It was midway through the 2012 NFL season that the New York Giants were riding high. They followed up their Super Bowl run of 2011 with a 6-2 start and a bid for a repeat title was very much alive. Then, Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast. While it’s a stretch to say the natural disaster provided the cause and effect, the hurricane does neatly divide the period between the good times and bad times for the Giants.
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New York lost five of their final eight games that season, with one win coming after their collapse was completed. Last year was a disaster from the start, with a 7-9 record and a non-playoff year—the fourth time in five years the Giants have finished out of the money.
Yet in spite of all this, New York is a credible threat to win the NFC East. The Philadelphia Eagles are the early season favorites to take the division, but that’s more the result of oddsmakers simply giving last year’s champ the benefit of the doubt. Meaning no disrespect to the Eagles, their 10-6 season and home playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints don’t exactly mark them an unbeatable favorite.
If you’re skeptical of the Eagles’ ability to win the NFC East two straight years—and I am—the Giants are the natural team to turn to.
Yes, the Dallas Cowboys will be in the conversation, as they always are. But with a track record of December disappointment and a roster slightly less talented than New York’s in any case, there’s no reason to assume the Cowboys will break their run on the 8-8 treadmill.
And those of us who are fans of the Washington Redskins can point to the fact that when Robert Griffin III enters a season healthy, the ‘Skins win the NFC East—that’s a 1-for-1 proposition. But it usually takes me until August to get that level of optimism worked up and even then, I’m not sure I could make a case to persuade an objective observer—the Redskins have too many issues with fundamental play to think about anything beyond game-to-game improvement.
That leaves the Giants as the principal challenger to the Eagles, and I like the chances for Tom Coughlin’s team. The 7-9 record came in a year where about the maximum amount realistically possible, went wrong. Eli Manning was horrendous, throwing 27 interceptions. The pass rush, the key to their 2007 Super Bowl run, and to a lesser extent in 2011, collapsed. The running game was non-existent. The Giants lost their first six games and never really got back into the race.
The 0-6 start points out though, that this team did finish on a good, sustained up note. New York won seven of their final ten games and built some momentum back up for the New Year. Let’s run through a few keys to their success for the coming season.
*The offensive line has to stabilize. This is a unit that’s been in decline, and there are some changes up front. A center has to be identified and Chris Snee has to stay healthy. I expect this unit to be a bit better than in 2013. The days of the Giants lining up and running over people are gone for now, but this is still a group that’s good at pass protection and capable of at least making the running game a respected option again.
*Jason Pierre-Paul has to become a real threat to pressure the quarterback again. The defensive end’s game fell off badly, and with Justin Tuck departed for the Oakland Raiders, it’s Pierre-Paul that has to give the defense it’s big-play ability up front back. New York tied for 25th last year in sacks.
*Rueben Randle has to take that proverbial next step at wide receiver. Randle is in his third year out of LSU and has shown the ability to be a big-play receiver, but the Giants need him to stretch defenses consistently. If he can, we know Victor Cruz can get himself open on mid-range routs. So can Odell Beckham, and another possession target, Mario Manningham, is back in New York this season.
*Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie needs to have a big year at corner. He’s the one capable of being a real lockdown corner, and if you combine that kind of elite play with the steadiness you get from Antrell Rolle at safety, the Giants suddenly have a really good secondary. In spite of the problems with the pass rush last year, the secondary still did a good job limiting big plays, finishing fourth in the NFL in yards per pass attempt.
*Will anyone emerge at running back? New York signed Rashad Jennings from Oakland, and drafted Boston College’s Andre Williams, who finished second in last year’s Heisman Trophy voting. I like Williams a lot, although in either case, the success of these players is tied very directly to the offensive line. Neither is going to create a lot on their own.
I think most of these questions invite an optimistic outlook if you’re a Giants fan. Even the running game, where I’m most pessimistic, has to be better than last year, when no one even cleared 500 rush yards for the season.
That leads us to the big question and that’s the quarterback. I’ve never been a promoter of Eli, but that was only when the media was insisting on ramming him down our throats as “elite” based solely on two miracle January runs, one of which (2007) was far more about the defensive line than about him.
But at the same time, who really thinks Manning is as bad as he looked last year? Or who even thinks that, in the bigger picture, he’s even just average? I still consider him an above-average quarterback and fully expect him to return to that level in 2014.
Thus, we have a team that finished on a strong run in 2013 in spite of their quarterback being an interception machine, having no running game, no pass rush and fumbling the ball more than any team outside the city of Buffalo. How can they not be better?
If there were a great team in the NFC East, I wouldn’t see the Giants as division title material. But in a division whose champion might only be the sixth-best team in the entire NFC, it will take no more than 10 wins to find yourself hosting a playoff game. I won’t make my final predictions until just prior to the September 4 opener, but I’m leaning to picking New York to win the NFC East.
NFL Week 15had some dramatic moments and the best were fortunately reserved for the games drawing national audiences, namely Green Bay’s stunning comeback from 23 points down to win at Dallas, and Baltimore’s dramatic 61-yard field goal to beat Detroit last night.
A collection of five results–including the main late afternoon national TV game (Packers-Cowboys), Sunday night (Bengals-Steelers) and Monday night (Ravens-Lions) have created a situation where winner-take-all showdowns are now set up in the AFC North, NFC North and NFC East for Week 17.
It’s those games, along with Chicago-Cleveland and Philadelphia-Minnesota that our review of NFL Week 15 will begin.
Green Bay 37 Dallas 36: I wish I could add something the mainstream media hasn’t already said about the way Dallas blew a 26-3 lead at home to a team playing with its backup quarterback. But what is there to add when we’ve already heard the following…
*A Cowboy defense that the previous Monday night had never stopped the Chicago Bears offense from scoring, gave up five touchdowns in the second half alone. Whether it was Eddie Lacy running or Matt Flynn spreading the ball around, the Cowboy D was befuddled.
*In spite of Demarco Murray running 18 times for 134 yards, Dallas did not keep feeding him the ball when they had the lead, which was all but a minute-plus.
*And Tony Romo’s decision to force a ball into coverage over the middle when he still had a 36-31 lead late in the fourth quarter was the kind of move that’s barely tolerable for a rookie. For a veteran, the word “inexcusable” isn’t strong enough.
The Cowboy collapse is a bigger story than the Packer comeback, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t salute the latter. Green Bayhasn’t thrown the ball without Aaron Rodgers, and they haven’t gotten turnovers all year. They did both when their season hung in the balance.
Chicago 38 Cleveland 31: It took Jay Cutler a little while to get going in his first start back from injury, but the Bears put up 21 points in the fourth quarter to get this road win. What’s more impressive is the way Chicago ran the ball, with Matt Forte going for 127 yards. And what’s most impressive of all is the way this defensively-challenged team shut down the previous unstoppable Cleveland wideout Josh Gordon, holding him to three catches.
Pittsburgh 30 Cincinnati 20: The Steeler defense completely took away Cincinnati’s running game with Giovanni Bernard, and Pittsburgh also shut down any downfield passing attack. Even though Andy Dalton played high-percentage and mistake-free, it wasn’t enough. Pittsburgh struck quickly with 21 points in the first quarter, including a punt return by Antonio Brown and Cincy didn’t have the firepower to make it a game again.
Baltimore 18 Detroit 16: In a franchise history marred with devastating losses, this one stands to rank pretty high on the list for the Detroit Lions. The Baltimore Ravens did nothing offensively, never scoring a touchdown and even on their final drive to the winning field goal, Joe Flacco threw about five bad passes mixed in with one halfway decent throw to Jacoby Jones. It speaks volumes to Flacco’s ineffectiveness that his coach, John Harbaugh, felt a 61-yard field goal was a higher percentage move than the big-money quarterback completing a 4th-and-7 pass and making the distance more manageable.
But this is the Detroit Lions we’re talking about. They did get robbed on a bad no-call on what should have been pass interference in the end zone on third down late in the third quarter. You can argue that because that call cost them four points and they lost by two, a Lions fan can run the math and say with some legitimacy that play was the difference.
But this is the Detroit Lions we’re talking about. Is there really a reason to think they wouldn’t have just found some other agonizing way to blow the game? Matthew Stafford was intercepted three times and Calvin Johnson dropped a two-point conversion that would have at least ensured overtime, after Detroit had scored to take a 16-15 lead.
It’s tough to lose a game when the other team can’t find the end zone and does nothing well offensively. It’s tough to lose a division title when your two primary rivals each lose their starting quarterbacks. But this is the Detroit Lions we’re talking about.
Minnesota 48 Philadelphia 30: If the Eagles would have won this game they would have set themselves up to clinch the NFC East this Sunday. They still control their fate, but so do the Cowboys. And while the Eagle defense allowed Matt Cassell to morph into the 1998 version of Randall Cunningham for the Vikings, an even bigger surprise was the failure of LeSean McCoy to generate anything on the ground.
Philadelphia was unable to exploit its comparative advantage on the ground with Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart both out for Minnesota, and the Vikings offense erupted in the fourth quarter.
The situation in the three divisions means that the Week 17 games between Green Bay-Chicago, Baltimore-Cincinnati and Philadelphia-Dallas are set to be winner-take-all, so long as they each take care of business in Week 16.
Other games around the league in NFL Week 15…
San Diego 27 Denver 20: In a stunning road upset on Thursday night, the Chargers kept their playoff hopes alive because they ran the ball. Ryan Mathews went for 127 yards on 29 carries, Philip Rivers was efficient and San Diego took away Denver’s own running attack. Peyton can’t do it all by himself.
Miami 24 New England 20: Ryan Tannehill’s growth as a quarterback continues to impress. He didn’t much ground support, and the Patriots sacked him four times, and knocked him down five more. But Tannehill still went 25/37 for 312 yards and no interceptions. He threw three touchdowns, the last to win the game with a minute and change left. The Patriots bogged down twice inside the 10-yard line and settled for field goals, clearly missing Rob Gronkowski.
St. Louis 27 New Orleans 16: Zac Stacy ran 28 times for 133 yards, and allowed for a balanced offense, while New Orleans asked Drew Brees to throw 56 times. The 24-3 halftime lead the Rams got out to surely accounted for a lot of that, but the Saints’ problems on the road and running the ball even a little bit continue.
San Francisco 33 Tampa Bay 14: There’s nothing the 49ers didn’t do well in dominating a team that has played well the last several weeks. Colin Kaepernick was both efficient and hit a long touchdown pass to Vernon Davis. San Francisco ran the ball with Frank Gore and stopped the run. This was a team that’s peaking at the right team, though they still need one more win to punch their ticket to the dance.
Arizona 37 Tennessee 34 (OT): The Cardinals took away Chris Johnson and forced Ryan Fitzpatrick to throw the ball. Though the result was closer than I expected, eventually Fitzpatrick made his mistakes, throwing three interceptions and Arizona was able to survive on the road and keep the pressure on San Francisco.
Carolina 30 NY Jets 20: Cam Newton turned a 16-for-24 passing day into 273 yards and that kind big-play capability helped the Panthers overcome an atypically soft run defense. The Panthers are now even with the Saints in the NFC South and with a Week 16 showdown coming up, the 2-seed in the NFC is up for grabs.
Kansas City 56 Oakland 31: Matt McGloin played an awful football game for Oakland. In spite of Kansas City not generating much pressure, McGloin threw four interceptions. Alex Smith was 17-of-20 for 287 yards and his best receiver was an unlikely candidate–Jamaal Charles, normally seen running over people between the tackles had eight catches for 195 yards. Great showing for KC, but I think Oakland incompetence is the bigger takeaway here.
Indianapolis 25 Houston 3: Indy’s defense got after Case Keenum, sacking him four times, knocking him down eight more and Keenum struggled to a day both inefficient (18/34), mistake-prone (two interceptions) and lacking in big plays (just 168 yards off those 18 completions)
Seattle 23 NY Giants 0: Eli Manning’s five interceptions, the lack of a running game and lack of pass protection certainly stand out for the Giants. Let’s not overlook Seattle’s own pass protection was lacking as they allowed four sacks and that’s with a mobile quarterback in Russell Wilson. The Seahawks are 12-2 and almost home free in both the NFC West for the #1 seed, but they need to clean this stuff up now.
Atlanta 27 Washington 26: Nice showing for Kirk Cousins, as the Redskins’ backup quarterback threw for 381 yards on 29/45 passing after RG3 was shut down for the year. Cousins made some killer mistakes–a fumble and two interceptions all in really bad spots–that made a difference, but for his first start of the year and second of his career, there was a lot of promise there. Washington lost five fumbles total though, continuing the “if it’s not one thing it’s another” pattern that exists in poorly coached football teams.
Buffalo 27 Jacksonville 20: Both teams generated a lot of pressure on the quarterback and thus contained pass yardage, and both teams ran the ball well offensively. Buffalo ran it a little bit better though, with the Fred Jackson/C.J. Spiller tag-team helping to combine for 198 yards overall.
The NFC East race appears destined to come down to a Week 17 battle between the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys, a circumstance that gives the Cowboys a chance for a rare trifecta–they could lose a head-to-head battle for the division to the New York Giants in 2011, the Washington Redskins in 2012 and the Eagles in 2013. All that’s needed is to make sure NBC flexes this year’s game into prime-time so all three could take place for the nation on Sunday Night Football.
Philadelphia currently holds a one-game lead, with an 8-5 record against Dallas’ 7-6 mark. The Cowboys own the tiebreakers though. They’ve got a head-to-head win over the Eagles, and Dallas has won all four of its division games, so it looks like Philly has no choice but to win it outright. The combination of the Eagles having the lead in the race, but the Cowboys having both tiebreakers and the Week 17 game at home seem to add up into making this race a dead heat with three weeks left.
To get a good grasp on the NFC East race, we’ll do some general statistical comparisons of how each team has gotten to this point, what that might mean for the future and then look ahead to the final three weeks.
Offense is the engine driving each team, with the Cowboys ranking third in the NFL in points scored and the Eagles being tied for ninth. They’ve gotten there through different means though.
Philadelphia might be using a hurry-up, innovative style under first-year head coach Chip Kelly, but the end result is decidedly old-fashioned. The Eagles don’t necessarily complete a high percentage of their passes (18th in the league), but they make big plays, ranking 2nd in yards-per-pass. The big-play passing game is set up by a potent running attack, with LeSean McCoy leading the way on a team tied for first in yards-per-rush.
Running the ball and big-play passing is a time-honored tradition in the NFL, from John Madden’s Raiders to Joe Gibbs’ Redskins and Kelly’s Eagles stand in sharp contrast to the high-percentage passing attacks that substitute short throws for running plays around the league.
Dallas is more conventional, which for a team with Tony Romo as its quarterback, is somewhat surprising. The Cowboys are in the middle of the league in yards-per-pass, but Romo is completing a high percentage and not turning the ball over, where his team is tied with Russell Wilson and Seattle for fewest interceptions. Is it possible that the Romo-Coaster is finally settling down?
The Cowboys are getting good enough run production, ranking ninth in yards-per-rush, even though they don’t have a back like McCoy.
Defensively is where Dallas is losing their comparative edge to Philadelphia, a statement that will come as no surprise to anyone who watched the debacle this past Monday in Chicago, when the Bears scored on the Cowboy defense every time they had the ball, save the final possession when they took a knee.
Dallas is in the bottom quarter of the NFL in every notable defensive category, and the situation is dire enough that the name of coordinator Monte Kiffin was trending this week as a Google search term and owner Jerry Jones had to affirm his support of Kiffin.
In fairness to Kiffin, the Cowboys defensive front four has been ravaged with injuries, but Demarcus Ware is healthy now and really needs to ramp up his game in a year that’s seen him record only six sacks. Ware has Defensive Player of the Year talent and has played to that level (though he’s never won the award) in the past. Now would be a good time to find his mojo again.
Jones might also want to look at what happened with the Baltimore Ravens last year, when they boldly made a coordinator change in December. Baltimore cut loose offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, and with good reason. The Ravens were seen hoisting a Super Bowl trophy not long after, and they weren’t playing a whole lot better than the Cowboys are at a similar point in the season.
Philadelphia’s defense isn’t great, but it’s in the upper half of the NFL, the reason they’re in first place and Dallas is not. The Eagles’ pass defense is problematic, thanks primarily to the lack of a pass rush, but they do defend the run well.
Both teams have excelled in winning the turnover battle, and it’s primarily due to the fact they take care of it their end, something that’s sustainable over the long haul. By contrast, recovering fumbles is more fluky, and while each team has padded their turnover differential with this, each offense is characterized by smart play and taking good care of the football.
This is also the characteristic that defines playoff victories, and something to keep in mind in the first round, where the winner of this race will probably be a home underdog to either San Francisco or the New Orleans/Carolina runner-up.
The schedule for the next two weeks breaks in favor of Dallas. The reports are that Sunday’s nationally televised home game with Green Bay (4:25 PM ET, Fox) will not involve Aaron Rodgers, and if that report holds, the Cowboys will be a sizeable favorite. Dallas then visits Washington to play a team whose coach, in my view, has quit on them.
Philadelphia has a tougher slate. Their road trip to Minnesota on Sunday suddenly looks tough, as the Vikings have been playing competitive football of late, choosing to compete rather than quit at the end of a lost season, something that speaks well of head coach Leslie Frazier. Like Dallas though, the Eagles may play a team without its star, as the status of Adrian Peterson’s ankle is up in the air.
If Peterson doesn’t play, it’s a double bonus for the Eagles–they almost certainly win the game, and McCoy widens his lead on A.P. for the rushing title. The only other contender is Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles, and with the Chiefs likely locking into the #5 AFC playoff seed in the near future, Charles might be sitting in Week 17. The odds are looking good that Philadelphia will have the rushing champ.
Philadelphia then has a tough home game with Chicago, albeit one they should win. That sets the stage for Week 17 in Dallas.
Las Vegas likes the Eagles to ultimately prevail, with the betting odds on Philadelphia to win this NFC East race at 5-9. You can bet Dallas with a slight advantage, at 3-2. As for myself, I picked the Redskins and Giants to each win ten games and make the playoffs out of this division, so I’m just set to cut my losses and forgo a pick. We’ll deal with it here in Week 17 if the ultimate showdown materializes.
Back on October 10, the New York Giants were left for dead. They played another poor game in a Thursday night loss at Chicago and had fallen to 0-6. But over the last month, the Giants are steadily rising, having won three in a row and talk of whether they can win the NFC East is actually a legitimate topic of discussion.
So let’s discuss the New York Giants NFC East title chances–can Tom Coughlin, Eli Manning and the rest of Big Blue complete a stunning around and actually host a postseason game in January?
We have to begin by pointing out the obvious. The biggest reason this topic is on the table is because the division is lousy and the Giants’ recent schedule hasn’t exactly been Murderer’s Row.
The Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles are each 5-5 and are tied for first place. The Eagles have had the good fortune of going to Washington in Week 1 for RG3’s first game back and going to Green Bay this past Sunday when Aaron Rodgers was hurt. And the Eagles are still only .500. The Cowboys are…well, they’re the Cowboy as we’ve come to know them over the past 17 years.
Then there’s the woeful Washington Redskins, who tackle as though they’re playing flag football and have the same 3-6 record as the Giants. But 3-6 means you’re just a game back in the loss column and there’s plenty of football left.
New York, to their credit, used a soft part of the schedule to get themselves back on their feet. They beat Minnesota on a Monday Night game when Josh Freeman made his ill-fated attempt at being the Vikings’ starter. Last week, the Giants won a home game against the Raiders that was far from impressive. In between was a nice win over Philadelphia, but even at that, Eli Manning didn’t play a good game.
Nonetheless, winning three in a row in the NFL is always noteworthy, and when you’re 0-6, it’s cause for celebration, no matter who the opponent. Now, what about the Giants going forward?
Tom Coughlin’s defense is playing very well in the two key component parts, which would be yards-per-attempt allowed in both the running game and passing game. They ranked 3rd and 6th respectively. That’s the only real strength you can draw from the previous nine games. Everything else is about counting on veterans to improve their play.
Manning has been a turnover machine, the worst in the NFL at throwing interceptions, and that fact means the Giants’ defense is giving up points at a rate not commensurate with how well they defend the run and the pass. Another part of the problem for the defense is its own fault though, and it’s the lack of big plays.
Jason Pierre-Paul is bothered by a shoulder injury, and is completely unproductive. Justin Tuck has been the same, depriving the defensive front of its customary pressure from both ends of the pocket. Pierre-Paul and Tuck have combined for just 3.5 sacks this year. If they each had 3.5 sacks individually, this would be a serious problem. The combined lack of pressure is unsustainable and it has ripple effects in that the secondary does not get interceptions against quarterbacks rushing throws.
The running game has been complete disaster all year, ranking 30th in the NFL. David Jacobs is lost for the year, although he didn’t do anything when he was in the lineup. Peyton Hillis has been given a chance and done nothing. Last week, Andre Brown got a crack, and he produced 115 yards in the win over the Raiders. It was the first sign of hope for Coughlin’s offense, and a running game would ease the pressure on Eli.
Thus, the New York Giants NFC East chances come down to basics–get the running game at least back to respectability, Eli takes better care of the ball, the defensive ends get a pass rush, and that all builds off the current strength of the defense to go 6-1 down the stretch and steal a mediocre division at 9-7.
I’m not ready to predict it–Dallas is in a strong situation with wins over all three divisional foes. But given the track record the Giants have shown in recent years for being able to come on strong after being left for dead, they’ve at least put themselves back in the discussion.
THESPORTSNOTEBOOK’S NFC PLAYOFF PROJECTIONS
(6)Carolina at (3)Detroit
(5)San Francisco at (4)Dallas
BYES: (1) Seattle, (2)New Orleans
The division races in the NFC East & NFC West had seemed set in stone for a few weeks. The New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers would win, and the only question was whether either of them would get a #2 playoff seed and first-round bye, or perhaps chase down the Atlanta Falcons for homefield advantage. After road losses in Week 13, both divisions are not only back in play, but you can make a good case that the favorites are going to let them slip away.
New York, after losing 17-16 in Washington last night, is at 7-5 and one game ahead of the Redskins & Cowboys. The Giants still play road games with Atlanta and Baltimore. If we play the chalk and assume the home team will win, that drops Tom Coughlin’s team to 9-7. Then look at the Washington schedule—while they play Baltimore next week, it’s a home game. Then its two road games, but at Cleveland and at Philadelphia. Then they close the season at home with Dallas.
If Washington splits its next two against the AFC opponents, and then sweeps the two NFC East games—and those are eminently reasonable goals given the way Robert Griffin III is playing right now—then the Redskins also get to 9-7 and they would win the tiebreaker with the Giants. The teams split head-to-head, but this scenario presumes Washington would have swept the Eagles & Cowboys, while New York had their Week 1 loss to Dallas, meaning a superior division record gives the Redskins the division crown.
The Cowboys would still be a factor here as well, although I want to see them win at Cincinnati before taking a more positive outlook on their chances down the stretch. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they win home games with Pittsburgh and New Orleans in Weeks 15 & 16—but that’s a big benefit of the doubt and if you combine those two games with Cincinnati, Dallas would have to sweep them to be in position to win the NFC East in Washington for the season finale.
Yes, I am a Redskins fan and I’m seeing the world through burgundy-and-gold glasses, and I’ve sucking up all the RG3 Kool-Aid I can find. But I also think if you do the math on a week-by-week basis, it really does seem as though the NFC East is now Washington’s for the taking.
Before you immediately say the Giants always find a way to win when it counts, remember this—while that might have been the case in 2007 & 2011, it wasn’t the case in 2009 & 2010, both years they stayed home for the playoffs. This franchise has had two improbable January runs, but it’s not as though they’re an infallible machine in every big spot over the last five years. They’ve got to go at least 3-1 down the stretch and the schedule says that won’t be easy.
Now we move to the NFC West, with its two overtime upsets. St. Louis knocked off San Francisco, while Russell Wilson led Seattle to a win in Chicago. Neither was a shocker, but I don’t know that you’d have expected the parlay to come through. If you look at the standings, you still see the 49ers, at 8-3-1 with a full game and a half lead on the 7-5 Seahawks. But let’s dig a little deeper.
Seattle has a very manageable schedule the rest of the way. They play home games with Arizona and St. Louis and we know how good this team is at home. The road is a tougher sell, but the only road trip is to Buffalo. Is it unthinkable to suggest that a team which wins in Chicago can win in Buffalo? Then look at San Francisco—while we can concede the 49ers will take care of Miami & Arizona at home, are we ready to concede they’ll beat New England in Foxboro in two weeks?
If you assume Seattle wins out, while San Francisco loses in New England, that means the division comes down to a 49ers-Seahawks head-to-head battle in Week 16. Where’s that game at? Seattle. I’m not going against the Seahawks at home against anybody.
Maybe by this time next week, I’ll wonder what I was thinking, but right now I’m making the dramatic altering of my NFL playoff projections to say that Washington & Seattle are winning division titles—indeed, at 11-5, I’ve got Seattle taking a first-round bye, and New York is missing the playoffs. Here’s how I see the NFC shaking out…
NFC East: Washington NFC North: Green Bay NFC South: Atlanta NFC West: Seattle Wild-Cards: San Francisco, Chicago 1st-Round Byes: Atlanta (1), Seattle (2) 1st-Round Matchups: (5)San Francisco at (4)Washington, (6)Chicago at (3)Green Bay)
The AFC is a little tamer. I’m going to stick with Baltimore for the first-round bye behind Houston. Right now the Ravens are at 9-3 and tied with New England and Denver, and a head-to-head game between the Ravens and Broncos looms on the schedule. That game is in Baltimore, who has a home-friendly schedule and while I’ve never been sold on this team all year, I don’t think they’ll repeat their inexcusable showing on Sunday against Pittsburgh and Charlie Batch.
And as impressive as the Steelers were, I’ve still got Indianapolis and Cincinnati holding on to the two wild-card berths. The wins of the Colts & Bengals didn’t get the same kind of media attention and of themselves they weren’t as impressive. But Indy’s game at Detroit, and Cincinnati’s battle out west in San Diego were the kind of games that often sinks playoff hopefuls. They trailed on the road late and in each case rallied to win.
Indianapolis, at 8-4, has the manageable schedule, while Cincinnati has a home game with Pittsburgh in a race where both teams are 7-5. So for now, I’ll play it safe in this conference against the board. I can only roll the dice with so many projections and that’s all in the NFC right now.
AFC East: New England AFC North: Baltimore AFC South: Houston AFC West: Denver Wild-Cards: Indianapolis, Cincinnati 1st-Round Byes: Houston (1), Baltimore (2) 1st-Round Matchups: (6)Cincinnati at (3) New England, (5)Indianapolis at (4)Denver
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.