(1). Are the Texans really an elite team? For several years now, Peyton Manning has been to the Houston Texans what Michael Jordan was to the New York Knicks in the early 1990s: the insuperable obstacle to their playoff ambitions. Between 1991 and 1993, the Jordan-led Chicago Bulls eliminated New York from the NBA playoffs three seasons in a row. It wasn’t until 1994, after Jordan had retired (for the first time), that Patrick Ewing & Co. were able to beat Chicago in a playoff series and reach the NBA Finals. Since becoming an NFL franchise in 2002, the Texans have never qualified for postseason action, largely because of Manning, who has quarterbacked the Indianapolis Colts to seven of the last eight AFC South division titles, and whose career record against Houston is a remarkable 16â€’2. One of those two losses came in the 2010 opener, which kicked off the Texans’ first-ever winning season. This year, with Manning sidelined by a major neck injury, Houston routed the Colts in Week 1 and then beat Miami in Week 2. The Texans have the NFL’s 2010 rushing king (Arian Foster, who suffered a hamstring injury in the preseason), a Pro Bowl QB (Matt Schaub), arguably the league’s best receiver (Andre Johnson), and a defense that is currently ranked No. 1 for total yards allowed. Their Week 3 road game at New Orleans will tell us whether they deserve to be listed among pro football’s elite teams.
(2). Which young quarterback will shine brighter in Tampa? Trent Dilfer believes that Josh Freeman of the Buccaneers has greater potential than any other NFL QB under the age of 27. This Sunday, Freeman will square off against Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, another top-tier QB from the under-27 group. Each one led his team to a comeback victory last week, with Tampa rallying from a 17â€’0 deficit against Minnesota and the Falcons winning a wild, emotionally charged game against the Eagles. Indeed, both QBs have garnered a reputation for late heroics. Since the 2009 regular season began, notes ESPN blogger Pat Yasinskas, Ryan has had ten fourth-quarter comebacks, the most in the NFL over that time period, while Freeman has had eight fourth-quarter comebacks in only 27 starts. Ryan beat Freeman twice in 2010, though both contests were decided by six points or less. Their rivalry is sure to animate Falcons-Bucs games for years to come.
(3). Will the undefeated Bills remain the highest-scoring team in football? Yes, you read that correctly: Through two games, they are leading the NFL in points with 79. By way of comparison, only four teams — Minnesota, Miami, Cleveland, and Carolina — produced fewer points than the Bills did in 2010. Meanwhile, no player has generated more rushing yards than Buffalo running back Fred Jackson. (Jackson, incidentally, has a made-for-Hollywood personal story: An undrafted graduate of Division III Coe College, he played indoor football and spent a season in NFL Europe before joining the Bills.) Granted, Buffalo has racked up all those points and yards against two weak opponents (Kansas City and Oakland), and it hosts the mighty Patriots in Week 3. New England boasts the NFL’s top-ranked offense and its top-rated passer, Tom Brady. This could easily be a “back to reality” game for the Bills — or it could be a game that affirms just how much they have improved.
(4). Will Carolina QB Cam Newton get his first NFL victory? Boomer Esiason recently declared that he has not seen a rookie QB “look this confident and this poised” since Dan Marino launched his Hall of Fame career with Miami back in the 1980s. In his first two games — both losses — Newton has compiled an amazing 854 passing yards, second only to New England’s Tom Brady. But there are at least three big caveats worth mentioning: (1) Passing numbers have surged across the entire league. According to ESPN analyst John Clayton, “Passing yardage is up 62.3 yards a game (teams are averaging 492.8 passing yards per game) compared to last season. The average length of a completion is up 1.1 yards to a staggering 12.3 yards. Touchdown receptions are up 20.4 percent with 108 passing touchdowns in two weeks. The run-to-pass ratio is 41.2 to 58.8.” (2) Newton has faced the Arizona and Green Bay defenses, both of which are ranked near the bottom of the NFL for total yards allowed and for total passing yards allowed. (3) He has thrown more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (three). Newton has a good opportunity to secure his first NFL victory this weekend, when the Panthers host lowly Jacksonville and rookie QB Blaine Gabbert.
(5). Will the Bears avenge last season’s NFC championship loss? Windy City fans have been grumbling that their beloved Bears are the Rodney Dangerfield of the NFL. Even after reaching the NFC title game last season, Chicago was widely dismissed as an erratic squad with an interception-prone QB (Jay Cutler) that had gotten lucky in its divisional-round playoff opponent (the mediocre Seattle Seahawks). No NFL team endured a tougher schedule in the first two weeks of 2011: Chicago opened at home against the NFC’s top playoff seed from 2010â€’11 (Atlanta), and then it traveled to New Orleans, where it faced the 2009â€’10 Super Bowl champs. Things don’t get any easier for the Bears in Week 3, with last season’s Super Bowl winner coming to Soldier Field for a rematch of the NFC championship contest, which the Packers won 21–14. The good news for Chicago is that Green Bay has the NFL’s lowest-ranked pass defense and will be playing without Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins, whose neck injury will keep him out for the rest of 2011.