Authored by Jeff Risdon/RealGM - 1st December, 2011 - 1:12 pm
Last Week: 15-1. You read that right, 15 wins and one loss, with the miss being Washington's win in Seattle. That pushes the season forecast to 119-57.
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Philadelphia (22) at Seattle (27): Every year there are at least four teams that made the playoffs one season but miss out the next. Ladies and gentlemen, here are your NFC representatives for that crazy but legit stat.
Seattle falling off isn't much of a surprise, after they won the NFC West at 7-9 and let their franchise QB walk away. Philly is another matter, and this game is about to illustrate that the Eagles have not bottomed out yet despite the coaches fighting on the sideline and the fans chanting "Fire Andy" in last week's humiliating loss to New England. Michael Vick is still out (surprise!), and this week Vince Young might have to handle the load without Lesean McCoy (questionable) and Jeremy Maclin (doubtful). Both corners the team acquired with much fanfare, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha, could miss the game as well.
The key loss would be McCoy, the most explosive running back in the league. Last week, he touched the ball only 10 times and the Eagles got smoked. His replacements offer little threat to impact the linebackers from spying on Young and the safeties from closing off passing lanes and jumping routes. Seattle has a pretty solid back seven defensively, as they are 2nd in the league in yards per attempt allowed over the last four games. Yes, getting torched by Rex Grossman last week gives me pause, but I'll take Sexy Rexy over Vince Young nine times out of ten. The Seahawks have a very favorable remaining schedule and this team desperately wants to improve on last year's record. I think they take a forward step to that goal here. Seattle 27, Philadelphia 20.
Cincinnati (10) at Pittsburgh (4): One of the reasons I believe the Bengals are a good team worthy of making the playoffs is because of the way they lose. Have a look at their four losses--at Denver by 2, San Francisco by 5, Pittsburgh by 7, at Baltimore by 7. The Pittsburgh loss came with AJ Green missing half the game, and the Baltimore loss was courtesy of the officials and not the Ravens.
That is pretty impressive considering the Bengals start a rookie QB in Andy Dalton and his top weapon is also a rookie in Green. They fit in very nicely with AFC North rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh, playing tight, physical defense complemented by a pounding rushing attack and taking shots to playmaking receivers down the field. The Bengals have the best offensive line in the division, and their defensive front is as deep and talented as any in the entire league.
They will need all of that to knock off the Steelers. Even without Troy Polamalu, who is a game-time decision with concussion-related issues, the Steelers have plenty of defensive firepower. In fact, they have more than the first meeting, which LaMarr Woodley missed and both Polamalu and Harrison played on a limited basis. Ben Roethlisberger has feasted on Cincinnati, winning seven of his last eight starts and posting a QB rating over 100 in six of those games. This time the Bengals will be without top corner Leon Hall, who has four career picks of Roethlisberger. I expect it to be a dogfight, but I'll take the Steelers experience and proven ability to pull out close games over a youthful Bengals team still learning how to win. All those close losses were in fact losses for Cincy. Here's another one. Pittsburgh 23, Cincinnati 20.
Tennessee (13) at Buffalo (23): One month ago, the Bills were still a trendy pick to make the AFC playoffs, a first-place 5-2 team with a top 10 offense and a defense that led the league in forced turnovers. Now they have lost 4 in a row and fallen well off the playoff pace, losing Fred Jackson along the way. They've also lost the ability to both manufacture points and create turnovers, with just four touchdowns and four forced turnovers in those four straight defeats.
As the Bills have fallen, the Titans have taken their place as the upstart potential AFC playoff gate crasher. With Chris Johnson apparently finding his stride, Tennessee is suddenly a more dangerous opponent. The pass defense has been strong all year, with the most underrated set of corners in the league in Jason McCourty, Cortland Finnegan, and Alterraun Verner. Michael Griffin is one of the league's better coverage safeties and Jordan Babineaux plays off him well. Those guys are poised to make yet another long day for Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has struggled with forcing the ball recently.
This is the last stand for the Bills, a home game they can win if they get back to playing the way they did in September. But that team looks long gone, ravaged by key injuries and a loss of the swagger that made them dangerous. The Titans escape the shores of Lake Erie with an important win. Tennessee 26, Buffalo 24.
Carolina (26) at Tampa Bay (28): I find it deliciously ironic that Josh Freeman damaged his thumb with a firearms mishap. For all the maturity and character issues surrounding Panthers QB Cam Newton, it is Freeman--a guy universally respected for his maturity, leadership, and character--who nearly blows off his thumb during the season. Firing a gun at a range is not a bad hobby or way to blow off steam, but it's not a real smart idea when you make your living with your hands. Gun mishaps happen, and taking a risk like that in the season reflects poorly on Freeman.
It's been a tough year for Freeman, whose regression from Pro Bowl-caliber franchise QB to erratic, turnover-prone chucker that sleepwalks through the first halves of games has washed out much of the hope in Tampa. It says a lot to me that rookie Cam Newton and his 13 games of big-time college experience is clearly the more reliable, professional starter than Freeman. It speaks volumes to me that a recalcitrant misanthrope like Steve Smith has fully embraced Newton and stayed positive despite a 3-8 record, while the Bucs are showing signs of fracturing as they slide deeper into a 4-7 hole. The digging continues here. Carolina 27, Tampa Bay 24.
Indianapolis (32) at New England (3): The line on this game is Patriots -21.5 and the only real drama here is whether or not they cover. History says no. The last 10 NFL games featuring point spreads of 20 or more have gone the way of the underdog 9 times. That includes the Patriots being a perfect 5-for-5 in failing to cover. It makes little sense, and very few of those games have been in real doubt, but strange things happen in these games. And the Colts are starting a quarterback responsible for one of those games.
Dan Orlovsky was Detroit's quarterback in Week 15 of the 2008 season when the 0-13 Lions visited the 10-3 Colts as 20.5 point underdogs. He had arguably the best game of his career, completing 67% of his passes and led a scoring drive early in the fourth quarter that actually tied the game. The Colts ultimately woke up and wound up winning 31-21, but the professional gamblers made a killing backing the Lions. I suspect that will be the case here too; watch the fans drive up the line by thinking there is no way the Colts can possibly hang with the Patriots. Take the Colts to cover and think of me fondly when you collect your winnings. Patriots 34, Colts 20.
Oakland (11) at Miami (18): Rest in peace Chester McGlockton. The former Raider defensive tackle and spark plug died Wednesday at the age of 42. He was the prototypical Al Davis Raider defensive lineman: very physical, not afraid to play past the whistle, surprisingly athletic for his size, proud of his craft and proud to wear the Silver and Black. As if the Raiders needed yet another fallen comrade to play for, they got one here way too early. McGlockton was a coach at nearby Stanford and was still a presence at many Raiders games, and some veterans on the team knew him well.
This game a real tough forecast. I lean towards the Dolphins for a couple of reasons. First, they are at home and coming off a mini-bye after last playing on Thanksgiving, where they lost a squeaker in Dallas. Second is the way the Miami defense has been playing lately. They have the #1 3rd down conversion defense over the last month and rank 3rd in yards per play over the same period. They also rank 2nd in run defense in the last 4 games, allowing just 2.9 yards per carry. With Darren McFadden still sidelined, I don't see the Raiders breaking through that barrier. Oakland has proven they can win a game with special teams, and I don't like the switching of kickers in Miami, so that certainly gives the Raiders an opening to seize an important road win. But I'll take the Dolphins at home to sneak out a victory over the inspired Raiders. Miami 24, Oakland 19.
Atlanta (8) at Houston (9): The Texans have chugged along as the little engine that could even in the face of several key injuries. Houston has won five in a row, but with the starting quarterback going down two weeks in a row the engine is in real danger of running off the tracks. Earlier this week I wrote about my confidence and the team's confidence in TJ Yates, the latest QB to take over, but this would be a tough one for Matt Schaub to win, let alone Matt Leinart or a 6th round rookie.`
Atlanta is playing very well, finding a great tempo offensively and continuing to improve at protecting Matt Ryan. But what makes them the pick here is the way the Atlanta defense responded under pressure a week ago. The team was not at its best against Minnesota, but when big plays were needed, the defense created them late. Chris Owens denied a potential completion, and Sean Weatherspoon rocked Toby Gerhart for a loss on the Vikings' last gasp drive to seal a shaky win. I expect the Texans to try and protect Yates as much as possible, and that mean the Falcons will need to tackle well and play disciplined defense. Last week showed me they can do that. Houston does the same thing, however, so points figure to be hard to come by in this one. I'll take the dimension Harry Douglas brings the Falcons offense to make just enough of a difference. Atlanta 20, Houston 17.
Denver (12) at Minnesota (29): Tim Tebow has been covered ad nauseum in terms of his ability to throw, run, lead, and pose, but one thing that I haven't heard much about is the gambling angle. The bookies clearly are not Tebow believers, installing the 2-9 Vikings as 1.5 point favorites over Team Tebow, winners in five of their last six. So I set out to ascertain why the sports books would think that way.
Here is what I think they are thinking: Minnesota does not do much well, but the two things they do well match up very nicely against Denver. Minnesota can run the ball and they stop the run very well. The Vikings allow just 3.4 yards per carry on the season and actually lead the league in tackles for losses against the run. Their front four is solid, but their linebackers are all very good at snuffing out the run. Chad Greenway and the Henderson brothers are all good fundamental tacklers that flow to the ball and understand how to play as a unit. Stopping Tebow and the option is best accomplished by having strong linebackers playing behind a defensive line that can occupy blockers. That's pretty much the only positive going for the Minnesota defense these days, as three of the top four corners and both starting safeties are gone.
Of course there is Adrian Peterson, the most complete running threat in the league. But he is questionable after missing last week with an ankle sprain. I suspect he will play, because without his presence there is very little justification for the line to be set where it is. But I think the bookies are ignoring the defensive improvement in Denver. They still give up too many yards per carry, but a hobbled Peterson means they have a fair chance to handle the Vikings rushing attack. John Fox and Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen have done a strong coaching job in improving the run defense and increasing the pressure on wideouts near the line. They figure to dare Christian Ponder to try and beat them. Ponder only has one legit target, Percy Harvin, and Harvin's health fluctuates on a drive-by-drive basis. I like that strategy and I think the Broncos have the horses to pull it off successfully.
I'm going to give a conditional forecast here. If Peterson plays, I like the Vikings 17-13. No Peterson means the Broncos keep the magic flowing in a Denver 20-10 win.
NY Jets (15) at Washington (19): The two biggest coaching egos in the NFL today square off in this one. Mike Shanahan and Rex Ryan go about their arrogance in decidedly different ways, but the self-importance emanating from the majordomos here creates a vacuum which could suck down Warren Beatty in his "You're So Vain" heyday.
The difference here is that Ryan has more at his disposal to back him up. The Washington defense presents a challenge for a struggling Jets offense, but last week The Sanchize showed he could make some key throws in key situations. You never really know what you are going to get from the Ethnic Slur secondary, and I like the Jets offensive line to handle their business against Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan more oft than not. I just cannot see Rex Grossman beating a Rex Ryan defense, even one as overrated as this. Look for Dustin Keller to have a strong outing, The Sanchize to throw two TDs against one INT, and the Jets D to bottle up Roy Helu and the Slurs running game. New York 21, Washington 13.
Kansas City (21) at Chicago (14): Kyle Orton returns to Chicago but will not start for the Chiefs, which means this game features Tyler Palko vs. Caleb Hanie at quarterback. Both guys have had some flashes where you see why their coaches have confidence in them, but also a whole lot of throws that show why they have both been non-threatening career backups to this point. Palko has the upper hand in terms of accuracy and awareness, but Hanie has the trump card of actually producing a pair of touchdown passes. Which is why the Chiefs picked up Orton, and why I think he is going to prove haunting to the Soldier Field faithful in this game.
Orton knows how to attack the Bears defense and their personnel, having faced off against them in practice for years. He understands how to manipulate Brian Urlacher and where the rush is going to come from based on the alignment, should Lovie Smith dial up a blitz. I believe Coach Haley will not hesitate to yank Palko for Orton if the Chiefs offense sputters early. I also think the Bears have an aura of overconfidence about them given their current situation, what with a wild inexperienced quarterback and a mad scientist offensive coordinator. The Chiefs played up to the level of the Steelers and they have the ability to do that again here, only with a better quarterback and a better overall matchup. I like the Chiefs to pull the upset and send the city of Chicago into a complete tizzy. Kansas City 24, Chicago 20.
Baltimore (5) at Cleveland (25): People often ask me why I'm not a Browns fan even though I hail from the greater Cleveland area, and most of my family is devout Browns backers. Some of it stems from a lifelong desire to be different, part of it was that when I was a kid our CBS affiliate was out of Toledo and they carried Lions games. I've always pulled for the Browns to be good, but the passion was never there.
The final nail in the Browns fandom coffin came courtesy of what is now the Baltimore Ravens. When the Browns left Cleveland, life carried me away from the area as well. It felt like I had complete closure with football in Cleveland, and I was okay with that. I didn't even hate the Ravens like most Clevelanders because I knew the real story behind Art Modell's move and I greatly respected Ozzie Newsome. When the Browns reincarnated, it just didn't feel right. There was no connection at all, even though I wound up living in a townhouse with several New Browns as neighbors. It hasn't helped their cause that the Browns have been largely terrible since their return.
This year I would hesitate to call them terrible, far from it in fact. But they are something even worse: boring and lacking identity. Cleveland fans will put up with a lot, but the one thing that turns off even the most die-hard (and there is no other kind) Cleveland fan is when their teams lack identity. Baltimore has no such problem and hasn't ever since Ray Lewis stepped on the field in that first year as the Ravens. That identity will be on full display in this game. Baltimore 16, Cleveland 9.
Dallas (7) at Arizona (24): Two weeks ago, I warned everyone that Baltimore was headed into a trap in Seattle. This week's trap is all set for the Cowboys in Arizona. Kevin Kolb is set to come back for the Cardinals, who have been playing much better recently. The Cowboys are flying high off yet another superlative November, but it is now December, i.e. midnight for the Dallas pumpkin carriage. They have struggled to narrow wins over a pair of 3-win teams in Washington and Miami. Next week brings the Giants, and the Cowboys really only need to beat New York to make the playoffs. Beanie Wells showed me a lot last week in running hard despite being in pain, a characteristic heretofore absent in his career going back to his Buckeye days.
It's all a perfect recipe for an upset. And I'm not the only one that thinks so. Despite nearly 80% of the bets on this game picking the Cowboys, the big money is flowing in on Arizona. According to the sports book at the Bellagio, enough money has come in on Arizona to move the line from 7.5 to 5.5 even though over 85% of all bets have been placed on the favored Cowboys. When the big money moves the line that dramatically by swimming against the current, swim with it. Those kinds of bets are made by people who make a living doing this. The 5.5 points are a gift, as I like the Cardinals to pull off the upset outright. Arizona 30, Dallas 24.
Green Bay (1) at NY Giants (17): A couple of weeks ago, I pointed to this game as the major stumbling block facing the Packers in their quest for an unblemished record. Since that time, the Giants have dropped two games and looked helpless defensively on Monday night against the Saints. The Packers are of similar design offensively, an amazing quarterback with a bevy of excellent weapons to attack the defense all over the field.
Yet, the Giants did a great job snuffing out the Patriots, the only other team with that sort of offensive firepower. And this New York team has proven they can rise up to a challenge time and again. Eli Manning has shown he can produce some gaudy passing numbers of his own this year, and Victor Cruz has demonstrated a nifty ability to get open and make things happen after the catch. Green Bay has shown some vulnerability to combination route trees which the Giants like to run, and their pass rush has been inconsistent and largely one-dimensional.
So the Giants do indeed have a chance to hang a loss on the Packers, probably the best chance of any remaining regular season opponent. If Eli gets hot and the Giants can win the turnover and special teams battles, I think they can pull it off. Being at home augments the chances as well. And as I mentioned on a couple of radio spots this week, the Packers are going to have an off day or just get bored with their own awesomeness. Will that be in New York? Maybe...but I wouldn't bet on it. Packers 30, Giants 26.
St. Louis (31) at San Francisco (6): The team that I thought would run away with the NFC West travels to the team that has done precisely that. Instead of Sam Bradford making the big step forward as a quarterback, it was Alex Smith. San Francisco's young offensive line has progressed nicely, while the Rams talent up front has regressed into a hot pile of sheep dip. It's a very rare occurrence these days, but I think the Niners pitch the shutout at home. San Francisco 20, St. Louis 0.
Detroit (16) at New Orleans (2): Lost amid all the Ndamukong Suh controversy is how well the Detroit defense has been playing around him. The point totals aren't real impressive, but some of that gets hung on Matt Stafford throwing the ball to the wrong team and the special teams coverage units have created too many short fields. The Lions still lead the league in 3rd down conversion defense and rank in the top 10 in opposing yards per pass attempt (3rd), QB Rating allowed (4th), sack percentage (10th), and first downs allowed per game (T-10th). The run defense still gives up too many longer runs, but amazingly the Lions rank 3rd in first down conversions allowed by the run.
All that provides me some hope that the Lions can hang with the Saints, a game Detroit desperately needs to win to prove they belong in the NFC playoff picture. I watched the Saints eviscerate the Giants on Monday night, however, and the air comes out of that hope like a limp balloon. Drew Brees is playing in rarified air, orchestrating the high-powered Saints offense like a true maestro. Jimmy Graham is an impossible matchup, one made even harder for Detroit by the absence of injured safety Louis Delmas. Darren Sproles has been an outstanding bonus, a player who can dictate defensive matchups based on where they line him up. Even with Suh, shutting down that offense in New Orleans would be a tall order.
Can the Lions offense put up enough points to win a shootout? At times I would answer affirmatively, but the Matt Stafford of the past month makes the answer a resounding "Hell No!" Other than the second half of the Carolina game where he was thisclose to being perfect, Stafford has been the epitome of empty stats. Racking up yardage when the team is behind two touchdowns because of missing throws and turning the ball over early fails to impress me, and Stafford needs to demonstrate he can play a complete 60-minute game against a quality opponent. If his last game in New Orleans--a 3-INT game with a QB rating of 27--is any indication, it is not going to happen this week. Saints 33, Lions 20 as the final but look for the Saints to climb ahead 20-3 early.
San Diego (20) at Jacksonville (30): Seriously, ESPN, you consciously chose this game even back in the summer to cap off the week? I guess the intrigue here is that the Jaguars actually went ahead and axed their coach while the Chargers continue to let Norv Turner hang himself higher on the gallows every week.
It's actually been a pretty intense week for Jacksonville. Jack Del Rio got fired, owner Wayne Weaver announced the sale of the team to Shahid Khan, and the team extended the contract of GM Gene Smith for three years. I'll take them in inverse order:
--Smith has proven he can unearth talent and manage the cap, but the team has several shaky early-round picks and free agent misses as well. Keeping him in power is a signal that the Jaguars will not be chasing a prominent coach that wants power or roster control. Think Jay Gruden (Bengals OC) or interim coach Mel Tucker.
--Khan was all set to purchase the Rams last year before Wal-Mart undercut his bid and managed to seize control. One of the issues there was worries that Khan would move the team back to Los Angeles. Add one and one here, people...
--Del Rio's time was clearly up. He is a quality football coach paying the price for a rebuilding roster ravaged by injuries, and also years of mediocrity that didn't attract fans in a marginal NFL market. He will be a defensive coordinator somewhere next year, but I think he'd make a great college coach *coughTexasA&Mcough*
One reason why Norv Turner still has a job is that the Chargers, also a strong candidate to move to Los Angeles, will take an opposite track. Their GM, AJ Smith, is a huge part of the problem and must go along with Turner. San Diego will definitely be chasing the big-name coaching free agents and will grant whoever gets the job (Cowher, Billick, Fassel) as much power as they demand.
I like the "new coach" bounce for the Jags, who have a consistently solid defense under Tucker, plus the Chargers just placed their 3rd offensive tackle starter on injured reserve. Jacksonville 17, San Diego 16.
Conference championships abound!
LSU 26, Georgia 14
Oregon 57, UCLA 10
Wisconsin 27, Michigan State 24
Houston 48, Southern Miss 33
Oklahoma State 44, Oklahoma 37