15-9 on the season I am. Somewhat satisfied I am. Going undefeated this week I will. Another NFL weekend doozy coming up. Although the season is already dwindling, the matchups continue to heat up. It’s a shame football can’t be played all year long but while it’s here, we got to enjoy every drop of it. And the flavor couldn’t be better for this week with four huge games on the menu. Typically, I’m pretty sure about my picks but I could easily see me going winless this week. All four major matchups this week contain teams that can easily beat one another but even though I’m not completely sure, something had to be done:
Cincinnati Bengals (6-2) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2)
There’s no better matchup than a slate between two good division teams. It also helps when both teams absolutely hate each other and Bengals’ QB Carson Palmer has already gone on record in recent years saying he hates the Steelers. After clobbering two pretty good teams last week both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati will enter Sunday with the division on the line.
A Bengals win would give them a stranglehold over the division with a 5-0 divisional record. Pittsburgh sits at 1-1 in the AFC North with that one loss coming in their second half meltdown in Cincinnati earlier this year. The Steelers had a firm grip on that game before a dropped touchdown pass and a pick-six led to their 23-20 loss. But things are a little different this time around for both squads.
Sophomore running back Rashard Mendenhall gets his crack at the Bengals after being benched for disciplinary reasons in the first meeting. The Steelers have gone 5-0 with Mendenhall in the lineup and the youngster is averaging 5.7 yards a carry. He has singlehandedly restored the Pittsburgh running game and the Steelers offense is benefiting from it. Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu will also get his first start against Cincinnati this season after missing the first meeting with a knee injury. Polamalu is the center piece to the Steelers’ puzzling defense and has two interceptions in three games since his return.
The outlook isn’t so bright for the Bengals. Although they’ve been playing extremely well, the personnel losses have been starting to mount for Cincinnati. They lost wide receiver and notorious “Steeler-Killer” Chris Henry last week to a broken arm but that was before leading sack man Antawn Odom went down with a ruptured Achilles.
Cincinnati is the most balanced team in the AFC but the Steelers are known to wipe balance away from opposing teams. The Bengals have fed off running back Cedric Benson and their running game all season but Pittsburgh leads the league in run defense, giving up just 70.4 yards a game. Pittsburgh had Cincinnati on the ropes in their first contest but couldn’t finish them off because of a lackluster running game. Mendenhall has beefed up that phase of the Steeler attack and expect Pittsburgh to be the more balanced of the two teams this weekend. Whichever teams fails to establish the run will lose and all signs point to Cincy struggling in that category. Steelers 27-17
Dallas Cowboys (6-2) vs. Green Bay Packers (4-4)
I want to like the Packers because they’re a historic team with a top tier QB but they have too many problems. They don’t run the ball consistently well and they don’t protect their quarterback at all. They’re defense can only shut down inferior teams and their secondary (which is supposed to be the strength of their defense) gets shredded too often. Nevertheless they’re a difficult team to beat at home and will be ready to play after an embarrassing loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is putting up outstanding numbers this year and would be a MVP candidate if the Packers had a better record. He has a live arm, strong confidence and is deceptively mobile. He has some pretty nice weapons to work with on his side of the ball and the Green Bay offense means that they’re always in the game.
The Cowboys however, have been on top of their game in recent weeks and are currently riding a four-game win streak. Rodgers, Drew Brees and Brett Favre are probably the only few QBs in the NFC playing better ball than the Cowboys’ Tony Romo right now, who has responded with a successful season so far after a disastrous ‘08. Romo’s finding his receivers, protecting the ball and leading his team the way upper echelon signal callers are supposed to. Dallas has been getting strong play out of both their offense and defense and even the ‘Boys’ special teams have scored in two of the last three weeks.
At 4-4, Green Bay’s back is slightly against the wall. They’ve lost two straight, haven’t beaten a team with a winning record all season and just lost to the last remaining winless team. Another loss this week and Packer fans could be ready to storm the field. Green Bay desperately wants to prove it can win without Favre but until they can play consistent defense and protect Rodgers, that won’t happen. The ‘Boys excel at pressing the passer and their offense has been pretty hot for the past few weeks. If the ‘Boys aren’t too full over their big win against the Eagles, they’ll handle the Packers on Sunday. Cowboys 34-26
Philadelphia Eagles (5-3) vs. San Diego Chargers (5-3)
The last time Philadelphia flew across country to play a California team, they loss an embarrassing game to the dismal Oakland Raiders. It’s safe to say the San Diego Chargers are a better team than the Raiders so Philly will want to pay extra attention in the film room this week. San Diego has renewed confidence after winning three-straight and seeing the division-leading Denver Broncos drop two in a row.
This will be the Eagles toughest road test to date and things could get scary if top corner Asante Samuels is slowed by a neck injury he sustained last week against Dallas. The Chargers love to launch the ball downfield and have all kinds of weapons to make that happen. Star receiver Vincent Jackson and tight end Antonio Gates are huge targets and Chargers’ QB Phillip Rivers just tosses the ball up for them to grab.
By taking away the deep ball, the Cowboys laid out the blueprint on how to beat the Eagles last week and San Diego has the personnel to get the job done. Philadelphia specializes in the long ball but San Diego may have the best pair of corners in the AFC. Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer are well equipped to limit Donovan McNabb’s looks downfield and Cromartie has the length and speed to stay near speedy Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson.
It’s not known whether Eagles running back Brian Westbrook will play and his status would be a big boost or big loss for Philadelphia. San Diego is somewhat iffy in their ability to stop the run but fortunately for them, the Eagles don’t run the ball well. If Westbrook is unable to play, the Chargers could just run away with this game. Philadelphia is going to bring their exotic blitzes against the Chargers but Rivers is experienced enough to handle that with ease. Once the Eagles do sell out with their blitz schemes, Rivers will be allowed to take advantage of Philly’s smallish cornerbacks and launch the ball downfield to the biggest set of receivers in the league. Chargers 30-23
New England Patriots (6-2) vs. Indianapolis Colts (8-0)
After struggling with average teams the past couple of weeks, the Colts get their first major test of the season when they host the Patriots at Lucas Oil Stadium this weekend. If this is the game that will decide home field advantage in the AFC then Indy is probably wishing they could’ve played the Pats earlier in the year. The Colts will be without three starters in their secondary against New England and for Tom Brady and Randy Moss, that equals big trouble.
New England’s offense has been clicking after struggling earlier in the year with consistency. Brady has 12 touchdown strikes in the last four weeks and Moss has benefitted from Brady’s hot streak with four TDs in three weeks. While the Patriot offense is catching fire, Peyton Manning and the Indy attack has been tapering off. Manning has just one touchdown pass in the last two weeks. The Patriots haven’t seen a QB quite like Manning all season however, and could be on their heels if Manning gets hot.
Manning will have to be at his best on Sunday to compensate for the Colts’ depleted secondary. If he tries to force anything, New England’s defense has been opportunistic over the last few weeks and could make Manning pay.
Indianapolis will be at home which will give them a huge boost on Sunday but that will probably be their only advantage against a stronger Patriot team. Indy is too banged up to run with the Patriots’ band of receivers and unless Colts defensive coordinator Larry Coyer comes up with a fantastic scheme between Monday and Saturday, New England could put up a lot of points. It’s no coincidence that New England’s two losses so far this year have come against teams featuring outstanding cover men. The Jets’ Darrelle Revis limited Moss to four catches for 24 yards and Denver’s Champ Bailey allowed Moss only one catch in an October clash. With their fourth and fifth string corners playing, Indy may be in a world of trouble. This would be the ideal game for the Colts to kill the clock with a punishing run game but Indianapolis is only averaging 85 rushing yards per game as a team. Patriots 31-20