The Green Bay Packers run the risk of falling to 0-2 as they take the field Thursday night in Lambeau Field against the Chicago Bears. That, in of itself, is manageable, but if both losses are at home it digs you a good-sized hole and even in a best-case scenario would confine the Packers to imitating their baseball brethren in Milwaukee, who are spending the end of the season trying to frantically dig out of an early hole.
Tonight is also our first chance to really learn something about how good the Chicago Bears might be this season. Yes, they played well against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. They protected Jay Cutler and got the ball downfield to Brandon Marshall, the two big question marks that surround this team. The operative word in all this is “Indianapolis Colts”, who have only three NFL-caliber players on defense and one of them, Dwight Freeney, left in the first half with an ankle injury. The Bears don’t have to win tonight to show they’re for real, but a good competitive game would speak as loudly in their favor as the Week 1 result did.
Las Vegas is surprisingly bullish on the Packers, in spite of their opening day clunker against San Francisco. Green Bay is the same 5-point favorite they were against the Niners. And with an Over/Under point total at 51, the betting markets are clearly signaling they expect a high-scoring affair, a circumstance that likely works in Green Bay’s favor—who’s more likely to make the killer mistake in a shootout, Cutler or Aaron Rodgers? Yeah, I think it would be Cutler too. I like Green Bay to win tonight, although I have mixed feelings about the five-point spread.
Let’s now move on with our regular Thursday routine here at TheSportsNotebook and look at nine games on Sunday’s NFL undercard, with undercard being defined as games that will be seen primarily in the local TV market and not beyond…
New Orleans-Carolina: A critical game in the NFC South, and I’m somewhat surprised this game is not getting greater coverage from Fox in its early window (Tampa-NY Giants & Minnesota-Indy are getting the exposure). The Panthers turned Cam Newton into a conventional quarterback last week, didn’t let him really move around and lost 16-10 in Tampa. Between that loss, and watching the New Orleans defense torched by RG3, the guess is the Panthers will put Newton on the move a little more. I don’t think the Saints’ problems of Week 1 were an aberration and expect Carolina to win this one.
Dallas-Seattle: The few caveats that have come out of Dallas’ impressive win over the New York Giants to start the year have pertained to Cowboy consistency. There’s no better place to demonstrate it than right here. The Seahawks have a raucous home crowd, and they’ll bring the pressure after Tony Romo. If Demarco Murray can make the defense pay with his cutback ability between the tackles, Dallas will move the ball and it’s going to be tough for Seattle rookie Russell Wilson to keep up, especially with his own receivers nursing injuries. I’d look for a good one here and think the oddsmakers’ line of the Cowboys as a three-point favorite looks about right.
Arizona-New England: There’s no reason to expect New England to lose as a 14-point home favorite, but if the Cardinals’ ballhawking secondary can make some plays on the ball, the visitors could keep this one competitive. Given who the opposing quarterback is that’s admittedly wishful thinking, but it’s the only thread Arizona has to grab onto. If the Patriots again get a running game from Stevan Ridley and stop the defense from locking in on Brady, this one will turn ugly.
Houston-Jacksonville: This is a good test game for Jacksonville quarterback Blaine Gabbert. He played well in Week 1 and the loss at Minnesota can’t be pinned on him, but the Viking secondary is not very good. Now he’ll be facing some dialed up pressure from an array of angles. If Jax has a chance to pull the upset it will be because Gabbert was able to hook up with Justin Blackmon on some short-to-medium routes that Blackmon turns into big plays. The rookie receiver did not fare well against the Vikes, so you have to be doubtful of his ability to do it here. The Jaguars can run the ball with Maurice-Jones Drew and keep it respectable, but a win is going to depend on some big plays from the kid they drafted to produce them.
Washington-St. Louis: The media machine is about RG3 right now, but if the Redskins are going to get a road win against a Ram team that nearly upended Detroit, it’s going to be the defense that steps up. St. Louis is banged up across the offensive line, including the loss of center Scott Wells. The pass protection as a problem anyway, and now it’s imperative that linebackers like Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan tee off, both getting sacks and forcing Sam Bradford into bad throws. If the Washington secondary covers as well as they did last week, the ‘Skins can settle into running the ball and keep some heat off their rookie quarterback. I’m a Redskins fan and as you can see, wrote this from their perspective. But I also believe that’s what the game boils down to—if Washington gets the heat on Bradford, they’ll win. If they want RG3 to be Superman every week, they’ve got problems.
Tennessee-San Diego: Both of these playoff hopefuls looked lousy in Week 1, but the Chargers had an even worse foil in the Raiders, while the Titans were hammered by the Patriots. One thing Tennessee did not do at all was run the ball effectively, while San Diego was solid in stopping the same. Getting a road win is going to be tough enough for the Titans, even with Kenny Britt back at receiver, but if the combination of Chris Johnson and that good offensive line doesn’t get settled in, it’s going to be a long year in Nashville. The guess here is that Sunday they at least run it well enough to cover the six-point spread, but in the end Philip Rivers produces enough points for the San Diego win.
Cleveland-Cincinnati: The Browns are without corner Joe Haden, suspended for four games and the best player in the secondary that picked off Michael Vick four times last Sunday. I was extremely disappointed with the Bengals’ pass defense on Monday night in Baltimore—and since they gave up 44 points, I’m going to assume I’m not the only one. But Brandon Weeden is nowhere near ready to exploit that. Cincinnati will get pressure from its defensive front, manage the game and win. The only question is whether it will be impressive enough to wipe away the sting of the Blowout In Baltimore.
Kansas City-Buffalo: Both teams looked terrible in Week 1, but the Chiefs have more reasons to feel optimistic. They were without defensive stalwart Tamba Hali, as well as three other defensive starters, all of whom look ready to be on the field in Buffalo. And even if they weren’t, it was Matt Ryan and Atlanta who torched the Chiefs last week. The only similarity Ryan Fitzpatrick has to Ryan is his Irish surname. Fitzpatrick will face pressure and his track record of making mistakes is now pretty clear. Furthermore, the Bills’ defense was beyond atrocious against the Jets and Kansas City was playing a good offensive game against the Falcons, running the ball and getting good work from Matt Cassell, until Atlanta opened it up and put too much pressure on them. That won’t happen here and Kansas City controls the game throughout, winning decisively as a three-point underdog.
Oakland-Miami: These once-proud franchises play the worst game of Week 1, a circumstance that no doubt has Don Shula and John Madden each turning in their grave (or would if either was dead). Both teams can play physical football with their defensive fronts, but neither offense can get the ball to its receivers. Each is dependent on a running back—Darren McFadden for Oakland, Reggie Bush for Miami—for its big offensive plays. Do you take the home team or the one with the veteran quarterback? I’ll take the Raiders and Carson Palmer over the rookie Ryan Tannehill.