By: Dave Baker
I got really drunk last Saturday, partly because drinking and watching college football with your friends is fun, but mainly because it was Saturday. We watched Stanford shock the nation and upset USC, Notre Dame dominate Michigan State, and Jeff Driskel lead the Florida Gators to a second consecutive SEC road win. Then we watched X-Men: First Class. Because it was on. In both the NCAA and NFL, 2012 is already shaping up to be one hell of a year. The NFL regular season is only two weeks old, and there has been no shortage of headlines. The rookie sensations haven’t shied away from the spotlight, replacement officials have, and while some preseason contenders have looked dominant, others may be imploding before our eyes. But this is what football season is all about, the widening and narrowing gap between expectation and reality as it is played out on Sundays.
For Chicago Bears fans, reality came in the form of Jay Cutler, the Patron Saint of Forced Throws, and a demoralizing loss to the Green Bay Packers. There’s early season losses, there’s being exposed as a talented but flawed team, and then there’s having your quarterback post a career low and berate his offensive linemen on national television. We know where the Bears will go from here: an aging defense will continue to play at an elite level, practically breaking their hands to keep that closing window open a little longer, and head coach Lovie Smith will turn to a conservative ground game to provide balance and reduce turnovers. But the Bears didn’t trade away two draft classes for a game manager; they traded for a Pro Bowl quarterback. To this point, Cutler’s career has been something of an enigma. We’ve seen the smug, aloof gunslinger playing with poor mechanics and way too much faith in his arm; and we’ve seen a quarterback on the precipice of elite status, only to be derailed by injuries. Entering a contract year, Chicago’s Jay Cutler experiment is coming to a crossroads. If last Thursday is any indication of what to expect from the beleaguered quarterback, the Bears front office has to wonder which Cutler will show up for the rest of 2012.
The game America will be watching
Sunday, 9/23 8:20 ET
New England Patriots @ Baltimore Ravens
Match Up: The only thing I’m looking forward to more than this game is Wednesday night’s Football Life featuring Ray Lewis, the most entertaining man in football. There isn’t a more terrifying force in the NFL than Ray Lewis. He has been a stalwart in the league’s premier defense for the last decade, and, even better, the guy is a sound byte a minute. If you haven’t spent at least one hour YouTubing Ray Lewis clips, go do that before finishing this column. I recommend his 2011 interview with ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio, and an epic pregame speech he gave to the Elon University football team before their spring game. And maybe throw in Ed Reed’s bug out at halftime during the 2001 FSU game. After watching these clips, you’ll have a better understanding of the absolute maniacs manning Baltimore’s defense, and why they’ve been the league’s best for the last decade.
When these teams met at Foxborough last season with a Super Bowl berth on the line, it was clear the football gods damned the Ravens when Lee Evans dropped a go-ahead touchdown and Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal. Out of sync and outplayed for much of the game, Tom Brady’s Patriots lucked out and punched their ticket to football’s biggest stage for the fifth time in ten years. In an early season meeting, both teams find themselves in similar positions. A number of offensive miscues led the Ravens to drop a close one in Philly, and the Patriots were upset at home by the Arizona Cardinals. Brady insisted in his postgame press conference that Saturday night’s marathon viewing of Downton Abbey with tight end Rob Gronkowski and kicker Stephen Gostkowski had nothing to do with team’s inability to seal the win. “I think we were focused for the most part. Should we have turned in sooner? Yeah probably, but we really needed to catch up before the Emmys. I mean, have you seen that show? I can’t get enough of those cheeky Brits,” Brady said. Gronk refused to comment, but was seen in the locker room slugging Jack Daniels in a wife-beater, and finishing season two on his iPad, while Gostkowski translated what Gronk referred to as, “the funny talkin’ people.”
Players to Watch: Ravens RB Ray Rice and Patriots DT Vince Wilfork
In his preseason quarterback rankings, John Clayton said a visit to Ravens’ camp was all it took to convince him that QB Joe Flacco was ready to take this team over the conference championship hump. Flacco put on a clinic against the Bengals in week one, but misfired on a few plays against the Eagles, accounting for two turnovers and failing to convert a fourth-and-two on the Raven’s final drive. Like most teams, the Ravens will go as far as their quarterback takes them. Their insurance policy: the league’s second-leading rusher. Ray Rice is a complete back, a pure workhorse, and any other cliché that can be attached to an elite NFL running back. New England’s run defense hasn’t allowed a hundred-yard performance yet, and if Rice breaks the century mark, it could turn into a shootout on Sunday Night.
Defense isn’t a hallmark of the famed “Patriot Way.” They ranked 31st in total defense last season, giving up an average of 411 yards and 21 points per game, including 117 rushing yards. If they gave up 20 points to Kevin Kolb, Joe Flacco and the Ravens must be licking their chops. For this unit to improve, it all starts upfront with Vince Wilfork.
Prediction: Ravens 23 Patriots 21
Weird things happen in the NFL. The Patriots aren’t likely to lose to a team like Arizona again, but they’ll find themselves in an early 1-2 hole after Sunday Night. Their line has looked uncharacteristically porous, and without ample protection the painfully immobile Brady hasn’t had time to establish a decent rhythm. The Ravens and Patriots can look forward to another close game in what could potentially be an early postseason preview. And it’s always great to see Ray Lewis screaming shit during the pregame.
Games America won’t be watching but you should still give a shit about
New York Giants @ Carolina Panthers
How the hell does Eli Manning throw for over 500 yards, three TDs, and three picks in a single game? How did Cam Newton go from a lock for a sophomore slump to an NFC South contender in one week? Why does Victor Cruz’s mother sound exactly like Rosie Perez? Was that racist? Would Greg Olsen and I be friends if we went to the same high school?
Prediction: Giants 27 Panthers 20
St. Louis Rams @ Chicago Bears
The Super Best Friends took a detour on their flight back to Chicago to the Whispering Winds Retreat Haven in Cambridge, Wisconsin for intensive weekend-long group therapy. Bears left tackle J’Marcus Webb rehashed some deeply suppressed memories when he admitted to pissing himself in front of the entire fifth grade class during the drama club’s production of Beauty and the Beast. Webb played the candlestick guy, and finally recognized his inability to overcome those self-conscious feelings as the root of his poor performances in nationally televised games. Jay Cutler also faced some hard truths, discovering that his uncontrollable anger is the result of an inappropriate relationship he shared with his mother – they made out once. “They’ve got a long way to go,” head coach Lovie Smith said. “But they’ll get there. They’ll get there…”
Prediction: Bears 17 Rams 10
Buffalo Bills @ Cleveland Browns
Bills running back C.J. Spiller is primed for a breakout year. With nearly 300 yards and 3 touchdowns in two games, Spiller might finally be developing into the feature back the Bills envisioned. In Cleveland, Brandon Weeden really didn’t suck that bad in a losing effort against the Cincinnati Bengals and Trent Richardson posted his first hundred-yard game, in addition to two scores. Otherwise, this is a matchup featuring two franchises steeped in mediocrity and disappointment.
Prediction: Browns 16 Bills 14
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Dallas Cowboys
There’s no way around it: the Bucs got screwed in New Jersey. Whether or not that blitz on the victory formation was dirty or not (it probably was), rookie head coach Gregg Schiano has his squad playing with attitude; which is important considering the Bucs completely quit on Raheem Morris last season. Of all the disappointing losses last week, Dallas shitting the bed in Seattle might have been the worst. Even if Marshawn Lynch went off for 122 yards and one TD, Seattle isn’t 20 points better than Dallas. Oh, and how about Golden Tate lighting up Sean Lee?
Prediction: Bucs 24 Cowboys 21
New York Jets @ Miami Dolphins
The Pittsburg Steelers aren’t the Buffalo Bills. That offensive explosion from the Jets a few weeks ago might as well have been last season. Jets’ QB Mark Sanchez couldn’t get any offense going and Rex Ryan’s squad was beat in every aspect of the game by a more physical Pittsburgh team. If only the Jets had a super intense, freakishly athletic, religious zealot on their team, who could move the chains at will and pull of miraculous wins despite having the throwing motion of an eight-year-old. If only.
Prediction: Jets 13 Dolphins 10
San Francisco 49ers @ Minnesota Vikings
The Niners will be one game away from sweeping the NFC North after they roll the Vikings in the Metrodome.
Prediction: Niners 28 Vikings 7
Kansas City Chiefs @ New Orleans Saints
After starting the season 0-2, Saints quarterback Drew Brees was found outside suspended head coach Sean Payton’s house wearing a beige trench coat and blaring Peter Gabriel from an early 90’s boom box. You can’t keep these two apart any longer, Roger Goodell. You just can’t. In the meantime, the Saints front office has contacted 12-year-old Madden ’13 prodigy Timmy Kirshner in hopes of righting the ship. Kirshner is interested, on the condition that he’s given a lifetime supply of Mountain Dew Code Red, and no more than three hugs from Mrs. Brees.
Prediction: Saints 35 Chiefs 20
Cincinnati Bengals @ Washington Redskins
I wonder if Josh Morgan still has a job after single-handedly costing the Washington RG IIIs a win in St. Louis.
Prediction: Bengals 21 Redskins 17
Detroit Lions @ Tennessee Titans
By rights, the Lions should be 0-2. They got beat up at Candlestick Park last Sunday night and haven’t remotely looked like the same team that earned a wildcard spot in last year’s postseason. They’ll find some rhythm against a suspect Titans team, but I’m going to need Stafford and Calvin Johnson to start producing if I’m going to win my fantasy league. (I promise that’s the last time I plug my fantasy team in this column.)
Prediction: Lions 31 Titans 16
Jacksonville Jaguars @ Indianapolis Colts
Honestly, how bad is the AFC South?
Prediction: Colts 24 Jaguars 10
Philadelphia Eagles @ Arizona Cardinals
Fun fact: there are five NFL teams with birds for mascots. Not entirely sure why that just dawned on me. The Cardinals are 2-0 under Kevin Kolb, and he’ll get a shot at exacting some revenge against his former team. As bad as the Eagles looked in week one, they knocked off a tough Baltimore team at home. With the defense generating takeaways and the offense clicking, this Eagles team might be on the cusp of realizing some of those lofty expectations.
Prediction: Eagles 23 Cardinals 14
Atlanta Falcons @ San Diego Chargers
The Falcons, the greatest regular season team in history, held on to beat Peyton Manning’s Broncos, and the Chargers smacked the Titans. I’m not sure why, but this week’s slate of games just isn’t getting me going. Matt Ryan vs. Phillip Rivers could get pretty exciting, though.
Prediction: Chargers 30 Falcons 28
Houston Texans @ Denver Broncos
Finally, somebody not named Peyton Manning will be featured in a prime time game. The Texans are looking every bit as good as advertised, and Peyton struggled early against the Falcons. Both teams are equipped for postseason runs, and after opening the season against Jacksonville and Miami, Denver should provide a decent measuring stick for a Texans team in “win now” mode.
Prediction: Broncos 24 Texans 17
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Oakland Raiders
It’s only a matter of time until they hit the panic button in Oakland.
Prediction: Steelers 34 Raiders 14
Monday, 9/24 8:30 ET
Green Bay Packers @ Seattle Seahawks
Like I said, this week’s schedule is just weak sauce. Is Green Bay vs. Seattle really the Monday night game? Maybe I’ll use that time to catch up on Downton Abbey.
Prediction: Packers 41 Seahawks 13