It feels like one of those separation Sundays is coming in the NFL this week. Like we’ll know a lot more about certain teams and who they really are after Week 7. There are some games that should be quite revealing in terms of identifying the pretenders from the contenders.
Can Dallas stay steady on the heels of its shocker in Seattle, and handle an always pesky Giants club that has won four out of its five games in Cowboys Stadium? Can the Browns keep their magic-carpet ride going in Jacksonville, and not fall prey to the thin air that comes with being over .500 this late in the year?
And what about Cincinnati, which heads off to Indianapolis for a battle of AFC first-place teams? Are the Bengals really the club that started 3-0 so impressively, with stifling defense, or the outfit that just gave up a combined 80 points the past two weeks in a loss at New England a tie at home against Carolina?
We’re going to see how much bounce-back capability the Seahawks have in St. Louis, whether or not New Orleans has collected itself and benefitted from a bye as the Saints visit first-place Detroit and if the resurgent 49ers can again punch in the NFL’s heavyweight division with a trip to Denver on tap. And if Arizona and San Diego are who we think they are, they’ll not look past the Raiders and Chiefs this week, in order to fixate on their Week 8 showdowns with the Eagles and Broncos, respectively.
There’s a lot to learn in Week 7.
• Last week: 10-4; Season: 59-31 (.656).
• Best pick in Week 6: Denver 31, NY Jets 16 (Actual score: Denver 31-17).
• Worst pick in Week 6: Atlanta 34, Chicago 27 (Actual score: Chicago 27-13).
Below are my Week 7 picks. And here’s my pick for Thursday night’s game between the New York Jets and New England.
You might have picked up on the fact Robert Griffin is once again considered the clear-cut starter in Washington upon his return to health, and that says everything that needs to be said about Kirk Cousins’ spate of late-game turnovers. Cousins looked razor sharp in relief of RGIII against the Jaguars in Week 2 and the Eagles in his first start in Week 3, but he just didn’t sustain that level of performance in losing the past three games to the Giants, Seahawks and Cardinals. Sometimes potential quarterback controversies have a way of resolving themselves, and not necessarily in a good way. As for Washington’s name-change controversy, maybe Daniel Snyder should talk to folks in the Titans organization, the most recent NFL team to undergo a name change. When the Oilers became the Titans in 1999, that switch went pretty well, with Tennessee making its only Super Bowl trip that season. Just pointing it out, Washington. Might be some good karma waiting to be had.
I’m interested to see how the Browns handle their new-found success. Being a big road favorite at Jacksonville isn’t the highest bar in the NFL, but it’s still a developmental step in terms of respect for Mike Pettine’s club. Point spreads bore me to death, but I read somewhere this is the largest margin (5.5 points) Cleveland has been favored by since 1999, its first year as a reconstituted expansion franchise. The Jaguars are getting closer to recording that elusive first victory, and I think they'll get it done -- next week at home against Miami. The Browns’ mojo is strong right now and Brian Hoyer and Co. will revert to pre-Week 6 form and find a way to win another game decided by a field goal.
There are a lot of revenge/reunion games on tap in Week 7, with Carson Palmer facing the Raiders, Reggie Bush and the Saints renewing acquaintances, Brandon Marshall playing against Miami, and this one: The Julius Peppers Bowl. Peppers, though, hasn't been a Panther for five years now, and he already faced Carolina three times during his four-year tenure in Chicago. So it’s not as if he’s going to pull a Steve Smith and make it his mission to single-handedly destroy his former team. The emotion may have largely drained out of the situation, but I’m sure Peppers would like to show the Panthers how well he’s handling the transition to the 3-4 outside linebacker role he always wanted to try in Carolina. The Panthers, minus Greg Hardy, could use a little outside edge rush help about now and probably wish they made a more serious bid at staging a Peppers homecoming during free agency this spring.
It doesn’t speak well of Detroit’s former head coach Jim Schwartz and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham that the Lions are markedly better on defense this season without them, despite their bountiful experience on that side of the ball. New defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has the top-ranked defense in the league at the moment, with basically the same talent on hand that Detroit fielded last year. The Lions lead the NFL in allowing the fewest points (13.7 per game), yards (270.0), first downs (16.8) and yards per play (4.5). The Saints, however, will test Detriot’s defensive dominance more so than any opponent the Lions have faced. New Orleans is coming off its bye and should be rested and ready to push the first-place Lions, even if tight end Jimmy Graham is limited by his injured shoulder. Somewhere along the way the Saints have to win a road game or two, so maybe they’ll squint and convince themselves they’re back in their familiar home dome rather than Ford Field.
The faltering Falcons haven’t won since they embarrassed visiting Tampa Bay 56-14 on the Thursday night of Week 3. The Ravens just tried their hand at that new game called beat-the-Bucs-badly, throttling Tampa Bay 48-17 last Sunday in Raymond James Stadium on the strength of five Joe Flacco touchdown passes in a quarter-plus. These two clubs are linked by the year 2008, when they hired head coaches John Harbaugh and Mike Smith, and drafted first-round quarterbacks Flacco and Matt Ryan -- moves that have produced numerous playoff trips for the franchises. But this year’s Ravens seem bound to return to the postseason, while the Falcons are in real danger of a second consecutive non-playoff season and perhaps major changes ahead.
Probably a bad time for the 1-4 Rams to be catching the Seahawks. St. Louis is dealing with a short week after a tough loss to the visiting 49ers on Monday night, while Seattle has to be in a mood following its home-field upset loss to those high-riding Cowboys. The Seahawks haven’t lost consecutive games since dropping a pair of road games at San Francisco and Detroit in Weeks 7-8 of 2012. That’s a span of 34 games, including playoffs. St. Louis got a strong first quarter or so out of unheralded starting quarterback Austin Davis against the 49ers, and then almost nothing from him for the balance of the game. Jon Gruden loved him some Davis in the opening 15 minutes, gushing as only he can gush, and then, not so much. Even those great 1999-style retro Rams uniforms couldn’t turn Davis into another incarnation of Kurt Warner.
Mike Nugent has missed six field goals in Cincinnati’s first five games, and it’s doubtful Indy’s Adam Vinatieri has ever endured a stretch that difficult in his 19-year NFL kicking career. Vinatieri has only twice had as many as six misses all season in his nine-year Colts tenure, going 23 of 29 in 2007 and 26 of 33 in 2012. So while Vinatieri might offer some words of encouragement to his embattled fellow member of the kicking fraternity in the pre-game hours, he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to consistent failure. I’m inclined to think the more important words of advice for Nugent came from his blunt-talking teammate, Pacman Jones, last week: "Do your job." If Nugent doesn’t, he might not have a job to do by next week.
Who is Willie Young and what is he doing leading the NFL in sacks with seven? The fifth-year defensive end had a whopping six sacks in his four-year stint in Detroit, and then signed a modest three-year, $9 million free-agent deal with the Lions this spring. It was money well spent, Chicago. The Bears sacked Atlanta’s Matt Ryan four times in a 27-13 win at the Georgia Dome last week, with Young contributing half of those. With Young and Co. supplying the heat on another Ryan, this one Mr. Tannehill, the Bears will finally win a game in Soldier Field for the first this season.
The angle I’m most interested in regarding the Vikings-Bills game won’t have much impact unless one or both of the starting quarterbacks get hurt. The Vikings took Christian Ponder out of Florida State in the first round in 2011. The Bills took EJ Manuel out of Florida State in the first round in 2013. Both are now the backup quarterbacks, with the Vikings and Bills deciding they were out of patience and had to turn elsewhere. Both made the right call, and in the short term at least, either Teddy Bridgewater or Kyle Orton will prove it on Sunday.
Yes, Chargers fans, this is a trap game. Kansas City is rested and coming off its bye and San Diego can’t be caught looking ahead to next Thursday night and a looming first-place showdown in Denver against the defending AFC champions. That would have been a troublesome combination for a lot of recent vintage Norv Turnver-coached Chargers teams, but Mike McCoy seems to do well getting his guys to focus on the task at hand. San Diego rookie running back Branden Oliver is a great story just starting to unfold. He reminds some of Darren Sproles, with a the Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew comparisons being heard as well. But all three of those guys were drafted in the fourth round or higher, while Oliver went unselected out of the University of Buffalo. Score yet another one for the science/crapshoot that is the NFL draft.
Given the way the Raiders almost upset the visiting Chargers last week in their first game under interim head coach Tony Sparano, I tried to talk myself into picking winless Oakland to get the W this week. The Raiders clearly played with more intensity and better execution last week than we had seen in their first four games. But then I read Oakland hasn’t beaten a team with a winning record since Thanksgiving weekend of 2011, when the Raiders at home beat a 7-3 Bears team starting Caleb Hanie in place of the injured Jay Cutler. That victory lifted the Hue Jackson-coached Raiders to a 7-4 record and put them seemingly in great position to end the franchise’s long playoff-season drought. But Oakland went 1-4 the rest of the way, missed the postseason at 8-8, fired Jackson and has gone 9-33 overall since that win over the Bears. That’s why I’m picking the Cardinals to squeak one out, with Carson Palmer getting it done against his former employer.
Anybody else want to weigh in on whether or not DeMarco Murray is getting over-worked and will last the season? Have we missed anyone’s thoughts on that topic in recent weeks? Come to think of it, I don’t think Donald Trump or Oprah have taken a stand on the matter just yet, so this story still has legs, even if Murray’s might be getting worn down. It’s Week 7, people. Let’s let this one play out a little. The issue will likely settle itself one way or another. Dallas is winning with its Murray-centric formula, so let’s cut the Cowboys some slack and see where it goes. Counting Sunday, there are still 11 weeks remaining in the regular season. There’s plenty of time to re-visit the Murray debate on an endless loop once the World Series is over and November arrives.
The remarkable heft of Peyton Manning’s career statistical accomplishment speaks for itself. But sorry, NFL, there is little magic in some of the game’s most meaningful numbers. How many of us even knew Brett Favre retired (finally) with 508 career touchdown passes, just four years ago? The league’s career passing touchdown record is obviously significant, but here’s hoping the coverage and mid-game reaction to Manning’s quest for 509 is not ridiculously over-done. Favre hasn’t even held the mark long enough for it to feel like it carved out its place in the historical record. With three more touchdown passes, maybe this week against a tough 49ers defense, Manning deserves hearty applause, a moment of recognition and the ball for his trophy case. But then the game must quickly go on.
Monday, Oct. 20
Things are getting a bit testy in the Steel City, what with former Steelers like Hines Ward and Bill Cowher getting paid these days to critique the work of those who succeeded them in black and gold. And I loved Mike Tomlin’s "elevator music" line, but the reality is sometimes certain background noises can be really, really annoying. All I know is Pittsburgh will lower the volume with a win at home against the Texans. It’s not complicated. It’s Steelers win week. Pittsburgh this season has won in Weeks 1, 3 and 5, and lost in Weeks 2, 4 and 6. And that’s the way you get to a third consecutive 8-8 finish, football fans.