Last week, NFL fans were treated to a highly-competitive opening week. There was a plethora of games that were decided by less than 10 points. This week, there aren’t as many intriguing matchups, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a few things to watch for. On Thursday night, the New York Jets defeated the Buffalo Bills in what turned out to be a high-scoring affair, to put Buffalo at 0-2 and last place in the AFC East. Not many had that as a must-see game this week, but nonetheless it turned in to be one. There are three key divisional games to keep track of this week.
Cincinnati Bengals @ Pittsburgh Steelers
When officials have to warn teams days in advance about how to conduct themselves on the field, you know bad blood is in the air. That is the perfect description to describe the rivalry between the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers. The rivalry will add a new chapter on Sunday at Heinz Field. Last season, the two teams met three times, including once in the playoffs which turned into an ugly game.
In Week 8 last year, Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict tackled Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell and celebrated afterwards. No big deal, right? Well the hit looked like a dirty one and the end result was Bell tearing his MCL, ending his season. Burfict also appeared to take a cheap shot at the knees of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which drew the ire of the rest of the Steelers team, including head coach Mike Tomlin, who refused to shake Burfict’s hand after the game. Fast forward to the playoff matchup and Burfict once again was in the midst of controversy as he took a shot to the head of wide receiver Antonio Brown, knocking him out of the game and the next round matchup against the Broncos with a concussion. The hit garnered a three-game suspension for Burfict, which he will serve game two of on Sunday.
Speaking of Brown, can the Bengals slow him down? The best receiver in football scorched the Redskins on Monday night to the tune of eight receptions for 126 yards and two touchdowns. The Bengals have a stout defense, but there might not be a defense in the league that can stop Brown. If Cincinnati can’t find an answer for Brown, the game could get out of hand.
The biggest key to this game will be the turnover battle. In that Week 8 matchup last season, Roethlisberger, who was coming off an MCL sprain and missing the previous four weeks, threw three interceptions including two crucial ones in the fourth quarter. Both of those costly interceptions cost the Steelers the game as Cincinnati converted those interceptions into points. Again, fast forward to the playoff matchup. The Bengals seems to have the game in hand, but then running back Jeremy Hill fumbled the ball away, giving Pittsburgh new life and eventually the win.
The emotional battle will also be a key factor in this contest. The season won’t be lost for the loser of this game, but a win will go a long way in the battle of the AFC North.
Dallas Cowboys @ Washington Redskins
Basements can often times be cold, dark and scary. The loser of this game will fall to 0-2 and be in sole possession of last place in the NFC East. Neither one of these teams want to or can afford to be the basement dwellers in the early goings of this season.
Washington is coming off an embarrassing drudging at the hands of the Steelers on Monday night, while Dallas is coming off a close divisional loss to the New York Giants. Each team has many questions to be answered after Week 1 and heading into this key divisional matchup in Week 2.
Will rookie quarterback Dak Prescott be able to get wide receiver Dez Bryant involved? Against the Giants, Bryant had one of the worst statistical games of his career, reeling in one pass for eight yards. Prescott, who thrived in the preseason, did not fare well when passing the ball down the field last week. The Dallas offense needs Bryant to be at his best if they want to compete this season. An interesting question will be whether or not Washington cornerback Josh Norman will be the one to blanket Bryant. In the game against Pittsburgh, Norman received a ton of flak for not covering Brown and being stationed on the left side of the field. If Norman does draw the assignment of covering Bryant wherever he is on the field, then that will be a lot tougher for Prescott to get Bryant involved.
Rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott was able to find the end zone for this first career touchdown against the Giants, but did not play to the best of his abilities. He even said he was not drafted to play the way that he did. Well, Sunday could very well be the coming out party of Mr. Elliott. The Washington run defense is lackluster to put it nicely. In Week 1, Washington allowed Pittsburgh running back DeAngelo Williams to run wild all night. Williams finished with 143 yards and two scores. The Washington defensive line should be no match for the Dallas offensive line, which is considered to be the best in football.
Kirk Cousins, who is in a contract year, will look to bounce back from a poor performance against a Steelers defense that isn’t known for their secondary play. Dallas has question marks all over the defensive side of the football and Cousins could cash in on that this weekend. Whichever defense can make the most plays will determine who avoids the defense of the NFC East.
Green Bay Packers @ Minnesota Vikings
The grand opening of the Minnesota Vikings new U.S. Bank Stadium will feature a clash of two NFC North rivals. The Green Bay Packers, who are favored to win the division, will take on the Vikings, who are looking to prove last year’s division win was no joke. This will be an interesting Week 2 matchup with the winner moving on to 2-0.
The protection of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will be vital to the success of Green Bay. Last year against the Vikings Rodgers struggled against the Minnesota front seven. He threw for only three touchdowns and got hit often. If the Packers offensive line can’t protect Rodgers, it could be a very long day in the Twin City. Rodgers has his favorite weapon in Jordy Nelson back from injury and he will look to get him the ball early and often. The Vikings secondary will have its hands full with not only Nelson, but the likes of Randall Cobb, Davante Adams and Jared Cook.
Adrian Peterson is looking to bounce back after an off week against the Titans. Peterson rushed for only 31 yards on 19 carries against a decent Titans defense. This week will not be easy for Peterson either. Much like the front seven of the Vikings giving Rodgers fits last year, the same can be said of the Packers front seven being able to contain AP. In the two meetings last season, Peterson rushed for just 56 yards. With Sam Bradford being given the reigns, Peterson will need to be able to shake free in order to open up the passing game for Bradford. If there is no quality balance of pass and run, the Vikings can be in trouble.
If Bradford can show the ability to manage this game, the Vikings will be in good shape, especially after scoring two defensive touchdowns against the Titans, the Vikings will be better off. IF Rodgers has time to go through his progressions and reads, the Packers will have the upper hand. This matchup should be a low-scoring affair, with the winner taking a slight advantage in the divisional race two weeks into the season.