Where to begin…
After the Great Monday Night Caper of 2012, I’m not even sure if I want to talk about NFL football for a while. But life goes on, and so does football, which, on that note, let me remind everybody—this IS football we’re talking about. In the heartwrenching words of Baltimore’s Torrey Smith, who played heroically after the loss of his younger brother, “be thankful for your loved ones and tell them you love them.” Torrey reminded us of what’s really important at the end of the day.
…Which brings me to the brighter side of football—a joke, really, at this point—my analyses, which begin with Smith’s own Baltimore Ravens and their Thursday night matchup with Cleveland:
(Record last week: 7-9. Ouch. Although I really don’t think the Seattle/Green Bay game should count against me. Overall record: 26-22.)
Ravens @ Browns
Quoth the Raven, “Vengeance is mine.”
If Justin Tucker had pulled his game-winning field goal another foot to the right and caused Baltimore to lose to New England in such a fashion again, I have no doubt that Ray Lewis would have sprinted furiously across the field and broken him in half with his bare hands. (Vince Wilfork about did as much to an official when the field goal was deemed “good.”)
Torrey Smith. What can you say about the kid? His 127-yard, two-touchdown performance was nothing short of mesmerizing. Nothing was going to stop him Sunday night. Not even the death of his little brother. He reeled in six passes and two touchdowns, including one late in the fourth quarter that put the Ravens in a position to win it. The only way the New England defense could stop him was to interfere with him.
Cleveland’s defense, meanwhile, was spared the athleticism of C.J. Spiller in the first quarter of their loss to Buffalo on Sunday, but they couldn’t even stop Tashard Choice thereafter. Offensively, Brandon Weeden struggled again, throwing two picks late in the game and thus sealing Cleveland’s fate. Trent Richardson managed only 27 yards rushing.
Pat Shurmur won’t last another season in Cleveland if this continues. The good news is, Cleveland has been in every game they have played this season. They might be able to hang with the Ravens for a half or so, but Baltimore should come out on top by a decent margin.
49ers @ Jets
Miami had the Jets on the ropes, but an ill-timed timeout and a bad day from Phins kicker Dan Carpenter gave New York one for the win column that they probably didn’t really deserve.
It’s beginning to look like the Jets are running plays to and with Tim Tebow only for the sake of doing so. He has no purpose in that offense, let’s face it. No matter how creative Tony Sparano tries to be with him, Tebow, at the end of the day, is a quarterback. He’s not Antwaan Randle El or Percy Harvin or Pat White. He’ll never operate that way. (Though the fake punt he converted into a first down was pretty cool.)
The 49ers laid a whole nest’s worth of eggs in Minnesota. Alex Smith finally turned the ball over (twice at that), and though the vaunted San Francisco defense continued to play well in week three, they could not rattle Christian Ponder of all people.
Before it was known that Darrelle Revis had suffered a season-ending injury, I might have said that this game would end in a score of 7-6, or something like that. Now, the game will probably end in a score of 10-6. New York’s defense is no pushover just because their best player went down.
If there’s one thing I can give Alex Smith as a passer, it’s his discretion; he generally takes care of the ball. But just because Revis is out doesn’t mean that Smith is suddenly going to light up the Jets secondary.
The Jets offense… well, they are a different story. I don’t trust Mark Sanchez. I like the 49ers to rebound.
Seahawks @ Rams
How can anyone on Seattle’s team feel like they truly earned Monday night’s victory? It would be really nice to see somebody on that team have the courage to publicly acknowledge what nobody else (except the NFL) had trouble processing: Seattle lost.
…Although Seattle “won” the game, their offense did not play all that well, with the exception of just a few plays. The defense, however, put on a clinic, especially the secondary. Last week, I mentioned that the secondary was indeed the strength of this team. In that respect, I suppose, I was correct about Monday’s game, but no one could have predicted the events that transpired on the field.
A meeting with the Seahawks defense is the absolute last thing the Rams need after being stomped by the Bears defense in week three. The Rams were held to six points against Chicago. They did not enter the red zone and amassed only 160 total yards of offense. On the run for much of the game, Sam Bradford completed only 18 of 35 passes and was sacked six times. Now he goes up against the team who had eight sacks on Aaron Rodgers in one half.
St. Louis’ defense continues to look better under Jeff Fisher, but if they cannot move the ball, they will obviously not score points; and points will be at a premium in this matchup. I like the Hawks in a low-scoring affair.
Panthers @ Falcons
Carolina’s 36-7 trouncing at the hands of the Giants was painful to watch. The Panthers did not even need the help of the replacement referees to lose their game; they simply made mistake after mistake after mistake.
After all, I still have faith in Carolina’s running game somehow. They had to abandon it early against New York because their horrible defense got them in such a big early hole, but two weeks ago, the ground game was the key to defeating New Orleans, and it will be the key to contending with the Falcons, who might currently be the NFC’s—if not the league’s—best team.
Atlanta looked fantastic for a third week in a row against San Diego. In a game that many expected to be a clash of titans, Atlanta was entirely dominant in every aspect of the game from first whistle to last, finishing with an impressive 27-3 victory over a previously undefeated team.
Atlanta’s offense will be hard to stifle this season. They will have to make mistakes to be stopped, and that is something they have not done hitherto. I see no way in which the Panthers might be able to hold up against Atlanta’s skill-position arsenal. This will be a touchdown buffet for any and every ball-carrier in a Falcons uniform. I gotta go with the Falcons to win decisively at home.
Vikings @ Lions
The Lions return to Ford Field in week four after a very rough two-game stretch on the road yielded losses to the 49ers and Titans. Were it not for the tomfoolery that was the week-three replacement referee morass, the big headline of week three would have likely been the Lions’ absurd failed attempt to convert fourth and one in overtime against Tennessee, despite being well within range for a game-tying field goal.
Jim Schwartz stated after the game that he never intended for the offense to run a play on that particular fourth down; the offense lined up only in hopes of inducing Tennessee’s defense offsides and moving the sticks that way… Problem is, center Dominic Raiola apparently didn’t get the memo. He snapped the ball to backup quarterback Shaun Hill who did all he could to sneak for just one measly yard, but ultimately failed, ending the game.
Not only did Detroit lose the game, they lost their star quarterback Matthew Stafford to a leg injury as well. Shaun Hill played well in Stafford’s stead, but it will obviously be a huge blow to the Lions’ chances if their starting quarterback is unable to go.
The Vikings pulled a surprising upset on the 49ers just when everybody was ready to hand San Francisco the Lombardi Trophy. Christian Ponder’s weekend statistics don’t jump out at you, but he managed the game well. He did not turn the ball over, and the red-zone rapport he has developed with young tight end Kyle Rudolph is beginning to resemble a legitimate offensive threat to complement Adrian Peterson’s ground attack.
These are two teams headed in entirely different directions. I would not be surprised to see the Vikings pull this one out. My prediction is a conditional one: Stafford plays, Lions win; Stafford sits, Vikings win.
Chargers @ Chiefs
Kansas City looked like a contender for NFL’s worst team until Sunday when they pulled out an overtime comeback win against the reeling Saints. Conversely, San Diego looked like a contender for Super Bowl XLVII until Sunday when they were lambasted by the Falcons. And to tell you the truth, I don’t think we learned that much about either of these teams over the weekend. Kansas City remains a contender for NFL’s worst team, and San Diego could still vie against Houston and Baltimore for the AFC Super Bowl bid.
Kansas City’s defense looked improved against New Orleans. Both Derrick Johnson and Justin Houston had defensive-player-of-the-week-caliber games. Johnson led the Chiefs with nine tackles and a sack, while Houston added three sacks of his own, including a critical safety in the fourth quarter. Stanford Routt added a red-zone pick late in the third quarter, initiating a fourth-quarter and overtime shutout of Drew Brees and the potent Saints offense.The real hero for the Chiefs, however, was an unlikely one—kicker Ryan Succop, who booted six field goals in the game, including the game-winner in overtime. And last but not least, we cannot proceed without mentioning Jamaal Charles and his 233 rushing yards. The only touchdown Kansas City’s offense managed was Charles’ incredible 91-yard sprint in the third quarter.
There’s not much that can be said about the Chargers’ week-three effort. They were stagnant for sixty minutes, taking blow after blow from Atlanta and committing four turnovers along the way.
Although the Chargers hardly looked like it on Sunday, I believe they are one of the AFC’s top-five teams. Kansas City won’t be able to match the Chargers with field goals. The Bolts will improve to 2-0 in their division this weekend.
Titans @ Texans
We finally saw some life from the Tennessee offense on Sunday as they topped Detroit in a thrilling overtime shootout 44-41. Jake Locker threw for 378 yards and two touchdowns, while rookie wide receiver Kendall Wright emerged with a team-leading seven receptions.
The big play was a vital aspect of Tennessee’s victory—their shortest scoring play (excluding field goals) was Jared Cook’s 61-yard touchdown reception. Furthermore, three of Tennessee’s touchdowns did not occur on offense: a fumble recovery by Alterraun Varner went for a 71-yard score, while Tommie Campbell and Darius Reynaud each added touchdowns on special teams—the first of which being very similar to “Home Run Throwback,” from the Music City Miracle in 2000.
The Texans, meanwhile, continued their dominance on Sunday against Peyton Manning and a burgeoning Broncos offense. Manning had more success against Houston’s secondary than anyone else this season, but in the end, it was Houston’s offense who won the game. Houston amassed 436 yards of total offense and even managed to score on a deep ball to Kevin Walter (you don’t see that every Sunday). At this point, Houston, along with Atlanta, looks like one of the most complete teams in the league.
Tennessee’s reliance on the big play will not always be so fruitful—The Texans defense is about as thick as the walls of the Alamo. Exploiting Detroit’s haphazard defense is one thing; scoring on Houston’s is another. I’m liking Houston to remain undefeated.
Patriots @ Bills
Sunday’s win over Cleveland spoke well for Buffalo’s offensive line. With Fred Jackson out, and C.J. Spiller injured in the first quarter, these guys, lead by Eric Wood at center and promising rookie Cordy Glenn at tackle, paved the way for third-stringer Tashard Choice to gain 91 yards on the ground. They also did an excellent job protecting Ryan Fitzpatrick as he lifted Buffalo with three touchdown tosses. He was only sacked once for a meager two-yard loss. Meanwhile, Stevie Jackson quietly notched his third touchdown reception in as many games.
The Bills will need a repeat performance in order to top their division rivals from Foxboro. For New England, a divisional loss to the Bills on top of their 1-2 record would be potentially catastrophic. I can’t give you any statistics on what percentage of 1-3 teams end up in the postseason, but the odds couldn’t possibly be good.
The good news is, New England is still one of the best teams in the AFC, and they are certainly not the only powerhouse franchise to begin 2012 in disappointing fashion—just look at Green Bay (1-2), Pittsburgh (1-2), and New Orleans (0-3).
If New England fails to defeat Buffalo, I may have to revise that previous statement, but for now, I like New England to reassure everybody that they are top dog in the AFC East.
Bengals @ Jaguars
Against the explosive offense of Washington, Cincinnati proved that they could win in a track meet, taking the shootout by a score of 38-31. Andy Dalton showed phenomenal poise, distributing the ball with accuracy and discretion—well, minus that one pick-six he threw from his own end zone. That was pretty bad. It’s comical to think that he actually finished the game second among Bengals in passer rating—rookie wideout Mohamed Sanu had one attempt, one completion, and one touchdown on a 73-yard bomb to A.J. Green on Cincinnati’s first play from scrimmage. What can’t this receiving corps do? Look out for these guys. Before you know it, names like Armon Binns and Andrew Hawkins might make their way into the household.
The Cincinnati defense continues to struggle, with the exception of defensive end Michael Johnson, who sacked Robert Griffin, III three times last week. Lucky for Cincy, they’ll get a break from Jacksonville’s lethargic offense. Of course, Jacksonville has Mojo (Maurice Jones-Drew), but once he is neutralized, you’ve only got the 31st-ranked passing attack in the league to contend with.
The problem for Cincinnati is, it’s not that easy. They have the second-worst run defense in the league. Jacksonville might not even have to worry about putting the game in Blaine Gabbert’s unwieldy hands. If they can stop Cincinnati’s offense, they’ll have more than a fair shot of winning this game—but that’s a big “if.”
Jacksonville’s secondary is no match for the fast and athletic receiving corps Cincinnati will be bringing to town. I’m taking stripes over spots in this catfight.
Raiders @ Broncos
Peyton Manning rebounded from his atrocious Monday Night outing in Atlanta to throw for 330 yards and two touchdowns against a stingy Texans defense. Unfortunately, Manning’s effort was a losing one, but his rebound has to be encouraging for fans of the Broncos.
I believe Denver has the talent to compete for a division championship again this year. They jettisoned Tim Tebow and replaced him with one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, and more subtly, finally gave all-pro cornerback Champ Bailey some help on the other side of the field with the signing of Indiana alum Tracey Porter; otherwise they are the same playoff team they were a season ago.
Oakland, however, still has work to do. Even in a win, Carson Palmer did not look all that great on Sunday. It doesn’t help that his best receiver is—or more so, was—Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Heyward-Bey will now be unavailable because of a frightening neck and head injury he sustained against Pittsburgh. Tight end Brandon Myers has become a suitable receiving option early in the season, but the Raiders will need more than that going forward. On paper, it looks like Oakland ran the ball well against Pittsburgh, with Darren McFadden accumulating 113 yards rushing, but more than half of that came on one play—a 64-yard touchdown on Oakland’s fourth play from scrimmage.
I think Oakland is simply outmatched in this divisional contest. I’m going with the Broncs.
Dolphins @ Cardinals
So where did this Cardinals defense come from? Eighteen points allowed in a win against New England and only six allowed to Mike Vick and the Eagles? Say no more; I’m convinced: this defense is for real. I don’t know what it is that finally caused this star-studded defensive roster to—at long last—realize its potential. Perhaps it’s the inspired play of youngsters like Patrick Peterson and Sam Acho, or maybe the veterans have just stepped it up. Whatever it is, the NFC West is suddenly the model division for defense, and any team could compete for the crown now that San Francisco has been proven fallible.
I will admit that I was wrong about Miami when I repeatedly called them the worst team in the NFL in my first two articles earlier this season. They are bad, but Joe Philbin has done an admirable job with an offense that initially looked poised to set a record low for first downs this season.
Miami will visit Arizona in week four without Reggie Bush, so it’s up to Daniel Thomas and rookie Lamar Miller to carry the load against this reborn Redbird defense. To make matters worse for Miami, Ryan Tannehill still—understandably—looks like a rookie. He’s not ready for Arizona. If Miami’s offense finds itself in the end zone at any point this Sunday, I’ll be surprised. The Cards will stay perfect.
Saints @ Packers
Hey, remember when these offenses were putting up 30 and 40 points a game? And Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees were in one of the most exciting and competitive MVP races in NFL history? Seems so long ago now. These teams are a combined 1-5 on the season. This matchup will be devastating for the losing team; and a big boost for the victor.
The difference here, I believe, will be defense. We know both offenses have the potential to put up big numbers and points, but in their last two games, the Packers defense has looked revitalized from their embarrassing 2011 campaign. The officiating meltdown on Monday night overshadowed a fabulous showcasing of exceptional defense by both teams. The Saints, on the other hand, have been flattened by every offense they have faced. Now, that Green Bay has an actual running threat in Cedric Benson, New Orleans could be in trouble; and Benson could be in for a 100-yard game. Who knows how long it’s been since Green Bay had a runner do that? There have not been many in the Aaron Rodgers era, that’s for sure.
I cannot give the Saints the advantage in any aspect of this game. The Packers are playing good defense, and it’s only a matter of time until the offense gets it together. The Saints, meanwhile, are missing Sean Payton more than anybody expected. It doesn’t feel right saying it, but the Saints will be 0-4 come Sunday.
Redskins @ Buccaneers
The Skins have lost two tough ones in a row, both effectively ending with unusual dead-ball fouls. Most recently, on the Redskins’ final drive against Cincinnati on Sunday, the Washington sideline was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, placing Robert Griffin, III and the Redskins offense in an unmanageable third-and-fifty situation, which turned out to be the game’s final play.
The Buccaneers, meanwhile, lost a yawner against Dallas. Tampa’s offense looked pitiful. Stud receiver Vincent Jackson did not manage a reception until the fourth quarter, and the Bucs offense was 3 for 15 on third downs. That kind of offensive production will not suffice against a fiery Washington offense that averages 33 points per game.
The Redskins have to be upset and motivated after the way their last two games have ended. They look like the best team in the NFC East, but their record is no indication of that, as Dallas and Philadelphia, in particular, have played sloppy football, but managed to squeak out two wins apiece.
Washington’s fury will be levied against Tampa on Sunday in a game I don’t even believe will be close.
Giants @ Eagles
The turnover epidemic in the Philadelphia locker room finally got the best of the Eagles in week three, as their three turnovers did them in against Arizona’s unrelenting defense. Philadelphia’s turnover differential is now -6. Mike Vick has thrown twice as many picks as touchdowns, is still running for his life every other play, and cannot get any kind of consistency from his receivers. How on Earth is this team 2-1?
The Giants have really picked things up since their season-opening loss to Dallas. They pulled an impressive comeback against Tampa Bay and carried the momentum into Charlotte last Thursday, obliterating Carolina 36-7.
The performances of Andre Brown and Ramses Barden had everything to do with New York’s success in Carolina. With Ahmad Bradshaw and Hakeem Nicks out with injuries (along with what seemed like half of the starting offense), the backups took full advantage of their opportunities, combining for 251 yards—62 percent of the Giants’ offensive total.
Philadelphia has no excuse for their sloppiness. They are too talented to be playing the way they have been for the last 19 games, dating back to the 2011 season. The last time I picked the G-Men to win on account of their discipline, they let me down, but I cannot invest my faith in a team that turns the ball over like the Eagles do. I’m taking the Giants. Andy Reid’s seat grows ever warmer.
Bears @ Cowboys
Though the offense has been inconsistent, the Bears’ defense has, for the most part, played well through three games. Most recently, they held St. Louis to six points and no red-zone visits this past Sunday.
Jay Cutler had a quiet game, leaving the bulk of the work to the defense and running game. He is due for a big game after two unimpressive outings.
Elsewhere on the offense, it’s beginning to look like Chicago may have expected too much from Brandon Marshall. He’s had a fair first three games in 2012, but he hasn’t looked like the premier guy Chicago was hoping for when they acquired him from the Dolphins. Also, Chicago hopes to have Matt Forte back after his week-two ankle injury.
As for Dallas, their game against Tampa Bay was anything but pretty, but it was a win, and that’s what matters. (It would have been hard to match how bad they were in Seattle in week two.) They committed three turnovers, but had it not been for the first—a Tony Romo interception well within Cowboys territory—the defense, led by DeMarcus Ware and his two sacks, might have kept Tampa’s offense out of the end zone entirely.
Neither of these teams has shown any kind of consistency early on. The talent is there for both franchises, but it’s just so difficult to predict when and if the talent is going to show up on gameday. I think this game will hinge on the turnover battle. Both quarterbacks tend to make some questionable, erratic throws from time to time, and both defenses are good at cashing in on offensive mistakes. This one should be close, but I’ll take Dallas for their slight offensive advantage.
Thought of the week: Thank God the referees are back?
Never thought I’d find myself saying that. Enjoy the games, folks.