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Three and out: Week 8 picks

October 30, 2011 Leave a comment

Week 8 means we’re at the midway point of the NFL regular season (or near enough, considering there are actually 17 weeks), and there are plenty of teams who need to start putting a run of victories together in order to reach the post-season…

Last week’s record: 8-5
Season record: 35-20

Detroit Lions at Denver Broncos

The later game on Sky Sports this Sunday sees two sides coming into Week 8 with very different confidence levels, and that’s something we may not have said just a couple of short weeks ago. Detroit started the season 5-0 but are now in danger of seeing their season unravelling, following successive home defeats against the 49ers and the Falcons. Denver meanwhile have been boosted by the instalment of fan-favourite Tim Tebow at quarterback. Tebow led the Broncos to an unlikely victory last weekend at Miami and they now look as though they have a season left to play for.

However, the momentum that Tebow brings to Denver can only take this side so far and they will be up against it this weekend against a Lions side looking to get their season back on track. Despite his ability to change a game, Tebow has shown an inability to consistently maintain drives and his pass incompletion rate might give the Broncos little to play with on offense, especially with running back Willis McGahee injured for this game. What may go against the Lions in this game is the continued absence of star running back Jahvid best, and that will make their offense a little one-dimensional. But having the Matthew Stafford/Calvin Johnson partnership to fall back on is not a bad second prize, and expect this pair to connect early and often at Mile High to make up for the last couple of weeks when they have been less productive than earlier in the season.

Denver’s offense as a whole has been under-productive all season, with the first 55 minutes against Miami last Sunday being a complete write-off. And that might well be the rule rather than the exception. If the Lions can get a lead in this game then there will be huge pressure on Tebow to produce, which is easier said than done when Ndamukong Suh is hell-bent on smashing your lights out. It is expected that the Lions will play an extremely focused, motivated game here. Their defense will give up nothing cheap, and their talented offense will get enough scores on the board to keep a limited Broncos side well out of reach.

Neutral Zone prediction: Detroit 24 Denver 10

New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers

What a fantastic game this promises to be, and it might be a good idea to watch Red Zone on Sunday evening – rather than sit through events at Mile High in Denver – so that you don’t miss anything from what should be an action-packed encounter at Heinz Field.

Brady at Steelers

The Steelers have recovered well from their early season blowout defeat at Baltimore and currently hold a 5-2 record. For a team renowned for their defensive prowess, they have been especially productive on offense, where they have averaged over 383 yards per game, led by QB Ben Roethlisberger who is in excellent form. ‘Big Ben’ threw for three touchdowns last weekend against Arizona and threw for five against the Titans two weeks earlier. The man is on fire and will be looking forward to increasing those numbers again against an New England defense that has struggled against the pass at various stages this season. Pittsburgh are ranked third in the NFL in total defense, allowing only 279 yards per game, so there is a chance they can limit Brady et al in this one.

New England come into this game off their bye week, so they have had two full weeks to prepare for what on paper looks like one of the most difficult games on their schedule. So far this year they have won in style (Miami, San Diego) and won tough (NY Jets, Dallas), so we know they can do it all, and this is one of those games where everything will need to be clicking in order to come out with the win. It’s no surprise to see the Patriots rank No.1 in total offense, recording 474 yards per game but this game may well be decided by how well their defense plays against the pass. So far their defense is ranked dead last in the league, allowing over 423 yards per game and conceded 34 points in a week 3 defeat to Buffalo.

Last year’s game between these sides finished 39-26 in favour of New England. It was a game in which Tom Brady took the Steeler’s defense apart and was possibly their most impressive performance of the 2010 regular season. Brady also has a 6-1 record against the Steelers so the Patriots will not be lacking in confidence heading into Pittsburgh on Sunday. On the flip side, those previous results give the Steelers some level of motivation, so expect them to come flying out of the traps as they seek revenge and look to take a stranglehold in a tight AFC North playoff race. It’s a difficult game to call, and you can make cases for both sides. With the offenses on show it should be a high-scoring contest, and if the Steelers can get into an early lead, they might have enough to erase bad memories of Patriots games past.

Neutral Zone prediction: New England 28 Pittsburgh 30

Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles

A huge NFC East matchup awaits those willing to make use of the extra hour and watch this week’s Sunday night prime-time game. This is one of the bigger rivalries in the NFL with the Cowboys hoping to catch division leaders, the NY Giants, while the Eagles just want to get themselves off the bottom spot.

As their 3-3 record might suggest, the 2011 season has been a real mixed bag for the Dallas Cowboys so far. On the positive side they have been the only team to defeat the 49ers (back in week 2), but they have also suffered some bad defeats when victory was well within their grasp, namely against the Jets in week 1 and Detroit in week 4. But there have been improvements with this cowboys side since their bye week that followed that improbable defeat to the Lions. Their defense put in a massive game against the Patriots – but they came out of New England empty-handed thanks to some conservative play-calling late in the game – and last week against the Rams, they produced a balanced offensive game to cruise to a 27-point victory. Starring in that game was running back DeMarco Murray, who rushed for an amazing 253 yards. His emergence adds another string to the offensive bow, especially with QB Tony Romo being inconsistent since the start of the season, but there must be a worry that rookie Murray could be a flash in the pan. Those sort of crazy figures are unsustainable in this league, and the Eagles will be more than ready for him this week, so the atention will once agin fall on Romo.

The Eagles are coming off their bye week, and it could not have come at a better time for Andy Reid’s side. The welcome week 6 win over the Redskins halted a four-game skid, and allowed the Eagles to carry some sort of positivity into the two-week lay off, as they got a chance to catch their breath and reflect on what has been a turbulent start to the season in Philadelphia. However, there is a sense of the wind changing where this team is concerned which has repurcussions for this tight NFC East division, with the win over the Redskins meaning that the Eagles still have strong hopes of making the playoffs. They currently rank third in the NFL in total offense, averaging almost 442 yards per game, so they have the power, balance and requisite tools to make a strong run in the second half of the season, and no better place to start than a game against the Cowboys. But forget about offensive numbers, the most striking statistic going into this game is that Andy Reids record coming off a bye week with Philadelphia is 12-0. He must be doing something right, and it would be foolish to disregard that record. This could be the week where the Eagles finally take off and the Cowboys will struggle to catch them.

Neutral Zone prediction: Dallas 21 Philadelphia 28

And the rest…

Miami at NY Giants
Despite being 4-2 the Giants are unpredicatble, but the Dolphins are predicatbly awful. Giants by 10

Jacksonville at Houston
An excellent win for the Jags last Monday night, but they’re unlikely to repeat the dose against revitalised Houston. Texans by 15

Arizona at Baltimore
Things haven’t been getting much better for QB Kevin Kolb and the Cardinals, while an angry Baltimore side will be focused on victory. Ravens by 12

New Orleans at St. Louis
With Sam Bradford once aain out for the Rams this should be a no-contest, even if the Saints are unlikely to replicate last week’s haul. Saints by 10

Minnesota at Carolina
QB Christian Ponder showed promise last week for the Vikings, but Cam Newton is at a different level and will be buoyed by last week’s win. Panthers by 4

Indianapolis at Tennessee
The Colts reached rock-bottom last week against the Saints so expect a more solid defense, but the Titans have a point to prove themselves. Titans by 6

Washington at Buffalo
The Redskins will play this one very tough and force Buffalo to show something more than a passing game; it’s doubtful that the Bills can adapt. Redskins by 3

Cincinnati at Seattle
The Bengals have been something of a surprise package, whilst Seattle have been horrible in the main, but it’s been a unpredictable season. Seahawks by 7

Cleveland at San Francisco
The 49ers should have too much for a Cleveland team that have only beaten the very worst teams in the league. But it won’t be a blowout. 49ers by 6

San Diego at Kansas City
Somehow the Chiefs have dragged themselves into the AFC West race, but this game will test how legitimate their challenge really is. Chargers by 10

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Categories: Weekly Picks

Week of the Quarterback

October 26, 2011 Leave a comment

It was an eagerly anticipated weekend in the NFL thanks to a whole host of changes for various teams going into week 7, at the quarterback position…

Leading the way was the QB switch at Denver, and thanks to the Broncos having their bye in week 6, we had been waiting for this one for two weeks. And it didn’t disappoint. Tim Tebow made his first start of the season in the place of the maligned Kyle Orton, and for 56 minutes at the Miami Dolphins he looked every bit as bad (or as good) as Orton ever did. But Orton could never do what Tebow did next. With the Dolphins leading by 15-0 with only three minutes on the clock, Tebow led two touchdown drives and ran himself for a two-pointer to tie the game and bring it to overtime. A 52-yard field goal sealed the deal for the Broncos in overtime and it was the first time ever that an NFL team came back to win from 15 or more points down with under three minutes to play.

Tim Tebow

Tebow had a modest pass completion rate of 13/27 for 161 yards, but forget about QB stats where Tebow is concerned. The only thing that matters to him is winning the game, and he provided further evidence of his ability to do just that against the Dolphins. Tebow’s ability to play at quarterback in the NFL has been scrutinised to the max in his first two seasons in the league. He may look more like a tight end or a full back, and his numbers aren’t going to trouble the league’s best, but there’s no doubting the energy and spirit that he brings to a team and to a game. The intangibles he possesses and his ability to make big plays late in the game will make him a star in the NFL for quite some time. But the jury will always be out.

Having a slightly different afternoon was Kyle Boller at Oakland Raiders, playing the Chiefs. Starting in place of the injured Jason Campbell, Boller threw three interceptions and was replaced at half-time by veteran Carson Palmer, who himself was signed by the Raiders only last week. Unfortunately for Palmer and the Raiders, things didn’t get much better in the second half with Palmer following suit and throwing three interceptions of his own.  Boller finished with a QB rating of 22.3; Palmer fared worse, registering 17.3. In all, the Raiders committed eight turnovers, scored zero points and were roundly beaten 28-0 by their AFC West rivals from Kansas City. No doubt Palmer will now be installed as the starting quarterback, but the Raiders need an quick improvement in this department or else all their good work in the opening six weeks of the season will be undone.

A third well-publicised quarterback change came at Minnesota where first-round draft pick Christian Ponder was handed the starting job in place of the seemingly-finished Donovan McNabb. The main problem for Ponder going into his first starting job in the NFL was that he was playing the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. A baptism of fire, as they say. However, Ponder had a pretty decent afternoon. He connected for a 73-yard pass on the very first play of the game to set up the opening touchdown, and he looked impressive in the Vikings’ subsequent scoring drives. His numbers were far from brilliant (13/32, 219 yards, 2TD, 2INT), but Ponder’s greatest achievement on Sunday was that he kept the Vikings in the game right up until the final few plays. A six-point loss is not the type of result the rookie will have been after, but he showed enough promise and intelligence to keep the starting job at Minnesota for both the near and perhaps long-term future.

Meanwhile, across the country there were a few guys that have seen and done it all before. Two-time Super Bowl winner Ben Roethlisberger thre for 361 yards and 3 touchdowns as the Steelers overcame the Cardinals 32-20. Aaron Rodgers helped the Packers go 7-0 (in a 33-27 win over Minnesota) throwing for 335 yards, 3 touchdowns and a pass completion rate of 24/30 as the current Super Bowl champions proved that it’s possible to win at a division rival by playing well for just one quarter (the 3rd quarter in this case). But pride of place in week 7 goes to 2010 Super Bowl winner Drew Brees. Not only did he amass 325 yards with a passing rate of 31/35, but he also threw for five touchdowns as the Saints routed the Colts on a scoreline of 62-7.

Our week 7 replacement quarterbacks can only dream of numbers like that. For now.

Categories: Week 7

Three and out: Week 7 picks

October 23, 2011 Leave a comment

Each week here on The Neutral Zone we preview the top games on the NFL’s weekend slate. This week, all eyes turn to the International Series game at Wembley…

Last week’s record: 9-4
Season record: 27-15

Chicago Bears at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

This is a massive game for American football fans in the UK as the NFL brings its annual game to London, with the Tampa Bay Bucanneers ‘hosting’ the Chicago Bears. Let’s face it, it’s not the most appetising of encounters, and since the game was announced in April the organisers of the Wembley showpiece have struggled to shift tickets. The uncertainty of the lockout has perhaps dented sales somewhat, but the lack of big names on display is probably a more realistic reason for the slow uptake. With teams like the Patriots, Saints and Chargers having featured in the International Series in recent years, it’s not a surprise that this game holds less appeal, although it is marginally more attractive than last year’s game which saw the San Francisco 49ers take on the Denver Broncos.

Moving onto the football itself, and the form of these two sides just two weeks ago may have made for depressing reading for those attending this game. The Bucs had just come off a 45 point blowout loss to the 49ers, and the Bears had suffered a comfortable defeat against their division rivals in Detroit. But week 6 saw a change in fortunes for these two sides. The Bears unloaded against a poor Vikings side, winning by 29 points, but the Bucs registered the more impressive victory, overcoming the Saints on a scoreline of 20-26.

Whilst this game at Wembley is now quite nicely poised, it’s the Bucs who have been in the better form all season. Josh Freeman looks like becoming an elite QB in the NFL and his control in decisive situations has become an excellent attribute for the Tampa outfit. And the defense recovered well last week to produce four interceptions against none other than Drew Brees, so the Bucs have a little balance about them right now.

The Bears? Not so much. Sunday night’s victory came against a clueless Vikings outfit, so it’s hard to assess Chicago’s true performance in that one. Devin Hester is playing at his electrifying best and Jay Cutler has been producing decent form in his last couple of outings, but the question marks for the Bears lie with their defense. They are conceding almost 400 yards per game and this is something Freeman and the Bucs can take advantage off, despite missing running back LeGarrette Blount. Also, Chicago have struggled to get back into games when they are trailing, so if Tampa get off to a quick start it will be difficult for the Bears to claw back for victory.

Tampa Bay also has the advantage going into this game of having played in Wembley before (being beaten by the Patriots in 2009). They arrived in London as early as Monday past, to get acclimatised and prepared, while the Bears only arrived on Friday. This shows that the Bucs are doing everything in their power to give themselves the best chance to get a victory here. So, as well as having the more balanced team on the field, Tampa should be better prepared mentally also for what will be a very different occasion to what the players of these two sides are used to.

Neutral Zone Prediction: Chicago 21 Tampa Bay 27

Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings

Once Sky Sports round up all their coverage from Wembley, they’ll switch their attention (at least as far as the transmission is concerned) to Minnesota where the 1-5 Vikings host the 6-0 Packers. Over the years his has been a keenly contested, attritional divisional matchup, but whatever way you look at this game, it is bordering into mismatch territory.

Green Bay are top of the NFL – or close – in just about every offensive stat line. They have the highest points per game rate at 32.8 and the are the only team across the entire league to have an unbeaten record. Put simply, Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense have been able, for the most part, to score at will, and if this hasn’t been possible they have scored enough to win the game. The weapons Rodgers has at his disposal far outweighs anything else any other team in the NFL can boast, and the whispers of producing a perfect season are getting louder with each passing week.

Then there’s Minnesota. With just one win this season, this is a team in disarray. Last weekend saw them limp to a 29 point defeat against a mediocre Chicago Bears side, and quarterback Donovan McNabb lost his starting position in the process. First round draft rookie Christian Ponder will take over under center, but there’s a sense of him being fed to the wolves on Sunday, with many Minnesota fans complaining that the Vikings have already conceded defeat.

You feel that the only way the Vikings can come close in this game is if they get off to a solid start, gain some momentum and knock Green Bay off their rhythm. Then, in a divisional encounter, anything is possible. But they’re unlikely now to get that fast start with Ponder opening as QB. They won’t want to place the ball in his hands too often early on, and are more likely to ask running back Adrian Peterson to carry the weight on offense. The Packers will be ready and waiting. This might not be a blow out, but Green Bay are unlikely to ever be in danger.

Neutral Zone Prediction: Green Bay 28 Minnesota 10

San Diego Chargers at New York Jets

This game in New York has been spiced up by the verbal spat that has taken place this week between Jets coach Rex Ryan and San Diego coach Norv Turner. The central argument related to Super Bowl rings, so why either of these pair were getting involved is anyone’s guess, but we all know how Rex likes to stir things up before a big game.

The Jets have had the Chargers’ number in recent seasons, especially in the playoffs, so there is a lot of motivation on the San Diego side here to ensure that the Jets don’t derail their season. San Diego are coming off a bye week and are therefore unlikely to be affected too much by the travel time to the east coast, and also the timing of the game – which kicks off at 10am Pacific time. The Chargers are usually sitting at 2-3 at this stage of the season, so it’s been something of a surprise to see the amount of criticism they have received so far in 2011 despite having a 4-1 record. But the reality is they haven’t been playing well, and have relied on their defense to make the necessary stops in games that ended up being much closer than they should have been. Their game in week 5 was a case in point, and had the game went on much longer, the Tim Tebow led Broncos would have carved out a victory.

The Jets are sitting at 3-3 and sit third in the AFC East behind New England and Buffalo. With games against their aforementioned division rivals coming in consecutive weeks after next weekend’s bye, the Jets know they have reached a critical point of the season. They had an important victory over Miami on Monday night, but had the Dolphins taken their early chances then that game may have panned out very differently. Rex Ryan’s side are fifth in the NFL in passing defense (the Chargers are second) but they are 28th in rush defense, so expect San Diego to utilise the currently-impressing Ryan Matthews to try and capitalise. And if that doesn’t work they always have the passing attack led by Philip Rivers to fall back on. Mark Sanchez and the Jets can’t boast as many weapons, but expect them to try and control the game on the ground to eliminate offensive errors, and keep Rivers away from the ball.

The Chargers’ lack of big-play ability will always give teams a chance against them but the Jets are low on confidence and will struggle to take a stranglehold in the game. They look short on both sides of the ball, and San Diego has enough balance and creativity to take advantage.

Neutral Zone Prediction: NY Jets 24 San Diego 30

And the rest…

Atlanta at Detroit
The Lions are in the recovery position for the first time this season, whilst Atlanta are beginning to show signs of life. Could be tight. Falcons by 1

Denver at Miami
1-4 plays 0-5, but this one is all about Tim Tebow. The Broncos won’t get it handed to them but the Dolphins look well short. Broncos by 3

Houston at Tennessee
If the Texans want to take control of the AFC South, now is the time. But they are low on confidence. The Titans are ready to pounce. Titans by 7

Seattle at Cleveland
It’ll hardly be a classic between two teams that have struggled to score. Signs are there that Charlie Whitehurst and the Seahawks are improving. Seahawks by 6

Washington at Carolina
John Beck will get a start for the Redskins but he isn’t at the same level as Cam Newton, who needs to start winning soon. Panthers by 10

Pittsburgh at Arizona
The Cardinals had a bye last week and sitting at 1-4, they needed it. Pittsburgh have been unspectacular but are getting the job done. Steelers by 3

Kansas City at Oakland
All the talk is surrounding Carson Palmer, and he could start here. Expect a tough, low-scoring battle, and the Chiefs might just edge it. Chiefs by 3

St. Louis at Dallas
The Rams have been poor all season (0-5) and QB Sam Bradford is doubtful. It’s set up for the Cowboys to get a season-starting win. Cowboys by 12

Indianapolis at New Orleans
The Saints will be keen to make up for last week’s loss, and Indi does not have the offensive power to keep up. Saints by 10

Baltimore at Jacksonville
The Ravens are top of the defensive charts while the Jags have been horrible offensively. The defense wins out in this one. Ravens by 6

Categories: Weekly Picks

The Sublime and the Ridiculous: Week 6 in the NFL

October 19, 2011 Leave a comment

A coach complaining about a poorly executed handshake, and another coach getting his leg broken by his own tight end… there were plenty of ridiculous moments in week 6 of the NFL, and we’ll get to those after looking at what caught the eye on the actual playing field this past weekend.

From the sublime…

Just over two minutes remaining at Gillette Stadium on Sunday and the Cowboys are leading the Patriots by three points. Tom Brady has the ball in his hand at the New England 20 yard line. What do you think happens next? That’s right, Brady leads his side up the field and ends up throwing an 8 yard touchdown pass to Aaron Hernandez. Not only that, but the cold-blooded Brady only leaves 22 seconds on the clock for the Cowboys to respond (they couldn’t). This was another brilliant example of the style, control and efficiency of one of the greatest QBs the game has ever seen.

Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler can’t believe that people kick the ball to Devin Hester. Those of us unaccustomed to punting an oval shaped object on an American football field can only assume that eleven 6ft 4, 250lb men trying their level best to break you in half, can only disrupt your ability to kick the ball into the perfect spot on the field. Maybe that explains why Hester receives the ball so often in punting situations. But there is little excuse for kickers during kickoffs. On Sunday night against the Vikings, Hester returned a career-long 98 yard kickoff return for a touchdown, as the Bears cruised to a 39-10 victory. Electric stuff.

Probably only fair to give the Philadelphia Eagles credit when it’s due. After a four-game losing streak they finally got their second win of the season at Washington following a 20-13 victory over the Redskins. The Eagles went back to basics, concentrating on tackling and controlling the clock for over 38 minutes. Star of the show however was safety Kurt Coleman who claimed three interceptions, putting Redskins’ QB Rex Grossman on the fasttrack to the bench.

To the ridiculous…

Now this… this was ridiculous. Easily the most talked-about moment of the weekend’s football, and possibly the most controversial event of the season so far. No prizes for guessing, it’s the already infamous post-match dust up between 49ers’ coach Jim Harbaugh and his Lions’ counterpart Jim Schwartz, following San Francisco’s late victory at Ford Field on Sunday. AKA “handshake-gate”. If you’re reading a blog about the NFL, then you’ll know what’s being discussed here.

The handshake/backslap/aggressive run/shouting and ensuing faux melee isn’t what’s most ridiculous here, but rather the subsequent reaction to it over in the US. It’s like the whole morality of the country has been thrown into disrepute by the behaviour of these teams. Calls for bans and fines. Basically the US media has gone into overdrive on this one. Predictably so.

Let’s break this thing down. Two coaches running down the field – barely staying on their feet – followed by a few guys from the opposing teams rushing into a corner before, em… looking at each other? That’s not a fight, or a brawl. That’s nothing to warrant long-term bans or fines (and the NFL themselves appear to agree, having refused to dish out any punishments). What it is, is good comedy – especially Harbaugh’s post-match interview in which he effectively workshopped the handshake – but little else.

Most of us here in Ireland have probably seen worse at under-14 hurling games, where mass brawls break out at the mere awarding of a sideline puc. Where lumps of ash are cracked off the nearest bone. Referees have been known to be locked in the boots of cars; and when they’re lucky enough to leave the ground in one piece they’re likely to be ran off the road. What happened in Detroit is an insult. An insult even to the concept of ‘handbags’. Imagine if the 49ers players came out of the changing rooms with sticks!

It would be interesting to see the American media reaction if a proper fight broke out in the NFL. Hopefully some day we’ll get the chance to find out.

Moving on… one coach that suffered a real bad break on Sunday was the Saints’ Sean Payton. Not only did his side lose in Tampa Bay, but he also got knocked sideroads as he stood along the touchdown during the first half of the game. Doing the damage was his tight end, Jimmy Graham. Payton tore an MCL and fractured the tibia in his left leg. He has subsequently had surgery on his knee and leg and is expected to call the plays against the Colts this Sunday from the press box.

High Five: Week 6 picks

October 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Each week here on The Neutral Zone we will preview the top five games on the NFL’s weekend slate. We’ll also add our picks for all the remaining games…

Last week’s record: 7-6
Season record: 18-11

San Francisco 49ers at Detroit Lions

These teams have only one defeat between them after ten combined games in the NFL this season, and even that was an overtime defeat (when San Francisco lost to Dallas in week 2). So, another blemish will be added to the respective record of these sides on Sunday, but whose?

Detroit were a fashionable pick before the season began, but San Francisco’s form has taken most people by surprise. It’s been noted on this blog a few times in its short lifetime, that the 49ers form this season has been solid but unspectacular. Up until Sunday past that was, when they blew out Tampa Bay 48-3. That victory will allay fears that Jim Harbaugh’s well-coached side can’t win comfortably, but they still have a few critics to win over.

Calvin Johnson

No such problems for Jim Schwartz in Detroit. The Lions have fashioned some brilliant victories, the latest being a second-half comeback win against the Bears. With Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson (pictured) and Jahvid Best bang on-form, they boast one of the most balanced offenses in the league. And the defense is not bad either, with Ndamukong Suh’s considerable weight on the d-line boosted by the return (or rather entrance) of first-round draft pick Nick Fairley.

Home advantage will help the Lions in this one, and they can expose the offensive deficiencies buried in the 49ers team. Despite Detroit coming off the back of a short week, this young team is playing with so much confidence and exuberance that this week actually can’t be short enough. Expect them to prove that they are the truly form team in this encounter.

Neutral Zone prediction: San Francisco 10 Detroit 28

New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

It was a big letdown defeat for Tampa at San Francisco last weekend. They just about stumbled over the line against the Colts the previous Monday night, and seemed affected by the travelling over the course of a short week. Things don’t get much easier for them this weekend, and they will have likely lost some confidence coming back to he south east coast.

Josh Freeman is a young quarterback who has had an excellent start to the season and it will be interesting see how he recovers his offense against the Saints after only registering a single field goal on the Candlestick Park scoreboard. The defense has some recovering to do also after shifting 48 points. This is an important game for the Bucs to get back on track and to not lose further ground against their division rivals.

Drew Brees and the Saints offense are likely to smell blood. They’ve been at something approaching their 2009 best this year, averaging 31.4 points per game so far. Mark Ingram and Daren Sproles have added options to the rush attack, but its Brees who has been the leading light again. He has 1769 passing yards this season – ahead of Aaron Rodgers and second only to Tom Brady – and Sunday provides him with a great opportunity to increase those numbers. The defense has not been overly lively, but they’ve been doing enough to get victories when games have become close.

The Bucs have three wins to their name, but none of them have been convincing, and if you’re not in convincing form then it will be a long afternoon against the Saints. Sean Payton’s side will rack up the scores, and the Bucs will find it difficult to keep up.

Neutral Zone prediction: New Orleans 34 Tampa Bay 24

Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons

Sky Sports are treating us to an NFC South double-bill on Sunday showing live the games from Atlanta and Tampa Bay. It’s actually not as bad as it sounds, with four excellent quarterbacks on view: Drew Brees, Josh Freeman, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan. It should be decent day of pass-happy offensive football to add some colour to what would no doubt otherwise be another drab Sunday evening.

Rookie of the year (they may as well just give him that award now) Cam Newton lines up against Matt Ryan at the Georgia Dome and the young Panthers quarterback will be hoping to start putting a few ticks in the win column to match his fantastic statistics. It’s been a quick learning curve for the draft’s number one pick, he has thrown for over 1600 yards and five touchdowns, yet his team have suffered four losses in the first five games.

The Falcons are also having trouble in 2011. This was expected to be a big season in Atlanta following the breakout year in 2010, when they led the NFC after the regular season with a 13-3 record. But it’s been anything but, as the Falcons have laboured to a 2-3 start and are losing ground in the NFC South. Of their two wins so far, the victory over the Eagles doesn’t look as good now as it did in week 2, while the week 4 win over a poor Seattle side had just two points to spare. The Falcons are struggling on defense and seem to have lost all power on offense. They have yet to put a full game together, but it needs to happen soon if they are to contend for the post season.

The game against the Panthers, might just be the moment for Atlanta to finally get their season up and running. After conceding 25 points without reply against the Packers, the Falcons defense will be keen to get off to a good start in front of their home fans. Cam Newton is originally from Georgia and there will be huge pressure on his young shoulders in this game. The Falcons will be keen to exploit, hoping to trigger Newton’s propensity to throw picks; if so, it could be a long afternoon for Cam Newton in the unforgiving confines of the Georgia Dome.

Neutral Zone prediction: Carolina 13 Atlanta 24

Dallas Cowboys at New England Patriots

It’s been two long weeks for the Dallas Cowboys, cruelly left to stew following the improbable meltdown loss to Detroit in week 4, with their bye week. Which leaves us with a key plotline to study during this game at Foxborough: how have the Cowboys recovered?

They could probably have done without visiting New England for starters. A nice home game against one of the NFL’s weaker teams would certainly have been more preferable. If any team is going to make life difficult for anyone, it’s Bill Belichick’s outfit. They had something of a meltdown of their own in week 3 against Buffalo, but they have won their subsequent two games with considerable ease. And these should not have been easy games; going into a rampant Oakland in week 4, then facing the Jets last weekend. 62 points later, the Patriots are back on form, and Sunday showed that there might just be more to their offense than Tom Brady, with BenJarvus Green-Ellis running for 136 yards.

So we know what shape the Patriots are in, but what of the Cowboys? It’s genuinely hard to know. They’re 2-2 and could be 4-0, or even 1-3. A veritable mixed bag. But despite the awful loss to the Lions after holding a 24 point lead, the Cowboys are still in reasonable shape. The NFC East is currently wide open, so the playoffs are still a very real proposition for Jason Garrett’s side. Tony Romo has been at his inconsistent best (or worst, depending on which way you look at it), but he now has a fully fit receiving corps of Miles Austin and Dez Bryant to aim at, and this will certainly make the Cowboys more potent – especially against a Patriots defense that has struggled against the pass. For the Cowboys to win at Foxborough however, they will likely have to try and control the game on the ground – in an attempt to keep Brady off the field – but this is not an easy task against the Pats, and Romo might have to produce a couple of big plays to win this game. Couple this with a weak Cowboys’ pass rush on defense and it’s hard to see where a win will come from for Dallas here.

New England had Rex Ryan to deal with last week, and his brother Rob – defensive co-ordinator with Dallas – will try and scheme a more effective way of slowing the Patriots, but it’s nothing Tom Brady hasn’t seen before. Expect Dallas to play a solid game, but it’s the Patriots who are coming out on top.

Neutral Zone prediction: Dallas 17 New England 24

Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins

Another week, another ‘do-or-die’ clash for the Philadelphia Eagles. You know the drill by now: an awful performance in the previous week must now be followed up by a strong, solid showing on both sides of the ball for the Eagles to get their season back on track… and then the Eagles lose again. That’s how 2011 has been so far for them, but they’ll be hoping to rewrite the ending this weekend in the capital.

Five turnovers last Sunday at Buffalo helped condemn the Eagles to their fourth loss in as many games and now head coach Andy Reid is on the hot seat. So many star-names, so much talent, and yet Philadelphia still can’t get it right on the field. It’s been noted time after time, but they must cut out the silly errors, the sloppy penalties, the careless turnovers. In a heated divisional matchup against the Redskins, every ball will be at a premium, but in a strange way this offers the Eagles a good chance in this one. They will be forced to be more patient in this game, and the good news there is that they have LeSean McCoy ready to do damage on the ground.

Washington have had a steady start. Nothing major, but they’re 3-1, scoring 83 points and allowing just 63. They won’t give anything up easy so expect this to be a tight, attritional low-scoring encounter. Washington are unlikely to get out of reach on the scoreboard and perhaps a close game like this might be just the thing to bring out some long-forgotten concentration levels in the Eagles.

Philadelphia are defintely under pressure here – fighting for their divisional lives – but they won’t be scared by anything the Redskins have to offer. With Rex Grossman under center, Washington have very little big-play potential, whereas the latent talent on the Philadelphia offense might have one big moment in them that makes the difference.

Neutral Zone prediction: Philadelphia 20 Washington 14

And the rest…

St. Louis at Green Bay
The Rams are coming off a bye week and may keep this one closer than people expect, but Packers will do enough. Green Bay by 7

Buffalo at NY Giants
A shootout is expected in Meadowlands, but the unpredictability of Eli Manning will favour the Bills. Buffalo by 4

Indianapolis at Cincinnati
This one might be anything but a shootout. Bengals QB Andy Dalton has been solid so far and that might be enough. Cincinnati by 3

Jacksonville at Pittsburgh
Should be a comfortable win for Big Ben and the Steelers. The Jags won on week 1 but have been very ugly since. Pittsburgh by 14

Cleveland at Oakland
The Raiders will struggle to replicate the emotion from last weekend and the Browns are coming off a bye week. Upset alert. Cleveland by 3

Houston at Baltimore
The Ravens are also coming off a bye and looked very good defensively last time out against the Jets. Texans lacking confidence. Baltimore by 9

Minnesota at Chicago
Both teams have struggled all season for the most part, but the Vikings have struggled more. Bears defense to stop Adrian Peterson. Chicago by 4

Miami at NY Jets
The Jets have a lot of improving to do, as do Miami. If Sanchez can get going on offense the Jets will put up enough points to win. NY Jets by 7

Categories: High Five, Weekly Picks

The Sublime and the Ridiculous: Week 5 in the NFL

October 12, 2011 Leave a comment

There was plenty more fun and frolics in week 5 of the NFL. The Neutral Zone breaks down some of the more memorable moments…

From the sublime…

The Detroit Lions have not been 5-0 since 1956. Until now. A 24-13 victory against the Chicago Bears in front of the Monday Night Football cameras cements their unbeaten start to the 2011 season. It was a slow start to the game and Detroit trailed 10-7 at half-time, but 17 second-half points propelled the Lions to victory. Jahvid Best ran for 163 yards, averaging 13.6 yards per carry. Calvin Johnson received five balls and still made 130 yards. When these guys have the ball they’re hard to stop. It’s been a sublime start to the season for Detroit and the way they are currently playing, it might just continue for a while.

It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a touchdown like the one at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday that helped the Kansas City Chiefs to a four-point victory over the Colts. It defied gravity, and for the most part defied belief. Take a bow, Dwayne Bowe. His touchdown catch in the endzone was something to behold. One moment he was falling over, the following moment he was in the air, then next he was doing a star-jump/cartwheel on one foot. And all the while he was catching the ball with one hand. Part poetic, part balletic, it was mainly very dramatic. Thank God for NFL’s Red Zone coverage, and thank God for Sky Sports having the good sense to allow us to access it.

Who’s going to stop the Packers? 14 points down in Atlanta and stay still find a way to conjure up a victory. And a comfortable one at that. They can win ugly, they can win pretty… but they just win. And Aaron Rodgers finished just four yards shy of 400. St. Louis and Minnesota are next up for Mike McCarthy’s men – two teams with only one win between them. The trip to San Diego in November might tell us a little more.

To the ridiculous…

Last week it was Jeremy Maclin who was stripped of the ball as the Eagles threw a big lead away en route to defeat against the 49ers. This week Jason Avant outdid Maclin, fumbling twice in the second-half to help the Bills to victory in Buffalo. But the most ridiculous moment of this game came right at the very end. Facing a Buffalo 4th and 1, with barely 40 seconds on the clock and zero timeouts remaining, Philadelphia knew that the Bills offense would try and draw the Eagles offense offside. Time then to stand firm and let Buffalo kick, right? Right?! Not if you’re Juqua Parker, the Eagles’ defensive end, who thought it would be a good idea to get a run on Buffalo and subsequently jumped before the snap. Yellow flag. Game over. As if five turnovers wasn’t bad enough, these crazy, stupid msitakes are killing this Philadelphia team. That moment of madness from Parker smacks of a team that is just not adequately prepared to win football games.

Tom Brady has never thrown an interception in the red zone at home. Now that is truly a ridiculous statistic. Or at least it was. No, really… that was a true story up until Sunday. In the final play of the first half at Foxboro against the New York Jets, the Patriots were in the red zone, and looking like they would increase their lead with a field goal at the very least. But Tom Brady obviously wanted a go at a touchdown first, and his arrowed delivery reached the hands of Rob Gronkowski in the endzone. However, the tight-end could not hold on, and Jets corner-back Antonio Cromartie gratefully accepted the ball with open arms. This was just a great Tom Brady statistic, but now it’s gone. And it wasn’t even his fault.

Guess how many false starts the Chicago Bears committed in Monday night’s loss to the Lions? Nine. Yes nine! With six of these coming in the first half. Anyone who stayed up to watch the game on ESPN will most likely have been seeing yellow flags in their sleep. The Bears are struggling to get anything going on offense. Jay Cutler had one of his better games, throwing for 249 yards, yet they could only amass 13 points. Giving up over 100 penalty yards doesn’t help. A home tie against the Vikings this weekend should see them back up to .500, but Adrian Peterson lies in wait for a defense struggling to stop the run.

Another place in the ‘ridiculous’ column this week for the Giants’s Victor Cruz. Last week he drew our attention for crazily giving up the football against the Cardinals. This week he’s back in again, for a simply ridiculous salsa dance following a very nice touchdown against the Seahawks. Seriously, what does this guy be thinking? It actually wasn’t too bad, but he’s got a bit to go yet if he wants to fill Hines Ward’s tap shoes.

Into the West

October 11, 2011 Leave a comment

It was a day for teams in the NFL’s western divisions to stand up and be counted. The Rams were on a bye week, and the Cardinals stumbled to a predictable loss to the previously winless Vikings, but apart from that, it was day to savour for the teams out West. Even the Broncos – who actually got beaten – probably felt like they won.

The Oakland Raiders produced the most emotional victory of the day, if not the season. Playing just one day after the announcement of the death of Al Davis, Hue Jackson and his Raiders ground one out for their legendary owner. No-one represented what the Raiders stood for than Al Davis, and on Sunday his team paid him back. Facing a late onslaught from the Texans in Houston, Oakland looked like giving up their five-point lead on the final play of the game. Matt Schaub and the Texans were first and goal. Schaub had space but elected to throw towards the endzone. Michael Huff read it all the way to pluck the ball for an interception and seal victory for the Raiders. Hue Jackson said in a tearful post-match speech that Al himself had his hands all over that ball. Whether that was the case or not we’ll never know, but what is for certain is that this Oakland side is going places. A blip on the radar last week against the Patriots, they had to fight to get the win in Houston. Fight they did, and they’ll fight all season. Oakland are well in the mix for the AFC West top spot, and Mr Davis would love nothing more than to watch his Raiders stir things up in the post-season.

Speaking of the AFC West, it was a thrilling finish to the divisional match-up at Mile High, where the Chargers held on literally by their fingertips against the Broncos to also secure a five-point victory. But there is only one story coming out of Denver as week 5 enters the books: Tim Tebow. The man has been headline news since he entered the NFL in 2010, whether he’s been playing or not. And mostly he’s been in the news when he’s not playing. And mostly… he hasn’t played. But with Denver facing a seemingly insurmountable 23-10 half-time deficit against San Diego on Sunday, and Kyle Orton posting a QB rating of no less than 21.0, John Fox did just about all he could have done to try and salvage the game, and the season. He brought on Tebow. The general consensus following the game was that Tebow’s numbers weren’t great. But forget about the stats, the difference the former Heisman winner brought to proceedings was palpable. He electrified the crowd, running for a touchdown and throwing for another as the Broncos look liked clinching a thrilling victory. They fell short in the end as a last second ‘Hail Mary’ fell inches short in the Chargers’ endzone. But what a difference. Denver are on a bye next week. That’s two whole weeks without sleep for coach John Fox, as he works out a way to tell Tebow, Orton and the hiving media that he was wrong all along.

The Kansas City Chiefs rounded off a decent day for the AFC West. They came from behind to defeat the still winless Indianapolis Colts 28-24. A gutsy win for the Chiefs who capitalised on Curtis Painter’s inexperience and inability to close the game out after a good first half showing. Like the rest of the AFC West, the Chiefs did not win easily. And certainly none of them won pretty. But these latest wins will feel good… even for the Broncos.

In the NFC West, Seattle defied the odds and made the most of three Eli Manning turnovers to beat the Giants in New York, 36-25. Pete Carroll’s outfit have struggled to score all season, so the fact they put 36 points on the board was nearly as big a surprise as the win itself. 20 points in the 4th quarter, really? The Seahawks only amassed a total of 30 points combined in their first three games. The Giants meanwhile are a .500 team waiting to happen. They struggle to put any sort of consistency together as evidenced in their last three games. It’s been a total mixed bag, the good, the bad and the ugly. Yesterday became very ugly indeed and the Seahawks capitalised to move to 2-3. Carroll will be content with that.

49ers blow out Bucs
It’s Jim Harbaugh however who will be harbouring the biggest smile of all the Western divisions’ coaches following week 5. His San Francisco 49ers are now sitting at 4-1 following a 48-3 blowout over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Before Sunday they had moved to 3-1 by scraping by; limiting mistakes, keeping themselves in games and getting on the right side of results. In other words, unspectacular. It was a different story against the Bucs. Alex Smith threw for three touchdowns and Frank Gore ran for 125 yards as San Francisco totalled 418 yards on offense. Tampa looked tired after their short week on the road, but the 49ers defense was solid also with Bucs’ QB Josh Freeman struggling to move the ball effectively and running back LeGarrette Blount reduced to just 34 yards. This is a balanced 49ers team, and they will only grow in confidence. Whether or not Alex Smith is a sustainable option at quarterback remains to be seen, but in the meantime it looks like San Francisco will have the NFC West wrapped up in a matter of weeks.

Categories: Week 5