Last Week: 9-5 for the second week in a row. 89-43 for the season.
Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars: Here’s the challenge for the Colts--don’t blow the positive feelings and emotional momentum of the stirring win over Miami and subsequent locker room appearance of Chuck Pagano. It is not as easy a task as it might seem. The Colts are very young and inexperienced; riding an emotional wave like this can make for very tricky seas.
The Jaguars always seem to bring their best against the Colts, and the Colts are wounded. Both starting corners, Vontae Davis and Jerraud Powers, are ruled out. Their sole win this season came in the first meeting, a real black mark on Andrew Luck’s résumé. The Jaguars got a lot of pressure on him in that game, and the Colts could be without starting linemen Winston Justice and Samson Satele for the grudge match. The intangibles point squarely to the Jaguars…
…But the football tangibles are a real problem for the home team. What I saw in Jacksonville’s game last week against Detroit was a team that just isn’t very talented. The effort was pretty solid, save Justin Blackmon; there is simply a wide talent gap between the Jaguars and most other teams. The Colts aren’t as talented as the Lions, but they are still talented enough to win in Jacksonville as long as Andrew Luck completes 50% of his passes (he did not in the first meeting) and doesn’t turn the ball over more than once (one INT in Week 3). I think the Jaguars will keep it close, but they don’t force turnovers and don’t sustain drives well enough to win without help from the other team. Colts 28, Jaguars 24
Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings: The battle for third place in the tremendous NFC North features two teams headed in decidedly opposite directions. As I covered in this week’s $.10, the Lions are (finally!) playing smarter, more consistent football. It has translated into 3 wins in four games and makes me very optimistic they will extract revenge on the reeling Vikings, who beat them 20-13 in Week 3.
That Week 3 game perfectly encapsulates the fortunes of these teams thus far. Minnesota was the hungrier team and took advantage of the few opportunities the Lions gave them. Both touchdowns came on special teams returns, which cost the Lions the game the prior week in Tennessee as well. The Lions offense did nothing before the fourth quarter and fumbled away a late chance at making a nice comeback. In short, the Lions dictated whether they won or lost and the Vikings were good enough to take the opportunities given them and win despite really not playing all that well. With Percy Harvin, who ran the opening kickoff 105 yards for a TD in the first meeting, out of the lineup and Jerome Simpson unable to generate much sizzle, I don’t see the struggling Christian Ponder having much success against an underrated Detroit defense that is playing with much more discipline and legit confidence. Lions 23, Vikings 17
San Diego Chargers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: In the pantheon of NFL nicknames, I happen to really like Doug Martin’s. The Muscle Hamster is unique, accurately descriptive, catchy, and marketable. I understand he isn’t particularly fond of the moniker, but I would encourage Martin to embrace being the Muscle Hamster. Pet supply endorsement is a lucrative, untapped market for pro athletes. If I’m in the market for a hamster, I need accessories: that wheel they run on, the little pellets they eat, a novelty football helmet, maybe a turf maze for some mental stimulation. You better believe I’m buying Muscle Hamster branded swag instead of some generic hamster stuff. What other celebrity is out there hawking hamster accessories? And how many NFL players get a lot of recognition with the 5-9 year old demographic? Martin could clean up!
I suspect he will clean up in this game. The Chargers have trouble bringing sustained effort for 60 minutes, and that is not a problem for Greg Schiano’s Tampa team the past few weeks. But San Diego does have a strong run defense. They also have a keen sense of desperation, fighting for their playoff lives. I thought I saw legit progress in their romp over Kansas City. Then again, it was Kansas City; Tampa Bay polished off the Chiefs in even greater fashion (38-10 vs. 31-13) earlier this year. I like Vincent Jackson going against his old team, and I trust Josh Freeman more than I trust Philip Rivers at this point. Frequent readers know how dramatic a shift that really is for me. Bet this one at your peril. Buccaneers 24, Chargers 20
New York Giants at Cincinnati Bengals: My friend Matt emailed me this week with some interesting info. The Giants have been 6-2 in five of the last seven seasons, and every time they lost the next game to fall to 6-3. In each of the last two seasons that 6-2 has turned to 6-4. Twice in the seven year span 6-2 has morphed to 6-6.
Matt is a very bright guy, and the question he asked is “are they really this kind of team” with the inference being a battle between fate and coincidence. Matt is more of a rational person and less fatalistic than I am (he’s Canadian), and his email got the war inside my head all fired up. This is a fairly incredible pattern, using the word “incredible” literally. So is it destined to continue, or has the anomaly run its course and will the regression to normalcy kick in? Or is this normal for the Giants under Coughlin? At what point does a series of strange coincidences occur before it’s just accepted and not so seemingly strange?
It was at this point that I put the orange juice carton in the pantry and the English muffins in the freezer while pouring coffee in the dishwasher detergent dispenser. These sorts of internal battles often paralyze me for hours at a time. It sent me in search of a sign to tilt my thinking one way or the other. That sign literally came quite quickly; as I set out for a jog around the neighborhood I saw a New York Giants flag in the landscaping of a house a street over. I barely know the residents there, but I know the gentleman who lives there once gave me a condescending smirk when he saw my son and I throwing around a Bengals football. This is how my strangely wired brain solves issues, people… Giants 27, Bengals 25
Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots: I watched the Bills in depth for the first time in a few weeks last weekend, and something really struck me in their loss to the Texans: their coaching staff does not know how to maximize the skills of the players they have against the opponent. I never thought I would say that about Def. Coordinator Dick Jauron or especially Head Coach Chan Gailey, but it’s plainly evident when I watched them.
I’ll give you a couple of examples. There were two separate instances where the Bills offense went to 4 WRs with dynamo CJ Spiller in the backfield and they caught the Texans sticking with their base 3-4 defense. In a 3-4 the OLBs are going to rush far more often than not, especially with guys like Brooks Reed who just aren’t comfortable in coverage. The best cover backer on the team is Brian Cushing, who is on IR. The obvious check here is to run a draw play or an inside misdirection, but both times the Bills stuck with slower-developing simple routes. That negates any advantage the offense had from alignment. I know Chan Gailey is smarter than that, and I would think that Harvard-educated QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is smart enough to recognize that. But they didn’t, and they paid for it.
Defensively, it’s more of the same. The Texans like to run the ball and throw 10- to 16-yard routes over the middle to the tight ends and Andre Johnson moving across the field. Defensively you want to force them to throw to someone else, like the unthreatening Kevin Walter or unproven Keyshawn Martin. In short, you don’t use your safeties to help on Walter at the expense of giving more space to Owen Daniels or Johnson. But that’s exactly what the Bills did, repeatedly. It’s a testament to how talented the Bills safeties really are that the Texans didn’t gash them for a lot more. Tom Brady will show no such mercy, and if you try playing checkers on Bill Belichick’s chessboard his pawns are going to beat you, let alone bishops and rooks. Patriots 43, Bills 24
Denver Broncos at Carolina Panthers: Peyton Manning vs. Cam Newton is the headline, but unless the Carolina defense significantly ups its game it isn’t a fair fight. Last week the Panthers turned in a solid effort against RG3, somehow preventing the Redskins from putting up lots of points despite surrendering lots of yardage. But in watching that game it sure seemed like Washington’s ineptitude was the root of the point problem, not really anything the Panthers did themselves. Manning and the Broncos rank second in red zone offense, and Manning’s well-trained eye is going to find the proper matchup to exploit. I think Eric Decker keeps his magical fantasy run going; I’m forecasting another seven catches for 94 yards and a touchdown. Manning throws for 312 yards and 3 TDs and the Broncos roll to a road victory against the overmatched Panthers, whom I just don’t trust have their myriad issues solved with one victory over a fading team last week. Broncos 30, Panthers 20
Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints: Congrats to the Saints for salvaging some dignity after such a wretched start and for passing the mantle of most dysfunctional team to the Eagles. Now they can really make something of this season by knocking off the last unbeaten team, the bitter rival Falcons. The Saints have the firepower to really stress the Falcons defense, particularly if they dedicate to running the ball as they did in pounding Philly on Monday night.
The problem is going to be outscoring the Falcons offense against New Orleans’ own defense. They trended down ever so slightly from being the worst defense in NFL history, but that’s akin to cutting two Doritos a day from a 5,000 calorie diet when trying to lose the 75 extra pounds of ass bursting your expandable waist pants. As I Tweeted during the MNF game, it often seems that the Saints only have 10 defenders on the field as their base defense. Until the Saints can prove they can keep opponents from shoving yardage down their throats like foie gras, I’ll take the more balanced team. Falcons 37, Saints 33
Tennessee Titans at Miami Dolphins: I’m writing this in the wake of Election Night, which for my entertainment dollar ranks second only to the Olympics in terms of excitement and spectacle. I love seeing the states turn colors on maps, and I love the contrivances and ridiculous spin by the partisan talking heads trying to explain why they were so wrong.
Six billion dollars was spent in total, and very little changed. How about spending that $6B on stuff that can actually produce real change, like building a storm surge protection system for New York City, Miami, or here in Houston where much of the gas in your car gets refined in massive plants that are on the waterfront? Or creating a voting system a little more trustworthy and uncomplicated so that the state of Florida can accurately tabulate results within a month of the actual election? Or aiding the victims of natural disasters that have struck our country over the past couple of years? Or creating a nationwide wireless internet infrastructure? No, instead we get bombarded with ads that clearly don’t make one iota of difference and do nothing but roust divisiveness and enmity.
*Steps off soapbox*
Dolphins 20, Titans 17
Oakland Raiders at Baltimore Ravens: I keep waiting for the Ravens to come out and impress me with a game worthy of a legit Super Bowl contender. They haven’t played one of those in a while, certainly not last week in Cleveland against the lowly Browns. Oakland is similar to Cleveland and presents similar challenges, though the Browns are less prone to screwing up than the Raiders.
The Carson Palmer interception that sealed the Raiders loss really sticks out in my mind for some reason. That is a throw that someone of his experience and intelligence simply cannot make, but he keeps making them and often at the worst possible juncture. With RB Darren McFadden seemingly always nursing an injury here or a sprain there, the Raiders rely heavily on their quarterback to make good decisions and produce the big plays at the big time. And when I try to picture Palmer doing that, all I see is him lobbing the ball off his back foot into heavy coverage and Ahmad Black gently plucking it from the sky like he was grabbing a bong falling off a shelf. Ravens 26, Raiders 21
St. Louis Rams at San Francisco 49ers: This is one of those where you don’t want to overthink things. San Francisco brings an oft-dominating defense that is well-rested off a bye week. They’re at home and on perhaps the gnarliest natural turf in the league, bad news for a dome team like the Rams. The spread is big (-11.5) and that should concern the gamblers in this season of divisional double digit dogs dominating. I can see the Rams, also coming off a bye, creating some problems with their own defense, but their offense will really struggle to hit double digits. 49ers 27, Rams 12
New York Jets at Seattle Seahawks: The Jets have been unusually quiet lately. Sure, they’re coming off a bye week, but that hasn’t stopped them from worming their way into the NFL news lead in years past under Rex Ryan. Other than a sampling of NFL players declaring Ryan the most overrated coach in the league--a point I’ll explore in a minute--there has been precious little Jets the past couple of weeks. That should make everyone, Jets fans included, quite happy.
Now to Ryan. I’ve been openly critical of him at times, but I’ve also noted several instances where he has done a great job coaching. It is that sort of wild erraticism that must frustrate Jets fans. They know he can produce legitimately great results, but he’s just as apt to put his foot (or someone else’s foot) in his big mouth and produce a major clunker of a coaching effort. I’ve always maintained that the Rex Ryan era will not end pretty and that his style is not sustainable in a given locker room or city for very long.
If this game was pretty much anywhere except Seattle, I would favor the Jets. But Seattle is a notoriously tough place to play, and their aggressive defense is precisely the kind that rattles The Sanchize. Nobody knows how to get under Sanchez’s skin better than his college coach, Pete Carroll. This is a game where Sanchez will have to make some plays to win it, and I won’t believe he can do that in Seattle with this supporting cast until I see it. Seattle 29, New York 20
Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles: This will be the most overhyped game of any pairing of 3-5 teams in NFL history. And for all intents and purposes it is a de facto playoff elimination game, though only the most delusional sycophants of these two mercilessly overpublicized underachievers would believe the playoffs are still a realistic venture. This is one of the most insignificant games of the weekend, yet I bet you hear more about this one than any other game outside of Houston/Chicago. I’m not going to participate in the NFC East media bias. Philadelphia 27, Dallas 24
Houston Texans at Chicago Bears: The two 7-1 teams square off in a battle that is little more than male peacocks fluffing out their plumage in the grand scheme of things. It’s all about pride, and these two defenses both bring a great deal of that to the table. There is a nice subplot here, as the two leaders for the Defensive Player of the Year are both in this game. JJ Watt has been an unstoppable force from the 5-technique for the Texans, while Charles Tillman keeps forcing turnovers and playing strong in both coverage and run support at corner for the Bears. Of course he might miss the game for the birth of his child, which would be a real bummer. (Note: My wife read that sentence and shot me a look that says it’s couchville tonight.)
The biggest matchup advantage for either side is watt and the Texans defensive front attacking the weakest part of the Bears, the offensive line. Even with NT Shaun Cody likely out with injured “riblets”, the Texans defensive line and linebackers have dominated far better lines than Chicago’s. The Bears unit has actually done some things well, and run blocking is one of them. I do also like the special teams advantage for the Bears, and Arian Foster’s occasional bouts of fumblitis are due to flare up any time as well. As long as the Bears can keep Jay Cutler upright--not an easy task here--I think Chicago will be able to manufacture more scoring opportunities than Houston. And I trust Robbie Gould and Brandon Marshall to cash more of those in than Shayne Graham and Andre Johnson. Chicago 19, Houston 17
Kansas City Chiefs at Pittsburgh Steelers: This just might be the worst Monday Night Football game of the next five years. Much like many of us, the producers at MNF expected a whole lot more from the Chiefs. There is an infinitesimally small chance they finally live up to even more modest expectations for this game, but in Pittsburgh in prime time? No freaking way. Steelers 32, Chiefs 17
Bye Week: Washington, Green Bay, Arizona, Cleveland
Drinking at the frat house games
I’ll be in Baton Rouge doing some in-person scouting for the LSU/MSU game. If you watch, pay attention to Miss St. QB Tyler Russell, a steadily improving junior who could be a surprise entrant in 2013.
LSU 26, Miss St. 10
Oregon State 28, Stanford 25
Alabama 30, Texas A&M 22
TCU 33, Kansas State 30 in the upset of the week
Nebraska 27, Penn State 21