Game of the Week
The line: Eagles by 2½
The story: Pity the poor Colts. The deck is stacked against them. Start with a short work week, then throw in a raft of injuries, a road game, the return of Michael Vick and DeSean Jackson, their opponents coming off a bye and -- presto! -- you have the Eagles favored in a place where they have only won once this season.
Vick's return is the subplot here, with the quarterback returning from a rib injury suffered a month ago against Washington. Until then, he was playing the best football of his career. But he hasn't been seen since, so who knows what to expect Sunday? All I know is that Indianapolis is vulnerable to the run, and if there's one thing Michael Vick does well, it's run to daylight.
So the Eagles have one playmaker back, with Jackson in the on-deck circle -- expected to return after a concussion vs. Atlanta. That's good, but this is better: The Eagles play after having last week off. So what? So they're 11-0 under Andy Reid after byes, the best record of anyone, anywhere in the NFL following furloughs -- and it's that layoff that allowed the Eagles to get healthy.
The Colts, on the other hand, are crippled. Tight end Dallas Clark is out for the season. Safety Bob Sanders has been out since the beginning of the year. Wide receiver Tony Gonzalez is hurt again. Running back Joseph Addai is recovering from a neck injury. His replacement, Mike Hart, has an ankle injury. I think you get the idea. The Colts look more like a casting call for General Hospital.
Nevertheless, they haven't lost quarterback Peyton Manning, and he's usually enough against the Eagles -- with Manning looking for his fourth straight victory over Philadelphia. But that will be difficult. Almost everything is tilted toward the Eagles. They're rested, they're healthy and they're home. Indianapolis is none of the above, and, yeah, that's a problem.
Something to consider: The Colts are 6-0 vs. the NFC under coach Jim Caldwell.
Three games I'd like to see
The line: Falcons by 8½
|Michael Turner, averaging 4.5 yards per carry, is Atlanta's best hope. (Getty Images)|
Oddsmakers must figure it's a mirage, firm in their belief that we see the Bucs team here that cratered three weeks ago at home against New Orleans. Maybe. Maybe not. I've learned not to get too excited about anything involving this team. One minute it stinks. The next, Josh Freeman rides to its rescue with another fourth-quarter comeback.
But the problem here is that the Bucs not only play one of the NFC's best teams; they're playing them at home. Since Mike Smith took over, the Falcons are 16-3 in the Georgia Dome, and I would be shocked if they add to the losses here.
Here's why: You can run on Tampa, and tell me what Atlanta does best. Yep, it runs the ball, with the Falcons the league's fifth-rated rushing offense and Michael Turner averaging 4.5 yards a carry. That's a problem. So is this: In 16 home games since joining the Falcons, Turner is averaging 104.8 yards rushing with 20 touchdowns.
But it's not just Turner and the Falcons' running game. It's difficult to score on these guys in the Georgia Dome, too, with the Falcons holding two of their three opponents to 14 or fewer points. Add it all up and what do you have? The Falcons controlling the ball, the clock and any ideas Freeman has of a fourth-quarter comeback.
Something to consider: The Falcons are 20-1 under Smith in games where they lead at the half.
The line: Ravens by 4½
The story: The Dolphins haven't lost a road game. The Ravens haven't been beaten at home. Something has to give, and if you ask me it's Miami's secondary. The reason? Joe Flacco. Not only is he playing the best football of his career now, but in his past six home games -- all victories -- he has 12 touchdown passes and no interceptions.
Flacco has evolved into Joe Cool, with the NFL's best passer rating (105.0) since the third week of the season. Over his past five games, he's 4-1, completing 64.8 percent of his passes for 1,249 yards, nine touchdown passes and no interceptions. Combine that with an effective, relentless running game and you know why the Ravens are tied with Pittsburgh for first in the AFC North.
Now put that effective and relentless rushing attack at home, and Miami could be in trouble. Over the past three years nobody is better running the ball at home than Baltimore, with the Ravens averaging 151.9 yards per game -- including 159 this season. For Miami to pull the upset, the Dolphins must turn Baltimore into a one-dimensional offense, make Flacco beat them and hope he's not the quarterback he has been the past month.
It's a reach. But Miami does strange and wonderful things on the road. They trailed at Cincinnati and won. They beat Green Bay in overtime. They held off Minnesota. In short, they're a better team there than they are in South Florida, and credit the defense. It's better where the weather is not, allowing 54 points in four road victories -- an average of 13.5 points per game. Do that here, and the Dolphins have a chance.
Something to consider: Baltimore is 9-5 coming off a bye but has won seven of its past eight -- including two under coach John Harbaugh.
The line: Raiders by 2½
|Jason Campbell has led the suped-up Raiders to consecutive blowout wins. (Getty Images)|
Anyway, The Greatness has a chance to do something here that it hasn't since 2002 -- namely, go 5-4 in its first nine games. I mention that date because that's the last time the Raiders went to the playoffs, and while I'm not saying they're headed there this season, I can't rule it out, either. Frankly, I don't know what to make of this club. One week it's dreadful; the next, it's running circles around the Denver Broncos.
Apparently, coach Tom Cable isn't sure, either, otherwise he would've named his starting quarterback before Thursday. In the end, however, he made the only choice -- choosing Jason Campbell, and where's the mystery? I mean, all Campbell did was bring home the past two victories. So why change something that works? The Raiders didn't, another signal that uncommon sense is beginning to infiltrate the building.
Kansas City, meanwhile, is one of the season's feel-good stories. They're good on offense, better on defense and, frankly, the best team in the division. The Chiefs don't make many big plays on offense, but they don't many big mistakes, either. Their four turnovers are the fewest in the league, and if they protect the ball here as they have in the past, they'll be fine. You wanna know why? Because this is like a home game for them, with the Chiefs winning the past seven times they have played in Oakland.
Something to consider: The Raiders are 3-1 at home and 2-0 vs. the AFC West.
Monday night lights
The line: Steelers by 4½
The story: A year ago the Bengals lapped the AFC North, going 6-0 in the league's toughest division. But those days are gone, with the club losing to Cleveland and in danger of falling out of the playoff tree by midseason.
|Peek at the Week IX|
With two weeks to prepare, can Philly slow the Colts' offense? Five things to watch >>
That makes this game a must-win for the home team, and desperate teams that are home are dangerous teams. Only nothing seems to energize the lackluster Bengals. They should have jumped all over Miami a week ago, yet quit after jumping to an early lead and fell to their fifth loss.
I swear these Bengals are an enigma. They have better talent this year than they did last, but their record is worse. Obviously, something is missing, and maybe that something is Cedric Benson. A star running back a year ago, he's having a so-so season while the Bengals load up a passing game that produces big numbers but few big wins.
People blame Carson Palmer for the shortcomings, saying he's not the quarterback he was years ago, and I won't disagree. But Palmer isn't the problem. The defense, on the other hand, might be. It can't stop anyone. A year ago it was a virtual brick wall. Now it looks more like a shower curtain, hammered for an average of 23.3 points per game.
The Bengals rank 23rd against the run, have surrendered 290 rushing yards the past two starts and are yielding an average of 4.5 yards per carry. Just a hunch, but the Steelers exploit the Bengals' front seven.
Something to consider: With a 5-0 record on Monday night, Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin can become only the sixth coach in league history to win his first six Monday night games
Crummy game of the week
The line: Bears by 2½
The story: We send Denver-San Francisco to London. We send Chicago-Buffalo to Toronto. No wonder foreigners don't like us. We can put a man on the moon, but we can't send a decent football team to London or Toronto. The Bears have lost three of their past four, Buffalo hasn't won, period, and take the hint, Buffalo fans: If you want a good game in Toronto, check out Sabres-Leafs the night before.
On the other hand, this could be the Bills' chance for a breakthrough. The Bears not only have staggered the past month, but their quarterbacks have been absolutely annihilated -- taking sacks, fumbling the ball and throwing interceptions.
The last time we saw Jay Cutler, he threw four passes to the Washington Redskins -- to the same guy, no less. And maybe that's where you find the entertainment here. Start a pool on how many sacks Cutler absorbs or how many interceptions he throws, then hope somebody scores.
Something to consider: Opponents have outscored Buffalo 77-17 in the third quarter.
Upset of the week
The line: Patriots by 5½
The story: OK, so this is a leap of faith. The Patriots are one of the best teams in the NFL, and the Browns aren't. Bill Belichick is one of the most decorated coaches in the NFL, and Eric Mangini is not. Tom Brady is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and Colt McCoy is ... well, he's a rookie making his third NFL start.
It has all the signs of a blowout, except I'm not buying. The Browns haven't been out of any game they played, and don't tell me about the 28-10 loss to Pittsburgh. It was 7-3 late in the third quarter. They're home, where they beat Cincinnati, lost to Kansas City by two and lost to Atlanta by 10. Plus, they're coming off a bye, with their last game a resounding 30-17 defeat of New Orleans where they pressured Drew Brees into four interceptions -- two of which were returned for touchdowns.
So it could happen. And I say it does. New England has been iffy on the road, losing to the Jets and holding off San Diego in a game it could have lost, and the Browns' defense has played efficiently and effectively under Rob Ryan. No, it's not the best out there. It's not even one of the best. But it's good enough that Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger and Brees the past three games completed 62.1 percent of their passes for 800 yards, six touchdowns, five interceptions and a passer rating of 83.16.
Not bad, Cleveland.
If the Browns can confuse Brady as they did Brees, that's a start. The rest hinges on how McCoy responds, and he didn't make any mistakes against New Orleans. So he didn't make any huge plays, either. So what? The key for Cleveland is no turnovers, and if that can happen so can the upset.
Something to consider: Eric Mangini's teams are 20-15 following byes for the remainder of the season.
Five guys I'd like to be
1. Atlanta QB Matt Ryan: He's 16-1 at home and aims for his 13th straight win.
2. Baltimore WR Anquan Boldin: In his last start vs. Miami he had six catches for 140 yards and three scores.
3. Indianapolis QB Peyton Manning: He not only is working on a 13-game winning streak in November, but plays an opponent he has beaten all three times he has faced it. In his career against the Eagles, Manning has completed 69.6 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 132.3.
4. New England QB Tom Brady: He's 4-0 vs. Cleveland.
5. Pittsburgh LB James Harrison: He has 8½ sacks in his past five games on Monday night.
Five best mano-a-manos
1. New England coach Bill Belichick vs. Cleveland coach Eric Mangini: Mangini worked for Belichick, then left to run the New York Jets, and it was on his watch that we had ... drum roll, please ... Spygate! Uh-oh. I guarantee Belichick hasn't forgotten. What I want to know is if he remembers to shake Mangini's hand afterward. "I'm sure it will be firm and brisk," Mangini said this week. "You know, textbook. It will be in business schools for years to come."
2. Buffalo S Jairus Byrd vs. his father, Gill, a defensive assistant with Chicago: I covered Gill, one of the most gracious guys on the planet, and I've watched his son, one of the most opportunistic players in the game. It's a tough call, but it's a tougher one for Mrs. Byrd. Forget about who wins the game. Whom does she root for?
3. Baltimore offensive coordinator Cam Cameron vs. the team that fired him, the Miami Dolphins: I can't imagine this ever becomes just another game for Cameron. It's the third time he has faced the Dolphins since he was canned, and Baltimore is 2-0 -- outscoring Miami 54-22.
4. Rex Ryan's defense vs. Jim Schwartz's defense: Earlier this week, Ryan said he didn't expect the Lions to pile up points on his D because ... well, because the Jets were better than virtually everyone else on that side of the ball. That provoked Schwartz to point out that Detroit has more sacks and turnovers. Let the game begin, fellas.
5. Pittsburgh S Troy Polamalu vs. commissioner Roger Goodell: Polamalu this week said he thought the commish has too much authority and believes limits to his power should be addressed in CBA talks. Good luck with that one, Troy, and, oh yeah, please join teammate James Harrison in repeating after me: "Life is not fair ... Life is not fair ..."
Five things that may only interest me
1. Since 2000 there have been 27 teams that were .500 or below at the halfway point of the season and made it to the playoffs -- including five that made it to championship games. There has been at least one in each season since 2000, with Baltimore (4-4), the Jets (4-4) and Green Bay (4-4) making the playoffs a year ago.
2. There have been 342 passing touchdowns this season, the most in the past 23 years over the first eight weeks and the second most in NFL history (346 in 1987).
3. San Diego tight end Antonio Gates has a touchdown catch in 11 of his past 12 starts. With a TD vs. Houston, Gates can become the first tight end ever to have 10 scoring catches in his first nine starts of the season. Of course, Gates might not suit up for this one. He has a torn plantar fascia that had him off his feet this week. Stay tuned.
4. When Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning plays Sunday it will be his 200th straight start -- the longest streak of any quarterback to begin a career. With that game, Manning joins Brett Favre as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to start 200 or more consecutive games.
5. The Indianapolis Colts have won 13 straight in November. With a defeat of Philadelphia they achieve the third best streak in November, trailing only the 1945-51 Chicago Bears (23) and the 1970-74 Miami Dolphins (18).
Numbers to crunch
5: Number of opening-day starters Green Bay has lost for the season
8: Touchdowns off takeaways for Green Bay
21: Straight games with a Philip Rivers TD pass
37.6: Average number of points by Detroit at home
55: Consecutive Robbie Gould field goals inside the 40, the longest current streak in the NFL
1,053: Oakland's total yardage in past two games
8-3: Jets on the road under Rex Ryan
11-2: Ben Roethlisberger's record in his home state of Ohio
20-6: Atlanta's record under Mike Smith in games where it scores first
• Atlanta: Dome
• Baltimore: Sunny, high of 52
• Toronto: Mostly sunny, high of 47 (retractable roof)
• Charlotte, N.C.: Sunny, high of 57
• Cleveland: Sunny, high of 52
• Detroit: Dome
• Houston: Sunny, high of 75 (retractable roof)
• Minneapolis: Dome
• Seattle: Showers, high of 52
• Philadelphia: Sunny, high of 52
• Oakland, Calif.: Showers, high of 62
• Green Bay, Wis.: Mostly sunny, high of 52
Where we will be
• Pete Prisco will be in Atlanta to score comebacks, round by round -- Josh Freeman vs. Rocky Balboa.
• I'll be in Philadelphia to worship at the home of Todd Rundgren in Upper Darby.
• Mike Freeman will be in Baltimore to tell us which is bigger -- Haloti Ngata or the burgers at Alonso's.
• Gregg Doyel will be in Cincinnati because he has nowhere else to go.