Last Week’s Picks Record: 7-6

Season Record: 34-27

The top two teams in each conference had a nice rest last week. This Thursday-Sunday will be absent two of the league’s weaker teams in Miami and Oakland. All that means is more competitive football this weekend, and that my friends is a beautiful thing.

AFC 1. Cincinnati-A nice week of rest touches off a common theme amongst the league’s best teams at the moment. Whether by coincidence or design, the challenge for teams like the Bengals, the Broncos, Seattle, and the Cardinals will be to remain healthy without the benefit of a late-season BYE week. Cincinnati begins their grueling test with the suddenly sad and pathetic Patriots. In all seriousness, I don’t care where he is along his career trajectory, so long as Tom Brady is on a field and in uniform, the man poses a credible threat. Sure Cincy’s high-pedigree secondary should handle New England’s sad-sack receivers, and sure, their fearsome defensive line should have a field day running through a disappointing Patriot o-line, but Take Brady for granted and he’ll hurt you. With that said, I doubt the Bengals, with two weeks to prepare, will do anything of the sort. They’re all set to roll over a floundering squad and keep their undefeated streak alive.

2. Denver-Batteries charged and ready for war, Peyton Manning and his arsenal are in need of their a game when they host the high-flying Cardinals on Sunday. The Broncos suffered their first loss of the season against the same NFC West team that embarrassed them on the game’s biggest stage in February. Out of Richard Sherman’s frying pan and into Patrick Peterson’s fire, something tells me the Broncos will stand the heat just fine.

3. Indianapolis-Andrew Luck is on fire, with 11 touchdowns and just two picks in his last three starts. Sure, two of those match ups may have been against Jacksonville and Tennessee, but keep in mind that the Titans actually have one of the better secondaries in the league and that Luck did what he was supposed to against a porous Jaguars defense. The suspension of LaRon Landry isn’t ideal and anyone who’s googled “LaRon Landry biceps” in skepticism probably saw his PED suspension coming. The loss may prove somewhat inconsequential for two reasons; 1. This defense isn’t very good anyway and 2. The wins of this team will be generated from Luck until the team can draft good defensive players.

4. San Diego-After an initial scare from the upstart Blake Bortles, the Chargers remembered who they were and calmly destroyed Jacksonville’s lousy defense. Keenan Allen and Eddie Royal are establishing themselves as a tandem of thunder and lightning at the receiver position to couple with solid veterans Antonio Gates and Malcolm Floyd. The Chargers aren’t whole lot more than that, save fore a few good defensive backs like Eric Weddle and Jason Verrett but with Phil Rilvers at the helm they’re better than most in a weak conference.

5. Baltimore-The Ravens continue to take care of business. Building off two impressive wins within the division, they continued their streak of success against a reeling Panthers team putting up 38 points while surrendering just 10. Steve Smith got his revenge courtesy of the same Flacco magic that won them a Super Bowl in 2012. They may not have the most complete offense, but the defense is sound in most facets even without an elite pass rush. If Flacco voodoo is working and the defense performing, than the Ravens will be a tough team to dispatch.

6. Kansas City-I’m not sold on the Chiefs right now but their win over the Patriots on Monday night was impressive. Jamaal Charles looked fully back and new threats have emerged in beastly tight end Travis Kelce and do-it-all running back Kniles Davis. These options improve the outlook for an otherwise unspectacular offense, and coupled with a good pass rush, the Chiefs have teeth. They still look like the third best defense in the AFC West but that may be enough to snag a sixth seed.

7. Miami-so they destroyed the Raiders. Big deal. That’s the equivalent of giving the cat night-vision goggles to search the mouse hole. While Lamar Miller continues to be a pleasant surprise, the fact that Joe Philbin is uncertain about Tannehill’s future as the team’s starter and Tannehill knowing that Philbin is uncertain spells trouble down the line for Miami. The good news for Miami is that the other three teams in the AFC East appear to be allergic to winning the division. Hell, given Tom Brady’s play of late, Manuel’s benching, and Geno’s response to criticism, Tannehill may be the best quarterback in this division, with or without Joey P’s blessing.

8. Pittsburgh-see what I mean about inconsistencies in the Steel City? This team cannot figure out how to beat opponents they’re presumably better than. Tampa was just another disappointing loss in a long line of such failures since the Steelers won the big dance back in 2008. The best and worst part of Sunday’s defeat was that it was mostly self-inflicted wounds rather than much of what the Buccaneers did (or failed to do) that did them in. 13 penalties-including five personal fouls-for 125 yards, dropped passes, one missed field goal and one horrifying punt left plenty of points and yards on the field. Make no mistake, a Mike Glennon-led Tampa did well against a poor and injured defense when it counted, but to rule out the Steelers entirely would be a mistake. That offense is too good. How they handle the next three games against Jacksonville, Houston and Cleveland will decide ultimately decide their season.

9. New England-What has happened to this team? Brady has the look of a horse on its oblivious way out to pasture, behind a line that is more content to play patty cake than block, with running backs running for their lives and receivers who can’t get open. Then there’s the “vaunted” defense getting gashed by Dwayne Bowe, Travis Kelce, Kniles Davis and Jamaal Charles. There’s no shame in allowing the last name on that list to beat you, but with offseason acquisitions like Darrelle Revis, young guns like Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, and vets like Vince Wilfork and Jerrod Mayo in tow, the others should have not been so lucky. The problem at hand for Bill Belichik and co is to figure out what can go right in 2014, which right now looks like a whole lot of nothing.

10. Buffalo-So is the E.J. era officially over in Buffalo or just on vacation? Either way, to handing over the reigns to Kyle Orton just four weeks into the second-year, first-rounder’s career is troubling. I don’t doubt that Orton can be effective as the starter but you’re essentially asking a game manager to be more than that. With that said Orton has had a couple productive seasons in the year before and the two years following his trade from Chicago to Denver for Jay Cutler. In three seasons spanning 2008-2010 he accumulated 59 touchdowns and 33 interceptions. 2010 was a long time ago.

11. Cleveland-The Browns received a well-earned break following three tooth and nail contests to open the season. They’re not to be totally written off either, even with a 2-1 record. With Ben Tate possibly back in the mix, a talented running back duo becomes a trio, giving a consistent supply of fresh legs for the Browns to deploy. Brian Hoyer has shown he can actually throw the ball and not cave to a premium draft pick. With a game against Tennessee this week Cleveland could end up pulling to .500 heading into week six.

12. Houston-Ryan Fitzpatrick is in mid-season form, having tossed five interceptions in his last two games. That didn’t stop the Texans from pulling out a win against Buffalo thanks in large part to a J.J. Watt pick-six. Of all the 3-1 teams, the Texans are made of the most paper. Sustainable success will probably end in Dallas this week; while the Cowboys lack a good defense, they’re riding high after whooping the Saints and should easily be able to go punch for punch for a punch less Texans quarterback.

13. NY Jets-Another week, another loss. The Jets were actually able to contain Calvin Johnson thanks to a pesky ankle injury, but the ineffectiveness of Geno Smith has brought about a fresh wave of quarterback controversy. Rex stands with Geno, something the flamboyant coach has actually been consistent with throughout his head coaching tenure. He’ll have to improve for a tough match up with San Diego Sunday. Phil Rivers and co have put up points against some of the league’s best defenses; the Jets, while talented in the front seven, are not that. They’ll need substantial pressure on Phil Rivers, otherwise they won’t stand much of a chance.

14. Tennessee-If there was a 10 Commandments for the NFL “Beware the team that was blown out last week,” would be a prominent fixture. The Colts shellacked the Titans 41-17 last week, leaving Tennessee with a 1-3 record and a lot of hurt pride. Ray Horton’s defense will look to regain its footing against Horton’s 2013 employers. To do so they’ll need to effectively slow down the Browns’ sound ground game with a front that is still having their share of trouble adapting to the 3-4. At home, even with their struggles, the Titans have a chance to gain a little pride back.

15. Jacksonville-Blake Bortles did well in his first start, all things considered. Sure he threw a pair of picks, but such is life in the NFL for a rookie. Hey, and if you find yourself without a win, just give the Steelers a call. Tampa figured it out last week. Just target Pittsburgh’s beat up secondary and you’re off and running.

16. Oakland-What’s left to say at this point? 0-4 is pretty self-explanatory. One of the few Raider bright spots in Derek Carr is injured. The ground game is floundering, James Jones is the only competent skill player outside of Carr, the defense is just meh, and Matt Schaub is back. Gulp. The only good news appears to be that they get this week off. Scout well Oakland, we all know your track record with the first overall pick.

NFC 1. Seattle-Freshly rested and coming off an overtime video over the Broncos, it would appear that the Seahawks are positioned to continue what has been a productive start to their title defense. Russell Wilson continues to progress, Percy Harvin is a game-breaker and Marshawn Lynch has shown no signs of decline despite 1117 touches (including receptions and postseason numbers) over the previous three seasons.That’s all well and good because Seattle’s defense is a notch below what it was a year ago, as the Legion of Boom and company are currently ranked 19th in terms of passing yards allowed per game. They’re still as dangerous as any unit when it comes to making plays, but they can’t sleep on a talented yet inconsistent Washington team Monday night. Their division does not allow much room for error. 2. Arizona-The Cardinals currently lead the NFC West. That’s not a typo. Dubious quarterback situation and all, this team has found a way to win all three of its games. Drew Stanton appears to be the guy moving forward following Carson Palmer suffering a setback to his already injured shoulder/neck during the Cardinals BYE week. Stanton hasn’t been all that successful in his career possessing an abysmal QB rating of 68.2 on his career, but the 30-year old is surrounded by offensive talent. If Andre Ellington, Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown can shoulder the load until Carson Palmer gets back, this team has a chance at a wild card spot in the NFC. 3. Detroit-Detroit has somewhat quietly been one of the most balanced teams in all the NFL through the first quarter of the season. The biggest with regard to Detroit in my mind is the resounding success of a defense that in the preseason looked like nothing more than a steady pass rush and an abysmal secondary. So far the unit has outdone itself, possessing the number one defense in yards against, the fourth ranked scoring defense, the number two defense against the pass, and the sixth best unit against the run. This all while possessing talent at many positions offensively. With the NFC North in a state of high parity, the Lions could run away with the division if they can keep winning. 4. Philadelphia-The Eagles finally bled last week after blowing a double-digit deficit of their own against the 49ers. What was especially troubling was the offense’s inability to cross into Philly territory until the fourth quarter. Sure the special teams and defense combining to score three touchdowns and subsequently all of Philly’s points can explain the lack of chances to an extent, it’s still a poor showing by Chip Kelly’s pride and joy. In addition to being shut out, the Eagles offense has really struggled to establish a running game, averaging just 87 yards a game despite having pieces like LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles. While a 3-1 record is nice, the breathing room to figure some of these issues is rapidly running out with recent surges by Dallas and New York. 5. Green Bay-Aaron Rodgers told everyone to relax. He’s got this. We should never doubt him. Despite still possessing a weak offensive line and a mediocre ground game, Rodgers has carried his team back to .500 thanks to an 8-0 TD-INT ratio over the last three games. His four such passes and 78.8 completion percentage against Chicago were so masterful that it’s hard to rank the Packers much lower than this, despite some glaring weaknesses. For Green Bay to remain relevant, they must do better against the run as their defense is currently allowing a league-high 176 yards per game on the ground. They won’t continue winning if Rodgers can’t see the field. 6. Dallas-So the Cowboys are doing their darnedest to make me look silly. I’ve been doing my best to fine broken wheels on the Dallas bandwagon, and while their are a few that look quite flimsy, my search has yet to prove successful. The Cowboys dominated the Saints on national TV Sunday Night and not only did so offensively, but also held one of the better offenses in football to 17 points. It may take years of research and some of the world’s greatest minds to figure out what is wrong with the Saints, but I know I wasn’t alone in thinking that New Orleans would be able to march the ball at will against a defense that had limited pass rush and coverage capabilities. It took Brees and co three quarters to find a rhythm and by that point it was too late. This Cowboys offense is very difficult to stop when DeMarco Murray is allowed to do what he’s done all season in running over and around any and all opposing defenses. The pressure removed from Romo and his receiver is evident, and turning the Cowboys into one of the league’s hardest teams to defend. I’m not a believer yet, especially with what they have on defense, but they’ve certainly got my attention. 7. San Francisco-Despite horrendous special teams play and one terrible throw by Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers rallied past the Eagles on Sunday in a much-needed win. This team still has its issues, most stemming from their quarterback’s erratic play, but with a sound defense and strong running game, opposing teams can’t have many punts if they want to win games against this team. Winning the time of possession battle limits the amount of mistakes the opponent can make and allows for Kaepernick to get away with one or two. I’m not sure if all the hub-bub surrounding Jim Harbaugh and his players’ loyalty to him, but I know this-Harbaugh made this team relevant. If  a 41-14-1 record with three trips to the NFC Championship and one to the Superbowl plus the 2012 coach of the year award can get you fired, then nothing is good enough. I’m not all that crazy about Jim’s sideline antics either, but if you’re a 49ers player upset with his coaching style maybe it’s time to suck it up and be happy with winning. 8. Atlanta-It’s hard to figure out the pulse of this team. On one hand you have the rhythmic and explosive combo of Matt Ryan to Julio Jones and the rebirth of Devin Hester as an offensive play maker. On the other is the pitifully faint Falcons defense that gets bulldozed in the run, can’t get after the quarterback and isn’t particularly good at much of anything. The offense may be able to carry the team to a .500 record but that defense will keep their ceiling at 9-7. That may be enough to win the confounding NFC South, but it won’t buy a wildcard spot, and it certainly will be a straw house in the postseason. Don’t think that the Falcons will have all that easy a time with the surging Giants this week. 9. Chicago-Similarly to Atlanta, who are the real Chicago Bears? You see the talent in the wide receivers, the running back, the tight end and young play makers like Kyle Fuller on defense, but there’s just so much inconsistency. Whether it’s the offensive line failing to make Forte running lanes, Brandon Marshall struggling to stay healthy, or Jay Cutler’s sporadic turnovers, there’s just not a lot of safe bets on this team. In fact, the only real consistency appears to lie within a leaky defense that while decent in points allowed, is equally mediocre against the pass and run, ranking 20th in both categories. Until they can iron out a consistent offense, the Bears will be on the outside looking in. 10. New Orleans-This team is mind-boggling to me. All this talent and so little to show for it. Sure we have 75 percent of the season to go, but there are issues everywhere you look. The defense has failed in just about every capacity; the high-priced secondary is part of the the 28th-ranked pass defense to go along with only the slightly better run defense, which clocks in at 21. The unit as a whole has kept only the Matt Cassel-led, Adrian Peterson-less Vikings under 25 points with two teams scoring more than 35. The offense have been able to move the ball effectively and score, but Drew Brees has yet to crack 350 yards (a mark he broke six times last year) and has just one game without a turnover. The Saints should get back on track against a poor Buccaneers team this week, but with a defense as bad as theirs, one can’t be too sure. 11. Washington-Short of a Super Bowl, the goal of the 2014 season for Washington should be to figure out what they have in Kirk Cousins. The young signal caller has flashed at times, but after a poor performance and a drubbing from the Giants last week, there are plenty of questions left to be answered. Washington appears to be a team with talent in the right places on offense, but their defense has to be more consistent. Yes they can get after the quarterback, but the rest of the unit is suspect as made evident by the 82 points they’ve given up in the past two weeks. They’ll have a tall order in righting the ship against the defending champs on Monday Night Football, but if Cousins excels he will have taken a big step forward in proving he’s the franchise for Washington.

 

12. NY Giants-The Giants have the ability to leap way up in these rankings if they can top the Falcons and their high-powered passing attack on Sunday. With the offense finally clicking, Big Blue should move the ball with relative ease against the woeful Falcons defense, especially on the ground with the duo of Jennings and Williams. If the defense continues to improve as it did last Thursday against Washington, the Giants could emerge as legitimate contenders to the NFC East crown. Keep in mind, minus one or two bad plays against the Cardinals and the Giants could be in a three-way 3-1 tie for the division lead right now.

13. Carolina-Injuries and back-to-back blowout losses have this team reeling. Some Steve Smith payback is salt in the wounds which has rightfully raised questions about the competence of GM David Gettleman and his allowance of every receiver who caught a pass from Cam Newton to walk in the offseason. With the supposedly vaunted defense on its heels and on the field far too often, this has the looks of a team spiraling out of control. 14. Minnesota-If Teddy Bridgewater goes into Lambeau tonight, bad ankle and all, and beats the Green Bay Packers, all bets are off in the insanity that is the NFC North. Sure it’s unlikely, but the Pack does not have a great defense. Bridgewater is looking like he’s doubtful to play tonight on a short week’s rest, which removes just about any chance the Vikings have of winning. That said, when the rookie does return, each game will serve as a chance to continue to develop what looks like a very promising skill set. Beware Minnesota when he does finally suit up again. 15. Tampa Bay-The Buccaneers stunned the Steelers for their first victory of the season last Sunday. Mike Glennon resembled a promising, young QB and utilized his towering duo of Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans in ways Josh McCown failed to do. The second-year quarterback had his moments last year, and if he can build off this win, the Buccaneers could be a bit of a spoiler for the remainder of the season. 16. St. Louis-The Rams will never tank with a quality coach like Jeff Fisher at the helm, but the team just isn’t very good. Despite having promising youth at running back, wide receiver and along the defensive line, this team is without a head at quarterback. Now there’s room for substantial and immediate improvement if Austin Davis can prove his performance against the Cowboys wasn’t just the byproduct of playing a porous defense. Beyond that, this team will be picking in the top-five if he has any struggles.