Alphabet NFL Preview: Week 9

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Alphabet NFL Preview: Week 9

The Patriots might be off this Sunday, but theres no such thing as a bye week in the NFL preview biz. After all, as the great Knute Rockne once said: The Alphabet waits for no one.

So lets jump right in:

A is for ABSENTEE RIVALRY

On paper, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger have a lot in common. They were both first round picks in the 2004 draft. Both have two Super Bowl rings. Both have a history of deviant sexual behavior (no wait, thats just Ben). And while their stats arent identical, theyre pretty damn close both should finish this season with more than 30,000 career passing yards and right around 200 career TDs. But for the most part, Manning and Roethlisberger have existed in parallel universes. (Universi? No, no. Definitely universes.)

In fact, this Sunday will mark only the third time in eight-plus seasons that theyll go head-to-head. More historically, it also marks the first time quarterbacks in opposite conferences, with multiple championships, will meet in the regular season since Joe Montana and the Niners beat Jim Plunkett's Raiders back in 1985.

From a Patriots perspective, it might be hard to pick a dog in this fight. Like watching a boxing match between Bernie Madoff and Jerry Sandusky. (OK, not really.) But in a pure football sense, it should be fun to see two of the NFLs greatest big game quarterback square off in rare battle.

B is for BOUNCE BACK

The Ravens had an extra week to stew in the filth of their 43-13 loss to the Texans, but theres reason to be optimistic this Sunday.

Why? Well, the loss to Houston was Baltimores fourth defeat of 20 points or more since John Harbaugh became head coach. And the previous three times, the Ravens responded with a win.

Adding to the optimism: Theyre playing the Browns.

C is for COMPARISONS

The comparisons between Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III are inevitable. Between their charisma, speed, athleticism, rocket arms, and, if were being honest, the color of their skin, their careers will always be intertwined. But heres something else the two gunslingers have in common: Their teams are horrible.

Both the Panthers and Redskins enter Sundays game at RFK in last place in their respective divisions, and the pressure will be on as at least one of them is guaranteed to emerge from Week 9 with a victory.

All things considered, you have to think RGIII has the upper hand here. Not only has he played significantly better than Newton this season (Griffins thrown more touchdowns, fewer interceptions, for more yards, has a better completion percentage and significantly better QB rating; hes also run for more yards and has more rushing touchdowns), but he has better coaching, a better supporting cast and home field advantage. But either way, this is one of the most exciting games on this weeks schedule, if only for the anticipation surrounding Cam Newtons post-game outfit. (More sweaters please!)

Note: This is the first game in NFL history that features two starting quarterbacks that also happen to be the two most recent Heisman trophy winners.

D is for DOMINATION

Peyton Manning and his sore thumb will be in Cincinnati this weekend, where hell try to extend one of the more dominant streaks of his historically dominant career: Manning has never lost to the Bengals.

They arent the only team that Manning is undefeated against. Hes a career 5-0 against Cleveland, 3-0 against Detroit and Minnesota, and 2-0 against Arizona and Tampa Bay. But his seven wins against the Bengals are the most against any team hes never lost to. However, its worth nothing that six of those seven wins occurred in Indianapolis, while this Sundays challenge comes on the road.

How much of a challenge it will be remains to be seen, because as of late, the Bengals have been reeling. Theyve now lost three straight games on the heels of their encouraging 3-1 start. In those three losses, they committed eight turnovers, and come in with a defense that ranks 21 in total yards and 25th in points. Bum thumb or not, smart moneys on Manning to take advantage and improve to 8-0.

E is for EDGE FACTOR

Heres an interesting stat courtesy of ESPN NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert: Of Adrian Petersons 151 rush attempts this season, 94.6 percent of them have come between the tackles. 94.6! Given this predictability, its almost unbelievable that Petersons still managed to lead the league in rushing (775 yards) through eight weeks, and absolutely ridiculous that (among back with more than 100 carries) only Frank Gore is averaging more yards per attempt.

As the season goes on, and Peterson continues to get stronger and more confident on that repaired ACL, you imagine that the Vikings will start letting him adventure out on the edge, but if thats not that case this week, its fair to wonder how much success AP will have running up the gut against Seattles fifth ranked run defense.

And if that doesnt work, you also wonder if Christian Ponder might challenge Jim Hardys 62-year-old record for most interceptions (8) in a game.

F is for FREE FALL

I know Im not the only one who believed that the Cardinals were for real. Whether or not that was inspired by a desire to justify the Pats Week 2 loss is another story, but with their amazing start, combined with one of the easiest schedule in the league, it really looked like Arizona was in line to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and maybe even challenge San Francisco for the NFC West crown.

Today, that win over the Pats feels so distant it could have happened in the Bledsoe Era. In the weeks since, Arizonas top two running backs have been injured, Kevin Kolb (who finally looked like he was ready to realize some of that potential) was knocked out and their defense forgot how to tackle. After winning nine out 10 games between the end of last year and the start of this year (and starting this season 4-0), the Cardinals have lost four straight games and will have to beat the Packers at Lambeau Field (on a short week) to avoid falling under .500 and out of the NFC playoff picture.

G is for GARNETT

Despite their 6-1 record, the Chicago Bears are in a little offensive funk, having scored only three offensive touchdowns in their last two games (against so-so Carolina and Detroit defenses). Some have suggested that Chicagos issues stem from Jay Cutler trying to force the ball to his boy Brandon Marshall, and this week, offensive coordinator Mike Tice tried to shed some light on the topic: "We're like the (Minnesota) Timberwolves when Kevin Garnett was playing," said Tice, who coached the Vikings when KG was in town. "All their offensive plays went through him, and in our passing game obviously we're going to go through Brandon.

OK, that makes no sense, but since Tice brought it up, I spent some time trying to tease out the rest of the analogy.

If Marshall = KG, then Jay Cutler = Sam Cassell; Matt Forte = Latrell Sprewell; Michael Bush = Gary Trent; Devin Hester = Trenton Hassel; Kellen Davis = Fred Hoiberg; Lovie Smith = Flip Saunders and Mike Tice = the assistant coach who makes really weird analogies.

But nonsense aside, the Bears offense has a good chance to break out this week against a Titans defense that ranks 30th in yards allowed and 31st in points allowed.

H is for HOME HORRORS

Im not breaking any news when I tell you that the Jaguars are awful. They boast the leagues worst ranked offense, 27th ranked defense and are one of only three one-win teams in the league. But what comes as somewhat of a surprise is how much worse Jacksonville has been at home vs. on the road.

In Week 1, only a late-game collapse stopped them from stealing a win in Minnesota. In Week 3, they picked up their only win of the season in Indy. In Week 7, another late game collapse cost them another road win in Oakland. And last week, they hung around in Green Bay for far longer than anyone imagined. In all, theyve lost three road games by a combined 15 points. Theyve lost their only three home games by a combined 75.

Now granted thats come against some substantial competition Houston, Cincinnati and Chicago but its still pretty sad. A perfect word for the Jags these days. This week theyll face another formidable (albeit inconsistent) opponent at home: The Detroit Lions. Although, on the bright side, the Lions come in 0-3 on the road.

I is for INSUBORDINATION

It hasnt been an easy second season for Titans coach Mike Munchak. First, he lost his starting quarterback in Week 2. Then, he saw his defense (which ranked eighth in the league last year) fall apart. And after last weeks debacle and overtime loss to Indianapolis, the Titans now stand at 3-5 and are already a long shot to make the playoffs.

To make matters worse, the natives are getting restless. Embattled receiver Kenny Britt is bitching that the Titans need to throw more deep balls, which might make sense if Tennessee wasnt already among the league leaders in pass attempts of 20 or more yards. On top of that, tight end Jared Cook is unhappy with his role and reportedly asked to be traded before Wednesdays deadline.

On the bright side, Chris Johnson had another decent game last week, but . . .

J is for JUDGMENT DAY

According to Rotoworld, Johnson has now rushed for 90 yards in three straight games for the first time since the last three weeks of 2009 the same year he became only the sixth 2,000 yard rusher in NFL history.

So, have we officially witnessed the long-awaited return of CJ2K?

Lets hold off on that answer until Monday, after Johnsons done dancing into the Bears No. 1 ranked run defense, which hasnt allowed a 90-yard rusher all season.

K is for KISS OF DEATH

Back in 2009, Randy Moss and Larry Fitzgerald tied for the NFL lead (among receivers) with 13 touchdown catches. The next year Fitzgerald was held to six, while Moss only caught five. In 2010, Dwayne Bowe led all receivers with 15 touchdown catches. The next year, he was held to five. Last season, Calvin Johnson led all receivers with 16 touchdown catches. This year, hes the latest defending touchdown champ to hit the wall, in with only one touchdown catch through seven games. And the struggles have only increased as of late, with Megatron making only six catches for 80 yards combined over his last two games.

This week, with Matthew Stafford potentially back on track, Johnson will look to break out against the Jaguars. And while that might seem like an easy task, its worth noting that despite their all around suckitude Jacksonville has only surrendered nine touchdown passes this year, which ranks 10th best in the NFL.

L is for LIES

According to Andy Reid, he never even considered benching Michael Vick this week. Naturally, this leaves us to draw one of two conclusions.

1. Andy Reid is an idiot.

2. Andy Reid is a liar.

And will there are certainly many valid arguments to be made in support of No. 1, in this case, its lies . . . all lies! Of course he considered benching Vick. Even Vick considered benching Vick. And if the QB delivers another flop on Monday night on national TV against the historically horrible New Orleans Saints defense then either Reid will bench Vick or the Eagles will bench Reid.

Maybe even both.

M is for MARQUEE MATCHUP

Way back in D, I mentioned the BengalsColts game and the likelihood that Peyton Manning improves to 8-0 against Cincinnati. Remember that? Yeah, you remember. Anyway, on the other side of the ball, the match-up between Champ Bailey and A.J. Green could be just as integral in determining the final score.

Last week in Denver, Bailey shut down Marques Colston. OK, maybe shut down is too strong of a word, but considering that Colston had racked up 25 catches for 357 yards and five touchdowns in his previous three games, Id consider holding him to five catches and 63 yards a significant victory for Bailey. He may be 34 years old, but the future Hall of Famer is showing that he can still hang with the leagues best wideouts. And if he can do that consistently, the increasingly intimidating Broncos will be on another level.

Well find out exactly how much Bailey has left this week in Cincinnati, where hell be asked to shut down 6-foot-4, 24-year-old AJ Green, whos tied for the lead league with seven touchdown catches and ranks sixth with 90.9 yards per game.

N is for NCAA NONSENSE

Earlier this week, Steve Spurrier suggested that Alabama the No. 1 team in college football might be able to beat a few teams in the NFL. And naturally, that was a pretty stupid thing for him to say.

This happens every couple years in college football. A dominant team emerges, and someone gets the crazy idea that they can compete at the NFL level, completely ignoring the fact that while only a handful of players on said college team are good enough to make it to the NFL, EVERYONE in the NFL is good enough to make it to the NFL. And that once theyre there, these guys are bigger and stronger than they ever were in college. Put the Jaguars and Crimson Tide on the field tomorrow have them play in Tuscaloosa for all I care and Jacksonville wins by 20. To suggest otherwise is crazy.

Then again, I guess its not much of a surprise that Steve Spurrier has some issues evaluating talent on the NFL level.

O is for ORBITZ

One of the strangest subplots to the big SteelersGiants game is that thanks to Hurricane Sandy Mike Tomlins boys couldnt find a hotel this weekend. As a result, theyll be flying in from Pittsburgh on Sunday morning and then heading back that same night. Ahh, a day trip to Jersey. Its a beautiful thing.

But heres my question: Arent the Steelers and Giants one big happy family these days? Youre telling me the Rooneys and the Maras couldnt have found a place for Pittsburgh to stay? I would have thought that John Mara has random compounds all over the New YorkNew Jersey area specifically for situations like this. Perhaps this is a little bit of gamesmanship on his part?

Thats going to make for an awkward Thanksgiving.

P is for PRIDE

With last weeks loss to Denver, the Saints playoff hopes are relatively shot. Other than pride, they dont have a hell of a lot to even play for. And over these next six weeks, were going to find out just how much pride this team has, because theyre schedule as absolutely brutal. First, they play Philadelphia on Monday night. Then they play the undefeated Falcons on a short week. Then, cross time zones for a road game against Oakland before coming home to take on the 49ers. Then its off to Atlanta followed by a road game against the Giants. Yikes. By the time the Saints get a breather in Week 15 against the Bucs, we could be looking at a 3-10 team.

Q is for QUINCY CARTER

Oh yeah. It wouldnt be an Alphabet NFL Preview with a Quincy Carter reference.

Way back in September of 2003, in the fourth quarter of a blowout loss to the Falcons, Carter connected rookie tight end Jason Witten on a 13-yard pass.

This Sunday, nine years later, against those same Atlanta Falcons, Witten needs only four catches to break Michael Irvins record and become the Cowboys all-time leader in receptions.

More on this game later.

R is for ROOKIE vs. ROOKIE

There was a time not so long ago when it was rare to see a quarterback earn the starting job in his rookie season. To see two rookies starting in the same game? Eh, you had a better chance of catching Haleys Comet (with your hands). But in todays NFL, its no big deal. We look at Sundays DolphinsColts game, see Andrew Luck and Ryan Tannehill under center, and its like, Eh. What else is new?

But even if the 2012 season has destroyed the novelty of a rookie QB, its important not overlook what these guys are doing. In eight weeks, theyve led the Colts and Dolphins to eight wins, which is as many as they combined for all of last season.

After Sunday, that total will be up to nine. One of these guys will have led their team to a ridiculous 5-3 start. Somehow, with all the young QBs starting this year, this wont seem like a big deal. Sure is, though.

S is for SALVATION

Despite their 5-3 record, its been a brutal first half of the season for the Packers, as theyve lost nearly every key offensive player Greg Jennings, Cedric Benson and now Jordy Nelson to injury, as well as defensive leader Charles Woodson. And it didnt help that they had a win stolen from them by the replacement refs in Week 3.

But thankfully, help is on the way for Green Bay, in the form of a much-needed bye week. I dont think theres a team in the league that needs it more. And getting there might be all the motivation they need to make quick work of the Cardinals.

T is for 300

Weve never seen a 300-yard rushing game in the NFL (Adrian Peterson has current single game high with 296), but Im not sure if well be able to say that after Sunday, when Arian Foster takes on the Buffalo Bills.

I know I do this every week, but just for one lets just take one more like at the numbers on Buffalos run defense. Through seven games, their allowing 176.9 yards a game, six yards a carry and have given up a 13 rushing touchdowns! Forget Arian, I think Jodie Foster could put up 300 on these guys.

U is for UPSET SPECIAL

Thanks to the Browns beating the Chargers, Im now 2-2 this year on Upset Specials, and if youre betting the money line that leaves you clear in the black. This weeks pick might sound crazy on a Friday afternoon, but that will only make it more special on Monday morning:

Cowboys over Falcons.

First of all, after a heart-wrenching loss to the Giants, beating the Falcons is the most Cowboy thing that Dallas could do. Its all about mind-screwing their fans, and it doesnt get any better than this.

On the flip side, the Falcons are due. Theyre coming off a highly emotional victory last week in Philly. So far this year, theyve been much worse at home than on the road (wining their three home games by a combined 11 points, and that includes two games against Carolina and Oakland). Theyll also be without starting OLB Sean Witherspoon, who just happens to be the teams leading tackler.

Add it all up, and its the perfect Upset Special

Give me Dallas.

V is for VICK

Just one more note on the Eagles struggling QB. Did you hear he called a players-only meeting this week in Philly? Well, he did. And thanks to some moles within the organization, Ive uncovered a transcript of what transpired:

Vick: Fellas, honest question here: What the hell do I have to do to get benched around here?

Rest of Eagles: . . . .

Vick: No, Im serious. I cant take this anymore. Come on, heres a shovel. If you guys care about ol Mike, one of you will pick it up and just smash me in the face. Put me out of my misery, man.

W is for WORST. INJURY. EVER

Ive given Greg Jennings a lot of crap this year, and between all his missed games and all his annoying commercials, Id say its been justified. But upon seeing the headline that Jennings had surgery this week to repair a rectus abdominal tear, I, you and everyone had to feel bad. I dont care how much of a disappointment hes been this season, when you have surgery on anything rectus related, sympathy is in order. (And yeah, I know its not the same as rectum but its close enough)

X is for EX-QUARTERBACK

Whats an antonym for vote of confidence"? I dont know, but whatever it is, thats what Ryan Fitzpatrick got from Bills GM Buddy Nix this week in Buffalo.

Listen, we have said from Day 1, that we want to draft a good young quarterback," Nix told WGR-AM. "I don't want to leave here without a franchise guy for the future in place. I have not said that before, but I'm saying it now because it's a fact."

Yikes. Not sure Fitzpatricks match-up this week with the Texans will do much to change Buddys mind.

Y is for YIPPEE!

Congrats, Norv Turner! Your Chargers proved that they can win a home game against one of the two worst teams in the NFL!

Im being sarcastic, but sadly, last nights win will probably earn Turner a two-year extension.

Z is for ZERO CHANCE

The Pats brought free agent kicker Billy Cundiff in for a workout this week, but that shouldnt be cause for concern; just a matter of Belichick doing his due diligence in case something should happen to Stephen Gostkowski. But I feel comfortable saying that it doesnt matter if Gostkowski and every other kicker on the planet gets hit by a bus. Theres no way Cundiff will ever wear a Patriots uniform. In fact, Im pretty sure the workout consisted of Belichick calling Cundiff into his office, shaking his hand, saying, Hey, thanks a lot for last year, buddy and then showing him the door.

On that note, time to show myself the door.

Have a great weekend, everyone. And enjoy the games.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Belichick explains matching in the secondary

Belichick explains matching in the secondary

FOXBORO – Here’s a leftover from last week I’m dredging up because it’s really instructive in giving insight to something we all flap our arms about: how the Pats decide whether to play zone, man-to-man or match receivers with their secondary.

The jumping off-point was asking about Trumaine Johnson -- a long-tall corner for the Rams. As Belichick about Johnson and the difficulties he poses, at 6-foot-2, it brought to mind the team’s acquisition earlier this season of Eric Rowe. The 6-2 corner they got from the Eagles filled a need in that the Patriots other corners are not very tall, headlined by 5-9 Malcolm Butler.

So I asked Belichick if the team strives to have different sized players in the secondary.

“That’s if you move them around,” he explained, meaning size only matters if you intend to put size-on-size. “If you don’t move them around, if you play a guy at one positon and he plays on the right side or the left side, you cover the guy that’s over there, which I’d say is more the situation than not. There are some teams or some situations where you’ve got him, he’s got the next guy, you’ve got somebody else, but I’d say that’s by far the lower percentage of the plays, by far. Generally, you see a corner play – some games are different. We’ll match to this guy and somebody else matches to that guy. Teams will do that. There’s some of that, but by and large, most teams play at one position and whoever is in that spot, that’s who they cover.”

With matching receivers being the exception rather than the rule, the next logical question is why? Why would you let a little guy cover a big guy if you also have a big guy who could cover?

Because offenses make it complicated, Belichick answered.

“The easiest thing in the world is for one player to match another,” he explained. “‘OK, you go cover this guy.’ Alright, great. But what do the other 10 guys do? That’s the problem. It’s easy to matchup one guy. That’s simple. What do the other 10 guys do? What if he’s here? What if he’s there? What if he goes in motion? What if he’s in the backfield? What if it’s this personnel? What if it’s that personnel in the game? Then how does all the rest of it matchup? That’s where it gets tricky.  You can be spending all day, literally, on that. OK yeah, you take this guy but what are you going to do with the other 10?”

Belichick also delved into other options including a coverage concept the Pats used when Darrelle Revis was here. Giving Revis the opponent’s so-called No. 2 receiver and doubling the No. 1.

“You can matchup and put your best guy on their best guy, or you can matchup and put your best guy on let’s call it their second best guy and put your second best guy on their best guy and double him,” Belichick said. “If you’re going to put your best guy on their best guy and double him anyway then you kind of lessen the matchups down the line. It’s like setting a tennis ladder, or whatever. If you put your bad guy at one and you win two through seven, great. If you put your best guy at one and he gets beat by their one and then your two versus their two, you know. That’s what you’re doing. You have a three to four-man ladder there with the receivers and your DB’s [defensive backs], except we don’t have to match them that way. You can match them however you want.”

It’s a fascinating discussion and it comes into play the next two weeks as the Patriots will see a true test with receivers like the Ravens Steve Smith and Denver with Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas.

The Patriots will have decisions to make. Chances are they’ll use a little bit of everything. But these are some of the the things they weight when doing so.

Call-up coming? Belichick likes what he's seen from p-squad receivers

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Call-up coming? Belichick likes what he's seen from p-squad receivers

The Patriots find themselves in a difficult spot following Sunday's win over the Rams: They are a team that likes to lean on three-receiver sets, yet they have only three healthy receivers.

Danny Amendola suffered an ankle injury during a punt return over the weekend that further thinned an already thin position group. The healthy receivers left on the depth chart are Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and rookie Malcolm Mitchell.

The Patriots will in all likelihood make an addition to their 53-man roster at some point in order to bolster their depleted receiving group, and in a way, they've been preparing for this.

With just four true receivers on the active roster, the team has been adding and subtracting wieoutes on their practice squad for much of the year. They began the season with rookie seventh-round pick Devin Lucien and fourth-year wideout Devin Street on the p-squad. On Sept. 14, they added DeAndrew White as a third receiver on the 10-man unit, giving them a relatively unusual amount of practice-squad depth at one spot. 

After Street was signed away by the Colts, the Patriots gave practice-squad shots to Da'Ron Brown and Shaquelle Evans. Neither of those players stuck, but Lucien and White have.

"I think they’ve made good progress . . . They both have been consistent," Bill Belichick said during a conference call on Tuesday. "They’ve been out there every day. They work hard. They’ve made plays for us in practice on the scout team against our defense, so overall our guys on the practice squad do a good job.

"They certainly help us get ready for the games by simulating our opponent’s schemes and playing styles and at the same time they’ve improved with their individual skills and techniques. Both of those guys – they’ve done a good job for us."

ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss reported on Sunday that the Patriots voluntarily increased the salary of White (from the minimum of $6,900 per week to $10,000 per week), perhaps an indicator that he's the favorite as a call-up to the 53-man roster.

White, who has been named one of New England's practice players of the week three times this season, is in his second year out of Alabama. He was signed by San Francisco in May of 2015 as an undrafted free agent, and he played in four games as a rookie, catching two passes for 18 yards. He also returned six kicks and returned one punt for the 49ers.

There are free-agent options available to the Patriots should they choose to go that route.

Keshawn Martin, who was released by the Niners on Nov. 8 and is a free agent, could be an attractive option given his punt-return experience and his understanding of the Patriots system. Others who are out there and have spent time with the Patriots include Aaron Dobson, Nate Washington and Kenbrell Thompkins.

Should the Patriots feel as though they would be straining to add a receiver to the 53-man roster, they could find some help with the depth they have at running back. Dion Lewis, James White and DJ Foster are all capable pass-catchers who have the ability to line up wide or in the slot. Foster, who was a college teammate of Lucien's for one season, played receiver as a senior at Arizona State.