The 2012 NFL has been a smoke screen for most of the year. What I mean by that is we have no idea who the really good teams are and who the bad teams are. We thought the Colts would be a rebuilding project, but they beat the Packers last week. We thought the Cardinals would be a mess, but they lost their first game on Thursday to another upstart team in the Rams. The Minnesota Vikings beat a lot of people's Super Bowl pick (including mine) in the San Francisco 49ers. The three worst teams in the league in 2011 (Colts, Vikings and Rams) have a combined 9-5 record in 2012 with all three being .500 or better. Is it even possible to pick the NFL anymore? No matter what teams look like on paper a coach can lead them to victory, or a breakout star can push them to places they didn't think possible. This is the NFL, where no matter what people say there is always a chance. Well, unless you play in Cleveland.
This weekend will do a lot to give us some clarity to see which teams are ready to play with the big boys and which teams were just fool's gold. There are eight match ups between teams we A) are playing well when we thought they weren't or B) we thought should be good but haven't been. We will go game by game to tell you what is on the line in these early season match ups.
First of all we have the Dallas Cowboys and the Baltimore Ravens. The Cowboys looked like they could be real contenders when they beat the defending champion Giants opening night, but they haven't showed the same poise since that game. The Ravens are in a similar situation. They beat the Patriots with a last second controversial field goal, and since then they escaped the Browns and the Chiefs. They beat one of the best teams then almost lost to the two worst in the NFL. These two teams need to show us something. Baltimore needs to show it can score on a decent secondary and the Cowboys need to show they can get their offense going against an above average defense. I predict the Cowboys will win this game. The Ravens have been playing with fate too long and they are going to come out on the wrong end of this one.
The Indianapolis Colts are coming off an emotional victory in which they beat the Green Bay Packers in honor of their recently leukemia stricken coach. The Jets are coming off a game where they went toe to toe with the best team in the league in Houston in front of a nationally televised audience. Both these teams could be good, or they could both be lucky. Either way they both can't win this game. The Colts are still reeling without their normal head coach, but the Jets are missing half their team to injury. The Jets are also being held hostage by the media frenzy that is Timothy Richard Tebow. Andrew Luck seems to be coming into his own faster than anyone has expected. These teams could be contenders in the future, but I think both will come up short this year. That being said I think the injuries in the Jets camp will cause them to be held down by the upstart Colts. Look for Indianapolis to squeak by and get over five hundred.
Next we have the Detroit Lions and the Philadelphia Eagles. These are two teams with high expectations coming into the season. Mike Vick had this team thinking they could become a dynasty before the season. Someone should have told Vick you should probably win one Super Bowl before talking so big. the Lions had on paper one of the best offenses in the league. They have the best wide receiver in the league being thrown too by a 5,000 yard quarterback. You have a front seven that looks like it could be dominant. It has not started the way the Lions had hoped. It is looking more like 2009 than 2011 for Detroit. The Eagles have squeaked out wins and the Lions have squeaked out losses. The Lions can really make a statement that they aren't dead by coming off the bye with a win in Philly. The Eagles can show that they aren't a turnover machine. This is a big game for both teams, but I like the Eagles to pull out another close one. This by all accounts would erase any belief that the Lions have a shot to make it this year.
The New England Patriots and their seemingly unstoppable offense goes into Seattle to play the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks have the best home field advantage in the league, but the Patriots have never been shy to play on the road. Seattle might be good, but it seems every win comes with an asterisk. Everyone has already seen that Packers game film about 27 thousand times so i won't get into it, but they beat Dallas at home who was clearly living off the Giants win a week and a half earlier and then beat the Panthers a few weeks later. The Patriots have lost to the Ravens as mentioned before and the Cardinals by a last second missed field goal. The Pats are two missed field goals away from being five and zero. Unfortunately that isn't how the NFL works and now they're three and two. Their offense has been hitting on all cylinders with a now profound run game and their defense is definitely much improved. The Patriots may be one of the best teams in the AFC, but if Seattle is going to be as good as they want to be they have to show they can stop the best teams. The Patriots have been running all over everyone, but Seattle has one of the best run stopping defenses in the league. It will be strength vs. strength. As much as the massive home field advantage worries me, I still have to pick New England here. I don't think Tom Brady wants the stigma of the guy who lets the rookie quarterback beat him. Russell Wilson may one day become good, but he just isn't there yet.
The biggest game of the week has the New York Giants visiting the San Francisco 49ers. It is a rematch of last year's NFC title game. The 49ers are going to be extra pumped for this one. The Giants just came off an easy win that saw them go down early, refocus, then dominate the rest of the game. The Giants have been playing duck duck goose with their wide receiving core. One week it is Ramses Barden, the next Dominick Hixon and the next it is Ruben Randle. If one guy goes down there is someone right behind him ready to catch those perfect spirals from Eli. The 49ers have a combo of Alex Smith and Colin Kapernick. They are using them as everybody thought the Jets were going to use Sanchez and Tebow, only they are doing it right. They are rolling on offense and have the best defense in the league. This can either be a defensive struggle, a shootout or anything in between. This is going to be exciting to see these two teams fight to see who is the biggest dog in the NFC. What will happen? The Giants are going to throw a lot at the 49ers. They are going to mix up the plays and blitz confusingly on defense. I think there will be shades of last year, as a costly turnover will spell doom for the 49ers. The niners will come out firing out for revenge and it will end up going back in their face.
Minnesota at Washington will be interesting if Robert Griffin III plays. Griffin suffered a concussion in the last game and has been adamant about playing this Sunday, but he is their prized possession. If they are going to let him play this way they need to give him this week off. If he plays it is going to be interesting to see if his style of offense changes. The Vikings, on the other hand, have been the biggest surprise of the season. Minnesota is four and one and leading the best division in the NFL. This will be a test for them to see if they can stop a good Redskins defense. The Skins on the other hand have not played one game that ended with a win or loss by more than one score. They are playing all close games so it is impossible to gauge this team. Are they good because they are staying with the greats, or are they bad because they can't put terrible teams away? This will be the benchmark if the Vikings are going to stay on this role for the rest of the season. The Skins present a true test to Minnesota after they have been established as a good team. How will the Vikings react to the fact that they aren't sneaking up on anyone anymore? They are the ones with the bulls-eye on their back. I still think the Vikes come out with the win. The Redskins are going to play conservative, which isn't their game, and the Vikings are going to outplay them.
Green Bay and Houston is going to be a brawl. The game that we all thought was going to be a battle of possibly the best in the AFC and NFC is only half true. The Texans have come out to a commanding AFC lead. They are the only undefeated team left in the conference and only one other is a game behind. The Texans have shown that they belong at the top. The Packers, on the other hand, have shown that they are beatable, unlike last year. They are sitting at 2-3 and risking falling even more behind a very good NFC. I understand that the Packers have had the schedule from hell to start off this season, but you can only play the hand you are dealt. They need to start stepping up if anyone is going to take them seriously. The Texans are early Super Bowl contenders, the Packers are early disappointments. Surprisingly I am picking the Packers to hand the Texans their first loss. The Texans did not impress me in their game against the Jets and I felt like they should have wiped the floor with them. The Packers are a caged dog right now and they are ready to have one of those FU games to show the league they are a force to be reckoned with.
The Monday nighter has Denver going into San Diego for an early season showdown that can eventually choose the AFC West. Peyton Manning is coming off the losing end of a duel with Brady and the Patriots, and the Chargers are coming off giving up New Orleans first win of the season. Both teams have large weaknesses, but with a terrible Raiders and Chiefs team lagging behind these are the teams to beat in this division. Denver needs this game because if they lose they are back two games and losing the tiebreaker early against San Diego. The Chargers want to show Peyton that just because he came along doesn't mean this is his division. It will be a great game to have on national television and I am excited to see all the match ups this week. It hasn't been this good to watch football in a long time.