Posted: 9:33 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013
By Brendan Porath
The NFL season hits the quarter pole as the month of September comes to a close. In the early games, the Bears and Lions will meet for NFC North supremacy while the Seahawks, perhaps the best team in the NFL, get their toughest road test so far in Houston.
On the hunt, killer whales will often drag seal pups out to deep water and toss them around to teach their own calves what it's like to tackle and kill live prey. While such practices seem cruel to our eyes, it's simply nature's way.
When it comes to ruthlessly eating the young, preying on the old and weeding out the weak, though, Mother Nature can't touch the NFL. New England at Atlanta features an intriguing matchup of the Pats' young-pup wideouts against the Falcons' wobbly-legged newborn corners. It will be a great chance for some youngsters to learn the art of the hunt - but who'll prey on whom?
Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins showed some teeth against Tampa with Dobson leading the team with a 7/52 line and Thompkins hauling in a pair of scoring throws. To be sure, both Thompkins' 16-yard TD and Dobson's second-quarter fourth down conversion were garden-variety pitch and catch stuff. But Brady still trusted them in key situations and they responded with NFL plays rather than the kitten fail videos they were trotting out against the Jets.
However, Atlanta's Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford may not prove easy prey. While they've taken heat for Atlanta's shoddy pass defense (ranked 22nd in the league in Football Outsiders' DVOA measure), the charting stats at ProFootballFocus tell a different tale. Trufant is giving up a stingy 6.6 yards per attempt on balls thrown in his direction while Alford has already bagged an interception while sporting a respectable 82.0 QB rating allowed.
The real coverage culprits for Atlanta have been slot corner Robert McClain (who was outstanding in nickel coverage in 2012) and Thomas DeCoud (who was secretly torchable last year). DeCoud in particular will have his hands full if The Gronk makes his anticipated return on Sunday night. If Rob Gronkowski is up to full speed, both Dobson and Thompkins could take part in a ritual familiar to many young predators -- sitting back while the Alpha male makes the kill.
The Score: New England 27, Atlanta 23
The majesty and mythology of the NFL is built around legendary performances from superlative stars. It's easy to forget how potent a simple, average performance can be -- especially when 'average' is standing in for 'outright horrendous'. Average can keep you on the tracks and carry you a long way, and three of this weekend's matchups feature teams that have cheerfully ridden the A-train to a combined 8-1 start.
New York Giants at Kansas City figures to feature a dozen check-down throws from Alex Smith, whose staid conservatism makes Alan Thicke look like Robin Thicke. A 6.4 yards per attempt mark isn't pretty, but when paired with four TD throws and no INTs it works out to the league's 13th-best QB rating. While Smith's buttoned-down style fails to arouse much passion (setting aside white-hot rage from Dwayne Bowe's fantasy owners), Chiefs fans have plenty to cheer about with his steady and turnover-free hand on the tiller. Playing it safe, moving the chains and leaving the heavy lifting to Jamaal Charles and a rejuvenated defense could easily be a playoff formula. Guys like Dontari Poe and Justin Houston deserve plenty of credit for the Chiefs' surging D, but it's amazing how much easier defense becomes when your own QB isn't cutting your Achilles' tendons every other drive with a brain-dead pick or ghastly fumble.
Chiefs 24, Giants 20
While Alex Smith plods his way to average, Geno Smith gets there by averaging out turbulent crests and valleys. New York Jets at Tennessee will show off Smith's wave-riding style, which oscillates between surfing with Laird Hamilton and crewing the Andrea Gail. His six interceptions have contributed to an unsightly 65.0 QB rating, but his ability to create time and yardage with his feet, willingness to strike downfield and welcome non-Sanchez-ness have provided a big lift for the Jets' offense. He will sometimes put the Jets' D in a bad position, nicely complementing Jake Locker's quest to hospitalize every receiver on his squad.
Jets 20, Titans 17
Chicago at Detroit will feature something that Bears fans may have despaired of ever seeing -- average O-line play for Chicago! PFF's combined run block and pass block ratings for Chicago's front (Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson, Roberto Garza, and rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills) comes out to a 1.1 -- about as close to average as you'll see for a group of five dudes. Average has proven to be a tremendous blessing for Jay Cutler, whose three sacks on 108 dropbacks represent the league's second-tidiest sack percentage. Cutler has used his legs to dodge a good bit of pressure, but last season there was nowhere to run and nowhere to hide as three blockers would get whipped simultaneously. Surprisingly, 2013's leader in Sack Percentage is Cutler's Week Four opponent Matt Stafford with a sparkling 5.7% mark. Pedigreed defensive fronts against upstart OLs will be the story in this one, but the loss of Henry Melton may be too much for the Bears to overcome.
Lions 27, Bears 24
Average has its uses, but let's also not forget that power is power. Philadelphia at Denver and Seattle at Houston feature the league's consensus power poll patriarchs trying to stay atop their respective conference heaps. The Broncos should have an easier time of it, and Peyton Manning may be stifling yawns as he effortlessly needles Philly's pincushion secondary. The Denver D did have some troubles with Terrelle Pryor's legs on Monday night, but not in the typical read option sense. Rather, they continually mush-rushed Pryor to keep him in the pocket and gave him three or four seconds to find a receiver. Denver will give up some yards on the ground to Vick and LeSean McCoy, but they should turn up the heat on Vick in the pocket. Routing that heat through struggling RT Lane Johnson will be a good place to start.
Seattle will be taking on what should be one of the most desperate 2-1 teams in league history. Houston is in no great position despite being tied for the division lead, and they'll need to break out of their team-wide malaise to keep from getting blown out by the Seahawks. The Texans should be proud enough to rally, but gimpiness from Andre Johnson and LT Duane Brown won't help their cause.
Broncos 37, Eagles 24
Seahawks 24, Texans 17
Are the Colts the new Seahawks?
Indianapolis at Jacksonville will allow Andrew Luck and company another opportunity to state their case. They feature a stud second-year quarterback and are fresh off a physical beating of the 49ers. A throttling of the hapless Jags would be the next logical step in the Seattle impersonation plan. The Jags will offer little resistance as they're trotting Blaine Gabbert out again as part of their own sub rosa operation -- the 2017 L.A. Jaguars Plan (brought to you by Rachel Phelps). Of course, no amount of sweet Cory Redding spin moves will make one confuse the Indy D with Seattle's
rolling ball of knives Dyson Sphere of Chainsaws, but the threat of potential Seahawks in their division is one more reason for Houston to give their all against actual Seahawks.
Colts 31, Jaguars 14
Dallas at San Diego should offer some comforts of familiarity. Tony Romo will throw darts to Jason Witten, Philip Rivers will look great in a clean pocket and horrid under pressure, and Miles Austin will watch placidly from the sideline with a wrap around his hamstring. Dallas actually brings some new features to the party, however, in terms of a tentative commitment to the ground game and a turnover-happy defense. San Diego's torchable secondary and middling pass rush won't be enough to slow down Dallas' attack, but then again nothing is as familiar as a Garrett-led squad finding a way to squander a winnable road game.
The race for the AFC North crown will see contenders Baltimore and Cincinnati try to dispatch a pair of very Cleveland-like foes. Cincinnati at Cleveland features a Bengals squad fresh off a victory over Green Bay that was only slightly less impressive for its flukey/flakey moments. They'll seek to throttle the Actual Browns behind one of the league's most ferocious defensive fronts.
Bengals 24, Browns 13
Baltimore at Buffalo will see the division rival Ravens work to take down the most Cleveland-like of the NFL's non-Cleveland franchises as they battle the Bills. The Bills, with the talented C.J. Spiller trudging his way to non-fantasy friendly rushing totals, now look more like Cleveland did two weeks ago than Actual Cleveland does now. Actual Cleveland now look like they're engaging in their own Rachel Phelps operation, which is at least municipally appropriate compared to when Jacksonville does it. The bad news for Cleveland fans is that the Browns aren't trying to flee the city -- they just want the top pick in the draft. Look for some more Josh Gordon bad behavior stories to get floated to pre-emptively tamp down fan anger in advance of his inevitable trade. Once he's gone, we'll really be set up for a Major League redux starring Willis McGahee as Jake Taylor alongside Brian "Wild Thing" Hoyer.
Ravens 27, Bills 17
The Steelers aren't mathematically out of the race for the North yet, but they've got a tough row to hoe. Pittsburgh at Minnesota in London will see them try to battle back against a Vikings squad that's similarly up against it from a contention perspective. At least the Steelers will have rookie runner Le'Veon Bell to help out, as he should be making his first appearance after suffering a pre-season foot sprain. Steelers' tackle Marcus Gilbert made a hilarious Adrian Peterson comparison when talking about Bell -- maybe an up-close look at Actual Adrian Peterson will help disabuse Gilbert of such fancies. The good news for Pittsburgh is that, while the gap between Bell and Peterson is wide, the gulf between Matt Cassel and Ben Roethlisberger is at least English Channel-sized.
Steelers 30, Vikings 24
Contention is an even fainter hope for the participants in our final Sunday contests, as Arizona at Tampa Bay and Washington at Oakland will feature a lot of top draft pick contenders and not much top-rank football. The sight of RGIII getting out-rushed, out-read optioned and potentially out-played by Terrelle Pryor could be a grim one. In Tampa, Greg Schiano has offered up Josh Freeman as a sacrifice in the hopes that the distraction of a DIFFERENT big, scatter-armed QB will buy him a few more weeks of employment.
Miami at New Orleans should be an awesome matchup of surprising 3-0 squads - awesome enough, in fact, to warrant its own article! Check back Monday for a super-sized preview. Until then, enjoy the Sunday slate.