Every Sunday our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter will share his quick-hit observations from the week that was in football. This week he focuses on topics that emerged from Week 3 of preseason.
1. The gap has widened in the AFC North.
The Steelers have had issues with their offensive line for years but they created hope this offseason by drafting Stanford OG David DeCastro and Ohio State OT Mike Adams. But Adams proved in Pittsburgh’s first preseason game that he isn’t ready to start and DeCastro dislocated his right kneecap, tore his MCL, and suffered damage to his patellar tendon in Saturday night’s game against the Bills. ESPN’s Adam Schefter hasn’t ruled out the possibility that DeCastro could play this year, but it doesn’t look good for the Steelers’ first-round pick. Finding a suitable replacement for running back Rashard Mendenhall continues to be an issue and Mike Wallace remains a holdout. Meanwhile, the Ravens’ offensive line, which was a question mark heading into training camp, has started to gel. Joe Flacco also looks comfortable running Baltimore’s no-huddle offense and receiver Torrey Smith is on the verge of a breakout season. The Steelers are going to complete – that’s just what they do. But the gap between them and the Ravens has widened the past three weeks.
2. Bradford is quietly becoming one of the more polarizing players in the NFL.
His defenders point to the fact that he’s now learning his third offense in three years, has never played behind a sturdy offensive line and doesn’t have a bona fide No. 1 to throw to. His critics say that he needs to be less skittish in the pocket, needs to do a better job of going through his reads and needs to throw more downfield. He is Sam Bradford. Which side is correct? As of right now both sides are. In the Rams’ second preseason game last Saturday, Bradford stood tall in the pocket, went through his progressions and delivered the ball downfield when given an opportunity. But on Saturday night in Dallas he reverted back to the quarterback that his critics have grown tired of. At this point it’s not fair to call Bradford a bust when his offensive line continues to get him killed in the pocket. But at some point he needs to raise the level of his play. It’s not fair to compare him to Aaron Rodgers or Ben Roethlisberger, two quarterbacks with three Super Bowl rings between them. But Rodgers and Roethlisberger have both delivered behind suspect offensive lines. It’s true that both QBs have had better weapons around them but the point is that Bradford needs to elevate his teammates. He succeeded as a rookie because Pat Shurmur built an offense that focused on short to intermediate routes that allowed Bradford to get the ball out of his hand quickly. Last season Josh McDaniels nearly got Bradford killed because he continued to call five and seven-step drops even though his receivers couldn’t get open and his offensive line couldn’t protect. This season the focus is back on Steven Jackson and the ground attack, as well as the short passing game. So can Bradford make significant strides in his development or will he give his detractors more fuel? The jury is still out.
3. Luck continues to impress.
Back in April the media fawned over how the Colts drafted two tight ends in Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen for No. 1 pick Andrew Luck. “Tight end is a young quarterback’s friend,” is what everyone said, which is true. But what’s interesting is that Luck hasn’t even used his tight ends in preseason. Fleener does have four catches for 38 yards but both he and Allen were shut out on Saturday against the Redskins. Even in the face of poor pass protection and having to learn the nuances of the pro game Luck hasn’t been afraid to throw to his receivers. (Donnie Avery finished with six receptions for 38 yards after being targeted seven times on Saturday while Reggie Wayne caught six of his seven targets for 41 yards.) The Colts don’t have enough pieces to be a threat this season but thanks to Luck they will be more competitive. He continues to stand tall in the pocket, step into all of his throws, and display accuracy and touch on his passes. Expectations should be tempered but the Colts have to be thrilled with what they’ve seen thus far.
4. Concerns continue to grow in Chicago.
The problem with the Tampa 2 defense is that if the front four can’t generate pressure then there’s a lot of holes that opposing quarterbacks can exploit. Fortunately for the Bears they’ve had a player in Brian Urlacher who has manned the all-important MIKE linebacker position for the past decade and they’ve been able to drum up consistent pressure under Smith. But Urlacher’s health will likely be a concern all season and the team just placed free safety Brandon Hardin on injured reserve with a neck injury. With Chris Conte (shoulder) questionable for Week 1, Chicago could have a growing issue in the middle of their defense. It’s imperative that pass rusher Julius Peppers not regress because if he does, opposing quarterbacks will have a field day picking on Nick Roach (Urlacher’s backup) and the safeties.
5. The Lions are seemingly walking a thin line when it comes to health.
Detroit fans should be excited about the possibility that the Lions will make back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time since the mid-90s. But their players continue to drop like flies this offseason. Matthew Stafford (hand), Kevin Smith (ankle), Chris Houston (ankle) and Bill Bentley (shoulder) were all injured in the team’s third preseason game on Saturday. Louis Delmas, Mikel Leshoure and Jahvid Best were already dealing with injuries or have just recovered from injuries that occurred before last night’s game. Thus, it’s fair to ask whether or not the Lions will be able to stay healthy enough all season in order to compete with the Packers and Bears in the division. Remember, Detroit would have likely missed the playoffs last season had Jay Cutler and Matt Forte not been injured down the stretch. Thanks to Stafford, Calvin Johnson and that outstanding vertical passing game, the Lions remain a threat in the NFC. But this wasn’t a team that steamrolled into the playoffs last year. Questions remain on the defensive side of the ball, specifically in the secondary, and the offense is without a reliable running game at the moment. Outside of the 2010 Green Bay Packers (who were the sixth seed that year, don’t forget), teams that are usually riddled with injuries early in the year don’t have what it takes to make a deep run. It’ll be interesting to see if Detroit can get guys healthy and avoid future scares.
6. Can the Titans establish an identity?
The Texans are the class of the AFC South and they might even be the class of the entire conference, with apologies to the Patriots and Ravens. But the Titans have enough talent to make things interesting in the division if Jake Locker can improve on his accuracy. I like that Tennessee has installed Run ‘N Shoot elements in the offense and thanks to Locker’s arm strength, this team will strike for big plays throughout the year. Chris Johnson should also have a bounce back campaign if the offensive line can do a better job run-blocking and the defense is decent despite the losses of Cortland Finnegan and James Jones. But who are the Titans? Locker has a couple of nice weapons in Kenny Britt and Kendall Wright, but Britt is always in trouble or hurt and Wright is still a rookie. So are they a run-first team? The defense doesn’t have a huge weakness but it also doesn’t have a reliable strength either. What is the identity on defense? I could see Tennessee winning eight or nine games this season but at some point they’re going to need to figure out who they are under Munchak or they’ll remain the definition of blasé and questions will pop up throughout the year.
7. The Cardinals should kick the tires on Hasselbeck.
Since John Skelton couldn’t create any separation between himself and Kevin Kolb in the team’s fourth preseason game, it looks like Kolb is going to win Arizona’s starting quarterback job based on his inflated salary. It’s fair to point out that the Cardinals’ offensive line has been a disaster for the past three weeks and that has played into Kolb’s shaky preseason performance. But let’s not make excuses for him: He’s been brutal. Not that Tennessee has any interest in trading its most valuable backup, but if I’m Arizona I’m at least picking up the phone and seeing what the Titans would want for Matt Hasselbeck. No quarterback is going to succeed behind that offensive line but at least Hasselbeck is a savvy veteran that can get the ball out of his hands quickly and be a ball distributor. That’s all the Cardinals really need because they have enough specialty players. I’m sure Hasselbeck will remain in Tennessee but if the Cardinals are interested in a veteran QB (and why wouldn’t they be?), then the former Seahawk would be an interesting fit.
8. The rich have gotten richer.
Three weeks ago it looked like Cedric Benson wasn’t going to play in 2012 because nobody wanted anything to do with him. But then James Starks struggled in camp and preseason, and Alex Green was slow to recover from ACL surgery. Thus, Benson winds up in Green Bay…and he looks good. Against the Bengals on Thursday night, the guy ran like he was angry at the ground. He was quick, he was spry, he was incredibly motivated. He doesn’t need to be Adrian Peterson or Maurice Jones-Drew in that Green Bay offense. The Cedric Benson that rushed for 1,000 yards last year will do. Because of the Packers’ up-tempo, no-huddle offense, Benson will face plenty of soft defensive fronts so as long as he’s consistent from week to week, he’s going to make a larger impact for Green Bay than people think.
9. The Bucs are still a year away.
Thanks in large part to Josh Freeman and an opportunistic defense, Tampa Bay surprised in 2010. Even though Freeman and Co. fell off a cliff last season, optimism began to grow for the Bucs when they hired former Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano to replace Raheem Morris. (The front office finally opened their checkbook this offseason too, signing Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks.) But the defensive front seven remains a weakness and Freeman doesn’t look comfortable in Mike Sullivan’s offense yet. Through three preseason games he’s completed just 52.9-percent of his passes and has relied mostly on checkdowns. There’s no question the Bucs will be more competitive this year than last, because they’ll rely on Schiano’s power run game to eat up the clock and keep games close. But losing OG Davin Joseph to a season-ending injury doesn’t help and the Saints and Falcons simply have more overall depth and talent in the division.
10. The Davis trade is good for both sides.
Earlier this week Colts owner Jim Irsay tweeted that a trade was coming and as it turns out, he was telling the truth. Indy acquired cornerback Vontae Davis from the Dolphins in exchange for a second-round and conditional sixth-round draft pick in 2013. Chuck Pagano brought Baltimore’s defense to Indianapolis when he was hired by the Colts earlier this year. And for his defense to ultimately succeed, Pagano knew he had to acquire a corner that could play press-man. Last week the Colts traded for Josh Gordy of the Rams, but Indy still lacked a defensive back that can be physical at the line of scrimmage and compete on an island. Davis can be that player, although he’s far from justifying his first-round talent. On the other side, the Dolphins weakened their secondary but Davis had already lost his starting job to Richard Marshall and wasn’t a fit in Kevin Coyle’s system. Considering they’re not going to compete this season, the Dolphins got good value in exchange for a player that they no longer viewed as a starter.
Every Sunday morning our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter will provide his “quick-hits” from around the league. You can follow him on Twitter @AnthonyStalter.
+ Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff had it right in 2008 when they built the Falcons’ offense around Michael Turner. The “Ground and Pound” approach took pressure off rookie Matt Ryan and the Falcons surprised by winning 11 games and making the postseason. Four years later they were still leaning on the same approach and the result was an 0-3 record in the playoffs and plenty of question surrounding Ryan’s ability to be more than just a game manager. But finally it appears that Smith and the Falcons are ready to embrace a new offense. “When we first came in, coach (Mike) Smith said we were going to run the ball,” offensive assistant Andrew Weidinger told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Now, we are going to throw it, too. We’ve got all sorts of weapons. We’ve got running backs. We’ve got tight ends. We’ve got receivers. We are going to be able to do a little bit of everything out there.” Until Smith allows his offensive coordinator (now Dirk Koetter, who replaces Mike Mularkey) to build the offense around Ryan then the Falcons will continue to underachieve. The Falcons are long overdue to attack opponents, run more of the no-huddle (an offense that Ryan thrives in), and puts less emphasis on Turner and the ground game. They’re long overdue to take the chains of Ryan, who was clearly at his ceiling in Mularkey’s system.
+ “As a Buffalo Bills fan, I hope there’s so much turmoil during training camp. I hope (Tim) Tebow plays great, he pushes (Mark) Sanchez, and all of a sudden the locker room is coming apart,” former Bills great Jim Kelly told Andrew Siciliano on NFL Network’s Total Access on Friday. I’m with Kelly, although for different reasons. I hope Tebow plays great and pushes Sanchez because Sanchez hasn’t had to worry about losing his job since he got into the league. Yes, at one point last season Rex Ryan gave Mark Brunell first-team snaps in practice. But Brunell has never been a legitimate threat to Sanchez, who has yet to be pushed since arriving to New York in 2009 and conversely, is seemingly behind in his development. Tebow is a brutal passer but he’s a competitor and he won’t be content with his role as a backup. Jet fans should want Tebow to play well in preseason because he’ll either force Sanchez to elevate his game or he’ll get him out of the starting lineup. Either way it’s a positive for the Jets.
+ There was nothing premature about the Lions signing head coach Jim Schwartz to a multi-year contract extension on Friday. Along with GM Martin Mayhew, Schwartz has overseen one of the more impressive makeovers in NFL history. It wasn’t that long ago that Detroit posted a 0-16 season and was regarded as one of the worst franchises of the last decade. Since the Wayne Fontes era ended in 1996, the Lions have had seven different head coaches, none of which lasted more than three seasons. And while Schwartz’s win-loss record currently sits at 18-30, he clearly has this Detroit team on the rise. Now, if he can only tone down the sideline and post-game antics and get his players to stop making weekly trips to the clink, then the Lions would really be on to something.
+ ESPN’s Ron Jaworski believes that Michael Vick is capable of turning in “the best year of” his ten-year career in 2012. “This offseason is the most important of his career,” Jaws said. “It’s the first time since 2006 with the Falcons that he will go through the OTAs and training camp as the starting quarterback.” That’s all well and good but Vick doesn’t prove his worth in June or even September for that matter. It’s December and January when we find out how much Vick can carry a team. There have been too many times throughout his career where he’s looked like an unstoppable force only to sputter out down the stretch because he’s too banged up and/or gets careless in pivotal games. Go back to 2004 when he posted a 46.5 quarterback rating against the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. Or the 2010 postseason when he posted a 79.9 QB rating and forced a pass to the end zone that was picked off by Tramon Williams to seal the loss for Philadelphia versus Green Bay. I have no doubts that Vick will play like a Pro Bowler during the regular season. It’s the postseason where he has everything to prove.
+ The Boston Globe had an interesting report on outgoing Eagles president Joe Banner “having a good laugh” about DeSean Jackson’s five-year, $47 million contract. Per Globe reporter Greg Bedard, Banner “never would have done that deal.” But regardless of Banner’s opinion about Jackson’s contract, look for the receiver to have a major bounce back season. Jackson was so consumed by his future and contract situation last season that he completely took himself out of games. And for that, he deserved the criticism he received for not handling the situation more like a professional. It’s human nature to be concerned about your financial future but it’s never okay to stop doing your job, especially when you’re currently under contract. That said, with his contract situation behind him look for Jackson to keep his focus on football and become the weapon he was before the 2011 season.
+ If you enjoy mediocre quarterback competition, then keep tabs on the situation in Miami. ESPN’s Adam Schefter stated on Friday’s SportsCenter that David Garrard looked like the leader in the Dolphins’ quarterback competition during spring practices. “The more you hear, the more it sounds like David Garrard has really taken this opportunity to emerge as the favorite to be the starting quarterback down in Miami. Very impressive, adept, good footwork. Matt Moore’s been good, Ryan Tannehill’s been good, but David Garrard has looked the most comfortable of any of the quarterbacks.” Dolphin fans may disagree but they should want Garrard to start this season. Blaine Gabbert would have benefited from watching Garrard last year in Jacksonville. Instead, the Jags displayed impatience by cutting Garrard and thrusting Gabbert into the starting lineup when he wasn’t ready. You may believe that Tannehill is a better prospect than Gabbert but there’s little doubt the former Texas A&M QB would benefit from holding a clipboard. The Dolphins are without weapons at the wideout position and their pass blocking wasn’t very good last season either (outside of Jake Long). Thus, while Miami fans may groan about having to watch Garrard for a season, at least it would save Tannehill from possibly having a Gabbert-type rookie year (and the sea of doubt that followed it).
+ It’ll be interesting to see how Demaryius Thomas performs this season now that Tim Tebow is out and Peyton Manning is in at quarterback for Denver. The biggest difference between the two quarterbacks is now Thomas actually has to run routes. “You’re gonna have to run the whole route tree now,” said Thomas on Thursday. “The comebacks, the slants, the posts, the ins. And I didn’t have to do that much in my first couple of years in the league.” I’m not sure why Thomas didn’t have to run a full route tree under Josh McDaniels but last year he played backyard football because of Tebow, so we’ll see whether or not his development speeds up or slows down now that Manning is his quarterback.
+ Cedric Benson averaged just 3.67 yards per carry last season with the Bengals and 3.76 YPC during his four seasons with Cincinnati. So it’s not surprising that multiple teams didn’t bust down his door when free agency began back in March. That said, he’s 29 and is coming off a 1,000-yard season. One would think that somebody would sign him as a backup, especially when you consider how many teams implement a two-back system. According to Adam Schefter, Benson remains on the Raiders’ radar but they don’t seem to be in a hurry to sign him despite losing Michael Bush (Bears) in free agency and employing an injury-plagued Darren McFadden as a feature back.
Despite trailing at halftime, the Saints rolled to a 45-28 victory over the Lions on Saturday night to advance to the Divisional round of the 2012 NFL Playoffs. Here are quick-hit reactions from this Wildcard shootout.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (C) dives for a first down against the Detroit Lions during the third quarter of their NFL NFC wildcard playoff football game in New Orleans, Louisiana, January 7, 2012. REUTERS/Sean Gardner (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)
- What Drew Brees does is almost surgical. If he has time to survey the field, he always goes vertical. I’m talking 9, 20, 40-yard strikes down the field. If he feels pressure, he has a trio of backs at his disposal that are elusive, powerful, and can create yards after contact when they slip out of the backfield. If he sees that a blitz is coming, he knows exactly where to go with the ball at all times. (Although it makes it easier when the defense leaves your 6’6” tight end wide open at the goal line. I mean, he’s 6’6” – the Lions couldn’t find him?) Granted, Brees has a ton of help. Marques Colston made a huge mistake in the first quarter when he fumbled the ball to kill a potential New Orleans scoring drive, but he’s as good as them come. Pierre Thomas ran tonight like he did back in the ’09 postseason and somewhere Chargers GM A.J. Smith is kicking himself for letting Darren Sproles leave San Diego. Jimmy Graham is a freak of nature and when all of those weapons aren’t available, Brees still has Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem (when he’s not dropping wide-open passes) and Lance Moore (when healthy) in his back pocket. This is a well-oiled machine New Orleans has here, and Brees is the absolute perfect captain to be at the controls.
- Want to know how the Saints score 40-plus points at home every week? Try 7-of-11 on third down and 3-of-4 on fourth down. When an offense constantly picks up third downs, it absolutely deflates a defense and that leads to points. Detroit clearly didn’t believe it could stop Brees tonight and it didn’t.
- That said, it’ll be interesting to see how the Saints fare now that they have to go on the road for one, and possibly two games over these next couple of weeks. There’s no question they’re a different team away from the Superdome, as Sean Payton has a tendency to get less aggressive and the defense doesn’t perform as well. San Francisco owns the best defense in the NFC playoff pool this year, so we’re about to find out how good this New Orleans offense is on the road. What a great matchup next weekend in San Fran.
- Lions fans will note that several calls didn’t go their way tonight, and they have every right to. But it’s hard to win when your defense can’t get off the field on third and fourth down, when your players don’t wrap up, when you turn two first-half turnovers into zero points, and when two of your defensive backs drop sure interceptions. There’s no question that Detroit got the short end of the stick when it came to penalties. No question. There were several missed holding calls on the Saints’ Pro Bowl linemen throughout the night, a bad spot on third-and-11 in the third quarter that gave New Orleans a first down (which led to a score), and of course, a blown whistle that most likely would have led to a Lions’ touchdown on Brees’ fumble in the first half. But the Lions failed to do the basics tonight and it cost them. Bad officiating or not, when you can’t tackle and take advantage of potential turnovers then you’re not going to win most games.
- One thing the Lions did do a great job of in the first half was get pressure on Brees with just their front four. Outside of the two Saints’ turnovers, that’s the main reason they held a lead heading into halftime. But about midway through the third quarter that pass rush dropped off and Detroit’s overmatched secondary was exposed. It’s unfair to play the defensive line for how things unraveled in the second half, because the bottom line is that the Lions’ defensive backfield made zero plays tonight. But the difference between the two quarters is that Brees was under duress in the first, and had time to find open receivers int he second. (And I mean wide open receivers.)
- As long as Matthew Stafford stays healthy Detroit fans won’t have to go another 11 years before they see their Lions play in another postseason game. That dude is for real. That 42-yard rainbow that he dropped perfectly into the hands of Calvin Johnson in the third quarter was beautiful and he had a handful of other passes that were right on the money. It’s not that he has a big arm: he has a big, accurate arm. He’s going to be an elite quarterback one day. (Again, if he can stay healthy.)
- I don’t know how defenses are supposed to cover Calvin Johnson. He’s obviously going to make plays when he’s open but there were several times when two New Orleans defenders were draped all over him and he still came down with the football. And if you make a mistake in coverage like the Saints’ corner did while playing Cover 2 on Johnson’s corner route in the second quarter, it’s almost a guaranteed touchdown (which it was). It’s amazing to think that one of the knocks on him coming out of college was that he sometimes lost focus. The guy has transformed into one of the best players in the game – focus on that.
- I thought Scott Linehan called a very good game until things got out of hand in the fourth quarter. He stayed aggressive throughout, which is something that most opponents won’t do when facing the Saints because they’re petrified to give the ball back to Brees and that offense, and constantly had New Orleans’ defense guessing. But at some point the Lions will need to find more offensive balance. Granted, they did lose starting running back Jahvid Best earlier this season due to a concussion, but 32 rushing yards on 10 carries isn’t going to cut it. Not against the Saints, not against anyone. When a defense doesn’t have to worry about stopping the run, they can drop extra defenders back or blitz effectively off the edge. New Orleans had to worry about one thing tonight: Stopping Calvin Johnson. (Uh, which they didn’t, but at least their offense scored 45 points to make up for it.)
- There’s no doubt that fans will be disappointed after this game. But the Lions made the playoffs this season. That’s fantastic. You won’t find a more loyal fan base than the one up in Detroit, so hats off to you Lions fans – your team finally made the top 12 again. Hopefully it’ll be a regular occurrence moving forward…
New York Giants Eli Manning gets set to pass in the first quarter against the Seattle Seahawks in week 5 of the NFL season at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey on October 9, 2011. UPI /John Angelillo
Bengals @ Texans, Saturday, 4:30PM ET
The biggest concern for the Bengals right now might be the fact that rookie Andy Dalton has hit a wall. He’s topped 200 yards passing in just one of his final five games and he missed practice on Wednesday after being hospitalized with flu-like symptoms. In his Week 14 matchup against Houston, he went 16-of-28 for 189 yards and one touchdown, which wasn’t enough as the Texans rallied for a 20-19 victory. For all the talk surrounding Houston’s quarterback situation this week, Dalton may be the key to this game. The Texans’ pass rush is one of the best in the league and their run defense has been stout as well. Cedric Benson was limited on Wednesday because of a foot injury and he’s also been dealing with a back issue. If the Bengals can’t get their running game going, Dalton will become the focus. Wade Phillips will surely throw a few wrinkles at the rookie in his first postseason game, so it’ll be interesting to see how Dalton responds to his biggest test as a pro. Win or lose, Dalton has had a great year and performed well beyond expectations. But for the Bengals to advance to the Divisional round, he’ll have to raise the level of his play.
Lions @ Saints, Saturday, 8:00PM ET, Saturday
The key to this game isn’t Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson or Detroit’s secondary. Believe it or not, it isn’t Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham or Sean Patyon either. The key to this game is Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril, Corey Williams and the rest of the Lions’ defensive line. You don’t beat an elite quarterback by blitzing him on every play. You beat him by dropping defenders into coverage and rushing him with your front four. Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady – they’re all the same. They can beat a blitz because they know their respective offenses like the back of their hand and they know exactly where to go with the football to burn a defense. But like any quarterback, they struggle the most when under pressure. Granted, it’s easier said than done to only bring four down linemen on a given play. If Suh and Co. don’t reach Brees, he’ll have plenty of time to wait until his receivers get open before delivering those accurate passes of his. Plus, a big reason why Brees is so good is because his offensive line has been excellent in pass blocking this season. Opponents try to overload with blitzes because Carl Nicks, Jermon Bushrod and Jahri Evans have been immovable objects up front. But it’s gut-check time for the Lions. They certainly have enough offensive weapons to match Brees and Payton, but if they can’t bring heat using their front four then they’ll be dead upon arrival.
Falcons @ Giants, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
While most of the national focus this week is on the explosive battle in New Orleans and whether or not Tim Tebow has any magic left in that inaccurate left arm of his, this Falcons-Giants matchup might be the most even of the four Wildcard games. Both teams are built to run the football and therefore, fans may be treated to a heavy dose of Michael Turner, Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. But it’s been the play of Matt Ryan and Eli Manning that has gotten the Falcons and Giants as far as they are. Ryan’s 92.2 QB rating is his best in four seasons as a pro and in his last four games he has a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 10:0. Manning, meanwhile, has compiled a QB rating of 92.9 this year, which is only bested by his 93.1 mark in 2009. He also set franchise records for passing yards (4,933), attempts (589) and completions (359), and has set an NFL record by throwing 15 of his 29 touchdowns in the fourth quarter. He’s one of the biggest reasons, if not the biggest reason, that the Giants have five wins this season in which they erased fourth-quarter deficits. While Atlanta’s ability to slow New York’s pass rush will be a huge factor this weekend, this game will likely come down to the basics: penalties, turnovers, and execution (or lack thereof).
Steelers @ Broncos, 4:30PM, Sunday
With how pitiful Tim Tebow and the Denver offense looked last week at home versus Kansas City, there are plenty of NFL observers who envision a blowout this Sunday at Sports Authority Field. But as I wrote earlier this week in my “Five Questions…” piece, the Steelers aren’t exactly steamrolling into the playoffs. In their last four games Pittsburgh is averaging just over 14 points per game, which includes a 27-0 win over the hapless Rams in Week 16. It’s no coincidence that the Steelers’ offense started to struggle when Ben Roethlisberger hurt his ankle in a Week 14 victory over the Browns. But even two weeks prior to that when Big Ben was healthy, the Steelers managed just 13 points in a 13-9 win over the Chiefs. For as bad as Tebow has looked the past two weeks, Denver’s defense certainly has the capability of keeping things close, especially if the Steelers can’t run the ball without Rashard Mendenhall (season-ending knee injury). Granted, the Broncos aren’t going to win if they only manage a field goal like they did last Sunday, but this might not be the rout that many people expect.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger leads the team out to warm up before the start of the Steelers-Arizona Cardinals game at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona on October 23,2011. UPI/Art Foxall
Bengals +3 @ Texans, 4:30PM ET, Saturday
Before I looked at the point spreads for this week, I wrote down what I thought the line would be for each game. While I nailed both of the NFC games, I was off considerably for each AFC contest. For this matchup in particular, I had the Bengals as 1-point underdogs given the quarterback situation for the Texans. I thought Jake Delhomme would start because all indications out of Houston on Sunday were that T.J. Yates wouldn’t play. But now that Yates is expected to start, the line makes sense. While Houston enters postseason play as the most injury-riddled team in the tournament, the Texans still have an excellent shot of advancing because of their running game and Wade Phillips. Arian Foster and Ben Tate are a matchup problem for most teams, even those that can stop the run. And Phillips will surely throw in a few wrinkles to confuse quarterback Andy Dalton, who is playing in his first career playoff game. Laying any amount of points on the Texans seems risky but the Bengals aren’t exactly steamrolling into the postseason.
Lions +10.5 @ Saints, 8:00PM ET, Saturday
Attaching the hook to this game was a smart move by oddsmakers, who had to do something to give Saints-backers a moment of pause. There are probably plenty of bettors in Vegas who are laying the wood with New Orleans considering how dominant it’s been at home. But the Lions have already made a trip to the Superdome this year and thus, there will be no surprises. At 10, bettors may be apt to lay the points in hopes that, at the very least, they’ll get a push. But at 10.5 the Lions become a more attractive play. Detroit will also have Ndamukong Suh (who was suspended the first time these two teams met) for this contest, as well as a healthy Louis Delmas and Chris Houston (who were banged up in the first meeting). I’m not suggesting the Saints can’t or won’t cover: they certainly can. They’ve been an unstoppable force at home this season and Drew Brees looks ridiculously comfortable running Sean Payton’s offense on the Superdome turf. But 10.5 points is a lot for a playoff game, especially when you consider how good Detroit’s passing game is thanks to Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. NFL fans may get the shootout that they’re hoping for.
Falcons +3 @ Giants, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
If the roles were reversed and this game was being played in Atlanta, I’d fully expect the Falcons to be favored by 3. That’s because these two teams draw plenty of similarities to each other and thus, home field advantage is what sets the line. (On a neutral field I would almost expect the game to be set as a pick’em.) There will be plenty of New York backers for this one, especially when you factor in the Giants’ fierce pass rush, Matt Ryan’s 0-2 record in the postseason, and the Falcons’ lackluster play on the road this year. But while Atlanta is 4-4 on the road, New York is 4-4 at home so again, this is a pretty even matchup on paper. That said, if you’re a trends bettor then you have to love Atlanta. The Falcons are 5-0 against the spread in their last five road games versus the Giants and the road team is 8-0 against the number in the last eight meetings. The under is also 5-1-1 in the last seven meetings so if you’re looking for an edge when it comes to the total, under 47 might be a solid play.
Steelers –9 @ Broncos, 4:30PM ET, Sunday
I was way off when predicting the line for this game. You knew Denver was going to be an underdog given its brutal performance the past two weeks and the fact that Pittsburgh was coming to town, but I figured the spread would be around 5.5 or 6. Nine seems way too high, even when you consider how brutal Tim Tebow could look against Dick LeBeau’s defense. But the Steelers’ offense isn’t exactly firing on all cylinders right now. In their last four games, Ben Roethlisberger and Co. have scored 14, 3, 27 and 13 points, respectively. And that 27-point barrage came against a hapless St. Louis team that couldn’t move the ball in Week 16. Considering Big Ben has a bad ankle and Rashard Mendenhall is done for the season because of a knee injury, this game may be closer than people think. Remember, the Broncos are playing excellent defense right now so this may turn out to be a field goal-fest. (And if that’s the case, then maybe the under is the best play on the board, even though its sitting at 34.5.)