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In an NFL matchup of what could’ve been a year ago on the grand-stage, the 49ers and Broncos will square off in a potential Super Bowl preview on Sunday Night. Plus, Eli Manning and the Giants look to slow down the surging Cowboys deep in the heart of Texas, while the Colts and Bengals clash at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Thursday Night Football, October 16 8:25 PM ET – TV: CBS/NFL Network
N.Y. Jets 1-5 @ New England Patriots 4-2
Rex Ryan’s Jets have lost five straight times at Foxboro, and if his team is going to end the franchises longest losing streak in seven years – New York needs a complete 360 on the offensive side of the ball to keep up with Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense — that’s turned things around in their two-game winning streak.
Despite their impressive win over Buffalo to take sole possession of first place in the AFC East, New England lost two key players on both sides of the ball. Both running back Stevan Ridley (ACL) and linebacker Jerod Mayo (knee) suffered season ending injuries. The Patriots have been known to overcome adversity, especially last season when losing key starters on defense. Linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins will need to step up in Mayo’s absence, and though New York’s offense has been one of the more sloppy units in the league, they’re still capable of establishing the run — if they can revamp themselves from its recent porous performances on the ground.
Chris Ivory, Chris Johnson and Bilal Powell, New York’s run-by-committee-trio hasn’t been getting the lanes they need to get into the second levels of opposing defenses. The reasoning here is a once known to be solid offensive line that’s floundered. Losing left guard Brian Winters (ACL), who was placed on injured-reserve, doesn’t turn the lights back on for them. But there’s some hope in Oday Aboushi, who will take over on the interior of the Jets’ O-line. Aboushi showed positives during training camp, but in this matchup, he’ll need to be an upgrade in the middle against New England’s Vince Wilfork, a run-clogging, constantly penetrating, top-defensive tackle on the Patriots’ defensive line. New York will need to keep Geno Smith from attempting an above average rate of passes in order to keep Smith in short distance passing downs – by being physical on the ground.
New York’s secondary has been horrendous, and losing their top cornerback (Dee Milliner) due to an Achilles will put much more pressure on their talented D-line to get in Brady’s face for four quarters. New York’s linebackers and safeties don’t match up well against athletic tight ends that have receiver type route running abilities, and they’ll face another one of those freakishly talented players at the respective position – trying to slow down Brady’s top playmaker on the receiving end of things in Rob Gronkowski. In three matchups against the Bears, Chargers and Broncos that sport deadly weapons at the tight end position – safety Calvin Pryor has found himself singled up at the line of scrimmage against Chicago’s Martellus Bennett, San Diego’s Antonio Gates, and Denver’s Julius Thomas – all three quality red zone targets. That’s where I like New England to attack New York’s defense, and Gronkowski won’t be the only tight end Pryor and the Jets’ intermediate and seam-route defenders will have on their plate. Tim Wright added in New England’s two tight end sets has helped open up the outside, and Brady should be able to exploit New York’s defense that’s allowed 15 touchdown passes (tied for most in the league with Tampa Bay) when in striking distance.
Pick: Patriots 31, N.Y. Jets 17
Final Score: Patriots (5-2) 27, N.Y. Jets (1-6) 25
Sunday, October 19
1:00 PM ET
Atlanta Falcons 2-4 @ Baltimore Ravens 4-2 – TV: FOX
The Ravens dismantled the Buccaneers last week, highlighted by quarterback Joe Flacco’s 5 touchdown passes in a 48-17 win. And this week, the matchups look very favorable for the Ravens to take advantage of a Falcons’ defense that’s been putrid.
The Ravens’ offensive line has been solid in creating running lanes in offensive coordinator’s Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking scheme. Justin Forsett, Bernard Pierce and Lorenzo Taliaferro have been gashing defenses, guiding the Ravens’ ground attack that’s averaging 132.8 yards per game. The balance and protection Flacco is getting upfront has him playing like the top-rated quarterback we saw during his remarkable 2012 postseason run in route to a Super Bowl title. 4 of his 12 touchdown passes have come from connecting with veteran receiver (Steve Smith Sr.), who’s had 4 games in which he’s had 100 or more yards receiving. And in this matchup, Kubiak’s offense should be able to find running lanes against a Falcons’ defense that’s allowing 140.2 yards per game against the run.
Falcons’ defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s bunch has also been dreadful against the pass. Their lack of being able to bring quarterbacks to the ground has been a major-factor of his secondary that’s been getting torched all over the place. His rush-men (Tyson Jackson, Jonathan Babineaux, Jonathan Massaquoi and Osi Umenyiora) haven’t been reliable upfront. Facing some disadvantages at the line of scrimmage –may elect Nolan to use some extra-rushers on passing downs – and loading up the box on early downs to try to slow down Baltimore’s execution of establishing the run. His cornerbacks (Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant) need to disrupt the routes of Smith Sr. and Torrey Smith by pressing them at the snap. Letting both Smith’s run free won’t be the proper plan for Nolan’s lack-luster secondary to stop Flacco from being an efficient passer.
Atlanta’s offensive line has been banged up in 2014, and their running game hasn’t been able to take the pressure off of Matt Ryan, who’s attempted nearly 100 more passes than the teams dialed up running plays. The holes before running backs Steven Jackson and Antone Smith’s eyes have been slim, but where Ryan can attack the Ravens’ defense is using his backs in the screen-game to get them in open space. The Falcons boast one of the more dangerous passing attacks – led by the super-athleticism of receiver Julio Jones. If Baltimore’s defense comes out with a lazy-effort, Ryan can get comfortable in the pocket and show why he’s one of the better quarterbacks in the game. But, he’ll need his running game to produce to stop the bleeding for Atlanta.
Pick: Ravens 31, Falcons 23
Tennessee Titans 2-4 @ Washington Redskins 1-5 – TV: CBS
Like the Redskins, the Titans have a new head coach this season. Both Washington’s Jay Gruden and Tennessee’s Ken Whisenhunt have had their fair share of success as assistants — that helped them land head coaching jobs. Whisenhunt has reached a far more level of success in the past by running the Steelers’ Super Bowl championship offense during the 05 season, and led the 08 Cardinals at the helm to a Super Bowl appearance. But, on the similarity street, both Gruden and Whisenhunt have dealt with injuries at the quarterback position in their first season, with their new teams.
Jake Locker’s status this week remains questionable. His injured thumb is still in the nursing process and it could come down to a game time decision for Whisenhunt’s offense on getting their starting quarterback back under center. If Locker misses his second-straight start, backup Charlie Whitehurst, who managed the game effectively in route to Tennessee’s win over Jacksonville — will likely get the nod. The Titans’ offense doesn’t match the skill-level of Washington’s, but seeing rookie running back Bishop Sankey put in his best performance last week, gives Tennessee’s plan of getting their running game going a feel of optimism. And with Shonn Greene (hamstring) listed as doubtful, Sankey should be in line for another near or 20-plus touch game against Washington.
Washington’s defense has been getting pressure with 15 team sacks on the season. Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan leads Jim Haslett’s unit with 6.5 sacks. Kerrigan and his counterpart on the opposite side (Brian Orakpo) could see a number of chances against the Titans’ ineptitude of stretching defenses downfield. Containing Sankey on the ground and limiting Dexter McCluster, Whisenhunt’s passing down back will be the key for Washington’s defense to get off the field on third down. Receiver Justin Hunter is Tennessee’s deep-threat, and if Haslett’s defense doesn’t allow Tennessee’s passing attack to work effectively on methodically ran plays, they’ll be able to take away Tennessee’s chances of hitting them over the top.
This is where Washington’s linebacker (Keenan Robinson) comes into play. Robinson has shown vulnerabilities in covering tight ends, and the Titans have a versatile and good route-running tight end in Delanie Walker. Walker can line up in the backfield, in the slot or even out wide to create some mismatches. Robinson fared well against Arizona’s tight ends (Rob Housler and John Carlson), and kept Arizona’s scat-back Andre Ellington from breaking free. If Robinson and the Redskins’ defense can hold Walker, McCluster and Sankey from making plays, it could be a long day for Whisenhunt’s offense. When the Redskins have the ball, look for coach Gruden to attack Tennessee’s defense that’s been susceptible to the run by feeding the pigskin to Alfred Morris and Roy Helu Jr., who have a much better matchup this weekend than what they faced at Arizona last Sunday. Sounds like a good plan for Gruden to keep his quarterback (Kirk Cousins) from turning over the football. Washington’s aerial attack can turn things around for the better the rest of the way if tight end Jordan Reed can avoid re-aggravating his hamstring. There’s a variety of talented players for Cousins to get the ball to, and he should be able to find holes in Tennessee’s defense on passing downs.
Pick: Redskins 27, Titans 16
Seattle Seahawks 3-2 @ St. Louis Rams 1-4 – TV: FOX
Seattle’s offense, that’s known for maintaining its prowess of play-selection and design at the line of scrimmage, back-peddled against Dallas, losing for only their second time in 21 games at home, including the playoffs. Marshawn Lynch was held to 61 yards on 10 carries, while Russell Wilson completed 14 of 28 pass attempts for a season-low of 126 yards, with a game-ending interception. That’s not Seattle-Football. And this week on the road in St. Louis, the defending champs need to get back to the basics of what sets the pace for their offense behind the legs of Lynch, who’ll be going up against a Rams’ defense that’s allowing 139.8 yards per game against the run. The Rams’ defense is also getting burned in coverage – much in part to their lack of getting after the quarterback. After being one of the more formidable pass-rushing groups in 2013, the Rams’ defense has only registered 1 sack, the worst in the league. Last year’s sack-eater (Robert Quinn), who was atop the league in sacks (19) — has a goose-egg on the stat-sheets this season. Their lone only sack came from rookie defensive tackle (Aaron Donald) against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 2. Yuck…and to think Russell Wilson and company will have consecutive bad games, that’s not something to roll the dice on.
Sometimes coaches can get stuck in their ways on play-selection until the opposition puts the brakes on what’s working. Seattle’s offensive coordinator (Darrell Bevell) has used Percy Harvin as a decoy on running plays, and to create room after the catch on quick-screens and throws over the middle. And against the Rams, it could be time for him to open up the playbook now that Harvin has been traded to the Jets. This could mean that it’s time for receivers (Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, Ricardo Lockette and rookie Paul Richardson) to be used on spread formations as downfield catchers. Not to say that Bevell will abandon the usual elements that control the tempo, but from time to time, good coaches make changes and give the opposition different looks, and this could be the week we see that from Seattle’s offense.
Seattle’s defensive front has struggled with applying pressure, and this matchup gives them a chance to re-establish what made them the bullies of the block in 2013. Rams’ quarterback Austin Davis has been fairly decent on distributing the football, but when pressured, he’s thrown the football to the other team. Seattle’s defense has two key starters (cornerback Byron Maxwell and linebacker Bobby Wagner) that are banged up. The time-table on Maxwell (calf) to return is unknown, while Wagner (toe) is listed as questionable. Richard Sherman went one-on-one with Dallas’ Dez Bryant when Maxwell left last Sunday’s game. Marcus Burley took over for Maxwell on the outside, while Steven Terrell took over as the nickel corner. Wouldn’t surprise me to see Sherman matched up on Rams’ physical receiver (Brian Quick) if Davis has a hot hand early on. But…what I’m expecting is a fired up Seattle team to play a fundamentally sound game and take advantage of the Rams’ undisciplined ways.
Pick: Seahawks 31, Rams 20
Cleveland Browns 3-2 @ Jacksonville Jaguars 0-6 – TV: CBS
While Jacksonville’s rookie quarterback (Blake Bortles) is learning the ropes of NFL life, Cleveland’s Johnny Manziel continues to be a spectator on the sidelines — watching current starter (Brian Hoyer) operate the Browns’ offense with poise and confidence.
Hoyer’s completed 60.4 percent of his passes, airing it out for 1,224 yards, while throwing 7 touchdown passes and only 1 interception. Head coach Mike Pettine and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan have done a remarkable job on developing a balanced offense that has three running backs (Ben Tate, Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West), who each have combined for 151 carries for 715 yards rushing in Shanahan’s system that’s ran the ball 165 times in differential to 150 pass attempts. That pedigree has propelled the Browns to a 3-2 start in 2014, while Gus Bradley’s Jaguars are still looking for their first win. And if Bradley’s team is going to win this Sunday, Jacksonville will need to use the same approach of grinding it out on the ground against Cleveland’s defense that has weaknesses on defending the run.
Jaguars’ seventh-round draft pick Storm Johnson looked ready to shoulder a decent workload against Tennessee, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, Johnson’s number was called just 10 times without establishing any effectiveness on the ground. The limited amount of carries Johnson received lends me to believe that Bradley isn’t sold on his rookie runner – still leaving the door open for Toby Gehart (questionable, foot) to be the prime-workhorse on running downs. Attacking Cleveland’s defense that’s ranked 30th against the run, allowing 149.6 yards per game on the ground should be the objective for offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch’s game plan. Having Bortles throw 40-plus times won’t be the essentials to play a smart efficient game against a Browns team that isn’t turning over the football.
The additions of Red Bryant and Chris Clemons from Seattle has Jacksonville’s defense bringing quarterbacks to the ground this season. They’re ranked second in all of football with 19 team sacks on the season. If Jacksonville is going to rattle Hoyer on passing downs, they’ll need to be disruptive upfront and be disciplined in their gaps when trying to slow down Cleveland’s three-headed-backfield. And glancing over at Jacksonville’s linebackers that have been a porous tackling group, the Browns should continue to use their wide-zone blocking scheme for chunks of positive yardage to keep Hoyer upright for most of the game.
Pick: Browns 23, Jaguars 14
Cincinnati Bengals 3-1-1 @ Indianapolis Colts 4-2 – TV: CBS
After losing their first two games, the Colts are back in the AFC contender realm. The Bengals have maintained their grits and toughness in the AFC, but over their last two games, their defense has allowed chunks of big plays. And facing Indianapolis’ offensive juggernauting ways – led by the arm of Andrew Luck, Marvin Lewis’ team needs to get back to playing football like they started out their first three games.
The Bengals have a core of talented players ranging from their D-line, linebackers and in the secondary that needs a solid performance to keep Luck out of rhythm. Luck can do it with his arm and legs. Last week against Cam Newton – a mobile quarterback – Newton extended plays by throwing on the run, and when nobody was open downfield, he scampered for 107 yards with a score on the ground. Like Newton, Luck can find his targets downfield, and if the Bengals’ defensive front leaves him with a clean pocket or running lanes on passing downs, Luck can dissect Cincinnati’s defense with a slew of better weapons than what the Bengals faced last week against the Panthers.
Indianapolis’ offense can attack you from all angles of the field, and when you have tight ends like Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen stretching the middle of the field – along with running backs (Ahmad Bradshaw and Trent Richardson) that run with authority and abilities to catch out in the flats, it puts lots of pressure on the oppositions linebackers and nickel corners to defend on the underneath routes. Point being – Allen (4), Fleener (3) and Bradshaw (5) have caught a combined 12 of Luck’s league-leading 17 touchdown passes. Vontaze Burfict is Cincinnati’s top playmaker at linebacker, but he and the rest of the Bengals’ backers have struggled in coverage. And the Bengals may be thin at an important part of this matchup — as both (Rey Maualuga, hamstring) and (Emmanuel Lamur, shoulder) have missed practice this week and are listed as questionable. If there’s a weakness for the Bengals’ defenses to take advantage of – it’s a vulnerable Colts’ offensive line. Cincinnati’s big and beefy D-front that features Carlos Dunlap, Domata Petko, Geno Atkins and Wallace Gilberry — has to have a top-level, havoc-creating outing by pressuring Luck from all angles — forcing him to throw outside the hash marks.
With A.J. Green likely to miss his second straight game due to a toe-injury, and Marvin Jones (foot/ankle) done for the season — Vontae Davis and Greg Toler, who’ve been outstanding cornerbacks in the secondary for Indianapolis, should fare well on containing Mohammed Sanu. But, that’s not going to be the main assignment for Colts’ defensive coordinator Greg Manusky’s group. The objective will be to keep Cincinnati’s running backs (Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill) from making plays in open space. Bernard is always a threat to leak out of the backfield on passing downs, so it will be vital for Manusky to keep one of his linebackers spying on Bernard. If Manusky’s defense can diminish Bernard and Hill on the ground, it’ll help his front pressure Andy Dalton with some blitzes on passing downs. The Bengals have the better O-line, but when it comes down to making plays in the passing game, Luck has more options to be able find favorable matchups on the fast track of Lucas Oil Stadium.
Pick: Colts 34, Bengals 31
Minnesota Vikings 2-4 @ Buffalo Bills 3-3 – TV: FOX
The Vikings’ offense got stifled by Detroit’s top-rated defense last Sunday. Detroit’s extremely talented defensive front made life miserable for Vikings’ rookie quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater) by sacking him 8 times, forcing him to throw 3 interceptions in the Vikings’ 17-3 loss at TCF Bank Stadium. And on the road this week, Bridgewater and the Vikings’ offense will square off against another top-quality defensive line against the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
How Minnesota’s offensive line fares in this contest will be vital to their success to sustain drives. Buffalo’s defensive tackles (Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams) are a handful to deal with on the interior, while edge rushers (Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams) are a nightmare to block on the outside. Williams and Hughes have combined for 8.5 sacks, while Dareus leads the defense in sacks with 5. Dareus has been one of the more havoc-creating forces on the interior, and Minnesota’s center (John Sullivan) and guard (Charlie Johnson) will need to create running lanes for Jerick McKinnon by keeping Dareus from bull-rushing through the gaps to stuff the run. Dareus is extremely quick off the snap, and if the Vikings allow him and Williams to penetrate to their ball-carriers before the handoff, Minnesota’s offense will be in for rough day on early downs.
Buffalo’s running game has gone missing between the combo of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. They’re averaging just 3.9 yards per carry that’s led them out of their offensive commitment on the ground. The strengths of Buffalo’s offense isn’t predicated off the pass, and due to the lack of being able to pound the rock, chances of going three and out and turning the football over puts their offense in an erratic state. The Vikings will likely keep safety Harrison Smith over the top on Kyle Orton’s top-target Sammy Watkins, but where the Viking’s defense needs to be sound is on the underneath routes. Rookie linebacker Anthony Barr has been outstanding in his first year in the league, doing everything well besides being a liability in pass coverage.
Fred Jackson is a dangerous option for the Bills’ passing game on screens, and is versatile enough to line up as a receiver with his route-running abilities. Bills’ head coach Doug Marrone and offensive assistant Jim Hostler should implement their game plan to keep Barr in coverage, taking him away from his strengths at the line of scrimmage. Minnesota’s offensive coordinator Norv Turner may need to go the exotic-route and use his playmaking receiver (Cordarrelle Patterson) on some fast-motion-sweeps, and use McKinnon in the screen-game to try to negate Buffalo’s stout D-line from pressuring his rookie quarterback. But, unless Bridgewater can make throws like Tom Brady did against Buffalo’s defense last week, Buffalo’s (Cake-Eaters) upfront should do enough to get off the field on third down.
Pick: Bills 25, Vikings 16
Miami Dolphins 2-3 @ Chicago Bears 3-3 – TV: CBS
Coming off a heartbreaking loss to the Green Bay Packers, the Miami Dolphins look to redeem themselves at Soldier Field this Sunday. Chicago has been getting it done on the road, but their home-cooking has been nothing good to serve for breakfast, lunch and dinner – losing both of their homes games thus far in 2014.
Like the Packers, Chicago also sports a range of giftedly talented receivers, with a featured running back for opposing defenses to prepare for. But unlike Green Bay, the Bears’ offensive line is better suited to protect quarterback Jay Cutler’s blind-side, with Jermon Bushrod at left tackle. But on the opposite side of Bushrod, right tackle Jordan Mills, a vulnerable part of the Bears’ blockers needs to up his game against Miami’s speedy-edge-rusher (Cameron Wake). Wake is arguably the best in the business in a 4-3 defensive alignment that has 4 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and 12 quarterback hurries. His dynamite speed and strength could elect for Chicago’s head coach (Marc Trestman) to use an extra-chipper on the right side of the Bears’ line by keeping tight end Martellus Bennett in to block on early downs, and running back Matt Forte on passing situations.
If Trestman’s offense is going to gain success on running downs, they’ll need to run the ball towards the left side of their line when they go outside the tackles on sweeps or when Forte goes out in the flats on screens — but stay the course of attacking between the tackles behind Kyle Long on the right side — as long as they avoid Wake from making plays. Miami’s defense has been golden on limiting running backs from getting into the second level of their defense — allowing only 3.8 yards per carry. For Miami to place Cutler in long distance passing downs, negating the dangerous Forte is imperative for their secondary going up against Chicago’s dynamic bunch of pass catchers (Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery on the outside and tight end Martellus Bennett in the middle of the field). Those three will have their share of opportunities to catch passes, but what Miami’s defense needs to do is keep them from beating them over the top for big plays.
Miami’s cornerbacks (Cortland Finnegan and Brent Grimes) are feisty, but their size can be an issue going up against the tall order and physical specimens of Chicago. Getting safety (Reshad Jones) back from suspension is HUGE for Miami’s deep end of their secondary. He and Louis Delmas need to keep themselves in good position in this contest. Cutler isn’t afraid to give Jeffery and Marshall chances to catch the football in tight coverage or on deep-throws – knowing his two freakish-talents have the ability to out-muscle and jump their defenders. Miami lost running back Knowshon Moreno (knee) for the remainder of the season – placing Lamar Miller to be the “Bell-Cow” of the Dolphins’ running game. Miller is a capable back to produce well enough against a shaky Bears’ defense, but what Miami needs is better discipline. Dropped passes and turnovers have stumped their drives. Miami’s quarterback Ryan Tannehill will distribute the ball on the intermediate routes, but the difference to me in this matchup (will be which offense can generate vertical attacks), and the Bears have the upper hand in that aspect.
Pick: Bears 27, Dolphins 23
New Orleans Saints 2-3 @ Detroit Lions 4-2 – TV: FOX
Drew Brees has had his way with Detroit in the past, but in their first-year under Jim Caldwell at head coach, the Lions’ defense has been better than the rest of the 31 teams in the league. However, key-injuries to their offense, has been the focal part of their struggles to muster points.
Joique Bell and Theo Riddick were the bright spots of Detroit’s offense in Week 6 against Vikings. Bell did most of the damage on the ground, while Riddick was used in the screen-game – catching 5 passes for 75 yards. Riddick will miss this Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury, but the good news during practice this week for Caldwell’s team is the return of Reggie Bush, who looks geared up to play this Sunday after injuring his ankle on Oct. 5 against the Bills. Matthew Stafford’s prime-receiver Calvin “Megatron” Johnson (ankle) will likely miss his second straight game, but without Johnson – I still like Stafford’s chances to find favorable matchups against a Saints defense that’s been getting tattooed against the pass. Rob Ryan’s defense has been the total opposite of what it was in 2013. His unit has only registered 6 sacks on the season, and if his defense is going to limit Stafford from finding holes on the backend, his top rushers (Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette) need to show up at Ford Field.
Saints’ tight end Jimmy Graham (shoulder) got some needed rest during the Saints’ bye, and from what looked like a 2-to-3 week recovery period for Drew Brees’ main-squeeze – head coach Sean Payton told reporters on Thursday that he feels optimistic on Graham’s availability against the NFL’s top ranked defense. Graham’s ability as the most dynamic athlete at the tight end position certainly helps, but the concern here for Payton’s team is going up against Detroit’s big and hefty defensive front. Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, Jason Jones, Ezekiel Ansah and George Johnson have been the main reasons for Detroit’s league-leading 20 team-sacks – 8 of them coming last week against the mobile Teddy Bridgewater. The Saints’ offense is at its best when Brees is exploiting defenses with his arm, but if he’s going to have a better than average pocket to work with, his offensive line better be clicking on all cylinders.
Payton does have an X-Factor, however. Running back Pierre Thomas has been a viable option in the screen-game for New Orleans’ offense. And neutralizing a talented front like Detroit’s can come from running the football outside the tackles, away from Suh and Fairley, and implementing the screen-game to draw the deep-end of Detroit’s defense near the tackle box. A healthy Bush does the same for Detroit’s offense, who I think can have a big game if he avoids any setbacks. I like this Detroit football team with Caldwell at the helm. It’s noticeable when looking into the culture that’s changed for the better, with the talent they’ve invested in starting to gel. And in these types of matchups, the better defense usually comes up with the decisive-stop in the 4th quarter.
Pick: Lions 24, Saints 20
Carolina Panthers 3-2-1 @ Green Bay Packers 4-2 – TV: FOX
The Packers are coming off a dramatic win by the hands of Aaron Rodgers, while a stellar performance by Cam Newton and Panthers’ offense was only enough for them to end up tying the Bengals in a high-scoring affair.
Carolina’s defense hasn’t been anywhere near of being a top-rated defense it was in 2013. And without the suspended Greg Hardy rushing off the edges, their lack of a pass rush has dropped their defense from being a 2nd ranked unit from a year ago to a 26th overall this season. And going up against a well-rounded core of receivers that has arguably the best signal-caller tossing them the football, the Panthers’ defense can be in for a long afternoon at Lambeau Field. Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson have been the best connection-duo between quarterback and receiver this season. Nelson currently leads the league with 632 yards receiving, while a healthy version of Randall Cobb has already caught 7 touchdown passes, second behind Denver’s Julius Thomas that has 9. And with the possible return of Jarrett Boykin from a groin injury – along with the emergence of second round pick Davante Adams, Rodgers, who’s already out to a magnificent start, looks primed to guide his Packers and keep them ahead of the pack in the AFC North.
The Panthers’ offense has been lacking balance. DeAngelo Williams is out with an ankle-injury, and their running game has been down to Fozzy Whittaker and Darrin Reaves in recent weeks. That’s left head coach Ron Rivera’s offense to rely on the arm and legs of Newton to help move the chains. And though Newton has been getting it done through the air, the Panthers would still like to have one of their key-assets in the backfield (Jonathan Stewart) back. Stewart (knee) is listed as questionable, but has said he expects to play this Sunday. Green Bay’s defense has been putrid against the run – ranked dead last in the league, allowing rushing attacks to average 154.5 yards per game against them. Green Bay’s defensive coordinator Dom Capers needs to be ready for the option. Last week, Newton ran the option numerous times for 107 yards and a score against a Bengals’ defense that’s much more formidable than Capers’.
If Newton is able to utilize the option as good as he did last week, it could setup the play-action pass and place Green Bay’s linebackers out of position, connecting towards the middle of the field to his tight end Greg Olsen. The Panthers may be without the services of rookie receiver (Kelvin Benjamin). Benjamin is dealing with a concussion, and his status will be clarified later this weekend. The Packers might be thin at cornerback, with Tramon Williams and Sam Shields nursing injuries. Benjamin is a big target in the red zone that can catch the football by using his physicality on fade-routes, and on vertical-routes on the outside. Capers’ defense would surely hope that Williams and Shields would be healthy by Sunday to go toe-to-toe on the talented rookie. The Panthers can control this game with their methodical approach, but unless Panthers’ defensive coordinator Sean McDermott formulates pressure-packages to get Rodgers out of rhythm, even containing Eddie Lacy won’t be enough for Carolina to come away with a win.
Pick: Packers 34, Panthers 27
4:05 PM ET
Kansas City Chiefs 2-3 @ San Diego Chargers 5-1 – TV: CBS
The Chargers have won five in a row for the first time since their eleven-game winning streak during the 09 season. A win against their division rivals at Qualcomm Stadium will extend their four-game winning streak against the Chiefs to five. The Chiefs are coming off their bye week, looking to get back to .500 against the red hot Philip Rivers and the Chargers, who are tied with the Eagles and Cowboys with the best record in the league at 5-1.
Going up against a prolific offense is always a tough task for any defense, but when you have a reliable running game like the Chiefs do – playing keep-away by controlling the tempo is always a viable plan in the works. Andy Reid’s squad is based off of using his scat back (Jamaal Charles) – one of the more explosive playmakers at the running back position that’s capable of taking it to the house when the ball is in his hands — rather on the ground or in the passing game. Spell-back (Knile Davis) has also been a key contributor to Kansas City’s strengths on offense. The Chargers have been solid against the run defensively, but has only faced one true offense that possesses a top rushing attack in Week 2 against the Seahawks. John Pagano’s unit is ranked 12th against the run, allowing just under 100 yards per game, but the challenge his defense has before them will be their toughest task – going up against a change-of-pace set of runners.
In most cases, offenses that are productive on the ground formulate balanced attacks from the run dictating the pass, but that hasn’t been established in 2014 for Kansas City’s air-game. In fact, none of their receivers have touchdown catches and are lacking a deep-threat, with Donnie Avery nursing a core-muscle injury. Dwayne Bowe is Alex Smith’s best receiver that’ll be matched up with San Diego’s cornerback (Brandon Flowers), a former teammate of Bowe, who’s recorded two interceptions in his first year with the Chargers. Bowe may be Smith’s top receiver, but his best option in the passing game has been emerging tight end (Travis Kelce). Kelce has scored in three straight games as a speedy-tight-end that’s capable of gaining yards after the catch — so it will be vital for San Diego’s backend of their defense to stop him in his tracks in the open field.
The Chargers’ offense has been centralized on the hot hand of Philip Rivers, who’s in the MVP discussion as we near the halfway-point of the season. But – last season it was the Chargers’ running game that led them on their surge to the postseason. This season, starting running back (Ryan Mathews) is currently out due to a knee-injury, Danny Woodhead (ankle), a viable option in the screen-game has been placed on injured-reserve, and Donald Brown has yet to pass the concussion protocol. Sounds like a running game in disarray, right? The truth of the matter is – Rivers and the Chargers’ offense might have found a featured back for their foreseeable future in rookie Branden Oliver, who’s ran for over 100 yards, while scoring a touchdown in each of his last two games — taking over for the injured-plagued Chargers’ runners. It’s going to be up to Kansas City’s front, with Tamba Hali and Justin Houston rushing on the outside – along with nose tackle Dontari Poe to get some bench press pushes to get in the face of Rivers, but looking at Rivers’ weapons he uses on a variety on combination-alignments – plus a playmaking back, Kansas City’s defense looks doomed in this matchup.
Pick: Chargers 31, Chiefs 24
4:25 PM ET
Arizona Cardinals 4-1 @ Oakland Raiders 0-5 – TV: FOX
In his return under center for Bruce Arians’ offense, Carson Palmer ignited a spark for Arizona’s passing game – connecting with Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd for scores in the Cardinals’ 30-20 win over Washington, to stay atop the NFC West.
Winning games hasn’t been a feat of accomplishment for the Oakland Raiders these days, but what they do have is a sense of direction at the quarterback position. In the Raiders’ 31-28 loss to the Chargers, rookie quarterback (Derek Carr) threw 4 touchdown passes. Carr has shown confidence on testing pass-defenders with some swagger to his play. So far in his rookie campaign, Carr has completed 61.1 percent of his passes for 1,016 yards, 8 touchdown passes, and 5 interceptions. Not bad for youngster that has nothing more than only one true veteran receiver (James Jones) to chuck the football to. The quarterback position might not be the only position in which the Raiders have a future with. Third-year receiver Andre Holmes, who sports a 6’ 4”, 210 lbs. frame has been coming on strong over the last two weeks for the Raiders’ aerial attack. Carr has targeted Holmes 20 times – completing 9 passes for 195 yards and 3 scores with him during that span.
Arizona’s Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie will challenge both Jones and Holmes by applying press-coverage to try to stump them off their routes. The Raiders do have a quality set of backs, with Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew, but their subpar offensive line doesn’t fit the bill against an Arizona defense that’s holding opponents to just 75.8 yards per contest against the run. Cardinals’ defensive coordinator (Todd Bowles) likes to use some extra-rushers at the line of scrimmage, and make no mistake – he will throw some pressure-packages toward the Raiders’ inexperienced signal-caller on passing downs. Bowles’ pass defense is ranked last in the league, allowing 309 yards per game, but the plus side of things of being an opportunistic group of ball-hawks – has them up the ladder in takeaways (8 interceptions, 3 recovered fumbles and a defensive touchdown).
The Raiders’ defense has been horrific against the run, allowing 149.8 yards per game. And going up against Arizona’s elusive-running back (Andre Ellington) doesn’t let the sun out on a rainy day for them in this matchup. Arizona’s offense is much better in Arian’s vertical system with Palmer running it. Drew Stanton was able to manage the offense, but attacking defenses downfield were limited. Arizona should be able to move the football well, with balance to set Palmer up to connect big with Fitzgerald and Floyd.
Pick: Cardinals 26, Raiders 16
N.Y. Giants 3-3 @ Dallas Cowboys 5-1 – TV: FOX
After winning three straight games to revamp themselves from a 0-2 start, Tom Coughlin’s Giants were humiliated by the Eagles (27-0) on national television in Week 6. His team, once again, looks to redeem themselves with a win at AT&T Stadium against the surging Dallas Cowboys – who’ve won five straight after losing their opener to San Francisco.
One of the more intriguing stories among the coaches-circle this season has been Cowboys’ defensive coordinator (Rod Marinelli) getting a Cowboys’ defense to play with integrity, with a much more aggressive attitude than when Monte Kiffin ran the defense in 2013. A defense that was historically the third-worst defense ever to step foot on a football field has made a significant jump from last to 15th overall in 2014. Marinelli’s approach this season has the Cowboys’ defense using more disguised blitzes at the line of scrimmage. In their win over defending champion Seattle last week, Marinelli used seven-man rushes, with linebackers Kevin Durant, Rolando McClain and even cornerback Orlando Scandrick up in the box. Their disguised looks are freeing up rushers, and even though the stat-sheets don’t have Marinelli’s defense atop the league in sacks, they’ve been forcing quarterbacks to throw on the run.
When Eli Manning is protected, he’s dangerous – when he’s not, the Giants offense sputters. Pressured fronts from Philadelphia’s speedy defense brought Eli Manning to the ground 6 times, never putting New York’s offense in a comfort zone. Losing slot-specialist-receiver (Victor Cruz) to a season-ending-injury is a HUGE blow to offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s offense, but where his offense needs to attack Dallas’ defense is on the ground. The Cowboys’ defense has shown some woes against the run. Rashad Jennings (knee) will miss second straight game, leaving rookie running back Andre Williams as New York’s prime ball-carrier in his absence. Dallas’ defense has also shown to be susceptible against tight ends, and if Williams and the Giants’ ground attack can put forth a solid effort — it’ll put Eli Manning in high-percentage passing situations to get the football to tight end Larry Donnell. Cruz is a major loss, but the Giants still have a quality group for Eli to be able to connect with. One in particular will be rookie receiver (Odell Beckham Jr.) — New York’s new number one target, who has upside to his game. How he fares against Dallas’ cornerbacks (Orlando Scandrick and Brandon Carr) will be the determining factor of New York’s chances of being able to get anything vertical going on passing downs.
The more difficult assignments in this matchup will be how Giants’ defensive coordinator Perry Fewell decides to align his defense against league-leading rusher DeMarco Murray. Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo has healthy-range of talent in the passing game that he can exploit New York’s secondary with. If Fewell decides to bring extra defenders down to crowd the box to help slow down the powerful Murray running behind the best offensive line in the game — that could leave Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams singled up on the outside. Fewell needs to pick his poison here. Does he take chances with pressured fronts to try to throw Romo off rhythm, or does he keep most of his defenders in coverage to take away the deep-pass? Either way, the balance the Cowboys have going by setting the pace on the ground with Murray, is setting up the play-action pass. And unless Fewell’s defense proves to keep Murray from gaining chunks of yardage on early downs, the Cowboys’ offense should be able to up New York’s.
Pick: Cowboys 30, N.Y. Giants 24
Sunday Night Football in America 8:30 PM ET – TV: NBC
San Francisco 49ers 4-2 @ Denver Broncos 4-1
The 49ers and Broncos boast some household names on both sides of the ball, but the center of attraction that’ll have spectators’ eyes glued to — is future Hall of Fame quarterback (Peyton Manning), who needs two touchdown passes to tie and three to overtake the legendary Brett Favre as the all-time leader in touchdown passes.
That’s the buzz-like things kicking in as far as story-lines go, but in all seriousness – this could be a potential early-season Super Bowl preview. Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers are known for grinding things out with power-back Frank Gore, while Peyton Manning and the Broncos continue to dissect defenses with their bona fide receivers (Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders) – along with tight end Julius Thomas, who leads the NFL in touchdown catches with 9. It’s hard to find many quarterbacks that get rid of the ball as quick as Manning, and he has an upper-level offensive line protecting him that San Francisco’s defensive front needs to be able to get past to pressure him. Coach Harbaugh’s defense was lacking pressure upfront before their contest with St. Louis, but his defense registered 5 sacks in their 31-17 win over the Rams.
The 49ers’ defense has been picking things up over their three-game winning streak — but the injury-bug has been a malicious-virus to their defense. Already without linebackers Aldon Smith (suspension) and NaVorro Bowman (knee) – the 49ers will be without Patrick Willis, who suffered a toe-injury on Monday. Losing Willis in this matchup is a significant loss on defending Denver’s passing game in the middle of the field. Willis not only is a tackling machine, but a vital asset on dropping back into coverage when defending tight ends and running backs in the flats. Willis’ absence will likely place third-round draft pick Chris Borland at middle linebacker. Upsetting Manning’s timing will be imperative for 49ers’ defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s approach, but how he uses it — will be the deciding factor on the success of Manning connecting with his world of options in the passing game.
Will he have his unit blitz on some some timed-blitzes or bluff before dropping back into coverage? All in all, the 49ers need to do it by scheme and hope for their front to win the battles at the line of scrimmage. Eating up clock on the ground with Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde should be one of the key-objectives for offensive coordinator Greg Roman to keep Denver’s prolific offense off the gridiron. But looking at what the Rams’ defense did on Monday by selling out to the run, Denver’s defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio may elect to do the same and put in on San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick to win the game with his arm. That’s not saying Kaepernick can’t win the game for the 49ers if placed to throw often against Del Rio’s defense. The 49ers have more ammo in the passing game this year, with the additions of Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd. And if Anquan Boldin can win the one-on-one matchups against Denver’s Chris Harris – and if left tackle Joe Staley can keep DeMarcus Ware in check, the 49ers should be able to sustain a healthy amount of drives to keep pace with the Broncos. The 49ers can win this game, and I know they’ve been doing it with injuries, but they’re very thin on defense to make enough stops to top the Broncos at Mile High.
Pick: Broncos 31, 49ers 27
Monday Night Football, October 20 8:30 PM ET – TV: ESPN
Houston Texans 3-3 @ Pittsburgh Steelers 3-3
It’s been an up and down season for both the Steelers and Texans – which makes sense to end Week 7 under the (Monday Night Spotlight), with both teams standing with identical records, winning as many games as they’ve lost through their first six.
Pittsburgh’s offense is loaded with talent, but scoring points over their last two games has been an adventure for offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s bunch. The Steelers’ offense has been held to 10 or fewer points (9 in their win over Jacksonville in Week 5 and 10 in their blowout loss to Cleveland last week). The Texans’ defense has been getting burned deep, allowing 271.5 yards per game against the pass. However, those statistical metrics could be deceiving, especially knowing the Texans’ talent in their secondary. Johnathan Joseph has been beat in single coverage this season, but he makes his opponents work for their catches. Joseph will likely be matched up on Ben Roethlisberger’s nifty, speedy, arguably best route-runner in the league – with great hands (receiver Antonio Brown). Brown stretches defenses all over the field, and Joseph needs to play tight in coverage when Roethlisberger decides to go over the top to his top-target.
Roethlisberger has been sacked 17 times this season – second most in the league. And going up against the most feared and talented defensive player (J.J. Watt) – Haley will need to find ways of giving Roethlisberger his best alignments for protection purposes. To add more on Pittsburgh’s iffy O-line’s plate, the Texans may get their number 1 draft pick (Jadeveon Clowney) back from a knee-injury on the opposite side of Watt. Yikes…looks like Roethlisberger is going to need to pull out his bag of tricks by eluding pass-rushers to extend plays from the pocket. To assure Roethlisberger has extra blockers, Haley will either throw his tight ends (Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth) to help on the edges – or when in their spread formations, with Roethlisberger working out of the shotgun – he may use his versatile running back Le’Veon Bell as an extra-chipper. But what the Texans need to be careful and aware of is Bell’s receiving skills. That’s where linebacker Brian Cushing comes into play. Cushing needs to keep his eyes on Bell and follow him on the anticipation before a screen-pass attempt is developed.
Houston’s offense is predicated on the run — keeping defenses honest by committing to Arian Foster, a patient runner that finds open lanes off of stretch runs in head coach Bill O’Brien’s running-scheme. Pittsburgh’s defense needs to keep Foster from cutting back against the grain. If Foster gets into the second level of the Steelers’ defense, he’ll be able to use his power to shed tacklers in the open field. What’s important here is how the interior of Dick LeBeau’s defense gets pushes off the snap with gap integrity. But what I’m expecting from LeBeau’s approach is (a utilization of some gap blitzes on early downs to slow down foster, and some manufactured pressuring concepts towards Houston’s quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick). Fitzpatrick does have talented receivers in DeAndre Hopkins and Andre Johnson, but when he faces pressure, he’s known to make mistakes. That should be the ideal approach for Lebeau to help Pittsburgh win in the areas of field position and turnovers.
Pick: Steelers 27, Texans 20
Bye: Philadelphia Eagles 5-1, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1-5
You can follow Massimo Russo on Twitter @NFLMassimo and SilverandBlueReport.com @SilverBlueRpt