Last Week: 9-5, though the losses were more painful and memorable than the wins. That’s what happens when I whiff so badly on the first two games to go final, the Thursday game and the London affair. 80-38 for the season.
Kansas City Chiefs (32) at San Diego Chargers (23): Neither of these teams won a game in the month of October. For the Chiefs that is not a surprise, but the Chargers have to wonder what the hell happened. More specifically, what the hell happened to Philip Rivers? His lack of arm strength was dramatically exposed on the windy tundra in Cleveland, with several balls hanging too long. He’s always been an acquired taste as a person and a leader, but when he’s playing as poorly as he has, that taste goes from whiskey to ouzo very quickly. I can occasionally stomach whiskey when it’s mixed in a cocktail, but one whiff of ouzo sends me sprinting to the toilet every time. Of course I’m a tequila man, and everyone has his/her own negative tequila experience. Yet, I’ve seldom met anyone who will turn down a margarita. As yucky as Rivers can be at times, he’s top shelf tequila compared to Matt Cassel, back in a starting role only because Brady Quinn got shaken and stirred in his brief tenure. Kansas City will break their ridiculous string of not having a lead all season with an early field goal, but like a Solo cup of Old Milwaukee at a frat party, it won’t last long. Watch this game without alcohol at your own peril! Chargers 27, Chiefs 17
Arizona Cardinals (18) at Green Bay Packers (9): That giant pumpkin you see is not a Halloween leftover; it’s the shell of the Arizona Cardinals. The clock struck midnight at the end of September for the feel-good Cardinals. After starting out 4-0 behind a ferocious defense and an opportunistic offense, they have now lost four in a row. The fairy tale is over; now back to the cold reality of being one of the most inefficient offenses in NFL history. John Skelton had a few moments the past couple of weeks where he almost looked like a competent NFL backup, if given a better offensive line and a remote threat of a running game. Alas, Arizona possesses neither. Green Bay’s defense doesn’t get much of a pass rush and misses Charles Woodson, but I can’t see any way Arizona exploits their inherent weaknesses. If you didn’t burn the Packers in survivor fantasy football last week against Jacksonville, this is an opportune time to use them. Packers 27, Cardinals 10.
Miami Dolphins (10) at Indianapolis Colts (21): Vick Ballard thrust himself into the national consciousness with his impressive overtime touchdown acrobatics last week. That win put the Colts at 4-3, the same record as the Dolphins as they polished off the Jets. The winner of this game seizes the lead for one of the two Wild Card spots in the AFC and picks up an important head-to-head tiebreaker in the process.
Miami appears to be in the hands of backup QB Matt Moore, as rookie Ryan Tannehill is likely (but not officially) out with a knee and quad injury. Moore has been down the road before, and his experience could actually be a benefit against a Colts secondary that gives up lots of big plays. He is not as mobile as Tannehill, nor does he have the command and comfort in Mike Sherman’s new offense, and he also doesn’t have the downfield cannon of the rookie. Still, Moore finished 2011 as the AFC’s third-rated passer. It also helps that the Colts rank dead last in forcing turnovers with just three takeaways in seven games.
But what everyone cares about is Andrew Luck and how the Colts rookie fares against a very solid Miami defense. The Dolphins are very adept at getting pressure on the QB, and the Colts have some issues protecting Luck. Cameron Wake is on fire, with 7 sacks and 17 QB pressures in the last four games. Luck has looked like a rookie a little more often than you would think from the glowing national press, and though I like Ballard, their running attack isn’t consistent enough to ease the pressure. But the reason I really like Miami is the turnovers. The Colts are -11 and don’t have a single playmaker in the back 7, while the Dolphins sit at -2. It’s very difficult to sustain winning without forcing turnovers and getting easy scores and field position--ask the Eagles and Chiefs. The Luck runs out. Yes I’ve been dying to use that line for some time now, like some corny punch line in an old Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Miami 23, Indianapolis 17.
Carolina Panthers (30) at Washington Redskins (17): Last year’s rookie phenom QB meets this year’s flavor du jour. Cam Newton’s struggles in his second year serve as a strong cautionary tale for RG3 and the Redskins, and hopefully Washington can learn from Carolina’s mistakes. Foremost is the need to keep Griffin challenged in the offseason, something the Panthers failed to do with Newton. If you’re not continually improving and working at getting better, you’re getting worse in the NFL and that’s exactly what Newton is going through right now. It doesn’t help that they failed to transition him into more of a traditional and standard NFL offense from the gimmicky shotgun read option. Defense spent lots of time working out packages and adjustments to stop that, while OC Rob Chudzinsky mistakenly believed his smoke and mirrors would continue to work. Newton shoulders some blame there as well for not pushing the issue.
I really don’t see a lot of similarities between the personalities of the two young quarterbacks. Griffin is a gregarious, charismatic, almost freakishly responsible worker who seems to genuinely enjoy the process. He is more mature and professional in his approach already than Newton, who has gotten by more on natural athletic talent. So while there is always concern for the dreaded sophomore slump, Washington fans should feel pretty safe with RG3. They should like him in this game as well, as he has the luxury of a running game and a defense which can force turnovers. Newton and the Panthers struggle in both those areas, and the more they struggle the more Newton seems to regress. Washington 35, Carolina 27.
Buffalo Bills (26) at Houston Texans (2): Here in Houston this game is being wildly hyped as the Return of Mario Williams, who is absolutely stealing money from Buffalo as so many Houstonians expected. The general pall is one of “they should have seen that coming”, as Williams was never regarded as a leadership presence or reliable force during his Houston days. He often racked up sacks in bunches, often against bad teams and often when the game was already decided.
He’ll have a tough time cracking Duane Brown, who knows all his tricks from years of practicing against him. The Texans also know that one or two well-timed chip blocks will take Super Mario (how ridiculous does that nickname seem?!) off his game. Houston is chomping at the bit after its bye week, refreshed and ready to take out aggression on someone else after what observers tell me are some of the most spirited practices they’ve had under Gary Kubiak. The Bills will offer little resistance. Houston 31, Buffalo 13.
Baltimore Ravens (11) at Cleveland Browns (24): Cleveland has won two of three and would have won the third is Josh Gordon wore sunglasses inside the freakishly lit Lucas Oil Field, where a burst of sunlight temporarily blinded him as the ball arrived for what would have been the game-winning touchdown. The Ravens travel to their old haunt off their bye, a chance to lick their numerous gaping wounds.
This game will be won by which stud running back, Ray Rice or Trent Richardson, has the more effective game. Even without Ray Lewis in the middle, I like the Ravens D against Richardson more than I like the Browns D against Rice. I think a rested Ed Reed presents problems for Brandon Weeden, who still tends to lock into his primary target and doesn’t always see back door coverage. I think Rice will find room at the second level and Torrey Smith will get a couple of long receptions. That will be just enough in a field goal battle by the storm-damaged Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ravens 19, Browns 16.
Denver Broncos (5) at Cincinnati Bengals (19): Grammatically incorrect Limerick time!
There once was a QB named Peyton
His neck injury caused some hatin’
He looks fully recovered
And has totally rediscovered
The magic that makes him a great’n.
Poetry was never my strong suit. Broncos 28, Bengals 20.
Detroit Lions (12) at Jacksonville Jaguars (31): The Lions offense finally played a full 60 minutes last week against a Seattle team that is vastly superior to the bottom-feeding Jaguars. If Matt Stafford plays anywhere close to that way in this one, it’s not going to be much of a contest.
But I’m not convinced Detroit will dial it up again. The inconsistency is painful because when the light flips on, it’s so brilliantly bright. Jacksonville’s defense comes off a decent performance against Green Bay, getting pressure on Aaron Rodgers and snuffing out shifty Alex Green. The Lions offensive line is generally a lot better than Green Bay’s, but they (read: Dominic Raiola and Gosder Cherilus) are also prone to boneheaded gaffes. So it’s not a gimmie. Fortunately, the Lions defense is quietly playing very well. The run defense allowed Marshawn Lynch’s 77 yard TD scamper but then didn’t allow a run longer than four yards the rest of the game. The waves of pressure from the defensive front will overwhelm the spotty Jaguars line, and Blaine Gabbert is not the polished, poised threat of a Russell Wilson or Jay Cutler. Look for two big plays from the Jaguars offense, one a long completion to Cecil Shorts and the other a Rashard Jennings snowplow run, but a whole lot of punts otherwise. Even one half of solid offensive football from Detroit wins this one.
This also represents the rare NFL case of a traded player facing his old team this same week of the deal. The Lions dealt a 2014 5th round pick to Jacksonville for WR Mike Thomas, who fills the void on the depth chart left by Nate Burleson’s injury. Thomas will be the Lions #4 receiver, likely working in the slot and running lots of clear-out routes. I’m not a fan of the deal even though I agree with the Lions that Thomas does have salvageable talent to offer. The ginormous hole at safety, where Delmas and Speivey are both hurt to varying degrees and not one player is signed beyond this year, needs the attention a lot more than finding a player to take ~12 snaps a game at wide receiver. That’s painting the shutters when the roof is leaking. Lions 32, Jaguars 16.
Chicago Bears (4) at Tennessee Titans (22): There are several home underdogs this week, and if you follow that sort of thing you know they have been a remarkably good bet this year. This particular game seems to be the most likely to produce an upset, even though the home dog phenomenon is waning a bit as the games play out.
The Bears continue to win, but they haven’t looked very sharp or potent in doing so since their bye week. They slogged through a sloppy win against Detroit and barely eked out a 1-pint victory over a bad Carolina team last week. Jay Cutler has been very ordinary; 35-for-69, 2 TDs, one INT and a measly 5.7 yards per attempt average. The defense remains pretty top shelf, though the pass rush hasn’t done much recently and the Titans tackles are playing quite well. Somehow the Titans are a lot better than expected on 3rd down as well, ranking 7th even though they are 17th in total offensive efficiency. Jared Cook has emerged as a legit downfield threat at tight end, someone that will command more attention from the defense than the Bears typically like to devote to interior receivers.
The thing is, the Titans defense is not very good. Even with the impactful return of linebacker Colin McCarthy, the Titans struggle to stop both the run and the pass. I know the Bears offense is sputtering lately, but there is enough offensive diversity to successfully move the ball on the home Titans. I still like the Titans at +4, but the outright win goes to Robbie Gould, atoning for his rare miss last week. Chicago 20, Tennessee 17.
Minnesota Vikings (14) at Seattle Seahawks (13): In the preseason, I forecast Minnesota to have a strong start against an absurdly easy schedule. I thought they would sit at 6-2 after eight games thanks to their underrated defense and progress from Christian Ponder at quarterback. I also then forecast the Vikings would collapse under the weight of a tougher schedule, offenses adjusting to their defensive scheme, and Ponder maxing out.
That collapse started a week early, as last Thursday night the Buccaneers marched all over the Vikings in Minneapolis. I think they’ll put up a strong fight, but losing corner Chris Cook is a huge blow to the defense. Seattle has shown a willingness to challenge down the field, and their play action game with Marshawn Lynch as a running threat is very good. But the bigger concern is Ponder, who has been tentative and consistently a count late with his throws. The accuracy suffers as a result, and not even Adrian Peterson can win games by himself…though he gives the Vikings a chance every week, even against a stacked Seattle D with 8 stacked in the box. Don’t sit Peterson in fantasy leagues, but don’t bet on the Vikings to right their listing Drakkar. And no, I’m not talking about the frat-boy cologne my freshman roommate at Ohio University (Hi DJ!) used to spritz on his closet full of polo shirts and pressed khakis. Seattle 26, Minnesota 17.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (16) at Oakland Raiders (27): There is not a lot going right for Oakland, but tight end Brandon Myers is a definite bright spot. He has the highest catch rate of any receiver on throws longer than 15 yards. Some of that is a function of his talent, but that also happens to be the range where Carson Palmer is at his best--the intermediate/deep middle. It will be interesting to see how the Bucs choose to defend that, because if they drop a linebacker like Mason Foster it opens up the cutback run and play action game. If they use safety Mark Barron to help or in straight up man coverage, the deep outside throws are going to be open all day for Denarius Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey.
It will also be interesting to see how the Bucs offense copes with losing All Pro guard Carl Nicks, who was placed on IR Tuesday with a toe injury. They already lost their other starting guard, Davin Joseph. Most teams can patch one hole per position group internally with a reasonable degree of adequacy. But two injuries at the same spot often prove overwhelming, and the fact that Nicks was arguably the team MVP despite being a newcomer really makes it tough. The starting guards are now converted center Ted Larsen and failed tackle Jamon Meredith instead of Joseph and Nicks. For basketball fans, that’s going from Lebron and Shaq to Mo Williams and JJ Hickson. You saw how well that worked for the Cavaliers, and I think the Bucs might experience the same unfortunate fate. Oakland’s pugnacious, inconsistently talented line will test them early. I’ll take the home team with a slight edge. Raiders 23, Buccaneers 20.
Dallas Cowboys (19) at Atlanta Falcons (1): That’s the Atlanta Falcons everyone wanted to see! The Dirty Birds bombed Philadelphia as both teams came out of bye weeks, with Atlanta looking fully rejuvenated and eager to proving they are undefeated for valid reasons. If those Falcons show up in the Georgia Dome, the bumbling Cowboys stand no chance.
Ah yes, the Cowboys. Masters of clock mismanagement. Titans of untimely turnovers. Perfectionists of poor penalties. Rubes at running the ball. So why do I think they have a decent chance here? There’s something about the spotlight that brings out the best in the Cowboys…just before it brings out the worst. Look for Dallas to play very well and take a late lead, only to see it come crashing down when the more poised, more balanced, more talented Falcons steal it back in crunch time. Falcons 30, Cowboys 28.
Pittsburgh Steelers (8) at New York Giants (3): The Steelers hit the road after getting a relatively easy win in their bee costumes, err, throwback uniforms. They might get whiplash from the stark contrast in opponent from one week to the next here. Washington features a power running game augmented by a mobile QB that likes to throw quick and short. The Giants running game nibbles at the edges, while Eli Manning loves to stand in the pocket and unleash longer throws on more complicated and deeper patterns. The Redskins get little penetration from their 3-man defensive front, relying on blitzes and tricks to get pressure. The Giants bring the serious heat with their four man front, and only their four man front. New York’s oft-maligned secondary leads the league in interceptions, which counters their rather unseemly propensity to give up massive chunks of yardage. That’s what happens when you try to intercept every ball in the air…
Pittsburgh will have to adjust quickly, because without Troy Polamalu once again they are going to give up points. Their young corners have not been bad, but it’s asking a lot for them to mark Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, and a patient Manning spraying the ball all over the field. Then there is the emotional angle. The devastating Frankenstorm has left the greater NYC area badly beaten and battered. The Giants are as sensitive and connected to their community as any team in the league, and they know the uplifting power a win will bring. Their fans need them now, and they take that very seriously, embracing the responsibility and taking pride in their ability to bring a little light into a very dark time for so many in the New York area. I’m not betting against that, not a chance. Giants 30, Steelers 20.
Philadelphia Eagles (25) at New Orleans Saints (28): Arguably the two most disappointing teams in the league face off in a steel cage death match that will spell playoff black curtains for the loser. The Philadelphia offense is built around big plays that have been largely nonexistent. If they can’t find them this week against the Saints virtually nonexistent defense, it’s beyond hope. The Saints will be game at home, but I agree with Andy Reid that these Eagles are too talented to keep playing so poorly. I don’t care if the over is 60 on this one, take it. Eagles 36, Saints 31
Byes: New England (7), New York Jets (20), San Francisco (6), St. Louis (29)
The scouting trail heads (again) to Baton Rouge, where most every team will be amply represented for the big matchup between Alabama and LSU. I like the Alabama offense a lot more than I like the LSU offense, and I think their ability to protect AJ McCarron gives them a huge edge in this one.
Alabama 24, LSU 12
Texas Tech 40, Texas 24
Oregon 51, USC 38
Kansas State 33, Oklahoma State 28
Texas A&M 37, Mississippi State 27