Game of the week
The line: Steelers by 3½
The story: There's no better rivalry in the NFL than this one. Each club has a Super Bowl championship since 2000, and each is a regular in the playoffs. In fact, they have faced each other twice in the past three playoffs, with Pittsburgh winning both en route to the Super Bowl.
Typically when they play, they play games close, but that changed in the season opener when Baltimore destroyed its archrival 35-7. Joe Flacco was hot. Ben Roethlisberger was not. The Ravens ran and threw for touchdowns. The Steelers ran for cover, committing seven turnovers, with Roethlisberger sacked four times.
In short, it was about as close as Little Big Horn.
What's odd about that is that nobody wallops the opponent in the Baltimore-Pittsburgh series. In fact, in the previous six regular-season games no more than four points separated the two in any game. Blowouts were as common as Orioles pennant chases, with neither side giving much.
Until this year, that is.
So tell me memories of the Sept. 11 kickoff aren't replayed again and again in the Pittsburgh locker room, because you know they have been. The Steelers don't lose often, and they certainly don't get torched, especially by the Ravens. So maybe, just maybe, it's payback time. If so, the Steelers picked the right time to retaliate.
Reason: The Ravens' offense has been sputtering, waking from a six-quarter funk in the second last weekend to catch Arizona. Flacco has been off and touchdowns infrequent until the Ravens suddenly remembered Ray Rice was on the team. If nothing else, at least they have two quarters of momentum to carry into Sunday.
Unfortunately, their opponent is hot, hot, hot, winning four straight to move to the top of the AFC standings. Pittsburgh has a lot going for it, and I'm not talking about just being at home. Linebacker James Harrison is practicing. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley hasn't been ruled out. Neither has linebacker James Farrior. Baltimore's Haloti Ngata missed two days of practice with a thigh injury. And Roethlisberger not only is 7-1 vs. the Ravens at Heinz Field; he has an AFC-best 108.3 passer rating at home.
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The Steelers seem to have steadied themselves. I'm not sure about the Ravens. What I am sure is that the winner of this game is headed to the playoffs.
Something to consider: Including the postseason, the Steelers have won five of their past six vs. Baltimore at Heinz Field.
Three games I'd like to see
The line: Bills by 1½
The story: Rex Ryan keeps insisting his team is capable of reaching -- and winning -- the Super Bowl. Maybe, but first things first: The Jets have to make the playoffs, and this is their chance to get started. Not only is Buffalo ahead of them; the Bills are tied for first in the AFC East and looking more and more like a serious playoff contender.
And the Jets? Not so much, though they scored an impressive come-from-behind victory over San Diego two weeks ago. But that was when the Jets were home, where they're 4-0. On the road they're 0-3 and have been punctured for 94 points -- an average of 31.3 per game.
Buffalo is averaging over 30 points per start, so you can see where this is going -- uh-huh, squarely on Mark Sanchez's shoulders. The Jets quarterback must extend drives, not make mistakes and continue to connect with Plaxico Burress in the red zone. In short, he must be the Mark Sanchez who was 4-2 in the playoffs -- all on the road -- in his first two NFL seasons. Sanchez hasn't exactly been scintillating, and neither have his teammates. But they can start their playoff push here.
The problem is that Buffalo hasn't lost at home, either. Including last weekend's victory in Toronto, the Bills are 4-0 there -- bettering or matching their home victory total the past six seasons. Extraordinary? Yep, these Bills are extraordinary. In fact, they're only the eighth team in league history to win its first four homes games after losing its first four the previous season.
"I think it's our turn now," wide receiver Stevie Johnson told the Associated Press. "We can get to the playoffs, we can get to the Super Bowl. Whatever they say we can't, we can."
Maybe, but the question is: How did Buffalo get here? Simple. It has the balanced attack the Jets once did -- with running back Fred Jackson producing the big yards and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick making big plays and few mistakes. It also forces opponents into mistakes, with Buffalo's 18 takeaways tied for the league high.
The Jets are coming off a bye, and normally that's good. Except the Jets are 0-2 following byes under Ryan. The key here is the Jets' offense. If Sanchez can be consistent ... if he can avoid mistakes ... if the Jets can run the ball ... if they can keep Buffalo off their quarterback and off its game ... New York can make a hero of Ryan. If not, it looks like "Great Rex-pectations" goes back on the shelf.
Something to consider: Fitzpatrick has completions of 40 or more yards in each of Buffalo's past five games.
The line: Patriots by 8½
The story: This is the first time these two have met when it counts since Super Bowl XLII, and I think we know what happened there. We also know what happened last weekend. The Patriots were torched by Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, who too often looked like he was running a 7-on-7 clinic.
Yet look at the betting line: They're heavy favorites vs. a team that has won four of its past five. The reason: New England rarely loses two straight, and hasn't lost a regular-season game at home since 2008. In fact, quarterback Tom Brady won his past 31 regular-season games at Gillette Stadium.
Brady hasn't been himself lately, with seven touchdown passes in his past four games -- two of which the Patriots lost. The guy who started the season by throwing for a zillion yards and touchdowns has been neutralized ... but by an unsuspecting source: his own defense. It ranks last in yards and last in pass defense, and it can't get anyone off the field anymore.
In last weekend's loss to Pittsburgh, the Steelers had the ball for all but three plays of the first quarter. They had it for nearly 40 minutes the entire game. That's how you beat Brady. You move the chains, keep him on the sideline and force him to play from behind. In New England's past two games -- one of which they won on a last-minute TD -- the Pats had the ball 47:49; their opponents had it 72:11.
The Giants' game plan is simple: Follow Pittsburgh's blueprint on offense, take the short stuff the Pats give you with their soft zone coverage, mix it in with enough runs to keep the defense honest and be patient. It would help if Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham were healthy, and it would help if Ahmad Bradshaw could play, but the early signs aren't encouraging. Nicks is the deep threat New York needs to back off defensive backs so Eli Manning can work the middle of the field with short-and-intermediate passes, and Bradshaw is the team's best (only?) running threat.
Brady's game plan is pretty simple, too: Get the lead and hold it. That probably means at least 300 yards in passes and three or four touchdowns, but Brady is up to the job. He just can't do it on a regular basis, and that's a problem. When he's not Tom Terrific, there's not enough defense -- or supporting players anywhere -- to bail him and the Patriots out.
Something to consider: Manning leads all quarterbacks with a fourth-quarter passer rating of 119.3.
The line: Packers by 6½
The story: We have the league's best and only undefeated team vs. one of its most disappointing clubs. San Diego could've beaten the Jets but didn't. It should've beaten Kansas City but didn't. Now it takes on Green Bay and Oakland in five days, and fasten your seat belts, people; the Bolts may be in for a bumpy ride.
They couldn't beat Mark Sanchez, and they couldn't beat Matt Cassel. So how do they beat Aaron Rodgers? The only hope is that San Diego somehow is jolted out of its funk by that horrendous Philip Rivers fumble. But to do that, the Chargers must play near-perfect football, and there is nothing near-perfect about these guys.
Turnovers cost them the first half of 2010, and they are crippling the Chargers again. Only this time it's Rivers who can't stop the mistakes. He not only leads the league in interceptions; he has five games with two each, and that's not Philip Rivers.
I don't know what's wrong with the guy, I just know San Diego makes too many mistakes -- interceptions, fumbles, penalties -- to be considered a legitimate playoff threat. Their 16 turnovers are the second most in the NFL, and their 25 penalties the past two games are 25 more than they had in their Oct. 9 defeat of Denver.
Of course, there's one thing to consider, and that is this: This is the time of year when the club typically turns things around -- with San Diego winning its past eight in November. It won its final six in 2007, too ... and its final four in 2008 ... and last 11 in 2009 ... and seven of nine to finish 2010. I think you get the idea.
But nobody expects the Chargers to win this one because nobody expects them to figure out Rodgers -- and I get that. They couldn't cover Plaxico Burress, so they're going to stop Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley? Good luck.
Plus, San Diego is handicapped. Guard Kris Dielman is out and running back Ryan Mathews is doubtful. Curtis Brinkley, the team's No. 3 back, is probably out too, meaning Mike Tolbert -- who missed Monday's game with a hamstring injury -- might be pressed into action.
Something to consider: The Chargers' Eric Weddle and Green Bay's Charles Woodson each have five interceptions, tied for most in the NFL.
Monday night lights
The line: Eagles by 8½
The story: One game does not a season make, yet one game has people thinking that maybe the Eagles are on the escalator going up. It's not just that they beat Dallas; it's that they destroyed the Cowboys, hammering them in every aspect of the game. Maybe that launches Philadelphia to another division title, I don't know. What I do know is that radio talk-show hosts that wanted Andy Reid fired don't have much to complain about these days.
|Jay Cutler carved up the Eagles last November (14 of 21, 247 yards, 4 TDs) before Philly's offseason overhaul. (Getty Images)|
The other, of course, is that there are people out there who believe they finally jelled as a team. Maybe it was the bye, but the Eagles for the first time this season looked like a complete unit. I don't know if it was an aberration or the start of something special, but the arrow is pointed up because what had been a shaky defense seems to have gotten its act together.
Defense has been the backbone of Reid's best clubs, and defense let Reid and this team down the first five games. Of course, there were a slew of turnovers, too, but the defense couldn't make critical stops -- blowing fourth-quarter leads in successive losses to Atlanta, the Giants and San Francisco. That ended in Washington, and maybe the Eagles string of disappointments did, too.
This game will be a clue. The question, of course, is: Can Philadelphia pull down Jay Cutler and Matt Forte? Cutler shredded the Eagles for four touchdowns and a career-best 146.2 passer rating last season, and Forte is responsible for 44 percent of this season's offense for the Bears. Do to them what Philadelphia did to Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray, and we have a race in the NFC East.
Something to consider: LeSean McCoy not only has a touchdown in every game this season, he set a franchise record with a score in each of the Eagles' first seven games.
Crummy game of the week
The line: Cardinals by 4½
The story: Not only are these two of the worst teams in the league; they may wheel out two backup quarterbacks. The Rams' Sam Bradford is still hurt, which means A.J. Feeley is on call again. Arizona's Kevin Kolb is hurt, too, which means John Skelton was taking first-team snaps this week.
Bottom line: Neither makes this game intriguing.
The only mystery here is who slips in the Lucky Losers poll. Neither is really in the market for a starting quarterback, with Arizona making a commitment this summer to Kolb and St. Louis set with Bradford. But each could turn the first pick of the draft into a zillion draft choices, and good luck there. To get the first pick you must beat Miami and Indianapolis to the bottom of the pool, and, sorry, it's not going to happen.
St. Louis comes off a terrific upset, which is great, but tell me the last time the Rams won a road game. It was last year, but it was 12 games ago. In the meantime, they have dropped five straight on the road, outscored 133-45 in those games. Of course, the last team they beat on the road? Uh-huh, it was Arizona, 19-6.
Something to consider: Arizona has won eight of its past nine vs. St. Louis, outscoring the Rams 259-148.
Upset of the week
The line: Titans by 3½
The story: Tennessee wants to believe it's still a factor in the AFC South race. Well, it's time to prove it. Another loss and the Titans can start thinking about warming up Jake Locker. Tennessee is desperate and at home, and that's always a good combination.
Except not here.
Cincinnati showed me something by traveling to Seattle last week and holding off the Seahawks. Granted, Seattle stinks, but it has a history of pulling upsets at home, and I thought last week would be one of them. It wasn't, and maybe it's time to start recognizing Cincinnati for what it is -- a legitimate playoff contender.
The Bengals found a quarterback in Andy Dalton, 5-2 as a rookie and 3-1 on the road. They have the game's best young receiver in A.J. Green. Their defense is sound. And their defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer, is doing a terrific job of stonewalling opponents. Only once this season have the Bengals allowed more than 20 points, and opposing running backs have little or no luck against them.
You can look it up: They rank second vs. the run and allow 3.3 yards per rush. Of course, that's a half-yard better than Chris Johnson's per-carry numbers, which means it's up to Matt Hasselbeck to win this game. I say he won't.
Something to consider: Green has one touchdown catch in each of the Bengals' four road games.
Five guys I'd like to be
1. New England wide receiver Wes Welker: He has 11 catches and over 100 yards receiving in each of his two games against the Giants, including Super Bowl XLII.
2. Buffalo RB Fred Jackson: He aims for his fourth straight 100-yard rushing game. When Jackson runs for 100 or more yards, the Bills are 10-2.
3. Dallas QB Tony Romo: In his past two starts vs. Seattle he has six touchdowns, one interception, a 110.8 passer rating and two victories. He also had three touchdown passes in each of those wins.
4. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan: He's 9-3 vs. the AFC, with 18 touchdowns, three interceptions and a passer rating of 96.0. But it gets better. Now he gets to play the Colts.
5. New Orleans wide receiver Devery Henderson: He has five receiving touchdowns vs. Tampa Bay and is averaging 20.5 yards per catch.
Five best faceoffs
1. New York Giants safety Antrel Rolle vs. New England wide receiver Wes Welker: Apparently, Rolle doesn't think covering Welker will be much of a problem. When was asked why Welker wreaks havoc with defenses, Rolle shrugged and told reporters to ask those defensive backs Welker beat for catches. "I don't plan on having to answer those questions," he said. Stay tuned.
2. Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs vs. Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward: Ward may not play Sunday, but that's not what Suggs wants. In fact, he's pleading for the veteran wide receiver to suit up, saying, "I need you to play. Please put on that [jersey number] 86, that smile and all the things you do. We need that for this game."
3. Cincinnati defensive back Adam "Pacman" Jones vs. Tennessee: Jones is another guy who may not make it to Sunday. He has a sore hamstring that makes him iffy. But you know he wants to play in the worst way because the Titans are the team that made him the sixth pick of the 2005 draft and the team that first gave up on him. "I'm happy here in Cincinnati," he said this week. "I have no regrets. I could care less about Tennessee." Call me cynical, but I don't believe it.
4. Denver QB Tim Tebow vs. The Black Hole: Tebow returns to the site of his first NFL start, where the Broncos were on the short end of a 39-23 score. A lot has changed since then, with the Raiders announcing the game as a sellout. One thing that hasn't: Denver still stinks. The Raiders cart out Carson Palmer, and Raiders fans cart out the expletives -- most of them aimed at Tebow. At least he's heard them before.
5. Dallas LB DeMarcus Ware vs. Seattle QB Tarvaris Jackson: Ware is the unstoppable force in the Cowboys' defense, with 10 of the team's past 14 sacks -- including four last weekend vs. Michael Vick. He's on schedule for a 27-sack season, breaking the league record set by Michael Strahan, and now takes on (takes over?) an offensive line that has surrendered an NFL-high 28 sacks this season. One suggestion for Jackson: Run!
Five things that may interest only me
1. Attention, New York Giants-New England Patriots fans: Super Bowl winners are 21-21-1 in the first regular-season game vs. the teams they beat in the Super Bowl. The past 15 winners, however, are 12-3.
2. Five teams have already equaled or surpassed their victory totals of last year: San Francisco, Buffalo, Detroit, Carolina and Cincinnati. The Houston Texans can equal their win total with a defeat of Cleveland this weekend, making them the sixth team through nine weeks to accomplish that feat -- the second most since 1990.
3. The San Francisco 49ers are the first team since the 1920 Buffalo All-Americans to rush for a touchdown and not allow a rushing touchdown in each of the first seven games.
4. With a defeat of San Diego, Green Bay would become the third defending Super Bowl champion to win its first eight games. The others are San Francisco (1990) and Denver (1998).
5. Since 2002, New England and San Diego (24-7) have the best winning percentage (.774) in November. Indianapolis (.767) is third, followed by Green Bay and Pittsburgh (.697).
Numbers on the wall
5: Consecutive games without 100 yards in catches for Atlanta's Roddy White
8: Kansas City interceptions in the past two games
9: Baltimore fumble recoveries, best in the NFL
9: Teams that average 25 or more points per game
9-5: Miami's record in November under Tony Sparano
35: Straight games with a Drew Brees touchdown pass
40.3: Average number of points Oakland scored in its past three starts vs. Denver
43.6: Percentage of Chicago's yardage gained by Matt Forte
57: Games decided by seven or fewer points, the third-most through eight games in NFL history
• Buffalo: Partly cloudy, high of 56
• Arlington, Texas: Showers, high of 75 (retractable roof)
• Houston: Partly cloudy, high of 77 (retractable roof)
• Indianapolis: Partly cloudy, high of 61 (retractable roof)
• Kansas City, Mo.: Partly cloudy, high of 62
• New Orleans: Dome
• Landover, Md.: Partly cloudy, high of 57
• Oakland, Calif.: Few showers, high of 60
• Nashville, Tenn.: Mostly cloudy, high of 67
• Glendale, Ariz.: Sunny, high of 69 (retractable roof)
• Foxborough, Mass.: Sunny, high of 57
• San Diego: Showers, high of 59
• Pittsburgh: Partly cloudy, high of 59
• Philadelphia: Partly cloudy, high of 57
Where we will be
• I'll be in San Diego to serve oatmeal pancakes at the Encinitas Café.
• Pete Prisco will be in Nashville to perform a checkup on Chris Johnson.
• Mike Freeman will be in Foxborough to run New England's secondary through air-raid drills.
• Gregg Doyel will be in Pittsburgh to call plays for the Ravens.