Amidst surprising and never-to-be-seen-again jubilation that the NFL/Referee lockout is over, 32 football squads must still prepare for Week 4 of the NFL season. That preparation now involves trying to shut the barn door on dangerously aggressive play as the league hopefully pulls back from the Wild West version of the NFL.
Quote of the Week: "The game [was] going back to the 60's and the Kardashians [were] refereeing it."
- Cris Collinsworth on Showtime's Inside the NFL
Thursday Night Football
Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens. While most of us wouldn't wish a trip to the Purple Hole on our worst enemy (well, maybe our worst), fans who think that Cleveland will be clobbered are in for a surprise. Two starting Ravens defenders are in the questionable category on the injury report.* This would have inspired optimism in Browns fans, were it not for the absence of WR Mohamed Massaquoi and suspension of CB Joe Haden.
Sophomore TE Jordan Cameron may be called upon to continue his leap up both the learning curve and the depth chart as an outlet for rookie signal-caller, Brandon Weeden. Not that it will matter if the offensive line doesn't remember how to run block for would-be rushing stud Trent Richardson. Facing the Browns depleted secondary, Baltimore coaches will let QB Joe Flacco captain a vertical attack and utilize the three wideout sets that forced Cleveland to play in nickel for most of last week's loss to the Bills. After all, when you see something that works -- copy it.
Whether Baltimore will sprinkle in the more Ray Rice-centric ground game is the only true question in this game.
Prediction: Ravens by 10 points.
New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills. Buffalo's first- and second-string rushers are both questionable, but third RB Tashard Choice isn't chump change. TE Scott Chandler is nothing more than a very large football vacuum, Stevie Johnson is a premier receiver and T.J. Graham made his first NFL touchdown last week. QB Ryan Fitzpatrick threw three TD passes and the Bills achieved nine first downs in the first 16 minutes of play versus Cleveland.+ The marquee Bills defensive line has arrived. Tom Brady beware.
It's a good thing that injured Pats TE Aaron Hernandez already has a contract because it took three people to replace him Sunday. Diminutive rusher Danny Woodhead is officially the new Kevin Faulk and Wes Welker isn't being squeezed out just yet.
The New England defense gave up an average of 7.2 yards per pass attempt in the first three weeks, so The Amish Rifle just might have a good day. Nevertheless, picking Brady to lose a third consecutive game is a bad idea.
Prediction: Patriots by a Field Goal.
Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans. Jake Locker must live right, because his much-needed success against the Detroit Lions in week two involved lots of luck -- and special teams. Special teams artist Darius Reynaud had a banner day: he threw his first NFL pass, which resulted in a touchdown, and returned a kickoff for another score. Nate Washington's marvelous reach-over-the-cornerback reception was reminiscent of Jonathan Baldwin's 2011 catch and is a snapshot of why people love football.
Houston has a simply brutal defense that forced Peyton Manning into 26 incompletions. The Texans offense had a stuttering Week 1 -- and it's been steady dominance ever since. Well, except for the part where QB Matt Schaub lost part of his ear after a vicious spearing from safety Joe Mays. No flag was thrown and Schaub was allowed back in the game after one snap. But the NFL is deeply concerned about player safety.
The Titans have averaged 39 rushing yards in 2012. Just tell yourself that Chris Johnson's huge contract was for services past. The game will depend upon Locker. The Texans have only surrendered 188 passing yards and 14 points per week. Good luck, kid.
Prediction: Houston by two touchdowns.
Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions. This pick will depend upon the status of Matthew Stafford's injured leg. Backup Shaun Hill is probably the best No. 2 in the league. Still, he's not No. 9. RB Mikel Leshoure came up with almost five yards per carry and may end up being worth waiting for, but the Lions defense made Jake Locker look like Sonny Jurgensen.
The Lions lost on Sunday due to inconsistency, terrible referees and their coach's inability to tell the center that he didn't really intend for him to snap the ball on that fourth down.
The Minnesota Vikings have found themselves a quarterback. If the Minnesota Vikings return to prominence this will remembered as Christian Ponder's turning point. His new best friend is TE Kyle Rudolph, whose one-handed grab in the end zone was poetry. Adrian Peterson remains healthy and had 25 runs last week and gymnastic WR Jerome Simpson returns to the team Sunday.
The Vikes D held down San Francisco's new WRs and special teams blocked a Niners punt. LB Chad Greenway had 13 tackles and two sacks for a surprisingly strong unit that is allowing less than 310 yards and 20 points per game.
Prediction: If Mikel Leshoure has a second good game and Stafford returns, the Lions may win. However, lookout for surging Minnesota. Lions by a Field Goal.
San Diego Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs. Isn't the definition of good coaching getting the most out of your talent? Well... Chargers Pro-Bowl QB Philip Rivers and Chiefs not-quite-A-level Matt Cassel have the same passing average per attempt. That is not how those stats should look.
Kansas City's 7.8 yards per pass allowed should help Rivers pull it together. He should also have a stronger running game this week and the Chargers defense is turning in a quietly decent year.
The Chiefs best chance is RB Jamaal Charles, who is apparently recovered from his knee injury and ran for more than 200 yards in week three.
Prediction: Chargers by one.
Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons. You may not have noticed, but the Falcons are very good in 2012. Their defense completely shut down San Diego last week. Matt Ryan is marching his unit up and down the gridiron with clock-eating efficiency. Too bad that a couple of the players can't control their alcohol intake. That could be worrisome in the post season to which Atlanta is almost certainly headed. The offense has averaged 31.3 points, giving up only 16 to opponents. And that's how you win.
The Panthers are gaining almost 370 yards every week and only turning it into 17.3 points. The defense has given up almost 27. That's how you lose.
Carolina will undoubtedly rally at some point, but it's going to be difficult in the Georgia Dome.
Prediction: Falcons by nine.
Seattle Seahawks at St. Louis Rams. Don't tell the Seahawks they didn't win the game--the Emerald City is taking their 2-1 record into the Jones Dome. Neither young quarterback is lighting up the scoreboard, but the 'Hawks defense is tough. LB Chris Clemons has decided that this is the year to become a star.
The key will be whether St. Louis can run the ball effectively against a team granting less than 60 yards per game to opponents. If anyone can do this it will be Steven Jackson, if his groin injury has recovered, and rookie Daryl Richardson, who is averaging 5.7 yards per carry. They won't be aided greatly by a pieced-together offensive line.
Despite the statistical disadvantage, it's unlikely that Seattle can win its third in a row while on the road.
Prediction: Rams by two.
San Francisco 49ers at New York Jets. Poor Gang Green. Darrelle Revis will not grace the field again. Sad as that is, the real problem on the Jets D is reflected by the figure 148.7 -- the number of rushing yards given up per week. Can you see Frank Gore grinning?
And that's the ball game. One could point out that Mark Sanchez is a much better quarterback than he's given credit for being, that Santonio Holmes has regained his form, rookie Stephen Hill is working out (except for his hamstring injury) and Jeremy Kerley has run past quite a few people. Unfortunately, numerous starters are questionable.
Here's a unique coaching choice: Rex Ryan took RB Joe McKnight away from a struggling running game and put him onto a struggling secondary. Yep -- McKnight is now a DB! Can't wait to see how that works out. One might also suggest that if Tim Tebow is a surprise runner, you might want to not give it to him once or twice so that it's, you know, a surprise? You might also want to use a hurry-up offense to follow up a 66-yard bomb instead of letting the clock (and the momentum) drain away.
However, it's all about keeping the ball away from Frank Gore.
Prediction: Niners by a Field Goal.
Cincinnati Bengals at Jacksonville Jaguars. Don't ink in that "W" just yet, Bengals fans. Just when you think that the Bengals have a tough defense, they start gifting almost 420 yards per game, along with 34 points! Evidently neither team consider run defense a priority and are both allowing almost 155 rushing yards each Sunday.
The difference, of course, is that the Jaguars are all about Maurice Jones-Drew and the Bengals are all about Andy Dalton-to-WR A.J.Green. (Unless you count the TD pass from rookie WR Mohamed Sanu on the Bengals first snap.) This has resulted in an almost 11 point statistical advantage for the Cincy O.
Still, Blaine Gabbert is getting a bit better and actually won the game with a TD pass last week. Unfortunately, WR Laurent Robinson is out with a concussion. It's hard to imagine the Jaguars keeping pace with the NFL's fourth-ranked passing offense, but with those defenses who knows?
Prediction: Much as I'd like to take the home underdog -- Bengals by a field goal or more.
Oakland Raiders at Denver Broncos. After emerging from a rough three-game schedule to start the Peyton Manning era, Denver hosts a dangerous-but-not-terrifying Raiders team. While Carson Palmer is finally settling into life with the Silver and Black, their most lethal threat remains kicker Sebastian Janikowski--the Jeremy Shockey of kickers. Okay, not really. Darren McFadden is the key in all things Raiders until further notice.
Manning will have to be the winning factor -- again. The two teams match up almost identically in terms of numbers -- except that Denver has scored almost five more from similar yardage.
Denver is dealing with a couple of defensive injuries and one possible suspension to safety Joe Mays, but the worst news is that rusher Willis McGahee's ribs have him in the questionable column. Without him, it's going to be difficult for the Broncos to win. Obviously the Raiders will be without deep threat Darius Heward-Bey, who is thankfully recovering from his frightening injury.
Prediction: Denver by a Field Goal
New Orleans Saints at Green Bay Packers. Man, the Saints cannot catch a break. Now they have to play the league's most angry team on their own not-quite-frozen turf. That's a tall order for a New Orleans defense giving up (wait for it) 477 yards per week. And that isn't the most shocking statistic surrounding this game. How about the measly 19 points being put up by the Green Bay Packers? Or the 125.3 passing yards the supposedly weak Packers secondary is holding opponents to? Or even that Drew Brees has a QB rating of 77, while Aaron Rodgers' is 87? The world's gone mad.
Something's got to give in this game and it's going to be a psychological something. Either the Saints defense will wake up or the Packers offensive line will actually protect Aaron Rodgers. Those two things are mutually exclusive.
Historical Note: If Brees throws a TD pass, he will tie Johnny Unitas' record of 47 consecutive games with an aerial score.
Prediction: Underdog Saints by one. (A wise person will keep this game wager-free.)
Washington Redskins at Tampa Bay. The Redskins' injury-decimated defense is struggling: they've handed out 69 points to offenses in the past two weeks. Ouch. Tampa Bay's defense has three cornerbacks on the injury list.
Offensively, Robert Griffin III and his guys are scoring 33 points every week. RGIII is putting up decent rookie QB numbers, but the Redskins runners (all 25 of them) are managing 180.7 yards per game on the ground. And that's good since Pierre Garcon, the best Washington WR (by far), is still questionable. With union officials back, Griffin will be hit less violently, which should help.
Conversely, Josh Freeman and the Bucs WRs can't crack 150 passing yards. That won't do it in the NFL. It may not even do it against a thin Washington defense.
Prediction: Redskins by two.
Miami Dolphins at Arizona Cardinals. Reggie Bush isn't ready to admit that he might not play Sunday. On the other hand, Arizona is giving up only four yards per rush.
However, Arizona does have two defensive stars questionable while one of their main RBs is on IR and the other has a groin pull.
If Bush can't play, the Cardinals will probably win by 10. With him, Miami has a chance, but the Arizona D will be difficult for rookie QB Ryan Tannehill no matter who lines up in the backfield.
Kevin Kolb is laying a claim to the starting QB gig in the desert with a rating of almost 109. Larry Fitzgerald is relieved that somebody can get him the ball, but they have to do better than 181 aerial yards since Miami's D is holding runners to under 65 yards.
Prediction: Arizona by a touchdown.
Sunday Night Football
New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagle. In the past nine games against teams with a winning record, the Giants are 8-1. Plus there's that whole "road warrior" persona. On the other sideline, Philly's adoring fans are calling for both Andy Reid's and Michael Vick's jobs. You gotta love it.
Defensive statistics aren't helpful against Vick and the Giants cannot depend on the Eagles to continuing turning over the ball. Eli Manning and his deep WR corps won't have it easy on this road trip either: the Philadelphia secondary has given up only 5.1 yards per pass attempt this season. Yikes.
Still, the Giants discipline on both sides of the ball and athletic talent on the D-line should give Vick a thoroughly miserable evening. He'll burn them a couple of times, but the team is not cohesive enough to win.
Prediction: Giants by two.
Monday Night Football
Chicago Bears at Dallas Cowboys. Both defenses are rocking: Dallas has allowed 18 points per game on average and Chicago less than17.
However, the Bears are scoring almost 25 points each week, while Dallas has mysteriously only come up with 15.7. Pretty sure that's not going to cut it against Brian Urlacher and his cohorts.
Hint to Jason Garrett: give the ball to Demarco Murray. Your team has only rushed for 76.7 yards in the first month. Garrett might also want to get a grip on the 13 penalties from last week. Oh, and the Bears secondary is letting opposing receivers gain a grand total of 5.4 yards per pass attempt. Good luck, Tony.
The key here will be whether or not Jay Cutler can remain clean long enough to complete some balls against the Cowboys second-ranked secondary. Starting RB Matt Forte may not be recovered in time for this game, and excellent second RB Michael Bush may have a shoulder injury. Uh-oh.
The Cowboys have hired former Bills punter to be their new special teams ace. Their gain.
Prediction: Cowboys by a Field Goal.
Leaving you with these entries from the Jay Cutler quotes collection:
I'm not doing this for my health.
This isn't a hobby for me.
It's not a solo tennis match out there.
*injury information from CBSSports.com
+statistics courtesy of USAToday, NBC's Sunday Night Football and espn.com
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