The top of the AFC race heats up this week. The four division races might be well in hand, courtesy of New England, Baltimore, Houston and Denver. Now those four have to sort themselves out for homefield advantage and first-round byes. The Broncos kept the pressure on everyone else with Thursday’s win in Oakland. The Ravens have a tough trip to Washington and this week’s card is highlighted by the Monday Night showdown of Houston-New England up in Foxboro. So it’s with the Texans-Patriots that TheSportsNotebook begins its preview of NFL Week 14.
While the game is important for Houston, it’s absolutely monstrous for New England. With a win, the 9-3 Patriots close hard on the 11-1 Texans for the #1 seed. With a loss, they slip behind the other two division leaders. When a game can swing you between homefield throughout or into the first round, it’s fair to call it a big game. As for Houston, a win here would all but lock down the top seed, maintaining at least a two-game lead on everyone, with head-to-head wins over the other three AFC division leaders.
Both teams are committed to the running game. The Patriots resurgent running game has been a topic both here and in the mainstream media throughout the season, but what perhaps doesn’t get the attention it deserves is just how frequently this offense runs the ball. New England ranks second in the NFL only to rush attempts—the team who runs it the most is Houston, with Arian Foster leading the way. The Pats are no more a wide-open passing offense than the Miami Heat are a run-and-gun basketball team. Public perception is not reality.
What is reality is that Tom Brady is still throwing the ball awfully well, and on the flip side that the Patriot pass coverage is awful. So even though both defenses excel at stopping the run, neither offense should have a problem with going over the top. If Houston is going to win this game they need their superior pass rush to step up. J.J. Watt quite rightly gets the ink at defensive end, but don’t overlook outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, who’s stepped into a starting role due to injuries and done a good job pressuring the quarterback. New England’s pass rush isn’t bad, with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich coming from opposite sides of the four-man front, but it isn’t in a class with Houston’s.
On paper and on a neutral field, Houston is a little bit better than New England. But Foxboro isn’t neutral and the big question overshadowing this Houston team is that the games aren’t played on paper—how is Matt Schaub going to react when the games matter the most? And even if he reacts well, can he match up in the playoffs with battle-tested quarterbacks like Brady, Manning, Roethlisberger and even Flacco?
We won’t know for sure until January, but we’ll at least get a dry run on Monday Night. New England is a 3 ½ point favorite. I think the Pats will win—I’d never go against Brady and Belichick in their own backyard, particularly not with an improved defense—but I wouldn’t give that extra half-point on the line.
To preview the rest of Week 14, we’ll work our way backwards by TV time slot….
Detroit-Green Bay (Sun night, 8:30 PM ET, NBC): For the second straight week, we have a Sunday Night game that should have been flexed out, given Detroit’s complete collapse. Although unlike last week’s Cowboys-Eagles atrocity, this week’s game at least has one representative team in Green Bay, and if nothing else, Detroit always plays competitively and always finds a creative way to go about losing.
An overlooked factor in Detroit’s disappointing 4-8 season is the disappearing act of Kyle Vanden Bosch at defensive end. While everyone talks about the dirtiness of Ndamakong Suh up front, Vanden Bosch’s complete lack of production at defensive end has slid under the radar, and he needs to join up with fellow end Cliff Avril in keeping the heat on all night long if the Lions are going to win on the road. The Green Bay pass protection remains a big issue and if guard T.J. Lang can’t go on his bum ankle, that issue gets even bigger.
Green Bay’s closer to getting healthy on defense, but still not quite there yet—at least Sam Shields at corner and Charles Woodson have moved from “out indefinitely” to “doubtful” on the injury report. We still have no word on whether Clay Matthews will be on the field. The Lions should have success moving the ball, although every opponent always has their inevitable penalties and lack of commitment to the run as a hole card. The Packers at least make an attempt to run the ball and if Alex Green can give them 75 yards or so, that’s enough to support Aaron Rodgers. Playing on their homefield against an opponent who has to feel like things are hopeless, I’d take the Pack to win. Although laying 6 ½ would scare me off.
New Orleans-NY Giants (4:25 PM ET, Fox)—We documented earlier this week how the Giants are in serious danger of losing the NFC East title and missing the playoffs entirely, and even that doomsday scenario projected them winning this game. New York’s defense is living by smoke and mirrors—despite being bad against the run and bad against the pass, they rank 10th in the league in giving up points. Give them credit for executing when they have to—it’s the same formula the Patriots used to survive last season. But acknowledge that Drew Brees should have no problem moving the ball up and down the field.
Eli Manning shouldn’t have much trouble moving the ball himself. Even allowing the Saints’ defense is playing a bit better of late, there’s still no reason to think they can stop a balanced New York offense. While I expect Brees to have a big bounceback game after his five-interception catastrophe in Atlanta last Thursday, I don’t think that’s enough to beat Eli in the Big Apple. Take the Giants to win—but most importantly take Over 53 on the totals line.
Dallas-Cincinnati & Chicago-Minnesota (1 PM ET, Fox)—If you don’t have a team in your local market playing in the early time slot, you’ll get one of these two games and both are very significant in the playoff picture.
Cincinnati’s recent win streak isn’t incredibly impressive, with last week’s come-from-behind win in San Diego being the latest example, but they are sitting at 7-5 and they have the best pass rush in the league—a rush made even stronger by the fact it comes straight up the middle from tackle Geno Atkins, meaning an offense can’t adjust by rolling its protection one direction or the other. And given that Dallas refuses to try and run the ball—a refusal driven in no small part by the fact they aren’t any good at it, Atkins, Carlos Dunlap & Co., should feel completely comfortable teeing off on Tony Romo. Unless the Dallas quarterback plays great, his team isn’t going to win. Right now I like what Cincy has going—at least in terms of beating other mediocre teams, and I wouldn’t go against them.
Chicago’s had a very consistent season, for better or for worse, as we talked about at TheSportsNotebook yesterday. Their pass coverage is excellent, they force turnovers, get after the quarterback and are playing a team that’s lousy outdoors.
All of that would mean something if not for the fact we’ll be playing in Minnesota, the Vikes have no interest in throwing the ball—especially with Percy Harvin out—and the Bears’ rush defense is the weakest part of their team. This day is tailor-made for Adrian Peterson in any event, and the absence of Brian Urlacher will further aid that process. I like the Vikes to win this game outright as a three-point underdog.
Baltimore-Washington (1 PM ET, CBS)—Disclaimer alert—CBS has sent its #1 broadcast team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms to Pittsburgh to cover the Steelers’ home game with San Diego. I find this monumentally outrageous (nice perspective there, huh?), given that Baltimore’s chasing playoff position and Washington’s chasing the Giants, in a truly great Cinderella story. Not to mention Redskins-Ravens evokes some emotion along the Beltway, with both cities an hour apart (though as a ‘Skins fan who used to live in Baltimore, the emotion is more from Baltimore people who have a thing about being overlooked by D.C. and other big cities in the East. We in Redskins Nation are sophisticated enough not to turn an opponent we play every four years with no tiebreaker implications into some big rivalry).
The matchup itself has a lot of interesting twists. The Redskins’ pass defense is porous, but Baltimore is not as good when they get away from Ray Rice on the ground—and if you follow the national media, you know offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is getting some justifiable heat for ignoring Rice in the fourth quarter against Pittsburgh last week. On the flip side, the Baltimore pass rush isn’t very good—but when RG3 is the quarterback does that really matter. Take it a step further—is it even a good thing to get a lot of pressure on Griffin, have him break contain and make a big play. The Ravens’ defense might be better off just laying back and playing it safe.
Washington’s edge is momentum and homefield. Baltimore’s edge is they are the veteran team who’s been in games like this and knows how to stay focused and close games out, while the ‘Skins are just six days removed from the franchise’s biggest win in five years. My personal bias is such that I’m not making a pick, but I think it fair to say that this game is about Washington’s maturity process as much as anything.
I suppose we should mention the Steelers-Bolts battle since it’s the game most of us are stuck with. The rumors are heavy that Norv Turner and A.J. Smith are going to be fired in San Diego—I know, as breaking news that’s right up there with announcing Obama carried Ohio—but the rumors are particularly intense this week.
Both of these teams defend the run pretty well and neither offense has a consistent running game, so that sends the battle to the air. Ben Roethlisberger is expected to play. I went out on a limb last Friday and said he would absolutely play at Baltimore—and honestly, even with the reports throughout the weekend that said he was sitting, I believed he’d get on the field right up until late Sunday afternoon when the game started. I can only imagine how bad a guy like that must have been hurt to sit out a Steelers-Ravens game. But he will be on the field Sunday and combine that with the fact that Pittsburgh’s pass rush is far superior to San Diego’s, and you have all the reason you need to pick the Steelers to win and even feel comfortable paying the 7 ½ point price tag they come with.
Here’s the rundown on the rest of Sunday’s games…
Miami-San Francisco–This one’s also in the late afternoon window and Colin Kaepernick is expected to start again. Miami’s going to be missing offensive tackle Jake Long, and I can’t imagine Ryan Tannehill gets anything going against the Niner defense. The San Francisco quarterback situation will remain of intrigue, given the quality of the Dolphin defense, but I can’t see the Fish winning on the road.
Arizona-Seattle–Cornerback Brandon Browner lost his appeal of the four-game suspension and that changes my view of the Seahawks, something we’ll sort out next week when it’s time to update playoff projections. But if they can’t beat Arizona at home without Browner, then forget any playoff talk whatsoever.
St. Louis-Buffalo–Each team has to run the table the last four weeks to have a playoff shot, so this is an early December elimination game. The Rams are the better team, but going on the road a week after an emotional overtime win against San Francisco make me think the Bills are set up to keep their hopes flickering.
Philadelphia-Tampa Bay–This is a time for Nick Foles to show he can be the Eagles’ quarterback of the future. He’s going against a good team, but one who doesn’t pressure the quarterback. Whether he’s good or bad, he’s still taking an L though.
Atlanta-Carolina—There’s no stopping the Falcons from getting the #1 seed, but somewhere along the line they have to run the ball. They rank near the bottom of the NFL in rush attempts and yards per rush. Something we’ll have to look at in more detail before the playoffs begin.
Tennessee-Indianapolis—Between Chuck Pagano’s inspiring fight against leukemia and Andrew Luck’s ability to come through at the end of games, how can we possibly pick against the Colts at home?
NY Jets-Jacksonville—The easy story is Tim Tebow’s return to northern Florida, even if it’s as a backup. Another easy story is the Jets’ quarterback saga with Greg McElroy and Mark Sanchez. Unfortunately the easy stories are all that exist in this game. Even more unfortunate is that the Jets will win and at 6-7 still be relevant another week, meaning we actually have to give them cursory thought in the playoff picture.
Kansas City-Cleveland—I wrote last week’s previews before the Jovan Belcher tragedy and frankly it’s hard to come up with anything football-related to say right now regarding it. We’ll just call it a week right here.