It's now two straight weeks without a plethora of marquee match-ups across the league. Nevertheless, we've still got a few clashes on the docket between teams that should be contenders for their respective division titles. So, let's start there.
Green Bay at Cincinnati
Aaron Rodgers absolutely immolated the hapless 'Skins last Sunday, but the Bengals' D is far from hapless. They have a pretty good amount of hap, in fact. What they haven't had is consistent pressure from Geno Atkins, and he'll need to step up even stronger now that Robert Geathers is gone for the season. Cincy's still got the stronger pass rush and a good enough secondary, but 'good enough' isn't good enough when you're trying to overcome a disparity the size of Rodgers vs. Dalton.
The Score: Packers 27, Bengals 20
Houston at Baltimore
With Ray Rice ailing and Arian Foster plodding, the difference-makers on the ground in this matchup are likely to be Bernard Pierce for the Ravens and Ben Tate for the Texans. Neither back will find easy pickings, but a few key third-and-short conversions could be vital in what looks like a close contest. Houston's Johnathan Joseph should do a better job on Andre Johnson than Lardarius Webb will be able to do on Andre Johnson, though, and that coupled with Houston's rookie receiver advantage should tip the balance in the Texans' favor.
The Score: Texans 23, Ravens 20
Atlanta at Miami
Lost in the groupthink laugh-a-thon that many writers had at the expense of Dolphins' GM Jeff Ireland for his shotgun approach to the offseason was a simple fact -- it looks like that defense could be pretty good. The Miami D has looked sharp through two games, with old standbys Cam Wake and Randy Starks, and newcomers Brent Grimes and Daniel Ellerbe all wreaking havoc on opposing passers. Of course, Matt Ryan and company will provide a sterner test than a rudderless Browns offense and the fail-tastic front of the Indianapolis Colts. The problem for the Falcons is that their own defense took some hits this week with the loss of Sean Weatherspoon and Kroy Biermann. With next to no pass rush and a pair of rookie corners hanging in the butcher shop window, Atlanta's defense may give up a little more than Ryan-to-Julio can overcome.
The Score: Dolphins 27, Falcons 23
Indianapolis at San Francisco
No easy, Jacksonville or New Orleans-style transition for new Colt Trent Richardson! No, instead he'll be getting thrown right at a 49er front that will be out for blood after their beating by the Seahawks. He probably won't see more than a dozen or so carries on Sunday, since Indy didn't bring Richardson in to help Andrew Luck only to have him blow a protection and hospitalize Luck his first game out. Luck should be able to make some hay with T.Y. Hilton and Coby Fleener against the 49ers' newly suspect secondary, but the 49ers are going to own the line of scrimmage on both sides in this one.
The Score: 49ers 31, Colts 20
Almost every game has come down to the final possession or two this season, and a few surprising teams have found themselves on the right side of the ledger at the final gun. Four of those teams square off Sunday in a pair of interesting if aesthetically unfortunate match-ups.
Buffalo at New York Jets
The two teams picked to battle for the basement in the AFC East...will probably still battle for the basement, but may be doing so in more entertaining fashion as these E.J. Manuel- and Geno Smith-led squads have shown a good degree of frisk in the young season. Actually, 'frisk' sounds more offense-oriented than these two defense-led squads have been so far, so let's go with 'spunk' instead -- that sounds like it has a little more edge to it. The Jets have the edge in spunk with a stout front seven and Cromartie Cove (the slightly less intimidating version of Revis Island), while the Bills counter with the frisk of Manuel, C.J. Spiller and Stevie Johnson. Spunk and home field advantage should be juuuuuust enough in this one.
The Score: Jets 21, Bills 20
San Diego at Tennessee
A pair of squads that had been left for dead have shown a lot of life two games in. Tennessee surprised Pittsburgh before taking the Texans to the brink, while San Diego gave Houston another scare before winning a wild shootout with Philly. Or maybe Houston just isn't playing well right now and all this is a mirage? At any rate, the Chargers' fortunes took a blow with the likely loss of D.J. Fluker to a mid-week concussion. Without him, the Titans' edge on both sides of the line of scrimmage may be too much for Rivers and company to overcome -- especially if this continues to be one of Titans safety Michael Griffin's patented Dr. Jekyll seasons.
The Score: Titans 24, Chargers 20
The last chancers
With the dismal track record for 0-3 teams seeking to make the playoffs, this Sunday could represent a do-or-die proposition for several clubs.
Tampa Bay at New England
The military precision that Greg Schiano was supposed to instill in his Tampa troops is looking more reminiscent of Stripes so far in 2013 -- come to think of it, Schiano was probably born to play Sgt. Hulka. A Week 1 victory was scuttled by Lavonte David's idiotic out-of-bounds hit on Geno Smith, while what could have been a game-winning 73-yard strike to Vincent Jackson against the Saints went bye-bye thanks to an illegal formation call. Throw in an ongoing tete-a-tete with his QB and recently reported friction with Darrelle Revis and you've got a pretty unimpressive picture for Sergeant Schiano. Things aren't likely to get better against the Pats -- while Tampa's defense can keep an un-synced Patriots O from going off, Belichick has been coaxing bad reads and bad throws out of better QBs than Josh Freeman for a long time.
The Score: Patriots 24, Buccaneers 17
New York Giants at Carolina
There's desperation on both sides as sneaky preseason darlings New York and Carolina have staggered out of the gate. There's no shame in losing to Denver or Seattle, but the Giants' Benny Hill sketch against Dallas and the Panthers' come-from-ahead heartbreaker against Buffalo have to rankle quite a bit. So who stumbles their way to victory in this one? The Giants' D-line is currently better at stuffing the run than getting after opposing QBs, but that fits pretty well with slowing down Carolina. On the other side of the ball, the Panthers' already dubious secondary is battling multiple injuries and the outright loss of safety Charles Godfrey; Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz could have a field day.
The Score: Giants 27, Panthers 21
Chicago at Pittsburgh
After an unwatchable contest with Tennessee and a more systematic choke-out at the hands of division rival Cincinnati, the Steelers are in dire straits. The return of Heath Miller could give them a bit of a boost, but this is still a Steeler offense dependent on two undersized wideouts -- bad ju-ju, in other words, against one of the game's best corner tandems in Jennings and Tillman. The Steelers' pass rush has also had major problems getting home so far in 2013, making it a tall order to disrupt Jay Cutler behind Chicago's newly competent offensive line.
The Score: Chicago 24, Pittsburgh 20
Detroit at Washington
A balky knee and a baleful secondary have the Redskins on the ropes. Washington's pass defense has been atrocious so far (not that the run D has been spectacular), and while Matt Stafford isn't a paragon of quarterbacking consistency, he's got little excuse not to put up an air show in this one. The key question is whether the Redskins can keep up, and the answer probably won't excite Skins fans. RGIII has promised to run more, but it just doesn't look like the wheels are all there at this point in the season. The Detroit secondary can be had, but is a guy who has yet to step into a single first-half throw this season going to start doing so with the game's dirtiest player barging toward his knees every snap? It could be another too-little, too-late comeback for Washington that could end up mirroring their season if they land in an 0-3 hole.
The Score: Detroit 30, Washington 27
These games...should not be close. One of them will be, since the football Gods like nothing more than stomping on a good two-team teaser, but outside of divine intervention these things could get out of hand quickly.
Jacksonville at Seattle
The Jags' best hope is that the Seattle crowd is still hoarse from its world record scream-a-thon against San Francisco on Sunday Night. And that Russell Wilson has been reading press clippings all week and decides to try some 'Hey, Ma -- watch this!' throws. And that Alan Ball and Will Blackmon can stay close enough to any receivers for the concept of 'risky throw' to even have meaning. And that Marshawn Lynch actually snapped the truck stick off his personal controller while over-using it against the 49ers. OK, the Jags don't have a lot of good hopes.
The Score: Seahawks 34, Jaguars 14
The potential upset script -- or at least the keep-it-respectable script -- is a little easier to swallow here. Start off with some read option confusion from the Denver defense after two straight weeks against pure pocket passers. Add in a dash of of Lamarr Houston whipping up on the Broncos' backup left tackle, a couple of drops from Welker, maybe a long kick return, and you could be looking at an uglier-than-necessary 20-14 game late in the third quarter. If that happens, Peyton Manning will still just call down thunderbolts and annihilate the Raiders, but hey -- interesting game through three quarters!
The Score: Broncos 38, Oakland 20
We've got three more contests that didn't fit cleanly in any other grouping and defied a common categorization. But it's more football, and that's always good. Back in late May you would have KILLED to watch any one of these games.
Cleveland at Minnesota
After the Richardson trade and the dubbing of Brian Hoyer to lead the Browns' attack, this one nearly landed in the previous category. Cleveland's D is still a touch too salty and Christian Ponder not nearly salty enough for this game to qualify, but Minnesota should still win in handy if somewhat grotesque fashion. In fact, 'grotesque' might not cover it -- this one could actually turn you to stone Gorgon-style if you watch it, so best to keep up by ESPN Gamecast or something.
The Score: Minnesota 24, Cleveland 10
St. Louis at Dallas
It's a Flawed 1-1 Team Showdown -- who's excited? The Rams have to be fairly excited after Sam Bradford's career day against the Falcons, but some of that shine comes off when you take a look at how their secondary has been absolutely ravaged so far. Dallas has fewer gaping flaws other than its always hilarious run game, but it's a squad that can express boundless creativity in finding ways to lose. Inspired by the CenturyLink Guinness effort last weekend, though, the Dallas crowd should work themselves up to a 75-decibel murmur to give their boys the edge.
The Score: Dallas 24, St. Louis 23
Arizona at New Orleans
The Honey Badger has, in accordance with his species' rep, not given a s*** so far this season while showing zero rookie jitters in slot coverage. The Cards should give a game effort in this one, but Brees will make a couple too many plays as the offense (potentially) celebrates cutting free from the NFL's biggest productivity anchor in Mark Ingram.
The Score: New Orleans 27, Arizona 20