NFL Week 10: Houston-Chicago Salvages A Mediocre Card

As TV schedules go, NFL Week 10…how do it put this…well, it kinda sucks (I know, I just blew my chance at an NFL marketing gig). The only really compelling game on the daytime card for Sunday is Dallas-Philly and that’s only because we want to watch two colliding train wrecks and see who emerges alive. The Monday Night fare is completely inedible, as the nation will have the Kansas City Chiefs inflicted upon them when they visit Pittsburgh. But Sunday night has the potential to rescue all of it, with Houston-Chicago, so we’ll begin there in our preview of this week’s games.

The question overshadowing Houston’s fine 7-1 start is this—how well is quarterback Matt Schaub going to play in really big situations. Given that the teams chasing name in the AFC have quarterbacks with names like Brady, Manning and Roethlisberger, even someone like me who’s skeptical off all the attention we give to QBs, can’t deny the legitimacy of the question. Sunday night at least provides a good test case.

Houston’s offensive success is built on running the ball with Arian Foster, but a good defense that wants to take away the run can usually do it. Chicago is indisputably much more than a good defensive team—they are a great one, and they ‘ve been effective against the run all year. If I’m the Bears, I stack the box, use my great cover corner Charles Tillman to lock up on Andre Johnson outside and dare Schaub to either beat Tillman deep or find his secondary targets.

Those secondary targets are a question mark themselves. Tight end Owen Daniels and wide receiver Kevin Walter have injury issues. It’s possible neither will play. If they do, we at least have to question their ability to be effective. Daniels in particular, has to be an important part of the offense in keeping drives alive with short passes and working off play-action.

Lest you think this preview is going to have a pro-Chicago spin, let’s move to the other side of the ball. Because this game really has a pro-defensive spin. Jay Cutler’s offense only ranks 27th in the NFL right now and the production they do get is heavily targeted to Brandon Marshall. Again, good defenses that want to load up on a skill player, can take him away and I expect Houston to force Cutler to look at his other targets.

Furthermore, the Bears are going to have a major problem in protecting Cutler. The pass blocking in Chicago leaves much to be desired as it is, and that’s before J.J. Watt and his 10.5 sacks show up, or Brooke Reed and Connor Barwin start attacking on the edge. The Bears absolutely must run the football with Matt Forte or Houston will wipe them out.

The Texans failed in their first big prime-time test against Green Bay, although the Packers had more reason to be desperate than the Bears do in this game. With both of these teams I have things I’m not really sold on. I haven’t seen Schaub really step up. And in spite of their 7-1 record, I’d still bet against the Bears if they played the Giants, 49ers, Packers or Falcons, even if they were at home.

Because I picked Houston to win the AFC title at the start of the year, Schaub is still going to get the benefit of the doubt from me and I’m going to take him to make enough throws to win a tough game. But the best bet on this game is the total—its 40.5 Go Under.

Here’s the rest of the NFL Week 10 schedule, broken down by TV time slot…


Denver-Carolina: Most of the country will see this game and I think it should be a pretty good one. Earlier in the week, TheSportsNotebook wrote how Denver is developing into a very complete team, with improvement in running the ball, pass protection on defense. This isn’t about Peyton Manning getting rid of the ball as quickly as possible and hoping to build drives that way. Carolina’s win over Washington last week might not have been impressive, but the Panthers are a team that just needed a positive vibe of some kind and now they’ve got it.

The Panthers will provide a test case of whether Denver’s development is as real as I think. Carolina can get after the quarterback, with ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, along with tackle Dwan Edwards, can crash the pocket from every angle. It’s imperative the Broncos keep Manning upright and the best way to start is to get Willis McGahee involved early in the game running between the tackles and ensuring the front four can’t just line up and tee off.

Denver may miss corner Tracy Porter for this game, and if the veteran is out, Cam Newton needs to take advantage. The Panther quarterback will likely be under pressure from Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil and their mates, but if Newton can escape the pocket—which you would think he can—the possibility of beating a second-string corner down the field exists. It’s here Carolina has to hope that getting a win last week will give the troubled Newton a confidence boost.

I’m giving Denver the benefit of the doubt in this game and saying their complete improvement is real and their focus, led by Manning and veteran coach John Fox, will prevent a letdown in Carolina. But the game will be close. If you bet Carolina, you’re getting four and I’d say this game is going to come down to a field goal either way.

Buffalo-New England: The Patriots come off a bye they really needed to get rested and healthy. They’re still beat up defensively, but the key players should be on the field and the offensive personnel should be ready to roll. Buffalo, as they showed last week against Houston, can make games competitive when Mario Williams comes ready to play and provides a pass rush. I think the Bills deserve enough respect that I wouldn’t lay the 11.5 to take the favorite, but a Belichick-Brady team with two weeks to get ready is going to win.

San Diego-Tampa Bay: Both teams are 4-4 and this makes for a pretty interesting game, even if most people won’t be able to see it. San Diego hasn’t done a lot well this year, but they have stopped the run and that’s what Tampa will want to establish with Doug Martin. The Bucs have done some good things this year, but one of them hasn’t been rushing the passer, so Philip Rivers could get the time he needs to finally produce against a decent opponent. The oddsmakers see the teams essentially even, with Tampa favored by three, the home-field courtesy. I’d like to pick the Bolts here…but well, they’re the Chargers and they certainly haven’t earned the confidence.
Oakland-Baltimore: The two cities whose Cinderella baseball teams captured the nation’s attention now go at it on the football field. Let’s just say this game is less compelling than a postseason baseball series between the Orioles and A’s would have been. While Baltimore has serious problems defensively and Carson Palmer is throwing the ball well, the Raiders will miss Darren McFadden and I see no reason to think they’ll stop Joe Flacco, Ray Rice and the Baltimore offense. The Ravens need to cash in these games, because the schedule gets tougher the last seven games.


NY Giants-Cincinnati: This game starts off the Fox doubleheader for the bulk of the country. I’d really like to think the Bengals could win this game, because I see the potential of the team defensively. And the Giants’ running game has been mediocre. But Andy Dalton is just so interception-prone right now—11 picks already, that you have to wonder what’s going to happen when that New York pass rush, led by Jason Pierre-Paul gets in his face. Or more accurately, you don’t have to wonder—everything we’ve seen in 2012 tells us Dalton will make more bad throws, and I don’t see the running game helping him out.

New York is in a spot where complacency might set in, a sort of mid-season dog days. They’ve got the NFC East under firm control with a three-game lead. This isn’t the team you’ll be able to sell on the importance of a #1 seed or first-round bye. Not only have they won two Super Bowls going the hard way the last five years, but when they did get a #1 seed in 2008, the Giants promptly dumped the first playoff game at home.

So yes, I can see the Giants not showing up and Cincinnati is good enough to win at home. But since I’m on a roll with baseball analogies, let’s just say this completes a losing parlay for the city of Cincinnati—the Reds lost at home to the Giants to the diamond in the playoffs. The Bengals do the same across the parking lot in football.

Detroit-Minnesota: It’s  a must-win game for both teams, each with four losses and looking to stay in the NFC wild-card discussion. Matthew Stafford is getting locked in right now and leading the most productive passing attack in the league. I believe Minnesota’s defense can slow him down, with Jared Allen leading that physical front seven and Adrian Peterson helping control the tempo. But I don’t believe they can stop Stafford entirely and unless the Vikes get something out of Christian Ponder, their defensive talent and Peterson’s MVP-caliber season are going to get wasted. And I don’t believe Ponder will come through against a front four that’s pretty good in its own right, particularly with Percy Harvin doubtful because of ankle injury.

Atlanta-New Orleans: The Falcons don’t believe they’re getting any respect at 8-0 and I suppose I’ll fan the flames—I think the Saints are going to get them in this spot. Atlanta’s pass rush is one-dimensional, with only John Abraham consistently getting pressure. If Ray Edwards doesn’t join the party, Drew Brees will have a big game and the Saints can win a shootout in their own backyard.


Dallas-Philadelphia: Yup, two 3-5 teams in a race to see who gets their coach fired first is the main feature game on NFL Sunday. I suppose in fairness to the league we aren’t yet at the flex-schedule time of the year and you would have at least though that one of these teams would live up to its potential, if not both.

Earlier this week, TheSportsNotebook broke down all of Dallas’ problems. But I concur with sentiments expressed by ESPN’s Mike Greenberg on Mike & Mike In The Morning—Dallas finds little ways to lose games. Philly finds big ways to lose games. That’s why they’re an odds-on favorite to get Andy Reid fired before Dallas can do the same for Jason Garrett. It’s why, in spite of their talent, they’re a home underdog team to a team that’s an utter train wreck.

The biggest problem I have with Philadelphia is that a talented defensive front four is not getting any kind of pressure and without that, nothing is going to force Tony Romo into the kind of mistakes that have consistently killed this team. The Eagles control their destiny in this game—if ends Jason Babin and Trent Cole play well, and Reid gives the ball to LeSean McCoy, they’ll win. But they used up their last benefit of the doubt with me this past Monday night in New Orleans. Now I’m giving Dallas their last benefit of the doubt. Give the 2.5 points and take the ‘Boys.

St. Louis-San Francisco: The 49ers are healthy, coming off a bye and playing at home. I know St. Louis is better than they were last year, but they won’t take revenge for their city for the National League Championship Series and the Cardinals losing to the Giants (hey, there’s my third baseball analogy, a Triple Crown sweep in honor of Miguel Cabrera). I wouldn’t lay the 11.5 with Frisco because I don’t like laying big points unless the offense is explosive. But nor I would feel good enough about the Rams to say they’ll make it closer than the experts say.

NY Jets-Seattle: Because the Jets are coming off a bye and Rex Ryan still knows how coach a defense, we can give them a little bit of a chance to get the road win. But Seattle is such a different team at home and even given Ryan’s strategic ability, the loss of Darrelle Revis denies the Jets the defensive playmakers they’ll need to produce points, or at least easy opportunities. And I don’t see Mark Sanchez doing anything against the Seattle defense. Time for another round of Monday morning on ESPN’s First Take, with Skip Bayless calling for Tim Tebow.


Kansas City-Pittsburgh: I picked the Chiefs to make the playoffs this year. As a Catholic, I hope writing that gets me off the hook for going to confession, because it easily wins the honor of the worst pick I have made in any sport this year (always a competitive race). I feel for the good fans in Kansas City who deserve better, but the only question in this game is whether Romeo Crennel will become the first head coach ever fired midway through a Monday Night game.