Looks like plenty of hoedowns are headed our way this weekend in the NFL. Better rosin up your bows. We really need Charlie Daniels doing an instrumental version of the National Anthem to wrap this weekend up right.
Falcons at Buccaneers - One of the risks of having a successful year in the league is that you get a tougher schedule the next time. Thus Atlanta has been failing in its struggle to get that big rock that says “WIN” on it up to the top of the hill since way back in week three. When things start to go wrong in the NFL, it definitely becomes the “no fun league.”
Finally, the Falcons face a squad in worse shape, with lesser talent that struggles with discipline and lacks a clear identity of itself as a team. It’s sort of like being an adolescent, and it only really helps for the parents to be consistent and patient.
There’s not much chance left for Atlanta to do anything great with this season, so I guess we might as well start saying our goodbyes to Tony Gonzalez…but wait…we did that last year. Suppose we best be patient on that, too.
Atlanta holds off Tampa Bay’s decent running game, wins and shrugs. Tampa Bay doesn’t stop enough of the Falcon’s passing game (which is all they have), loses and then hopefully the coaches tell them not to slouch.
Chargers at Dolphins - While this matchup lacks the charm and import of the days of Fouts-to-Winslow and Marino-to-Duper, with two 4-5 teams clinging to playoff hopes, desperation football is sure to be in full display. Miami is also crying for anything to take that embarrassing Jonathan Martin-Richie Icognito blip off the radar screen.
San Diego is at best hoping that third place in their division will be good enough. Miami has a bit more hope, but not much. Neither team can afford a loss here. The Chargers have better offensive weapons, but we still have that mysterious virus sure to inflict any West Coast team playing in the East.
But that infectious malevolence, for which there is no cure or even a known treatment, only really debilitates teams who have 1:00 starts. Since this game begins at 4:00, any home remedy applied might actually work against Miami. Chargers appear to be the healthier team.
Packers at Giants - Who? Scott Tolzien. Still! Well, we can suppose Coach McCarthy will have him even more ready, but you just know it’s desperate times in the north country when they call Matt Flynn from forced retirement.
On the New York end of things, Eli Manning is just having a horrible year. He’s built up plenty of goodwill, but the pit is not bottomless. Amazing that Big Blue at 3-6 is still in the hunt to win their division. A very strange year.
Somebody’s picking the Giants because “Home on the Range” is playing softly in the background, but it’s off-key and makes you scowl up in a funny face showing how much you don’t like it.
49ers at Saints - If there’s a bigger way to say “OOH” in newsprint, I don’t know what it could be. This one’s a purists delight, provided you think the game should revolve around the quarterback. It still comes down to defense, and in either case New Orleans has got the best of both at the moment.
Vikings at Seahawks - Successfully calculating the odds of a Minnesota win on the road this weekend would qualify you for a master’s degree in statistics from Stanford, in addition to the biggest pile of money Vegas could muster. Best of luck!
Chiefs at Broncos - Here’s the one everyone’s waiting for on Sunday night. Is it going to be the defense or the offense? Is that too simplistic? Here’s a guess: Peyton Manning get rousted hard but, pulling out all the stops for the home crowd, stays vertical long enough to get the win thus tying KC in the standings until the rematch in two weeks that even more will anticipate with unadulterated glee. The promise of down-to-the-wire games like this is why we love the NFL so much.
Patriots at Panthers - The quality of the Monday night ESPN broadcast comes pretty close to equaling Sunday’s NBC headliner. New England is always brilliant coming off bye weeks. Carolina is hard charging and exceedingly confident on both sides of the ball. Tom Brady is not going to have an old, weak or patsy defense to pick on this time. If he and his receivers are not as sharp as they can be, look for some personal fireworks and dramatic sideline explosions.
It seems quite likely the Patriots just lack the defensive talent up the middle or the intensity from the edges to force a growing talent like Cam Newton into crucial mistakes. Coach Belichick always has a few aces hidden in his hoodie, so watch closely and expect the unexpected. Just don’t expect the home team to lose.
Jets at Bills - New York has strong wild card playoff aspirations, a record that’s better than expected and good talent, but they also have the maddening habit of being totally inconsistent; for example beating New England and then turning right around the next week to get blown by out Cincinnati. Maybe future hall of famer Ed Reed will now help school them in the mental disciplines of player responsibility and identity so that they are the same team every play, every possession, every game.
Success in the NFL over the past decade of increasing parity has been all about getting healthy and hot at the right time, usually late in the season. Because so many things are so equal in the league, so much of what passes for winning football now comes down to team chemistry and passion, which is pretty hard to quantify (at least on this page).
Buffalo continues to suffer the pangs of youth and the pains of injury. They play well, but just can’t hang in there long enough. New York’s defense will require Buffalo to depend on rookie E.J. Manuel’s arm, and this will be his second game back following a month of physical recovery. This is probably the wrong defense to expect him to be able yet to take some advantage.
All in all, it’s probably the Jets game to win, which they should, but like the leaves in November, you just wait for them to fall.
Ravens at Bears - Baltimore needs to get Ray Rice the ball more and this is the team he can run over, around and through. Chicago’s defensive woes are largely due to the injury bug taking up residence on that side of their line, and too many substitutes always makes you vulnerable.
In their favor, Old Man Winter has finally walked in the door, and Soldier Field is one of the worst weather venues in the league (which is just how the Bears like it). The Ravens do not have the dominating defense that has come to define their team’s character over the past decade (or more), so while they are good they can no longer offer much shutdown potential, especially in road games.
Baltimore’s Joe Flacco remains inconsistent (there’s that word again!) in the quarterback position while Josh McCown has been doing tremendous work subbing for Jay Cutler. He’s got plenty of receivers and, amazingly, his offensive line has been providing good protection, so it’s the homers in a squeaker.
Browns at Bengals - Here’s Cleveland’s chance. Cincinnati has, once again, opened the door wide and invited them in. It would be just plain rude not to show up. With these two franchises, who make a habit out of not showing up when they are expected, there’s just too many unknowns to count on anything other than divisional rivalry football, which means bloody noses and field goal margins. It’s a home team pick, but don’t go getting all emotionally invested in it.
Raiders at Texans - At this point, we just have to give Houston the benefit of whatever emotional investment we wish to make in pro football this weekend. They need a win and Coach Gary Kubiak needs a comforting smile. It’s a good thing Oakland can’t win on the road. It would hurt my feelings if they did. And now that all the touch-feely stuff is out of the way, Houston’s defense is not at all vulnerable to what Oakland does best. That pretty much settles most pro games.
Cardinals at Jaguars - So Jacksonville pulled it together, played very well (relatively speaking) and punched a hole in the Titans’ home ticket last week. Good for them. They needed it. Meanwhile, Arizona is on a mini winning streak. They still had to work awfully hard the past two weeks to take down struggling teams, and the Cardinals are working at a 1-3 clip when they hit the road, so it hardly fills you with confidence.
Because you just cannot ever, ever, ever trust West Coast teams when they come east for a 1:00 start. While Arizona has a good looking rookie running back, he’s no Maurice Jones-Drew; provided Maurice is actually unleashed now.
Still, Arizona has a much better defense, more talent, and match up well on the outside. Even if Carson Palmer only finds Larry Fitzgerald three or four times, it will probably be enough. But it’s hard not to notice that the more Palmer has played, the more his completion percentage has degraded, especially in routes beyond 20 yards.
Redskins at Eagles - So why is Philadelphia in danger of losing their 10th straight game at home? Now some of the players are blaming the fans, as if we didn’t already know how obstinate Eagles fans have pretty much always been.
Hey Philly! Pop in a copy of “Invincible” Saturday night and get ready in the head to do what you have to do to win this one, for goodness sake! How often does the opportunity for a lead in the division come around for a 5-5 team? Nick Foles is hot. LeSean McCoy is cool. Take it and use it.
Divisional rivalry games are usually just that simple.
Lions at Steelers - One of these has a 6-3 record and is catching the view from the roof of their division while the other is 3-6 and working on their sump pump. There’s something fundamentally wrong when you find Steelers in the basement, but there they are.
Now wrap your head around this one: Detroit has not won a game in Pittsburgh in almost 60 years.
This year the Steelers’ defense is not fast enough, not strong enough up front, nor opportunistic enough to create those game-changers that are the signature plays for that team in championship mode.
But 60 years? While it all looks like things should go the Lions way this time, they are just going to have to prove it first.