Saints vs. Panthers, 1:00PM ET
After the Seahawks thrashed the Saints on “Monday Night Football” a few weeks back, Drew Brees reminded reporters that New Orleans has the best road record of any team in the NFL since 2009. While that may be, there’s no denying that the Saints are a much different team on the road this year than at home. Part that is because the Saints are seemingly unbeatable inside the Superdome. But Sean Payton is also more conservative with his play-calling on the road, Brees is less accurate, and Rob Ryan’s defense is softer versus the run. The Panthers should adjust to what they the Saints did to them in Week 14 when these two teams met in New Orleans (a walk away win for the Saints). I expect them to tighten up their red zone coverage and not allow Jimmy Graham to get a free release up the seam and torch them for a second time. The Saints are just 1-4 against the spread in their last five games in Carolina and 3-8 ATS in their last 11 games overall versus the Panthers. FREE PICK: PANTHERS -3
Cowboys vs. Redskins, 1:00PM ET
Kirk Cousins was outstanding in the first half last Sunday in Atlanta and nearly helped Washington overcome seven turnovers to beat the hapless Falcons. He may have just as much success on Sunday versus a Dallas defense that ranks dead last in yards allowed this season, but this isn’t the game the Cowboys will choke away. (That’ll come next weekend when they host the Eagles for what will amount to the NFC East Division title game, a la Week 17 last season.) Regardless of who is under center, the Redskins remain a mess defensively and they’re just 2-9 against the number in their last 11 games versus NFC opponents. They’re also 0-4 ATS in their last four divisional games and 0-5 ATS in their last five games following an ATS win. The Cowboys should get it done on Sunday. FREE PICK: COWBOYS -2.5
Steelers vs. Packers, 4:25PM ET
The Packers have won two straight games after out-playing their opponents in the second half. They trailed by double-digits at home to the Falcons two weeks ago and by 23 points at half versus the Cowboys in Dallas last Sunday but still managed to win. At some point they’re not going to be able to dig themselves out if they continue their inconsistent play on offense and shoddy play on defense. Green Bay is just 1-6 against the spread in its last seven games overall, 0-4 ATS in its last four home games and 0-4 ATS in their last four games against a team with a losing record. On the other side, the Steelers are 5-1 against the number in their last six games overall and 4-1 ATS in their last five games following a straight up win. With Aaron Rodgers sidelined for another week with an injured collarbone, look for Pittsburgh to pull off the minor upset. FREE PICK: STEELERS +2.5
Bears vs. Eagles, 8:30PM ET
The total is set high in this one but neither of these teams were interested in playing defense last week. The Bears are going to have loads of trouble slowing down LeSean McCoy on Sunday night and after getting torched by Matt Cassel last week, the Eagles should struggle trying to defend Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Matt Forte. The over is 4-1 in the Bears’ last five games overall, 11-3 in their last 14 road games and 9-2 in the Eagles’ last 11 games following an ATS loss. FREE PICK: OVER 55.5
+ There’s no player that excites me more than C.J. Spiller heading into the 2013 season. He’s going to be the focal point of Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett’s up-tempo, run-heavy offense in Buffalo. He flashed his speed and strength against Minnesota on Saturday, knifing through the defense while displaying quick feet. It’s just too bad that he’ll face 8-man fronts all season.
+ Speaking of the Bills, their pass rush looked good against the Vikings. There were times when Jerry Hughes ran himself out of plays but he has great acceleration off the snap. He, Manny Lawson and Marcell Dareus stood out, but the entire starting front seven for Buffalo had a solid night.
+ The transition from Rob Chudzinski to Mike Shula in Carolina hasn’t been seamless for Cam Newton. On Thursday night in Philadelphia, Newton struggled with errant passes, throwing receivers open and hitting targets in stride. Most of his completions came with receivers coming back to the ball, which is fine if a quarterback is accurate. But Newton completed 57.7% of his passes a year ago and thus far in preseason he’s 11-for-23 (47%). Shula figured to rely heavily on DeAngelo Williams and the running game, and it’s unlikely that that plan has changed.
+ Nick Foles was 6-for-8 for 53 yards and a rushing touchdown on Thursday night against Carolina, but Michael Vick was clearly the more efficient quarterback. He was poised and confident in the pocket, displayed good mobility while extending plays with his feet, and got the ball out of his hand quickly (a requisite in Chip Kelly’s offense). While Kelly has avoided naming a starter for Week 1, it’s safe to assume Vick is the current frontrunner…
+ …Now, whether or not Kelly can keep Vick healthy is a different subject altogether. Kelly’s offense will be predicated on short-to-intermediate passing out of multiple personnel groupings and formations. The read option also appears to be a key feature, which suits Vick’s skill set but also puts him at risk for injury. Even if Foles doesn’t win the starting job out of camp, history tells us that Vick’s backup needs to be ready at a moment’s notice. It’s only a matter of time before the veteran suffers some sort of aliment.
+ We’ll see what happens when opponents start game planning to beat them on Sundays but thus far the Browns have been intriguing. Brandon Weeden looks comfortable and confident running Norv Turner’s offense and a star is rising in tight end Jordan Cameron, who made an incredible catch for a touchdown versus the Lions on Thursday night (one of his two scoring receptions in the game). Save for guard John Greco (who was manhandled by Nick Fairley on consecutive plays in the first half), the offensive line has also performed well and the defense might turn out to be the most underrated unit in the NFL by seasons end. Usually it takes about 10 games before Ray Horton’s system takes hold but his players in Cleveland have taken to it like a fish to water.
+ Dirk Koetter finally has his power running game to complement his vertical passing attack in Atlanta. The Falcons ran Steven Jackson out of the “11” and “12” personnel groupings on Thursday night in Baltimore, trying to match hat-for-hat and allowing him to do what he does best: Run downhill. Thanks to Matt Ryan and his assortment of weapons in the passing game, that offense was already difficult to stop. If they can build a lead and then run clock in the second half of games, they’ll avoid having what happened in the NFC title game when they allowed the 49ers to erase a 17-point deficit.
+ It’s becoming evident that the Ravens will be held back by their lack of weapons in the passing game. Torrey Smith took a simple slant for a touchdown against the Falcons on Thursday but William Moore also took a horrible angle on the play and turned a 7-yard gain into a 77-yard score. Without Dennis Pitta and Anquan Boldin drawing attention in the short-to-intermediate game, opponents will likely bracket Smith in coverage and force somebody else to beat them. Visanthe Shiancoe won’t be that somebody else.
+ The run-blocking units for San Diego and Chicago had good nights on Thursday. Matt Forte finished with a 9.2 average and Ryan Mathews rushed for 5.0 yards per clip, as both running backs flashed burst and acceleration through open lanes. Rookie Kyle Long stood out for Chicago, as he consistently was stout at the point of attack and finished blocks in the running game. Sadly though, Philip Rivers was often on his back and Jay Cutler had pass rushers around his feet throughout the first quarter. Pass protection will be a major question mark for both teams all season.
+ Alex Smith completed 7-of-8 passes last week against a Saints team that played a soft zone, but he struggled against a more aggressive 49er defense on Saturday. He’ll be able to dink and dunk past lesser opponents but what happens when the Chiefs are trailing and he has to beat opponents vertically in the fourth quarter? There’s no question he’s an upgrade over Matt Cassel and Kansas City is going to win a few contests on Andy Reid’s game-planning alone. But Smith remains limited as a passer and thus, it’s hard envisioning the Chiefs beating teams like Denver or New England if they’re able to make it to the postseason.
Every Sunday our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter provides his quick-hits from the week that was in the NFL.
+ The Ravens had no choice but to sign Ray Rice to a long-term contract, and the deal wound up being fair for both sides. Rice will receive $8 million per year, which is more than fair for his production level. The Bears were also wise to sign Matt Forte but had Chicago rolled the dice and Forte wound up holding out, at least the Bears still have Michael Bush to fall back on, as well as an improved passing game that features Brandon Marshall. Had the Ravens not signed Rice and he held out into the season, Baltimore would have relied on the backfield duo of Joe Flacco and Anthony Allen. Yikes.
+ Troy Polamalu gave the media and fans a very honest, very realistic look into the world of the NFL by telling Dan Patrick earlier this week that he’s lied to trainers about injuries so that he could stay in games. Nobody should be under any grand illusions that Polamalu is the only player that has lied about whether or not he was hurt so that he could re-enter a game and in some respects, he should be lauded for providing reality into the situation. The problem, of course, is that there’s a list of former players that filed a suit against the NFL trying to prove that the league is responsible for not telling them about the dangers of concussions. It’s going to be hard for these players to prove to a judge that the NFL has been negligent about anything when current players are lying about their injuries to get back into games. That said, the game has changed, especially when it comes to the treatment of concussions (which were once viewed as a joke by teams and players). Still, the players on these concussion suit can’t exactly be thrilled by Polamalu’s comments, no matter how honest he was being.
+ Who knew Santonio Holmes was such a comedian? During a recent podcast for NFL.com, Holmes essentially scolded the New York media for being too negative when it comes to reporting on the team and then told them that if they wanted to feel important, they should only report on the positive aspect of the Jets. First off, I didn’t realize that the New York Jets cut the paychecks for the staff at the New York Post. I also didn’t realize that the Post was supposed to be a group comprised of cheerleaders that provided unwavering support for the Jets. Holmes’ comments are laughable and he’s one to talk considering back in October of last year he called out his entire offensive line for not giving Mark Sanchez enough time to throw. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black – if Holmes wants the media to be positive he should start by being positive himself.
+ Another week, another slew of arrests for the NFL. Marshawn Lynch was booked for driving under the influence after weaving lane to lane with two near collisions. What’s interesting is that the mistake could wind up costing Lynch $17 million in guaranteed money because as an NFL exectuvie tells Sirius XM Radio’s Ross Tucker, a suspension for conduct detrimental or substance abuse defaults the guaranteed money in Lynch’s four-year, $31 million contract. Now, there’s a good chance that the Seahawks won’t touch Lynch’s money but if they did, not calling a cab will have cost the running back $17 million. Ouch.
+ Of course, Lynch wasn’t the only player arrested recently. Elvis Dumervil, Dez Bryant, Robert Quinn, Kenny Britt and Aaron Berry all ran afoul from the law from everything from driving drunk to assault with a firearm to smacking their mother around (in the case of Bryant). Granted, it’s not as if NFL players are the only ones committing crimes. We just hear about them because of their celebrity status. But it’s almost unfathomable that these players refuse to learn from their peers and in the specific case of Britt, how one player can be arrested so many times since coming into the league. This is a guy that has been booked four times in the last two offseasons; it’s unbelievable. These players are essentially co-workers that continue to ignore the endless supply of warning signs that are around them. Front offices must be praying nightly that they don’t receive phone calls at two in the morning from now until training camp opens.
+ If Norv Turner had one foot out the door last year then he’s got about three fingertips on the door frame heading into this season. It was surprising that the Chargers didn’t fire him last year considering the Chargers couldn’t take advantage of the hot mess that was the AFC West. Regardless, he absolutely has to win this season and not just one playoff game – he better be knocking on the door of the Super Bowl. That said, why should Turner get whacked and A.J. Smith be saved? When was the last time A.J. Smith hit a home run in the draft? And because he plays hardball with free agents his talent is evaporating on both sides of the ball. So if Turner gets axed then he and Smith should be sharing a cab out of San Diego.
+ It was pretty smart of the Jets to include a “poison pill” in Darrelle Revis contract. Rex Ryan and Mike Tannebaum were clearly annoyed with Revis’ holdout situation a couple of years ago and were hell-bent that a repeat wasn’t in the works. Revis announced earlier this week that he’ll report to camp on time this year, although it may not have been on his own accord. According to a report earlier this week by ESPN.com’s James Walker, if Revis skips camp his current deal would be automatically extended by three years. Considering Revis wants to get to free agency as quickly as possible, that would not have been a very favorable situation for him.
+ You have to appreciate Michael Vick’s confidence in the Eagles. Said Vick earlier this week, “When I look at our football team and what we have on paper, I think about when I was growing up and the great San Francisco 49er teams, the great Green Bay Packer teams, and the great Dallas Cowboy teams, how they just positioned themselves to compete and be one of the best teams out there I think we have a chance to be that. I think we have a chance to develop a dynasty.” Obvious Vick’s comments shouldn’t be overexposed because he was really just trying to convey his optimism in his current team. But dynasty? Try winning one Super Bowl before you claim you’re on the path of winning multiple Super Bowls.
+ How about Terrell Owens? Dude claimed he was broke a couple of months ago but faced with the prospect of going to prison, all of a sudden he had enough money to pay back the child support that he owed. Funny how that works.
Every Sunday morning our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter will provide his “quick-hits” from around the league. You can follow him on Twitter @AnthonyStalter.
+ Hell would have frozen over before the Vikings traded Percy Harvin. While Adrian Peterson is reportedly recovering nicely after tearing his ACL and MCL last season, the Vikings can ill-afford to trade one of their key weapons – especially at receiver. No offense to Michael Jenkins, who is an underrated run blocker and a decent red zone threat because of his height, but the Vikings don’t have many playmakers at receiver. The idea is to give Christian Ponder more weapons – not take them away.
+ It’s hard to fault Matt Forte for being a little irked at Jay Cutler after the quarterback told the media a few weeks ago that he didn’t think Forte would hold out during training camp. After suffering a season-ending knee injury last year and watching the Bears sign Michael Bush this offseason, Forte has little leverage as it is when it comes to trying to coax a long-term deal out of the team. A holdout is the running back’s lone ace so when Cutler comes out and essentially says that Forte won’t even use his best card, the Bears continue to hold all of the power.
+ It’s going to be fun watching Julio Jones in 2012. He caught 54 passes for 959 yards and eight touchdowns last season when he didn’t know what he was doing. Imagine how he’ll perform now that he’s comfortable and has a full offseason to prepare? That said, the Falcons have to build Dirk Koetter’s offense around Matt Ryan, who had met his ceiling under former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. For the past four years the Falcons’ offense has been centered on Michael Turner but for the passing game to mature Ryan has to be the focal point from here on out.
+ Reggie Bush says his role in the Dolphins’ offense will be “a little different from last year,” which is a good thing. The old coaching regime surprisingly used Bush as an inside runner last season and he did rush for 1,086 yards on a career-high 216 attempts. But Bush never was, and never will be an inside runner. He isn’t the type of back that you can send into the meat grinder 25 times a game and expect positive results. Why increase the chances that he’ll either fumble or get hurt? He’s a mismatch on linebackers and safeties so it’s good to hear Joe Philbin plans on using Bush in a variety of ways, including splitting him out wide.
+ It was interesting to read that LaDainian Tomlinson says he spoke with the Broncos before opting to retire. Granted, he and Peyton Manning share the same agent so maybe the discussions were just a courtesy of some sort. Nevertheless, it would have been fun to watch two of the greatest players of their decade try to win a Super Bowl before hanging ‘em up for good.
+ Chris Johnson believes that “a lot of people are going to be back on the bandwagon” this season after he felt that “a lot of people have written me off.” But people haven’t written him off as much as they were turned off by his holdout situation last season. He held the Titans hostage last season and then reported to team headquarters out of shape after they gave him the contract he wanted. He did manage to rush for over 1,000 yards (barely), but the entire situation left a bad taste in peoples’ mouths. If he gets back to the Chris Johnson he was two years ago then it’ll be as if 2011 never happened.
+ Nate Burelson said that Matthew Stafford’s arm could be even stronger this season than it was a year ago. Considering Stafford had a laser attached to his right shoulder last season, that’s quite a statement by Burelson. That said, I’m more interested in seeing Stafford string together another 16-game season. We all know about his arm strength but the thing that has held him back up to this point is the fact that he can’t stay healthy. But he played a full schedule last year and if he can do it again while posting another 63.5-percent competition percentage, then he’ll be considering a bona fide top seven or eight quarterback.
+ Randy Moss might be the most intriguing player heading into 2012. I say that because he’s drawn nothing but rave reviews coming out of San Francisco thus far. He’s already being viewed as a starter and some of his teammates say he looks like the Moss of old. And I buy that. Moss has proven time and time again that when he wants to play, he can dominate and it doesn’t matter how old he is. When he gets caught up in everything else (i.e. how much money he’s making, how many looks he’s getting, etc.) he has the innate ability to completely shut down. He did it in Oakland, he did it in New England before he wound up getting traded, and he did it in Minnesota and Tennessee two years ago. But when he’s motivated by being the best receiver in the game, he can be unstoppable at times. He’s one of the few players that can turn the switch on and off.
Every Sunday morning our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter will provide his “quick-hits” from around the league. You can follow him on Twitter @AnthonyStalter.
+ The Miami Dolphins might be on the verge of making a mistake by signing Chad Ochocinco, who reportedly lacked football I.Q. to survive in New England. Said Boston Globe’s Greg Bedard: “The Patriots would literally tell him to run a route a certain way, and a minute later he would run it the other way. It happened all the time.” Ochocinco made six Pro Bowls, led the NFL in receiving yards once (2006), and led the AFC in receiving yards twice (2003, 2005) in Cincinnati because he was allowed to freelance, which is one of the many things that frustrated Carson Palmer. So why would the Dolphins want someone like Ochocinco on their roster when there’s a strong possibility that they’ll start a rookie at quarterback this season? Teams need to put young players in position to succeed, period. It makes no sense to start Ryan Tannehill and then throw Ochocinco into the mix when the idea is not to stunt the rookie’s development. If Tom Brady couldn’t work with Ochocinco, why would anyone believe that Tannehill could?
– Smart move by the Patriots to lock up tight end Rob Gronkowski to a six-year, $54 million extension through 2019. Only $13.17 million is guaranteed, which is quite the bargain for the most dominate tight end in the league. This move also indicates that the Patriots have zero concerns about Gronk’s offseason ankle surgery and neither should anyone else.
+ Jets receiver Santonio Holmes is being made out to look like a baby following his meltdown at the team’s OTAs on Thursday. But keep in mind he had missed voluntary workouts while in Germany on a USO trip, so receivers coach Sanjay Lal could have done a better job easing Holmes back into action. After all, it’s June – not August. There will come a time when Holmes needs to ratchet up his workouts so that he’s prepared for the season but it does the Jets no good for Lal to burn out his receivers or risk injury three months before the season. That said, Holmes could have also acted like a professional. There was no need for him to toss his helmet and make a scene. His unpredictable attitude is one of the reasons why the Steelers felt compelled to trade him despite the fact that he was their Super Bowl MVP in 2009.
– Brandon Weeden has better size, a bigger arm, and has reportedly outperformed Colt McCoy in OTAs this spring. But it still doesn’t benefit Pat Shurmur to name a starter before or during training camp. Teams should strive for competition at all positions, especially at quarterback. Players become awfully content when they’re making a ton of money and know that nobody is breathing down their necks for their starting job. Even if it’s a foregone conclusion that Weeden will be the starter, it behooves Shurmur and the Browns to make him work for it all summer.
+ It’s great to hear that Michael Vick has been the first player in and the last player out during Eagles’ practices this offseason. It also pisses me off thinking about how undedicated he was in Atlanta. Did he want to win? No doubt. But you never read reports about him being the first one to the practice facility in Flowery Branch when he was quarterbacking the Falcons. Part of the blame falls on owner Arthur Blank and former coach Jim Mora, whom allowed Vick to come and go as he pleased. But considering the Falcons paid him franchise money to be the leader of their team, one would think he would have taken more pride in his work instead of continuously trying to get by on his talent alone. It’s a shame when you read that Vick is now finally dedicated to his craft 11 years after he was drafted but then again, it’s better late than never.
– From a defensive standpoint, one team that might be significantly improved this season from 2011 is the Arizona Cardinals. The team looked lost throughout the first half last year trying to learn new defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s defense and as five-time Pro Bowler Adrian Wilson admitted, there were plenty of times where players didn’t even know if they were in the right position. The Cardinals also started a rookie at cornerback in Patrick Peterson, who suffered plenty of growing pains before coming into his own in the final six weeks of the season. One area the Cardinals must improve on is their interception total. They had just one pick in the final six weeks of the season and they went eight games in which they had zero interceptions. Assuming they’re more comfortable in Horton’s defense in year two and they can hang onto the ball when they have opportunities to make a play, Arizona should show marked improvements from 2011. Now only if they had a quarterback on the other side of the ball to lead them to the playoffs…
+ Asante Samuel is already paying dividends in Atlanta. After lining up opposite Matt Ryan four times throughout his career, the Pro Bowl cornerback has been giving instructions to his new teammate on how the quarterback can become more difficult to defend. Samuel has also reportedly brought a ton of energy to the practice field and fellow cornerback Dunta Robinson is thrilled that the presence of his new teammate will allow him to kick inside to the nickel position. Robinson is at his best when he can get his hands on a receiver and be physical at the line of scrimmage. The past two years he struggled in former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s scheme because he was forced to play off the ball. But with Samuel and Mike Nolan now in Atlanta, Robinson will play inside where he thrived early in his career as a member of the Houston Texans.
– All signs point to Chris Johnson having a bounce back year in Tennessee. It’s public knowledge that he showed up to camp out of shape last year following his contract dispute and the lockout. But Dan Pompei of the National Football Post has been told by sources that Johnson has rededicated himself this offseason. Of course, it doesn’t matter how good a shape Johnson is in if his offensive line doesn’t open up holes for him in the running game. Eugene Amano, David Stewart and Leroy Harris all struggled in run blocking last season and Johnson often found himself bottled up. It’s great that he’s committed to offseason workouts but without a better effort from the Titans’ front five, he won’t be rushing for over 2,000 yards again anytime soon.
+ Despite a messy contract situation, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which Matt Forte doesn’t report to training camp. Forte wants a long-term deal from the Bears, who seemingly want to go year to year with their star running back. But at the end of the day Forte is a perfect fit for the Bears’ offense and he’s such a competitor that I don’t see him holding out all season. Plus, he has no leverage. He’s coming off a season-ending knee injury, he’s a running back in a passing league, and the Bears signed Michael Bush earlier this offseason as insurance. For Forte to hold out during one of his prime years doesn’t make sense. Plus, as long as he signs his franchise contract before the July 16 deadline he’ll make $7.7 in guaranteed money. Nobody is going to pass up that kind of cash, no matter how angry they are at their team.
– If the reports out of Seattle are any indication then the Seahawks might be in store for another rocky year at the quarterback position. Despite landing a three-year, $26 million contract, Matt Flynn has yet to distance himself from neither Russell Wilson nor Tarvaris Jackson. Everyone has been cautious when it comes to predicting Flynn’s success in his first year with the Seahawks, which is smart given his lack of experience. But it’s not like the Hawks gave him chump change – they paid him starter’s money. Thus, it’s a little surprising that Flynn has yet to emerge from a pack that also consists of a rookie third-round pick and one of the most underwhelming quarterbacks in the league.