How important are turnovers to determining winners in the NFL? There are thirteen teams with winning records in the NFL – ten of them are on the plus side of the give/take column and one is even at 0. The other two are the Washington Redskins and San Diego Chargers. Six teams are on the BYE this week making the survivor/elimination pools more challenging. I'm declaring this the week of the upset, as mirror-image teams meet in a myriad of matchups that might not provide a whole lot of big plays, but will certainly keep you watching all four quarters.
THE 1PM DOCKET
NEW ORLEANS @ CAROLINA
The Saints travel to Carolina, where the improving Saints defense will come face-to-face with rookie phenom Cam Newton. Last year, the playoff bound Saints embarrassed the Jimmy Clausen-led Panthers in a 34-3 blowout. This year will be different. The Panthers normally stout pass defense has kept Brees' passer rating for his career under 90 and his yards per attempt under seven. However, the Panthers are missing several key players including middle linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. The Panthers pass defense improved to sixth in the NFL last week, but that's because Chicago's Matt Forte was running a clinic in the secondary all day. While this would look like a big game for Mark Ingram here, and I like him, I think this is a bigger week for Darren Sproles, who is now the leading the team with 26 receptions. He has almost as many yards as Pierre Thomas in half the carries, and Carolina will have to know at all times where the little man is on the field. With the middle of the field already weakened, Jimmy Graham will get his share again and should have a big day. Carolina's pass defense was tough against the Bears, but they are not immune to big plays as they have given up four touchdown passes of 45-plus yards. Devery Henderson has been limited with a calf issue, so this could be Robert Meachem’s chance for some good numbers. Cam Newton's offense is throwing the ball 68 percent of the time, but the only way Carolina wins this game is keeping their defense off the field. That means Ron Rivera is going to have to take into consideration that no team running against the Saints has averaged less than four yards per carry except the Packers. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart will figure in heavy in this one, and should be in your lineups, as the Saints will take an aggressive tact to blitz Newton, and force him into some early mistakes. Stewart sees the majority of the work and points, but New Orleans is just too tough.
SAINTS 34, PANTHERS 24
OAKLAND @ HOUSTON
This could be one for nostalgic football lovers as both these teams are the among the three NFL franchises that run more than they pass. Oakland's defense silenced Rob Gronkowski last week, and could pose a problem for Owen Daniels this week. The trio of Rolando McLain, Quentin Groves and Kamerion Wimbley should be among the three best, but have struggled against the run. Safety Tyvon Branch leads the team in tackles; that's not a good sign coming up against a Texans team that runs the ball 55 percent of the time. Both Arian Foster and Ben Tate own a 4.7 yard per carry, and I'd consider both this week if both are healthy. Foster devoured Oakland last year for 131 yards on 17 carries with one rushing and receiving touchdown in a game in which Houston was without Andre Johnson. Houston could face cheating secondary in an attempt to thwart Foster from beating them, so expect Matt Schaub to take a few shots early at Jacoby Jones and Kevin Walter, and look for FB James Casey, who has had 6 receptions in the last two games. Darren McFadden was held in check by Houston last year when these teams met, but this is a different Oakland line now. They're protecting Jason Campbell to the tune of just two sacks, and if Campbell has time, Denarius Moore could give Houston some problems with his versatility. Houston’s defense has looked good in the face of some really weak teams, including the Steelers right now. Now their test begins, and I think it comes down to the lines. Oakland squeaks this one out late.
RAIDERS 23, TEXANS 21
PHILADELPHIA @ BUFFALO
Both Philadelphia and Buffalo come into this matchup knowing what it’s like to have blown a double digit lead in the second half. The “dream team” has been anything but with Michael Vick inconsistent and injured. DE Antonio Dixon is now on the IR, and DE Trent Cole is going to miss several weeks with a strained calf. DE Darryl Tapp is also questionable after being limited in Thursday’s practice. The team is borderline desperate for a win, and face a pretty healthy Bills team that could even see the return of cornerback/return man Terrence McGhee. Both teams have star running backs that can play third down as receivers. Fred Jackson has looked rejuvenated at 30 averaging 5.8 yards per attempt. The Eagles defense is 30th against the rush, and with all the injuries, should be easy fodder for Jackson. The Eagles are also the league worst at stopping opponents in the red zone, and have yielded three passing touchdowns to TEs. I like Scott Chandler to make himself a nuisance inside the 20-yard line. No doubt Andy Reid won’t make the same mistake as last week and should employ as much of LeSean McCoy as McCoy can handle. The Bills aren't particularly strong up front, ranking 25th against the rush. In the end, this game will come down to the quarterbacks and mistakes. The Bills are plus-7 in the give/take column while the Eagles have a deficit of six. The Bills though don’t have anyone to put pressure on the Eagles struggling offensive line, as they’ve garnered just four sacks on the year. The Eagles’ defense has delivered a league high 15 sacks, and if Vick can play mistake-free football, his ability to move the chains in key situations should give Philly a slight advantage in this shootout.
EAGLES 35, BILLS 31
CINCINNATI @ JACKSONVILLE
The Jaguars are 11-6 all time against the Bengals, and had won four straight before dropping their last match 21-19 in Cincy back in 2008. In that game, the Bengals neutralized Maurice Jones-Drew and put the onus on David Garrard to beat them. This game won’t be much different, as rookie Blaine Gabbert hasn’t yet looked the part of NFL-ready quarterback. In his first NFL start last week, Gabbert managed just 16 completions on 42 attempts, and the Jaguars were woefully inefficient on third down (3-for-15). What was the fourth best overall defense plummeted to 12th after their match with the Saints (falling from fifth to 16th against the rush, and from seventh to 14th against the pass). They face a Bengals team awaiting word on Cedric Benson’s pending suspension, as Benson is the sixth best rusher in the league. Andy Dalton hasn’t been terrible, but at times has appeared indecisive. He has tossed four interceptions to go with his four touchdowns. Assuming Benson plays, he will be given ample opportunity to put up another 100-yard day against the Jaguars, and the Bengals top-rated defense, which hasn’t allowed a rusher to gain more than 3.7 yards per rush, will make it a long day for Jones-Drew. The difference here is Dalton, who just is more polished and ready than Gabbert.
BENGALS 17, JAGUARS 7
SEATTLE @ NEW YORK GIANTS
I said I like what the eturn of Sidney Rice could mean to Seattle, but never did I see him making such a difference that Tarvaris Jackson would be among the top five of fantasy quarterbacks Week 4. Jackson spread three touchdown passes among his three top receivers: Rice, Mike Williams and Ben Obomanu last week in a loss to Atlanta. The biggest problem for Seattle is their offense is dead last in time of possession, averaging a good 10 minutes less than their opponents per game. This is starting to tax the defense, which is steadily declining as the year progresses. The offensive line hasn’t protected Jackson, who has been sacked 14 times. The Giants will not have Justin Tuck for this game, and he’s expected out past the Week 6 bye. However, Osi Umenyiora is back and healthy, along with Mathias Kiwanuka. Though the Giants have yielded their share of rushing yardage, Marshawn Lynch’s 3.3 yards per carry won’t get much better. As is typical, the 3,000 mile journey east will have its effect, and the Giants offense, now primed after a comeback victory against Arizona, will wear down the Seahawks. Last time Rice faced the Giants secondary, he had a field day: six receptions for 112 yards and two scores. I expect Jackson will find a way to make him a part of this game. Brandon Jacobs is nursing a swollen knee and will likely miss this one. Therefore, expect Ahmad Bradshaw to get most of the early carries, and a touchdown to boot. Eli Manning should have a strong game at home, and the Giants should handle this one fairly handily.
GIANTS 27, SEAHAWKS 13
TENNESSEE @ PITTSBURGH
Both of these teams are amongst the biggest surprises of the 2011 campaign, and both are headed in opposite directions. Chris Johnson has started to round into form and delivered his first 100-yard performance of the year against the Browns. Matt Hasselbeck has played inspired football, delivering the fourth best QB rating in the league and the ninth best fantasy totals of the year. However, the loss of Kenny Britt cannot be understated, as Nate Washington has yet to show he can take over as a leading receiver. Jared Cook’s big touchdown should alert the Steelers to a new weapon in Tennessee’s arsenal, but James Farrior has lost a step and Cook could figure in huge here. The Steelers lost James Harrison to surgery on his orbital bone, pushing Lawrence Timmons into a more aggressive pass-rushing role on the outside. Larry Foote will be charged with stopping Johnson, alongside Farrior. If this was in Tennessee, I would be more inclined to go with Johnson for a big day, but I can’t see it here. In three games against Pittsburgh, Johnson has managed just 3.4 yards per carry, and eight receptions for 31 yards. He has just one touchdown against them, and so far this season, he has yet to accelerate like he can. Troy Polomalu will help to keep Johnson in check, and without Britt to stretch the out the Steelers defense, the game will be close. On the offensive side of things for Pittsburgh, Rashard Mendenhall is nursing his hamstring and is still questionable as he didn’t practice Thursday, and Mewelde Moore is questionable as well. Isaac Redman is likely the Steelers starter by default. He’s never carried the load a full game, but he has been the best of the Steelers backs this year by far averaging 4.9 yard per carry on 22 attempts. The Steelers have given away 10 more turnovers than they’ve created, and Ben Roethlisberger is responsible for eight of them. His line a patch-work mess, Roethlisberger will have to work a short, passing game if Pittsburgh is to pull this out. I don’t think Bruce Arians has that kind of play calling in him.
TITANS 20, STEELERS 17
KANSAS CITY @ INDIANAPOLIS
The Chiefs are fortunate that their 26th ranked rushing defense faces one of the worst rushing offenses in the league. The Colts rush only 37 percent of the time, which means the game again will likely fall on Curtis Painter’s shoulders. The advantage for Painter is his variety of weapons. Since taking over, Pierre Garcon has become his favorite target. Once Painter entered the game against Pittsburgh, Painter hit Garcon for three passes on their touchdown scoring drive. Last week, he delivered two touchdown strikes to Garcon making him the best fantasy receiver of the week. The Colts have run the least amount of plays in the league, 172, nearly 50 less plays than the next worst team, ironically, the Chiefs. Needless to say, this game will need makeup just to make it ugly. Thomas Jones will take another shot at replacing Jamaal Charles, but at 2.8 per carry, he’ll share a lot of those carries with Dexter McCluster, who’ll play the Darren Sproles role for the Chiefs. The problem Matt Cassel faces is the speed of this defense, and the pass rush that Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney generate. It means that Steve Breaston’s numbers should be augmented as the possession receiver among the Chiefs wide receiver group. In the last two games, Breaston has 7 receptions for 146 yards. Dwayne Bowe has good downfield speed, and should take advantage of the Colts young safeties for a deep score. Cassel has more experience, but my gut says Painter and the Colts defense is up to the task.
COLTS 16, CHIEFS 13
ARIZONA @ MINNESOTA
Donovan McNabb hasn’t been able to put together a full 60 minutes this season, which is not all his fault. Percy Harvin has started to pick it up, but they just don’t have a complementary receiver in Michael Jenkins they had in Sidney Rice, and the result is evident. Harvin is averaging 10.1 yards per catch, when the past two years, he’s averaged over 12. At the same time, Adrian Peterson has only one 100-yard game this year. Perhaps Leslie Frazier is trying to lean more on McNabb to take some of the weight off of Peterson, but it hasn’t worked. In addition, the Minnesota secondary has given up big plays, and now faces a monster possibility in Larry Fitzgerald. The bigger surprise has been Early Doucet, who is fighting through a hamstring injury, but has taken over the WR2 spot on this team. He’s averaging 16.7 yards per catch, second best on the team to yet another surprise, TE Jeff King. King isn’t known for his ability to stretch the field, and nearly all his yards have come after the catch. Beanie Wells is still fighting his hamstring injury as well, and the Vikings have not yielded a 100-yard rusher this year. Since their move to Arizona, the Cardinals have never won at the Metrodome. I'm suspect they can win now.
VIKINGS 24, CARDINALS 21
NEW YORK JETS @ NEW ENGLAND
Perhaps the biggest game of the weekend, the Jets offensive line got pushed around by the Ravens front seven. Now, they face a league-worst defense in the Patriots, coming off a game where they shut down Darren McFadden and took a victory home from Oakland. The Jets are struggling to put together a solid rushing game, which will get a boost from the return of center Nick Mangold. The Jets pass defense is now ranked second in the league, and the cornerback duo of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie should have no problem shutting down the likes of Deion Branch and Chad Ochocinco. The key will be the rushing duo of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Stevan Ridley. The Patriots run only 39 percent of the time, and it's been over a year since a Patriot runner garnered 20 carries and nearly a year since a Patriots runner had 100 yards rushing. However, I actually expect Belichick to surprise this porous front seven of the Jets and attempt to keep time of possession on his side in order to keep his shoddy defense on the sideline. Mark Sanchez has had a rollercoaster ride against the Patriots, though in their last meeting, Sanchez had arguably his best game as a pro, protecting the football while tossing three touchdowns in a 28-21 playoff win at New England. LaDainian Tomlinson should figure in as a receiver and rusher. Shonne Greene’s numbers continue to tumble, and without a strong rushing attack, the Jets will have to work to keep Brady and company off the field. This feels like a matchup the Jets could win, especially since they've got much better receivers, but this being a division matchup, the Patriots ninth ranked rushing offense and a mistake prone Sanchez shift it to New England.
PATRIOTS 28, JETS 24
THE 4PM DOCKET
TAMPA BAY @ SAN FRANCISCO
Two teams that have been perennially bad are suddenly heading up their division races. LeGarrette Blount has shown how difficult he is to stop, particularly in the fourth quarter. Tampa's rushing offense, ranked 20th heading into the contest with Indianapolis, came out on the other side ranked 11th. Certainly, Blount will see his share of carries here, even against San Francisco's fourth best rushing defense, yielding just 74 yards per contest. Even so, Josh Freeman will have to shoulder this team, and that means Preston Parker should have a healthy load of receptions. The second year man out of North Alabama has 16 receptions on 21 targets, has a team best 13.9 yards per catch and is second to only Earnest Graham in yards after the catch. Mike Williams is still the leading target, with 30 so far this year, but has only managed to reel in 15 of those. Freeman will have to be more accurate, as San Francisco is among the top most opportunistic defenses in the league, with a plus-8 in takeaways. Alex Smith may have had his most complete game as a professional in leading San Francisco's comeback against the Eagles. Smith continued at a 63.6 percent completion clip while averaging his season best 8.8 yards per attempt. Frank Gore has only faced Tampa Bay twice, the most recent of which was last year in a 10 carry 23 yard effort, but Troy Smith was under center, and the Mike Singletary experiment was just about over. The game will be decided by the quarterbacks, and I'm just not sold enough on Alex Smith as I am on Josh Freeman and his versatility.
BUCCANEERS 20, 49ers 13
SAN DIEGO @ DENVER
The Chargers have taken four of the last five games in the confines of Mile High, and last year, the offense threw for 313 yards against the Broncos. Malcom Floyd will be a top target this week for Philip Rivers who has gotten used to dealing without Antonio Gates. However, now it appears he'll be without Vincent Jackson as well, who has been fighting through adominal and hamstring problems. Both sat out practice Thursday, and considering the Chargers could only punch in one TD against the Dolphin's weak secondary, brings heavy concern over whether the Chargers can survive a big division game without so many weapons. Denver's rushing defense has vastly improved, and Wesley Woodyard has been a big part of that. Woodyard will likely surpass all of last season's tackle totals this week, and will be intent on making the Chargers one-dimensional, taking away Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert. Mathews is a must-start, as he posted fantastic numbers against Denver last year: 26 carries, 120 yards and three touchdowns. Surprising and perhaps alarming, Denver has been able to do little to stop the pass, and injuries to Champ Bailey have been part of the reason why. Bailey is expected to return this week which may help take away the deep ball. On offense, Knowshon Moreno is probable and likely to play. He had 19 carries for 99 yards against San Diego last season. However, the Broncos have been relying more and more on a revived Willis McGahee, who has 37 carries for 167 yards in the last two games, including one touchdown reception. With Moreno's constant health issues, he may be running out of time to take back his position Both will get their share of touches, against the Chargers 19th ranked defense missing two defensive ends, Jacques Cesaire and Luis Castillo, in an attempt to loosen up the fourth ranked passing defense. If Denver can establish a ground game, and continue to cause turnovers (they're a plus-4 for the year) this game is their's for the taking. I'm going out on a limb and taking Denver.
BRONCOS 27, CHARGERS 24
THE LATE GAME
GREEN BAY @ ATLANTA
The Falcons will attempt to spit out the bitter pill they swallowed during last year's playoff meeting in the Georgia Dome, when Green Bay tore apart Atlanta for 48 points, and Aaron Rodgers tossed three touchdowns and ran for one more. Matt Ryan was terrible that game, going 20-for-29, tossing two interceptions and managing only 186 passing yards. While his regular season matchup with the Packer went better, the totals were similar: 24-of-28, 197 yards and one touchdown. This year is different. The Falcons seem to only score 20 or more points when they lose to a higher power team. Ryan has only managed one multi-TD this season and is still averaging under seven yards per throw. This is his second great game of the year. The Packers rushing defense has been impenetrable, now yielding a league best 55 yards per game. Their pass defense has been a giant sieve, leaking passing yardage to in all directions. Add Julio Jones to the mix along with solid TE Tony Gonzalez and the Packers could find themselves in trouble. In both games last year, Greg Jennings managed over 100 yards receiving but failed to score. The Packers were limited from making big plays, and it was only Ryan's interceptions that truly turned the playoff contest into a Packer victory. The Falcons defense features stud Curtis Lofton, who is both a tackling machine, as well as a pass defender. Opposing TEs have done almost nothing against Atlanta this year, managing one meager touchdown, and that was by Chicago's Matt Spaeth in Week 1. Atlanta's offensive line must keep the sack-happy Clay Matthews in check and keep Ryan upright, a task they have failed to do thus far as he's been sacked 13 times. This means Mike Smith will be tempted to pass more on early downs, and try to use the pass to open up the run. I'm taking Atlanta at home.
FALCONS 30, PACKERS 27
I'll post my Top Five list as soon as the injury picture becomes more clear, hopefully tomorrow after the holiday.