Saturday, September 25, 2010
Sports News

Key matchups in AFC East, NFC North

By AP's Barry Wilner

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[September 25, 2010]  CHICAGO (AP) -- It's way too early to proclaim any NFL team any sort of champion, of course. Still, this weekend will provide a strong indication who will control the NFC North and AFC East.

HardwareThe unbeaten Packers and Bears meet in Chicago on Monday night, one day after the winless Vikings and Lions square off in Minnesota. And the first-place Dolphins face the Jets hours after the Patriots and Bills play in New England on Sunday.

Juicy material for Week 3.

"It's never too early to talk about stuff like that," Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez said. "We need to treat this football game like we always do, understand all that's riding on the game, but at the same time, not get caught up in it."

Elsewhere Sunday, it's Atlanta at New Orleans; Dallas at Houston; Pittsburgh at Tampa Bay; Indianapolis at Denver; Tennessee at the New York Giants; Philadelphia at Jacksonville; San Diego at Seattle; Oakland at Arizona; Cleveland at Baltimore; Cincinnati at Carolina; San Francisco at Kansas City; and Washington at St. Louis.



Green Bay (2-0) at Chicago (2-0), Monday night

It sure would be nice to see some snow and frozen turf in Soldier Field for the 180th renewal of the NFL's oldest rivalry. Instead of snowflakes, look for a bunch of footballs in the air and lots of points, something expected from the powerful Packers, but not usually envisioned from the Bears.

Green Bay has looked as good as any team thus far, even with a weakened running attack. Chicago's win in Dallas has everyone excited in the Windy City.

The winner takes a stranglehold on the NFC North after Minnesota's early struggles.

"They're playing well," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "They made some big additions this offseason: (Julius) Peppers and Chester Taylor. I haven't seen the stats or seen the highlights yet, but it seems to me that Jay Cutler is pretty comfortable in that offense and they're making plays.

"It's always tough to play down in Chicago. They're 2-0, we're 2-0, it's going to be a big game."

Detroit (0-2) at Minnesota (0-2)

Brett Favre has looked his age in two games. His teammates, other than Adrian Peterson, have looked old, too. Maybe it's time to ride Peterson against a weak defense and let the 40-year-old Favre be a passenger.

Minnesota can't afford to slip here and fall into a three-game hole behind the division leader. After their bye next week, the Vikings get the Jets, Cowboys, Packers and Patriots in October.

The Lions have been just good enough to lose close games.

New York Jets (1-1) at Miami (2-0)

Another bad-blood matchup for the Jets. First it was the Ravens, then the Patriots. While we're not hearing words of hatred toward Rex Ryan's bunch from the Dolphins, the Miami-New York rivalry has been as intense as any in the league.

Miami will need to get more from its passing game, which ranks 28th overall, because the Jets excel against the run. Dolphins WR Brandon Marshall doesn't have to worry about CB Darrelle Revis (hamstring), so his matchups with Antonio Cromartie and rookie Kyle Wilson could be pivotal.

Buffalo (0-2) at New England (2-0)

The Bills simply don't beat the Patriots. In the 2009 opener, with Tom Brady returning from missing almost the entire 2008 season with a knee injury, Buffalo blew a late lead and lost. The Patriots' mastery over the Bills is at 13 straight games.

This is an especially bad week to be meeting New England, which was manhandled by the Jets in the second half last Sunday. Plus, Buffalo's awful offense (a league-low 17 points) might not be equipped to victimize the Patriots' struggling D, even with the quarterbacking change from Trent Edwards to Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Atlanta (1-1) at New Orleans (2-0)

Another game with strong divisional implications and one the Falcons might have dreaded with Michael Turner ailing (groin). But Jason Snelling, who filled in pretty well last year when Turner was sidelined, stepped in against the Cardinals with 129 yards rushing, 57 yards receiving and three TDs. Turner is projected to start, but Snelling could see a lot of action.

Atlanta's improved defense, which ranks 10th against the pass and has allowed only 22 points, one behind NFC leader Tampa Bay, needs to be just as stingy against Drew Brees and his prolific receivers. Even without RB Reggie Bush (broken leg), the Saints figure to be formidable with the ball.

Dallas (0-2) at Houston (2-0)

What an opportunity for the Texans to move from the lower rungs of football in the Lone Star State to near the top. Not only would they own pro ball in Texas by beating the Cowboys, but they'd stamp themselves a legitimate candidate for their first playoff berth.

Houston has the offense to hand the reeling Cowboys a third successive loss, although the Texans need to be patient, just as they were in rallying to beat the Redskins last week.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones doesn't want to contemplate 0-3, and patience rarely has been one of his virtues. He's built what he believes is a Super Bowl contender, and another false step could set off personnel movement within the organization.

Pittsburgh (2-0) at Tampa Bay (2-0)

For those who wondered if the Steelers could go 2-2 before Ben Roethlisberger returns from suspension, well, they are 2-0 using third-stringer Dennis Dixon and fourth-stringer Charlie Batch at quarterback. They bring back Byron Leftwich, who would have opened the season as the starter before damaging his left knee. Leftwich wasn't even on the roster for last weekend's win over Tennessee, but was re-signed Monday and will back up Batch against the Bucs.

Tampa Bay has no such upheaval at QB; second-year player Josh Freeman is developing nicely. That development might take a few hits -- and sacks -- against the latest version of the Steel Curtain, which forced seven turnovers by Tennessee last Sunday.

Indianapolis (1-1) at Denver (1-1)

Where did all those doomsayers go after Houston belted the Colts in the season opener? Perhaps a vintage showing by Peyton Manning and Indy's offense, and a dominant game on defense against the Giants silenced them.

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This is a terrible matchup for the Broncos, who have a hobbled secondary. Manning must be frothing in anticipation.

So might be DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, who had two sacks apiece against the Giants and know the Broncos' pass protection has been shaky.

Tennessee (1-1) at New York Giants (1-1)

Vince Young gets benched and there's barely a peep out of him. Maybe the quarterback knew Titans coach Jeff Fisher would reinsert him as the starter this week -- Young led a sensational comeback in 2006 against New York.

Instead, it's the normally reserved Giants who have public tumult. RB Brandon Jacobs, upset about being a second-stringer, showed some of his frustration by unintentionally flinging his helmet into the Indianapolis crowd last Sunday night. He was fined $10,000.

Then safety Antrel Rolle, new to the Giants, blasted the team for a lack of leadership and for accepting defeat too easily.

Philadelphia (1-1) at Jacksonville (1-1)

So the QB job is Michael Vick's -- for now. He certainly earned it, and the Jaguars are vulnerable in all aspects of defense. WRs DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin are off to good starts for Philly, but the Eagles already have surrendered 12 sacks.

If Jacksonville doesn't shore up its secondary, this could be another ugly week. A weak pass defense in the AFC South is a recipe for a last-place finish.

San Diego (1-1) at Seattle (1-1)

Each of these teams has been ridiculously inconsistent through two games. Or maybe ridiculously consistent.

Both have won in routs at home, lost in pedestrian (or worse) showings on the road.

That should favor Seattle, but the Seahawks are vulnerable through the air. Chargers QB Philip Rivers has been rolling, with 15 straight games in which he's thrown a touchdown pass. One of his key helpers, rookie RB Ryan Mathews, has been bothered by a high ankle sprain.

Oakland (1-1) at Arizona (1-1)

Nowhere is the quarterback flux in the NFL more prevalent than with these teams. Two weeks into the season, newcomer Jason Campbell, who was compared to Jim Plunkett by Raiders owner Al Davis, has been benched for Bruce Gradkowski. In Arizona, Cardinals fans spoiled by the success of the last two years are combing the desert looking for Kurt Warner. Try "Dancing With The Stars," folks.

Cleveland (0-2) at Baltimore (1-1)

The Ravens rank second in total defense, not a good omen for the Browns, whose 20 points scored are third lowest in the NFL. Baltimore's offense can't find its rhythm, particularly QB Joe Flacco, who comes off a wretched four-interception performance, and RB Ray Rice, who has gained only 179 yards overall. That rhythm figures to come soon, perhaps this week.

Meanwhile, Ray Lewis and his defensive buddies are holding strong, although they've yet to grab an interception.

Cincinnati (1-1) at Carolina (0-2)

Few places have a bigger mess than Carolina, where coach John Fox is in the last season of his contract, he's switched from Matt Moore to rookie Jimmy Clausen at quarterback, and his vaunted two-pronged running game of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart ranks just 16th and has no TDs.

Cincinnati's offense hasn't exactly set the world atwitter, regardless of how much wideout buddies Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens tweet about their dynamism. Revitalized kicker Mike Nugent saved the Bengals last week with five field goals.

San Francisco (0-2) at Kansas City (2-0)

The Niners probably should have beaten the defending champion Saints last Monday night. Turnovers ruined them, including losing the ball inside the New Orleans 30 three times. That negated a pretty good effort by the defense, led by LB Patrick Willis, who is a force all over the field.

Now the 49ers get opportunistic Kansas City, which has been surprisingly staunch on run defense and, as expected, strong while running the ball with Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones.

Washington (1-1) at St. Louis (0-2)

After losing close games to Arizona and Oakland, the Rams should feel frisky enough to test the Redskins. St. Louis faces the NFL's lowest-ranked defense, which is allowing nearly 390 yards through the air per week. Can top overall draft pick Sam Bradford find his unheralded receivers often enough to get a win?

And could Redskins QB Donovan McNabb be looking ahead to next Sunday's road game -- in Philadelphia?

[Associated Press; By BARRY WILNER]

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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