Storylines around the NFL

Must-win games for teams around the NFL after week two:

After looking at the state of college football over the last two weeks, I want to shift the focus back to the NFL. With two weeks in, we have learned something about each team and while some of them have started better than expected, a few others have underachieved. In this segment, I’m taking a look at three teams with a 0-2 and 1-1 record each, which have crucial matchups coming up. I don’t want to overreact to a team’s record after two weeks of game action, but those squads are largely expected to compete for a playoff spot at the end of the year and could have their next contest determine how the rest of the season will go for them or maybe even be the deciding factor in terms of making it to the postseason or not. So this list does not include juggernauts like the Patriots, who lost their season-opener, or teams who will most likely finish with a top ten draft pick once again.


 

The 0-2 teams:

 

New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles: Giants

About a month ago I predicted the Giants to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl next February. So they better pick this thing up quickly. Defensively I still think they field on of the better groups in all of football, but they have struggled mightily on offense. It took the G-Men until their sixth quarter of the season to score a touchdown and they looked everything but stellar for the rest of game two versus Detroit. The offensive line hasn’t provided any pass protection or opened holes to run through. Especially the tackle spots have been huge question marks. Second-year man Ereck Flowers had his hands full against the Lions’ Ziggy Ansah, who racked up three sacks over the course of the contest. It doesn’t really help that New York has averaged only 48.5 yards per game on the ground – worst in the league.

Eli Manning is at his best off play-action or when using the quick passing game, but Ben McAdoo hasn’t given him either one of those options, as the play-calling has revolved around passing concepts that take a while to develop, especially some of the double-moves they like to run. So they can’t run the ball, the opposing defense can pin their ears back chasing Eli, there’s no protection to throw the ball down the field and if that wasn’t enough, the Giants receiver dropped a bunch of passes so far. On paper this offense has playmakers all over the field, but without Odell Beckham Jr. at full health, demanding extra-attention, the defense can play straight coverage and until now the other guys haven’t really been able to create any separation.

If Odell can be his usual self, demand double-teams, free up his teammates and take defenders out of the box, I still think this team can make some noise. That will help out the defense as well, as they have been on the field for a long time so far. I’m not that happy about picking the Giants to go back to the big game anymore, but this team has been the most dangerous when nobody expected them to make a deep run.

 

New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers: Saints

A lot of people had high expectations for this Saints team, but I wasn’t one of them, as I had them finishing at 7-9 once again in my predictions. The defense hasn’t been anything what it looked like in preseason when analysts thought they saw a formidable unit to complement the high-powered offense led by Drew Brees. With Adrian Peterson and rookie Alvin Kamara added to the backfield that already had a Pro-Bowl running back in Mark Ingram plus one of the better offensives lines in the league, the idea was to take some pressure off of the Hall of Fame QB and more importantly a defense, which was ranked either dead-last or second-to-last over the last three years.

Things haven’t panned out quite the way the organization expected them to, as the defense hasn’t been able to stop anybody, being ranked 31st and 32nd in points and yards allowed respectively, and the team has averaged only 70.5 yards on the ground per game. That has led to New Orleans falling behind early in the first two weeks, having to play catch-up mode and throw the ball all over the yard once again. Their two offensive tackles have been out for most of this young season. Both Terron Armstead and Zach Strief are two of the top tackles on either side of the O-line, so they’re not really comparable to a rookie, even though I thought he was just outside the top 20 prospects in the draft, and having to move one of your guards outside and inserting a back-up to his original spot.

I still don’t trust this defense, but they have some promising pieces up front. Last year’s first-round pick Sheldon Rankins was one of my breakout candidates a few weeks ago and Ha’ouli Kikaha has shown flashes of a good pass-rusher when healthy. If some of those younger DBs step up and those two tackles come back soon, the Saints can still fight for a playoff spot, but they can’t play in shootouts every week like they did the last few years.

 

Los Angeles Chargers vs Kansas City: Chargers

Another team I was pretty high on was the newest L.A. team. The Bolts had a forgettable 2016 season due to a multitude of injuries to some of their most important pieces. So the expectations for a re-stocked receiving corp, a rejuvenated Melvin Gordon, a borderline Hall of Famer at quarterback and a young, healthy defense were really high. Unfortunately, the injury bug has hit this team once again as first-round pick Mike Williams has yet to see any game action, second-round pick Forrest Lamp is out for the season with a torn ACL and middle-linebacker Denzel Perryman will miss another six to eight weeks.

But not only have the Chargers not gotten production from some sidelined impact-guys, the team that was on the field hasn’t really impressed either. Melvin Gordon is averaging only 2.5 yards a carry behind a reshuffled offensive line and the defense is ranked right in the middle of the pack after games against the Broncos and Dolphins. I know Denver has looked really good so far and the Dolphins were a playoff team last year, but you don’t think of either one of those offenses as especially high-powered. The most obvious struggle of this squad has been in the kicking-game as they have probably signed new placekicker Younghoe Koo based off his trickshot-video. I don’t want to bash him already and he could still turn out to be a great performer, but so far he has missed three of his four field-goal attempts with all of them being in medium range and carrying a lot of meaning to the outcome of the contest.

There’s still a lot of optimism for this squad though, as the edge-rushing duo of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram has looked outstanding, they have one of the top cornerback-tandems on paper, Mike Williams is expected to return some time in October and Philip Rivers is still at the helm for them. Los Angeles’ matchup with the Chiefs will be crucial, as KC comes in smoking-hot with a 2-0 record and the Chargers have already lost a game to a divisional opponent, who is also undefeated so far and so are the Raiders. They can’t go 0-3 in what probably is the best division in football.


 

The 1-1 teams:

 

Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals: Cowboys

After handing their division rival Giants a 17-3 loss in week one, America’s team was destroyed in Denver last Sunday. The Cowboys finished last season as the number one seed in the NFC with Dak and Zeke in the backfield, who finished first and second in Rookie of the Year voting respectively. With all the drama around the reigning rushing champ being suspended for six games before having that postponed, Dallas started their campaign with the usual drama. Yet, with the full squad back together, the top offensive line in football and Jaylon Smith making his debut after what was basically a redshirt injury year, I was one of the very few to predict them missing the playoffs.

In Denver, their running game was completely shut down, as Elliott was held to eight(!) yards on nine attempts, Von Miller was a frequent visitor in the backfield, going up against new right tackle La’el Collins, Dez Bryant struggled badly against the No Fly zone and the defense made Trevor Siemian look like an All-Pro. For as impressive as the three points surrendered to the G-Men seemed to be in the season opener, putting that into context with how New York has struggled offensively, I can’t weigh that defensive performance very heavily. Denver ran the ball down their throat and Siemian distributed the ball around to his teammates – the Boys had no answer. I don’t want to overreact to what it saw in Mile High because they just didn’t seem to be ready for that game, but it is worrying to see how they look like when they can’t run their gameplan accordingly and that they just didn’t bring the effort necessary.

Usually I would not have marked this a must-win game for the Cowboys because they are still tied for the lead in the NFC East at 1-1, but the Cardinals just barely squeezed out a W versus the Andrew Luck-less Colts, who were coming off an embarrassment to the Rams. I can promise you this team won’t struggle with their ground game that bad going forward, which will open up play-action and make Dak feel very comfortable. Dallas has to play complimentary football, which will take pressure off their defense, which still gets back a bunch of guys up front and on the back-end.

 

Seattle Seahawks at Tennessee Titans: Seahawks

With all the talk about the Seahawks making it to the Super Bowl once again, they haven’t looked anything like a championship contender. Seattle brought in Eddie Lacy to build a strong one-two punch with Thomas Rawls, Russell Wilson would finally be at 100 percent again and the defense was expected to be challenging for the number one ranking in points allowed once again. So far the Legion of Boom has looked pretty good, but the Hawks offense has scored a grand total of 21 points against the Packers and 49ers – two of the worst defensive units in the league a year ago.

Lacy and Rawls have combined for ten carries for a lousy seven yards at this point, while rookie Chris Carson has been the lead-back for this team. The only other real rushing threat has been Russell Wilson, who has been chased around like crazy due to a horrific offensive line. That front was the reason why I predicted them to go 9-7 and barely make the cut for the playoffs. There is no way Wilson will stay healthy throughout the year if that unit doesn’t step up or the offense finds a way to make defenses respect the run more, which would open up play-fakes. Tight-end Jimmy Graham has been playing on a sore ankle and has yet to find any rhythm in the Seahawks passing game, as his yardage total has yet to crack the number ten as well. The defense has been doing their part to a large degree, but other than the ground game with Carlos Hyde, the Niners offense didn’t really show on Sunday and Aaron Rodgers was able to put the ball in the end-zone against them when it was really necessary.

I still think this defense with up to seven or eight Pro Bowlers can be good enough to carry Seattle to a playoff berth or even division title, but they have to play better up front on the other side of the ball. Their best shot to me at this point would be riding their rookie back and giving their signal-caller some roll-outs to take pressure off the protection and open up easy passes. The biggest reason for optimism is the fact this squad always seems to find its groove mid-season.

 

Los Angeles Rams at San Francisco 49ers: Rams

The Rams moved to L.A. a year ago and had a really disappointing season. After trading up for the first overall pick to select new franchise-quarterback Jared Goff and deciding to let him learn behind Case Keenum, they started the year with a 3-1 record before losing all but one game for the rest of the year. The original plan of letting Goff develop before throwing him in the fire didn’t work out and he went from not even dressing up for gameday to being asked to make something out of nothing. Now with a full offseason to grow with new head coach Sean McVay, a re-stocked group of receivers and some help on the offensive line, expectations were pretty high once again.

In the season opener, they demolished the Colts 46-9 behind a strong defensive performance that showed Scott Tolzien is nowhere near to being a starting-caliber NFL quarterback. On Sunday the Redskins came into town and put 27 points on the board. Washington rushed for a total of 229 yards and controlled the clock all day. On the other side, Goff went 14 of 24 for 219 yards, a TD and pick respectively against a below-average defensive unit. The overall performance didn’t look as bad because they came within a score, but they were never in control of the game and I’m not that high on the Redskins in general. The reason I believe this is a must-win game for the Rams is the fact they have lost the last three times they have faced the 49ers and with the way the rest of the NFC West has looked like so far, the division might be up for grabs with a 9-7 record.

The biggest reason for optimism for Los Angeles is the way Todd Gurley looked in week two. He showed better vision, burst and a violent-running style. He also got involved as a pass-catcher and hurdled about three Washington defenders. If Goff can hold the ship and distribute the ball, plus the defense can play up to their talent, especially with Aaron Donald back in the line-up, this Rams team has a chance to be a darkhorse playoff-candidate. Going 2-1 to jump to first place in the division for the moment would be an important step in doing so.

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