The Debrief  

 

The Debrief, Week 2: Soaring AFC West is 2017's division to beat

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Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 2 to Week 3.

The three most impressive teams in this nascent NFL season all reside in the AFC West. This imbalance is great news for fans of tasty 4:25 p.m. ET matchups and less great news for fans of the 0-2 Los Angeles Chargers. The Chargers' two-game hole behind the Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos is a big one to climb out of, because this trio has staying power.

Only four NFL teams won 12 games or more last season, and two of them (Kansas City and Oakland) competed in this division. The Raiders have started the season with two of those mature, routine-type victories that were missing from their wild ride in 2016. Quarterback Derek Carr has rarely been pressured, allowing him time to show off his next-level anticipation and use his expanded group of playmakers.

Oakland son Marshawn Lynch's dance like no one is watching while everyone is watching moment Sunday also summed up the mood in Kansas City, where coach Andy Reid proved his team can win games in a variety of ways. The Eagles' front seven is great, but the Chiefs' crew, led by rejuvenated outside linebacker Justin Houston and defensive tackle Chris Jones, was even better in K.C.'s win over Philly. Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz is one of the game's best escape artists, yet it was Alex Smith's fancy footwork, when he avoided a sack by Eagles pass rusher Vinny Curry, that set up the Chiefs' go-ahead score. Rookie running back Kareem Hunt's incredible ability to fight through traffic, backing defenders into the end zone like a possessed Karl Malone, is symbolic of this organization's leg drive for national respect. They truly are fun to watch. They truly are contenders. Just accept it.

Taking the Denver Broncos seriously should be second nature after the organization won at least 12 games for four straight seasons from 2012 to 2015. Yet, this squad was largely off the national radar heading into the season, despite being just a year and a half removed from winning a Super Bowl title. The team is getting better quarterback play now than it did in Peyton Manning's final year -- #TeamTrev -- but that was also true in last season's 9-7 campaign. The upgrades in the running game on both sides of the ball stand out even more. The 2014 versions of C.J. Anderson and Jamaal Charles have showed up early this season, taking pressure off Trevor Siemian. The same is true for the team's revived run defense, which -- after struggling last season -- has been taking some of the pressure off the Broncos' excellent secondary. Stopping Chargers running back Melvin Gordon cold in Week 1 was a great sign. Holding Ezekiel Elliott to 8 yards (8!) in Week 2 makes it a trend.

In just two weeks, this triumvirate has taken out the defending champion Patriots, the reigning No. 1 seed in the NFC (America's Team) and the AFC South favorites (Tennessee) by a combined score of 110-60. The Broncos, Chiefs and Raiders will be involved in high-profile matchups all season long, whether against each other, the Patriots or the NFC East. The AFC West is set to help shape this 2017 NFL season, with its victor having an inside track at a Super Bowl run. Winning this division is going to take work.

Sneaky big developments of Week 2

1) The Lions won 24-10 Monday night against the Giants because of defense, special teams and smart game management by Matthew Stafford. In short: these are not your 2016 Lions. Buoyed by additions on the offensive line and the return to health for pass rusher Ezekiel Ansah, cornerback Darius Slay and starting running back Ameer Abdullah, Detroit's roster is far more complete this season. Stafford's decision making has caught up to his pocket movement and arm strength, giving this team a chance to go from a lucky 9-7 squad a year ago to a legitimate double-digit victory team. Stafford's fantasy owners might disagree, but the Lions should consider it progress to win comfortably with only 122 passing yards from their quarterback.

2) The loss of Vic Beasley Jr. for a month will hurt the Falcons' pass rush, but this Falcons defense is far deeper than it was a year ago. The return to health of top cornerback Desmond Trufant transforms the secondary, with his presence making a huge impact Sunday night against Green Bay. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett is building on his boffo Super Bowl. Most importantly, second-year linebackers Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell are taking big steps in their joint bid to become the Dirty South's answer to Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. Jones was terrific as a rangy rookie, so Campbell's big start to the season stands out more. There aren't many linebackers who can beat a double-team for a sack on Aaron Rodgers and fly to break up a pass 35 yards down the field like Campbell did to Bears scat back Tarik Cohen in Week 1.

3) Broncos outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett has replaced Shane Ray and DeMarcus Ware, while the Denver defense has improved. Barrett's speedy return from a hip injury is one of the biggest reasons why Denver is 2-0, and it's worth wondering if Ray gets his job back when he returns. One of the more intriguing part-time players in the NFL over the last two seasons, Barrett is proving worthy of a full-time role with his rugged game. Nasty against the run with 14 pressures in two weeks against the pass, Barrett is ranked fourth by Pro Football Focus among 3-4 outside linebackers this season. The three men in front of him are AFC West superstars: Khalil Mack, Justin Houston and Von Miller.

4) Justin Houston made some plays against the Eagles that took my breath away. He gave problems to Lane Johnson and Jason Peters, both quality tackles. It takes a special kind of strength to set the edge against Peters and still be able to disengage to make a run stop. Houston often appears to be one step ahead because of his film study, reading plays before they happen.

5) While Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (34 years old) beats back the ravages of time again with a huge start to the season, it's been surprising to see the Steelers hand James Harrison only four snaps in the first two weeks. Even after rookie T.J. Watt was hurt Sunday, Harrison didn't play a snap. Are the Steelers saving Harrison for later in the season, or do they finally have enough younger talent to keep the 39-year-old on the bench?

6) Raiders running back Jalen Richard, presumably a third-stringer, had 109 yards from scrimmage in only 17 offensive snaps on Sunday. Cordarelle Patterson, already making a huge impact on special teams, rushed three times for 57 yards and a touchdown. Credit goes to new Raiders offensive coordinator Todd Downing for getting all of his deep roster involved in the action, forcing future opponents to prepare for everything. Coach Jack Del Rio also deserves some love for making the surprising and controversial move to replace last year's coordinator, Bill Musgrave.

7) Bucs linebacker Lavonte David was barely mentioned on HBO's "Hard Knocks" this season, which was perhaps a reflection of his stalled status as a "future" star after two relative down years in 2015 and '16. If Tampa's season opener was any indication, David is ready to fly around the field again. Combined with Kwon Alexander and rookie Kendell Beckwith, who showed very well in his first game after Alexander hurt his hamstring, this Bucs linebacker crew could conjure memories of Tony Dungy's old Bucs defense.

8) The Jacoby Brissett-for-Phillip Dorsett trade can be called a win-win after only a few weeks. The Colts obtained a temporary starting quarterback who has already shown some progress in exchange for a No. 3 receiver, which is incredible value. Then again, the Patriots have to be thrilled with Dorsett's acclimation to New England. He caught all three of his targets for 68 yards in New Orleans, giving the Patriots a receiving option when they most desperately need it. (Dorsett left the game late with a knee injury, although he was seen walking without medical personnel near him on the sideline.)

The defensive trend isn't going away

I led last week's column with a nod to the heavy-defensive theme of Week 1. That trend did not go away this week, with ugly offenses and destructive defenses both factors.

Scoring is down to 40.3 points per game, the lowest figure for the first two weeks of a season in the last 20 years. The change feels so dramatic in part because games averaged 45.6 points per game for the first two weeks of 2015 and 2016, tied for the second highest total in those two decades. Total net yardage is at 644.3 yards per game, down more than 70 yards from the first two weeks in 2016. It's the lowest yardage in the first two weeks of the season since 2010.

The Ravens and Panthers may be the two teams most emblematic of the changes. Carolina's defense has given up six points and 393 yards combined in two weeks, outrageous numbers no matter which teams were on the schedule. Baltimore has started 2-0, outscoring opponents 44-10, despite a cavalcade of offensive injuries, including standout guard Marshal Yanda's season-ending ankle break Sunday.

Both teams have high ceilings this season because their defenses aren't going anywhere and their veteran quarterbacks, especially Cam Newton, should only play better with more time on the field following offseason injuries.

Early apologies

Watching the Chiefs win another corker on Sunday forced me to reflect with regret on any instance of chiding this team on "The Around the NFL Podcast" for its lack of sizzle factor. I want to take this chance to formally apologize for doubting this team's entertainment value and make amends to any others around the league whom I've hurt:

1) I want to apologize for any negative thoughts or statements about Patriots running back James White, primarily in the wake of the sketchy 2015 AFC Championship Game. Since then, White has developed into a dynamic pass-catching running back in New England who rivals the peak days of Kevin Faulk and Danny Woodhead. White could have easily been chosen MVP of Super Bowl LI, a game in which the team trusted him to win as a receiver and run the ball between the tackles in short-yardage situations.

"I've played with a lot of great teammates, and James [White] is right up there with the best," Tom Brady said after Sunday's win over the Saints, which is basically the nicest thing Tom Brady could ever say.

With the Patriots receivers and tight end Rob Gronkowski banged up, White was winning routes by the end of the game as a wide receiver lined up against cornerbacks on the way to eight catches for 85 yards. His awareness and ability to make defenders miss gets better each season. Perhaps White, not Danny Amendola or Brandin Cooks, is the man to fill Julian Edelman's shoes this season.

2) Readers of this column also deserve an apology for all the time in August spent hearing about the new-look Saints defense. It's true the Saints have been victimized by some otherworldly throws this season, and there is enough talent to improve over the course of the campaign, but it's hard not to feel hoodwinked after the team gave up 65 points and 1,025 yards over two weeks in an otherwise offense-challenged league.

3) Another mea culpa goes out to Jamaal Charles, a future Hall of Fame candidate who was mentioned as a candidate to be released after training camp because of the lack of guaranteed money in his contract. It turned out that coach Vance Joseph and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy kept Charles mostly hidden from game action in the preseason because they knew what they had. It's a joy to see him cutting at full speed again, his effort seemingly contagious in Denver.

4) I'm sorry to the 49ers fans who, like me, got a little too excited about those Brian Hoyer-Marquise Goodwin practice reports. The early portion of the schedule has been brutal, but Hoyer is averaging only 4.7 yards per attempt through two weeks, last in the league among quarterbacks with two starts. Goodwin has 47 receiving yards. This offense will certainly improve, but Kyle Shanahan's ability to cook up fantasy stats no matter his personnel is being severely tested.

5) Final apology: I bear responsibility for being part of an industry that updated Eddie Lacy's weigh-ins over the summer with the solemnity of coverage of peace-treaty negotiations. Just two games into his Seahawks career, Lacy was a healthy scratch on Sunday. Coach Pete Carroll says Lacy has a future as part of the Seahawks running game, but that's likely only going to happen if rookie Chris Carson, Thomas Rawls or C.J. Prosise gets hurt.

I'm not sorry at all for pointing out Carson's superhero build in August. He's like Christine Michael, but with production.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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