By David McDonnell
Steelers @ Patriots
One of the most intriguing contests of Week 2 sees the two most successful franchises in NFL history collide when the New England Patriots host the Pittsburgh Steelers.
This fixture also pits the two longest-tenured head coaches in the National Football League with the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, in situ since 2007, continuing a remarkable record of never having a losing season, while his opponent, Bill Bellicheck has embarked on his 23rd campaign as the boss-man in New England.
What makes this game fascinating is both teams are renowned for their defence prowess and neither side set the world alight on offence during Week 1.
Let’s start with the Pats.
Despite a 20-7 defeat to the Miami Dolphins, their defence played well limiting an explosive Dolphins offence to one touchdown when speedster wide-out Jaylen Waddle took the ball on a slant, broke cover and took it 42 yards to the house.
New England’s offence was dismal last week.
It is hard to see how they will improve their plight as they have no blue-chip talents at the receiver positions. They are paying the price for spending big on offence in free agency in 2021 and failing to land a difference maker. More importantly they have lost the offensive mastermind Josh McDaniels, who took up the head coaching job with the Las Vegas Raiders. Certainly there were a few eyebrows raised when former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia took over this role for the ‘22 season.
Another issue with the Patriots offence against the Dolphins was their second season quarterback Mac Jones took a lot of punishment as his offensive line was consistently under pressure throughout the game. A tackle from his namesake Brandon Jones saw the ball knocked free and Melvin Ingram gathered before walking into the endzone in the second quarter. After the game, Jones reported to his medical team with a back injury but has since returned to training and will start on Sunday.
With the much vaunted Pittsburgh defence coming to town, I expect the Patriots to go back to a traditional running game with Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris figuratively and literally carrying much of the load. Look out for tight-end Hunter Henry to be targeted more than three times this Sunday, especially when the Pats get into the red zone.
Last Sunday Pittsburgh opened their season with a win after an epic contest against the Cincinnati Bengals. Their defence wreaked havoc recording seven sacks, two forced fumbles, four interceptions and a defensive touchdown and they must be licking their lips after the Patriots’ struggles in Miami.
Unfortunately, the Steelers travel to Foxboro without their best player, TJ Watt, after the current Defensive Player of the Year was ruled out after tearing a pectoral muscle. It is expected that the defensive-end will return later in the season.
The Steelers offence is also likely to struggle to get the chains moving after QB Mitch Trubisky only completed 21 of 38 passes thrown last time out. His only touchdown was to running-back Najee Harris from the one yard line.
This game is likely going to be a one for the purists, with the Steelers winning a low scoring affair.
New Orleans Saints @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The best match-up of the weekend comes in the NFC South when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers host divisional rivals New Orleans Saints.
Most surprisingly the Saints go into this contest having won the last seven regular season fixtures against the Bucs, with the Tampa Bay side overturning the form guide in the playoffs on their way to the Superbowl in 2021.
This shouldn’t have any significance as both franchises have new head coaches after promoting from within.
Saints Head Coach Denis Allen got his reign off with a come-from-behind last gasp fourth quarter victory against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 1. Trailing by 16 points in the fourth quarter, Jameis Winston led his team to victory throwing for 16/17, 213 yards and two TDs. Kicker Will Lutz managed to win the game at the death with a field goal from 51 yards to give the Falcons a metaphorical kick in the gut to open their season.
Two things were particularly noteworthy about this victory. The first was that Winston threw no interceptions in the game. The second was the return of Michael Thomas to what looked like his 2019 form when he set a new NFL record for single-season receptions with 149 catches and earned him end of season Offensive Player of the Year honours. If Thomas can keep this sharpness up, then the Saints have the offensive power to trouble any opponent.
New slot receiver Jarvis Landry had seven catches for 114 yards and first round pick Chris Olave caught all targets thrown his way for 41 yards as well as an important two-point conversion in that comeback win. With a supporting cast that includes running-back Alvin Kamara, the Saints look primed to make it to the postseason if Winston can remain consistent with his decision making.
The hometown Buccaneers return to Raymond James Stadium with their veteran quarterback Tom Brady lining up once again for what is expected to be his final season.
In the Bucs opening weekend victory against the Dallas Cowboys, Brady spread the ball around between receivers Julio Jones, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin all seeing their share of targets. Godwin is ruled out this coming Sunday with a hamstring injury.
The Tampa Bay defence also impressed with Devin White, Vita Vea, Levontae David and Antoine Winfield Jr all impressing out the gate. I will side with the hometown Bucs to emerge victorious for their first regular season win against the Saints since 2018.
San Francisco 49ers @ Seattle Seahawks
One of the best football rivalries of the past decade continues on Sunday when the Seahawks host 49ers.
It is curious that Seattle sit atop of the NFC West after week one as they were widely expected to be the worst team in the division, but that is where they stand after an exciting victory last Monday against their former quarterback Russell Wilson and his Denver Broncos.
It was a close game that came down to a missed kick after Broncos Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett decided to kick from 64 yards instead of going for it ‘fourth and five.’ This was much to the surprise of most pundits after the Broncos had acquired Wilson in the off-season for exactly this type of situation.
What was most noteworthy of this victory was the return to prominence of QB Geno Smith. Before Monday’s contest, he had not been named a Week 1 starter for a team since 2014, after serving as a back-up since. Coming off the field after the best performance of his career. it was put to him about the many people who had written him off? Geno replied with aplomb: “They wrote me off, but I ain’t write back.”
The San Francisco 49ers have been perennial contenders for the past few years but lost unexpectedly to the Chicago Bears on a wet Soldier Field last Sunday. Leading in the second half, they couldn’t stem the Bears’ momentum once they got going.
Most concerning for 49ers fans was the poor display by Trey Lance in the QB role. After giving up three first-round picks to acquire Lance in the 2021 draft, he was given the starting role at the expense of Jimmy Garropolo in the off-season. With their former quarterback of the last four seasons now sitting on the bench, it will be interesting if Head Coach Kyle Shanahan changes his mind during the season. If Lance fails to perform or secure victory away at their fiercest rivals, he will be under severe public pressure.
I think the 49ers win this one as they have a terrific defence and with tight-end George Kittle likely to return, this will give Lance a top catching talent to target.
Green Bay Packers @ Chicago Bears
In Sunday’s late night contest, the Chicago Bears buzzing with excitement after last Sunday’s triumph over the 49ers will welcome their most-hated rival in the Green Bay Packers.
In this fixture last season, Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers shouted at the Soldier Field supporters “I still own you ” after extending his record to 22-5 against the Bears. This is unlikely to be forgotten and expect the home crowd to be vociferous against their nemesis from the outset.
The Bears looked bereft of ideas in the first half of last Sunday’s contest against the 49ers but their fortunes changed after a heads-up play from QB Justin Fields saw him find the unmarked Dante Pettis in the third quarter for a touchdown. He then threw the winner to former Packer wide-out Equanimeous St Brown for a morale-improving win.
Green Bay started their season with a loss against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 1 with Rodgers clearly frustrated with his new cast of receivers throughout the contest. An example of this was when second-round pick Christian Watson dropped a clanger when he looked certain to race into the endzone in the first quarter.
I would like to see a closely-fought contest and for the Bears to turn the tide in this one-sided rivalry but until it happens, I expect Rodgers to continue his historical form against the Bears and emerge victorious.