New York Giants at Cincinnati Bengals
Over his last two games, Eli Manning has completed a total of 25 passes in 53 attempts for 317 yards, no touchdowns, and two interceptions. Per Greg Cosell in this week's preview podcast, some league sources indicate that Manning's arm looks "tired" of late, and there are some questions about the abilities of New York's receiver corps to separate from coverage consistently. The cure for what ails the Giants' passing game could well be a Bengals' secondary than currently ranks 28th in Football Outsiders' pass defense rankings. The Bengals' secondary is the only thing stopping Mike Zimmer's squad from being elite, but it's a big problem. Manning will need to get that pass game going again, because his offense will not do much on the ground against Cincy's stout front seven. We'll bank on an Eli comeback.
Pick: Giants 23, Bengals 17
Tennessee Titans at Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins are on a bit of a roll, though they lost last Sunday to the super-hot Colts, and the Titans are just getting rolled, period. Miami is living off their run game to an unexpected degree, rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill has developed impressively, and the defense is standing tall, especially against the run. Though left tackle Jake Long is having an off-season, the Dolphins' offense should have enough firepower to pace past a Titans defense incapable of providing consistent pass pressure. That's not a problem for Miami's defense, and with Jake Locker expected to start, the 'Fins should be in the catbird seat.
Pick: Dolphins 34, Titans 20
Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings
A distressing notion for the Vikings and their run-first offense: Quarterback Christian Ponder has completed just 50 percent of his play-action passes in the team's last three games. That's down from 74 percent earlier in the season, and the downshift coincides with the relative disappearance of tight end Kyle Rudolph. Opposing defenses are also teeing off on Ponder when the Vikings run play action, and he's not been effectively mobile enough to bail out. Percy Harvin's out of this game with an ankle injury, which means that the Lions can stack the box against Adrian Peterson and force Ponder to beat them. Not that stacking the box against Purple Jesus has worked all year, but if Ponder has to make plays and decide the game, the forecast is not good.
Pick: Lions 30, Vikings 16
Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots
A practical question: How would the Buffalo Bills go about winning this game? By running C.J. Spiller into New England's underperforming defense? Spiller's snap counts have been reduced in the last few weeks, for reasons we fail to understand. Exploit the Pats' weak secondary? The last time Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for over 239 yards in a game was against this defense in September, when he went off for 350 yards and four touchdowns. Of course, Fitzpatrick threw four picks as well, and the Bills lost, 52-28. Beat New England's underrated offensive tackles with their own pass rush? Yeah, right.
Pick: Patriots 42, Bills 20
Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints
The Saints showed some interesting new things on defense against the Eagles last Monday night, and the Falcons should take notice. New Orleans defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo finally lined up his scheme and personnel, sending linebackers on blitzes from different levels and harassing Michael Vick throughout Philly's blowout loss. Of course, Atlanta's offense is more solid and its offensive line is far stronger, but as much as Matt Ryan has developed this season, he's still balky when you send pressure right up the A-gaps. The key to an upset, if the Saints are going to accomplish that feat, is to balance pass rush with coverage against the Falcons' receivers -- they're the best in the NFL at winning one-on-one matchups. Call us crazy, but we're riding along with the Saints' recent momentum and saying that New Orleans will do just that.
Pick: Saints 31. Falcons 28
San Diego Chargers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Two teams traveling in markedly different directions, momentum-wise. The Chargers have to know that their victory over the Chiefs two Thursdays ago comes with the prerequisite "It's only the Chiefs" asterisk, and does little to disguise their 1-4 record in the five games before. Meanwhile, the Bucs are riding the coattails of a surprising defense and the superhuman efforts of rookie running back Doug Martin. The problem Tampa Bay need to deal with? A pass defense that allowed Carson Palmer to throw for 414 yards last Sunday. Philip Rivers' problem? He might have a backup left tackle if Jared Gaither can't go. The "Fire Norv" banners might come out early back in San Diego.
Pick: Buccaneers 28, Chargers 17
Denver Broncos at Carolina Panthers
In his last five games, Peyton Manning has thrown for at least 300 yards every time, he's thrown just three picks, and he's been sacked just twice. Carolinas pass rush has been very solid of late, but that was against the offensive lines of the Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins. Manning is almost impossible to bring down when he's in tune with receivers, and he's got a couple of winners in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. Manning isn't the only comeback kid on the Broncos in this game -- head coach John Fox returns to the team that fired him after the 2010 season.
"I've got a lot of respect for [Fox], but it's not me versus him or the Panthers versus him," Panthers center Geoff Hangartner said this week. "I'm going to play against the guys on the Broncos team whether they're coached by John Fox or whoever. I think you guys are making more of it than it really is."
"Us guys" disagree. The Broncos love Fox, and they realize how important this game is to him. Expect another classic game from Manning, and a superior effort from Denver's defense, which is definitely trending up.
Pick: Broncos 29, Panthers 13
Oakland Raiders at Baltimore Ravens
Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron started the 2012 season with a new series of offensive looks that gave his team more explosiveness in the passing, but at the expense of a run game that really is the franchise trademark, especially with a declining defense. Ray Rice gained 98 yards on 25 carries against Cleveland's defense last Sunday, and now, there's a Raiders defense that let Doug Martin run wild.
"Obviously, you look at it and you do start getting excited when you see it happening," Rice said this week. "First off, you want to know what happened, why these kind of things happen? After looking at the film, it was just a lot of them missing tackles. It wasn't a lot of schemed-up things. There were a few where there were some schemes. Anybody goes for over 200 yards, you have to figure out there is a problem there. The problem that I saw on film was tackling. The guys were in position. I guess [Martin's] height helped him out. They say he's about 5-9, 214, but I think he's a little bigger than that. From an inside source, they say the guy's about 225. To see him get out in the open field with guys making guys miss, a little center of gravity was pretty exciting to see from a rookie running back."
Gameplan obvious? We tend to think so. Rice all the way.
Pick: Ravens 34, Raiders 27
New York Jets at Seattle Seahawks
Another revenge game, though the source of that revenge is a bit more remote than Fox's feelings for Carolina. Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll got his first such job for the Jets in 1994. He lasted one season before he was summarily dismissed in favor of ... wait for it ... Rich Kotite. Ouch.
"I did everything I could to get right, but it didn't quite work out, so they moved on," Carroll told me this week, when I asked him about that first experience. "I was very fortunate to have that opportunity at the time being that I was so young in the league and being in New York. It's an awesome place to be involved in professional sports because of the fans, background, and the history. It was a great honor, but it just didn't work out right. I wasn't ready enough for that situation. They didn't do very well after I left either, I think they won once. I'm the same person, I'm just way better prepared now. it was a nice try."
It will be a nice try for the Jets if they can pull this one off, but they'll have to deal with a quarterback in Russell Wilson who has a 120.2 passer rating at home with nine touchdowns and no picks. Also, the Seattle run defense is looking for reclamation after a couple of off-kilter games. The Jets are guaranteeing playoff berths at 3-5, but the Seahawks will be the only team on the field playing as if the postseason is a possibility.
Pick: Seahawks 22, Jets 15
Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles
Lost in the drama of Dallas' season is the fact that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is actually doing a great job without his best player, linebacker Sean Lee. Bruce Carter has stepped up to replace the NFL's top inside linebacker, and even good offensive lines struggle to deal with Ryan's complex and multiple blitz packages. Did you see the Eagles' offensive line against the Saints last Monday? Ugh.
Pick: Cowboys 37, Eagles 7
St. Louis Rams at San Francisco 49ers
With all the talk about the Atlanta Falcons and Chicago Bears as the NFC's best teams, you'd forgive perennially grumpy 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh if he felt a bit slighted by all the noise -- after all, his team stands at 6-2 and has lost just five regular-season games since the start of the 2011 season. Harbaugh doesn't appear to be concerned about such things -- he's decided that the Rams are a real challenge for his team.
"They present all kind of problems along the front, the linebackers, the coach said this week. "Very good in the secondary. And a lot of times I guess we tend to talk earlier in the week -- Mondays, sometimes Wednesdays. It's just not a real great time to be talking as a coach. You're worried, you're nervous."
Yes, the same Rams who have lost three straight games and were blown out by the Patriots in London, 45-7. Harbaugh isn't happy unless he's unhappy, so he'll really have to twist himself in knots when the 49ers make this an easy one.
Pick: 49ers 33, Rams 17
Houston Texans at Chicago Bears
Saving the best for last? Indeed. This could very well be a Super Bowl preview, and the matchups are tantalizing, to say the least. There's Houston's efficient boot-action passing game versus Chicago's murderously opportunistic defense. There's the Houston defense, which is just as powerful, trying to stop the ridiculous chemistry between Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall. The one serious advantage -- and it could easily turn the tide -- is the one Houston's defensive line will have against Chicago's weak front five. Lance Louis against J.J. Watt? We expect Cutler to be productive, but also to live in a sea of batted passes and Excedrin headaches, while the Texans keep riding to home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Pick: Texans 26, Bears 24
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