Six weeks in. We're at the point when injuries really are making their presence felt.
How will the Green Bay Packers fare without running back Cedric Benson? The Arizona Cardinals' backfield is even more depleted; does that give the Buffalo Bills a chance in the desert? Can the St. Louis Rams pull a Ric Ocasek and let the good times roll with no Danny Amendola?
Those are just some of the thoughts flickering across this cluttered football mind as we close in on midseason at full throttle. So, let's get into the Week 6 menu, which includes a couple of sexy interconference affairs.
And, it should go without saying, feel free to sound off if you feel a pick below is ... well ... off. The dropbox for your football nerdness is @Harrison_NFL. Now, let's get to it!
Don't expect the Pittsburgh Steelers to be in dire need of another clutch, game-winning drive from Ben Roethlisberger on Thursday night. First off, the Tennessee Titans have allowed 30 points in each of their first five games (an NFL record). Secondly, Rashard Mendenhall's return is more than just an emotional lift, as the tailback looked extremely explosive while putting up over 100 total yards from scrimmage last Sunday. Pittsburgh should control this contest with Mendenhall and its defense.
Oakland is fresh off a bye week that came at an inauspicious time (to say the least), considering the Raiders were blown out in Denver in Week 4. The secondary was destroyed, while the front seven struggled to put pressure on Peyton Manning (zero sacks). If Tommy Kelly, Richard Seymour and Co. can't beat the Atlanta Falcons' offensive line at the point of attack, Matt Ryan will carve up the back four. The Raiders are 30th in points allowed. In fact, despite having a bye, Oakland has still allowed a league-high 55 points in the third quarter, which speaks to poor halftime adjustments. On the other hand, Atlanta has been a great second-half team thus far, pulling out games late in each of the past two weeks.
Despite near losses to the lowly Browns and Chiefs over the past two weeks, the sky isn't falling in Baltimore (or Dallas, for that matter). The issue with the Ravens is a run defense that has really struggled as of late. Baltimore currently ranks 20th in the category after finishing second in 2011. Meanwhile, the anarchy in Dallas and all the chit chat on Twitter centers around Tony Romo and his five interceptions vs. the Chicago Bears. Putrid pass protection and miscommunication between Romo and his receivers has much to do with those turnovers. The Ravens don't present the pass rush that Chicago does, but Romo and Dez Bryant can't have any misfires on the road in Baltimore. Ravens by three.
Five of the last seven meetings in this intra-state series have been one-score games, with the Cincinnati Bengals winning all but one: a 23-20 result in Cleveland in 2010, with a blocked field goal by Scott Fujita being the huge play. Expect more of the same here, with the special teams possibly making the difference. Josh Cribbs hasn't taken a kick to the house yet this season, by the way. But this isn't the week. This Week 6 AFC North showdown likely will come down to quarterback play, giving the Bengals the advantage.
Life A.D.A. (after Danny Amendola) starts this weekend for St. Louis, meaning Chris Givens and Brandon Gibson are tasked with doing what Bengals receivers couldn't do enough of against these Dolphins: Get open! Steven Jackson, Daryl Richardson -- whoever gets the carries in the ground game -- should be vaguely familiar with the Dolphins' front seven, because it's been playing like someone in their division, the San Francisco 49ers. On the other side of the ball, a healthier Reggie Bush has a nice game at home, taking pressure off Ryan Tannehill. Miami gets back to .500.
Tough to tell if the crust is rising or falling on this sucker, but after watching how the Jets' defense played against the Texans, this should be a tight game. My sense is Reggie Wayne will be held to five catches for 70 yards, forcing T.Y. Hilton to make hay. With running back Donald Brown out, Andrew Luck will throw the ball 35 to 40 times. Can New York do enough offensively to win? Yes. Rex Ryan's group knows that the Texans left them more than scraps at the dinner table -- New York just didn't take advantage. That motivation, along with Mark Sanchez's motivation to not be shown up by the NFL's hottest rookie quarterback, is enough to push New York to three up, three down.
Whether or not Mikel Leshoure is the man at tailback, the Detroit Lions will struggle offensively versus the Philadelphia Eagles. Quarterback Matt Stafford clearly is not in 2011 form, and the Eagles' secondary has been more effective this season. The starting safeties (Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman) have shown me something this year, and are a big reason Philly is only allowing a miniscule 5.5 yards per throw -- one of the lowest figures in the league. Another matchup to watch will be the Detroit front four vs. Michael Vick, but the latter must be supremely motivated to win at home, considering his mediocre campaign thus far.
What will Brady Quinn give the Kansas City Chiefs? Who knows? What we do know is that Matt Cassel had been one of the league's most ineffective quarterbacks before suffering a concussion in Week 5. No matter what happens, Jamaal Charles will probably see 25 carries and five targets out of the backfield in a game the Chiefs have to win -- or else 2012 becomes a lost year and a big step back for the organization. A big step forward for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has been their run defense, which is allowing just 73.8 yards per game this season -- fourth-best in the NFL -- after yielding a league-high 156.1 in 2011.
At 2-3, the Buffalo Bills are in danger of letting their season get away from them. Like it was in the disastrous second half of last season, quarterback play has been a big issue. Ryan Fitzpatrick looked completely inept against a strong defense last week -- as did the rest of the team. Don't hope for a turnaround against the Arizona Cardinals in the desert. While Arizona's offensive line has played like a can of Vienna sausages, making life very difficult for Kevin Kolb, home-field advantage and big plays from Ray Horton's defense will be Buffalo's undoing.
Oh, to pick the Seattle Seahawks at home ... Difficult, this selection is. Yet, the football gods have moved around the pieces, karmically repaying the Seahawks for their last home game (Tate Gate). Tom Brady overcomes two interceptions -- including a pick six -- to pull this one out in overtime. Russell Wilson's penchant for doing just enough to win will be thwarted by an opportunistic, if not dominant, defense that leads the AFC in takeaways with 14. Bill Belichick's club led the conference in the same category last season with 34.
Well, David Akers earns his paycheck Sunday at the 'Stick. The first-team All-Pro and fantasy juggernaut of 2011 has had a relatively quiet season thus far. While the Giants' red-zone defense has been less than average, the law of averages makes a person with a TI-81 calculator think that Big Blue's once-formidable pass rush (only eight sacks) has to get going at some point. This is the week, forcing the 49ers into more field goals than they would like. Akers has only hit one kick of 50-plus yards after nailing seven last year.Side note: Ahmad Bradshaw gained 200 yards last week. He'll fall only 180 short of that this week.
For the third week in a row, I'm predicting a safety (these predictions are tough to come by). Unfortunately, the safety Ryan Kerrigan produces -- his second huge defensive play in as many weeks -- won't be enough for the Washington Redskins. Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder has been absolutely outstanding this season, throwing six touchdowns to just two interceptions (both last week), boasting a 95.5 passer rating. The only time he struggles is on third down, when his rating dips to 74.4. Problem is, opposing quarterbacks have thrown for more yards on first down versus the Redskins than against any other team in the league. Washington has allowed more passing yards on first down than Dallas has on all three downs combined.
Adrian Peterson goes nuts this week, exorcising the demons from the field where he injured his knee last season.
With no Cedric Benson, Alex Green does so-so running the ball (feels 58 yard-ish), but fails miserably in pass protection. Houston's pass rush does just fine without Brian Cushing, as he's not a major factor in that area anyway. Expect Houston to get at least five sacks, with Aaron Rodgers holding the ball too long and Green Bay's ground game being a non-factor against the Texans' defense. Another reason for a Houston win -- other than J.J. Watt swatting yet another would-be third-down completion -- will be wideout Andre Johnson. The Green Bay secondary must cope with a great player embarrassed by his performance in New York (one catch, one drop). He's a wounded animal. Not good.
The Denver Broncos deliver on the road, thanks to Peyton Manning's recovery from two first-half interceptions and three second-half sacks by Von Miller. The Chargers will build an early lead, but second-half adjustments by John Fox and Co. will flip the script. The Broncos simply can't afford to fall two games back with a head-to-head loss to San Diego in tow. In addition, Norv Turner doesn't run a fast-break, no-huddle offense like the Patriots, meaning Miller and Elvis Dumervil will make a larger stamp on Week 6. Denver and San Diego even up at 3-3. (It's worth mentioning that the Chargers, despite my prediction of a loss here, are much better than people think.)