The Thinking Man's Guide: NFL Week 6 Predictions
Reggie Jackson is known as “Mr. October” in MLB circles, but we will look at the NFL player who fits that bill. Also, after the irrational Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady rivalry last week, we visit the even more irrational Peyton Manning vs. Philip Rivers “rivalry”—if you can call it one.
Thinking about watching Thursday Night Football for more than just love of the game? Find out why the Pittsburgh Steelers are not a safe bet to cover on a short-week trip to Tennessee.
Finally, there is an important stat to explain part of what has been ailing the Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos this season.
Giants at 49ers: Mr. October goes back to Cali
Week 6 is highlighted by a big rematch of last year's NFC Championship between the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers. They played two nail-biters at Candlestick last year, but two fumbles by Kyle Williams set the Giants up for the Super Bowl-clinching win.
Alex Smith is on fire right now with a league-leading 108.7 passer rating (are the Mayans winning?), and just led a lethal attack that gained over 300 yards both rushing and passing against Buffalo, which is an NFL first.
Before getting too excited, keep in mind it was only a game ago when the Patriots racked up 333 passing yards and 247 rushing yards on the same terrible defense Buffalo overpaid for. The 49ers are good, but not that good.
The Giants are banged up right now, but still bring one of the league's best offenses with them on the road. This is October, and Eli Manning has been Mr. October in the NFL in his career.
Manning is 24-5 (.828) as a starter in October games, which is the best record in NFL history. Other active quarterbacks such as Ben Roethlisberger (23-7; .767) and Tom Brady (32-10; .762) are in the top five.
Tom Coughlin's Giants like to follow a similar pattern over the years. They are usually so-so in September, hot in October, falter in November and the decline either continues into December or they build some late momentum before making a Super Bowl run (see 2007, 2011).
As I wrote last year at Cold, Hard Football Facts, the Giants have been 5-2 or better in every season since 2005. They currently sit at 3-2, so that streak is in jeopardy.
Manning actually has a losing record in both November (13-17) and December (16-19), but here we are in the heart of October. Tough games late in the year on the NFC East schedule have been a factor for this, but this game in San Francisco will be as tough as any Manning has had in October.
There is no secret winning formula for October that the Giants have figured out. If they had one, then why would they lose to the 2008 Cleveland Browns (4-12) and 2011 Seattle Seahawks (7-9)?
The Giants have been a good team since 2005, and just check the schedule of opponents for causality.
New York's 29 October opponents have a combined record of 192-261 (.424). You expect the 2012 49ers to be a team that wins double-digit games. The Giants are 4-2 in those games (1-1 on the road). Their record is 16-1 against teams who finished 6-10 or worse.
The only other theory for why the Giants would do well in a road game this time of year is that Eli Manning allegedly plays better when he does not have to deal with the winds in New Jersey.
Well, check these career regular-season stats out.
Has any quarterback in the history of the NFL ever been this consistent at home and on the road? I think not.
Manning may be Mr. October, but pick the 49ers to win this week because of the three H's: home field, health and hatred. The 49ers feel they should have been the team in the Super Bowl, and their only consolation prize will be picking up a Week 6 win this season.
Steelers at Titans: Upset alert
The Tennessee Titans (1-4) have allowed at least 30 points in all five games this season, becoming the first team since the 1954 Chicago Cardinals to do so. Of course, they rank dead last in the league with 181 points allowed.
It would seem the Pittsburgh Steelers (2-2) are a safe bet as six-point favorites, right?
Not exactly. This is just the kind of game Mike Tomlin's squad loves use to frustrate their large fanbase with a sloppy performance that will leave you on the edge of your seat for 60 minutes.
The Steelers will likely pull out the win in the end, but do not expect it to come easy. The Steelers like to play down to the competition for some reason.
Pittsburgh is 0-6 ATS in their last six road games. Already dropping road games in Oakland and Denver, they look for their first road win of the season, but it will have to come on a short week, and without defensive studs Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley.
The home team is 28-13 (.683) on Thursday Night Football since 2006, and the Titans have that advantage. They will have to face a Pittsburgh offense with Ben Roethlisberger, who threw five touchdown passes against them last season, but that was at Heinz Field.
The Steelers have been shaky on the road, and here is a look at the last three seasons in road games against teams with a non-winning record. The 2012 Broncos were excluded since I think they will be a winning team. Sorry, Oakland fans. Your team is included.
The average scoring margin has been plus-5.56 for Pittsburgh, which is interesting given the line for this week.
The overall record is fine at 12-4, but there have been many head-scratching performances over the years and games that were too close for comfort. Look at the pair of 13-9 wins from last season in Kansas City and Cleveland, or the 23-20 comeback win over the Colts without Peyton Manning.
The game in Cleveland in 2009 is the only on the list that was a Thursday night road game like this will be. Roethlisberger was sacked eight times as the Steelers lost their fifth in a row.
Roethlisberger was not sacked at all against the Eagles, which is the first time that's happened since the 2010 Week 17 game in Cleveland. Roethlisberger needs 287 yards to move past Terry Bradshaw (27,989 yards) for the most passing yards in franchise history.
He may get it against this Tennessee defense, or this may be another one of those painful performances to watch as the Steelers barely grind out the win by 1-4 points.
Defenses: Where art thou, takeaways?
Some expected front-runners that are struggling defensively this season—think Green Bay, Denver, Pittsburgh—and are missing that key ingredient to a strong defense: creating takeaways.
According to Pro-Football-Reference, there have been 113 teams since 1940 to have five or fewer takeaways in the first five games of the season. Ten of those teams are from 2012 alone, though four of those teams (Cowboys, Raiders, Colts, Lions) have only played four games. None of the ten have a winning record right now.
While they may not correlate well year to year, takeaways are often a product of good defense, whether it is pressure or confusion on the quarterback, great coverage or just strong tackling.
It is true the game is becoming harder to generate takeaways due to more quick passes and hard, ball-jarring hits drawing penalties and fines instead of fumbles.
But we still see teams like the Chicago Bears leading the league with 17 takeaways, or the New England Patriots with nine in their last two games alone. Those two teams, coached by Lovie Smith and Bill Belichick, are no strangers to being league leaders in takeaways.
Mike McCarthy's Green Bay Packers usually get a lot of takeaways, but other than the four from Jay Cutler in Week 2, they have just one takeaway the rest of the season. It is no surprise they are 1-3 in those games. McCarthy is 1-11 in his career when his team does not get a takeaway.
Clay Matthews is still getting his sacks (8.0), but we are not seeing all the takeaways that fuel the Green Bay offense, which can also explain part of its struggles. Turnovers usually create good field position, and giving Aaron Rodgers an extra possession is always a positive.
Bad news for the 2-3 Packers and defensive coordinator Dom Capers: They have to play the Houston Texans (5-0) on Sunday Night Football. No team has fewer giveaways this season than Houston (three).
While Capers attempts to save his season (and perhaps job), Pittsburgh's Dick LeBeau, who succeeded Capers as defensive coordinator in 1995, has seen his defense remain turnover-deficient for quite some time now.
Last season the Steelers had a league-worst 15 takeaways, and only had two through five games last season (five through four games this year).
Which defense will create the most takeaways in 2012?
One could argue the defense has almost never been able to take the field lately with two key pairings all present: James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley as the pass-rushing linebackers, and Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu as the safeties.
Known as the creator of the zone blitz, LeBeau's recent Steelers just struggle to get pressure and create takeaways, unless the charitable Michael Vick is serving them on a silver platter.
The Denver Broncos are coordinated by Jack Del Rio, but coached by John Fox, who was actually the defensive backs coach in Pittsburgh (1989-91) before Bill Cowher came in with Capers. Looks like I just went Star Wars on this one; starting in the middle, moving forward, before going back to the start. Del Rio's schemes are about as likeable as Jar Jar Binks.
While the Broncos were only getting 18 takeaways last season, they had some big ones during the improbable six-game winning streak with Tim Tebow at quarterback. They looked poised to repeat that formula this season after Week 1 when Tracy Porter clinched the Pittsburgh win with a pick-six, but they just have three total takeaways since then.
Denver's offense has turned it over seven times in its two road losses this year, but it has repeatedly watched the defense give up long scoring drives, play terrible third-down defense (29th in the league) and fail to get any turnovers back for Peyton Manning to have more possessions.
These three teams may have some of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, but even they need those takeaways to win a lot of games. How about winning consecutive games? The Packers, Steelers and Broncos have yet to do that this season.
The lack of takeaways helps explain why that has been the case so far.
Broncos at Chargers: Rivers does not own Peyton
Some national writers—not going to name any names—still trumpet the idea of "the quarterback on the winning team is better" just to fit their narrative.
Instead of doing the actual analysis of what decided the game, it is easier for a headline to just say "QB X Beats QB Y...Again."
We saw it last week with the 13th game between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, and you will hear it again several times before kickoff on Monday night when the big AFC West showdown for first place goes down in San Diego between the Chargers (3-2) and Broncos (2-3).
If one is to gawk at Brady's 9-4 record over Manning, then what about Philip Rivers being 4-1 (2-0 in the playoffs) against Manning? It was part of the preseason intrigue in Manning joining the AFC West, given his career struggles with San Diego.
Of course, the record tells us very little about what those quarterbacks did in the five games. The first four meetings all came down to the final seconds.
The very first time they met (Week 10 in 2007) was most interesting. Despite throwing a career-high six interceptions, Manning was still the best quarterback on the field that night.
How did Rivers get the win? San Diego opened up a 23-0 lead thanks to two return touchdowns by Darren Sproles on special teams. Rivers led a drive for a field goal in which he threw two incomplete passes. He did throw for 37 yards on a touchdown drive, but that would be Rivers' only positive contribution of the night.
Rivers had a 16-0 lead and had completed 0-of-3 passes at the time.
Rivers finished 13-of-24 for 104 yards with two interceptions, a 30.6 passer rating and two fumbles; one of which was returned for a touchdown. He even had four failed completions out of the 13.
You can see from the Pro-Football-Reference box score that the San Diego passing game contributed -12.82 expected points, which is very poor. The Colts' passing game, even with six interceptions, contributed 1.65 expected points.
Manning led the Colts back late, but Adam Vinatieri shockingly missed a 29-yard field goal with 1:31 left. San Diego held on for the 23-21 win, and the post-game buzz was over the rarity of Manning's interceptions, Vinatieri's miss, but no real mention of how poorly Rivers, the "winner", played that night.
The two teams would meet in the AFC Divisional playoffs, and in a close game, Manning put the Colts ahead in the fourth quarter. Rivers never even played in the fourth quarter after suffering a knee injury, and it was Billy Volek who directed the game-winning drive in San Diego's 28-24 win. If this was baseball, chalk up a "no decision" for Rivers.
They played again in prime time in 2008, and both quarterbacks played well, just like they did in the playoff meeting. Manning had the good fortune of getting the ball last and led a game-winning field goal drive for a 23-20 win.
A rematch in the AFC Wild Card Round featured Manning outplaying Rivers, but once again, the San Diego special teams dominated the game. Mike Scifres had the best case ever for "punters are people too" as he consistently pinned the Colts deep.
Indianapolis had the worst average starting field position (15.67) in a playoff game in the last 30 years. Sproles had 328 all-purpose yards to cover up for a shaky performance by Rivers, and San Diego won on his touchdown run in overtime, which was the only possession of overtime.
Since then, the two have only met once, with the Chargers taking a 36-14 win in Indianapolis in 2010.
Five games and all of them have been on a national broadcast, including four in prime time on NBC. This time the Colts are swapped for the Broncos, and it will be on ESPN.
The advantages the Chargers had over the Colts were that they made them very one-dimensional on offense, stuffing the run with their interior defensive line and getting good pressure on Manning.
Manning averages 44.9 pass attempts per game versus San Diego (4-5 record). He has thrown 18 interceptions in those games, and they have come in a variety of ways (dropped passes, tipped balls, miraculous catches, garbage-time throws, bad reads, getting hit while throwing, etc.).
As we have seen with Manning vs. Brady and Manning vs. Rivers, just winning the quarterback battle is not good enough to win the game. The Broncos must bring a better team effort on Monday, and that can start with the defense getting takeaways like the Saints did on Sunday.
We know these two teams have the record they basically are expected to have at this point. Denver has lost to three high-caliber teams, and the Chargers have beat who they were supposed to beat and were dominated by the Falcons. They lost in a tough setting to a Saints team who was better than their 0-4 record.
San Diego has not been winning big games since 2010, and Rivers has fallen off a cliff in clutch situations in that time. Rivers is just 2-12 in his last 14 comeback/game-winning drive opportunities with a 64.8 passer rating and four lost fumbles.
The Broncos are never out of a game, and the Chargers are known to let games slip away under Norv Turner. Sounds like a recipe for a classic finish in prime time, and I expect the Broncos to take charge of the AFC West with a much-needed win as they head into the bye week.
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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