The traditional powers of the AFC put it on the line in big games on NFL Sunday. CBS’ doubleheader is anchored by the Pittsburgh-Baltimore game in the 4:25 PM ET time slot, and the game it will show most of the country early on is New England’s visit to Miami. We’ll start our preview of Sunday’s action for NFL Week 13 with these two games.
Pittsburgh-Baltimore: If you look at the injury reports right now they tell us that Charlie Batch is likely to start at quarterback and Ben Roethlisberger is downgraded to doubtful. I put the media reports of Batch starting in the same category I put the reports that said Mitt Romney was going to be offered a position in Barack Obama’s cabinet. Well, maybe Batch has a little better chance. But if Big Ben can walk, he’s going to be on the field when the dusk settles in Baltimore late Sunday afternoon and the 6-5 Steelers try and stop the bleeding that is a two-game losing streak.
Baltimore is the quintessential survival team, as we noted earlier this week in our NFL playoff projections and their survival skills mean this game doesn’t have to matter much to their AFC North chances, where they have a three-game lead on Pittsburgh and Cincy. But it matters a lot to their playoff positioning and as one who lived in both Pittsburgh and Baltimore, trust me when I say the animosity between these two franchises and their fan bases is not media-contrived. The Ravens will bring maximum effort.
So the question is really whether this Pittsburgh team is good enough to win a big game on the road. Let’s assume Roethlisberger will start—not only do I think he will, but this whole conversation is pointless if anyone else is under center. Let’s also assume Troy Polamulu returns, which is listed as a probable. The Steelers now have the capacity to get big plays on both sides of the ball, something that was lacking when they dropped a 13-10 decision to Baltimore two weeks ago. The Ravens’ defense has been playing better in recent weeks, but is still a far cry from their old reputation. If the great soldiers, Roethlisberger and Polamulu take the field, I think they come up with a big road win.
New England-Miami: The Dolphins match up well defensively with the Patriots. They have a front seven that can stop a New England ground game that’s become one of the best in the league. And that same front seven is skilled at rushing the passer, and if Patriot guard Logan Mankins misses the game—as currently projected, Miami can create a lot of havoc for Tom Brady, much the same way Arizona did all the way back in Week 2.
What Miami doesn’t do well is throw and somewhere along the line Ryan Tannehill has to make plays. The Dolphins like to run the ball with Reggie Bush, but all the criticism directed against the Patriot defense overlooks the fact that this a Top 10 unit against the ground game. It’s the secondary—especially late in games—that’s been the flaw. Will Tannehill be the latest to exploit it, or will this just be a case of incompetence against more incompetence late in the game?
I like the Dolphins enough to say that getting them with 7 ½ points on their homefield is a good deal, especially if Mankins and defensive end Chandler Jones end up out for New England. But either way, this one’s going to the wire and then you ask yourself whether Tom Brady or Ryan Tannehill is more likely to come with the key throw. Then you kick yourself for being dumb enough to ask the question.
NFC NORTH TRIO
Fox only broadcasts one game this week, and while the coverage is mostly split up, they’re sending the #1 broadcast team of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman to Lambeau Field for the Minnesota-Green Bay game. Normally in this spot, I’d also cover the Sunday night game. But I’m so appalled that NBC is really going to inflict Philadelphia-Dallas on the nation, that I’m going to do what the network won’t—and that’s flex them out. TheSportsNotebook will instead cover Seattle-Chicago in this space as its way of protesting.
Minnesota-Green Bay: The Vikings don’t play well outdoors, as they again demonstrated last week in getting blown out at Chicago. But they also match up very well with Green Bay, especially on the defensive side. Minnesota’s defensive front four as exactly the kind of unit that has given the Packers’ problems all year. Jared Allen and Brian Robison can spend as much time in the Green Bay pocket as Aaron Rodgers and this line gets pressure up the gut as well.
If you watched the debacle Green Bay’s offensive line—a weak spot to begin the season and worsened since tackle Bryan Bulaga was lost of the year—put on last Sunday night in New York, you know that it’s possible Allen and Robison could spend as much time in the pocket as Rodgers.
What Minnesota does not have the ability to do is to capitalize on an injury-weakened Green Bay defense the way Eli Manning did, and because of that, the Packers will be able to stick to their running game and keep the pass rush at least a little bit honest. Here’s another game where I think a 7 ½ point spread is excessive, but another spot where I’d take the favorite to survive.
Seattle-Chicago: It’s been a bizarre week in the Pacific Northwest. First, Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman, the best corner tandem in the league were suspended, for some type of drug test failure. It was, as my podcast colleague Greg DePalma pointed out on Monday, kind of fishy, because what are the odds two players on the same team fail the same test on the same day? It makes the test of Ryan Braun look quasi-legitimate by comparison. Now Sherman and Browner are reinstated, and with Seattle’s playoff hopes have been restored.
I like the way the Seahawks match up here for the same reason the Vikings match up with the Packers—we have a home favorite with a porous offensive line against a road underdog (in this case 3 ½ points) that excels at getting after the passer. And Seattle supplements its pass rush with the terrific play on the corners mentioned, and efficient quarterback play with Russell Wilson. Seattle’s always a bit of question mark on the road, but I think they’re going to win here. My rule with the Bears is simple—they’re a playoff-caliber team, but they’re not good enough to beat other playoff-caliber teams, regardless of the venue. And Seattle is a playoff-caliber team.
MONDAY NIGHT IN THE BELTWAY
NY Giants-Washington: The Redskins look to make their last stand to try and win the NFC East, as they take on the Giants. A Washington win on their homefield would pull them to within a game of the lead and the schedule favors the Redskins the rest of the way. The problem for those of us in Redskins Nation is that our team remains mostly a one-man band of RG3, with a little Alfred Morris mixed in. As one-man bands go, this is as good as it gets, but for all the rhetoric about it being a “quarterbacks league” this is still a team game, the Giants still have Eli Manning and they happen to be better at just about every other position on the field. I don’t have my hopes up, unless New York can help us with one of their now-infamous regular season laydown games.
AFC POWER STRUGGLE
Tampa Bay-Denver: The Broncos are without Willis McGahee, whose hit injured reserve with a knee injury, but I think Knowshon Moreno can step up and give this offense its run-pass balance. And I don’t believe the Tampa pass rush or coverage is up to the task of stopping Peyton Manning in his own backyard. This is another game that could have been flexed into Sunday night, as the Bucs are 6-5 and tied with Minnesota and Seattle for the final NFC playoff spot, while Denver continues to angle for a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs.
Houston-Tennessee: Houston is missing outside linebacker Brooks Reed to a groin injury, and I guess we can never really write off Tennessee, given their up-and-down nature. But it’s mostly downs for the Titans and Houston’s had ten days to prepare.
Indianapolis-Detroit: I keep waiting for the Lions to really step up and just play to their talent level one time, even if the playoffs are now a pipe dream for this 4-7 team. This is a good spot for it. Indy’s pass defense is suspect and the Matthew Stafford-to-Calvin Johnson combo is the one to beat it. The Colts are 7-4 and have some breathing room in the AFC playoff race and I suspect they take their foot off the pedal.
Cincinnati-San Diego: This is an absolutely ideal spot for two teams with a history of tormenting their fan bases to rise to the occasion. Cincinnati is 6-5 and looks on a roll, ready to claim an AFC wild-card berth. Isn’t a trip west a perfect time to throw a clunker into the mix? As for San Diego, their 4-7 record has them just about dead in the playoff race. Wouldn’t now be a perfect time to get a win, also see the Steelers lose, thereby pulling the Bolts to within a game of the race? Then the fans can get their hopes up and be tormented later on with a blown special teams play or something along those lines later in the year.
Jacksonville-Buffalo: With his teams’ playoff hopes on the line last week in Indianapolis and facing a pass defense ripe to be picked, Ryan Fitzpatrick came up small. It would then stand to figure he’ll throw for 375 yards against a lousy team in a now-meaningless game.
Cleveland-Oakland: The Raiders are a 1 ½ point underdog at home to the Cleveland Browns. Isn’t this reason enough for somebody to get fired?
Philadelphia-Dallas: There’s no reason to think this should be a game, as the Eagles genuinely look like the worst team in the NFL now. Except now that I’ve trashed this game left and right and buried NBC for televising it, it only stands to reason that it will go down to the wire and Nick Foles will make a series a big throws to beat the Cowboys and drastically damage their playoff hopes. Actually, I think even I can’t jinx a game that badly. Given Dallas’ erratic nature, laying 10 might be risky, but if they lose this one, Jason Garrett’s employment needs to be terminated in the postgame press conference.
San Francisco-St. Louis: In the past two months, these two cities have waged war in a seven-game National League Championship Series and played the first NFL tie game in four years. It stands to reason something interesting is going to happen and logic says it centers around Colin Kaepernick. Either he has a monster game and ends the quarterback controversy or Alex Smith has to bail him out. I like Kaepernick and think Jim Harbaugh’s doing the right thing, so I’ll go with the former.
Arizona-NY Jets & Carolina-Kansas City: I won’t insult readers with any words regarding these games that even pretends to make them worth talking about.