Now, a look back at the games from Week Nine, along with my pick for the Thursday night game in Week 10, which features San Francisco against Chicago.
Jaguars 24, Chiefs 21 (Chiefs, plus-6.5)
I think, for the first time all season, I was thrilled at the sight of a backdoor cover.
Jacksonville entered the fourth quarter up 17-6, then padded their lead with just over four minutes left in the game, thanks to a 10-yard touchdown run from Maurice Jones-Drew.
The Chiefs scored a quick touchdown on a 54-yard Matt Cassell-to-Chris Chambers pass, setting up an onside kick that the Chiefs recovered. From the no-huddle offense, the Chiefs were again able to move the ball, covering 68 yards on eight plays, and finishing with another Cassel-to-Chambers connection.
At that point, the Chiefs had covered the spread, and all was fine with me.
However, the Jaguars have quietly turned the corner, and have reached the .500 mark (4-4). They are in the mix for a playoff spot which, given how inconsistent they’ve been this season, is a surprise (1-0).
Bengals 17, Ravens 7 (Cincinnati, plus-3)
I am surprised at the high number of “Cincinnati is for real,” themed articles that have been published since Sunday afternoon.
Did I miss something? Folks are acting as if the Bengals have been teetering on the edge of mediocrity all season long. In other words, people must have the Bengals, and Texans confused.
Cincinnati’s been a good team all season long, and they methodically pounded the Ravens. Cedric Benson had 34 carries for 117 yards, and the Bengals thoroughly dominated the time of possession, keeping the ball for exactly 40 minutes. Carson Palmer was also efficient in passing the ball.
On defense, the Bengals did a great job defending on third down, as Baltimore was just 1-for-10 in turning third downs into first downs. Cincinnati had four sacks of Baltimore QB Joe Flacco, and they forced him into some bad throws, including two interceptions.
The Bengals are 2-0 against one of last year’s AFC championship game finalists, and 6-2 overall. They’ve earned my belief in them a while ago. (2-0)
Colts 20, Texans 17 (Houston, plus-9)
The beat goes on for the Colts; they are now 8-0 on the season, and are poised to capture the AFC South title once again.
With Bob Sanders out for the year, I expected Indianapolis to struggle at stopping the run. Instead, the Texans only managed 81 yards on the ground. The Colts’ run defense surprised me.
On offense, Peyton Manning and Dallas Clark connected for 14 pass plays. At the rate he’s going right now, Clark (60 receptions, 703 yards through eight games) could shatter the single-season records for catches, and yards receiving by a tight end.
Meanwhile, Houston continues to amaze because they manage to find ways to lose close games and, as a result, could find themselves on the outside-looking-in come playoff time. That would be a shame, because QB Matt Schaub has become a Pro Bowl-caliber player at his position, but he gets no recognition for his efforts. (3-0)
Falcons 31, Redskins 17 (Atlanta, minus-10)
Atlanta jumped out to a 24-3 halftime lead. Washington cut the deficit to 24-17 early in the fourth quarter, and visions of a near-miss pick started filtering into my head.
Thankfully, Michael Turner scampered 58 yards on Atlanta’s next drive for his second touchdown of the day, giving the Falcons a two touchdown lead. My pick was safe.
More importantly, for Falcons fans, is that Atlanta re-asserted themselves in this game. Granted, lots of teams (like Detroit, for instance) have “righted the ship” against the Redskins this year. Still, it was a much-needed win for a Falcons team that had lost its way a bit against some quality opponents. (4-0)
Buccaneers 38, Packers 28 (Green Bay, minus-10)
This had to be the most surprising result of the week.
The Buccaneers showed signs of life defensively, sacking Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers six times, and hitting him on 12 other occasions. Rodgers was intercepted three times, and his final pick was returned for a touchdown with under a minute to play, clinching the win for Tampa Bay. Also, the Bucs blocked a punt, and returned that for another touchdown earlier in the game.
On offense, rookie QB Josh Freeman got hot in the fourth quarter, and wound up throwing three touchdown passes on the day. It wasn’t a sensational debut (14-for-31 passing), but Freeman provides Bucs fans with some hope.
As for Packers fans, this loss submarines their standing as a playoff contender. Losing on the road happens to good teams. Losing on the road in Week Nine to a winless team starting a rookie QB, however, is another matter altogether. (4-1)
Cardinals 41, Bears 21 (Arizona, plus-3)
Following an ugly loss to the Panthers last week, one in which Kurt Warner turned the ball over six times, the Cardinals bounced back in a big way against a Bears team that is clearly reeling.
Warner threw five TD passes, helping to stake the Cardinals to a 31-7 halftime lead. Jay Cutler had a solid day himself (369 passing, three TD passes), but it wasn’t enough to rally the Bears.
While Arizona is at least somewhat intriguing, if inconsistent, the Bears have the look of a team that will be seeking a new coach in the offseason. Continued play of this caliber, and Chicago will have a losing record by season’s end. (5-1)
Patriots 27, Dolphins 17 (New England, minus-10.5)
This was the first of a few “near-misses” in my picks this week.
Tom Brady topped the 300-yard mark in passing yards, and the Patriots successfully ran the ball against the Dolphins. However, the Dolphins kept the score close throughout the game.
On their scoring drive to open the second half, Miami held the football for over 10 minutes. The Dolphins took the lead on the drive, 17-16, and chewed up over two-thirds of the third quarter in terms of time.
While the Patriots struck quickly with a touchdown of their own on their ensuing possession, the odds of them covering the spread at that point were long. A Stephen Gostowski field goal with just over a minute left in the game proved to be tantalizing window-dressing on a win that was closer than the margin of victory indicated. (5-2)
Saints 30, Panthers 20 (New Orleans, minus-13)
Carolina had their chances in this one, particularly in the third quarter, driving down the field, up 17-13. A Jake Delhomme pass on a third down hit DeAngelo Williams in the shoulder pads at the goal line. Had he hauled it in, the Panthers would have gone up 24-13; instead they had to settle for a field goal.
Fourth quarter fumbles killed any hopes the Panthers had of pulling out the win. The most costly turnover occurred at the Panthers’ one-yard line, as Williams lost the football, and Saints’ DE Anthony Hargrove returned it for a touchdown with two minutes left in the game, providing the final margin of victory.
The Saints have trailed by significant margins in each of their last three games, only to come from behind to win. Had they played well from the outset, instead of having to overcome early turnovers, the Saints would have not only won, they would have covered the spread. (5-3)
Seahawks 32, Lions 20 (Detroit, plus-10)
At the end of the first quarter, Detroit led 17-0, and a road cover seemed likely.
Then, Matthew Stafford started throwing interceptions, and Matt Hasselbeck brought the Seahawks back with a team-record 39 completions (out of 51 attempts). So much for that. This was the second “near-miss” for me this week.
From a gambler’s perspective, the killer was Stafford’s fifth interception, which was returned 61 yards for a touchdown by Josh Wilson with 22 seconds left in the game. An incompletion on that play gives me the cover.
Instead, the Lions lose by 12, and I am left to lament another close call that went against me. (5-4)
Titans 34, 49ers 27 (Tennessee, plus-4)
The Vince Young Revival Tour is now 2-0, thanks in large part to the running of Chris Johnson, the NFL’s leading rusher.
Meanwhile, the Alex Smith Revival Tour is 0-1, mostly due to his four turnovers. Chief among those turnovers was an interception that Tennessee’s Cortland Finnegan returned for a touchdown with just under three minutes left, giving the Titans a 34-20 lead.
San Francisco has gone from a team that has lost a bunch of close games, to a team that seems to be reeling, and is still figuring out its identity. Tennessee could be a spoiler the rest of the way, if Young remains efficient, and Johnson continues to run on teams successfully. (6-4)
Chargers 21, Giants 20 (NY Giants, minus-5)
This was the third of my “close calls” this week, and probably the hardest to take, since the Giants had seemingly secured the cover with just over two minutes left in the game, taking a 20-14 lead.
Instead, Phillip Rivers led the Chargers on an eight play, 80-yard drive for the game-winning touchdown with, capped by a nice pass to Vincent Jackson in the back corner of the end zone with 21 seconds left.
Eli Manning had a statistically superior game to Rivers, who threw two interceptions. The Giants ran the ball for over 100 yards, and held a sizeable advantage in time of possession. For a team that is considered to be “reeling,” the Giants played well enough to win the game.
The popular thought will be that the Giants, losers of four straight, are in trouble. The truth is, they need to execute better.
As for San Diego, they continue to struggle at running the football. Jackson has emerged as one of the best receivers in football, and the defense has played better in recent weeks. Still, they were fortunate to win this week, and face a tough schedule ahead. An AFC West title remains a long-shot. (6-5)
Cowboys 20, Eagles 16 (Philadelphia minus-6)
This game was a mild surprise, because it wasn’t a shootout, and because the Cowboys' defense didn’t allow any big plays to the Eagles.
DeSean Jackson was held in check, and Brian Westbrook did not play, aiding the Cowboys’ cause.
After kicking a field goal to cut the deficit to 20-16 with around four minutes left in the game, the Eagles relied on their defense to stop the Dallas' offense, and give them one more possession. Instead, Dallas was able to gain a couple of first downs, and maintained possession until the end of the game.
Donovan McNabb threw two costly interceptions. Both gave Dallas a short field to work with, and the Cowboys capitalized, scoring 10 points on their possessions following McNabb’s miscues.
After losing in Denver, questions swirled around the Cowboys. Now, four wins later, Dallas is in control of the NFC East. (6-6)
Steelers 28, Broncos 10 (Denver, plus-3)
The score suggests the Steelers blew out the Broncos. In the fourth quarter, that was a true statement, as Pittsburgh outgained Denver 118-19, scored two touchdowns, forced two interceptions, and held the ball for 12-out-of-the-15 minutes in the quarter.
Denver looked much sharper in the first half. Pittsburgh dominated the yardage, and time of possession in the third quarter. However, a red zone interception by Ben Roethlisberger thwarted an opportunity for the Steelers to go up 21-10 midway through the third quarter.
While many were quick to write the Broncos off following this game, I believe the Steelers’ performance was what people should focus on.
After struggling to run the ball for much of the year, Rashard Mendenhall has clearly emerged as a solid starting running back. The offensive line, after some in-game adjustments, protected Roethlisberger well. Mike Wallace gives the Steelers an added dimension in the passing game. The defense is healthy, and dangerous. I may not pick against them again the rest of the year, based on what I saw this week. (6-7)
Week 10 Bonus Game
Thursday Night Football
San Francisco (minus-3) over Chicago
This is a “must-win” for both teams.
However, as I wrote in my recap of the Bears’ Week Nine debacle against the Cardinals, they are playing like a team that will wind up with a new coach next season. Between injuries, a lack of quality personnel, and apathy, the Bears don’t seem to have what it takes to be a serious playoff contending team.
I still maintain, despite sinking to 3-5, that the 49ers are an up-and-coming team. Mike Singletary, coaching against the team he once played for, is a juicy story for those who are into that sort of thing. I think the bigger story will be how Alex Smith, Michael Crabtree, and Vernon Davis do at attacking the Bears’ secondary.
49ers 31, Bears 24