Home > Weekly Picks > High Five: Week 4 picks

High Five: Week 4 picks

Every week here on the Neutral Zone we will look at five of the biggest games on the NFL slate. This week we start with the unbeaten Detroit Lions’ clash against a banged-up Dallas Cowboys side at Cowboys Stadium.

Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys:

Imagine for a second that Tony Romo doesn’t make that fourth quarter fumble against the Jets in week 1, or make the late interception. The Cowboys win that game and they’d currently be sitting at 3-0. That’s how close Jason Garrett and this Dallas team are to clocking a perfect start in 2011. But it might just have been the most deceiving 3-0 of the current season.

As it stands however, they’re only 2-1 and darned lucky to be. There’s little to suggest a marked improvement from last season’s form despite the winning record. An overtime come back win against the 49ers in week 2 was followed by a touchdown-less 2-point win over a toothless Washington Redskins side last Monday. Put simply, forget the win column, the Cowboys are struggling.

This week they welcome the unbeaten Detroit Lions to Cowboys Stadium. It’s a game that promises to tell us plenty about both sides. The Lions showed enough grit in coming back from a 20 point half-time deficit to win at Minnesota in week 3 and quarterback Matthew Stafford is playing with plenty of confidence (9 TDs, 2 INTs). Compare this to a banged-up Tony Romo (4 TDs, 2 INTS, 1 broken rib) and a patched up Cowboys offence (Miles Austin out, Dez Bryant doubtful) and you get some clue as to how this game might pan out.

I expect the Cowboys to try and control the game on the ground but top rusher Felix Jones is playing with a dislocated shoulder and can only carry so much burden. A frustrated Tony Romo will play into Detroit’s hands and the electric partnership of Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson will take care of the rest. The Lions may not yet be legitimate Conference contenders, but they have enough youthful exuberance to get the win on Sunday and take a step closer to the playoffs.

Neutral Zone prediction: Detroit 20 Dallas 10

New England Patriots at Oakland Raiders:

You know there’s problems in New England when Tom Brady gets his hair cut. I’m not sure what the initial timeframe, or indeed endgame, was for his flowing locks, but they’re gone now, and you’d have to presume that removing them was some sort of knee-jerk reaction to his four interceptions last Sunday in Buffalo. Not that all those picks could be attributed to last year’s MVP, but he’s taking no chances by the looks of it and is sporting a shorter style for this weekend’s trip to Oakland.

I jest of course, but there are people out there who seriously wish to know the meaning behind this haircut. Bill Belichick has never been a man for hairstyles but he will be hoping for a reversal in performance this weekend after his side allowed a 21-0 lead slip against the Bills. And he might just get it; despite facing a Raiders team brimming with confidence following a morale-boosting win over the Jets. The problem for Hue Jackson and the Raiders is that their key offensive talent comes on the ground. Darren McFadden had a career-game last weekend (and leads in the NFL with 393 rushing yards) and Oakland need him to strike in order to get scores on the board. The Patriot’s defensive weakness however comes in the air and the Raiders don’t quite have the aerial threat to expose it.

Last week was a big wake-up call in New England. They can’t just cruise through the schedule by racking up high totals and they will be keen this week to keep it tight and get back on track. The bookmakers are undervaluing the Patriots here after last week, laying a four-point handicap on them. Given what this New England offence is capable of, that looks generous, and I expect them to cover and more. After the first three weeks it’s easy to think that this might be another shootout, but the Raiders are in a letdown spot here and I fully expect Belichick’s defence to limit their scoring. At the other end, Brady will do what Brady does best: put up the yards and throw the TDs. Don’t expect any careless picks in the Black Hole.

Neutral Zone prediction: New England 30 Oakland 13

San Francisco 49ers at Philadelphia Eagles:

Last week – albeit with rivalry and revenge motivations – the New York Giants provided the template for how to beat this Philadelphia Eagles side at Lincoln Field. You would think such a template would be heavily based on a ‘ground-and-pound’ style: controlling the ball and controlling the clock. But the Giants only had the ball for 23 minutes, with Eli Manning throwing for four touchdowns and rushing at the right times. They concentrated on getting the defence right – getting in Michael Vick’s face and then Mike Kafka’s, forcing three turnovers in the process. Basically, they exploited the Eagles’ weak offensive line and then took their chances.

The 49ers are an overtime defeat to the Dallas Cowboys away from being unbeaten this season, so can they repeat the Giants’ formula? Unlikely. The San Francisco defence has performed reasonably well so far this season. They have conceded 52 points and forced eight turnovers, but their two wins have come against limited opposition in the Seahawks and the Bengals. When the pressure came on against the Cowboys they gave up the big plays. Jim Harbaugh will make strides in San Francisco, but there’s still something about the 49ers that just doesn’t convince. As an offensive unit they lack conviction – in the air and on the ground – as evidenced in Cincinnati, and they will rely on their defence to win them games.

So can the defence help them win this one? Not quite. A half-fit Michael Vick might actually be a blessing in disguise for Philadelphia in this one. It means that some of the burden will be taken off their star QB and the in-form LeSean McCoy will take more carries. This will limit the amount of turnovers committed by the Eagles and McCoy is nearly capable of winning this game by himself. Philadelphia know they’re siiting on a sticky wicket and can’t afford to go 1-3. They will take care of the ball and ensure a limited 49ers offence doesn’t get a sniff.

Neutral Zone prediction: San Francisco 10 Philadelphia 27

Pittsburgh Steelers at Houston Texans:

2-1 apiece, but the circle of NFL life is turning up a change in fortunes for both these franchises. In the absence of any real challenge from the Indianapolis Colts the Texans are favourites to be crowned AFC South champions. They have the players and the game to back this up and they’ll give the play-offs a rattle. The Steelers on the other hand have turned a different corner. Despite featuring in last season’s Super Bowl, their position at even the play-off table is no longer guaranteed, and they have a huge struggle on their hands to reach the post-season. So this one is a foregone conclusion, right? Not so much.

Pittsburgh are 2-1 after suffering a blowout loss to Baltimore in week 1. Victories over the Colts and Seahawks didn’t exactly jump off the page, but it tells us that this Steelers side have no inclination to give up their divisional crown just yet. This is a Super Bowl calibre team after all, with options in offence and a defence that has been one of the toughest in the NFL for years. Running back Rashard Mendenhall has yet to catch fire this season, but the Steelers continue to carry a running threat and Ben Roethlisberger is sixth in the NFL for passing yards (942yds). This is a team capable of scoring and can exploit a Texans defence that struggled throughout 2010 and shipped 40 points in New Orleans last week.

So it follows that Houston’s strength lies in their dynamic offence. Quarterback Matt Schaub has thrown for over 800 yards and running back Ben Tate has rushed for over 300. With Arian Foster (last year’s NFL leader in rushing yeards) due to return for this one, it might look like Pittsburgh will have their work cut out. But Big Ben and this Steelers outfit are old dogs for the hard road. They’ve given up an average of only 85 rushing yards per game in the last ten years. That’s some statistic. Whilst they may not have the panache any longer to match their hard-line image, they will perform well intermittently throughout this season. And this will be one of those occasions. Mike Tomlin’s team enter this game as 3.5 point underdogs, but they’re not going into Texas to get ran over the top of. If they can keep this one tight early on we could have have a low-scoring game on our hands, and it’s one the Steelers might just edge.

Neutral Zone prediction: Pittsburgh 20 Houston 17

New York Jets at Baltimore Ravens:

Another battle between two 2-1 teams, and both have yet to unmask their true colours this season. Baltimore looked like quite the contenders in a week 1 pummelling of their bitter rivals Pittsburgh, but lost all momentum a week later as they lost by 13 points at Tennessee. A hefty win over the Rams last week signals a possible return to form. The New York Jets went 2-0 after wins at home to Dallas and Jacksonville, but a fractious performance in Oakland last week pointed out a few weaknesses that might prevent Rex Ryan’s side from even getting close to reaching their third successive AFC title game.

The biggest problem with the Jets is their rush defence. Oakland’s Darren McFadden ran for 121 yards and 2 touchdowns last Sunday and the Ravens are another team that can take advantage. Running back Ray Rice has rushed for 231 yards and three touchdowns in three games and he will make further hay against these Jets.

Baltimore’s defence has only conceded 40 points so far this season, and games against the Jets tend to be brash, smash-mouth affairs. However, Baltimore can get early scores on the ground here and force the Jets to put the ball in the hands of Mark Sanchez. That will not be pretty. On paper this looks like it should be a tight game. Past performances of the two sides in this fixture and the current form line suggests likewise. However Baltimore’s defence will ensure that it isn’t.

Neutral Zone prediction: New York Jets 14 Baltimore 28

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