I’ll take 3-1. I mean, I don’t really have a choice now do I? Another dull weekend in the playoffs but the Jets/Chargers game made up for an uncompetitive second round. 5-3 so far this postseason with a huge weekend coming up. Not trying to get ahead of myself but I have to. Three games last week ended in teams getting outscored 99-20, so calling the weekend noncompetitive is an understatement. In case you missed anything you didn’t miss much. Just read along and you’ll see what I mean.
Arizona Cardinals vs. New Orleans Saints
What I predicted …
What I said would happened …
“The Saints have had a couple of weeks to go over their gameplan and whip themselves back into shape. How well that preparation will hold up against a scary Cardinals team is a tricky question. New Orleans has proven they can’t stop the run but Arizona doesn’t really run the ball with any conviction. The Cardinals are at their best when Warner is sitting back flinging it. While New Orleans hasn’t won a game in over three weeks, they’ll be fired up over the fact that they’re only two games away from a Super Bowl. After seeing Arizona’s defense shredded to pieces against Green Bay, it’s impossible to pick them with any confidence.”
What actually happened…
The Saints won 45-14. Facing one of the better offenses in the NFL with a full cast of healthy defenders just a week ago, the Arizona Cardinals allowed 45 points in their own backyard to the Green Bay Packers. The Cardinals tried their luck again against the high-powered New Orleans Saints albeit minus two starting members of their secondary. Their absences proved to be costly and the Saints steamrolled the Cardinals 45-14 in front of a raucous Superdome crowd in New Orleans. Arizona QB Kurt Warner was banged up before halftime after taking a serious shot on an interception return but returned to start the second half.
My reactions …
Funny how far things can fall in just a year. Just last season, the Cardinals (11-7) were looked upon as one of the brightest up and coming teams with a roster stacked full of young talent. The talent is still in place but with whispers of Warner’s retirement growing louder and louder and the continuing gripe between the Cardinals’ front office and Anquan Boldin, Arizona could be without two megastars to begin next season. Allowing 90 points in two games is proof enough that defensive help is needed but with Warner’s likely departure and the club’s disbelief in backup Matt Leinhart, a shift in philosophy could occur next year.
And the band will march on for the Saints. Their demolishing of the Cardinals proves New Orleans (14-3) is indeed focused on the bigger picture for this season but it should be noted Arizona was missing several star players. Nevertheless, the Saints took care of business and will take themselves to the NFC Championship game with all the swagger and confidence that they possessed during their magical start to the season when they were just slaying teams.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Indianapolis Colts
What I predicted …
What I said would happen…
“This won’t be a slam dunk for the Colts and weeks’ worth of rest could have negative ramifications. Baltimore will enter Saturday’s game loose and full of confidence with the pressure resting solely on Manning and his crew. The Colts beat the Ravens 17-15 in a late November clash but ask any Raven fan and they’ll tell you that game was one Baltimore should’ve pocketed. The Ravens have already avenged one painful loss this postseason and could very well make up for another. But I can’t pick against Manning at home, although I want to.”
What actually happened…
The Colts won 20-3. The Ravens (10-8) turned the ball over four times, drew seven penalties and couldn’t convert in the red zone. Even when things went right for Baltimore, they went wrong. Ed Reed’s interception of Peyton Manning midway through the third quarter was returned 38 yards before he was stripped of the ball and Indianapolis (14-2) recovered. Reed would strike again five plays later with another interception but his 54-yard return was nullified after officials called pass interference on Corey Ivy.
The offseason plan is simple for Baltimore: Go get some playmakers. The Ravens (10-8) are solid on both lines but the lack of threats at the wide receiver and cornerback positions leave them vulnerable against some of the more explosive teams. Rumors should continue about the possibilities of landing Denver wideout Brandon Marshall or even the Cardinals Anquan Boldin. Either addition would greatly improve an up and coming offense and if Baltimore can land a solid starting corner, they’ll definitely be back in the playoff hunt next season.
Indianapolis (15-2) didn’t do anything different against Baltimore except what they’ve done for most of the season which is find a way to win. The offense wasn’t overly explosive but the defense put some serious clamps on the Raven offense. This may be the best defense that Manning has ever had during his tenure in Indy and that’s saying a lot considering Bob Sanders and a few other defenders are out for the season. The Colts and the Vikings are the only two teams remaining in the postseason now that can beat you with either offense or defense. What a sight it would be to see those two in the Super Bowl. Stay tuned…
Dallas Cowboys vs. Minnesota Vikings
What I predicted…
What I said would happen…
“These might be the two most complete teams left in the postseason as both Minnesota and Dallas can beat you in a number of ways. Both are strong rushing teams and both can beat you with the aerial assault. If you’re looking for any edge breaker, it’s worth noting that Favre is 0-3 all-time against Dallas in the playoffs but then again, Romo didn’t win his first playoff game until four days ago. If there was a tossup game for the week, then this is definitely it. Both teams are eerily similar with the only advantage being the Vikings opening at home fresh from a week off. Similar feeling like the Colts/Ravens and I’ll take Favre at home, although I probably shouldn’t.”
What actually happened…
The Vikings won 34-3. Smothering defense and big plays in the passing game has been the formula for success for the Vikings this season and they stuck to that plan in sacking Dallas quarterback Tony Romo six times while receiving four touchdown passes from the reinvigorated Brett Favre. Favre hooked up with third-year receiver Sidney Rice for three touchdowns before finding Morgan State alum Visanthe Shiancoe for the final score of the game.
Though the season didn’t end in spectacular fashion, it has to be viewed as a positive for the Dallas Cowboys (12-6). They finished off December strong after seasons of fading and they won their first playoff game since 1996. The Cowboys will need to retool the offensive line and a grab another wideout or two to fortify their offense. Their defense played poorly against the Vikings but their offense didn’t help them out at all. The defense remains strong and will benefit from another year under Wade Phillips’ tutelage. Dallas remains a talented team, just a few patch jobs will do the team wonders.
The Vikings (13-4) flexed the kind of muscle they had demonstrated earlier in the season when they appeared to be unstoppable. Their defeat of the Cowboys was probably the most impressive victory of the weekend considering the strength of their opponent. Dallas came into the game relatively healthy and the Vikings took it to them. Minnesota was sound on both sides of the ball and they’ll definitely be tuned in for the NFC title game and a chance to send Favre to his third and probably last Super Bowl. Stay tuned…
New York Jets vs. San Diego Chargers
What I predicted…
What I said would happen…
“With Sanchez at pilot, the Jets have no chance trying to outscore the high-flying Chargers. Their best bet would be to make Sunday’s game an all-out defensive slugfest but that’ll be hard to do against an offense that averaged 30 points an outing over the course of their 11 game win streak. It’s the ultimate David vs. Goliath matchup but David might be too small in this one. Revis is a fantastic corner but with the Chargers’ ability to spread the ball around and Rivers’ penchant for getting the ball to the best-suited target, New York will have trouble keeping up.”
What actually happened …
The Jets won 17-14. New York limited an explosive Charger offense to just 14 points while forcing two turnovers and benefitting from three critical missed field goals by Chargers All-Pro kicker Nate Kaeding. Kaeding missed from 36, 57 and 40 yards, making him the first kicker to miss all three of his field goal attempts in a playoff game since 1995. New York received a strong performance from rookie running back Shonn Greene for the second consecutive week. Greene’s 23 carries for 128 yards featured a 53-yard run, the longest rush in team playoff history and his five-yard run in the closing minutes set the Jets up for a manageable fourth-and-one that New York converted easily to seal the game.
The Chargers (13-4) have suffered some tough post season losses over the past few years and this may have been the most disappointing of them all. Aside from San Diego’s 14-2 season in ’06 when they loss to the New Patriots, losing to a rookie quarterback and first year head coach has to sting. San Diego was garnering serious consideration as a Super Bowl favorite and with so many key players scheduled for free agency, this may have been their last shot at a Super Bowl with their core group. Rivers is still the franchise quarterback and San Diego will obviously build around him but they’re destined to lose a lot once free agency hits.
With their surprising win, New York just became the official Cinderella of the NFL playoffs. Similar to a team in March Madness, the Jets continue to string together victories with gritty play. Revis and the defense keeps them in every game and the running game and Sanchez make just enough plays to squeak by. While their style isn’t pretty, it’s been enough to keep advancing them through the playoffs. The task of winning an AFC Championship as a rookie quarterback is one that Sanchez’s predecessors have failed at. Both Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger’s clubs were constructed similarly with power running games and stingy defenses but when they were matched up against Super Bowl winning quarterbacks (Flacco vs. Roethlisberger in ’08 and Roethlisberger vs. Brady in ’04), they came up short. Who will Sanchez get in the AFC title game? Just Peyton Manning. Not the easiest matchup but there’s no turning back now. Stay tuned…
We’re down to the elite eight in the NFL and this week’s round of playoffs promises to be more entertaining than the last. The top two seeds in each conference will be on display but their competition won’t just be any ol’ body. Both conferences’ lower seeds are playing excellent football right now which makes this week’s round of picks another tossup. I went 2-2 in my analysis for last week and another mediocre weekend could be on tap. It’s kind of ironic that aside from San Diego, three of the top four seeds finished a combined 5-7 over the last month of the season. Compare that to the combined 11-5 record of all four Wild Card teams over the last month and things could get interesting this weekend. Here’s what I think:
Arizona Cardinals (11-6) vs. New Orleans Saints (13-3) Sat, 4:30 p.m.
Getting right into it. The number one team in the NFC against last year’s conference champion. Two explosive offenses laced with top flight signal callers and electric playmakers. Both defenses are shaky but who cares right? While defenses win championships, we’re only in the divisional round so give us plenty of offense and hold off on the defensive stands please.
After allowing 35 points in the second half of their 51-45 win over the Packers last week, the last thing the Cardinals probably wanted to see was Drew Brees and his band of high scorers but you can’t make your own schedule in the postseason. Arizona will have to employ a different defensive approach if they want to pull the road upset this week but the possible return of receiver Anquan Boldin will give quarterback Kurt Warner another bullet in the clip if his defense isn’t up for the task.
The Saints haven’t really been up to any task over the last three weeks. Losers of their last two home games and three straight, New Orleans is on the verge of one of the biggest collapses in NFL history after blazing to a 13-0 start. The Saints finished the season as the highest scoring team in the league with an average close to 32 points a game. Over their last three games, the Saints have only scored 44 points for an average of 14.6 per so things could get really interesting if the Cards put some points on the board early.
The Saints have had a couple of weeks to go over their gameplan and whip themselves back into shape. How well that preparation will hold up against a scary Cardinals team is a tricky question. New Orleans has proven they can’t stop the run but Arizona doesn’t really run the ball with any conviction. The Cardinals are at their best when Warner is sitting back flinging it. While New Orleans hasn’t won a game in over three weeks, they’ll be fired up over the fact that they’re only two games away from a Super Bowl. After seeing Arizona’s defense shredded to pieces against Green Bay, it’s impossible to pick them with any confidence. Saints 35-24
Baltimore Ravens (10-7) vs. Indianapolis Colts (14-2) Sat, 8: 15 p.m.
The Ravens already exorcized one demon when they beat the Patriots last week for the franchise’s first-ever win against New England. Against Indianapolis, they’ll try to notch the franchise’s first road win against the Colts. But it won’t be easy. Indianapolis jumped to a 14-0 start behind this year’s MVP, Peyton Manning, and an ability to adapt to any style of game. Whether they had to outscore a team, outdefend a team or outperform a team, Indianapolis simply outdid every team they went up against until they decided to take it easy the last few weeks of the season.
Manning and Co. will be game for a rematch with the scary Ravens but they’ll have to be prepared for any and everything against a sneaky coach in Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh’s tutelage of the young Ravens has made them into a team that’s exceptionally strong in all three phases. Their offense is now equipped to score. Their special teams are one of the best groups in the league and the defense is still a formidable bunch. A 3-1 postseason road record over the last two seasons proves that they can win in hostile environments. Baltimore slayed last year’s top AFC team, the Tennessee Titans, and wiped out the New England Patriots on their own home turf just last week. The Colts better be ready against the Ravens or they could find themselves at home quick.
But Indianapolis doesn’t play to sit at home in January. The presence of Manning ensures that they’ll be in every game and although the Colts tend to struggle with pressure defenses in the post season, their own defense is formidable enough to keep them in games until the offense comes around. People have tended to overlook the Colts this year because they’re not as talented as some of their past squads. Bob Sanders is injured (again), the offensive line isn’t a strong run blocking unit and Indianapolis has been devoid of a complimentary outside receiver ever since Marvin Harrison was injured last season. And even with all of that, they still finished as the best team in the league this season.
This won’t be a slam dunk for the Colts and weeks’ worth of rest could have negative ramifications. Baltimore will enter Saturday’s game loose and full of confidence with the pressure resting soley on Manning and his crew. The Colts beat the Ravens 17-15 in a late November clash but ask any Raven fan and they’ll tell you that game was one Baltimore should’ve pocketed. The Ravens have already avenged one painful loss this postseason and could very well make up for another. But I can’t pick against Manning at home, although I want to. Colts 21-20
Dallas Cowboys (12-5) vs. Minnesota Vikings (12-4) Sun, 1 p.m.
Hmmmm. That’s the sound of a writer extremely unsure of how this game will play out. Sure Minnesota has Brett Favre, a living legend. Sure they have Adrian Peterson, one of the best players in the league. And sure they have a menacing defense and probably the best defensive line in the league. But the Cowboys have confidence and a winning streak on their side.
Those are a few things you haven’t been able to say about Dallas over the last 13 seasons. After flushing their December woes and clipping a 13-year playoff drought, the ‘Boys are ready for more and would love nothing better than to march their way to the Super Bowl by knocking off the top two NFC seeds in the same season. They already snuck one in against the Saints and beating the Vikes on the road would have the world singing “How ‘Bout ‘Dem Cowboys?” Quarterback Tony Romo is playing extremely well and his defense is playing even better. The ‘Boys will need both to bring it this week if Dallas is to pull off the upset.
At one point in the season, I was ready to crown the Vikings as the best team in the league but losses against Chicago, Carolina and Arizona were not only concerning but embarrassing. The Vikings were blown out against the Panthers and Cards and trailed the Bears at one point 23-6 before mounting a comeback. Although Minnesota tripped up down the stretch, they’re still plenty talented. Their 44-7 dismantling of the New York Giants in the season finale was much needed to restore some confidence around Twin Lakes and a week of rest was certainly needed for old man Favre and his workhouse Peterson.
These might be the two most complete teams left in the postseason as both Minnesota and Dallas can beat you in a number of ways. Both are strong rushing teams and both can beat you with the aerial assault. If you’re looking for any edge breaker, it’s worth noting that Favre is 0-3 all-time against Dallas in the playoffs but then again, Romo didn’t win his first playoff game until four days ago. If there was a tossup game for the week, then this is definitely it. Both teams are eerily similar with the only advantage being the Vikings opening at home fresh from a week off. Similar feeling like the Colts/Ravens and I’ll take Favre at home, although I probably shouldn’t. Vikings 24-23
New York Jets (10-7) vs. San Diego Chargers (13-3) Sun, 4:40 p.m.
One of my Super Bowl favorites (Green Bay) is already at home this week so it’s nice to know that my other (San Diego) will be taking the field with the chance to help redeem me this weekend. The Chargers enter the post season as the hottest team in the league, winners of 11 straight. The Jets will enter this weekend with the best defense remaining in the postseason and the only team with a rookie signal caller (yikes).
Not trying to bad mouth Mark Sanchez but a rookie’s a rookie. But Sanchez hasn’t had to be the Sanchise (as he was called earlier in the year) lately. New York has ran for 630 yards in its last three games while holding teams to a laughable 9.6 points per game. Head coach Rex Ryan has become America’s most quotable coach and cover corner Darrelle Revis (you can’t talk Jets unless you talk Revis) has become America’s best cornerback. The trio of Revis, Ryan and Sanchez has made for an underrated but dangerous ball club that will punch you in the mouth if you’re not looking.
The Chargers have their eyes square on the prize after their last three trips to the postseason have left unsatisfying tastes in their mouths. San Diego should have learned a thing or two after being upstaged by the AFC’s last two Super Bowl representatives. The Chargers are finally healthy in the postseason (something that has eluded them in their last three playoff appearances) and fully expect more than another postseason exit this time around. San Diego will counter the Jets’ Revis with a smorgasbord of towering offensive treats and a quarterback in Philip Rivers who has etched himself into one of the league’s elite at the position.
With Sanchez at pilot, the Jets have no chance trying to outscore the high-flying Chargers. Their best bet would be to make Sunday’s game an all-out defensive slugfest but that’ll be hard to do against an offense that averaged 30 points an outing over the course of their 11 game win streak. It’s the ultimate David vs. Goliath matchup but David might be too small in this one. Revis is a fantastic corner but with the Chargers’ ability to spread the ball around and Rivers’ penchant for getting the ball to the best-suited target, New York will have trouble keeping up. Chargers 24-13
Sigh… 2-2 on the weekend but it’s OK. I kind of figured I would struggle with last two picks and I did. The Eagles/Giants and Chargers/Cowboys were tossups that a lot of so called “sports writers” got wrong this weekend. Pretty good weekend however. Hope you didn’t miss anything but in case you did:
Denver Broncos vs. Indianapolis Colts
What I predicted …
What I said would happen …
“Manning struggles with pressure 3-4 defenses such as the one Denver plays. If the Broncos can bring the heat on Manning, they’ll give themselves a fighting chance on the road and their defensive pressure has been relentless in their last two games. This game could very well turn out to be a low scoring affair with both defenses playing pretty well right now. Typically in a game when you have two stout defenses, the tossup is determined by the quarterbacks and in a comparison between Manning and Orton, Manning wins every time.”
What actually happened …
The Colts won 28-16. Indianapolis not only set a regular season record with 22-straight wins but they also locked up home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. Manning threw four touchdown strikes, three to tightend Dallas Clark. Indianapolis jumped out to a 21-0 lead but the Broncos battled back behind Orton and receiver Brandon Marshall, who caught a NFL record 21 catches for 200 yards and two touchdowns.
My reactions …
Well, the Colts’ regular season is officially done in so many words. With the AFC locked up, the only thing Indianapolis has to play for is an undefeated recorded and they’ve made it clear that a flawless record is not their M.O. Manning’s MVP status could take a dent if Manning takes it easy the next couple of games but the Colts (13-0) know what the real goal is at this point. Super Bowl or nothing.
Denver (8-5) fell two games behind the San Diego Chargers with their loss and appear to be out the running for the AFC West crown. The best the Chargers could probably hope for now is a wild-card slot and with six other AFC teams over .500, it’s going to be a battle to make the postseason. With remaining games against the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs, the Broncos have a chance to add on some extra wins and up their divisional record, two things that will come in handy as the season nears a close.
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Minnesota Vikings
What I predicted …
What I said would happen …
“The Bengals don’t usually start as fast as the Vikings do so it will be important for Cincy to handle the Vikes’ early wave. Cincinnati has been methodical in its take downs of big name opponents this year and will probably have to pull off a similar trick if it plans to earn the upset. One thing that gets lost in the Bengals nine wins this year is that they haven’t exactly played their best ball in their last three games. The offense hasn’t scored over 18 points since week seven and speaking of the Bengals last three games: the Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions. If the Bengals can’t score points against those teams, I don’t see how they’ll score enough points to topple Minnesota on the road.”
What actually happened …
The Vikings won 30-10. Minnesota’s defense dominated the Bengals offense, holding the AFC North leaders to 91 passing yards and 210 total yards. The Vikings’ Adrian Peterson rushed for two touchdowns and added 137 total yards. Favre wasn’t as dynamic, passing for only 192 yards on 17-of-30 passing for a 73.2 passer rating. Minnesota’s top corner Antoine Winfield, totaled nine tackles in his first home game in over two months.
My reactions …
Minnesota (11-2) put another stamp on their bid for the second seed in the NFC with Sunday’s beat down of the Bengals. Favre appears to be slowing down as the season wears on but Peterson showed with a strong performance against a pretty formidable defense that he can carry the load if needed. While Favre has been the story of the Vikings’ impressive season, it will be important for Minnesota to remember who their real star is in the upcoming weeks.
After a strong start to the season, Cincinnati appears to be fading down the stretch. Their commitment to the run game appears to have caused them to forget how to pass effectively. 94 passing yards on 15-of-25 attempts from Carson Palmer won’t get it done in the postseason and it’s baffling how far the Bengals’ aerial game has fallen from just a few seasons ago. The defense is still pretty solid but they’re going to need more explosive plays from the passing game. Without longtime wideouts T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry, Palmer and Chad Ochocinco could be in over their heads. Stay tuned…
San Diego Chargers vs. Dallas Cowboys
What I predicted …
What I said would happen …
“You could draw straws on this game as both offenses and defenses are very similar. The difference is that Dallas is at home and needs this game way more than San Diego does. I could see the Cowboys playing tight and the Chargers’ carefree vertical game dropping bombs all over Cowboys stadium but I think Dallas is a mature enough group to recognize what’s at stake and hold serve at home.”
What actually happed …
The Chargers won 20-17. San Diego played a carefree game as the Cowboys crumpled under pressure with missed field goals and failed goal line opportunities. Dallas came out trying to establish the run after Romo passed for a career-high 55 times against the New York Giants the week before. Trying to establish the run led to four consecutive runs by running back Marion Barber at the Chargers’ one-yard line in the first half. Each run was stuffed before maligned kicker Nick Folk missed a 42-yard field on the next drive, wiping out a possible 10 points in a close loss.
My reactions …
San Diego (10-3) won their 16th consecutive December game and can put a stranglehold over the AFC’s second spot with a home win over Cincinnati next weekend. The defense is playing extremely well and this could finally be the year San Diego pushes through to the Super Bowl. Next week’s game with the Bengals will be huge and a possible week off in the playoffs would be excellent for some of San Diego’s aging stars. Stay tuned…
I was kind of skeptical at first but maybe Dallas (8-5) can’t win in December after all. This loss against the Chargers could be bigger than anyone realizes (especially considering the ‘Boys loss all-everything pass rusher DeMarcus Ware to a neck injury). Next week’s game against the Saints won’t be a cake walk by any means considering New Orleans is still in the hunt for home field advantage and appear to be set on gunning for the undefeated mark. Knowing Dallas left a possible 6-10 points off the board has to be sickening but they’ll need all the points they can get if they want to upset New Orleans next week. Stay tuned…
Philadelphia Eagles vs. New York Giants
What I predicted …
What I said would happen …
“The Giants showed a lot of heart last week after being down 10-0 to the Cowboys. A mini tussle between Giants pass rusher Justin Tuck andDallas offensive tackle Flozell Adams sparked the fight in New York and put the toughness back into their team. When it comes to toughness, there isn’t a more physical team in the NFC East besides New York and that should go a long way as the G-Men make their bid to reclaim the NFC East.”
What actually happened …
The Eagles won 45-38. Philadelphia jumped to a 14-3 lead before holding off a late Giants charge. Sophomore wideout DeSean Jackson terrorized New York’s secondary and special teams, accounting for 178 receiving yards, 83 punt return yards and two touchdowns in both areas. His 74-yard punt return broke the first half open with the Eagles leading 24-10. After New York took their first lead 31-30 in the third quarter, Jackson scored on the very next play of the Eagles’ following drive on a 60-yard reception.
My reactions …
The Eagles (9-4) took a huge step towards locking up the NFC East with Sunday night’s win. After sweeping the Giants and the Washington Redskins, a season finale on the road at Dallas could decide the division or even a possible first-round bye. With the Cowboys and Giants both trailing, Philadelphia will have two games against San Francisco 49ers and the Denver Broncos with a chance to pad their win total.
Even though New York (7-6) remains in the playoff hunt, even if they get to the playoffs, the odds would be against them. Teams have averaged over 32 points against the Giants defense in the last two months and considering the teams that New York would possibly see in the postseason i.e. New Orleans, Minnesota, Arizona, Green Bay, Dallas or Philadelphia, the Giants could be one-and-done before the end of the first half in any playoff game. New York can still turn things around but judging off their play of the last few months, it’s not likely. Stay tuned…
It’s kind of hard to be dissatisfied when you’re sitting at a 25-15 prediction record but hey, what can I say? I’m striving for excellence over here. I’ll get a chance to up my prediction record this week with some pretty serious matchups. Lucky for me I don’t have to worry about any serious injuries this week which should only lead to a clear head and forecast. Five-star matchups everywhere on this list of contenders and the games should live up to their billing. The first two you’ll read were pretty clear for me but as usual, things got a little murky after that. Should be a great weekend nevertheless, enjoy:
Denver Broncos (8-4) vs. Indianapolis Colts (12-0) 1 p.m.
The Colts have to lose at some point right? Right? Well … who knows? The Broncos know the feeling of being undefeated after a 6-0 start earlier in the season had folks mentioning home field advantage and Denver in the same sentence. Denver has rebounded nicely from a four-game losing slide of a few weeks ago and appears to be making a final run for their bid to win the AFC West Division. Standing in their way on Sunday, just the Colts, winners of their last 21-straight regular season games.
No matter what you do to Indianapolis; hold them below 20, carve up their secondary, run the ball all over them, the Colts just don’t lose. Peyton Manning is the best quarterback in the league and his defense is tied for second in the least amount of points given up per game. The Colts aren’t as loaded as years past, but obviously, they’re still a top team and they have more than enough weapons to duke it out with Denver on Sunday.
Ironically, the team Indy is tied with in points allowed is none other than the Broncos and their defense has done a good job of corralling some of the league’s more explosive offenses this season. Denver prefers to play ball control and methodically work itself down the field while their defense comes up with stop after stop but playing against Manning could require Denver to take more shots down the field than usual. With Brandon Marshall lining up out wide for the Broncos, going deep shouldn’t be too much of a problem but incumbent QB Kyle Orton isn’t exactly the QB that’s going to beat you deep.
But Manning is. Luckily for the Broncos, Manning struggles with pressure 3-4 defenses such as the one Denver plays. If the Broncos can bring the heat on Manning, they’ll give themselves a fighting chance on the road and their defensive pressure has been relentless in their last two games. This game could very well turn out to be a low scoring affair with both defenses playing pretty well right now. Typically in a game when you have two stout defenses, the tossup is determined by the quarterbacks and in a comparison between Manning and Orton, Manning wins every time. Colts 21-13
Cincinnati Bengals (9-3) vs. Minnesota Vikings (10-2) 1 p.m.
Bengals wideout Chad Ocho Cinco was fined $30,000 last week for donning a sombrero and poncho after he scored on a 36-yard pass reception against the Detroit Lions. Ocho Cinco has already promised to blow on the Vikings fight horn if he scores again on Sunday and against a defense that ranks 21st against the pass, Chad could be ready to open his wallet yet again.
Cincinnati has remained committed to the run for much of this year and one of the biggest reasons that the Vikes are ranked so low against the pass is because they rank third against the run, giving up only 84.2 yards a weekend. The Bengals will find it tough sledding on the road against Minnesota where the men in purple usually play outstanding defense. Cincinnati’s best chance to win will rest solely on the arm of Carson Palmer and his ability to pick apart a suspect Viking secondary.
Maybe I shouldn’t say solely. Palmer will be backed by his own stingy defense, a unit that is only giving up 81.8 yards on the ground, a number that should come in handy when the Bengals square off against Adrian Peterson on Sunday. Peterson is having another solid season and while Cincy’s initial goal will be to slow him, Peterson’s running mate, Brett Favre, has been the real story for the Vikings this year. Favre is having one of his best seasons ever and ironically, the Vikings’ best chance may rest solely on his arm and his own clamp down defense.
Both running backs could be nullified by opposing defenses and we may get to see a Farve/Palmer shootout. The Bengals don’t usually start as fast as the Vikings do so it will be important for Cincy to handle the Vikes’ early wave. Cincinnati has been methodical in its take downs of big name opponents this year and will probably have to pull off a similar trick if it plans to earn the upset. One thing that gets lost in the Bengals nine wins this year is that they haven’t exactly played their best ball in their last three games. The offense hasn’t scored over 18 points since week seven and speaking of the Bengals last three games: the Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions. If the Bengals can’t score points against those teams, I don’t see how they’ll score enough points to topple Minnesota on the road. Vikings 28-16
San Diego Chargers (9-3) vs. Dallas Cowboys (8-4) 4:15 p.m.
If you had to pick one game to watch all weekend, this would probably be it. Phillip Rivers against Tony Romo. DeMarcus Ware and Shawn Merriman. Surprise receivers Miles Austin and Vincent Jackson. This game will have it all. The backdrops are everywhere in this one. Current Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips was San Diego’s former defensive coordinator and helped make Merriman into a star before coming to Dallas. Merriman, who outperformed Ware in his first three years as a rush linebacker (thanks to Phillips), was drafted one spot behind Ware in the ’05 draft. Even current ‘Boys defensive end Igor Olshansky is a former Charger but enough about the story plot.
With their divisional brothers chomping at their heels, this is a game that neither club can afford to lose. A Cowboy loss will result in a fall from atop the NFC East and a Charger loss would erase the half game lead they have over the Broncos should Denver win against the Colts. San Diego is on a seven-game win streak and is beginning to look like a serious Super Bowl contender. The defense is playing light years ahead of the dismal displays they were putting on in the early part of the season and Rivers has catapulted himself into the second best quarterback in the AFC.
It’s a known fact that the Cowboys struggle in December but with an upcoming showdown with the New Orleans Saints creeping, Dallas should be looking at this game as a must win. Dallas was scheduled to be a dominant running team prior to the start of the season but it’s clear the ‘Boys have resorted back to their aerial assaulting ways. Ironically, San Diego thrives against the pass and with solid cover corners Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer roaming deep, the Cowboys would be best served to attack on the ground.
But the Cowboys haven’t shown a commitment to attack on the ground and after seeing Romo air it out a career-high 55 times last week against the Giants, they probably won’t recommit this week either. Dallas’ defense is going to have to get some severe pressure against San Diego because Rivers loves to loft it out for his shooting guard-sized receivers to make plays on the ball. Dallas’ secondary isn’t too shabby but compared to the Chargers wideouts, it could be easy picking for San Diego’s group.
You could draw straws on this game as both offenses and defenses are very similar. The difference is that Dallas is at home and needs this game way more than San Diego does. I could see the Cowboys playing tight and the Chargers’ carefree vertical game dropping bombs all over Cowboys stadium but I think Dallas is a mature enough group to recognize what’s at stake and hold serve at home. Cowboys 27-24
Philadelphia Eagles (8-4) vs. New York Giants (7-5) 8:20 p.m.
40-17. That was the score the last time the Eagles met up with the Giants. Think the G-Men forgot about that? Think again. Remarkably, New York is at a good spot this late in the season after dropping four-straight games. After sweeping the Cowboys last week, the Giants have the chance to take back the division with a win against the Eagles and that aspect coupled with their last meeting should be enough motivation to have the Giants fired up on Sunday night.
But the Eagles won’t flinch in the face of a bully. This same Philadelphia team went on the road in last year’s playoffs and dropped the top ranked Giants in front of their home fans in a 23-11 Eagles win. Philadelphia has won three straight and will welcome back explosive wideout DeSean Jackson after the sophomore missed last week’s game with a concussion. New York’s weakness has been their pass defense all season and Philly QB Donovan McNabb and head coach Andy Reid just love to air it out.
New York’s forgotten pass rush will have to be on their P’s and Q’s for this one. The Giants secondary is obviously struggling right now and after allowing 392 yards and three scores to Tony Romo last week, New York can ill-afford to let McNabb sit back and wing it on them. Given time, McNabb will dismantle any secondary and for a depleted one such as New York’s, the Eagles could have a field day.
Ball control will be critical for the Giants, who received some big plays from burly runner Brandon Jacobs last week. New York isn’t the same pounding team they used to be and their reluctance to grind it out could spell trouble for the G-Men. Signal caller Eli Manning has emerged into a dangerous QB but he doesn’t have the weapons or confidence to match McNabb throw for throw. Against the Eagles’ ball-hawks and due to his own inconsistent defense, Manning could be put into a position to try to accomplish more than he’s built for.
Even with that being said, the Giants showed a lot of heart last week after being down 10-0 to the Cowboys. A mini tussle between Giants pass rusher Justin Tuck andDallas offensive tackle Flozell Adams sparked the fight in New York and put the toughness back into their team. When it comes to toughness, there isn’t a more physical team in the NFC East besides New York and that should go a long way as the G-Men make their bid to reclaim the NFC East. Giants 24-20
A 3-1 record over the weekend puts me at an impressive 25-15, good for exactly 10 games over .500 (like I predicted last week). I need to stop shooting myself in the foot and predicting games before the official injury reports are released. If I would’ve known Kurt Warner’s health status before he shredded the Vikings, I would’ve definitely picked Arizona. Nevertheless, I’ll take 3-1 and from now, I’ll start giving myself a cushion should any serious health concerns arise by predicting a score favoring an injury report and one not favoring a report. Great weekend in football though. As the playoffs loom, games get more and more important. In case you missed anything:
Tennessee Titans vs. Indianapolis Colts
What I predicted …
What I said would happen …
“If Indy can slow Johnson and force Young to beat them they should be in good shape. Although Tennessee’s defense has been playing well, Manning is playing on another planet right now. The Colts are on a title mission and when it comes to the regular season, Indy could care less about going undefeated but the job of securing home field advantage isn’t done yet and a win against the Titans will put them one step closer.
What actually happened …
The Colts won 27-17. Indianapolis kept their regular season winning streak alive and tied the mark for most consecutive wins at 21. The Colts kept the electric Chris Johnson in check from breaking any long runs and held Vince Young to a 77.8 passer rating. Indianapolis led 24-10 at the top of the fourth and was never really threatened by the Titans. Colts running back Joseph Addai hasn’t had an outstanding season in terms of yardage but the third-year runner added two touchdowns against Tennessee that pushed his total up to 12 for the year.
My reactions …
What else can you say about the Colts? At 12-0, it would take a major collapse to keep them from securing home field advantage throughout the playoffs and with Peyton Manning taking the snaps, well, that’s probably not going to happen. The defense doesn’t get a lot of recognition (and probably never will as long as 18 is behind the center) but they’re tied for second in the league in points given up at 16.8 per game. Pretty good combination when you have a walking Hall of Famer at the quarterback position and your defense is among the stingiest in the league at not giving up points. Let’s see how far it takes them. Stay tuned…
Well … Sunday’s loss probably ends all chances for the Titans to make this year’s playoffs. A 5-7 record would require the Titans to win out and some other teams to lose a few games which neither scenario is highly likely. Tennessee will undoubtedly benefit from an early draft pick and should return to prominence next season considering they’ve showed with a midseason five-game winning streak that they can play with any team. Johnson has played his way into the discussion for best running back in the league and Young’s play of late has bought him some extra time in a Titan uniform and with some likely mid-round draft picks, Tennessee will probably return to playoff form next season.
Dallas Cowboys vs. New York Giants
What I predicted …
What I said would happen …
“The Giants have beaten the ‘Boys in three out of their last four meetings and have done so in confidence crippling fashion. In Dallas in ’07’s playoffs, a 35-14 humiliation in New York in ’08 and a 33-31 triumph early in the year to christen Dallas’ new all-everything stadium. If you went off stats and who’s playing better than Dallas would be the obvious pick but with their backs against the wall, a must win game and in front of their home crowd, if New York doesn’t win this game, it’ll be more of a testament to how bad the Giants have gotten instead of how good the Cowboys are and I don’t think the Giants are as bad as the last few weeks have shown.”
What actually happened …
The Giants won 31-24. New York bounced back in a big way, trumping the division-leading Cowboys and fighting their way back into playoff contention. After getting ran on in their first meeting for 251 yards and allowing a whopping 8.7 yards per carry, the Giants held the Cowboys to a measly 45 yards on the ground, allowing a dismal two yards per carry. The Giants blew the game open after Domenik Hixon’s 79-yard punt return upped the score 31-17 with 5:33 left in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys actually had a chance to get right back into the game on the following possession but Dallas QB Tony Romo overthrew receiver Roy Williams on a for-sure touchdown and Dallas turned the ball over on downs two plays later.
My reactions …
Good game by the Giants (7-5). Their sweep of the Cowboys (8-4) gives them the ultimate trump card should things come down to a tie breaker later in the month. The Giants will get the Philadelphia Eagles at home next week for a chance to further help their playoff cause with a win. The Eagles trounced the G-Men 40-17 in their earlier meeting this season but things shouldn’t be so lopsided this time around. Giants QB Eli Manning looked recovered from his foot injury and running back Brandon Jacobs looked as fresh as he has in weeks. New York really pumped the life back into its season and Sunday’s date with the Eagles could have the G-Men sitting back atop the division if things fall correctly. Stay tuned…
It’s December for the ‘Boys and that usually spells trouble. Usually. Even with their disappointing loss to the Giants, Dallas should have some renewed faith considering how well Romo has been playing in recent weeks. Romo threw for 392 yards and three touchdowns against New York, his highest totals ever in the month of December in both categories. Romo’s play alone has been troubling in the later stages of previous seasons but he seems to have matured into a very reliable quarterback for the ‘Boys this year. If Romo can continue his heady play, Dallas may be able to break their December curse and make a strong push for a top seed as the postseason nears but it won’t be easy. Dallas’ next two opponents are a combined 21-3. Stay tuned…
Minnesota Vikings vs. Arizona Cardinals
What I predicted …
What I said would happen …
“If it’s one way to attack Minnesota, it’s through the air. The Vikes are 19th against the pass but will get a boost in their coverage if top corner Antoine Winfield is able to play this weekend after missing the last five games with a foot injury. Coming back against Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin isn’t exactly a welcomed return but the Vikes are definitely better with Winfield than without. Warner could be a little trigger shy in his first game back from a concussion and playing against the Vikings stout dline could tamper the Cards’ offense. I would feel better about Arizona’s chances if Warner was healthy, but he’s not, so I don’t.”
What actually happened …
The Cardinals won 30-17. Warner was healthy and shredded the Vikings secondary for 285 yards and three touchdowns. In a battle of future Hall of Famers, Warner outdueled Minnesota’s Brett Favre, who finished the night with a 79.4 passer rating. The Cardinals defense really shined against the high-scoring Vikings, limiting Minnesota to 10 points for the majority of the game until a late touchdown strike by Favre with 1:20 remaining in the game upped the Vikings’ point total. Arizona’s defense kept Adrian Peterson in check, allowing the proverbial “best back in the league” to only 19 yards on 13 carries.
My reactions …
Minor setback for the Vikings (10-2) but sometimes, games like these help a contender’s chances later down the road. Sunday’s loss will probably knock Minnesota out of the hunt for home field advantage as the New Orleans Saints continue their undefeated march. Unless something major happens in terms of injury for the Saints, the Vikings should start focusing on locking up the second seed and resting their stars while New Orleans deals with the pressure of going undefeated. Minnesota still has a very strong team and if it means anything for the Vikes, neither of the NFC’s last two top ranked teams made it out the second round of the postseason.
It’s hard to believe that Arizona (8-4) doesn’t get a lot of recognition as one of the league’s better teams, even after last year’s Super Bowl appearance. What’s scary is that with Warner healthy, the Cards are an even better team than last year’s squad. They run the ball better. They play better defense. They have a 5-1 road record (5-0 with Warner starting). The aerial attack might be the best in the league and they just held Adrian Peterson to 19 yards. The Cards are going to win the NFC West with ease and they’ll probably annihilate whoever their visiting first round opponent is. A lot of talk gets thrown around about the Saints, Vikings, Giants and Cowboys but with Sunday’s demolition of Minnesota, the Cards might be the second best team in the NFC.
It’s a shame the Cards were forced to play without Warner against the Titans because they probably would’ve won the game had he been available. A win against the Titans would’ve put Arizona in a serious race for the second seed in the NFC and hope is not lost but regardless of wherever the Cards finish, no team is going to be raising their hands to play them in the postseason.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Green Bay Packers
What I predicted …
What I said would happen …
“The Packers D has been flying around all season and even with the losses of Aaron Kampman and Al Harris, the unit has enough talent to continue to play at a high level. It’s hard to go wrong when you have the league’s best defense and Aaron Rodgers as your quarterback. The Ravens defense may limit Rodgers and the Packers offense but Green Bay still scores enough points in an off game that opposing squads have to come with a 23-plus effort and the Packers defense won’t allow that at Lambeau Field.”
What actually happened …
The Packers won 27-14. Rodgers and Co. picked apart the Ravens depleted secondary, drawing several pass interference penalties and totaling 263 passing yards and three touchdowns. Green Bay’s defense was even more impressive, holding the Ravens to 185 total yards. Ray Rice, Baltimore’s sophomore sensation at running back, was held to 71 total yards, 54 rushing. The Packers intercepted Baltimore QB Joe Flacco three times, once in the end zone. Trailing 24-14 in the fourth, Baltimore had first-and-goal at the Packers’ one-yard line but cornerback Charles Woodson dropped the Ravens’ Willis McGahee for a two-yard loss on first down and Flacco’s pass across mid-end zone on the following play was picked off by Tramon Williams that gave the Packers the defensive stand of the game.
My reactions …
Green Bay (8-4) didn’t play one of their better offensive games but that was expected against a strong Baltimore defense. There’s little hope for the Packers to win the NFC North but their wildcard chances are alive and well. Wins over the Cowboys give Green Bay a valuable trump card should they tie with Dallas down the stretch. But their remaining schedule is stuffed with tough matchups and it will take some work (and maybe luck) for the Packers to make it in. Stay tuned…
Even with the loss, Baltimore (6-6) remains alive in their playoff hunt. As of this week, the Ravens don’t play a single team over .500 the rest of the year and it’s not out of the question for the Ravens to win out. Another date with Pittsburgh looms in a few weeks but the Steelers have lost four-straight games and clearly aren’t the same team they were last year. The Ravens will need some help to make the playoffs but they have to win first and Sunday’s date with the Detroit Lions should be the perfect opportunity to get back on track. Stay tuned…
OK I have to admit something: my math was a little bit off when I falsely claimed I had a 10-7 prediction record. After further review my record stands at 10-5, qualifying me as a bad mathematician but a respectable NFL predictor. If you need proof, check for yourself. I’ve been predicting for the last three…er four weeks and I’ve cumulated records of 3-1, 3-1, 4-0 and 0-3. Add ’em up and you get 10-5.
So yes, I am a genius but I’m approaching dangerous waters this week though. Four five-star matchups on the table and I’m only certain about one of them. The rest are toss ups but for a genius like me, I’m sure I’ll come away with another flawless record. And even if I don’t, I’ll just lie to you all and say I got them all right since none of you checked me on my bad math before. Read and enjoy:
Denver Broncos (6-0) vs. Baltimore Ravens (3-3)
I really need to stop picking against the Broncos. I’ve picked against Denver the last three times they’ve been on this board and I’m 0-3 in doing so. They’re fresh off a bye and have their minds set on home field advantage in the playoffs. The Ravens have lost three straight and are falling further behind the curve as the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals continue to win.
Although Baltimore QB Joe Flacco has played well throughout the year, the Ravens desperately need to get back to the running game and reestablish their identity. It’s not that Flacco can’t lead the team but their secondary has been allowing opponents to abuse them for the last several weeks. Keeping opponents off the field is probably Baltimore’s best defense nowadays. The days of the Ravens being comfortable to send out a ferocious defensive unit is over and time of possession will now be the deciding factor if Baltimore wants to go far this year.
The Broncos showed two weeks ago that they’re capable of beating a team through all three phases: offense, defense or special teams. Return man Eddie Royal killed the San Diego Chargers with two big return touchdowns that solidified a crucial division win on Monday night. If Royal can provide his team with good field position on Sunday, it would go a long way in the Broncos winning. Everything is flowing for Denver right now. The defense is stout and the offense might not be New Orleansesque, but they don’t make mistakes.
Baltimore starting left tackle Jared Gaither announced through his Twitter page that he would be playing this week and that would be a definite boost to the Ravens. Broncos’ outside linebacker Elvis Dumerville leads the NFL in sacks and held his unofficial coming out party against the Chargers in prime time television. Rookie offensive tackle Michael Oher could probably handle Dumerville on his own but the Broncos move him around so much, he could line up on either side on any given play. Gaither’s return would give Baltimore two solid pass protectors on both sides to counter Dumerville’s movements.
The Broncos front seven demolished the likes of the Cowboys, Patriots and Chargers’ offensive lines but they haven’t faced a protection unit as stout as the one they’ll see when they face the Ravens. Baltimore’s defense is no longer elite but given two weeks to scheme around what isn’t working, they should be up for the challenge against a non-imposing offense in Denver’s. The Broncos have had two weeks to prepare also which makes this game a toss up. A fourth straight loss would be devastating for the Ravens while a loss for Denver would still equal first place in the AFC West. Expect Baltimore to play their best game of the season. Ravens 24-21.
NY Giants (5-2) vs. Philadelphia Eagles (4-2)
Reality set in for the Giants over the last couple of weeks as they were beaten by some pretty solid clubs, ruining a 5-0 start. New York recognizes a loss to the Eagles would not only propel Philly into the driver seat of the NFC East but also mark their third straight defeat. After a brain lapse against the Oakland Raiders a couple of weeks ago, Philadelphia bounced back with their destruction of a reeling Washington Redskin team but paid the price for it.
Starting running back Brian Westbrook left the game and didn’t return after sustaining a concussion in the first half. It’s not known whether Westbrook will play against the Giants but after laying motionless on the ground against the Redskins for a few minutes, it’s probably wise the Eagles keep him out of this contest. Philadelphia will have to rely on a few backups along their offensive line and rookie runner LeSean McCoy if they want to get past an upset Giants team on Sunday. The Eagles knocked New York out of the playoffs last season with a stunning victory in the Giants’ own backyard. New York has had to wait all summer to play the Eagles again and could be catching Philly at the right time.
Philadelphia is really banged up. Even though they beat Washington 27-17, their offensive front was taken to school all night by the Redskins front seven. The Giants may not have a defensive lineman as dominant as the Skins’ Albert Haynesworth, but their defensive front is definitely deeper and more imposing than Washington’s. The Giants defense could probably win this game singlehandedly as long as Eli Manning doesn’t turn the ball over and keeps the offense flowing. Philadelphia gets the game at home which will give them a boost but after watching their offensive line get destroyed by the Raiders and Redskins, it’s hard to pick them against what they’ll see against New York. Giants 26-17
Minnesota Vikings (6-1) vs. Green Bay Packers (4-2)
Game of the week right here. The Packers have bounced back nicely with two straight wins after dropping an emotional contest to Minnesota just a few weeks ago. Green Bay has outscored opponents 57-3 in the last two weeks and will be ready to extend that margin against the Vikings. Minnesota will have one eye on their bye week when they visit Green Bay on Sunday but they’ll have to be extremely careful. Lambeau Field will be insane as former Packer legend Brett Favre returns for the first time and the Pack will be playing with heavy hearts.
Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers threw for 384 yards the last time he saw the Vikings secondary and that was with Minnesota standout corner Antoine Winfield in the lineup. Wearing his home jersey with the Green Bay fans fully behind him, Rodgers could go off Sunday against the Vikings and expose their depleted secondary. But then again he might not.
Minnesota played pretty well against last week’s NFL passing yards leader in Ben Roethlisberger, limiting him to 175 yards. But Roethlisberger doesn’t let it fly down the field consistently like Rodgers does and the Vikes’ secondary will have to be on their P’s and Q’s without Winfield. I couldn’t go another line without mentioning Minnesota’s explosive offense and it is just that.
Although they only accounted for 10 points last week against the Steelers, the Vikings offensive unit remains a problem. You can be sure the Vikings will put up more than two scores this week against a Packer defense that has feasted on some of the more ineffective units in the league the past couple of games. Third-year wideout Sidney Rice is a bonafide playmaker and couple him with Adrian Peterson and Favre pulling the trigger and you have a dangerous combination.
Sunday’s game could be a shootout and believe that Rodgers or Favre would love nothing better than to go toe-to-toe with one another. Green Bay’s offensive line was terrorized by the Vikes’ front seven the last time the two teams met, sacking Rodgers eight times. Green Bay’s left tackle Chad Clifton could return after sitting out the past few games but his status remains unclear. Regardless if he returns or not, Green Bay should have a better system in place to protect Rodgers after the disaster against Minnesota a few weeks ago. If the Packers can keep Rodgers upright, Minnesota will be in trouble. Packers 28-24
Atlanta Falcons (4-2) vs. New Orleans Saints (5-0)
After a thriller last week against the Miami Dolphins, New Orleans will return to what should be an ecstatic Superdome for a Monday night game against a divisional opponent. The Saints came back from a 24-3 deficit on the road to beat the Dolphins 46-34. What was even more impressive about the Saints comeback is that they probably played their worse game of the season and still scored 46 points on the road.
New Orleans can’t be stopped right now and the Falcons will be fresh off a loss and 311 yards put up against them by Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys. The Falcons allowed little known receiver Miles Austin to explode for 171 yards and two touchdowns so Marques Colston and Drew Brees have to be licking their chops just thinking about this game.
Atlanta can score with the best of teams but their secondary is their biggest Achilles heel. For a team as talented through the air as the Saints are, that could spell disaster for the Falcons and their chances to pull off the upset. The Saints defense got blitzed last week when the Dolphins showed them just how effective the Wildcat offense could be but they tightened up in the second half and limited Miami to only 10 points. If Atlanta wants to win this game, they’ll have to put the ball into running back Michael Turner’s hands and keep the Saints off the field. Anything less than 25 carries from Turner and Falcons’ defense will get exposed for a second straight week. Saints 40-24
Big Games, big games and more big games. If you were looking for the ultimate do-all-your-work-on-Saturday-so-you-won’t-be-bothered-on-Sunday-weekend then here it is. The NFL will have several five-star matchups on tap for the weekend that should even have teams on their bye week kicking back to catch. Last weekend I went O-for-three in my pickings but I plan to bounce back in a big way this week though. You’re only as smart as the last weekend that you picked so here’s my shot at intellectual redemption.
Baltimore Ravens (3-2) vs. Minnesota Vikings (5-0)
Talk about your heavyweight matchup. The Ravens will stroll to town, losers of two-straight, to try to get back on track against the undefeated Vikings. Not the ideal place or team to try to break your losing streak against, but if you’re going to reclaim some respect, you might as well knock out one of the biggest teams out there. The Vikings can’t be stopped right now and they’ve handled their last couple of opponents with relative ease.
The Ravens have cooled a bit since their blazing hot 3-0 start and need to get back to Raven football and start running the ball. Backup running back Willis McGahee is the team’s leading scorer but only received one carry in last week’s loss to Cincinnati. It’s good that Baltimore believes strongly in sophomore hero Joe Flacco but let’s not get carried away here. A balanced attack is what made Baltimore so mean-looking in the opening weeks and with 78 passing attempts in the last two weeks for the Ravens, maybe it’s time to rediscover that balance.
Viking defensive end Jared Allen is the scariest pass rusher in the league right now and Baltimore will probably be without left tackle Jared Gaither for a second straight game. Gaither was still having trouble turning his head when he was evaluated in Wednesday’s practice and starting him in the Metrodome against Allen could have disastrous results. Expect for rookie tackle Michael Oher to continue to man Gaither’s spot until he returns and if the rookie doesn’t get help on Allen, it could be a long day for Flacco. Baltimore is one of the better teams at protecting their quarterback so expect head coach John Harbaugh to make keeping Flacco upright a priority.
The Ravens aren’t the same hardnosed stout defense that they used to be and teams have been having success against them through the air. Ironically, Minnesota is slowly shifting the focus from a strong running team to a very balanced attack that can beat you through land or air. Brett Favre has looked young again in the last three wins for Minnesota and expect for Baltimore to force Favre to beat them.
Baltimore gave up 120 yards to Cedric Benson last week and will have to maintain their gap control when they face Adrian Peterson on Sunday. Baltimore really needs to get back to running the ball but Minnesota is one of the best run defenses in the league. Flacco has struggled in consecutive weeks and there might be too many things going against the Ravens for them to pull off the upset this week. On the road, no starting left tackle and playing one of the stronger teams in football could be too much for a young QB to handle. Vikings 30-20
New York Giants (5-0) vs. New Orleans Saints (4-0)
The Giants are coming off a beat down that they dealt to the Oakland Raiders. The injured Eli Manning didn’t have to play in the second half but he’ll definitely have to play in this one. The Saints will be fresh off their bye and ready to roll and viewers can expect to see the Superdome to be at its loudest that’s it been all season. The Saints are restoring the pride in New Orleans and the city is rallying around their team and showing major support.
And why wouldn’t they? Quarterback Drew Brees is one of the top signal callers in the game. The offense is the best unit in the league and the defense has been stingy and fierce. Pierre Thomas, New Orleans’ top running back, is back in the lineup and things couldn’t be better right now. New York will come to the Big Easy on Sunday with Manning hobbling and may be forced to lean on the ground game to ensure Manning doesn’t try to do too much. The Giants haven’t exactly played top competition this season with their marquee win coming against Dallas on a Sunday night in which quarterback Tony Romo turned the ball over left and right.
New Orleans has gone on the road and blasted a Donovan McNabless Philly team and scored two defensive touchdowns against the at-the-time undefeated New York Jets in a 24-10 win. The Saints are clicking right now and may come out even fresher from their bye. New York usually doesn’t flinch in the eye of big-time matchups like these but the health of Manning is a serious concern.
The Raiders were no threat to Manning and the Giants cruised. The Saints have been harassing passers all year and have had two weeks to scheme for what will undoubtedly be the biggest game of the year so far. If Manning was healthy, the Giants would be a logical and safe pick but Manning’s status could be an issue. Saints 28-25
Chicago Bears (3-1) vs. Atlanta Falcons (3-1)
The Bears have won three straight and the Falcons just smacked the 3-1 Niners in their home 45-10. Both squads have upper echelon QBs in Chicago’s Jay Cutler and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan. Both teams have top shelf running back between the Bears’ Matt Forte and the Falcons’ Michael Turner. With the game being held at the Georgia Dome, there won’t be any weather restraints to hold either quarterback from letting it fly.
We were treated to a wash out in last week’s Sunday night game between an undefeated team and a winless squad but this Sunday’s night game should be the best all season. Last year’s Bear/Falcon game was a classic that saw two field goals kicked in the span of 11 seconds in the fourth quarter in a game which the Falcons won 22-20. Cutler’s team last year, the Denver Broncos, faced off with Ryan last season in a matchup at the Georgia Dome in another highly competitive game that saw Cutler one up Ryan in a 24-20 contest. With Cutler at the controls for Chicago this season, this might be the most entertaining game of the weekend.
The Falcons dropped 45 in their last contest and the Bears put up 48 the last time they took the field. It could be a high scoring game and with both teams relatively healthy and serious implications on the line, the game should come down to the wire. Both the Falcons and Bears are in second place and behind undefeated teams in their respected divisions. Chicago’s behind the 5-0 Vikings and the Falcons are runner up to the 4-0 Saints. Both Minnesota and New Orleans will host some serious competition this Sunday and should either lose, the winner of Sunday night’s contest could be right back in the division driver seat.
Cutler won’t be fazed by the raucous Atlanta crowd and his poise will definitely inject the fight into his Chicago teammates. Atlanta is ranked 24th in run defense so Forte should be able to run late in the game against the Falcons if the game is still close, but that’s a big if. I have no doubt the final score should be close but that doesn’t mean Atlanta won’t jump out to a big lead. They certainly have the offensive talent and the crowd will be fired up to see their first home game in over three weeks. The Falcons offense will definitely feed off the crowd’s energy so expect Atlanta to run sharper routes, hold longer blocks and run faster than they have in close to a month. If Chicago can hold off the wave that they will undoubtedly encounter then they should be fine. If they flinch just the slightest bit then the Falcons will cruise to the finish. Falcons 34-24
Denver Broncos (5-0) vs. San Diego Chargers (2-2)
The Broncos will finally leave the comfort of their home field to play a big game on the road. Monday night in San Diego against the struggling Chargers couldn’t be any bigger. San Diego has been an enigma for the past few seasons. They’re definitely talented but they continue to be snake bitten with key injuries. Shawne Merriman’s hobbled, LaDainian Tomlinson’s limping and the Chargers have some serious injuries in the middle of both lines. If San Diego could ever stay healthy, they would have a great chance at a Super Bowl but for now, they’ll just have to play with what they have and that’s still plenty more than what other teams possess.
Denver went down to the wire against the Patriots and Cowboys in back-to-back classics and could be somewhat exhausted from two emotional games. The Chargers took it to Denver last year with the division and a playoff birth on the line in a 52-21 slaughter so San Diego will be plenty confident going into this game. San Diego is coming off a strange game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in which they got down 28-0 but made a furious comeback only to fall short 35-28. They’ve had a bye week to get their things together and should know the importance of this game.
This will be Denver’s first big time game on the road and it will be interesting to see how they respond. Although the Broncos have a stout defense San Diego quarterback Phillip Rivers knows he can shred any secondary put in front of him. This will be San Diego’s biggest game all season and if there was any time for the Chargers to play their best ball, it would be Monday night at home against the division leader. The Chargers really can’t afford to leave Monday night 2-3 with Denver 6-0. They won’t and Rivers will make enough big throws to give them the edge. Chargers 24-17
NFC North-Minnesota Vikings
The NFC North might possibly break in three new starting quarterbacks this year depending upon the situation in Detroit. The Detroit Lions need to get the Matthew Stafford era under way quickly if they want to wash any of last year’s 0-16 taste out their mouths. It would only make sense to get Stafford in as soon as possible so the trio of him, running back Kevin Smith and miracle wideout Calvin Johnson can grow together. But the ineptitude of Detroit’s pass protection and defense stamps them with the rebuild label for ’09.
The Chicago Bears will break in Jay Cutler as the quarterback they’ve been waiting on for years but the Bears defense isn’t the stifling unit it used to be and the lack of a threat at wideout permits them from being taken seriously. But nevertheless, Chicago is still a competent team capable of contending. How much so will depend on the heroics of Cutler and the effectiveness of the defense.
You got to love the Green Bay Packers offense. Aaron Rodgers threw for over 4000 yards last year as a first-year starter and the Packers have gamebreaking talent at the wideout and running back positions. The convergence to a 3-4 defense is what gives them a question mark. Converting to the 3-4 is never an easy transition and in a league where strong defense is a must, Green Bay may be a season or two away from seriously challenging. With Rodgers at the helm, this is a team on the rise and will contend for many years.
That leaves us with the Minnesota Vikings, a ball club that won the division last year without the aide of the legendary Brett Favre. I’m not as high on Favre’s return as others but the name alone will prevent defenses from loading up the box for Adrian Peterson. Peterson has shown he can carry the team to respectability by himself and the defense remains tops in the division. The addition of Favre was just icing on the cake.
Homefield advantage in the playoffs is going to be critical to Minnesota’s Super Bowl aspirations because Favre’s arm may not allow him to carry the team in cold conditions on the road in January. If the Vikes can secure at least a first round bye and one home playoff game then a single game on the road shouldn’t be too much to ask.
AFC North-Pittsburgh Steelers
Right off the bat you can write off the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns. Cincinnati is improving but no one is going to respect their running game with a so-so offensive line and Cedric Benson as the starter which will allow defenses to tee off on the already fragile Carson Palmer. The Bengals defense will be much improved and it’s not out the realm to think Cincinatti will contend but they just don’t stack up against their bigger brothers. The Browns have a long way to go on the road back to respectability and at the time of this posting, they were still undecided on their starting quarterback.
This division is all about the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. The two juggernauts have taken turns winning the division seven times since the 2000 season. You have to say right now that the Ravens and Steelers are the two best teams in the AFC. Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl last year and Baltimore finished as the runner-up, losing to the eventual champs in the AFC Championship game.
Both clubs place an emphasis on the run game and field strong defensive units finishing first and second last season respectively. Both teams are fairly similar but the quarterback and wide receiver position is what separates them. The Steelers trout out a two-time Super Bowl champion at their quarterback position and two Super Bowl MVPs in the receiving corps.
Joe Flacco is a man on the rise but he’s not in Ben Roethlisberger’s class just yet. Baltimore knows they need to upgrade their wide receiver position and the expectations from senior receiver Derrick Mason will be heavy.
The NFL isn’t all about the run game and defense any more. Although both are essential for title contenders, defenses have to respect a team’s quarterback and receivers. While Flacco deserves some extra game preparation from opposing clubs, the team’s so-so wideouts won’t force many defensive coordinators into sleepless nights.
Pittsburgh isn’t known for their offense but Roethlisberger and company showed in last season’s playoff run that they deserve to be respected. Games against the San Diego Chargers, Baltimore Ravens and Arizona Cardinals showcased Roethlisberger’s arm strength and playmaking ability. If their offensive line can take another step forward and running backs Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall remain healthy, the Steelers offense could be potent.
Pittsburgh will welcome the return of strong-footed punter Daniel Sepulveda—who was injured last season—and open arms to fresh-faced return man Stefan Logan, who was a preseason sensation. Both men will inject a significant boost to the Steelers special teams which came under fire last year. And a couple of new starters on defense have the potential to make last year’s unit even more lethal.
Baltimore and Pittsburgh grade out similarly but it’s the presence of Roethlisberger and his receivers that gives the Steelers the edge to win the division for a third straight season.
The Ravens just keep on rolling. In beating the Carolina Panthers 17-13 Saturday night, Baltimore faced a squad who finished as the second overall seed last year in the NFC. Although Carolina was nursing several key injuries, Baltimore still went into Carolina’s house and continued to show that last year’s AFC Championship game appearance was no fluke.
It ‘s also important to note the quality of opponent and the location of the game. Considering Saturday’s game marked the third preseason game for both teams, a contest in which teams usually gauge with extreme importance, the win signaled that the Ravens are indeed ready for the season to start.
The times they are a-changing up in Baltimore. The defense hasn’t fallen off but the offense continues to flash the look of a potent and consistent unit. Here are three things I took from Saturday’s clash.
Baltimore’s biggest knock right now is the lack of an elite wideout. Sure they don’t have the big name you would like to see lining up out wide, but the caliber of their quarterback makes the wide receivers look better than what people give them credit for. Joe Flacco continues to impress, and with his big arm and excellent decision making, his receivers are receiving opportunity to capitalize. Derrick Mason finished with six grabs for 71 yards. Kelly Washington chipped in three catches for 66 yards with a long of 42 yards. Even Ray Rice added eight receptions for 67 yards.
Flacco spread the ball around nicely and starting receiver Mark Clayton should return soon to give the offense even more firepower. The receivers in Baltimore might not be great, but they’re not terrible either. A premier receiver would really put this team over the top but even with their current set, Baltimore is an elite team.
If you want to start your own 3-4 defense then it’s important you have an impact lineman. The Ravens might have the best 3-4 lineman in the business in Haloti Ngata. The 6-4, 350-pounder returned a pick 25 yards last week against the Jets for the team’s first score. Saturday night, Ngata added sack to round out a solid preseason in only two halfs and one series played this summer for the 25-year-old.
Ngata can play anywhere on a three-man line. He can crash the pocket from the nose tackle spot. He can rush the passer from the right side defensive end and he can shut the run down from the left side. But his effort and pursuit is what makes him a real standout and that was never more evident than in Saturday’s game against Carolina.
At the 4:06 mark in the second quarter, Ngata started out rushing the passer on a quick screen play to Panthers receiver Steve Smith. Ngata read the play then released from his battle with a guard to begin the chase down of Smith. After Smith eluded the boundary cornerback, he squared up with Baltimore standout safety Ed Reed. Reed was fortunate to have the angle on Smith, who was prancing along the left sideline. Reed cornered Smith along the sideline, forcing Smith to hit a spin move that normally would’ve left Reed grasping for air but Reed managed to hold on long enough for Ngata to flatten Smith along the sidelines 26 yards later.
The announcers gave Reed the credit for the takedown but it was the pursuit of Ngata that allowed Reed to trap Smith along the sidelines. A one-on-one battle between Smith and anybody would usually equal a win for Smith but the closing of Ngata was unexpected and the two Ravens teamed up to shut down what could’ve been a potential long touchdown.
I didn’t see all peaches and cream Saturday night. For the second straight week, Baltimore was terrorized by a quick running back. The Ravens had all kinds of problems with the Jets’ Leon Washington last Monday night. Saturday night, it was Carolina third-string back Mike Goodson who gashed Baltimore for some nifty gains. For a unit that traditionally doesn’t let up on anything ground-related, the past couple of weeks have been eye opening.
I expect the run defense to be somewhere between good-great once again this season but they better get it together quick. The Ravens are scheduled to face LaDainian Tomlinson, Larry Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Ryan Grant, Kevin Smith and Darren McFadden this season.
Washington and Goodson aren’t anywhere near the big names of the aforementioned and if Baltimore is having trouble containing the little names of the league, then problems could be on the horizon.