Last Week: 7-7, as I count the tie a loss in the standings. 96-50 for the season.
Miami Dolphins (19) at Buffalo Bills (24): Two weeks ago, Miami was the toast of the AFC East after bombing the Jets 30-9. Since then, they have just been toast, dropping a heartbreaker to Indy and being on the wrong end of a 37-3 fire hosing to Tennessee last week. Their defense--the primary reason for the 4-3 start--has been carved up lately, while the running game has sputtered and the passing offense is unable to produce big plays.
Playing Buffalo should cure those ailments. The Bills' defense is arguably the most underachieving unit in the entire NFL. They rank dead last in 3rd down conversions allowed at 47%, and they’re trending in the wrong direction at nearly 59% over the last three games. The Dolphins have converted just 15% over the same span, so something will have to give. Much as I’d like to think the Bills defense will suddenly rise up and play to potential, I cannot bet on that happening. But I also can’t trust the Dolphins defense after the way two young and low-rated QBs have sliced and diced them the last two weeks. Still, Buffalo will be without both defensive ends that play opposite Mario Williams as well as starting corner Aaron Williams. That tips the scales just enough for the minor upset.
I’ll note here that I changed my pick on this game four times over the course of writing this whole piece. Miami 27, Buffalo 24.
Indianapolis Colts (12) at New England Patriots (7): Here’s a good test for Andrew Luck and the surprising Colts, and it’s also a potential playoff preview. Just when you thought the annual Colts/Patriots regular season meeting was finally fading in significance, here come the feel-good boys from Indianapolis and their hot young QB. If you don’t have a warm spot for these Colts, turn away now. Their rookie head coach, Chuck Pagano, is battling for his life. They come off a season where they were truly awful and didn’t add a whole lot other than helping the passing offense. Only Cleveland is more dependent on rookies offensively, and for all the slurping of Luck he hasn’t been as awesome as a certain four-letter network would have you believe. But he’s been good enough, and the team around him has been just good enough as well. It’s a great story and I wish it wasn’t overshadowed by all the Jets nonsense and NFC East cacophony.
Sadly, I think the Colts are going to get put in their place here. Luck is going to put up big numbers against a makeshift Patriots secondary that features #1 corner Devin McCourty playing safety and criminally inclined Aqib Talib making his New England debut. Yet somehow, someway the Patriots find a way. They always seem to luck (no pun intended) into an opponent’s mistake, like Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing the ball directly to the aforementioned McCourty with under 30 seconds left while deep in New England territory. No matter how poorly the Patriots play, they have an uncanny knack for dragging the enemy down with them. Bill Belichick couldn’t care less about style points, only wins. It might not be pretty but I strongly suspect he’ll get another one here. Patriots 33, Colts 28.
Baltimore Ravens (8) at Pittsburgh Steelers (9): Before Ben Roethlisberger's injury and the lethargic performance Monday night, I really favored the Steelers to romp here. Well, as much as one can romp in this hard-fought series, but the injury really complicates the forecast. It’s the dreaded Butterfly Effect, and not the unwatchable Ashton Kutcher vehicle either.
It sure looks like the statue of Byron Leftwich, with his painfully elongated throwing motion and freakishly wide base, will be the quarterback. Somewhere in Owings Mills, Terrell Suggs simultaneously chuckles and drools. Baltimore has holes in the back end of the defense, but if Leftwich is going to exploit it he needs to start the process of throwing the ball sometime Saturday afternoon. All those checkdowns and quick screens play to the strength of the Ravens defense, which tackles well and flows quickly to the ball. There’s a good reason Leftwich has lost his last six starts, interspersed over several seasons.
The Ravens come off a 55-point hammering of Oakland where they scored two special teams touchdowns. Jacoby Jones with confidence is a scary prospect for the Heinz Field faithful, and all the injuries on the Pittsburgh side of the ledger negatively impacts special teams as much as it hits the offense. In a game where the Pittsburgh defense is going in knowing they have to win the game for the rest of the team, special teams and field position matter. I almost never pick against Pittsburgh at home, but this is a legit exception. Ravens 20, Steelers 15.
Jacksonville Jaguars (32) at Houston Texans (1): It’s not often we get the first playing the worst in the NFL. The Jaguars slid into the bottom spot because of decidedly inferior talent and an easy-to-counter attack, not because of lack of effort. That is the hallmark of a bad team, one that tries hard but just isn’t good enough to compete without getting a great deal of help from the opponent. Houston will offer no such mercy, as Gary Kubiak’s team is pretty disciplined and focused on the #1 seed. Texans 26, Jaguars 9.
Philadelphia Eagles (25) at Washington Redskins (21): No team does less with more than Andy Reid’s Eagles, who have the worst point differential (-76) in the entire NFC despite having recent Pro Bowlers at every starting offensive skill position spot. Underachievement is the cardinal sin in professional sports, and the dreadful offensive line and ridiculous game plans have rendered the Eagles the biggest underachievers this side of Bart Simpson.
With Michael Vick apparently out now, Nick Foles gets a chance to show he can be the QB of the future, but the Redskins already have a damn good one of those in Robert Griffin. The lackadaisical Eagles secondary will have its hands full trying to contain the rested dual-threat RG3. I like the not-so-subtle message Mike Shanahan sent his players with his “we’re seeing who will be here next year” spiel heading into the bye; no better way to motivate than to threaten the loss of long-term livelihood. I also like that the game is in Washington and the Eagles have so many built-in excuses. They are a team that thrives on excuses, not effort. Redskins 30, Eagles 24.
Cleveland Browns (28) at Dallas Cowboys (13): It’s the time of season where the Cowboys perform their annual tease to their hardcore fans, where they look like a legit Super Bowl contender as they mow over inferior opponents in fairly impressive fashion. And Cowboys fans fall for it every year. They go to the strip club and get all hyped up for some hardcore action. At the beginning of the night, much like the onset of November for the Cowboys, everything looks great; the drinks are cold, the women are hot, and the creepy DJ that looks suspiciously like the lead singer of Tesla is spinning some winning tunes.
Then you’ve been there for a while and it starts to sink in that maybe everything isn’t so nice after all. The same over-tattooed girl with bad teeth keeps pestering you for a lap dance, you realize you are paying $11 for each Miller Lite, and you start to notice that most of the fellow patrons haven’t bathed or shaved in days and are a little too excited by seeing a pasty on a woman who intentionally dances in the dark so you can’t tell how ugly she really is, all while hearing Motley Crue’s Girls Girls Girls for the seventh time in the last 90 minutes. Cowboys fans, this is your inevitable December. Don’t get too pumped over this big win. Cowboys 27, Browns 22.
New York Jets (26) at St. Louis Rams (20): If you would have told Rams fans they could have a better record than the Jets through nine games, every single one of them would have taken it. Of course most would have anticipated that meaning at least six wins, not three.
This is part of the problem for the Jets. The unrealistic expectations based on a befuddling and utterly insane over-evaluation of talent have led to the inevitable finger pointing and locker room disintegration. This week’s tabloid fodder featured an anonymous Jets defensive starter saying of backup QB/punt protector Tim Tebow, “He’s terrible”. Without knowing the anonymous source, I think Bart Scott is dead on with his evaluation of the most famous Jet.
For all you clamoring for more Tebow, don’t you think that the increasingly desperate Rex Ryan would play him if he thought it might provide even a 2% chance of improving their wretched offense? The Jets see Tebow in practice and they know he simply cannot perform even the most rudimentary tasks they need their QB to do. Their confidence in Mark Sanchez is directly proportionate to their knowledge of just how bad Tebow truly is as a quarterback. The fact that he’s not demonstrably a better option than the patently awful Mark Sanchez tells you all you need to know about Tim Tebow’s skills. Rams 20, Jets 12.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (14) at Carolina Panthers (29): If the Buccaneers are truly moving forward into “good team” echelon, they win this game comfortably. Good teams win against inferior opponents without a lot of worry. I think the Bucs are on the precipice of being a good team, but I really want to see an impressive win here. If Josh Freeman keeps up his hot hand, they get the job done. I like his receiving options and decision making better than Cam Newton if the game turns into a scorefest. I like the Bucs defense a little better if the game turns into a slugfest. I like the Bucs to win comfortably, but I still need to see them do it. Go get ‘em, Pewter Pirates! Buccaneers 36, Panthers 27.
San Diego Chargers (22) at Denver Broncos (4): A Denver win here would essentially wrap up the AFC West for the Broncos. Nobody knows more about clinching division titles early than Peyton Manning. His counterpart in this game, Philip Rivers, continues to look worse and more in need of replacement at the end of the season with each passing week. Rivers takes his declining accuracy, lousy decision making, and lack of mobility to Denver to play against Von Miller. This is one of those games that you don’t want to overthink. Broncos 30, Chargers 20
New Orleans Saints (16) at Oakland Raiders (30): If you like wide open offensive football, this is the game for you! Neither defense can cover or tackle very effectively. Factor in that both offenses like to air it out and you have the makings of a real barn burner. The Saints have won four of five by improving their offensive efficiency and getting more big plays from the running game. The Raiders are moderately competitive when Carson Palmer is rifling the ball down the field and their offensive line can block both the run and pass well. Seeing as how the Saints get precious little pressure, they should be grooving nicely in the Black Hole.
Most forecast models decidedly favor the Saints here, but there’s something about playing in Oakland that can make things unpredictable. Maybe it’s a special teams turnover, or an interception off a deflected pass, or a red zone fumble by an overreaching runner, but I think one little break could be all the Raiders need. I’m not going to bet on that, but don’t be surprised if this game is a lot closer than most expect it to be. New Orleans 37, Oakland 34
Cincinnati Bengals (17) at Kansas City Chiefs (31): The Chiefs ended their ignominious string of not holding a lead for a single second of play by finally scoring a first quarter touchdown in Pittsburgh. Alas, they could not hold the lead even with Big Ben going down and their own defense playing far better than it has all year.
I think the defensive improvement just might stick. As Jon Gruden repeatedly beat you over the head with on MNF, Kansas City does in fact have some pretty good defensive talent. They seemed somewhat relieved of the burden of an overstretched Romeo Crennel as both Head Coach and Def. Coordinator. But the Steelers don’t have anyone like AJ Green on the outside to command extra help. Green is the kind of dynamic force that can be bottled up for 60 plays but does enough on the other five to win the game.
He will need to cash in those opportunities because Jamaal Charles is poised to have an epic afternoon. The Bengals give up rushing yards in big chunks, as their linebackers don’t anticipate well and they miss an inordinate amount of tackles as a team. Once Charles is on the open field, the only thing stopping him is the opposing end zone. The Chiefs are getting 3.5 points, and I like them to cover with the extra points. But the Bengals have too much to play for to lose here. Right, Coach Lewis? Bengals 20, Chiefs 17
Arizona Cardinals (27) at Atlanta Falcons (3): I’m curious how the Falcons respond to their first loss. The immediate reaction from the team--cutting free agent flop DE Ray Edwards--sends a message that ineffective play will not be tolerated. It’s a savvy move by Coach Mike Smith and GM Tom Dimitroff, a calculated bit of timing. Edwards had a tenuous grasp on a roster spot, and Smith wasn’t lying when he professed his belief that younger talent (namely Kroy Biermann) deserves more opportunity. Smith apparently had seen enough narrow wins and ineffective play from the defensive front that he seized the first opportunity to whack Edwards.
It’s an opportune time to force change that produces immediate results, as the Cardinals have major OL woes that cannot be fixed in a bye week. Biermann is the kind of gung-ho go-getter that will come out with his hair on fire to seize the opportunity, and whomever the Cardinals try at tackle (Bobby Massie, D’Anthony Batiste, Nate Potter, Paul McQuistan) will struggle in trying to keep him off John Skelton. I do think the Cardinals defense will bounce back from a bad run, but not enough to allow their meek offense to outscore Atlanta. Falcons 24, Cardinals 16
Green Bay Packers (2) at Detroit Lions (18): For years, this game was played on Thanksgiving in Detroit and provided the background entertainment for the large gathering at my wife’s grandmother’s house in Detroit. Every year she impeccably timed it so we would eat just as halftime started, and by the time we wandered back to the TV room the Lions were so hopelessly embarrassed by the Packers that we would just let the tryptophan and wine take over for a nice slumber until halftime of the Cowboys game. Even in the Barry Sanders/Wayne Fontes glory years, the Lions were pretty good at laying a turkey egg on turkey day. (Tangential aside: how freaking sad is it that the Wayne Fontes era is the golden years of Lions football?!)
The schedule makers spared my fellow Lions fans the giant Thanksgiving humiliation at the hands of the Packers this year, but only by moving the game up a week. The Lions decimated secondary has almost no chance against a rested Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, who can taste the savory opportunity presented to them when every NFC team ahead of them stumbled. They will miss holding machine RT Bryan Bulaga, but Cliff Avril has owned him in this matchup for years and the Packers continued to move the ball and find the end zone at will. This year will be no exception. At least it won’t ruin my dinner this time. Packers 44, Lions 20
Chicago Bears (6) at San Francisco 49ers (5): Colin Kaepernick vs. Jason Campbell doesn’t exactly get the blood pumping like Jay Cutler vs. Alex Smith, does it? I find this game fascinating nonetheless because both these teams are adept at winning games in alternate ways, be it defense, special teams, or running the ball. Perhaps no two teams are better-suited to win with backup QBs at the helm, and I happen to think both Kaepernick and Campbell are quality backups.
Campbell’s experience should give the Bears an edge. The Niners coverage has shown some vulnerability, and Patrick Willis is coming off one of the worst games I’ve seen him play in some time. But the Bears offense has been sluggish and low-scoring even with Jay Cutler finding Brandon Marshall all the time. Campbell has a track record of making some puzzling throws and missing opportunities as well, and in this game every venture into opposing territory must produce points. As green as Kaepernick might be, I trust Jim Harbaugh and the Niners staff to craft a better plan of attack around him than what the Bears will do with Campbell, which is basically to ask him to be Jay Cutler. Harbaugh knows that Kaepernick presents a different set of skills than Smith and can tailor the offense to what he does well. Bears fans constantly bemoan Lovie Smith’s and Mike Tice’s inability to come up with strong offensive plans even when everyone is healthy. I’ve seen Jay Cutler, I know Jay Cutler. He’s not a friend of mine, but Campbell, you are no Jay Cutler. San Francisco 16, Chicago 15
Bye Week: NY Giants (11), Minnesota (15), Seattle (10), Tennessee (23)
As I will be travelling over the weekend and unable to watch much NFL action this week, there will be no $.10 column this Monday. Sorry folks, but I’m driving with my wife and two kids from Houston to Cleveland. That takes about 20 hours of actual driving (and I drive fast) and I’ll be in little frame of mind to write anything other than my travel annoyances and uninformed opinions on games I didn’t see. Skip Bayless makes a loud career from that, but I have more integrity and respect for my readers than that.