Week 2 of the NFL season allows us to look at individual games with a small understanding of where each team is at early in the year. This is something we simply weren’t able to do prior to opening weekend. It’s also important for us to take a step back and realize that September performances don’t always equate well to season-long outcomes.
In this, the one major thing to look at heading into Week 2 is just how well surprising clubs from last week play this weekend. Can the St. Louis Rams and San Francisco 49ers continue their momentum after strong season-opening performances? Are the Buffalo Bills prepared to take the AFC East by storm against the New England Patriots after manhandling the Indianapolis Colts last week?
These are three of the top storylines heading into Week 2 of the 2015 NFL season.
Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs: Peyton Manning’s deteriorating skills
Those of us who went back and watched tape of Manning’s late-season performance last winter were hedging our bets that his lack of arm strength had more to do with a quad injury than an actual deterioration of his skills. Unfortunately, the future Hall of Fame quarterback looked worse in Denver’s season-opening win against the Baltimore Ravens.
Simple stats will tell us that Manning averaged 4.4 yards per attempt and failed to lead the Broncos to an offensive touchdown. The tape tells us a story of a 39-year-old quarterback that simply can’t fling the ball around the stadium like he used to.
— Complex (@Complex) September 13, 2015
Now that we know Manning doesn’t have the same zip on the ball, it’s up to the Broncos coaching staff, and the quarterback himself, to take that into account moving forward. Gone are the days where Manning can lead his team to a blowout win by tossing the rock around 40-plus times a game. He now needs to start playing within the confines of his own capabilities. After 17-plus years in the NFL, that’s going to be hard for him to do.
Denver goes up against a Chiefs team on Thursday Night Football that’s riding high following a stellar Week 1 performance. This is the very same squad that boasts 2014 NFL sack leader Justin Houston and Pro Bowler Tamba Hali from the pass-rush positions. In order to take pressure off Manning, it’s going to be all about developing a run game in Gary Kubiak’s running back-friendly system. Unfortunately for Denver, star running back C.J. Anderson is questionable for the game with an ankle and toe injury. If he does play (a strong likelihood), the Broncos need to go to the run early and often.
New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills: Tom Brady’s performance against an elite defense
Brady may have completed all but seven of his 32 passes with four touchdowns against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Patriots season opener, but this week is going to be a completely different story. On the road against a Bills team that absolutely dominated Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts last week, Brady is going to have his hands full.
Not only is the veteran quarterback going to face a ferocious pass rush, he’s tasked with having to beat a secondary that may now be up to the level of what the Patriots themselves had last season. After all, Bills cornerbacks allowed just over 50 percent of the passes thrown in their direction to be completed in Week 1 against a darn good Colts passing game with more weapons than the Patriots possess.
Outside of Brady’s offensive line affording him time to pass, the biggest key here is going to be Julian Edelman getting open against a solid cover guy in Nickell Robey. If Edelman is in check, it’s going to force Brady to go to the outside where Stephon Gilmore and a surprising Ronald Darby will be more than up for the task. But let’s be real for a second here: Brady will be depending a great deal on tight end Rob Gronkowski, who will likely draw a combination of Nigel Bradham and either of Buffalo’s two starting safeties. That’s where the game will be won or lost.
Tennessee Titans at Cleveland Browns: Johnny Football time?
With Josh McCown still in the league’s concussion protocol after a hit to the head forced him from Cleveland’s season opener last Sunday, it’s become increasingly likely that Johnny Manziel will make his first start of the season this week. Manziel, a hot topic since he took his first snap at Texas A&M back in 2012, had his ups and downs when called on to replace McCown against the New York Jets last week. In his third pass of the game, the former first-round pick connected with Travis Benjamin on a 54-yard touchdown to give the Browns a 7-0 lead. Unfortunately for the downtrodden franchise, Manziel would go on to turn the ball over three times as the Jets pulled away for a 31-10 win.
Needless to say, the biggest key here will be Manziel avoiding turnovers against a Titans defense that was super impressive against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That’s only magnified by the presence of a rookie quarterback in Marcus Mariota who is coming off AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors in his first career regular season start. If that doesn’t happen, the Browns will once again find themselves in the cellar of a division that they haven’t been competitive in for some time now.
Houston Texans at Carolina Panthers: J.J. Watt against Mike Remmers
This could actually be a better-than-advertised matchup. Remmers started five games for Carolina last season, yielding a total of just one quarterback hit and zero sacks. He followed that up by providing Cam Newton with a clean pocket from the right side of the line in Week 1. Much better equipped to go up against Watt than left tackle Michael Oher, Remmers could make this interesting.
Realistically, the Panthers are going to have to throw double teams Watt’s way. If that happens, the likes of Jadeveon Clowney and Jared Crick will have a field day against Oher. This means that the expectation has to be that Carolina will look to spread out its blocking assignments to make up for a weaker left side of the line. Whether that works, well it’s anyone’s guess.
Arizona Cardinals at Chicago Bears: Carson Palmer’s success will be tested by improved defense
Since late October of the 2013 season, Palmer boasts a 14-2 record as a starter with 30 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Not bad for a full 16-game slate. In fact, Palmer possesses the best winning percentage of any quarterback with 15-plus starts during that span. This was unthinkable just a few short years ago when Palmer was rotting away in Oakland.
Now going up against a Bears defense with a vanilla scheme, there’s no real reason to believe Palmer won’t be able to continue his stellar play on the field. Though, it must be noted that Vic Fangio has that unit playing at a much higher level than last season — something that should be taken into account when expecting a dominating performance from Palmer and the Cardinals.
San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals: Big test for two teams coming off solid openers
Cincinnati absolutely dominated the Oakland Raiders in Northern California last week, taking a 33-0 lead into the eight-minute mark of the final stanza. Meanwhile, the Chargers offered up some drama in front of their home crowd before finishing off a darn good Detroit Lions team. As two of the many contenders for a playoff spot in the AFC, this early-season game takes on even more importance.
For the Bengals, it was all about getting back to the basics against an inferior Raiders squad. The two-headed running back monster of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard combined for 151 yards on 33 touches. That’s going to need to continue against a Chargers team that possesses a ton of firepower on offense. If the Bengals can control the clock here in the running game while playing mistake-free football in the passing game, they will be in a good position to earn a second consecutive win to start the season.
Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings: Someone is starting out the season at 0-2
Bright hopes for 2015?
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) September 16, 2015
Not a single team wants to start 0-2 in what promises to be a tough NFC moving forward this season. Considering a 10-win team has missed out on the playoffs in that conference in each of the past two seasons, it will be a difficult hill to climb for the loser of this early-season divisional matchup. More than that, the idea of going without a win in the first two weeks while looking at the Green Bay Packers likely emergence atop the NFC North simply isn’t something either of these teams should be comfortable with.
While Detroit played a hotly-contested game against the San Diego Chargers last week, the Vikings wee absolutely manhandled by a San Francisco 49ers squad that many expected to struggle big time in 2015. This makes the Vikings Week 2 performance that much more important in the grand scheme of things. More than the need to avoid an 0-2 mark to start the season, Minnesota needs to get its confidence back. That means actually giving the ball to Adrian Peterson more than 10 times and finding a way to protect Teddy Bridgewater in the passing game. The second-year quarterback was sacked five times and hit a total of eight times last week. If that continues this weekend, a season that started with high expectations could be on the verge of unraveling relatively quickly.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints: Jameis Winston’s first road start
Overshadowed by the performance of fellow rookie Marcus Mariota, Winston had an up-and-down game in his regular season debut last week. The rookie No. 1 overall pick completed 16-of-33 passes for 210 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions against the Tennessee Titans. Now making his first road start in the NFL, the former Heisman winner will be taking on a Saints defense that promises to provide him with an opportunity to bounce back big time.
With Jairus Byrd and Keenan Lewis unlikely to go Sunday, the Buccaneers have a built-in advantage in a game that would otherwise be ripe for struggles from Winston. After all, Carson Palmer completed 61 percent of his passes against Saints defensive backs in Week 1. An inability of the Saints pass rush to provide any sort of problems for the quarterback in the pocket could come in handy here. Without the services of Junior Galette, who was released during the summer, Rob Ryan’s defense does not have a single proven EDGE rusher to put consistent pressure on the quarterback. Once again, that was magnified against a Cardinals offensive line that’s not among the best in the business. With already pro-level pocket awareness, Winston should be able to eat apart this defense.
Atlanta Falcons at New York Giants: Can Giants rebound from blowing season opener?
Following a disastrous ending to their season opener against the Dallas Cowboys last week, the Giants boast a 4-9 record in September games dating back to the 2012 season. That’s one of the primary reasons Tom Coughlin’s squad has failed to make the playoffs in each of the past three years. Simply put, this has to change Sunday against Atlanta if the Giants want to be taken seriously in the NFC East this season.
It’s all going to start on the defensive side of the ball against a Falcons offense that seems primed to be among the best in the NFL. Can the Giants make Matt Ryan uncomfortable in the pocket, eventually leading the veteran into mistakes he’s been prone to make on the road in his career? If not, does the home team’s defense have enough to contend with Julio Jones and Roddy White on the outside? Considering how Dallas drove up and down the field in its final two possessions against the Giants last week, this seems highly unlikely. And short of the secondary stepping up, Coughlin and company could be looking at an 0-2 start to the season.
San Francisco 49ers at Pittsburgh Steelers: Two units headed in vastly different directions
Welcome to prime time, Carlos Hyde. pic.twitter.com/rONm1q6kJ0
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) September 15, 2015
It was just a few short weeks ago that this game seemed like a slam-dunk for Mike Tomlin and the home-standing Steelers. In a sign that things can change in the blink of an eye, Pittsburgh will surely be tested by a 49ers team that’s coming off a dominating performance against the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football. That’s only magnified by the horrendous play of Keith Butler’s defense in his first game as the team’s coordinator last week.
The numbers are ugly for Pittsburgh. It allowed 31 points, 26 first downs and 361 total yards against New England in Week 1, further disabling the offense’s ability to outscore Brady and Co. Pittsburgh also missed 16 tackles and allowed New England to convert on 7-of-11 third-down attempts. A similar performance against what looks to be a vastly improved 49ers offense could put the Steelers in position to lose its first two regular season games for the first time since starting 0-4 in 2013.
As it relates to San Francisco, here’s a team that’s coming off a downright dominating performance against Minnesota on Monday night. While the offense only put 20 points on the board, it did rack up 25 first downs and nearly 400 total yards. With a scheme that seems to favor the talents of Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco’s offense is going to be hard to game-plan against. That’s only magnified by the presence of second-year running back Carlos Hyde, who put up 188 yards and two scores on 28 touches against Minnesota.
St. Louis Rams at Washington Redskins: Road team’s chance to prove its Week 1 win was not a fluke
NFC West games have proven to be a bloodbath in recent seasons, with any of the four teams standing a decent chance to come out on top. Heck, St. Louis defeated the Seattle Seahawks at home last season. So it wasn’t too much of a shocker that Jeff Fisher’s team maintained home-field in a win over the two-time defending conference champs last week.
We’ve seen it over and over again from Fisher-led squads. They will follow up tremendous performances with complete duds. Following the Rams’ win over Seattle last year, they lost 34-7 to the Kansas City Chiefs. They then followed that up with an impressive victory over San Francisco before falling to the Arizona Cardinals 31-14. Heck, St. Louis found a way to destroy Denver the following week, only to lose to San Diego. It’s this type of inconsistency that has been maddening for fans in St. Louis.
Now going up against a vastly inferior Redskins team, there’s no reason why the Rams shouldn’t be able to put up a double-digit victory. It’s now all about maintaining the high level of play we saw last week.
Baltimore Ravens at Oakland Raiders: Jack Del Rio’s squad looks to rebound from disastrous opener
Following what had to be considered a successful training camp and preseason, the Raiders entered Week 1 feeling good about themselves. That lasted less than a half against Cincinnati. Oakland fell down 24-0 in the first half before starting quarterback Derek Carr had to exit the game with a hand injury. In the end, Del Rio fell 33-13 in his Raiders coaching debut. It was an ugly performance from a team that has had so many ugly outings over the past decade. It also set into motion grumblings about the direction of the team — grumblings that could very well be premature.
The Raiders are pretty much stuck between a rock and a hard place. With just 11 wins since the start of the 2012 campaign, this team simply needs to string a few victories together. It also needs to make sure that over-the-hill veterans are not taking up playing time that talented youngsters need. This means that the likes of Justin Tuck and Charles Woodson should be weeded from the lineup. Unfortunately, Oakland’s lack of on-field success over the past decade-plus means that it will likely ride the vets in an attempt to win a few games over the short term. As we saw last week against Cincinnati, this isn’t a foolproof plan.
Miami Dolphins at Jacksonville Jaguars: Can Miami continue to take advantage of weak early-season schedule?
Miami looked horrible against an inferior Washington Redskins team last week, but was still able to come away with a win. In the end this is all that matters, especially with the team’s weak early-season schedule. If you’re able to win, it’s better to get the bad performances out of the way against lackluster competition early in the season.
In the second of six consecutive games against teams that missed the postseason last year, Miami will take on a fledgling Jaguars squad that has won nine of its past 49 regular season games.
There’s enough talent in Miami to absolutely obliterate the Jaguars on Sunday. In no world should Ryan Tannehill and the team’s offense struggle against a defense that has been among the most talent-stricken in the NFL over the past several years. Remember, this is a Jaguars defense that hasn’t finished better than 26th in scoring since the 2011 campaign. Coming off a dud of a performance against Washington last week, a clean win here has to be the goal — a statement that Miami isn’t stuck in the very same mediocrity it has been in since Joe Philbin’s arrival as its head coach in 2012.
Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles: Huge early-season divisional matchup
Much like the Lions and Packers above, this is a huge September game for Philadelphia. As we have seen over the past two seasons in the NFC, 10 wins doesn’t guarantee a team a playoff spot. Losing to Dallas at home on Sunday would put Chip Kelly’s squad in a 0-2 hole, likely meaning it would have to close the season 11-3 to guarantee a postseason spot. With a difficult remaining schedule that includes the AFC East, that’s a lot to ask. In order to avoid putting itself behind the proverbial eight-ball, Philadelphia needs to come out and beat the defending NFC East champs.
The good news for Philadelphia is that this matchup seems favorable. With Dez Bryant out of action, the Eagles defense can turn their focus to stopping Jason Witten in the middle of the field. While that would have in the past been a disastrous matchup for Philadelphia, the middle of its defense is vastly improved from previous seasons. Kiko Alonso is one of the top cover linebackers in the game, while Walter Thurmond and Malcolm Jenkins represent a solid cover safety duo. If the Eagles are able to contain Witten, their offense will likely do more than enough to come out on top Sunday. If not, Chip Kelly and Co. are in real trouble moving forward.
Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers: Revenge game for the home team?
Btw, today was the 11th blown lead in 4Q by Seahawks since 2012. That's too many for an elite defense.
— Scott Kacsmar (@ScottKacsmar) September 13, 2015
Green Bay would like nothing more than to exact revenge on Seattle by putting the road team in a 0-2 hole to start the season. And while that’s more than possible at home, the dynamics have changed a great deal since Green Bay was narrowly defeated by Seattle in the NFC Championship game this past February.
One of the most important things to watch in this game is Richard Sherman going up against Randall Cobb. The All-Pro corner lined up in the slot a vast majority of the time Seattle went into nickel coverage last week, which means he will be going up against Cobb when Green Bay goes with three-wide sets. This may very well decide the outcome of the game.
Unlike last year’s playoff game, Seattle will have the services of an underrated Brandon Mebane at defensive tackle. It’s impossible to overestimate Mebane’s important to the defense, especially in the run game against Eddie Lacy. If he is able to help Seattle stop the run, it will force Aaron Rodgers into obvious passing situations — something that will enable new defensive coordinator Kris Richard to dial up blitzes from different packages.
For the Packers, it’s all about maintaining balance on offense and taking advantage of what is now an undermanned Seahawks defense, especially in the secondary. If the Packers are able to do that, they will send Seattle to a 0-2 record to start the season.
New York Jets at Indianapolis Colts: A statement will be made one way or another
If the Colts fall at home to the Jets on Monday Night Football, all heck will break loose in both cities. No one in their right mind had the Jets as stiff competition for Indianapolis heading into the season. Though, Week 1 tells us a story of a Todd Bowles-led squad that could very well be primed to upset Andrew Luck and Co. on national television.
New York has built a bully upfront. The likes of Sheldon Richardson, Leonard Williams and Muhammad Wilkerson along the defensive line can absolutely dominate the trenches. As we saw last week against a stout Bills defense, this can cause some major issues for the Colts passing game. For some reason, Luck tends to struggle more than most quarterbacks with pressure up the middle. Keeping him off balance will enable the Jets ball-hawking secondary to force a couple turnovers in this game — something that it needs to come out on top.
Any way you spin this game, Indianapolis simply can’t afford to lose at home against a Jets team that is clearly not its equivalent. If that happens, there will likely be more rumblings — fair or not — about Chuck Pagano’s job status beyond the 2015 season.
Check out Vincent’s other work on eDraft.com and follow him on Twitter @VincentFrankNF