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Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers‘ season can go up in smoke if they can’t come away with a victory against Drew Brees and the Saints at Mercedes-Benz Superdome this Sunday in the NFL. Plus, Calvin “Megatron” Johnson returns to action for the Lions, who host the surging Dolphins at Ford Field, while Jay Cutler and the Bears look to shock Aaron Rodgers and the Packers on Sunday night.
Thursday Night Football, November 6 8:25 PM ET – TV: CBS/NFL Network
Cleveland Browns 5-3 @ Cincinnati Bengals 5-2-1
Browns’ head coach Mike Pettine is in the running for coach of the year as we begin the second half of the 2014 season. A win for his team over the Bengals on Thursday night can put his them in the realm of being considered a contender in the AFC. More importantly, winning at Paul Brown Stadium could put the Browns in first place, pending on the Steelers outcome against the Jets.
Without Giovani Bernard (hip) carrying the football last week, Cincinnati’s running game didn’t miss a beat – as rookie back Jeremy Hill ran for 154 yards for 2 scores on 24 carries in a 33-23 win over the Jaguars. Bernard will miss his second straight game, but with Hill’s ability to do just about everything you want out of a runner, Browns’ defensive coordinator (Jim O’Neil) will need to get his front seven ready to gang-tackle the elusive back. It’s going to be interesting to see how O’Neil uses his fronts. Will he use extra defenders towards the line of scrimmage, utilizing strong safety (Donte Whitner) near the tackle box to help support Cleveland’s dreadful run defense? Or does he put trust in his middle linebackers (Karlos Dansby and Craig Robertson) to do the work? Hill isn’t just a between the tackles style of runner, so his outside linebackers (Paul Kruger, Jabaal Sheard and Barkevious Mingo) not only need to provide pressure on the outside to get after Bengals’ quarterback Andy Dalton – they also need to help the run defense when Hill bounces out to the edges.
In my opinion, O’Neil’s approach can’t be in sit-back mode. When Andy Dalton has time to throw without pressure in his face, he has enough ammo in the passing game to stifle the backend of a defense. And with A.J. Green back in the lineup for the Bengals, Cleveland’s cornerback Joe Haden’s duties against the star-receiver will be an adventure — if the Browns’ defensive front doesn’t get after Dalton. Cincinnati’s run defense has been identical to Cleveland’s, tied for second to last, allowing 139.6 yards per game — not being able to hold runners from gaining positive yards on early downs. Vontaze Burfict, a viable part of the Bengals’ defense at linebacker to help contain the run is out, nursing a knee-injury. The Bengals hope Linebacker Rey Maualuga (hamstring) plays, but it’s highly unlikely for him to suit up. Vincent Rey and Nico Johnson will need to up their game without Maualuga and Burfict against Kyle Shanahan’s zone-blocking running-scheme. You don’t know who’ll get the bulk of work between Terrence West, Isaiah Crowell and Ben Tate, but if the Bengals’ defense wants to take away the play-action pass from Brian Hoyer, they’ll need to make the Browns’ offense one-dimensional by forcing them to pass often, taking away their balanced formula that’s propelled them. Shanahan’s style at the point of attack can keep the game within reach by having an effective night on the ground, but my overall conclusion has me on the Bengals’ side of the gridiron, who I like to be able to stretch Cleveland’s secondary for big plays on passing downs.
Pick: Bengals 27, Browns 19
Final Score: Browns (6-3) 24, Bengals (5-3-1) 3
Sunday, November 9
1:00 PM ET
Kansas City Chiefs 5-3 @ Buffalo Bills 5-3 – TV: CBS
Making changes to your roster to help improve your ball club isn’t an easy task at hand. After Buffalo’s second straight loss in Week 4 against the Houston Texans, Bills’ head coach Doug Marrone decided to bench the franchises 2013 first-round pick (EJ Manuel). Manuel’s play was inconsistent, completing a low percentage of his passes in his four starts that played a key role on Marrone going with veteran Kyle Orton. And ever since Orton has taken over under center, the Bills have won three of their last four, giving them a feel of confidence to make a run at making the playoffs for the first time since the 99 season.
Both defenses have an abundance of players that create havoc in the trenches, and starting with Orton, who has a less effective running game than Kanas City’s Alex Smith, Jim Hostler – Buffalo’s offensive assistant coach should lean on getting the football out of Orton’s hands quickly, with a short passing game. Buffalo’s backfield is hobbled. C.J. Spiller (broken collarbone) will be out for at least the remainder of the regular season, Fred Jackson is still recovering from a groin-injury and is iffy to return this week, and replacement backs (Anthony Dixon and Bryce Brown) have showed no signs of improving the 23rd ranked rushing offense in Week 8 against the Jets. Kansas City’s defense is allowing 116 yards per game against the run, but in the red zone, they haven’t allowed any team to score on the ground. And if Buffalo’s going to be the first team to punch it in on the ground against Kansas City, it’ll be up to the interior part of their O-line to contain Chiefs’ nose tackle (Dontari Poe). The biggest concern for Buffalo’s blockers upfront will be right tackle (Seantrel Henderson) trying to stop the league leader in sacks, left outside linebacker Justin Houston. The Bills have put extra blockers against fearsome pass rushers this season on Henderson’s side, and they should do the same this Sunday.
The Chiefs have the horses in the backfield in Jamaal Charles, Knile Davis and rookie scat-back De’Anthony Thomas. Their offensive philosophy of moving the ball on methodical based principles can negate Buffalo’s talented D-line. Smith is completing 67.1 percent of his passes – much to do with designed plays for quick passes to his pass-catchers to gain yards after the catch. Smith’s favorite target is tight end Travis Kelce, who leads the team in receptions (34), yards (419) and touchdown catches (4). Not letting Kelce free in the middle will be one the objectives for Bills’ defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’ unit. He has the D-lineman (Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams) to get after Smith, but tackling well in the open field will be vital for Buffalo’s defense. If they do that well, they can take Smith out of his strengths and force to him be a downfield-thrower. It’ll hurt Buffalo’s chances offensively if receiver Sammy Watkins, who tweaked his groin during practice this week, ends up missing the game. Watkins can be used on quick slants and screens to keep Orton upright, and if Watkins is out, Robert Woods would take over his role as Orton’s number one option at receiver. What I’m mainly looking at between these two clubs is how both quarterbacks will fare under pressure, and which running game has the chance to be more effective, and I see Kansas City’s D-front derailing the non-mobile Orton, forcing him to thread the needle.
Pick: Chiefs 22, Bills 16
Miami Dolphins 5-3 @ Detroit Lions 6-2 – TV: CBS
Awesome, awesome and very intriguing matchup to behold here: The Dolphins and Lions have won three straight, doing it with tenacity on defense and converting on critical downs on offense. Miami is coming off a dominate performance, destroying the Chargers 37-0, while the Lions are coming off their bye after a HUGE comeback win over the Falcons overseas.
If there’s a coach that deserves lots of credit, it’s Miami offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, who’s implemented a game plan by design to help better the play of quarterback Ryan Tannehill. And when facing a defense like Detroit’s that sports a well-rounded core of talent on the defensive line, negating their rush doesn’t only come from having a big day running the football, but being creative can always drive an opposing defense mad. Looking back at their dissection of San Diego’s defense, seeing all the crossing routes and motioning in their backfield, with receiver Jarvis Landry used on these concepts is drawing in the backend of opposing defenses to creep up near the line of scrimmage, formulating singled up matchups, getting tight end Charles Clay open – along with utilizing running backs (Daniel Thomas, Lamar Miller and Damien Williams) as receiving options for Tannehill. Defenses also know that Tannehill’s been used on the zone-read, and with that element intact, your offense becomes multi-dimensional. The key here with Tannehill working out of the shotgun using all the play-fakes is freezing opposing linebackers – you don’t know if Tannehill is going to hand it off to Lamar Miller or tuck in the football and run out to the edges – or he can he find one his targets, ranging from Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline (I already mentioned Clay and Landry) or anyone of his backs in the screen game. If the Dolphins continue to run this with precision, the want to develop the deep-ball will start to work its way in.
Detroit’s offense should get a needed boost with the return of Calvin “Megatron” Johnson, who’s in line to return from a nagging ankle-injury that’s kept him sidelined for three games. Running back Reggie Bush has played in only one of the Lions’ last three games, and his ankle seems to be fully healed for him to be used as a threat in Detroit’s offense. Joique Bell should get the bulk of carries as the more hard-nosed runner against Miami’s top-tier defense. And like Miami’s ways of negating the oppositions pass rush but in a different way of approach, Bush can be big factor in the screen game barring any setbacks. Theo Riddick has been used in this aspect, and with Bush and Johnson back in the lineup, the Lions now have all the tools for quarterback Matthew Stafford to run with. The highlighted matchups in this extravaganza to me — comes down to six players that I think will determine the outcome of this football game. In the trenches, how Detroit’s left tackle (LaAdrian Waddle) fares against Miami’s star pass-rusher (Cameron wake), and how left tackle (Riley Reiff) performs against Wake’s counterpart (Olivier Veron) is going to be imperative for Detroit’s offensive success in buying time in the pocket for Stafford. Miami’s cornerback (Brent Grimes) has shutdown top receivers before, but going up against Johnson, the best receiver in football when healthy will be his most difficult challenge yet. I’m expecting a tight ball game, but zooming in on the level of confidence, Miami has shown me lots over the last few weeks, and if it wasn’t for Green Bay recovering their own fumble in Week 6, Miami would be a 6-2 team. I like everything they’re doing, and I think they keep the train moving at Ford Field this Sunday.
Pick: Dolphins 27, Lions 23
San Francisco 49ers 4-4 @ New Orleans Saints 4-4 – TV: FOX
The 49ers and Saints have both won as many games as they’ve lost through their first eight. The difference is the playoff outlook looks much bleaker for Jim Harbaugh’s team, while Sean Payton’s club stands atop the weak NFC South. The chips are stacked against San Francisco, but they’re capable of playing much better football than we’ve seen thus far – and a win over the Saints, who’ve won 11 straight at home, could be an inspiring factor for a second half of the season turnaround.
I’m just trying to figure out why the 49ers have gone out of their way that made them a contender over the last three seasons? And pin-pointing from my examination, play-selection has been a major-issue within the game planning of offensive coordinator (Greg Roman). Running back Frank Gore may be aging, but drafting Carlos Hyde in second-round back in May was supposed to be more than what we’ve seen out of the rookie up to this point. Bottom line – Roman needs to start getting his offense back in the avenue of getting his backs running behind their physical O-line – if the 49ers want to get back to playing top-level football. Some injuries and undisciplined play upfront can be highlighted, but the key essentials are just missing, and digging in the area of the aerial game, one of the better talented tight ends in the game (Vernon Davis) has vanished. Davis has been the 49ers’ best red zone target through the air in recent years, and after his two touchdown display against the Cowboys in Week 1, the 49ers’ offense has been terrible when in the red zone without Davis and Kaepernick, pitching and catching to each other. Anyhow, the goods are still there for them — they just need to re-discover themselves — if they want to be the first road team to come away with a W during the regular season at New Orleans since 2012.
Pierre Thomas (shoulder) and Khiry Robinson (forearm) are still questionable to return to the lineup for New Orleans’ rushing attack, but Mark Ingram and Travaris Cadet have been dynamo without them, mainly Ingram, who’s rushed for 272 yards and 3 touchdowns in his last two starts, while Cadet has been picking up the voids in the screen game without Thomas’ presence. San Francisco’s defense has been one of the top groups against the run, allowing just 85.6 yards per game. And they’ve been doing it without NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith at linebacker. Smith will return from his suspension next week, but where the 49ers can really use some help at linebacker is having a healthy Patrick Willis (toe) help defend the middle against Drew Brees’ top option in tight end Jimmy Graham. Rookie Chris Borland was magnificent last week, earning NFL Rookie of the Week honors in a losing effort, and if Willis is to miss this week’s showdown, Borland not only will be a vital part of stopping Ingram from gaining chunks of yards on early downs, but helping defend the seams against Graham will be needed as well. Safeties (Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid) have been a solid duo in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s scheme, not allowing offenses to beat them over the top. And you know the deal when it comes to the Saints’ passing game – if they set the pace on the ground and your safeties cheat up, Brees can strike you deep with Kenny Stills, Robert Meachem or rookie speedster Brandin Cooks. If the 49ers can play disciplined football offensively by controlling the tempo, they should be able to find soft spots in the Saints’ defense and keep Brees and gang on the sidelines. But from what I’ve seen these last two weeks, Sean Payton’s team seems to gelling at the right time, while the 49ers are searching for answers.
Pick: Saints 31, 49ers 24
Tennessee Titans 2-6 @ Baltimore Ravens 5-4 – TV: CBS
John Harbaugh’s Ravens were atop the AFC North before losing two consecutive games, and after a porous defensive outing against the Steelers in Week 9 – hosting a Titans team that’s riding a struggling offense into M&T Bank Stadium with a rookie quarterback this Sunday, gives the Ravens an optimistic outlook to get back on track.
Baltimore’s running backs (Justin Forsett, Lorenzo Taliaferro and Bernard Pierce) rushed for a combined 61 yards on 17 carries against Pittsburgh, and that’s not the proper recipe for success in offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s system. When Kubiak’s zone-blocking scheme is in full-flight, the better the passing game is for Joe Flacco. The Titans’ defense has allowed 134.8 yards per game against the run, and attacking them on the ground is a given for Baltimore’s offense. Tennessee has been fairly sound on generating pressure upfront, and if they want chances to rattle Flacco, they’ll need improvement from their run defense – if they want to place Flacco in long distance passing downs. Defensive end Jurrell Casey has been Tennessee’s bright spot of their defensive line that will need to win his one-on-ones against Baltimore’s left tackle Eugene Monroe.
On the perimeter, Flacco’s receivers Steve Smith Sr. and Torrey Smith are always threats to get open over the top. Smith Sr. will be matched up with Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who’s been playing better as of late at cornerback for the Titans. Coty Sensabaugh or Jason McCourty will be lined up against Flacco’s more dangerous deep-ball-threat (Torrey Smith). Ray Horton, Tennessee’s defensive coordinator may use some press coverage concepts with his top three cover-men to try to disrupt Flacco’s top options off their routes, and if Wreh-Wilson can limit Flacco from connecting with Smith Sr. on comebacks or anything else on the intermediate routes, it’ll help safeties Michael Griffin and George Wilson on the deep end of the Titans’ defense. In an area where The Ravens’ defense has been putrid, they’ll be without their top cornerback (Jimmy Smith), who’s dealing with a foot injury, but where the Ravens can catch a break here is dealing with a non-threatening Titans’ group of receivers. And it could be minimized without Nate Washington (shoulder). And Justin Hunter and Kendall Wright haven’t been making enough big plays in the passing game. If the rookie Zach Mettenberger’s chances of getting his first career win are to be anything on the upward, he’ll need his offensive line to stop committing penalties, and for his ball-carrier Bishop Sankey to do the dirty work on the ground. Look for Baltimore’s defense to have little respect for Tennessee’s passing game and use big fronts and blitz packages to force Mettenberger to make ill-advised throws.
Pick: Ravens 30, Titans 15
Pittsburgh Steelers 6-3 @ N.Y. Jets 1-8 – TV: CBS
It’s no secret the Jets are a complete utter mess. And as the days go by, the tick tocks on the clock are counting down to which firing will take place first. Rather it’s head coach (Rex Ryan) or changes to be made in the front office, team owner Woody Johnson will be making ramifications no later than after the teams final game of the regular season at Miami. Still, the Jets have seven games left to play, starting with the blistering hot hand of Ben Roethlisberger and Steelers in town at MetLife Stadium this Sunday afternoon.
It all depends on how much fight the Jets have in them to play a competitive game. One thing they can do is get pressure from their front seven on Ben Roethlisberger, but without that kicking in for them in this contest, Roethlisberger will be able to torch a Jets’ secondary that will likely be without Darrin Walls (calf) – leaving things up to Phillip Adams, Marcus Williams and Josh Thomas to try to put out the fire of a smoking Steelers’ receiving core that now has more in the tank outside of the dangerous Antonio Brown. Fourth-round draft pick out of Clemson (Martavis Bryant) has caught 5 touchdown passes since being installed in offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s system, giving Roethlisberger more threats in the passing game, particularly when in the red zone. Bryant has the size and physical attributes to out-muscle defensive backs and get separation as a downfield pass-catcher. New York’s D-lineman (Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Damon Harrison) need to get bench-press pushes off the ball to help their linebackers (Demario Davis, Quinton Coples, David Harris and Calvin Pace) get after Pittsburgh’s all-purpose running back (Le’Veon Bell).
Haley will keep Roethlisberger in the shotgun, using multiple receiver sets, with an extra blocker, using tight ends Matt Spaeth and Heath Miller. Spaeth is more of a blocker, while Miller is a viable receiving option on the underneath routes for Roethlisberger to target when his vertical options aren’t open downfield. Ryan will use some pressure packages, and with nothing to lose for his team that’s out of the playoff picture, he should take gambles and try anything he can to slow down a sizzling Steelers’ offense. The addition of Percy Harvin to the Jets’ passing game has given offensive coordinator (Marty Mornhinweg) a creative tool that should help Eric Decker on the opposite side of him. Running the football with Chris Johnson and Chris Ivory should be the ideal plan for the Jets to try to control the time of possession to keep their defense from being exposed by Pittsburgh’s offense, but they can attack them on the outside with Decker and Harvin. Brice McCain has been dreadful replacing the injured Ike Taylor at cornerback, and Cortez Allen has been a big disappointment for Dick Lebeau’s defense. Plus, safety Troy Polamalu looks like he won’t suite up due to a knee-injury. Michael Vick can carve up Pittsburgh’s defense through the air, but if the Jets are going to stun the Steelers, they need the intangible aspects of the game to be displayed for them by getting help form their special teams, and find ways to generate turnovers. Good luck with that…because throwing Roethlisberger off his game seemingly looks impossible at the moment.
Pick: Steelers 31, N.Y. Jets 19
Atlanta Falcons 2-6 @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1-7 – TV: FOX
What if I were to tell you the 2-6 Falcons are still alive in the NFC South? Sounds crazy, right? Well, if they win down in Tampa this Sunday — and if the Saints and Panthers lose — the Falcons will only be a game out of first place. In the clubs’ first meeting on Sep. 18, Bucs’ quarterback (Josh McCown) injured his thumb in a humiliating 56-14 loss at the Georgia Dome. And with Mike Glennon not helping Tampa Bay win games, McCown will be the starter once again for head coach Lovie Smith’s team that’s trying to put a positive spin on an a season that’s been abysmal.
The Bucs have a slew of injuries heading into their Week 10 square-off. Cornerback Alterraun Verner (hamstring) hasn’t practiced, which doesn’t help a Bucs’ pass defense that’s at the bottom pack of the league, allowing 285.2 yards per game. Defensive tackle Akeem Spence is also iffy with a hamstring-injury, leaving their defensive line thin. Linebacker (Lavonte David) left last Sunday’s game with a knee-injury, and if he’s to miss Sunday’s game, it would help Atlanta’s offense that features some dynamic talents to light up the scoreboard against them again. Doug Martin is still nursing an ankle-injury and is likely to miss his second straight game for Tampa Bay’s running game. Bobby Rainey ran for 87 yards on 19 carries in his place against Cleveland last Sunday, doing most of the work in the first half, until offensive coordinator (Marcus Arroyo) dialed his number only 4 times in the second half. Rookie Charles Sims will make his NFL debut, and if Arroyo wants to throw in the right plan for his offense, he better make sure Rainey and Sims are the focal part of Tampa Bay’s offense to give McCown higher-percentage passing situations – that’ll help him exploit a vulnerable Falcons’ pass defense with his tall and athletic receivers (Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans).
Out in London in Week 8 – Atlanta’s offense started out like a house on fire, scoring 3 touchdowns in the first half, but floundered once Detroit’s top-rated defense clamped down on them, not allowing the Falcons to tack on another point — in a game the Falcons ended up blowing away, losing 22-21. If the interior (right guard Justin Blalock, center James Stone and right guard Jon Asamoah) of Atlanta’s O-line takes Tampa Bay’s All-Pro defensive tackle (Gerald McCoy) away from getting into the Falcons’ backfield, the Falcons should be able to run the ball decently, keeping quarterback Matt Ryan situated to have an efficient day getting the football to Julio Jones, who should be able to roast Tampa Bay’s secondary. It’s no secret The Bucs and Falcons are playing bad football. And while Falcons’ head coach Mike Smith is on the “Hot Seat,” his team has less-uncertainties than Lovie Smith’s rebuilding Bucs in this matchup.
Pick: Falcons 26, Buccaneers 21
(Wembley Stadium in London)
Dallas Cowboys 6-3 @ Jacksonville Jaguars 1-8 – TV: FOX
After suffering back to back losses, head coach Jason Garrett’s Cowboys, whose offense has back-peddled over their last two games, will have some reinforcements back against Gus Bradley’s Jacksonville Jaguars. The center of attraction heading into London has been the health status of Tony Romo (back). Many have questioned the Cowboys’ decision on letting their quarterback make the trip to London – feeling the team should’ve rested him until after their bye week when their schedule becomes thicker for their final six games of the regular-season. Having said that, Romo appears to be ready after returning to practice on Thursday, and to add more good news in the health-pot for the Cowboys, guard (Ronald Leary) and right tackle (Doug Free) look ready to return as well.
The truth of the matter when it comes to Dallas’ ways of winning games this season has plain and simply been the running game. Last week, without Romo under center against the Cardinals, the ineptitude of backup Brandon Weeden making terrible decisions from the pocket — helped the Cardinals’ defense key on league-leading rusher (DeMarco Murray), who was held under the century mark for the first time in 2014. When Murray and the Cowboys’ ground game gets down and dirty at the line of scrimmage behind the five run-blocking-bullies of their offensive line — it keeps their defense off the field, keeping them from being exposed. In Cowboys’ offensive coordinator Scott Linehan’s system, the running game has helped setup the play-action pass for big gains, but when facing pressured fronts against the Redskins and Cardinals, the game plan within the pass has been far too basic. Jacksonville may be vulnerable against the run, but they’re getting after the quarterback and have brought signal-callers to the ground 27 times, tied for third best with Kansas City. This is still a copy-cat league, and you have to account that Bob Babich, Jacksonville’s defensive coordinator can steal a page from Washington and Arizona’s defensive strategy by playing a numbers game against Dallas’ front.
Jackonville’s defensive tackle (Sen’Derrick Marks) and defensive ends (Red Bryant and Chris Clemons) are one of the better trio’s of down-lineman forces in the league. If Jacksonville’s defense is going to slow down Murray and keep him from gashing them on running downs, Marks will need to be a driving force on the interior where the Cowboys are best on developing running lanes. If Marks does damage, it’ll help Clemons and Bryant on the edges against Dallas’ stout tackles (Doug Free and Tyron Smith). It wouldn’t surprise me if Babich uses some fire-blitzes towards Romo, and if that’s the case, Linehan needs to throw in the short passing game – utilizing screens to his backs (Murray, Dunbar and Randle) or quick screens on some trips sets to Dez Bryant. We’ve seen lots of offenses use these concepts to counter blitzes. Linehan also needs to move Dez Bryant around. Motioning guys around can also create confusion for opposing back ends, and Linehan can’t always put trust in his talents to win the one-on-ones. I’m expecting Bryant to be double teamed, but if Linehan can line him up in the slot and motion him around, and get the screen game going, it could back the Jaguars’ defense off the line of scrimmage. Surely, it would help Romo’s find his other options — Jason Witten, Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley springing free downfield. Jacksonville’s best offensive player is running back (Denard Robinson). Robinson has given the Jaguars an effective ground game since taking over the lead-role in Week 7. Ronaldo McClain, Dallas’ best linebacker is dealing with a shoulder-injury and is questionable, and if McClain is out, rookie Anthony Hitchens, who’s performed well, will take his place in the middle and will be a key contributor in trying to contain Jacksonville’s nifty and speedy runner. Though the Cowboys have lacked a pass rush, I like their chances to finally get after the quarterback against Jacksonville’s subpar O-line – forcing a few mistakes from Jacksonville’s first-year gun-slinger (Blake Bortles).
Pick: Cowboys 27, Jaguars 14
4:05 PM ET
Denver Broncos 6-2 @ Oakland Raiders 0-8 – TV: CBS
After getting trounced by the New England Patriots on the road, Peyton Manning and the Broncos should be ready to take advantage of the winless Raiders out west this week. During the stretch of a four-game winning streak, Manning averaged 330 yards passing per game, throwing 14 touchdown passes to only 2 interceptions.
Although running back Ronnie Hillman was a solid option in the screen game for Denver’s offense in a losing effort, the ground game stumbled, as Hillman ran for only 16 yards on 10 carries against the Patriots. The Broncos have had success with Hillman being the lead-runner in the Broncos’ backfield since Montee Ball went down with a groin-injury. And going up against a Raiders’ defense that’s allowing 132.5 yards per game on the ground — Hillman should find enough lanes to get Denver’s running game moving in the right direction this weekend. Ball remains questionable, and if he’s to miss his fifth straight game, C.J. Anderson and Juwan Thompson will spell Hillman. Pressuring an elite quarterback will always be a prime-objective for any defensive coordinator, and in this matchup, Oakland’s coordinator on the defensive side of the ball will need to choose wisely on the concepts of pressure. Using crowded box alignments against Denver’s quick-short passing game can be costly, and it isn’t a must for Denver to have a stellar game on the ground to move the football.
What Tarver can use is his best blitzing option, however. Rookie linebacker (Khalil Mack) is his best talent upfront to provide pressure, and using Mack to blitz through gaps, using his gifted athletic traits to get around Denver’s blockers should be in the game plan for Tarver, while having as much defensive backs to cover Manning’s slew of talented targets to defend the pass. Manning’s top two receivers (Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas) are as good as any tandem could get, and to play it safe, Tarver should keep his safeties (Charles Woodson and Brandian Ross) in Cover 2 for most of the game to minimize Manning from going over the top to his speedy receivers. Tight end Julius Thomas is a red zone nightmare for opposing defenses, who leads the league with 10 touchdown receptions. Woodson is better in coverage than Ross, and when the Broncos are in striking distance, Woodson will need to support Oakland’s linebackers against the bona fide tight end. Darren McFadden is an extreme talent at running back for Oakland, but injuries have plagued him throughout his career. Adding Maurice Jones-Drew hasn’t helped the cause for the Raiders’ woes on trying to establish the run. If Derek Carr is going to find life in the pocket of an NFL quarterback to continue be smooth behind his offensive line that’s been giving him good protection, McFadden and his change-of-pace runner need to be productive to neutralize Denver’s star-tandem linebackers (DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller). Jack Del Rio’s defense has been better than any defense against the run, and making the rookie Carr throw lots will be the pedigree to force turnovers. Denver got embarrassed by the Patriots last week, and they should be able to take their frustrations out on the rebuilding Raiders, convincingly.
Pick: Broncos 41, Raiders 24
4:25 PM ET
St. Louis Rams 3-5 @ Arizona Cardinals 7-1 – TV: FOX
Sporting the best record in all of football, Bruce Arians’ Cardinals look to start their season with eight wins out of their first nine games – a feat the Cardinals’ franchise hasn’t reached since 1948 when based in Chicago. And though the Cardinals are comfortable favorites at home, Jeff Fisher’s Rams have been up to par with their division foes, winning two of their three NFC West battles this season — defeating the Seahawks and 49ers.
Heading into the season, the Rams’ defensive line was looked upon as one of the better fronts in football, but without defensive end Chris Long (ankle), the Rams had just 1 sack through their first five games. Since then, their D-line has found themselves, registering 13 sacks, highlighted by their ferocious-performance in their 13-10 win over the 49ers last Sunday, sacking Colin Kaepernick 8 times. Arizona’s Carson Palmer isn’t anywhere near as mobile as Kaepernick, but what’s helping him stay upright is the protection he’s getting on the edges from his tackles (left tackle Jared Veldheer and right tackle Bobby Massie). Veldheer has been stout in protecting the veteran quarterback in Palmer’s five starts this season, but has yet to be put up to challenge against Rams’ top-level pass-rusher (Robert Quinn). The downside of the Rams’ defense is stopping the run, however. They’re allowing 136.2 yards per game in that department, and even though the Cardinals have rushed for just 724 yards as a team, running back Andre Ellington is handful for to prepare for.
Ellington has 872 total yards from scrimmage – 313 receiving and 559 rushing, with 2 touchdowns from the receiving and rushing end. Getting the football to your running backs in the screen game to gain yards after the catch becomes your running game, and in Arians’ system – you’ll see the Cardinals lineup in multiple spread formations, and in some packages, Ellington lined up in the slot, matched up on a linebacker to create a mismatch. The principles are vertical within the pass for Arizona, but the screen and short passing game makes their offense diverse with a slew of weapons to attack defenses. And if the Rams don’t find a way to keep Ellington from getting into open space on the ground or through the air, Palmer can have a field day with his mixture of physical and speedster receivers (Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, John Brown and Ted Ginn Jr.). Rams’ head coach (Jeff Fisher) and offensive coordinator (Brian Schottenheimer) should be well aware of Cardinals’ defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ blitz-happy ways. There’s no yielding in Bowles’ strategy to stop the run and get after the quarterback, and if the Rams are going to continue their success against their division opponents, they’ll need to maintain their pedigree of grinding things out on the ground and not be intimidated by Arizona’s large fronts. Rookie running back (Tre Mason) has showed some upside ever since he’s been the lead-ball carrier in the Rams’ backfield, but when it comes to creating turnovers, the Cardinals should do more in this matchup for their offense to capitalize on.
Pick: Cardinals 27, Rams 17
N.Y. Giants 3-5 @ Seattle Seahawks 5-3 – TV: FOX
Being the defending champs certainly puts a target on your back. And during that process, it almost seems impossible not to face adversity. The obviousness is having a much difficult schedule, and through the Seahawks first eight games, they’ve faced some prominent quarterbacks in the realm of record setting, league MVPs, Super Bowl MVPs and elites – ranging from Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning, Cam Newton, Tony Romo, and now Eli Manning, whose Giants are in desperation mode, needing a win at CenturyLink Field to turn things around.
Creating running lanes hasn’t been New York’s cup of tea this season on the offensive line, and with starting running back (Rashad Jennings) likely to miss his fourth straight game due to a knee-injury, rookie Andre Williams, who hasn’t taken advantage of his opportunities will get the start, once again. Statistically, Eli Manning is playing much better than his horrid 27 interception campaign in 2013, but the lack of New York’s running game is giving opposing defenses the luxury to send pressured fronts. The Colts blitzed Manning 16 times on Monday night, keeping the Giants’ offense out of sync, not being able to convert on critical passing downs. If things are going to change for the better, Giants’ offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo will need to formulate ways of getting his running backs enough touches. Williams and Peyton Hillis were used in the screen game against the Colts, and with Seattle’s defensive prowess of stopping the run, and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn likely to send an extra rusher towards Manning – getting the backs leaked out in the flats could help them find open spaces against Seattle’s defense.
Seattle’s defense may get Kam Chancellor (groin) back at safety this week, while the statuses of linebackers Malcolm Smith (groin) and Bobby Wagner (toe) are hindering more towards missing action. Losing Victor Cruz for the season has taken away Manning’s ultimate vertical passing threat, but rookie receiver (Odell Beckham Jr.) possesses breakaway speed and the ability to get open over the top. Manning will try to work the seams to his tight end Larry Donnell, but if he’s going to find room to work off the play-action to get the ball to Beckham Jr. or Donnell, New York’s offense must generate a decent level of balance on play-selection between the run and pass. Seattle’s offense has had their woes on execution, but with the return of center Max Unger (foot) and left tackle Russell Okung (calf) – two viable parts of the Seahawks’ offensive line should help in pass protection and open up some spaces for Marshawn Lynch to gallop through. New York’s defense has been awful, particularly in the red zone, allowing 14 touchdown through the air and 8 on the ground. Giants’ defensive coordinator (Perry Fewell) may use some overloaded fronts to get after Lynch and try to limit Russell Wilson from making plays with his feet. Since the departure of Percy Harvin, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has done a good job on moving receiver Doug Baldwin around, and with New York’s secondary banged up, without Prince Amukamara – Wilson and Seattle’s aerial attack should find holes in New York’s defense.
Pick: Seahawks 27, N.Y. Giants 20
Sunday Night Football in America 8:30 PM ET – TV: NBC
Chicago Bears 3-5 @ Green Bay Packers 5-3
It’s now or never for the Chicago Bears. If they pull the upset off at Lambeau Field on Sunday night, they’ll remain breathing, but a loss for head coach Marc Trestman’s team will throw them deep into the gutter without hope of solidifying their season. A win can be a boost of confidence against the reigning AFC North champs, but in order to do so, they’ll need a complete 360 from what they performed like against Aaron Rodgers and the Pack in their Week 4 38-17 blowout loss.
The Lamarr Houston experience didn’t work out for defensive coordinator Mel Tucker’s defense, but once piece of the new-look Bears D-line is still intact. Jared Allen has only 1.5 sacks on the season, but he’s still penetrating towards the quarterback, and he has a good chance against Packers’ left tackle (David Bakhtiari), who’s shown vulnerabilities from time to time, particularly last season on protecting Rodgers’ blind side. Willie Young has been the most productive player and sack leader (7) on the Bears’ D-line, and he surely will need to show up against right tackle (Bryan Bulaga). Pressure is definitely needed to throw Rodgers out of rhythm, but that might not be good enough for Tucker’s defense to stop him from torching his secondary. Rodgers is also mobile and good enough to extend plays from the pocket, so bringing him to the ground is imperative. Where Tucker really needs to be careful is how he deploys his safeties (Chris Conte and Ryan Mundy).
Single-high safety looks can light up Rodgers’ eyes, especially in man coverage on the outside, with Bears’ rookie cornerback (Kyle Fuller) matched up on Jordy Nelson, the best double-move receiver in the game. Randall Cobb is Green Bay’s most deadly weapon in the passing game that can lineup anywhere, drawing attention from safeties. Motioning him around creates lots of confusion, and if he’s lined up in the slot with Conte playing center field – Nelson can torch Fuller on double moves on the outside or deep-middle, especially if Conte bites the dust by going outside to help Fuller, while Nelson burst towards the middle, leaving him wide open for an easy score. If I’m Tucker, I wouldn’t dare use single-high safety looks for what I just explained. He should Keep Conte and Mundy over the top on Cobb and Nelson to take away the deep pass, and leave things up to his linebackers (Shea McClellin, D.J. Williams, Jon Bostic and Lance Briggs) to contain Green Bay’s power back (Eddie Lacy) from getting past the second level of their defense. Turnovers and horrendous defensive play cost the Bears in their first meeting with the Packers on Sep. 28. In fact, that’s been stumping them in 2014, and though running back (Matt Forte) has been outstanding – along with tight end (Martellus Bennett), two players that can have their way against Green Bay’s suspect defense, Brandon Marshall and Jay Cutler better start finding some comfort with each other – if the Bears want to match points for points against the high-octane factors of Green Bay’s offense. And if I’m going to glance in on the make or break things to take place this Sunday night, Chicago needs to show me they can play as a team for once this season, not just 45 percent of it to give me confidence on their chances to keep their season alive. And I’m just not feeling any leadership flowing with them.
Pick: Packers 38, Bears 24
Monday Night Football, November 10 8:30 PM ET – TV: ESPN
Carolina Panthers 3-5-1 @ Philadelphia Eagles 6-2
With Dallas losing to Arizona and Philadelphia winning on the road against the Texans last Sunday, Chip Kelly’s Eagles are atop the NFC East. However, starting quarterback Nick Foles broke his collarbone and will miss the next 6-to-8 weeks – leaving things up to backup Mark Sanchez, who’ll be the main man under center. Sanchez’ career started off nicely with the Jets, but his last couple of years became a nightmare – which led the Jets’ front office to force him out of New York. And with better talent around him in a well-operated system, one can wonder whatever’s remaining good inside of Sanchez can blossom in the city of brotherly love — in a chance to rejuvenate himself as a professional quarterback.
The Eagles also lost an asset to their defense at linebacker when DeMeco Ryans tore his Achilles against the Texans. Casey Matthews, who leads the team in tackles (45), will take over for him. Ron Rivera’s Panthers are still in the hunt in the NFC South, despite playing bad football. You can centralize the defense downgrading from what it was a year ago, but offensively, there’s no balance, primarily a lack of being able to establish the run has put a tone of weight on the shoulders of Cam Newton. The Panthers are averaging 94.7 yards on the ground, ranked 26th in the league, and if they want their defense to get off the field, the offense needs to start running the ball well. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are healthy, and if the offensive line can play much better than it has, they should be able to get the play-action pass going against the Eagles.
Newton has no more than one true vertical threat at receiver in rookie Kelvin Benjamin. Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant are possession receivers running intermediate routes. None of them really possess a great deal of speed, an aspect that’s burned Philadelphia’s cornerbacks (Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher), and safeties (Malcolm Jenkins and Nate Allen) should fare well on taking away the deep pass. Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen are the best options for Newton that Eagles’ defensive coordinator (Billy Davis) should key on – along with spying on Newton, who can be used on the option. Ultimately, if Newton is making plays with his feet, the Panthers’ reeling offense is better suited to sustain drives. What Sanchez has to work with is a reliable set of running backs in LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles. Sanchez has a good live ball, and in Kelly’s system, the screens they use on spread alignments opens up their vertical game for receiver Jeremy Maclin, who in his last two games has been off the charts – catching 18 passes on 23 targets for 354 yards and 4 touchdowns. And that plan should work well against a susceptible to the pass Carolina defense.
Pick: Eagles 34, Panthers 23
Bye: Indianapolis Colts (6-3), Minnesota Vikings (4-5), New England Patriots 7-2), San Diego Chargers (5-4), Washington Redskins (3-6), Houston Texans (4-5)
You can follow Massimo Russo on Twitter @NFLMassimo and SilverandBlueReport.com @SilverBlueRpt