No. 25 Missouri vs. No. 7 Georgia, 12:00PM ET
The Tigers are back in the AP top 25 for the first time in two years and are coming off a 51-28 drubbing of Vanderbilt on the road last Saturday. Quarterback James Franklin has looked sharp in the early going and has weapons at his disposal in Henry Josey and dynamic playmaker Dorial Green-Beckham. On the other side, No. 7 Georgia barely escaped Knoxville with a victory last weekend and is severely banged up offensively. The Bulldogs will be without running backs Keith Marshall and Todd Gurely, as well as recievers Michael Bennett and Justin Scott-Wesley. And while quarterback Aaron Murray has put on a show in back-to-back weeks, the defense still has plenty of holes after losing a handful of starters to the NFL draft back in April. Georgia is tough to beat in between the hedges, but look for Mizzou to keep things tight.
FREE PICK: MISSOURI +7.5
No. 9 Texas A&M vs. Ole Miss, 8:30PM ET
Two weeks ago there was plenty of chatter surrounding the 3-0 Rebels as they headed into Tuscaloosa. But following a 25-0 blanking at the hands of Alabama and a 30-22 upset last week versus Auburn, Ole Miss has once again fallen off the map. On the other side, A&M has completely regrouped following its loss to Alabama. The Aggies thumped a hapless SMU squad 42-13 before out-pacing Arkansas 45-33 two weeks ago in Fayetteville. Kevin Sumlin’s team is well rested coming off the bye and more importantly his defense has started to show signs of life. The spread is too low for this game, as “Johnny Football” and Co. should roll. FREE PICK: TEXAS A&M -6
Steelers at Jets, 1:00PM ET
It was impressive to watch Geno Smith lead the Jets to a huge road victory over the Falcons on Monday Night Football, but suddenly the national media has made him into Randall Cunningham. Thanks to a rash of injuries the Falcons were without their starting running back, left tackle, middle linebacker, one of their outside linebackers, one of their starting defensive ends and were forced to play a hobbled Roddy White and Julio Jones because their reciveving corps is so thin. In other words, what the Jets did was impressive but they didn’t exactly beat the same Atlanta team that came within 10 yards of going to the Super Bowl last year. The Steelers are coming off their bye and thus, should have had plenty of time to regroup and iron out their issues on both sides of the ball. While it’s shocking to see the Giants at 0-6 on the year, it would be even more surprising to watch the Steelers fall to 0-5. FREE PICK: STEELERS +1
Rams at Texans, 1:00PM ET
The Texans are in the middle of a freefall because quarterback Matt Schaub can’t protect the football. He’s had an interception returned for a touchdown in four straight games and has seemingly lost his confidence. That said, Houston’s running game has remained effective and its defense still boasts the likes of Brian Cushing and J.J. Watt, who is the best interior defensive lineman in the league. The Rams are coming off a win over the winless Jaguars but they still struggle with penalties, third down conversions on both sides of the ball, and run defense. Sam Bradford has also reverted back into a check-down machine and should be under constant duress in Houston. Look for the Texans to get back on track on Sunday. FREE PICK: TEXANS -7.5
Mississippi vs. Alabama, 6:30PM ET
Alabama doesn’t look as dominant as it has in year’s past, and bettors have taken notice. The spread in this game has been bet down from one key number of 17, to another key number in 14. The Rebels have fared well against the Tide, covering in all four of their last four meetings with ‘Bama in Tuscaloosa. They’re also 6-2 against the spread in their last eight meetings overall with the Tide, while the road team is 5-0 against the number in the last five meetings between these two teams. Ole Miss has a balanced offensive attack thanks to quarterbacks Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti, who is a running threat. The Rebels enter tonight’s game with plenty of confidence and should stay within two touchdowns of a Tide team that didn’t look sharp defensively two weeks ago versus A&M. FREE PICK: OLE MISS +14
Wisconsin vs. Ohio State, 8:00PM ET
The Buckeyes have been flat-out dominant in their first three games and own the fourth-highest scoring offense in the country (52.5 points). But Braxton Miller is set to return tonight following a sprained left MCL injury suffered a few weeks ago. Rust might be a factor in the early going, which could give Wisconsin confidence for the rest of the game. The underdog is 10-3 against the spread in the last 13 meetings between these two teams and the Badgers are 4-0 against the number in their last four games overall. They’re also 7-3 against the spread in their last 10 conference games and have rushed for 387 yards or more in three of their four games. Look for Wisconsin to give Ohio State its first challenge of the season. FREE PICK: WISCONSIN +6.5
Bengals vs. Browns, 1:00PM ET
The Bengals are coming off two emotional victories against Pittsburgh and Green Bay, and now has to travel to Cleveland and play a team in the Browns that they’re expected to beat. There’s always value in the home underdog, especially one in Cleveland that shocked bettors a week ago by beating Minnesota outright as a 6.5-point dog. The line in this game has been bet down from 5 to 3.5 despite the public siding with Cincinnati. The underdog is 10-1-1 against the spread in the last 12 meetings between these two teams and the Bengals are just 2-5-1 against the number in their last eight games versus the Browns. Look for a confident Cleveland team behind Brian Hoyer to keep this game within a field goal. FREE PICK: BROWNS +3.5
Seahawks vs. Texans, 1:00PM ET
The Seahawks look every bit a Super Bowl contender in the early going. They suffered no letdown last Sunday when they thumped a brutal Jacksonville team a week after crushing division rival San Francisco on Sunday Night Football. But the Seahawks have never been a team that travels well and the Texans are licking their wounds after being embarrassed in Baltimore last week. Houston knows it can’t afford to fall behind in the AFC South, especially with Indianapolis playing Jacksonville this week. Look for the underdog Texans to win outright as a small home dog. FREE PICK: TEXANS +1
Rams at Falcons, 1:00PM ET
The Falcons aren’t firing on all cylinders offensively. Roddy White was relegated to decoy duties last Sunday against the Saints due to a high-ankle injury, and the offensive line is young, vulnerable, and inexperienced. New Orleans pressured Matt Ryan relentlessly last week and the strength of St. Louis’ defense is its front four. Thus, Falcons OC Dirk Koetter might slow things down and build his game plan around Steven Jackson and his running game in efforts to slow the Rams’ pass rush down. On the other side, Sam Bradford and Co. scored 27 points against Arizona in Week 1 but 14 of those points didn’t come until the fourth quarter. The Rams shot themselves in the foot with penalties and turnovers, which halted a couple potential scoring drives. This is a young St. Louis team that will be facing a defense today led by Mike Nolan, who creates a lot of confusion with his schemes. Don’t expect a shootout today in the Dome. The under is 39-18-1 in the Rams’ last 58 road games and 6-2 in the Falcons’ last eight home games. PREDICTION: RAMS/FALCONS UNDER 47.5
Cowboys vs. Chiefs, 1:00PM ET
The Cowboys had to hang on to a 36-31 win despite creating six turnovers last Sunday night against the Giants. They’re also banged up, as Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and Anthony Spencer will play through injuries today in Kansas City. Andy Reid is familiar with the Cowboys’ tendencies after coaching in the NFC East for over 10 years and should put together a quality game plan today. The Chiefs also built some momentum and confidence by spanking a bad Jaguars team in Jacksonville last Sunday, and their defense looks like it could be a strength all season under new DC Bob Sutton. The Cowboys are 4-14 against the spread in their last 18 games following a straight up win and 3-7 ATS in their last 10 games following an ATS win. Chiefs get it done in their home opener. PREDICTION: KANSAS CITY CHIEFS -3
Titans vs. Texans, 1:00PM ET
Two of the bigger surprises occurred in Week 1 as Tennessee went into Pittsburgh and thumped the Steelers, while the Texans had to overcome a double-digit deficit to beat a bad Chargers team on Monday night. The Titans aren’t getting a lot of respect from oddsmakers today despite making additions this offseason to fix the interior of their offensive line and defense. I expect Wade Phillip’s defense to play much better this week, but keep in mind that Houston is coming off a short week after traveling to San Diego in Week 1. They’re 1-4 against the spread in their last five games overall and 0-4 ATS in their last four games following a straight up win. Tennessee keeps pace today. PREDICTION: TENNESSEE TITANS +9
Broncos vs. Giants, 4:25PM ET
“The Manning Bowl” is going to be closer than people think. The Giants aren’t going to turn the ball over six times like they did a week ago in Dallas and Peyton Manning will be hard pressed to throw for seven touchdowns again like he did at home versus Baltimore. Look for Perry Fewell and New York’s defense to keep everything in front of them in efforts to minimize Manning’s effectiveness in the passing game. And if Fewell can drum up pressure, then Manning will also be forced to slow down the tempo of the Broncos’ offense. The Giants are 10-4-1 against the spread versus a team with a winning record and 5-2-1 ATS in their last eight games after allowing more than 30 points in their previous game. Look for New York to rebound today. PREDICTION: NEW YORK GIANTS +4.5
Five rookies that could make an impact from Day 1 in the NFL
Making an impact at a new job is as much about opportunities as it is talent, hard work and dedication. Based on talent, skill set and yes, opportunity, here are five rookies that could make an impact from Day 1 in the NFL.
Tavon Austin, WR, Rams
One year after the Jaguars leapfrogged them for the opportunity to snag Justin Blackmon, the Rams foiled the Jets’ plan to select West Virginia sparkplug Tavon Austin in the first round of the 2013 draft by trading up to No. 8 (one spot ahead of New York). Jeff Fisher doesn’t strike me as someone who would go to great lengths to acquire a player if he didn’t plan to use him right away. Much like Percy Harvin and Randall Cobb, the Rams figure to use Austin as a moveable chess piece in Brian Schottenheimer’s offense. Whether it’s in the slot, the backfield or as a returner, Austin will be heavily utilized this season. And thanks to the different skill sets that guys like Austin, Jared Cook and Chris Givens bring to the table, opponents may have a difficult time matching personal with the Rams’ playmakers this season.
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Texans
Last year it was telling how badly the Texans needed another offensive playmaker, not only in their Divisional Round loss to the Patriots, but four weeks prior when they were beaten badly at home by the Vikings in Week 16. Andre Johnson caught seven passes for 97 yards but failed to rip the top off the defense with one big play, and Minnesota did a great job limiting tight end Owen Daniels to just three catches for 27 yards. While DeVier Posey was targeted six times, he caught just one pass for a miniscule six yards and Matt Schaub was held to under 180 yards passing for only the second time all season. (He was also held to 95 yards against the Bears in Week 10 due to sloppy conditions.) Enter DeAndre Hopkins, Houston’s first-round pick in 2013. Hopkins has drawn comparisons to Roddy White and Rod Smith for his route running ability and ball skills. He doesn’t have elite speed but that won’t limit him from creating separation thanks in large part to his excellent technique. A projected starter from Day 1, he should flourish playing opposite Johnson in Gary Kubiak’s offense. (One could also surmise that he’ll post better production than fellow rookie receivers Robert Woods, Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson based on projected quarterback play alone.)
Le’Veon Bell, RB, Steelers
Bell has already drawn praise from offensive coordinator Todd Haley for his ability to be a three down back and “workhorse” runner, and he figures to play a large roll in the Steelers’ revamped running game because of his pass-catching ability. (He caught 67 passes for 434 yards with one touchdown at Michigan State.) He’s also durable and versatile in that he’s not only a north-south runner, but he has the ability to attack the edge as well. Largely mistaken as a “bruiser” entering the 2013 draft, there’s fluidity to Bell’s game. With no elite competition in Pittsburgh’s backfield, he has an opportunity to post instant production as a rookie.
Barkevious Mingo, DE, Browns
Last year, Les Miles and his coaching staff at LSU asked Mingo to play contain more than he did the season before when he racked up eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss. The new role crippled his production, as his sack number dropped to 4.5 and his tackles for loss fell to 8.5. At 237 pounds, it’s unlikely that Mingo will hold up against the run but the Browns figure to use him like the Seahawks utilized 2012 first-rounder Bruce Irvin last year: As a pass-rushing maven. Mingo is an athletic marvel and if Cleveland turns him loose as a rookie, don’t rule out a six or seven-sack season. (Irvin finished with eight sacks last year after pundits ripped Seattle for taking him in the first round.) Unless he adds weight, Mingo will struggle when opponents run straight at him. But as a DPR, he should turn heads as a rookie.
Matt Elam, S, Ravens
Elam projects as the starting safety opposite Michael Huff in Baltimore’s defense, much like Eric Reid figures to start as a rookie for the 49ers. But Elam has better ball skills and more playmaking ability than Reid, who looks stiff in coverage and isn’t always quick to break on passes. Elam’s short but he hits like a MAC truck and has the versatility to be an interchangeable safety in Dean Pees’ scheme. Don’t rule out a 100-tackle season for the former Florida Gator, who also has the ball skills to snag a few interceptions as well.
+ Many of the offensive linemen taken in the first round also figure to make an immediate impact for their respective teams, but I left out players like Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel because it’s hard to quantify production for O-linemen.
+ I left off defensive linemen because it’s rare that they make huge impacts as rookies, although Bruce Irvin was the exception to the rule. One of the reasons for their limited production is because they quickly find out that the pass-rushing moves they used in college don’t work against NFL offensive linemen.
+ Some might wonder why I left Jarvis Jones off this list and the reason is simple: Dick LeBeau’s scheme is complicated to learn. It usually takes first timers to the defense a half or even full season to pick up. Players have talked about being lost in their first year but by season two they feel more comfortable. Thus, look for Jones to potentially make an impact in 2014 for the Steelers.
1. Mike Shanahan cost both his quarterback and his team on Sunday.
That was a shameful display of coaching on Sunday by Mike Shanahan. First and foremost, who cleared Robert Griffin III to play? Dr. James Andrews said he never even examined him, so if it was Shanahan that cleared him then the league needs to investigate why a head coach is playing doctor. Secondly, RGIII was clearly in pain after he tweaked his knee near the end zone of the Redskins’ second scoring drive. It was painful to watch him fall to the ground after being untouched and then quickly glance to the sidelines looking for somebody (his head coach maybe?) to waive the white flag for him. But he’s tough and he should be commended for staying in the game. Still, it shouldn’t have taken his knee bending sideways and him lying on the ground withering in pain during the fourth quarter for Shanahan to finally pull him. He couldn’t run and he couldn’t put weight on his back leg, which caused him to throw inaccurately on nearly every attempt. By keeping him in the game, Shanahan continued to put RGIII at risk for serious injury. Forget being a human being at that point – why didn’t Mike Shanahan, the head coach, recognize that his injured quarterback was costing him an opportunity to win? Even if RGIII had begged to stay in the game Shanahan should have pulled the kid at halftime and allowed a healthy Kirk Cousins to have a crack at Seattle’s defense. There was a lot of bad coaching that took place this weekend but Shanahan was the king of stupidity on Sunday.
2. There’s a lot of good and bad that came out of the Seahawks’ win.
After 12 minutes had ticked off the clock on Sunday, it looked as if the Redskins were going to waltz down to Atlanta next week. So it was impressive to watch the Seahawks weather the storm and produce what wound up being a convincing victory. Marshawn Lynch was in full “beastmode” while rushing for 132 yards on 20 carries and he could be in store for another big game next week because the Falcons can’t stop the run either. Russell Wilson was shaky in his NFL postseason debut but he made plays when they counted, specifically on a 22-yard pass to Zach Miller on third down to set up a go-ahead touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. The defense also harassed a limited RGIII and held Alfred Morris in check outside of the first quarter. But the news wasn’t all positive for Seattle. The early reports are that top pass rusher Chris Clemons tore his ACL and his loss would serve as a big blow to Seattle’s defense with Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ explosive passing game on deck. That was also an extremely physical game for the Seahawks, who now have to fly back to Seattle before making the cross-country flight to Atlanta next weekend. That’s a lot of traveling for a team that has a history of not playing well on the road so while it’ll be a happy flight back to Seattle for Pete Carroll’s team, it might feel like a short week with all that transpired on Sunday.
3. Bill Musgrave did Joe Webb a disservice.
Joe Webb was brutal in Green Bay on Saturday night but he should be spared of heavy criticism. Christian Ponder’s injury left the Vikings in a bad situation and it’s hardly surprising that a quarterback with zero reps in the regular season struggled in a road playoff game. That said, Webb took first-team reps all week in practice so clearly Minnesota knew there was a good chance that Ponder wouldn’t play. So why offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave didn’t play to the strengths of his backup quarterback is beyond conventional wisdom. Remember, Green Bay prepared all week for Ponder, not the athletically-gifted Webb. Outside of Adrian Peterson, the biggest threat Minnesota had was the element of surprise but Musgrave decided against using it to his advantage. Why did he ditch the read-option after the first series of the game (a series that netted the Vikings a field goal)? Why didn’t he turn the contest into the equivalent of a college football bowl game? Instead of using Webb’s speed as a weapon, Musgrave kept him in the pocket. Instead of putting the Packers on their heels, Musgrave allowed Green Bay to turn Clay Matthews loose by forcing an inaccurate Webb to stand still. The results were predictably horrifying for the Vikings, who just one week ago beat that same Packers team to reach the postseason. Granted, Musgrave should be cut a little slack for having to call plays for a quarterback he hadn’t worked with all season (at least not in a regular season game). But instead of going for broke with the cards that he was dealt, Musgrave played things conventionally and wound up losing anyway.
4. The Bengals’ over thought their game plan.
Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden made tight end Jermaine Gresham the focal point of his game plan on Saturday because he believed the way to beat Houston’s defense was to attack its linebackers. It was, at the very least, a novel approach. But Gruden also completely outthought himself in the process. When it comes to the playoffs, teams need to dance with who brought them and in the case of Cincinnati, that would be A.J. Green. Andy Dalton had negative-6 yards passing at halftime of the Bengals’ 19-13 loss to the Texans on Saturday as Green wasn’t even targeted once. When the Bengals changed their approach at halftime to get Green (five catches, 80 yards) more involved, they moved the ball much more effectively in the second half. Granted, credit Wade Phillips for scheming to take Green out of the game. He often used a corner underneath and a safety over top in coverage, which helped neutralize both Green and Dalton. But Gruden’s job is to design ways for Green to get open and he didn’t do that until Houston had built a 17-6 lead in the third quarter. Failing to utilize his best playmaker in the biggest game of the season could eat at Gruden all offseason.
5. Andy Dalton needs more help.
Andy Dalton has struggled playing against the upper-echelon of NFL defenses in his first two seasons. No quarterback likes to have defenders in their face but Dalton especially struggles when teams figure out how to bring pressure up the middle. The Texans did that on Saturday and Dalton struggled mightily. His overthrow to A.J. Green late in the fourth quarter was so bad that a diving Green (who had broken open on the play) never laid a hand on it. And because of his talent limitations (the biggest knock on him is his average to below-average arm strength), there also seems to be a ceiling to Dalton’s development. That said, he’s led the Bengals (the Bengals, mind you) to back-to-back postseason appearances. Poor performance or not, Cincinnati isn’t considering making a change at quarterback right now, nor should it. That said, the Bengals need to find Dalton more weapons because it’s hard to imagine him leading Cincinnati to the Super Bowl on the strengths of his God-given abilities. They need to find another weapon opposite of A.J. Green. They need to find a running back capable of producing explosive runs. They need to find a slot receiver with breakaway speed and another pass-catching tight end to go along with Jermaine Gresham. Outside of upgrading the middle linebacker position (Rey Maualuga was repeatedly exposed on Saturday), Cincinnati’s defense is in good shape. What the Bengals need to focus on now is elevating the talent around their quarterback or else the expectations for both Dalton and the offense should be tempered.
6. The Texans seemed relieved, which isn’t a good thing with who’s coming up.
Despite their victory over the Bengals on Saturday, the Texans are far from “fixed.” Houston dominated Cincinnati in every facet of the game except the scoreboard. Arian Foster went off for 174 yards of total offense and J.J. Watt was once again a one-man wrecking crew but Houston still couldn’t pull away. In fact, had Andy Dalton not overthrown an open A.J. Green in the end zone late in the fourth quarter, Cincinnati could have easily pulled off a victory. Instead, the Texans hung on for victory and were rewarded with a trip to New England (the site of their 42-14 massacre in Week 14). One touchdown and four field goals isn’t going to cut it next weekend versus the Patriots. Nobody game plans to take away a team’s biggest strength like Bill Belichick, so don’t expect Foster to have the same output next Sunday. Can Matt Schaub elevate his play by putting an entire team on his shoulders? Considering how relieved he looked just to make it past a limited Cincinnati squad, it’s doubtful.
7. It was a collective effort by the Packers.
As Cris Collinsworth pointed out on the broadcast Saturday night, Green Bay’s defense did a great job walling off Adrian Peterson throughout the game. Considering he still rushed for 99 yards it’s not as if the Packers shut him down, but they ensured that he didn’t break long runs by tackling and constantly putting defenders in his face. But it was a collective effort by the Packers, who are at their best when they get everyone involved offensively. John Kuhn only touched the ball five times but he found the end zone twice. Greg Jennings didn’t score but he routinely caught passes on third down to keep the chains moving and DuJuan Harris did a nice job serving as Aaron Rodgers’ check down option. Speaking of which, Rodgers didn’t post monster numbers but he was highly efficient. His poise and accuracy allowed Green Bay to sustain drives and keep Peterson on the sidelines. With Joe Webb floundering on the other side, once Rodgers and the offense built a lead you knew the Packers could start preparing for San Francisco. The task gets much more difficult a week from now but Mike McCarthy had to be pleased with his team’s sound effort on Sunday night.
8. Win or lose, it was a hell of a season for the Colts.
This goes without saying – Andrew Luck needs more help. Save for Arizona, Indianapolis had the worst pass protection in football this year and yet because of Luck, the Colts made the playoffs. But teams that regularly have to throw the ball 50-plus times a game don’t win, especially on the road in the playoffs. He was hit on damn near every pass attempt this season and unlike Russell Wilson and RGIII, Luck wasn’t aided by an effective running game. He, and the Chuck Pagano-inspired Colts, were the best surprise of the 2012 season. And while I thought they would have kept the game on Sunday closer than they did, it was still a very successful season for that team. It won’t be long before the Colts are winning AFC South titles on a consistent basis again.
9. The Ravens offense finally woke up.
Throw out their impressive Week 16 victory over the Giants, the Ravens haven’t exactly been awe-inspiring of late. Their offense has struggled in large part to Ray Rice being limited by his own offensive coordinator and Joe Flacco’s inconsistency. But on in the second half on Sunday, Baltimore’s offense finally awoke from its month-long slumber. Anquan Boldin was marvelous. He essentially put the entire offense on his shoulders while harassing cornerback Cassius Vaughn of pass plays of 50, 46 and 21 yards. On a day when Ray Rice uncharacteristically put the ball on the ground twice, he stepped up when his offense needed him most. Credit the Ravens defense too, because they consistently came up with stops or held the Colts to three points when their backs were against the wall. This is a team built for the postseason and while Denver looks like an unstoppable force, don’t forget that Baltimore has often resembled an immovable object in the past. They’ll likely give Peyton Manning all he can handle next weekend.
10. Was anybody else left unfulfilled?
Life is all about expectations. The moment the final seconds ticked off the clock in Washington’s Week 17 victory over Dallas I immediately became excited for the weekend of playoff bliss that was ahead. RGIII vs. Russell Wilson? Adrian Peterson vs. Green Bay III? Andrew Luck making his first postseason start? Yes, please. Fast forward to Sunday night and I’m left completely unfilled. That just wasn’t a very sharp weekend of football. Cincinnati, Minnesota and Indianapolis all stunk. Washington came out of the gates hot but RGIII’s knee injury cooled that fire. Aaron Rodgers and Joe Flacco were good, but they were the only quarterbacks that played well. None of the games were blowouts by definition yet all four somehow managed to seem over well before the final whistle blew. After watching Northern Illinois, Kansas State and Oklahoma make a mockery of their bowl games, football fans were ready for a great weekend of NFL action. But instead we got three lackluster finishes and one game (Seattle-Washington) that barely would have caused a ripple on a regular NFL Sunday. “Meh” was the word of the weekend.