It would take an optimist—or at least a pessimistic New York Giants’ fan—to think the NFC East is still up for grabs. The Giants have a two-game lead in the loss column and all three division rivals—Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington have their own sets of issues that make any kind of surge look unlikely. But there’s still half the season to go and stranger turnarounds have happened.
It’s the NFC East that gets the spotlight in NFL Week 9, as the Giants play the marquee late Sunday afternoon game, the Cowboys play Sunday night, the Eagles play Monday night and the Redskins’ game early Sunday will be seen by the largest portion of the TV audience. So it’s here that we’ll start our breakdown of the Sunday games, going top-to-bottom in the standings.
Late Sunday Afternoon (CBS): Pittsburgh-NY Giants—We documented the resurgent Steeler running game earlier this week here on TheSportsNotebook. Now the reports are that Jonathan Dwyer, the running back that’s gotten the numbers, may miss the game with a hamstring problem. It’s still uncertain, and it’s also possible that last year’s starter Rashad Mendenhall will get the call. I’m willing to bet it doesn’t matter—that what’s really taking place in Pittsburgh is that Mike Tomlin has his offensive line starting to click.
Whether the line is clicking or not, the Giants aren’t going to be easy to run on and Pittsburgh will catch a break if New York free safety Antrel Rolle has to miss the game for a concussion, as looks at least possible right now. There should be some chances for Ben Roethlisberger to make some plays down the field so long as he has time, or can at least create it by breaking tackles on the pass rush. It’s here that the shifty Dwyer could help, in running draws and traps that would keep the New York pass rush honest.
The Pittsburgh defense is still in the midst of a getting healthy process and Troy Polamulu is still sitting out with his bad calf. The absence of the playmaking strong safety gives Eli Manning a little more room to take risks.
New York is the better team and playing at home, so on the surface there’s no reason to pick against them. But I do think this is a game where the Steelers are just going to be more motivated. I know I wrote the same thing last week about Dallas in their game against New York and it didn’t pan out, but the fact the Giants blew a 23-0 lead before rallying to win, does suggest their renowned lack of regular season focus is lurking and ready to bite them.
A game against an AFC opponent and having a comfortable lead in the standings makes for an ideal laydown spot—and the Steelers won’t mess up an end-of-game situation the way the Cowboys are known for. I like Pittsburgh to get out of the Meadowlands alive.
Monday Night (ESPN): Philadelphia-New Orleans—Can we please stop all the talk about benching Michael Vick? As long as there’s hope for the Eagles’ season, he’s the only option they have. Even if you like rookie backup Nick Foles (and I do) you still don’t put him in unless you’re ready to fire Andy Reid, write off the rest of the season and start rebuilding.
The Eagles shouldn’t be at that point yet—win on MNF and they’d be 4-4 with seven of their remaining eight games against NFC East teams and a win over the Giants already in their back pocket. Even if New York does beat Pittsburgh on Sunday, Philly can feel good about their chances if they win this game.
And if Andy Reid commits running the ball with LeSean McCoy, I like Philadelphia’s chances. An effective running game takes some heat off Vick. It reduces his opportunities for turnovers just based on volume of times handling the ball and it reduces the pressure he’d feel to force plays when nothing is there.
New Orleans is pretty cut-and-dried—the passing game hasn’t suffered, as Drew Brees is still putting up big numbers, but this team does nothing else well. Brees has become a glorified Fantasy quarterback and nothing more this year. In some games that will be enough. It was against San Diego in a prime-time home game earlier this year and it could be on MNF against another opponent dealing with dysfunction.
I’d like to believe in Reid—his track record of success speaks for itself. But most coaches run their course in a certain venue and it looks like he’s run his in Philly. His team would have to drastically improve on defense, Vick would have to play his second straight turnover-free game and Reid would have to go against his own tendencies in focusing on McCoy. That’s a lot to ask for and New Orleans is desperate and playing at home. Take the Saints in the game whose Over/Under of 52.5 is the highest projected point total on the Week 9 board.
Sunday Night (NBC): Dallas-Atlanta—The Cowboys can win this game, get to 4-4 and save their own season in the process, but somewhere along the line Jason Garrett has got to commit to running the ball. I know it’s not easy—Demarco Murray missed last week and is still doubtful for this week and now Felix Jones may also be out.
But it’s hardly unusual for an unknown back to step up and have a good game. And even if the third-stringer, Philip Tanner doesn’t have a good game, Dallas needs to at least run it 20 times and give the opponent something to think about. Green Bay has followed that path with Alex Green and Dallas needs to do the same.
If it becomes a shootout Atlanta will win. They have better weapons at receiver with Roddy White and Julio Jones, and can at least match Dallas’ playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. But this is another intangibles game—the Cowboys, like the Eagles, are playing for their season and perhaps their coach’s job. The Falcons, at 7-0 are not like the Saints. Atlanta’s got plenty of room to breathe and I don’t see the same flat-out dysfunction in Dallas that I do in Philadelphia. I’m going to give the Cowboys one more week of the benefit of the doubt and say they pull off the road upset as a four-point underdog.
Early Sunday Afternoon: Carolina-Washington (Fox)—Most of the southern part of the country will watch RG3 and Cam Newton do battle. Robert Griffin III is losing his receivers left and right—first tight end Fred Davis, now wideout Pierre Garcon. Maybe that’s why the ‘Skins have felt compelled to try and get their star quarterback open on trick gadget plays where he goes down the sideline.
Look, as a Washington fan, I love RG3 and he’s given me hope for this franchise for the first time in eons, but the team already had a suspect defense and then with the early season injury to Brian Orakpo it got worse. They already had a shaky offensive supporting cast and injuries have made it worse. Even if this were basketball, were one player could make a huge difference, RG3 would be out of luck.
As rough as things are going for Carolina, they at least showed some competitive fire in Chicago last week and the Redskins’ don’t have the defensive playmakers to cash in the inevitable mistakes from Newton. I wish I could be optimistic about Sunday, but the ‘Skins have shown no homefield advantage in recent years. I’m just not feeling it.
OTHER NOTABLE EARLY SUNDAY GAMES
Denver-Cincinnati: It’s a CBS doubleheader week and most of the country will get Broncos-Bengals in the early time slot, as the appetizer for Steelers-Giants later on. Cincinnati certainly has the talent to create a lot of problems for the favored visitors. Their front four could get after Peyton Manning and stop the run, enabling Cincy to play its style of game. Andy Dalton could play no-mistakes football and the Bengals follow their 2011 template in getting a win.
All of those things could happen and Cincinnati has the talent to make it realistic, but the Bengals have not done anything of the sort consistently in 2012. We’ll see if coming off a bye makes any difference, and if the Broncos might slip up after two straight prime-time wins. But right now, Manning really looks dialed in, the running game is clicking and the defense improving. I don’t see any reason to pick against Denver until they give me a reason.
Arizona-Green Bay: In an unusual arrangement for Fox, their sending the #1 broadcast team of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman to this game, even as they don’t televise it beyond the local markets. It’s certainly a significant game in the NFC playoff picture, with the Packers at 5-3, and the Cardinals at 4-4 and trying to turn things around after losing four straight.
Arizona’s defense can cause huge problems for Green Bay. The Packers are terrible in pass protection and Arizona can pressure from the edges with their linebackers, along with defensive end Calais Campbell. Aaron Rodgers also has to be careful with the football because corner Patrick Peterson is a playmaker and if the Cardinals can play with even a modest lead, they’ll be a tough out.
The issue is getting that lead. We saw on Monday Night against San Francisco just how bad the Cardinal offense is. It was shaky with Kevin Kolb and with the starter now out and John Skelton back in, it’s positively awful. They don’t run the ball, they don’t get Larry Fitzgerald open down the field and even though Green Bay is still missing Charles Woodson and Greg Jennings, they rest of their recent injury spate looks to be recovering and I expect they win.
For the second straight week though, they’re the biggest favorite on the Vegas board at (-11). The Pack didn’t cover the number last week against Jacksonville and that might be asking a lot this time around.
THE REST OF THE NFL WEEK 9 CARD
Baltimore-Cleveland: The Browns have playmaking corner Joe Haden back, so there’s at least some hope for the defense. But does anyone think this Cleveland offense is really the one to exploit the wounded Baltimore defense? Not me.
Miami-Indianapolis: Indy played its way into the playoff discussion with last week’s overtime win at Tennessee and we noted yesterday how the Dolphins can make a case for themselves to win the AFC East. I’m looking for Miami’s defensive front seven to cause big problems for Andrew Luck and to pull into a first-place tie with idle New England at 5-3.
Buffalo-Houston: It’s the return home for Mario Williams and if he shows up ready to play, the Bills can get a pass rush. And when they get a pass rush is when we’ve seen this team play respectable football. But respectable won’t be enough here—the Texans can counter a pass rush better than any team in the NFL with Arian Foster’s inside running.
Chicago-Tennessee: The Bears played with fire last week, and even though they won, you have to get the feeling that this team is going to blow a game it shouldn’t. Tennessee might have faltered against Indianapolis, but with another solid game from Chris Johnson the running game is officially off the respirator and I’m taking the Titans to get the home upset.
Detroit-Jacksonville: Blaine Gabbert gets a chance to build off his strong game in Green Bay last week, while Matthew Stafford got locked in during the Lions’ win over Seattle. The city of Detroit has seen their World Series hopes go down the tube and possibly their Rose Bowl hopes when Michigan lost to Nebraska last weekend. The Lions can’t let them down and play themselves out of the playoffs this early and they won’t.
Minnesota-Seattle: In spite of the loss to the Lions and in spite of the Vikings having a long prep time after last Thursday’s loss to Tampa Bay, the Seahawks are still a solid five-point favorite here. It’s a sign of respect for their homefield advantage and a general NFL belief that the real Vikings showed up in that 36-17 egg they laid for the NFL Network audience. I like Minnesota’s chance to compete here—their physical style matches up with Seattle and I could see grabbing the five points at the betting window, but in the end, Seattle’s homefield prevails.
Tampa Bay-Oakland: The Bucs got some bad news with the loss of guard Carl Nicks for the year. And if they don’t pressure the quarterback, a problem area for them this year, Carson Palmer is going to light it up.
I’m hardly high on the Raiders, but if they win at home here and Denver loses in Cincinnati, we’d have a tie for first in the AFC West. It could also include San Diego. By the time you read this article you’ll know if the Chargers got to 4-4 on Thursday night against Kansas City. A slew of Friday commitments meant I had to write this article in advance. I still have a hard time containing my laughter at the thought the Raiders or Chargers could beat out the Broncos. But even though it’s more a fluke of first-half schedule strength that would create such a tie, I guess we can’t dismiss the possibility. I like Oakland to get a win at home over Tampa.