Game of the week
The line: Jets by 1½
The story: The Jets have three straight wins; the Patriots have two straight losses. Logic tells you the arrow is pointing up for New York, especially after what happened in Buffalo last weekend, but the Jets must deal with Tom Brady first ... and tell me the last time he lost three straight.
I'll spare you the trouble. It was 2002.
Brady is having a solid year, but he's not having the season he did in 2010 when he was the league's MVP. Of course, his teammates aren't having the season they did a year ago, either, and the reason is defense. The Patriots don't have one ... at least, they don't have a reliable one. They rank last overall, last vs. the pass and 28th on third downs.
In short, they stink.
For New England to succeed, Brady must excel every week. And when he doesn't? Easy. The Patriots don't win, simple as that. It's all on Brady, and, frankly, I feel for the guy. He carries the load by himself, one reason his interceptions and turnovers are up. He simply doesn't have the support system he once did, which means the Patriots aren't as formidable as they once were.
Still, it's Tom Brady, and if he's on the Jets must beware. They wisely returned to the Ground and Pound attack that not only protected Mark Sanchez but kept opposing offenses off the field, and it's working. Over their past three starts they have averaged 130.7 rushing yards per game; over their first five, 76.2. Draw your own conclusions.
"We're a much more confident team playing this way [with] this style," said coach Rex Ryan.
It's not just that the running game can keep Brady off the field; it's that it protects Sanchez and makes him more effective. Again, let's go to the stat sheet: Over their past three games, the Jets have converted 51 percent of third downs, with Sanchez hitting 11 of 12 passes, including a touchdown off play action last week. That tells me something: Opponents respect the run where they didn't earlier this season.
"It's just kept defenses off balance," said Sanchez.
Exactly. Only the New England defense has been off kilter. Coach Bill Belichick tried playing a 4-3 with press coverage earlier this season, and that didn't go so well. So he moved to the next page, playing more zone with three and four-man fronts, and that's not working, either. The pressure here is on the quarterbacks, and, for the first time, it's Brady more than it is Sanchez who must stand and deliver
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Something to consider: The Jets are seeking their seventh straight win in November. They have won their past two at home vs. New England.
Three games I'd like to see
The line: Steelers by 3½
The story: If ever there were a trap, this is it. Pittsburgh is coming off two tough games -- a big win over New England followed by a crushing loss to Baltimore -– and could be ripe for the upset. But that's where we find out about Cincinnati. If the season were to end today, the Bengals would be the AFC's top seed, and, yeah, I know, they haven't played Baltimore or Pittsburgh yet.
Well, now they do.
Let's see how rookie quarterback Andy Dalton handles the zone blitzes Dick LeBeau throws at him. Dalton has been terrific, winning four of five road games and giving the Bengals the stability they need at the game's most important position. Still, he hasn't faced pressure like this.
Granted, he weathered the San Francisco defense, but he threw two fourth-quarter interceptions there, failed to produce a touchdown, had a season-low 40.8 passer rating and failed to win. That could happen again.
As I said, this game should tell us more about Cincinnati than it does Pittsburgh. We already know the Steelers can make it to the playoffs; we're just not sure about the Bengals. They have a defense that's playoff worthy, but they also have a rookie QB and an offensive line I don't trust. So how do they hold up in their first big game within the division? That's why we're here, folks.
The Steelers are favored because they have won four of their past five in this series, because quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has lost only once at Paul Brown Stadium and, frankly, because they have the résumé Cincinnati does not. Nevertheless, this is a different Bengals team, with defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer keeping the club in games just long enough for Dalton to drop the hammer.
I know how Roethlisberger will handle big-game pressure because I've seen him do it again and again. I don't know what happens to Dalton. Make this a defining game for him and his teammates.
Something to consider: Dalton's 12 touchdown passes are the most by a rookie in his first eight games since the NFL merger in 1970.
The line: Falcons by 1½
The story: My colleague Pete Prisco keeps telling me the Falcons have arrived, but I want to see more than a lopsided defeat of Indianapolis. Yeah, that was impressive, but so was the Saints' 62-7 hammering of the Colts a couple of weeks before. No, I want to see Atlanta handle its division nemesis, and the Falcons in the right place -- quarterback Matt Ryan is 8-1 vs. division opponents in Atlanta.
Furthermore, the Saints aren't very good on the road. They're 2-3, but think back to where they lost have last. Yep, it was St. Louis, and they were drilled by a club that hadn't won before and hasn't won since.
That's disturbing, and it may be a sign the Falcons are ready to assume first place all by themselves. Still, I want to see them withstand the barrage of points I expect to come because I don't get the feeling the Falcons will pressure Drew Brees as St. Louis did. Give him time, and he'll tear you to shreds. I don't care if it's Marques Colston, Darren Sproles, Jimmy Graham, Devery Henderson ... he'll find someone.
Then it's a track meet.
Atlanta has the big-strike capability with Julio Jones and Roddy White, but the Falcons must play it smart and stick with the balanced approach that has them featuring Michael Turner more lately. Control the clock, and you control your opponent ... especially here.
Something to consider: The Falcons are the league's best at scoring touchdowns inside the 5, doing it 14 of 15 times. New Orleans is second at 12 for 15.
The line: 49ers by 3½
The story: The Giants survived the first step of their long day's journey into night. Winning at New England was terrific, but now comes the hard part: Traveling across the country to take on the second-best team in football. The 49ers are on a six-game roll and for the first time since 2002 will make the playoffs. With more wins (7) than the rest of their division combined (5), they and could -- maybe should -- clinch a playoff spot late this month or by the first week of December.
So they're a lock here, right? Not so fast. The Giants played New England tough last week and won with a last-minute drive. Eli Manning has been the game's best fourth-quarter passer and he's winning without his top playmakers. Fortunately for Manning and the Giants, Hakeem Nicks is expected back this week; unfortunately, they're not facing an open-window defense like New England's.
The Patriots are the league's worst. The 49ers are one of the league's best, with nobody allowing fewer points. They pressure the pocket. They force turnovers. And they keep you out of the end zone. They also stuff the run, with opponents averaging 70.8 yards per game. With Ahmad Bradshaw out again that means it will be up to Manning to come to the Giants' rescue again.
It has worked before. The guy rescued them last week. And he rescued them against Miami. And Arizona. And Philadelphia. I think you get the idea. Except now he faces a premier defense. Everywhere you look on the 49ers, guys are making plays, and I know because I saw San Francisco stuff Detroit at Ford Field in the Lions' first loss of the season.
Better yet, the 49ers seem to have found something in Alex Smith. Once upon a time he was a bust waiting to be replaced by rookie Colin Kaepernick. Now, he's one of the best feel-good stories of the season, a frontrunner for Comeback Player of the Year. The reason? Simple -- he looks like a bona fide quarterback again. He's 8-1 in his past nine starts, with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions, and plays with a confidence and poise I haven't seen since Norv Turner was his offensive coordinator in 2006.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that Frank Gore is behind him. The guy became the first 49er to rush for 100 yards in five straight games, and if the Giants are going to win here they must stop Gore and put the game on Smith's shoulders ... if, of course, Gore plays. He sprained his ankle last week but insists he's OK. If so, the Giants must check him, turn their pass rush loose, hope to pressure Smith into atypical mistakes and force San Francisco to play from behind.
Something to consider: Smith has won six of his past seven at home, with 13 touchdown passes, one interception and a passer rating of 106.7. The 49ers are 9-0 when he has a passer rating of 100 or better.
Monday night lights
The line: Packers by 13½
|Jared Allen, leading the NFL in sacks with 12.5, will try to chase down Aaron Rodgers on Monday night. (Getty Images)|
Introducing Adrian Peterson, who is having another marvelous season and who typically torches the Pack -- with touchdowns in six of his past seven vs. Green Bay and a per-game average of 109.1 yards rushing. The Vikings got smart and made him more involved in their passing attack, which meant getting him the ball in space and allowing him to create. I expect more of the same, with Peterson a matchup nightmare for Green Bay's linebackers.
That's step one. Then Minnesota must control the clock and avoid the costly mistakes that sabotaged San Diego last week. I don't expect the Vikings to win here, but I do expect them to push their opponent. One of these days, Rodgers won't be throwing for a zillion yards, which means one of these days his defense -- particularly his pass defense -- must play as it did down the stretch last season. This probably is not that day. Minnesota has the league's 30th-ranked pass defense, one reason the Vikings must stress ball control.
Of concern to Green Bay is Minnesota end Jared Allen, who leads the league in sacks. The Chargers collapsed the pocket last week, sacking Rodgers four times in the first half, and they don't have an edge rusher the caliber of Allen. Look for the Packers to give left tackle Marshall Newhouse help. The last time these two met Allen had two sacks and three quarterback hits. Of course, Rodgers completed all but six of 30 passes with three TDs, too.
Something to consider: In eight career games vs. Minnesota, Rodgers has 15 touchdown passes, one interception and a passer rating of 112.7.
Crummy game of the week
The line: Jaguars by 3½
The story: Jacksonville hasn't won on the road. Indianapolis hasn't won, period. Something has to give, and my guess is it's not the Colts' pursuit of Andrew Luck. Granted, Jacksonville's not very good, but the Colts are worse. Besides, the Jaguars have something to play for.
I just look at a Colts team that has been hammered the past three games, then measure it against a Jacksonville club that at least has been competitive -- and that held off the Ravens -- and come to one conclusion: Andrew Luck, start packing for Indy.
It's not just that Curtis Painter is struggling; it's that the entire Colts team is struggling, with the club ranked 31st in offense and defense. Now that's what I call a team effort.
It's also what I call a good reason to find another game.
Something to consider: In their past three games the Colts have fallen behind 31-0, 20-0 and 21-0, with two turnovers in their first three possessions vs. New Orleans and two turnovers in their first two vs. Atlanta.
Upset of the Week
The line: Chiefs by 3½
The story: I admit I don't have a conviction about this one. The Broncos are unpredictable, looking horrible one week, pretty decent the next. All I know is that they ran all over Oakland, and the Raiders just flattened San Diego. I also know that they seem to have found an offense that suits Tim Tebow, and let's get something straight about the guy: He's not as good as some want to believe, nor is he as bad.
But he is 2-1 this season.
The Broncos are in trouble if they fall behind here because that may force them to rely on Tebow's erratic arm, but I'm not sure that happens. Kansas City looked awful vs. Miami a week ago and has had some trouble moving the ball. Granted, the Chiefs are coming off an embarrassing loss at home, so maybe that minimizes the chances for the upset except ... except I don't think the Chiefs have the firepower to close this one out.
And maybe they don't have to ... not if Bad Tebow shows up. If we see the quarterback who carved up Oakland a week ago, however, the Chiefs are in deep kimchi. Look, Denver's not very good. But neither is Kansas City. All I know is that if I'm the Chiefs, I don't want this one close in the fourth quarter.
Something to consider: The Chiefs have won six of their past eight at home vs. Denver.
Five guys I'd like to be
1. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan: He's 8-1 in home division games, with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions, and aims for his third straight home game vs. an NFC South opponent with a passer rating of 100 or better. The Falcons are 18-0 when Ryan's passer rating is 100 or more.
2. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger: He's 6-1 at Cincinnati, with 10 touchdown passes and five interceptions. What's more, he aims for his fourth straight game with 300 or more yards.
3. Green Bay wide receiver Greg Jennings: He has six touchdowns in his past four games vs. Minnesota.
4. Denver quarterback Tim Tebow: In three career road starts, he's 2-1 with five touchdown passes, no interceptions and a passer rating of 96.0. In the fourth quarter of games this season, Tebow has four touchdown passes and one interception.
5. Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler: He's 4-1 vs. Detroit with 10 touchdowns and one interception. In his career, when he has a passer rating of 100 or better, his teams are 24-0.
Five best matchups
1. New England quarterback Tom Brady vs. Met Life Stadium: Brady has played here before, but he hasn't played before a crowd that could deliver Sunday's noise. You can thank Jets coach Rex Ryan for that. He implored Jets fans this week to make life impossible for his team's next opponent. "We're undefeated at home," he said, "and let's make it miserable. See if you can't make them burn timeouts. See if you can't make them false start. I wouldn't ask our fans to do this if I feel they couldn't be the difference."
2. Philadelphia cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie vs. Arizona: DRC was the Cards' first draft pick in 2008. Now he's struggling to find his way in Philadelphia. "I'm a way better cornerback than I'm playing," Rodgers-Cromartie said. Maybe, but people in Arizona heard that refrain last year, and he wasn't. Too bad Kevin Kolb isn't likely to play. I would like to see him find where Rodgers-Cromartie was on the field as Jay Cutler did Monday.
3. Detroit safety Chris Harris vs. Chicago: Harris was a starter for the Bears earlier this season. Then he was cut. Now he's preparing to defend Jay Cutler and Co. "Any questions they ask -- What is this? What is that? -- I guess I can give them further detail," he said. Harris is the Lions' No. 3 safety and will see plenty of action on special teams. But look for him on the field when the Bears spread their receivers. "It's going to be weird, but it's going to be fun at the same time," he said.
4. Cleveland coach Pat Shurmur vs. St. Louis offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels: Shurmur was the Rams' offensive coordinator last year. Now he coaches the Rams' next opponent and coaches vs. the guy who replaced him. Good luck to both because they'll need it. The Rams have scored 100 points this season and rank 23rd in offense; the Browns have 119 points and rank 30th.
5. Washington quarterback John Beck vs. Miami: Beck was the Dolphins' second-round pick in 2007 and started four games that year. He won none. When Tony Sparano took over as head coach in 2008, he was demoted to the third team, then released. When asked if he had fond memories of his experience with the Dolphins, he shook his head. "No, not that I can think of," he said. "I was just kind of a guy there." Nothing much has changed. Beck is still looking for his first career victory.
Five things that may interest only me
1. Through the first nine weeks, 86 of 130 games (66.2 percent) have been within seven points in the fourth quarter, the fourth-best total in league history. The most was 89 in 2004.
2. Since 2000, 28 teams reached the midway point of the season with records of .500 or worse and still qualified for the playoffs, including at least one each season.
3. Since joining the Patriots in 2007, wide receiver Wes Welker has 498 catches in 69 games. He needs two receptions to become the fastest player to reach 500 with one team. Anquan Boldin is the current record holder at 80, achieved when he was with Arizona.
4. The Miami Dolphins have lost 12 of their past 13 at home, but they're 4-0 there vs. Washington.
5. LeSean McCoy is the first player since Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith to score touchdowns in his first eight games of the season.
Numbers on the wall
5: Teams that trailed by 20 or more and have come back to win
9.88: Aaron Rodgers' league-leading yards per pass attempt
18: DeMarcus Ware sacks in his past 11 games
45: Yards from scrimmage LaDainian Tomlinson needs to surpass Barry Sanders for fifth on the NFL all-time yardage list; Jerry Rice is the career leader with 23,540
49.2: Percentage of games decided by seven or fewer points
121.7: Eli Manning's NFL-best fourth-quarter passer rating
• Atlanta: Dome
• Charlotte, N.C.: Partly cloudy, high of 65
• Cincinnati: Cloudy, windy, high of 64
• Cleveland: Cloudy, windy, high of 58
• Arlington, Texas: Partly cloudy, high of 79 (retractable roof)
• Indianapolis: Showers, wind, high of 60 (retractable roof)
• Kansas City, Mo.: Partly cloudy, high of 57
• Miami: Partly cloudy, high of 79
• Philadelphia: Mostly cloudy, high of 61
• Tampa, Fla.: Sunny, high of 81
• Seattle: Showers, high of 49
• San Francisco: Partly cloudy, high of 65
• Chicago: Showers, wind, high of 58
• East Rutherford, N.J.: Mostly cloudy, high of 61
Where we will be
• I'll be in San Francisco to see if I can find my heart.
• Pete Prisco will be in Atlanta to pose for photos at midfield.
• Mike Freeman will be at Met Life Stadium to give Fireman Ed a lift.