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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

Categories: Weekly Picks

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

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

And the rest: Week 4 picks

October 1, 2011 Leave a comment

There are another 11 games on the week 4 slate to try and predict. Some easier to call than others, but it’s been an unpredictable season so far…

Picks:

Carolina 14
Chicago 21
Cam Newton might have met his match in this one. Jay Cutler to do enough to get the Bears the win.

Minnesota 30
Kansas City 21
The Chiefs showed some fight in San Diego last week, but the Vikings have to get a win at some stage. No better place.

Buffalo 17
Cincinnati 10
The Bills are the current darlings of the NFL, but must be vigilant after their great work against the Patriots. Will do enough.

Tennessee 26
Cleveland 13
The Browns have two wins against two poor teams. The Titans are a step up in class.

Washington 17
St. Louis 21
A returning Steven Jackson might take the Rams out of their slumber against a lacklustre Redskins side.

New Orleans 34
Jacksonville 6
Things won’t get any easier for Blaine Gabbert this week. The Saints to win by as much as they want.

Atlanta 27
Seattle 13
Tarvaris Jackson helped take Seattle to win last week at home. He still got booed. Falcons to get back on track against toothless Seahawks.

NY Giants 31
Arizona 28
Could be a high-scoring game in Phoenix. Despite beating the Eagles, the Giants look no more than a .500 team. But Arizona are worse.

Denver 10
Green Bay 28
It’s hard to see how the Broncos can make any inroads against the talent and composure of the champion Packers. They’ve been near faultless so far.

Miami 20
San Diego 28
Another slow start for the Chargers. Turnovers, and their inability to make big plays on defence keeps weaker opponents in games. Will struggle through.

Indianapolis 7
Tampa Bay 24
Another prime-time appearance for the Colts. The schedulers probably wish they could change that now. Josh Freeman to cruise the Bucs home.

Categories: Weekly Picks Tags:

High Five: Week 4 picks

September 30, 2011 Leave a comment

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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