The New England Patriots have looked like a different team so far this season—maybe not one that will pile up 13 regular season wins again—but one more capable of winning tough games and not nearly as dependent on Tom Brady to carry them. That’s how they look through five games, and just how solid this new-look is will get a big test on Sunday in Seattle.
Seattle has a great homefield crowd and it can be a tough place to play when the Seahawks are competitive, as they are this year. The defense can get after the quarterback, with defensive end Chris Clemons keying the four-man front and already having 5.5 sacks. Seattle gets physical on the corners, and Patriot receivers like Brandon Lloyd won’t able to get a quick release off the line of scrimmage.
None of this means that New England won’t win—just that their rediscovered virtues, like running the ball, are going to be vitally important, because it’s all over if Seattle’s front four gets comfortable teeing off on Brady in the pass rush.
The Patriots have also played better defense than they did in 2011, although they could hardly have been worse. Still, New England is 8th against the run, and while they still rank a woeful 28th against the pass, there’s a tendency to play well for three quarters before letting opposing offenses back in the game (i.e. Baltimore & Denver).
Regardless, Seattle is not the offense to come from behind, preferring to rely on the run with Marshawn Lynch and let quarterback Russell Wilson manage the game.
It’s all going to be about controlling the pace. I’d expect the game to be close, but if New England is playing with a lead into the third quarter, the pressure on Wilson will increase and the Patriots’ own improved front four, led by Chandler Jones, can do some damage and force the rookie into mistakes.
Brady is smart enough to handle a road crowd and if he’s not placed in an untenable position, New England will win. They’re a four-point favorite and the pick here is for the new hard-nosed Patriots to get it done out west.
The New England-Seattle game is best on the NFL Week 6 undercard, which is defined here at TheSportsNotebook as the games not drawing much TV coverage outside the local area. Here’s the rundown on seven additional undercard games, along with the Thursday night fare of Pittsburgh-Tennessee…
St. Louis-Miami & Detroit-Philadelphia: I’ve tied these two games together, because on one end of the spectrum we have two teams pegged for the basement that are suddenly looking feisty in the Rams & Dolphins. The other end of the spectrum is a pair of preseason favorites who don’t look the part in the Lions & Eagles. One surprise team will be getting more media love. One dysfunctional favorite has another long media week ahead.
The Rams are coming off a long week of prep time after the Thursday night win over Arizona, and they showed how devastating their front four can be in the way they got after Kevin Kolb. Expect more of the same here, as Robert Quinn and his six sacks should be in Ryan Tannehill’s face all day long. St. Louis isn’t good enough offensively, especially without Danny Amendola, to really break a game open, but I’m looking for them to get a win here.
The folks in Las Vegas have one strong feeling on this game—don’t expect many points. The Over/Under of 37 is the only total for Week 7 that’s outside the 40s on either side.
Something’s gotta give in the Lions-Eagles game, to borrow the title of a Diane Keaton/Jack Nicholson movie. The Lions can’t run the ball, which should mean that opposing defenses tee off on Matthew Stafford. But the Eagles’ defensive front four has underachieved so far this year, something that Michael Vick’s turnover problems are covering up when it comes to press coverage.
Trent Cole needs to be in Stafford’s face or the second-ranked pass offense can still make hay, even without support. I’m going to give Philly the benefit of the doubt for one more week at home, and assume they can get their pass rush going. Detroit, on the other hand, just doesn’t have the talent to run the ball.
Minnesota-Washington: RG3’s status for the game is still undecided, but he has been cleared to play. I think that makes it safe to assume the Redskins will eventually decide to start him. Assuming that holds true, this is a contrast-in-styles game.
Washington will want to open up the field with RG3, while the Vikings like to bang people in the trenches and control tempo with the running game. What Minnesota has going for them is that Christian Ponder threw the ball very well against Tennessee last week, and the Redskins secondary is a sieve.
As a Washington fan, what I’m hoping for is that an RG3 return gives an emotional lift, Minnesota hits an emotional valley as a young team enjoying unexpected success. And then the ‘Skins just have amnesia and forget they’re playing at home, given that we’ve lost eight in a row at FedEx.
Pittsburgh-Tennessee & Cincinnati-Cleveland: These games are tied together as key teams in the AFC North face opponents they should beat. But in the case of Pittsburgh, they’ll have to make this Thursday night visit to Tennessee without the services of LaMarr Woodley at outside linebacker and Troy Polamulu at strong safety.
That’s a couple pretty big playmakers to be without, especially for a team that can’t run the ball. But does Matt Hasselbeck have enough to exploit it? Can Chris Johnson play his second good game of the year? How strong will Kenny Britt be at receiver as he works his way back from injury?
And it’s occurred to me that after all these questions, it’s the point in The Naked Gun where Leslie Nielsen says “And where the hell was I?” Anyway, the Steelers win, but it’s closer than the 6.5 points Vegas is thinking.
Cincinnati’s coming off a bad loss to Miami and should be well-motivated for their visit to the east side of the state. Brandon Weeden has played better than expected, but given that nothing was expected, this tells us very little. We know he’ll get a lot of pressure from the Bengal front four and a motivated Cincinnati team likely gets it done.
Oakland-Atlanta & Buffalo-Arizona: Both games look like mismatches, with bad teams going on the road. The Raiders can’t pressure the quarterback, which is a good way to get lit up when the opponent is Matt Ryan and the Falcons playing in their home dome.
I don’t what’s going on in Buffalo. Other than the fact they’ve given up 90 points in the last six quarters, everything’s fine.
The talent is there defensively, and for all the good things Arizona has done in putting together a 4-1 record, offense isn’t one of them. But the Bills look dysfunctional, the Cardinals are coming off a loss and have had ten days to prepare. It’s going to take a major reversal of fortune for Arizona not to win.
Kansas City-Tampa Bay: The Bucs are coming off a bye week and in spite of the 1-3 record, they’ve shown real signs of life. In practical terms, they’re stopping the run, something that will come in handy against the Chiefs and Jamaal Charles.
Kansas City’s going to need to be able to throw the ball, putting a lot of heat on Brady Quinn who will make his first start of the season. Tampa’s a four-point favorite and they look like a good bet to win and cover.