Game of the week
The line: Texans by 6½
The story: Quick, tell me how many teams in the AFC have winning records. You're looking at them. Each is 5-1, but each just subtracted key defensive performers. For Baltimore, it's cornerback Lardarius Webb and linebacker Ray Lewis. For Houston, it's linebacker Brian Cushing. All are lost for the season.
Now, look at that betting line. For two teams with identical records, it's surprisingly high -- especially with Houston 0-6, including the playoffs vs. Baltimore. The reason isn't just the losses of Webb and Lewis; it's the rest of a Ravens defense crippled by injuries. Three starters (Jimmy Smith, Haloti Ngata, Ma'ake Kemoeatu) missed practice this week, while a fourth (safety Ed Reed) revelaed that he's playing with a torn labrum.
That is not how you try to beat Houston in Houston. The Texans' Matt Schaub has won nine of his past 10 at home, and the Texans have something to prove in this game -- namely, that they could have ... no, would have ... beaten the Ravens in last year's playoffs had Schaub been their quarterback.
But he wasn't, and still they made a game of it. And that's another reason oddsmakers like them here. Yes, they stunk against Green Bay last weekend, and the Packers don't exactly have an air-tight defense. But that was Aaron Rodgers and six TD passes. This is Joe Flacco, and, depending on which day you get him, he can be Good Joe or Ordinary Joe. Flacco will need help to overcome Houston's sixth-ranked defense, which is where Ray Rice comes in. He has had success against these guys, and he's going to have to have more for Baltimore to survive.
Especially considering where this game is played, and I'm not talking about Houston. I'm talking about anywhere but Baltimore. The Ravens are almost unbeatable at home, but they're a different team on the road -- the envelope, please. Baltimore is 1-1 on the road this year, losing at Philadelphia and beating Kansas City 9-6 in a game it easily could've lost. What's more, it has exactly two touchdowns in two road games, and, sorry, that's not going to cut it here.
But neither is this: Baltimore can't stop the run, allowing its past two opponents to pile up over 200 yards each -- including 227 by Dallas last week. Now along comes Houston, and guess what the Texans do best? Uh-huh, feed Arian Foster and the league's sixth-ranked running attack. Maybe that's why Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees had a message for his unit this week that goes like this: "Cut the crap and get this thing done."
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The back story: The Texans are the only team in the league this year not to allow a rushing touchdown. In fact, they haven't allowed one since Week 15 of the 2011 season (Carolina) and allowed the fewest in the AFC (8) dating back to 2011. San Francisco is first in the NFL with five.
Three games I'd like to see
The line: Giants by 5½
The story: This game should make the Giants nervous, and I'll tell you why: 1) It's home, where they always seem to struggle; 2) It's against a rookie quarterback who has no trouble making opponents look bad.
If there's one thing I've learned from watching Robert Griffin III, it's never, ever, ever count out the Redskins. The guy can run. He can pass. He can dazzle. He can sidestep the pass rush. And he can outrun defensive backs.
In short, he can do just about everything except keep taking hits. The assumption here is that the Giants, energized by last weekend's rout of San Francisco, will intimidate him with their pass rush, but I want to see them get to this guy.
"He's going to be a problem in this league for a long time," said Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora.
He has that right. Griffin is quick. He's nimble. And he's a tough guy to back down. He's also why the Redskins are 3-3, tied with Philadelphia for second in the NFC East. There's a reason the Redskins were willing to sacrifice the future for RG3, and one series should tell you why. Only RG3 will have to be at his best here because this is no ordinary pass rush he'll be facing. This is one that sacked 49ers quarterbacks six times last weekend and that has piled up the tackles on Washington quarterbacks in recent years.
Furthermore, the Giants faced a running quarterback earlier this season and destroyed Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. But RG3 is no Cam Newton. He's more elusive. He's faster. And he's more accurate with his arm. Basically, he's a load. I have no doubt Eli Manning will put up points -- particularly in the second half -- and he better. Because no lead is safe when RG3 is involved.
The back story: Manning is 25-5 in October, the best percentage (.833) in that month during the Super Bowl era.
The line: Patriots by 10½
The story: Don't tell me Rex Ryan is going soft on us. He finally admitted that Bill Belichick is a better head coach, and while he's right you don't expect that from him -- especially the week of the New England game. Which makes me wonder: Does he know something we don't about this contest? Because what we know is that his Jets sure look like they're about to get torched by Tom Brady and that prolific Patriots offense -- one reason the line is as high as it is.
Ryan once said he thought he was the game's best defensive coach, and he better be Sunday if the Jets are to have a chance. They don't have their best defensive player ... their best player, period ... and their most dangerous offensive weapon. Yet somehow they're supposed to compete with a New England team that produces almost as many points as McDonald's does burgers, and good luck.
It's not just that the Patriots are a better team or that they're at home, where Brady seldom loses. It's that they own the Jets, winning 15 of the past 20 between the two. Heck, they own the AFC East, too, winning their past nine at home against division opponents.
In New England's past two losses it blew substantial fourth-quarter leads, and that's an indication its defense isn't much better from the one that handicapped the Patriots a year ago. But they can win with it because they produce a lot of points, and they can win with it here because ... well, because just who's going to put up the late points for the Jets?
Shonn Greene? That was a glittering performance a week ago, but what are the chances of that happening again ... let alone a second consecutive week? Yeah, I don't think so, either. Mark Sanchez? If he had credible outside weapons ... maybe. But he doesn't. Tim Tebow? Ryan said he could use him at running back, but that's going to make a difference? I don't think so. Stephen Hill? He has raw ability, but the emphasis is on the adjective, with Hill making nearly as many gaffes as catches.
The key, then, for Generation Rex is somehow to keep the Patriots within reach, get on top early and hold on vs. an offense that has produced at least 350 yards in each of its past 15 games. In short, it's up to Ryan to prove why he should be considered the best defensive coach out there.
The back story: In his past two games at Foxborough (including the playoffs), Sanchez has five touchdown passes, no interceptions and a 116.5 passer rating. When his rating is 100 or higher the Jets are 9-2.
The line: Steelers by 1½
The story: This is all about second place in the AFC North, where front-running Baltimore -- now crippled Baltimore -- might be coming back to earth. So far the Steelers and Bengals have been disappointments, with neither team's defense holding up as expected. Pittsburgh is the surprise there, with the Steelers blowing fourth-quarter leads in each of their past three games.
Fortunately for them, they have Ben Roethlisberger. Yes, he left Thursday's practice with a right ankle injury, but it's not considered serious. He'll tough it out ... just as he always does. Not only is Big Ben having another solid season; the Steelers lead all NFL clubs with a third-down conversion rate of 51.9 percent. That will win you a lot of ballgames ... provided, of course, your defense makes critical stops. That hasn't been an issue in Pittsburgh in the past, but it is now -- especially with safety Troy Polamalu sidelined indefinitely.
That means there's an opening for the Bengals, but there has been one for them the past two games -- and they flopped. They lost back-to-back games to Miami and Cleveland, and welcome to the NFL, folks, where parity is the new normal. The Bengals missed a perfect opportunity to move to the head of the pack and now settle in to the toughest part of their schedule, with half of their remaining opponents playoff teams from last year.
That could be an issue because remember what happened a year ago? They were 0-8 vs. playoff teams, including four losses to Baltimore and Pittsburgh. They already dropped one this year to Baltimore and got smoked in that game. If they're to avoid similar anguish, quarterback Andy Dalton must avoid the mistakes that have plagued him lately and Mike Zimmer's defense must play better than it has.
And it might here. The Bengals lead the league in sacks per pass play, and two things we know about Roethlisberger: 1) He holds the ball longer than most passers; 2) He takes more sacks than most passers. The opportunity will be there for Cincinnati to get him. The question is: Will it?
The back story: Roethlisberger is 14-2 in Ohio (7-1 at Cleveland and 7-1 at Cincinnati).
Monday night lights
The line: Bears by 6½
|Bears QB Jay Cutler has won five of his past six against the Lions. (US Presswire)|
Turnovers. Chicago forces them, Detroit does not.
The Bears appear to be a complete team, able to beat you with the run, the pass and defense, but nobody is perfect in today's NFL -- that includes unbeaten Atlanta. Everyone has holes, and Chicago's is its offensive line. If it can protect Jay Cutler, the Bears are in good shape. If it can't, look out below.
I mention Cutler because he's the key to what happens here. You're never really sure what to expect from him each week ... except when it comes to Detroit. Because the Lions bring out the best in Cutler, with the quarterback winning five of his past six starts against them and producing a passer rating of 100 or better in four of those games. Why is that significant? When Cutler's rating is 100 or better his teams are 25-0.
I have no doubt the Bears will put up points on Detroit. Everybody does. I do, however, have doubts that Detroit can respond. The Lions languished for all but the final six minutes of the fourth quarter last weekend before rallying to beat Philadelphia in overtime, a victory that saved their season. Maybe they get an emotional boost from that contest that carries over here, but it's not emotions that win this one.
It's turnovers. And Chicago has forced almost three times as many (17) as the Lions (6).
The back story: The Bears are 8-2 on Monday nights under Lovie Smith, winning six of their past seven and all three at Soldier Field.
Crummy game of the week
The line: Raiders by 4½
The story: This looks like little more than jockeying for a high pick in next year's draft. The Raiders have shown signs of a pulse -- with last weekend's loss to Atlanta the latest example -- but they still haven't found a way to win a second game. Jacksonville hasn't, either, though Blaine Gabbert gives us glimpses of the quarterback the Jaguars imagined when they made him a first-round pick. Still, the poor guy's inconsistent, erratic, unproductive, you name it ... and so is his ballclub -- and you can look it up. The Jags are last in passing, last in offense and last in points scored.
Maybe that's why coach Mike Mularkey wants Gabbert to run more.
Oakland could finish last in the AFC West. Jacksonville could finish last in the AFC South. So there's really no reason to watch unless you have Maurice Jones-Drew or Darren McFadden in Fantasy. Those are the guys who determine what happens here, with McFadden producing 209 yards from scrimmage and three TDs the last time these two met.
Of course, the Raiders also lost.
The back story: The Raiders haven't played a game with all five of the projected starters on their offensive line. Their starting offensive line has missed 20 quarters of play due to injuries.
Upset of the week
The story: Now the Browns are Jimmy Haslam's team. No, I don't think that makes an immediate difference on the field. There will be changes galore off the field, but, for the moment, the Browns are who they are -- not a very good team. But they're an improving one, a club that pushed Baltimore and the New York Giants before finally breaking through vs. Cincinnati.
I know the Colts' only two wins are at home, and I understand one of them was against Green Bay. So you would expect the line to be higher ... but it's not. Which means there's something here that will make the game close, and maybe that something is Brandon Weeden. He has been playing better and with Trent Richardson vowing to play with a flak jacket, that may be enough to put the Browns over the top.
I can't say I have a conviction about it happening. But I can say I'm willing to take the chance.
The back story: Andrew Luck is aiming for his third straight home game with at least 300 yards passing.
Five guys I'd like to be
1. Baltimore coach John Harbaugh: His Ravens haven't lost to Houston -- never. They're 6-0, including last year's playoffs, and have averaged 32.7 points in three games at Houston.
2. Buffalo DE Mario Williams: He has 5½ sacks in nine career games vs. Tennessee and seems to be getting heated up. He had two last weekend vs. Arizona.
3. Dallas QB Tony Romo: He's 3-0 vs. Carolina.
4. Minnesota DE Jared Allen: He has 4½ sacks in his past two games vs. Arizona and aims for his third straight start against the Cards with at least two. Given Arizona's situation at tackle, I like his chances. The Cardinals have allowed 22 sacks in their past three games.
5. N.Y. Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul: In five games against Washington, he has five sacks, 25 tackles, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble. He also has nine sacks in his past eight division games.
Five best matchups
1. Giants DE Osi Umenyiora vs. Washington QB Robert Griffin III: It was Umenyiora who said he wouldn't call the quarterback RG3 until he proved himself. Until then, Umenyiora said, it would be "Bob." Well, it's Bob no more. Griffin leads the league with a completion percentage of 70.2 and is third with a passer rating of 100.5. RG3 it is.
2. Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul vs. RG3: It's a measure of how impressive Griffin is that everyone wants to talk about him, and that includes JPP. He has a message for Griffin, and it's pretty direct: "Don't bring it to my side." The implication was clear: Try it and suffer the consequences. As Tom Coughlin would say, "We'll see."
3. Houston RB Arian Foster vs. Baltimore RB Ray Rice: Since 2010, they have been the two most productive backs in the business, with Foster averaging 134.1 yards from scrimmage and Rice 120. Foster has rushed for 100 yards in two of the three games he has played vs. Baltimore, while Rice had 101 yards the last time these two teams met. Baltimore is 13-2 when he hits three digits.
4. Minnesota's pass rush vs. Arizona's offensive line: The Cards lead the league in sacks allowed with 28, including 22 the past three games, and that's so bad that only one other club (Green Bay) has hit 20. Naturally, that hasn't escaped the attention of the Vikings' defensive line or defensive end Brian Robison, who said, "We always salivate, no matter what the team is." Well, this team can't protect the quarterback.
5. New York Jets LB Calvin Pace vs. Tom Brady and the New England offense: Pace calls the Pats' offense "borderline illegal because sometimes the guys aren't always set when they snap the ball." Great. Just what the Patriots need -- someone to poke a stick in their eye. Now I know why that point spread is as big as it is.
Five things that may only interest me
1. Quarterbacks have been historically accurate through the first six weeks, averaging 61.9 percent in completions and 86.3 in passer rating -- both NFL highs. The league-wide yards-per-pass-attempt average of 7.27 also is on schedule to set a league record in the Super Bowl era (1966).
2. Prime time is not Marvin Lewis' time, and the envelope, please: The Bengals are 4-10 under Lewis at night, losing their past eight, with 18.6 points the average margin of loss.
3. There have been 24 games where the winning points were scored in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime -- the most in league history through the first six weeks since the 1970 merger. Of those contests, seven were decided in overtime and 10 in the final 10 seconds of the fourth quarter.
4. Houston's Arian Foster has 41 touchdowns in 41 career games, a feat equaled or bettered by only seven other players since 1960.
5. San Diego leads the league with 55 points off turnovers this season. The Jets are second with 52, and Baltimore is third with 47.
Numbers to remember
5: Consecutive games with a J.J. Watt sack
5: Games Adrian Peterson has gone without scoring, the longest drought of his career
15: Consecutive games where New England has produced at least 350 yards in total offense
16: Consecutive Sebastian Janikowski field goal attempts without a miss
16: Wes Welker career games with at least 10 receptions
19: Game-winning drives by Matt Ryan in the fourth quarter or overtime
34:59: Houston's average time of possession, best in the NFL
103-49: Houston scoring vs. opponents in the first half
• Buffalo: Partly cloudy, high of 60
• Charlotte, N.C.: Sunny, high of 69
• Houston: Mostly sunny, high of 86 (retractable roof)
• Indianapolis: Mostly sunny, high of 67 (retractable roof)
• Minneapolis: Dome
• East Rutherford, N.J.: Sunny, high of 63
• St. Louis: Dome
• Tampa, Fla.: Mostly sunny, high of 83
• Foxborough, Mass.: Sunny, high of 61
• Oakland, Calif.: Partly cloudy, high of 66
• Cincinnati: Sunny, high of 68
Where we will be
• Pete Prisco will be in Houston to tell us why Baltimore misses Lardarius Webb more than Ray Lewis.
• Mike Freeman will be at MetLife Stadium to tell us who's faster -- RG3 or Usain Bolt.
• Gregg Doyel will be in Cincinnati to greet the next governor of Ohio, Ben Roethlisberger.