Week three wraps up with an original AFL rivalry as the Raiders travel to Denver as heavy underdogs while Peyton Manning gains some much needed exposure to a national television audience. In a scheduling oddity, this will be the first game this season between two teams from the AFC West.

Oakland Raiders at Denver Broncos
Monday September 23 at 8:30 pm ET
ESPN (Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden)
Line: Broncos favored by 14½ (as low as 14, as high as 16)
Over/under is 48½ (low of 48, and high of 50 at noon today)

Pre-Game Options:
FOX Football Daily, 6:00-7:00 on FOX Sports 1
Around the League Live, 6:00-7:00 on NFLN
NFL Monday QB, 6:30-7:30 on CBS Sports Network
Monday Night Countdown, 6:30-8:20 on ESPN
NFL Total Access, 7:00-8:00 on NFL Network

Denver has arguably been the most impressive team in the NFL through two weeks, at least offensively if not overall, scoring 90 points and outscoring their opponents by 40 points. Manning has completed 67 percent of his passes, with nine touchdowns passes and zero interceptions after two games, and Denver has now won thirteen consecutive regular-season games.

Oakland was expected to be awful this year with an eye on 2014, blowing up their roster while finally coming up with a long range plan rather than short term band aids. The Raiders dumped several players that were not part of their future even though it caused them to an more than $50 million in dead money on their salary cap, jettisoning Richard Seymour, Carson Palmer, Rolando McClain, Tommy Kelly, Darrius Heyward Bey, Michael Huff and others.

The defense has been better than expected, as the Raiders allowed just 248 total yards to Jacksonville, one week after giving up 274 yards at Indianapolis. After almost upsetting Indy in Week One as 11-point underdogs, the Silver and Black picked up their first victory of the year last Sunday at home over Jacksonville. Oakland ran for 226 yards in that game, but on the downside the Raiders had trouble finishing off dives, settling for four field goals – including three from inside the 30. Oakland is now 2-0 against the spread, covering as an ten point underdog at the Indianapolis and as a 4½ point favorite against the Jaguars.

On offense Terrelle Pryor has been better than I expected he would be, completing 64% of his passes, though he has thrown just one touchdown pass and two picks. Pryor has also rushed for seven first downs and 162 yards while RB Darren McFadden has averaged 4.9 yards per carry and 177 yards, including four runs of 20+ yards. Expect the Raiders to try and grind it out on the ground, not just to keep Manning off the field, but because of their lack of options at receiver. Rod Streater is Oakland’s top WR; the second-year UDFA from Temple has 8 receptions for 112 yards this year after catching 39 passes for 584 yards and three TD last year. For Oakland to have any chance they will need to come up with a turnover or two on defense while keeping their defense off the field; in two games thus far they have been able to do that to a certain extent, rushing for 171 yards in week one and then 226 yards last week.

Denver has a short week to prepare for Philadelphia, who will be playing with a chip on their shoulder and ten days to prepare and recover. My guess is that John Fox will look to rest as many of his players as possible once the Broncos have a comfortable lead, utilizing the running game to play keep away and run the clock down.

Prediction: Broncos 35, Raiders 20
Raiders +16
Over 48

 

Much has been made of the fact that Aldon Smith blew a .15 at 7:00 am, and I have seen more than one person jump to the conclusion that Smith woke up and started drinking before heading to practice. That’s extremely unlikely, because for that to happen Smith would have had to have had about nine drinks in 90 minutes or so before heading of to work. Keep in mind that your blood alcohol content goes up about .02 for every drink, and down about .01 for every hour that passes. A much more plausible scenario: Smith started drinking at about 8:00 pm and had approximately one drink every half hour (plus one or two shots) until 2:00 am. He then went to bed (okay, passed out) and woke up with what he thought was simply a hangover. In actuality he was still drunk, with his BAC only having been lowered from .20 to .15 during that time.

Just a few days ago I was right behind a driver who was likely in similar condition on the way to work. On a two-lane road they weaved back and forth, once coming perilously close to an on coming bus and a few seconds later nearly hitting the curb. The road expanded to two lanes in each direction but there was no getting past that car, as they straddled the white lane while drifting back and forth for about mile before managing to stop for a red light. As I made my right turn past them there was no evidence that my initial thought that texting while driving was the culprit, but eyes barely open made me think the driver was most likely still drunk from the previous night. Hopefully they manged to make it to their destination without causing any harm.

Now I am not in any way condoning what Smith did, but most people can think back to their misspent youth and think of drinking that much on occasion. The difference is that Smith has much more at stake, and his previous history has shown a pattern of what is likely alcoholism and poor decision making. For his sake hopefully the compulsory leave of absence and treatment in rehab will be effective.

 

Just a short while ago many were declaring the NFC to be the vastly superior conference in the National Football League. If I were to believe what others were stating, the NFC was so dominant that the AFC Championship Game would be irrelevant, that the real championship was the NFCG; the Super Bowl was a formality as any one of a half dozen NFC teams were head and shoulders above any AFC club.

Through the first three weeks of the season the NFC has stumbled to 1 3-11 record against the AFC. The only victory of note by the NFC was Chicago’s three-point win at home against the Bengals; the other NFC victories have been against 0-3 Pittsburgh and the woeful 0-3 Jacksonville Jaguars.

While it is far too early to draw any meaningful conclusions, it is certainly worth tapping the brakes on any talk about a shift in power to the NFC.

 

Here’s a look at the NFC teams, from top to bottom. The conference has a lot of seriously flawed teams that many overrated when concluding that the NFC was so much better than the AFC.

1. Seattle Seahawks (3-0)
Right now Seattle is simply the best team in the NFL. They haven’t missed a beat despite the departure of DC Gus Bradley. After three games the Seahawk defense is allowing an NFL-best 9.0 points per game, an NFL-best 242 yards per game, rank 4th with 4.3 yards per play, are third with 15.0 first downs per game, and are second with 10 takeaways.

2. Chicago Bears (3-0)
Chicago continues to force turnovers, and once again they lead the NFL with 11 takeaways. Many people seem to think that a defense coming up with turnovers is just luck, but it is more than that when you are among the league leaders year after year. The Bears force mistakes, are sound on special teams, and are very efficient on offense (a 2nd-best 10.5 yards per point). This team isn’t getting their due because of late season collapses under Lovie Smith, but right now Marc Trestman has them playing well. They were dealt a severe blow with Henry Melton being lost for the rest of the season; it will be a big challenge for Nate Collins or Zach Minter to fill in. However, the Bears do have a favorable schedule; other than two games against Green Bay the only others that might be challenging are both at home, against the Saints and Ravens.

3. New Orleans Saints (3-0)
The Saints have been able to move the ball (6th-best 404 yards per game), but are middle of the pack in scoing (23.3 points per game, T-15th). They haven’t been good in the red zone (31st, 33.3%) but that should improve under Sean Payton. The defense has dramatically improved under Rob Ryan; they’re fifth in points per game (12.7) and yards per game (296). We will know a lot more about this club when they head into their bye in week 7; their next three games are home versus the Dolphins, at Chicago, and at the Patriots in Foxboro.

4. Green Bay Packers (1-2)
The Pack may be better than the Bears and Saints even if their record does not support that claim. Green Bay lost two close games to two good teams on the road (49ers and Bengals) by a combined total of ten points. While the defense still needs help, the offense is fine. The Packers rank second in points (32.0 ppg), second in yards per play (6.7), and first in first downs (26.0 per game)

5. Dallas Cowboys (2-1)
While much of this can be attributed to the ineptitude of the rest of the NFC Least, right now the Cowboys are clearly the best team in the division. Their only loss came on the road to an undefeated team, they rank 10th in points allowed (18.3) and are giving up just 3.9 yards per carry and 66 yards rushing per game, while forcing seven turnovers (T-7th).

6. Atlanta Falcons (1-2)
Like many dome teams, the Falcons don’t perform nearly as well on the road as they do at home. Since 2008 Atlanta is 34-7 in the Georgia Dome in the regular season, and having the next three games at home should help keep them close to the Saints in the NFC South while trying to weather their injury bug. Their pass defense is still mediocre; the Falcons are allowing 296 yards passing per game (26th) and 16 passing first downs per game, third worst in the NFL.

7. San Francisco 49ers (1-2)
Have opponents figured out Colin Kaepernick? It’s one thing for the Seahawks to stymie the 49ers in Seattle, but a for a meh Indianapolis defense to do so on the road is eye opening. The 49ers aren’t getting it done on either side of the ball. Their offense ranks 29th in scoring (14.7 ppg) and 27th in yards (318) while the defense is allowing 28.0 points per game (25th); their point differential of -40 is third worst in the league.

8. Detroit Lions (2-1)
Yes, the Lions are 2-1. Give it time, they’ll implode. Detroit’s opponents have combined for one win this year; let’s see how they fare over the next few weeks when they play Chicago, Green Bay, Cincinnati, Dallas and the Bears again. Matthew Stafford may rack up impressive stats but he continues to make bad decisions, and Detroit special teams and penalties continue to put them in a hole.

9. Carolina Panthers (1-2)
Let’s give the Panthers a bit of credit. They have done a good job of rebuilding what was an atrocious defense, and are quite solid in the front seven with DE Charles Johnson, DE Greg Hardsy, NT Star Lotulelei, DT Dwan Edwards, and linebackers Luke Kuechly, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. After a bye week next week Carolina faces the Cardinals, Vikings Rams and Bucs, all very winnable games. While I don’t think that they are a playoff-bound team this year, their defense has them headed in the right direction and will keep them in ball games all year.

10. Philadelphia Eagles (1-2)
While the Eagles won’t go far because of their defense, they have most definitely improved. Some in the media have been quick to criticize Chip Kelly, but consider how much better this team is compared to a year ago. Philly ranks first in yards per play (up from 20th in 2012); first in rushing yards per game (13th); first in runs of 40+ yards (13th); first in passing plays of 20+ yards (14th); first in passing plays of 40+ yards (24th); second in total yards per game( 15th); and is 8th in points scored (29th). While turnovers are still an issue (7 giveaways, -2 differential), the Eagles are still very much improved in this area as well (37 giveaways, -24 differential in 2012).

11. Arizona Cardinals (1-2)
Carson Palmer is an immense upgrade over Kevin Kolb, John Skelton and Ryan Lindley, and the 2013 offensive line is much better than the sieve that took the field last year. However, the Cardinals are still only scoring 18.7 points per game (24th) and running for 3.9 yards per carry (20th) and 86 yards per game (22nd).

12. St. Louis Rams (1-2)
How bad were the Rams at Dallas yesterday? Consider these numbers: when the Cowboys took a 24-0 lead in the third quarter Dallas held a 310 to 43 edge in yards, and a 16 to 1 differential in first downs. Prior to that, at one point in the first half the Cowboys had 80 yards to the Rams’ 2. At halftime St. Louis had just 18 yards of offense. Many expected this club to progress based on how well they played against the 49ers and Seahawks last year – the Rams were 4-1-1 in the NFC West last year – but right now they are not a very good team on either defense (28.7 points per game, T-26th) or offense (19.3 points per game, 23rd). Brian Schottenheimer doesn’t seem to know what to do with Wr Tavon Austin, and had no in-game adjustment to get TE Jared Cook free. On defense the Rams front seven were bullied at the line of scrimmage, and the secondary left Dallas receivers free to roam all afternoon.

13. Minnesota Vikings (0-3)
You just lost to an already bad team that was without its starting QB or starting RB. The Vikings made the playoffs in 2012 because Adrian Peterson had an historical season; it was not reasonable to expect that to happen again.

14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-3)
Josh Freeman just isn’t very good, the Bucs take too many penalties, and now injuries are starting to take their toll. Tampa bay ranks 31st on offense (11.3 ppg) and 30th in penalty yards (89.3 per game)

15. New York Giants (0-3)
Of all stats other than points, turnovers probably have the highest correlation to wins and losses. The Giants have turned the ball over an NFL worst 13 times, and are tied with Pittsburgh for an NFL worst minus 9 turnover differential. Eli Manning has twice as many interceptions as the Bills, Broncos, Chargers, Chiefs, Colts, Cowboys and Titans – combined! The offensive line can’t run block (the Giants’ leading rusher the first three games had yardage totals of just 23, 17 and 39 yards), and they can’t pass protect either (11 sacks allowed, 4th worst). As bad as the offense is, the defense is even worse. New York has allowed 38.3 points per game, by far the most in the league, and ranks 31st in point differential with minus 61 – just three better than the Jaguars.

16. Washington Redskins (0-3)
The Skins are allowing 488 yards per game (32nd) and 32.7 points per game (31st). In three first halfs Washington has been outscored 67-21; if not for some garbage time yardage and points they would look even worse.