The AFC West race isn’t blowing anyone’s doors off with its brilliance to this point in the season, but Monday Night Football features one of the more significant games of the first six weeks when Denver pays a visit to San Diego.
The Broncos might be 2-3, but their games with Houston, Atlanta and New England are behind them. San Diego might be 3-2, but the wins are Oakland, Tennessee and Kansas City. With these two teams looking like the only real contenders in a watered-down division, Monday Night in San Diego will be significant.
Thus, TheSportsNotebook will do its usual preview of the NFL marquee games—those seen by most or all of the country in reverse, starting Monday night and working backward to the main national games in the early Sunday time slot. Previews of the undercard games ran on Thursday.
Denver-San Diego: The Chargers are playing better defensively right now than they are on offense, as Philip Rivers’ problems from last year seem to have carried over and the running game hasn’t picked up the slack. But San Diego is playing good defense, especially against the run and they have the talent at outside linebacker to create problems for Peyton Manning, in the same way previous Bronco foes have.
I won’t say Manning can’t dig himself the kind of early hole that’s occurred in the team’s three losses. San Diego’s not as good as those other teams and has a boundless capacity to shoot itself in the foot. But obviously it would behoove Denver to do a few little things better—one of those not being in hole of 20-plus points. If they do that—and I think they will—then I’m more comfortable with Manning and John Fox down the stretch than Rivers and Norv Turner.
Denver is only a 1.5 point underdog on the road, so bookmakers apparently believe they’re a bit better than the Chargers all things considered. I agree and I think Manning gets a win.
Green Bay-Houston: This is the week of Packer discontent as they get set for a Sunday night visit to undefeated Houston. Green Bay is coming off a loss to Indianapolis, and the persistent sluggishness of the offense is leading observers to wonder if a turnaround is going to happen. A team that can’t protect the edges of the pocket has big problems when faced with Houston’s array of blitz packages.
Houston did lose inside linebacker Brian Cushing for the season with a knee injury, something of significant consequence in the AFC race overall and Sunday night in particular. The Packers might be able to ease the heat on Aaron Rodgers by running inside. While they have an injury problem of their own with the loss of Cedric Benson, backup Alex Green showed flashes of potential on Sunday.
Defensively, the Packers have to play pass defense much better. They’re going to have to commit first and foremost to the run, Houston’s bread-n-butter with Arian Foster. But that means the secondary can’t led Andre Johnson run free, the way Indy’s Reggie Wayne did against them last week. Houston can also target tight end Owen Daniels. What it boils down to is we need to see a completely Packer defense than what’s been on the field the last couple weeks and it starts with Clay Matthews staying in Matt Schaub’s face throughout the game.
This game features the teams I picked to reach the Super Bowl and only Houston has met that expectation. But there’s nothing more dangerous than a team with talent that’s getting a public relations beatdown, and right now that’s Green Bay. I’ll lean their way to win a close game—at the very least it goes down to the wire and the Packers cover the 3.5 point spread.
NY Giants-San Francisco: The rematch of last year’s NFC Championship Game is the feature game on Fox in the late Sunday afternoon time slot. San Francisco is doing everything very well right now. New York has done everything well on an intermittent basis, and will have to play its most complete game of the year.
A New York loss puts them behind the eight-ball for getting a first-round playoff bye, presuming they win the NFC East. Say what you will about last year and 2007, but having to go the four-game route to a Super Bowl title isn’t the preferred path.
The Giants are still not a healthy team, even with Hakeem Nicks looking like he might play. The bigger concern is injuries in the secondary. San Francisco got Michael Crabtree into the flow of the offense last week with six catches, albeit against Buffalo, and if they’re even a threat to get the ball to the wideouts consistently this game is over. San Francisco defends the run better, rushes the quarterback better and is at least equivalent in the running game. And they’re playing at home with some revenge on their minds. Eli Manning will play well enough to keep his team in the game, but not enough to win in Frisco.
Dallas-Baltimore: There were two things predicted here at the start of the season regarding the Ravens. That the defense was in definite decline and the team would miss the playoffs. I might have overreached on the last one, but not the former. Baltimore’s defense is very vulnerable and they’re playing Dallas at the worst possible time—the Cowboys have spent two weeks having to stew over that Monday Night debacle against the Bears, coming off a bye week as they are.
I expect Tony Romo to play a good game and the Cowboys to put points on the board. Meanwhile, the Baltimore offense has been sluggish, but has survived games against Cleveland & Kansas City, making this a time a team usually has to lose a game before it gets slapped back to reality.
From all this, you can deduce that I’m leaning Dallas in this game. There’s one caveat—if the Ravens really commit to the running game and ram Ray Rice down the Cowboys’ throats, they’ll win. It’s the Baltimore strength, as Joe Flacco’s mediocrity these past couple weeks has again reminded us—and it’s the soft underbelly of the Dallas defense.
But Baltimore has a tendency to get too cute and unless these narrow escapes have really scared them, I expect they’re set up for a home loss in a game Fox will show to a lot of the country in the 1 PM ET slot.
Indianapolis-NY Jets: The wins over Green Bay & Minnesota have been gratifying for Indy and they’re playing a team that seems to be coming apart at the seams. But there’s a reason the Colts are still a 3.5 point underdog on Sunday in the Meadowlands.
The Jets have still hung in on pass defense, ranking 6th in the NFL, even without Darrelle Revis. They’ve lost Revis’ irreplaceable game-changing ability, but they can still at least contain a passing game. On the other side of the ball, Indianapolis is without Robert Mathis, off to a good start in his new role as stand-up outside linebacker, but injured last week. When Mark Sanchez had time to throw against Buffalo in Week 1 he played a good game. As much as the Jet quarterback is regressing, he’ll get time on Sunday and can play at least well enough to win the main CBS game of the week.