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New England Patriots -2.5 & San Diego Chargers -8.5
In this matchup I'm looking for BUF to fall back to earth a bit. There is a lot of buzz surrounding their 2-0 start, but how impressive is that record really? They beat up on a dismal KC team and had to make a big-time rally in the 2nd half to overcome OAK. Sorry, but I'm not a buyer just yet.
Have they improved? Sure. Dareus is a nice addition to the defense, they love playing for Chan Gailey, and the offense is overperforming everyone's expectations. Fitzpatrick is playing smart, Jackson is running for a contract, and they are creating and maximizing all their opportunities. But let's stop there. This defense already ranks near the bottom in 3rd down percentage and red zone efficiency. I don't care how skewed the stats are after 2 games. That kind of production is not going to fly with the New England Patriots. The key to knocking off Belichick's crew is to get them off the field on 3rd down and limit them to occasional field goals instead of touchdowns. Without good pressure up front I don't see either of these two things happening on Sunday. NE's line has had a couple of weeks to gel and I don't foresee major breakdowns there. Even if BUF do manage to disrupt Brady's game, they'll run with the hurry-up offense to keep BUF's defense on it's heels (worse if McGee remains out). Hernandez is out this week which will give us a slightly different look and you can bet that Ocho will be a bit more involved in this one.
The only chance BUF has is creating turnovers and putting enough points on the board to keep it interesting. There is a slimmer of hope because NE's defense has been killed in the yardage department so far and BUF is putting up gaudy numbers of its own. Thus far BUF have 52 points from long drives! I don't care who their opponents were, that is impressive for this cast of characters. (WR Steve Johnson didn't practice today due to a groin injury). At the same time, NE have been stingy in the points department. A sign of a good defense is having a big plus in the point-yardage differential. This means they are forcing field goals and/or creating turnovers and/or stops on 4th down. I could see BUF covering if they get some breaks, but it's more likely they get a back-door cover. I prefer to tease them down and avoid any of those concerns.
Meanwhile the Chargers take on a team in complete disarray. KC have already lost 3 of their core young players (Moeaki, Berry, Charles). If that isn't enough to suck the life out of you I don't know what is. Making matters worse, coach Haley didn't get them ready for the regular season like he said he would. He was highly criticized for his handling of the team in the preseason and thus far it hasn't paid off. Cassel looks ordinary and adding Breaston hasn't done anything for the passing game. Jones and McCluster will take over the running duties and should be able to get some decent production, but this game rests on Cassel's shoulders. If they have any hope they'll need him to manage a flawless game. That's a tall task going into SD.
I'm not sure how much more analysis is needed after you look at what is being said out of both camps. The KC coaches and players are saying all the right things to the media, but putting on a brave face isn't going to mask this situation. On the flip side, coach Turner said that their loss to NE was very encouraging. I don't believe that this was just "coach speak" because SD easily could have won that game (or at least covered) if they didn't shoot themselves in the foot. They went toe to toe with Brady and made it a heck of a show. I realize some will say that these mistakes are typical SD blunders, and they could be right, but I've watched this team closely since training camp opened and believe they won't get off to the same slow start as previous seasons.
One of the least talked about aspects of this SD team is the play of 2nd year player Ryan Mathews. He's been stellar through 2 games and is getting overlooked due to Tolbert. With both running so well, defending this offense might become impossible. NE took away Gates with double coverage last week, but you saw how that benefited Vincent Jackson. Defenses will continue to struggle with how they attack this crew, but as long as Rivers is at the helm they'll find the open guy and exploit the soft areas in the scheme.
Coach Haley's seat is getting hotter each week and GM Scott Pioli doesn't mess around. It's not out of the question that he axes Haley if the product on the field doesn't play better soon. To start with, they can try scoring more points. So far they have 10 through 2 games. I think this could be a blowout, but at worst I see a double digit win. A 14+ point spread is just too high regardless of the opponent. It just takes 1 big play early for the line to become out of reach. A pick-six, a return TD, a blown coverage etc. Suddenly you need SD to score 24 unanswered points just to cover. It's smarter to tease them down. Prediction: Bank NE -2.5 & SD -8.5.
New England Patriots -2.5 & Pittsburgh Steelers -4.5
The problem becomes Kerry Collins and the running game. We are already 3 weeks into the season and IND remains shell-shocked at life without Peyton. Collins is a very bad fit for this scheme and he's playing behind a shaky offensive line. His timing is way off and doesn't have the necessary pocket savvy to avoid the rush. This could very well be a blowout because Addai and company have next to no shot at keeping this PIT defense honest. Labeau can sit back in zone and pick off Collins all night long or they can force him into quick decisions by attacking the line of scrimmage. Either approach will work. Last week Collins had 6 plays inside the red zone and they only managed 4 yards. Enough said?
Stacking the deck against IND is the fact that this defense isn't designed to grind out close games. Peyton not only influenced the personnel decisions on offense, but they geared the defense for him too. They are built on speed and schemed to play with a lead. PIT's power offense is a bad matchup for this group. Mendenhall can play downhill smash-mouth football and limit the effectiveness of Mathis and Freeney. They still haven't found a reliable replacement for Session in the middle either. With all the turnovers and short fields, it's no wonder that IND is giving up a lot more points than the yardage suggests. But compounding the problem is their 3rd down efficiency. Losing to HOU was one thing, but losing to the Browns at home was much, much worse.
I don't know what else to say. I could go on and on about how bad IND really is without Peyton, but it's nothing you haven't already heard. Like BUF, I anticipate a spirited effort and I might even go as far to say this will be IND's "last stand". If they get blown out again this ship is officially sunk and the only thing left to decide is whether or not they get Andrew Luck. I don't like teasing down road favorites, but I have to make an exception here. Fade the Colts until further notice. Prediction: Bank NE -2.5 & PIT -4.5.
Philadelphia Eagles -2.5 & Pittsburgh Steelers -4.5
PHI has opened at -9, but they've dropped into the teaser window at enough books to add it to the card. You can always do a 6.5 point tease too if you want to. You would be giving up some value, but a winning play is a winning play.
PHI have shuffled their linebacker deck by moving Chaney to the middle and Mathews to the outside in an attempt to limit the run. Mathews just wasn't using his hands enough to get off blocks. We'll see how it works out against two quality running backs, but it can't be much worse than what we've seen so far! The problem for NY is it will take a lot more than a running game to pull off a win this week. They lost Hixon for the season and Manningham is out with a concussion! It is unbelievable how many injuries this team has had in 2011. I expect PHI's defense to get to Manning and rattle him enough to get him confused. Once they fall behind, this game could get out of hand. I don't like most quarterbacks trying to pass on this defense--especially a pick machine like Eli!
It looks like Vick will play (which is a bit disappointing because Kafka would have given us serious value in the line). NY's injury-riddled defense will be exploited. Perhaps the most underrated aspect of PHI's "dream team" is Shady McCoy. He's propelled himself into the discussion of best backs in the league. He cuts on a dime and has an explosive first step. He's always had the talent, but he's finally putting it all together at the right time. NY is undermanned at linebacker so McCoy will be lined up in the flat and targeted on swing passes numerous times on Sunday. In reality, PHI can attack this defense any way they want. Cornerback is the last position you want to have problems with when you face this receiving corps. D-Jax, Maclin, Smith, Avant, and Celek will have a field day against a crew of backups and band-aids. In fact, I expect Smith to have his number called a number of times just to stick it to NY. There's no doubt he circled this game when he signed with the rival Eagles this offseason.
The big challenge on offense will be whether or not PHI can keep Vick upright and off the medical stretcher. That is never an easy task when you have guys like Tuck lining up against you, but PHI's O-line hasn't done nearly as bad as people think. A lot of Vick's sacks have come from holding the ball too long. They might have a few drives stalled due to pressure, but it won't be enough to contain this offense. Prediction: Bank PHI -2.5 & PIT -4.5.