Can the Falcons regain their mojo?
Week 1 losses — even bad Week 1 losses to inferior opponents — are not necessarily predictive of how a team’s season will play out. Exhibit A is the 2003 Patriots, who were thoroughly embarrassed by Buffalo in their opener — New England lost 31–0, with Tom Brady throwing four interceptions — and then proceeded to compile the league’s best record (14–2), capture their second Lombardi Trophy in three seasons, and launch a record-breaking winning streak. Exhibit B is the 2007 Giants, who turned in a wretched defensive performance in their Week 1 loss to the Cowboys, and then suffered a 35–13 defeat in Week 2 against the Packers. Five months later, the G-Men were champions, having reeled off three consecutive road playoff wins (including victories over Dallas and Green Bay) and then toppling the 18–0 Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. With that history in mind, how will the Falcons recover from their Week 1 thumping at Soldier Field? The NFC’s top playoff seed last year — a team picked by NFL experts Peter King and Pete Prisco to win Super Bowl XLVI — Atlanta failed to score an offensive touchdown against Chicago. Counting their 48–21 playoff loss to Green Bay, the Falcons have given up a combined 78 points (and 819 yards of total offense) and committed seven turnovers in their last two games. They have a chance to turn things around in a nationally televised Week 2 contest at the Georgia Dome. Their opponent: the Michael Vick–led Eagles, who generated 403 yards of offense last week against St. Louis. This will surely be one of the biggest games of Atlanta QB Matt Ryan’s young career.
Are the Chargers for real?
In recent years, the Patriots have been San Diego’s nemesis. Since 2006, the Chargers have faced New England a total of five times during the regular season and playoffs. Their sole victory came in 2008, when Tom Brady was sidelined with a knee injury. New England beat them in the 2006–07 playoffs (after San Diego had posted a league-best 14–2 record), again in the 2007 regular season, again in the 2007–08 playoffs, and again in the 2010 regular season. Overwhelming favorites to finish atop the subpar AFC West, the Chargers get another crack at Bill Belichick & Co. this Sunday in Foxborough. Last week, San Diego rallied to defeat the offensively challenged Vikings, while the Patriots racked up 622 yards (a franchise record) — including 516 passing yards — in a victory over the Dolphins. Is the New England offense really that good, or is the Miami defense just that bad? The San Diego game will help provide an answer. It will also indicate whether the Chargers should be taken seriously as Super Bowl contenders. (P.S.: Tom Brady’s 28-game regular-season home winning streak is on the line.)
Will the Peyton-less Colts continue to demonstrate Manning’s value?
With the Indianapolis QB out for an indefinite period (possibly the entire season), his team appears to have gone from one of the AFC’s best to one of its worst. Indy’s 34–7 Week 1 thrashing at the hands of Houston was a disaster. Manning’s replacement — 38-year-old Kerry Collins, who announced his retirement on July 7 and then signed with the Colts on August 24 — fumbled three times; the offensive line gave him very little support; and the defense conceded 384 yards (167 of them on the ground) and 26 first downs. “Has the loss of one player ever deflated an NFL team to this degree?” asks Andrew Perloff of Sports Illustrated. (Remember: When the Patriots lost Tom Brady for the entire 2008 season, they still finished 11–5 with Matt Cassel at QB.) Each week that the Colts look anemic on offense, they affirm Manning’s greatness. He has led Indy to nine straight playoff appearances, tying the mark set by Tom Landry’s Cowboys in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s hard to see how the Colts will break that record without him. (They host Cleveland this Sunday.)
Can the Lions quiet the skeptics?
Detroit fans are among the most fatalistic in the NFL. Years — make that decades — of misery, mediocrity, and dashed expectations have taught them to guard against premature optimism. So while hordes of journalists and ex-players are now jumping on the Lions’ bandwagon (speaking of which: Welcome aboard, Marshall Faulk!), the team’s more cynical supporters may respond by sighing, “I’ve seen this movie before, and I know how it ends.” But maybe this time really is different. After winning their last four games of the 2010 campaign and then going undefeated in the 2011 preseason, the Lions put up 431 yards of total offense last week en route to a 27–20 road victory over the Buccaneers. Detroit QB Matthew Stafford (the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2009) tossed three touchdown passes, and the defense prevented Tampa Bay from scoring an offensive TD until the final two minutes of the fourth quarter. It is still way too early to rank the Lions among the NFC’s top teams. But it’s not too early to call them a likely playoff contender. Their Week 2 opponent, Kansas City, is fresh off a 41–7 blowout loss to the Bills.
Can the Steelers and Giants avoid starting 0–2?
Both suffered demoralizing defeats to fierce division rivals in Week 1. The good news is that both will be playing home games against NFC West opponents in Week 2: Pittsburgh faces Seattle, and New York takes on St. Louis. There’s no remedy for a bad start quite like hosting a team from the worst division in football. To be sure, the Steelers were humiliated last Sunday in Baltimore, committing seven turnovers and failing to produce any second-half points. But ESPN analyst John Clayton says Pittsburgh fans should take a deep breath and relax: “AFC teams with elite quarterbacks shouldn’t panic. With Peyton Manning out at least half the season, the AFC currently has only five elite quarterbacks,” and one of them, Ben Roethlisberger, plays for the Steelers. The others, according to Clayton, are Tom Brady, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, San Diego’s Philip Rivers, and Houston’s Matt Schaub. “With one road game out of the way against Flacco, Roethlisberger faces only three elite quarterbacks the rest of the season — Flacco, Brady and Schaub. Chances of an 11- or 12-win season are very good.” As for the injury-ravaged Giants, Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Tuck hopes to play in Monday night’s game against the Rams, as does wideout Hakeem Nicks. (Big Blue attempted to bolster its receiving corps this week by signing veteran Brandon Stokley.) Writes New York Post columnist Steve Serby: “If you allow Sam Bradford, a second-year quarterback, probably without the help of his best receiver (Danny Amendola) and marquee running back (Steven Jackson) to spoil your home opener on a night when you better be fueled with desperation, then [Giants coach Tom] Coughlin has a full-blown crisis on his hands and white-hot heat on the hot seat.”