Normally we begin our NFL previews here at TheSportsNotebook each week by leading with the Thursday night game, but I’m not going to do what the game is as demonstrably awful as this week’s Cleveland-Baltimore game is. Just being in prime-time isn’t enough to make you the lead story, so for NFL Week 4 we’ll drop the Browns-Ravens in with the rest of the undercard games—those that won’t be seen much beyond the local market). Here’s a look at the nine games that include tonight, plus those that will be mostly televised locally…
San Diego-Kansas City: What a difference a week and a comeback makes. The Chiefs save their season with a rally at New Orleans to get to 1-2, while San Diego is blown out at home to drop to 2-1. Suddenly this game is significant in the AFC West picture. Philip Rivers was back to having turnover problems against Atlanta, and if Kansas City is going to force him into mistakes they must have outside linebacker Tamba Hali show up. Hali, after being suspended for Week 1, has been a non-factor in two straight games, but he’s the only real hope the Chiefs have for pressuring the quarterback and giving some relief to their thin secondary.
On the other side, Kansas City matches up well with San Diego’s aggressive defense. Jamaal Charles had a big day with 233 yards in New Orleans and between him and Peyton Hillis, they can run the ball between the tackles and force San Diego’s linebackers to stay at home. If that happens—and I believe it will—Matt Cassell can be effective in the controlled passing game. I’m back on the Chiefs’ bandwagon for this week and like them to get the home win in a game Las Vegas is calling a pick-‘em.
Carolina-Atlanta: The Falcons made a big statement with their blowout win in San Diego to get to 3-0, while the Panthers made a statement in the opposite direction when they were hammered by the Giants last Thursday. Atlanta’s a solid 7.5 point favorite here at home, but I think we need to be careful about overreaction. After ten days of bad press coverage, Cam Newton is likely to have some extra motivation and the Falcons have some turmoil going on with the arrest of John Abraham earlier this week.
The defensive end is cleared to play while details of the fuzzy incident are being sorted out, but when you consider how much pressure is on the ends to play very disciplined football and keep Newton in the pocket, this was a less than ideal week for Abraham to act up. I guess I’d still pick Atlanta at home—I’m troubled by how bad the Carolina run defense was last week and Atlanta’s Michael Turner got into a groove with 80 yards at San Diego. But that point spread looks excessive.
Minnesota-Detroit: Matthew Stafford’s health is still a question mark for this game and we won’t know until tomorrow if he’ll be a go. The Viking defense is an ideal matchup for Detroit, given the problems Minnesota has in the secondary. But we saw last week what Minnesota can do if they get the game played on their terms—running the ball, playing defense and letting affairs be settled between the trenches rather than on the outside. I like Detroit’s backup quarterback Shaun Hill, but it’s also been a year-plus since he’s gotten serious playing time. Call it a hunch, but I’m going to take a shot at the upset (at least a presume it wll be an upset when the line is eventually posted after we know who the quarterback is). The Lions have the feel of a disappointing team in progress, with the Vikes as an overachiever. I’ll cover my posterior with this disclaimer—if it gets way from Minnesota and the game opens up, this will get very ugly in Detroit’s favor. But if it stays tight and in the 20s on the scoreboard, the visitors get the win.
Seattle-St. Louis: Say what you will about how bad the call was on Monday Night in Seattle’s win over Green Bay, but don’t let it overshadow just how good this Seahawk defense looks right now. They’re very physical on the corners and the Ram offense just had a lot of problems against a similar styled D in Chicago. There’s a lot of intangibles going against Seattle here—short week, one fraught with controversy and based on that, I can see why St. Louis is installed as a three-point home favorite. But the tangibles all work in the ‘Hawks favor, including Russell Wilson’s mobility against a good defensive front four, and I’m taking Seattle to get a hard-fought win.
Miami-Arizona: I realize the Cardinals would seem like the proto-type team to first raise everyone’s hopes at 3-0 and then lose a game they shouldn’t, but I don’t see it happening here. The Dolphins’ decision to entrust the offense to Ryan Tannehill is frankly going to wreck this team’s season. Miami is playing good defense, as expected, and getting solid work from Reggie Bush, but Tannehill is not good enough right now, nor is he going to be in the future. Arizona is a complete defensive team and they have developed an identity as a team that’s using the 2011 49ers model of defense, running the ball and letting an oft-criticized veteran quarterback on his last chance in the league ride it to wins. It works again here, but with one caveat—Miami , because of their defense, is going to be a good pointspread team, and getting 6.5, they offer good value here.
Washington-Tampa Bay: Two incompetent forces collide when the Redskins’ pass defense meets up with Josh Freeman and the Tampa pass offense. As a ‘Skins fan, what worries me is this—Freeman can turn it back around in the right direction as quickly as he went off track last week in Dallas. Whereas the Washington secondary is just flat-out bad. The Tampa defensive front four had a comeback week and cause problems for the Redskins, starting with putting some big hits on RG3. The Washington formula this year will likely be Griffin keeping it exciting and the team coming up just short. I see no reason to get my hopes up otherwise for Sunday.
Cincinnati-Jacksonville: Cincy’s biggest area of concern right now is the secondary, and with both corners nursing hamstring injuries that’s likely to continue, even if both Nate Clements and Leon Hall will probably play. The Bengals get a break in that Jacksonville shows no inclination to get its receivers in the offense and is too reliant on Maurice Jones-Drew. The running back has come back strong from his holdout, but against a team that has a talented front seven, and is showing an improved ability to generate points of their own, it won’t be enough. Cincy wins decisively, and the slim 2.5 points they are favored by is not nearly enough respect.
Tennessee-Houston: Jake Locker had a good breakout game for the Titans last week, throwing the ball to Nate Washington and Kenny Britt, but unless the Titans’ running game decides to reappear (Where are you Chris Johnson?), they are not going to win on the road. Houston has shown no discernible weaknesses, and the 12-point spread is more in play here than who’s going to win the game.
Cleveland-Baltimore: As noted at the top, this is an awful football game unless you’re a Ravens fan, but I’ll take a shot at playing devil’s advocate and see if we can build a case for an upset. Baltimore’s coming off three consecutive high-emotion games (Cincy in the MNF opener, Philly on the road, New England last Sunday night), and because they won over the Patriots they aren’t feeling the same sense of urgency. The Raven defense genuinely looks down from previous years, which might tempt Baltmore offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to get too wide-open, which in turn leads him away from the team’s meal ticket in Ray Rice. Which could set the tone for a possible shocker.
Are you buying any of this? I’m not either. Those are reasons why the Browns might cover the (-12) number Baltimore is favored by, but if the visitors win this game, the entire city of Baltimore should shut their team off and watch baseball.
Friday’s NFL feature will look at the six games that will be seen by large chunks, if not all, of the country over Sunday and Monday—that’s New England-Buffalo, Oakland-Denver, San Francisco-NY Jets, New Orleans-Green Bay, NY Giants-Philly and Chicago-Dallas. And if you’re wondering about Indianapolis & Pittsburgh, they’re both off as the run of bye weeks has begun.