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Peek at the Week: Soaring Falcons against flightless Eagles; RG3 tests mettle

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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Game of the week

Atlanta at Philadelphia, 1 p.m. ET | Preview

The line: Eagles by 2½

The story: The Atlanta Falcons are the NFL's only undefeated team and generally are regarded as the best club out there. The Philadelphia Eagles are in a two-game tailspin, under heavy fire from their critics and dropping faster than Felix Baumgartner. They commit turnovers at a dizzying pace, their quarterback is treated like a piñata and they just canned their defensive coordinator.

So one question: Why in the world are they favored?

Easy. They're coming off a bye. If you believe in history, then you must believe in the Eagles here. The reason: I just mentioned it. The club is 13-0 under Andy Reid in games immediately following byes.

But it's not just that. Atlanta is ripe for a defeat. The Falcons should've lost to Carolina and could've lost to Oakland. Both those games were at the Georgia Dome -- where Atlanta almost never loses with Matt Ryan -- and those opponents have combined for three wins this season. So now the Falcons travel to Philadelphia, where there's a sense of urgency, and desperate teams at home are dangerous teams, which makes the Philadelphia Eagles dangerous.

OK, so they're dangerous. They're also a mess. Michael Vick has more turnovers (13) than all but four clubs, and the team has lost the ball more than everyone but Kansas City. We keep saying that has to stop, but it hasn't. And now the Eagles are suffering the consequences, with their defense blowing fourth-quarter leads in its past two games -- including a double-digit spread vs. Detroit.

The led to Juan Castillo's firing. I don't know what difference new coordinator Todd Bowles makes. What I do know is that when coordinators are fired in midseason it's always a sign that we're not far from someone pushing the panic button. While that's not the case here it could be. Philadelphia is talented, deep and starting to fall behind defending Super Bowl champion New York in the NFC East.

That's the bad news. The good news is the Eagles already beat the Giants and are a game and a half back. But something must happen and something must happen soon, and since the offense doesn't seem to be able to shake its funk, it's up to Bowles and the Eagles' defense. Basically, what it must do is recreate the pass rush that had Philadelphia producing 50 sacks a year ago. The pressure there then is missing now, and that can't last -- otherwise, you're looking at a new coaching staff and new team next year.

Overcoming Atlanta won't be easy. The Falcons are effective on both sides of the ball and, unlike Philadelphia, don't commit fatal mistakes. You can look it up: Atlanta has seven turnovers this year, and only Houston (6) is better. But look who the Falcons have beaten: There isn't one club among its six previous opponents with a winning record. OK, so the Eagles don't have one either. But this is exactly the wrong place and time to try to catch them.

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The back story: Over the past four seasons no defense has been better closing out opponents in the final two minutes of a half than Atlanta. The Falcons have allowed just 17 points in 61 possessions by opponents. In fact, in 2011 they allowed just one field goal inside two minutes of either half. Conversely, over the past two seasons no one on offense has been better than Philadelphia in the final two minutes of a half. The Eagles have scored a league-leading 24 touchdowns and 113 points (good for second) during the final two minutes of each half.

Three games I'd like to see

Washington at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m. ET | Preview

The line: Steelers by 4½

The story: Opponents everywhere are dazzled by Washington rookie Robert Griffin III, so expect more of the same from Pittsburgh this weekend. The Steelers believe they settled themselves last weekend, and they may have. But chasing RG3 isn't the same as attacking Andy Dalton, and the Steelers are about to find out the hard way.

It never really matters what the score is. Washington is never out of a game -- not with Griffin in the lineup, and not even when he and the Redskins can't hold on to the ball. That was the case last weekend when they committed four second-half turnovers, yet came within 90 seconds of upsetting the Giants. That's because they have Griffin, and when you have RG3 you have hope.

The problem, of course, is that the Redskins also have the league's worst pass defense, and that could cripple their chances here. Pittsburgh rediscovered a rushing attack last weekend with Jonathan Dwyer carrying the load, and he may have to be the ticket again this weekend. But it's not Dwyer who's the problem for Washington; it's Ben Roethlisberger and his cadre of wide receivers as well as tight end Heath Miller.

I just don't know how Washington stops them. Not here. Not now.

Cornerback DeAngelo Hall said the Redskins gave away last weekend's game to Eli Manning and the Giants, but that's what happens when your pass defense stinks -- and the shoe fits, DeAngelo. The Redskins have allowed 16 TD passes this year. Nobody has surrendered more. Expect that number to rise in an entertaining shootout between Roethlisberger and Griffin, with Big Ben getting the edge for two significant reasons.

First, he's home. Second, he's a proven winner. Check, please.

The back story: The Steelers have won their past eight at home vs. the NFC and their past three there against the Redskins. What's more, Roethlisberger is 14-1 at Heinz Field vs. the other conference.

N.Y. Giants at Dallas, 4:25 p.m. ET | Preview

The line: Giants by 2½

The story: Cowboys owner Jerry Jones might regret his admonition to Dallas fans last summer to come and see his team "kick the Giants' ass." Trust me, that comment hasn't been lost on the defending Super Bowl champions, who aren't used to opposing owners calling them out. But Jones did, and considering how Dallas has struggled, that's not a good idea.

First of all, the Giants are hot. In fact, they're beginning to look like the team that won Super Bowl XLVI. Second, Dallas just lost its best defensive player, linebacker Sean Lee, for the season. That's a significant setback. Third, Eli Manning plays some of his best football against these guys. Fourth, DeMarco Murray isn't playing, and backup Felix Jones is bothered by a sore knee. Fifth, and most importantly, Dallas is in no position to start mocking this opponent.

I'm not talking about where the Cowboys are in the standings. I'm talking about where they are, period -- which is home. There is no home-field advantage for Dallas at Cowboys Stadium, with the Cowboys producing a 14-12 regular-season record there, including 0-3 against the Giants. Furthermore, this is a home game in October, and the numbers are even worse there, with the Cowboys 2-5 at home during the month.

I guess what I'm saying is that even though Dallas surprised the Giants in the season opener, it is at a disadvantage here. Not only are the Cowboys little more than ordinary at home, but the Giants excel on the road, winning 10 of their past 14 there (not including the Super Bowl).

Star running back Ahmad Bradshaw missed two straight days of practice this week, but he said there's no need to worry; he sat out to prevent anything serious from happening to his injured foot. Tackle David Diehl, who hasn't played since Week 2 because of a knee injury, apparently is recovered and ready to return. But the Giants have carried on without him, allowing only three sacks in five games, and revitalizing their running game -- with Bradshaw the featured performer.

The back story: Tony Romo aims for his sixth straight game vs. the Giants with a passer rating of 100 or better. He has a rating of 121.3 in his past five against them, and that's significant. When Romo starts and has a rating of 100 (with at least 10 attempts) Dallas is 34-8.

New Orleans at Denver, 8:20 p.m. ET | Preview

The line: Broncos by 6½

The story: The Broncos not only come off a bye; they're coming off one of the most stirring comebacks in league history, rallying from a 24-point deficit against San Diego. That improbable victory gave the club such a lift that there's a feeling nothing can stop it from repeating as AFC West champions.

And maybe nothing can. But there's also a feeling in New Orleans that the Saints are beginning to get their act together; that Drew Brees and the offense are rolling again and that nothing or nobody will stand in their way.

And maybe that's right, too. All I know is that one of these teams is going to drop, and, knowing what I do of the Saints' defense, I'd make New Orleans the choice. I know, Brees is lighting up defenses. But so is Peyton Manning, and tell me how New Orleans stops him when Josh Freeman just shredded the Saints for 420 yards passing.

The game marks the debut of interim coach Joe Vitt, suspended six games for Bountygate, and I doubt his return makes much of a difference. It's the Saints' defense that must pull itself together, and call me skeptical. It ranks 32nd overall, 31st against the run and 30th against the pass.

Which is why somebody other than Manning could win this one ... and I'm talking about someone like Willis McGahee. The Saints are giving up an average of 160 yards rushing per game, and nobody but Arian Foster has more 100-yard performances the past two years than McGahee (nine). The combination of McGahee and Manning equals trouble for Vitt and the Saints.

The back story: The Broncos are 17-6 in games immediately following byes.

Monday night lights

San Francisco at Arizona, 8:30 p.m. ET | Preview

The line: 49ers by 6½

Aldon Smith and the 49ers hope to put the heat on the Cardinals in Arizona. (US Presswire)  
Aldon Smith and the 49ers hope to put the heat on the Cardinals in Arizona. (US Presswire)  
The story: The Cardinals are in a free fall, losing their past three games and one starting quarterback. But maybe something right happens here.

First of all, they probably keep the roof closed for this one, right? Well, they should. While the 49ers are 8-3 on the road under Jim Harbaugh, they're only 2-2 in domes. Second, it's the 49ers, and Arizona always, always, always plays them close here. In fact, since the 2002 realignment the two have met nine times in Arizona, with eight of those games decided by seven or fewer points and three going to OT. The average margin of victory? Try 4.1 points. Third, the Cards are beginning to get that desperate feeling, and, as I mentioned earlier, desperate teams at home are dangerous teams.

Having said all that, there's a reason the 49ers are decided favorites: They have the better defense, they have the better quarterback, they have the better running back and they have the better team. No, they haven't scored much lately, but neither has Arizona. Plus, the Cardinals have major issues with pass protection -- their quarterbacks have been sacked 29 times the past four games -- and this is just the opponent to take advantage of that shortcoming.

Remember, now, San Francisco has won five of the past six games these two played, and quarterback Alex Smith is 8-1 in his past nine starts vs. the NFC West. The only loss? It was to Arizona, and it happened right here.

The back story: The Cardinals' John Skelton is 6-0 at home as a starter. The last time he played San Francisco he threw for 282 yards and three TDs.

Crummy game of the week

Oakland at Kansas City, 4:05 p.m. ET (CBS) | Preview

The line: Chiefs by 1½

The story: I didn't think there was a team out there that was worse than Kansas City. Then I saw Oakland last week, and the Raiders won. It wasn't that they were mediocre; they were downright dreadful, and that was against a Jacksonville team playing without its starting quarterback and star running back. Still, it took five quarters to win in a game in which the Jags were practically waiting to be beaten.

Now the Raiders go to Arrowhead Stadium, where they have won their past five, including two in overtime, and, yeah, I think they keep the streak going here -- provided, of course, they avoid stupid turnovers and/or penalties. Granted, the Chiefs' defense is decent, but its offense isn't. In fact, it's downright indecent with Brady Quinn starting. There's a reason he didn't work out in Cleveland and Denver. Those Chiefs fans who cheered when he appeared in the team's last home game? They're about to find out why he was nailed to the bench.

The back story: The Chiefs' Tamba Hali has six career sacks vs. Oakland, including four in his past three against the Raiders.

Upset of the week

Seattle over Detroit, 1 p.m. ET | Preview

The line: Lions by 2½

The story: Remember what I said about desperate teams at home? Well, scratch that here because Detroit has some serious flaws -- starting with its inability to get anything going offensively until the second half. The envelope, please: In the first half, the Lions have been outscored 77-37; in the second it's 96-73, Lions.

Then I look at what makes these guys tick on that side of the ball, and it's Matthew Stafford and the passing game, right? Well, the Lions haven't seen a secondary like the one they're going to face. There's a reason Seattle is tied for the fewest number of touchdowns allowed (six), and it's a defensive backfield that looks more like an NBA lineup. Players are tall, they're physical and they're aggressive -- so aggressive that the 49ers' Jim Harbaugh complained about their play vs. his receivers.

I know the Seahawks have trouble on the road, and that's an understatement. But I also know what's in front of them if they can win this game: Five games at home in the second half of the season, and they haven't lost there this year. So, let's see, if they win here that's five for the season, plus another possible five at home ... yeah, I can see where that's motivation.

And I haven't even mentioned Marshawn Lynch, one of the toughest and most relentless backs in the game. Stopping the run is not Detroit's strength, and in a close game -- which this should be -- he could be the difference. Remember, Detroit is coming off a short week; Seattle is coming off a long one (it last played Oct. 18). That will be a factor, too.

The back story: Lynch has 85 or more yards rushing in 14 of his past 16 starts.

Five guys I'd like to be

1. Chicago RB Matt Forte: In three career games vs. Carolina he has 463 yards rushing (154.3 per game), including 205 in his last start against the Panthers. Forte is aiming for his third straight game vs. Carolina with 150 or more rushing yards.

2. Detroit QB Matthew Stafford: He has won four of his past six at home, including three straight where he threw for 300 or more yards.

3. Miami RB Reggie Bush: He is averaging 6.5 yards per carry vs. the Jets.

4. N.Y. Giants WR Hakeem Nicks: In six career games vs. Dallas he has 33 catches for 504 yards and four touchdowns. He has been huge the past two times at Cowboys Stadium -- 17 catches, 271 yards, two touchdowns. "Personally I like playing in the stadium," he said. "I don't know what it is."

5. Washington LB Ryan Kerrigan: He has a sack in three of his past four road games and produced two sacks and two forced fumbles in his last road game vs. the AFC.

Five best matchups

1. Atlanta CB Asante Samuel vs. Philadelphia's fans: Samuel makes his first appearance at Lincoln Financial Field since the Eagles traded him away last spring, and he's ready for whatever they have waiting for him. "They better cheer for me," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "They're going to cheer for me, or we're going to have a problem right there." When it was pointed out to Samuel the troubles the Eagles have endured this season, he indicated he wasn't surprised. "You make your bed," he said, "you got to deal with it."

Fan Poll

What is Week 8's best game?

Falcons at Eagles
22%
Redskins at Steelers
13%
Giants at Cowboys
33%
Saints at Broncos
25%
49ers at Cardinals
7%

Total Votes: 38,945

2. New Orleans QB Drew Brees vs. the Denver jinx: Brees is 0-4 against the Broncos at their stadium, and when asked if he knew that he said he did. "But thank you," he said. No problem.

3. Detroit WR Calvin Johnson vs. Seattle CB Richard Sherman: With Johnson known as Megatron, Sherman decided he wants to be called Optimus Prime, the fictional foil to Megatron. "I can definitely use it as motivation," Johnson said. Hey, whatever works, and Johnson needs something. He has one touchdown this season.

4. Miami RB Reggie Bush vs. Jets S LaRon Landry: On the same day Ryan said Bush should apologize, Landry expressed no regrets for the hit that hurt Bush the first time these two met. "I'm grateful for another opportunity to play this guy," Landry said, "and he will remember that hit. Every time he sees me he will remember that hit."

5. Miami C Mike Pouncey vs. Jets LB Aaron Maybin: Maybin's the guy who said the Jets want to "knock [Bush] out, but we want to do it legally" -- just the sort of comment no one wants to hear these days. Nevertheless, the Dolphins heard, and Pouncey responded ... perfectly. "I don't even want to talk about him," he said. "He's a joke. He's not even going to play enough plays to touch Reggie."

Five things that may interest only me

1. Since Dick LeBeau returned to Pittsburgh in 2004, the club has been nearly bulletproof against rookie quarterbacks. The Steelers are 12-1 against them, losing only to Baltimore in the 2007 season finale when Troy Smith overcame a club that rested many of its starters. In those 13 games, rookie quarterbacks have seven touchdown passes, 15 interceptions, a completion rate of 52.9 and a combined passer rating of 59.2. Robert Griffin III, consider yourself warned.

2. Green Bay returns to Lambeau Field for the first time in nearly a month, bad news for their next opponent -- which means Jacksonville is in deep kim chi. It's not just that the Packers are nearly unbeatable there (they have won 21 of their past 23 at home), dating back to 2009 they are averaging 31.2 points per game at home, best in the NFL. Nice, huh? You don't know how nice. They have produced 30 or more points 13 times in their past 27 home games and 40 or more eight times.

3. Dating back to Week 9 of 2011, Arizona (22) has allowed the second-fewest touchdowns in the NFL. Only San Francisco (21) is better.

4. There are as many teams in the NFC West with winning records (3) as there are in the entire AFC.

5. Expect a close game between Dallas and the Giants because ... well, because the two almost always play it tight. Of the past 10 times they have met, seven were decided by a TD or less, three by no more than four points.

Numbers to remember

7: Consecutive home wins for Jay Cutler
11: Cam Newton rushing touchdowns in 10 career road games
16: Career games where Wes Welker has at least 10 catches
19-9: Pittsburgh's record in prime-time games under Mike Tomlin
27: Games where Chris Johnson has 110 or more yards rushing
52-7: Score by which San Diego has been outscored in the second half of its past two games
86.4: Average league-wide passer rating, the highest in NFL history
100.7: Eli Manning's passer rating in his past seven starts vs. Dallas
140.8: Aaron Rodgers' passer rating for his past two games

Sunday's weather

 Chicago: Partly cloudy, high of 47
 Cleveland: Mostly cloudy, high of 46
 Detroit: Dome
 Green Bay, Wis.: Mostly sunny, high of 45
 East Rutherford, N.J.: Showers, wind, high of 56
 Philadelphia: Rain, wind, high of 57
 Pittsburgh: Showers, high of 46
 London, England: Cloudy, high of 48
 Nashville, Tenn.: Sunny, high of 57
 Kansas City, Mo.: Partly cloudy, high of 54
 Arlington, Texas: Sunny, high of 65 (retractable roof)
 Denver: Sunny, high of 50

Where we will be

 I'll be in Philadelphia to see if Eagles fans think Todd (uh, Bowles) is Godd, too.
 Pete Prisco will be in Phoenix to audition as an emergency tackle Monday for the Cards' offensive line.
 Mike Freeman will be in Dallas to see who gets kicked farther, Jerry Jones or the Giants.

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