Carolina Panthers vs Detroit Lions: CAR +7
Thus far, DET has been excellent against everybody in the league except the contenders. They had an impressive win against CHI in prime-time, but laid an enormous egg last week in the rematch. A lot of that had to do with the play of Stafford, but there are other red flags in their recent play. Over the last few weeks they rank near the bottom in red zone/third down offense, special teams, turnover differential, and penalties. These stats are well below their season-long average and could be hints of a regression to the mean. Making matters worse is the fact that Stafford plans to wear a glove for a 2nd straight week. Maybe people are making a bigger deal out of this than it is, but there's no denying that it's a worthy concern. Passing is the one advantage that DET should have on CAR's defense because they cannot run the ball if their lives depended on it. Without a healthy Stafford, that edge is largely muted. I expect him to play better than he did last week, but not as well as he was in the early part of the season.
This doesn't mean that I think CAR should win this game. DET should be favored--just not by a touchdown. CAR's offense is only as good as Cam Newton's level of play, but he put up a dud last week against TEN. Has he hit a wall? Is it a normal performance in the peaks and valleys of rookie QB play? I'm leaning with the latter until I see otherwise. Smith and Olsen still account for the most targets of any receivers on the team and I like both of those options to challenge a pretty good DET passing defense. DET ranks high in D-line play and red zone/3rd down defense. They've continued to be strong in these areas despite their recent speed bumps. When you add in the fact that CAR underperforms their yardage--the edge definitely goes to DET. Look for Rivera to mix in more of a balanced attack this week to take advantage of DET's wide-9 scheme and Newton to make a lot of plays with his legs. Newton will also be relieved that one of the leagues best centers (Ryan Kalil) is slated to start after missing a quarter vs TEN.
It's not going to be pretty, but CAR's offense should be able to do enough to keep this competitive. At the very least, I like CAR to get a backdoor cover if they are trailing in the 4th. Despite what happened last week, CAR remain one of the top teams with points from long drives in the entire NFL. Prediction: Bank CAR +7.
Seattle Seahawks vs St Louis Rams: STL -1
Despite how bad their season has been, STL have been pretty solid on their lines--especially their defensive line. On the flip side SEA has had horrible line play throughout the season. Both of these trends have continued over the past few weeks as well. This is always an overlooked aspect of matchups as teams that control the lines usually control the game. This puts SEA at an immediate disadvantage. Overall, the teams matchup pretty evenly everywhere else. Across the board there aren't any huge mismatches that leap off the page from any meaningful categories. That is unless you look at their play over the last few weeks. STL has improved on the ground both offensively and defensively of late.
Bradford hasn't had the kind of season that most of us expected of him, but he hasn't been horrible either. STL has led the league in dropped passes all season long and he's been playing from behind in most contests. Then he suffered a high ankle sprain that only added insult to injury. He won't be 100% for a while, but he's still able to make all the throws and execute the offense. The fact that SEA can't rush the passer that effectively will only help. Lloyd has really given Bradford a go-to receiver and has received double-digits targets in every game he's played thus far. Throw in home field advantage and I really like STL in this spot. Even if it's a close game, getting them at less than a field goal is nice value. Prediction: Bank STL -1.
Philadelphia Eagles vs New York Giants: NYG -4.5
It turns out that their performance against DAL was an anomaly--the perfect storm of execution and luck. In reality, this is a team that can't get out of it's own way. Vick can never stay healthy and he's doubtful for this matchup as well. Add an injured Maclin and a disgruntled D-Jax to the mix and you have a dreadful cocktail. Some think that PHI is a powder keg waiting to explode. Personally, I don't think Reid's job is in jeopardy, but Castillo is undoubtedly on his way out of town. You simply can't screw up this much talent any worse than he has.
A closer look at this matchup suggests that PHI should have a monumental advantage on the ground...both offensively and defensively. However, a lot of their running success is contingent upon Vick's ability to gain yards and keep defenses honest. Without him in the lineup, that threat disappears. Now Vince Young isn't a slouch when it comes to running either, but he doesn't have the same ability in the air and NY isn't going to respect his grasp on the offense. NY should be able to contain McCoy enough to put the game in Young's hands. That's asking a lot for a guy who hasn't looked good in any of his appearances this season.
NY have been pretty good with their own red zone defense this year, but over the last few weeks they've struggled in the red zone on both sides of the ball. Otherwise they've remained fairly solid in most areas and matchup pretty well with PHI. It's amazing to see what they've been able to do given all their injuries, but Manningham is expected to play this Sunday and that will be a nice boost for Eli in the passing game. This is one area I expect NY to attack PHI--especially with DRC out. Last week on the go-ahead scoring drive, Castillo put Joselio Hanson on Larry Fitzgerald. You can guess what happened in that matchup. Simply put, it's impossible to trust Castillo to coach a defense in crunch time. PHI have blown 5 fourth quarter leads this year. I won't say this will be a blowout, but I expect NY to win this one by at least a touchdown. There is already line movement heading in that direction. Prediction: Bank NYG -4.5.