Week One was mostly a dud. Week Two was packed with thrillers. What will Week Three bring? We take an early look at the 15 best story lines now that we have hit the one-eighth mark of the season.
1. It hasn’t been an easy existence in the NFL for Kevin Kolb. Before he ever took a pro snap, Donovan McNabb called him out. Two years ago, once he had finally gotten his chance to lead the Eagles, he was railroaded by a concussion after less than two quarters of football. And Michael Vick. Kolb had to wait for almost five months of lockout to find out what he likely knew deep down: he was getting traded by Andy Reid to the Cardinals (at least not the Redskins). Good, right? Fresh chance? Well, it took a mere nine games — and another concussion — for Cardinals fans to effectively turn on him. Not the smoothest road ever. Now having gotten the chance to play again after being beaten out for the job, Kolb earned his cap-feather victory in the league Sunday. Beating the Patriots in New England in the regular season is something only six other QBs (only four against Brady) have accomplished the past six-plus years: Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Brett Favre, Chad Pennington (with a big assist from Ronnie Brown when the Wildcat was born), Peyton Manning and Jake Plummer. Now Kolb gets his ultimate follow-up exam — a showdown of his 2-0 Cards (they’re his for now, anyway) against his former Eagles, also 2-0. We might not be sure how these teams have gotten to where they are — the easy answer: timely, tough defenses — but it has been interesting to watch them get to this point.
2. “He’s a good football player,” Reid said of Kolb. “We knew that when he was here.” Reid said he wishes Kolb the best of luck for the other 15 games, but that he hopes the Eagles somehow can get the best of him in this game in Arizona. “Those guys who were here with him respect him and we know that he’s capable of doing what he did at New England and leading his team to a win,” he said. “We understand. We’ve got the picture.” What Reid and the Eagles also will get is a defense that ranks fifth in points allowed, fourth in yards per play allowed and tied for fourth in sacks. The Seahawks appear to be a competitive team, and we know the Patriots’ long-standing résumé. The Cardinals dissected both with pressure, sound tackling (watch LB Daryl Washington if you can), great coverage and key playmaking. It’s a terrific, well-coached formula. Offensively, the Cardinals are far from an offensive deus ex machina — they are gaining 2.8 yards per rush, and Larry Fitzgerald has only five catches. On top of that, their special-teams coverage has been atrocious. But Ken Whisenhunt is making it work for now. Can that offensive line slow down the Eagles’ tenacious rush? That could be the biggest test Sunday afternoon at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Eagles, by the way, became only the third NFL team to start 2-0 despite nine or more turnovers, joining the 1983 Rams (10) and the ’69 Raiders (nine).
3. Speaking of those Patriots, it’s fair to mention their record following losses. Although they dropped two straight in two of the past three seasons — the Giants beat them after the Steelers did in Weeks Eight and Nine in 2011 — their regular-season record under Bill Belichick since 2003 after losing a game is 24-3 with a point differential of plus-399 (two of their losses in that time occurred in Week 17; those were excluded). Maybe the signature example of the Patriots rallying the troops when everyone counted them out after a loss was in 2004 following a two-TD whitewashing by the Steelers. The next week, without Ty Law and Deion Branch and with Troy Brown having to play cornerback, Belichick pulled out all the stops and beat a dangerous, well-rested Rams team in St. Louis, 40-22. In order for this Patriots outfit to stand up to the dangerous, angry Ravens (coming off a disappointing loss in Philly) in this terrific Sunday night game, the Patriots will have to find a way to displace TE Aaron Hernandez. There’s no directly replacing him; the Patriots now appear to be a three-wide, one-TE offense again, and formerly dog-housed WR Wes Welker (curse him for wanting to get paid!) is back in a pivotal role suddenly.
4. Joe Flacco might have been right to call out the officials in Sunday’s loss to the Eagles. The environment was getting blatantly out of control at the Linc with the inmates running the asylum. But Flacco needed to own up for his failure to lead his team down the field, too. Unlike his last-minute victory over the Steelers last season or his gilded drive against the Patriots in the AFC title game at Foxborough that was robbed by a dropped pass and a hooked field goal, Flacco could not come up with anything in the final minutes against the Eagles. That was on him, his line, his receivers and his play caller. Now he gets his chance again in this prime-time game against a bitter, talented foe. Of course, it’s not all on Flacco — that’s just the way it feels. Forget that Ray Rice was roundly ignored in the second half and especially in third- and fourth-and-short situations against the Eagles. Wrap your head around this: In six of those situations (two or fewer yards to go) Sunday, the Ravens didn’t run the football. Not Rice, not Pro Bowl FB Vonta Leach, not once. They went 0-for-6 in those situations. That kind of get-you-away-from-your-strengths approach is what the Patriots seek to do defensively. They’re improved so far on that side of the ball, too, ranking second in yards allowed and fourth in points. Great matchup here — and the loser is 1-2, go figure.
5. It’s a short turnaround for the Giants heading to Carolina, and it looks like they will have to do so without RB Ahmad Bradshaw (neck) and ORT Dave Diehl at the very least. Teams going on the road on three days rest last season were 2-7 in Thursday games (4-5 in 2010), and we saw some good teams such as the 49ers and Texans limp into and out of those games last season. This is not a pre-built excuse for the Giants, who make no such things with Tom Coughlin as coach. But they have to feel quite fortunate to have turned around a daunting, 11-point, fourth-quarter comeback led by (who else?) Eli Manning, he of the 510 passing yards and 243 of those (!) coming in the final 15 minutes. They likely will have shootout on the mind when they head to Carolina.
6. Another team that has to feel good it was able to come back and win is the Panthers, who were staring at 0-2 as well had they not outgunned the Saints at home on Sunday. The Panthers unleashed the read-option series against the undisciplined Saints defense and old Giants friend Steve Spagnuolo, and though the Giants might not be as susceptible to such things, defending the run game can help slow down the pass rush and open up play action. The Giants have four sacks in two games, but only one by a defensive end (Jason Pierre-Paul). Their secondary has given up tracts of yardage. Expect Cam Newton to eye Steve Smith, breakout WR Brandon LaFell and TE Greg Olsen with vertical routes when they are not running wildly effective college and high school plays.
7. The Packers got back on track Thursday night against the Bears, with their defense stealing the show. Sure, the offense has yet to hit its stride, but as OG Josh Sitton told me after the game, “You could argue we’re about five or six yards away (against the Bears) from scoring 35, 40 points.” But will that be good enough against a Seahawks defense that physically manhandled the Cowboys? They were bigger, tougher and stronger at the point of attack, and their big corners got the best of WRs Miles Austin and Dez Bryant more often than not. The Packers might or might not have Greg Jennings back for this one. And another interesting similarity between those Cowboys and Packers: Both were coming off extended layoffs, 11 days for Dallas and now this will have been 11 for Green Bay. Going to Seattle, too? Tough assignment. Don’t be shocked by an upset.
8. Of course, the Seahawks are far from a perfect team offensively at this point. They seized control against the Cowboys early with a 10-0 lead staked mostly by their special teams, and they stagnated on offense for a while after that, before Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch began to find their grooves. There’s still a worry about whether the Seahawks’ receivers can make plays on their own and whether the offensive line will hold up. No early word on whether OLT Russell Okung will be able to go in this one, although it was a terrific performance in relief by backup Frank Omiyale, who held Cowboys OLB DeMarcus Ware relatively in check. If he has to battle Clay Matthews (six sacks in two games), whom he faced when Omiyale was in Chicago, it would be a second straight brutal assignment.
9. So the Broncos and Peyton Manning are not perfect. But too much will be made of Manning’s first-quarter struggles and not enough with how he rallied his team (and himself) after that point. The defense settled down some, Manning figured out what the Falcons were doing defensively, and he made it a one-score game with three minutes to go. There were some wobbler throws and shaky decisions to be sure, and those must be cut out with the Texans coming to town Sunday afternoon. But Manning has now played well enough in seven of his eight quarters and has been in two charged-up atmospheres in two games. The Texans, meanwhile, have played in two snoozers — partly because of their own skill — against the Dolphins and Jaguars with network highlight packages centering around a slew of Arian Foster and Ben Tate short TD runs. The NFL-watching world might not yet have had the chance to appreciate fully the beauty of the fundamentally sound Texans, but they’ll get their chance in this Sunday-afternoon classic.
10. The Texans will face up to eight first- and second-year quarterbacks this season, and they have already dispatched one (Miami’s Ryan Tannehill) summarily. Obviously, against Manning, they’ll be facing one of their stiffer tests. But you can bet that Wade Phillips will extract elements of the Falcons’ early game plan from Monday and implement it into what he does defensively, although Manning rarely is fooled more than once with the same approach. Maybe the Texans should just let DE J.J. Watt get after Manning. An early candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, Watt has been a shot-blocking, QB-harassing machine. Broncos ORT Orlando Franklin, who got a little banged up late in the loss to the Falcons, will have his hands full.
11. Points are at an all-time high through two weeks of the season — 791 in Week One, 765 in Week Two — the most ever for a two-week span in the league’s history. And Sunday’s afternoon battle between the Falcons and Chargers should keep that scoring pace at a really good clip. The Falcons (67 points, tied for second in the NFL) come into San Diego on a high following their home dusting of the Broncos. And yet this quietly is a huge game for the Chargers (60 points, fifth in the NFL), who have not faced the league’s toughest schedule to date (wins over the Raiders and Titans) but for once it seems are off to a strong start at 2-0. Respect the Chargers’ “D” if nothing else — it has shut down Darren McFadden and Chris Johnson and is limiting big pass plays despite getting ahead early in both victories.
12. The Buccaneers and Cowboys are two of the NFL’s 20 teams sitting at 1-1. Despite expectations heading into the season, they have followed somewhat similar tracks through two games. Each earned statement victories in Week One, followed by frustrating losses in Week Two. Clearly, the Bucs’ late collapse against the Giants was more forgivable in the sense that they lost to the world champs in their house and held serve with them for most of the afternoon. The Cowboys, meanwhile, limped home following a question-raising loss at Seattle after so much promise coming in. The young Bucs will test themselves against a tougher-than-they-showed-on-Sunday Cowboys team. The loser will be hurting at 1-2, but it’s worth noting that since 2002, 70 of the league’s 120 playoff teams started out either 0-2 or 1-1.
13. The league’s leading scorers are the Redskins with 68 through two games. That’s great. They might need to keep up their 34-point average if they hope to win more games. The losses of DE Adam Carriker and OLB Brian Orakpo (from what is ranked as the 28th-best defense right now) can’t be overstated. Got any more magic, Robert Griffin III? He’ll be crafting his weekly fireworks against a Bengals defense that has had some injuries of its own, and one that has been torched by Flacco in Week One and (eek) Brandon Weeden in Week Two. The Bengals are 1-1, but some of the statistics have been ugly and telling. They currently are ranked dead last in sack percentage allowed (after ranking seventh in that category last season) and are only ranked in the top 10 in two major categories: opponents’ net punt average and punt return average. Thanks, Adam (no longer Pacman) Jones. And for what it’s worth, the Redskins’ special teams have been a nightmare through two. Ugly game coming? Uh, maybe.
14. The 49ers are everyone’s darlings, and why not? They head to Minnesota Sunday as big road favorites against the Vikings, who pulled one out late in Week One then gave one back Sunday in the final minute. They have squeezed everything they can out of Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson through two games, and with WR Jerome Simpson still out another game via suspension, the Vikings will be limited offensively. The 49ers’ defensive formula that worked against two of the highest-flying offenses in the NFL in the Packers and Lions should be even more effective against the Vikings, who don’t have nearly the fuel. Defensively, they are up against it, too. Although the Vikings have been respectable in the stat sheet against a second-year and rookie quarterback, they have allowed each to drive down the field easily late in the game. That’s not a good sign going up against Alex Smith, whose confidence and performance are in lockstep at an all-time high.
15. So who ya got, 0-2 Chiefs or 0-2 Saints? The Saints have not looked good in two games, not at all. But the Chiefs have probably been even worse. You thought points might be high in the Falcons-Chargers game? Get this: The Chiefs and Saints are tied for the most points allowed with 75 apiece. The Saints might have allowed a ton more yards (922-755), but at least they still score lots of points, too — they have put up 59 to the Chiefs’ 41. The loser faces some serious heat, no doubt. The Saints’ following two games are against the Packers in Green Bay and the Chargers; the Chiefs have a Chargers-Ravens sandwich to bite into. The over-under total in Vegas (not that we wager) is 53 points. The regular-season high in 2011 was 55.5 when the Lions and Saints met in Week 13 in the Superdome.