My approach was conservative. I took whatever I felt would be the chalk pick in a game–if the teams seemed fairly even, I just deferred to the home team and I didn’t pick any upsets. Here’s how the results came out…
(6)Pittsburgh at (3)Cincinnati
(5)Kansas City at (4)Indianapolis
(6)San Francisco at (3)Detroit
(5)Carolina at (4)Dallas
(1)Denver, (2) New England
(1)Seattle, (2)New Orleans
The most interesting result was Pittsburgh, given that I do have them losing at Green Bay. The notion that 8-8 will grab the AFC’s final playoff spot is hardly unreasonable, given that 6-6 holds the spot right now (Baltimore).
My scenario does have the Ravens losing at Detroit and at home against New England. The latter is a classic example of the difficulty with implementing a conservative approach–is it safer to pick the Ravens at home, or defer to the Patriots as the superior team? You can make a good argument either way.
What I think this does illustrate is that Pittsburgh has a good tiebreaker situation, so long as they reach 8-8 in exactly this fashion–i.e, losing to Cincinnati at home while beating Green Bay does not equal itself out, since the Bengals’ game is within the division. It also illustrates that Baltimore is going to need to win at least one really difficult game if they’re going to make it back to the postseason.
I’m not sure I’d pick Dallas over Philadelphia, but that is the chalk pick, with the Cowboys having the Eagles coming to Big D this month and my scenario had both teams finishing 10-6. Again, we have a situation that shows that even you like Philadelphia, they’re going to have take out a team on the road and overcome significant tiebreaker disadvantages in the process. Dallas has a head-to-head win over Philly and is undefeated in the division.
The rest of the bracket is uncontroversial, especially after Chicago’s loss to Minnesota. I might lean Indy over Cincinnati in general, but I won’t dispute the 3 and 4 spots too fervently. This approach also does not factor in the possibility of teams resting starters in the final week.
The Baltimore Ravens promised to be one of the more interesting teams in the NFL in 2013. After their dramatic Super Bowl run of 2012, the Ravens said goodbye to eighteen players, including the team’s heart and soul, in linebacker Ray Lewis. The captain retired and other key veterans like Ed Reed, Paul Kruger and Anquan Boldin went elsewhere, as the team had to pour significant salary cap dollars into retaining quarterback Joe Flacco, who was going into free agency.
Talent evaluators still felt that the ’13 Ravens would be a better team–Lewis and Reed were clearly at the end of the line, their main value being leadership rather than talent at this stage of their careers. The question was going to be whether talent could trump intangibles.
So far, the answer is no. Baltimore is 5-6 as they get set to host hated AFC North rival Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving night. But there’s enough good going on with this team, and after their sudden turnaround in December of last season, the Ravens remain as interesting a team as there is. Let’s take a look at what they need to do down the stretch.
The team as a whole might miss the leadership of Lewis & Reed, but that’s not being reflected in the defensive performance. The Ravens continue to play solid defense, ranking seventh in the NFL in points allowed. They’re a little susceptible to the big play, but that’s a byproduct of a defensive outlook that forces a lot of incompletions (6th in completion percentage allowed), has a great pass rush and shuts down the run.
Taken in that context, a ranking of 19th in yards allowed per pass is a pretty reasonable price to pay. Baltimore is having success turning outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil loose. If the only way to beat a team is to throw the ball downfield, that’s a difficult thing to pull off in December conditions with a hard pass rush bearing down on you.
It’s the offense that’s been a complete train wreck. The line has been terrible. Marked by instability on the left side, the Ravens can’t protect Flacco, nor can they clear any space for Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. Without time to throw, Flacco can’t use his accuracy on the deep ball and his receiving threats in Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith.
There’s no statistical category where this offense is anything less than poor. In a purely football sense, Flacco can’t be blamed–when there’s no time to throw and no running game, you can’t get anything done. But Flacco was rather vocal last offseason about maximizing his contract, even if it meant the organization would be hamstrung under the salary cap. If he comes in for some heat now that he’s not carrying the team singlehandedly, he’s asked for it.
But Flacco was inconsistent through much of last season, before turning in a brilliant run in the postseason. The same opportunity is still ahead. Baltimore is one of six teams that are tied for the AFC’s final playoff spot at 5-6. After Thursday night, they’ve got another home game with Minnesota, so getting to 7-6 is very reasonable.
December 16 is when the stretch drive gets tough. Baltimore makes a Monday Night visit to Detroit and they close the season with a road game in AFC North-leading Cincinnati. In between will be a hyped game with New England, the rematch of the last two AFC Championship Games and currently scheduled in the prime-time Sunday night slot.
The Baltimore Ravens remain interesting. I’m sure though, that head coach John Harbaugh would like to replace “interesting” with “unequivocally successful.” The decisive moment for answering all his team’s preseason question marks is rapidly arriving.
The Baltimore Ravens keep finding ways to survive, and on Sunday in San Diego, they took their survival instinct to new heights. After playing poorly against a subpar opponent—again—the Ravens trailed by 10 in the fourth quarter, still trailed 13-10 in the closing minutes and faced a 4th-and-29. A simple dump-off pass to Ray Rice got them the first down, eventually the tying field goal and ultimately the win.
It isn’t often TheSportsNotebook’s pregame analysis is vindicated this thoroughly, but the take on this game was a sluggish effort by Baltimore, that San Diego would cover the 7.5 point line, but in the end this was one team with an art for winning games and another with an art for losing them. And it’s that Baltimore knack for pulling these games out that has them situated high in the first round of our NFL playoff projections that will now run early each week between now and the end of the regular season. Normally this will be a Tuesday feature, but I trust no one will think I’m jumping the gun if I ignore tonight’s Carolina-Philadelphia game.
Baltimore is an ugly 9-2. They have two narrow escapes against Cleveland. They beat Kansas City without scoring a touchdown. They barely escaped Dallas at home. Their win over Pittsburgh came without Ben Roethlisberger and still required a special teams touchdown. And now this escape in San Diego. John Harbaugh’s team has nothing to suggest its Super Bowl-caliber, yet they are the #2 seed based on current standings and with most of their key games of December at home,
TheSportsNotebook’s exit polling suggests they will hold on to that status. Here’s how I’d see the AFC playoffs shaking out. Please note these are not what currently holds, but as the title of the article suggests, they are projections…
AFC East: New England AFC North: Baltimore AFC South: Houston AFC West: Denver Wild-Cards: Indianapolis, Cincinnati 1st Round Byes: Houston, Baltimore
The division winners are pretty straight forward and the battle between these four teams is all about positioning, making the Ravens’ win so important. They are a game up on both New England and Denver for the first-round bye that comes with the #2 seed, with a head-to-head win over the Patriots and a home game with Denver ahead. While the Patriots played very well on Thursday night without Rob Gronkowski, that was against the Jets. It’s tougher to envision New England sweeping a remaining schedule that includes Houston and San Francisco without Gronk on hand.
Conversely, Baltimore trails Houston by a game and has lost head-to-head. And the Texans show no signs of letting up, as Matt Schaub has been locked in on Andre Johnson for two straight weeks (188 yards worth of receiving for Johnson in the Thanksgiving win at Detroit). The pass protection is solid, and J.J. Watt solidified his Defensive Player of the Year case with three sacks and five QB hits against Matthew Stafford.
Denver did not play well on Sunday, but they still beat Kansas City, and unlike the Ravens, Peyton Manning’s team isn’t making a habit of narrow escapes, so I think they’re entitled to this one without a lot of questioning. The Broncos’ path to the two-seed is there, with a manageable schedule. But also remember, Denver lost to New England, so if the Broncos beat Baltimore, we could end up in a three-way tie that goes deep into the tiebreakers. Overall though, like Denver to end up as the #3 seed.
Indianapolis won a big game against Buffalo, the latter being the team that never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Ryan Fitzpatrick was horrible in a game that would have put the Bills—and a few others—back in the AFC wild-card race and the 7-4 Colts look like a good bet to win ten games right now. That likely puts them in the 5-seed spot.
I’ve got Cincinnati edging out Pittsburgh for the final spot. I know Ben Roethlisberger probably returns Sunday in Baltimore, but that’s still a road game the Steelers will have a tough time winning. I think Big Ben can get Pittsburgh to 9-7, but I don’t know that will be enough. The fact Pittsburgh’s backs fumbled five times in Cleveland—a game they knew they had to protect the ball, with Charlie Batch at quarterback—speaks volumes. Meanwhile the Bengals pounded the Raiders with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and then whipped them in the trenches on the other side of the ball, as defensive tackle Geno Atkins led a pass rush that made Carson Palmer’s homecoming to the Queen City as miserable as the locals hoped it would be.
So that leads to AFC playoff matchups of… 1st Round: (5)Indy at (4) New England & (6)Cincy at (3)Denver) Byes: (1)Houston, (2)Baltimore
The NFC has five teams that are stable to make the playoffs, and three of them—San Francisco, Atlanta and NY Giants to do so as division champs, with Green Bay/Chicago sorting out the division winner/wild-card slot. The Giants regained control of the NFC East by physically dominating a wounded Packer team, not giving Aaron Rodgers any time to throw and taking away a mediocre Green Bay running game.
New York’s win kept Washington & Dallas at two games back, though the Redskins host the Giants in this coming Monday Night Game. Washington, now 5-6, has an outside shot at the NFC East and a legitimate shot at the last wild-card. As a Redskins fan, I’m excited beyond all belief and in the aftermath of the Thanksgiving win in Dallas, I was touting RG3 to be anointed the first American monarch. Admit it—can’t you see future history books titled “From King George III to Robert Griffin III: The Story of American Democracy”? But I digress.
I digress because the Washington offensive line still did a lousy job in pass protection and only this defense could take a 28-3 halftime lead, allow the opponent to make a game of it and leave me completely unsurprised that it happened. So while my emotions are smelling playoffs, my head is telling me something else.
New Orleans’ loss to San Francisco—thanks to a pair of Pick-6’s by the Niner defense against Drew Brees—hurt their chances, but the three teams leading the race for the final playoff berth all lost. Seattle, Minnesota and Tampa Bay all dropped to 6-5, so that leaves all the 5-6 teams—the Saints, Redskins and Cowboys, very much in the hunt.
But in Seattle’s loss, I see the reasons why I’m staying with them at the #6 seed. The Seahawks did not run the ball, nor could they stop the run in a 24-21 loss at Miami. But Russell Wilson continues to show how much he’s growing as an NFL quarterback, playing well against a good defense in a road environment and it came down to a last-play field goal for the Dolphins to win. It’s going down to the end and in all likelihood 9-7 will take this berth, but I’m sticking with Seattle.
Here’s how the NFC projects out…
NFC East: NY Giants NFC North: Green Bay NFC South: Atlanta NFC West: San Francisco Wild-Cards: Chicago, Seattle
The projection of the Packers is predicated on Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson getting healthy defensively, which looks on schedule right now. While the Green Bay offensive line isn’t going to magically get better, Chicago has the same problem, so even though the Pack is a game out today, I see them taking this division. I also see them moving past New York for the #3 seed. The reason is schedule—the Giants still play at Atlanta and at Baltimore, whereas Green Bay’s difficult road games are Chicago and Minnesota.
Both the Packers and Giants are 7-4 and New York obviously has the tiebreaker after last night, but I believe the schedule allows Green Bay to take this spot outright. Both teams are in a tough spot when it comes to catching Atlanta (10-1) or San Francisco (8-2-1) for a bye.
So that leads to NFC playoff matchups of… 1st Round: (6)Seattle at (3) Green Bay, (5)Chicago at (4)NY Giants Byes: Atlanta (1), San Francisco (2)
Admit it—you’d love to the Seahawks & Packers re-do their infamous Monday Night Game earlier this year and to see what kind of reception Seattle would get coming through the tunnel of Lambeau Field? My only regret is that the projections in the AFC deny us the Indianapolis-Denver matchup with Luck and Peyton Manning. Hopefully events can change and let both games become highlights of the first round in January.
One year ago, Baltimore and Houston met in a second-round AFC playoff game. This year, both teams are atop their divisions and co-leaders of the overall conference race at 5-1. Now they go head-to-head in Reliant Stadium on Sunday in what will be the biggest game of NFL Week 7, as the winner takes the inside track to the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
Whatever the standings say, Baltimore has got bigger issues to worry about, with the season-ending injuries to linebacker Ray Lewis and corner Lardarius Webb. It’s tough to survive the loss of your defense’s emotional leader and your lockdown corner, but if there’s a perverse positive in all this for Baltimore it’s that their defense wasn’t playing that well to begin with.
The Ravens can run the ball, at least when they don’t lose their play-calling focus and if they’re going to have a chance to win on the road, it’s imperative they attack the interior of the Houston defense—softened up their own season-ending injury to an inside linebacker, in Brian Cushing. If Baltimore gets Ray Rice 20-25 carries, they can control the tempo and from there Joe Flacco can have a big game throwing the ball.
Houston is licking its wounds after looking terrible against Green Bay, but I think that was a case of a letdown from an undefeated team going against a talented opponent that was desperate. And Baltimore doesn’t have the capacity to disrupt Houston’s offensive rhythm in the way the Packers did.
There was every reason to expect a solid game from Matt Schaub throwing the ball before the injury to Webb. Now, without Lewis, the Texans shouldn’t have any problem getting Arian Foster running between the tackles.
One big X-factor in this game is the possible return of Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs. He was supposed to be out until late November because of a torn Achilles, but there are noises in the air that Suggs will play on Sunday. I find it hard to believe he can be productive that quickly, but this is the man who was Defensive Player of the Year in 2011, and his return can give his team an emotional lift after a week of bad news.
Ultimately though, Houston is a better team, they’re playing at home and all the circumstances of the schedule and injuries work in their favor. There’s a good reason the Texans are a comfortable 6.5 point favorite.
TheSportsNotebook previewed the undercard games of Week 7 in Thursday’s feature. Four other games will be shown to all or most of the country over Sunday and Monday…
Washington-NY Giants: It’s not just a big game in the NFC East, with New York leading crowded field with a record of 4-2. It’s also a battle between sports fan bases who want a lift after their baseball team got bounced from the MLB playoffs.
I’m a Redskins fan, and I feel good about our chances of putting a lot of points up on the board. New York’s known to have their focus in and out during the regular season, and they’re certainly due for an “out” kind of game after their impressive win in San Francisco last week. And the Redskins actually beat the Giants twice last year without RG3.
What the ‘Skins are unlikely to do is stop Eli Manning and the Giants’ offense, which is mostly healthy now—banged up to be sure, but the key players, from Hakeem Nicks to Ahmad Bradshaw are in the lineup. Washington hasn’t found any way to make up for the pass-rush ability they lost when Brian Orakpo was lost for the year at the outside linebacker spot. Ryan Kerrigan is a quality pass rusher on the other side, but teams can roll the pocket away from him with no consequence now that the pressure doesn’t come on both sides. And the secondary is awful.
I’m not making a pick on this game, but I did notice that this is the only game where Las Vegas has set the Over/Under higher than 50, coming in at 50.5. Apparently I’m not the only one looking for the points to flow freely in the Meadowlands.
NY Jets-New England: The standings say the AFC East is a logjam, with all four teams at 3-3, and with the track records of these two teams making it a battle for front-runner status. The standings are lying. New England is the vastly better team right now, with an improved run game, better defense and their losses by a combined four points to teams with a combined record of 13-5, and two of those games on the road.
The one thing the Patriots don’t do well right now is pass coverage, particularly in late-game situations. The problem is that the Jets got their season back on track last week in Indianapolis by running the ball with Shonn Greene. If they play to their strength, they go straight into the strength of the New England defense. If they attack the Pats’ weakness, they do it in a way that compromises their own efficiency.
Finally, the Jets don’t have the defensive playmakers to slow down the New England offense. Rex Ryan’s reputation aside, this is not a team with pass rushers like they have in Arizona or Seattle, the two defenses that have given Tom Brady and the Patriots problems.
So the standings might say this is a big-time game—and I suppose in a way it is, since if by some miracle the Jets win on the road, it completely revamps the AFC East landscape. But the bookmakers have a saner grasp on reality, having made the Patriots a 10.5 point favorite.
I don’t like to lay those kinds of points in the NFL, particularly given New England’s propensity for giving up late scores, but the number certainly sounds reasonable.
Cincinnati-Pittsburgh: This is the Sunday night game on NBC, so both teams will know if AFC North leader Baltimore lost and created a chance for the winner of this game to get back in the division race. The Bengals are 3-3, while the Steelers are a half-game back at 2-3.
I’ve knocked Pittsburgh a lot since the start of the season, but they have manned up defensively and played pretty decent in spite of injuries. They just haven’t been able to overcome the appalling lack of a running game and the injuries on defense (James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons and Troy Polamulu at different points of the season) have denied them the playmaker who can change a game on a dime.
Thus, I like the Steelers’ chances here. This is a proud team playing a must-win spot at home in prime-time against a division rival. Cincinnati’s running game has been a disappointment and if they can’t exploit this edge, then Andy Dalton has shown himself capable of making a lot of mistakes. Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to scramble can negate the pass-rush ability of the Bengal front four on defense.
The Steelers are a 1.5 point favorite, a clear sign that even Vegas thinks they’re not quite as good as the Bengals, but deferring to homefield. That’s where I’m at, along with the belief that we’re going to get Pittsburgh’s best punch of the season. And if they don’t win this game, we’ll know it’s really over in the Steel City. (Editor’s Note: My apologies for the error on homefield advantage. This game will be at Cincinnati. So I guess Las Vegas thinks the Steelers are quite a bit better. Without the benefit of homefield, I’m leaning to the Bengals, in spite of the other intangible factors favoring Pittsburgh).
Detroit-Chicago: If anyone in Motown can take the time to dry the champagne out of their eyes after the American League pennant for the Tigers, they can focus on a huge football game for the Lions on Monday night. Detroit is 2-3, while Chicago is 4-1. And since the World Series doesn’t start until Wednesday, the city’s fans can be all-in on the gridiron.
The one thing I’d expect to see for sure in this game is a lot of sacks and quarterback hits. Both teams have talented defensive front fours that can collapse the pocket from any angle. The Lions don’t have the running game to slow the rush, and while the Bear ground game is a little better, but the Detroit D has done a good job containing the run without losing the pass rush.
So if we’re looking for an edge beyond the default given to Chicago for being at home, it’s looking at who can create breakdowns. The Lions have the playmakers on the outside who can get open deep if Matthew Stafford can either get time or break out of the pocket.
The flip side is that the Bears can just let the Lions shoot themselves in the foot with penalties. I’d take my chances on the latter, although the 6.5 point price is a little stiff.