The title implies that we’ve done this in prior weeks. We haven’t.
During a long day of travel (I’m flying regularly now, which means I’m learning the realities of certain airlines deliberately overbooking a flight and playing a slow game of “Deal or No Deal” to clear the excess with travel vouchers!, even if it means some passengers won’t make it to their connections), a light flickered. Since the entire week is spent cranking out story after story after story regarding the latest news (some of which lately still relates to, you know, the games) why not put together in advance of each Sunday’s games a look at each contest by presenting three questions/topics/nuggets/whatever in one place?
So we’ll give it a try. Drop a comment on whether you’d like it to continue. Ultimately, the decision will be made based on how many of you actually give it a read.
Or how many of you don’t.
Panthers at Ravens
1. Who’ll run the ball for Carolina?
The Panthers have a bunch of running backs. For a change, that’s a good thing. Jonathan Stewart is unlikely to play with a knee injury, Fozzy Whitaker is doubtful with a thigh problem, and Mike Tolbert has landed on injured reserve, with designation to return. After missing a pair of games with a hamstring injury, DeAngelo Williams is ready to play. And he’s ready for the blood and guts promised by former Panthers receiver Steve Smith. Tauren Poole is ready to pitch in, after being elevated from the practice squad.
2. Who the hell is James Hurst?
Ravens left tackle Eugene Monroe will miss some time after minor knee surgery. The next man up is a man who wasn’t drafted in 2014.
James Hurst, a rookie from North Carolina, gets the first opportunity to play at the spot that has been largely unsettled since Jonathan Ogden retired. The best new for Hurst is that Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy remains on the rabbit-from-hat-or-other-orifice exemption list.
If Hurst struggles, look for the Ravens to instead reshuffle its deck of veteran blockers.
3. Ravens should run, run, and run some more.
Sure, receiver Steve Smith will want to do as much damage as he can to the Carolina defense with the ball in his hands. But with Hurst at left tackle and the Carolina defense giving up on average 6.3 yards per rush, why not just run the ball straight at the Panthers defense, with Smith serving as a decoy?
Steve may not like that very much, but if it helps ensure a third straight win, it will be hard for him to complain.
Packers at Bears
1. Where have you gone, Jermichael?
Tight end Jermichael Finley still hasn’t joined a team after neck surgery in 2013. And the Packers still haven’t replaced him.
Much-hyped youngster Brandon Bostick has done nothing in two games this year. In fact, beyond Andrew Quarless (eight catches, 77 yards, one touchdown), the Packers tight ends have contributed not a single catch to the cause.
They need more from the position, if they’re going to continue to be among the best teams in the league.
2. Is it really time to R-E-L-A-X?
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers apparently believes the Packers remain among the best teams in the league, advising antsy Cheeseheads to chill by spelling about a five-letter word this week: Relax.
That’s fine, but yet another five-letter word will be appropriate if the Packers lose at Chicago and then falter against the Vikings on a short week: Panic.
3. When will Brandon Marshall’s ankle heal?
During a Week One loss to the Bills, star receiver Brandon Marshall emerged with an ankle injury. It continues to hamper him, with Marshall not practicing at all this week and officially questionable.
With five more games until the bye week, Marshall may need a week off before then.
Bills at Texans
1. Will Arian Foster play?
Enigmatic Texans tailback Arian Foster missed last week’s game with a lingering hamstring problem, and he could end up missing Sunday’s visit from Buffalo. Officially, Foster is a game-time decision. That’s the kind of uncertainty coach Bill O’Brien, a Bill Belichick disciple, surely loves.
Fantasy owners surely feel differently. Either way, an answer will come by 11:30 a.m. ET.
2. Can the Bills neutralize J.J. Watt?
Two weeks ago, Buffalo’s blockers handled Cameron Wake, rendering toothless one of the best pass rushers in the league. The challenge will be even greater against Watt, a dominant defensive presence who continues to thrive even in a version of the 3-4 that was supposed to make him a little less conspicuous.
How conspicuous he is, or isn’t, on Sunday could go a long way toward helping the Texans surpass last year’s win total before the end of September.
3. Can Fitzpatrick keep it up?
Sure, it’s only Week Four. But the veteran quarterback already has a career high in completion percentage (64.0), yards per attempt (8.5), and passer rating (91.8). He’ll want a little revenge against the Bills, who cut him last year. The Bills may want a little revenge for all the money Fitzpatrick made before playing at a level that required the front office to move on.
Titans at Colts
1. Charlie Whitehurst? Really?
After the 2013 season, the Titans opted not to pay veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick $3.25 million for 2014. Instead, new coach Ken Whisenhunt brought to town perennial backup and real-life Serpico Charlie Whitehurst.
Yes, Charlie Whitehurst. The man with four career starts in nine seasons. The man who has thrown three touchdown passes and four interceptions in his career. The man who was yanked from a game in Seattle several years ago in favor of Tarvaris Jackson with a bad pec.
Whitehurst apparently will get the start on Sunday, if Jake Locker can’t go. And the Colts may win by 50.
2. Will Trent Richardson ever become a big-time back?
The Colts have a potent offense. It would be even more potent if tailback Trent Richardson would become the guy the Browns thought he’d be in 2012 — and the guy the Colts thought he’d be last September.
So far, it hasn’t happened. Richardson has 156 yards rushing through three games. It’s not bad, but it’s not enough to justify giving up a first-round draft pick.
With each passing week, it’s looking less and less likely that Richardson will become the guy that made him a top-three pick in 2012. And his career underscores the reality that only a sure-fire Jim Brown/Barry Sanders/Adrian Peterson type ever will be drafted that high in the future.
3. Is Russell Wilson really better than Andrew Luck?
Speaking of the 2012 draft, Broncos cornerback Chris Harris declared after playing both the Seahawks and Colts only 14 days apart that Russell Wilson is better than Andrew Luck. Last year, I said I’d take Wilson over Luck if building a team from scratch. It would be a close call, but Wilson seems to be the ideal young quarterback to serve as the nucleus of a team for the next decade, or more.
That said, it’s hard to go wrong with either guy. If Luck had landed with the Seahawks, Seattle probably would be the defending Super Bowl champions. And if Wilson had landed in Indy, the Colts would likely be a perennial playoff team, with the possibility of doing a lot more, sooner than later.
Lions at Jets
1. How short is the leash on Geno Smith?
When it comes to quarterback Geno Smith, coach Rex Ryan continues to support the starter. And Ryan will continue to support Smith. Right up until the point that Ryan doesn’t.
Ryan has shown that his words about starting quarterbacks can’t be trusted. Previously, Ryan said Mark Sanchez would be the starter as long as Ryan is the coach.
The game is a simple one — Ryan wants to give Smith every chance to thrive. If/when Smith continues to struggle and Rex’s margin for error to make the playoffs shrinks, that unconditional support unequivocally will be shifted to Mike Vick.
2. When will Chris Johnson get back to being Chris Johnson?
Viewed as a coup when the Jets added the man who dubbed himself CJ2K, the signing of Chris Johnson has yet to result in rave reviews. Through three games, Johnson isn’t even CJ2C, with 123 yards rushing and an anemic average of 3.5 yards per carry.
So maybe the Titans were smart to dump his $8 million salary.
3. Where’s Eric Ebron hiding?
With the 10th pick in the 2014 draft, the Lions could have drafted defensive tackle Aaron Donald. It’s a move that would have made sense, what with Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, and C.J. Mosley each in contract years.
Instead, they added another weapon for the offense in tight end Eric Ebron. And Ebron has to date been lost in the shuffle.
Three catches, 38 yards. Probably not the kind of production the Lions had envisioned.
Some thought he’d land with the Giants, who play in the stadium where the Lions will face the Jets on Sunday. As it turns out, the Giants have found their Eric Ebron in Larry Donnell.
Dolphins at Raiders
1. Is Ryan Tannehill about to be benched?
One of the strangest story lines of the week came from Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, who deliberately evaded multiple questions regarding whether Ryan Tannehill remains the starting quarterback.
While Philbin’s method smacks of madness, it’s no surprise that Tannehill could be under the gun. Switched from receiver to quarterback while at Texas A&M under coach Mike Sherman, Tannehill spent his first two NFL seasons running Sherman’s offense. Now with former Eagles quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor bringing Chip Kelly’s attack to town, Tannehill must adapt.
It’s possible that Matt Moore will be able to run this specific offense better. It’s probable that Philbin will be fired if the team doesn’t make it to the playoffs. Put it together and it’s certain that Philbin already is considering making a change after a pair of sluggish performances following an unlikely Week One win over the Patriots.
2. Is Dennis Allen about to be fired?
The chatter about owner Mark Davis dumping Dennis Allen and elevating offensive line coach Tony Sparano ended when the Raiders gave the Patriots all they could handle in their own building. But with the bye week looming and an 0-4 start a possibility, could Davis pull the trigger if the Raiders lose in ugly fashion?
It’s not likely, but it’s amazing how silent the media has gotten on the topic, after it reached a crescendo last week. The Raiders still lost the game, and if they lose another before embarking on a post-bye schedule that goes Chargers, Cardinals, Browns, Seahawks, Broncos, Chargers, Chiefs, the Raiders could be spending Thanksgiving saying tanks for nuttin’ with an 0-11 record.
3. Is London about to be bored by a bad game?
If the NFL wants to get folks in London addicted to the NFL, the NFL needs to send them a higher quality drug. While Dolphins-Raiders would have been a great one 30 or 40 years ago, it’s a stinker in 2014. It’s selection for London was fueled not by the quality of the matchup but the willingness of the Raiders to trade a home game for the much greater financial haul that comes from hosting a game at Wembley. If the NFL wants to continue those financial hauls, it needs to export better teams, and better games.
Buccaneers at Steelers
1. How bad are the Buccaneers?
Based on that Thursday night game against Atlanta, pretty bad. Based on the preseason expectations of many, horrible.
Playing at Pittsburgh isn’t the way to turn things around, especially with the Steelers looking like maybe they’re in the process of becoming the Steelers again.
For now, the fan base isn’t getting too upset, still basking in the glow of bringing Lovie Smith back to Tampa. If the losses continue, that eventually will change.
2. Can the Steelers overcome defensive injuries?
For the Steelers to play more like they did in Week Three and less like they did in Week Two, they need to overcome plenty of injuries. Cornerback Ike Taylor has a broken arm. Linebacker Ryan Shazier has a bad knee. Linebacker Jarvis Jones has been placed on injured reserve, with the designation to return.
Previously retired linebacker James Harrison is back, and linebacker Sean Spence will finally get a chance to shine after a devastating knee injury two years ago.
3. Where’s Dri Archer?
Dynamic rookie Dri Archer entered the league with a belief that he’d contribute on special teams and as a receiver. So far, he hasn’t done much.
But that’s primarily because he missed the last two games with an ankle injury, after generating only four yards from scrimmage and 29 return yards in Week One. He’s healthy and ready to go on Sunday. Ideally for the Steelers, the answer to this question against the Bucs will be, “Everywhere.”
Jaguars at Chargers
1. Can Blake Bortles make a difference?
Blake Bortles gets a baptism by blast furnace in San Diego, where the 2-1 Chargers are waiting to fatten up their record against a Jaguars team that has been far worse than predicted.
But keep this in mind — the Chargers don’t have any meaningful tape to study on Bortles, beyond his second-half performance against the Colts. For the first month or two of his time as a starter, that gives the Jags a real edge.
That may not be nearly enough to allow the Jags to outscore the Chargers, but maybe it means they won’t get blown off the field in San Diego.
2. Can Donald Brown carry the rushing attack?
A disappointment for most of his career in Indianapolis, Brown broke out after the Colts acquired Trent Richardson. Now a member of the Chargers, Brown is the last man standing after Ryan Matthews and Danny Woodhead suffered injuries.
So far, the 2014 season hasn’t gone very well for Brown. He’s averaging two yards per carry on 40 attempts. He’ll need to do a lot better than that.
Maybe they should trade for Trent Richardson.
3. Wasn’t Keenan Allen supposed to be even better this year?
A rare rookie receiver to gain more than 1,000 yards last year, Allen was supposed to be even better this year. So far, he’s not. He’s averaging 36.3 yards per game, and fewer than 10 yards per catch.
So, basically, he’s not better.
Offensive coordinator Frank Reich has explained that Allen has made other contributions, like with blocking. Until that’s a category in fantasy football, most won’t care.
Falcons at Vikings
1. Is Teddy ready?
Entering last week’s game at New Orleans with the Vikings trailing 13-0, rookie Teddy Bridgewater helped the Vikings gradually make it interesting. With a full week to prepare and a home game, Bridgewater has a real chance to get a win — especially since the Falcons don’t have much film to break down in an effort to shut down Bridgewater.
2. Who replaces Kyle Rudolph?
Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner likes to throw the ball to the tight end. But Kyle Rudolph just had sports hernia surgery. While the depth chart suggests Rhett Ellison will be the next man up, look for Chase Ford to get the most chances to fill the void.
3. How much more can Devin Hester do?
Last week, Devin Hester had a return touchdown and a rushing touchdown against the Bucs. During his career, Hester has scored plenty of times against the Vikings.
Voice of the Vikings Paul Allen pointed out on Twitter this week that Hester has four return touchdowns and five receiving touchdowns against the Vikings, with an average distance per score of 58.2 yards. Which means that Hester could have yet another big day.
Eagles at 49ers
1. Does the first half/second half difference matter?
The Eagles have played great in the second halves of games this year. The 49ers haven’t.
Philly coach Chip Kelly has downplayed the first half/second half disparity, but the truth is that he has figured out how to ensure that his players will be in better position to perform when the game means the most. And other teams will be even more motivated to copy his techniques in order to help their players do the same.
Hopefully for cornerback Cary Williams, his next team won’t be one of those.
2. Can the Eagles stop Colin Kaepernick?
Kelly spent time this week praising the 49ers quarterback. Come Sunday afternoon, Kelly will expect his defenders to do something that will cause slightly more pain.
If any coach can figure out how to defend a mobile quarterback like Kaepernick, it’s Kelly. Especially since other teams have managed to make Kaepernick look not quite so great, more often than not.
3. What’s wrong with LeSean McCoy?
Whatever the reason — and it could be the injuries on the offensive line — LeSean McCoy hasn’t played like LeSean McCoy.
This year, McCoy has 60 carries for 175 yards through three games. Last year through three games, he had 62 carries for 395 yards. This year, McCoy has gained 2.9 yards per carry. Last year, he gained 6.3.
With McCoy carrying a huge cap number, he’ll need to have huge production to justify it. Otherwise, LeSean eventually could end up going the way of DeSean.
Saints at Cowboys
1. Were we wrong about the Cowboys?
Owner Jerry Jones is crowing about his 2-1 team. But let’s take a closer look at the whether their wins are worth really bragging about.
Dallas beat the Titans and Jake Locker, and then the Rams and Austin Davis, who actually racked up a 21-0 lead. While wins mean plenty in the NFL, the Cowboys have yet to face a true franchise quarterback. Tonight, they will. If they beat Drew Brees and the Saints, then they can predict a whole return to the days of glory.
2. Where’s the Dallas pass rush?
The Cowboys’ defense depends on the front four getting plenty of pressure on the quarterback. Through three games, the Dallas defensive line has a grand total of 0.5 sacks.
The easy answer to the question is “Denver and Washington,” given the decision to cut DeMarcus Ware and to not bring back Jason Hatcher. Regardless, the guys they’re putting on the field currently aren’t getting it done.
3. Can Rob Ryan duplicate what he did to the Cowboys last year?
The easy answer to this question is “hell no.” Last year, Dallas gained only 193 yards against Rob Ryan’s new defense. This year, the Saints are giving up nearly twice that amount per game.
It’s still not clear what’s wrong with Year Two of the Rob Ryan attack. Perhaps his return to Dallas, the site of the last job from which he was fired, will help him figure out how to make 2014 look more like 2013.
Even then, don’t expect Dallas to gain fewer than 200 yards.