didn't give San Francisco a battle. While the 49ers' offense is improved, this is a lot of points to lay.

Wilkening's pick: Minnesota

Last week: 2-1-1
Season to date: 5-2-1

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