Arizona Cardinals @ Atlanta Falcons
The Cardinals are in the midst of a five game swoon after starting the season 4-0. Offensive line play has been the team's biggest weakness, as the team ranks last in the league in rushing yards per game (76.2) and have also surrendered a whopping 41 sacks. The defense has played well, as they are surrendering just 19.2 points and 320.7 yards per game, and linebacker Daryl Washington has played well enough to have his name in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation.
The Falcons weren't able to stay undefeated, as they fell to their arch nemesis, the Saints, this past Sunday. New Orleans simply came up with too many big plays, and Atlanta's running game couldn't get much of anything going (46 yards on 18 carries). While Atlanta is still an elite team, the lack of a running game has forced them to throw A LOT, as Matt Ryan attempted 52 passes in the game. Perhaps even more concerning is the Falcons allowed pass-happy New Orleans to rack up 148 yards rushing on 29 carries.
Atlanta is a team with its faults, but I expect a big-time bounce-back this week, as the Cardinals can't do much of anything offensively.
Prediction: Falcons 24, Cardinals 10.
Cleveland Browns @ Dallas Cowboys
The Browns have alternated wins and losses the past five weeks, and in their losses were competitive against the Giants (led 14-0 early in the game), Colts (17-13) and Ravens (25-15). Offensive coordinator Brad Childress stated earlier in the week that the team will decide whether quarterback Brandon Weeden is Cleveland's long-term starter. While Weeden has taken some lumps this season, he's also played well in several games, including throwing for 322 yards and two touchdowns against the Bengals earlier in the season.
Dallas got a much-needed win against the equally disappointing Eagles to keep their playoff hopes alive. Despite not putting up big passing numbers, Tony Romo threw two touchdown passes and didn't turn the ball over, which he's struggled with mightily in 2012. The Cowboys' defense was strong in the win, allowing Philadelphia to convert on just one of ten third downs faced.
There is too much talent in Big D for the Cowboys to struggle as much as they have this season. The Browns rookies are solid, but the win over Philadelphia could be the catalyst for a mid-season turnaround.
Prediction: Cowboys 26, Browns 13.
Green Bay Packers @ Detroit Lions
Fresh off a bye week, Green Bay will also be seeing the return of wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who has missed time this season with a balky ankle. The Packers offense has been strong even without Nelson and Greg Jennings, as James Jones (462 yards, 8 TD) and Randall Cobb (500 yards, 6 TD) have stepped up in their absence. The defense is much improved this season, as they are allowing 20.8 points (9th) and are tied for second in the NFL in sacks (28).
The Lions have been Jekyll and Hyde this season, as the team typically goes as quarterback Matthew Stafford does. Outside of a 17-point win over Jacksonville, the teams' greatest margin of victory is just four points (against both St. Louis and Seattle). The passing defense hasn't surrendered many yards (213.4), but will need to create more big plays, as they've surrendered 15 touchdown passes against just five interceptions.
The Packers are well within reach of a division crown after a slow start, and Aaron Rodgers should have a big day if the offensive line can keep him upright.
Prediction: Packers 31, Lions 23.
Cincinnati Bengals @ Kansas City Chiefs
Andy Dalton had his way with the Giants secondary, and the defense was all over Eli Manning in a 31-13 drubbing. Receiver A.J. Green has recorded a touchdown in eight straight games, and the second-year pro has quickly become one of the elite receivers in the game. The running game has been ugly for the Bengals, as BenJarvus Green-Ellis is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry. Defensively, the front four does a great job of generating pressure on the quarterback, led by Geno Atkins' 7 sacks, while undrafted rookie Vontaze Burfict cracked the starting lineup and has made an impact (63 tackles, 1.0 sacks).
Kansas City is in total disarray, and the offense has been absolutely terrible at taking care of the football, as they have averaged over three turnovers per game. Jamaal Charles (734 rush yards, 3 TD) and Dwayne Bowe (626 yards, 3 TD) have been the lone bright spots on offense. Defensively, the team hasn't been as bad as their record and points allowed might indicate, as they're allowing just 336.6 yards per game (11th in NFL). The problem has been an inability to force turnovers, and the pass rush outside of edge rushers Justin Houston (7.0 sacks) and Tamba Hali (5.0 sacks) have managed just two sacks.
The Bengals have been hit-and-miss in 2012, but the strong Bengals pass rush and the passing game should help put them over the top.
Prediction: Bengals 23, Chiefs 14.
New York Jets @ St. Louis Rams
The Jets were absolutely throttled by Seattle last week, and yet the team still insists on sticking with Mark Sanchez. For all of Tim Tebow's faults as a passer, I have a hard time believing that Sanchez is that big of a difference, as Sanchez's 52.0% completion percentage is pretty horrendous by NFL standards. The issue has become so divisive that offensive Matt Slauson intentionally called Tebow an "athlete" instead of a "quarterback".
The Rams played a terrific game against the 49ers in San Francisco, and were a couple of silly overtime penalties away from walking away with a win instead of a tie. The team will need to utilize a heavy dose of the running game, and the combination of Steven Jackson and Daryl Richardson should find some success against a Jets team that's surrendering 145 yards per game on the ground. The pass rush has been strong this season, as Robert Quinn and Chris Long have combined for 13.5 sacks.
Neither passing game will light the world on fire, but the Rams have been playing better football of late, and Danny Amendola will help St. Louis win this one.
Prediction: Rams 17, Jets 13.
Philadelphia Eagles @ Washington Redskins
This game will mark rookie quarterback Nic Foles' first NFL start. Foles entered last week's game in relief of an injured Michael Vick, and performed fairly well against an elite defense. While Foles is the antithesis of Vick in terms of athleticism, he is much more of a true pocket passer. Whoever the quarterback is, the beat-up Eagles offensive line will need to keep them upright, as they've given up 27 sacks. Defensively, Nnamdi Asomugha hasn't been the same player as he was when he joined the Eagles as a free agent, and could find himself cut should Philadelphia decide to reshuffle the roster and coaching staff. Jason Babin (3.5 sacks) has also taken a step back, as has the pass rush as a whole.
The Redskins hope to end a three game skid, and should be prepared for the Eagles after their bye week. Robert Griffin III seems to be a forgotten man as Washington has slid, but still has the best completion percentage and TD-INT ratio among rookie quarterbacks, as well as the most rushing yards (529). The pass defense has been a big concern, as they've allowed 20 TD passes and over 300 yards per game through the air.
The Eagles will likely try and rally around Foles, and have better playmakers on both sides of the ball. Despite being burned by Philadelphia this season, I think LeSean McCoy will be more prominently featured to take pressure off the rookie.
UPSET OF THE WEEK!!!!!! Prediction: Eagles 24, Redskins 23.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Carolina Panthers
The Buccaneers offense has been tremendous of late, and the team ranks third in the league in scoring. Doug Martin has continued to produce in a big way, and the team has won four of their past five games. Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams are one of the better receiving tandems in the league, combining for 1,337 yards and 11 touchdowns. Defensively, the run defense continues to be stout, and while they allow a lot of passing yards, they've also intercepted 15 passes.
Carolina got throttled by Denver last week, and will need to protect Cam Newton better than they did in that game (seven sacks allowed). Despite giving Jonathan Stewart the lion's share of carries, there's been little difference in the production from their running game. Steve Smith also hasn't made the same kind of plays he did in a bounce-back 2011 campaign. Defensively, the Panthers' strong pass rush has been able to protect a very vulnerable secondary, and are led by the front four combination of Charles Johnson (8.5 sacks), Greg Hardy (6.5) and Dwan Edwards (5.0). Carolina has actually hung tough with a lot of tough teams, including one-possession losses to the Bucs, Falcons, Seahawks, Cowboys and Bears.
The Buccaneers are playing better football, and if a couple of 50/50 plays had gone their way, could easily be 6-3. I just have a gut feeling the lack of a Buccaneers pass rush and a young secondary will have Carolina come out on top.
UPSET OF THE WEEK PART TWO!!!!!! Prediction: Panthers 27, Bucs 24.
Jacksonville Jaguars @ Houston Texans
Just not much to like for Jacksonville in this game, as the Texans defense should run roughshod over a largely anemic Jaguars offense, while Houston's offense is too efficient and well-rounded. Expect a big game from Arian Foster.
Predictions: Texans 34, Jaguars 10.
New Orleans Saints @ Oakland Raiders
The Saints have played their way back into the mix for a Wild Card spot after beginning the season 0-4, and have been better utilizing their running game, averaging 144 yards per game on the ground the past two weeks. Interim head coach Joe Vitt has helped the offense find balance, which has taken some of the pressure and predictability out of their offense. Defensively, the team has been getting after the quarterback, but still rank last in the league in yards allowed.
Oakland put forth a putrid defensive effort against the Ravens as their road woes continued. If there has been a bright spot for the Raiders this season, it's been the much improved play of quarterback Carson Palmer (302.6 yards/game, 15 TD, 9 INT). 2011 was largely a lost season for Palmer, as he stayed home instead of reporting to the Bengals, and looked out of place after being traded to Oakland, but the increased chemistry with receivers Denarius Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey has paid off.
Were Darren McFadden healthy, I might have picked the Raiders, as the Saints have a porous run defense. The potential return of running back Darren Sproles should be a boon to an already stellar New Orleans offense, which should find little trouble moving the ball.
Prediction: Saints 31, Raiders 20.
San Diego Chargers @ Denver Broncos
Norv Turner will likely be out as head coach of the Chargers this season, and Philip Rivers' struggles in 2011 have carried over to this season as well. Running back Ryan Matthews has yet to produce like the team expected he would when he was their first round pick in 2010, while tight end Antonio Gates has had to battle through injuries again this season. The team also misses Vincent Jackson, though Malcolm Floyd has been solid as the team's new #1 receiver.
Denver is in control of the division, and looked terrific against Carolina last week, and has taken care of business against teams that they should. Their three losses are by an average of 7.3 points to the Falcons, Texans and Patriots, not exactly anything to be ashamed of. Manning's historically great bounce-back season continues to impress, and will likely be able to put up big numbers against a Chargers team that struggles to rush the passer.
These two teams are going in completely opposite directions this season, and Rivers' head-scratching decision-making will prove costly.
Prediction: Broncos 27, Chargers 17.
Indianapolis Colts @ New England Patriots
A little bit of math here for you. Andrew Luck & Tom Brady + Two secondaries that are vulnerable against the pass = a very exciting and high-scoring football game. Luck has been far from a typical rookie, and is on pace to throw for nearly 4,700 yards on the season. Brady has also continued to add to his Hall of Fame career, tossing 18 touchdowns against just three interceptions. The two defenses have combined to give up 34 touchdown passes against 14 interceptions this season, and both have just middling pass rushes.
The biggest factor may be the skill position players, as the Patriots receiving corps and running backs are much more versatile and talented overall than the Colts'. Andrew Luck will likely put up some solid numbers, but their defense will have to pick their poison between Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd in the passing game, or Stevan Ridley, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen on the ground.
Prediction: Patriots 34, Colts 27.
Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers
The Ravens put it on and ran it up against the Raiders this past week, winning 55-20. Joe Flacco may not be a top ten quarterback in this league, but he's played solid football most of this season, racking up 13 touchdowns against 7 interceptions for an 88.3 quarterback rating. Torrey Smith has continued to build on a solid rookie campaign, and the tight end duo of Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta have combined for 48 catches and 520 yards. Defensively the team is allowing 132 yards per game on the ground, but is surrendering less than 4.0 yards per attempts. The pass rush still needs to improve, as they've racked up just 16 sacks.
The Steelers have been on a roll in recent weeks, but could be in some trouble after losing Ben Roethlisberger to injury in their overtime win against the Chiefs. The rib injury is one similar to what Drew Bledsoe sustained for the Patriots that began the legend of Tom Brady, so Big Ben may miss significant time. Also out this week is Antonio Brown, still nursing a high ankle sprain suffered in their win against the Giants two weeks ago. The defense hasn't got great production in either turnovers or sacks, but play such fundamentally sound football that they still have the league's best defense in total yards and passing yards.
This is a huge game for both teams, but the loss of Big Ben will be too much to overcome, even with the impending return of running back Rashard Mendenhall.
Prediction: Ravens 20, Steelers 19.
Chicago Bears @ San Francisco 49ers
Chicago's defense continued it's strong play, but an injury to Jay Cutler and merely average tackling cost them the game against the Texans last week. Jason Campbell was signed this offseason as an insurance policy for Cutler, as the Caleb Hanie experiment ended with disastrous results after Cutler went down last season.
San Francisco was fortunate to escape their game against the Rams with a tie, as they were largely outplayed by a scrappy St. Louis team. San Francisco may well be turning over the offense to second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick as Alex Smith is questionable with a concussion. Kaepernick is a great scrambling quarterback, but is still a work in progress with his throwing mechanics.
Both defenses are tremendous, and while Campbell isn't anything to write home about, I trust him more in this game than Kaepernick, and the Bears defense is playing better than San Francisco's right now.
Prediction: Bears 20, 49ers 16.
Last Week: 8-5 (.615)
Season: 85-50 (.629)