A few days ago, upon the conclusion of week six, NFL.com had a poll asking voters to identify the NFL’s best team. The choices included the Falcons, the Ravens, the Texans, and the 49ers, but the option with the most results was “Other.” I have to say, I too would have voted for “Other.” The Falcons struggled against Carolina and Oakland (not good), the Ravens are good but can never really put inferior teams away (since losing to Philadelphia in week two, Baltimore has not won a single game by more than seven points, including matchups with Cleveland and Kansas City), the Texans would have gotten my vote until they got spanked by Green Bay on Sunday Night Football, and the 49ers still have offensive issues, as evidenced by their three points against the Giants this past Sunday.
So who is this “other” that I now consider to be the best team in the league?
If Green Bay plays anything like they did against Houston in week six for the rest of the season, no one will beat them. That was the best Packers football I had seen since their 2010 Divisional Playoff obliteration of Atlanta. Of course, Green Bay has struggled with consistency this season, so we’ll see if they can harness the momentum, but as far as talent and potential go, Green Bay still has the most of both. The Packers are still the best team in the league, despite their .500 record.
Prediction record last week: embarrassing (5-9)
Prediction record overall: 52-39
In my defense, 12 of the 14 games played in week six resulted in underdog victories; so let’s look at it this way: I got more predictions correct than Vegas did.
Seahawks @ 49ers
Week seven kicks off on Thursday Night Football when the Seahawks visit San Francisco and their top-ranked defensive unit. Seattle is riding on a lot of confidence and momentum after their improbable comeback win against the AFC’s baddest bunch, the Patriots. Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson finally had a truly professional-tier performance by throwing for 293 yards and a trio of touchdowns, including a clutch deep ball to Sidney Rice that proved to be the game-winner. He also threw zero picks. Granted, this stellar showing came against what I maintain to be the worst defensive backfield in recent memory, but this could go a long way in building Wilson’s confidence going forward. And he’ll need plenty of it against the Niners.
San Francisco might have the best defense in the league officially, but just from what I have watched, I would readily give that title to the Seattle team that I have now witnessed shut down both Green Bay and New England, with only limited and sporadic help from their inconsistent offense. Furthermore, the 49ers looked like anything but the league’s best defense against New York as they gave up 26 points and 116 rushing yards to Ahmad Bradshaw this past Sunday. What’s worse is that the offense managed only three points. Even all-pro kicker David Akers missed two field goals. It was an off day for the Niners all around. To get back on track, San Francisco needs better production from their superstars on both sides of the ball. What happened to Vernon Davis? Where did Aldon Smith go?
If you like defense—heck, if you like football—Thursday should be a fun night for you. I don’t see San Francisco dropping two straight, including a home divisional contest, but I think it will be close.
Titans @ Bills
If the NFL insists on deporting one game each year to London, these are the types of games that need to go. Then again, Buffalo loses one home game each year to Toronto, so sending another one to London would be excessive and unfair to American Bills fans… they do exist; I saw a few at the Cardinals game on Sunday, which turned out to be—for my money—the weekend’s most exciting game.
Trust me, the Biffalo Buffs tried in every way possible to lose. The fourth quarter was a disaster. A totally unnecessary deep ball thrown by Brad Smith out of the Wildcat formation resulted in an ugly pick (Chan Gailey conceded that the play was a “dumb call” after the game). Then, when the Bills had a chance to reclaim the lead after Arizona knotted the score, The Bills allowed a sack on first down, pinning them within their own 15-yard line. The Bills went three-and-out on their last chance in regulation, and then the Bills’ new punter, Shawn Powell, promptly shanked one out of bounds at the Arizona 47-yard line in an effort to keep the ball away from Patrick Peterson.
To make a long story short, Buffalo somehow pulled it out in overtime thanks to Jay “Really?!” (Feely) and an overtime interception of a horrid John Skelton pass by Jairus Byrd.
The Titans also pulled an upset by defeating Pittsburgh in dramatic fashion this past Thursday night. Matt Hasselbeck had the best game he’s had in years thanks to Pittsburgh’s reeling defense and a kicking clinic compliments of Rob Bironas.
Neither of these teams will reveal their true identity; thus, I am dubbing this game the “Secret Agent Bowl.” I like Buffalo to win in one of the weekend’s least interest games. If nothing else, it gives us all a chance to revisit (one of the greatest moments in NFL history) the Music City Miracle. “There are no flags on the field!!!”
Browns @ Colts
On the way to their first win of the season, Cleveland outscored their in-state rival, Cincinnati, 27-10 in the second half. The dominance was impressive and, well, unexpected. I don’t think Cleveland is as bad as their record. They are bad, yes, but I think they could beat the likes of Kansas City and Jacksonville, and if they can beat Cincinnati, heck, they’ve got a shot against about anyone in the AFC. After all, they played Baltimore fairly well, losing by only a touchdown.
The Colts fell flat after their inspiring week-five win against Green Bay. The Jets defense stomped all over Andrew Luck and the Colts offense. In the end, three Adam Vinateiri field goals were all Indy could manage in the 35-9 trouncing.
Both of these teams have shown glimpses of improvement over the course of the past few weeks—Indianapolis on offense (against the Packers, at least), and Cleveland on defense (against Cincinnati). In a few years, this game may have playoff implications, when these teams have developed their youthful cores. Then again, the Cleveland franchise is at a managerial crossroads, as Mike Holmgren announced his retirement as the teams’ president on Tuesday. Where they go from here on the field is anybody’s guess.
For this weekend, anyway, I like the Colts.
Ravens @ Texans
Playoff preview, anyone? Playoff review anyone?
The Texans made a good run of it in 2011, winning the franchise’s first playoff game with T.J. Yates under center in place of an injured Matt Schaub, and Andre Johnson playing through injury. It was Baltimore who sent them home though in the divisional round.
On Sunday afternoon, Baltimore will take their game to Houston without their team-leader and middle linebacker Ray Lewis. They will face the Texans… who will also be without their team-leader and middle linebacker, Brian Cushing.
It’s sad to think that we might have seen the last of Ray Lewis on the gridiron. His career speaks for itself. We’ll see him in Canton, first-ballot, no question. Lewis’ impact on the Ravens organization transcends the field, and losing him will be momentous.
To a lesser extent, the same can be said about Brian Cushing, without whom the Texans got torched by the Packers on Sunday Night Football. I am not certain that Cushing’s impact makes that much of a difference (after all, the Packers have an excellent offense), but his absence will be huge. Tim Dobbins, Cushing’s replacement, has some massive shoes to fill if this defense is going to continue to rank among the league’s most dominant.
Offensively, both teams are sound. I think the Ravens have a deeper receiving corps, and both teams have premier running backs. This should be a good one. In a complete toss-up, I’m picking
Packers @ Rams
The Rams’ cornerbacks—specifically Cortland Finnegan—excel in bump-and-run coverage, but after what Green Bay did to Houston’s Johnathan Joseph last week, the Rams might want to rethink their coverage scheme. The Rams defense is good, but the Packers can put up points against anybody, and if Aaron Rodgers gets hot, do you really expect Sam Bradford to be able to compete with him? Without Danny Amendola at that?
The key to the Rams having any resemblance of a chance against Green Bay is to bring the heat up front. Chris Long is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season, and the Packers had trouble with J.J. Watt last week. Watt and Long are very similar players despite playing in different schemes. Long, along with youngsters Robert Quinn and Michael Brockers will really need to produce against the athletic but certainly penetrable Packers offensive line. If they don’t, St. Louis sports fans might want to consider focusing on baseball.
The Packers’ 42-24 win over the previously undefeated Texans overshadowed the unsettling amount of injuries the Packers sustained. Sam Shields, D.J. Smith, Nick Perry, and Brandon Saine all exited the game and did not return. Add to that the uncertain statuses of B.J. Raji and Greg Jennings and you have to be a little worried if you are a Packers fan.
…Or do you? Once again, let me remind you: the Packers began the 2010 season 3-3 and quickly had an injury list as long as the Warren Report. Sound familiar?
Green Bay ended the 2010 season in a sea of confetti in Dallas. So Watch out. I’m jus’ sayin’. You heard it here first. I like the Pack in this one.
Saints @ Buccaneers
Finally, the Saints offense is clicking. Before their bye in week six, New Orleans gave the Green Bay defense all it could handle, and then efficiently dismantled San Diego’s, breaking some records in the process. Drew Brees fantasy owners (me) are finally getting what they were hoping for when they drafted him in the first round.
The Buccaneers had a nice offensive day themselves in week six. Josh Freeman was fantastic, throwing for 328 yards and three touchdowns, including two to Vincent Jackson, who is turning out to be quite the offseason pickup. LeGarrette Blount continues to sneak his way onto the field, racking up seven carries and a touchdown as the Bucs cruised to a 38-10 schlacking of Kansas City. Of course, I would be very disappointed if a team failed to achieve those sorts of results against Kansas City, so take the dominant performance with a grain or two of salt.
I think the Saints have finally become accustomed to running their offense (and team) without Sean Payton, and now, it’s Katy, bar the door! This team is angry, desperate, and could rampage into the playoffs. (Playoffs?!) Additionally, the Saints’ pathetic defense will joyously welcome Jon Vilma back this week. His current appeal of his most recent suspension allows him to play and he has deemed himself physically ready. He will make a world of difference in the league’s worst defense.
I think the Saints keep it going with another win this weekend.
Cowboys @ Panthers
Carolina, this isn’t working. This SEC offense you’re running—it doesn’t fly in the NFL. Maybe it did for one season simply because it caught everyone off-guard, but at some point Cam Newton has to learn a pro offense. The spread option is not cutting it. Then, what’s with this defense? You have Seattle in a third-and-long inside their own five-yard line with the game in the balance, and… you let them run the ball for 11 yards? Are you kidding me?
Things have got to change in the Queen City. Drastically. Carolina’s failed expectations for 2012 outweigh even those of the Saints and Lions. Cam Newton was supposed to lead this team to the playoffs this year. It doesn’t look like that will be happening for another season at least.
My solution? Two things: fire defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. Now. And, sometime between this season’s inevitable disappointing conclusion and the beginning of next season, get with the program and switch to a 3-4 scheme.
The Cowboys, by this point, should be used to disappointment. Maybe they should name the stadium the “Disappointment Dome.” Jerry Jones is an excellent businessman—there’s no question—but he continues to put his team under needless pressure each season by fueling unrealistic expectations. This team is not among the league’s elite; it hasn’t been for some time now. It’s not even among the conference’s elite. Heck, let’s go one step further: I think I can honestly say that the Cowboys—“America’s Team”—are the worst team in the NFC East.
All this said, somebody’s got to win the game this weekend. I’m going to go with the Panthers because DeAngelo Williams and Steve Smith are on my fantasy team (very professional, I know). Anything could happen in this game, and it really doesn’t matter, because neither of these teams will come close to making the postseason.
Cardinals @ Vikings
In what these two teams hope will be a rebound game, Christian Ponder will face his toughest test yet in the feisty Arizona defense. As always, he will be relying heavily on Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson to help him shoulder the load.
The Cardinals were slightly exposed last week by Buffalo, as C.J. Spiller gained 110 all-purpose yards in a stinging defeat. I did not catch ESPN’s “C’mon Man” segment before the Saints/Broncos game, but if Jay Feely was not featured, I am appalled. Feely summoned a kick out of the depths of hell late in the fourth quarter to tie the game with a 61-yard rocket. Then what does he do? He doinks the would-be game-winner off the left upright from a distance of 38 yards. Feely claimed it was tipped. I didn’t see it. Ken Whisenhunt didn’t see it. I think he just missed it.
Before the field-goal fiasco, Arizona looked like a team determined to win—especially Kevin Kolb, who was so determined that he went head-first on a scramble in the fourth quarter and paid the price. He was forced out of the game with a chest/costal injury after being sandwiched by two Buffalo defenders. Former starter John Skelton entered the game and proceeded to fail, going 2-for-10 for 45 yards and an interception that doomed the Redbirds in overtime.
Kolb is expected to miss multiple weeks and I don’t have much faith in John Skelton, but I do have faith in the Arizona defense. Similarly, however, I have been impressed by Minnesota’s defensive efforts (excluding this most recent mishap with Robert Griffin, III). It will come down to which quarterback is less bad. I expect Minnesota to stick to their conservative offensive approach, putting the game on the shoulders of their aforementioned established playmakers, while Arizona is likely to struggle with the sudden change at quarterback. I have to go with the Vikes.
Redskins @ Giants
Both of these NFC East squads looked great in week six. Robert Griffin, III rebounded from his concussion to skewer the Vikings for 320 all-purpose yards, while the Giants reminded the mighty 49ers who beat them in the NFC Championship game last season.
I think the division title in the East may come down to these two teams. Philly just can’t get it together, and Dallas I have addressed. Washington has an explosive offense, but they do make mistakes. They commit a lot of penalties and turn the ball over here and there. The Giants are firm defensively and experienced; they are fourth-quarter warriors and pupils of a brilliant Hall of Fame-bound head coach in Tom Coughlin.
The Giants are a good team, but they haven’t played consistently. The season opener against Dallas and the close primetime loss to Philadelphia were bad showings. Allowing 34 and 27 points to Tampa Bay and Cleveland, respectively, were not particularly bright spots either, despite resulting in wins. The question for Washington is can they maintain enough discipline to beat a team with the talent of New York. Beating teams like Tampa Bay and Minnesota is one thing; beating the defending Super Bowls champs—something else entirely.
Although I believe it will be close, I think Eli Manning and the Giants will pull this one out, likely in dramatic fashion.
Jets @ Patriots
What is going on in the AFC East? Currently, each team sports a 3-3 record. It’s anybody’s ball game, and this matchup will be huge in deciding a favorite going forward.
The Jets, like their crosstown rivals discussed above, are inconsistent (every football writer’s favorite adjective, I’m coming to find). In their whacking of the Colts, they showed no signs of the team that couldn’t score a single point against San Francisco a few weeks ago; they looked more like the team that hung a 40-burger with cheese on the Bills in week one.
The Patriots’ defense is bound to blow it for New England. That secondary is not worth the price fans pay for tickets. They may force turnovers every once in a while, but they hand out yardage like it’s some sort of business promotion. And yes, even Mark Sanchez is capable of good numbers against them.
So that puts this game in the highly reliable hands of Tom Brady and the still-stupendous Patriots offense. I guess if you’re going to have one of the worst defensive backfields ever, it’s good to have Tom Terrific on the other side of the ball.
The Pats ran into a roadblock against Seattle’s phenomenal defense in week six. Rex Ryan’s defense is nowhere near as formidable as Pete Carroll’s. I like the Pats at home.
Jaguars @ Raiders
So, somebody please explain to me why there are only two late games this week. And why on Earth is one of them this yawnfest? Wake me up when someone scores… which might not even happen. Can I predict a 0-0 tie?
Obviously, between these two inept offenses, someone will be able to turn turnovers into points, but I don’t expect it to be thrilling.
On the bright side, Oakland looked like an actual football team—like with a coach and players and everything—against Atlanta last week. They even came close to winning! A bad decision in the fourth quarter, as Oakland attempted to put the Falcons away, resulted in a pick-six that allowed Atlanta to even the score, and eventually boot the go-ahead field goal. Oakland had played pretty well up until that point, however, picking off early-season MVP Matt Ryan three times in the first half.
The Jaguars are returning from a bye, and two weeks brooding over the humiliating 41-3 defeat they suffered at the hands of Chicago in week five. They have struggled to put points on the board early on, but Oakland’s 24th-ranked defense presents a good opportunity.
Wow. I just spent four paragraphs talking about Oakland and Jacksonville and the only player I mentioned plays for Atlanta. That’s an indication of how insignificant these two teams are. Because I have to choose a winner though, I’ll take Oakland in the Black Hole.
Steelers @ Bengals
For the first time in a long time, the Steelers do not look like a playoff team. At 2-3, they have only one impressive win on the season (week two against the Jets), and two very uncharacteristically disappointing losses (I’ll excuse their loss to Denver; Denver’s a good team).
This divisional matchup is paramount for both teams. Cincinnati began the season 3-1, but has now dropped their two most recent games, including a divisional loss to the Browns, bringing their division record to 1-2. The team that loses this will be at a serious disadvantage in the AFC North as Baltimore continues to run away with the division crown.
Pittsburgh swept this series in 2011 and I give them the initial edge in 2012. They have certainly not been playing ball up to Pittsburgh Steelers standards, but they still have an experienced team that knows how to play in the AFC North. Pittsburgh’s offense is far better than Cincinnati’s defense, especially if Rashard Mendenhall ends up playing. Cincinnati, too, has a potent offensive attack with A.J. Green coming off the line, but the Steelers defense should be able rattle Andy Dalton early, helping the Polamalu-less secondary shut down the star wideout.
Lions @ Bears
Week seven concludes with another northern rivalry as the Lions visit Chicago in hopes of extending their win “streak” to two. Detroit did not have the prettiest of games against Philadelphia in week six, but came out with a win thanks in equal parts to an Eagle implosion, and some real late-game resilience on their own part.
The Bears are winning games in assertive fashion. Most recently, they took it to the Jaguars to the tune of a 38-point romp. Once again, the Bears scored multiple non-offensive touchdowns, as Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman each contributed pick-sixes to the 41-point effort.
The Chicago offense still ranks on a mediocre level, but against Detroit they ought to shine. Detroit’s secondary is a sandbox for athletic receivers like Brandon Marshall; Jeremy Maclin racked up 130 receiving yards on six catches against it in week six.
It’s good that Detroit finally got a win, but this game breaks down very simply: the Bears are playing good football, the Lions are not. The Bears score on defense and offense, while the Lions have struggled to score, period. I would not be surprised if Detroit somehow pulled an upset, but on the other hand, I can just as easily see Chicago running away with this one. The latter scenario is much more likely, and that’s what I’m going with.
Thought of the week:
Has anyone else noticed the meaninglessness of a defensive personal foul on extra points? It’s a free shot; a prime opportunity for players like Ndamukong Suh to stomp on people without real in-game repercussions (unless it’s bad enough to warrant ejection). I mean, yes, there’s a fifteen-yard penalty assessed on the ensuing kickoff, but what does that do? It moves the location of the kickoff up to midfield, resulting inevitably in a touchback. Ha, way to go, refs. That’ll show ‘em.
So here’s what I propose: add the penalty yardage to the end result of the ensuing kickoff. If it’s a touchback, the offending team gets the ball at their five-yard line. If they run it back for a touchdown, the touchdown is called back, and the ball is placed at their opponents’ 15-yard line. If there is a penalty on the kicking team, offset the fouls; if there is a penalty on the receiving team, handle the two fouls as if they occurred on the same play, enforcing one (presumably the more severe) and not the other.
Sooner or later, some nasty player somewhere is going to realize the sinister window of opportunity presented by extra points and they’re going to use it to fulfill a vendetta. Something needs to be done. There’s no reason to have a loophole for injuries and dirty play.