And just like that, baseball comes to an end, basketball begins, and fittingly, football approaches its midpoint (while hockey is still stuck in the dressing room).
Prediction record last week: 10-4
Prediction record overall: 73-45. I’m happy with that. If I’m an NFL team with an equivalent record, I’m in the playoff hunt, and that’s good enough for me. Let’s see if I can continue to improve.
Kansas City @ San Diego
Both of these underperforming AFC West teams owe us explanations after their pathetic losses this past Sunday. Kansas City, at least, attempted to give us one; San Diego, however, has no explanation for their continued commitment to Norv Turner and A.J. Smith. I recently wrote an entire article on the catastrophe that is the San Diego Chargers organization, so I’ll spare you the rant and get straight to the gridiron.
I would say that allowing only seven points (even to the Browns) is a silver lining in an embarrassing loss, but no, it was more the rain that stifled the offenses in the Chargers/Browns game than good defense. The Chargers defense recorded no sacks and forced no turnovers.
That should change this week as the Chiefs come to town under the Thursday night lights. The Chiefs have the worst turnover differential in the NFL at -18. If the Chargers cannot force a turnover against this impotent offense, they are even worse off than I thought.
Making matters worse for the Chiefs is that they are back to starting Matt Cassel at quarterback after Brady Quinn’s concussion against Oakland. The Chiefs would do well to activate Ricky Stanzi this week.
My better sense tells me to go with San Diego. But if there is one team in the NFL to which “better sense” does not apply, it is the San Diego Chargers. As I did in week eight, I will predict a Chargers victory, but in the event of a loss, I once again predict the dismissal of Norv turner.
Denver @ Cincinnati
Over the course of the Bengals’ inconsistent first half of the season, Andy Dalton has quietly been throwing more interceptions than any other quarterback (except for Tony Romo, of course). Dalton has thrown ten picks and nine touchdowns. At this point in 2011, Dalton’s ratio was nine touchdowns to seven interceptions. It’s not an egregious regression by any means; the underlying distress here is that Dalton has not improved in his second season. If the Bengals want the Red Rifle to lead them to Super Bowl contention, he is going to have to grow up a little and take that next step as a quarterback.
Denver on the other hand, currently has the league’s top-rated passer making confetti out of every defense he meets (except Atlanta’s). Peyton Manning leads all quarterbacks with a 109 QBR. He trails only Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees in touchdown passes with 17, and has thrown only three picks (only one if you throw out the anomalous Atlanta game).
On defense, both teams are average. Denver has looked particularly good lately after limiting New Orleans to only 14 points this past Sunday night (seven of which came in garbage time).
Much to the dismay of the Bengals (and everybody remaining on Denver’s schedule), Peyton Manning has hit his stride with is new offense and team. Denver has gone from a team that looked like it might make the playoffs to a team that will win its division and contend for a first-round bye. In the meantime, I like them to beat Cincinnati.
Baltimore @ Cleveland
I have argued all season that Cleveland is not as bad as their record, and I maintain that. The problem is: their will is already broken. You see it all the time, a team gets off to a bad start by losing a bunch of close games, and even though they might be a mediocre team, they find ways to lose. The Cleveland Browns are a perfect example of this type of team.
Before their week-eight bye, the Ravens suffered maybe their most decisive loss in years in a 30-point demolition at the hands of Houston. The defense gave up 43 points even with Terrell Suggs back in the mix, as Ray Lewis could only look on helplessly.
The Ravens have taken a collective step back in recent weeks, both offensively and defensively. It seems like the two units can never be good on the same day. Against Kansas City, the defense was great; the offense, however, scored no touchdowns. Against Dallas, the offense rebounded to the tune of 31 points, but the defense almost gave it away at the very end, allowing 29. Most recently, both sides of the ball were just plain awful against a frighteningly superior Houston team.
Baltimore is headed in the wrong direction, but I like them to pull it together, at least temporarily, against Cleveland.
Arizona @ Green Bay
Arizona has the sixth-ranked pass defense in the league on paper, but I saw a different story unfold on Monday Night Football against Alex Smith and the 49ers. Smith torched the Redbirds’ secondary, throwing only one incompletion and three touchdowns, while his top weapon Michael Crabtree beat Patrick Peterson like a drum all night. Even Randy Moss had his moment to (almost literally) run circles around the Cardinals’ “top-ten” pass defense.
Recently, Aaron Rodgers got a little more candid with the media about the team than he normally does, telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “We’ve got to run the ball better” in no uncertain words or phrases. The chance may come against the Cardinals, who have allowed over 100 rushing yards in three consecutive games now, dating back to the overtime loss to Buffalo in week six.
As far as the mighty Packer passing attack is concerned, the reigning league MVP had one of his least impressive games against Jacksonville this past weekend (maybe partially due to the absences of Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson), but Aaron Rodgers is still Aaron Rodgers, and he is essentially indefensible. What’s more, he hasn’t thrown a pick since week five against Indianapolis. In the three games since, he has thrown a more Rodgers-esque 12 TD’s to zero INT’s.
The Cardinals pass defense chose a bad time to become slack. Rodgers will tear them apart this Sunday en route to a sizeable Packers victory—no running game required.
Miami @ Indianapolis
I hope everybody realizes how huge this game could be in determining wild card spots for the AFC playoffs. Neither the Dolphins nor Colts has much of a shot at winning their respective divisions, but they are both very much in the mix for wild card spots. The way I see it, the first wild card spot will go to the second-place team in the AFC North—either Baltimore or Pittsburgh—the second could easily go to one of these two teams.
I am more impressed with Miami because their roster is not very deep at any position, yet they are well-coached and find ways to win, even with Matt Moore quarterbacking. Surprisingly, Indianapolis is more talented, but less disciplined, prone to giving up big plays and letting opponents hang around (like Jacksonville and Tennessee). The Colts are fueled by emotions. Chuck Pagano’s fight against cancer has given the team momentum and a sort of intangible advantage. That’s nice and all, but I’m usually not going to bet on something like that come Sunday afternoon.
I’m struggling with this one. I find these teams to be very evenly matched. I like that the Colts are playing at home, but my gut tells me that Miami is the better team. After all, the Dolphins just manhandled the Jets—the same team that obliterated the Colts 35-9 a few weeks ago.
Ultimately deciding by coin toss, I have chosen the Dolphins.
Buffalo @ Houston
The Texans really need to sit down and write the NFL a thank-you note for this cupcake schedule of theirs. Last week’s game against Baltimore was the first game Houston had played against an opponent with a plus-.500 record. I’m not saying the Texans are undeserving of their record, however. I think they proved they belong among the elite when they blew out the Ravens. I’m only making the point that Houston can almost coast to a home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
I was thinking about dressing up as J.J. Watt for Halloween, but figured it would either enrage or frighten all the Colts fans in these parts. Lucky for Indianapolis, they don’t have to deal with J.J. “Swat” until weeks 15 and 17 when Houston may be resting their starters. Buffalo, however, is not so lucky; they’ll get the Texans at full-force.
We were all surprised to see that Buffalo could go a week without turning the ball over (one of the many perks of the bye week). Only Dallas and Kansas City have given the ball away more than the Bills, while the Texans have been stingy, turning it over less than any other team on a per-game basis.
Unless Mario Williams goes into Super Mario mode upon returning to Reliant Stadium, the Bills don’t have much of a shot against the AFC’s best team. This game will go to Houston decisively.
Detroit @ Jacksonville
This game could not come at a better time for the rebounding Detroit Lions. The matchup in Jacksonville gives Detroit a prime opportunity to even its record at 4-4, keeping the Lions within sight of their NFC North competitors.
Losing Nate Burleson might have been a blessing in disguise for Detroit. As soon as Titus Young was plugged in as the replacement starter opposite Megatron, he wreaked havoc on Seattle’s vaunted “Legion of Boom,” recording nine receptions for 100 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Ryan Broyles has also emerged as a nice third receiver, as Brandon Pettigrew has been fairly unproductive and harried by a nagging knee injury. The Lions still have no running game to speak of, but maybe Matthew Stafford’s passing game that accrued over 5,000 yards in 2011 is finally coming back to life. It is also worth noting that Detroit added depth to the receiving corps on Wednesday by trading for Mike Thomas from Jacksonville, this week’s opponent.
The Jaguars surprisingly put together some nice offense against the Packers this past Sunday, and were very much in the game until the very end. Against an even-worse Detroit defense, they might actually put up some good stats if Blaine Gabbert and Cecil Shorts come through again like they did in Green Bay.
After an admirable effort against Aaron Rodgers, Jacksonville remains a below-average pass defense, and Detroit’s formerly powerful aerial assault is on the mend. The story of this game is simple: good timing for the Lions, and poor timing for Jacksonville. I like Detroit in this one, but there’s definitely some upset potential here.
Chicago @ Tennessee
So Chicago’s defense is phenomenal. They score about as much as Kansas City’s offense does. The trouble with the Bears, however, is that the offense is, to quote the ever-eloquent Shaq, horri-awful. It’s going to bite them against a team who can score points, and Tennessee might just be that team.
The Titans have impressed and surprised me with their resilience. After Jake Locker went down (again), the team rallied behind Matt Hasselbeck and became somewhat competitive, winning a couple of games in the process. Chris Johnson even showed up to work.
Tennessee’s 30th-ranked defense is still struggling, but what have they got to fear against Chicago’s anemic offense? This is a good matchup for them. If they avoid the costly turnover, the Titans can and will beat the Bears—like the Panthers should have. Chicago is an over-rated team. They are not always going to be able to win games by scoring on defense. If the offense does not come around, they could be in for another late-season implosion. This team is due to have its true identity revealed, and I think it comes this week as Tennessee delivers the upset in Nashville.
Carolina @ Washington
The blueprint for stopping Robert Griffin, III has been declassified. Thank you Dick LeBeau.
Signed, the rest of the league.
If you stop Washington’s fiery offense, the Skins are helpless on defense. Carolina has drastically underperformed on offense, but they still have the tools to explode any given Sunday, be it on the ground or the air.
Carolina’s defense has outplayed its offense lately. In fact, the Panthers suddenly rank 15th in total defense, while the offense lags behind. It was nice, however, to finally see the Panthers utilize a pro-style offense (rather than the read option) against the Bears. The only problem was: they couldn’t get in the end zone. Their only touchdown came on a fortuitous offensive fumble recovery by Louis Murphy.
There’s talk that DeAngelo Williams might be traded soon as the trade deadline nears, but even if he does, that just opens the door for the under-utilized Mike Tolbert behind Jonathan Stewart. Once again, the key is for both teams to simply take care of the ball. The team who turns the ball over the least wins the game.
I’m taking another upset. Carolina wins.
Oakland @ Tampa Bay
In a rematch of one of the most forgettable Super Bowls ever, Oakland will look to slow down the Tampa Bay offensive steam engine, spearheaded by rookie overnigh sensation Doug Martin and the dual receiving threat of Mike Williams and Vincent Jackson. It seems like the Tampa offense hit its stride against Washington in week four and has not looked back, averaging 36 points per game in the three games since.
Aside from one 64-yard touchdown run, the defense performed very well against in Minnesota, limiting Adrian Peterson to 59 rushing yards without the one big play. They also managed to shut down Percy Harvin in large part, carving his triple-threat into a one-dimensional receiving attack. Harvin finished with negative rushing yards, and Connor Barth made all but one of his kickoffs non-returnable for the Vikes’ MVP-caliber playmaker.
Oakland had no problems against the Chiefs (I would be rather concerned if they did). Carson Palmer played a complete game. Darren McFadden eclipsed the century mark on the ground. On defense, free-agent acquisition Philip Wheeler continued to play at a Pro Bowl level, tallying 11 tackles, a sack, and generally being everywhere on the field Kansas City didn’t want him.
Oakland needs to improve on offense. The Bucs, though they are showing signs of growth, are still lacking defensively. I guess if the Tampa defense has a strength, it is against the run—which doesn’t bode well for the one-dimensional Raiders offense. That’s why I am taking the Bucs again this week.
Minnesota @ Seattle
For two teams vying for wild card spots in the NFC, this is a gravely important game. The Seahawks face a three-game skid if they lose, while a Vikings loss would be their third in four games. Just when we were all ready to call these two teams playoff contenders, they began slipping. The good news—for one team—is that someone has to win this game.
Both defenses in this matchup were torched in week eight: the Seahawks through the air by Detroit, and the Vikings on the ground by Tampa Bay. Seattle’s humbled giants in the secondary have to be licking their chops at an opportunity to play against the erratic Christian Ponder.
Truthfully, I’m still not buying Russell Wilson as a suitable NFL starting quarterback, and I hate to say this, but I kind of wish the defense would stop bailing him out so that Matt Flynn would get a chance under center. Of course, Wilson’s major advantage over Flynn is his athleticism, and he’ll need it this week against the voracious pass rush of Jared Allen, who, in the most intriguing matchup of the game, will be going toe-to-toe with former first-round draft selection Russell Okung.
This will probably be a low-scoring affair. Both quarterbacks are more liabilities than assets, which is particularly unfavorable for Minnesota, who does not have a defense like Seattle’s to lean on.
I want to pick Minnesota in this one, and maybe I would if they were playing at home, but they aren’t. I’m taking Seattle.
Pittsburgh @ New York Giants
Well, the Giants and their fans may celebrate another victory in Jerryland, but they were a fingertip’s length away from getting swept by their hated Dallas rivals. The play of the New York secondary on the Cowboys’ final drive was horrible. How do you let it get that close? How do you let Jason Witten catch 18 passes—most of them on the same, exact play?! Yes, celebrate Giants, but you’ve got issues to address—especially with one of the league’s most efficient passers coming into the Big Apple this week.
The Steelers have been a bit inconsistent as a team, but Big Ben Roethlisberger is throwing the ball as well as he ever has. He’s seventh in touchdown passes with 14, and more impressively has thrown only three picks (tied for fewest in the league).
The Pittsburgh defense finally played up to its capabilities against Washington in week eight, shutting down Mike Shanahan’s juggernaut and holding them to only 12 points (one touchdown, two field goals). Robert Griffin, III was limited to eight rushing yards and 177 through the air, while Washington’s leading rusher gained only 59 yards.
The Steelers defense might be old, but they still have plenty of talent. The question is can they eliminate the big play for 60 minutes. The Manning-to-Cruz emergency hotline has saved the G-Men in the nick of time more than once this season. Ideally, Pittsburgh would like to put the game out of reach before Manning even gets a chance at another improbable late-game comeback. The chances of that are slim, but I do like Pittsburgh to notch a win on the road.
Dallas @ Atlanta
On the week-eight edition of FOX’s NFL pregame show, analyst Terry Bradshaw got so fed up with Jimmy Johnson’s homer pick (Johnson stated that Eli Manning would throw three picks in a Cowboys win) that Bradshaw took the time and effort to go completely off-script and retort with a prediction that Romo would throw four. One of the men was right, and it was not the former coach, but the Blond Bomber.
The point of this acknowledgement of Bradshaw’s foresight is to spotlight how terrible Tony Romo has been this season. Any way you look at it, Romo’s days are numbered as Jerry Jones’ starter. He is far-and-away leading all quarterbacks in the one category one does not want to be tops in: interceptions. He’s thrown 13.
Of course, despite Romo’s unreliability, the Cowboys are still in the thick of things at 3-4. After all, they are just a few plays away from being 5-2.
Atlanta still looks like the best team in the league. I don’t know of any team with the defensive talent to match the Falcon’s offensive weaponry. Morris Claiborne and the third-ranked pass defense of the Cowboys will certainly have their hands full come Sunday.
The Cowboys actually rank above Atlanta in both offense and defense. Could this be the week the ’72 Dolphins pop the cork? Not if Tony Romo continues to throw picks—which he will. I’m going with the Falcons. Again.
Philadelphia @ New Orleans
The team that loses this game may as well kiss their playoff hopes (and in the Eagles’ case, maybe their head coach and/or starting quarterback) goodbye. The Eagles are 3-4 and New Orleans is 2-5; they are both looking to rebound from blowout losses. I have to say though—the Saints seem to be handling adversity much better than Philadelphia has. Perhaps Philly is simply under more media scrutiny, but it just seems like things are at a boiling point in the City of Brotherly Love.
Speaking of unemployment, Mike Vick. The question is no longer “Will Vick be benched?”, but “When will Vick be benched?” There’s a good possibility we may see Nick Foles make his entrance as early as this Monday night matchup with New Orleans.
Drew Brees is still playing at an all-pro level. If this defense could provide him with any sort of help (you know, like allow less than 27 points in a game, for once), the Saints would be winning games like usual. They would be challenging Atlanta for the NFC South title and probably be well within the conversation for playoff contention. In fact, I still think they can make a run of it. It won’t be easy, but I have utmost faith in Drew Brees. No matter how many points that shabby defense allows, Brees can usually score just as many.
This game is a matter of attitude. Philly seems panicky. New Orleans seems collected. That’s my reasoning in picking the Saints.
Thought of the week: I know I’m here to talk about football, but I have to say that I had mixed emotions on Monday when I turned on SportsCenter (expecting to hear news of Norv Turner’s firing). The San Francisco Giants had just swept an incalculably talented Detroit Tigers team in the World Series, and SportsCenter barely gave it the time of day. I heard and saw more about Sunday’s midseason football action than I did the World Series. “America’s pastime” is on its way to simply being America’s past. I say this with sadness because I love baseball, with excitement because I love football and I am happy to see its growth, and with a sense of comic bewilderment that the Fall Classic has fallen from grace so. Maybe we need a pep talk from James Earl Jones.