Game of the week
The line: Packers by 3½
The story: A year ago this was about Brett Favre going home. Now it's about Brett Favre finding a home. The Minnesota quarterback seemed lost, disinterested, out of sync, you name it, before Randy Moss arrived, and the Vikings rediscovered their passing game. Now Favre looks comfortable within the offense again, and that's not good for a Green Bay team crippled by injuries and stuck in a two-game tailspin.
The Packers are favored here, but don't be fooled. Minnesota is gaining strength while the Packers keep subtracting starters. Maybe Aaron Rodgers can produce a huge game to score his first defeat of Favre, but I'm skeptical. First, the Vikings' pass defense is fairly sound. Second, Minnesota has something no one else in the NFC North does, and I'm not talking about Tuesday séances with NFL security. I'm talking about a running game. Adrian Peterson makes the Vikings one of the most well-balanced teams out there, and with Favre's play steadily improving Minnesota will be hard to ignore.
That's why this game is so pivotal. Green Bay needs it to stop the bleeding. Minnesota needs it to keep moving forward. And both need it to stay with division front-runner Chicago. The Packers should have linebacker Clay Matthews back, and nobody this year has been better at getting to the quarterback. I mention that because getting to Favre is vital to Green Bay's chances.
A year ago he shredded the Pack for four touchdowns at Lambeau Field and three in Minnesota. Know how many times he was sacked? Zilch. There were only three games last season where he wasn't sacked, and two were against the Packers.
That must change. It can, and I'll tell you why: Minnesota doesn't do a great job of protecting its quarterback. Forget the 13 sacks Favre has absorbed this season. He has been hit, hammered and nailed, and rewind the videotape to last week's defeat of Dallas for evidence. For Green Bay to win this one, it must contain Peterson, force the Packers to throw and then get to Favre -- forcing turnovers in the process. If the Packers fail, you can cue Bruce Springsteen's I'm Goin' Down for the ride home.
Something to consider: Moss has 14 receiving touchdowns, including at least one in his past six starts, and seven 100-yard games in 14 games against Green Bay.
Three games I'd like to see
The line: Tennessee by 3½
The story: Forget about Vince Young's availability. I want to know if Michael Vick starts ... in two weeks. This game might provide a clue, though Eagles coach Andy Reid has said Vick will return to the lineup when he recovers from a severe rib injury. But Reid said the same thing about Kevin Kolb after he bowed out in the season opener, and look what happened.
|Chris Johnson seeks his fifth 100-yard game of 2010, ahead of his '09 pace. (Getty Images)|
Kolb has been terrific -- especially in last weekend's defeat of Atlanta -- but he's young and inexperienced. Vick is not. Moreover, he was playing the best football of his life before he was sidelined. So this might be Kolb's last appearance for some time, and good luck, Kevin. Tennessee is a tough, physical and intimidating opponent that can be brutal on quarterbacks, and I call Jacksonville's David Garrard to the witness stand.
The Titans drove him from Monday night's game, then buried his successor Trent Edwards. The Titans lead the league in sacks and are tied for second in interceptions. But opponents are also completing 65 percent of their passes and averaging 231 yards per game. That suggests that if Kolb can escape the pressure he'll find success down the field.
Nevertheless, I'll take Tennessee's front four against the Eagles' pass protection, which means Kolb might be squeezed into hurried throws. Until now he has done a good job of avoiding the critical mistake, but Tennessee thrives on turnovers (its 14 are tied for third).
Tennessee also lives on the running of Chris Johnson, who has four 100-yard games already and is off to a better start than in 2009. The Eagles were effective against Michael Turner last weekend, but this is not Michael Turner. This is a jet-propelled transport, waiting to bust another 50-yard run. Vince Young isn't the issue here; Chris Johnson is. If the Eagles can throw down some speed bumps, they could prevail.
Something to consider: Vince Young is 12-2 vs. NFC opponents, and the Titans have won their past 11 vs. the NFC.
The line: Steelers by 3½
The story: If you don't have Pittsburgh as the top team in the league, my guess is the Steelers are no worse than second. I'll also guess that Miami isn't in your top 10, and maybe your top 15, because while the Dolphins are unbeaten on the road they can't win at home. All of that, then, should make this an easy call ... except it's not. Trust me, there will be nothing easy about this game for Pittsburgh.
While Ben Roethlisberger looked decent last weekend against Cleveland, that was Cleveland. There will be an adjustment for Big Ben that runs another two or three weeks, and that means there could be problems solving the league's ninth-ranked defense. But it's not the Miami defense that will determine the outcome; it's Pittsburgh's, and nobody is better at forcing turnovers (they lead the league with 15).
The Steelers don't just beat you; they beat you down. Opponents are averaging one touchdown a game against them, and if that's what Miami produces the Dolphins are cooked. They will have trouble running against Pittsburgh, and they will have trouble passing against them ... and they better not make the mistakes they committed against New England because that will finish them. Look for this one to be low scoring, with the Dolphins hoping to hold on by minimizing mistakes and maximizing their running game.
Something to consider: The Dolphins lead the league in fewest penalties with 21.
The line: Chargers by 3½
The story: Antonio Gates is hurt. Malcom Floyd is hurt. Legedu Naanee is hurt. Ryan Mathews is hurt. Nate Kaeding is hurt. Geez, the San Diego Chargers look more like a casting call for House than they do a football team. Yet they're favored against one of the best franchises and one of the best quarterbacks in the business, and my only question is: Is this a misprint? No, this is critics sounding a wakeup call for an underachieving club that should be better, much better, than a sad 2-4.
|Tom Brady is 4-2 vs. the Chargers, but just 2-2 in the regular season. (Getty Images)|
So what? So this is a New England club that got Miami's special teams coach fired after his unit suffered a Monday night meltdown. That means that if I'm Steve Crosby, the Chargers' special teams coach, I'm wary. OK, change that. I'm nervous.
The Chargers absolutely, positively must start winning, and this is as good a place as any. They stunk against St. Louis and they stunk against Oakland but now they're home and expect the natives to be restless. They're tired of tortoise-like starts, and they should be. This is the fourth straight season the Chargers have lost three of their first five games, except now they've lost four of their first six -- and to whom? Of the six quarterbacks who beat them, David Garrard ranks the highest at 19th in passer ratings, and the Bolts intercepted him four times.
Now they face Tom Brady, and cue the firing squad. Brady is 4-2 against the Chargers, including two playoff wins. He doesn't have Randy Moss and he doesn't have much of a running game, but he does have two rookie tight ends who will give San Diego fits. The Chargers historically struggle covering tight ends, and guarantee they struggle with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.
But that's OK because the Patriots' secondary will struggle with Philip Rivers. Yes, some of his best weapons are sidelined and the Chargers haven't found their running game, but Rivers will find holes in a porous secondary and a pass defense that is better than it was four weeks ago but still not good enough to take New England to the top.
Something to consider: Under Norv Turner, the Chargers are 20-6 at home.
Monday night lights
The line: Cowboys by 3½
The story: The Big D in Dallas stands for Doomsday, which is what it will be if the Cowboys don't get their act together. This is a must-win game for one of these teams, and here's a clue: It's not the Giants. Dallas has a star-studded roster that was supposed to take the Cowboys to the top of the NFC East, but look where they are now ... deep in the heart of the division ... and I can't imagine that makes for pleasant dinner conversation in the Jerry Jones household. Nevertheless, Jones stands by his team and his coaching staff and hopes they put him in a Dallas Super Bowl, which they won't if something drastic doesn't happen and soon.
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That's why this looks like a victory waiting to happen. You heard me. Granted, Dallas is a mess and the Giants are beginning to look like a legitimate playoff threat. But I believe there's an urgency in Dallas that there isn't in New York, and I say that compels the Cowboys to play their best football of the year. That was supposed to happen last week, and it did not. But it absolutely, positively must against an opponent that has won four of its past five against the Cowboys.
In those games, Eli Manning has nine touchdown passes and two interceptions, and good luck trying to get the Cowboys to force turnovers. They have an NFL-low four this season. But the Giants aren't about Manning; they're about an offense that has the balance Dallas covets. They can run. They can pass. They can block. They can toss helmets.
The Cowboys can pass, but they can commit a raft of stupid mistakes, too. The boneheaded gaffes must stop and the running must begin. Otherwise, start the countdown on Wade Phillips' coaching career.
Something to consider: Tony Romo has passer ratings of 100 or better in four of his past five starts vs. the Giants and aims for his third straight game against them with three or more touchdown passes.
Crummy game of the week
The line: 49ers by 3½
The story: I'll make this one simple. One team has one victory, the other team has none. One team changed its offensive coordinator, the other changed its quarterback ... then changed him again. These are two clubs in search of a direction, and the popular notion is that San Francisco has too much talent for undermanned Carolina. Maybe it does. But the 49ers last week didn't look like division winners against Oakland, which is what team president Jed York predicted for the future. My only question: Which year was he talking about?
Look for both teams to try to control the ball with their running backs and hope their quarterbacks don't get in the way. Carolina has Steve Smith back for this game, but it's not Smith or the Panthers' passing attack (can we call it that?) that poses a problem for San Francisco. It's DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Stop them, and you keep Carolina guessing which comes first -- a victory or the next job offer for John Fox?
Something to consider: Over the past 22 games, the 49ers' defense ranks first in percentage of runs allowed of 4 or more yards (36.5) and third in forced fumbles (25).
Upset of the week
I'm going out on a limb here because the Panthers failed me two weeks ago when I liked them against Chicago. The Bears completed six passes, threw four interceptions and won by 17. But anything worth doing is worth overdoing, so I'm back for more punishment, believing that Matt Moore does here what he did when he relieved Jake Delhomme in the middle of last year.
Moore struggled early this season and his team was horrid. The only difference now is that it's no longer early. The Panthers are still dreadful, but so are their opponents. Plus, look at what the 49ers do when they go on the road: They're 0-3 this season, outscored 78-30. Heck, look at what they do when they go on the road under Mike Singletary: They're 4-12.
That's enough for me to give Carolina a chance. There won't be many this season, so take advantage while you can, guys.
Five guys I'd like to be
1. New Orleans QB Drew Brees: Not only is he 3-0 vs. Cleveland; he has won his past eight vs. the AFC (including the Super Bowl), with 15 touchdowns and four interceptions.
2. Tennessee RB Chris Johnson: He aims for his eighth straight 100-yard game against an NFC opponent and his fifth consecutive game against an NFC club with two rushing touchdowns.
3. New England WR Wes Welker: He tries for his third straight game vs. San Diego with eight or more catches.
4. Dallas LB DeMarcus Ware: He has six sacks, three forced fumbles and a fumble return for a TD in his past five games vs. the Giants.
5. Minnesota DE Jared Allen: He has 8½ sacks, one forced fumble and a safety in his past three starts against Green Bay.
Five best mano-a-manos
1. Washington QB Donovan McNabb vs. mechanics: Redskins coaches have been working on their quarterback's footwork this week to improve his accuracy, and what timing: McNabb returns to the city where he grew up and learned to play the game.
2. Tampa Bay DT Gerald McCoy vs. St. Louis QB Sam Bradford: The two were teammates at the University of Oklahoma, but they're teammates no more, and McCoy makes that clear. "If I can get to him," he said of Sunday's game, "I'm going to kill him." Before you dial 911, listen up. McCoy and Bradford were close friends in college, but McCoy never was allowed to touch the quarterback in practice. Now he is.
3. Cincinnati WR Chad Ochocinco vs. the Atlanta secondary: Ochocinco said he sent defensive backs boxes of T-shirts featuring the "Mad Chad" character from his forthcoming iPhone game. Falcons defensive backs said they haven't received them, and wide receiver Roddy White hopes they never do. "That's disrespectful," he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. No it's not. It's Chad.
4. Philadelphia coach Andy Reid vs. Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher: Wonder who the two longest-tenured head coaches in the business are? You're looking at them. Fisher is in his 17th season with the Titans; Reid is in his 12th with the Eagles.
5. Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer vs. Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino: Petrino was the head coach in Atlanta in 2007 and Zimmer was his defensive coordinator. But Petrino quit in midseason, and the coaching staff was dismantled shortly afterward. "He is a coward," Zimmer told the Cincinnati Enquirer this week. "Put that in quotes. When a coach quits in the middle of the year and ruins a bunch of people's families and doesn't have enough guts to at least finish out the year ... I am not part of that." Now I know why Zimmer's players love playing for the guy.
Five things that may only interest me
1. Fifty-one of 90 games this season (56.7 percent) have been decided by eight or fewer points, the second-highest percentage through Week 6 since the two-point conversion was adopted in 1994.
2. Sunday's game marks the 119th start for Favre at Lambeau Field, and it's a historic one. Favre is tied with John Elway for the league record for most starts (118) in one stadium. Elway holds the record for most wins (95) in one stadium, with Favre (90) second.
3. Chicago's Devin Hester has 13 kick and punt returns for touchdowns in his career. With another he sets an NFL record, surpassing Brian Mitchell, and with another score by punt return he ties Eric Metcalf at 10 for most in league history.
4. It's the NFC West at stake when Arizona meets Seattle, and not just because these two are tied at the top but because these two have won the past six division titles.
5. Kansas City has the league's best rushing differential, outgaining opponents on the ground an average of 73.8 yards per game (823-454). The Jets (69.2) are second and Pittsburgh (67.2) third.
4: Dallas takeaways, lowest in the league
5: Brandon Lloyd receptions of 40 or more yards
30.8: Average points per game for New England, best in the NFL
55: Consecutive kicks made by Chicago's Robbie Gould inside 40 yards
135.9: Favre's passer rating vs. Packers last season
12-2: Arizona's record in its past 14 NFC West games
19-4: Eli Manning's record in October, the best of any quarterback who began his career in the Super Bowl era
• Atlanta: Dome
• Baltimore: Mostly cloudy, high of 72
• Charlotte, N.C.: Partly cloudy, high of 77
• Chicago: Scattered thunderstorms, high of 70
• Kansas City, Mo.: Partly cloudy, high of 73
• Miami: Isolated thunderstorms, high of 84
• New Orleans: Dome
• Tampa, Fla.: Partly cloudy, high of 90
• Nashville, Tenn.: Isolated thunderstorms, high of 79
• Seattle: Rain, high of 53
• San Diego: Partly cloudy, high of 66
• Denver: Partly cloudy, high of 59
• Green Bay, Wis.: Showers, high of 56
Where we will be
• Pete Prisco will be in Miami to go helmet to helmet with Channing Crowder.
• I'll be in San Diego to take your orders at the Encinitas Café.
• Mike Freeman will be in Dallas to talk unhappy fans in off the ledge.