Game of the Week
The line: Bears by 1½
The story: The Texans live in one of the NFL's weakest divisions, so we're never really sure just how good they are or can be. Every once in a while we gain a glimpse, like that victory in Denver, but, basically, they continue to beat teams they should beat. Only now we'll have an accurate barometer, not only because they play Chicago but because they play in Chicago ... at night, no less ... and in November.
Matt Schaub is 11-1 in his past 12 starts, but he hasn't faced a defense like this. Few people have. The last time I checked Tim Jennings was off making another interception and Charles Tillman had poked the ball free from an unsuspecting wide receiver. The Bears have seven interception returns for touchdowns in the first eight games, and to appreciate that figure consider this: They're outscoring the passing offenses of Carolina, Miami and Kansas City, each of whom has six TDs.
I don't look for a lot of points here, basically because both defenses are so stingy. Houston ranks third overall and Chicago sixth, while the two are among the top four in points allowed. The Texans have Defensive Player of the Year candidate J.J. Watt, while the Bears have Defensive Player of the Year candidate Tillman. I think you get the idea.
The bad news for Chicago is that Tillman, who forced four fumbles last week, might not play because of the impending birth of his daughter (though he indicated he will likely play). The good news is that Lance Briggs will. The veteran linebacker quietly is having one of the best seasons of anyone anywhere and has as many touchdowns off interceptions (2) as Tillman.
The Bears can beat you with offense, defense and special teams. It's special teams that could make the difference here. They have terrific returners in Devin Hester and Eric Weems and one of the best kickers anywhere in Robbie Gould. In a game expected to be close, I would pay attention to special teams and field position.
I would pay attention to Jay Cutler, too. If he's on, the Bears are in; if he's not, they better hope Jennings or Brian Urlacher or Briggs ... basically, someone ... returns the next Schaub pass to the house. All I know is that Watt can make a quarterback's life miserable, and it doesn't take much to make Cutler an unhappy camper.
But I look at this game like this: The Packers took apart Houston at home, right? So you take the Texans and put them outdoors vs. a team that has a two-game lead on Green Bay, and what do you think happens?
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The back story: The Bears rank third in points scored and second in points allowed. The last time they were in the league's top five in both categories was 2006 ... the last time they went to the Super Bowl.
Three games I'd like to see
The line: Falcons by 2½
The story: I've been waiting for the Falcons to return to earth the past two weeks, and it hasn't happened. It could here. I know, enough of the Chicken Little routine, but they're going to lose sooner or later, and this might be the place. New Orleans is hot, winning three of its past four, and the Saints are home against an opponent that will win the division. If nothing else, this is a statement game, and the statement goes something like this: Who dat say dey going to beat dem Saints?
Uh, well, Atlanta. The Falcons have a score to settle with New Orleans, and it has to do with one of Drew Brees' many records. This one happened last year when he beat up on the Falcons to set the single-season yardage mark. Atlanta wasn't happy how that went down, and players on that team have long memories.
They also have one of the most efficient and effective offenses. They don't commit stupid mistakes. They don't commit penalties. They have the league's third-ranked quarterback. They have two of the best wide receivers anywhere. And they have one of the greatest tight ends in the history of the game. That combination has driven them to their best start ever, and, trust me, they don't want their winning streak to end here.
New Orleans does, of course, and if that happens it's going to be up to Brees to do it. The defense stinks, and I don't care what happened against the Eagles. Philadelphia stopped itself. The Falcons won't. So Brees must be at his best, and, lately, he has been -- with 15 touchdowns, three interceptions and four passer ratings of 109 or better in four of his past five starts.
Atlanta's cornerbacks are vulnerable, and not having Sean Weatherspoon for the second straight game will hurt, which is why the team with the ball last wins. No matter what happens, expect it to be close. Four of the past five games between these two were decided by a field goal, and six of the past seven by a touchdown or less.
The back story: Under Mike Smith, the Falcons are 38-9 in games where they score first.
The line: Giants by 4½
The story: The Giants are where they're most comfortable, on the road, and the Bengals are in the midst of a four-game slide that won't quit. So that makes this an easy one to pick ... or maybe not. New York hasn't been right lately, on offense or defense, and if you think I'm kidding you haven't been paying attention to coach Tom Coughlin.
This week he labeled his defense "soft" for its performance vs. Pittsburgh, and he's the guy who the past two weeks has watched Eli Manning reduced to mediocre. I'm serious. In two games Manning has no scoring passes, two interceptions and a passer rating of 50.58 -- numbers that will get you beaten.
I don't doubt that the Giants can and will win this game. But it's a potential trap. They can't play as they did the last couple of weeks and expect a free pass because it won't happen. Cincinnati is a desperate team, and desperate teams at home ... OK, so you know the mantra. The Bengals must avoid the mistakes that sabotaged Dallas two weeks ago and exploit the middle of the Giants' run defense as Pittsburgh did last weekend.
Then they have a chance.
But it's their defense that has been a problem, and that wasn't the case a year ago. The Bengals four times have allowed 31 or more points, and if Manning and the Giants' offense get their acts together they'll be next in line. But Hakeem Nicks is hurt and Ahmad Bradshaw continues to be bothered by a sore foot. I know, nothing has changed there, but at least both situations bear watching.
Of course, so does this: The Giants are the defending Super Bowl champions, and the Bengals can't beat 2011 playoff participants. I mean it. Dating back to last season, they're 0-11 vs. opponents that made it to last year's tournament. The Giants not only made it; they won it. Uh-oh.
The back story: Seven of the previous Giants-Bengals games have been decided by a touchdown or less. The only exception was a 30-13 Cincinnati win in 1977. The past three games have been decided by a field goal or less.
The line: Cowboys by 1½
The story: They've already put the coroner on alert in Philadelphia, where the Eagles seem headed for life support and their head coach for a one-way ticket out of town. The Eagles are one of this season's biggest disappointments. There are all sorts of reasons -- turnovers, Michael Vick, a pass rush that can't get to the quarterback, red-zone mistakes and an offensive line that looks like a casting call for Grey's Anatomy.
But that's no excuse for what we've seen lately, and what we've seen is a flat club that underperforms, can't tackle and doesn't seem to give a rip that it and its head coach are tethered to the Titanic. The Eagles had so much promise, but that has yielded to desperation ... and I'll say it again: Desperate teams at home are dangerous.
Except there's nothing dangerous about these guys, except when they get inside opponents' 20-yard lines. Then they're a danger to themselves. Not only can't they score touchdowns; they can't score period, ranking 30th in touchdown percentage and in percentage of points.
The latest blow is the loss of tackle Todd Herremans, and, no, I don't know how the Eagles or Vick carry on. He has taken a gazillion hits this season, but he keeps on coming back -- and say what you will about the guy; he's one tough SOB.
Of course, it would help if he wasn't a turnover waiting to happen, and expect more of that with an offensive line held together by glue trying to hold off DeMarcus Ware. If the Eagles know what's best, they practice screens, three-and-five step drops and more LeSean McCoy ... something, anything, to get the ball out of Vick's hands in a hurry.
The danger, of course, is that Philadelphia plays from behind again, which necessitates taking risks. The Eagles have been outscored 47-7 in the first quarter this season, and look no farther when you wonder where this team went off the rails. When they fall behind, they scramble to catch up -- often committing fatal mistakes.
If that is re-enacted ... especially here ... this could get really ugly.
A week ago, it was Dallas owner Jerry Jones who was locked out of the locker room. Another Eagles loss here, and it might be the entire Philadelphia team that gets turned away. Eagles fans are angry, and they want something to happen ... and they want it to happen now. Of course, so do Dallas fans, and something could -- provided Tony Romo starts putting up points again.
This might be just the place: In two games under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, the Eagles have allowed 58 points and 44 first downs, with opponents converting 54.5 percent of their third downs and quarterbacks completing 76.8 percent of their attempts for a combined passer rating of 133.1. With the Eagles failing to score more than 19 in all but two games, this could be another loss waiting to happen.
The back story: When Romo is sacked more than once, the Cowboys are 20-21.
Monday night lights
The line: Steelers by 12½
|Monday night heavyweight Ben Roethlisberger gets a lightweight matchup vs. the Chiefs. (AP)|
Yep, the Steelers' offense coordinator is the guy who coached the Chiefs the previous three years and led them to their first division championship since 2003. But he was fired with three games left last year, and you would have to be naive to think he doesn't see this as a chance to fire back.
"It's not Todd vs. the Chiefs," Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said, "and I think Todd understands that."
I'm sure he does. Nevertheless, it's a nice back story to what could be ... should be ... a mismatch, with the Steelers flexing their muscles at home, where they haven't lost. Pittsburgh is running the ball better lately, and that always helps when you're playing the league's 22nd-ranked run defense.
Ben Roethlisberger is his usual reliable self, too, and that helps in any situation. But it's those turnovers the Chiefs can't stop committing that cinches this game for me. You don't give Roethlisberger and the Steelers an advantage anywhere ... especially not here. But the Chiefs will because they can't help themselves.
The back story: Roethlisberger is 4-0 at home on Monday nights, with eight touchdowns, three interceptions and a 109.3 passer rating, and had a rating of 153.8 in his only home game vs. Kansas City (2006).
Crummy game of the week
The line: Seahawks by 6½
The story: I'll make this short. The Seahawks are home, where they're 4-0, and the Jets have to make a cross-country trip after losing four of five games. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie insists the Jets are a playoff team waiting to happen, but if that's the case they better make it happen pretty soon.
It's not that they're struggling; it's that they stink. Their offense can't score, and a defense that once was the backbone of the team is breaking. But that can happen when you have to carry a club, and the Jets' defense does.
Unfortunately for them, they will be the second-best defense on this field. The Seahawks will stop the Jets on the ground and stop them in the air ... meaning? Meaning somebody better come to the rescue if Cromartie's guarantee is to be realized. The Jets are running out of time.
The back story: Mark Sanchez has led the Jets to 11 fourth-quarter comebacks or OT victories, with seven of those wins coming on the road.
Upset of the week
The line: Lions by 2½
The story: I know, the Lions look like a club starting to find itself, but this is a tough place to win -- especially for Detroit. The Lions have lost 13 of their past 14 games at the Metrodome. Granted, the Vikings stunk here two weeks ago vs. Tampa Bay, but they emerged from that game determined never to pull an encore.
So I don't think they do. I think they lean on Adrian Peterson, hope Percy Harvin recovers from an ankle injury, count on Christian Ponder to avoid costly mistakes and believe that the league's ninth-ranked defense can contain Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson.
I know it's a stretch, and the Vikings have dropped three of their past four. They're a team going in the opposite direction of Detroit, yet this line is small, and it's small for a reason. Nobody really trusts Detroit yet, especially on the road -- except, of course, when that road goes to Jacksonville.
If there's a concern, it's Harvin's status. He's one of Minnesota's top playmakers, and if he can't go, rookie Jarius Wright gets the call. The last time we saw him he had six catches for 122 yards and a touchdown in Minnesota's preseason finale vs. Houston's backups.
The back story: Keep your eyes on Minnesota's Jared Allen and Detroit tackle Gosder Cherilus. They don't like each other. Three years ago Cherilus made a chop at Allen's knees, and the two got into it. Then they scuffled the following season, setting off a mini-brawl. When Allen this week was asked about it he said he respected 99.9 percent of the league's players. He listed Cherilus in the other 0.1 percent. But it's not Cherilus who Allen will face as much as it is left tackle Jeff Backus, and consider yourself warned. In the past five seasons vs. Detroit Allen has 13½ sacks, four forced fumbles, three pass deflections and one interception for a touchdown.
Five guys I'd like to be
1. New England QB Tom Brady: He's 19-2 vs. Buffalo, with 49 touchdown passes and a 103.4 passer rating.
2. New England TE Rob Gronkowski: He has eight touchdown catches in five games vs. Buffalo.
3. Minnesota DE Jared Allen: He had six sacks in two games vs. Detroit last season and has at least half a sack in his past seven starts.
4. New Orleans QB Drew Brees: Since joining the Saints in 2006, he's 10-2 vs. Atlanta, with eight 300-yard games and 10 games with two or more touchdowns.
5. San Francisco QB Alex Smith: He's 6-1 in his career vs. St. Louis and 9-1 in his past 10 division starts.
Five best matchups
1. Tampa Bay WR Vincent Jackson vs. the Chargers: When you list the talent that has exited San Diego, Jackson's name is at or near the top. The Chargers simply haven't replaced him, who signed a huge free-agent deal with Tampa Bay, and the numbers show it. Jackson is averaging a whopping 22.9 yards per catch, or over seven more than San Diego's best receiver with at least 10 catches (Robert Meachem, 15.8). You would have to think the game means plenty to Jackson, but we'll just have to imagine. He refused to do the conference call with the San Diego media this week.
2. Denver coach John Fox vs. Carolina: Fox was the Panthers' head coach for nine years and took them to their only Super Bowl, but he was canned following a 2-14 season in 2010 and landed on his feet in Denver -- where he has the Broncos on track to win their second division title. He still owns a home in Charlotte, has plenty of friends there and knows a lot of the players he'll see Sunday, but he's not owning up to anything close to a revenge factor. "It's a business trip, and we're getting our team ready," he said. Oh. So no hard feelings, right? "I have a philosophy that sometimes setbacks are setups for better things to come," he said. "I tend to approach things as the glass half full."
3. Chicago QB Jay Cutler vs. Houston DE J.J. Watt: If there's a hole to Chicago, it's the Bears' pass protection -- and that's where Watt comes in. The guy's a load, with 10½ sacks, 28 tackles for loss, 21 QB hits and 10 passes deflected -- four of those passes resulting in interceptions. Oh, yeah, he's also the popular midseason pick for Defensive Player of the Year."We have to be aware of where he's at," said Cutler. "He lines up in a lot of different positions." True, but here's something for the Bears to consider: All of Watt's deflections came against four quarterbacks -- Ryan Tannehill, Mark Sanchez, Blaine Gabbert and Joe Flacco.
4. The Baltimore Ravens vs. penalties: Not only have they accumulated the second-most penalties this season (only Washington is worse), their head coach twice has been flagged for unsportsmanlike behavior. With 66 penalties, they're on schedule to finish with 132, which would be the second-highest total in franchise history. "Not happy about it," coach John Harbaugh said. "We have to clean that up."
5. New York Jets QB Mark Sanchez vs. former Southern California coach Pete Carroll: Carroll's the guy who, when Sanchez opted to declare early for the NFL Draft, said his quarterback was making a mistake; that he wasn't ready. Now, four years later, the two will meet, and Carroll has slightly changed his tune, saying he was thrilled when Sanchez did well. Maybe, but the list of people jumping off his bandwagon is growing, and going to Seattle -- where the Seahawks haven't lost and Carroll is waiting -- probably won't help his Q rating. "It's going to be cool," said Carroll. "The people I love the most I love to beat the most."
Five things that may interest only me
1. With a victory Sunday, Atlanta becomes the ninth team since realignment in 2002 to begin the season 9-0. Of the eight teams that won their first nine starts, four went on to the Super Bowl and two won it (Indianapolis in 2006, New Orleans in 2009).
2. The next touchdown pass Tony Gonzalez catches will be his 100th, making him the only tight end to reach triple digits and the eighth player overall to accomplish that feat.
3. With a sack this weekend, Dallas linebacker DeMarcus Ware would reach 10 for the seventh straight season, tying him with Lawrence Taylor and Bruce Smith for the third-longest streak since sacks were recognized as a statistic in 1982. Reggie White (9) has the longest streak in league history, followed by John Randle (8).
4. Tampa Bay has scored 28 or more points in four straight games, a franchise record.
5. Seattle's Russell Wilson is the only rookie quarterback to throw three touchdowns in a game, and he has done it twice.
Numbers to remember
4-0: Baltimore's record at home vs. Oakland
5: Chicago takeaways in the red zone, an NFL best
7: Consecutive games with an A.J. Green touchdown catch
8½: Cameron Wake sacks in his past five starts
11: Consecutive wins at home for New England vs. Buffalo
14: Minnesota runs of 20 or more yards, best in the NFL
14½: Geno Atkins sacks, dating back to last season
15-0: Atlanta's record when Matt Ryan throws three or more TD passes
19-3: Tony Romo's record in November
• Baltimore: Mostly sunny, high of 66
• Charlotte, N.C.: Sunny, high of 68
• Cincinnati: Partly cloudy, high of 67
• Miami: Partly cloudy, high of 78
• Minneapolis: Dome
• Foxborough, Mass.: Mostly sunny, high of 60
• New Orleans: Dome
• Tampa, Fla.: Partly cloudy, high of 78
• Seattle: Cloudy, high of 48
• Philadelphia: Sunny, high of 64
• San Francisco: Sunny, high of 59
• Chicago: Few showers, high of 63
Where we will be• I will be in Chicago to sign up the Texans for ObamaCare.
• Mike Freeman will be in Philadelphia to audition for the Eagles' offensive line.