Friday, October 28, 2011

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Minnesota Vikings vs Carolina Panthers: CAR -3
It's amazing to think that the Carolina Panthers are 3 point favorites to any team, but that's exactly what we have as we inch towards the halfway point of the NFL season.  Many people are excited about the Christian Ponder situation for MIN, but let's keep his week 7 performance in perspective.  Did he have some nice throws?  Yes.  Did he bring excitement to a basement bottom team?  Yes.  Is he about to turn MIN's season around?  No.  His completion percentage was horrible and he made some glaring rookie mistakes. This is to be expected from a 1st year QB, but I think those growing pains are going to continue in full when they travel down south to CAR.

CAR is a different team at home.  After suffering through some of the worst QB play we've seen in some time, the fan base finally has something to be legitimately excited about.  Christian Ponder has his work cut out for him when he goes up against a pretty solid pass defense.  The main weakness in CAR's defense is stopping the run.  They will stack the box with 8 or 9 defenders to try and slow down Peterson. I think he'll still have a nice game and probably put up over 100 yards and a score or two, but at some point Ponder is going to have to drive the team down the field and put up some points of his own.  This isn't something MIN have been able to do well this year.  As bad as Mcnabb has been I don't consider Ponder a huge upgrade at this point in time.  Making matters worse, Peterson and Harvin are nursing injuries this week.  If Harvin can't go Ponder's day could get ugly.

On the flip side we have one of the most impressive QB's to take the field in some time.  The highlight packages look good, but if you watch an entire CAR game you'll be even more impressed with the play of Cam Newton.  MIN is one of the worst teams against the pass this year and now they get news that CB Chris Cook is out with assault charges.  Winfield is still trying to get back from injury.  Huge advantage Panthers.  The only team with more points from long drives this year are the NE Patriots.  The only thing holding CAR back from a much better record is self-defeating mistakes.  Whether it is penalties or turnovers, CAR continue to shoot themselves in the foot.  Last week they finally avoided those blunders and put away WSH for their 2nd home win of the season. 

This week CAR should continue their strong play at home and pull out the win.  The line should be more than 3 and at some books you're seeing -3.5.  Shop around to avoid the hook and ride the Panthers with confidence.  Prediction: Bank CAR -3.

Cincinnati Bengals vs Seattle Seahawks: CIN -2.5
People are always a bit hesitant when they take a road team playing in Seattle. The numbers support that thanks in large part to SEA's "12th man".  At the same time, this isn't about to stop me from taking the better team.  The 12th man can't come down on the field and rush the ball or make a catch. This is something the SEA offense is going to have to generate on their own.

CIN haven't had the toughest schedule in the world, but we can only judge them against the competition they've had.  And so far their defense is swarming around the ball and making plays week in and week out.  Now they have the luxury to go up against not just a bad SEA offense, but a banged up SEA offense.  Lynch, Miller, and Jackson are all nursing injuries and the status of all three remain up in the air.  Even if they all go I wouldn't give them much more of a chance in this matchup.  I've always advocated for Whitehurst over Jackson, but last week he looked like a high school QB trying to make plays out there.  In most weekly matchups, teams usually have a fighting chance at putting something together in the run or the pass, but CIN have dominating stats going up against both options this week.  I have no idea how SEA is going to put points on the board so they will need to heavily rely on variance.

The matchup isn't great for CIN's offense either, but SEA don't hold much of an edge vs the run or the pass. Things should be pretty even on this side of things which means Dalton will have chances to make some plays.  He's developing a nice rapport with AJ Green and if it wasn't for Dalton's play this year the rookie wide receiver would be getting a lot more national attention.  The biggest challenge CIN will have is getting the lead.  If things don't go well early the SEA crowd is going to make the rest of the day a monumental challenge.  That said, I see this CIN offense putting some points on the board in the 1st half while they let their defense and running game shut things down in the 2nd half.  The main mismatch that solidifies my thinking is the play on both the offensive and defensive lines.  CIN have the edge on both sides and the margin isn't that close.  When a game comes down to the trenches, this is the key area to look at and the primary reason why CIN have almost 50 more completed offensive plays despite playing the same number of games.

CIN already have two wins against mid-bubble teams this year so I fully expect them to put away an inferior SEA team--even if it is on the road.  You may need to shop around to find -2.5, but if you can't -3 is fine too. Prediction: Bank CIN -2.5.

Detroit Lions vs Denver Broncos: DET -2.5
I could make this analysis very short by simply asking you to review the tape of Tim Tebow last weekend.  It was a crap-fest of quarterback play and the final five minutes does nothing to change my mind about his prospects as an NFL QB this year.  

Yet, the biggest news in this matchup isn't the play of Tim Tebow, but the health status of Mathew Stafford.  On Thursday he took more reps with the 1st team and looked much more comfortable than he did on Wednesday.  All the scans came back negative so I'm not really worried about Stafford's ability to play on Sunday.  Even if DET had to put in a backup I would likely take them in this matchup.

The news isn't all good for DET though.  It looks like Fairley will be out this week and Best isn't about to come back from his concussion either.  We all saw what DET's offense looked like without Best and they'll need to get some production out of Morris for a 2nd straight week.  Without a doubt this offense is much less dynamic without Best, but this wasn't a balanced team to begin with.  In fact DET is 30th in the NFL in rush play percentage.  The primary mode of attack is through the air and this is where I expect all the damage to be done.  DEN still don't have the personnel to matchup with these guys and if they fall behind who is going to lead them back?  Tebow?  Don't bank on a miracle happening two weeks in a row.  Stafford's O-line matchups up pretty well against DEN's D-line and without consistent pressure up front DEN's defense is in for a challenging day.  Explain to me how this is possible now that Dumervil is banged up with a bum ankle?  Bailey is a good cornerback, but he's not what he used to be.  Megatron will have his opportunities--especially without quality safety play over the top.  They haven't been able to stop many people in the red zone, get off the field on 3rd down, or win any turnover battles.

On the other side it gets even worse.  With McGahee out DEN now need to go back to Moreno.  Don't ask DEN fans how they feel about this. They've been waiting since draft day for this kid to breakout and it just hasn't happened.  DEN's offense doesn't have horrible stats, but most of them came under the leadership of Orton.  Now that Tebow is at the helm it's back to square one for this offensive scheme. The playbook has been scaled back a lot and they are just hoping he can connect on the simple stuff, let alone the down the field patterns.  Adding insult to injury is the loss of Lloyd at WR.  Why they would trade their best receiving option is beyond me, but this organization is a mess right now. Sure the home fans will be amped up to cheer on their choir boy, but that isn't going to make him deliver the ball any more accurately.  The fans also can't come down on the field and block for him either.  Tebow goes up against one of the better and more aggressive D-lines in the league this week and they just don't have the running game to exploit the wide 9 technique.

Look for DET to get back on track with a convincing win this Sunday.  Once again you'll need to shop around to find -2.5, but -3 is a good bet as well.  Prediction: Bank DET -2.5.


New England Patriots vs Pittsburgh Steelers: NE -2.5
This game is being sold as the best matchup of the weekend.  In any other year I would agree with them, but these are not your same Patriots and Steelers of old.  NE have one of the worst defenses in the NFL this season and PIT are not the same formidable force that we've grown accustomed to.  That said both remain contenders by default so let's break down why NE is going to win and cover.

To begin with, PIT have not done well against top teams this season.  They got owned by BAL and shut down by HOU.  4 out of their 5 wins have come against easy teams.  They beat an overrated-at-the-time TEN two weeks ago and a celler-dweller ARI team last week.  All of a sudden PIT are getting respect in the line against what is arguably the 2nd best team in the NFL.  I'm not buying it.

Yes NE's defense rank near the bottom in many key categories--yards given up, defensive line, and points from long drives.  They are in the bottom half in red zone defense and 3rd down efficiency.  But the mark of a good team is making plays when you have to.  This is what the NE defense has done.  Albeit not at a top 10 level, but they give up far less points than their yardage would suggest.  They are finding a way to get a turnover or force a field goal more times than not.  The only glaring advantage PIT have will be in the passing game.  Big Ben will have opportunities to make some plays through the air.  Granted this is a passing league and that edge counts for a lot, but is it enough to win the game?

Normally PIT's defense walks into every game with a big advantage in at least two or three areas.  In this game?  Zero.  NE's offense matches up well with PIT's defense across the entire board.  NE have had a tougher schedule and have come away with wins against good teams.  Say what you want about their defense, Brady and Belichick find ways to win tough games.  Brady is 4-1 in his last 5 against PIT and 2-1 at Heinz Field.  An old and slow zone defense just doesn't work against Brady.  Last year he picked PIT apart with ease in prime-time and that was when PIT's defense was healthy.  This time around PIT's defense is banged up and missing key players.  They aren't getting turnovers, pressuring the QB, getting off the field on 3rd down, or keeping people out of the end zone like they usually do.  They rank in the bottom half in many of those categories. 

The simple fact is NE doesn't lose many games in the regular season and I don't think Big Ben is about to out-duel Brady to compensate for a weaker defense.  If you missed out on -2.5, grab the -3 with confidence.  Prediction: Bank NE -2.5.


Washington Redskins vs Buffalo Bills: BUF -6
This is one of the few games where I missed out on the opening line value.  BUF opened at -4 but it was quickly bought up to -6.  Without knowing the status of some key injuries I got caught waiting.  One of the key players I was looking at was London Fletcher.  He is the undisputed leader and heartbeat of the WSH defense. Word is out today that is he probable to play, but it's never good to be coming back from a hamstring injury this quickly.  I don't expect him to be his same dominating self that he has been all year.

Therefore I feel confident laying the points and riding the favorite.  I know this game is in Toronto and not Buffalo, but BUF will still have a nice contingent of home fans on their side. On paper WSH should matchup better with BUF, but in reality we have two teams going in very different directions.  WSH already had a shaky offensive line coming into this season and now they've lost a couple key members from that unit. Even worse they've lost Hightower and Moss for extended periods of time.  What does Shanahan think is the answer?  Let's bring in John Beck.  I'm sorry but this is the course of direction this franchise is taking I'm going to fade them every week.  It's not like Grossman was a pro-bowler, but creating a QB controversy when your team has a winning record and a strong defense is the wrong way to go.

BUF's defense is sub-par, but they do make plays and fight hard.  Now they get to come off a bye against a much weaker WSH offense.  What was originally an advantage for WSH has now become a wash.  Not many offenses are humming along at the same pace as BUF's.  Jackson is having a pro-bowl year as the undisputed starter and Fitzpatrick is proving all his naysayers wrong (including myself).  Stevie Johnson has put his name on the map as a legitimate number one receiver and the O-line is playing lights out in the pass protection department.  The team ranks near the top in penalties, turnovers, red zone offense, 3rd down efficiency, points from long drives, and points-to-yards ratio.

I think BUF win by at least a TD, if not double-digits. There is some small line movement in favor of WSH today so keep an eye on that before you pull the trigger. Prediction: Bank BUF -6.

Dallas Cowboys vs Philadelphia Eagles: PHI -3
For me, this is the marquee matchup of the weekend.  A lot hangs in the balance for both teams and the loser is going to have an uphill battle to win the division.  Thus far there hasn't been much comparison between the teams. DAL has looked great outside of Romo's self-destructive blunders and PHI has been a nightmare.  If you like this trend to continue then go ahead and grab the hook and take DAL +3.5 now.  However, if you have your doubts then you'll either want to take a pass or ride the home favorite.

To start, Andy Reid has been the best coach in the NFL over the last decade coming off a bye.  In fact he is a perfect 12-0 straight up and 9-3 ATS the spread after a bye.  As you know I'm not high on trends, but there's no disputing a record like that.  Reid knows how to right a ship and up his game when it matters most.  A slow start is nothing new around Philadelphia.  This is an organization that usually shines down the stretch when wins are needed most.

The two big "X-factors" in this game are Tony Romo and Juan Castillo.  It seems like either could make or break a game all by themselves this year.  I have trouble defending Romo because he's screwed up in the clutch consistently throughout his career.  Now he is facing another prime-time game under the bright lights of Sunday Night Football and right away that scares me away.  As for Juan, the jury is still out.  In his defense, he made some significant changes over the last few weeks and scaled back the playbook.  By keeping things simple this defense has been able to get back to fundamental football and shut down opponents.  Over the last 6 quarters this PHI defense has been nothing short of dominant.  Now they welcome back one of their best defensive players in Trent Cole.  Samuel might be poppin' his mouth off in the media, but this guy knows how to separate distractions come game time.  The secondary matches up extremely well against DAL's big-name receivers--especially after Juan changed his approach with Asomugha.

DAL will attack this defense up the middle with runs and passes to Witten. The only problem for DAL is they don't have the production necessary to exploit PHI's weaknesses. They rank low in red zone and 3rd down efficiency and Romo has killed their points-to-yardage ratio.  In the other matchup, we have Vick and his band of "fantasy players" against Rob Ryan's revamped defense.  Things are pretty even on this side of the ball too. PHI's passing game has a slight advantage through the air, but for the most part everything else is a wash. PHI's O-line gets their best player back as Peters is on track to return.  Don't underestimate how important that addition is going to be.

Having said all that, the current line is not the usual inflated number that we've seen with PHI all year long.  Instead, DAL is getting a lot of respect from the books with home field advantage accounting for much of the difference.  I'm a believer in Andy Reid's record after a bye and I think PHI is going to turn the corner down the stretch.  Therefore, I'm going to fade Romo in prime-time in this spot 9 times out of 10.  You can find -3 with a bit extra juice if you shop around, but I'm not going to recommend laying -3.5.  Being on the wrong side of the hook is never a place you want to be in when it's a divisional rivalry.  Prediction: Bank PHI -3.