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In their sixteenth NFL matchup against each other, future Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning look to guide their teams to victory for the AFC’s best record at Foxboro. Plus, the Ravens and Steelers look to keep pace in the AFC North at Heinz Field, while the Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals will square off in a Marquee NFC Showdown at AT&T Stadium.
Thursday Night Football, October 30 8:25 PM ET – TV: CBS/NFL Network
New Orleans Saints 3-4 @ Carolina Panthers 3-4-1
Despite their struggles, the Panthers and Saints are in good standards to take control of what’s been the weakest division in the NFC. Sean Payton’s Saints continued their home cooking, with an impressive win over the Packers, while Ron Rivera’s Panthers’ defense finally showed up, but couldn’t hold Russell Wilson and the Seahawks late in the 4th quarter in a 13-9 loss at home.
Panthers’ offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s pieces in the backfield will be in full strength against New Orleans. Jonathan Stewart provided some muscle last week, and with DeAngelo Williams returning from an ankle injury he sustained on Sep. 28 against the Ravens, Carolina will have their change-of-pace rushing attack geared up to work against a Saints’ defense that’s been fairly sound against the run, ranked 10th in the league, allowing slightly over 100 yards per game. The threat Shula’s offense has in place in a smash-mouth approach against Rob Ryan’s defense not only comes from his two backs, but the ability to use a triple-threat off the option will be an objective for New Orleans’ defense to key on. Newton had only four rushing attempts last week – much to do with Seattle deploying safety Kam Chancellor near the line of scrimmage to cut off the edges, and to limit tight end Greg Olsen from getting free off the play-action.
Now, the Saints don’t have the dynamite tandem Seattle features at safety, but Ryan’s strong safety Kenny Vaccaro will be a vital element on supporting the run and containing Olsen. Getting Williams back, a runner that can make plays outside the tackles on toss sweeps, should give Shula the green light to use the option. Newton can rollout and toss it to Williams trailing him, or fake the pitch and take matters into using his legs off the edges. The play-fakes can also isolate New Orleans’ linebackers to spring Olsen free over the middle off the play-action. Ryan should keep Vaccaro near the tackle box and have free safety (Rafael Bush) in center field on the deep end. Kelvin Benjamin is Newton’s lethal deep-ball, jump-ball target that will be matchup on Ryan’s top cornerback (Keenan Lewis). Newton hasn’t been shy to heave it deep to Benjamin, and has trust in him to use his physical attributes to catch the football in tight spaces. If Carolina’s ground attack sets up opportunities to stretch the Saints’ defense, Bush will need to help Lewis on deep-balls, particularly in the deep-middle.
Carolina’s pass rush was a much better force a year ago that was able to pressure Drew Brees in their win over the Saints at home. This season, without the suspended Greg Hardy, who recorded 3.5 sacks against Brees in that contest, Carolina’s front hasn’t been consistent on winning their battles in the trenches. Pierre Thomas (shoulder) and Khiry Robinson (forearm) will be out, but with Mark Ingram back hammering his way for the Saints’ running game, the Saints should be able to keep Brees upright, placing him in passing situations that’ll be in his favor. Luke Kuechly has been the backbone of Carolina’s defense at linebacker – stuffing the run and dropping back in coverage against tight ends. He and his counterpart Thomas Davis will be assets against Brees’ extremely gifted tight end (Jimmy Graham). Graham’ s shoulder seems to be healing up and it showed on Sunday Night against the Packers, and if Ingram and screen-game back Travaris Cadet are to be issues for Carolina’s defense, Brees should be able to have a big day through the air. This is a tough one to pick here because both offenses have the pedigree for positive outcomes, but I see more from New Orleans’ offense to be able to formulate singled up chances for big gains between the two.
Pick: Saints 31, Panthers 24
Final Score: Saints (4-4) 28, Panthers (3-5-1) 10
Sunday, November 2
1:00 PM ET
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1-6 @ Cleveland Browns 4-3 – TV: FOX
You can’t find much good when examining what’s taken place this season for Lovie Smith’s Buccaneers, but for Mike Pettine’s Browns, who stand in last place in their division like the Bucs, last place for Cleveland isn’t as far-fetched for them being slightly behind the first place Bengals, and tied for second place with Baltimore and Pittsburgh. A few scenarios could change the shape of the standings in the AFC North this weekend, but most certainly, the Browns need to take care of the reeling Bucs at home.
Over their last two games, the formula for success in Kyle Shanahan’s system of setting the pace on the ground has spiraled downward, rushing for 108 yards on 55 attempts. Last week, against a Raiders’ defense that’s ranked near the bottom pack of the league against the run, Ben Tate, Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West couldn’t find running lanes, rounding out a lowly average of 1.6 yards per carry. The Bucs’ running game has been silent for most of the season, and like their defense that’s had its woes against the run, so have the Browns – stamping the focal part of this contest on the running game dictating the outcome of third down situations. In this case, it starts upfront with some talented head-to-head matchups.
One of those matchups will be Browns’ left guard (Joel Bitonio) going up against Tampa Bay’s Pro Bowl defensive tackle (Gerald McCoy). Bitonio has been outstanding in his rookie campaign, and he’ll need to keep McCoy from being a disruptive element on the interior. On the outside, one of the best left tackles in the game (Joe Thomas) going up against Tampa Bay’s Michael Johnson will also be a vital battle on the edges. In Shanahan’s running system, getting out on the edges with his downhill runners is the prime setup to get the play-action pass going for Brian Hoyer. If the Bucs are to slow down Tate and West, McCoy, Johnson and top-tier linebacker (Lavonte David) will need to be forces upfront.
Karlos Dansby and Craig Robertson at middle linebacker, along with Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo at outside linebacker are a solid-core for Cleveland. Kruger leads the team in sacks with 5, and is coming off a 3-sack performance against the Raiders. Kruger has the strength and speed on the outside to get after the quarterback, and if Mike Glennon is going to find a comfortable pocket, his left tackle Anthony Collins, who’s been dreadful on the blindside of Tampa Bay’s line in protection, and in the discipline aspects of the game – will need a jump-boost upward in play. Glennon’s got a tall and athletic group of targets to throw to, and if the legs of his running backs (Doug Martin and Bobby Rainey) finally show up, negating Cleveland’s rush would help his chances of connecting with Vincent Jackson, who’ll be manned by Joe Haden. Jackson and rookie receiver (Mike Evans) have a size advantage against Cleveland’s cornerbacks, but it’s the skill-traits of Haden that will be a viable part of limiting long-distance passes. The Bucs’ lone-win came on the road this season at Pittsburgh, and they’ll have a shot if their running game and talented players on the defensive side of the ball make plays, but I like the Browns’ chances of protecting the football better.
Pick: Browns 23, Buccaneers 16
Arizona Cardinals 6-1 @ Dallas Cowboys 6-2 – TV: FOX
The Cowboys and Cardinals have been overachievers this season. That’s not saying they came into the season without any talent, but with key injuries and suspensions combined between both franchises, the outlook didn’t seem good when evaluating them during training camp. And who would’ve thought their Week 9 square off could have playoff implications on the line, with both squads representing the best records in the NFC? Bruce Arians has the Cardinals off to their best start in 40 years, while Jason Garrett’s Cowboys’ six-game winning streak came to a close on Monday night against the Redskins.
Garrett’s Cowboys were plain and simply out-schemed by Washington, mainly on passing downs against Washington’s overloaded fronts that sent fire-blitzes — rushing 7, 8 and even sometimes 9 towards Tony Romo all night long. The numbers game proved to be costly, as Romo left the game with a back contusion, but would later return only to continue to get harassed at the end of regulation and overtime, not being able to find time in the pocket against the Redskins’ rush. Romo will be a game time decision, and if he plays, he’ll wear extra padding. Backup Brandon Weeden has been taking all the teams snaps during practice this week, and with Romo more on the downside of playing, Weeden looks like the starter for the Cowboys. Rather Romo or Weeden gets the nod, offensive coordinator (Scott Linehan) needs to prepare his offense against a Cardinals’ defense that uses the same concepts of getting after the quarterback like Washington.
The Cardinals have blitzed more than any team in the league this season. Their defensive coordinator (Todd Bowles) has deployed many extra rushers towards the box, and it’s helped them defend the run, allowing only 77.9 yards per game. If there’s any good news in Dallas’ loss to Washington, it’s the continuation of their offensive line imposing their will at the line of scrimmage, as running back DeMarco Murray, once again, tallied for over 100 yards in Week 8. Center Travis Frederick, and guards Ronald Leary and Zack Martin have been dynamite on opening holes for Murray to burst through, and if the Cardinals’ run defense is going to be the first team to hold Murray under 100 yards, nose tackle Dan Williams, and defensive ends (Frostee Rucker, Calais Campbell and Tommy Kelly) will need to win their battles in a 3-4 alignment off the snap. If Linehan was smart, he’d used more double tight end sets by using Gavin Escobar in the game plan against the Cardinals’ fronts. This is a must when defenses get you out-numbered on pressure packages. The screen game can always help against the blitz, and it worked some against Washington’s blitzes. Murray is more than just a power runner — he can also catch out of the backfield, but Lance Dunbar, a speedster in the open field needs to be more involved in this aspect, while Joseph Randle gives Murray a breather in a spell role.
Where there’s a weakness — there’s room for dissection, and though the Cardinals have been solid against the run, they’ve been porous against the pass, allowing 302.9 yard per game, ranked last in the league. And the best individual matchup will be Dez Bryant lining up across from Patrick Peterson. Peterson is one of the most athletically gifted cornerbacks in the game, but has struggled this season. The two have matched up against each other before, with Bryant having a hard time getting separation, but Dallas’ star-receiver has improved his route-running and has crafted himself into more than just a freakish talent – becoming a fine tuned player at his respective position. If the Cowboys continue to gash defenses on the ground against Arizona, Bryant should have opportunities to make plays, with Weeden or Romo throwing him the football.
Arizona’s offensive line has improved, particularly on pass protection, and a healthy Carson Palmer has helped the Cardinals’ vertical passing attack. Larry Fitzgerald should be matched up on Dallas’ Brandon Carr, while Orlando Scandrick will be on either Michael Floyd or slot receiver John Brown. Dallas’ pass-rush has been dreadful, but with rookie third-round pick (DeMarcus Lawrence) returning from a foot injury, they could finally have someone that can get after the quarterback. The Cowboys will only be able to get pressure on Palmer if they can contain running back (Andre Ellington), and linebacker Rolando McClain and safety Barry Church need much better performances this week against the elusive Ellington. The Cowboys can win this game if Murray runs through the heart of the Cardinals’ defense without committing any turnovers, but I see the Cardinals winning in the department of takeaways to decide the outcome in a hard fought battle.
Pick: Cardinals 24, Cowboys 22
Philadelphia Eagles 5-2 @ Houston Texans 4-4 – TV: FOX
Protecting the football has been an issue for Chip Kelly’s Eagles, and going up against an opportunistic Texans’ defense, the Eagles know playing a disciplined game will be one of their prime focuses to rebound from a hard fought 24-20 loss last week at Arizona. The Texans have pretty much been in each ball game this season, other than losing by two-plus scores to the Giants in Week 3, and with physical elements and a few playmakers in their grasp, the Texans have the goods in place to knock off a looked upon contender.
When Nick Foles took over at signal caller last season, the Eagles’ offense became dynamite as an efficient unit, protecting the football, gashing the opposition with balance on the ground and dissecting defenses through the air. But 2014 hasn’t been the same painted picture, and in their last four games, they’ve turned the ball over 12 times, 3 last week in their loss to the Cardinals. A banged up offensive line has placed Foles in uncomfortable spots, forcing the issue, and a result – he’s throwing the football to the other team, with 9 interceptions through his first nine games – in differential to his only 2 in 10 starts a year ago. Those numbers can change for the better starting this weekend, however. Center (Jason Kelce) is likely to return from a hernia, an asset on the interior of Philadelphia’s O-line that will need to neutralize Houston’s nose tackle (Ryan Pickett) from keeping McCoy from exploiting the Texans’ running game between the tackles. On the right side, right guard Todd Herremans and right tackle Lane Johnson will be dealing with the best defensive player in the game, Texans’ defensive end (J.J. Watt). Watt has been winning battles off the snap throughout the season, and with rookie Jadeveon Clowney expected to get more snaps from his return last week, the Texans can make things erratic for Foles coming from all angles.
Like Philadelphia, the Texans have a top running back in Arian Foster, who’s having a comeback season after having injuries sideline him in 2013. It begins and ends with Foster for Houston’s offense. If Foster is getting past opposing linebackers and keeps Ryan Fitzpatrick from long distance passing downs – the Texans function smoothly. Foster has rushed for over 100 yards in each of his last four games, scoring 6 touchdowns on the ground and 2 through the air. Eagles’ defensive coordinator Billy Davis’ ideal plan should be to bring heat towards Fitzpatrick, and he could use some large fronts against Foster, with some blitzes to throw Houston’s quarterback off his spots in the pocket. That element will be vital to keep Fitzpatrick from connecting with receivers (DeAndre Hopkins and Andre Johnson), who both have over 500 yards receiving this season.
Philadelphia’s defensive backs (Nate Allen, Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher) are susceptible to the pass – the same with Houston’s Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson. Eagles’ receiver (Jeremy Maclin) is another player that’s having a comeback season that’ll be manned by Joseph. Maclin and Foles tore up the Cardinals’ defense, connecting 12 times for 187 yards and 2 scores. And if the Eagles’ offense can protect the football, they should be able to exploit a Texans’ defense that’s allowing chunks of positive plays in the secondary. Foster and the Texans’ patient offense can control the tempo and keep the game within reach by the final quarter, and I’m thinking both quarterbacks get harassed, but when it comes to going vertical, Foles is better equipped than Fitzpatrick.
Pick: Eagles 24, Texans 20
N.Y. Jets 1-7 @ Kansas City Chiefs 4-3 – TV: CBS
There’s lots of searching, tooling, finding and grooming for success on building a winner at the professional level. One of the more difficult challenges an organization faces is finding the right coach to lead the ship, but finding a franchise quarterback is the most difficult challenge in the process. The Jets have been a mess from the front office, all the way down to the coaches and players trying to create winning ways. And with a constant ineptitude of quarterback play, head coach (Rex Ryan) has benched second-year quarterback Geno Smith, turning things over to veteran Michael Vick to try to spark some life in the lifeless Jets.
On the opposite sideline will stand Chiefs’ head coach (Andy Reid), who gave Vick a shot at redemption in Philadelphia – after Vick spent nearly two years in prison for his role in a dogfighting ring. Vick had some good moments with Reid, but injuries and the end of Reid’s era in Philadelphia never turned out for the better of revamping his career. If Vick and the Jets’ offensive woes has a chance to pull off the upset at Arrowhead Stadium, their offensive line will need a top-level outing to neutralize the 4th ranked leader in team-sacks of the Kansas City defense. Chiefs’ defensive coordinator (Bob Sutton) has a hefty range of talent in his defensive-scheme. In the 3-4, nose tackle Dontari Poe is a run-stuffer on the interior of their three down- lineman, while their standup rushers (Tamba Hali and Justin Houston) at outside linebacker are speedy off the edges.
Houston currently has 10 sacks, leading the league — and if Vick isn’t going to see Houston in his face, his right tackle (Breno Giacomini) will need help on the right side of the line. I’d expect to see Jets’ offensive coordinator (Marty Mornhinweg) use his tight ends Zach Sudfeld and Jeff Cumberland as extra blockers in two tight end sets, while Jace Amaro will be used as Vick’s middle target on pass selections. Vick does bring some swagger and experience to New York’s offense, and if Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson can gain hard-fought yardages on early downs on the ground, Vick has a better arm than Smith, and he has two quality receivers on the outside to throw to, with Eric Decker and newly acquired Percy Harvin now part of the mix. Kansas City’s cornerbacks (Jamell Fleming and Sean Smith) will be assigned on New York’s top two receivers, and if Kansas City’s D-front continues to dominate upfront, Fleming and Smith will be able to fare well against Harvin and Decker.
Alex Smith injured his throwing shoulder against the Rams last week, but played through it, and looks good to go, barring any setbacks during practice this week. The Jets have some ballers upfront on their defensive line as well. Problem is — their pass-coverage has been one of the more weak-links in football, particularly against tight ends, and Smith has a good one in Travis Kelce. Only difference between the previous tight ends the Jets’ defense has faced is that Kansas City’s aerial attack is less of a vertical attacking offense. The Chiefs will keep the norm of feeding the rock to Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis to set the pace, but doing it with creativity is what can catch Ryan’s defense in disadvantages. Using the option with Smith and working off the play-fakes should keep their methodical approach moving positively against New York’s defense. And until the day comes when the Jets don’t turn the ball over on offense, I’ll start seeing chances for them to win a game.
Pick: Chiefs 27, N.Y. Jets 17
Jacksonville Jaguars 1-7 @ Cincinnati Bengals 4-2-1 – TV: CBS
The last four weeks of football have been a roller-coaster for Marvin Lewis’ team, but through their wild strings, a 27-24 win over the Ravens last Sunday put Cincinnati atop the AFC North. The Bengals are capable of playing much better football than what we’ve seen the last few weeks, and they have a chance to gain some ground and confidence, with the rebuilding Jags in town this weekend.
Cincinnati’s defense has been their pressing issue, notably against the run. No running back for Jacksonville managed to reach over 42 yards rushing through their first six games, until Denard Robinson took over the rushing duties for Gus Bradley’s team. Robinson has ignited some fire-power in the Jaguars’ backfield — eclipsing the 100 yard barrier in each of his two starts at running back. And with the Bengals’ defense ranked at the bottom pack of the league, allowing 140.7 yards per game on the ground, you can pencil in offensive coordinator (Jedd Fisch) dialing up Robinson’s number a large amount of times against the Bengals to help Blake Bortles keep his pass attempts at a minimum. The rookie is going through the growing pains of learning what it takes to be an efficient passer, and though the Bengals’ defense has struggled, they’ve forced 9 interceptions and are a plus 4 in turnover ratio this season.
The Bengals’ offense will likely be without star-receiver A.J. Green (toe) again, but the main objective for Jacksonville’s defense will be containing the Bengals’ running game. Giovani Bernard (hip) is out, but the Jaguars shouldn’t sleep on rookie back (Jeremy Hill), who can also contribute as a receiving option out of the backfield. Bob Babich, Jacksonville’s defensive coordinator has a rookie linebacker (Telvin Smith) that’s been displaying his speed and athleticism over the last two weeks. And with Paul Posluszny (torn chest) out for the season, Babich should shadow Smith on Hill throughout the game, trying to take away his ability in open space that could torch Jacksonville’s defense. The matchups are in Cincinnati’s favor, heavily. The Bengals should be able to run the ball effectively, and quarterback Andy Dalton should hookup with Mohamed Sanu, who’s stepped up nicely without the services of Green. Jacksonville needs to out-scheme, the Bengals just need to line up and play their brand of football.
Pick: Bengals 28, Jaguars 13
San Diego Chargers 5-3 @ Miami Dolphins 4-3 – TV: CBS
The Dolphins return to Sun Life Stadium after a successful two game road trip, knocking off the Bears and Jaguars to move above the .500 mark. The Chargers, on the hand, have lost two straight after winning 5 in a row. All in all, through the ups and downs for both the Chargers and Dolphins, their Week 9 clash against each other has playoff stakes riding in the AFC.
In Mike McCoy’s system, the Chargers line up with multiple spread alignments, some trips formations, double tight end sets, and a utilization of their running backs as receiving options within their philosophical ways at the point of attack. These formations can force linebackers, nickel corners and safeties to back away from the line of scrimmage, as every position, ranging from receiver, tight end to running back are threats in the passing game. So if you choose to send the house at them, quarterback Philip Rivers can find an open target on multiple occasions. The Dolphins have a stout defensive front, particularly on the edges, with defensive ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon. Negating them can come from a few ways – 1) double tight end sets, 2) keeping them honest by feeding running back Branden Oliver 20 plus times, attacking the interior, 3) keeping a back offset in the backfield as an extra chipper, and 4) going no huddle.
Whatever the options that coach McCoy has in his plans, he’ll still need his right tackle (D.J. Fluker) ready for the challenge against Wake, and his right tackle (King Dunlap) to contain Vernon on the opposite side. The Dolphins also have a herd of quality talent in their secondary that have some intriguing matchups. Brent Grimes will likely line up on Rivers’ best receiver Kennan Allen, and Cortland Finnegan will go up against the tall and acrobatic Malcom Floyd. Finnegan’s job will be to use his physical toughness on vertical routes – as Rivers will throw a few deep-jump-balls to Floyd, with confidence in him to out-muscle his defenders in tight coverage. Allen is the more diverse route-runner that will run slants, crosses and anything in the vertical-stretching-route concepts. Who Miami throws on Antonio Gates is the question. One thing is for sure, safety Reshad Jones will need to help Miami’s linebackers on seam routes, particularly in the red zone where Rivers has been in sync with the all-time tight end throughout the season.
Miami’s offense is based on playing ball control offense and being patient on developing downfield looks. Their principles can keep a prolific offense like San Diego’s off the field. Those basics stem from getting things going on the ground with running back Lamar Miller, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill completing passes on underneath routes to his receivers (Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, Jarvis Landry, and Rishard Matthews). Tannehill should find time in the pocket against a subpar Chargers’ pass rush, but what’s lacking for Miami’s offense is going over the top. Mike Wallace is capable of burning defensive backs on deep-balls, and I wonder if offensive coordinator (Bill Lazor) dials one up. This one is a coin flip to me and could go either way, and I’m expecting this matchup to come down to the wire. And I see an overtime battle San Diego wins to end their losing streak.
Pick: Chargers 27, Dolphins 24 OT
Washington Redskins 3-5 @ Minnesota Vikings 3-5 – TV: FOX
Riding on the arm of third-string quarterback Colt McCoy, the Washington Redskins stunned the Dallas Cowboys on Monday. McCoy’s outing was a solid one, throwing for 299 yards, completing 25 of 30 attempts, with a rushing touchdown. McCoy led the Redskins on a drive in overtime to setup a game-leading field goal, as the Redskins’ defense held the Cowboys on their next possession to hold on for a 20-17 victory. However, Redskins’ head coach (Jay Gruden) won’t be going with McCoy again this week, as starting quarterback (Robert Griffin III) looks healed and ready to get the start at TCF Bank Stadium this Sunday.
Redskins’ defensive coordinator Jim Haslett sent the house towards Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo, rushing 7, 8 and sometimes 9 in the box to disrupt the timing of Dallas’ passing game. And you can bank on Haslett to keep the pressure from his overloaded fronts coming against Minnesota’s rookie quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater). Committing to Jerick McKinnon, with some doses of Matt Asiata on the ground is imperative for Minnesota, but offensive coordinator Norv Turner needs to get Minnesota’s best talent more touches to potentially neutralize Washington’s blitzing fronts. McKinnon is capable of creating open spaces on his own abilities, and with immense pressures likely coming his way, the playmakers in the Vikings’ backfield can’t assume open lanes are a given. Quick screen-passes and creativity can get Haslett out of his blitz-happy ways – if Turner uses the concepts of bubble-screens, and Jet-sweeps to his X-Factor Cordarrelle Patterson. Patterson and McKinnon both have big play ability, and if Bridgewater can get them the football enough on screens, they can take it to the house in the open field.
Vikings’ head coach Mike Zimmer has transformed Minnesota’s defense in his first season at the helm. Minnesota’s defense has gone from being the second worst unit in 2013 to eighth best thus far in yards allowed per game this season. The recipe for success of a defense is to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and the Vikings have been one of the best, tied with Jacksonville for second best in team-sacks, with 25. Defensive end (Everson Griffen) has been the leader upfront on the Vikings D-line, while rookie Anthony Barr continues to make plays each week. Washington has a dangerous bunch of weapons for RGIII to distribute the football with, and if the Vikings’ defense doesn’t contain running back Alfred Morris — and if Griffen doesn’t win his battles on the outside against Redskins’ left tackle (Trent Williams), the Redskins will be able to run a balanced attack by diminishing Minnesota’s pass-rush. A healthy Jordan Reed at tight end gives the Redskins’ offense more room to create open looks on the outside, stemming off Reed getting lots of attention in the middle. Barr is the strong-link at linebacker for Minnesota’s defense on stopping the run and pressuring from the outside, but his lapses in coverage has made him a slight liability. Getting Barr away from the line of scrimmage and into coverage should be in the plans for Gruden to get him matched up with Reed.
DeSean Jackson is excelling in Gruden’s system, and over his last six games, he’s gone for over 100 yards receiving, and is coming off a 6 catch for 136 yard torching of the Cowboys’ defense. And assigned on Jackson will be Vikings’ second-year cornerback (Xavier Rhodes). Rhodes has physical-elements to his game, but how he fares against the speedy Jackson will be the determining factor of breaking him off his routes. Both defenses should be able to provide pressure, but which teams ground attack sets up for better passing down opportunities will prevail, and Washington has more weapons than Minnesota at their disposal.
Pick: Redskins 23, Vikings 17
4:05 PM ET
St. Louis Rams 2-5 @ San Francisco 49ers 4-3 – TV: FOX
With reports surfacing on players not seeing eye-to-eye with head coach Jim Harbaugh, off the field distractions and injuries, the 49ers managed to win three consecutive games after a 1-2 start. And after getting blasted by the Denver Broncos in Week 7 before their bye, Harbaugh’s team looks to put the negativity behind them once again, hosting the Rams at Levi’s Stadium this Sunday.
With a week off to heal key players on both sides of the ball for the 49ers, star-linebacker Patrick Willis (toe) looks ready to return to action – along with offensive lineman Mike Iupati and cornerback Chris Culliver from concussions. Jeff Fisher’s Rams are also dealing with multiple injuries, and they suffered a HUGE one last Sunday when left tackle Jake Long tore his ACL against the Chiefs. Center Scott Wells and guard Roger Saffold are also nicked-up — putting the Rams’ offensive line in dire-straights. In their first meeting on Oct. 13, San Francisco’s bull-dozing defensive end (Justin Smith) was a havoc-creating force, and with the inexperienced rookie (Greg Robinson) taking over for the injured Long, the Rams will likely use some extra help on the left side of their offensive line to try to negate Smith from harassing the pocket.
The Rams also have a dominant player on their defensive line. Defensive end Robert Quinn is one of the better edge-rushers in football, and he’ll be lined up with one of the best left tackles (Joe Staley) in the business. Quinn has been quiet this season, but if he’s able to win in the trenches against Staley, he can disrupt San Francisco’s offensive rhythm. He’ll have to, because 49ers’ quarterback (Colin Kaepernick) has tormented the Rams’ defense in their last three meetings, throwing 6 touchdown passes and protecting the football without an interception. Rams’ defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ approach in their first meeting was selling out against the run, and they negated 49ers’ running back (Frank Gore) from his prowess, halting him to just 38 yards on 16 carries. That plan worked to the tee, but it didn’t help Williams’ defense take away San Francisco’s aerial attack, as Kaepernick threw for 343 yards and 3 touchdown passes on 35 pass attempts. Limiting Gore and Carlos Hyde will always be in the plan, but I’d expect Williams’ outlook to keep more defenders in pass-coverage this time, especially with both of his cornerbacks (Janoris Jenkin and Trumaine Johnson) nursing knee-injuries and iffy for Sunday.
Rams’ offensive coordinator (Brian Schottenheimer) uses running backs (Tre Mason, Benny Cunningham and Zac Stacy) as a run-by-committee ground game, and when the Rams run the ball effectively, it keeps quarterback (Austin Davis) in higher-percentage passing downs. But when the running game sputters, Davis has been derailed. Last week, the Rams’ running game produced a slim 76 yards between their three runners, never creating opportunities for sustained drives. The Rams are thin at receiver after losing Brian Quick (shoulder) for the season, and if the 49ers defense stuffs the run, chances of keeping Davis under duress will be high. Creating turnovers and getting big plays out of their special teams will help the Rams’ chances of upsetting their rivals, but San Francisco has lots of pluses going for them in this matchup.
Pick: 49ers 30, Rams 17
4:25 PM ET
Denver Broncos 6-1 @ New England Patriots 6-2 – TV: CBS
The merits of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are a long lasting debatable convo across the nation between fans, large market networks, and QB rankings in the avenue of discussing which of the two Hall of Famers to be is better. Needless to say that they’re very, very good – no, check that, they’re great, and have constantly guided their franchises deep into the playoffs. Brady has more rings, while Manning has the numbers and MVP’s stamped on his resume. Anyways, let’s cut to the chase and breakdown a rematch of last year’s AFC championship game in a showcase-showdown for the top record in the AFC.
Bill Belichick knows his defense needs to be on guard when facing Manning and his world of threats at his disposal. When the Broncos came to Foxboro during the regular season in 2013, Knowshon Moreno gashed New England’s defense for 250 yards on the ground. Moreno, who’s now a member of the Dolphins, won’t be part of the game plan, and starting running back Montee Ball (groin) will likely miss his fourth straight game. Ball was supposed to pick things up for the departed Moreno, but injuries have left things up to Ronnie Hillman, who’s been remarkable in the absence of Ball. For New England to stop Manning from carving up their defense, they’ll need to deploy their fronts that best suite them to take away the run. New England’s defensive tackle (Vince Wilfork) and linebacker (Dont’a Hightower) are viable on the interior to stuff the run, while D-lineman (Rob Ninkovich and Dominique Easley) set the edges. I’m assuming Belichick won’t do much in selling out to the run, but those four players upfront are the keys for his defense to stymie the flow of Denver’s juggernaut-offense.
Without any doubt, Patriots’ defensive coordinator (Matt Patricia) will place Darrelle Revis on Manning’s most deadly weapon, receiver Demaryius Thomas. But what he does with Alfonzo Dennard and Brandon Browner will play a factoring role on Manning’s second, third and fourth options. Patricia could use Dennard on the speedy Emmanuel Sanders, while throwing Browner, a more physical defensive back on tight end Julius Thomas. My guess is that Dennard will line up on Sanders and Browner will be manned on Manning’s favorable red zone target. Thomas is tied for the league-lead with 9 touchdown catches, and Browner possesses the skill-set to potentially stop him in the red zone. Slot receiver Wes Welker has been quiet over his last three games, catching 6 passes for 63 yards and 1 score. And with most of the emphasis of New England’s objective on stopping Manning’s three best pass-catchers, Welker can finally find himself with more looks from Manning, and be the X-Factor for the Broncos on third down.
When the Patriots are on offense, coordinator Josh McDaniels will likely keep Brady in shotgun formations. Denver’s DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller are a relentless-tandem at outside linebacker. And getting them out of their usual ambushing effectiveness’s will come from making running back Shane Vereen the focal part of the Patriots’ offense at the point of attack. Vereen should receive a good amount of touches on draws, and when used a receiving threat — look for McDaniels to motion him around and line him up in the slot, forcing Denver’s linebackers into coverage. Jack Del Rio’s defense has been impressive this season, and no unit is playing better against the run. If the Broncos can continue their defensive dominance against the run, the outcome should be better for them on defending Brady’s bread and butter target, tight end Rob Gronkowski. Safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib has given Del Rio the luxury of two talented defensive backs that can go one-on-one with the opposition’s best passing game assets. Talib has been used against top tight ends in his career, but Ward should be the one to handle the duties against Gronkowski for most of the game. Whoever wins the turnover battle will be the triumphant ones, and Denver has the talent on defense to do it to end the Patriots’ thirteen-game winning streak at home during the regular season.
Pick: Broncos 31, Patriots 27
Oakland Raiders 0-7 @ Seattle Seahawks 4-3 – TV: CBS
The last three weeks for the defending champs has been full of uncharacteristic play and reports of locker room division. Heading into their Week 8 square-off against the Panthers, reports had it that the team wasn’t in good standards with running back Marshawn Lynch’s rumored attitude issues, and the trade-mill started to spark, with speculation on Seattle potentially making a second big-move after already shipping Percy Harvin to New York. But when head coach (Pete Carroll) was asked earlier this week on a possible trade, he told reporters, “we are not trading Marshawn Lynch.”
With that rumor put to rest, Seattle can now start focusing in on putting together consecutive wins. After topping the Panthers 13-9 last weekend, the champs return home against the winless Raiders as heavily favorites. And going up against a Raiders’ defense that’s had difficulty stopping the run, it’s time for Seattle’s offense to turn the tables and put it in gear to start the second-half of the season with a bang. If Seattle’s offense is going to get back to controlling games and punish their opponents at the line of scrimmage, a heavy dose of Lynch is their source of power. Seahawks’ offensive coordinator (Darrell Bevell) will look to get Lynch going out of the gates to get their offense back in sync. It’s going to be up to Oakland’s linebackers (Sio Moore, Miles Burris and Khalil Mack) upfront to be gang-tacklers against the powerful back to keep him from breaking tackles for large gains on the ground.
Though Percy has left building, it doesn’t mean that Bevell won’t use play-fakes with Russell Wilson at the snap – and with the zone-read still in effect, Oakland’s safeties (Charles Woodson and Brandian Ross) will need to help spy on Wilson’s ability that can dice Oakland with his feet — not falling for the play-fakes off the play-action that could catch them out of position. Seattle’s receivers (Doug Baldwin, Kevin Norwood, Jermaine Kearse, Paul Richardson, and Ricardo Lockette) aren’t a bona fide group, but they possess a mixture of speed, good route-running abilities, with skill-traits to get open deep. If the Raiders’ defense is going to get off the field on third down, they have to place Wilson in third and longs, otherwise Wilson will be in line for a sound game – keeping the chains moving from start to finish.
The Seahawks’ front four was finally able to get some pressure last week, hurrying the elusive Cam Newton 15 times. Oakland’s offensive line has been a quality unit in 2014, allowing just 8 sacks on the season. They’ve been much better in pass-protection, but when it comes to creating holes upfront for running backs (Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew) – they’ve been putrid – a big reason why they’ve been the worst rushing offense in the NFL this season. Derek Carr keeps showing signs of being a true franchise quarterback, but if he continuously has to throw the football 50 plus times a game, winning games at the beginning stages of his career are still out of reach. Look for Seattle’s defense to hold the Raiders’ running game from getting past the second levels of their defense, and for Carr to be in lots of passing situations of long-distances – a recipe for a convincing Seattle win.
Pick: Seahawks 27, Raiders 13
Sunday Night Football in America 8:30 PM ET – TV: NBC
Baltimore Ravens 5-3 @ Pittsburgh Steelers 5-3
In their first meeting against each other in Week 2, turnovers and penalties stalled drives for Pittsburgh in a 26-6 convincing Baltimore win. Since then, the Ravens and Steelers have had enormous offensive displays, and standing with identical records behind first place Cincinnati in the AFC North, the Ravens and Steelers look to keep pace, staged for what looks promising to witness a slugfest at Heinz Field before a nationally televised audience.
And in that first meeting, Ravens’ tight end (Owen Daniels) was Joe Flacco’s red zone target, scoring twice. The tight end missed last week’s game at Cincinnati due to knee injury, and what first looked as if he’d be ready for Sunday night’s showdown, Daniels has been downgraded to questionable. If Daniels misses his second straight game, rookie Crockett Gillmore will start again at tight end. Flacco has been up and down the ladder this season in terms of quarterback-rating, and when he’s on point, he and Steve Smith Sr. have been able to strike defenses for scores. In each of his games where Flacco has found the end zone with Smith Sr. – the well-polished veteran has gone over the century mark in receiving yards. But in his last two games, he hasn’t gone over 67 yards and had a late touchdown nullified last week against Cincinnati due to an offensive pass interference call. Bottom line – Dick LeBeau’s defense needs to keep Flacco’s lethal weapon out of the end zone.
The Ravens and Steelers have been fairly sound on defending the run. Baltimore’s backfield is more diverse, using three backs splitting touches between Bernard Pierce, Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro. Pierce was a healthy scratch against the Bengals, and it’s hard to tell if head coach John Harbaugh will throw him back in the mix this week. But whoever he decides to shoulder the work, Justin Forsett appears to be the prime ball-carrier in offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s zone-running-scheme. LeBeau’s linebackers (Sean Spence and Lawrence Timmons) will need to be on their game to stop Baltimore’s backs from gashing them on the ground. If they don’t – Flacco’s best case of getting the play-action pass going can stifle Pittsburgh’s vulnerable secondary over the top to Smith Sr. and his counterpart deep-threat (Torrey Smith).
Though the Ravens’ defense has better talent at the line of scrimmage, their pass defense can also be exploited. As the season has progressed, Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator (Todd Haley) has done some shuffling around with new additions, and rookie receiver (Martavis Bryant) has added another dimension to the passing game for Ben Roethlisberger over the last two games. Since Bryant has been part of the game plan – he’s caught 7 passes on 12 targets for 123 yards and 3 scores. Bryant gives Roethlisberger another red zone option with size that can be used on fade-routes in Pittsburgh’s spread offense. The factor here – is Bryant creating attention from linebackers and safeties to back off the box and place them in coverage in Roethlisberger’s favor. Le’Veon Bell is deadly-scary as an all-around back that also creates mismatches when used as a receiving option. The Steelers’ offense is loaded and in much better form than it was earlier in the season, and I’m feeling a much better result for them in their second round against Baltimore this time.
Pick: Steelers 30, Ravens 24
Monday Night Football, November 3 8:30 PM ET – TV: ESPN
Indianapolis Colts 5-3 @ N.Y. Giants 3-4
Classic matchup here: Not only do we have a 2 time Super Bowl MVP quarterback going up against one of the best young slingers in the game, but the Giants and Colts go way back to 1958, a year in which the “Greatest Game Ever Played” took place at Yankee Stadium for the NFL Championship that was won by the Colts 23-17. That being said, the Colts and Giants present enough talent that will duke things out on the gridiron of MetLife Stadium on Monday night.
If there’s a coach and team that’s familiar with overcoming adversity, it’s head coach Tom Coughlin’s Giants, who once again need a second half of the season surge to climb back to contention of making a playoff run. Doing so, will be another difficult obstacle to overcome starting with Indianapolis, before they travel to Seattle next week, and then return back home to face the 49ers and Cowboys in a tough four-game stretch. Andrew Luck and the Colts’ dynamic passing attack sports a variety of targets New York’s defense will have their hands full against. Indianapolis’ offensive line has improved from a year ago, and Luck has only been sacked 13 times this season, good enough to be ranked in the top 10 among pass-protecting groups. New York will need their best performance from their defensive line in order to slow down arguably the most dangerous passing attack in football. If this is the week Mathias Kiwanuka has a breakout game, going up against the vulnerable Gosder Cherilus at right tackle of the Colts’ O-line can make it happen. Cherilus usually has an extra-chipper on his side, with running back Ahmad Bradshaw helping in pass-protection. New York’s most viable defensive threat (Jason Pierre-Paul) has a much more challenging matchup going up against Luck’s blind-side protector Anthony Castonzo.
While those matchups upfront are vital, New York’s defensive coordinator (Perry Fewell) should realize that relying on his basic fronts might not be enough for his defense to throw Luck and company off their well-oiled-machined moving ways – so mixing things up with his defensive looks, sending a few extra rushers here and there need to be applied. Though Luck is tied with Peyton Manning for a league-leading 22 touchdown passes, he’s also tied for third most in interceptions, and the Giants have a couple of ball-hawks in their secondary that are capable of making plays, with Prince Amukamara and Antrel Rolle leading the way. The Colts aren’t as one-dimensional as perceived – they have a running game and with Trent Richardson returning from a hamstring-injury, he and Bradshaw give the Colts’ backfield hard-nosed runners that have a mixture of grinding things out on the ground, and as pass-catchers in the screen-game. Losing linebacker Jon Beason (toe) for the season is tough loss for New York’s defense, but Jameel McClain should fill in nicely to support New York’s run defense.
The Giants have suffered some key injuries on both sides of the ball, and offensively, they’ll be without their all-purpose back Rashad Jennings, who’ll miss his third straight game due to a knee injury. Like Bradshaw is for Luck in pass-protection, so is Jennings — and Eli Manning is missing that imperative element on offense. Andre Williams will get the go again in Jennings’ absence, and if Giants’ offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo was smart, he should prepare things on the ground to control the tempo to keep Indianapolis’ high-powered offense off the field. Indianapolis’ defense can be shredded — evidence proved that against the Steelers last week, and even without Victor Cruz, Eli Manning still has enough ammo before him to guide the Giants’ offense. I truly believe rookie receiver Odell Beckham Jr. is going to be a household name in New York, and he should find more targets coming his way in this contest, but in the end, there’s too much for New York’s banged up defense to handle in this matchup.
Pick: Colts 34, N.Y. Giants 27
Bye: Atlanta Falcons (2-6), Buffalo Bills (5-3), Chicago Bears (3-5), Detroit Lions (6-2), Green Bay Packers (5-3), Tennessee Titans (2-6)
You can follow Massimo Russo on Twitter @NFLMassimo and SilverandBlueReport.com @SilverBlueRpt