UPDATE: Foster is expected to start vs PIT which only strengthens the play on HOU. I'm still waiting on other injury updates and line movement before I add a couple more picks this week.
Buffalo Bills vs Cincinnati Bengals: BUF -3
So how much of the hype is legit? This is a team that got dominated in the first half by both OAK and NE this year. The comebacks were impressive and the beat down they laid on KC was good too, but a lot of people are expecting a return to earth against CIN in a letdown spot.
I'm not subscribing to that theory for a few reasons. First of all, this BUF offense is hummin' right now. Could CIN's defense give them the biggest test to date? Possibly, but they'll need to play great for 60 minutes to do it. In 3 games, BUF has put up a whopping 72 points from long drives. If you're scoring at home that's 2nd in the NFL behind NE. This isn't an offense that is getting lucky breaks or overperforming their stats. They've earned most of the points they've got. That is impressive when you consider that Fitzpatrick is the quarterback! I'll be the first to admit that I wrote him off as nothing more than a Rex Grossman clone. When he was in CIN he couldn't even complete a pass. Do I think he's a legitimate pro-bowler? Well not so fast my friends. This could be an early season hot streak that fizzles out at any point, but for our purposes I'm on the train for one week. Fred Jackson has emerged as the bonafide starter at RB and Steve Johnson is putting his name on the map. They've controlled time of possesion, dominated in the red zone, and demonstrated great mental toughness.
The next reason I'm not buying into the letdown talk is due to their head coach Chan Gailey. Even when they were losing games last year I repeatedly talked about how much they respect their coach. They played hard for him and stayed discipline despite having no hope for the season. That commitment hasn't wavered this season and they are finally reaping some rewards. Gailey said he wants to see how his team handles "properity" now. This isn't a fat-cat team that knows that they'll be in the playoff like the other contenders around the league. Motivation will be high to continue their streak and improvement in the coming weeks. I know they celebrated their win like it was the Super Bowl and Thurman Thomas was interrupting press conferences to hand out hugs, but young teams strive to get better and that's what I see happening when they travel to CIN.
Finally, you must consider who their opponent is. CIN might have the worst home field advantage in the league as two-thirds of the stadium isn't even full anymore. If you were a fan could you blame them? Dalton might be good down the road, but he's not there right now. Last week he threw 2 bad interceptions in the 4th quarter to seal the loss. BUF's defense isn't that great, but how good do you need to be when its the Bengals? What does it say when they've played 3 weak opponents and rank near the bottom in red zone and third down efficiency? In the last 2 weeks CIN is 1 for 21 on third down! It's no wonder they only have 27 points from long drives this year. Dalton put up some good numbers against DEN, but those yards were deceiving. He simply makes too many bad decisions and doesn't have the level of communication and timing with his receivers that's needed to succeed. The news gets worse as the Cedric Benson appeal looms over the team. I like Bernard Scott so there shouldn't be that big of a dropoff, but it's an unnecessary distraction to a team trying to put this stuff behind them.
I'm not about to crown BUF with a playoff spot just yet, but I do like them to continue winning for at least one more week. I'm a little surprised at this line. Prediction: Bank BUF -3.
Pittsburgh Steelers vs Houston Texans: HOU -3
To start with, we've all seen the 2011 version of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The rules have definitely worked against their aggressive approach to defense and they are the oldest team in the NFL. I wrote in my season win totals article that their formula should be good enough for another good year, but I can't deny that they are having problems out of the gate.
Even in their shutout win against SEA their offense didn't do anything special. In fact their points to yardage ratio is near the bottom of the league so far. Yes that might be skewed by the BAL game, but their offensive line is in worse shape than it was last year and that's saying something! If it wasn't for Big Ben masking a lot of their problems I'm not sure where this team would be. The entire right side of the O-line left the IND game at one point! This is having a huge impact on pass protection and the running game. Neither are in sync this season and Ben must be thankful he has a home-run hitter like Wallace to bail him out.
This HOU defense had their own problems against NO last week. It was a good test and learning lesson for them, but I don't expect them to be giving up those kind of points the rest of the year. Brees can do that to any defense in the Superdome. Wade Phillips wasn't going to turn them into the Steel Curtain over night. Learning this scheme is a process and last Sunday was another step along the way. For the most part I've liked what I've seen. Guys like Manning and Joseph are making plays, Ryans and Cushing are healthy and active, and Williams has transitioned much faster than people expected. It should be a much different story when they go up against PIT's leaky offensive line. This will be the first time PIT has faced a quality opponent since week 1. Winning ugly just isn't going to cut it in this game.
On defense, it's taken 3 games for the PIT to get a turnover and it came against Curtis Painter! They are average in almost every important statistical category so far. That is almost equivalent to watching the Colts without Peyton. It's just not right! I know I'm making it seem like this will be a cake-walk for HOU, but I don't think it will be. I do think that HOU have the edge on both sides of the ball though. That is how much respect I have for this Texans team. Would things be better if Foster was in the lineup? Without a doubt. Most of Foster's TDs last year came from inside the red zone--an area that HOU has struggled in this year. He is slated to practice in full this week, but given the setbacks he's had with that hamstring, who knows if he'll be able to go or be effective once he's in there. Thankfully Ben Tate brings his own mojo to the table. If he's the guy on Sunday I have complete faith that he'll move the sticks and give HOU the balance needed to keep PIT honest. Their O-line is a unit that's played a lot of games together and that kind of continuity will pay dividends against good defenses. It's almost impossible to shut Andre Johnson down and PIT's corners don't matchup well against him either.
In the end the HOU pass rush and big play ability on offense should be too much for this PIT team to contend with. Prediction: Bank HOU -3.
Detroit Lions vs Dallas Cowboys: DET +2
Amazingly, the books still haven't put out a line for DET that I haven't liked. We have to ask ourselves, is this team a legitimate contender or is this just a hot streak and no better than a playoff bubble team? I'm with the former. I still think they have a chance at upsetting GB for the division, but they'll need to continue winning games like this to stay in the race. Thankfully for them they come into this game with a sizable advantage in many key areas.
The obvious difference between these teams is their production in the red zone on both offense and defense. It's no secret that Stafford is on the cusp of a breakout season and he has weapons all over the field. Pettigrew is taking advantage of mismatches over the middle. Defenses are having trouble with deciding who they want to take out of the game. Johnson has the big-play ability and continues to make plays despite the coverage. Best can break a long run or pass at any point. Even though he hasn't done great between the tackles, he doesn't allow linebackers and safeties to cheat. He's even doing a good job picking up blitzes on third down. Burleson and Young are always going to see single coverage and both have stepped up this year. It won't be a blowout because DAL's defense has played much better than people thought they would at this stage of the year. The playmakers are being given the opportunity to roam and make plays. But Jenkins and Newman are both a far way from where they want to be health-wise and have their work cut out for them this week. DET rank near the top in red zone efficiency while DAL's defense ranks near the bottom. The one concern I would have for DET's offense is on their O-line. The tackles didn't play very well against MIN and that might be a problem when you have a guy like Ware on the other side. Look for Stafford to get the ball out quick or dump off to Best in these situations.
Who knew this would be the case, but DET's defense actually has the edge on this DAL offense. With Austin out and Bryant hurting, we all saw how much this affects Romo's ability to make plays. Give him credit for battling through pain and stringing together some drives, but he did it in spite of the guys around him. The offensive line had a bad game and now they face one of the best D-lines in all of football. Jones was effective on the outside vs WSH, but this is where DET's linebackers thrive. Durant and Levy have the speed needed to contain the edges. Wright and Houston have been underrated players this season even thought Delmas and Spievey have been up and down at safety. Collectively they should be able to handle a depleted and injured DAL receiving corps. If DAL hope to win this game, they'll need some big plays to keep up with DET and they'll need much better production in the red zone--another area where these teams rank polar opposite in the stat sheet.
In fact, DAL is underperforming considerably in the yardage to points ratio on both sides of the ball. DET is in the positive in both accounts. If I was setting the lines, I would probably make DET the slight favorite in this one, but I'll gladly take the points and roll with the road dog. Prediction: Bank DET +2.
Minnesota Vikings vs Kansas City Chiefs: MIN -1.5
Both teams are winless, but both have played relatively difficult schedules. This makes it a bit easier to interpret the stats thus far. The biggest mismatch that leaps off the page is Adrian Peterson vs KC's shaky run defense. Last week they went away from AP in the 2nd half, but coaches and players have both indicated that won't happen again vs KC. This is not what you want to hear if you're a fan of the Chiefs. With Berry out for the year, stopping the run is going to need to be more of a collective effort. What's worse is KC is giving up far more points than their yardage would indicate. Allowing teams to score TD's instead of field goals and giving up points due to turnovers and short fields are not winning ingredients. In 2011, KC simply haven't been able to stop anybody on third down or in the red zone. Mcnabb might be past his prime, but his offense should be able to put up some points. Harvin was sick last week and he should be good to go here.
It doesn't get any prettier for the KC offense. Without Charles, they are relying on an over-the-hill Jones and out-of-position McCluster. I like McCluster as a specialty player, but not as a feature back. This experiment isn't going to work out well. Cassel played better last week in the 2nd half, but this was against a relaxed SD defense. This offense didn't even get a 1st down until the 3rd quarter of the game! In 3 games they have a combined 20 points from long drives. That is tied for 2nd worst in the league only behind SF. It shouldn't come as a surprise that KC rank near the bott om on 3rd down and time of possession. This week they'll have to contend with the likes of Jared Allen who is making his first trip back to KC since he left. The O-line was an area that was supposed to be a strength for KC, but they've been average to start the year. Without a reliable running game, this is going to put extra strain on pass protection. This offense just can't figure things out and no one is even sure who exactly is calling the plays.
MIN actually believe they are a good team while KC know they are done for. This should show up on the final scoreboard on Sunday. Prediction: Bank MIN -1.5.
Atlanta Falcons vs Seattle Seahawks: ATL -4.5
Yet the stats don't lie. They sit at 1-2 and should probably be 0-3. Both their offensive and defensive lines have been subpar, they can't control the clock, and only have 3 more points than SEA from long drives. Abysmal! Their only saving grace is that their schedule has been much more difficult than SEA. Therefore these numbers are a little bit skewed. SEA's defense has been pretty good so far, but how much is that saying? Their D-line has been pretty pathetic and it's not like they've gone up against good offensive lines. At the same time SEA's home field advantage is for real and I won't be shocked if ATL's offense struggles a bit on Sunday. The good news is they won't need many points to get ahead. 20-24 points might be enough for the win and the cover. The no-huddle offense has worked for ATL and they might go back to it a bit more until they get their line settled down.
But this play has more to do with fading SEA than it does riding ATL. Tavaris Jackson is garbage and Marshawn Lynch isn't much better. Sure Sidney Rice returned to the lineup and had a good game, but you could have a lineup of pro-bowlers and I'm not sure Jackson would be able to make it work. He'll probably be running for his life in this one as Okung hasn't played very well at LT. This is a very young offensive line still trying to find their way. I'm not even going to go through the numbers because SEA simply ranks near the bottom of almost every meaningful offensive statistical category. Laying 4.5 points on the road is a lot, but I'm much less worried about a back door cover since SEA isn't the kind of team that can easily move the ball when they need to.
Take one last chance on ATL and fade the home team. Prediction: Bank ATL -4.5.
My thoughts on the rest of the week 4 schedule.