The Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants have gone in opposite directions since the NFL’s opening night when the Cowboys efficiently dismantled last year’s champs in an impressive road win. The Giants won five of the next six. The Cowboys have proven what a lot of us thought at the time—that seeing them play a good game was no surprise, but seeing them be consistent would be. Dallas dropped three of the next five.
So as the rematch in Dallas looms in the Sunday afternoon late window, the 4:30 PM ET Fox telecast that will lead directly into the network’s World Series coverage, it’s the Cowboys who find themselves in a must-win spot at 3-3. They can’t dig any deeper of a hole in the NFC East, where they’ll either trail by a half-game or 2 ½ games at game’s end. And the battle for the final playoff berths is looking crowded with teams like Seattle, Arizona, even Green Bay, messing around on the playoff fringe.
The health situation is starting to favor New York. After an early season of being riddled with injuries, they are reasonably healthy right now. Dallas has lost inside linebacker Sean Lee to injured reserve, potentially opening up the Giants’ ability to run the ball between the tackles and in turn creating passing lanes for Eli Manning and a now-healthy receivers corps.
It’s very difficult to see Dallas playing anywhere close to what they did in that season opener—but given that game was a decisive win on the road, it won’t take that level of excellence this time around to scrape out a narrow win at home. But they need to show they can run the ball and stop the run, and if they do that, things will take care of themselves.
Oddly enough, I kind of like Dallas’ chances here. They’re about due for a really good game and to do a Super Bowl tease again. New York’s due for one of their clunkers that ensure regular seasons stay interesting in the Big Apple. The guess here is that Tony Romo plays well, the Cowboy corners make some plays and Dallas escapes with a narrow win.
There’s only one other game in the late window on Sunday and its Oakland-Kansas City. This game begs the philosophical question of whether any game the Chiefs are favored in (they’re giving 1.5 points at home) could possibly be worth watching. The answer is no.
Here’s the rundown on the early games on Sunday for NFL Week 8, with priority given to the two games that will be seen by most of the country (St. Louis-New England from London on CBS, and Washington-Pittsburgh on Fox), followed by the prime-time games of New Orleans-Denver on Sunday and San Francisco-Arizona on Monday.
New England-St. Louis: I think this game is going to be close and the seven points the Patriots are favored by is too high. I just wrote yesterday that those hitting the panic button on this New England team are overreacting, and I stand by them. But the Pats are beaten up with a lot of nagging injuries—reports are that tight end Aaron Hernandez will miss this game—and they desperately need to get to the bye that comes next week.
St. Louis is capable of causing Tom Brady some problems in the pocket, with the pressure that Robert Quinn and Chris Long can bring from the ends. If the Rams were playing last year’s Pats, I’d like this as an upset special. But this year’s Pats team can run the ball, and even with backup Brandon Bolden out, I see Stevan Ridley being effective on some quick traps and draws that keep the pass rush honest. That’s why New England survives—but the fan base needs to be ready for some anxious moments.
Washington-Pittsburgh: You’ve got to give Mike Tomlin some credit—his defense still ranks high in spite of injuries to all kinds of key players from early, from James Harrison to Lawrence Timmons to Troy Polamulu. If the playmakers haven’t been out, they’ve been nicked up, but Pittsburgh is still in the top 10 against both the run and pass. They’ll need it all to match up with the Redskins offense, where the effectiveness of the conventional running game behind Alfred Morris has been overshadowed by RG3’s heroics.
Washington hasn’t done much defensively this year, but they have played well against the run, meaning that Pittsburgh’s one burst of effectiveness of the ground last week in Cincinnati probably doesn’t sustain itself. But the ‘Skins secondary is awful and there’s no reason to think Ben Roethlisberger won’t put up some huge numbers.
RG3 is keeping the ‘Skins in every game and at 3-4, if they steal this win, they stay in the playoff hunt. As a fan, I’m hoping fervently it happens and even talking myself into optimism. But analytically, it’s hard to explain to a neutral observer why this Washington team is good enough to beat—not just compete with, but beat—a still-desperate 3-3 team with Big Ben behind center and playing at home.
Carolina-Chicago: If you’re a betting man, this could be the week to jump on the Panthers. They’re getting destroyed in the press, the Bears are on a short week and coming off a win over a divisional foe (Detroit on MNF) and they aren’t always known to get consistency at the quarterback spot. Plus, you’d be getting 7.5 points with Carolina, so you don’t even to count on Cam Newton making a play down the stretch to win the game. This one’s closer than the experts think.
Seattle-Detroit: If the Seahawks are going to be a playoff team, this is the kind of road win they need. Their physical defense can cause problems for Detroit’s soft offensive line. Their running game can control tempo. Russell Wilson’s mobility can neutralize the Lions’ good pass rush. And if they turn it into a grind-it-out game, you can count on Detroit to shoot themselves in the foot with 10-11 penalties. I like Seattle to prove its mettle in a road game here.
Atlanta-Philadelphia: It’s a mark of how much the Eagles are struggling that this game didn’t displace Washington-Pittsburgh as the game Fox would show to most of the country. But Philly is favored by three. Even giving them homefield courtesy, that still means bookmakers see them as even to Atlanta all things considered. Are we watching the same games? The sportsbook guys are smarter and richer than me, so I can’t dismiss it. But with Atlanta rested and coming off a bye I can’t see why they shouldn’t win.
San Diego-Cleveland: Norv Turner and A.J. Smith are on one sideline. The entire Cleveland Browns franchise is on the other. Could be a more incompetence be clustered in one building than this?
Miami-NY Jets: The winner of this game keeps pace with New England—in fact the Dolphins are only a half-game out and tied with the Pats in the loss column, so the Fish could move into first place if there’s an upset in London. This game was an intense, grinding overtime battle when the Jets won in Week 2 down south. More of the same on Sunday in the Meadowlands, but I like Miami coming off a bye and the Jets perhaps a little soft after a week of some semi-positive press following their near-miss in New England.
Jacksonville-Green Bay: The 14.5 points Green Bay is favored by is far and away the biggest spread on the board this week. Charles Woodson is out for the Packers, but I suspect GB would trade Woodson’s absence for that of Maurice Jones-Drew any day. How is Jacksonville even going to score, much less compete?
Indianapolis-Tennessee: We talked in the recap of last week’s games how these teams were quietly strengthening the AFC South middle class behind Houston and the winner of this one is a viable contender for a playoff spot in a weak conference. You can see Chris Johnson gaining momentum in the running game and I think that continues, as the Titans win decisively at home.
Sun Night: New Orleans-Denver: The Over/Under on this game is 55.5, easily the biggest on the board for totals this week, so there’s no confidence in either defense to slow down Peyton Manning or Drew Brees. That lack of confidence in the defenses is justified, so the question becomes who can make just enough stops to buy time for their own offense and who can at least feign interest in the running game well enough to balance the play-calling.
The answer in both cases is Denver, though not by a lot. Elvis Dumervil and Derek Wolfe represent a little bit better package at defensive end than do Wil Smith and Cameron Jordan on the other side. Denver’s ability to bring Von Miller on the blitz brings them an added dimension. With the running game, the Broncos can at least try it with Willis McGahee. The Saints can’t even do that, nor do they pretend to. Brees likely will have Jimmy Graham on the field, so that at least helps.
But the pattern with this Denver team is clear—unless you put them down 20, you probably don’t win, and maybe not even then (although since Norv Turner won’t be coaching an A.J.Smith-lineup in this game my guess is the Broncos don’t rally from a big deficit here). Denver’s also got homefield and is coming off a bye. Take Peyton, although be wary of laying the six. The Over is the best bet in this game.
Mon Night: San Francisco-Arizona: From the highest total on the board on Sunday night to the lowest on Monday night, as the Niners-Cardinals Over/Under number is 38—only the Jets-Dolphins at 39.5 joins this game under the 40 threshold.
Let’s acknowledge Arizona deserves some respect at home and the seven points they’re getting in what’s likely to be a low-scoring game might seem a little high on the side. And maybe if the game stays close, Larry Fitzgerald could make a game-changing play. Yes, let’s acknowledge that. But then let’s get to reality—the San Francisco offense is better balanced, with Frank Gore giving them a running threat that Arizona doesn’t have. The Niners are in close to pristine health, while Arizona is, at the very least banged up, even though key players like defensive end Calais Campbell will be in the lineup. And San Francisco proved last Thursday night against Seattle that Alex Smith is still better than his divisional counterparts at managing a brutal war of a game like this one is likely to turn into. Oh, and that reference to Thursday reminds me—San Fran’s had a couple days extra prep time.
It boils down to a 49er win and perhaps a great night for the city of San Francisco—Game 5 of the World Series is scheduled tonight and it’s at least possible the baseball Giants (not to sound like Chris Berman) could be in position to clinch.