The Thinking Man's Guide: NFL Week 8 Predictions

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The Thinking Man's Guide: NFL Week 8 Predictions
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It was a 4-for-4 week, correctly predicting a low-scoring win by the 49ers, the Texans moving past Baltimore with Joe Flacco struggling on the road, Eli Manning getting his revenge (and 300-plus yards) on Washington, and the Steelers grinding one out in prime time.

Even in game picks, I had a 12-1 week, with only Matt Hasselbeck’s late game-winning touchdown pass (his fourth as a Titan) leaving a blemish. There always has to be one.

Now if I follow the trend of a 2012 NFL team, then I will completely tank in Week 8. There is no consistency.

This week we will look at how Dick LeBeau has his work cut out for him against Robert Griffin III, the significance of Andy Reid’s record after a bye, Josh Freeman’s fading comeback magic, and smoother sailings for Andrew Luck in Tennessee.

 

Redskins at Steelers: RGIII meets the 3-4

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The Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins have combined to lead in the fourth quarter in 12 of the 13 games they have played this season. Washington managed a tie in the fourth quarter with Cincinnati in Week 3.

Yet the teams come in with just 3-3 and 3-4 records. Since 2007, no defenses have allowed more game-winning drives than the Redskins (25) and Steelers (20), and that includes seven this season from all of the team’s losses.

This tells me the game should be a close, exciting one. But the hype coming in around rookie Robert Griffin III’s performance this season should have already taken care of the excitement factor.

Griffin will be playing a defense unlike any he has seen this year, and that is not meant as a glowing review of Dick LeBeau’s Pittsburgh defense. It is just a statement of fact as the Steelers’ 3-4 scheme is the first time Griffin will see it in the NFL.

After an impressive game last week, Griffin looks to have another against a flagship franchise. But LeBeau has had plenty of success against rookie quarterbacks as defensive coordinator since 2004.

The problem is Griffin is not your ordinary rookie. He is both throwing and running the ball better than any quarterback on that list did, and can compare to any rookie quarterback in history so far.

While the 14-1 record and holding rookies to 11.4 points per game is impressive, the list of names helps make sense of it.

Eli Manning actually had a very good game against Pittsburgh in 2004 after having four brutal starts to begin his career. Ben Roethlisberger was just better that day, as he will have to be as a nine-year veteran this week to outscore Griffin.

Most of these players did not have successful rookie seasons. Kyle Orton’s 5.91 yards per attempt (YPA) in a snowy game in Pittsburgh was actually his third-best game of the season in terms of YPA, and the second most yards he had (207).

Speaking of weather, Miami’s John Beck played on a soaked field not suitable for NFL football in a Monday Night Football game in 2007 in a 3-0 loss.

Baltimore’s Troy Smith notched the only win, but it was a Week 17 game in which the Steelers treated it like a preseason game to rest for the playoffs. A year later, Joe Flacco went 0-3 against the Steelers, seemingly getting worse with each attempt.

Andy Dalton is the only other decent rookie quarterback they faced, and as we seen on Sunday night, he continues to struggle against this defense as a sophomore.

Griffin is throwing a lot of short passes, which the Steelers have struggled with in the past. When those are contained, he is always a threat to break a long run for a first down or more. Of course, the Steelers have a lot of older bodies on defense, which is not ideal in chasing down Griffin.

On the other side, in two career games against Washington, Ben Roethlisberger has completed 14-of-37 passes for just 181 yards in two low-scoring wins. But those were games in 2004 and 2008, with the latter seeing Roethlisberger leave the game just before halftime with a shoulder injury.

It’s a whole new matchup in 2012 with this dreadful Washington defense.

London Fletcher has played in all 231 games in his career, but his streak is in jeopardy as he struggles with hamstring and balance issues.

With or without Fletcher, the Washington pass defense is a real liability, as we looked at last week with the matchup for Eli Manning. The Washington defense ranks 27th in the league, allowing 2.34 points per drive.

Pittsburgh is not much better, ranking 24th (2.19 points per drive). Expect a lot of points in this one, as Roethlisberger will be looking to get Mike Wallace back on track after a miserable night in Cincinnati.

It should be exciting, but I’m taking the Steelers at home.

 

Falcons at Eagles: Will Andy Reid or the Atlanta Falcons remain perfect after their bye?

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With the Eagles (3-3) and Falcons (6-0) both coming off their bye week, two interesting streaks will be on the line in Philadelphia.

Atlanta is looking to remain the only undefeated team in the league, and Matt Ryan could potentially lead a game-winning drive for the fourth straight game. Both of these teams have played a lot of close games this season.

Philadelphia needs the win more, and coach Andy Reid is 13-0 after a bye week.

But how legit is that record? The value of a bye week is obviously for rest, reassessment, and maybe even a little break from football. But there is an extra week to prepare for an opponent, though in this case, both teams had the same amount of time.

This is the second time Reid’s opponent also had a bye week the same time he did. That just so happened to be the Falcons in 2008 and the Eagles won that game 27-14 in Matt Ryan’s rookie year. Here is the full list.

There are a lot of different outcomes here, but the only thing they have in common is a Philadelphia win. There were close games, there were blowouts, and there were improbable comebacks.

It is one of those undefeated streaks that almost never took off. The very first game in 1999 was against the 13-2 St. Louis Rams, who would treat the second half much like a preseason game. It was a rare (and now extinct) Week 16 bye for Philadelphia.

Kurt Warner left the game for backup Joe Germaine. The Rams fell apart, turning the ball over seven times in the game as the Eagles won it in the fourth quarter to cap Reid’s first season with a win.

The Rams being a 13-2 team entering the game and 13-3 overall really boosts the strength of schedule numbers for the Eagles. It changes the record of their opponent entering the game from .453 to .522, and the overall record from .448 to .476.

St. Louis is one of four playoff teams the Eagles have beaten after a bye. Atlanta expects to be a playoff team after their 6-0 start this year.

The Eagles have had a lot of good teams over the years, and this is the only time since that 1999 St. Louis game that they enter a post-bye game with more than two fewer wins than their opponent (-3).

Assuming the Falcons come to play a full 60 minutes, it is safe to say this is the toughest team Reid will have faced yet after a bye week. At least in the regular season, that is the case.

The 13-0 record does not include the postseason where Reid is 3-1 after a bye, losing to Bill Belichick’s Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX. That, of course, is the only other team the opponent also had a bye week to prepare.

But for the 11th time in 14 regular-season games after a bye, Reid will have home-field advantage, which obviously helps in building this record.

Reid is 8-2 against the Falcons in his career but lost last season in Atlanta in a 35-31 game. Reid is 3-1 against Mike Smith, and this is the fifth straight season they will meet. Smith did not have Ryan available in the 34-7 loss in 2009. Chris Redman started in his place.

The previous best Atlanta team, 13-3 in 2010, lost 31-17 to Kevin Kolb and the Eagles, who only had one turnover that day.

Turnovers are obviously a big problem for the 2012 Eagles, as they already have 17 of them, which equal the number of takeaways the Falcons have.

Since making Brandon Weeden rethink his career choice in Week 1, the Eagles have just four takeaways in their last five games, and no sacks in the last three. This is the first game for new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles after Juan Castillo was fired.

In his career, Michael Vick rarely beats the good teams, posting a 5-23-1 (.190) record in the regular season against teams that would eventually make the playoffs. He may have added two wins earlier this year over Baltimore and the Giants in that situation, but we will see.

This looks to be a breakout year for the Falcons as a franchise, and I think they get the win here to move to 7-0, but it is one of the toughest games to pick this week.

 

Buccaneers at Vikings: Where art thou Josh Freeman in the clutch?

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Josh Freeman comes up short of the goal line.

Can the Minnesota Vikings really be one home win away from going 6-2 halfway through the season?

You bet, and they are doing it with their 2008 formula: a lot of Adrian Peterson and defense. It is a far cry from their 2009 formula, which featured a brilliant passing attack by Brett Favre.

Christian Ponder just threw for 58 yards and a pair of interceptions on 17 attempts in Sunday’s win over Arizona. He has fallen off the wagon the last few weeks. Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman comes in having just thrown for 420 yards against the Saints.

Tampa Bay (2-4) is better than their record with four close losses, while the Vikings are not quite as good as their 5-2 record. This game should be close.

There’s also the fact that Tampa Bay’s pass defense is very poor. They allow 329.3 passing yards per game, though half of the eight touchdown passes allowed came in Sunday’s first half against Drew Brees.

That weakness will likely not be exploited in a big way by Ponder, who can play a good game, but do not expect him to pile up a 400-yard day.

Tampa Bay has the best run defense in the league in terms of allowing the lowest yards per carry (3.08). That is why Ponder will need to throw for a lot more than 58 yards if they are to win this week.

There is no reason Tampa Bay cannot be right there at the end of the game with a chance to win, but those kinds of wins have been lost on this team.

After starting his career at a historic pace with eight fourth-quarter comebacks and nine game-winning drives, Josh Freeman is 0-7 in his last seven opportunities in the fourth quarter (0-4 this season).

Things have not always been Freeman’s fault.

  • Kellen Winslow Jr. failed to catch a two-point conversion to tie the Packers last season in Green Bay.
  • This year, Eli Manning went off for 510 yards in a big comeback win after Tampa Bay led by 11 points in the fourth quarter.
  • Against Washington, Robert Griffin III led a game-winning drive with 0:03 left after Freeman put the Bucs ahead late.
  • On Sunday against the Saints, Mike Williams was pushed out of bounds on the final play and caught a touchdown that was ruled illegal, ending the game.

But as the hallmark of Freeman’s early career, he needs to deliver again on a national stage. Last season, the Buccaneers were blown out at home against Dallas on a Saturday night game.

Of course, home-field advantage is huge on a Thursday night game, with the home team posting a record of 30-13 (.698). I will keep preaching this fact until it proves not to be significant.

Minnesota is 4-0 at home this season, and I would love to say they do not get to 5-0 because of some advantages the Buccaneers have, but expect a close game, and the Vikings get it done for one of the most improbable 6-2 starts we have seen after a 3-13 season.

 

Colts at Titans: Expect the best from Luck

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So far this season, the Colts have not made things very easy on Andrew Luck, who is still on pace for 763 drop backs this season.

He rarely has a running game to rely on, his receivers never make plays after the catch, and he attempts the longest average depth of throw in the league (10.2 yards).

While some cannot figure out why his ESPN QBR is so high (73.0, sixth best in the league), it makes sense when you see him play and consider the circumstances of this offense.

I have tracked every play of his career weekly at Colts Authority, and marvel most at the disconnect between how he looks and what his completion percentage (53.6 percent) looks like. He has only been over 60.0 percent in one game (64.5 percent versus Minnesota).

Fortunately, he gets a crack at the Tennessee defense this week, even if it is a road game where Luck (and the Colts) have been at their worst. But the Titans cannot compare to the Bears or Jets on defense.

Tennessee allows the most points in the league, the most per drive (2.79), and they have allowed quarterbacks to complete 72.7 percent of their passes for 2,018 yards, 16 TD, 5 INT and a 108.2 passer rating. Everyone has had some success against them this year.

Expect Luck to have a nice stat line against the team that the Colts won their first game in 2011 against.

While Luck may have the stats, he still may not get the win, as the Indianapolis defense has been very suspect as well. The Colts have just two interceptions and a 102.2 defensive passer rating this season.

Matt Hasselbeck has been playing pretty well as of late, so this will not be an easy game.

With things so crowded, so mediocre in the AFC, this is actually an important game for teams with 3-3 and 3-4 records who will be looking for a Wild Card.

Not sure it can qualify as an upset, but I will pick the Colts to get their first road win, and first AFC South win in the Luck era.

 

Saints at Broncos: Rubber match in Manning vs. Brees (2-2) with defenses that will break

Expect a lot of points (per drive), and Denver wins, putting a final nail in the Saints’ season (they would fall to 2-5).

No really, that’s it. Just enjoy Peyton Manning vs. Drew Brees V: The Final Chapter, unless you expect another sequel in 2016 (or another Super Bowl).

 

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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