NFL Analysis: Week 5’s National TV Games

Denver-Dallas is the big Week 5 game in the late Sunday afternoon slot, and Houston-San Francisco is a pretty good game on Sunday night. The Jets-Falcons on Monday meets the qualifications for dud, and I’m almost embarrassed to say I’m intrigued by Thursday night’s Buffalo-Cleveland game. Let’s take a look at the four Week 5 games that will be seen by all or most of the country.

TheSportsNotebook lists the moneyline next to each team, the price paid on betting for an outright win in $100 increments. I’m picking each game this year on the moneyline. So far I’ve had winning weeks three times out of four, including last week’s (+360) showing. But the bad week in Week 3 was of a wipeout variety and my season-long number is still (-600). Let’s keep the long road back going this week.

Buffalo (+170) Cleveland (-200) (Thursday, 8:25 PM ET, NFL): I know I should be ready to cite this matchup is a key piece of evidence in the case to dismiss the season-long Thursday night games on the NFL Network, a case in which I’ve filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of the prosecution.

It would be an easy thing to say that unless Jim Kelly and Bernie Kosar are getting under center, with Marv Levy and Marty Schottenheimer on the sidelines, that I’m not interesting in watching a Cleveland-Buffalo game. But these teams are both showing signs of life, especially the Bills and the winner of this game will be worth a second look.

Both teams are 2-2, with the Bills having a win over the Ravens and the Browns knocking off the Bengals.
The key issue in this game will be Buffalo’s rush attack. With C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson coming off big games against Baltimore and both looking likely to play with their ankle and knee injuries, the Bills have the running attack that Cleveland does not. The flip side is that the Browns have a defensive playmaker, with Desmond Bryant already having 3 1/2 sacks coming off the edge.

The game is in Cleveland, so we have to see an unproven Buffalo team show it can handle the prosperity of beating last year’s Super Bowl champions, move beyond it quickly and win on the road on a short week. That’s a tall order and I won’t say I’m not leery. But I think the Bills are genuinely becoming respectable, while I’m not there yet with the Browns, and I get a nice (+170) price for picking Buffalo.

Denver (-425) Dallas (+335) (Sunday, 4:25 PM ET, CBS): Denver has to endure the media pressure of being anointed as the next champions because of how well they’ve played in a 4-0 start. They won’t go undefeated, but at least Peyton Manning has gone 16-0–as in touchdown passes to interceptions in the season’s first quarter, and he’s completing 75 percent of his passes.

Tony Romo isn’t exactly stinking out the joint though. The Cowboy quarterback is completing 72% of his throws and has an 8-1 TD/INT ratio. And if we flip the equation over to pass defense and look at which team is pressuring the quarterback better, the answer to that is Dallas. They’re getting heat across the board in their 4-3 scheme, starting with Demarcus Ware, but including George Selvie on the opposite end and Jason Hatcher up the middle. Denver has only Robert Ayers generating sacks.

I don’t really like to pick against Denver, because Manning is so good and you never what might happen with Romo, especially if Miles Austin doesn’t play again this week. But I feel like this steep moneyline virtually dictates a Dallas selection. I think this game is going to be very close, I think the Cowboys are going to be ready to play. Dallas is still in first place in the NFC East at 2-2, meaning that this is an October game with not a lot of pressure riding on it—meaning it’s the kind of game Tony Romo was born to play well in. I’ll damn with faint praise and pick the ‘Boys.

Houston (+220) San Francisco (-260) (Sunday, 8:30 PM ET, NBC): The 49ers, along with the Broncos, are America’s two teams–each has been in one of these four marquee TV slots for all four of their games. San Francisco is the one struggling to live up to the hype at 2-2, but they got themselves back on track with last Thursday’s win over the Rams thanks to the running of Frank Gore. Now Frisco has some restored confidence, some extra prep time and their physical identity back.

What they’re going to need in this game is more Colin Kaepernick. The young quarterback played poor games in the blowout losses to Seattle and Indianapolis and was mostly a game-manager last week. Now he’s facing a Houston defense that is at its best when they can get a lot of pressure on the passer.

From J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith up front, to Whitney Mercilus at linebacker, the Texans have their best chance of success by disrupting the San Francisco blocking scheme by attacking. Kaepernick can not only foil those plans with his mobility, he can make them completely blow up in Houston’s face.

I’m ready to write off the Texans after the way they blew last week’s game to Seattle, in spite of having a 20-3 lead and running the ball very well with Arian Foster. Matt Schaub has too long a track record of significant mistakes in big games, even big regular season games like this one is. Even allowing the attractive price on the underdog, I just can’t see San Francisco losing this game at home and will play the favorite.

NY Jets (+420) Atlanta (-550) (Mon, 8:30 PM ET, ESPN): Atlanta is the second-biggest moneyline on the favorite on the board this week, and the highest of all teams not playing Jacksonville, which is the real competition in this category (St. Louis is -600 against the Jags). Thus, the two biggest favorites are each 1-3, which tells you something about how the betting markets view the Jets, along with the hapless Jags.

Even though Atlanta is 1-3, remember that two of their losses were close and on the road, and against New Orleans and Miami, while the home loss was to New England. All of these games came down to the bitter end. Atlanta might be desperate for some wins, but they’re getting the most difficult portion of the schedule behind them and Stephen Jackson shouldn’t be long in returning to help the running game.

If there’s a case for the Jets to win on the road it would be this–they’re playing genuinely good defense. Even in last week’s 38-13 loss to Tennessee, it was more about turnovers causing the point deluge. Atlanta does not do a good job protecting Matt Ryan, so there’s hope for some big plays on defense. Nor do the Falcons rush the passer well, so Geno Smith might be able to relax a little more and get comfortable playing indoors.

This is why I hate moneylines like this one. If I pick Atlanta and lose, my entire week is shot, and the scenario for the Jets is not unreasonable. But if you ask me honestly, I see almost no chance of them actually winning. Playing well, sure. Going down to the wire, why not. But if Atlanta loses this game at home their season is over. And I don’t see that happening. For the second straight week, the NFC South beats the AFC East in Monday Night Football and as a hefty moneyline favorite. And I’ll take my chances with that big number.

TheSportsNotebook’s NFL analysis also looks at the rest of the Week 5 undercard.