By Mike Ivcic, UltimateCapper Contributing Writer
Here at the Ultimate Capper, we typically give you a nice meaty preview of the Thursday night game, since it’s the only game we discuss in our Fourth and Long column, but then on Sunday we only give you some short blurbs on the rest of the schedule – and in the case of our “Top 5” selections, we don’t give you anything. While I’m not looking to break the business model, I felt it important this week, with a couple of big games with major playoff implications on the docket, to present a little more in-depth look at some of those matchups. There won’t be any actual picks made, and some of these may wind up being included in my “Top 5” come the weekend, but you will get “Thursday-style” analysis of three Sunday games, all of which feature divisional matchups. Yes, that means leaves some good games (San Francisco @ New Orleans, New England @ Carolina) off the list, but these three games are still going to go a long way towards deciding who plays home games in this year’s postseason. Consider it a little pre-Thanksgiving feast.
Washington Redskins @ Philadelphia Eagles
This is an absolutely fascinating game for me, because I think it will provide the largest amount of useful information on both teams. First, for the Eagles – what is the real difference between Michael Vick and Nick Foles, and is this team really cursed at home? Philly trounced the Redskins the opening week of the season behind Chip Kelly’s explosive offense, but that was with Vick. Now, the Eagles are soaring with Foles under center, which provides a much different look. Washington may remember some of the wrinkles from week one, but there are now new features to this offense that the ‘Skins defense hasn’t seen. Will previous experience, albeit against a different quarterback, help the second time around? Plus, the Eagles are 0-4 at home this year and haven’t won at Lincoln Financial Field since September 30, 2012. Playoff teams win home games, especially divisional home games – and this is Philly’s last shot at just such a win this season. It’s hard to imagine a way for any NFL team to go 0-3 at home in the division and finish first.
On the Washington side, RG3 was awful against Philly in week one, but this is an Eagles defense that is dead-last against the pass and Griffin has been getting better each week. It wasn’t the offense that led to the collapse in Minnesota, it was the defense. I don’t know that Washington can stop Foles and the Eagles offense, but the same will probably be true in return. So far, the Eagles have beaten RG3 on one leg, Eli Manning in one of his worst years ever (who also beat the Eagles in the return game), Mike Glennon, Terrelle Pryor, and Scott Tolzein. That’s not exactly a grouping of elite QB’s. Can Griffin propel Washington’s offense to enough points to overcome what will likely be a very large number on the other side of the scoreboard?
This is an elimination game for both teams. A 3-7 Redskins team would be 2.5 games behind Philly with two head-to-head losses, and any shot of repeating as division champs would be gone. This is the season for the Eagles, though, too – with a loss, Philly would be 5-6 overall, 2-3 in the division, and 0-5 at home heading into the bye week, with a slew playoff contenders (Lions, Cardinals, Bears) all set to visit Philadelphia in the final six weeks. If the Eagles plan on being one of the season’s biggest surprises, this is absolutely a must-win game, which is why, for the first time all year, I’ll be quite happy to have the Eagles as an early game – even if it means I can’t watch the Jets.
Cleveland Browns @ Cincinnati Bengals
In order to truly understand the often-times warped demographic rooting interests of football fans, go to Ohio for this weekend. On Saturday, everyone in the entire state (except a small pocket around Toledo) will be donning scarlet and grey and cheering for Ohio State. On Sunday, those fanatics will peel off their Buckeyes jerseys and proceed to engage in a civil war, where the northeast portion of the state will be decked out in Browns gear, while the southwest section will sport the orange and black of the Bengals. This matchup has always had a bit of a “big brother-little brother” feel to it, since Paul Brown started the Cleveland franchise first as part of the NFL, then moved diagonally across the state and founded the AFL’s Bengals. As such, any two people are likely to engage in fist bumps on Saturday and fist fights on Sunday – especially in Columbus, where the city is fairly divided. That’s why this matchup is so intriguing, now that both clubs are in the hunt for a division title.
The Bengals cost themselves a shot to put their foot on the respective throats of the North last week in losing to Baltimore. Andy Dalton, he of the fantastic October that made everyone believe he had finally found another level, has promptly returned back into the slightly-above-average QB who appears very inconsistent. Cincinnati was moving the ball well in overtime but a costly under-throw forced Marvin Lewis into a tough fourth-down situation – one he promptly butchered by calling for a swing pass that lost yardage and led to the eventual game-winning Ravens field goal. Lewis’ group has suffered some critical injuries, especially on defense, meaning Dalton’s play is now even more crucial to a team that some thought could be Denver’s biggest competition just three weeks ago. Now, they’re left to defend their home field against a Browns team that’s already beaten them once, and dropping to 1-3 in divisional play could prove disastrous for a team that still has San Diego, Indianapolis, and Baltimore on the schedule.
It’s the Browns, however, that are clearly the more desperate team. They enter this matchup trailing the division by a game and a half, so they can’t afford to pass up the opportunity to move into a tie in the loss column with the Bengals. They also have a brutal four-game close to their season (at New England, Chicago, at NY Jets, at Pittsburgh) and need badly to pick up wins in their next three games (home to the Steelers and Jaguars after this game). Jason Campbell may not win any MVP awards, but he has brought stability to the always-shaky Browns QB position, playing fairly well against two tough defenses in Kansas City and Baltimore. Cleveland will have to improve their running attack against the Bengals, especially considering the injury issues on defense for Cincinnati, but it’s possible that they bye week provided enough time for Willis McGahee to really feel comfortable with the Browns offense. Either way, the staple of this Cleveland team is defense, and if they can shut down A.J. Green – no doubt a tall order, but still possible – then the Browns have to feel pretty good about their chances.
Act two of the Battle of Ohio has more on the line for both teams than maybe at any other point since Cleveland’s revival as a franchise in 1999. The winner will clearly have the inside track on the AFC North, and a Browns win would also bolster the hopes of both the Steelers and Ravens, too. What once looked like a lock for a Cincinnati division crown might wind up being a four-team free-for-all – unless the Bengals can manage to accomplish what they failed to do last week and finally put their stranglehold on a playoff spot that, by all accounts, is really theirs for the taking.
Kansas City Chiefs @ Denver Broncos
So you may have heard about this game – the 9-0 Chiefs visiting the 8-1 Broncos on Sunday Night Football. Sure, this might be the best matchup that NBC will have all season (they can’t flex Monday night’s New Orleans @ Seattle game, which for my money will be the single-best, most exciting, 60 minutes of regular season professional football played this year) but something tells me this may not live up to the hype. Still, it features the game’s most prolific and explosive offense against the games most smothering and suffocating defense, so there’s always a chance this could be as good as advertised.
There have been some fantastic offenses assembled in recent years – the 2000 Rams, the 2007 Patriots, the 2009 Saints, etc. – but none have ever had as much firepower as this year’s Denver Broncos. The numbers may say that some of those other teams were better, but that takes into account only one or two categories. The 2013 Broncos can run the ball, they can throw the ball, they can go deep, they can go over the middle, they can swing pass to the running back, they can go hurry-up, they can run the play clock down to one second – they can do virtually anything and everything possible on the offensive side of the football. It obviously starts with Peyton Manning (I’m assuming you’ve heard of him) but it happens mostly because the offensive line keeps him upright, Knowshon Moreno, Ronnie Hillman, and Monte Ball run straight upfield with authority, and four different wide receivers – Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Julius Thomas, and Eric Decker – are all fantastic route runners with great hands, yet excel in completely different areas of the field. That gives Manning more options than any QB in football and presents more problems than most defenses are capable of handling. Add to that a defense that’s seen Shaun Phillips return to his status as an elite pass rusher and been supplemented by Von Miller and Champ Bailey in the last month, and suddenly Denver’s defense – one that allowed just two field goals in three red zone trips by the Chargers last week – might rank in the top-half of the league. That’s not good news for teams that plan on trying to outscore the Broncos to win.
Luckily for the Chiefs, they are not anywhere close to being one of those teams. As good as Denver is on offense is a good as the Chiefs are on defense – or at least fairly close. Kansas City’s unit may not be on par with Baltimore’s 2000-2001 championship team, but they are first in points allowed and sixth in passing yards allowed – the two biggest defensive metrics in the current NFL. They haven’t allowed more than 17 points all season, though Eli Manning is really the only “elite” QB they’ve faced thus far. Their most impressive performance may be their containment of the Michael Vick-led Eagles offense on a Thursday night in week three, made to look even more impressive with the Andy Reid-in-Philly storyline and the short week of preparation. They key for KC is that they’ve stopped all sorts of offenses – Vick and Terrelle Pryor leading a run-oriented attack, Manning and Tony Romo with their gunslinger approach – which should bode well for a matchup with a Denver offense that can do just about anything. Reid can’t expect his defense to keep Peyton and Co. under 17 points, though, so he may be forced to take Alex Smith out of his “game manager” role and open the playbook a little bit in order to score a few more points. How well Smith and the rest of the KC offense handle the added pressure will probably be the single-biggest factor in who wins this matchup.
These two teams will meet two weeks from now, so a loss for either side will be somewhat mitigated by the notion of a rematch just over the horizon. Each team will also face a stiff test in between their meetings, as Denver will travel to New England and KC will host San Diego. Still, if the Chiefs are able to walk into Invesco Field and walk out with a win and a two-game lead in the division, it could mean that Manning will be forced to earn his way to the Super Bowl on the road – an almost unfathomable thought after the Broncos performance on opening night against the Ravens. The schedule sets up wonderfully for the NFL’s marketing machine, so here’s hoping the game manages to exceed the expectations.
If The Playoffs Started Today…
…a whole lot of AFC teams would be saying “what if?” What if we hadn’t started four different quarterbacks (Cleveland)? What if we hadn’t blown a huge lead opening week, or what if we had managed to get one more yard against the Redskins (San Diego)? What if we hadn’t lost our heart and soul to retirement and lost in Buffalo (Baltimore)? What if we hadn’t lost to an 0-8 team (Miami)? Come to think of it… What if we hadn’t lost to an 0-8 team (Tennessee)? All those questions for a rather large group of teams sitting at 4-5, one game behind the Jets.
Allow that last line to sink in as you check out this week’s standings…
1. Kansas City Chiefs (9-0)
2. New England Patriots (7-2)
3. Indianapolis Colts (6-3)
4. Cincinnati Bengals (6-4)
5. Denver Broncos (8-1)
6. New York Jets (5-4)
1. Seattle Seahawks (9-1)
2. New Orleans Saints (6-2)
3. Detroit Lions (6-3)
4. Dallas Cowboys (5-5)
5. Carolina Panthers (6-3)
6. San Francisco 49’ers (6-3)
Notes: Dallas wins the fourth seed over Philadelphia because of head-to-head win. Carolina wins the fifth seed over San Francisco because of head-to-head win.
Indianapolis Colts @ Tennessee Titans
Thu, 8:30pm, NFLN
Line: Colts by 3
Talk about two teams in desperate need of a win. The Colts are coming off an absolute throttling – at home, no less – at the hands of the St. Louis Rams, and suddenly find some experts questioning their status as a legitimate contender. Sure, they’ve beaten Seattle, San Francisco, and Denver, but this is a “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” league, and the Colts just got blown out by a 4-6 team. Personally, I still think they’re the third best team in the AFC behind the Broncos and Chiefs, but either way they need to put last week behind them quickly. They’re traveling to play a Titans team that might have suffered an even worse fate last week – losing at home to the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars. Tennessee spotted the Jags a nice hefty lead and just couldn’t catch up, and now they may have lost Jake Locker for the rest of the season. Still, they’re just two games back of Indy with another head-to-head matchup in two weeks, so all the Titans really need to do to lay claim to the AFC South is win this week and December 1. That all sounds quite simple, but I just can’t pick Tennessee, even at home, without their starting QB.
Pick: Indianapolis 27, Tennessee 20
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