For five teams, Week 3 may be season

Sep 19, 2006 6:49 AM

It may sound preposterous to suggest that there are "must win" games in Week 3 of the NFL’s regular season, but that’s about how the situation can be summed up for several teams that made the playoffs in 2005.

It’s tough to make the postseason after starting 0-2, much less 0-3. But three teams from last season’s playoffs (Carolina, Tampa Bay, Washington) have each lost their first two games. Additionally, Kansas City and Miami are also off to 0-2 starts.

One is certain to be 0-3 barring an overtime tie as Carolina visits Tampa Bay this weekend. Complicating matters even further for both the Panthers and Buccaneers is that their two NFC South rivals Atlanta and New Orleans have both started 2-0.

It’s still way too early to panic, and scheduling dynamics often lead to situations in which some very good teams face unusually harsh challenges early in the season. However, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned if you are a fan of winless teams two weeks into the season.

Perhaps no team is in greater jeopardy of having a poor season than Green Bay. The Packers not only have started 0-2 but both losses were at home. QB Brett Favre had both highs and lows in the most recent loss to New Orleans. It appears clear that until the Pack turns to their QB of the future, the prospects for a turnaround this season are bleak.

Scoring was up about four points per game this past Sunday, averaging 38.7. That’s still about a FG below the averages in recent seasons. The ”˜over / under’ was more in balance, following the 12-4 ”˜under’ edge in Week 1. This past Sunday, the ”˜over’ advantage was only 8-6-1.

Favorites enjoyed a huge weekend. Reminiscent of last season, the favored team won 12 of 15 games, covering 11. Denver’s 3 point win over Kansas City represented the only instance of a winning team failing to cover the number. The Broncos were also the only team of five double digit favorites that failed to win and cover. Baltimore, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and San Diego all covered huge imposts.

It’s still very early, but based on the season’s first two weeks Baltimore and especially San Diego look very strong. Both have superior defenses and underrated offenses. The same can be said of Chicago in the NFC. The Bears put 34 on the board against Detroit with the most noteworthy part of that accomplishment being the four touchdown passes thrown by QB Rex Grossman. Interestingly, the Ravens, Chargers and Bears all threw road shutouts in Week 1 and followed up with home wins in which they each allowed a TD or less.

Byes begin this week with Dallas, Kansas City, Oakland and San Diego having the early chance to regroup. While both San Diego and Dallas would likely prefer to keep playing, the extra week of practice and preparation came at the right time for the Chiefs and Raiders. Each is 0-2 and in danger of seeing its season implode before the leaves turn colors.

Barring a Monday night tie between Pittsburgh and Jacksonville, 11 teams will enter Week 3 at 2-0 with the same number of teams standing at 0-2.

Here’s a look at the 14 to be played this weekend.

Sunday, Sept. 24

Jets +6 at Bills (34½): This is Buffalo’s first home game, but third straight divisional contest. The Bills have won and covered their last three home games against the Jets and have the better defense, although a couple of starters are out with injury. Jets QB Chad Pennington is off to a great start and rates the edge over Buffalo’s J P Losman. Buffalo has the far better running game, capable of burning clock and keeping the Jets defense on the field. BILLS.

Bengals +3 at Steelers (43½): You know that Cincy has had this game circled on their calendar since QB Carson Palmer was injured in last season’s playoff game against the Steelers. It’s also a key divisional game. The Bengals are better balanced this season, while Pittsburgh has lost a couple of key contributors from the Super Bowl squad. The road team won all three meetings last season. Also, Pittsburgh is off a short work week. BENGALS.

Jaguars +9½ at Colts (47) - Jacksonville has covered 5-of-8 meetings against the Colts since the teams became division rivals in 2002. The Jags continue to play well, but are overshadowed by their more high powered rival. Jacksonville is off the Monday nighter against Pittsburgh. A solid defense has made things tough for Indy QB Peyton Manning in recent meetings, holding the Colts to a modest 28. JAGUARS.

Titans +10½ at Dolphins (35½): Tennessee appears ready to turn the QB role over to exciting rookie Vince Young. Miami is winless which makes this a big game. The Fish are facing their weakest foe of the season, especially on defense. Plays that did not work against the defenses of Pittsburgh and Buffalo should succeed against this porous secondary. The Miami defense has played well, limiting Buffalo to just 171 yards of total offense. Barring Dolphins turnovers deep in Miami territory, the Titans will be hard pressed to score in double digits. DOLPHINS.

Redskins -3½ at Texans (38 ½): At 0-2, this game becomes vital for the Redskins who step down in class after facing Minnesota and Dallas. RB Clinton Portis should be back, which would open the passing game. Houston’s offense is still a work in progress under first year head coach Gary Kubiak. It will be challenged by a fundamentally sound Skins defense. Washington has major experience edges on both sides of the ball and on the sidelines. Those edges ultimately turn the tide in the second half. REDSKINS.

Bears -3 at Vikings (33): Chicago has added an offense capable of putting points on the board and nicely complementing an outstanding defense. Minnesota played well down the stretch last season and picked right up with wins over a pair of playoff teams from last season. The Vikes have won four in a row at home over Chicago. The Vikings offense has been revamped, but will be tested by the Bears. Also, the Minnesota defense has played much better. VIKINGS.

Panthers -3 at Bucs (34) - Neither team can afford a third loss. Both have struggled on offense. Carolina’s reasons are more related to injuries along the offensive line and the absence of stud receiver Steve Smith. Tampa has simply gotten poor QB play from Chris Simms. Both have played very well on defense. Each should continue to rely on the defense to keep them in the game. UNDER.

Packers +6½ at Lions (38): The loser falls to 0-3 and can virtually forget about making any run to the playoffs. Both are led by new coaches. Detroit has been slow to adjust to the new offense but has faced two pretty solid defenses. Both teams lost one sided games to the Bears. Five of the last six meetings have gone under and the Lions have not scored more than 17 in any of the last four games against the Pack. UNDER.

Ravens -6½ at Browns (33): Baltimore has been impressive with an improved offense complementing an outstanding defense. Cleveland has struggled on offense and faces its stiffest test. The Browns defense is improved notwithstanding Cincinnati’s performance last week. This looks to be a game played rather conservatively, emphasizing the run and settling for field goals. UNDER.

Rams +4½ at Cards (45): Arizona is playing a third straight divisional game, splitting the first two. St. Louis lost in San Francisco last week and now must make a second straight trip West. Being favored is a new role for Arizona. The Cards certainly have the offense to compete with any team in the league although the running game is still a concern. St. Louis appears to be much improved on defense. RAMS.

Giants +4 at Seahawks (45): The Giants staged a 17 point comeback at rival Philly last week and got a win in overtime. Seattle was workmanlike in defeating feisty Arizona but the offense was not as explosive as it was in 2005. These teams played a tight game here last season, won by Seattle in OT as the Giants suffered kicking woes. The teams are very evenly matched, making anything more than a FG attractive. This will be the best all around team the Seahawks have faced by far. NY GIANTS.

Eagles +6 at Giants (41½): The Eagles may still be in shock after blowing a 17 point fourth quarter lead last Sunday. San Francisco has played two solid games to start the season, but now faces a legitimate defense. After opening last season with a 14-10 Monday night loss in Atlanta, the Eagles returned home in Week 2 and blasted the Niners 42-3. It should not be as one sided this season, but the gap in talent and the motivating sting from last week should result in a full 60 minute effort. EAGLES.

Broncos +6½ at Patriots (39): Denver has been very shaky in splitting its first two games. The offense has played poorly behind QB Jake Plummer, who enters this game short on confidence and perhaps looking over his shoulder at backup Jay Cutler. Conversely, the defense has excelled, not allowing a TD in either game. New England rebounded from a sloppy opening game effort to outplay the Jets. The Pats are in the rare spot of having double revenge from a pair of losses to the Broncos last season. PATS.

Monday, Sept. 25

Falcons -3 at Saints (41): This game is for first place in the NFC South. The Saints return to the Superdome for their first regular season home game since 2004 and there will be a festive atmosphere. New Orleans played well in winning two on the road, but faces a much tougher defense. Similarly, Atlanta faces its weakest defense in the early season. Atlanta’s powerful running game ultimately wears down the fragile New Orleans defense. Michael Vick should have a strong second half. FALCONS.