Playoff baseball’s about to dominate the weekend in Boston, but Sunday still belongs to the NFL ALPHABET. Here’s your proof —
A is for A1: Not talking about Walt and Skyler’s car wash. This is the front page. Game of the Week. And this week it wasn’t easy. There are a ton of good matchups, but nothing that really jumps out as THE BEST.
So, I looked at the schedule and asked: “In which game do we stand to learn the most about both teams?”
Nah. New Orleans at Chicago.
The Saints are 4-0, one of five undefeated teams, but unlike the Broncos and Seahawks, the jury’s still out on just how good Sean Payton’s crew really is. First of all, they’ve played three of four games at home. Not to mention, their Week 1 victory over Atlanta looks less impressive by the day. They barely beat the Buccaneers in Week 2. In the last two weeks, they’ve blown out that Cardinals and Dolphins at the Superdome, which is the mark of a good team, but again, how good? Did the return of their head coach and the arrival of a legitimate defensive coach (Rob Ryan) really make all the difference?
An afternoon at Soldier’s Field against the 3-1 Bears will go a long way towards answering those questions. Just in time for next week, when New Orleans pays a visit Foxborough. (For what it’s worth: Drew Brees is 0-4 lifetime in Chicago. For what it’s worth II: He hasn’t played in Chicago since 2008).
Meanwhile, the Bears started the year 3-0 against teams (Cincy/Pittsburgh/Minnesota) with a current combined record of 3-9, and had a chance to jump out to a two-game division lead last week in Detroit. Instead, they got smoked.
Knocking off the undefeated Saints would be a major statement and, with the Giants and Redskins up next on the schedule, would leave Chicago in a good shape to stand 6-1 heading into their Week 8 bye.
The forecast calls for rain in Chicago, which might help the Bears slow down the Saints explosive offense. Then again, Darren Sproles is slippery enough when dry.
B is for BUMPED: What’s the opposite of A1? If you said “Z2”, I hate you. If you said: “Having the start of your game delayed eight hours for playoff baseball” then you sir (or madam) are a genius.
I guess it’s hard to really complain about the NFL moving Chargers at Raiders to an 11:35 EST start on Sunday. It’s not like anyone planned to watch it.
The only regret is that Norv Turner’s not still coaching San Diego, because it would have been a blast to watch him fall asleep on the sidelines.
Ah, who am I kidding? We saw that every week anyway.
C is for CRUCIAL: After four weeks, eight teams have a 2-2 record and some of those are more than happy to be there. For instance, the Cardinals, the Chargers and the Jets. But the 49ers and Texans don’t qualify.
And after this week, one of them will be 2-3.
The fact that this game will be played in San Francisco gives the Niners an edge. The fact that it will be played in primetime (Sunday night) gives them an even greater edge. The fact that San Francisco comes in on 10 days rest? EDGE!!!
And you can probably argue that San Francisco has more on the line. With a loss they’ll risk falling even further behind Seattle in the NFC West (they already trail by two games). And obviously, they’re at home. This is a game they’re supposed to win. Meanwhile, even with another loss, the Texans will only be looking up at the Titans and Colts, two good teams, but no where near as good as Seattle. They’ll still have plenty of time to make up ground.
I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I like the 49ers on Sunday night.
D is DOUBLE DIGITS: There are two double-digit favorites in this week, and oddly enough, both of those favorites come in with a 1-3 record.
First, we’ve got the Rams, who are favored by 11.5 points at home against the Jaguars. According to Covers.com, St. Louis hasn’t been favored by more than 10 points in a game since December 2004, and over that span, they’ve been a double digit underdog 21 TIMES. But the most interesting aspect of this game is how it affects the spread for the Jaguar’s next game. If they get blown out in St. Louis, they might realistically be looking at a 30-point spread next week in Denver.
The other double digit line is on Monday night, Jets (+10) at Falcons, but this one obviously isn’t as shocking, considering that a) the Falcons are almost certainly better than their 1-3 record (three losses have come against teams with a combined record of 11-1) and b) 70-year-old Joe Namath is still the best quarterback in the Jets organization.
E is for ERIK KRAMER: Kramer is a 48-year-old retired NFL quarterback who hasn’t thrown a pass since Week 7 of the 1999 season. Eight years before that, in December of ’91, Kramer played for the Lions and led them to a 21-17 victory at Lambeau Field.
That game, nearly 22 years ago, marks the last time that the Lions beat the Packers in Green Bay. How long ago was that? Well, back then, Barry Sanders was five years younger than Calvin Johnson is right now. Matt Stafford was three years old. The Lions kicker was Eddie Murray, and he just turned 57 years old.
At 3-1, and coming off a big win over Chicago, the Lions are in a good place to finally break through, and if they do, they’ll be sitting pretty at 4-1, and leave the Packers looking up from 1-3.
Then again, Green Bay’s coming in rested off the bye week, will have rookie RB Eddie Lacy back in the mix and are looking to make amends after their embarrassing Week 3 loss in Cincinnati. Hmm, looks like another sad Sunday at Lambeau for the Lions. Unless . . .
Come on, Jim Schwarz. There’s still time to get Kramer into the lineup.
F is for FOUR HUNDRED: Only once in his career has Peyton Manning started a season with five consecutive 300-yard passing games, but he can do it again with a 300-yard performance on Sunday in Dallas. But right now, we’re talking 400, man. 400’s the key number here. 400 chipmunks twirlin' on a branch, eatin' lots of sunflowers on my uncle's ranch. You know that old children's tale from the sea. Wait, what?
Anyway, Peyton has only nine 400-yard passing games for his career, and only once has he done it twice in the same season. So far this year, he has one, but the Cowboys are primed to let him happen again. Why? Because they’ve allowed two 400-yard efforts in their first four games.
That ties the Dallas franchise record for an entire season.
G is for GO FIGURE: Last season, the Chiefs (4-0) and Titans (3-1) combined for eight wins. This year, after only four weeks, they’ve already combined for seven wins. On Sunday, they’ll faceoff at LP Field in Tennessee, where one will keep the good times rolling and, either way, they’ll collectively match their combined win total from last year.
The big story here is the loss of Jake Locker, and Tennessee handing the keys to the offense over to Ryan Fitzpatrick. It’s never a good sign when your fate is in the hands of a guy most recently released by the Bills. And it doesn’t help that the Chiefs D enters the game with a league-leading 18 sacks.
Regardless of the QB situation, there’s no doubt that Tennessee is the more desperate team here. With a loss, they fall to 3-2, and with back-to-back games against Seattle and San Francisco on the horizon, their 3-1 start might quickly morph into a 3-4 hole heading into the Week 8 bye.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs follow this one up with three straight home games against the Raiders, Texans and Browns. And then travel to Buffalo in Week 9. There’s legitimate potential for a 9-0 start here. Either way, a loss to the Titans isn’t the end of the world, or the end of their surprisingly successful season.
H is for HITNER: Big news out of San Francisco this week is that Niners hard-hitting safety Donte Whitner has legally dropped the W from his last name and now goes by Donte Hitner. Get it? HAHAHAH
Anyway, it got me thinking: What other NFL players might be in line for a creative name change by simply dropping a letter from his last name?
The results? Not that good, but here goes nothing.
Ray and Sidney changing their last name to Ice might be kind of cool (NPI), but it would be cooler if they were kickers. How about injured Colts running back Vick Ballar? Or, with his ability in short-yardage situations, what about Bears running back Michael Bus?
On the flip side, if the Eagles and/or Colts offense starts to struggle this year, Andrew Uck and Michael Ick have a pretty good ring to it.
In closing, I’m sorry. Let’s move on.
I is for IDENTITY CRISIS: That’s what’s going on right now in Cincinnati, and I know what you’re thinking: “A Marvin Lewis coached team is struggling with identity and focus? Impossible!”
But it’s true. Most notably on offense, where they still haven’t figured out a consistent rhythm in the ground game between Giovanni Bernard and Benjarvus Green-Ellis and Andy Dalton hasn’t provided anything even close to consistency in the passing game. Heading into Sunday game with the Patriots the offense ranks 16th in passing yards, 23rd in rushing yards and 23rd in total yards. They’re mediocre across the board.
But maybe that could work in their favor on Sunday? After all, we know that Bill Belichick defenses thrive on taking away the one thing that the other tam does best.
But it’s hard to pin point what that one thing is, when that one thing doesn’t exist.
JUNK AND JUNKIER: With the baseball playoffs in full swing, the question everyone will be asking is this: Does good pitching beat good hitting?
But this Sunday in the NFL, the question is: Does horrible rushing defense beat horrible rushing offense?
We’ll find out in St. Louis, when the Jaguars 32nd ranked run D goes head-to-head against the Rams 32nd ranked ground attack.
My prediction? Deep sadness and paralyzing depression.
K is for KICKED TO THE CURB: Poor Josh Freeman. I think? I don’t know. But either way, it’s nice to see him freed from his situation in Tampa because that was only going to get worse. Now, he can sit back and wait to be signed by another team. And you know he will be. It would be a shock if he doesn’t get one more start (for a different team) before the end of the season. Why? Because it’s the NFL. You always get another chance.
Greg Schiano can take some solace in that after he’s fired next month.
L is for LOCKDOWN: I was kidding about the Patriots not knowing the key to slowing down the Bengals offense. It’s AJ Green. And in turn, it’s Aqib Talib.
If Talib can mess with AJ the same way he frustrated Julio Jones last Sunday night, than you better believe that the Pats will remain undefeated. First of all, because unlike Matt Ryan, Andy Dalton doesn’t have a legitimate target outside of his No. 1 guy. Second of all, because unlike Matt Ryan, Andy Dalton is not Matt Ryan. He’s not a very good quarterback, and if you take away his binky you take away his everything.
That means it’s Talib vs. AJ, FTW.
M is for MESSAGE FROM THE NFL COMMISSIONER: That’s the subject of an email that hit my inbox yesterday morning at about 8 am.
Dear RICH, The NFL season is off to another exciting and competitive start. I want to thank you and all NFL fans for your passionate support. We recognize and remind ourselves every day that we have to earn your loyalty. We take that responsibility very seriously. It includes a commitment to deliver the game that the fans love and the safety that players deserve. As a league, we have an unwavering commitment to player health and making our game safer at all levels. This is, and will remain, our top priority. We hope that our commitment to safety will set an example for all sports.
Within the NFL, safety-related rules will always be clearly defined and strictly enforced, and we will continue to work with our players, coaches, and others to identify new and safer ways to play the game . . .
And it went on like that for a long while. So long, in fact, that I was still reading by the time the Bills and Browns took the field to play an NFL game on three days rest.
N is for NFC LEAST: The Giants rank 32nd this season in points allowed. They lead the league in turnovers, are one step away from naming a pair of tackling dummies as starters on the offensive line and are on the verge of falling to 0-5 for the first time since 1987, when the league was using replacement players.
Yet, with a win this Sunday at home against Philly, a team that’s struggling almost as bad, the Giants will still be in contention in the NFC East!
O is for ODDS: The New York Times’ Chase Stuart explains:
Ten teams have started 1-4 and made the playoffs, including four (the 2011 Broncos, the 2004 Green Bay Packers, the 2002 Jets and the 2002 Tennessee Titans) of the 64 teams to start 1-4 since 2002. A win at home against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday would improve the Giants’ playoffs odds from “just one team in history” to 6.25 percent.
Here is another variable in the Giants’ favor: they have already lost to Denver, and division-leading Dallas will play the Broncos this weekend. A Cowboys loss would drop them to 2-3, and the Giants would improve to 1-4 with a win. Just last season, four teams (Green Bay, Washington, Denver and Cincinnati) made the postseason after losing at least one more game through five weeks than another team in their division. It will not take much for the narrative to turn from “worst team in football” to “one game back for the division lead.”
Pretty interesting! If not for the whole Giants have to win on Sunday part. Mark my words: The Eagles O will beat the Giants D with more consistency than the Giants O will beat the Eagles D.
Finals score: Giants 10, Eagles 7
Oops. Sorry. That’s Eli and Vick’s interception count.
Final Score: Eagles 38, Giants 31.
P is for Peyton Hatin’: I stand with Cowboys linebacker Ernie Sims:
“I'm sick of hearing about Peyton Manning," Sims said told the The Dallas Morning News this week. "We just got to go out there and do what we've got to do."
"You hear it all the time when a guy walks into the locker room: 'Peyton Manning threw for four touchdowns, this and that.' Yeah, he's a great player. You can't take that away from him. But at the end of the day, we're all competitors. And me being a competitor, I don't like that. I am ready to play football.”
In related news: Roger Goodell has fined Sims $42,000 for violating the league’s new “Defamation of Peyton” clause.
Q is for QUESTION OF THE WEEK: Who has more career receptions Steve Smith or Larry Fitzgerald?
I thought this was an interesting question in light of the fact that there’s very little else that’s interesting about this week’s Panthers/Cardinals game.
Answer: Steve Smith (786) has one more career reception than Larry Fitgerald (785).
However, it should be noted that Smith has played 170 career games while Fitzgerald has only played in 144. And as far as this Sunday goes, it should be noted that Smith has to deal with the Cardinals Patrick Peterson.
Still, I like the Panthers to win this one on the road. Thanks to the more important offensive match-up between Carson Palmer vs. Cam Newton.
R is for REBOUND: Joe Flacco and Ryan Tannehill lead their teams into battle this Sunday in Baltimore, looking to bounce back after a pair of disappointing Week 4 performances.
Tannehill threw three interceptions and was sacked four times on Monday in New Orleans, as the Dolphins suffered their first loss of the season. He’s now been sacked 18 times, which leads the NFL. Flacco was sacked four times in the Ravens upset loss to Buffalo, and threw career-high five interceptions.
Flacco got some help this week when the Ravens traded for offensive lineman Eugene Monroe, and the team expects to incorporate Ray Rice into the offense more aggressively than they did against Buffalo.
That said, Miami has a top 10 rush defense, so the pressure’s still on Flacco, and given the receivers he has to work with, I like Tannehill and Dolphins to win the battle for this particular rebound
S is for SOMBER: This isn’t a preview as much as it is a review, but damn was it tough to watch what happened to Brian Hoyer last night in Cleveland.
Torn ACL. Done for the year.
Patriots fans barely knew Hoyer during his time in New England, and just assumed that he’d never make it after the Pats gave up on him in favor of Ryan Mallett, and especially after he was cut by both the Steelers and Cardinals. But Hoyer was on to something in Cleveland. Even if he wasn’t necessarily the QB of the future, you know he had to be living a dream.
And given his connection to New England, and even without it, it hurts to see that dream come to an end.
T is for THE TRADE: Three weeks after “The Trade,” and things are obviously going well for the Browns. Despite losing Hoyer, they’re now 3-0 since sending Trent Richardson to the Colts, and haven’t looked back. As for Indianapolis, they’ve won both of their games since acquiring Richardson, but the true test lies in this Sunday’s match-up with the Seahawks.
Especially since, with Ahmad Bradshaw’s potentially season-ending neck injury, T-Rich is pretty much the only reliable runner that the Colts have left.
U is for UPSET OF THE WEEK: I nailed the Bills over the Ravens last week, and this week it’s Tennessee over Kansas City. I know, it’s not much of a stretch to pick a 3-1 team that’s a three-point underdog at home.
But come one, I’m picking Ryan Fitzpatrick against the NFL’s top ranked defense. That’s good for something. A lot of something.
V is for VINCE AND VELLANO: I didn’t want to mention Vince Wilfork’s season-ending injury, because it’s still a very sore subject — especially for Vince, I imagine. But doesn’t Joe Vellano sound like the kind of name that’s just destined to succeed in a city like Boston? If Joey V. can be even half the player that Wilfork was, he’s a guaranteed cult figure. Calling it now.
W is for WELCOME BACK: Good news for the rest of the league. You know that dominant Seattle Seahawks defense? The one that’s allowing an average of only 11.8 point a game so far this season?
Yeah, well, they just got better.
Second-year defensive end Bruce Irvin (who was second on the team last season with eight sacks) will be back in action against the Colts after serving a four-game PED suspension.
X is for PROJECT X: A few weeks ago in this space, I gushed over Rams rookie receiver Tavon Austin. I called him the ultimate X Factor. Mentioned how Jeff Fisher had purposely kept him under wraps in the preseason, and had some secret Austin-laden plan that he was ready to unleash on the league.
In his last two games, Austin has eight catches for 38 yards.
With the Jags in town this week, it’s breakout or bust for the SRO X Factor.
Y is for YOU HEARD IT HERE FIRST: By the end of the season, it will not be Aaron Dobson or Kenbrell Thompkins . . . but JOSH BOYCE who emerges as the Patriots most reliable rookie receiver.
There’s no question he has the softest hands. And after struggling through a toe injury early on, he’ll be the healthiest moving forward.
Z is for ZACH ATTACK: Want to wrap this week’s preview up with a heartfelt note to every owner that wasted a fantasy pick on Zach Sudfeld this summer.
Keep your head up. And look on the bright side: You’ve already got a leg up in your Fantasy Practice Squad league.
That’s all for this week.
Enjoy the games, football and otherwise.
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine
Playoff baseball’s about to dominate the weekend in Boston, but Sunday still belongs to the NFL ALPHABET. Here’s your proof —