How does the old saying go? “Time flies when you’re getting it done?” Something like that. Regardless, one quarter of the NFL 2011 season is behind us. Four games is a pretty decent sample size. The first few weeks is pretty random and dangerous, but narrow window for gambling establishments. Nobody really knows anything. It’s all just based on guesses and speculation and year old game tape. When a team dramatically overplays or underplays what their ability is thought to be, is it a fluke or is it real?
The truth is that it’s neither and both. A team can beat another far superior to it if it recognizes where its strengths are and can use it to exploit the other team’s weakness. I know that that sounds pretty simple, but bear with me for a moment. The best example of this is the Buffalo Bills. For those of my loyal readers out there (love you Dave), you know that I picked the Bills over the Patriots in their dramatic comeback upset win, but then picked the Bengals against them the next week. How could I believe that the Bills are good enough to beat the Patriots but not the Bengals; Brady but not the Red Rocket, Andy Dalton?
Well, what have the Bills done best this year? When things are going good, Ryan Fitzpatrick is slinging the ball around the field and scoring lots of points. Usually, even an elite offense generally plays better at home, especially with the atmosphere they had for the home opener against New England. But home field advantage does not make up for the difference between the Bengals and the Patriots alone. Well, how about this: The Patriots give up the most yards per pass attempt at 9 yards per every time the opposing QB lets go of the ball. The Bengals are first in total defense, and top 5 in yards per pass attempt, as well as about every other major defensive category. The Bengals have the league’s number one defense? After a quarter of the way thorough, they sure do.
The Patriots love to throw, and seemed to have forgotten about their running game until last week anyway, and the Bengals are just the opposite. Well, the Bills defense is in the middle of the pack in terms of pass defense, and have some good young players in their secondary, while their run defense is among the bottom of the pile. So, the Bills had one strength matchup with the Patriots biggest weakness, and enough of a pass defense to mollify the Patriots biggest advantage; Ser Tom Modelbanger (I’ve been trying to think of what Brady’s name would be if he was a knight in the Game of Thrones books, if you’re wondering if I thought of a name for his sword too, you don’t know me very well, it’s “Bane of Bridget,” and his horse already has a name, Wes Welker). The next week, they lost to a Bengals team that is definitely an inferior team to the Pats for sure, but a matchup nightmare for the Bills.
After four weeks of football, these stats start to become trends. Sure weird things happen, and any given Sunday, and all that crap, but if we know what a certain team does really well, and what it can’t do at all, then we can better guess how they will play another specific team. This week, I will discuss one key matchup from each game that I think will make the difference between who wins and who loses. The matchup could be either player vs. player, or unit vs. unit, or player vs. unit, etc. As always, my lines are taken from the ESPN Pig Skin Pick ‘Em Game (I’m better than almost 90% of the public, for now, anyway http://games.espn.go.com/pigskin-pickem/en/entry?entryID=310755 ), and my pick is in BOLD, LIKE ME SON! Talk to me about going 11-5 last week while picking the Bengals, Chiefs, Colts, and Texans. Y’all can’t see me!
Last Week: 11-5
Sunday 1:00 PM EST
Eagles @ Bills +2.5
Right off the bat, here are my beloved Bills. The matchup I will be watching most closely is wide receiver Stevie Johnson versus God’s alleged gift to corner backs, Nnamdi Asomugha. Johnson emerged as a big time player last year, and is leading the Bills again with over 300 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns through four games. Nnamdi, meanwhile has struggled along with the rest of the Eagles thus far. My only question is this: when a corner gets to be good, I mean really good, good to the point where people stop throwing in his direction, almost completely, then how can we know when he is regressing? Is it possible that Nnamdi was slipping all along, but playing in a weaker division, where he was by far the best player on his team anyway, so teams avoided him just to be safe, so we all just thought he was still elite? Although the Eagles are in the top ten in the league in fewest total pass yards allowed, they give up an average of 8 yards per attempt, which is in the bottom ten of the league. Was everyone just too scared to throw at them in the beginning of the season, or is it that their run defense is so bad that they are relying too hard on their corners to stop the pass? Either way, with the Bills back at home angry that they gave away a winnable game last weekend, I don’t like Philly’s chances here. Vick may have a big game as well, but I’ll go with the Bills, if only to not go against the whole point of my column with my first pick.
Bengals @ Jaguars -2.5
Here we have a matchup of rookie quarterback squaring off; Andy Dalton vs. Blaine Gabbert. Dalton and the Bengals have the edge here and in this game. Both teams have defenses which are much better than expected, but the Bengals, with their top ranked D, will make Blaine’s day miserable. The two opponents of the rookie duo last week, the Saints and Bills, are ranked similarly in pass defense, but Dalton put up almost 300 yards and a touchdown in beating the undefeated Bills while Gabbert failed to break 200 yards in his first start and completed only 16 of his 42 passes! The Bengals defense will not be even as courteous of guests as those Saints were. I do wonder why the Jaguars are favored, but I’ll take the better defense, with the better record, and the better rookie QB in this one.
Titans @ Steelers -7.5
The Steelers are one of the few teams that I still don’t quite get. They are 2-2, with an ugly win against the Colts and a blowout at home against a Seahawks team they matchup perfectly against. Their losses came to the Texans and being on the wrong side of a beat down to open the season against their rival Ravens. The matchup to watch here is Chris Johnson vs. the Pittsburgh run defense. Do you remember where you just automatically sat any running back on your fantasy team when they played the Steelers? It wasn’t so long ago, but things have changed. The Steelers have given up 478 rushing yards in four games, good for 22nd in the league, but their pass defense is ranked first. The Titans have gotten to 3-1 behind a good defense and by making teams pay for over committing to stop CJ2k. Matt Hasselbeck has thrown for 8 touchdowns and three picks while completely two thirds of his passes and posting a quarterback rating of 104.7. Chris Johnson finally got it going again last week with his first 100 yard game of the season, and the Steelers will struggle to contain him all day.
Chiefs @ Colts -2.5
Three road dogs in a row, just call me the Road Dog Jesse James (but who’s my Mr. Ass?) The matchup here is the Chiefs secondary vs. Pierre Garcon. If you have watched the Colts with Curtis Painter at quarterback, you know he has a bit of a man crush on his French named receiver. If you look at the numbers for Painter from Monday night, you would say he had a decent game, almost 300 yards and two scores, but almost half of those yards and both touchdowns came on short passes that Garcon took to the house. The Chiefs have one elite corner in Brandon Flowers, but you would think that he would spend most of the day covering Reggie Wayne. If it’s Painter playing I like the Chiefs. If it’s Kerry Collins playing, I like the Chiefs even more.
Raiders @ Texans -6.5
The Raiders are another team that I’m not quite sure about. Their defense has been bad, especially against the run. I love the young, super-fast flock of wide receivers and their similarly gifted running backs as well. Jason Campbell is the uncertainty. The matchup here is Jason Campbell vs. the Houston Texans’ supposedly new and improved defense. I know all too well from his days with the Redskins that Jason Campbell can be the team’s hero or Achilles Heel, the goat or G.O.A.T., any given week. You love his big arm, mobility, and smile, but you hate it when the turnovers come in bunches. But when he is on, he is on, and it’s great to love him. I don’t have anything to back this up, but I just feel it. Everyone has been talking about how improved the Texans defense is when they had been holding back the team for so many years, but I still don’t quite buy it. Plus, Andre Johnson will be out for awhile and a when a Texan is Johnson-less, he isn’t quite the same, haha get it? Johnson-less, there’s a steers and queers joke in there somewhere. Alright, let’s move on. I’m going to lose this one anyway.RIP Al Davis. The NFL wouldn’t be what it is today without him.
Cardinals @ Vikings -2.5
Vikings fans were still clinging to hope last week. I mean, they had been up by big points against three good teams, Chargers, Bucs and Lions, and blew huge leads in all of those first three losses. The Chiefs were 0-3 as well and also considered to be one of the worst teams so far, but they kind of manhandled the Vikings. The matchup here to watch is Larry Fitzgerald vs. the Vikings’ corners. Antoine Winfield is doubtful, and probably will not play in this game. I always thought he was a bit overrated and didn’t really deserve his borderline elite reputation, but he has done work this year. In the first three weeks, he shut down Mike Williams of Tampa and Vincent Jackson and slowed down Calvin Johnson most of that game, excepting two short TDs. If he doesn’t go, someone is going to have to step up, or Larry is going to be running free in their secondary all day.
Saints @ Panthers +5.5
There have been two different Saints defenses so far. In two games, against the Bears and Jaguars, they played great and gave up only 10 and 13 points and less than 250 passing yards in both. In the other two games, against the Packers and Texans, they gave up 75 points and almost 800 passing yards. The difference between the two defenses is that one was playing against Aaron Rodgers and Matt Schuab while the other was playing against Blaine Gabbert and Jay Cutler. The Saints blitz a lot and rely on their corners and safeties to make plays in the passing game, but good quarterbacks can exploit that. So how Cam Newton handles the Saints blitz is the key to this game. Cam has shown in all four of his first professional games that he can put points on the board, rack up obscene fantasy numbers, and make any throw, anytime he steps on the field. I think at home, Cam gets his first signature win in a big upset.
Seahawks @ Giants -9.5
This game screams GIANTS GIANTS GIANTS! to me. Tavaris Jackson on the road, against one of the best defensive lines in the league; this should be ugly. But that’s why I can’t take the Giants. This game will be ugly and I expect the Seahawks know all this too and have to play it very conservatively to have a chance. Their defense isn’t bad, around the middle of the pack in terms of total yards, but they are in the top 5 in rushing yards per attempt. The matchup to watch is Eli Manning against Seattle’s pass defense. The ‘Hawks will shut down the run, especially with Brandon Jacobs out, and for the Giants to score enough points to cover the spread they will need to come from Eli. The Seahawks’ corner back unit is a little banged up, and has been picked on a little, but they have a tandem of dynamic young safeties and I think they will make enough plays to keep this one close.
Sunday 4:05 PM EST
Buccaneers @ 49ers -1.5
Both of these teams are 3-1 and coming off big wins. The key to the Bucs’ offense is the ability to run the ball with Blount to control the game and then Freeman working off the play action from there. The matchup to watch here is Blount against the 49ers’ front seven. The 49ers are 7th in average rush yards per attempt despite playing against running backing like Adrian Peterson, Lesean McCoy, Felix Jones, and Cedric Benson in their first four games. I like the 49ers to stuff the Bucs’ running game and get enough points on the other side of the ball to win at home.
Sunday 4:15 PM EST
Chargers @ Broncos +5.5
The Denver Broncos are very susceptible to the big play. They allowed the most plays over 30 yards last year and it has continued to hurt their defense this year. They allowed four passes over 40 yards to Aaron Rodgers and crew last week, an 84 yarder against the Bengals’ Jerome “I Got That Good Shit” Simpson, and a 47 yard rush by Run DMC in the three point week one loss to the Raiders. The Chargers’ offense hasn’t had a game where they played up to their ability yet. Phillip Rivers has been pretty ordinary so far, but I expect a break out game here. The key matchup is Phillip Rivers vs. the Broncos’ secondary and it’s one I expect him to dominate.
Jets @ Patriots -9.5
If you take out the playoff win the Jets won at Gillette Stadium last year, the Patriots have beaten their rivals at home the last four times out of five with all of those wins coming by ten points or more. The key matchup to watch is the Patriots’ offensive line against the Jets’ pass rush. The Patriots offensive line has struggled with injuries and has young, inexperienced players like first round pick Nate Solder playing big roles. Rex Ryan defenses have the reputation for pressuring the quarterback, wreaking havoc, and causing turnovers, but through the first quarter they have a very average 9 sacks and are in the middle of the pack in turnover margin as well. The Patriots problems on defense are still there, but the Jets don’t have a good enough running game, or quarterback for that to matter too too much.
Sunday 8:20 EST
Packers @ Falcons +5.5
If the Falcons want to compete with the true elite of the NFL; the Packers, the Patriots, the Saints, etc. then they need to get with the times. Michael Turner is getting old and gradually becoming less effective. His 4.5 yards per carry doesn’t look too bad, but if you take out the big week one performance against the Eagles, then it drops to under three yards per carry. The matchup I will be watching is Atlanta wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones vs. Packers’ corners Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson. Atlanta does have some nice pieces that would benefit from a more pass based offense; Jacquizz Rodgers could also be well suited Turner successor in such a system. If their dynamic receivers can make enough plays, maybe the Falcons will score enough points to keep up with the Pack, but I doubt it.
Monday 8:30 PM EST
Bears @ Lions -5.5
The defensive line was supposed to be one of the strengths of the Lions, but their offense and back seven have had to bail them out repeatedly over their 4-0 first quarter. They are ranked in the top ten in total defense, but have mostly their surprisingly sterling pass defense to thank for that. They are near the bottom ten against the rush and in the middle of the pack sack-wise. Calvin Johnson, 7 interceptions by the defense and the second best turnover margin in the league has them sitting pretty four games into the season, but they need to get more out of their defensive line if they want to continue their winning streak. This week they have to shut down Matt Forte. The Bears’ offensive line is not good, but Forte has been getting it done week to week with a variety of screen passes, draws, pitches and catches in the flat. If Suh and company focus on Forte and shut him down, the Bears will be helpless to keep up with Stafford and the Lions’ offense. Look for the debut of rookie Nick Fairley to help cure what ails the Lions’ disappointing defensive line.