It’s another Monday night and there’s another meaningful football game with playoff implications. These two teams may be in different conferences, but both need to come out on top in this game. Let’s take a closer look at the Ravens and the Lions.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
There’s a lot of pressure on the Lions, as the Bears have taken over the lead in the NFC North after Detroit had plenty of opportunities to run away with the division and failed to do so. The Lions will win a tiebreaker with the Bears, but a loss tonight by Detroit would mean that Chicago controls its own destiny, which is not a position the Lions want to be. Baltimore is in a similar position, as they control their tiebreaker with Miami for the final wildcard spot in the AFC, but a loss tonight would put them a game behind the Dolphins, meaning Miami would control its own destiny. Miami also has an easier schedule the final two weeks than the Ravens do, so it’ll be easier for the Dolphins to lock up the final wildcard spot if they get a lead on Baltimore, making this game a must-win for the Ravens, even on the road.
BALTIMORE OFFENSE VS. DETROIT DEFENSE
It has not been a good season for the Ravens on offense, but there have been marginal signs of improvement in recent weeks, which gives them some hope coming down the stretch. The issue they’ll have in this game is that Detroit is one of the best teams in the league at stopping the run with its stout defensive front, and if Baltimore can’t establish its ground game, it’ll be tough for Joe Flacco to go deep, which is what he does best. If the Ravens can make the Lions respect their running attack and keep Flacco protected in the pocket, he may be able to have success with a growing group of playmakers around him with the return of Dennis Pitta and the emergence of rookie Marlon Brown, who caught the game-winning touchdown last week against Minnesota. Detroit’s defense has given up a lot of yards and a lot of points this season, and they’re not always reliable, but if they can stuff the run and pressure Flacco with their pass rush, they should be able to slow up the Ravens enough to win the game.
DETROIT OFFENSE VS. BALTIMORE DEFENSE
The Lions have a great gunslinger in Matthew Stafford and one of the best wide receivers in football in Calvin Johnson, but that hasn’t always translated into wins for them. Reggie Bush is in limbo after missing last week’s game, but he’s expected to play, and he’s the ultimate x-factor for the Detroit offense. When Bush is involved in the offense and is being productive as either a runner or receiver, the Lions reach another level and can be tough to stop. The Baltimore defense has done well this season even after losing several key players, but this will be the best offense they’ve faced since week 1 when they played Denver. If the Ravens can’t stop the Lions from moving the ball, then their only hope could be to force turnovers, which is a weakness Detroit has showcased several times this season, although taking the ball away isn’t necessarily a strength of the Ravens. If the Lions can hold onto the football, they should be able to score a substantial amount of points, but if not, the advantage in this matchup could go to the Ravens.
This is a tough game to call, because both teams need to win, so there’s a sense of urgency on both sides. Detroit is the more talented team, but they’ve also lost three of their last four and have let opportunities pass them by, while the Ravens have won four of their last five and are fighting hard to get back to the playoffs, and they look excited to be playing football, so it’s not hard to envision the Ravens pulling off a surprise win on Monday night. However, the Ravens are 1-5 on the road this season, and in a dome stadium, offense is worth more than defense, and there’s no doubt the Lions have a distinct advantage there. Detroit 31, Baltimore 21.
The Saints and Seahawks could end up playing one of the best Monday night games of the season tonight, as well as one of the most meaningful. Let’s take a closer look:
WHAT’S AT STAKE
The top seed in the NFC playoffs will probably be decided by this game. The Seahawks are 10-1, which puts them a game ahead of the 9-2 Saints, and a win for Seattle would make it difficult for anybody to in the NFC to catch them for the top seed in the conference. A win for New Orleans would give the two teams the same record and give the tiebreaker to the Saints, giving them the inside track for securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Both Seattle and New Orleans are incredibly difficult teams to beat at home, meaning whichever team gets the top seed in the NFC will be the obvious favorite to reach the Super Bowl, making this game critical for both teams.
NEW ORLEANS OFFENSE VS. SEATTLE DEFENSE
The Saints are one of the top offensive teams in the NFL, but they’ve been vulnerable this year against teams that are able to put pressure on the quarterback, which is something the Seahawks are capable of doing, averaging three sacks per game. Seattle has one of the top pass defenses in the league, and despite the suspension of cornerback Brandon Browner, they should pose a challenge for Drew Brees and the New Orleans wide receivers, especially since the Seahawks are also one of the league leaders in interceptions. The Saints have sputtered on offense in their last two games, even against a mediocre Atlanta defense last week, and New Orleans will have to be sharp and at the top of their game if they’re going to have sustained success against Seattle’s defense, who will have the home crowd behind them.
SEATTLE OFFENSE VS. NEW ORLEANS DEFENSE
Defense is a big reason for New Orleans’ success this year. The Saints are one of the best defenses against the pass this season, although that may not be much of a factor in this game, as the Seahawks are a run-based team. Marshawn Lynch has been the biggest contributor to the Seattle offense all season long, and stopping him will be the biggest priority for the Saints in this game. The Seahawks will ride Lynch for as long as they can, and if New Orleans can’t stop him, it’ll be easier for Russell Wilson and the Seattle passing game to have success. The x-factor in the game could be Percy Harvin, who will be playing in just his second game of the season. If Harvin can make an impact, it could give the Seahawks enough of a boost to be the difference in the game.
These two teams are starting to move in opposite directions. The Saints have looked fairly average the past couple of weeks, while the Seahawks are finding their stride at the right time of year. New Orleans will bring their A-game, but Seattle is too tough to beat on the road, and the Saints won’t be able to get over the hump after staying close with the Seahawks throughout the game. Seattle 27, New Orleans 20.
The San Francisco 49ers will play the Washington Redskins tonight on Monday night football in a game that will be highlighted by quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III. When the NFL put this game on the Monday night schedule for week 12, they probably figured it would be a potential playoff preview between two of the league’s up and coming quarterbacks. However, that has not been the case, as the Redskins are all but out of the playoff race, while the 49ers find themselves a distant second in their division and scrambling for a spot in the crowded wildcard race.
A big reason why both teams have fallen short of expectations this year are the struggles of the two quarterbacks. A year ago both Kaepernick and Griffin looked like two of the most promising young stars in the league, but they haven’t looked like it this season. So what has happened to these two young quarterbacks, and why aren’t they continuing to develop the way we expected them to? Is it because the zone-read offense is a fad that will die out as quickly as it came in, or is there something specific about these quarterbacks that is causing them to struggle this year?
With Griffin, his health has obviously been an issue, especially early in the seaosn. Coming off a serious knee injury he suffered at the end of last season, Griffin rarely ran the ball during the first month of the season, and he wasn’t all that effective when he tried. Griffin was also timid to put weight on his knee and step forward while throwing the ball, which had an impact on his abilities as a passer. His inconsistency making simple throws from the pocket shined a light on how important his ability to run was to his success last year; instead of his running ability being a bonus of having him at quarterback, it turned out to be an essential part of his game, and when he doesn’t have it, he struggles.
As the season has moved along, Griffin has begun to look healthier than he was at the start of the season, which has allowed him to become a more frequent runner, yet his completion percentage remains erratic from week to week, and doesn’t always improve when he has success running the ball. He hasn’t built his career as a quarterback on the foundation of being effective pocket passer, much less an elite passer, and that has been exposed this year because he’s been unable to use his legs the way he did last year.
Griffin will benefit from an offseason of training rather than an offseason of rehab, so it’s too early to write him off based on one bad season coming off a serious injury. However, he needs to be able to beat teams from the pocket using his arm, regardless of how talented he is as a runner. A healthy Griffin will be able to use the zone-read to become one of the most dangerous offensive talents in the league, but only if he can first become an average or better pocket passer, which he’s not right now, and it’s the primary reason for his struggles this season, regardless of the knee injury he suffered last year.
As for Kaepernick, his issues are a little more puzzling. He entered the season coming off a trip to the Super Bowl as one of the toughest quarterbacks in the NFL to prepare for because of his size, athleticism, and arm strength. It looked like business as usual for Kaepernick after a sensational season opener against Green Bay in which he threw for over 400 yards and three touchdowns. However, it’s been all down hill since then, as Kaepernick has eclipsed 200 yards passing just once in the last nine games, while throwing nearly as many interceptions as touchdowns.
Kaepernick’s problems appear to be far more mental than they are physical. Poor performances and losses in weeks 2 and 3 appear to have shattered his confidence. He looks unsure of himself in the pocket and has struggled going through his progressions and making the proper read. He doesn’t look comfortable throwing to anyone besides Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, which may be why he’s staring down his receivers more than he did last year and not going through his progressions. To a certain extent, the 49ers’ play calling has hindered Kaepernick as well, confining him to the pocket too much, and not utilizing his legs and putting him on the perimeter, where he’s comfortable making plays. This myriad of problems has contributed to Kaepernick’s struggles this year, although there doesn’t seem to be an obvious answer to solving them, as the mental side of football seems to have gotten to him.
The struggles that both Griffin and Kaepernick have experienced this season don’t appear to be related to the zone-read scheme that took the NFL by storm last year, and while it may not be taking over the league the way we thought it was a year ago, it’s also not something that’s going to go away completely. Griffin’s issues are largely physical and can be solved by staying healthy and having an offseason of training instead of rehabbing. Kaepernick’s problems are largely mental, and it’s difficult to configure a timetable for how quickly he’ll be able to work through them. Both quarterbacks are immensely talented, but both have taken a step back this year and have issues to work through; however, if they can identify where things have gone wrong for them this year, there’ll have a better chance of fixing their problems and emerging as the elite quarterbacks they’re both capable of becoming.
A big game on Monday night between two good teams deserves a little extra attention. Let’s take a closer look at the Panthers and the Patriots.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
These two teams aren’t battling one another for playoff position, but both are in the midst of a late-season push for the postseason. As usual, the Patriots have a substantial lead in the AFC East, leading by three games in the loss column, and a win tonight would make it hard to imagine them not winning the division once again.
As for the Panthers, they need a win to stay one game behind the Saints in the NFC South, keeping alive hope that they can win the division this season with two games against New Orleans left on the schedule. A win would also put Carolina in sole possession of the top wildcard spot in the NFC with six weeks left to play. However, a loss would put them two games back in the division and in a four-way tie for the NFC’s two wildcard spots. If sense of urgency means anything, the Panthers definitely need this game more than the Patriots.
CAROLINA OFFENSE VS. NEW ENGLAND DEFENSE
The Patriots have struggled to stop the run all season, even against teams that usually don’t run the ball well, and that could be a problem for them against the Panthers, who have a top-10 rushing attack. Not only have the Panthers received steady production this season from DeAngelo Williams, but also Jonathan Stewart has been a nice addition to the backfield the past couple of weeks, and on top of that quarterback Cam Newton can be dangerous when he leaves the pocket. New England’s defensive end duo of Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones need to keep Newton in the pocket and force him to move the ball with his arm. Of course, at the same time, New England’s linebackers will have to slow down Carolina’s running backs. Newton has been more effective throwing the ball over the past month, but Carolina still has an underwhelming set of receivers and with Aqib Talib coming back from injury, the Patriots should be able to take away whichever receiver they feel is the most threatening, which could make it tough for Newton to make plays in the passing game, although that will only matter if the Patriots can slow down the Carolina rushing attack.
NEW ENGLAND OFFENSE VS. CAROLINA DEFENSE
Before their bye week, the Patriots put up their best offensive effort of the season, scoring 55 points against the Steelers, with Tom Brady throwing for over 400 yards and four touchdowns while three different receivers had over 100 yards receiving for the game. New England is as healthy as they’re going to get on the offensive side of the ball, and they look like they’re finally starting to gel as a unit. That being said, they haven’t faced a defense like the one they’ll face in Carolina. The Panthers boast a defense that’s top-5 in the NFL against both the run and the pass, giving them a defense with few weaknesses that will be difficult for even Brady to figure out. Carolina hasn’t allowed more than 15 points since week 6 against the Cardinals, which is the last game they lost. Even with all of their personnel available to them, an extra week to prepare, and a lot of momentum riding over from their 55-point outburst against Pittsburgh, the Patriots will have to execute to perfection in order to consistently move the ball and score points against Carolina’s defense.
This looks like it’ll be a defensive battle. Despite the Patriots exploding on offense in their last game, things won’t come so easy against Carolina’s defense. The Panthers should be able to keep New England’s offense under wraps and they should be able to control the ball with their running game. For the second straight week, the Panthers will win a close game against a quality team because of a strong defensive effort: Carolina 20, New England 16.
Week 9 concludes with a division matchup of old and bitter rivals on Monday night, and with plenty to be gained and lost in the game, lets’ take a closer look at the Packers and Bears.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
At stake in this game is first place in the NFC North. With a win, the Packers can remain atop the division, while a win by the Bears would mean a three-way tie for first place along with the Lions. The Bears probably need this game a little more after losing three of their last four games, and while they have a fairly manageable schedule the rest of the season, falling to 4-4 will make it hard for them to win the division and give them an uphill battle in the wildcard race. Meanwhile, the Packers want to keep up the momentum they’ve built during their current four-game winning streak, while maintaining their lead in the division, with both the Bears and Lions close behind.
CHICAGO OFFENSE VS. GREEN BAY DEFENSE
The Bears have had a well-balanced offense that’s had no trouble scoring points all season long, but with Jay Cutler out of the lineup, things may not run as smoothly. Josh McCown played well in relief of Cutler two weeks ago, but that was against Washington’s defense, and Green Bay’s defense will be a big step up in competition. The Bears will have to establish their running game in order to take some pressure off McCown. If they can do that, McCown should be competent enough to get the ball to Chicago’s talented receiving corps of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, and Martellus Bennett. However, the Packers have been great at stopping the run this season, as they are huge across the defensive line, and McCown could struggle if Chiago becomes one dimensional. The x-factor in this matchup could be the health of the Packer’s linebackers, as Clay Matthews is expected to miss the game, while a couple other guys are banged up. If Green Bay’s linebackers struggle it’ll be easier for the Bears to run the ball, and tougher for the Packers to bother with McCown with their pass rush, which would make it easier for the Bears to replace Cutler without skipping a beat.
GREEN BAY OFFENSE VS. CHICAGO DEFENSE
Aaron Rodgers appears largely unaffected by the loss of several key skill players, as he’s still throwing for roughly 300 yards per game, and consistent production from rookie Eddie Lacy has made things easier for him, as the Packers have a more balanced offense than in year’s past. Jordy Nelson is also stepping his game up with so many injuries around him, as he’s gone for over 100 yards receiving in two of the last three weeks. The Chicago defense has been dreadful for most of the season, and even against a depleted Green bay offense, they should have their hands full. The Bears have the fewest sacks this year of any defense in the NFL, and being unable to put pressure on the quarterback can be troublesome against a quarterback like Rodgers. However, the Chicago defense has been good at forcing turnovers, and that could be their only hope against the Green Bay offense. Without forcing a couple turnovers, it could be a long night for the Chicago defense.
The Bears have had two weeks to prepare for this game, and they need to win a little more than the Packers do, but unless they’ve made monumental strides on the defensive side of the ball, it’s hard to imagine them beating the Packers at Lambeau Field. With plenty of preparation and good players around him McCown will be fine, but he won’t outplay Rodgers, and the Chicago defense won’t provide much support. Green Bay 38, Chicago 21.