As the midseason point in the NFL season approaches, Week 8 offers the best slate of games thus far in 2015. Early Sunday afternoon will be highlighted by a Bengals at Steelers showdown that could go a long way toward determining the trajectory of the AFC North race. Later in the day, we will be treated to an intriguing Jets at Raiders matchup that pits two on-the-way-up teams and wild-card hopefuls in a game that has an old AFL feel to it. Seattle at Dallas could be fun as well, only because everything that involves either the Seahawks or Cowboys seems to be eventful one way or another this season.
Sunday night gives us the marquee game of the season so far in 2015: Packers at Broncos in only the fourth meeting of 6–0 or better teams in league history, and just the second chance we’ve had to watch Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning quarterback in the same game. Monday night isn’t a bad way to cap the festivities, with yet another undefeated team (Carolina) putting its perfect mark on the line, at home against the struggling Colts. Sit tight. As November arrives, the drama builds.
Now on to this week’s picks...
• Last week: 10–4; Season: 69–36 (.657).
• Best pick in Week 7: Washington 23, Tampa Bay 20 (Actual score: Washington 31–30).
• Worst pick in Week 7: Pittsburgh 27, Kansas City 13 (Actual score: Chiefs 23–13).
I’m sure the NFL schedule-makers looked at this game this spring and saw two teams that combined to go 20–12 last season, with each making a playoff trip in the past two years, and thought they had finally created a London-game pairing that would feature two winning teams. Not. Even. Close. The Chiefs (2–5) and the Lions (1–6) are among the most underachieving teams in the league this season, and even Detroit firing a Lombardi (Joe, in this case) to elevate the wonderfully named Jim Bob Cooter to the offensive coordinator position this week can’t pump up the interest level for the NFL’s third and final game at Wembley this year. (Did you know his real name is James Robert Cooter, but he opted for Jim Bob at some point because his family was obsessed with the ‘70s-era show “The Waltons”? Okay, okay...James Robert is his real name, but I made that last part up).
The moment you knew Lovie Smith might not be a miracle-worker in Tampa Bay after all came last season, as early as Week 3, when the Falcons blew the doors off the Bucs on Thursday Night Football in Atlanta. The Falcons looked like the varsity scrimmaging the JV that night, and the Bucs’ season pretty much swirled down the drain from that point on. It won’t be another 42-point slaughter this time around, because the Falcons' passing game has been sputtering over the past three games and Tampa Bay is a better team than it was in 2014. But the outcome will be the same, as the Falcons surpass their win total of last season in Week 8.
After starting last season 8–4, the Chargers are just 3–8 in their past 11 games, and if Mike McCoy’s team keeps tanking like this, maybe it won’t hurt quite so much in San Diego if the Bolts relocate up I-5 to Los Angeles next season. The Chargers, my admittedly long-shot AFC Super Bowl pick, appear to be complete frauds. The Ravens are swooning as well in 2015, but on the first day of November they’ll finally earn their first home win of the season, exactly one month after they picked up their only road victory of the season, in Pittsburgh.
The Vikings make their second attempt at building a three-game winning streak this season, and that’s something the franchise hasn’t accomplished since Minnesota won four in a row at the end of 2012, clinching a wild-card berth in the process. The Bears have been a tough out lately, knocking off Kansas City and Oakland and taking Detroit to overtime before losing. Chicago could easily throw a crimp into Minnesota’s playoff drive, but these Vikings should be good enough to withstand the best the Bears have to offer and climb halfway to the 10-win season that will likely produce a postseason berth.
People thought Carson Palmer was done a couple years ago (myself included), and he wasn’t. They thought Larry Fitzgerald was doing the slow fade, and he isn’t. And they were convinced Chris Johnson was no longer a threat as a lead running back, and he most certainly is. There must be some restorative waters in the desert these days because even Dwight Freeney looked like the Dwight Freeney of old with that sweet spin-move sack Monday night in the Cardinals’ win over visiting Baltimore. Credit Bruce Arians, old-guy coach, for getting so much production out of his old-guy players.
How did this hide-your-eyes game not get shipped to London? The Titans and Texans have both gotten manhandled by Miami lately, and they’re both trying desperately to find some equilibrium in a season that keeps getting worse by the week. But the reality is, no matter how badly things are going, you can’t possibly eliminate yourself from the woeful AFC South race. And that’s why the winner of this game will still harbor playoff dreams, as absurd as that sounds. For that matter, perhaps the loser will too.
Eli Manning grew up in New Orleans, so this is a homecoming game of sorts for him. Sean Payton was once the offensive coordinator on a Giants Super Bowl team, so he still bleeds a little blue. After that mind-boggling streak of six home losses in a row, New Orleans has stabilized a bit in the Superdome and is chasing its third win in a row under the big top. The Giants played well enough on offense to win last week against mistake-prone Dallas, but Eli and Co. won’t be able to match points with a Saints offense that is starting to put some things together.
The Bengals have given us no reason to doubt their ability to dominate the rest of the AFC North, but the Steelers are the team that’s in Cincinnati’s head to some degree. The Bengals lost twice to Pittsburgh in the final four weeks of the 2014 regular season and finished a half-game behind the division-winning Steelers. Andy Dalton is just 2–6 in his starts against the Steelers, and Cincinnati has won just once at Heinz Field since the start of 2010. That said, this game will turn on whether Pittsburgh has Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. Even Big Ben at 85%, combined with the sense of desperation the Steelers should have to stay close in the division race, will be enough to provide Pittsburgh with the winning edge. If Roethlisberger doesn’t play, the Bengals should roll to 7–0.
Facing that rugged Rams defense on the road is no way for Colin “No Man is an Island” Kaepernick to rediscover his missing mojo. St. Louis is going to shorten this game with its Todd Gurley-led running game, so the 49ers offense had better be ready to make good use of almost every possession. Even when Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco’s clubs were at their best, they had a tough time beating the Rams. And those 49ers, as we all well know, are long gone.
Can I get through this blurb without making a “Heidi Game” reference? Apparently not. Now that that’s out of the way, Jets at Raiders makes for one of the most interesting games of Week 8. If the Jets play up to the level they showed last week in Foxboro, New York should be 5–2 and in strong wild-card position by the end of the day. But Oakland can be a challenging place to play and my sense is New York will suffer the slightest letdown after coming so close against New England. The Raiders over .500 in November? That hasn’t happened since 2011, but it’s about to become a reality.
The Seahawks went on the road to division rival San Francisco last week and punched the 49ers in the mouth. The Cowboys went on the road to division rival New York last week and punched themselves, repeatedly, throwing three interceptions and making two huge special teams era. And then there was the whole Greg Hardy vs. The Clipboard thing. That was impressive, and really served a purpose. Dallas beat Seattle in Week 6 on the road last season, but that’s a footnote that matters not. The Cowboys perhaps get Dez Bryant back and that should help quarterback Matt Cassel’s play-making options, but Seattle’s defense should still be able to frustrate Dallas and carry the Seahawks back to the .500 mark as they hit their Week 9 bye.
I foresee both teams looking fresher and sharper coming off their Week 7 bye, but to me that means Green Bay’s recent offensive sluggishness will lessen and that superb Denver defense will be facing the best, most varied offense it has played all season. The same is true for the Packers, of course, since they have not matched up with a defense that can throw everything at you like the Broncos can. But Peyton Manning and Denver’s offense won’t be able to keep up with the points produced by Aaron Rodgers and Co., and only Green Bay will survive with its perfect record intact. We could of course get this rematch in the Super Bowl, but I wouldn’t get my heart set on it, Broncos fans.
The Calamity Colts head to Charlotte for a game that for the first time pits the quarterbacks who went first overall in the draft in 2011 (Cam Newton) and '12 (Andrew Luck). But while everything the Panthers have touched of late has turned into victory, Indy is in full-blown implosion mode, and getting used to the stench of defeat and dysfunction. And don’t look now, Colts, but Denver pays a visit next week, and then after a Week 10 bye, a challenging trip to Atlanta looms. Some, especially those in the New England region, would say Indy's struggles are karma for the Colts expending so much energy on all that ball deflation silliness in January.