NFL Week 3: The Five National TV Games

TheSportsNotebook’s preview of NFL Week 3 hit their final installment. After yesterday’s look at the Thursday night game (including my utterly brilliant pick of a Carolina win. Only missed by 29 points), and 11 games on the undercard, today we focus in on the five games that will be seen by all or most of the country…

CBS Early: Kansas City-New Orleans—This is my idea of a big-time game for Week 3. Sure, it’s nice to have 2-0 teams go head-to-head, but if they’re both good, they’ll play bigger games later. The Chiefs and Saints each had expectations of varying degrees coming into the year. I was high on Kansas City’s playoff chances, while skeptical post-Bounty Gate New Orleans. The mainstream was consensus was the other way around, but either way, both teams have looked terrible in the first two weeks. The Saints’ losses to Washington and Carolina look even worse in light of the fact that each team has lost its other games. The Chiefs’ defense has been incompetent and the running game they rely on suspect. New Orleans is a hefty 8.5 point favorite at home, and while I don’t know if they merit this kind of confidence this wasn’t a game I was ready pick KC to win even when I still thought the Chiefs could be good.

Fox Early: Tampa Bay-Dallas—With no doubleheader game, this is the one where Joe Buck and Troy Aikman will be, as the latter returns to his old stomping grounds. The oddsmakers are not sold on Tampa, and again have them getting more than a TD (eight points in this case) on the road against an NFC East team. To look at it from this perspective, the wildly inconsistent Cowboys are due for an “up” game, and Tampa won’t get as physical with them defensively as Seattle did last week. But to turn it around, the Cowboy defense is going to have play exceptionally disciplined in their blitz packages or Josh Freeman will have a field day breaking outside containment.  Last week I said I’d jump on Tampa with the points and give them an even chance of winning outright. I’ll stick with the same here.

CBS Late: Houston-Denver—Both teams are feeling a lot more heat than a Week 3 game probably merit, particularly Houston. The Texans are 2-0, but the word from Houston is that if they lose this game there will be a lot of “same old Texans” rhetoric coming up in the local media and perhaps national, given the opening two wins were against Miami and Jacksonville. I understand not wanting to get carried away with those wins, but nor is losing in Denver a great shame. The fact of the matter is, a 2-1 Houston team would be one we’re still waiting for more information on. If they win this game, they ascened to clear frontrunner status in the AFC.

The Broncos are 1-1, and don’t want to fall two games back of San Diego (though the Chargers have a difficult home game with Atlanta). Surely Peyton Manning won’t throw three interceptions in a half again, and he won’t have to deal with a loud prime-time road crowd like he did on Monday in Atlanta. But schematically, Houston’s aggressive 3-4 blitz packages can still cause Peyton some problems and without a credible deep threat he has no real way to make defensive coordinator Wade Phillips pay for bringing the heat. With its aggressive defense and balanced offense, the guess here is that Houston wins a good one. They’re a narrow favorite at (-2) and with the Over/Under on 44.5, the smart money is looking for a game a little lower-scoring than the norm, as that number is the lowest of the five games marquee national games this week.

NBC Sunday Night: New England-Baltimore—These two cities spend the weekend playing baseball up in Fenway Park and then wrap it up with a hyped football game back on the south end of the Bos-Wash Corridor. We’ll see plenty of highlights of Baltimore blowing last year’s AFC Championship Game with a  dropped touchdown followed by a missed field goal, a loss that holds an elite place in the pantheon of agonizing defeats in NFL playoff history. But the Ravens, to their credit, have downplayed that, knowing a Week 3 game doesn’t avenge the AFC title bout, and with both teams at 1-1, there are immediate concerns to address.

New England has to figure out a way to protect Tom Brady, something they could not do against Arizona. But with Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs out for the year, the Ravens’ ability to pressure the passer is an equal question. As is their depth in the secondary. Lardarius Webb can lock down Wes Welker, and Ed Reed is a scavenger extraordinaire, but the Pats should be able to do their usual routine of creating multiple targets for Brady in the controlled passing game, and Stevan Ridley is a more credible running threat than anything New England had a year ago. The Patriots won’t light up the sky, but they should be able to move it well enough to get the 24 points they scored in last year’s playoff meeting.

The question then is the allegedly improved New England defense—an allegation that is backed up by the first two games, albeit against shaky offenses, against a Joe Flacco offense that is allegedly ready to become an elite passing unit—an allegation more or less backed up early on, albeit with its own share of question marks. The guess here is that New England is able to take away the deep ball that Flacco scorched Cincinnati with in Week 1 and they’ll be able to get some pressure, but the Pats won’t have an answer for Ray Rice if Baltimore decides to get physical. That’s always a big if for an offense that loses its identity on a week-to-week basis, but coming off a loss where Rice didn’t get nearly enough touches, I think it makes sense to presume he’ll see the ball on Sunday Night. Baltimore’s a three-point favorite, meaning Las Vegas sees these two teams as even, with homefield advantage swinging the result and I would concur.

ESPN Monday Night: Green Bay-Seattle—Green Bay is getting 3 ½ points here, a definite sign of respect, given Seattle’s at home in prime-time and just played a flawless game against a big public favorite in Dallas. And I think this is a tough matchup for the Packers. Their offense is not hitting on all cylinders right now and the Seattle defense is very physical, including on the corners and I think we’ll likely see the Green Bay attack move in stops and starts, they way they have the first couple weeks. Furthemore, Russell Wilson is the kind of quarterback whose mobility can create some problems for a defense that is built around Clay Matthews creating a pass rush. Matthews has been the league’s best defensive player—heck, probably the best player period, for two weeks, but chasing down Wilson isn’t like chasing down Jay Cutler against a lousy offensive line.

If Green Bay establishes the run the way they did against Chicago and creates some space for Aaron Rodgers to throw down the field, they’ll get the road win. But I wouldn’t bet them to cover this line, and as high as I am on the Packers for the season, I don’t like them in this spot. Let’s call a mild upset for Seattle, say 20-17.