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
16-12 on the year but I feel good about this week though. This weeked isn’t as appetizing as the recent weeks have been but nevertheless; it’s still a good one. It’s rivalry week around the league with some old friends reacquainting themselves with one another. Rivalry games is what football is made out of and teams get to flex their muscle this week. Rivalry games are usually close so viewers should be treated to some competitive games. But of course, anything can happen but when it comes to what I think… here goes nothing.
Washington Redskins (3-6) vs. Dallas Cowboys (6-3)
Normally I don’t highlight games featuring a below .500 team but the Redskins/Cowboys rivalry is a game where you wipe the records off the plate. The Redskins have struggled all season but showed some signs of life last week in their 27-17 win over the Denver Broncos. Dallas was hot before last Sunday’s 17-7 loss at Green Bay but both teams will be refocused when they resume their long time rivalry this week.
Washington will enter the game with Ladell Betts starting over the injured Clinton Portis at running back. Betts led the team with 114 rushing yards last week and added a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. He gives the Redskins some fresh legs and returns the spunk the Washington running game. Betts’ performance will be critical against Dallas because Washington still hasn’t found a consistent passing attack. If Betts gets going, maligned quarterback Jason Campbell won’t be forced to carry the load which is a recipe for disaster for the Redskins.
Establishing Betts will be hard to do against the Cowboys however. Dallas hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher all season and will undoubtedly stack the line and dare Campbell to beat them. The Dallas defense has been playing extremely well over the last few weeks and will pose a major problem for Washington with their speed and quickness. Washington already doesn’t pass protect well and that’s exciting news for guys like DeMarcus Ware and Bradie James.
Tony Romo and the Dallas offense will try to bounce back from last week’s one touchdown performance and Washington could be the perfect opponent. In their last three games, Washington has allowed scores of 40, 75, 30, 58, 67 and 57 yards. For big-play specialists like Felix Jones and Miles Austin, a rebound could definitely be in the cards. Dallas is a team known for two things: big plays and pressuring the passer. In the last few weeks, Washington has been known for several things but mostly: allowing big plays and failing to protect the passer. Washington will be up for the game but with so many gaps in their play the last few weeks, Dallas will bounce back and chop down the Skins. Cowboys 27-17
Atlanta Falcons (5-4) vs. New York Giants (5-4)
The Giants’ backs are against the wall. They’ve lost four straight and Minnesota and New Orleans continue to pile up victories, making winning the NFC East or at least finishing strong a must if they want to get into the playoffs. Their bye week couldn’t have come at a better time. They had a week off to clear their heads and refocus on how they want to attack their remaining seven games.
They could start with the run game. New York has gotten away from their bread and butter this year and has let QB Eli Manning air it out. With Manning nursing a foot injury and a group of inconsistent wideouts, getting back to the ground would probably be best for all parties involved. The collapse of the once feared Giant defense has been the most troubling throughout their skid but they’ll get an Atlanta team coming to town that’s been struggling offensively as of late.
While the Falcons have been running the ball with some serious authority in the last few weeks, QB Matt Ryan has slumped considerably. Ryan has thrown three touchdowns and six interceptions in his last three games as Atlanta has dropped to 1-3 in its last four. While his running mate Michael Turner has been on a tear recently, he’ll miss Sunday’s game with a sprained ankle, putting even more pressure on the sophomore signal caller.
Atlanta will need to attack New York’s secondary if they want to win. New York has allowed eleven touchdown passes over the course of their four game losing streak. Without Turner though, Atlanta loses the threat of play-action and the Giants will be allowed to tee off on Ryan. Atlanta isn’t the strongest defense but they aren’t the worse. Against New York however, the Falcons will have to be prepared to stop the run because the Giants will be sure to reinforce the run coming off four consecutive losses and a bye. This is a game New York has to win and a team in desperation mode coming off a bye week shouldn’t be picked against. Giants 34-16
Indianapolis Colts (9-0) vs. Baltimore Ravens (5-4)
Bill Belichik personally let the Colts off the hook last week by going for it on fourth-and-2 within his own 30. New England was inches away from handing Indy their first loss of the season but Baltimore will try to be the first opponent to break the Colts’ 18-game regular season winning streak. Peyton Manning is having another MVP-type season and is carrying an offense with no running game. The Colts’ defense has been losing bodies but packaged together a nice game plan late in the game to overtake the Patriots last week.
Baltimore is entering a rough patch in their schedule. Over the next three weeks the Ravens will see Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Green Bay. Beating Indy would be a huge confidence booster for a team that’s somewhat unsure of themselves at this point. Baltimore’s 5-4 record has several around the league questioning if Baltimore is a serious contender this year but upending Manning would restore a lot of confidence.
The Ravens will have to turn the heat up on Manning to get him out of his comfort zone but that’s easier said than done. Baltimore loss premier pass rusher Terrell Suggs last Monday to an errant block from Cleveland QB Brady Quinn. With Haloti Ngata nursing an ankle injury and his status questionable, the Ravens could be without two key members from their front seven.
Baltimore’s best chance to win may come down to a shootout between Manning and sophomore QB Joe Flacco. The Ravens’ offense has been struggling recently, averaging 11.5 points per game in the last two weeks. The Colts’ secondary is depleted however, and behind the backing of a raucous crowd that despises everything associated with Indianapolis, the Baltimore offense could undergo a revival. But even if they do get into a shootout, Manning has the moxie and weapons to win that battle. Regardless of how depleted Indianapolis’ secondary is, Manning is going to keep them in the game and just like he’s shown all season, if you keep him around enough, he’ll get you in the end. Colts 28-24
San Diego Charges (6-3) vs. Denver Broncos (6-3)
San Diego has to be going into this game ready to punch Denver square in the mouth. The Broncos handed San Diego an embarrassing Monday night loss a few weeks ago when Eddie Royal returned two kicks in a 34-23 win that left the Chargers reeling at 2-3. San Diego has won four straight since then while the Broncos have lost three straight.
With both teams 6-3 the division is on the line. Denver’s QB Kyle Orton sustained an ankle injury last week against the Redskins and his status is up in the air for this week’s game. If Orton is unable to play, it would be a huge blow for Denver. His backup, Chris Simms, has proven that he’s no more than an adequate player in the league and he’ll struggle to match Chargers’ QB Philip Rivers throw for throw.
This game will be on the Broncos defense to win and if the last three weeks has been any indication, they’ll struggle to contain San Diego’s high-profile passing attack. Teams have averaged 28.3 points per game against Denver’s vaunted defense over the last few weeks and San Diego scores four touchdowns in a game on a bad day. Regardless if Orton plays or not, Denver’s offense is going to be hampered with either a healthy Simms or a hobbled Orton. The Broncos will have to hold San Diego below 20 points if they expect to win.
The winners of four straight, San Diego is on the up and up. Motivation from an earlier loss will be extra motivation for the Chargers, knowing the game is on the line. San Diego is catching the Broncos at the perfect time with Orton’s status questionable and their defense second guessing what they’re doing. Trying to contain the Chargers’ offense is close to impossible right now, especially with LaDainian Tomlinson starting to come on. Rivers and a running game is the recipe for the victory and San Diego will be ready to take advantage of now suspect Bronco team. Chargers 28-16
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
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.