Monday, September 12, 2011

Week 2 NFL Predictions: September 18, 2011

For latest odds check out one of my trusted sportsbooks - 5 Dimes, Bodog or Intertops.

Baltimore Ravens vs Tennessee Titans: BAL -5.5

The line is beginning to move, but I like this at anything less than a touchdown.

BAL likely goes down as one of the biggest surprises from week 1 of the 2011 season.  They are a solid team, but great enough to plaster PIT off the field?

A lot of people will look at their win over PIT and say that the 7 turnover differential inflated the perception of BAL this week.  Keep in mind that BAL were dominating that game before any of those turnovers and were well on their way to a convincing win without the gifts from Big Ben.  Give BAL's questionable offensive line a lot of credit for giving Flacco more than enough time to find the open receivers. 

That said, I don't think BAL are world-beaters and I still maintain that they won't be a Super Bowl contender this year.  The good news for us is that none of that matters in week 2.  The Ravens have the benefit of traveling to TEN to take on one of the worst teams in the AFC South.

Don't pay much attention to the final score of the TEN/JAX game because it isn't indicative of how things played out between the 20s.  JAX had almost double the amount of plays and time of possession.  I said before the season started that I didn't like what was going on in TEN and I'm not at all surprised that they struggled out of the gate.

Matt Hasselbeck is still a long way from mastering this new system and his timing with his receivers was off all day.  Chris Johnson didn't look like the multi-million dollar man as he is still getting up to speed on the blocking schemes and reading the holes.  The O-line didn't block well either and the tight ends made numerous errors as well.  TEN couldn't sustain drives, get off the field, or stop the run.  JAX piled up 153 rushing yards on 47 carries.  Adding insult to injury TEN couldn't create any pressure on McCown when they sent 5 or more rushers.  Do you think they miss Jim Washburn and Jason Babin?

In other words, the Titans were absolute garbage in a game that was ripe for the picking.  Munchak is telling his players not to panic and that they didn't really lose the physical battle, but the eye in the sky never lies.

Look for Rice to blow through holes on Sunday thanks to free agent pickups Vonte Leach and Bryant McKinnie.  Time of possession will be another big factor as TEN struggle to get points from long drives.  In fact, points from long drives has become more important than ever thanks to the new kickoff rule.  You can only get fluky big plays from Kenny Britt so many times and it isn't very often that Ed Reed is healthy.  Sprinkle in a little bit of Ngata and Suggs and you have a full blown crisis for Matt Hasselbeck.  Some might say that he caught some breaks given the injuries that BAL suffered in the secondary, but the Ravens boast enviable depth at the cornerback position.

This play has more to do with fading TEN than it has to do with an endorsement of BAL, but it doesn't hurt that Harbaugh has his troops on the same page to start the year. It's going to be a long afternoon for TEN and company.  Prediction: Bank BAL -5.5.

Dallas Cowboys vs San Francisco 49ers: DAL -3
We could see a line move here off the 3, so the sooner you get it the better.

I'm a little surprised that DAL is only laying 3 against the lowly 49ers.  I wasn't shocked that they played the Jets tough and covered the line, but I stayed away due to their leaky secondary (Newman could return this week).  Since DAL played well in a prime-time game, I fully expect the public to be all over America's Team of yester-year as well.  So far 91% of the early action is on DAL and you've seen increased juice in the line.

A closer look at the SF/SEA game will reveal that it was a much different game than the final score indicated.  Two late return TDs by Ted Ginn Jr put it out of reach, but up until that point it was a battle of inept offenses trying to win a field goal battle.  SF only managed 6 points from long drives and 8 first downs.  In contrast, all of SEA's points came from long, sustained drives. The most disconcerting thing about the SF defense was the fact that they let a guy like Tavaris Jackson get into a groove.  SF did bottle up the run and registered 5 sacks, but how much is that saying against a lowly SEA offense?

Don't get me wrong, I do like Jim Harbaugh and he's already changed the "culture" of the 49ers camp.  Whether it is using the lack of respect from national highlight shows, giving the team Mondays off, or installing a vocabulary of "us" and "we" instead of "I", sooner or later he'll get this ship turned around.  The only problem is that transition isn't going to happen against the Cowboys. 

This unit will be severely tested as they face the likes of Bryant, Austin, Jones, and Witten.  This group of skill players put up 400+ yards of offense and 6.1 yards per play against a good NY defense in a hostile and emotionally charged atmosphere.  Bryant was shut out in the 2nd half as he suffered from cramps, but he put on quite the show as the rest of the league took notice of a star in the making.  This kid has some of the best hands of any young receiver in the game and will put a lot of pressure on opposing defenses as a compliment to Austin.

SF is going to have to figure out where they want to roll double coverage because Witten still remains Romo's favorite target over the middle.  With such a lethal passing game, defenses won't be able to stack the box and Felix Jones could put up some gaudy numbers once his O-line rounds into form.  And speaking of the offensive line, this group is more agile this season and provides better opportunities for Jones down near the goal line.  Additionally, the screen game will continue to be a favorite play call for Jason Garrett.   

To have any chance in this one SF's offense will need to repeat their mistake-free play from week 1 and then some.  Smith, Gore and company didn't give up any sacks or commit any turnovers, but you can bet that Rob Ryan is going to dial up a boatload of pressure to test Harbaugh's new system.  If SF fall behind by 10-14 points on Sunday, it's going to be a tall task coming back.  DAL was humiliated on national TV and will determined not to start the season 0-2.  I expect Romo to be on his best behavior after his embarrassing implosion vs the Jets.

This might be the last time the 49ers have a winning record in 2011.  Prediction: Bank DAL -3.

San Diego Chargers vs New England Patriots: SD +7
NE burned the books once again in week 1 as both the pros and the public were behind them against MIA. Year after year the sportsbooks inflate the lines for NE and year after year they continue to cover.  SD didn't make as many people happy with their non-cover against MIN.  Like usual, SD got down early from a special teams play, but unlike SD of recent memory, they battled back with a dominating performance in the 2nd half to avoid a 0-1 start.

This kind of comeback is the sign of a championship team and part of the reason why I like them to win the Super Bowl this year.  Norv Turner went out of his way to tweak his preparations for 2011 in order to avoid the perennial slow start and thus far it's paying off.

I think it's a little crazy for the books to favor NE by a touchdown in this game, but they do have a few trends going for them.  The Pats are 9-0 in season openers in Gillette Stadium, they continue to cover inflated lines, and SD is a West Coast team traveling across country to the East Coast.

That said the Chargers are not your typical West Coast bottom-feeders such as SF, OAK, SEA, ARI, and so on. SD is a team built for a deep run and boasts an all-star caliber offense and defense.  Last week against MIN they put up two touchdowns from long drives compared to a field goal from MIN.  They held Peterson in check for most of the day and limited McNabb to one of his worst professional games of his career. 

On the flip side, NE looked every bit the Super Bowl contenders people thought they would be and Brady is already in mid-season MVP form.  MIA's defense was supposed to be more disruptive against a questionable offensive line, but Brady answered the test with over 500 yards of passing and 4 touchdowns.  Game, set, match.

However, a closer look reveals some concerns for NE.  Chad Henne put up over 400 yards passing himself and despite the scoreboard, the Pats continued to let MIA stick around with 17 points from long drives.

I believe Rivers and company are going to exploit NE's defense somewhat and put up a nice chunk of points themselves. Tolbert and Mathews had great games to open the season and this one-two punch will cause problems for NE. Tolbert did suffer a knee injury, but all reports indicate that he'll be good to go.  On the outside, Rivers has two big receiving targets that he can rely on in Jackson and Floyd and it's impossible to roll coverage against them without getting burned by Gates over the middle.  MIN repeatedly blitzed on Sunday hoping to disrupt the timing and comfort in the pocket, but Rivers is a strong tough quarterback who is willing to take a hit and shrug off defenders in order to complete a pass. This is an offense that can attack you in so many different ways.  They can control the clock and pound the rock or they can go no-huddle and beat you with the vertical game. 

Don't get me wrong.  NE will put up points.  Brady is too good and too smart to be held in check for 60 minutes, but his skill position options aren't as good across the board as SD's.  Welker and Branch can move the sticks, but they are still without a receiver who can stretch the field deep.  Green-Ellis and Woodhead are shifty backs who can pick up a first down and find soft zones over the middle.  But one good game from the offensive line isn't going to silence the critics.  It's always smart to fade a team that loses it's starting center, and that looks like it will be the case after Dan Koppen went out with an ankle injury.  SD have playmakers up and down their defensive lineup and should be able to slow down Brady a lot better than MIA did on Monday night. 

I think the Chargers win this game straight up, but if the books want to give me 7 points I'll gladly take them.  Prediction: Bank SD +7.


Houston Texans vs Miami Dolphins: HOU -3
Including HOU to the card is not for the faint of heart.  This would be the 4th "public play" I have for the week 2 which is always reason to be a bit nervous.  Having said that, I cannot ignore the value in this line.  At anything more than 3 I would take a pass.

Before the season started I identified a handful of teams that I thought would start the year strong.  HOU is one such team after making important changes to their defense along with the hire of Wade Phillips.  Keep in mind that their offense is so explosive that they only need an average defense to win games.  This unit has the chance to achieve that and more. 

The defense was dominant in week 1.  That's not saying much because IND quit in the 1st half, but it's an encouraging sign for a group that needs all the positive reinforcement it can get.  Transitioning to a new scheme doesn't magically happen overnight.  Many wondered how Mario Williams would adjust to the OLB spot, but in week 1 he only had to drop into coverage twice in 44 snaps.  Beyond that he was a force all over the field lining up on both sides and registering sacks in the 3-point stance and once upright.  He also had a QB hurry and a forced fumble in the win.  Ryans and Cushing are finally back healthy and will only improve this defense as the weeks go along.  It won't matter whether MIA wants to attack them in the air or on the ground, HOU is equipped to handle both.

Speaking of MIA's offense, can someone please explain to me what is going on with them?  I knew that they were changing to a pass-first offense, but 400+ yards from Henne?  Bess, Marshall, and Fasano were all impact players in the air.  It's unknown whether that was a by-product of a leaky NE defense, soft coverage, or a step forward from Henne.  I imagine it was a combination of all the above.  Bush offers more variety in their scheme, but they are still going to face challenges with the traditional run game. Daniel Thomas was back at full practice today, but his addition has largely been overblown this year and I'm not sure how often he'll be left in on passing downs due to HOU's aggressive blitz scheme.

MIA have a lot of talent sprinkled throughout the lineup, but their main problem will continue to be consistency.  That was on full display as Brady completely dismantled their coverage on MNF.  That came as a bit of a shock given the pedigree of this defense.  It is supposed to be a top 5-10 group, but there are a lot of things to fix before the high-powered Texans offense comes to town.  Working on a short-week, MIA needs to figure how to stop the running game.  HOU's offense all starts on the ground with their punishing zone-blocking scheme.  There is outstanding continuity on this offensive line and you could plug any running back in there and get good production.  Foster practiced in full on Wednesday, but Tate is still expected to get most of the load.  With Kubiak, you never really know.

What we do know is that Schaub is lethal with the play-action pass.  Johnson and Daniels will continue to get targeted the most, but there is enough top-tier talent across the board to keep any defense off balance.  MIA is still a big mystery, but we know what we are getting with HOU.  Ride them until the books adjust. Prediction: Bank HOU -3

Philadelphia Eagles vs Atlanta Falcons: PHI -2.5
We could see the line move to 3.  

If you have been following my blog since the preseason you'll notice a trend developing here.  Including the exhibition games, PHI is 4-1 ATS in 2011.  I'm going to continue to ride them as long as their main guns are healthy and as long as Vegas continues to undervalue them.

It is true that ATL was favored in this game when bookmakers set the lines during the offseason, but PHI should be favored by more than a FG in my opinion.  The ironic thing about this team is despite all the hype regarding the "Dream Team", it hasn't manifested in a lot of respect from the betting community yet.  It was absolutely crazy that the sharps didn't back PHI after the free agency period and the majority of the pros sided with STL.

Did week 1 change their mind?   We shall see on Saturday when the consensus picks come out.

As for the matchup, both teams bring a lot of continuity into 2011 with stable coaching staffs, the same quarterbacks, and veteran lineups--all important ingredients to start the post-lockout season.  Yes PHI brought in new line coaches, moved Juan Castillo over to the defensive side, and have new starters from free agency and the rookie draft, but the important aspect of all these additions is the high level of veteran talent.  The transition into Reid's system isn't going to be as rocky as many of the so-called "pundits" are predicting.

Last season PHI compeltely dismantled an ATL team that was playing at the top of their game and they did it with an inexperienced Kevin Kolb at quarterback.  Now they face off after taking a much different approach in the offseason.  Both lost to the Packers in the playoffs.  ATL decided to add more firepower by drafting Julio Jones in an attempt to go toe to toe with GB's offense, while PHI went out and acquired two pro-bowl cornerbacks and two pro-bowl defensive linemen.

Which strategy do you think will be more successful?

ATL will want a lot more balance on offense this game than they had in week 1 so you can expect a lot of Turner/Snelling in an attempt to keep Vick off the field and keep the game close. In week 1 ATL only got a measly 6 points from long drives after dominating this category in 2010.  As you saw with STL, the last thing you want to do is fall behind against PHI.  Once you are forced to throw you are faced with the uphill climb against Asomugha and Samuel while trying to keep guys like Cole, Jenkins, and Babin out of your backfield.  Against STL, the defensive line had 5 sacks and that's all without any blitzes.  Jim Washburn has already been a huge asset to this defensive unit and if they can continue to get that kind of production without blitzing, opposing teams are going to have a very tough time finding open receivers down the field.  Last week, ATL's O-line gave up 5 sacks of their own without CHI blitzes.     

I think ATL's defense is a whole lot better than they showed against CHI, but how do you defend PHI's offense?  PHI had little trouble scoring 3 touchdowns from long drives in week 1.  Jackson keep the safeties honest as a deep threat, Maclin, Smith, and Avant are all crisp route runners on the short and intermediate routes, and then you have star-in-the-making Shady McCoy out of the backfield (McCoy has 391 rushing yards and 4 TDs in his last 3 dome games). If all that breaks down Vick just takes off for a 20 yard gain.  ATL will take a page out of the Spagnuolo playbook and blitz from Vick's blindside, but I'm not sure it's a plan that can work for 60 minutes.   Abraham, Jerry, and Edwards are going to need huge games up front to give ATL a chance.

It should be a great game in prime time and ATL will be better, but in the end Vick's return to ATL as a starter will be a triumphant one.  Prediction: Bank PHI -2.5.