In my music-obsessing days I used to think that the third album was the key to the rest of a good young band's career. The debut album was great, of course. It was why you liked a group in the first place. They'd had a whole lifetime to work on it, perfecting the songs through all those early years of rising through the club ranks.
Then came the spotty second album, thrown together in haste after a lot of touring, usually. Ill-conceived and poorly written, it invariably contained some pretentious attempt to prove that the band could stretch as musicians, an all-glockenspiel song, perhaps, or a Big Star cover in 9/13 time.
But No. 3, that was the one that would tell you how this band would go for the next decade or so, whether it could, once the early-career novelty and craziness had subsided, sit down and create something good from scratch.
The third game of the NFL season offers similar answers. We'll learn a lot about whether various 2-0 teams -- the Ravens, Vikings and Saints, among others -- are the real deal or paper tigers.
We'll find out if sundry 0-2 stumblers -- Washington, the Panthers, the Buccaneers and the Dolphins, for instance -- are really that bad. We'll learn a little something about which way some of those inscrutable 1-1 teams -- Giants, Eagles, Bills, Rams -- will go.
We prognosticators are not immune to such scrutiny in Week 3. This column's Panel o' Experts is off to a start as unexpected as those of the Saints and Dolphins. My son Buster, the coin flippinest 3-year-old in the English-speaking world, maintains his hold on first place with a 26-6 record. Porn star Adriana Sage is second at 25-7.
The closest person who makes his living by knowing a little something about the NFL is Merril Hoge, in third at 23-9. Can this continue?
And in last place, with a pathetic 16-16 record, is me. Not everything has been unexpected.
Here are the Week 3 picks, with winners in caps.
Jacksonville (2-0) at INDIANAPOLIS (2-0): Starting off with a big divisional matchup in the AFC South. This game is one of those that will tell us a lot. The Jags put themselves on the map with that Monday night shutout of Pittsburgh, and they're playing some serious defense.
But the Steelers' offense, with Ben Roethlisberger in his first game back after an appendectomy, wasn't exactly clicking, regardless of who was on the other side. And Jacksonville's offense isn't much better than Pittsburgh's was.
The Colts could be settling in as the NFL's Atlanta Braves -- regular season lions, playoff lambs. Or maybe they're about to be exposed by a possible Super Bowl contender. There is a third possibility, that this is their year to go all the way, but since I picked them to do that, well, 'tis to laugh, eh?
I'll stick with them for one more week, but if they could hold an opponent under three touchdowns, that'd be nice. Even this opponent.
Cincinnati (2-0) at PITTSBURGH (1-1): Another big divisional matchup between title contenders. Hey, I like this. They should have a bunch of divisional rivals playing each other in the same week.
The defending champs could easily be 0-2 if the Dolphins hadn't melted down on Opening Night, but the talent is here to make another run. In Monday's loss to the Jaguars, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looked like he was out of sync and still hurting. A wave of injuries on the Bengals defense should give him the space he needs to get comfortable.
CHICAGO (2-0) at Minnesota (2-0) Wow, here's a game between the two leaders in the NFC North. Are you detecting a theme here? Me neither.
The Bears are playing like a championship team. We all knew they could play defense, but out of nowhere Rex Grossman is leading one of the best offenses in the league. We're only two games in, so we could just be looking at one of those anomalies, a team happening to put together its two best games at the start of the season, and let's not forget those wins came against the Packers and Lions.
Still, those are NFL teams. There's no Florida Atlantic in the NFL. Win two games by a combined score of 60-7 and you're doing something.
The Vikes have played much tougher competition, but they're also as close to 0-2 as a 2-0 team can be. They escaped overtime on the road in Week 1 when Washington's John Hall missed a 48-yard field goal, and then they were handed an overtime win last week by the Panthers, who turned the ball over deep in their own territory in the fourth quarter on an insane special-teams trick play, setting up the tying touchdown. This struggling offensive team is a long, long way from Culpepper to Moss.
CAROLINA (0-2) at Tampa Bay (0-2): Hey look, another intradivision game. The Devil Bucs looked positively awful last week in Atlanta, the relatively close score the result of the Falcons having missed 8,432 field goals. And that was a week after Tampa looked really bad at home against the Ravens.
The Panthers, everyone's preseason Super Bowl darling, had better start winning some games soon because the winner of Monday night's Falcons-Saints game is going to be leading the division at 3-0. The loser of this game will be rooting for the Saints, who'll look a lot more catchable at 3-0 than the Falcons will.
Carolina could make a good start here by not handing over games to beatable foes with deranged throwback passes on punt returns.
GREEN BAY (0-2) at Detroit (0-2): You're not going to believe this. These teams are in the same division! Whoa, the Atlanta Falcons just came by my house and missed a field goal.
N.Y. Jets (1-1) at BUFFALO (1-1): Same division! The Patriots are 2-0 and the Dolphins 0-2, but doesn't it look so far like the AFC East consists of four teams headed for 8-8?
Fragile New York quarterback Chad Pennington is off to a great start, but the Bills pass rush that gave Daunte Culpepper hell last week will do the same to him, and a nonexistent running game won't bail him out. The Bills have a nonexistent passing game, but they can pound away with Willis McGahee.
WASHINGTON (0-2) at Houston (0-2): Something's amiss here. These guys don't even play in the same conference. Great, there goes the theme. Washington, not as bad as it's looked so far, picks up win No. 1.
Tennessee (0-2) at MIAMI (0-2): Watching Miami get thoroughly dominated last week I kept thinking how embarrassing it was. I actually found myself wondering whether Miami even deserves to be called a professional football team. But I eventually calmed down and came to my senses. After all, Louisville's pretty good.
Sunday late games
N.Y. GIANTS (1-1) at Seattle (2-0): Remember that game these teams played in Seattle last year? The Giants had as many false-start penalties in that one as the Falcons had missed field goals last week. More, even. And did somebody say missed field goals? Don't get me started.
The Giants are coming off a stirring comeback win over the Eagles. Stirring comeback wins always carry over into brilliant performances in the next game, as we learned this week in baseball when the Los Angeles Dodgers, down four runs to the San Diego Padres entering the bottom of the ninth inning, hit four consecutive home runs to tie the game, and then, after falling behind in the top of the 10th, won on yet another homer in the bottom half.
And then lost the next two games to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Seahawks are 2-0 but their high-powered offense has sputtered so far, managing only 30 points against the Lions and Cardinals. Formerly disgruntled former Patriot Deion Branch suits up this week, and he, the law of averages and a suspect Giants secondary should add up to a Seattle win in a shootout.
Which is why I'm picking the Giants.
Baltimore (2-0) at CLEVELAND (0-2): What the Heck Pick of the week. Given the What the Heck bylaws, which forbid a WTH pick when the opponent has a losing record, I have no choice but to WTH against the Ravens for the second week in a row.
PHILADELPHIA (1-1) at San Francisco (1-1): The Eagles walloped the Texans and then executed that fourth-quarter pratfall against the Giants. The 49ers have looked respectable enough, but against two teams of as-yet unknown quality, the Cardinals and Rams.
Are the Eagles back to being contenders? Are the 49ers back to being respectable? Can Donovan McNabb even play the glockenspiel? No. 3, that's where you get some answers.
St. Louis (1-1) at ARIZONA (1-1): Well, which Rams team? The one that handed the Broncos their hats two weeks ago or the one that looked like the same old mediocre Rams of the last two years last week in San Francisco?
Then there are the Cardinals, who clicked offensively against the 49ers but did a face plant against the Seahawks. That's a much tougher opponent, but it wasn't just that. The Cardinals were fumbling snaps like the Falcons were missing field goals.
I'll take the Cardinals because of their crazy new home-field advantage thing, where people actually show up to the games. But really I don't know. It's almost as if I could make better predictions by flipping a coin.
Denver (1-1) at NEW ENGLAND (2-0): These two AFC powerhouses have looked something less than powerhousey so far. The Pats needed Bills quarterback J.P. Losman to suddenly turn into a tourist lost in the rush-hour scrum of a Tokyo subway station in his own end zone to score a safety and pull out a win, and that was a week before surviving a scare from the Jets. The Broncos got manhandled by the Rams, who got manhandled by the 49ers, and then struggled to beat the Chiefs minus Trent Green.
In a word: Yeesh.
One more cruddy game for Denver quarterback Jake Plummer and the calls for his benching in that city will start to sound a little less ridiculous. And visiting quarterbacks have not made a habit of getting their games together in Foxboro so far this century. The Pats, who are now a grind-it-out running team, will grind it out.
ATLANTA (2-0) at New Orleans (2-0): When the schedule came out this looked more like a Very Special Episode than a prime-time football game. The Saints return to the Superdome for the first time since Hurricane Katrina amid tearful memories, messages of hope and copious slow-motion footage, plus live performances by U2 and Green Day.
And just so the evening isn't completely football-free, here's the telegenic Michael Vick quarterbacking the Falcons in that nutty way he has.
But that was before both teams won their first two games, separating themselves from the preseason division favorites, Carolina and Tampa Bay, by precisely that margin and setting this game up as a key early-season battle for the NFC South lead.
The Falcons' rebuilt defense and always-strong running game have been plenty enough to grind out convincing wins over those other two division rivals, even with all those missed field goals. Whoop, there goes another one. Atlanta had been using rookie Michael Koenen as both a punter and placekicker, but after his missathon Sunday the Falcons went out and signed Morton Andersen, who they found at a reunion of waiters from the Last Supper.
The Saints have beaten two lousy teams, Cleveland and Green Bay, but listen, this is the NFL, and two road wins are nothing to sneeze at. You can just kind of sniffle a little if you want, but there's no Temple in the NFL.
With the Panthers and Bucs playing each other, the winner of this game will have a two-game lead over one of those teams and a three-game lead over the other. If that's the Saints, the division will be wide open, because I don't think the Saints can sustain that kind of success. If it's the Falcons, they may be as close to a playoff spot as it's possible to be in the month of September.
A Saints win would be a little too perfect, dramaturgically.
Bye this week: Dallas, Kansas City, Oakland, San Diego
Season record: 16-16
Last week: 8-8
What the Heck Picks: 0-2
Maximum number of albums made by any band I ever played in: 2
Previous column: The Reggie Bush scandal
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