The Thinking Man's Guide: NFL Week 9 Predictions

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The Thinking Man's Guide: NFL Week 9 Predictions
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Can Tony Romo direct another big upset?

The season is nearly halfway over, and Week 9 offers a few interesting games. That’s right. Just a few, unless you have a sick fetish for Chiefs at Chargers, Lions at Jaguars, Ravens at Browns, Buccaneers at Raiders, Bears at Titans, etc. You get the point. 

I would rather watch Rob Gronkowski on his bye week than some of these games.

This week we will look at Dallas’ chances to end Atlanta’s perfect season, the Rooney Mara Bowl, a surprising showdown of rookie quarterbacks in Indianapolis, and Michael Vick playing for his job on Monday night.

 

Cowboys at Falcons: Do not count out America’s Team

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Game of inches.

The Atlanta Falcons (7-0) are the league’s last unbeaten team, and Matt Ryan is 29-5 (.853) at home, and has been one of the best quarterbacks ever at closing games in the fourth quarter.

This sounds like the perfect game for the bumbling, stumbling Dallas Cowboys (3-4) to mosey on in and win in front of a national audience, right?

Well, maybe it is.

The Cowboys have a league-best four wins over undefeated teams that started 7-0 or better since 1940.

Tony Romo is the only quarterback in NFL history to defeat two undefeated teams that were 7-0 or better. He helped knock off the 9-0 Indianapolis Colts (2006) and 13-0 New Orleans Saints (2009).

Stick that in your Romo narrative.

Here is the full list of teams to start at least 7-0 since 1940. The “Start” is how many games they were undefeated for to start the season. The “Finish” is their final regular season record with their final record including playoffs in parenthesis. The “1st Loss” is the team that finally beat them, and the quarterback for that team is also listed.

Atlanta is the 37th team on the list. The 1972 Miami Dolphins of course never lost that season. There have been 12 teams that started 7-0 but failed to get to 8-0. That is by far the most common result, with six teams getting to 11-0 being the second-most common.

Only 11 of the previous 36 teams won a championship, though there were four instances in which two teams met in the playoffs. The last was Super Bowl XLIV (New Orleans over Indianapolis).

There is potentially good news for Atlanta. The last three teams Dallas upset the perfect season for still won the Super Bowl.

Atlanta and Dallas last met just over three years ago with Dallas winning 37-21. Much has changed since then.

For as good as its record is, Atlanta has hardly played perfectly this season, needing last-second wins against Carolina and Oakland at home. Dallas can certainly push the Falcons for four quarters, but it will come down to which team can close best.

That is the reason why you should still go with Atlanta, but just understand this game is hardly too big for Romo and the Cowboys. They have surprised us twice before, and it often takes a surprise for a perfect season to end.

Those geezers in Miami might want to get the champagne ready this weekend, just in case.

 

Steelers at Giants: The top of the 2004 QB class meets again

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Eli Manning had his first solid NFL start versus Pittsburgh in 2004.

The Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants are two flagship franchises in the NFL, combining to win 10 Super Bowls.

Yet, this will only be the ninth time they've met since the 1970 merger. The series is split 4-4, just as 2004 rookies Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger are split 1-1 in their two career meetings.

Manning and Roethlisberger will always be connected since they were drafted No. 1 and No. 11 overall in the 2004 draft, respectively. They also are two of 11 quarterbacks to win multiple Super Bowls. The only other draft class to produce multiple Super Bowl–winning quarterbacks was 1979's (Phil Simms and Joe Montana).

Rarely do we ever see a meeting between two quarterbacks who actively own multiple Super Bowl rings. In fact, it will only be the ninth such meeting in NFL history, and the first time we have ever had one in three consecutive seasons.

The Steelers are involved for the seventh time in nine games, and have gone 5-1 in such games with Roethlisberger splitting with Tom Brady the past two years.

Not scheduled to meet again in the regular season until 2016, this should be another close, exciting game, because that appears to be the only kind the Giants know how to play.

Eli Manning has 10 fourth-quarter comebacks and 11 game-winning drives in his last 26 starts alone. The flurry of late-game magic has put him in select company for a quarterback through his first nine seasons, and Roethlisberger is right there with him.

This is a game in which you would love to have the ball last, and hopefully leave no time left on the clock when you are done with it.

While the Giants tend to swan dive every November after their annual hot start, they have been beating better competition than the Steelers, and New York is the home team. Pittsburgh just has not play that well on the road in recent years.

The Steelers have a league-low six giveaways, but all six have come on the road. The Giants have a league-high 24 takeaways. Pittsburgh only has seven takeaways. If you had to predict which team will win the turnover battle, the Giants would be the smart pick, and in a close game, a turnover could be all the difference.

Go with the Giants to pull one out, though you never know anymore with these marquee matchups. Many have failed to live up to the hype this season.

Finally, for what it’s worth, the NFC is 20-12 against the AFC this season.

 

Dolphins at Colts: Battle for playoffs…what?

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No one would have expected the Indianapolis Colts (2-14 last year) and Miami Dolphins (6-10) would both be 4-3 and right in the thick of the hunt for a wild-card spot in the AFC.

But that’s where we are in Week 9 as they meet in a stunningly important game.

I wrote in the offseason about how both of these teams were hoping to have the next great pairings of a head coach and quarterback coming in together to start a new era.

So far, so good.

For Ryan Tannehill (assuming he starts) and Andrew Luck on Sunday, it will be the first time since 1960 two first-round rookie quarterbacks with winning records will meet. It is also the first time two rookies (from any round) will meet with winning records this late in the season.

While Tannehill is nursing an injury right now, he has been steadily improving as the season has moved along. Matt Moore is a legit back up, so Miami is confident if it comes to that.

Joe Philbin has been known for his offensive work, but the Dolphins field one of the best defenses in the league led by Cameron Wake.

The Colts have relied on the late-game heroics of Luck, who has led three game-winning drives in his team’s first seven games; a feat that has never been accomplished before by a true rookie.

Chuck Pagano continues to battle leukemia, leading to an unexpected interim position for Bruce Arians, who is coming off a win in Tennessee which featured a much different Colts offense.

In Week 8 the Colts attempted a season-high nine screen passes and used the play-action pass on a season-high 24.4 percent of Luck’s drop backs. They used the shotgun (48.9 percent) and empty backfield (13.3 percent) formations a season-low percent of the time.

While Luck was blitzed a season-low 20.0 percent of the time by Tennessee, he was pressured in a season-high 44.4 percent of his drop backs. Luck just handled it remarkably, completing 11 of 14 passes for 153 yards and picking up 11 first downs as he continues to get better.

The Colts opened the season with the tough Chicago defense, and that did not go well. The Dolphins are not at that level, but they present the second-toughest test for Indianapolis’ offense so far.

Miami did an adequate job defensively against the Houston Texans in Week 1, but have not faced much quality on offense since then. Luck’s ability to escape sacks and scramble should be a real benefit as he tries to handle the rush from Wake.

While Miami clearly brings the better defense to the game, the Colts are one of the league’s top offenses at moving the ball, averaging 35.84 yards per drive (No. 5). Miami is just 29th (27.86 yards per drive), though both teams are close in scoring because the Colts have struggled in the red zone.

I would not expect many points to be scored in this one, and the key will be for the Colts to keep it close enough so that Luck can pull it out late.

I think he does, and the Colts move another step closer toward an improbable run at the postseason.

 

Eagles at Saints: “Stick a Fork in Them” Bowl

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What’s this? The most disappointing (dream) team of 2011 against the most disappointing team of 2012?

The problem for Philadelphia (3-4) is their disappointment has carried over into another season. Now to save their jobs, Andy Reid and Michael Vick must come up with a win against a 2-5 team with one of the worst defenses in the league.

Not a tough task, right?

Wrong. The Eagles have a few major problems with this matchup.

Even though practically every offense piles up numbers on New Orleans’ defense (32nd in yards per drive, 30th in points per drive), the Philadelphia offense has struggled all season to produce.

Part of it are those 17 giveaways, but even still they are only 17th in yards per drive (31.75) and 27th in points per drive (1.50), which is astonishing given the talent they have.

Then there’s the fact that the Saints are still a dangerous 2-5 team because of their offense, Drew Brees, and they have home-field advantage in a loud dome for this game.

They also are coming off a real stinker against the Broncos, and I do not see any way Brees repeats that performance in two straight games.

Since joining the Saints in 2006, Brees has been masterful in prime time games played in the Superdome.

That is quite the 16-game “season”, if you will.

While he may not be at his best this season, Brees still has a lot of weapons to work with. Some may note Atlanta’s success with screen passes against Philadelphia in Week 8, and the Saints sure know how to run those plays well with Darren Sproles and company.

But the Eagles will probably be looking for that, so watch for Brees to attack the seams and look for open receivers downfield. He knows he has to score at least 28 points a week to give his team a chance to win, and at 2-5, there is a lot of room to be aggressive.

Those 28 points may be enough this week. The Eagles have yet to score more than 24 points in their first seven games this season, which is the longest streak for Andy Reid since the 2005-06 seasons (14 games). That streak lasted the final 12 games of 2005, and the first two of 2006.

I expect a high-scoring game and a New Orleans victory, bringing both teams to 3-5, and still little hope for a playoff run from either.

 

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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