- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
- 0 Shares
So much for what was privately considered a lost weekend in the NFL.
When the NFL mapped out its 2011 schedule under the cloud of a lockout, it had to plan for a late start for the season. In case a labor agreement wasn't reached in time, the 16-game schedule had provisions to be shortened to 14 by having two weeks in which there were no divisional games.
Fortunately, labor peace is scheduled for the next 10 years, and fans are being treated to a great schedule. Michael Vick's return to Atlanta is the headliner, but one of the pivotal games in the AFC playoff picture is this week: the San Diego Chargers at the New England Patriots. The so-called lost weekends have big winners.
Even though the Patriots have won four of their past five games against Philip Rivers and San Diego, the Chargers match up reasonably well against New England. The odds favor the Patriots in this game, but this will be a good test to see how the Chargers might match up against the Patriots in the playoffs.
The Chargers can start looking ahead to the playoffs as long as they get off to a good start and stay ahead of the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders in the AFC West. General manager A.J. Smith will be able to see how the veteran additions of Takeo Spikes and Bob Sanders help the defense against Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense.
Rivers will get a chance to see how his talented pass-catching team can go against an ever-changing Patriots secondary, which unloaded Brandon Meriweather, James Sanders and Darius Butler. The Chargers have three home games in their first four, so they don't have to look at this as a must-win game to get off to a fast start. But the game could set the stage for a later meeting.
Here are the 10 things to look ahead to this weekend:
1. Vick's return to Atlanta: Falcons fans have been waiting for this reunion for years. As mad as Falcons fans were about Vick's fall, he was very popular. Will there be more Vick jerseys in the Georgia Dome than Matt Ryan jerseys? The Falcons had a horrible start to the season, but they did the same last year with a loss to the Steelers on the road against a fourth-string quarterback. Ryan has never posted an NFL quarterback rating better than 80 in a game on grass. He's totally at home in Georgia Dome. Last season, he completed 66.4 percent of his passes for 1,929 yards and 15 touchdowns in eight home games. His quarterback rating in the Georgia Dome was 99.1. With the addition of wide receiver Julio Jones and the improved health of slot receiver Harry Douglas, Ryan should improve on his 6.82 yards per attempt from last year's home games.
2. Revenge of the NFC South: The NFC South went 0-3 against the NFC North last week. The South has three more chances this weekend to rise again. The Saints have their home opener against the Chicago Bears. The Green Bay Packers visit the Carolina Panthers and Cam Newton. An interesting matchup is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' visit to the Minnesota Vikings. A 10-win team a year ago, the Bucs may be paying the price for being conservative in player transactions this offseason. They added only 11 players. Last week, they let a hot Detroit Lions team come in and dominate them. Running back LeGarrette Blount wasn't happy about getting only five carries for 15 yards in the loss. Entering the regular season, the NFC South appeared to be the league's best division, but it has to start showing it on the field.
3. Recovering from Week 1: Wednesday's injury report was 33 percent bigger than the league's final injury report last week. As expected, bodies weren't ready for three-hour football games after an offseason without coaching, OTAs and training. The Rams face the toughest task in their Monday night meeting against the New York Giants. They could be without halfback Steven Jackson, wide receiver Danny Amendola, cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher and Ron Bartell and tackle Jason Smith, all from injuries suffered Sunday against the Eagles. The Giants won't be sympathetic because they were down two defensive ends, two linebackers and several cornerbacks when the season started. The Broncos have major concerns for their meeting with the Cincinnati Bengals. Cornerback Champ Bailey (hamstring), running back Knowshon Moreno (hamstring), defensive end Elvis Dumervil (shoulder) and wide receiver Brandon Lloyd (groin) had MRIs on Tuesday for injuries that cost them practice time this week. Injuries to receivers Marques Colston (shoulder), Kevin Walter (shoulder), Jacoby Ford (hamstring), Sammie Stroughter (foot) and others will have impacts for their teams.
4. Olin Kreutz against the Bears: In the past decade, no offensive lineman controlled a locker room better than Kreutz. He was Mr. Chicago Bear. But when contract talks broke off after the start of camp, Kreutz thought about giving up the sport unless something better came along. Something better turned out to be the New Orleans Saints, Sunday's opponent for the Bears. The Bears' line did OK without him in the opener, but the Bears know it is a work in progress. Coach Lovie Smith patched Kreutz's loss by moving Roberto Garza from guard to center. Garza faces the challenge of going against defensive tackles Sedrick Ellis, Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin. Kreutz shouldn't have any problems with the Bears' defensive tackles because he's practiced against them for years.
5. Figuring out where teams are: No coach panics after one bad game, but a couple of teams need to get checks on how good they really are. The Chiefs head that list. No one saw their 41-7 loss to the Buffalo Bills coming, and coach Todd Haley has to get a quick rebound. It won't be easy. The Chiefs travel to Detroit and have to take on the Lions without their best defensive player, Eric Berry (season-ending knee surgery). Last Sunday, the Lions put Bucs coach Raheem Morris in discovery mode. Tampa Bay visits the Vikings. Jim Caldwell of the Colts knew his team would have a tough Sunday opening the season against the Texans without Peyton Manning. Sunday's home game against the Cleveland Browns is a test to see whether the Colts have a chance to be competitive or if they are going to have a five- or six-week season. Reggie Wayne did a great job trying to keep the Colts in the second half of the Texans blowout, but it will be up to Kerry Collins to generate some type of offense against the Browns.
6. Rubbing it in: It's bad enough for a struggling Seahawks team to go to Pittsburgh to play an angry Steelers team that was manhandled in an opening loss to Baltimore. The Seahawks are the biggest underdogs of the week, and the league didn't help matters by assigning Bill Leavy as the referee. Longtime Seahawks fans are still stinging from the loss to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XL. Leavy recently acknowledged that his crew made mistakes on two fourth-quarter calls, one that would have given the Seahawks the ball at the Pittsburgh 1-yard line.
7. New equipment suggestion: How about oxygen masks for defenders? Fourteen quarterbacks threw for 300 yards in Week 1, and offenses across the league amassed an NFL-record 7,842 combined yards. Games averaged 47 points in combined scoring. Will it continue? Probably. Offenses are ahead of defenses because good quarterbacks can go into shotgun and no-huddle sets and play pitch-and-catch with receivers. Sure, defenses will start to catch up, but the opening-week stats are telling. According to ESPN Stats and Information, 17 quarterbacks attempted 20 or more passes out of shotgun formations in Week 1. When the offense is running shotgun and no-huddle, defenders are gasping for breath after three plays or so.
8. Are the Bills for real? Buffalo entered the season as the lead candidate to have the first pick in the 2012 draft and select Stanford QB Andrew Luck. The Bills came out of the gate looking like a playoff team, blowing out the Chiefs on the road 41-7. Sunday's game against the Raiders will be more of a reality check. Buffalo coach Chan Gailey believes in spreading the field with receivers, and he buried the Chiefs with a steady diet of four-receiver sets or three-receiver sets with tight end Scott Chandler also on the field. According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Bills ran 44 plays with three or more receivers. They gained 256 yards on those plays, but it's interesting to look at the breakdown. Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 12 of 20 passes out of those sets for 154 yards, and the Bills had 23 runs for 109 yards. The Raiders will have had a week to study those tendencies and see if they can find answers.
9. Do you like the new Chad Henne? The Dolphins lost to the Patriots in the opener, but the coaching staff opened things up for their much-maligned quarterback. Coach Tony Sparano went Air Henne and Miami, one of the most conservative teams in the league last season, led the NFL with 62 plays in three or more receiver sets in Week 1. Henne threw for 416 yards, but drives failed at times when the Dolphins got near the goal line. Henne accounted for 451 yards of total offense in these spread formations, and this week he'll go from facing Tom Brady to matching up with Houston's Matt Schaub, who wasn't asked to do much last week to beat a Colts team without Peyton Manning.
10. Place for beleaguered quarterbacks: San Francisco is the site Sunday for the matchup of Alex Smith, who many can't believe is back with the 49ers for a seventh season, and Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, the target of critics for the mistakes that blew last Sunday night's game against the Jets. Romo didn't hide from the controversy and acknowledged he cost the team the game. Owner Jerry Jones supported Romo, but he has no choice. Jones structured Romo's contract in a way that makes a separation impossible without serious cap consequences. Smith, meanwhile, may benefit from a depleted Cowboys secondary. The top three corners on the Dallas roster -- Terence Newman, Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick -- are all hurt.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Michael Vick's return to Atlanta provides drama, but San Diego-New England may be a playoff preview, writes John Clayton.