Saturday, January 15, 2011

NFL Gold Approaches Closer As Prospects Dig For Glory

Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers

A lot has been made of the past scrums that these teams have butted heads in. From the even amount of points scored to the repeatedly close victories, there is one statistic that looms larger than the rest.

In the five games that quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco have squared off, "Big Ben" has won each time. The most recent came with a broken nose suffered by Roethlisberger in the Steelers 13-10 victory just over a month ago. Baltimore had won the first encounter of 2010 by winning 17-14 with Roethlisberger missing the game while serving a suspension.

Both quarterbacks are similar in that they are large, mobile, and difficult to tackle at times. Roethlisberger may be the most difficult to bring down amongst NFL quarterbacks, thanks to immense strength in his 6'5" 241 frame. Despite missing four games to suspension this year, he has tossed just five interceptions all year. He also has thrown for just 422 yards less on 100 less attempts than Flacco this season.

Flacco has been no slouch himself in 2010. Though the offense for Baltimore hasn't been as explosive as some predicted, he has played mostly mistake-free football and has just ten interceptions. While the offense leans heavily on halfback Ray Rice's 1,220 rushing yards and 63 receptions he provided this year, wide receivers Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason, and T.J. Houshmanzadeh, along with tight end Todd Heap, are all capable of taking over a game themselves.

Pittsburgh has the only offensive Pro Bowler amongst the two teams in rookie center Maurkice Pouncey. They have an extremely explosive wide receiver in Mike Wallace, who averaged over 20 yards on 60 receptions while scoring ten times. Halfback Rashard Mendenhall has scored 13 times while churning out 1,257 yards on the ground.

Defense, however, is king in both clubhouses. The Steelers allowed the least amount of rushing yards this year and the Ravens ranked fifth. Pittsburgh had the second rated overall defense in the NFL in 2010 while Baltimore's ranked tenth. Four Raven defenders were named to the Pro Bowl this year, while two Steelers were named also.

Special teams may be a deciding factor. While both teams have excellent punters, Baltimore's Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundiff holds an edge over journeyman Shaun Suisham. Suisham has been at his best this season after joining the Steelers in week 11, missing just one field goal in 15 attempts. Eight came from attempts of 40 yards of more.

Cundiff bounced around on seven teams since 2002 before finding his groove with Baltimore this year. He tied an NFL record with 40 touchbacks on kickoffs this year, while missing just three field goals on 29 attempts. He has made five field goals of 45 yards or longer.

Both teams will try to run the ball, but Baltimore's starting center Matt Birk is hurting with a knee injury. Both teams come into this game in good health, though Roethlisberger has been playing with an injured foot for quite awhile. Any success on the ground for either team will provide a major shot in the arm.

This game should be like any other game for the squads. It will be close late into the fourth quarter most likely as they struggle to win in the turnover department. Pittsburgh was plus-17 in the Giveaway/ Takeaway department this year, good for second best in the NFL, while Baltimore was a plus-seven.

Pittsburgh averaged 23 points this year while giving up an NFL best 14.5 to opponents, and Baltimore scored 22 while giving up 16. They know each other well and have a genuine dislike for one another that is tempered with respect. Baltimore keeps trying to get over the hump by defeating Pittsburgh, something I expect them to finally accomplish because the Ravens were my preseason pick to win Super Bowl XLV.

Ravens 21 Steelers 16

Green Bay Packers @ Atlanta Falcons

Quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Pro Bowler Matt Ryan may get the most ink for this game, the other aspects of the game hold just as much interest and maybe more impact. Joining Ryan at the Pro Bowl with be four other Falcons. This includes their starting backfield. The Packers sent two offensive players to the Pro Bowl as well.

Green Bay appears to have an edge on paper. Despite a plethora of major injuries to their roster all year, they have the fifth overall rated defense in yards allowed this year, as well as the ninth best offense in yards gained. The 15 points per game they gave up this season was the second best, and they are a plus-ten in the Giveaway/ Takeaway department.

Three Packer defenders will go to the Pro Bowl this season, and linebacker Clay Matthews III leads the charge. He is a candidate for NFL Defensive MVP this year, something teammate Charles Woodson won last year. Atlanta sends one defender, defensive end John Abraham, but the defense was underrated all year.

Though Atlanta gave up just 23 more yards than Green Bay this season, it ranked them 16th in the NFL. Yet they gave up just 18 points per game all year and were a plus-14 in the Giveaway/ Takeaway department. When Atlanta played Green Bay in Week 12 this year, the defense led them to a 20-17 win.

What may make the difference in this game is a balanced attack. The Packers rely heavily on Rodgers and the defense because their 24th ranked rushing attack has been wildly inconsistent all year. The Falcons can run the ball well, led by halfback Michael Turner with his 1,371 yards and 12 scores. Both teams have Pro Bowl wide receivers in Greg Jennings and Roddy White, who have nearly identical statistics.

Green Bay has been susceptible in stopping the run in 2010, ranking 18th this year. If they can slow down Turner, the key to this game might be which secondary receiver stands out. The Packers have excellent talents in Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, and James Jones, while Atlanta counters with Pro Bowl, and future Hall of Famer, tight end Tony Gonzales with wide receivers Michael Jenkins and Harry Douglas.

Considering how much the Falcons passing attack relies on White, his getting shut down by Woodson could have a tremendous effect on the game. Gonzales averaged less than ten yards a reception in 2010, while Jenkins and Douglas have been inconsistent all year. Reserve halfback Jason Snelling has also snagged 44 passes this year.

Cornerback Brent Grimes may end up being the most important Falcon this game. He had five interceptions and 23 defended passes this year, making him the teams top defensive back. He will be matched up against Jennings often most likely. If he locks down his position, possession receivers with less explosiveness than Jennings become primary targets.

Both teams should try to establish the ground game, but Atlanta expects to do so and wear the Packers down. If Green Bay is forced to pass too often, their defense may end up being on the field longer than expected. If this occurs, that and the home-field advantage should prevail.

Falcons 27 Packers 24

Seattle Seahawks @ Chicago Bears

No one really knows how the Seahawks have gotten this far into the NFL season. That includes all of Seattle as well. Pete Carroll might have sewn up the Coach of the Year award last week after his squad sent the defending champion New Orleans Saints home for the year.

Seattle won the NFC West with seven wind and being ranked near the bottom on both offense and defense. No one will represent them in the Pro Bowl, though return specialist Leon Washington played well enough to make it. Earl Thomas is just a rookie, but he is probably the best Seattle defender.

Neither team has a quarterback that in considered top notch, but both have had moments of excellence in their careers. Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck is three time Pro Bowler who drew a breath from his past last week by throwing four scores against the Saints. Seattle obviously needs a repeat performance from him if they want to move forward.

Jay Cutler was thought of so highly by the Bears in 2009 that they traded two first-round picks, a second-round pick, and veteran quarterback Kyle Orton for his services. Orton has played better than Cutler since the trade, but his team was putrid in 2010 and Cutler's is still playing. With 16 interceptions against 23 touchdown passes, Cutler makes too many mistakes and is known to have melt-downs on the gridiron.

Matt Forte is the primary weapon on offense, leading the team with 1,069 rushing yards and 51 receptions. The Chicago defense is a huge reason the team is in the playoffs, ranking ninth overall in yards allowed. Led by a pair of Pro Bowl linebackers in Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher, and Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers, Chicago is fourth in the NFL in points allowed.

Peppers is the player to watch. Matched up against rookie Russell Okung, who has battled ankle problems all year, he could provide a huge force off the edge that causes Seattle to help Okung with more blockers. This would free up defensive end Israel Idonije, who put virtually identical statistics as Peppers.

If the Bears stifles the Seattle offense, that gives Pro Bowl return specialist Devin Hester more opportunities. Hester scored three times off punt returns this year, giving him ten in a career. It is tied with Eric Metcalf as the most in NFL history. He and Washington have the ability to carry their teams to victory on their returns.

Playing in Soldier Field, on a turf that the greatest players ever once walked, is a privilege. Bears players are well schooled on knowing how the ghosts can trip up present opponents. Chicago should ride their defense to a win here.

Bears 31 Seahawks 17

New York Jets @ New England Patriots

The Jets trash talk has jumped the shark so much that even Reggie Jackson, a baseball Hall of Famer who once played with the New York Yankees, is telling them to just shut up and play. They are even being clowned by Patriots receiver Wes Welker, who recently made innumerate innuendos about feet that some feel was a stab at Jet's coach Rex Ryan. Ryan and his wife purportedly have a foot fetish that was broadcast on a video.

New York is coming off a win against the Indianapolis Colts last week that ended with a field goal as time expired. Though they dominated much of the game, questionable play calling almost allowed the Colts to pull it off. They cannot afford these types of mistakes again.

Ground and pound is how the Jets win. With a fourth ranked rushing attack and third ranked defense, they are sixth in the NFL in points allowed and are fifth in the Giveaway/ Takeaway statistic. They have done this despite intercepting just 12 passes this year.

New England does not turn the ball over anyways. Tom Brady is the front runner of the 2010 MVP Award, a future Hall of Famer, and probably the greatest quarterback in Patriots history. He threw a paltry four interceptions all season while tossing 36 touchdowns that led the league.

New England is not only the highest scoring team in the NFL this year, but their plus-28 on the the Giveaway/ Takeaway department also leads the NFL. Though critics point to a defense with a young secondary, the 19.6 points allowed per game by the Patriots ranks eighth best in the league. While ranking 30th in yards allowed passing, they did rank 11th in rushing yards allowed.

Of the two games New England has lost this year, one came in the second week of the season to the Jets. New York won it by shutting down the Patriots ground game, intercepting Brady twice, and running the ball well enough that quarterback Mark Sanchez tossed three touchdowns.

New England still needs to run the ball to win here, much like they did while whooping the Jets 45-3 just over a month ago. While Brady has been on fire the past few months, this would relieve him of the pressure of having to be perfect while allowing him to be human by possibly making a mistake. The need to run the ball well is only outweighed by their need to stop the Jets on the ground.

While beating the Colts last week, they decided to lean on the run in the second half. It led to all of their points scored as halfbacks LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene combined for 152 yards on 35 carries. Though it happened against one of the worst run defenses in the NFL, New York must continue with this formula against the Patriots.

If the Jets run the ball, it will keep Brady off the field much like it did with Peyton Manning last week. Facing two Hall of Fame quarterbacks in consecutive weeks is an unenviable task few would want, but this is the hand the New York is dealt. The task becomes especially daunting due to fact the Jets are the road team in each contest.

Brady should be ready to nail down his MVP Award this week. With Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie calling him an expletive this week, Brady will look to make a fool out of the Jets cornerback most picked on by opponents. Though veteran receiver Deion Branch is hobbled by a sore knee, Welker and Brandon Tate are capable of picking up the slack.

Patriots 30 Jets 21

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