Here’s a look at Sunday’s slate of action. Currently I’m 83-51 on the season.
Pittsburgh at NY Jets
I know a couple of things:
What Ben Roethlisberger is doing to NFL defenses right now isn’t fair. What Antonio Brown is doing to NFL defenses right now isn’t fair. What Martavis (MAR-TAY-VIS) Bryant has done for this offense isn’t fair.
The Jets secondary is awful. The Jets offense is awful. The Jets coaching is awful.
So what’s there to talk about? Simply put, the Steelers struggle mightily with bad teams. Whether it’s a 17-9 win over the Jaguars, or a last second loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, there’s a complex present that keeps the Steelers from handling teams they should blow out.
Believe it or not, the Jets have elements within their roster that many good teams envy. A stingy front seven, and a rugged running game both have places in the top ten in rushing the football (3rd) and stopping the run (8th). Those two components allow even a bad team to hang around as the time of possession battle is often controlled by a team’s ability to run and stop the run. This could explain why the Jets were able to actually hang tough with Denver and New England for the majority of 60 minutes.
But will it be enough? The Steelers have been a very different team in the last three weeks than we’ve seen in the past two seasons of mediocrity. The offense is averaging 41.3 points a game. The defense is not only consistently collapsing the pocket and dusting the quarterback, but forcing turnovers, with seven coming in the past three games. The catalysts have been Martavis Bryant on offense and the ageless James Harrison on defense.
Bryant has brought the vertical asset back to the Steelers offense, forcing coverage over the top away from Antonio Brown while teams try to account for his deep speed. The Red Zone offense that was amongst the league’s worst a few weeks ago has been amongst the best in the past three games. Bryant, not coincidentally has five touchdowns in that stretch, including two in each of the past two games. The fourth round pick has been a matchup nightmare with his 4.4 speed and 6-4 frame, and even when he’s not catching the ball, he’s opening up the middle of the field for Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Heath Miller and Markus Wheaton. Trying to pick a Steelers receiver, back, or tight end to key on is like trying to decide which limb to save from a Great White Shark; you’re gonna lose something. Of course it helps that Ben Roethlisberger is lighting the NFL world on fire in the past two weeks, spinning the rock for 12 scores and 862 yards in that stretch.
On the other side of the line, James Harrison appears to have beat the fountain of youth out of Ponce de León and then turner around and beat the football out of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Andrew Luck and Joe Flacco. The man called Deebo by his teammates has four sacks in the past two games and has led the revitalized Steelers pass rush in striking fear into opposing signal callers. Mike Vick can move but has struggled throwing the football under duress throughout his career (the 2010 season being the exception). If Pittsburgh flusters him, expect the Steelers defense to continue their torrid turnover streak. Dick LeBeau’s unit is no longer the elite group that can finish in the top five in yards allowed but they’ve adopted and executed the strategy of sending five or more rushers on a more frequent basis to force sacks, losses of yards and turnovers. They may get burned hear and there but they’re getting off the field more often and getting two or more three more opportunities for the streaking offense.
If this Steelers team has truly turned the corner, they’ll win this game by a lot. Anything less than a decisive victory could derail the freight train of momentum they started in the final three minutes of the first half against Houston. I believe the train keeps on chugging in week 10.
Steelers 37 Jets 17
Kansas City at Buffalo
This is a good one. Two teams playing second fiddle in their respective divisions to the top teams in the AFC, the Chiefs and Bills are similarly built in that they have two of the game’s best game managers running their offense and a ferocious pass-rush pacing their defense. The 5-3 duo met last year and the Chiefs came away with 23-13 win on the back of two defensive touchdowns.
This year’s Bills team is better than they were a year ago. Whether it be improved decision making from the quarterback position, improved talent at wide receiver with Sammy Watkins in tow, or a more consistently potent defense, Buffalo is a legitimate playoff contender.
The Bills defensive line has helped their defense post the league’s second-highest sack total of 28. They generate enough pressure for Buffalo’s line backing corps to spend most of their time in coverage, limiting the windows available for opposing quarterbacks. The secondary has played well even after losing Jarius Byrd in free agency this past spring, recording 12 interceptions on the season.
Offensively Buffalo must have Sammy Watkins and Fred Jackson to remain potent; both are game-time decisions but it appears that both are leaning towards playing.
It’s no secret that the Chiefs run their offense through Jamaal Charles, but it doesn’t mean teams can stop him. The success of Charles has opened up the field for Travis Kelce and Dwayne Bowe, but a third option has failed to distinguish themselves, leaving Kansas City vulnerable against teams that can corral Charles.
Defensively, the Chiefs have as good a pass rush as any, led by Justin Houston’s league-leading 12 sacks. Tamba Hali always has the ability to make life difficult with his speed off the edge as well, making the Bills offensive line a key unit to watch in this one. The Chiefs will bring the heat to keep the Sammy Watkins heat off their secondary. If they can get him consistently, Kyle Orton’s normally sound decision making could falter.
Bills 21 Chiefs 17
Cowboys at Jacksonville
Across the pond Tony Romo is a go. That should end any chance of a Jaguar’s upset right? I’ll say with 95 percent confidence that the answer is yes. The only real chance the Jaguars have is if Romo’s back hinders him from his normal effectiveness. The Jags defense is ranked 30th against the pass, 28th against the run and 30th in points allowed. Good luck stopping Bryant, Williams, Witten and most importantly Murray. Blake Birtles has been the epitome of a rookie quarterback (or what they’re supposed to be) having plenty of good performances but a lot more poor ones in his young career. The Cowboys defense isn’t elite but they’re solid this Season and if they can limit the upstart Denard Robinson and force Bortles to throw about 40 times in this contest, the mistakes will come. Any extra chance for the Cowboy’s high-powered offense is one too many, and even with a decent pass rush, the Jaguars don’t have the requisite talent to go toe-to-toe with the Cowboys.
Cowboys 30 Jaguars 17
Miami at Detroit
A “prove it” game for both teams, the Dolphins and Lions will match strength against strength when Cortland Finnegan, Brent Grimes, Louis Delmas and Rashad Jones, the starters in the league’s second-ranked pass defense, face off with Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. Reggie Bush returns as well for the Lions, and while he may be struggling to run the ball consistently this year, Bush is always a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield. Bush clone and team rushing leader Lamar Miller is active for Miami, who the Dolphins would have sorely missed had he been unable to go. Both defenses rank amongst the league’s best; as each team is in the top ten in every defensive category. The quarterback that is able to read the opposing secondary more accurately and avoid big mistakes will emerge the victor.
Dolphins 28 Lions 27
San Francisco at New Orleans
Two teams trending in opposite directions meet in this one. The 49ers are limping along at .500 and the questions about Jim Harbaugh’s hold on the locker room are looking a lot more valid than they did about a month ago. The Saints .500 record has a much better feel as they are coming on strong after an awful start to the season, aided by their presence in the league’s worst division.
Colin Kaepernick has been bad of late thanks in large part to his offensive line’s porous play-he was sacked a career-high eight times last week-but Kap hasn’t been making the best decisions either. His failure to make proper reads has this offense floundering at just 21 points a game, and Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde have been relatively quiet in recent weeks.
The Saints will have their work cut out for them against one of the leagues best defenses, but they don’t lose at home and the 49ers are without Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith, Navarro Bowman and Glenn Dorsey. Those last three are still about a week a away from return, and without them leadership of Willis the Niners will have to try and stop an active Jimmy Graham, a steadily-improving Brandin Cooks, and a red-hot Mark Ingram. Good luck.
Saints 26 49ers 20
Tennessee at Baltimore
This one should be a clunker. The Ravens are angry after being drubbed by the nemesis Steelers Pittsburgh last week and the Titans are trotting a sixth-round rookie at quarterback. Yikes. The Titans are bad. There’s no two ways about it. Zach Mettenberger may be the lesser of all evils with regard to the lack of talent at the quarterback position, but his inexperience will keep the Titans’ talented receivers from reaching their full potential. That figures to be trouble, even with Jimmy Smith out of commission for Baltimore. The Ravens should be able to reestablish their ground game against the middle-of-the road Tennessee defense. If so, the play action should provide opportunity for Torrey and Steve Smith to bounce back after relatively quiet games against the Steelers. With all of that in mind, the Ravens win handily in this one.
Ravens 31 Titans 16
Atlanta at Tampa Bay
Yuck. This game has the potential to be a high-scoring affair that should make fantasy owners happy, but as far as playoff implications and good football teams, you’d be better suited looking elsewhere. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones should lead the way for the Falcons and the added boost of Antone Smith back in the lineup should provide plenty of big play talent against the leagues worst defense in terms of giving up points. With McCown back at the helm the outlook for Tampa Bay is bleak. One hot streak last season aside, McCown has definitively proven he’s not a starter in this league. This week however a lot of backup quarterbacks could find ways perform well against a terrible Falcons defense that gave up 22 straight points in London to lose a heartbreaker to Detroit. It’ll be an ugly shoot out, but expect Atlanta to come out on top.
Falcons 34 Buccaneers 28
Denver at Oakland
Denver and Oakland; David and Goliath-only this time Goliath brought a bulldozer and a bazooka. Peyton Manning coming off a blowout loss to his Foxboro nemesis is looking for someone to take his frustrations out on. Oakland just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’d say watch out for trap game potential due to relatively steady play of rookie Derek Carr and their seventh-ranked pass defense, but let’s be real. It’s Peyton Manning, Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas. Next!
Broncos 35 Raiders 10
St. Louis at Arizona St. Louis is scrappy. It doesn’t seem to matter who they lose to injury, Jeff Fisher has his Rams ready to be a thorn in each opponents’ side. They’ve beaten the Seahawks and 49ers this year and will look to fill out their bingo card against the Cardinals today. Austin Davis hasn’t been stellar but he’s cut from the same cloth as Brian Hoyer, Alex Smith and Kyle Orton. When he’s on he’s a high-end game manager, when he’s off he’s pretty abysmal but still doesn’t turn the ball over all that much. He’ll have a chance to flash against an overrated and overstated secondary that is admittedly coming off a good performance against the talented Cowboys albeit being a Brandon-Weeden led offense. The Cardinals need only worry about playing their game. If they continue to bring pressure on defense and air it out on offense, they’ll come away with the win.
Cardinals 27 Rams 17
NY Giants at Seattle
Big Blue is reeling; they’ve been doing so since the loss of Victor Cruz. Odell Beckham has been good to start his career, but he’s not Cruz and is prone to rookie mistakes. The running game has sputtered in the absence of Rashad Jennings, and so too has the consistency of the offense. The defense keeps taking hits-the latest loss is Prince Amukamara for the season-and the Giants just lack grit right now.
Seattle has it’s own issues; the team is just barely skating by teams like Oakland as Russell Wilson appears to be the individual suffering the most from the dreaded Super Bowl hangover, but this team is still 5-3, playing at home and in possession of a stout running game. I don’t expect this one to be a blowout but I just don’t see a way the Giants win.
Seahawks 33 Giants 17
Chicago at Green Bay
Sunday Night Football was robbed of a good match up in this NFC North showdown. On paper the schedule makers saw Cutler, Forte, Marshall and Jeffrey against Rodgers, Lacy, Nelson and Cobb and thought “wow what a matchup!” What they didn’t see was a Bears defense that is just plain awful. Now don’t get me wrong; there’s some exciting potential in this one offensively but Aaron Rodgers owns the Bears and at home against a suspect secondary (you’re excused Kyle Fuller) he won’t lose.
Packers 31 Bears 20
Tim Mullhaupt (@TimakaHines) is the editor of The Buckets Blog.