And They're Off!
Big Week for Intra-Division Positions
Let the jockeying begin!
It's a lot harder for teams that lose division titles to make the playoffs, and this week will put several teams in positions where they'll be on the outside looking in, facing uphill battles and all that. The NFC East and South have some great battles with the New York Giants at Dallas and with Carolina (at Cincinnati) and Atlanta (hosting Pittsburgh) facing big tests.
Likewise, Pittsburgh and Cincy are in great struggles with Baltimore for position in the AFC North.
Other teams needing wins to keep pace with division leaders include the New York Jets (vs. Detroit), Jacksonville (at Houston), and Minnesota (at Seattle). St. Louis, who lost to NFC West division leader Seattle last week, is off, as are division leaders Baltimore and Chicago.
In the AFC West, Denver and San Diego are both 4-1 and both are on the road against hard-luck teams (Cleveland and Kansas City, respectively).
Next week could be more of the same if these races stay tight. Otherwise, some teams will be feeling a little more comfortable, while others extremely uncomfortable.
Please note: There is no Sunday Night game this week. Thanks, Major League Baseball. Lousy secondary sport.
Here are the prognostications:
Sunday, Oct. 22
Carolina (4-2) at Cincinnati (3-2), 1 p.m.
Cincinnati is suddenly spiraling after the new bad boys of the AFC North (supplanting Baltimore) have dropped two in a row, including a controversial loss to previously winless Tampa Bay. Cincinnati shows no earmarks of a true contender. They're still saying the better team lost against New England, even after they stink it up in Tampa -- and that was with two weeks to prepare. Clearly, they were looking ahead. Good teams don't do that. They don't rate to speak of themselves among the NFL's elite. Carolina has won four straight after an 0-2 start, last week disposing of aforementioned Baltimore. Cincy has a several significant injuries, two backup receivers are out. So is their starting center and offensive tackle and two starting linebackers. Carolina is far less banged up. Both have tough games next week, too, a win here is important to both. Cincinnati is lucky to be at home, but I don't know that that will help them enough.
Prediction: Panthers, 27-24.
Detroit (1-5) at N.Y. Jets (3-3), 1 p.m.
Beating Buffalo is no mean feat, so don't buy that these are the resurgent Lions. But who can figure New York? One week they play pretty well; the next, dreadful. Miami may be improving, but New York should have had them put away before it got that close. Neither team is plagued by injuries, though New York has several players listed with calf and thigh issues. I've never seen so many players listed with calves and thighs. New York has a very easy schedule the rest of the way. They need to caution from becoming complacent. Detroit has a bye next week, so they'll be looking to make a statement to set up their second half. Don't hold your breath. New York needs to hope Eric Mangini has been learning, because he is one of the weaker links to this point.
Prediction: Jets, 20-17.
Green Bay (1-4) at Miami (1-5), 1 p.m.
Both teams have a lot of defensive injuries (especially in the secondary), and Miami has a few more at wide receiver. While Joey Harrington has looked much better than Daunte Culpepper, he's not going to look great with no one to throw to. Marty Booker was The Man early on, and his replacement (Wes Welker) became The Man, and now he's banged up. But Miami is coming home after three straight on the road, and they've been playing pretty well lately, all things considered. After one pretty good game, Green Bay is back in the tank, but they're coming off a bye, and they have a couple winnable games after this (Arizona, Buffalo), so they should be prepared. It should be an interesting matchup, if only because with all the DB injuries, both teams could air it out and try to exploit the holes. Miami may have the edge, because their guys can make the extra effort to play this week with the bye next week.
Prediction: Dolphins, 20-17.
Jacksonville (3-2) at Houston (1-4), 1 p.m.
After destroying the New York Jets, Jacksonville had a bye. But they still have a bunch of significant injuries, and they're traveling to Philly next week. This is what is known as a trap game. Will they spring it like Cincinnati did? Houston has gotten crushed by everybody except Miami, who they beat 17-15 (the last Culpepper game, by the way). No major injuries, though. Houston has three straight on the road, ending in Jacksonville. Who makes up these schedules? I don't think Jacksonville will Cincinnati Bungle it.
Prediction: Jaguars, 38-10.
New England (4-1) at Buffalo (2-4), 1 p.m.
See separate post.
Prediction: Thanks for reading.
Philadelphia (4-2) at Tampa Bay (1-4), 1 p.m.
Emotional win followed by emotional loss will have Philly ready for a recently winless team that stole one from a pretender. But this may be a trap for Philadelphia, too, since they have Jacksonville next week before a bye in Week 9. Tampa got lucky -- really lucky -- last week, despite playing pretty well the week before in New Orleans. The Next Tom Brady hasn't looked too shabby. We'll have to see what he does against a pretty good and very mad defense. I think The Current Donovan McNabb really needs to stop Bledsoe-ing balls downfield. He's so good when he runs a ball-control offense. It's the "in thing" for a lot of reasons, primarily because it works. Tampa's next three games are against the New York Giants, New Orleans and Carolina. How's that for a tough stretch?
Prediction: Eagles, 28-19.
Pittsburgh (2-3) at Atlanta (3-2), 1 p.m.
Atlanta's playoff hopes will take a serious hit if they lose and both New Orleans and Carolina win. Pittsburgh is in less serious shape with both Baltimore and Cincinnati stumbling. Opposite of Philadelphia, this other Pennsylvania team suffered an emotional loss before ripping an emotional, dominating win -- over Kansas City, sure, but emotional and dominating nonetheless. To beat Atlanta, you need to stop the run; or, as the New York Giants did last week, simply outrun them (259-223). And Michael Vick better be ready for another hard-hitting defense. Pittsburgh is seventh in the league against the run, allowing 78.4 yards per game, and eighth rushing, averaging 125.8 ypg. Atlanta allows an averge of nearly 30 yards per game rushing, but defense isn't their "game." Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter is questionable. Meanwhile, every Falcons starting defensive lineman is banged up. If this game was in Pittsburgh, I think it would be clear cut. In Atlanta? Should be interesting.
Prediction: Steelers, 19-17.
San Diego (4-1) at Kansas City (2-3), 1 p.m.
Usually a great game when San Diego visits Arrowhead, I don't know that Kansas City is up to the task. K.C. has been pretty good against inferior teams, but awful against quality opponents. Typical of Herman Edwards-coached teams. With their defensive secondary, they should have looked pretty good against Pittsburgh, but they got blown out. And now they're facing a far superior offense. Marty Schottenheimer apparently learned something about conservative coaching following San Diego's loss to Baltimore. He's been going for the jugular with great success in the two games since. No existing injuries should have significant impact. Damon Huard had looked pretty good until last week against Pittsburgh. But Larry Johnson is averaging only 71.4 ypg, which might seem OK, because he was only averaging 57 ypg through October; but he was averaging only 10 carries per game then. How's that fantasy draft working out for you? It's almost time to start considering weather conditions in these games.
Prediction: Chargers, 31-14.
Denver (4-1) at Cleveland (1-4), 4:05 p.m.
Almost half of Cleveland's defensive secondary is listed as "questionable." That can't be good. Denver has been, um ... consistent ... lately.
Prediction: Broncos, 13-3.
Arizona (1-5) at Oakland (0-5), 4:15 p.m.
If Arizona needed to fire their offensive coordinator after putting up 23 against No. 2 defense Chicago, you can only assume Oakland, who is last in the league with 10 points per game, doesn't have and never had an offensive coordinator. Certainly, the wrong coach got fired. Oakland picked a great week to have a Hall of Fame ring ceremony for John Madden. It may provide the emotion they need to beat a disgustingly disappointing opponent. Raiders fans call McAfee Coliseum "The Black Hole," and it's always been a black hole of fan intelligence. This week, it also will be a black hole of football prowess. Meanwhile: J.T "The Brick". What a loser. The game? Really, who cares? Flip a coin. If this were somehow a Monday Night game, ESPN, in an attempt to increase ratings, would probably black it out in favor of showing a repeat of PTI, a show on which Tony Kornheiser is barely tolerable. OK, he isn't, but that's beside the point.
Prediction: Cardinals, 26-16.
Minnesota (3-2) at Seattle (4-1), 4:15 p.m.
Minnesota has had two weeks to prepare for Shawn Alexander-less Seattle. But following a loss to Buffalo and a win over Detroit, this team remains a mystery. They desperately need a win to stay within two games of 6-0 Chicago. Seattle may have gotten a little lucky in St. Louis last week, but they've survived Alexander's loss ... so far. Hot-and-cold Minnesota quarterback Brad Johnson hasn't been the guy he was during last season's improbably run. Seattle has consistently underperformed, except for their pasting of the New York Giants. Matt Hasselback is clearly not the same QB without Alexander behind him, but few quarterbacks can thrive with losses of that magnitude. Seattle is fantastic at home and they should be good enough still to survive yet another game without their star running back. Is Deion Branch starting to make his presence known?
Prediction: Seahawks, 23-20.
Washington (2-4) at Indianapolis (5-0), 4:15 p.m.
What would Indianapolis do if they didn't always have someone on the competition committee and the coaches subcomittee? They do everything possible to obey the letter of the law, while flouting the spirit. Indy's constant purposely misleading injury report is a disgrace. It's one thing to do it for a week or two after getting slapped by the league for listing too few players in an attempt to mislead (the way Indianapolis did last year). Indy has taken it to the opposite extreme. Were that this were the only example of their brazen exploitation of the rules they help devise. Nineteen players listed as "questionable" and four more as "probable." What a joke. With nearly half the team barely able to take the field, you'd think Washington has a great chance to win. Too bad they can't fool the good teams in January. Karma, man.
Prediction: Colts, 34-12.
Monday, Oct. 23
N.Y. Giants (3-2) at Dallas (3-2), 8:30 p.m.
These teams are tied for third in rushing (151.8 ypg). But Dallas leads the league in rushing defense (67.0 ypg), while New York is 18th (113.8 ypg). Both hover around 20th in passing defense, but New York is third in passing (250.0 ypg) while Dallas is 16th (200.2 ypg). New York has concentrated injures. Two receivers from the same side. Two outside linebackers from the same side. Both of New York's strong safeties are listed as "questionable." Can Drew Bledsoe exploit that? Dallas has no significant injuries. If New York plays like they did last week -- and against a pretty good team -- they'll be very hard to beat. But they've been tremendously inconsistent, and it's hard to say which of Tom Coughlin's squads is going to show up. Meanwhile, Dallas has beaten Washington, Tennessee and Houston, while losing to Jacksonville and Philadelphia. I don't know about you, but I find it hard to act like I've won the Super Bowl after having a lousy first half before pulling away from Houston. One of these teams will be tied with 4-2 Philly atop the division Tuesday morning. The other will be just a game behind, but that will be a tough position in this division. New York is home against lousy teams the next two weeks, while Dallas has three in a row on the road. New York should win, and against my better judgment ...
Prediction: Cowboys, 28-26.
Open Date: Baltimore (4-2), Chicago (6-0), New Orleans (5-1), San Francisco (2-4), St. Louis (4-2), Tennessee (1-5)
Last week: 9 - 4.
Three losses at the hands of winless teams. I wonder how the oddsmakers did there. (Hint: They aren't actually assigned wins or losses.) The casinos, I'm sure, on the other hand, did very well. (Disclaimer: Gambling and illegal in most places and bad in general.)
Season: 58 - 29.