NFL Week 5 Picks: The Thinking Man's Guide

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NFL Week 5 Picks: The Thinking Man's Guide
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Now that’s more like it. Aside from not giving a true prediction in the Giants/Eagles game, everything went according to plan for the "Thinking Man’s Guide" last week.

This week offers a few more challenges, with key games between apparent contenders. We will focus on what is potentially the final battle in the War of 1812, the Battle of the Keystone State and less serious titles for romps between the Cardinals/Rams and Texans/Jets. 

 

Manning vs. Brady: The Final Chapter?

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It may only be the first weekend of October and both teams are 2-2 rather than undefeated, but it is still another big AFC clash between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

New England smoked Denver 86-33 in two games last year. Needless to say, this is a much different Denver team with Manning instead of Tim Tebow at quarterback.  

Rather than create a 10,000-word mini-book on which quarterback is better, let’s examine what usually decides these meetings.

This will be the 13th career meeting between the two (including playoffs), but, obviously, the most different. Manning is now a member of the Denver Broncos, who are still the only team Brady has a losing record against in the regular season (2-5; 3-6 including playoffs).

Brady gets home-field advantage for the eighth time in 13 games, previously, he was 5-2 at home versus Manning’s Colts. Overall, the home team is 7-5 (.583) when they meet, which is basically the same as any home-field advantage number.

For as much attention as the quarterbacks receive, it is usually the team with the better defense capable of slowing down the other quarterback that usually wins the game. Brady has had the better defense in every meeting except for in 2005, which was the largest margin of victory for Manning (40-21).

The team with the better defense, as measured by defensive points per drive, is 9-3 in the series. Manning has the three victories earned by a statistically lower-ranked defense, as he was able to pull out two victories in the 2006 season and, of course, the infamous “4th-and-2” game in 2009. That day, the New England offense put the defense in a tough spot at the end of the game after Bill Belichick’s decision.

It is a bit early in the season to really know which team, Denver or New England, has the better defense, but right now their numbers are almost identical: The Patriots are No. 16 in defensive points per drive (1.88) and Denver is No. 17 (1.91).

One number that is different relates to takeaways. The Patriots have 11 in four games (six in Buffalo alone), and rank No. 3 in turnovers per drive (.224). Denver only ranks 28th in turnovers per drive (.068) with just three on the season.

The team winning the turnover battle is 8-1. The only loss was when Indianapolis won the takeaway battle (3-to-2) in the 2003 regular season, but the Patriots won on a late goal-line stand. Three other times the teams tied in turnovers.

Turnovers will likely be a big factor again, and Manning’s Colts had multiple giveaways in 10 of the 12 games compared to seven for Brady’s Patriots. In his career at New England, Manning has thrown at least one interception in all 10 games (2-8 record).

But, no matter how many turnovers or how big the lead is, these games usually come down to Manning's team with the ball down by one score late in the fourth quarter.

Prior to the last-minute drama, the Patriots usually have the chance to ice the game with Brady not coming through in the four-minute offense (the lone exception was in the 2007 battle of unbeatens).

In seven opportunities, the New England offense has only put the Colts away on its terms once. Add it up, and Brady is 6-of-15 for 50 yards in these situations. He is two-of-eight at converting on third down.

We have seen two near interceptions by Brady in these moments, including 2010. Brady has also fumbled twice, but the Patriots recovered both.

That leaves it up to the New England defense versus Manning in the hurry-up offense, which has usually favored the Patriots in the end for various reasons.

Manning came through in the 2006 AFC Championship and the 4th-and-2 game, but from New England we have seen the big goal-line stand in 2003, the non-calls in the 2003 AFC Championship that prompted a re-emphasis on illegal contact, the Willie McGinest sack and missed field goal by Mike Vanderjagt to start 2004 and the hit on Manning that caused the game-clinching interception in the red zone the last time they met in 2010.

Right now, the Patriots have a better team than the Broncos. They still have more offensive advantages versus the Denver defense, even if Aaron Hernandez is not active. Go with the Patriots and hope for a playoff rematch.

In the end, you expect a great game with something memorable to happen when these two quarterbacks meet. Sunday should be no different even if it is the Broncos and not the Colts involved.

Will it be the last?

Should they not meet in the playoffs or both win their division (or finish in the same division spot), then Manning and Brady will not meet in 2013. The greatest quarterback rivalry in NFL history could be looking at its final chapter this weekend.

Enjoy it while you can.

 

Eagles at Steelers: Keystone State Battle

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The Pittsburgh Steelers face, essentially, a must-win game at home to keep pace in the AFC North. They will host the 3-1 Philadelphia Eagles, who look more like a 0-4 team on paper, for Pennsylvania supremacy.

Despite their 1-2 record, Pittsburgh is actually plus-2 in scoring differential while the 3-1 Eagles are minus-17. The Eagles are only the 13th team since 1940 to have a winning record after four games with a scoring differential worse than minus-10.

Of the previous 12 teams to accomplish that, seven did not make the playoffs, though the 1976 Oakland Raiders did win the Super Bowl. I guess they could be a model for Philadelphia.

So could the 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers, who led the league in giveaways (52). Terry Bradshaw led three game-winning drives in the fourth quarter in the first four games of that season, just like Michael Vick has done this season.

However, that Pittsburgh team led the league in scoring. The turnovers have limited Philadelphia’s scoring, and its scoring output of 16.5 points per game ranks 30th in the league.

The Eagles have gotten by with three wins of no more than two points. They are the 27th team to have at least three wins in a season by such a small margin, but the first to do it in the first four games.

Of the previous 26 teams, 17 of them failed to make the playoffs. Another Raiders team (1983) did win the Super Bowl with such wins, but they are the exception. Philadelphia needs to start playing better. It is facing another tough game on the road.

At least there is good news for Vick and the offense: The Steelers are not good at creating takeaways. They have just 18 takeaways in their last 19 regular-season games.

However, the Steelers look to be getting James Harrison, Troy Polamalu and Rashard Mendenhall back this week, so they should field a better team than the one with the struggling defense and running game.

A key area to watch in the game is what happens on third down between the Pittsburgh offense and Philadelphia defense.

Offensively, the Steelers lead the league by converting 27-of-48 third downs for a rate of 56.3 percent. Defensively, the Eagles are No. 3 on third down, only allowing 14 conversions on 52 attempts (26.9 percent).

Pittsburgh has succeeded offensively despite not having a running game, because Ben Roethlisberger has been so good on third downs. If that should change this week, then the Eagles may get the road upset.

With a more complete roster of talent, the Steelers are the smart pick at home.

 

Rams Can Do Something Rare (for St. Louis) Tonight

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If the St. Louis Rams (2-2) can knock off the undefeated Arizona Cardinals (4-0) at home on Thursday Night Football, then the Rams will be over .500 for the first time since November 5, 2006.

That was only about 71 months ago. No big deal.

That day, the Rams were 4-3, but fell to 4-4 with a loss to Kansas City. Since then, it has been nothing but a losing or .500 record at best.

Two years ago, the Rams were also 2-2 with wins over Washington and Seattle, just like they are this season, but things feel different. While the Rams may be a 7-9 team at best, they can definitely put the Cardinals on upset alert, if Arizona is even worthy of that distinction.

Arizona is coming off yet another improbable comeback victory over the Dolphins. How unlikely was it? Consider the fact Arizona allowed eight sacks and ran the ball 15 times for just 28 yards.

  • Teams that allow at least eight sacks and rush for less than 50 yards are 1-54 (.018) since 1940. Arizona recorded the first win.
  • Teams that allow at least six sacks, rush for less than 50 yards and throw at least two interceptions are 2-119-1 (.020) since 1940.

When you make that many negative passing plays and cannot run the ball, winning is almost impossible. The Cardiac Cardinals are anything but conventional.

 

Houston Exploding, Jets Imploding

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What will the New York Jets do for an encore on Monday Night Football after losing 34-0 at home to San Francisco? They now face the Houston Texans, who are the most dominant team in football this year (No. 2 in scoring offense, No. 1 in scoring defense).

If Rex Ryan’s gang has any pride, you would expect a better showing this week, but that will be very tough against such a complete Houston team.

Had it not been for another rally attempt by Peyton Manning, the Texans would be on a 2007 New England Patriots type of start. They have won three of their first four games by at least 20 points, becoming the 26th NFL team since 1940 to do so.

Only the 2007 Patriots had all four wins by at least 20 points. Houston did lead 31-11 in Denver in Week 3, but ended up winning 31-25.

The following is a look at the 26 teams with at least three wins by 20 or more points in the first four games of the season. The “Max Lead” is the biggest lead the team had in the game they did not win by at least 20 points.

A lot of powerhouses featured here. Of these teams, only the 1967 Colts, 2007 Patriots, and 2012 Texans led by at least 20 points in each of their first four games.

A fourth team, the 1984 Seattle Seahawks, also did this, but blew a 23-0 lead in New England. They also turned a 31-10 lead over San Diego into a 31-17 final.

Houston might be putting together a historic season, and the Jets should be a good way to showcase that on a national stage on Monday night.

J-E-T-S: Just end the season.

 

Sunday Night Reminder

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When Drew Brees throws his first touchdown pass—and the Saints get their first win of the season—on Sunday night versus San Diego, just remember he has already had the consecutive games with a touchdown record since Week 1.

Those playoff games and touchdowns really happened during the streak. The current count is 53 for Drew Brees and 49 for Johnny Unitas.

 

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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