NFL Alphabet Preview - Week 7

NFL Alphabet Preview - Week 7
October 18, 2013, 5:45 pm
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Over the course of a long season, you’d be hard pressed to find any week of NFL action that’s void of drama, excitement and an assortment of other pleasantries that leave Roger Goodell feeling like the luckiest dictator in the world come Monday morning. After all, that’s why the NFL is who they is.

But every once in a while, a week comes along that stands tall among the oaks and raises the country’s NFL obsession to epidemic proportions, as Goodell leans back in La-Z-Boy, cackles uncontrollably and lights another cigar with a $10000 bill.

Well, this is one of those weeks.

Near the top of the marquee, RGI’s got three of the most storied division rivalries in the game. Though they’ve all seen somewhat better days, Ravens/Steelers, Cowboys/Eagles and Patriots/Jets are always good for business. Especially when those battles are ultimately nothing but a series of undercards leading up to perhaps the most anticipated match-up of the entire season.

Let the Alphabet tell the story:

ALL ABOUT PEYTON: It’s no surprise that Peyton Manning’s dominating the headlines this week because he dominates the headlines every week. There are few things in the entire world that the NFL media enjoys more than gushing over Peyton and his regular season prowess, his complex system of audibles and how the sweat from his postgame jockstrap is being used to win the battle against malaria in Africa. But for once, this is a story that everyone can get behind. Love or him or can’t stand him, there’s something so undeniably special about Manning’s return to Indianapolis on Sunday night.

It’s a reminder of some of the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of being a sports fan. The act of meeting a player right out of college and unconditionally taking him in as one of your own; watching him grow on and off the field, become one with the city and raise an entire franchise to sites unseen. It’s a reminder of those special connections, seemingly once in a lifetime player/fan relationships, that transcend sports and spill over into all walks of life.

It’s also reminder of some of the worst and most depressing parts of fanhood. Basically, that no matter how much a player’s accomplished or how entrenched he is into the very fabric of a community, no one is bigger than the business of sports. No relationship is sacred.

And above all else, man, will it be fun to watch that awkward hug between Peyton and Jim Irsay . . .

BUT WHAT ABOUT LUCK?: Peyton’s homecoming would be a colossal ordeal regardless of the state of Colts’ franchise, but in this case, the presence of Andrew Luck and, in turn, hope, takes it to another level.

But for now, the question in Indy isn’t whether Luck will be the next Peyton Manning, but when the Colts will give him a chance to prove it.

Through six games, Luck ranks 27th in the NFL in pass attempts. And while it’s hard to argue with the results of his first season-plus in the NFL — or the fact that Indy currently sits in first place — some wonder if it’s time loosen the reins and let the insanely talented QB run wild on a league that’s catered to that very skill. Especially in light of last week’s frustrating loss in San Diego.

No better time to start than against the Broncos secondary that’s allowed more passing yards than any in the league. Then again, teams are probably more apt to rack up the passing yards when they trail by 30 points at halftime.

CLEAN COMEBACK: The biggest story of the non-QB variety is the return of Von Miller from his six-game NFL suspension. Just what the Broncos need, right?

Assuming he doesn’t try to hire someone else to secretly play the game for him.

DeMLESS IN DALLAS: The Cowboys are in Philly for a one o’clock start against the Eagles, and they’ll likely be without the services of two of their biggest weapons: Running back DeMarco Murray (knee) and linebacker turned defensive end DeMarcus Ware (thigh).

Murray says that he’d like to play, even though Jerry Jones suggested he won’t. Either way, Murray might not be an enormous loss because “starting NFL running back” is the most replaceable position in professional sports, and rookie Joseph Randle looks ready to carry the load. Ware’s absence would be more substantial, especially against the high-powered potential of the Eagles offense, but nothing’s set in stone. He made the trip to Philly, is currently a game-time decision and seeing how he’s never missed a game in eight NFL seasons, he just may try and play.

Regardless, it’s safe bet that the Eagles still have their biggest weapon in tact: Tony Romo in the fourth quarter.

EIGHT IS ENOUGH: Not that the Eagles have been a beacon of NFL success these last few seasons, but this stat still caught me by surprise: Philadelphia has lost eight straight home games.

But they have won two straight games overall, and have to be feeling good heading into Sunday. Nick Foles — the reigning NFC Offensive Player of the Week — will start at QB again, as Mike Vick recovers from a hamstring injury, but with a another strong performance it may no longer matter how Vick feels.

Then again, that position, in general, won’t hold the same significance as long as LeSean McCoy keeps up his current pace. Shady is the NFL’s leading rusher, the league leader in first down and the only back averaging more than 100 yards a game.

Yeah, but can he croon?

FIRST PLACE: It doesn’t feel like it. Not when you look at their 3-3 records. Not when you consider everything that the Cowboys and Eagles have gone through this year. But that’s what’s on the line when these two take the field.

Such is life in the artist formerly known as the NFC East.

GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS: Case Keenum is a second-year, undrafted quarterback out of the University of Houston, who set all sorts of fancy records during his time in college. Most notably, he’s the NCAA's all-time leader in total passing yards, touchdowns, and completions.

Today, he’s also the starting quarterback for the Houston Texans.

So, that’s the good news. Congrats, Case!

And now for the bad news: Next stop, Kansas City!

The Chiefs, who host the Texans at 4:25 pm, have hands down the best defense in the NFL through six weeks. They lead the league in points allowed, interceptions, sacks, fumbles recovered, third down percentage and percentage of overall drives resulting in a score. The also rank fifth in total yards allowed, second in passing yards allowed and third in both passing and rushing touchdowns allowed. Maybe the craziest stat of all? Of all the points Kansas City has scored this season, 46.1 percent is accounted for by defensive and special teams touchdowns.

46.1 percent!

I’d say Keenum has about the same percentage chance of escaping Kansas City without having accumulated the foundation for a life-long reoccurring nightmare.

HOUSTON, WE HAVE A . . .: The word problem just doesn’t cut it. The Texans are a mess, and appear destined to notch their first five-game losing streak since the David Carr era.

On this list of issues, beyond the quarterback position: Andre Johnson’s still battling a shin injury. Owen Daniels is out for at least the next few weeks. Starting safety Daniel Manning was just ruled out for the season. They rank 26th in points scored, 28th in points allowed and rank dead last in the AFC with a -12 turnover differential. I can’t confirm this, but I almost guarantee at least a few of their pets’ heads are falling off.

Still have those varsity jackets, though.

IPO: Despite the craziness around him, Arian Foster is still having a pretty good season. He’s third in the NFL in rushing, tied for second in first downs and still hasn’t fumbled. His success is paramount if the Texans have any shot at pulling off the upset (They’re a six-point underdog). On the other hand, he only has one touchdown, but that’s a team problem as much as it is his.

Anyway, Foster made headlines this week by going public. No, seriously. You can actually by stock in Arian Foster.

But for my money, I’d rather invest in Sunday’s other running back:

Jamaal Charles. The 26-year-old is healthy and thriving in Andy Reid’s west coast offense. In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Info, Charles is on pace for only the fifth 300+ rushes and 80+ receptions season in NFL history.

JUST IN TIME: Whenever Rob Gronkowski was finally cleared to play, it was going to be just in time. Just in time to save Tom Brady’s head from exploding. Just in time to stop the latest in a series of leaks surrounding his status from getting out into the press. Just in time . . .

. . . to finish editing an in-depth, over-produced web ad/campaign to coincide with his return to the field?

Eh, whatever. It would have been nice to see Gronk take his return to the field with a dose of humility instead of turning it into a sideshow, but in the end, all that matters is that he’s been cleared . . . and just in time for a date with the New York Jets.

KNOCKED OUT: The Pats are favored by four points on Sunday at MetLife Stadium, and I guess that sounds about right. If only as a result of this just plain devastating string of injuries. Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo are out. Aqib Talib, Danny Amendola and Dan Connolly are likely to follow suit.

Geno Smith has been better as of late; he’s actually not as bad as the numbers would suggest. But he’s still a rookie with rookie tendencies that Bill Belichick should be able to exploit even without a full roster of first stringers.

But all things considered, wouldn’t be shocked to see this one come down to a field goal.

LAST CHANCE?: As of now, with the Jets’ surprising 3-3 start, all the talk surrounding Rex Ryan’s status as a lame duck has quieted down in Jets Land. But at the same time, it’s a long season, and if anyone‘s capable of taking a little positive energy and turning into a full-fledged train wreck it’s Ryan.

So, it’s something to keep in mind as you watch Pats/Jets on Sunday.

Could this be the last chapter in the storied Ryan/Belichick saga?

MONDAY MESS: The folks at ESPN were probably pretty happy when they initially saw the Week 7 NFL schedule. Sure, they would have loved to feature Peyton’s return to Indy, or one of the many rivalry games on the docket, but you could do a lot worse than Minnesota at NY Giants. You had the New York market, one of the biggest stars (AP) in the game and a battle of two teams all but guaranteed to be in contention for a spot in the NFC playoff field.

Instead, they’ve got two teams with a combined record of 1-10.

But hey, there’s always next Monday: Seattle at St. Louis, baby!

One thing to actually watch in this one? Josh Freeman’s first start in Minnesota, where every touchdown pass will throw another load of fuel into the Fire Greg Schiano bonfire.

NOT TRADING TONY: The Falcons are back in action after last week’s bye, and will play in host to one of the few teams in the league that are currently more pathetic than they are: The Bucs.

But the story in Atlanta is that Tony Gonzalez, who came back this season for one more shot at a title, won’t force a trade from the Falcons.

It’s too bad, because there are a lot of teams that could use him and might be willing to make a move. Good teams, too. Kansas City (where he played the majority of his career), maybe even New England. Point is that a title is still within reach.

But you have to respect Gonzalez’s loyalty. And at the end of the day, there might be a silver lining. With Julio Jones out for the year and Roddy White (who’ll miss Sunday’s game) struggling with his own injuries, Gonzalez could end getting somewhere around 30 targets a game . . . and he’s only 275 receptions away from breaking Jerry Rice’s all-time NFL record.

OLD FRIENDS: The Steelers and Ravens have one of the meanest rivalries in all of football, and it’s been that way for at least a decade. But as of late, a key component’s been missing: Ben Roethlisberger.

Sunday marks the first time in 23 months that Big Ben will suits up against Baltimore, and this is about as must-win as they come for the Steelers.

With a loss, Pittsburgh drops to 1-5 and can kiss any waning of making the playoffs goodbye. And while they’ll have the benefit of Big Ben, as well as playing at home, injuries and the bad start have already taken its toll, and unless they suddenly get some production from rookie running back Le’Veon Bell it may very well be curtains for Mike Tomlin’s crew. And you know Baltimore would love to be the team that finished the job.

But the Ravens have issues of their own. After last week’s loss to Green Bay, they stand at 3-3, and with a loss would fall below .500 for the first time since 2005. A little Ray Rice rejuvenation might go a long way.

PICK YOUR POISON: The Dolphins host the Bills in AFC East action. Miami’s looking to rebound after two straight losses, and is favored to do so by seven points.

But here’s the million dollar question for Buffalo fans: Which of the team’s two available QBs do you trust more? Former third-stringer Thad Lewis, who spent all week hobbling around in a walking boot, or newly signed Matt “The World’s Richest Back Up QB” Flynn?

The answer: Save yourself some heartache and bet on the Dolphins.

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: What’s the definition of sad?

Why, it’s this Sunday at 1 pm. EverBank Field in Jacksonville.

Chargers at Jaguars.

REALITY BITES: It was close, but the Browns magical post-trade run came to an end last week at the hands of the Lions. This week, Cleveland stays in the NFC West, but instead of hosting Detroit, they’re headed out to Lambeau, where it won’t take long for that three-game winning streak to feel like a million miles away. The Packers (who are favored by 9.5) are beat up at receiver, most notably with the loss of Randall Cobb, but you could give Aaron Rodgers Jordy Nelson and the present day versions of Sterling Sharpe and Robert Brooks, and he’ll still make it happen. And he will.

Sadly, it won’t get any easier on the Browns from there. Up next week?

A trip to Arrowhead and a meeting with the undefeated Chiefs.

SILLY SCHEDULE: The 49ers are in Tennessee this week, where they’ll play a Titans teams that has come crashing down to Earth after a hot start, thanks to Jake Locker’s injury and Ryan Fitzpatrick’s stint as starting QB.

San Francisco is only favored by three, but with their defense back in rhythm (they’ve forced eight turnovers the last two weeks) and the Titans still anxiously waiting for Locker’s return, the 49ers should have their way. And after that, there’s not a contending team in the NFL with a more favorable schedule.

They have nine games after this, two of which come at New Orleans and vs. Seattle. But other than that it’s Jacksonville, Washington, Carolina, St. Louis, Tampa, Atlanta and Arizona.

TIMES HAVE CHANGED: For the better part of the last 20, the Bengals and Lions were the laughing stocks of their respective conferences. The target of relentless teasing. In most of those seasons, Cincinnati at Detroit would have easily trumped San Diego at Jacksonville for saddest game of the week honors.

But today, both teams are trending in the right direction, with legitimate hope of not only making the playoffs, but winning their division. They each stand at 4-2, and there’s a huge difference between 4-3 and 5-2.

In the long term, the Bengals might be better off, just based on the AFC North competition. They’ve only got to worry about the Browns, the almost dead Steelers and the struggling Ravens. Meanwhile, Detroit has Green Bay and Chicago. So, with that, the fact that Detroit has more on the line, is playing at home and the Bengals only road win was last week’s OT scare against Thad Lewis in Buffalo, give the Lions an edge.

UPSET OF THE WEEK: I’ve lost three straight in this category, so need to make some noise this week. I’m really tempted to go with Indianapolis. After all, that game will have the pressure of the postseason, and you know how Peyton rolls in that scenario. But instead of picking against the best team in the NFL, I’m going to pick WITH the worst team.

Jacksonville! They had to have built at least a little confidence by hanging with Denver last week. They’ve got Chad Henne under center instead of Blaine Gabbert and Justin Blackmon back in the mix after missing the four weeks with a suspension. Meanwhile, the San Diego’s coming off a short week, flying across the country and into Jacksonville’s sleepy stadium. Not to mention that if the Chargers win, they 4-3. Above .500. That doesn’t feel right.

And a Jaguars victory does? For one week, you bet.

VENGEFUL: The last time Jay Cutler played the Redskins he gave D’Angelo Hall the gift of a lifetime. Four gifts, actually. Hall picked Cutler off four times and returned one for a touchdown in Washington’s 17-14 win.

Of course, that was a long time ago. October 2010. Donovan McNabb was playing QB for Washington. Still, throw in that memory and the presence of Cutler’s former head coach in Denver, Mike Shanahan, on the sideline and the Bears QB should have an extra edge when he takes the field at RFK.

WELL, MAYBE THAT’S NOT THE BEST IDEA: Cutler’s counterpart on Sunday is obviously Robert Griffin III, who’s still trying to regain the magic of his pre-injury rookie season. And speaking to ESPN earlier this week, RGIII said that he’s also trying to draw more late-hit penalties this season.


Specifically, Griffin said he plans to do so by playing off defenders instincts, and stepping out of bounds once he catches a player charging in the hope that he won’t slow up and deliver a crushing blow.

"There will be situations, and that's why guys don't want to pull up," he told ESPN. "It's happened in the past with Mike Vick or someone like that who has run to the sidelines, stopped and then gotten 20 more yards because the guy runs out of bounds trying not to hit the quarterback."

I’d say he should maybe save that experiment for the Jaguars as opposed to Bears D, but we’ll see what happens on Sunday.

Xtreme: I have to link to this Gronkowski video one more time.

I mean, can you imagine Belichick’s reaction when he saw this thing for the first time? In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he hasn’t seen it at all. His entire coaching staff is probably running around like crazy, bending over backwards, trying to make sure it never finds its way to the coach’s computer. Angry Belichick is bad news for everyone.

(Great choice in the uniform number too, Gronk. Very subtle.)

YOUNG AND FUN: You see Rams at Panthers on the schedule, and you quickly avert your eyes. You’ve been conditioned after years of respective irrelevance. But, six weeks in, and this pair of perennial bottom feeders are still hanging around.

The Rams have won two straight (albeit against Jacksonville and what’s left the Texans) and are 3-3 on the year. The Panthers beat the Vikings last week, and come in at 2-3. Both have young quarterbacks who bounce back and forth between the verge of figuring it out and the familiar feeling of failure. Both have young defenses with loads of potential, and so far Carolina’s turned that potential into reality — they’re allowing the second fewest point in the league. Throw in Ron Rivera’s new found propensity for going for it on fourth down, and suddenly this game might be a lot of fun.

ZOO: Might as well start where we finished, and the zoo that’s coming to Indianapolis on Sunday. Even if it doesn’t feel right to give Peyton so much love around these parts, especially with what Brady is going through this season, it really will be a spectacle at Lucas Oil Stadium. A pretty cool piece of NFL history, and one that I’ll be glued from start to finish.

Well, unless there’s something better on. Like maybe Game 7 of the ALCS?

And that’s all for this week.

Enjoy the games.

Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine