Tag Archives: Lambeau Field

4th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Minnesota Vikings

Our previews of all 32 NFL teams over the course of 32 days leading up to the start of the season, continues as the NFC North comes to an end with the Minnesota Vikings, who had a third-place finish the division last season.

The Vikings were dealt a major blow in training camp last season when QB Teddy Bridgewater suffered a torn ACL that caused him to miss the season. That caused the Vikings to trade for QB Sam Bradford, who led the team to an 8-8 record a season after an 11-5 record and division title. Bridgewater is still on the PUP list, so he’ll be out until at least Week 6 if he doesn’t come off the list before the end of the preseason, which means Bradford will remain the team’s starter heading into the season, with QB Case Keenum backing him up after signing a deal with the team in the offseason. For the first time since the 2006 season, RB Adrian Peterson won’t be on the Vikings’ roster after the team declined to pick up the option on his contract. They selected FSU RB Dalvin Cook with their first pick in the draft, likely expecting him to be Peterson’s long-term replacement. The team also lost RB Matt Asiata and WR Cordarrelle Patterson in free agency, leaving some holes on the offense that the team is trying to fill by signing RBs Bishop Sankey — who suffered a torn ACL in the team’s preseason opener and will miss the season — and Latavius Murray and WR Michael Floyd.

Bradford stayed healthy, which has been difficult for him in the past, and played 15 games. He completed a league-high 71.6% of his passes, setting a new career high of 3,877 yards, with 20 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. WR Adam Thielen surprisingly led the team with 967 yards on 69 receptions; he had 5 receiving touchdowns. WR Stefon Diggs recorded a team-high 84 catches for 903 yards and 3 touchdowns, and TE Kyle Rudolph was right behind him with 83 catches for 840 yards and 7 touchdowns. With Peterson out for most of the season, RB Jerick McKinnon split starting running back duties with Asiata, going carrying the ball 159 times for 539 yards and 2 touchdowns. He added 43 receptions for 255 yards and 2 receiving touchdowns out of the backfield. In 14 games with the Raiders last season, Murray ran for 788 yards and 4 touchdowns on 195 carries. All told, the Vikings’ offense ranked 23rd in the NFL in points scored for the season, while the defense allowed the sixth-fewest points in the league.

If Thielen can have a similar season to what he did last year and Rudolph can follow up his career year with another strong season, to go along with a potential 1,000-yard season from Diggs, the passing game should do fine for the Vikings. It can be even better if Floyd can contribute better numbers than the 488 yards he had between the Cardinals and Patriots last season. For the second year in a row, the running game is where the biggest question marks exist. Murray should help the unit, but Cook is looking like I could be in store to get a large portion of the carries; he was listed as the No. 1 running back on the team’s initial depth chart during camp.

The Vikings won’t have to wait long to see Peterson again as they host the Saints, his new team, in Week 1’s Monday night game. Their schedule then takes them to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers in Week 2. The Vikings face their divisional foes in three straight weeks, when they host the Lions in Week 4, visit the Bears on Monday night in Week 5 and play the Packers at home in Week 6. They have a Week 9 bye, which is sandwiched between road games — at the Browns in Week 8 and visiting the Redskins in Week 10. They visit the Lions in Week 12 for the first game of the Thanksgiving tripleheader, then get extra rest before heading to Atlanta to take on the Falcons in Week 13. They host the Bengals in Week 15, head to Lambeau Field to take on the Packers in primetime in Week 16 and finish the season at home against the Bears. I think the Vikings are looking at another .500 season in 2017.

Sources: http://www.vikings.com, http://www.pro-football-reference.com

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4th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Green Bay Packers

The next NFC North team in our continuing preview of all 32 NFL teams over the course of 32 days (or so) leading up to the start of the 2017 season is the Green Bay Packers, who are coming off a first-place finish in the division.

The Packers came within a game of making Super Bowl LI last season, falling to the Falcons in the NFC Championship. In the Aaron Rodgers era, the Packers have consistently had one of the top offenses in the NFL, and they added to it in the offseason by signing free-agent TEs Lance Kendricks and Martellus Bennett in an attempt to beef up a weak point of their offense. They’ll join a receiving core led by WRs Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams. There could be some questions with their running game, with WR-turned-RB Ty Montgomery expected to be the No. 1 back heading into the season.

Rodgers had one of the best seasons of his career last year — a high bar to cross — throwing for 4,428 yards and a league-leading 40 touchdowns, with 7 interceptions. He threw 14 of those touchdown passes to Nelson, who had 97 receptions for 1,257 yards. Adams had 75 receptions for 997 yards and 12 scores. WR Randall Cobb had decent production in the 10 games he played, grabbing 60 balls for 610 yards and 4 touchdowns. Montgomery had 44 catches for 348 yards. After being converted to a running back in the latter part of the season due to injuries, he became the team’s lead running back. Overall for the season, he had a team-high 77 attempts for 457 yards and 3 rushing touchdowns. Rodgers had the second-most rushing yards on the team, with RBs Eddie Lacy — who is now with the Seahawks — and James Starks limited in playing time by injuries. With the Patriots last season, Bennett had 55 receptions for 701 yards and 7 touchdowns, and Kendricks totaled 499 yards and 2 touchdowns on 50 catches for the Rams. The offense scored the fourth-most points in the league last season, and the defense was ranked in the bottom third of the league in points allowed.

If the Packers can get good production out of the running game, they should have one of the league’s best offenses again in 2017. The Rodgers-Nelson combo has been one of the best over the last several years when both are healthy. Adams is a strong No. 2 receiver, and the tight ends the team signed should be a vast improvement over what they got out of TEs Jared Cook and Richard Rodgers a season ago. With the defense not doing well last season and no major players signed on that side of the ball, the Packers are likely going to have to put a lot of points on the board to win games. They went with defensive players with their first four picks of the draft, including Washington CB Kevin King in the second round, but you never know how much success a player will have in his rookie year in the league.

The Packers’ schedule kicks off with a home game in Week 1 against the Seahawks, who should be among the better teams in the NFC this season. It doesn’t get easier in Week 2 when the Packers do battle with the Falcons as they open up their new stadium in the Sunday night game. They have a primetime rivalry game, taking on the Bears at Lambeau Field in Week 4’s Thursday nighter. The Packers then face the Cowboys on the road in Week 5, then travel to Minneapolis to take on the Vikings — likely their biggest competition in the division — in Week 6. They host the Saints in Week 7, then get their bye and come back to host the Lions in Week 9. The Packers face the Steelers in Pittsburgh in a primetime contest in Week 12. They end the season with back-to-back divisional contests, hosting the Vikings in a Saturday night special in Week 16 and visiting the Lions in Week 17. I think the Packers should at least match last year’s 10-win total, and they could improve upon that by a game or two, depending on how well the defense plays.

Sources: http://www.packers.com, http://www.pro-football-reference.com

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4th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Detroit Lions

We continue our previews of all 32 NFL teams over the course of 32 days (or so) leading up to the start of the 2017 season in the  NFC North with the Detroit Lions, who are coming off a second-place finish in the division last season.

The Lions barely missed winning the division last season, falling a game shy of upending the Packers for first place. They did make the playoffs but lost in the wild card round. Their notable free-agent signings this offseason include CB D.J. Hayden and RB Matt Asiata, who will look to help shore up a running game that was among the league’s worst in 2016. Among the team’s losses on offense is the departure of veteran WR Anquan Boldin

QB Matthew Stafford had a good season last year, completing more than 65 percent of his passes for 4,327 yards and 24 touchdowns, with 10 interceptions. His leading receiver was WR Golden Tate, who recorded 91 receptions for 1,077 yards but just 4 touchdowns. Despite only catching 55 passes, WR Marvin Jones had similar numbers, totaling 930 yards and 4 touchdowns. TE Eric Ebron had 61 catches for 711 yards and 1 touchdown in 13 games. RB Theo Riddick was the team’s leading rusher, but that included carrying the ball just 92 times for 357 yards and 1 touchdown in 10 games, eight starts. He added 371 receiving yards and 5 receiving touchdowns on 53 receptions. RB Zach Zenner played in 14 games and scored 4 touchdowns on 88 carries. With the Vikings, Asiata had 121 rushes for 402 yards and 6 scores. Overall, the Lions were 20th in the league in points scored while the defense was near the middle of the pack in points allowed.

Offense looks to be a challenge again for the Lions, entering the season without a running back who has proven to be a top-of-the-line starter at the position. Asiata could be the best of an underwhelming bunch, but he’s never started more than nine games in the first five seasons of his career. Stafford will have to increase his touchdown output to allow the Lions to score more points to keep the team in games. While Jones and Tate aren’t necessarily big-name receivers, they are able to put up decent numbers, with 1,000-yard seasons possible for both if they can stay healthy. Ebron has never been able to play all 16 games in a season, if he can do it this year he also has a chance to reach the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career.

The Cardinals come to Detroit to open the Lions’ schedule, which then takes the Lions to New Jersey to battle the Giants in Week 2. The Super Bowl runners-up are up in Week 3 with the Falcons visiting the Lions. Week 6 has the Lions visiting the Saints, followed by a bye and a home game with the Steelers in Week 8. The first game against the Packers is next on the slate, with a Week 9 visit to Lambeau Field. The Lions visit the Buccaneers in Week 14, with a trip to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals in Week 16. The team ends the season hosting the Packers for the second straight year. The Lions won nine games last season, and it’s looking like they’ll be right around there again in 2017. That was good enough to make the playoffs last year, but 10 wins may be needed to make it this time around.

Sources: http://www.detroitlions.com, http://www.pro-football-reference.com

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Recapping my first visit to Minute Maid Park

In December I wrote about my trip to Green Bay to see the Texans play the Packers at Lambeau Field. Last week, I took another sports-related trip to see another Houston team play in person. This time I went to Houston to see the Astros play at Minute Maid Park for the first time, attending the final two games of the series against the A’s and the three-game series against the Yankees in the Astros’ final homestand before the all-star break.

Austin

My trip began in Austin, where I spent a day before heading over to Houston. I didn’t get to check out as much of the Texas capital as I would have liked in my limited time there, but I did get to check out Graffiti Park at Castle Hills, a public art display that anyone can contribute to, and the Congress Avenue Bridge bats, who emerge from underneath the bridge around sundown nightly during the spring and summer months.

 

Congress Avenue bats

The bats at Congress Avenue Bridge

Houston

Then it was off to Houston for the main purpose of the trip, to check out Minute Maid Park for the first time. It is the 12th current Major League Baseball stadium I have been to and, as an Astros fan, one that I’ve been wanting to go to for a while. I would have liked to have seen the stadium in person when Tal’s Hill was still there, but it was still a nice stadium even with that unique feature having been removed during the offseason. And with the Astros maintaining the best record in MLB, it was a good time to attend games there in person, with the team playing well and interest in the squad higher than it usually is.

 

Game 1 (6/28/17)

The Astros lost the first game of the three-game series against the A’s the night I was in Austin, but I was there for the second game of the series. SP David Paulino got the start for the Astros and SP Jesse Hahn took the ball for Oakland in a game that proved to be anything but a pitcher’s duel. Paulino shut down the visitors with a 1-2-3 top of the first, then Astros OF George Springer got the offense going with a leadoff home run in the bottom of the first, and the first Astros at-bat I would experience at Minute Maid Park. That got the train moving, as it does whenever an Astro player hits a home run at the stadium. Springer’s dinger was just the beginning of the scoring in the game, with the Astros scoring a total of nine runs in the first three innings. The A’s also got into the offensive action, scoring eight runs in the game, including seven between the second and fifth innings. The Astros tacked on a couple extra runs later in the game, eventually winning by a margin of 11-8. The home team totalled 17 hits on the night, with Springer’s leadoff homer the team’s only home run of the game. Oakland, on the other hand, scored their eight runs on eight hits that included five home runs, including two off the bat of OF Khris Davis. Hahn lasted just two innings, allowing six runs to score. Things weren’t much better for Paulino, who gave up seven runs in four innings. The Astros offense was able to make up for the subpar pitching, though, with all nine players in their starting lineup got at least one hit and six Astros recording multiple hits, including three-hit games for Springer and OF Josh Reddick.

 

That game also marked the 10th anniversary of when former Astros C/2B/OF Craig Biggio recorded his 3,000th career hit on June 28, 2007.

Part of a video montage honoring Biggio's 3,000th career hit

Part of a video montage honoring the 10th anniversary of Craig Biggio’s 3,000th career hit

Game 2 (6/29/17)

The Astros’ bats continue hitting for the series finale against Oakland but the visitors’ bats cooled down, losing 6-1. The A’s scored first, taking a 1-0 lead in the fourth inning but it was short-lived as the Astros scored two runs in the bottom of the inning to take a lead that would last throughout the game. The player of the game was Astros SS Carlos Correa, who hit two home runs in the game, both two-run shots, in the fourth and sixth innings. Astros SP Brad Peacock only allowed the one run in his five innings of work, but he needed 106 pitches to get through the fifth. He walked six batters and struck out seven in a good but inefficient outing. The bullpen went four scoreless innings to protect the lead after Peacock departed.

For this game, I chose to stand on the home-run porch in center field, where there is a gas pump, seen below, that tallies every home run that the Astros have hit at the park since it opened in 2000 (known as Enron Field at the time).

 

Game 3 (6/30/17)

The Yankees are in town for the weekend, with a decent amount of their fans at Minute Maid. The Astros took an early 1-0 lead in the first inning and were up 3-1 after four, but things went downhill from there. SP Lance McCullers Jr. had a good outing, allowing three runs in 5.1 innings with six strikeouts, but the bullpen did not help him out. RP Michael Feliz was the first reliever in the game and gave up three runs — two earned — in just .1 innings. RP Reymin Guduan then followed him. He went .2 innings and was charged with three earned runs, thanks in part to RP James Hoyt, who gave up a grand slam to Yankees OF Brett Gardner in the seventh inning. In all, the Yankees scored nine runs in two innings — five in the sixth and four in the seventh — to go up 10-3 after seven. The Astros added a run in the bottom of the eighth inning to make it 10-4, but Astros manager A.J. Hinch realized the game was out of reach so he brought in OF Nori Aoki to pitch in the top of the ninth, the first time Aoki has pitched in a game since high school. He had trouble finding the strike zone at first, with nine of his first 10 pitches being balls, and he allowed one hit, two walks and three earned runs in his inning of work. Yankees slugger Aaron Judge served as the DH in the game, going 0-4 including flying out to center field off of Aoki for the final out of the top of the ninth inning.

While this game didn’t go as well as I would have liked, it’s entertaining to see a position player pitch, and I believe that was the first time that has happened at a game that I have attended in person.

 

Despite the blowout loss, many of the fans stuck around for the whole game and stayed for the postgame fireworks that the Astros have following every Friday night home game. With the roof being closed all week due to the heat and humidity, it was the only chance for me to experience Minute Maid Park with the roof open.

 

Game 4 (7/1/17)

Saturday featured another competitive game to begin the month of July, with neither team scoring until the Astros put two runs on the board in the bottom of the fifth thanks to a home run from 1B Yuli Gurriel. Astros SP Francis Martes lasted five-plus innings before giving way to the bullpen, which blew a lead for the second straight game. RP Will Harris took over with runners on first and third and nobody out in the top of the sixth inning. Yankees OF Jacoby Ellsbury was the first batter Harris faced, and he walked to load the bases. C Gary Sanchez then singled, putting the Yankees on the board with an RBI. SS Didi Gregorius then batted with the bases still loaded, and he hit his first career grand slam — the second straight game the Yankees hit a grand slam off of an Astros reliever. That five-run inning put the Yankees up 5-2. The Astros got a run back in the bottom of the sixth with a Correa home run, but Yankees OF Clint Frazier hit a solo homer in the seventh inning to put the visitors up by a score of 6-3. Then the bottom of the eighth inning happened. Yankees RP Dellin Betances began the inning by striking out Springer, then walking 2B Jose Altuve, who would steal both second and third. He would score on a Correa groundout. C Evan Gattis followed that up with a solo home run that made it a one-run game. Betances then walked DH Carlos Beltran, who was pinch-run for by Reddick. Reddick advanced to second on a botched pickoff attempt and then stole third base. OF Marwin Gonzalez walked, putting runners on the corners with two outs. Yankee manager Joe Girardi brought in closer Aroldis Chapman, looking for a four-out save. But the first batter he faced, Gurriel, doubled. Both runners scored on that hit, giving the Astros a 7-6 lead. Chapman then struck out 3B Alex Bregman to end the inning, but not before four runners crossed the plate to give the home team the lead. Astros closer Ken Giles came into the game in the ninth to close it out. He got pinch-hitter Judge and Frazier to both pop out to Gurriel at first base for the first two outs of the inning. Then Gardner came up to the plate …

Gardner singled but, for some reason, took a very wide turn around first base thinking about going to second. He finally thought better of it and dove back toward first, but the relay from Reddick to Correa to Gurriel was in time to get Gardner on the game-ending 7-6-3 putout. Astros win the game 7-6 on a bad base-running play by Gardner.

 

Game 5 (7/2/17)

The final game of my trip to Minute Maid Park — and the Astros’ last home game before the all-star break — lacked the excitement of the night before. Yankees SP Luis Severino didn’t have his best stuff, giving up three runs in the second inning on a two-run home run off the bat of Gonzalez and a Reddick RBI double. The Astros then scored a couple more times in the fourth inning with a two-run double by Correa to make it 5-0. They would add another run in the sixth and two more in the seventh for a 8-0 lead. Yankees 1B Chris Carter tallied an RBI single in the top of the month for a meaningless run that only served to avoid the shutout. The Astros won the game by a final of 8-1. Astros SP Mike Fiers had a similar game to Peacock a couple days earlier in which he pitched well but inefficiently. He was only able to go four innings, walking four batters and striking out seven. RP Chris Devenski relieved him, recording four strikeouts in two innings of work that allowed him to pick up the win.

 

Overall impressions

Based on the five games I went to there, I like Minute Maid Park. Even though it opened 17 years ago, it still feels like a new stadium, with good views of the field from all over the stands. Even after getting rid of Tal’s Hill, the stadium has some unique features that make it easily identifiable, including the train and the home run-tracking gas pump on the home run porch in the outfield, which itself is a nice place to stand and watch at least part of the game — and a good spot to try to catch balls during batting practice or if a home run is hit there during a game.

So my journey to Minute Maid Park ended with the Astros going 4-1 in five games. Here are some more pictures I took at the stadium and around Houston.

 

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My NFL Picks Wild Card Playoffs: Giants-Packers highlights a weekend full of backup quarterbacks

After 17 weeks of the regular season, the NFL playoffs have arrived with 12 teams hoping to end up in Houston on Feb. 5 to play in Super Bowl LI, although just a handful or so have a realistic chance of making it there. There’s not a lot of star power in the wild card round, with teams like the Patriots and Cowboys having earned first-round byes. The best matchup of the weekend figures to be the last game of the weekend slate, when the Giants head to Green Bay to take on the NFC North champion Packers. Two of the other three games each feature at least one backup or third-string quarterback getting a start. During the regular season, I finished with a 129-127 record against the spread (and 156-98-2 picking games straight up).

Saturday

No. 5 seed Oakland Raiders (12-4, Wild Card) at No. 4 seed Houston Texans (9-7, AFC South champions) (-3.5, over/under 36.5)

For the second straight season, the Texans won the AFC South with a 9-7 record and host the first game of the postseason. It didn’t go well last season, when they got shut out by the Chiefs, 30-0. This time, they’ll play the Raiders, who are going to start third-string QB Connor Cook. QB Matt McGloin started in Week 17, filling in for QB Derek Carr, who suffered a broken leg a week earlier. McGloin left the game with a shoulder injury, though, so he will not be ready for action this week, setting Cook up to make his first career start in the NFL. The Texans quarterback situation is also a mess. QB Tom Savage started the last couple of games, but he had to leave Sunday’s game as he entered the concussion protocol and did not return to the game after that. That let QB Brock Osweiler, who was benched for Savage earlier in the season, get back in the game. At this time, Osweiler is expected to start for the home team.

Neither team is likely going to be able to rely on its running game, either. RB Latavius Murray is the Raiders’ leading rusher, but he totaled just 788 yards on the ground in 14 games. Texans starting RB Lamar Miller missed the last two games with injury but is expected to be ready to go this weekend. If healthy he can have a good game, but his health is a question mark. The Raiders likely have the advantage in the receiving game, with WRs Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper each having amassed more than 1,000 receiving yards. Subpar quarterback play limited the production of the Texans’ receivers, with WR DeAndre Hopkins leading the way with 954 yards but just 4 touchdowns. Rookie WR Will Fuller V showed promise at times, hauling in 47 catches for 635 yards and 2 touchdowns. If Osweiler starts, look out for TE C.J. Fiedorowicz, who is Brock’s favorite target not named Hopkins. Fiedorowicz had 559 yards and 4 touchdowns on 54 receptions, second only to Hopkins.

The biggest discrepancy between the teams comes on the defensive side of the ball. Even without DE J.J. Watt, who hasn’t played since Week 3, the Texans have one of the best defenses in the league, while the Raiders were in the bottom half of the league in points allowed and in the bottom 10 in yards against. With the teams expected to struggle to score points with the quarterbacks who will be starting for them, defense will likely be the X factor in this game, which is why I give the Texans have the overall advantage. In a rematch of the Mexico City game from Week 11, I’ll take the Texans to win the game, 16-10, so I’ll take the Texans (-3.5) and under the 36.5 total.

No. 6 seed Detroit Lions (9-7, Wild Card) at No. 3 seed Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1, NFC West champions) (-8, over/under 43.5)

Losing to the Packers on Sunday night forced the Lions on the road in Seattle instead of hosting a playoff game as the NFC North champions. This quarterback matchup is the opposite of the early game, with two quarterbacks who have strong track records over several seasons in the league. For the Lions, QB Matthew Stafford threw for 4,327 yards and 24 touchdowns with a career-low 10 interceptions. On the other side, QB Russell Wilson was inconsistent over the course of the season but got better as the season progressed and he got over some injuries that nagged him early in the season. He threw for 4,219 yards and 21 touchdowns with a career-worst 11 interceptions, although he ended the season without throwing a pick in the last two games. Overall, the two teams are pretty evenly matched at the quarterback position.

Injuries caused both teams’ running backs to significantly underperform. No back carried the ball more than 92 times for the Lions. That was RB Theo Riddick, who hasn’t played since Week 13. RB Zach Zenner was the LIons’ best running back late in the season, starting the final two games and scoring 3 touchdowns on 32 rushes. Despite being limited to nine games, RB Thomas Rawls led the Seahawks’ rushing attack, with 109 carries for just 349 yards and 3 touchdowns. Both teams had more success through the air, with each squad having a 1,000-yard receiver. For the Lions, it was WR Golden Tate, who had 91 receptions for 1,077 yards and 4 touchdowns. Veteran WR Anquan Boldin also had a good season; he had 8 touchdowns on 67 receptions. For Seattle, WR Doug Baldwin led the way 94 catches for 1,128 yards and 7 touchdowns. TE Jimmy Graham had 65 receptions for 923 yards and 6 touchdowns in a comeback season after playing in just 11 games in 2015.

The Seahawks have the advantage defensively, ranking in the top five for the season in both points and yards allowed. Even without S Earl Thomas, who is on injured reserve, the Seahawks have the better defensive unit than a Lions squad that allowed 66 more points than Seattle did during the regular season. Although the Lions have a good offense, I think the Seahawks will be up to the challenge and that should be the difference in the game. People say defense wins championships, and I think it’ll win this game for the NFC West champs. Seahawks win the game, 27-20, so I’ll take the Lions with the points and over the 43.5 total.

Sunday

No. 6 seed Miami Dolphins (10-6, Wild Card) at No. 3 seed Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5, AFC North champions) (-10, over/under 46)

Heinz Field will be the site of the early Sunday game when the Dolphins visit the Steelers. QB Matt Moore is going to get the start for the Dolphins, as he’s done each of the last three weeks as QB Ryan Tannehill recovers from his sprained knee. The Steelers will be starting a quarterback with plenty of playoff experience, Ben Roethlisberger, who didn’t have the best season of his career but is still better than the opposing quarterback. Steelers have the definite edge at the position.

The Steelers may have a slight advantage in the running game — with RB Le’Veon Bell, one of the league’s best at the position — but it’s probably the closest among the offensive skill positions. Despite being suspended for the season’s first three games and not playing in a meaningless Week 17 game, Bell ran for 1,268 yards and 7 touchdowns in 12 games. Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi had similar numbers — 1,272 yards and 8 touchdowns — also in 12 starts. A large chunk of Ajayi’s production, however, came in just a few games when he had back-to-back games of 200-plus yards in Weeks 6 and 7, with a third 200-yard performance in Week 16. Outside of those three weeks, his stats don’t look overly impressive. In the receiving game, WR Jarvis Landry led the Dolphins with 94 receptions, 1,136 yards and 4 touchdowns. But the Steelers again have the advantage at this position with WR Antonio Brown –perhaps Pittsburgh’s best offensive player — catching 106 balls for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns despite not playing in Week 17. Bell is also a key part of the receiving core; he was second on the team with 75 receptions on the season, adding 616 yards and 2 touchdowns to complement his rushing numbers.

Although neither team’s defense is particularly noteworthy, the Steelers also have the better unit on that side of the ball, having given up 53 fewer points during the season than the Dolphins did. And the Dolphins allowed the fourth-most yards in the league, which isn’t good when you’re facing a team with Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown. Overall, the Steelers are the clear favorites and should win the game, but I think a 10-point spread is a bit much for a game like this because the Dolphins can put points on the board. I’ll take the Steelers to win the game, 32-27, so give me the Dolphins (+10) and over the 46 total.

No. 5 seed New York Giants (11-5, Wild Card) at No. 4 seed Green Bay Packers (10-6, NFC North champions) (-4.5, over/under 44.5)

Wild-card weekend concludes with a matchup of one of the league’s best defenses against one of the top offenses. The Packers won 23-16 when these teams met at Lambeau in Week 5 so the Giants are looking to avenge that loss. Giants QB Eli Manning didn’t have great season, putting up his worst numbers since 2013. He threw for 4,027 yards and 26 touchdowns with 16 interceptions. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, on the other hand, almost single-handedly led his team to the division title as he had to deal with a lack of a running game and a poor defense. He had his best season since 2011, throwing for 4,428 yards and 40 touchdowns with just 7 interceptions.

The running game wasn’t either team’s strong suit this season, although Giants RB Paul Perkins started to come on in the last couple of weeks, culminating in a career-best 102-yard performance against the Redskins in Week 17. For the Packers, WR-turned-RB Ty Montgomery was the team’s leading rusher; he ran the ball 77 times for 457 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Giants have a strong one-two punch at receiver, with WRs Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard. Beckham had 101 receptions for 1,367 yards and 10 touchdowns while Shepard totaled 683 yards and 8 touchdowns on his 65 catches. For the Packers, WRs Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams lead the receiving core. Nelson had 97 receptions for 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns. Adams just missed the 1,000-yard milestone; he had 997 yards and 12 touchdowns on 75 receptions.

The Giants have the advantage on defense, ranking second in the league in points allowed. Conversely, the Packers were 12th-worst in that stat, having given up 106 more points than Big Blue. And the Giants’ defense will have to perform well if they want to win the game because the offense isn’t as potent as Green Bay’s. I expect the Packers to win the game and think they’ll cover, 27-21. I’ll give the 4.5 points and go over the 44.5

Awaiting this weekend’s winners in the divisional round are the Patriots and Chiefs in the AFC and the Cowboys and Falcons in the NFC. If my picks hold up, next week’s AFC games would pit the Texans against the Patriots and Steelers taking on the Chiefs in the AFC, while the Cowboys would host the Packers with the Seahawk visiting the Falcons in the NFC.

(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)

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NFL Quarterly Report: Are the Cowboys and Raiders the best teams in the league?

All 32 NFL teams have now played 12 games, which means we’re three-quarters through the regular season. With just 25% of the season remaining, the playoff picture is becoming much clearer. It appears as if the Cowboys are continuing to coast to the top seed in the NFC as they are the first team to clinch a playoff spot, while the Patriots likely won’t be as dominant in the postseason as people thought they could be earlier on, and the Raiders could be heading toward the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

The Patriots took a hit a couple weeks ago when TE Rob Gronkowski suffered a back injury that required surgery and will sideline him for the rest of the season. While the Patriots are still the best team in the AFC East and will make the playoffs, their chances of making a deep postseason run are not as good as they would have been if they had Gronkowski, who is QB Tom Brady’s favorite target and best receiver. TE Martellus Bennett has not yet stepped up in Gronk’s absence. For the rest of the division, the Dolphins are currently in second place at 7-5 but coming off a bad loss to the Ravens to end their winning streak. At 6-6, the Bills are in third place but gave up 29 unanswered points on Sunday to lose at the Raiders. The Jets, meanwhile, are playing out the string for the final four games of what has been a disappointing season. Judging by how their defense played on Monday night, it could be a long four games for the Jets. The Patriots are likely going to be the only playoff team coming out of the division.

Things are going better for the first-place team in the NFC East as the Cowboys have won 11 in a row behind QB Dak Prescott after dropping their season opener. At 11-1, they have clinched a playoff spot, the only team to do so to this point, and are the front-runners to land home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. The Giants lost a tough game to the Steelers this weekend, with QB Eli Manning not playing well, to end their six-game win streak and put them at 8-4, good for second place. They will continue to try to hold off the 6-5-1 Redskins for second place in the division and a potential Wild Card berth. The Giants currently hold the No. 5 seed in the conference, while the Redskins have fallen out of the NFC’s second Wild Card but are still in the hunt. The Eagles continue their downward spiral into last place in the division at 5-7, having lost their last three games and five of their last six. QB Carson Wentz has regressed significantly from his hot start and the team is now likely out of playoff contention.

The Ravens and Steelers are tied at 7-5, though the Ravens lead the AFC North due to tiebreakers. Baltimore’s convincing Week 13 win over the Dolphins was the team’s second straight win, and the Steelers have won three in a row but are on the outside of the playoff race. The Bengals picked up their first win since October on Sunday, but it won’t do them much good at this point as they sit at 4-7-1. The only thing keeping them out of last place in the division is the Browns, who are still winless at 0-12. After their bye in Week 13, they host the Bengals this week as they look to finally get in the win column. It appears as though QB Robert Griffin III could get the start after missing much of the season with an injury. Will that be what the Browns need to win a game? If not, their final three games are at the Bills, hosting the Chargers and visiting the Steelers. I think San Diego is the best shot for the Browns to pick up a win but it’s obviously not a certainty.

The Lions are in control of the NFC North, with an 8-4 record and two-game lead over the Vikings and Packers, who are each 6-6. The Lions appear to have the advantage in the division, facing the lowly Bears this week while the Vikings battle the Jaguars, which should be a winnable game, and the Packers face a stiff test against the Seahawks. If the Packers can gain a game on the Lions in the next couple of weeks, Week 17 could feature a win-and-in game for the division title with the Lions hosting the Packers. Winning the division will be important because there will likely be just one playoff team coming out of the NFC North. And it won’t be the Bears, who are 3-9, with their most recent win coming at the expense of the 1-11 49ers.

The AFC South is up for grabs after the Texans dropped their third straight this week, losing a snowy contest at Lambeau Field, putting them in a dead heat with the Titans, who had their bye this week, and the Colts at 6-6; the Texans, who are a perfect 3-0 in the division, hold the tiebreakers and are technically in first pace. The Texans’ offseason signing of QB Brock Osweiler is looking worse every week as he has not shown much improvement as the season as progressed. Houston’s defense, still without DE J.J. Watt of course, will have to continue to play well enough to keep scoring low and the Texans offense in games if they want to have a chance to repeat as division champs. An 8-8 record could win this division with the way things are looking right now. And the Jaguars are on their way to a last-place finish as the breakout season that many predicted for QB Blake Bortles and the Jags offense has not materialized. The Texans play the Titans in Nashville in Week 17, which could be a winner-take-all battle for the division title.

The NFC South has turned into a good two-team race between the Falcons and Buccaneers as the former suffered a tough loss to the Chiefs in Week 13 and the latter continued their winning ways, winning their fourth straight game to tie the Falcons at 7-5. The Falcons currently hold the tiebreaker over Tampa and technically lead the division, but the Bucs have a hold on the NFC’s second Wild Card. The Saints, at 5-7, hold third place in the division, but the biggest surprise in the South is the 4-8 Panthers, who were blown out by the Seahawks on Sunday night. After making it to Super Bowl 50 last season, the Panthers have really dropped off this year with QB Cam Newton not able to live up to expectations that were set for him after his MVP campaign in 2015. Back at the top of the division, winning the division is obviously important to get a home playoff game, but it may not be the only way to get into the postseason as one of the Wild Cards could come out of the NFC South.

The Raiders’ successful season continues after coming back to beat the BIlls in Week 13 to improve their record to 10-2, putting them at the top of the AFC. With Gronkowski out for the Patriots, the Raiders may be able to make a deep playoff run, possibly even making it to Super Bowl LI in Houston. Oakland isn’t the only good team in the AFC West, though, with the Chiefs at 9-3 and the Broncos right behind them at 8-4. I believe both of the AFC’s Wild Card teams will come out of the West, meaning all three of those teams will make the playoffs. The division winner will likely get one of the top two seeds in the conference and the important first-round bye that comes along with that. The Raiders visit the Chiefs on Thursday night, which could be a key game in determining the division champion. The Chargers, who aren’t having a bad season but have given up leads late to lose some games, round out the division with a 5-7 record heading into the last quarter of the regular season.

The NFC West race is all but over, with the 8-3-1 Seahawks holding a three-game lead over the 5-6-1 Cardinals, who picked up a surprising win against the Redskins in Week 13. The Rams, who recently gave head coach Jeff Fisher a contract extension, sit at 4-8 and the 49ers are just 1-11 after losing to the Bears on Sunday. The Cardinals’ lack of success is sort of surprising but people weren’t expecting much out of the Rams or 49ers this season. The Seahawks are currently the No. 2 seed in the NFC so they could be on their way to a first-round bye in the playoffs as QB Russell Wilson appears to be as healthy as he has been all season at the best time for that to happen.

With four weeks left in the regular season, just one team has punched its ticket into the postseason, but others are well on their way to doing that and will clinch playoff berths in the next week or two. At the bottom of the league, the most interesting storyline is whether the Browns will win a game. They have only four more chances to avoid becoming the second team in NFL history to finish a season 0-16.

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My NFL Picks Week 7: Osweiler returns to Denver and the Steelers battle the Patriots without Roethlisberger

An injury in Week 6 put a damper on one of Week 7’s biggest games, with QB Ben Roethlisberger out when the Steelers host the Patriots on Sunday afternoon. The week begins with a NFC North rivalry game as the Bears visit QB Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at Lambeau Field on Thursday night. In the week’s final game, QB Brock Osweiler returns to Denver on Monday night, leading the Texans into action against the Broncos, with whom he won the Super Bowl last season. The reeling Panthers, who are just 1-5 this season, have a bye this week, as do the 5-1 Cowboys. I went just 3-12 last week (but 7-8 straight up, without the spread) to bring my record to 40-52 for the season. I’m using the lines from ESPN’s Pigskin Pick ‘Em game. My picks are in bold and my survivor pool pick is in red

Byes: Panthers, Cowboys

Thursday Night Football
Bears at Packers (-9.5) – The Packers offense has been disappointing so far this season, while the Bears offense has picked up since QB Jay Cutler went down and QB Brian Hoyer has stepped into take his spot in the starting lineup. Due to that, I expect this game to be closer than some people might expect it to be. Packers win the game, but I think the Bears keep it to a single-digit differential.

Sunday morning London game
Giants at Rams (+2.5) – In the second of three London games this season, QB Eli Manning leads the Giants into action against the Rams. Both teams are 3-3 on the season, but the Giants are in last place in the NFC East and the Rams are in second in the NFC West. The Rams have a long flight to make from Los Angeles to get to this game, which won’t make it easy for a team that is that good to begin with. I think the Giants cover the 2.5 points.

Sunday 1PM games
Bills at Dolphins (+2.5) – The Bills have looked good during their current four-game winning streak, with RB LeSean McCoy running all over the competition, although McCoy’s availability is in question after leaving Wednesday’s practice early with a hamstring injury. Despite pulling off the upset of the Steelers on Sunday, the Dolphins aren’t a good team. RB Jay Ajayi seems like he may have found his groove, but QB Ryan Tannehill isn’t putting up good numbers. The Bills should easily win this divisional game on the road.
Browns at Bengals (-9.5) – Giving up 9.5 points is a lot, and the Bengals aren’t a team that I would normally pick when favored by that much, but I think they can cover it. The Browns best player, WR Terrelle Pryor, is nursing a hamstring injury and may not be able to play. If he can’t go, I think the Bengals cover. If Pryor is able to play, then I have a little more doubt about it. Regardless, I expect the Bengals to win the game outright, forcing the Browns to wait another week for their first win.
Redskins at Lions (-1.5) – Expect a blowout in this one, with Redskins QB Kirk Cousins and Lions QB Matthew Stafford heaving the ball throughout the game. The Lions’ running game is diminished due to ongoing injuries, and the Redskins’ run game picked things up last week, which bodes well for a Washington win on the road.
Colts at Titans (-2.5) – The Colts blew a big lead against the Texans on Sunday night, ultimately losing in overtime, while the Titans beat the Browns. At the beginning of the season, I wouldn’t have expected to be saying this, but I think the Titans are better than the Colts right now, especially with the way Marcus Mariota has been playing in the last couple games. If he can keep it up, I think the Titans win this game and put the last-place Colts even further behind in the AFC South race.
Saints at Chiefs (-6.5) – QB Drew Brees doesn’t play as well on the road as he does at home at the Superdome, but I don’t trust the Chiefs to get out to a big lead in this one. Home or road, I think Brees is a better quarterback than the Chiefs’ Alex Smith so I think the Saints keep this game closer than 6.5 points. The Chiefs may win the game, but I don’t think they cover the spread.
Raiders at Jaguars (-0.5) – I’m surprised the Jaguars are favored, even if it’s just by half a point. I realize the Raiders are traveling to the East Coast to play a 1:00 game, which often results in a loss for a West Coast team, But the Jags aren’t a good team and, barring last week’s loss to the Chiefs, the Raiders have the best team they’ve had in several years. QB Derek Carr should lead the Raiders to the win.
Vikings at Eagles (+2.5) – Coming off their bye, the undefeated Vikings head to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles as Vikings QB Sam Bradford takes on the team that traded him during training camp. Rookie QB Carson Wentz, who has cooled off a bit since his hot start, leads the Eagles at home. The Vikings have the best defense in the NFL, and it’ll likely be hard for the Eagles to put up a lot of points. Vikings should easily cover the 2.5-point spread.
Ravens at Jets (-0.5) – The Jets are 1-5 and just got blown out by the Cardinals, 28-3, on Monday night. The Ravens aren’t as good as the Cardinals, but I don’t see how they lose to the Jets, who are somehow favored by half a point. The Jets defense isn’t good so QB Joe Flacco and RB Terrance West should be able to move the ball down the field for Baltimore. On the other side of the ball, QB Geno Smith came into Monday’s game in relief of QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has played poorly the last several weeks. The Jets are expected to give Smith his first start of the season, which likely won’t work out well for the home team. Ravens win.

Sunday 4PM games

Chargers at Falcons (-6.5)The Falcons high-powered offense gets to go against a subpar Chargers defense in this game. The combo of QB Matt Ryan and WR Julio Jones has helped lead the Falcons to their 4-2 record. QB Philip Rivers and the Chargers can also put points on the scoreboard, but I don’t think they’ll be able to keep up with Ryan and his teammates.
Buccaneers at 49ers (+1.5) – Installing QB Colin Kaepernick as the starter didn’t do much to help the 49ers offense in last week’s loss to the Bills. The Bucs don’t have nearly as good of a defense as the Bills, but I still don’t see the 49ers putting up a lot of points, especially with RB Carlos Hyde potentially having to sit out the game. I expect the Bucs to get the road win, and it shouldn’t be hard to cover that small spread.
Steelers at Patriots (-6.5) – With QB Landry Jones getting the start in place of Roethlisberger, I don’t see the Steelers being competitive in this game. Patriots QB Tom Brady should continue his streak of fine performances he has put up in his first two starts of the season, especially with TE Rob Gronkowski appearing to be at full health, or close to it, after sitting out the Patriots’ first couple games of 2016.

Sunday Night Football
Seahawks at Cardinals (-1.5) The Seahawks look to expand their lead in the NFC West in this divisional battle. QB Russell Wilson still may not be 100 percent as he continues to deal with some minor injuries, but RB Christine Michael has looked good starting in place of injured RB Thomas Rawls. For the Cardinals, RB David Johnson has been one of the best at the position this season, but QB Carson Palmer hasn’t been living up to the numbers that people have come to expect from him. The Cardinals are slight favorites in this prime-time game, but I think the Seahawks win it outright.

Monday Night Football
Texans at Broncos (-7.5) – Osweiler returns to Denver, leading the Texans against his former team, the Broncos. The Broncos, coming off a two-game losing streak, have one of the better defenses in the league but their offense hasn’t been clicking recently. Texans RB Lamar Miller, meanwhile, had his best game of the season on Sunday night as Osweiler led the team on impressive drives late in the game to eventually pull off the overtime win against the Colts. I think the spread is a little too big and the Texans should stay within a touchdown, even though I think the Broncos may win the game.

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