Fourth and Long – Week 11 – Colts vs Titans Free Pick ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>
By Mike Ivcic, UltimateCapper Contributing Writer
Here at the Ultimate Capper, we typically give you a nice meaty preview of the Thursday night game, since it’s the only game we discuss in our Fourth and Long column, but then on Sunday we only give you some short blurbs on the rest of the schedule – and in the case of our “Top 5” selections, we don’t give you anything. While I’m not looking to break the business model, I felt it important this week, with a couple of big games with major playoff implications on the docket, to present a little more in-depth look at some of those matchups. There won’t be any actual picks made, and some of these may wind up being included in my “Top 5” come the weekend, but you will get “Thursday-style” analysis of three Sunday games, all of which feature divisional matchups. Yes, that means leaves some good games (San Francisco @ New Orleans, New England @ Carolina) off the list, but these three games are still going to go a long way towards deciding who plays home games in this year’s postseason. Consider it a little pre-Thanksgiving feast.
On the Washington side, RG3 was awful against Philly in week one, but this is an Eagles defense that is dead-last against the pass and Griffin has been getting better each week. It wasn’t the offense that led to the collapse in Minnesota, it was the defense. I don’t know that Washington can stop Foles and the Eagles offense, but the same will probably be true in return. So far, the Eagles have beaten RG3 on one leg, Eli Manning in one of his worst years ever (who also beat the Eagles in the return game), Mike Glennon, Terrelle Pryor, and Scott Tolzein. That’s not exactly a grouping of elite QB’s. Can Griffin propel Washington’s offense to enough points to overcome what will likely be a very large number on the other side of the scoreboard?
This is an elimination game for both teams. A 3-7 Redskins team would be 2.5 games behind Philly with two head-to-head losses, and any shot of repeating as division champs would be gone. This is the season for the Eagles, though, too – with a loss, Philly would be 5-6 overall, 2-3 in the division, and 0-5 at home heading into the bye week, with a slew playoff contenders (Lions, Cardinals, Bears) all set to visit Philadelphia in the final six weeks. If the Eagles plan on being one of the season’s biggest surprises, this is absolutely a must-win game, which is why, for the first time all year, I’ll be quite happy to have the Eagles as an early game – even if it means I can’t watch the Jets.
The Bengals cost themselves a shot to put their foot on the respective throats of the North last week in losing to Baltimore. Andy Dalton, he of the fantastic October that made everyone believe he had finally found another level, has promptly returned back into the slightly-above-average QB who appears very inconsistent. Cincinnati was moving the ball well in overtime but a costly under-throw forced Marvin Lewis into a tough fourth-down situation – one he promptly butchered by calling for a swing pass that lost yardage and led to the eventual game-winning Ravens field goal. Lewis’ group has suffered some critical injuries, especially on defense, meaning Dalton’s play is now even more crucial to a team that some thought could be Denver’s biggest competition just three weeks ago. Now, they’re left to defend their home field against a Browns team that’s already beaten them once, and dropping to 1-3 in divisional play could prove disastrous for a team that still has San Diego, Indianapolis, and Baltimore on the schedule.
It’s the Browns, however, that are clearly the more desperate team. They enter this matchup trailing the division by a game and a half, so they can’t afford to pass up the opportunity to move into a tie in the loss column with the Bengals. They also have a brutal four-game close to their season (at New England, Chicago, at NY Jets, at Pittsburgh) and need badly to pick up wins in their next three games (home to the Steelers and Jaguars after this game). Jason Campbell may not win any MVP awards, but he has brought stability to the always-shaky Browns QB position, playing fairly well against two tough defenses in Kansas City and Baltimore. Cleveland will have to improve their running attack against the Bengals, especially considering the injury issues on defense for Cincinnati, but it’s possible that they bye week provided enough time for Willis McGahee to really feel comfortable with the Browns offense. Either way, the staple of this Cleveland team is defense, and if they can shut down A.J. Green – no doubt a tall order, but still possible – then the Browns have to feel pretty good about their chances.
Act two of the Battle of Ohio has more on the line for both teams than maybe at any other point since Cleveland’s revival as a franchise in 1999. The winner will clearly have the inside track on the AFC North, and a Browns win would also bolster the hopes of both the Steelers and Ravens, too. What once looked like a lock for a Cincinnati division crown might wind up being a four-team free-for-all – unless the Bengals can manage to accomplish what they failed to do last week and finally put their stranglehold on a playoff spot that, by all accounts, is really theirs for the taking.
There have been some fantastic offenses assembled in recent years – the 2000 Rams, the 2007 Patriots, the 2009 Saints, etc. – but none have ever had as much firepower as this year’s Denver Broncos. The numbers may say that some of those other teams were better, but that takes into account only one or two categories. The 2013 Broncos can run the ball, they can throw the ball, they can go deep, they can go over the middle, they can swing pass to the running back, they can go hurry-up, they can run the play clock down to one second – they can do virtually anything and everything possible on the offensive side of the football. It obviously starts with Peyton Manning (I’m assuming you’ve heard of him) but it happens mostly because the offensive line keeps him upright, Knowshon Moreno, Ronnie Hillman, and Monte Ball run straight upfield with authority, and four different wide receivers – Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Julius Thomas, and Eric Decker – are all fantastic route runners with great hands, yet excel in completely different areas of the field. That gives Manning more options than any QB in football and presents more problems than most defenses are capable of handling. Add to that a defense that’s seen Shaun Phillips return to his status as an elite pass rusher and been supplemented by Von Miller and Champ Bailey in the last month, and suddenly Denver’s defense – one that allowed just two field goals in three red zone trips by the Chargers last week – might rank in the top-half of the league. That’s not good news for teams that plan on trying to outscore the Broncos to win.
Luckily for the Chiefs, they are not anywhere close to being one of those teams. As good as Denver is on offense is a good as the Chiefs are on defense – or at least fairly close. Kansas City’s unit may not be on par with Baltimore’s 2000-2001 championship team, but they are first in points allowed and sixth in passing yards allowed – the two biggest defensive metrics in the current NFL. They haven’t allowed more than 17 points all season, though Eli Manning is really the only “elite” QB they’ve faced thus far. Their most impressive performance may be their containment of the Michael Vick-led Eagles offense on a Thursday night in week three, made to look even more impressive with the Andy Reid-in-Philly storyline and the short week of preparation. They key for KC is that they’ve stopped all sorts of offenses – Vick and Terrelle Pryor leading a run-oriented attack, Manning and Tony Romo with their gunslinger approach – which should bode well for a matchup with a Denver offense that can do just about anything. Reid can’t expect his defense to keep Peyton and Co. under 17 points, though, so he may be forced to take Alex Smith out of his “game manager” role and open the playbook a little bit in order to score a few more points. How well Smith and the rest of the KC offense handle the added pressure will probably be the single-biggest factor in who wins this matchup.
These two teams will meet two weeks from now, so a loss for either side will be somewhat mitigated by the notion of a rematch just over the horizon. Each team will also face a stiff test in between their meetings, as Denver will travel to New England and KC will host San Diego. Still, if the Chiefs are able to walk into Invesco Field and walk out with a win and a two-game lead in the division, it could mean that Manning will be forced to earn his way to the Super Bowl on the road – an almost unfathomable thought after the Broncos performance on opening night against the Ravens. The schedule sets up wonderfully for the NFL’s marketing machine, so here’s hoping the game manages to exceed the expectations.
Allow that last line to sink in as you check out this week’s standings…
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