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Football Meteorology For Week 5
Authored by Jeff Risdon - 6th October, 2011 - 2:55 pm

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Last Week: 12-4 for the third week in a row. That makes the season forecast 44-20. Perhaps my wife will let me fulfill my dream of becoming a professional gambler yet!

Sunday Best:

Tampa Bay (7) at San Francisco (13): The fact that one of these teams is going to be 4-1 astonishes me. It really isn't so much that I think either team is unworthy based on how they have played this year, but I just did not foresee either squad as a 4-1 type of team. I greatly admire the coaching job done here by both staffs, as Raheem Morris and Jim Harbaugh have done a great job of forging a team identity and positive culture in places where those critical qualities have been sorely lacking in the last few years.

The key matchup here is how well the Niners secondary handles the size and speed of the Tampa receivers. Arrelious Benn, Mike Williams, Kellen Winslow, and the rapidly increasing role of Preston Parker give Josh Freeman a lot of very difficult matchups as weapons. San Francisco contained Philly's vast arsenal pretty well, particularly when rallying from the big deficit. But the Bucs receivers have much more size, making them a different animal.

Even though he is playing well, I am still skeptical of Alex Smith at the helm for San Francisco. He has done a nice job avoiding the catastrophic errors that have made him Rex Grossman, West Coat version. A lot of credit for Smith's solid start goes to the guys protecting him up front, as they have given Smith time and rhythm in the pocket and good throwing lanes. The young Bucs defensive line is starting to click a little, which presents a challenge.

I like Tampa to win behind a stronger ground game and the more clutch ability of Freeman, but this is one to wager upon at your own peril. Bucs 23, 49ers 20.

Sunny Games:

Philadelphia (22) at Buffalo (12): Buffalo got their reality check at the hands of the Bengals, who handed the Bills their initial loss thanks to some stringy, hard-hitting defense and smart execution. That was a new experience for these Bills, who thrive on taking advantage of mistakes and exploiting matchups. Ryan Fitzpatrick and friends have decimated sloppy coverage units that like to take chances and can't cover the middle of the field. Guess what Philadelphia is terrible at...?

I knew the Eagles were overrated; I did forecast them to go 8-8 and miss the playoffs. However, even I was surprised at how badly they folded in the face of pressure against a San Francisco team that had no business coming back on them. When a defense makes Alex Smith look like Joe Montana, there are serious problems even though Smith is quietly playing pretty well. These Eagles strike me much like the Red Sox that just pissed away a September--a lot of big contracts, a lot of big talent, a lot of holes, zero chemistry. They are the ultimate video game football team, fantastic for the puppeteer that doesn't have to deal with sideline and locker room drama. Every 8th grade kid in America uses the Eagles as their team in Madden, to play with the shiniest toy, drive the fastest car, date the prettiest girl. It's a great fantasy.

Perhaps more people should be using the Bills, the hot cheerleader's comely friend that winds up being much prettier once everyone takes off the makeup. Buffalo has a more reliable quarterback, a tougher running game, more targets that are more consistent for Fitzpatrick to utilize, a better line. But what really makes Buffalo better is the feeling of family and camaraderie. Watch them interact on the sidelines--they're having fun, mixing with one another freely and showing support and care for their team. The Eagles look very much like a group of highly paid stars that are all used to more defined roles and team culture. It kills them when the games are tight, and I expect this one to be fairly tight. Look for Buffalo to take a late lead and then hold on to stave off a frenetic comeback that winds up just a little short. Buffalo 30, Philadelphia 28.

New Orleans (2) at Carolina (24): Cam Newton sure has seen some pretty diverse quarterbacks as opponents this year. He has seen Kevin Kolb and Aaron Rodgers, and certainly impressed with his performances. He faced fellow rookie Blaine Gabbert in a monsoon, and both looked like rookies not used to playing under a shower head. Last week, he drew Jay Cutler, a divisive gunslinger that never met a throw he didn't think he could complete. Newton bested Cutler in that duel, though his team lost the conflict thanks to a rookie head coach making a rookie mistake in kicking to Devin Hester.

Now Newton gets to face off against Drew Brees, another Pro Bowl quarterback coming off a playoff season.

For Newton to come out the way he has, I just can't give him enough credit. I am very happy for him and for the long-suffering fans of Carolina, who watched a legit Super Bowl-caliber team get washed away when Jake Delhomme suddenly forgot how to throw a football. I expect big numbers once again from Newton, who seems to relish the challenge of keeping up with the Joneses, err, Bradys and Breeses of the world.

Keeping up with Brees will be very difficult. The Saints have just one loss, a tight one in the opener to Green Bay where they hung major yards on the Packers mighty D. I really enjoy the philosophy of Saints coach Sean Payton, who is the rare head coach that doesn't really care how much the opponent scores, just as long as his team scores more. Other teams wind up playing that way (see: New England) but you always sense the coach is perturbed at his defense. I'm sure Payton gets that way, but he is so accustomed to Brees leading the team to some outrageous offensive production that he just sort of seems at peace with winning games 40-36 and giving up 480 yards. That could happen here if the weather cooperates. New Orleans 37, Carolina 31.

Tennessee (9) at Pittsburgh (14): The Pittsburgh offensive line has taken over as the worst in the league, and it threatens to scuttle the entire season for the rest of the team. Ben Roethlisberger is as tough as they come but even he can only take so much. He left Houston in a walking boot after taking yet another physical beating, including a BS roughing call on JJ Watt that should have been a safety for holding in the end zone. Almost the exact same situation happened in the Colts/Bucs game and perennial Pro Bowler Dwight Freeney got the holding call, but rookie Watt will likely get a bill for a forced charitable contribution. But I digress...

Roethlisberger should play, but he will not be as spry with his foot injury. I also think it will impact his accuracy, something I base on an offhand remark I once heard from Kobe Bryant talking about playing with a broken finger. Kobe stated that while the finger hurt, it didn't bother his game because he didn't have to change anything mechanically with his shot, other than it might spin off a little funky sometimes. But when his legs hurt it messed up the rhythm of his shot and it was hard for him to get everything going. As much as Roethlisberger likes to throw on the move, I think he will be lucky to complete 50% of his passes in this one. Given how dreadful his line play is in front of him, he might be lucky to make it past halftime.

I still would handily take the Steelers here if not for James Harrison being out with a broke eye socket. This defense is more than talented enough to man up and win one at home even with the offense struggling, but Harrison is a huge loss. Aside from being a menace on the pass rush, he is an exceptional run stuffer on the edge and an intimidating presence in the short zone in coverage. As much as Chris Johnson likes to run east/west before heading north/south, having a strong edge defensively is paramount. Now the Steelers will rely on a light pass rushing specialist, Jason Worilds, to fill that role. Matt Hasselbeck is the presence this team has lacked since Steve McNair's heyday, and the line has been fantastic. I know it seems crazy to pick against Pittsburgh at Heinz Field, but this is simply not the Steelers team of recent vintages. It will be tough, it will be hard-fought, it will be nasty, but ultimately it will be a Titans win. Tennessee 18, Pittsburgh 16.

Oakland (18) at Houston (6): The biggest game in Texans history for the 5th week in a row, or so says the Houston media. At what point is the overkill on the Texans always having something to prove going to end? I know it's hard to find other stories around town. The Astros just completed their worst season with a franchise record 105 losses and often played in front of hundreds of disinterested fans that scored free tickets, the Rockets are locked out and are mired in the late lottery quagmire without recently retired icon Yao Ming, and the Dynamo are the Seattle Seahawks of the MLS, holding first place in a division where it's possible no team winds up with a winning record.

There actually is a compelling story line for the Texans here, and that is whether they can win without injured star receiver Andre Johnson. The rest of the receiving corps looks a whole lot less ominous. The grouping of Jacoby Jones, David Anderson, and tight ends Owen Daniels, Joel Dreessen, and utility knife James Casey are not chopped liver, but they are not filet mignon either. The Houston passing attack just got a lot easier to defend. Arian Foster will need to run like he did against Pittsburgh to ease the pressure. Matt Schaub will need to find a new security blanket. The special teams will have to help out by acquiring good field position. The run defense will have to play a very tight game to slow down dangerous Darren McFadden, Michael Bush et al. That last one is a toughie, but I think the home cooking will allow the Texans to hold on even without their big Johnson. This one could see some monster rushing numbers from both sides. Houston 27, Oakland 22.

New York Jets (15) at New England (3): New England's pass defense is on pace to be in the bottom-five in NFL history in yards allowed and opposing completion percentage. Mark Sanchez is coming off a humiliating performance Monday night where the Ravens battered him repeatedly and The Sanchize missed on over 60% of his throws, many of them quite badly. He also turned the ball over and supplied the Ravens with 3 return touchdowns. This is a classic "Something's Gotta Give" matchup.

Yet it is the flip side of the matchup coin that will probably decide the game. The Jets have been more successful in coming up with ways to frustrate Tom Brady than any other, and Rex Ryan has willed his team to a couple of big wins over the hated division rival. Brady is still on pace to throw for more than 6000 yards and 52 touchdowns, while Wes Welker is on pace for 160 catches and nearly 2500 yards, and four of Brady's five interceptions came in a rare off day against the Bills.

I think this is a game where the Jets lack of depth on defense is really going to be exposed. Losing Bryan Thomas hurts a lot, and given how well the Patriots OL has protected Brady the Jets need every pass rushing option they can get. Expect some combo blitzes and risky corner presses from the Jets in an attempt to disrupt the intricate timing...and expect that to only have limited success. Bill Belichick would love nothing more than to hang an ugly loss on the hated Jets, and this is the most favorable opportunity to do that since Rex Ryan took over in New York. All those points off turnovers won't be there for the Jets, and even though they should double their 150 yards from last week, I still expect the end zone to remain somewhat elusive. Pats win big, 42-20.

Fair Skies:

San Diego (8) at Denver (28): I am writing from Disney World in Orlando, where my family is for the week. It has been really interesting to see all the different sports teams represented on the patrons from all over the country (and world for that matter). In the first four days here--which included an NFL Sunday--I have not seen one bit of Charger gear, but I have seen more Tim Tebow paraphernalia than anything else except Detroit Tigers and Pittsburgh Steelers gear. Seriously. I counted at least 25 different Tebow jerseys, a few hats, and a sweet t-shirt that had Tebow in a cloud throwing lightning bolt footballs down from the heavens. I know Tebow is from here and is genuinely revered as some sort of messianic figure by Gator fans and hard-core Christians, but it's more than a little ridiculous that a 3rd string quarterback responsible for exactly -1 yards this year is so beloved.

Denver has a lot more problems than the highest-profile backup in any sport's history. Even though I am never confident about San Diego before Week 9, they have way too much going for them to lose this one. I am intrigued by the relatively poor numbers of Philip Rivers, who apparently misses Antonio Gates more than anyone thought. But with the way the Chargers line has been run blocking, there are no worries. Yet. Chargers 29-14.

Green Bay (1) at Atlanta (21): Aaron Rodgers threw a bone to the fantasy geeks with his incredible stat line from last week, with over 400 yards, 4 TD passes and two more rushing. Now he gets to head back to Atlanta, the site of their playoff destruction of the Falcons last year in the game that really announced that Green Bay was legitimately awesome. That game no doubt resonated with Brett Favre (obligatory mention!), who continues to keep his name in the news by pronouncing that he was surprised it took so long for Rodgers to ascend to greatness. Perhaps if you would have stepped away in a more timely and respectable fashion, Brett...

It will be interesting to see what happens with this one. The Packers show no signs of letting up in any game no matter how big their lead might be, though it is hard to drive in neutral with a garage full of high-performance roadsters. Atlanta does not match up well with what Green Bay does well, which is, well, pretty much everything. The Packers most exploitable weaknesses are defending play action passes and pass rushing them up the gut. Atlanta lacks the offensive line to give Matt Ryan time to use the play action very often, and their pass rush is almost exclusively from their defensive ends going wide around the tackles. So this one could turn ugly, much like the Denver demolition last week. Atlanta does play significantly better at home, and Green Bay's pass defense has not been consistent, so the Falcons could make it interesting if the Packers get one of their lull quarters, for which they are overdue. Or maybe those lulls are a thing of the past like a certain mouthy #4. Packers 32, Falcons 20.

Cloudy with a Chance Games:

Arizona (20) at Minnesota (30): At what point are the last holdouts going to acquiesce and acknowledge that Donovan McNabb simply cannot play the game at a starting level anymore? As I said in the preseason preview, there is a very good reason why two coaches that are noted QB gurus unceremoniously dumped him in consecutive summers. The Vikings drafted the clichéd "Most NFL ready" first-round prospect in Christian Ponder, and it's abundantly clear that McNabb is not the answer either in the short-term or long-term. Let the kid play and see if he is worthy (for the record I say he is not, but give him the chance to prove me wrong). Jacksonville made the similar decision to much consternation earlier, and guess what--they have a win and a young QB that is progressing every week, getting confidence and earning it form his teammates as well. Meanwhile, the Vikings continue to try and sail on a ship that sank about two years ago, and they are only prolonging the recovery by putting fingers in the dyke. Sometimes you just have to acknowledge that the town isn't worth saving, blow the damn thing up and start over on the fertile new ground once the flood has waned.

The Cardinals know a little something about that whole vampire QB situation, having the life sucked out of a fairly talented team by terrible quarterback play. They rectified it by trading for Kevin Kolb, who has not been great but has been much better than the Max Hall/John Skelton/Derek Anderson troika of suckiness of last year. You can see the team plays with more confidence and swagger because they believe their guy can win the game for them, or at least not lose it for them. You do not see that from Minnesota.

Having said all that, there is still a very small part of me that sees one last death gasp from McNabb. It is akin to the weather forecast models where a 10% chance of rain suddenly results in a stormy, turbulent downpour that makes meteorologists scratch their heads that they didn't see it coming. This is the time of year for that kind of weather, as a cold front can unexpectedly dip farther south, or a tropical disturbance unexpectedly alters some wind patterns and throws the models askew. Or maybe the Vikings still have enough talent to win even with McNabb having what has become his typical recent outing, with Jared Allen and Antoine Winfield and Chad Greenway and Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin picking up the miles of slack and treating the desperate home fans to one more glimmer of hope. Arizona plays uneven enough to be good victims. I'll go with that 10% chance of rain developing here. Minnesota 24, Arizona 21.

Seattle (27) at New York Giants (11): Seattle travels east to face the 3-1 Giants, who continue to show the power of "team". I am most interested in the duel between two of the more underrated pass rushers in the game, Chris Clemons of Seattle and Jason Pierre Paul of New York. Both guys have the potential to make a game-changing play, and this is a game where one big play could very well swing the outcome. I favor the Giants because Ahmad Bradshaw is in peak form, and the Eli Manning/Hakeem Nicks combination is a major problem for any defense. Expect Seattle to put up a better fight than anticipated, but they just do not have the weapons or the triggerman to pull off this upset. Giants 30, Seahawks 26.

Kansas City (29) at Indianapolis (25): Kansas City notched their first win last week, and they have played some better football the past couple of weeks after some truly embarrassing earlier efforts. The Colts have two close-but-no-cigar games in a row and remain winless. I like the big play potential the Colts offense brings here, but more than that I just strongly believe the Colts are too sound of a team to be 0-5 even sans Manning. Indy cruises 24-13.

Cincinnati (19) at Jacksonville (26): This is the type of game the Bengals always lose. Just when you think they are ready to leave the doldrums after such a nice win like last week, they slide down to depths that crush submarines. This is also the type of game the Jaguars tend to win. They are coming off a middling loss and look like a team that makes you wonder if they will win another game, then they reel off about 6 quarters in a row where they play some great football. I cannot explain it, but I trust in it. Jaguars 20, Bengals 17.

Monday Night:

Chicago (16) at Detroit (5): It's been fantastic riding the Detroit roller coaster, but at some point a couple of things are going to happen to the Lions. First, they are going to come out strong in the first quarter of a game and not have to worry about making a furious late rally. Give this talented pass rush a lead to defend and the other team's QB might just start kneeling down instead of taking the hits. The other thing that is bound to fate is that the Lions are going to play another sloppy half and not be able to make the comeback.

The odds are pretty high that one of those boxes gets checked off with this game, the first time the Lions have hosted Monday Night Football since 2001, when they played at the Silverdome. That sinks in hard for me, as I moved to Michigan in 2002 and left in 2010 and never once were the Lions good enough to host a Monday Night Football game. Heck, they haven't even been worthy of a prime time game in six years. The Ford Field fanatics are going to be fired up, and I expect the defense to feed off that energy. The Chicago offensive line is in for a very long night, and if Mike Martz thinks he can have Jay Cutler using seven step drops, Cutler might wind up a permanent part of the synthetic turf.

Yet, I like the way Chicago stuck with the ground game last week, and Matt Forte is the kind of back that kills the Lions because he can catch and he is good at breaking tackles. They will need more of that if they want to win this one, and they will also need their safeties to play very well. Calvin Johnson is playing at a level that few receivers have achieved; he is unstoppable even with triple coverage, witness the touchdown last week. He and Matt Stafford have incredible trust in one another and great chemistry, plus the Lions have enough ancillary talent that focusing the entire defensive effort on slowing Megatron is just not going to work. There is unprecedented confidence in Detroit right now, what with the amazing comebacks two weeks in a row. More specifically, the weakest parts of the team--the outside linebackers and corners--are playing with great confidence and seem to be gelling together. That should be enough to carry the Detroit Lions to 5-0. Check off the first box. Lions 31, Bears 13.

Byes: Cleveland (24), St. Louis (32), Dallas (17), Washington (10), Baltimore (4), Miami (31). Interesting that two winless teams get their byes so early, as the bye week is typically when coaching changes happen. This is a handful of weeks early to throw in the towel even at 0-4, so Tony Sparano and Steve Spagnuolo will survive. Spags is probably in little trouble regardless, but offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has got to be feeling the heat for Sam Bradford's ugly regression.

Drinking in the Dorm Room Games:
Last Week: 3-2

Nebraska 26, Ohio State 20. Sorry Dad.
Oklahoma 30, Texas 24
Arkansas 40, Auburn 27
Texas A&M 38, Texas Tech 34
Virginia Tech 27, Miami 20

Jeff.Risdon@RealGM.com