Two weeks into the 2021 season, it appears that the NFL’s power is concentrated in the west. The AFC and NFC West are a combined 13-3 so far this year, and but for a late Seahawks collapse against the Titans, the NFC West would be a perfect 8-0. The Chiefs also own one of those three losses, as Lamar Jackson and the Ravens finally exorcised some demons in a 36-35 Sunday night thriller. The Raiders are one of the 2-0 teams after they stifled the Steelers and got a timely bomb from Derek Carr to Henry Ruggs in the fourth quarter. Week 3 brings with it a heavyweight NFC showdown between Tampa Bay and the Los Angeles Rams, as well as a pivotal AFC West battle between the Chiefs and the Chargers. The Vikings, 0-2 and reeling after a gut-punch loss to Arizona, will try to right the ship against Seattle. Will Zach Wilson or Trevor Lawrence pick up their first win? Will the Falcons right themselves before it’s too late? Lots of teams have questions, but only some will find the answers. Let’s get to the games.
Point spreads are from BetOnline.ag, and are current as of 11 a.m. ET Thursday.
NOTE: Pick with spread is in bold.
Last week: 7-9 (Season: 16-16)
TV: NFL NETWORK Line: Carolina -7.5
What you need to know: Early returns suggest that “The Gase Curse” is real. First, Ryan Tannehill gets away from Adam Gase and turns into a top-10 passer in Tennessee. Now, Sam Darnold looks like a new man in Carolina. Darnold smoked a good Saints defense for 305 yards and two touchdowns in Week 2, and overall looks like a much more confident player than he did with the Jets. Darnold opened things up more against the Saints than he did in Week 1, aggressively and successfully working the middle of the field at intermediate depth. That should only continue as he gains more comfort. Davis Mills is just starting his NFL journey, and he’s got a tall order for the Texans. Mills went 8-for-18 for 102 yards, a touchdown, and an interception in relief of Tyrod Taylor, but he has a short week to get ready for a Carolina defense that throttled the Saints, and will actually have some film on Mills to study. The Texans will have to rely on their running game to try and insulate Mills, but that will be easier said than done.
On the spot: Panthers T Cam Erving. There are lots of good vibes around the Panthers right now, but Erving needs to pick it up, or Sam Darnold won’t last all season. Per Pro Football Focus, Erving has allowed five pressures in 81 pass-blocking snaps, tied for highest on the team.
Texans QB Davis Mills: Mills was drafted as a long-term hedge against the uncertainty surrounding Deshaun Watson, and while he has some potential, he’s in a very unenviable position. Getting some work against the Browns certainly helped, but being the starter is something else altogether.
The pick: Panthers 24 Texans 20
TV: FOX Line: Buffalo -7.5
What you need to know: Washington escaped with a Week 2 win over the Giants, but what had to be alarming for the Football Team was the relative ease with which Daniel Jones and New York moved the football. Washington’s defense, particularly its defensive line, was supposed to be its strength this year, but so far has been middle of the pack in quality. It isn’t a situation where the offense is constantly leaving the defense in bad situations; the two sides of the ball are performing at roughly the same level. Buffalo got right in a big way against Miami after a disappointing and surprising Week 1 loss to Pittsburgh. Josh Allen’s numbers were far from overwhelming, but the Bills were in control of the game from the start, and their defense dominated Miami and knocked Tua Tagovailoa out with a rib injury. Allen still needs to be much better for the Bills to get where they and many of their fans expect to go this season, but the all-around performance, particularly against a solid defense and division rival, was a very good sign.
On the spot: Washington Football Team DE Chase Young. Young is supposed to be the brightest light on a defense full of them, but he’s merely been good through two games, not great. He ranks just 45th among NFL edge defenders with four total pressures on the year, per Pro Football Focus. That’s not good enough.
Bills QB Josh Allen: Allen was spectacular last year. His greatness was a big reason why the Bills were a trendy preseason Super Bowl pick. Through two games, he hasn’t lived up to that billing. He needs to be better but has a tough challenge against a dynamic, athletic defensive front.
The pick: Bills 26 Washington Football Team 23
TV: FOX Line: Cleveland -6.5
What you need to know: It took an injury to Andy Dalton for it to come to pass, but it is Justin Fields’ time in Chicago, and if he excels under center for the Bears, Dalton will get Wally Pipped. Fields first start will be in a raucous environment, against a defense with a lot of talent, if not much in the way of results. He’ll have to be decisive in the pocket, but also not be shy about using his legs if his protection breaks down. His mere presence on the field should be a jolt for long-suffering Bears fans, but he’ll probably have to put up plenty of points to beat Cleveland. The Browns are two games in, and the case could be made that they looked far more impressive for the majority of their Week 1 defeat in Kansas City than they did against Houston last week. Cleveland’s offense has been mostly as advertised, but while the names on defense are different, the performance hasn’t been. The pairing of Jadeveon Clowney and Myles Garrett has yielded some pressures, but so far only two sacks. If that duo can really get going, it should make things much easier for the Browns’ defense.
On the spot: Bears QB Justin Fields. Matt Nagy can insist all he wants that Dalton is the Bears’ starter when he’s healthy, but Fields is clearly the more talented, dynamic player of the two. Proving that right from the start might be difficult; Fields will have to avoid the temptation to press.
Browns DE Jadeveon Clowney: Clowney was brought in to be Garrett’s running buddy, and while there has been occasional production, expectations are higher for a pair of former first overall picks. Garrett’s recent track record suggests he’ll explode soon enough; that shift most of the onus to Clowney.
The pick: Browns 30 Bears 20
TV: CBS Line: Baltimore -7.5
What you need to know: The Ravens finally exorcised their Chiefs' demons, and did it with a gut-check performance, forcing a pair of Kansas City turnovers in the fourth quarter and converting a decisive fourth down in their own territory to seal a 36-35 win. Lamar Jackson was spectacular again, but it’s worth wondering how long he’ll be able to function as a one-man-band. Baltimore’s running game hasn’t suffered despite major injuries at running back, but Jackson has been uneven in the passing game. He’ll have to improve there, not only to make the offense more dangerous but to take himself out of harm’s way more regularly. Dan Campbell’s Lions looked like they might pull a shocker for 30 minutes against Green Bay, before remembering that they were in fact the Lions. One encouraging element of Detroit’s performance was their pass protection, particularly in the first half. Jared Goff threw from plenty of clean pockets, and it looks like seventh-overall pick Penei Sewell
On the spot: DE Odafe Oweh. Oweh made the defensive play of the game against the Chiefs, stripping Clyde Edwards-Helaire and recovering the fumble, setting Baltimore up to run out the clock. If Jackson’s one-man-band routine on offense is going to work, he’ll need help from guys like Oweh on the defensive side.
Detroit T Penei Sewell: Sewell had a rough run of things as a right tackle this preseason, posting poor grades at Pro Football Focus in two of his three outings. He switched to left tackle, his natural position, to start the season, and has been much steadier since. His development might be the most important thing to watch with the Lions all year.
The pick: Ravens 31 Lions 19
TV: CBS Line: Pittsburgh -3.5
What you need to know: The Bengals are struggling massively with pass protection, as none of their offensive linemen, save Riley Reiff, have acquitted themselves all that well. Center Trey Hopkins has been particularly poor and guards Quinton Spain and Xavier Su’a-Filo only marginally better. Joe Burrow has already been sacked nine times after taking 32 in just 10 games in his rookie season. There is talent on the roster in Cincinnati, but that won’t matter if the most important piece keeps getting battered. Speaking of battered, Ben Roethlisberger has been taking hits left and right despite getting rid of the ball faster on average – 2.41 seconds, per NFL Next Gen Stats – than any quarterback in the league through two weeks. Roethlisberger’s young offensive line continues to disappoint and show major inconsistency, and the Steelers’ offense is suffering as a result. Multiple defensive starters, including T.J. Watt and Joe Haden, might not play in this game. With Green Bay and Denver looming, the Steelers can ill afford to fall to 1-2.
On the spot: Bengals C Trey Hopkins. Hopkins has personified the struggles of the Bengals’ interior offensive line, and this week he and that group will have to deal with Cam Heyward, perhaps the best interior defensive lineman in the league not named Aaron Donald.
Steelers C Kendrick Green: Green is undersized, and while he has a good motor and makes athletic blocks in space, he continues to get pushed backward far too often, which has been a major reason that Pittsburgh’s running game has been stymied and their passing game disrupted.
The pick: Bengals 24 Steelers 23
TV: CBS Line: Tennessee -4.5
What you need to know: Carson Wentz has multiple ankle sprains, which puts his status for this game in major doubt. That’s a very untenable position for the winless Colts, who would be looking at an 0-3 start and a loss to a division rival if they can’t find a way to win this game. With road dates against the Dolphins and Ravens looming after this game, 0-5 is a very real possibility. Indianapolis has come by its record honestly; the Colts are 24 th in points scored and 23rd in points allowed. Worse yet, they can’t get their running game untracked, and sloppiness cost them a chance at upsetting the Rams. Tennessee rode a vintage Derrick Henry performance to a crucial Week 2 victory in Seattle, and Henry did much of the heavy lifting himself, with 160 of his 182 yards coming after contact. And Ryan Tannehill? Wouldn’t you know it, the Titans went back to play-action with him in Week 2 after only attempting two such passes in Week 1. Tannehill went 9-of-12 for 162 yards on play-action passes against Seattle. Funny how that works.
On the spot: Colts QB Brett Hundley. Or will this be Jacob Eason? Hundley took the majority of the starter's reps at Indy's Wednesday practice, but the Colts are still hopeful that Carson Wentz plays. No matter how you slice it, the situation is bad.
Titans WR A.J. Brown: Brown has just seven catches for 92 yards and a touchdown on 17 targets through two weeks. He’s Tennessee’s best receiver, despite Julio Jones’ presence, and their offense can’t reach its full potential unless he gets going.
The pick: Titans 26 Colts 24
TV: CBS Line: Kansas City -6.5
What you need to know: Justin Herbert and the Chargers couldn’t close the deal against Dallas in their first SoFi Stadium game in front of fans. It should be noted that many of those fans were cheering for the Cowboys, but for the Chargers loyalists in the crowd, Justin Herbert’s interceptions in Dallas territory had to be particularly frustrating. Herbert has all the tools to be one of the next great quarterbacks in the league, but executing when the field shrinks is what separates good quarterbacks from great ones. Patrick Mahomes threw his first career interception in September in Week 2, and it opened the door for a surprising Ravens comeback. It was one of the few times that Mahomes tried to do something absurd and actually had it blow up in his face. Their star quarterback’s sloppy turnover is hardly the Chiefs’ biggest worry, though. Kansas City can’t stop anyone from running the football. The Chiefs are dead last in yards, touchdowns, and yards per attempt allowed. Not great!
On the spot: Chargers S Derwin James. Travis Kelce, if you’ve not noticed, is still the league’s most lethal weapon at tight end. James can’t fully stop Kelce – no one can – but he can absolutely match up physically and slow him down, and maybe get Mahomes to make another crucial mistake in the process.
Chiefs DC Steve Spagnuolo: Spagnuolo was rightly given credit for Kansas City’s major defensive turnaround that led to their Super Bowl title in 2019, and while his group still has talent, their results are sorely lacking, and asking Mahomes to be perfect every week isn’t a recipe for sustainable success, even with his prodigious talents.
The pick: Chiefs 34 Chargers 30
TV: FOX Line: New England -3
What you need to know: The Saints came crashing down to earth in a division matchup against Carolina, with Jameis Winston engulfed by pressure on more than half his drop-backs. Winston is not mobile in the traditional sense; he can escape pressure and use his legs as a weapon, but only if the defense isn’t expecting it. He can be devastating when he has a clean pocket, but New Orleans found out the hard way that leaving him exposed to oncoming rushers on a regular basis will lead to very bad results. The Patriots turned in a vintage defensive performance against the Jets, baffling Zach Wilson by dropping back into coverage and forcing him to beat seven or eight defenders instead of six or five. Wilson couldn’t do it, but Winston will probably be able to. Bill Belichick has a decision; dare Winston to patiently move the ball down the field, or blitz him and risk getting beat over the top. Needless to say, Belichick’s chess match with Winston and Sean Payton is appointment viewing.
On the spot: Saints QB Jameis Winston. Winston has tasted massive success and major failure in just two weeks as New Orleans’ starter, and while he undoubtedly has the talent to beat New England’s defense, he’ll have to keep his wits about him and not fall into any of Belichick’s traps.
Patriots CB J.C. Jackson: Jackson had a pair of interceptions against Wilson and the Jets, but while Winston has a propensity for turnovers, he won’t be so easily rattled. If Jackson can get another takeaway, the Patriots will likely come out on top.
The pick: Patriots 28 Saints 20
TV: FOX Line: New York -2.5
What you need to know: Arthur Smith’s tenure as Atlanta’s head coach is off to an inauspicious start. Atlanta looked terrible and got blown out in Week 1, and then completely fell apart late against Tampa Bay last week, with Mike Edwards turning a still-interesting game into a rout with two fourth-quarter pick-sixes. Matt Ryan was sacked once but hit seven times, and pressure was a factor in one of his three interceptions. If the Falcons can’t get a consistent performance from their offensive line, they won’t win many games. The Giants looked like they had it going against Washington. Daniel Jones was making big plays, there seemed to be some semblance of cohesion on that side of the ball, and all they needed was to dodge a Dustin Hopkins field goal attempt to even their record at 1-1. Of course, you know what happened next. Hopkins missed a 48-yarder, but Dexter Lawrence was barely offside on the play, and Hopkins drilled his do-over. That sort of gaffe is even worse considering Joe Judge’s reputation as a detail-oriented special teams coach.
On the spot: Falcons QB Matt Ryan. This isn’t totally fair to Ryan, of course. He can only do so much. But he has to be better, even if his line isn’t always giving him the cleanest, longest-lasting pocket from which to throw. And to be fair to that line, at least one, and possibly two of his interceptions came from relatively clean pockets.
Giants HC Joe Judge: Judge is supposed to be Mr. Special Teams, Mr. Details. The Giants are 1-1 because their special teams failed them, and that failure was caused by a lack of discipline and attention to detail. The head coach always wears a team’s failures, but when they come in his area of expertise, the scrutiny should be even greater.
The pick: Giants 30 Falcons 24
TV: FOX Line: Arizona -7
What you need to know: Arizona is living well so far, with the Vikings squandering a golden opportunity at victory with a missed 37-yard field goal from Greg Joseph. Kyler Murray has been great thus far this season, aggressively working the ball downfield and using his mobility to find better passing lanes, like on his Week 2 touchdown to DeAndre Hopkins. A key for Arizona’s continued success will be Murray’s ability to find his secondary targets when teams try to take away Hopkins. He did that in a big way against the Vikings; Rondale Moore had seven catches for 114 yards and a touchdown. Jacksonville hung tough for about three-quarters of their Week 2 loss to Denver, but had no answers for a Broncos defense that perplexed Trevor Lawrence after he got off to a fast start. Lawrence completed less than 50 percent of his passes and threw two more interceptions, the fourth and fifth of his young career. Worse yet, James Robinson and Carlos Hyde provided precious little in the running game. Lawrence may well be the Jags’ savior, but it looks like he’ll have to endure some serious growing pains first.
On the spot: Cardinals DE J.J. Watt. So far, Watt has not looked like the force that he was – when fully healthy – during his final three years in Houston. He has a quarterback hit and four hurries in two games but has yet to truly make his mark on the Cardinals’ defense.
Jaguars RB James Robinson: One of the great things about Robinson’s rookie season is that he managed to produce despite Jacksonville having no real viable offensive options beyond him. Lawrence’s rookie year would become much easier if Robinson could rediscover his 2020 form.
The pick: Cardinals 35 Jaguars 23
TV: CBS Line: Denver -10.5
What you need to know: Zach Wilson had a rough go of it against the Patriots, repeatedly missing his receivers high and throwing four interceptions in a lackluster performance. Of course, Wilson is only two games in and should get much better, but his task doesn’t get much easier this week against a Broncos defense that is down Bradley Chubb for the next several weeks but has arguably the league’s best secondary and one of its best pass rushers in the form of Von Miller. The Patriots confused Wilson by dropping defenders into coverage. Denver might try to tighten the screws with pressure. The Broncos’ formula for success has worked to perfection thus far despite some serious injury issues. Teddy Bridgewater has been efficient and accurate, completing 77 percent of his passes, and the Broncos’ defense has done a number on the Giants and Jaguars thus far. There’s no reason to think that Vic Fangio’s team won’t be able to similarly flummox Wilson and the Jets.
On the spot: Jets QB Zach Wilson. It is of the utmost importance that Wilson puts his bad game against the Patriots behind him quickly. The Jets still have to shore up several areas of their roster, and Wilson maintaining positivity during what will likely be a tough season is important.
Broncos LB Malik Reed: With Chubb out of the lineup after ankle surgery, Denver will need someone to step up and provide pressure opposite Miller. Reed had eight sacks last year and figures to get the first chance to show that he has what it takes.
The pick: Broncos 23 Jets 14
TV: CBS Line: Las Vegas -4.5
What you need to know: Miami was riding high after sneaking by the Patriots in Week 1, but all of those good vibes dissipated, as the Dolphins got flattened by the Bills in Week 2, 35-0. Tua Tagovailoa injured his ribs in the loss and won’t play in this game, so Jacoby Brissett will go. Brissett isn’t going to wow anyone, but he’s probably also not going to make a back-breaking mistake that kills Miami’s chances. The question for the Dolphins is whether or not he can make enough plays to outscore Derek Carr. Carr suffered an ankle injury against the Steelers, but finished the game and got an upset that ran Vegas’ record to a surprising 2-0. The AFC West, already a very interesting division, will get even more intriguing if Carr and Jon Gruden have really found something in their third year together. This much is true through two weeks: Carr is playing as he did in 2016 when he was an honest-to-goodness MVP candidate.
On the spot: Dolphins QB Jacoby Brissett. Brissett isn’t the dynamic runner that Tagovailoa can be, but he also has good pocket sense and an overall veteran presence, and steady demeanor. He won’t try to take too many risks but will make the throws that are there. He may have to be ready to run if the Raiders’ talented defensive front is able to get pressure as they did in Pittsburgh.
Raiders DC Gus Bradley: Early returns on Bradley’s work with Las Vegas are positive. The Raiders have been mediocre against the run, but solid enough against the pass. If Carr and the offense keep up their work, all Bradley’s group has to be is decent, and the Raiders will be dangerous.
The pick: Raiders 27 Dolphins 19
TV: FOX Line: Tampa Bay -1.5
What you need to know: This game has all the makings of an NFC Championship preview, and also features several fascinating individual matchups. Tom Brady and the Buccaneers were a little cleaner against Atlanta than they were in Week 1, and while their defense didn’t stop Matt Ryan, they did force turnovers, two of which turned into pick-sixes that turned a competitive game into a blowout. Besides injuries, Tampa Bay’s biggest potential downfall is Brady facing loads of pressure, which is why this battle with Los Angeles’ Aaron Donald should be illuminating. The Rams snuck by the Colts in a game that looked like it might be lopsided but instead turned close in the second half, with Los Angeles even having to rally after giving up a 17-6 lead. Matthew Stafford’s impact on the offense remains obvious; the Rams are star-studded on defense, and Stafford’s presence makes it seem like the offense is in the same boat. Los Angeles no doubt has something to prove, so it’s likely Sean McVay will throw the kitchen sink at the Bucs’ defense, and at Brady, too.
On the spot: Buccaneers G Ali Marpet. You wonder what goes through an interior offensive lineman’s brain when they know Aaron Donald is on the schedule in a given week. Probably nothing good. Tom Brady has faced pressure on an NFL-best 10 percent of his drop-backs this season. Marpet will have a big hand in trying to keep it that way on Sunday.
Rams CB Jalen Ramsey: Brady might not want to challenge Ramsey, but the all-world defensive back might not give him any choice. The Rams are affording Ramsey the chance to move all over the field and be a playmaker, and so far it seems to be paying off.
The pick: Buccaneers 31 Rams 28
TV: FOX Line: Seattle -1.5
What you need to know: Seattle couldn’t tackle Derrick Henry, let alone stop him, and that’s how a two-touchdown lead turned into an overtime loss. The Seahawks still have plenty to be optimistic about, however. Russell Wilson looks very good early on, and it appears that there is finally some offensive innovation happening in Seattle. Wilson currently leads the league in passer rating, and yards per attempt, and has six touchdowns against zero interceptions. If these trends continue, Seattle will be one of the NFC’s most dangerous teams, though their defense needs some serious work. Minnesota is reeling. A loss to the Bengals in Week 1 was bad enough, but Greg Joseph’s missed field goal against Arizona last week feels even worse. Minnesota can’t afford to start 0-3, but they have their work cut out for them. They’ll have to fix a defense that currently ranks 27 th in points allowed and 28th in total defense, and has struggled in particular to stop the pass. Considering who the opposing quarterback is this week, the Vikings are likely in big trouble.
On the spot: Seahawks S Jamal Adams. Adams was nowhere to be found on a big Henry touchdown run last week, and while Seattle’s defense has problems in other areas, Adams is handsomely compensated to overcome them and try to make something out of it.
Vikings S Harrison Smith: Long viewed as one of the league’s most cerebral players, Smith is going to have to try and stop an offense that has been taking deep shots – with fantastic results – and figures to do so even more as they continue to get comfortable.
The pick: Vikings 33 Seahawks 28
TV: NBC Line: San Francisco -3
What you need to know: The Packers got themselves right against Detroit, though it took them about a half to really get going. Still, Aaron Rodgers served as a useful reminder of how great he is when he’s on. What’s also encouraging for the Packers is that their offensive line, with no David Bakhtiari, is still playing pretty well. There was a particular improvement with that group from Week 1 to Week 2, though this week should provide an interesting challenge, primarily in the form of Nick Bosa. San Francisco was able to grind out a hard-fought win against the Eagles, and if the 49ers can maintain some modicum of health, it seems like they’re shaping up as one of the NFC’s best teams yet again. This should be a good test, particularly because Rodgers likely sees it as a revenge game of sorts for him. He was battered and beaten up in the 2019 NFC Championship Game, and would no doubt love to hand San Francisco its first loss of the year.
On the spot: Packers RB Aaron Jones. With San Francisco’s pass rush being what it is, Jones’ rushing and receiving skills will be pivotal to the Packers’ chances; if he can keep San Francisco off-balance and guessing, Green Bay has a chance to get to 2-1.
49ers LB Fred Warner: Warner has a reputation as perhaps the best cover linebacker in the NFL. The Packers like working Robert Tonyan in the middle of the field, and Jones out of the backfield, so Warner will likely have a busy night and must avoid giving up big gains, particularly on short throws.
The pick: 49ers 30 Packers 26
TV: ESPN Line: Dallas -3.5
What you need to know: The Eagles got a field goal to open the scoring in their Week 2 matchup with the 49ers, and then didn’t score again for the next two-and-a-half quarters, until Jalen Hurts finally plunged in from a yard out with the game mostly in hand for San Francisco. Hurts wasn’t great passing the football against San Francisco, but he does seem to be making encouraging progress as the starter. He’ll have to try and attack the Cowboys through the air, as there is plenty of speed up front to try and snuff out athletic quarterbacks, as well as sneaky run plays. Dallas got a character win against the Chargers last week, in a game I seriously did not believe they would win. The fact that the Cowboys held Justin Herbert and a high-powered offense to just 17 points is impressive, even if Herbert occasionally self-destructed in that game thanks to turnovers. It looks like the Cowboys have a star in the versatile Micah Parsons, which would be a nice counterweight to all the offensive talent assembled.
On the spot: Eagles QB Jalen Hurts. Hurts has the speed to make Dallas’ defense pay if its pursuit loses discipline and creates running lanes, but for the Eagles to pull an upset on the road, he’s going to have to at least come close to matching Dak Prescott score for score through the air.
Cowboys RB Tony Pollard: Pollard looks better than Ezekiel Elliott so far. A lot better, in fact. Will the Cowboys go with the hot hand even though he’s the man without the big contract and the name recognition? It might not be the worst idea in the world, unless of course you’re Elliott.
The pick: Cowboys 28 Eagles 23
Chris Mueller is the co-host of The PM Team with Poni & Mueller on Pittsburgh's 93.7 The Fan, Monday-Friday from 2-6 p.m. ET. Owner of a dog with a Napoleon complex, consumer of beer, cooker of chili, closet Cleveland Browns fan. On Twitter at @ChrisMuellerPGH – please laugh.