In an NFL Weekend marred by tragedy, one player may have changed his course forever. On Sunday, Kansas City quarterback Brady Quinn truly had his finest hour, leading a broken-hearted team to victory. It was also his best personal moment in the national spotlight. If you have been too busy to watch, take a moment. it's worth the time. In his post-game appearance (provided here courtesy of the Wall Street Journal and YouTube), Quinn urged everyone watching to "try to actually help if someone is battling something deeper on the inside than what they are revealing on a day-to-day basis ... When you ask someone how are they are doing, do you really mean it?" If we never hear another word from this young man, he may have had more impact in those few minutes than others will have in their lives.
After predicting the success of multiple underdogs in Week 13, what were the two teams that ruined my otherwise stellar week of NFL picks? The favored Jets and the favored Bears. Who knew that Rex Ryan would have the nerve to seize that opportunity to both bench Mark Sanchez and sidestep the entire Tim Tebow quagmire? The man's got chutzpah.
Thursday Night Football
Denver Broncos at Oakland Raiders. Do you think opposing coaches understand that, when facing Peyton Manning, one needs a 28-point lead at the intermission -- just to protect against the inevitable second-half dissection by No. 18 of whatever plan your defensive coaches spent 80 hours developing last week? For the second week in a row, the Broncos offense began somewhat tentatively. And Manning finished the day with three touchdowns. RB Knowshon Moreno proved that his Renaissance is no fluke with a solid 20-carry, four-reception afternoon. The RBs contributed 112 yards to the winning cause. Manning and his ball-catchers did the rest. That guy you'd never heard of who caught the opening score? Mitch Unrein: a third-year defensive tackle from Wyoming. And that is his entire online bio.
NFL Playbook analyst Sterling Sharpe predicted on the NFL Network that Denver LB Von Miller would be the defensive key to victory. He was right -- it just took until the end of the game for it to work out that way. Although this game was closer for longer than it should have been, the Denver D did hold rookie phenom Doug Martin to 56 rushing yards.
As if life weren't difficult enough for the Raiders, they lost three DBs on Sunday to concussion. If you know any frustrated NFL safeties, have them call Mark Davis immediately. There may be an opening.
Offensively, Oakland may have Darren McFadden available for the first time in weeks. Wonder how much this team has paid No. 20 on a per-game-played basis? He's a tremendous talent, but it's so long between healthy streaks that one forgets. Poor Carson Palmer had to throw the ball 54 times on Sunday. Nothing is going to change until Oakland can run for more than 82 yards per game (28th out of 32 teams) and field a defense that is better than dead last in the NFL.
Prediction: The Broncos are wildly favored, but with McFadden due back in the lineup, things will be closer. The Silver and Black will also try to buoy their grieving coach. Dennis Allen lost his father this week. Denver by three.
Sunday Early Games
Baltimore Ravens at Washington. On Sunday afternoon, the Ravens wrapped a football game up in a pretty package and gave it to their worst rivals. Worse, Terrell Suggs was injured. Without the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Baltimore watched 37-year-old Charlie Batch lead a 61-yard game-winning drive that seemed to last forever. Life isn't going to get any easier for the Ravens D against Robert Griffin III.
Offensively, Ray Rice has done enough in the past two weeks alone to enter the MVP conversation. It's "Hey diddle-diddle, Ray Rice -- and everyone else." It's as if he comes in a special concentrated size labeled "Add Kickoff and Watch Him Grow." At almost 1,200 combined yards, seven scores and 40 first downs, even Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau said in an NFL Network interview last week, "He'll get his yards ... You just have to try and stop him from taking over the game." Unfortunately, the rest of the offense garnered only 177 total yards.
It's starting to look like Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III will be neck-and-neck forever in dual stardom. Luck pulled off his last-second heroics and RGIII's MNF performance was indescribable. Even supernatural powers appeared to favor the electric QB, turning a fumble into a touchdown. (The fact that this may well have been an illegal forward pass will not be mentioned at this time. Oops.) His impact was actually more through energy and leadership than yardage: he threw for 163 yards and rushed for a record-setting 72 more. It was rookie RB Alfred Morris who wore down the Giants D so that RGIII could shake, rattle and roll. Morris claimed 124 yards and topped 1,000 for the season. As long as Pierre Garcon is around to catch passes (eight receptions for 106 yards this past week), the Redskins offense is never out of the running. They held the ball for only 26:47 minutes in Monday night's win.
Whether the tattered and bruised Washington D can handle Ray Rice and Torrey Smith might be another matter. Particularly in the absence of nickelback Cedric Griffin, who has been suspended.
Prediction: Washington by one. (At the risk of analytical integrity, I must confess that this is more of a wish than a pick.)
Dallas Cowboys at Cincinnati Bengals. As usual, watching the Cowboys raised questions. Why would Tony Romo ever throw the ball to anyone other than Jason Witten (six receptions for 108 yards and the game-clinching special teams play)? Can Jerry Jones please move Doug Free to Guard or trade him? How is it possible for a defense featuring DeMarcus Ware to let an unknown RB explode for a career night (Bryce Brown had 169 yards on 26 carries until he fumbled the ball)? When are fans going to stop trashing Tony Romo (303 yards and three scores)?
For their part, the Bengals have found a few answers: at QB, at WR (twice) and on defense. Even running back is solid with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who had one of the best month's of his career in November -- contributing to a 179.3 yards per game team average. The only advantage revealed by the numbers for this game is that the Cincy D is allowing 4.4 yards per rush. And that's the defensive weak point.
The key matchup here will be the Cowboys pass rush versus Bengals center Jeff Faine and his compadres. Faine hasn't played in two games. Andy Dalton would really like to see Jeff's ample posterior between him and DeMarcus Ware.
Prediction: Bengals by three.
St. Louis Rams at Buffalo Bills. So, aside from the cold weather helping the Bills, this one could be a toss up. The primary difference is that the Rams have improved steadily this season under Jeff Fisher. However, the Rams' San Francisco high may not carry them to a second victory on the road. They'll try to lean on runners Steven Jackson and Daryl Richardson again, but the Bills rush D has found its inner Darryl Talley and is only giving up an average of 65.7 yards per game on the ground.
Just when the Bills appeared to find a defense, they lost the rest of their WRing corps to injuries. In spite of completing only five passes for first downs, Ryan Fitzpatrick partially shook off his slump and threw two touchdown passes. Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller did the rest with 186 rushing yards. It's a shame about those 100 penalty yards.
Neither quarterback has cracked 200 passing yards in three weeks. Whichever one does will lead his team to a victory important only to local fans.
Prediction: Home team by three.
Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Eagles rookie QB Nick Foles may be feeling the pressure, but his demeanor is certainly unruffled. The preseason performances that elevated him to backup QB have translated remarkably well to "real" games. His third-quarter 80-yard, 11-play scoring drive could not have been executed much more effectively on Sunday night. Bryce Brown would be the toast of Philly if his last fumble hadn't led directly to the Cowboys game-winning score.
And then there's the embattled Eagles D. After dumping both coach Juan Castillo and D-lineman Jason Babin, this unit still let two non-healthy Dallas rushers gain 120 yards on the ground, while Tony Romo had a Pro-Bowl evening in the air.
Bucs passer Josh Freeman may not be an NFL super star yet -- but he may well be getting there. If Dallas Clark can hang on for another season, this offense may go from dangerous to lethal in the near future. Eight players caught passes last Sunday for a combined 242 yards and two scores.
As for the defense, they held the Sheriff to 242 yards and even picked him off once. Not bad for a secondary featuring one rookie safety, one octogenarian safety (okay, not quite) and a corner named Leonard Johnson (who?). Don't bother going to the Bucs website. As of Tuesday, his page read "No Data." Really.
Prediction: Bucs by 10.
Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers. It's Cam Newton against Atlanta -- pretty much by himself. For the last month, the Panthers offense has consisted almost solely of Newton running between the ten-yard lines and then either tossing a TD or leaping for one, punctuated by a few lovely medium/long passes to Brandon LaFell or Steve Smith. The defensive depth chart reads like an episode of America's Missing.
The Falcons are primed for a letdown after their big-game showing on Thursday Night Football. While the Panthers defense isn't much better than the Saints, they played with a lot of fire and heart for their embattled coach against both Philly and KC. Once again, the key will be whether or not Atlanta can establish a running game. Both Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers were successful against the Saints and finished the game with a combined 126 yards on the ground. Once that happens, it is open season for Matt Ryan and his trio of Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. The offensive stats weren't gaudy in the win over New Orleans, but Ryan made the yards count.
Prediction: The Falcons slump, but still win by three.
Kansas City Chiefs at Cleveland Browns. Ninety-four-yard late-game drives and the Cleveland Browns don't usually combine to create happy memories, but last Sunday QB Brandon Weeden's very own "drive" led to the team's first road win in -- let's be kind here -- a long time. He and fellow rookie Josh Gordon have a QB/WR chemistry that is starting to bubble to the surface, fueled by Trent Richardson's dangerous power rushing and TE Benjamin Watson's seemingly automatic two great plays per game.
The Browns secondary may not have the stats they sported in 2011, but they're still averaging a pick a game. The Cleveland Browns seem to finally have found some answers. Quarterback answers, WR answers and RB answers to name a few.
Kansas City will probably not be able to sustain the emotional wave that carried them to a win in grief last Sunday. That's a shame, because the offense came together and played far better than in recent memory. QB Quinn completed 19-0f-23 for 201 yards, two scores and zero interceptions while Jamaal Charles came up with 127 running yards. Defensively, Romeo Crennel's squad gave up more yards to the Panthers than their offense scored, but they squeaked out the win when it came to points.
Cleveland has scored four more points and given up four fewer points than the Chiefs over the last three games.
Prediction: Browns by one over the emotionally drained Chiefs.
San Diego Chargers at Pittsburgh Steelers. Not quite washed up Steelers QB Charlie Batch finished last Sunday with 25-of-37 and averaged 7.3 yards per attempt, but the Steelers will be happy to have their usual giant signal-caller back under center. The running back duo of Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman managed 96 yards on 26 carries. While not spectacular, it was enough to keep the Ravens from leveling Batch on every play.
Too bad the defense couldn't keep Ray Rice from several long gains. Were you watching, Ryan Mathews? Chargers fans hope so, because Philip Rivers has got to be tired of trying to win all alone. Of course, if Pittsburgh LB Lamarr Woodley (questionable) gets back on the field with James Harrison and this freshly coalesced Pittsburgh D-line -- it may not matter what Mathews does.
Both offenses are capable of great things and great sputters. Both defenses are steadfast and reliable no matter the injuries. The creepiest stats for this contest are the Pittsburgh offense versus the Chargers D: 342 total yards versus 335 yards allowed, 3.8 yards per rush attempt versus 3.8 allowed and 6.6 yards per pass versus 6.5 allowed. Cue the Twilight Zone music.
Prediction: Pittsburgh by seven if Ben plays. By three is he doesn't.
Tennessee Titans at Indianapolis Colts. Jake Locker had yet another game with a completion percentage under 50. It was, in fact, 46.7. Explain to me again why Matt Hasselbeck is on the bench? It may not matter who is under center: there are so many Titans injuries that you have to scroll down three times to see them all. At least Chris Johnson has managed more than 125 yards on average recently.
Andrew Luck's rookie legend catapulted to a new level this past weekend as the Colts QB took his team the distance in 1:07 minutes and threw the game-winner as the clock hit zero. His style of play and cerebral dominance are eerily similar to you-know-who. Meanwhile, Colts fans are just wild about rushing sensation Vick Ballard. Who? This 22-year-old from Mississippi State was a fifth-round pick this spring and is turning into someone that defenses ignore at their peril. Does anything need to be said about the great Reggie Wayne? Other than that he's great?
Unfortunately for Colts fans, the defense has surrendered an average of 35 points per game over the past month. Now, factor in that they played New England the Lions. Nevertheless, those numbers are bound to light a fire in the hearts of Chris Johnson and Jake Locker.
The Titans D is better than anyone except their loyal fans would remember. They have given up only 17 points on average in the past three games and less than 210 passing yards. Reggie and Andrew? You're on.
Prediction: Colts by a touchdown.
New York Jets at Jacksonville Jaguars. If you happened to be at your granny's for Sunday dinner last week (and assuming that granny isn't a football fan, which isn't a given), you may not have heard that Rex Ryan benched Mark Sanchez in the third quarter. Tim Tebow was inactive with a rib injury, so Greg McElroy became The Man -- at least for a half. He immediately instituted a solid scoring drive. Let's review: McElroy was generally considered to be under-sized coming out of Alabama (6'3" and 225 lbs) and fell to the seventh round in the 2011 draft despite leading Alabama to a championship. He finished college in roughly 10 minutes and completed his master's degree during his last year of eligibility while again serving as the Crimson Tide's starting QB. Did we mention that he was a Rhodes Scholarship finalist?
Less prominently mentioned from last week is that Ryan continued to feature the new running ratio of "mostly Bilal Powell with power downs by Shonn Greene." Well, at least it's better than expecting Greene to be a featured back.
The hapless Jaguars may be just the ticket for whomever Ryan starts under center. Jacksonville owns the 28th passing defense and the 31st rushing defense. The offense is even worse without former NFL leading rusher Maurice Jones-Drew. Now missing backup Rashad Jennings also, they are the worst running team in the league. Chad Henne hasn't been much of an improvement over Blaine Gabbert with only a 52 percent completion rate. No one outside of New York or Jacksonville will watch this game except for morbid fascination.
Prediction: Jets by three.
Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings. The Bears all-star defense looked completely worn out at the start of overtime last weekend. And so it proved, as Sidney Rice caught the game-winner. Jay Cutler and WR Brandon Marshall are a premiere NFL QB/WR combo with ten hookups for 165 yards. If Chicago is to make a playoff run, the offense must put games away before the second half of the fourth-quarter or opponents will be increasingly able to win via fatigue. CB Tim Jennings, guard Chris Spencer and WR Earl Bennett join WR/KR Devin Hester on the questionable list. Brian Urlacher is out for a few weeks.
The NFL Network's Kurt Warner has selected Vikings star Adrian Peterson as his 2012 MVP. With precious little assistance from anyone on his offense besides Percy Harvin, No. 28 has put up more than 1,600 yards, eight touchdowns, 57 first downs with almost 184 yards per game over the last three. Now Harvin is sidelined again with a severe ankle sprain. He'll have another banner day against the depleted Bears D, but it won't be enough.
Prediction: Chicago by five.
Sunday Late Games
Miami Dolphins at San Francisco 49ers. Both teams lost in Week 13, but the mood is probably far different in these locker rooms. Miami played far better than expected against one of (if not the) best teams in the league and San Francisco blew it versus the lowly Rams.
Dolphins rusher Reggie Bush is probably salivating after Rams stud Steven Jackson ran for 139 yards last week against the Niners. Should we point out to Mr. Bush that Jackson is a battleship while Reggie is a frigate? Miami QB Ryan Tannehill has had a remarkably strong rookie campaign throwing to a bunch of no-names, but both he and sophomore Colin Kaepernick are passing for yards in the 215 range per game and have not overtaken Dan Marino and Joe Montana just yet. Colin Kaepernick may not have lived up to hopes last weekend, but he is completing 8.2 yards per passing attempt.
San Francisco has the not inconsiderable advantage of Frank Gore, a tank with legs. Behind Gore, the team has rolled up 137.7 ground yards per game over the last three weekends. Over the same time period they are scoring seven more points per week than the Dolphins.
Defensively, the team was marginally embarrassed last Sunday and will try to take it out on a young Miami offense. They might want to keep an eye on H-back Charles Clay, who has 16 receptions, averaging 14.6 per catch with three scores and 12 first downs.
Prediction: It's a triumph for Joe Philbin that the 'Fins have had any success at all in 2012, but they are probably no match for a bunch of ticked-off gold diggers.
Niners by seven.
Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks. Russell Wilson does not "scare easy." He faced the Chicago Bears defense without a flinch on Sunday and led a 97-yard fourth-quarter touchdown drive to put his team into overtime. Then he marched them down again in overtime for the win.
The Arizona Cardinals rookie QB Ryan Lindley has not had much help from anyone on his offense not named Larry Fitzgerald. They've yet to mount a professional rush and the offensive line has struggled significantly -- which is part of the reason that the Cards are down to their third-string QB. Perhaps the fact that this entire unit managed five first downs total last Sunday is all the analysis needed here.
The strong Arizona defense can't carry the day. Especially if there is so little cohesion and coaching control that defenders Kerry Rhodes and Darnell Dockett had a physical altercation on the field over whether or not to let the Jets score in order to regain the football. The coaches can actually talk to the defense these days -- think maybe they should have made a decision and communicated it?
The 'Hawks D has its own problems with looming suspensions. Happily for Seattle fans, they'll remain looming while both CBs should be able to participate pending appeals. Even more happily, RB extraordinaire Marshawn Lynch is still on the team. This most powerful of power backs has given his second-chance team 49 first downs, with four scores in the past five games.
Prediction: It's hard to imagine the 'Hawks losing unless "players coach" Pete Carroll can't get them ready. But the current Vegas offering at 11 points seems a bit stiff.
Seahawks by nine.
New Orleans Saints at New York Giants. New York should have won on Monday night. They controlled the ball for seven more minutes than their opponents, Eli Manning threw for a respectable 200 yards and Ahmad Bradshaw turned in another 100-yard game. However, four trips to the red zone resulted in three FGs and only one TD. Not good enough versus RGIII. And possibly not good enough versus Drew Brees.
Sadly for New Orleans fans, Brees doesn't have Alfred Morris rushing the ball behind him. Once again, No. 9 had to pass approximately 100 times (well, 50). This man has thrown 492 passes in 12 games. It's little wonder that his INTs are rising.
The Saints defense should take note of the fact that Big Blue TE Martellus Bennett had his first good game since September and might be seen a bit more often. LB Jonathan Vilma might want to keep an eye on New York's No. 85. They might also want to avoid the multiple runs of more than ten yards achieved by Atlanta last Thursday night.
In an odd scheduling twist, the Saints will have had eons to recover from their loss in Atlanta, while New York will have the short week. Unfortunately for Drew and company -- the Giants defense will resemble a collection of bulls that have been teased by one too many quarterback tricks.
Prediction: Big Blue gets in the end zone and wins by a touchdown.
Sunday Night Football
Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers. Aaron Rodgers versus an injury-depleted Lions secondary fleet.
Defense was optional early in the Colts/Lions game last Sunday as both Andrew Luck and Matthew Stafford had completed well over 75 percent of their passes throughout the first quarter. Part of Luck's 8-out-of-10 in the first 16 or so minutes was courtesy of the paper-thin Detroit secondary. The star-level DTs Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley even struggled against the Indy rushers a bit. Did you ever think you'd read that? Then they fell apart completely on the last play of the game, letting Andrew Luck wander around in the pocket until a receiver became open.
Offensively, Matthew Stafford has been putting up numbers despite myriad WR issues. The latest is that immature Titus Young has been put on I-R for the rest of the year. That finally leaves Calvin Johnson literally alone out there on the other end of the passes. Sunday he caught 13 balls for 171 yards and a score. The new and different sight in Detroit has been the presence of an almost-legitimate NFL running game as Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell have been just successful enough to keep defenses marginally honest. Bell alone had 81 yards with an average of 11.6 yards per carry! That will get a defense's attention. However they do it, this offense needs more touchdowns and less kicks.
Prediction: Green Bay by three.
Fun stat: The Lions are 1-7 against the spread in their last eight divisional games.
Monday Night Football
Houston Texans at New England Patriots. Early in the second quarter against the Dolphins, Tom Brady had already thrown the ball 22 times. His offense is averaging more than 426 yards per contest. The heretofore-fearsome Houston D has given up 26 points per week over the last three weeks. Those numbers lead one to believe that the Pats have every chance to chalk up another "W".
Add in the newly staunch New England D featuring CB Aqib Talib and the Texans will have to prove to America that they deserve to be AFC Championship contenders. Since landing at Gillette Stadium after a four-game suspension that left him looking for work, the DB has reshaped this secondary. In the past three weeks, the Pats defense has held opponents under 20 points.
There are two keys to this matchup. Will Texans star rusher Arian Foster (leading a 159 per game ground attack in November) gash this rising Pats D? DE Chandler Jones is questionable. Foster may light some incense that Jones' ankle not be quite healed. Secondly, can J.J. Watt and the Texans D-line live up to their potential and harass Tom Brady? If Watt dominates Monday Night, he may well be on his way to Defensive Player of the Year. Unfortunately, two of the Texans best linebackers are questionable.
The Texans have only beaten two good teams in 2012: the Bears and the Ravens. New England has also not exactly been beating powerhouses, but they have been improving step-by-step in the usual humorless Bill Belichick manner.
Prediction: Houston rises to the occasion and wins by one.
*statistics courtesy of nfl.com, espn.com, usatoday.com, NFL Total Access (NFL Network), NBC's Sunday Night Football
+injuries courtesy of cbssports.com, espn.com and usatoday.com
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