Most of the nation will see the Baltimore Ravens make the hour-plus ride north on I-95 to meet the Philadelphia Eagles in CBS’ early TV window on Sunday and this is about as compelling a matchup as NFL Week 2 is capable of producing. The Ravens looked every bit the part of the Super Bowl contender they were forecast as by the mainstream media, and nothing like the team in decline they were perceived as by TheSportsNotebook. Their 44-13 win over Cincinnati to start the season doesn’t have me changing my preseason predictions just yet, but there’s no team I’m in the process of re-evaluating more than the Ravens.
Also in that category is Philadelphia, about whom there was a wide variety of opinion. The Eagles were TheSportsNotebook pick to win the NFC East, so long as Michael Vick started 12-13 games. They won their opener, but Vick’s four interceptions and a narrow escape at inept Cleveland hardly inspired confidence. Now the Eagles are going to be tested for real, and what’s more, they are doing with their top two receivers questionable. DeSean Jackson is nursing a bad hamstring and Jeremy Maclin has a problem hip. Baltimore’s problem is depth in the secondary, but if the Eagles can’t spread the field with their wideouts, then Raven corner Lardarius Webb can lock up one receiver (Jason Avant is third in line) and no one else can do enough damage.
Where the Eagles can be effective is if they exploit a linebacker group that relies on Ray Lewis to cover up a lot of weaknesses. If Lewis blitzes regularly, Vick needs to find tight end Brent Celek over the middle. The team needs to get LeSean McCoy the ball in space, be it running or on screen passes that keep Lewis honest. But if the receivers aren’t there to spread the field, the veterans—Lewis and Ed Reed, along with lockdown corner Webb—can focus their efforts and make it another miserable day for Vick.
Joe Flacco announced in the offseason that he’s the premier quarterback in the NFL and at least for one week he backed it up. Of course if we’re basing everything solely on one week, Flacco isn’t even the best quarterback in the Beltway, that honor going to RG3 in Washington. But the Ravens will face a team with a similar defensive profile to Cincinnati—a good front four, capable of rushing the passer, maybe some questions in the secondary. The one caveat is that Philly’s questions among their defensive backs aren’t at the level of Cincy’s, but after scoring 44 points Baltimore’s got some cushion to allow for a comedown. Defenses know they have to respect Ray Rice and if Flacco is dialed in again it’s going to be a long day.
The folks in Las Vegas haven’t overreacted to the results of Week 1. Philadelphia is a two-point favorite—which does constitute respect for Baltimore, given that the spread is less than three in favor of the home team, but it’s certainly not a wholesale throwing out of preseason analysis. I’m not going to toss my preseason thoughts out the window just yet either, especially with the Ravens on a short week and the Eagles likely to play with a sense of urgency. Call this one for Philly, in the 24-21 neighborhood.
Other games in the marquee TV slots…
Fox Early: Tampa Bay-NY Giants—Fox spread its TV coverage out on a week, so there’s no game that’s truly national. But this is the one Joe Buck and Troy Aikman will be at. And continuing a theme of Las Vegas not overreacting, the Giants’ poor showing against Dallas and the Bucs’ nice win over Carolina have bookmakers unmoved, with New York giving seven. This ignores the fact that Tampa Bay is a good defensive football team, particularly in the front four and they can stop the Giants on the ground, while causing Eli Manning some discomfort in the pocket. I also liked what I saw from Josh Freeman last week at quarterback for Tampa Bay. The new coaching staff led by Greg Schiano did a nice job integrating him into an overall offensive concept where running the ball would be important. The balance will serve them well in New York and at minimum I think this one’s going to be close. And though I don’t generally like gut feelings (I’m never sure if their football hunches or just a bad case of gas), I’m going go with one here and pick Tampa to eke out a 19-17 kind of win.
Fox Early: Minnesota-Indianapolis—Based purely on geography, a larger swath of the country will see Andrew Luck’s home debut than any other Fox game. What people are likely to see is the Vikings get to 2-0. The confirmation that Adrian Peterson is healthy mean Minnesota has a weapon that will require Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis to stay at home and not turn loose on Christian Ponder. We might further add that Freeney and Mathis are both still learning to play outside linebacker in the 3-4, rather than down ends in the 4-3, and that Freeney is dealing with an ankle injury sustained last week in Chicago. If the Colts’ can’t get pressure, Ponder will have easy pickings against an incompetent secondary that would be better suited to playing games locally against Indiana or Purdue (I’m not ready to upgrade them to Notre Dame just yet).
CBS Late: NY Jets-Pittsburgh—The NFL is making the Steelers revisit the scene of the crime to start the 2012 season. First, they went back to Denver, site of their overtime playoff loss a year ago. Now they face the man who authored that defeat, Tim Tebow. Or at least they might face him. After Mark Sanchez played brilliantly against Buffalo we have no idea how much of Tebow we will see. I think the Jets might have need of him here. The Bills didn’t so much as register one hit on Sanchez last week, much less a sack. Pittsburgh will come after him with pressure and there would be some logic in using more wildcat plays with Tebow to keep the Steeler defense honest.
Offensively, Pittsburgh did not run the ball last week in Denver and given their bad offensive line I don’t expect the projected return of Rashard Mendenhall in the backfield to be that much of a difference-maker. Where the Steelers will have some opportunity to move the ball is through the air. The Jets’ secondary is banged up and Darrelle Revis has not yet been cleared to play due to a concussion. Even though I am going to assume Revis will be on the field, anything less than full strength from him is a big deal. If he doesn’t play, Ben Roethlisberger has a big day and Pittsburgh wins fairly decisively. If he does play, I still like the Steelers to win. Though I’m not high on this team, they do have some proud veterans playing at home in an urgent situation, and I’m not ready to jump on the Jets’ bandwagon.
NBC Sunday Night: Detroit-San Francisco—So much for Las Vegas not overreacting. The Niners a hefty seven-point favorite, a substantial number for any team playing a contender, much less one that likes to keep their cards close to the vest. Earlier this week, TheSportsNotebook touched on Frisco’s need for better pass protection, the one flaw in an otherwise brilliant performance in Green Bay last Sunday. I have some skepticism regarding the Niner secondary, but if they turn into two consecutive good games against a couple of the best passing offenses in the NFL, that will certainly have to be revisited. In the end, I think San Francisco will win—while Detroit is explosive, San Francisco is more consistent, more disciplined and is playing at home. But this one, as Lee Corso might say, will be closer than the experts think.
ESPN Monday: Denver-Atlanta—Nothing like Matt Ryan and Peyton Manning getting together in a climate-controlled environment in the Georgia Dome to set the stage for some offensive heroics. But it’s Denver that’s going to really need to run the ball. The Broncos were able to win last Sunday night against Pittsburgh by playing an efficient offensive game and making key plays down the stretch. Atlanta will force them into a shootout, meaning Denver has to both slow the game down with the run and then they have to make Atlanta pay for its offensive aggression—ideally by Elvis Dumervil or Von Miller getting in Ryan’s face and forcing some mistakes. This is certainly a possible scenario. And, we should note, that Atlanta did not defend the run well last week in Kansas City and it took the offense blowing the game open to get the Chiefs off their running attack. Over time, if the Falcons don’t defend the run, it will come back to bit them, but for this Monday Night, I think they’ll score enough to win a 35-27 type of score.