Maybe one day we’ll get a good Thursday night football game. But probably not. If the NFL hasn’t learned its lesson about short-week football, it never will. Seven of last year’s 17 match ups were decided by double digits. Following the Giants’ decimation of Washington on national television, every single Thursday Night contest in the 2014 season has been decided by a differential of at least 20 points. Let that sink in. But no, let’s keep pushing for more “premium” games, and longer seasons. Please. Onto the weekend.
1 P.M. Games
Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh
Which Pittsburgh team will show up? Until they can establish some consistency, these questions will continue. After losing three defensive starters last week, there’s even more reason for Steelers fans to hold their breath. That said, this team is in a good place offensively with a trio of stars in Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.
The Bucs are bad. There’s no two ways about it. Josh McCown is out with injury and has been relatively mediocre in three games. Mike Glennon didn’t look all that great in relief against Atlanta, and quarterbacks tend to struggle mightily in first games against Dick LeBeau. Now that 29-13 record LeBeau carries has typically been accompanied with more talented defenders than he currently has at his disposal, and Tampa would be wise to test a secondary that will be shorthanded following the injury to Ike Taylor. Without a consistent running back-Doug Martin’s game has been missing for over a year and Bobby Rainey can’t hang on to the ball-they may not have much of a choice.
Prediction: Steelers 27 Buccaneers 21-It’ll be a little close for comfort, but the Steelers will ride the Ben-Bell-Brown train to victory against a defense that lacks teeth.
Green Bay at Chicago
A huge division match up, the Packers can’t afford to lose another game. There offensive line has doomed this offense to confounding mediocrity with high-priced superstars like Aaron Rodgers, Eddie Lacy and Randall Cobb playing well below their pay/draft grade. Now Clay Matthews is battling groin issues on a unit that is 20th in yards and 27th in points allowed.
The Bears have found ways to string together back-to-back gritty wins thanks in large part to the play of Jay Cutler. Matt Forte may finally get his chance to round into form against a run defense that ranks 30th in the NFL. He’ll need to be on his game as similarly-struggling counterpart Eddie Lacy (Forte’s averaged 45 rushing yards a game to Lacy’s 37) could also be in line for a big day against Chicago’s 26th-ranked run defense. The back that is more effective could give their team a major boost in the time of possession battle and subsequently the game.
Prediction: Packers 30 Bears 27-Both QB’s could be in for their struggles against secondaries that will pit Kyle Fuller and Tramon Williams against each other. I figure Aaron Rodgers rights the ship. A player as good as he is with as many years left as he has should find a way to win this game. In any case, it figures to be a good one.
Buffalo at Houston
The battle of 2-1 teams coming off deflating losses appears to have the makeup of a quality matchup. On one hand you have the Buffalo Bills, a team loaded with potential on offense but unsure in its lynch pin in E.J. Manuel. Add into the equation a great front four, an ok linebacking trio and and an unspectacular secondary and you have a talented yet inconsistent team. The key to today’s match up as discussed with Joe Mags earlier this week will be how Buffalo handles J.J. Watt. No player in football makes quite the impact that Watt does in the sense that he can absolutely ruin any and all aspects of a team’s game plan. Whether it’s blowing up the run, terrorizing quarterbacks with sacks and batted passes, or hauling in the occasional touchdown, Watt must be accounted for at all times.
On the other side sit the resilient yet low-ceiling Texans. Nearly all the pieces are in place; A strong pass rush, talented receivers, a great running back, and a decent to a above-average offensive line. Just one piece is missing and unfortunately for the Texans, it is the most important-the quarterback. In a tussle with the Bills, the Texans aren’t totally outmatched. The skill position players are good enough to challenge Buffalo’s defense, but the Bills are far too familiar with their own former signal-caller on Ryan Fitzpatrick. The book on Fitz is to pressure him; the Harvard grad has a propensity to force throws into window that just aren’t open, especially under duress. Buffalo knows this all too well, and has the personnel up front to exploit this.
Prediction: Bills 27 Texans 23-Fitzpatrick may be the most common of my punching bags; I hold nothing against him other than the fact that he’s not a very good quarterback. Until the Texans are able to upgrade that position they’ll continue to struggle against most teams.
Tennessee at Indianapolis
Don’t look now, but the Colts appear to be clawing their way back into the AFC South driver seat. The Titans have looked hapless since an impressive week one win, being outscored by a total of 59-17. The Titans blueprint is simple; run the ball so that they may keep superior opposing offenses/quarterbacks off the field and set up manageable field position for Jake Locker. At first glance, you may wonder why the Titans are 1-2. Every running back that has a carry this season is averaging at least 4.2 YPC behind what can be categorized as a very talented offensive line, and the defense allows the second-fewest passing yards per game. The answer isn’t rocket science; Jake Locker’s ineffectiveness coupled with the Titans slow transition to a 3-4 defense has resulted in struggles against the run-Tennesse currently allows three more yards per game than their offense gains, 134 to 131-and only slightly above-average pass rush, who’s registered eight sacks in three games.
The Colts go as Andrew Luck does which is good news considering the third-year phenom has seven touchdowns to just one interception over his last eight quarters. Luck absolutely obliterated the Jaguars last week, completing just under 80 percent of his passes and throwing for 370 yards and four touchdowns. The Tennessee secondary is a formidable one, featuring ball hawks like Michael Griffin and Jason McCourty, but they have yet to face a test as daunting as Luck-sorry Romo and Dalton supporters, but Luck is a few rungs up the ladder. Ahmad Bradshaw will in line for significant work given his 6.0 YPC and continual above-the-Trent-Richardson-line play matching up against the Titans’ 24th ranked run defense. The Colts must prove ready for Tennessee’s Greene-Sankey-McCluster hydra, for even Jake Locker can top Andrew Luck if the latter can’t get back on the field.
Prediction: Colts 24 Titans 17-It’ll be a closer than some may expect given the fact that it’s a division match up and the Colts have had their issues stopping the run, but Andrew Luck will continue to carry this Colts team to wins.
Carolina at Baltimore
One of the day’s most intriguing contests, how will Carolina respond to the shellacking the Steelers handed them a week ago? Will it be the way the Steelers handled the one the Ravens gave them the week prior? Probably not. This team is beat up. Cam Newton is dealing with a multitude of ailments, DeAngelo Williams will play today after his hamstring appears to have mended, but absent are Mike Tolbert (out of season with a broken leg) and Jonathan Stewart (knee sprain). Couple that with going against the 8th-ranked run defense and a thin backfield’s chances don’t look all that great. It’s not that the Panthers are running all that much, it’s just that they’re not quite good enough to let a hurting Cam and a rookie Kelvin Benjamin carry this team. Absent a balanced attack and better play from a suspect offensive line that was gashed by three-man rushes last week, the Panthers could be in trouble.
The Ravens have their flaws but they’re still a tough team to beat. They scraped past the Browns in week three but will need their best to beat a physical, albeit hurting Panthers team. Justin Forsett and Steve Smith have been excellent veteran additions with the latter making his first career start against his long-time home in Carolina. Even if he won’t say it, expect the feisty vet to make this game a personal one after his inglorious departure from the Panthers in the offseason. Even with the 25th-ranked pass defense and just two sacks on the season, the Ravens may have a favorable match up in a Carolina offense that features just two weapons for Cam Newton to throw the ball to-Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen-and a ground game that is missing two of its more prominent pieces. If any of Joe Flacco’s other wide receivers can finally find out where the Ravens games are being played-of its healthy players, only Steve Smith has more than 100 yards receiving through three games-they should have no trouble going punch-for-punch with whatever the Panthers trot out at 1:00. It’s not all sunshine for the Ravens though; out for the season is Dennis Pitta, the only receiving threat not named Steve Smith that has been consistently productive this season, and while they possess a couple of talented running backs, the Ravens won’t be duplicating the Steelers’ feat of 264 yards rushing. The Panthers run front seven is still among the best in the league, and the prideful unit will be out to prove that last week was an anomaly.
Prediction: Ravens 23 Panthers 20-I think Baltimore extends the winning streak to three games. I would lean Carolina if they were healthier but they’re not and Baltimore has a way of exploiting those deficiencies.
Detroit at NY Jets
This is very simply a matter of “can the Jets contain Megatron” and the short answer is no, they won’t. Yes this game is in MetLife, but crowd noise and heavy blitzing won’t be enough to stop the Stafford-Johnson connection. The Jets can only hope that when under pressure and targeting other receivers, Stafford throws a pick or two. Even with one bad game against the Panthers, the Lions defense has been rock solid (proving my early season assessments wrong) as well, allowing the fewest yards per game, the third fewest passing yards, the second-fewest rushing yards and the second fewest points.
The Jets will have to make this one a brawl if they want a chance. They possess the league’s best run defense, second-highest sack total and the ninth-ranked pass defense, but haven’t been able to stop opposing teams from scoring, allowing 25.7 points a game. That does not bode well against a Lions team that while limited in points production-they average just 20.3-has the capacity to score in a blink of an eye with talents like Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate and Reggie Bush in tow.
Prediction: Lions 27 Jets 21-Tough loss for the Jets at home, but the Lions will be able to withstand the blitz and test Gang Green’s suspect corners successfully.
Miami at Oakland
With the obvious exclusion of the fan bases of each team, don’t watch this one if you can help it. The Dolphins aren’t runaway favorites and nor should they be with an anemic passing attack that has the status of Ryan Tannehill as a starter in question. The one thing the Raiders can do is stop the pass, even if part of that is being such a door mat against the run (158.7 yards allowed per game) that teams don’t even have to throw all that much. The Dolphins have produced a decent running game, even in the wake of losing Knowshon Moreno for an extended stretch. Lamar Miller is averaging 5.8 yards per carry and 71 yards per game. The team as a whole averages 137 yards a game. That should play favorably against a weak Oakland defense.
I’ll hand it to Oakland though; they hung tough against the Pats last week. Sure their offense failed to deliver but keep in mind the fact that this unit has yet to score more than 14 points in a game this season. James Jones can’t do it alone but it sadly looks like that’s all the Raiders have offensively. Defensively there’s no pass rush (just four sacks), no run defense and no turnovers (just two). Good luck beating anyone with those weaknesses.
Prediction: Miami 24 Oakland 14
4 P.M. Games
Jacksonville at San Diego
On paper this looks like a blow out. Jacksonville has made Blake Bortles the starter and we’ve seen some more productive play from his receivers, but this offense is still far from whole. Toby Gerhart continues his pitiful season and no back save for Jordan Todman is averaging over 4.0 yards per carry. Then there’s the defense ranking dead last in passing yards per game, rushing yards per game, and points per game, even with Tampa surrendering 56 in week three. Yikes.
San Diego does have to at least show up for the game. Their potent offense has yet to even see Keenan Allen figure into the equation, with the second-year receiver averaging less than 10 yards per catch and still without a touchdown through three weeks. The running game has also struggled mightily, averaging just 78.7 yards a game. This appears to be the tune-up game that could jump-start both.
Prediction: Chargers 37 Jaguars 20-This isn’t a contest. I’m having trouble seeing how San Diego loses save for Phillip Rivers going down with injury. Even then I like the Bolts’ chances.
Atlanta at Minnesota:
Another game, another tough match up for a rookie QB. The Falcons will look to impose their will against a Vikings team that has had little success generating any offense without Adrian Peterson. Meanwhile, Matt Ryan and Julio Jones may be able to hold their own in a league-wide competition of best QB-WR tandem. Jones, finally healthy in his fourth season has been unstoppable in 2014 and is currently on pace for 123 catches, 1,947 yards and 16 touchdowns. Will he reach those figures? Probably not, but if he can stay healthy, he’ll be in the ballpark. Xavier Rhodes and his 6’2” 200+ lbs frame will likely get the arduous task of shadowing the 6’3” 220 lbs Jones around the field. Good luck young fella.
The Teddy Bridgewater era has officially begun in Minnesota. Fortunately for him, the Falcons are one of the softer defenses he’ll play this season. Not a bad match up for a first career start. Without Kyle Rudolph and of course Adrian Peterson, moving the ball will be tough-sledding, but the cool-under-pressure Bridgewater should have some success connecting with Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings against a secondary in Atlanta’s that allows 262.7 passing yards a game.
Prediction: Falcons 28 Vikings 23-There’s some upset potential in this one, with Minny’s defense being stingier than you’d expect, but Teddy is a rookie and while I think he’ll turn in a fine performance, a late mistake will cost his team the game and prove a valuable lesson for the up and comer.
Philadelphia at San Francisco
This is the game of the week. Philly has been king of the comeback in all three of their contests this season, but won’t be so lucky if they find themselves down by double-digits on the road in week four. Regardless of their record, San Fran is just too good to spot ten or more points. The Eagles may be a good offense, but they’ll have trouble rushing against the sixth-ranked run defense. That type of mismatch could have the Eagles losing the time of possession battle to a tough running back duo in Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde. Possessing the third-worst pass defense in the league, the Eagles will need to pressure Colin Kaepernick if they want to avoid getting beaten in both the ground and passing game.
The 49ers have been awful in the second half of games this year, scoring just three points in as many games. The pass rush will also have to be better, as Nick Foles proved last week that despite the occasional inconsistency, he can stand tough in the pocket and deliver darts. With just four sacks on the season, the That said, for reasons already expressed, the Niners have a lot of favorable mismatches in this game. Keep an eye on the health of Vernon Davis, who is currently listed as a game-time decision. If he’s healthy and Kaepernick can break out of his recent funk, the 49ers are a miserable team to face.
Prediction: 49ers 27 Eagles 24-A last second field goal decides this one. I think the Eagles will find ways to move the ball, but ultimately have issues with a ticked off Niners team. Kap rebounds and the Niners get back to .500.
Sunday Night Football
New Orleans at Dallas
Mismatches? You have one here tonight. Drew Brees has had little trouble moving the football through the air this season, and that figures to continue against a 21st-ranked pass defense in Dallas. Let’s not discount the sixth-ranked running game either; even without Mark Ingram, the combo of Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas have done well and Dallas does not possess a lethal front seven. Throw in Jimmy Graham and Cowboys may be in for a long night.
Dallas is not without teeth offensively. DeMarco Murray has been a beast this year as a runner and a receiver. Few have his combo of size and speed. Tony Romo’s recovery from back surgery has provided Murray with plenty of carries, and that will be at least the Dallas game plan at the onset of the game. Romo, who has attempted more than 30 passes just once this season, may be in for an increase in attempts against a pass defense that has been leaky all season. Dez Bryant and Terrence Williams are both tough to cover down field with their size and speed and Jason Witten will continue to be a steady security blanket in the middle of the field. They won’t stop Drew Brees and his offense but they might be able to keep pace.
Prediction: Saints 31 Dallas 28-This should be a shootout. Both teams have the capacity to score and give up points. Give me Drew Brees over Romo, even in Dallas.
Monday Night Football
New England at Kansas City
These Patriots are an odd bunch. On one hand you have an all-time quarterback in Tom Brady and a strong defense, but the offense has just been weak. Is Brady entering the twilight of his career? I don’t think so. But beyond Gronk and Edleman, who on this offense scares you? No one. Not Amendola, not Thompkins, not Dobson, not Ridley and not Vereen. Can that change? Maybe. Some of those names are young enough to improve, but they need to do so in a hurry. The gap between teams in the AFC East is getting narrower and narrower. As far as their chances against KC in Arrowhead? Solid. The Chiefs don’t scare you offensively unless Jamaal Charles is healthy. He’s probable in this one, but is he really healthy? I’ve expressed my concerns with opposing teams’ ability to focus solely on Charles, and being hampered by a nagging ankle injury won’t help the joystick runner plant and explode like he’s use to.
The Chiefs will still have Charles back, so there’s that. Kniles Davis should continue to get looks to spell Charles and he’s been a solid runner in the former’s absence. The Patriots have been ok against the run, ranking 12th in the league, but the Chiefs should get a fair number of chances on offense given the Patriots inconsistencies on offense. I like the match up of the Chiefs pass rush, which has nine sacks through three games, against the Pats receivers who largely lack the separation skills to negate that blitz’s significance. If the Chiefs want a chance they’ll need to find a way to get the ball to their “mini” Gronk in Travis Kelce. In the near future, Kelce could be the best player on the Chiefs’ offense not named Charles. The second-year tight end has the size-6’5” 260 lbs-to create mismatches and the catching radius and hands to develop into a star. He already leads the team in yards and will have a true test against a solid Patriots’ group of linebackers and safeties.
Prediction: Patriots 20 Chiefs 17-I’m torn on this one. The Chiefs are tough to beat at home but are the inferior team. That said, this Pats offense just hasn’t been up to standard through the first three games, despite a winning record. That will be unlikely to change against a solid Chiefs defense. That said, Tom Brady has made a career on thriving despite not having the best talent around him (excluding the Moss-Welker-Gronk years). I’ll go with 12 to earn his team their third win.