Heading into Week Three of the NFL season, the field has been leveled. 20 teams are 1-1, set to either move forward or fall below .500 this week.
Not only that, there are a couple of matchups involving four of the six 2-0 teams in the league so, in all likelihood, more teams will suffer their first losses leaving, at most, four unbeaten teams at the end of the week.
There are six winless teams, with only Kansas City and New Orleans going head-to-head. The Saints are a surprise at 0-2, but if they come up short at home against Kansas City, then this season will have gone right off the rails.
Nothing like having expectations crushed before the season reaches October.
A look at this week's matchups.
N.Y. GIANTS (+2) at CAROLINA
After a stirring comeback in Week Two, the Giants come into Thursday night shorthanded, missing RB Ahmad Bradshaw, WR Hakeem Nicks and RT David Diehl, so that poses some problems. Andre Brown was productive filling in for Bradshaw last week, so he'll likely get the bulk of the carries this week, with an opportunity for David Wilson to see some action too.
No matter, that duo isn't as potent as the Panthers' running game, led by DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, but the greater concern for the Giants could be that Nicks' absence will allow the Panthers to focus their coverage on Victor Cruz, the player with the most targets (28) through two weeks. With Cruz facing double coverage, the G-Men will need other receivers to rise to the occasion, whether that's tight end Martellus Bennett or young wideouts Ramses Barden or Rueben Randle (Domenik Hixon is also out for the Giants), someone will have to come up with a big game.
From Carolina's perspective, they had a secondary receiver rise up last week. Brandon LaFell had six catches for 90 yards in the win over New Orleans, which makes Carolina much more dangerous because the Giants might be able to attack the running game, but Cam Newton can exploit a mediocre Giants secondary with even a little pass protection.
ST. LOUIS (+7.5) at CHICAGO
This week could be a bounceback for both the Rams and Bears. After putting up 31 points against the Redskins, with QB Sam Bradford passing for 310 yards and WR Danny Amendola accumulating 160 yards through the air, St. Louis goes to Chicago to face a strong Bears defence, which includes corners Tim Jennings, Charles Tillman and Kelvin Hayden.
If it's more difficult for the Rams to pass this week, then they'll need the running game and that is a question mark with Steven Jackson nursing a groin injury that caused him to leave last week's game. Daryl Richardson and rookie Isaiah Pead can fill in for Jackson, but they don't have the track record of productivity like Jackson.
From the Bears' perspective, they had a miserable game at Green Bay last week, with QB Jay Cutler pouting his way through the loss, complaining to linemen about lack of protection and the Rams will hope that defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn might be able to throw Cutler off his game with the pass rush this week.
Should Cutler have the time to throw, he has to get WR Brandon Marshall more involved -- after 15 targets in Week One, Marshall was targeted just five times at Green Bay -- and the Rams will have corners Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins providing aggressive coverage.
If the Rams manage to limit Cutler and Marshall, the focus will be on running back Michael Bush, who takes on the primary ball-carrier role with Matt Forte out. Bush has seven career 100-yard rushing games, including three last season, so he's more capable than the standard backup, but this game could end up being decided by which team's backup runner can grind out yards.
BUFFALO (-3) at CLEVELAND
After laying an egg in Week One, both teams were much better in Week Two. The Bills, who at least won handily in Week Two, figure to keep RB C.J. Spiller as the featured part of their offence. These things happen when you lead the league in yards from scrimmage (364) after a couple of weeks.
Slowing down Spiller will be a team effort, but expect Browns MLB D'Qwell Jackson, who had 156 total tackles last season and has three sacks and two picks already this season, to be front and centre for Cleveland. Cleveland's pass defence isn't as strong without suspended CB Joe Haden, but forcing the Bills to air it out to win is a reasonable plan of attack, considering how much QB Ryan Fitzpatrick has struggled.
After getting destroyed in Week One, the Browns showed up in Cincinnati last week, with QB Brandon Weeden passing for 322 yards and RB Trent Richardson gaining 145 yards from scrimmage. The Bills defence was more effective against Kansas City than the final score indicated -- the Chiefs scored a couple of fourth-quarter touchdowns when the outcome had been decided -- so Richardson may not be running free but, as expected coming into the season, he's the Browns' best chance to pull off the upset.
TAMPA BAY (+8) at DALLAS
For the first six-and-a-half quarters of the season, Tampa Bay's defence was a punishing and effective group, but then they allowed 328 yards from the midpoint of the third quarter through the end of the game against the Giants last week, coughing up a 14-point lead in the process.
Because Eli Manning passed for 510 yards against the Bucs last week, the thinking is that the Cowboys should be able to throw and take advantage of the Tampa Bay secondary, but the group isn't that bad. Dallas has weapons and may have an edge with mismatches in multiple-receiver sets, but Dallas likely needs a strong rushing game from RB DeMarco Murray to open up the passing attack.
Dallas' defence was run on by Marshawn Lynch in Seattle last week, so expect Tampa Bay rookie Doug Martin to get plenty of work as the Bucs have been relatively conservative offensively, passing 52 times through two games, and Dallas' coverage, particularly from cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, is a strength of their defence.
JACKSONVILLE (+3) at INDIANAPOLIS
After getting destroyed by Houston last week, the Jaguars -- especially second-year QB Blaine Gabbert -- should be thankful to have an easier defence to face this week, but Jacksonville also has to deal with a Colts passing attack that has been quite effective.
With WR Donnie Avery adding a deep threat across from Reggie Wayne and rookie TE Coby Fleener a reliable option, rookie QB Andrew Luck has thrown for 533 yards in two games and could put pressure on a Jaguars secondary lacking playmakers.
N.Y. JETS (-2.5) at MIAMI
After scoring 48 points in Week One, the Jets' offence was stifled in Pittsburgh last week and they'll have to be sharp against a Miami defence that is pretty strong, particularly in the front seven, which could put more pressure on Jets QB Mark Sanchez to throw downfield.
Miami's passing game is no thing of beauty either, with rookie Ryan Tannehill still learning the ropes and figuring out who will be his top receivers. Last week, Brian Hartline was the guy, but the Dolphins' attack has been driven by RB Reggie Bush, who has accrued 312 yards from scrimmage. Can the Jets slow him down, or is this finally the superstar season that was expected of Bush when he was drafted second overall in 2006?
SAN FRANCISCO (-7) at MINNESOTA
Facing San Francisco's defence will be no walk in the park for the Vikings, who have some weapons in WR Percy Harvin and RB Adrian Peterson (for as much as he's used -- AP has 33 carries through two games as he returns from knee surgery), but dealing with the 49ers' defence is a daunting task for second-year QB Christian Ponder. Good for him if he can spread the ball around and find the right guys at the right time, but Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford have struggled against the Niners this year already.
Because their defence is so dominating, the Niners don't have to leave their comfort zone offensively. That means a solid running game and Alex Smith hooking up with TE Vernon Davis, including the wide receivers on occasion, to keep defences honest. The Vikings need DE Jared Allen to get in Smith's grille all game long, in the hopes the pressure might cause Smith to turn the ball over, something he hasn't done since Week 12 last season.
KANSAS CITY (+9) at NEW ORLEANS
Going up against the Saints' porous defence does give the Chiefs a chance to put up some points this week. RB Jamaal Charles struggled against Buffalo, but the Chiefs can turn to Peyton Hillis or Shaun Draughn to pick up the rushing slack and Kansas City's big receivers can always present matchup problems, but especially for a Saints secondary that has struggled early.
As much as some might has expected the Saints to struggle after their offseason suspensions, it's been stunning to see them give up 75 points to Washington and Carolina. Showing just the slightest hint of defensive competence could be enough to get them going in the right direction.
DETROIT (-3.5) at TENNESSEE
Neither team has been satisfied with its running game thus far, but there are differences. Detroit has received adequate production from Kevin Smith, who has 161 yards from scrimmage, but think they can do better and have second-year RB Mikel Leshoure coming off suspension this week to provide an alternative. If the ground game is solid, that ought to help the passing game and, judging by last week's loss in San Francisco, QB Matthew Stafford could use a little help.
Tennessee's lack of rushing attack is more problematic because it rests in the hands of RB Chris Johnson behind an offensive line that has had problems creating holes. Johnson is getting hit in the backfield and he's not elusive or strong enough to compensate.
If the Lions can keep the Titans' running game locked down, then that forces second-year QB Jake Locker to win the game through the air. Maybe he get hot and connects with wideouts Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright or Nate Washington enough to march down the field, but it seems like a longshot if the Titans are hoping that their passing game will provide more than Detroit's.
CINCINNATI (+3) at WASHINGTON
The Bengals rebounded in Week Two, but it was a home game against Cleveland, not quite the same as Week One's visit to Baltimore. To the Bengals' credit, though, they got more receivers involved against Cleveland, with Armon Binns, Brandon Tate and Andrew Hawkins all contributing and helping to ease the pressure on emerging star A.J. Green.
Washington's defence lost a couple of starters in its front seven -- DT Adam Carriker and OLB Brian Orakpo -- so it could be tough to shut down a balanced Bengals attack, and there still remains some question on the health of WR Pierre Garcon, who has missed seven of eight quarters this season with a foot injury.
If Garcon isn't ready to go this week, that means star rookie QB Robert Griffin III will be looking more to wide receivers Santana Moss, Aldrick Robinson and Leonard Hankerson in the passing game and if Brandon Weeden can pass for 322 yards against the Bengals, what might RGIII do if the Redskins have to match the Bengals score for score?
PHILADELPHIA (-3.5) at ARIZONA
Somewhat surprisingly, these are two undefeated teams taking the field. The Eagles have a pair of one-point wins and looked a lot better coming back to win against Baltimore than they did in Week One at Cleveland. The Eagles have the talent, if wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson are healthy enough, to put pressure on the Cardinals' defence.
While Arizona's defence has been quietly effective -- not as quietly after upsetting the Patriots last week -- and they will need their defence to force turnovers, they face challenges offensively. The running game has struggled, with both Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams failing to gain traction early. Worse, the one sure thing in the passing game, WR Larry Fitzgerald, had one catch for four yards at New England.
If the Eagles can prevent Fitzgerald from getting involved, and that's conceivable with Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie forming a strong tandem on the corners, then Arizona will have to rely on secondary options -- WR Andre Roberts, TE Todd Heap -- to move the ball and that's an unlikely route to success.
ATLANTA (+3) at SAN DIEGO
Another matchup of 2-0 teams, with the Falcons taking their increased passing attack to SoCal. While the Falcons have a wide receiver duo -- Julio Jones and Roddy White -- to put pressure on the Chargers, there are bigger issues if they can't get a more consistent ground attack established. Michael Turner's role has decreased and he's averaging a meagre 2.6 yards per carry. He's also coming off an arrest for DUI, so it's not exactly the best of times for the ex-Charger to be returning to face his former team.
As the Falcons' running game has been a problem, the Chargers have also faced challenges in that regard, yet help could be on the way. While Curtis Brinkley, Jackie Battle and Ronnie Brown have taken turns filling for the first couple weeks, it appears that Ryan Mathews will be able to return from a broken collarbone suffered in the preseason. If Mathews and TE Antonio Gates, who both missed Week Two's win over Tennessee, return to action, San Diego will have enough weapons offensively to keep pace with the Falcons.
HOUSTON (-1.5) at DENVER
The (controversially) number-one ranked team in the TSN.ca Power Rankings gets their first good test of the season, visiting the Broncos in Denver, after a couple of easy wins against Miami and Jacksonville.
After running a very conservative (ie. a lot of runs and short passes) offence, the Texans may be inclined to throw more often against a Denver defence that looked pretty good, despite allowing 27 points in their Monday night loss -- the things that field position after turnovers can do to a team.
The biggest issue for the Broncos, coming out of the Monday night loss at Atlanta, is the arm strength, or lack thereof, for Peyton Manning, who hasn't been able to complete one pass more than 20 yards down the field through the first two games. If the Broncos can't get the ball deep, that will allow the Texans to cheat on shorter routes.
Maybe Manning has to pick his spots differently -- going down the seam left his balls hanging in the midst of too much defensive traffic -- but he'll have to find a way to keep the Texans honest. Given all he's accomplished in the league, Manning may very well make adjustments that improve the Broncos' passing game, but it won't come easily.
PITTSBURGH (-4) at OAKLAND
Even without OLB James Harrison and SS Troy Polamalu, the Steelers were a handful for the Jets last week, so they could be entirely capable of shutting down a Raiders offence that couldn't amount to much against Miami.
Oakland has been a mess offensively. They gave the ball to RB Darren McFadden 28 times in the opener, then 13 times last week. There's nothing wrong with picking other options in the offence, but if the Raiders aren't going to use McFadden, they should be able to exploit their deep speed, with Darrius Heyward-Bey and Denarius Moore both capable of going vertical.
The Steelers are still trying to figure out their own running game, as both Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman were relatively ineffective last week, combining for 53 yards on 24 carries against the Jets, but the Raiders' secondary should be hard-pressed to keep tabs on Steelers wideouts Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders.
NEW ENGLAND (+2.5) at BALTIMORE
Even though both teams are 1-1, this is the game of the weekend, as the Patriots try to re-establish their offensive credentials, against a Ravens defence that can still bring it.
Losing TE Aaron Hernandez for "a few weeks" is an issue, so the Patriots signed TE Kellen Winslow and WR Deion Branch to help with a passing attck that hasn't been as dominant so far this season. With Hernandez gone, also look for WR Wes Welker to resume a more prominent role in the Patriots' passing attack.
Baltimore's offence is much more focused on passing this season, too, with RB Ray Rice getting just 26 carries through the first two games. TE Dennis Pitta has been a surprising focal point, catching 13 balls in the first two games, and the ability to move the ball with underneath routes opens up the deep game for wide receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones.
GREEN BAY (-3.5) at SEATTLE
If the Packers play in Seattle like they did at home against Chicago last Thursday, then Seahawks rookie QB Russell Wilson will be desperately trying to escape the clutches of OLB Clay Matthews, never mind attempting to throw down the field. Seattle's defence is underrated in some circles, but could provide a test for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' passing offence.
Since the Seahawks aren't equipped to trade big plays with the Pack, they need RB Marshawn Lynch to grind out yards; basically, they need Lynch to be more productive than his Green Bay counterpart, Cedric Benson, in the hopes that a shorter game gives Seattle a better chance in front of their home crowd.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.