- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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With 20 teams starting the season at 1-1, people are talking about parity and balance.
As ESPN's Lee Corso says, "Not so fast, my friend." The talent gap between the bottom of the AFC and the rest of the league is distinct and is going to significantly influence the standings the rest of the season. The NFC is already 7-1 against the AFC.
How times change. The AFC had the edge over the NFC from 1995 to 2010 and did not have a losing interconference record during that 16-year span. Last year, the NFC beat the AFC 33-31. Based on the start of this season, the NFC could be heading to a 44-20 season similar to the AFC's dominance in 2004, or like the 40-24 mark the AFC posted in 2006.
Should that happen, the chances of one or two 8-8 teams making the playoffs increase. In 2004, only four NFC teams had winning records and eight were 6-10 or worse. In 2006, only five NFC teams had winning records and five were 6-10 or worse.
All you have to do is look at ESPN.com's most recent Power Rankings to see the initial signs pointing to a 44-20 scenario for the NFC this season.
Seven AFC teams are ranked in the bottom eight in the league. The seven worst are Miami (25), Tennessee (26), Indianapolis (27), Kansas City (28), Oakland (30), Jacksonville (31) and Cleveland (32). Their combined records are 2-12. The two wins are the Colts over the Minnesota Vikings (29) and the Dolphins over the Raiders.
Here are the 10 trends to watch in Week 3.
1. Showdown in Baltimore: The Patriots head to Baltimore on Sunday night trying to sort out what's happening with their offense. New England lost tight end Aaron Hernandez to a high ankle sprain last week, and it threw off the flow of the offense. Their two-tight end formations dropped from 66 snaps in the opener to 20 against the Cardinals. Wide receiver Wes Welker had a 95-yard receiving day from the slot, but he has surprisingly fallen behind Julian Edelman in the receiver rotation. With Hernandez out for a month, head coach Bill Belichick brought in free agents Kellen Winslow at tight end and Deion Branch at receiver. The question going into the game with the Ravens is how Winslow and Branch will be used. The Patriots started the season as a two-tight end offense that tried to incorporate more running plays with halfback Stevan Ridley. But the Ravens, despite giving up 258 rushing yards in the first two weeks, are a difficult team to run against. Will Tom Brady spread the field and throw or continue to focus more on running? Whatever happens, the Patriots need this victory if they want to have a home-field edge against Baltimore or any other top AFC team in the playoffs.
2. Another tough challenge for Peyton Manning: Houston Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is studying game tapes of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Atlanta Falcons to find the best way to slow down Manning, who excelled against the Steelers but struggled against the Falcons. In two games, Manning has made it clear his passing game is restricted to a 20-yard area. He is completing 74.1 percent of his passes when the ball travels 20 yards or fewer in the air, but according to ESPN Stats & Information, he's 0-for-5 on throws 21 yards or longer. His three interceptions in the first quarter against Atlanta came outside his 20-yard comfort zone. Phillips' mission is to get pass-rushers to Manning quickly to get him out of rhythm on shorter throws.
3. Not so super in the Superdome: The Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints both entered the season thinking playoffs. One team will come out of this game 0-3, a hole that is hard to climb out of for a team trying to make the postseason. The slow start for the Saints is explainable. They are down two coaches: head coach Sean Payton and assistant head coach Joe Vitt. Their defense is making a tough coordinator transition from Gregg Williams to Steve Spagnuolo, going from an aggressive hybrid style to a zone-blitzing scheme that is having problems with coverage. Opposing quarterbacks are completing 71.7 percent of their passes against New Orleans and have a 135.5 quarterback rating. The pass-rush pressure hasn't been there. After two weeks, the Saints are the worst team in football when rushing five or more defenders, allowing 17 completions on 21 attempts for 310 yards and three touchdowns. The Chiefs started the season without four starting defenders, and they have fallen apart in second halves. Their defense is giving up 9.54 yards per passing attempt, and combined with five touchdown passes that means the Chiefs' defense has helped opposing quarterbacks to a 130.2 quarterback rating.
4. Are the Chargers for real? Normally, Norv Turner's teams get off to slow starts. This year they are 2-0, but the schedule may play a part. They struggled to beat the Raiders 22-14, and they blew out the Titans. Sunday's home game against the Atlanta Falcons will be a true test. Turner is taking particular pride in his defense. The Chargers faced Darren McFadden and Chris Johnson and have allowed only 83 rushing yards in two games and a 2.8-yard average. The defense has allowed only two touchdowns and 24 points in two games. But the Falcons come to town with Matt Ryan mixing in no-huddle offensive plays with some of the best offensive talent in football. The Chargers must find ways to contain WRs Julio Jones and Roddy White along with not letting tight end Tony Gonzalez move the chains with short completions.
5. Are the Cardinals for real? No one expected the Arizona Cardinals to be 2-0, particularly when their first road game was in New England. Somehow, some way, they continue to win close games. They have winnable games coming against Miami, St. Louis, Buffalo and Minnesota. Sunday the Cardinals host the Philadelphia Eagles. Could it be possible for the Cardinals to win that game and get off to a 7-0 or 6-1 start? We'll see. The one thing we know is that the Cardinals have an underrated defense. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton uses the Pittsburgh Steelers' style of 3-4 and has defenders confusing quarterbacks. This defense has difference-makers such as Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, Daryl Washington, Patrick Peterson and Adrian Wilson. It faces quarterback Michael Vick, who has been scrambling to overcome a nine-turnover start to the Eagles' season.
6. NFC West turnaround: Last year, the San Francisco 49ers emerged as one of the best teams in the NFC, but the Seahawks, Cardinals and Rams were 10-20 in games outside the division. While the 49ers are off to a 2-0 start, the other three teams are 3-1 outside the division with wins over the Patriots, Cowboys and Redskins. The 49ers shouldn't have much trouble this week. They visit the Minnesota Vikings. The Cardinals will be challenged by the Eagles. The Seahawks host the Green Bay Packers on Monday night, and the Rams visit the Chicago Bears. The NFC West is different from most divisions. It stresses defense and running the football. All four teams are unbeaten at home. This week could alert the world that the NFC West is no longer a doormat.
7. Heat is on Cutler: The extra break between the Bears' Thursday night loss in Week 2 to Green Bay and Sunday's game against the Rams has been painful for Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler. All anyone talks about is how he embarrassed left tackle J'Marcus Webb after a sack by yelling at him and bumping into him. Cutler has been an easy target because of his offensive line. The Bears benched guard Chris Spencer this week, but will that be enough to help Cutler? He has been sacked nine times in two games and has thrown five interceptions. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Cutler is completing only 54.3 percent of his passes when rushed by four defenders or fewer. When defenses bring the extra defender, Cutler is even more troubled. He has been sacked six times in 33 drop backs, is completing only 48.1 percent of his throws against the extra pressure and has three of his five interceptions.
8. Friendly faces: As always, games create some interesting reunions. The 49ers bring Randy Moss back to Minnesota, but this is a different Moss. He's no longer a full-time player. Coach Jim Harbaugh has put Moss on the field for only 21 plays in the first game and 15 in the second. Even in a limited role, Moss has helped stretch the field. He has five catches for 61 yards and a touchdown. The Miami Dolphins host the New York Jets and the game features the return of former Dolphins coach Tony Sparano, who is the Jets' offensive coordinator. Sparano brought the Wildcat to Miami, so the Dolphins should know how to defend the Jets' version of it. Last week, though, the Jets' Tim Tebow was on the field for only three plays. Tebow hasn't thrown a pass this season. Will Sparano be basic or creative against his former team? We'll see. Kevin Kolb is the Cardinals' starting quarterback, but no one knows him better than the Eagles, who drafted him and groomed him for the controversial trade to Arizona. It will be interesting to see how the Eagles defend him.
9. Young guns alert: Five rookie quarterbacks and five draft choices from last year are starting. Week 3 should start to separate which young quarterbacks are making progress and which ones are regressing. Washington's Robert Griffin III, who has been impressive in two starts, gets his home debut against a Bengals defense that is allowing 35.5 points and 325.5 yards a game. Jake Locker of the Titans will try to bounce back from a poor performance against the Chargers with a trip to Detroit. Cleveland's Brandon Weeden threw well in Week 2 against the Bengals. This week, the Buffalo Bills will test how far he has come. The Colts' Andrew Luck outdueled Christian Ponder of the Vikings in Week 2. This week, Luck hosts Jacksonville and Blaine Gabbert, who did well against Ponder in the opener but regressed in Week 2 against the Houston Texans.
10. Protect your back on a kneel-down: Cowboys owner Jerry Jones supported Bucs coach Greg Schiano's stance to play to the whistle and hit Eli Manning on a kneel-down at the end of the Giants' win over the Bucs last week. In fact, Jones believes the league should eliminate the kneel-down and replace it with a real play. Of course, Jones wants to be in position for Tony Romo to kneel down at the end of Sunday's game against the Bucs in Dallas. Romo has to be excited about playing a Bucs defense that gave up so many big plays through the air in New York.