Jets at Chargers (Monday, 8:30 PM)
Brett Favre recently called this game a “must win” for the Jets. Maybe, maybe not, but a loss here sets off a big red panic button for the home team. Why is nobody talking about the fact that the Chargers have no wins and have yet to hit the part of the season that was supposed to really challenge them? True, this offense looked like it finally found its stride late in week two, but the team still has matchups against the Pats, Broncos, Saints, Steelers, Bucs, and Bills. A loss here, and the margin for error becomes so razor thin for the Chargers that I’m not sure any team, let alone one that lost its defensive heart, could survive it. That said, if the team continues to work downfield, and LT recovers from his nagging toe injury, these guys have the offense to overwhelm everyone they’ll see down the road, and that should start this week.
Cowboys at Green Bay (Sunday, 8:15 PM)
There might not be a team with a more difficult road to their lofty expectations than the Dallas Cowboys. Their first four games included two playoff teams and two offensive arsenals that have high hopes for their season. Having thrashed the Browns and survived the Eagles, the team now heads to Green Bay, where they’ll be met with something they haven’t had to really deal with yet: A top tier defense. Certainly, the Eagles have the secondary to hang with anybody, but Green Bay brings a front seven that wreaks havoc on high power pass attacks. Worse still, the team has two corners that, when on, can keep up with the best of them. Up to this point, the Cowboys have proven that their offense will punish opponents for the entire game; now it’s up to their defense to prove the same. The fact of the matter is that a win here moves Dallas into rare air in the league, having beaten three very different kind of opponents.
Just don’t tell Aaron Rodgers this game only matters to the Cowboys. For the past two weeks, Rodgers has looked every bit as good as anyone who watched his performance against Dallas last year (ahem…) thought he would. The game against the Vikings would have served as a proving ground, but that team has since been exposed as a panicky, poorly structured fraud. Then the Lions game came and went, with Rodgers putting up huge numbers, but against the “defense” that let Michael Turner become the league’s leading rusher at one point. All of this makes Dallas an important turning point in Rodgers’s career. As much as the Dallas defense needs to prove that it can slow down opponents, Rodgers needs to prove that this Green Bay offense, stacked to the gills with talent, can go toe to toe with anyone in a shootout. The doubters should have already stopped talking about Rodgers’s ability; a win against their chief conference rival would silence doubting Packers fans once and for all. A loss here shouldn’t hurt either team too much, but letting a win like this go by will be bad enough.
Texans at Titans (Sunday, 1:00 PM)
Let’s get this out of the way right now: The loss to the Steelers was bad. Still, anybody who doesn’t think that the Texans were going to curb stomp the Ravens last week is crazy, and this team still has the talent to win their division. Trouble is, the problems for the squad extend way beyond the standard “we need a win” issues. We all saw how trouble at home crushed a season for the Saints (yeah, remember the Aaron Brooks farewell tour? I tried to block it out too…). If the pressures continue to mount on the Texans, this young team could find itself in a hole that kills its high hopes for a turnaround season.
For better or for worse, however, they’ve run smack into the litmus test for their conference. Face facts; Jeff Fisher is the man in the AFC South. He beat down the divisional favorite in week one with a QB whose sanity has since come into question. His defense completely emasculated the Bengals in week two, all while letting Kerry effing Collins helm the offense. This week, he might try to coach the team by communicating to them solely with his MIND. If there’s a coach or a team built to succeed in spite of its quarterback situation, it’s Jeff Fisher and the Titans, and this week, they have the opportunity to take the clear lead in their division by beating down the “it” team in the division. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re winning by injecting some crazy excitement into their usual bruising strategy (watch Chris Johnson work and try to keep your jaw from dropping). Maybe its that they prove week after week that winning the defensive battle up front consistently can, in fact, win games in an offensive conference (Albert Haynesworth was the Giants D-line before the Giants D-line was the Giants D-line). In any event, it’s ironic that the real changing of the guard in the AFC South could be happening in the one place that everyone thought it couldn’t. For the Texans to return to the conversation, they’ll have to be every bit as brutal up front (and they can…Super Mario and the Kid can bang with anyone) and every bit as committed to their flashy offensive weapons (Andre Johnson and Steve Slaton are no joke) as the Titans will be to crushing them early. It won’t be pretty, but it’s important, and that has a beauty all its own.
Cardinals at Redskins (Sunday, 1:00 PM)
The NFC West looks absolutely awful, but there’s one team that looks like it could rise above and bring a little bit of dignity to an otherwise shoddy conference…and its helmed by Kurt Warner. Show of hands: Did anybody really think that Kurt Warner, and not Matt Leinart, was going to be the quarterback to most greatly benefit from the receiving tools on this squad? Through two weeks, Warner has the second highest quarterback rating in the league, and his two top receivers are putting on a clinic. That said, they’ve beaten two teams that everyone knew would struggle this year; this week they get a good first foray into actual competition against a similarly structured team. The Redskins bring an equally vertical offense to the field, and have something slightly resembling a defense on the other side of the ball. Also, this is a squad with legitimate expectations for their season, not a unit still experimenting to find the best rebuilding formula. If the Cardinals can come out with the same kind of fireworks this week, it might be time to start talking about them as must see television on a weekly basis (after all, we won’t get to see Boldin and Fitzgerald working on the same team forever). If the Redskins come out and crush them, it might be time to ban the NFC West from this column forever. Still, being “that team” in the conference has to be a step up for the Cardinals, a team whose claim to fame was almost having their stadium named after a vagina.
Browns at Ravens (Sunday 4:15 PM)
This is the last chance for the Browns. Losing to the Cowboys was bad, but was to be expected. Losing to the Steelers last week in a 10-6 heartbreaker was worse, as it put the team in a hole for their divisional expectations and brought last year’s guns a’blazing offense into serious question. A loss this week, and the Browns revert back to the sea of mediocrity, which would be a tragedy considering how good this team could be. Expect Jamal Lewis to play like he realizes this is the opponent that said he was done in his mid 20’s. Expect Derek Anderson to unleash his big arm against an aging, overrated secondary. Finally, expect the receiving corps to latch on to the same anger that’s been driving Kellen Winslow to perform at a level higher than his team. Desperation makes a team do crazy things, and while its an uglier emotion that I’d hoped this team would play with, it might be time for Cleveland to tap into the desire to not go back to the place they came from.
Meanwhile, why is nobody talking about how good a week off could be for Joe Flacco? The same quarterback who put together a solid, safe, confident performance that lived within the skin of the kid helming it now has an entire week to learn from his errors, hone the strengths that the team knew he had when they drafted him, and prepare for a defensively weak opponent. Every week, the rookie QB with the greatest physical skill set of anyone in his class gets a little more confidence, and considering that the Ravens defense looks like it could be rejuvenated, Flacco has a safety net unlike many of his fellow young signal callers. If he shows up on Sunday and torches a Browns defense that looks ready to be torched, it could be time to start watching his development THIS year, not just for years to come. The fact that his rise would have to come by stepping on the necks of a team that has been a favorite of this site is sad, but until they start scoring handshakes, that’s just the nature of the game.