Friday, November 4, 2011



We’re at the halfway point of the season and the Bills lead the AFC East, and no, we haven’t time-warped back to 1992. Coming off a home win in Toronto (no one knows why they even designate home/away when they’re away), newly signed Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick may have little to do but offer a change of pace this week. The Jets and the ground have been like oil and water this year, with their rushing defense giving up 127 yards per game while their offense tallying under 93 per contest. Both those trends must change to defeat the Bills. Fred Jackson has had an MVP-like first half and put up 194 yards of total offense against the Redskins last week. Jackson will again have to key the offense in order to move the ball successfully, and set Fitzpatrick up for some play-action passes. The Jets secondary is likely to challenge Steve Johnson and David Nelson to beat them man-to-man in order to stop Jackson. However, one of their best cover linebackers, David Harris, is limited with an ankle sprain. Thus, Fitzpatrick should be able to look to the middle of the field for Scott Chandler, Jackson and slot man Naaman Roosevelt. Also keep an eye on C.J. Spiller, who has been lining up as a receiver in the newest packages for the Bills. Mark Sanchez won both his starts against Buffalo last year and is 3-1 all time against them. However, both games last year featured breakout rushing games by LaDainian Tomlinson and Joe McKnight. At present it is Shonn Greene carrying the mail, and though he's improved, he's been inconsistent to say the least. Buffalo does not pose a huge pass-rushing threat, though they levied nine sacks on John Beck last Sunday. However, they entered that game with just four sacks for the year. Sanchez is a much improved quarterback with an overall QB rating of 83. His last three games have all topped that mark, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio is 12:6. I expect Rex Ryan’s game plan to attempt to involve the far-too-quiet Santonio Holmes to move the chains, with Dustin Keller and Plaxico Burress getting some goal line looks. Bye week malaise has been an issue this year, and the Bills will be glad to be back in their home confines with Fred Jackson putting in another fine performance.

BILL 24, JETS 20

One trend worth noting is that in each of the Buccaneers wins this year, one of their running backs has had over 50 yards and touchdown OR had a minimum of 70 yards rushing. When they have failed to reach those benchmarks, the result has been less than desirable. In only one of those losses did they manage to score more than 20 points. Having lost Earnest Graham to an Achilles tendon tear, LeGarrette Blount returns to play a bigger role, possibly being a three-down back this week. The Bucs rush only 38 percent of the time but expect that number to be much higher this week, as this team doesn’t want a shootout with New Orleans in the bayou. Josh Freeman has struggled with accuracy all season. While Mike Williams leads the team in receptions, he has been a year-long disappointment posting just two scores and 31 receptions. Arrelious Benn has been coming on as of late, raising his yards per catch to a team leading 16.5. However, this game rests with Blount and the defense. Drew Brees has uncharacteristically turned the ball over five times in their two recent losses. Expect the Saints to come out firing, attempt to grab a big lead, and keep on firing from there against Tampa Bay’s 26th ranked pass defense. In Tampa Bay's three losses, opposing TE’s have scored four touchdowns, and Jimmy Graham put up 124 yards against this Tampa Bay defense three weeks ago. One interesting stat; in all but one of their victories this year, Darren Sproles has had more than 35 yards rushing. He only had one rush against the Bucs in Week 6, but that one went for 16 yards. With Mark Ingram still nursing a sore heel, expect Sproles to see a handful of carries as well.


At 0-8, not much can go worse for the Colts. Their offense has remained steadily average, with Curtis Painter having a brisk learning curve. At the same time their defense has steadily declined, falling from 28th versus the rush five weeks ago to 31st, and from 20th to 22nd against the pass. According to Pro Football Weekly, the Colts are only the second team in the past 30 years to allow 23 points or greater in their first eight games. The Colts line has yielded 14 sacks to opponents, with Painter being downed nine times in six games. Last year, for the entire season the Colts gave up 16 sacks. Joseph Addai returns with his 4.4 yards per carry average, but he’ll face the 7th ranked rush defense in Atlanta. Meanwhile, the only receiver that has thrived under Painter’s run has been Pierre Garcon, who leads the team in all receiving categories including catches, yards per catch, touchdowns and yards after the catch. Matt Ryan has regressed mightily this season across the board, though if there’s any team that would be good for a refresher course, it’s the Colts. It could simply be his offensive line, as Ryan has been sacked 18 times in just eight games, whereas he was sacked 23 all of last season. Julio Jones was limited in practice, but if available, could certainly help alleviate double coverage that Roddy White has seen a good part of the year. Physical receivers have plagued Indy’s secondary so White could figure again in the red zone where Atlanta is among the league best. However, you are likely to see Michael Turner, who is averaging 27 carries per game, touch the ball close to 30 more times. I don’t like Tony Gonzalez as much this game, as Indy’s linebackers have good speed as well as their safeties. Sans a bunch of turnovers, a Bye week coma and a tsunami, Turner should have a huge day and push Indianapolis to 0-9.


Both defenses give up 23.1 points per game, but where Seattle falters is the meager 15.6 points per game they average on offense. Tarvaris Jackson’s return last week from a pectoral problem had an instant impact on the Seahawks, and in just a partial game he set a career high mark for 323 yards against a Bengals pass defense that was ranked fifth best in the league. Prior to Sunday’s loss the Seahawks offense averaged 32 points for previous two games. It isn’t ironic that a healthy Sidney Rice has added to that cause, as Rice has two 100-yard outings in the five games he's played. Marshawn Lynch has scored touchdowns in three straight games, and Pete Carroll would certainly like to get him going here, especially when you consider that Seattle has run less plays than only two other teams. Their lack of sustained drives has blemished them with a league-worst 24:30 possession per game. At 3-4 Dallas can hardly celebrate. The offensive line has struggled to protect Tony Romo, though they’ve given up just four sacks inside the confines of Cowboys Stadium. DeMarco Murray has leapfrogged the injured Felix Jones but was left to be a bystander most of last week. With injuries depleting the Hawks secondary, Jason Garrett may have to stop protecting Romo and open up the offense.  The Cowboys have attempted just five passing plays longer than 30 yards to this. Last year that number was 16 attempts, and the year prior, 31.  This game will be different, and if Garrett takes a page out of the Cincinnati playbook, I expect Miles Austin to finally have a big game, and Dez Bryant to find paydirt as well.


If only Matt Moore could play an entire four quarters. Statistically, Moore plays worse the longer he’s in there, as his three fourth quarter interceptions attest to, as well as his 44.2 passer rating. Now he leads the winless Dolphins to Kansas City, one of the loudest stadiums in the country with one of the league's hottest teams.  Reggie Bush comes off his second best rushing performance in his career, but Miami is also hoping that rookie Daniel Thomas can return from his lingering hamstring problem so Bush can he do what he does best; catch passes. Either way, they would prefer to lift some pressure off Moore’s shoulders and keep the Chiefs from making them one-dimensional, something the Chiefs have done to team during their recent win streak. In their four straight wins, the Chiefs haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher and have allowed just two rushing touchdowns. In their three losses, they allowed two 100-yard rushers and five rushing touchdowns. Matt Cassel hasn’t exactly been stellar this year, though a surprising Jackie Battle has given Cassel a little more piece of mind with his 4.7 per carry average. The Dolphins 27th rush defense make Battle a good play at home this week, as Cassel has yet to attempt 25 passes in a game, and has five games under 20. The Chiefs will continue to ride Battle, mixing in Dexter McCluster here and there. Dwayne Bowe has 17 receptions and 32 targets the past three games with two scores. Jonathan Baldwin has also been coming on as of late with eight targets of his own resulting five catches and a score last week against San Diego. With Miami being minus-8 on the year in turnovers, I see Kansas City taking this one in a low-scoring affair.


The 49ers make yet another brutal cross country trek, their fourth long distance journey this season, but hey, who’s counting?  Clearly, the schedule makers weren’t. Amazingly, Jim Harbaugh is 3-0 in the far east, and now he takes his pound and look-what-I-found offense to Washington.  Harbaugh has everyone buying into his plan; just ask NT Isaac Sopoaga and LT Joe Staley.  Both reported eligible on multiple plays in Cleveland and both caught passes in the middle of the field. The 49ers are conventional and unconventional at the same time, literally running over people and tossing in an occasional surprise. That game plan won’t change much against the Redskins, who have fallen ill recently on defense, dropping out of the top ten against the pass and rush in the last three weeks. Now giving up just over 120 ground yards per game, Mike Shanahan’s going to get a triple tablespoon of Frank Gore. Gore has faced Washington twice and averaged 7.35 yards per carry, and scored a rushing and receiving TD.  Braylon Edwards has returned to the lineup and has four red zone targets of the 14 he’s received in his three games, placing him behind Gore but ahead of all other receivers. The Redskins have confounded many, and adding running back Tashard Choice will now serve to confuse fantasy owners again.  Ryan Torain will get the start, but San Francisco is now the top rushing defense in the league and has remained consistent all season. John Beck has been better statistically than Rex Grossman, but that’s like saying a Pontiac has been better than an AMC.  Beck was sacked nine times last week, and has gone down 12 times in the two games he’s started. The Skins’ have to get back to basics; run the ball and stop the run. This feels like a trap game for a young team like the 49ers, but Harbaugh has this team focused and healthy.  Even with travel fatigue, the 49ers will take care of business on the legs of Frank Gore and their defense, which gives up just 15.3 points per game, the league least.


Don’t look now but the Brownies have won a few and are threatening to climb out of the cellar….well not really, but I love Major League and that was a slight homage to Bob Uecker. The Texans are 4-0 this year when rushing the ball 30 or more times (thanks PFW again) and if Gary Kubiak is concerned about Arian Foster wearing down he’s camouflaging it well.  Foster has two straight weeks posting over a hundred yards, and has carried the ball 58 times.  Foster has never faced Cleveland, but consider Cleveland’s pass defense is tied for tops in the league and lowly Chris Johnson of the Titans managed his only 100-yard performance against this Cleveland front seven,  Foster isn't about to slow down now.  Mary Kay Cabot reported early Friday both Peyton Hillis and Mohamed Massaquoi were on track to start Sunday, but Hillis aggravated his hamstring during Friday's practice and is now doubtful for Sunday (and you crazy board posters, he's not lying – this injury is killing any contract wishes he once dreamt of). Andre Johnson is also going to miss Sunday's game, leaving Kevin Walter as his most Matt Schaub's most reliable receiver. Most interesting stat, of Schaub’s 13 passing scores, Houston tight ends account for half. TE Joel Dreessen has three touchdowns (in the past two weeks) and Owen Daniels has 11 red zone targets and three touchdowns. The difference will be the trenches, and Cleveland’s offensive front has surrendered 14 sacks in October after giving up just three in September.  The Houston defense should rule, with Foster putting in a top five performance again.



Two teams facing quarterback and running back issues square off in the Coliseum. Willis McGahee will attempt to play with his surgically repaired broken hand, but will probably see less carries than Knowshon MorenoDarren McFadden still isn’t practicing, meaning Michael Bush will hold court against the Denver front seven. Taiwan Jones has gotten his reps for Oakland this week, but this is an important game the Raider must have after getting shut out by division rival Kansas City. Expect Bush to be your play this week. The biggest focus of this game will again be Tim Tebow, for both teams. I wrote in this week’s T&R that had Tebow’s first drive ended in a touchdown as it should have, last week’s ugly game against Detroit might not have been so ugly. It Tebow can slow down the game while speeding up his decisions, and run when appropriate, this could be a road win for Denver. Meanhwile Hue Jackson seems intent on rebuilding the Bengals in Oakland. After acquiring Carson Palmer via trade, the Raiders added T.J. Houshmandzadeh to their young receivers’ group. Palmer has had two extra weeks to learn the Oakland playbook, and will come into this game a different player than he was in Week 7. The Lions gashed the veteran Denver secondary for 263 yards at an 8.2 YPA. This included three passing touchdowns. Oakland has to keep Tebow in the pocket and pressure him into mistakes. Palmer should take what the Denver defense gives him, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see his old friend Houshmandzadeh with a TD grab.


The Bengals Cedric Benson returns to face the Titans, one of only two teams he has never played.  Benson has seen his yards per attempt decline as the season has moved on from 4.21 in September to 3.63 in October.  He has two 100–yard performances, and is averaging 19 yards per carry.  A.J. Green continues to be Andy Dalton’s most consistent target, particularly on deep routes, while Jerome Simpson appears and disappears as he’s prone to do. Jermaine Gresham is still questionable with his hamstring meaning that's one less needed target for Dalton. The Titans have seen their fortunes turn on the heels of two players: the loss of Kenny Britt in Week 3 and the loss of Chris Johnson’s ability to run at all. After two subpar games, Matt Hasselbeck rebounded with a strong outing against Indianapolis, though I’m not sure that pushes more faith in his direction. Jared Cook has yet to provide the offensive spark he’s supposedly capable of, and Cincinnati’s secondary is tied for ninth best in the league, surrendering just 212 yards per game.  Benson should see a strong number of carries, and when he scores, the Bengals are undefeated this year. He’ll give score and the Bengals will win on the road.



A.J. Feeley versus John Skelton. That's what we're looking at here folks, which means if this is your local game, a nap sounds pretty enticing.  With the Max Hall experiment over, Skelton will starts for only his fifth time.  He's managed just a 62.3 QB rating in the first four. His favorite target has been Larry Fitzgerald (and why wouldn't it be) to the tune of 41 targets in four games. Andre Roberts was his second favorite with 24 in that same four game span, while Early Doucet posted 12 in two games. Beanie Wells is likely to play, and unless St. Louis spun the universe on its head last week, he should get some quality yardage, even with a bad knee. Steven Jackson will no doubt be the focal point of the Cardinals, after shredding the Saints defense with a season-high 159 yards and two touchdowns. The Cardinals, who give up passing yards by the dozen, actually could force A.J. Feeley to throw, and would be wise to. Granted he's older and wise, but in 2007 when he last was a starting QB, the more Feeley threw, the worse he got. In fact his best QB rating was if he threw just under 20 passes. Expect the Cardinals to stack the box and zone blitz to confuse Feeley into committing turnovers and their line to continue to commit penalties. Brandon Lloyd has leapt to the forefront in terms of targets, as in his two games as a St. Louis Ram, Lloyd has seen 25 passes for 12 receptions and a touchdown. Whichever defense can stop the run wins this game, and in this case Jackson has seen success in the past against Arizona, including last year's 102 yard rushing performance with a touchdown. St. Louis wins two in a row.


What has happened to the vaunted Chargers offense? Questions continue to abound about Philip Rivers' health, yet his health is probably the only good news the Chargers offense has.  Most likely, it's not just one thing that is hurting the Chargers on offense, but multiple.  First and foremost, Rivers has been sacked 17 times all year, but nine times in the past three games. The Chargers are also a slow starting team. They tend to play their best aerial football in the fourth quarter, where Rivers achieves a QB rating over 90. In the first quarter, that rating is closer to 65. Ironically, the Chargers ability to run the ball decreases to a miserable 2.8 yards per carry average in the fourth quarter. Thus, they become one dimensional in the final quarter, often when the game is still in question. The loss of LG Kris Dielman to a concussion recently, paired with their best receiver Vincent Jackson's ongoing leg and hamstring problems, not to mention the loss of Mike Tolbert, Antonio Gates and even Malcom Floyd have left this team in tatters. Jackson has just 7 receptions for 98 yards in the past three games. Still, the Chargers are making games close. Mike Tolbert returns just in time as Ryan Mathews has strained his groin pull and is doubtful for Sunday. Curtis Brinkley suffered a concussion but has been cleared to play. Thus it'll be a new mix of runners again for the Bolts, while Rivers hopes to finds Gates for the majority of passing yards.  Floyd is likely out meaning if Jackson can run well, he'll get a few targets downfield.  On the other side of the ball, the scary thing about the Packers is they are basically the same team home or away, first or fourth quarter…this team is just plain consistent. Aaron Rodgers has 10 passing scores on the road and 10 at home. Don't expect much rushing from either of these teams, as passing is what they do best, and Green Bay's Ryan Grant and James Starks have just one touchdown between the two of them. John Kuhn gets all the glory, having scored three times, twice on the ground. For San Diego, Mathews hasn't scored since Week 3, and Tolbert has been sporadic between injuries. The Packers have been a fast-starting team and will assault San Diego secondary in an attempt to take control early. Greg Jennings and James Jones will get their shots, but I also expect Jermichael Finley to make an appearance as Quentin Jammer will give Jennings all he can handle. Eric Weddle will be left to deal with Finley, and as good as he is, Finley will be too much to handle. With San Diego's inability to pressure Rodgers (13 sacks for the year), the only saving grace will be the Packers sluggish pass defense, and that might give Rivers a decent day. Still, I'd take the Green Bay defense, and expect a big day from Rodgers and the receivers.


Eli Manning will be without two primary weapons when he face New England Sunday afternoon. Both Ahmad Bradshaw (game-time decision) and Hakeem Nicks (doubtful) missed Friday's practice. That leaves Brandon Jacobs and Danny Ware to improve the Giants 30th ranked rushing offense, and Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham to exploit New England's league worst pass defense. And if there ever was a team that knew how to throw Tom Brady's timing off, it's the Giants. The last two times these teams met was in Super Bowl XLI, and the Giants sacked Brady five times while pressuring him into ill-timed throws. The Giants lead the league with 26 sacks, and although Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora are healthy, sack leader Jason Pierre-Paul missed practice Friday with concussion-like symptoms. There is upset possibility in this game, and if the Giants were completely healthy, I'd like their chances. Will Bill Belichick give up the no-huddle against the Giants, slow the game down and rush BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Kevin Faulk to victory?  It's certainly the smart way, as the Giants are 28th against the run giving up 130 yards per game. However, the Patriots rarely lose at home, and the difference with this Patriots team compared to the one in '08 is their pair of strong tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. With the Giants committed to sending extra rushers, one of these two will exploit the vacant hole in the middle of the field, and no other quarterback has been as solid reading blitz coverages as Tom Brady the last few years. I like Green-Ellis for 90 yards and a score, Hernandez for a lot of yards, and Gronkowski TD. Deion Branch has also come on as of late, garnering 20 targets the last three games. He's good for a deep attempt or two Sunday.



Earlier this season, Joe Flacco supposedly lifted one monkey off his back by soundly defeating the Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium 35-7, then proceeded to put another one on his back by continuing on into his worst season to date. Really, the regular season monkey was an illusion, as during the season Flacco had had his way with the Steelers before. It's the post season where Flacco hasn't been able to solve them, throwing just one touchdown and four interceptions at Heinz Field and while garnering a ratings as low as 18.2.  I wrote back in September that the first game where they demolished my Steelers was the most complete game I'd seen the Ravens play, and that was never a good thing in the first week of the season. Now the Ravens return to Heinz field with the division tiebreak on the line, and the Steelers owning a one-half game lead. Last year, Ray Rice couldn't get it going against the Pittsburgh defense, carrying 17 total times for all of 52 yards and zero scores. This year, he ate them single-handedly with 107 yards and a score on the ground and by air. The Steelers are fresh off a confidence-building win, where they challenged the Patriots receivers and pushed them around. They won't find that as easy with Anquan Boldin and budding second receiver Torrey Smith. Both are over six feet and over 200 pounds each, not quite the likes of Wes Welker and Deion Branch. Rice will key the offense on the ground, but I believe Torrey Smith will play a huge part in this game if the Ravens are to win. The Steelers find themselves returning James Harrison, but losing sack leader Lamar Woodley. Not a fair trade as Harrison struggled in the first game against LT Bryant McKinnie. However, since then sources say McKinnie has struggled. Just last week, Arizona sacked Flacco three times and forced two fumbles from him, one of which they recovered. The Jags also got Flacco three times. Thus, six of the sixteen sacks Baltimore has given up have come in the last two weeks. The Steelers have thrived on pressuring Flacco but will only be able to do so if their run defense can push back Rice. Ben Roethlisberger's 50 pass attempts last week ushers in a new era for the Steelers. They can actually be a pass-first team and win. Don't look for the Steelers to necessarily slow down against the Ravens. I expect them to challenge Baltimore and even use the no-huddle in an effort to tire wily veterans Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.  Roethlisberger committed five turnovers in the first game. He has committed one in the past two. Expect it to be a tight contest with Big Ben having to make some plays out of the pocket. The Steelers will barely eke this one out in a revenge game.



Philadelphia freedom is ringing once again after the Eagles mashed the Cowboys in a way no one expected. LeSean McCoy delivered 185 yards on the ground and Michael Vick didn't turn the ball over in a lopside 34-7 win.  The same will be needed Sunday, as Chicago held McCoy under 60 yards last year at Soldier Field, while Jay Cutler threw four touchdown strikes, none of which went to Matt Forte. This year, Cutler has protected the ball slightly better, even while getting sacked 21 times. The game will come down to Matt Forte, plain and simple. In last year's contest, Forte rushed for over 100 yards rushing against Philadelphia and Chicago ended up the victor. The previous two contests, the Eagles held him to just 34 and 43 yards respectively.  Expect Forte to see 25-30 carries if possible against a Philadelphia rushing defense that was ranked 23rd going into the Cowboy game but now is 19th, yielding 118 yards per game.  If Forte gets that many touches, Chicago will control the clock and keep Philly's offense off the field.  If Forte falters or goes down with an injury, Jay Cutler will be challenged to find targets open against the strong Philadelphia secondary, even with Earl Bennett returning from injury. The Eagles are rolling, have a 45 percent third down efficiency percentage compated to Chicago's 30 percent, and Vick is back in sync with not only Jeremy Maclin, but with Brent Celek as well. Forte should have a good game, but I'm expecting an early deep strike to DeSean Jackson to set the tone for the night. I'm sticking with the Eagles at home.