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
3-1 after this weekend makes it kind of hard to argue with a 30-18 record on the season. This past weekend kind of had it all from the major upset to the major play of the year. You just got to love football. What other sport gives you as much passion and as many highs and lows than the gridiron? You can check if you want to but don’t waste your time. In case you missed anything from this past weekend, spend some time catching up:
Indianapolis Colts vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
What I predicted …
What I said would happen …
“The Colts have the league’s second best defense in terms of points allowed so Manning and the offense may not need to do much to dispose of Jacksonville and keep their undefeated season alive. Jacksonville hasn’t beaten many teams with a winning record this season and they won’t on Thursday either.”
What actually happened …
The Colts won 35-31. Indianapolis survived a shootout and Manning threw for 308 yards and four touchdowns as the Colts added another victim to their 23-game win streak. Behind a 140-yard and two touchdown performance from Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville led 31-28 with under seven minutes left before Manning found Reggie Wayne for a 65-yard touchdown strike down the left sideline. The Colts then held off two drives from Jacksonville and picked off David Garrard on the Jaguars’ final possession to secure the victory.
My reactions …
Thursday’s loss dropped Jacksonville to 7-7 and a six-way tie with teams in the AFC playoff hunt. Jacksonville’s divisional record is an even 3-3 but their conference record is 6-4. The Jags may have to win out if they want a realistic shot at the postseason but road games against the Cincinnati Bengals or New England Patriots could be too daunting a task but let’s not look too far ahead. Jones-Drew will keep the Jags in competition the rest of the way but Garrard and the defense will have to raise their levels of play if Jacksonville is going to qualify for anything this year.
If they want to, Indianapolis (14-0) will probably go undefeated to close the year but that’s only if they want to. It would probably be in the club’s best interest however to fight for the unblemished record just to avoid a scenario where Manning and the boys fall out of synch from resting. The Colts have won games each and every way possible this season and have had the type of magical season that players will probably be sitting around the house in their 50’s and 60’s telling stories of. It’s Super Bowl or nothing for Indianapolis and if they fail to bring home the hardware, you can be sure players will still be kicking themselves well into their 50’s and 60’s.
Dallas Cowboys vs. New Orleans Saints
What I predicted …
What I said would happen …
“The perfect game plan against the Saints: ball control and short passes. The motto of the ‘Boys’ offense under Jason Garrett: quick strike and heavy emphasis on throwing. Something’s got to give and if offensive coordinator Jason Garrett wants any chance of solidifying his return for next year then a game against his normal grain would be ideal for Saturday. New Orleans is going to score, that’s a given, how soon Garrett gives up on the run will determine Dallas’ fate. In a game against the top offense in the league, Garrett will probably be inclined to match wits with Saints head coach and former Cowboy coordinator Sean Payton. As has been shown for the last few seasons, Payton’s clearly a step ahead of Garrett.”
What actually happened …
The Cowboys won 24-17. Dallas came through the Superdome and punched New Orleans square in the mouth on their way to opening a 14-0 lead. The ‘Boys led 24-3 at the start of the fourth quarter and held off a late Saints run to preserve a rare December win and hand New Orleans a rare loss. Dallas QB Tony Romo was flawless on the night, completing 22-of-34 passes for 312 yards and a touchdown. Forgotten bruiser back Marion Barber made a surprise reappearance, totaling 73 yards and two touchdowns.
My reactions …
It’s funny how a club can go to written off to a possible Super Bowl favorite all in one game but that’s exactly what happened to the Dallas Cowboys last Saturday night. The Cowboys (9-5) played a flawless game aside from ex-kicker Nick Folk’s chip shot miss from 24 yards. The Dallas defense was dominant and DeMarcus Ware’s surprise appearance after sustaining a serious-looking neck injury was inspirational. Ware caused havoc for the Saints’ protection schemes all night and his strip of Drew Brees with little time remaining on the clock was something ‘Boys fans will be bragging about for years.
One loss doesn’t define a season and of course New Orleans (13-1) has had a dominant year but Saturday’s defeat raised some pressing concerns for New Orleans. The Saints defense hasn’t been spectacular the last few weeks and Dallas took advantage of their weakness against the run and probably would’ve scored more than 30 had Jason Garrett not took the foot off the gas after Dallas got a lead. The Saints offense is still plenty powerful but their defense will be under the microscope as the season wears on. Stay tuned…
Cincinnati Bengals vs. San Diego Chargers
What I predicted …
What I said would happen …
“The Chargers are hot and Cincinnati has been struggling, that’s pretty much the gist of things. The Bengals are going to have to do more than the 94 passing yards they put up against the Minnesota Vikings in last week’s loss but don’t hold your breath. Palmer hasn’t thrown for more than 271 yards in any game this year and has passed for under 200 yards five times this season. The Chargers have scored over 24 points nine times this year and don’t expect things to change on Sunday against the struggling Bengals.”
What actually happened …
The Chargers won 27-24. San Diego and Cincinnati waged a slug fest this past Sunday, battling down to the wire before Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding kicked 52-yard field goal with three seconds left to give San Diego the AFC West crown and a lock on second place in the AFC. The grieving Bengals battled back from a 24-13 deficit at the top of the fourth quarter to tie it up with just under 54 seconds. San Diego QB Philip Rivers then led the Bolts 44 yards in six plays to set Kaeding up for the game winner.
My reactions …
The sudden death of Bengals receiver Chris Henry was a stunning blow for Cincinnati (9-5). The Bengals had already been struggling before his passing and they played one of their finer performances of the year in a loss to the hot Chargers. Cincinnati is going to have a tough road to climb as they try to battle the loss of their teammate and the behemoths of the AFC. Carson Palmer and the passing game are going to have to up their play as more teams stack the box and force Palmer to beat them. A few seasons ago, forcing Palmer to win the game was something teams feared. This year however, it’s been the key to beating the Bengals. Stay Tuned…
Besides Indianapolis, no team is hotter than the Bolts. San Diego (11-3) is the best team in the AFC in my opinion and defenses are going to find it tough in the playoffs to stop Rivers from lobbing the ball up to his tall and talented receivers. The defense is playing well, special teams is clicking, offense is one of the best in the league… the Chargers are just on top of their game right now. There shouldn’t be anything stopping a Bolts/Colts AFC Championship matchup but of course, as always, Stay Tuned…
Green Bay Packers vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
What I predicted …
What I said would happen …
“The Packers have won five straight and are catching their stride as they wind down their regular season. Rodgers has weapons everywhere on offense and his defense is suffocating. Against a weak Steeler Oline Green Bay should be able to corral Pittsburgh’s offense with no problem. But it’s hard betting against the champs though. The loss to Cleveland was a definite kick in the rear and if pride is all that Pittsburgh has to play for, expect them to show a lot on Sunday in front of their home fans.”
What actually happened …
The Steelers won 37-36. Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver Mike Wallace with no time left on the clock to snap the Steelers five-game losing streak. Roethlisberger and Wallace connected for a 60-yarder to open the game before Rodgers sliced the Steelers secondary for 383 yards and three touchdowns. The Steelers led 24-14 at the top of the fourth quarter before Rodgers moved Green Bay ahead 36-30 with two minutes left to play. Roethlisberger then led Pittsburgh 86 yards in 12 plays before he connected with Wallace for the game winner.
My reactions …
When Rodgers has time to throw, the Packers (9-5) have one of the best offenses in the NFC. Rodgers has guts galore and his receivers run patterns with fearlessness and authority. The Packers are still a favorite for a wild card spot in the NFC and have the potential to pull off a road upset if any playoff team takes them lightly. With Rodgers at the helm and a steadily improving defense, Green Bay should be a title contender for years to come. Stay Tuned…
It took a memorable game for Pittsburgh (7-7) to break its five-game slide but they got it done. Roethlisberger and the Steelers still have an outside chance at making the playoffs but will need some help. They’ll get their biggest rival (Baltimore Ravens) at home next week in the biggest game of their season. With the Ravens (8-6) looking to steal one of the last few post season slots, the Steelers will be trying everything they can to prevent that from happening. Some changes are destined to come through Pittsburgh after a disappointing season but in the mean time, the Steelers still have something to play for.
First I would like to pay respect to Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chris Henry and his family. The league lost another valuable member to the organization with his death on Thursday and regardless of what things Henry may have done in the past, death is never deserving for anybody. The season is almost over but the league is far from playing games. The playoff picture is becoming clearer and clearer and teams will have a chance to inch closer to home field and playoff spots after the week is done. Two big headliners for this week that could decide a lot. ‘Boys/Saints and Bengals/Bolts will be the biggest games of the week.
Should be another exciting week and expect teams across the league to have a moment of silence for Henry as they take timeout to remember what was a maturing young man. It should be another week to remember as well, let’s get started:
Indianapolis Colts (13-0) vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (7-6) 8:20 p.m.
Kind of strange game right here. The Colts are finished playing for anything serious for the remainder of the regular season. The Jaguars however, are fighting for their playoff lives. The Colts could just buckle up and aim for an undefeated season and quarterback Peyton Manning has already bested long time rival Tom Brady’s regular season win streak with his 22nd consecutive win last week.
Tying Brady’s undefeated 2007 season would further push the debate of who’s been the better signal caller over the past decade. The Colts have been in this position a few times before: at season’s end and nothing to play for. A few seasons ago, Indianapolis rested its players down the stretch after jumping out to a 13-1 record, which only led to an out of synch performance in the club’s opening round loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2005’s playoffs.
The Colts might not need to do much against a struggling Jaguar team though. The Jaguars have dropped two of their last three and have struggled mightily on offense since breakout receiver Mike Sims-Walker has been nursing calf and knee injuries. Teams have focused on slowing focal point runner Maurice Jones-Drew, who hasn’t recorded an 100 yard game since week 10. Starting quarterback David Garrard has been forced to carry more of a load and things have been sort of rough let’s say the past few weeks.
Sims-Walker’s status will spell key for the Jaguars on Thursday night. Indianapolis’ secondary has been shredded over the past few weeks and they’ll definitely come out with a plan to make Garrard beat them. The Colts have the league’s second best defense in terms of points allowed so Manning and the offense may not need to do much to dispose of Jacksonville and keep their undefeated season alive. Jacksonville hasn’t beaten many teams with a winning record this season and they won’t on Thursday either. Colts 24-16
Dallas Cowboys (8-5) vs. New Orleans Saints (13-0) 8:20 p.m.
The Cowboys are tiptoeing dangerous grounds. After last week’s loss to the San Diego Chargers gave the ‘Boys their third loss in the last five games, a road game against the Saints could determine their playoff fate. But Dallas could be catching the perfect Saints at the perfect time however. New Orleans has been anything but flawless in their last two games, knocking off the lowly Washington Redskins and banged up Atlanta Falcons by field goals in each contest.
The Saints have showed major problems in their secondary, allowing a slew of big plays over the last couple of weeks. Dallas starting quarterback Tony Romo could exploit New Orleans with a few strikes to big play receiver Miles Austin. Maligned wideout Roy Williams has come on in recent weeks and has given the passing game the possession receiver it was lacking in the early parts of the season.
Dallas pass rusher DeMarcus Ware is expected to play on Saturday and his presence would be key in trying to slow down Drew Brees and the rest of the Saints offense. The Cowboys secondary is pretty formidable but Brees is out of this world. New Orleans is never out of game with Brees, who gets the ball to everybody on his offense from the third string running back to the guy in the nose bleed seats. Dallas hasn’t seen an offense like this all season and in the Saints last “major” game of the season, at home, they’ll be more than ready to take it to the Cowboys.
The perfect game plan against the Saints: ball control and short passes. The motto of the ‘Boys’ offense under Jason Garrett: quick strike and heavy emphasis on throwing. Something’s got to give and if offensive coordinator Jason Garrett wants any chance of solidifying his return for next year then a game against his normal grain would be ideal for Saturday. New Orleans is going to score, that’s a given, how soon Garrett gives up on the run will determine Dallas’ fate. In a game against the top offense in the league, Garrett will probably be inclined to match wits with Saints head coach and former Cowboy coordinator Sean Payton. As has been shown for the last few seasons, Payton’s clearly a step ahead of Garrett. Saints 34-24
Cincinnati Bengals (9-4) vs. San Diego Chargers (10-3) 4:15 p.m.
With the recent death of receiver Chris Henry fresh on the minds of the Bengals, Cincinnati will be hard-pressed to go on the road and take on a hot Charger team. San Diego has won eight straight and with second place in the AFC up for grabs, the Bolts won’t take it easy on an emotional Bengals team. San Diego has won every way possible during their current win streak; close, come from behind and blowout style.
The Bengals have been a methodical grind-it-out team all season but clashing against San Diego’s fast break style approach could be recipe for disaster for the men from Ohio. Cincinnati’s emphasis on the run game has been something they’ve stuck to all year but their approach will be tested against a high-scoring San Diego team. The Chargers run defense has been better over the past few weeks but Cincinnati has shown they can run against anybody.
The departure of some of his key wideouts from a few seasons ago have clearly hurt Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer and the passing game and against San Diego’s ballhawking cover corners, Cincinnati running backs Larry Johnson and Cedric Benson will play vital roles in the battle for the AFC’s second seed. The Bengals have dealt with saddening situations already this season when defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer’s wife passed in early October. Henry’s recent passing could inspire the club or go the opposite way but it will definitely be on the minds of the Bengals when they board the plane to travel out west.
The Chargers are hot and Cincinnati has been struggling, that’s pretty much the gist of things. The Bengals are going to have to do more than the 94 passing yards they put up against the Minnesota Vikings in last week’s loss but don’t hold your breath. Palmer hasn’t thrown for more than 271 yards in any game this year and has passed for under 200 yards five times this season. The Chargers have scored over 24 points nine times this year and don’t expect things to change on Sunday against the struggling Bengals. Chargers 28-13
Green Bay Packers (9-4) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-7) 4:15 p.m.
While the Steelers might be out of the playoff running, they have the chance to play spoiler in the next three weeks against teams in the postseason hunt. When Pittsburgh squares off against the Packers on Sunday, it’ll be a matchup of two of the most storied franchises in NFL history. There was talk that injured Steelers safety Troy Polamalu would return for the matchup against Green Bay but he was scratched earlier in the week and his absence will indeed leave a vulnerable Pittsburgh secondary at the mercy of the Packers’ red hot QB, Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers has had a terrific season but the notorious sloppy conditions at Heinz Field could hamper his receivers’ traction somewhat. Pittsburgh loves to make teams one-dimensional but Rodgers is the type of signal caller that can carry a team by himself if needed. Green Bay’s defense has been the real story of their season and with the Steelers struggling on offense, it could be a low-scoring affair on Sunday.
Pittsburgh has lost five straight games and to make matters worse: Green Bay has the best record of any opponent the Steelers have played during their slide. The Steelers are playing for pride this week and after last Thursday’s embarrassing loss to the Cleveland Browns, expect Pittsburgh to throw the kitchen sink at the visiting Packers despite missing some valuable members from their team.
Green Bay is only a few steps closer to securing a playoff spot and a win over the Steelers would make life extremely easy over the next few weeks. The Packers have won five straight and are catching their stride as they wind down their regular season. Rodgers has weapons everywhere on offense and his defense is suffocating. Against a weak Steeler Oline Green Bay should be able to corral Pittsburgh’s offense with no problem. But it’s hard betting against the champs though. The loss to Cleveland was a definite kick in the rear and if pride is all that Pittsburgh has to play for, expect them to show a lot on Sunday in front of their home fans. Steelers 26-21
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
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