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

And the rest: Week 5 picks

October 8, 2011 Leave a comment

This is the first of the bye weeks in the NFL regular season, with six teams getting the weekend off, but there’s still eight games to try and sort out…

Last week’s overall picks record: 11-5
Season so far: 11-5

Picks:

Oakland 20
Houston 30

The Texans will be able to open up a little more this week, and beat the Raiders in the air and on the ground.

Arizona 17
Minnesota 21

The elusive first victory for the Vikings must surely be just around the corner. Cardinals are also lacking confidence.

Tennessee 14
Pittsburgh 24

The Titans have quietly gone about their business, but the Steelers are determined to get back on winning track.

Kansas City 20
Indianapolis 24

The Colts almost did enough to secure victory against the Bucs. Necessary improvement shown; enough to beat the Chiefs.

Cincinnati 16
Jacksonville 9

Two mediocre teams, two rookie QBs, anything could happen here. Expect Dalton and the Bengals to do enough.

Seattle 6
New York Giants 30

The Seahawks can’t score, while Eli Manning is in excellent form. Only one outcome at Meadowlands.

New Orleans 31
Carolina 24
Should be a great battle of quarterbacks in this one. Drew Brees’ experience to be enough against Cam Newton.

Chicago 28
Detroit 24

Monday night football in Detroit. Raucous crowd. No better time for the Bears to grind the Lions to a halt.

Categories: Picks

High Five: Week 5 picks

October 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Another fascinating week of NFL action lies in wait, and the Neutral Zone sets about previewing five of the biggest games down for decision, starting with Philadelphia’s important trip to Buffalo.

Last week’s ‘High Five’ record: 3-2

Philadelphia Eagles at Buffalo Bills

A game to really look forward to here, so let’s take a quick recap on the respective records. 1-3 and 3-1. That seems about right. But wait, it’s the wrong way around. Yes, it’s true that at the start of the season, few would have considered this ordinary-looking week 5 clash to contain so much importance for the Philadelphia Eagles, but this might just be a season-defining game for Andy Reid’s men. A seemingly impossible meltdown last week against the 49ers underlined the problems the Eagles have had on defense, despite their pre-season spending. Add three turnovers on offense and their fate was sealed, as another careless game ended in defeat. But there were glimmers of hope. Mike Vick looked like something approaching his best, and the Eagles put up over 500 yards on offense. Cut out the mindless errors, and they’ll be in the playoff mix.

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The Buffalo Bills can already lay claims to being in the playoff mix. But they’ll have been disappointed by a letdown 3-point defeat last week to the Bengals. 14 points ahead at half-time, this was a game Buffalo should have won. They just couldn’t achieve the same offensive production that had lit up their win over the Patriots the previous week, and there is a feeling that Buffalo’s form is beginning to tail off. And if the offense isn’t producing then the Bills are in trouble. They’ve shipped an average of 29.7 points over their last three games. Vick, LeSean McCoy and co. might just be hurting enough -and desperate enough – to make hay.

The season hangs in the balance for this Philadelphia team, but let’s stick to the basics here… they’re a better football team than the Bills, and this week they will actually show it on the playing field. To paraphrase Michael Vick: the ‘dream team’ thing is over. It’s time to get real.

Neutral Zone prediction: Philadelphia 34 Buffalo 17

New York Jets at New England Patriots

For those of us who watch the NFL in Ireland and the UK, we’re getting spoilt this weekend with a great double-header on Sky Sports. After we watch Michael Vick’s Eagles at Buffalo, one of the NFL’s best modern day rivalries hits our screens as Tom Brady and the Patriots try and exact revenge on the New York Jets for last season’s divisional play-off defeat. The bookmakers reckon that there’s only one winner in this one, asking New England to cover a 9.5 point spread. It’s a reaction partly down to the numbers Tom Brady’s offense has put up this season, scoring almost 34 points per game, and partly down to the way the Patriots bounced back from the loss at Buffalo to win emphatically at Oakland. Add in the revenge motivation factor, and you can see where the layers are coming from.

And that’s without even mentioning the Jets. They’re in a terrible state of chassis altogether. Reduced to a comedic performance on offense last Sunday night against Baltimore, quarterback Mark Sanchez is getting little protection from his offensive line and even less help from the rushing corps. Tricky situation. So the Jets have to go back to what they do best. Brash, loud-mouth football, mixing it up on defense and trying to knock New England off their stride. The good news for Rex Ryan’s men is that the Patriots won’t really exploit a poor Jets rushing defense, so if New York can concentrate on the likes of Wes Welker and the Patriots tight ends then they can keep the score down. Then, if they keep the ball out of Mark Sanchez’s hands and take time off the clock, they will at least gain some control of the game and keep this one tight. However, it’s hard to see them getting enough things right to carry off the victory. Where’s Shaun Ellis when you need him?

Neutral Zone prediction: New York Jets 14 New England 20

Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons

If you haven’t had enough action following the earlier Sunday games, Channel 4 offers us another enticing clash to feast on late Sunday night.

It’s hard to give the Packers enough praise for how they have come out this season and eased their way to a 4-0 record. They’ve barely put a foot wrong. And it’s not to say they’ve had an easy slate thus far. New Orleans have been taken care of; the annual trip to Soldier Field was negotiated with alarming ease. Are they peaking too early? After last year’s perfectly timed run to the Super Bowl it’s tempting to say yes. But really they’re just playing like the champs they are. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has an option at every angle, and the defense can be a play-making machine. A recipe for big victories that almost negates the relative abilities of their weekly opposition. And there’s a strange feeling that they might get even better.

Then there’s the Falcons. The team many thought could be in Green Bay’s position around about now. They suffer from that which plagues a number of teams across the league: not being able to handle the pressure. Think the Eagles and the Jets. Think teams that are in trouble even at this early stage of the season. Tampa Bay and New Orleans are leading the way in the NFC South and they’ll be tough to shift. Atlanta need to get moving. Soon. A win over the Packers would be a perfect tonic, but it’s difficult to see it happen. Like New England this weekend, Atlanta are desperate for revenge, but it can only happen if they provide a better balance on offense and keep Rodgers off the field.

It seems that there’s an even wider gap between the performance levels of these teams right now than there was during Green Bay’s 48-21 play-off victory last January. So it follows that there’s only one pick that can be made here. Although it’s unlikely that Green Bay will make such an impact again on the Georgia Dome scoreboard.

Neutral Zone prediction: Green Bay 31 Atlanta 27

San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos

Only one winner in this one. And for a few reasons. Firstly, the Chargers have been known, in recent seasons under Norv Turner, as a team who get out of the blocks so slowly they’re almost going backwards. After four games it’s safe to say that the start of the season is over, and despite not impressing at all, San Diego are 3-1. The defense has been putting up the stops to get the wins, and the much vaunted Chargers offense has yet to catch fire. But the chances are that this Bolts outfit will get better. And there’s no team they’d rather do that against than the Broncos. The Chargers have put up at least 30 points against their AFC West foes in their last three meetings, and they’ve won all three games with a combined total of 55 points.

Denver are 1-3 for the season, and are struggling to find any sort of form. A fan-made quarterback controversy isn’t helping, as Kyle Orton continues to come under fire from Broncos supporters for not being Tim Tebow. Denver coach John Fox is unlikely to succumb to calls for a change however, and it’s difficult to see his team playing with enough confidence to put wins on the board. Orton is 6-20 in his last 26 games, and the defense has shown little either, conceding a total of 111 points in four games. It could be another long afternoon for Fox, Orton et al at Mile High. On the flip side, it might just be the catalyst for San Diego to get their offense up and running, and gain a stranglehold in the division.

Neutral Zone prediction: San Diego 30 Denver 14

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at San Francisco 49ers

A battle of two 3-1 teams in this game, so something is going to have to give at Candlestick Park. The bookmakers have installed the 49ers as 2.5 point favourites, but this is down to home field advantage and little else. Also playing into San Francisco’s favour is the fact that Tampa are coming off a short week following their Monday night exploits against the Colts, and now have to travel the full breadth of the country to play in this one. It might be a factor.

Both teams have went about their task and achieved a winning record thus far in a very quiet and unassuming manner. Despite an excellent comeback win over the Eagles, the 49ers do not appear to be getting any credit for their performances this season. Yet, barring an overtime defeat to the Dallas Cowboys, they’d be sitting at 4-0; so Jim Harbaugh and his coaching staff must be doing something right. The stats don’t really give any answers. They’re pretty unspectacular. Quarterback Alex Smith has thrown for 795 yards and just four touchdowns. The defense has six interceptions. But what this San Francisco team does well is keep themselves in games. They have made very few mistakes and kept a fair share of possession time. The Bucs will not get too far ahead of them in Sunday’s game either.

Tampa Bay have been generally the more impressive of the two teams, though each of their wins have been tight contests also. On Monday night, LeGarrette Blount’s late fourth quarter touchdown saw them take the lead for the first time in the game. It all points to another close matchup this weekend. And when the sides are level going into the final quarter, which QB would you rather have on your side? Josh Freeman or Alex Smith. Freeman would be the easy choice. He has displayed a coolness and calm under pressure, and his ability to eek out first downs with his feet can make a massive difference at the business end of games. Expect Freeman and the Bucs, aided by the impressive form of running back Blount, to produce the goods late against the 49ers, and stretch their record to 4-1.

Neutral Zone prediction: Tampa Bay 17 San Francisco 14

Categories: High Five, Picks

The Sublime and the Ridiculous: Week 4 in the NFL

October 6, 2011 Leave a comment

The games at Dallas and Philadelphia on Sunday past both flitted seamlessly between the sublime and the ridiculous, but there was plenty else to catch the eye as the NFL regular season hit the quarter-way point.

From the sublime…

It was another exemplary performance from Aaron Rodgers and the packers on Sunday. This time the Denver Broncos bore the brunt. Rodgers threw for four touchdowns and rushed for another two to help Green Bay to another facile 49-23 victory. I mentioned last week that these Packers have been near faultless so far, and Sunday was another example of how difficult they will be to stop this season. There are some question marks hanging over their defense, with 97 points conceded in four games, but the offense is absolutely purring, and at the minute they are quite rightly the clear favourites to win the Lombardi trophy in back to back seasons.

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Last week the Chicago Bears were castigated for only producing 13 (thirteen) rushing yards in a 10 point loss to Green Bay. It was a game that had remained reasonably close throughout, but the Bears appeared to shoot themselves in the foot. Fast forward seven days and Chicago put up a 34-29 win over the Panthers with running back Matt Forte racking up 205 yards, a career high. That is some production. But hey, Lovie Smith… what took ya so long?! Probably the happiest man on Soldier Field was Jay Cutler. He only got sacked once. Bet there weren’t as many painkillers required for him on Monday morning past. Cutler will have a better chance to be more productive for Chicago if the Bears can get their running game together, and Sunday was a good start. Okay, it was only the Panthers, but the Bears are still hanging around. Oh, and it helps when you have Devin Hester returning punts!

The Patriots are still hanging around also. Apparently last week’s defeat to the Bills didn’t finish their season after all. 4 interceptions last week in Buffalo, zero this week in Oakland. That’s how Tom Brady’s offense responds to defeat. They right the wrongs and win without their opponents even sniffing victory. It may have been less spectacular than some of New England’s recent wins, with Brady throwing for just (!) 226 yards, but this was an excellent team performance from the Patriots. They were blemish free. One man that caught the eye, and almost everything else was Wes Welker. Still Brady’s go-to man, Welker had 158 receiving yards, and looks as good as ever. At least 30 points for 12 consecutive games, the Patriots are going nowhere for a while yet.

To the ridiculous…

The ‘Victor Cruz thing’ in the Giants victory at Arizona still isn’t making any sense. It’s difficult to understand what the umpires were thinking of when they ruled that Cruz had given himself up and was therefore down. This was an instrumental play in the game and it ultimately decided it’s outcome, but that should be immaterial. No matter what point in the game the play came, the umpires just have to see that Cruz tripped, stumbled and fell and promptly disregarded the football without having been touched. It’s even more difficult to rationalise what Cruz was at. A horribly careless play from the wide receiver, and the very least it deserved was to cost the Giants the game. The only thing I can think of was that Cruz thought he was playing in a college game. He might not get so lucky the next time.

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Baltimore’s win at home to the Jets was a sight for sore eyes. And tired eyes, if you stayed up to watch the outcome of this one on Channel 4. Or maybe you found it funny. It was slapstick quarterback play at it’s best. Or worst. With Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez resembling Laurel and Hardy in an error-strewn game for both. They had a grand total of zero touchdowns between them. Flacco was 10-31 and threw 2 interceptions, while Sanchez was reduced to a stumbling mess. He was 11-35, but it was his three turnovers – each returned for touchdowns by the Ravens – that really cost the Jets in this one. According to Jets coach Rex Ryan, Sanchez “struggled mightily”. So did the Jets… and it’s the Patriots up next.

Tampa Bay running back LeGarrette Blount will be happy to learn that he’s made it into this particular part of the column for all the right reasons. In fact he should probably be in both the sublime and ridiculous sections, for his performance against the Colts during the Bucs 24-17 victory on Monday night. Blount ran for 127 yards and a touchdown as Tampa eventually ground down a spirited Indianapolis challenge. He was the match winner in a game that never truly settled, and the Colts just could not stop him. The ridiculous part: there was a play at the end of the game when Blount ran for about ten yards after contact, with no less than 4 Colts hanging off his legs. This man just won’t go down, and he may prove to be the perfect foil for the ever-impressive Josh Freeman.

Comeback Kids

October 4, 2011 Leave a comment

Another sensational Sunday in the NFL. The Detroit Lions went into Dallas, trailed at half-time by 24 points, yet finished the game as three point victors.

Philadelphia Eagles looked for all the world like they would reach the dizzy heights of 2-2 as they led San Francisco by 20 points at half-time at Lincoln Field. The 49ers won the game. That’s right… the tame, toothless, lacklustre 49ers. Beating the ‘Dream Team’ from 23-3 down.

This Eagles collapse was much worse than that of the Cowboys. The most hyped, expensively-assembled defence in the history of the game falling to Alex Smith and Frank Gore? Few saw that coming in the third quarter of this one. We’ve spent the best part of the last two weeks listening to news on the health of Michael Vick. The former Atlanta quarterback passed for 416 yards and rushed for a further 76. The game looked home and hosed. Philly still couldn’t get it done.

It’s easy to say that this Philadelphia side have too many individual talents and don’t work well enough as a unit. That may be true, but the problems here are actually more fundamental than that. The offensive line is like a sieve, and the defence have succumbed to the run with horrible ease. When the going gets tough in the final part of games it is these areas that become exposed, and it doesn’t matter how many quarterbacks you have, or multi-million corner backs. The team needs to knuckle down and do the basics. It just isn’t happening.

The pressure now turns on one man, Andy Reid. Thoughts of Super Bowls can be put in the back seat for now, as the playoffs – while still a real possibility – become a target moving off into the distance. If the Eagles don’t reach the post-season Andy Reid is gone. He could be gone even if they do. And someone else will be left to instil some steel into this group of players who have yet to prove themselves as true winners in the NFL.

Philadelphia go to Buffalo this weekend. Huge game. And a great opportunity for them to get back on track. 2-3 and the post-season is back on. 1-4 and you’d imagine it’s lights out, especially the way the NFC East is shaping.

Fantastic comeback win for Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers by the way. They smelt blood and finished the job. But unfortunately they don’t get any credit after days like that.

And with all the hype Dallas receives, neither have the Detroit Lions. A gutsy, aggressive win. An opportunistic team who take their chances and refuse to lie down. This was supposedly the game that would tell us If Jim Schwartz’s charges were for real. Of course you can’t be sure about them after only four games. But that was some serious character they showed in Arlington, pulling out a 34-30 win

Calvin Johnson produced a masterclass of wide receiving skills. He has now scored two touchdowns in all four games this season. Quarterback Matthew Stafford just has to hang the ball in the air, and chances are ‘Megatron’ will come down with the catch. That is turning into an electric partnership. The Lions now play Chicago, San Francisco and Atlanta in the next three weeks. All winnable games, but with each impressive victory the pressure mounts. Can they thrive? Or will they crumble under the heat like Philadelphia have so far?

Either way, we’re about to find out a lot more about these Lions.

So what of the Cowboys? Another devastating loss, made all the worse by putting in such a fantastic first-half performance. Broken rib or no, Tony Romo looked like pro-bowler we all know he is, finishing the game with 34-47, 331yds, 3 TDs. But there was room for another ‘3’ in his stats… under the INT column. Big, dramatic plays that took all the momentum from Dallas and Detroit lapped it up.

At 2-2, the Cowboys are still in decent shape. The Eagles are struggling and Washington have yet to really convince. The NFC East is still a viable target for Jason Garrett’s men. They have showed glimpses of exceptional play thus far, but it isn’t much use when careless mistakes prevail. Tighten up and they’ll be in the post-season.

Continuing on the comeback theme, Sunday also saw a late victory for the New York Giants in Arizona, albeit ably assisted by one of the strangest umpire decisions you’ll ever see. The Giants trailed 27-17 with just over five minutes left on the clock, but Eli Manning entered the fray to show unerring calm, throwing for two touchdowns within the space of a minute to secure victory. The aforementioned umpire decision happened on the second of these touchdown drives when Arizona thought they had recovered a Victor Cruz fumble after Cruz appeared to leave the ball behind him. The umpires ruled that Cruz gave himself up on the play and was therefore down. Cue Arizona fury. But it’s a New York victory in the books.

Mention also to the Cincinnati Bengals who came from 14 points down to defeat the previously undefeated Buffalo Bills. Mike Nugent kicked the winning field goal with only seconds remaining to secure a 23-20 victory. Just seven day earlier Buffalo had came from 21 points behind to defeat New England. What a difference a week makes.

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