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ATPF Preview Superbowl XLVIII

 

So finally Superbowl XLVIII is upon us and for the first time since Superbowl XLIV in 2009 the NFL’s best two teams by regular season record have made their way to the sport’s ultimate showpiece the Superbowl. There would be few who would deny that we have the best two teams in football facing off here. Fans of the 49ers will point to how little there is between them and bitter rivals Seattle, Patriots fans will point to the losses of Vince Wilfork and Rob Gronkowski and there are probably a few other loyal fans around the league who believe their favourite team is as good as either of these two but truthfully and quite unusually we have the two teams who have dominated their conference from the first whistle nearly 5 months ago.

To try and find the winner of what looks to be a very close match on paper we decided to breakdown the matchups of offense versus defense of the two, then we will look at special teams and coaches to see if we can pick out any more edges.

Broncos Offense versus Seahawks Defense

The matchup we have all been waiting for. Peyton Manning and the Broncos record breaking offensive juggernaut facing off against the Seahawks ultra talented, brilliantly coached league’s best defense.

Before a ball was thrown this season the Broncos looked to have one of the most dangerous offenses in the league but as it turned out their offense broke virtually every major record during the regular season. The 606 points they scored was an all time high, as was the 5477 yards gained as was the 76 touchdowns scored. Put simply the Broncos may have the finest offense in football history right now. In Peyton Manning they have the smartest quarterback in all of football. Manning who won Superbowl XLI back in 2007 with the Indianapolis Colts is now 37 years of age and is a certain first ballot hall of famer. Manning missed the entire 2011 season with a serious neck injury requiring multiple surgeries before leaving for Denver in 2012. In 2012 the Broncos lost one of the most riveting games ever seen as eventual Superbowl winners Baltimore downed them in a second quarter of overtime.

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Manning had a fine season in 2012 despite the injuries clearly taking some velocity off his throws. In 2013 Peyton’s arm has been much stronger and his throws have been pretty close to what we saw during his glorious career with the Colts. Manning is of course very accurate at all distances but it is his ability to dictate to a defense that is so good. On each play offensive coordinator Adam Gase dials in two plays and Manning chooses his preferred one. Even then Manning regularly checks out of the play or changes his protection depending on what he sees. At times you would think one of the defenders had the play written on their helmet such is his ability to see what is coming. The Seahawks base defense is a relatively simple 4-3 scheme which rotates the pass rush heavily and relies on their corners to cover man to man with Earl Thomas’s closing speed deep field just in case. The Seahawks won’t be pushed around by Manning constantly changing formations and changing plays at the line of scrimmage. They believe in themselves 110% and that isn’t just Richard Sherman. They stay in formation and instead back their guys to be too good for the opposition’s guys and nine plays out of ten they are. Corner’s Byron Maxwell and of course Sherman and nickel corner Walter Thurmond will play press coverage on Denver’s top three receivers and they will then expect their pass rush to get home before Manning can find a receiver who has broken from the shackles. Manning won’t be able to routinely find a receiver just getting open as he has all year against this defense. He will probably have to hold onto the ball a half second longer than usual and will probably have a half second less with the Seahawks pass rush closing in. He might have to take a few chances, back someone one on one, fit a few into tight coverage etc. because this defense covers so well.

Denver’s incredible season has of course been made possible by the supreme yet diverse talents of their receiving corps. In 2012 both Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker had over 1000 yards receiving and double figure touchdowns and both repeated the feat in 2013. Diminutive slot receiver Wes Welker had his fewest season yards in eight years in his first year in Denver but did miss three games, even so he still had ten touchdowns on the year, a career high. Tight end Julius Thomas was the surprise of the bunch. In his first two years in the league he had just one catch, in this his third year he was just shy of 800 yards receiving and was the fourth Denver receiver to have double digit touchdowns, twelve to be precise. Other receivers to note on the Broncos roster are running backs Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball, fourth receiver Andre Caldwell and backup tight end Jacob Tamme a long time Manning associate. As talented as this group is their opposition on Superbowl Sunday will be just as good.

Seattle’s defense is the best around but it is their secondary that really stands out. Cornerback Richard Sherman makes all the headlines for a variety of reasons but make no mistake; he is the best cornerback in football. Sherman has gained near shutdown status now but loves to goad a quarterback into challenging him. Sherman will face up to Demaryius Thomas here and it will be a fascinating battle. Sherman is aggressive at the line of scrimmage and will get his hands on Thomas to slow him down and then follow him when he looks to go deep. Thomas is both faster and bigger than Sherman but Sherman has faced both deficiencies on a regular basis and won this season. Opposite Sherman is Byron Maxwell who stepped on for suspended Brandon Browner in week 10. Maxwell was briefly looked at as a potential weakness as a little known dime corner moving up two spots on the depth chart to replace a pro bowler but that perception quickly changed. One would expect Maxwell to largely shadow Decker on the Broncos left side but Denver may look to switch their receivers to see if Maxwell can deal with the elite Demaryius Thomas. Walter Thurmond is a reliable slot corner who is one of the best in the game but in Wes Welker he faces one of the finest and most elusive inside receivers in NFL history. Welker is so hard to cover and Manning will be bargaining on him getting open regularly for first downs here. What interests me most here is how the Seahawks cover 6-5 tight end Julius Thomas. It would appear that pro bowl strong safety Kam Chancellor or outside linebacker K.J. Wright will have the role but both would see Thomas favoured. Thomas has the speed and catching ability of an NFL wide receiver so to cover him with a good but not overly athletic linebacker like Wright could be disastrous. Chancellor is faster but he would be giving up a huge size advantage and if the Broncos realise he is covering Thomas they will pull him around the field to open up the run game. To cover all four of Denver’s double digit touchdown receivers is extremely tough; expect the Seahawks to have their share of success here but the Broncos to edge the battle.

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The running game of the Broncos has been surprisingly successful with so much attention on their passing game. Knowshon Moreno has been the chief benefactor and the former first round pick has finally stayed healthy to shed his bust tag. Moreno had over 1500 total yards and thirteen touchdowns on the year and his bruising inside running complements Denver’s passing game brilliantly. Rookie second round pick Montee Ball is a similarly big punishing back who will get carries but third rusher Ronnie Hillman has spent too much of Superbowl week in strip clubs to be a factor. Seattle allowed just four rushing touchdowns during the regular season and opposing rushers managed less than four yards per carry so while Moreno will have some success and will be heavily used in short yardage and goal line situations we expect that Seattle contain Denver to well under 100 yards rushing on the day.

Finally in this battle we look at the line of scrimmage. Denver’s offensive line versus Seattle’s defensive line. Peyton Manning is very hard to sack but if you can pressure him and get hits you can force errors, the Saints despite some questionable motives managed it in Superbowl XLIV and it affected Manning, no more so than when he threw the late pick six that all but sealed the New Orleans win. The Broncos offensive line allowed just 20 sacks and 54 quarterback hits during the regular season both league lows. Manning gets rid of the ball so quickly and his receivers are open in a flash so defenders have little chance to get their hands on him and defensive coordinators are all too aware of the consequences of an unsuccessful blitz against this team. Denver’s line paved the way for a sixth best in the league sixteen rushing touchdowns and a healthy 4.1 yards per carry also so they are strong going forward as well as in protection.

The Seahawks got 44 sacks in the regular season, good for eighth in the league and their defensive line got the lion’s share. Former Buccaneer defensive end Michael Bennett’s 8.5 sacks leads the team but Cliff Avril opposite him has eight despite being a pass rush specialist rather than a starter and Chris Clemons has 4.5 despite missing half of the season. Clint McDonald is the top pass rusher inside but again he only comes in on passing downs with Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel the tackles in the Seahawks base 4-3. Mebane, McDaniel and giant run stuffing end Red Bryant form a hugely powerful front which was seventh best in the regular season against the rush and held San Francisco’s runners to a pitiful 31 yards on sixteen carries in the NFC Championship. We think Seattle’s defensive line will win this battle but Manning’s quick read and release may nullify it and as good as the Seahawks are against the run they will likely only see it when their chief run stoppers are on the sidelines which will further halt any sort of dominance upfront.

So to summarise this mouth-watering battle we think in boxing terms it will go to the judges. Denver we believe will shade it due to the firepower at their disposal and Manning’s ability to find matchups he can win but if Seattle can grab a turnover or two they will give their offense a real chance to win this game. We are looking at Denver scoring three touchdowns and three field goals in total to get 30 points on this stingy defense.

Seahawks Offense versus Broncos Defense

The headline acts on the other side of the ball have seen these two units almost forgotten by the media in the run up to the big game.

The Seahawks offense was ample complement to their defense during the regular season as they averaged 339 yards per game, good for 17th in the league but scored 417 points, eighth most in the league. Short fields helped the points total but hurt the yardage, realistically this was probably a unit just outside of the top ten overall but injuries were a major factor. Sophomore quarterback Russell Wilson has been an incredible success story and threw 26 touchdowns to just nine interceptions during the regular season. He has just one touchdown pass in his two postseason games this year but is yet to throw an interception although he did fumble on the opening play in the NFC Championship. Wilson isn’t quite a dual threat quarterback like great rival Colin Kaepernick or Cam Newton but he is still very capable of using his legs to make a play. Where Wilson is pretty unique is in his ability to use his speed to create space, buy time and create throwing angles to receivers. The likes of Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo are renowned for their ability to keep plays alive and make improvisatory throws off the back of it and Wilson is joining them in this category. Teams generally try to pack their defense in tight to try and shut any holes for Marshawn Lynch but this allows Wilson to run bootleg plays where he gets to the outside and looks downfield. He is a great passer on the move so the Broncos need to stay in coverage until the whistle; a pass play is never dead with Wilson under center.

The Broncos defense was up and down during the regular season, at times they looked pretty dire at other times they looked ready to come good but ultimately the unit ended the season ranked 19th overall and 22nd in the league in allowing 399 points. In the playoffs they have improved, they held the Patriots to just 16 points and 320 yards in the AFC Championship and the Chargers to just 17 points and 269 yards in the divisional round. Considering both of those were top ten offenses the improvement is obvious but both Tom Brady and Phil Rivers are pocket passers, Wilson will offer an altogether different test with hid mobility. You have to go back to the early weeks of the season to see the last time Denver faced a quarterback of Wilson’s athleticism. They completely suffocated Robert Griffin III as Washington had five turnovers against them and they kept Michael Vick from having a major impact on the ground also going all the way back to week four.

Seattle’s offense is built on the solid foundation of their relentless battering ram running back Marshawn Lynch who rushed for over 1200 yards and double digit touchdowns for the third straight year in Seattle having left the Buffalo Bills. Lynch led the Seahawks to the fifth most rushing yards in the league and the team averaged almost 32 rushes per game in total, the second most in the NFL. Lynch has been just as effective in the postseason; he rushed for 140 yards at 5 yards per carry and had two touchdowns against the Saints in the divisional round and in the NFC Championship he finally broke a 40 yard touchdown having been frustrated for long periods by one of the best defenses in football. The Broncos will likely make Lynch their main focus here to try and make it Wilson versus Manning, a battle Wilson simply can’t win.

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Denver were good against the run in the regular season, only six teams allowed less than the 1626 rushing yards they did and they were tied sixth for yards per carry by opposing rushers. In the playoffs they haven’t faced a top running team like Seattle but they held San Diego to 65 yards rushing and New England to 64 and in neither game did a running back find the end zone. In this key battle Lynch will have success, it is basically impossible to shut him down for a full game but he certainly won’t be able to take over the game as he can do at times. Expect Lynch to find the end zone at least once and manage around 100 yards on over 20 carries.

The Seahawks were optimistic about their receiving corps pre-season largely down to the capture of the biggest prize in free agency, Percy Harvin. Harvin, formerly of Minnesota is an explosive athlete and one of the fastest players in the league; he is a threat every time the ball is in his hands. The Vikings lined him up outside, in the slot and even as a running back and he also returned both kicks and punts. But in his first year in Seattle Harvin has been on the field for just 40 snaps, that less than a full game. An injury enforced hip surgery kept him out until week 16 and concussion kept him out of the NFC Championship but make no mistake, Harvin is one of the most feared playmakers in the game and with no clue as to how the Seahawks are likely to use him the Broncos will be terrified of his potential to torch them here. Seattle’s other starter on pre-season depth charts was Sidney Rice who was lost to a torn ACL in midseason and may have played his last game for the Seahawks. With Rice down and Harvin barely seen Golden Tate (898 yards, 5 touchdowns) and Doug Baldwin (778 yards, 5 touchdowns) have been the starters for most of the season. Tate is an underwhelming athlete but has excellent hands, is a fine blocker and displays a nasty demeanour on the field. Baldwin in his third year out of Stanford where he went undrafted into the NFL is another steady rather than spectacular receiver but is having career year. Tight end Zach Miller is a seventh year pro who was productive in his time in Oakland but has never become a major part in the passing game in three years in Seattle. Third or maybe fourth now Harvin is back receiver Jermaine Kearse has been the team’s deep threat as we saw with his ultimately overshadowed game winning 35 yard touchdown in the NFC Championship. Denver’s secondary is headlined by future hall of famer Champ Bailey who finally gets his shot at the Lombardi trophy in the twilight of his career. Opposite him is Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie a tall, fast, hugely talented corner who has underperformed in his career given his physical gifts but who at his best can be outstanding. Bailey struggles with elite speed now but neither Baldwin nor Tate should have the afterburners to hurt him and against receivers who can’t get behind him his knowledge and technique generally allow him to dominate individual battles. The Seahawks will look to get Tate against Rodgers- Cromartie who is a poor tackler and who lacks the lower body strength to wrap up runners, in space the tough, physical Tate could be too much for his opponent. Overall this one is close; I would say the Broncos secondary despite being a pretty average unit could probably win the battle if it wasn’t for Percy Harvin. We don’t know what to expect from him but I have a suspicion he will have a big influence in this game.

Seattle’s offensive line paved the way for Lynch to again have a big season but they can struggle in pass protection. Russell Wilson was sacked 44 times and hit 94 times in the regular season and has been sacked seven times in two postseason games, more than any other quarterback in the playoffs. Denver’s defense has been inspired by the dominant play of former Jaguar Terrance Knighton. The 335 lbs defensive tackle has become the Broncos star defender in his first year in Colorado with Von Miller spending almost half the season suspended and then going down to a knee injury soon after. Ten year veteran Shaun Phillips, a long time rival with San Diego had ten regular season sacks in his first year with the team and will look to expose Seattle’s pass protection deficiencies. This battle will be pivotal to the game and we think the form of ‘pot roast’ Terrance Knighton can be huge. Knighton’s ability to overwhelm offensive linemen and collapse the pocket could really hurt Marshawn Lynch’s impact on this game and force Wilson from the pocket although that doesn’t necessarily impact his game negatively.

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This battle despite its lack of hype by comparison will be close like that on the other side of the ball. Lynch is irrepressible but won’t have it all his own way so Russell Wilson will be tested on the grandest scale of them all. We believe in Wilson and think he can step up but barring Harvin who may not even be 100% would any Seahawk receiver even make the Broncos roster as a backup? Denver’s defense however is far from bombproof and is especially vulnerable to the deep ball. We think the Seahawks manage two touchdowns and two field goals to score twenty points in this game.

Special Teams

It is far from rare to see a big special teams play in the Superbowl. Think of the onside kick by the Saints, Devin Hester’s touchdown to open Superbowl XLI or ‘Mr Clutch’ Adam Vinatieri’s two Superbowl winning field goals.

With Vinatieri in mind we will first compare the two kickers, Denver’s Matt Prater and Seattle’s Steven Hauschka. Prater’s headline moment came when breaking the record for longest ever NFL field goal as he booted a 64 yarder over against the Titan earlier this season. On the season Prater was 25 of 26 for an offense which scores far more touchdowns than field goals. Hauschka was 33 of 35 and also showed a strong leg, converting all three of his attempts of over 50 yards. In the playoffs Hauschka is 6 of 6, Prater 5 of 6. Both have missed two on the season both have big legs, the two can’t be separated.

Of the punters Jon Ryan had a better season and has a bigger leg than Dustin Colquitt. More notable however is punt coverage, Seattle allowed returners just 3.9 yards per return but Denver for all they didn’t punt that often allowed nearly ten yards per return. Seattle’s punt returner is Golden Tate, his longest return of the season was 71 yards and he averaged over eleven yards per return. Expect to see the explosive Percy Harvin get a look in this department also. Diminutive but explosive Trindon Holliday is one of the most feared returners in the game and gives the Broncos yet another scoring threat. Holliday’s average was less than Tate’s at 8.5 per return but he did have an 81 yard touchdown return. With Seattle having the stronger punter, being better in coverage and having a higher return average they get the edge here. Can they get a crucial big return here? Maybe even return one for a touchdown?

On kick returns for Seattle is usually Jermaine Kearse although again Harvin may get a look. Kearse’s longest return of the year was 40 yards and he averages 21.8 yards per return. Holliday averages an excellent 27.7 yards per return for Denver and had a 105 yard touchdown against the Eagles, matching his 105 yard career long against the Bengals a year ago. Holliday is one of the top two or three returners in the league so he is a huge weapon here and against Kearse, a fairly average returner he certainly is the more likely to break one.

We can’t find an obvious edge on special teams. Seattle are the all round better special teams group but Holliday is so explosive that he alone levels the playing field.

Coaches

Veteran head coach John Fox is in his second Super Bowl having led the Panthers to Super Bowl XXXVII where they lost to the Patriots. The guarded cautious veteran is the polar opposite to Seattle’s Pete Carroll. Carroll lives every moment, bouncing around on the sidelines, furiously chewing gum, cheering every play. The former college standout has become a first rate head coach in his time in Seattle. John Fox meanwhile has coached football for 34 years with the last dozen in the NFL and is highly respected in the game.

Denver Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, former head coach of the Jaguars is again coveted by teams as a head coach and Seattle’s Dan Quinn, now in his second stint after two years at the University of Florida has continued the excellent work of Gus Bradley who left last year to become head coach of Del Rio’s former team Jacksonville. Offensive coordinators Adam Gase Darrell Bevell are both being linked with head coaching jobs also after stellar seasons.

The old school Fox and modern ‘player’s coach’ Carroll are both excellent and they both have staff ready to step up to the next level too. We can’t fault the coaching of these two excellent teams so can’t give any edge here.

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Verdict

The two teams look closely matched and both are outstanding football teams. There must be a winner and a loser though and we think Denver’s experience and irrepressible offense will triumph over a young Seahawks team that looks to be capable of making many more appearances in this game in the next decade. We predict the final score is Denver 30 Seattle 20.

For added interest………

We like to have a few bets for a bit of added interest on Superbowl Sunday and this year we are going with the following-

Peyton Manning Superbowl MVP- best price 11/10

Percy Harvin to score a touchdown- best price 23/10

Marshawn Lynch over 87.5 yards- best price 10/11

Bruno Mars first song- Locked Out Of Heaven- best price 8/13

Across the pond football

Thanks for making our first season great and our popularity swell. Stay tuned during the offseason for a variety of subjects from draft to free agency to the 2014 season.

 

 

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ATPF Preview Week 17

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Its week seventeen in the NFL already, where has the season gone? For twenty teams this will be their last game for nine months.

We know five of the six AFC playoff teams and the winners of all four AFC divisions. The Broncos will get homefield advantage with a win and New England will be second and get a first round bye with a win. The Chargers, Dolphins and Ravens should fight out the sixth spot although if all three lose Pittsburgh could still sneak in.

In the NFC there is far less certainty. All four divisions remain up for grabs and the last wildcard spot could still go to either New Orleans or Arizona.

It is also Christmas week of course. While the NFL is at the forefront of our minds time is not on our side so this week’s predictions will be kept very short but hopefully very sweet. Merry Christmas and happy holidays from ATPF!

Baltimore Ravens @ Cincinnati Bengals

The Ravens have to win this to keep their wildcard hopes alive but Cincinnati still have a chance of the AFC’s second seed so they won’t be letting up. The Bengals are the better all round team and can end their AFC North rivals dreams of returning to the Superbowl.

ATPF PredictionCincinnati wins this one by a field goal.

Jacksonville Jaguars @ Indianapolis Colts

The Colts are still just about in the race for the AFC’s second spot. They are the upset kings of the NFL and will be feared by all in January. Jacksonville have battled away all year but are a very average team and can’t be given any real chance here.

ATPF PredictionColts are a comfortable ten points too strong.

New York Jets @ Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins have to win this game and we expect an unusually loud, unusually full Sun Life Stadium. The Jets would love to play spoilers but their rookie quarterback Geno Smith will likely give the Dolphins a few gifts to ensure success.

ATPF PredictionMiami win this crucial game by a touchdown.

Carolina Panthers @ Atlanta Falcons

The Panthers must only win to tie up the second seed in the NFC which would be a fantastic achievement for Ron Rivera’s team. They face a Falcons team coming off a short week and a disastrous season so they should win but a word of caution. Atlanta are better at home and have played better the last month.

ATPF PredictionPanthers made to work hard but prevail by six or seven.

Washington Redskins @ New York Giants

The ‘other two’ NFC East teams do battle here in a meaningless contest. The Redskins have been absolutely terrible of late so we prefer the Giants.

ATPF PredictionNew York ends a disappointing year with a two touchdown win.

Cleveland Browns @ Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers have a very slim chance still so will have to give this their all although they will no doubt become aware if things aren’t going their way elsewhere. The Browns season has capitulated so it should be simple for Mike Tomlins’s men at least.

ATPF PredictionSteelers win by two scores.

Houston Texans @ Tennessee Titans

Two more teams who have nothing to play for although in Houston’s case they won’t want to give up the first overall selection in the draft right now. Tennessee can hand them a fourteenth straight defeat.

ATPF PredictionTitans win by ten.

Detroit Lions @ Minnesota Vikings

The Lions are just getting used to the fact that they won’t be in the playoffs but the Vikings have known for weeks. In what will likely be Jim Schwartz’s final game we think the Vikings can send him out with a whimper.

ATPF PredictionMinnesota prevail by ten.

Green Bay Packers @ Chicago Bears

The NFC North rides on this game. It also likely rides on Aaron Rodgers health. With Clay Matthews and Eddie Lacy banged up the Packers really need him now, we however are presuming he doesn’t play when we predict a Bears win.

ATPF Prediction Chicago win by a touchdown.

San Francisco 49ers @ Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals are extremely hard to beat at home and won on the road in Seattle last week. San Francisco will be feeling good after their playoff clinching win against the Falcons but on a short week we can’t see them becoming just the second team to win in Arizona.

ATPF PredictionArizona keep their side of the bargain, win by a field goal.

Kansas City Chiefs @ San Diego Chargers

The Chargers have already won in Kansas City and Denver this year. They can beat the best teams and can do the double over KC here in a game they have to win.

ATPF PredictionChargers win by a touchdown.

Buffalo Bills @ New England Patriots

The Patriots can seal a bye next week with a win although it’s unlikely that Denver gifts them a shot at the top seed. Buffalo should pose few problems to Brady and co here.

ATPF PredictionThe Patriots win by fourteen.

Denver Broncos @ Oakland Raiders

The Broncos lost Von Miller to injury last week which could be big in the postseason. As far as this game they can’t be opposed but will be scared of further injuries.

ATPF PredictionDenver locks up home field advantage with a two touchdown win

Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ New Orleans Saints

The Saints look like finishing second now in the NFC South behind the inspired Panthers. Priority for them now is winning this to get into the playoffs against a Bucs team who would love to stop them. New Orleans at home however should be too strong.

ATPF PredictionThe Saints win by ten.

St. Louis Rams @ Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks were shocked at home by Arizona last week but it’s hard to see lightning striking twice. The Rams offense will pose few problems to Seattle who should ensure home field advantage here.

ATPF PredictionSeattle win by ten.

Philadelphia Eagles @ Dallas Cowboys

Is Tony Romo going to play for Dallas? Their 32nd ranked defense means that they will need to score a lot of points and under a rusty backup quarterback that wouldn’t bode well. Even if Romo plays we fancy the Eagles against a toiling Cowboys team.

ATPF PredictionEagles win by ten to clinch the NFC East.

 


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ATPF Preview Week 13

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Week thirteen started well for us, we predicted all three results correctly, we expected the Lions to win easily but it’s kind of hard to predict anyone to win a game by thirty! The Cowboys gave the Raiders an early thanksgiving present by fumbling the opening kickoff away; the Raiders scooped up the gift and took it to the end zone. Dallas came back to win by seven, that opening gift however cost us the predicted margin of fourteen. Ravens and Steelers games are always close, earlier in the year we predicted a Steeler win by 3 which was spot on, here we went for Baltimore by 3, it was 2 so we have particularly enjoyed the two matchups there.

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The ATPF crew enjoying thanksgiving football from Manchester’s Lost Dene

The ATPF crew enjoyed the hospitality of Manchester’s Lost Dene for the thanksgiving games and were delighted to find the bar thronged with keen NFL fans, the Raiders and Seahawks were particularly well represented.

 

Jacksonville Jaguars @ Cleveland Browns

The Jacksonville Jaguars are no longer the league’s worst team, if the draft were tomorrow they would be picking third thanks to a win in Houston against the team who do look the league’s worst. Cleveland lost a second straight with Jason Campbell concussed and Brandon Weeden booed onto the field to replace him.

A season which showed a little potential for the usually awful Browns is in danger of falling off the cliff. They are 4-7, an 8-8 or even 7-9 season would be a step forward for a team with two first round picks in the 2014 draft but if they let it slip to 5-11 or even 4-12 then a season where they’ve played some good football will be forgotten and more upheaval will likely rake place. The defense of the Browns has been outstanding, only three teams have allowed less yards and facing the worst offense in football here should help them more. Brandon Weeden needs to let the defense win the game for his team; his main responsibility is to not lose it. Weeden has six touchdown passes to seven interceptions but in Josh Gordon he has one of the league’s most talented young receivers, the sky’s the limit for Gordon if he can stay on the straight and narrow.

Jacksonville’s own potential superstar receiver Justin Blackmon hasn’t been able to stay on the straight and narrow and remains banned indefinitely. Cecil Shorts leads the team with 700 yards and is tied for the lead in receiving touchdowns, with one! Jacksonville also has the fewest rushing yards in the league so things are pretty brutal for this offense. Defensively they had their best performance by a mile last week when holding the Texans to just two field goals but this isn’t a unit with the talent to make such performances the norm.

The Jags have won two of their last three and are probably feeling pretty good about themselves for a 2-9 team. Cleveland meanwhile look a team whose morale has gone since they fell back to last in the AFC North and slid out of playoff contention. The Browns must keep fighting; this is a very winnable game at home and one which their defense especially should relish.

ATPF Prediction The Browns come out on top by just a field goal.

Tennessee Titans @ Indianapolis Colts

The Colts are suddenly struggling for form, they have been beaten heavily two of the last three weeks and in between were let out of jail by their rivals here Tennessee. The Titans had a game winning touchdown in Oakland with eight seconds remaining to remain in playoff contention but have won two of their last seven so are hardly a team in great form themselves.

The Colts looked a team both ready and determined to become legitimate contenders not long ago. They beat the Broncos who had been looking invincible and made a statement of intent when giving up their 2014 first rounder to acquire Cleveland running back Trent Richardson. The message seemed clear, the Colts were done rebuilding, they wanted to start winning now. Richardson has been awful, he has under 3 yards per carry, just two touchdowns and is being outplayed by veteran Donald Brown so the jury is very much out on that trade. With Reggie Wayne lost Andrew Luck has only T.Y. Hilton as a reliable wide receiver and teams are starting to double him. Defensively the Colts have relied on big plays but teams are starting to realise that they if you can slow down Robert Mathis off the edge that this team can be attacked.

Tennessee quarterback Jake Locker is out for the season but his deputy Ryan Fitzpatrick has plenty of experience as a starter in Buffalo and had his best start in a Titans uniform last week. Fitzpatrick led his team to a game winning touchdown and crucially threw no interceptions. The Titans started the season well and did so by consistently winning the turnover battle in games. Their defense has been solid on the whole and if the offense can look after the ball consistently down the stretch they can be real contenders for the wide open final AFC wildcard spot.

The Titans had the Colts where they wanted them a fortnight ago but let them off, had the Titans won that game this one would be for the AFC South lead. The Colts need to find more contributors on offense to help their excellent quarterback Andrew Luck; Trent Richardson should be standing up to be counted for one. There is little between these teams right now and whoever gets the big plays in the game should win it. We trust Luck more than Fitzpatrick who is the kind of quarterback the opportune Colts defense will relish facing.

ATPF PredictionColts virtually seal the AFC South with a seven point victory.

Arizona Cardinals @ Philadelphia Eagles

The Cardinals continue to improve and may have had their best performance yet this past Sunday when they comprehensively outpointed the Colts. Philadelphia won three straight before their bye week to prepare for the NFC East battle ahead; they are level with the Cowboys at 6-5.

Getting to the bottom of the Eagles improvement isn’t that hard, Nick Foles got his chance to start at quarterback and seized it, he has been one of the hottest passers in the league in the last month. Foles has thrown sixteen touchdown passes to zero interceptions so far this season and is complemented by running back LeSean McCoy, the lynchpin of the Eagles top ranked rushing attack. DeSean Jackson and Foles favourite Riley Cooper have seven touchdowns each in Philadelphia’s fourth ranked offense. Unfortunately for the Eagles their defense is as bad as their offense is good, only the Cowboys have given up more yards but in their last nine games the most points they have given up in a game was 21 so things aren’t as bad as the stats suggest.

Arizona have won four straight and are right in the mix for a wildcard spot all of a sudden even though they play in the toughest division in the NFL. Carson Palmer’s turnover issues have been resolved of late and with him throwing just two interceptions in their four game streak Arizona have looked a decent offense. Receiving duo Larry Fitzgerald and emerging star Michael Floyd are a very solid pairing and combine nicely with the 1-2 punch of Rashard Mendenhall and Andre Ellington in the Cards backfield. It is the defense however which is Arizona’s real strength. The unit are ranked eighth in the league and were outstanding last week, holding the Colts to just 239 yards.

Two form teams face off here but neither are by any means flawless. The Eagles defense is a unit which always gives their opponents hope and the Cardinals four game win streak has seen them beat all of the league’s 2-9 teams and an out of form Colts team. As good as Arizona are defensively we still see Philly scoring at least two touchdowns here with their exciting offense while on the road outdoors Palmer is always a worry with turnovers so we fancy a home win.

ATPF PredictionThe Eagles get a big win, prevailing by a touchdown.

Miami Dolphins @ New York Jets

Two 5-6 divisional rivals clash here with both still in the mix for the AFC’s final wildcard spot. This is the first of two late season clashes between these old rivals and if either team can do the double they will go very close to making the postseason although neither are in great form. The Jets lost by twenty three against the Bills a fortnight ago before mustering just three points in a defeat to the Ravens last week. Miami led the league’s hottest team Carolina for over 50 minutes before finally going down by just four points last week.

The Dolphins have been playing some decent ball in recent weeks with Ryan Tannehill getting the ball out quicker and Mike Wallace finally starting to show signs of his game breaking speed. Tight end Charles Clay and steady target Brian Hartline give Tannehill three decent options in the passing game. Miami are pretty average defensively, they rank 19th in yards allowed but have only given up 30 or more points once, to the Saints nine weeks ago.

Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith has had his ups and downs all year but has really struggled of late. He has thrown five picks to no touchdowns in his last two games and has eighteen interceptions on the year. Smith didn’t look ready to be an NFL starter in college but was thrust into the Jets starting lineup after Mark Sanchez’s injury. Teams have worked him out it seems and the Jets offense now looks among the league’s worst. Rex Ryan prides himself on playing solid defense and his team rank ninth in the NFL. They played well against the Ravens until giving up the game’s only touchdown on a deep throw to Jacoby Jones late on.

While Miami are pretty average both offensively and defensively the Jets are awful offensively but strong defensively. That Jets defense will give the Dolphins problems and Ryan Tannehill has to avoid costly sacks against a very strong defensive line. If Tannehill can keep negative plays to a minimum his team can get a big road win against a team who have really hit the buffers offensively.

ATPF PredictionMiami edges this one by a field goal to get back to .500.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Carolina Panthers

The hottest team in the league Carolina meet Tampa a team who have found some pretty good form themselves albeit much too late. Nevertheless this NFC South clash should be well contested and the Bucs would love to dent their rival’s playoff push. The Panthers are waiting for the Saints to blink and know this may be the week it happens as they travel to NFC leading Seattle; the Panthers must win first to add to the pressure.

The Panthers seven game win streak has been inspired by their quite brilliant defense. Earlier in the year there were suggestions that a suspect looking secondary might be the undoing of the unit but cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Mike Mitchell are both having career years and consequently the unit has been as strong against the pass as it has been against the run. Offensively the Panthers remain a run first team behind their veteran trio of tailbacks DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert and Jonathan Stewart but all three are currently battling injuries. At least one will likely be available come Sunday so we wouldn’t be too worried there. Quarterback Cam Newton himself has contributed to the success of this running game and is having his best season despite the Panthers ranking 30th in passing. If Carolina could find a star receiver next April this team could start to look as complete as any in the league.

Tampa Bay has won their last three after losing their first eight, strange old game this. Head coach Greg Schiano’s regimented approach has been unpopular with the players but if they keep winning they may save his job. Schiano’s decision to trade starting quarterback Josh Freeman to Minnesota and start rookie Mike Glennon didn’t pay immediate dividends but right now Glennon is playing the best of the rookie quarterbacks we have seen start. Glennon displays nice accuracy and arm strength, he has thirteen touchdown passes to just four interceptions and seems to be getting the best of star receiver Vincent Jackson lately. Tampa have several highly talented defenders, Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson were both big money recruits but defensive tackle Gerald McCoy has impressed us the most and this defense has climbed into the top half overall now.

Few teams would get the nod going to Carolina right now let alone a 3-8 team. For Tampa this will be a good measuring stick as to how far they have come in recent weeks and how far they still have to improve to become playoff contenders next year. Glennon’s calm and assured play of recent weeks will be severely tested by this defense and we can’t see him being able to deal with it if the Panthers get ahead and he is forced to pass consistently.

ATPF PredictionThe Panthers win their eighth straight, and come away with a ten point victory.

New England Patriots @ Houston Texans

The Texans lost their ninth straight game last week, they are the NFL’s worst team and star player Andre Johnson even admitted it to be the case. New England’s seasons are judged by what goes on in January and a big overtime comeback against the Broncos last week all but guarantees that they will once again play on into the New Year.

 Last year the Texans blew what should have been home field advantage in the playoffs late in the season. This year the emphasis was to go one better and make sure they would be at home in the playoffs. As that dream quickly slipped away then the AFC East started to get away and then any hopes of the playoffs went too things have just spiralled out of control. The Texans run of defeats and gradual decline saw its exclamation point last week when the Jaguars, long considered to be the NFL’s worst team beat them and held them to just two field goals in the process. A lot of Houston’s players look to have quit on the team now so where a third win is going to come from is hard to see.

The Patriots serene progress to yet another AFC East title continued as Tom Brady put in a vintage display against the Broncos. Brady is starting to look like his old self and must be thrilled to have the likes of Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola back contributing. Gronkowski, Amendola and Aaron Dobson have been on this week’s injury report but only Dobson looks in doubt so again Brady should have a strong arsenal. Since Vince Wilfork’s season ending injury the Patriots have struggled against the run and were absolutely gashed by Knowshon Moreno last week, if Arian Foster wasn’t injured he could be a danger to them.

We have predicted Texans wins five times in their nine game losing run. We should have learnt our lesson long ago but we are done with them now. New England surprised us last week, we didn’t think they were quite as good as the very best teams in the league but clearly they are. We have been saying all season that they might just come good at the right time and it that could be prophetic yet. Here the Patriots offense should have no issues outscoring an offense which is completely devoid of confidence.

ATPF PredictionPatriots beat the hapless Texans by twenty points.

Chicago Bears @ Minnesota Vikings

The NFC North picture looks a little clearer after Thanksgiving. Detroit are the team to beat and the Bears are their biggest rivals. Aaron Rodgers injury has just been too costly to Green Bay so we look to have a match. Minnesota are a long way behind the other three but haven’t performed really badly since week seven, last week they had a tied game in Green Bay.

The Bears have had just half a game from starting quarterback Jay Cutler in the last five matches and he is again out with a high ankle sprain here. Josh McCown has performed as well as any of the backups we have seen forced into starting duties this year and even in last week’s defeat his 36 of 47 passes completed for 352 yards, two touchdowns and an interception shows he was not the man to blame. That credit went to the Bears defense which bled 258 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Chicago are again without defensive leader Lance Briggs here so their problems against the run could continue, especially with reigning MVP Adrian Peterson coming to town.

Minnesota are undoubtedly playing better right now. They finally have a settled starter at quarterback in Christian Ponder and for whatever reason Peterson seems to be a better player when Ponder is under center. The Vikings defense despite the infusion of two rookie first round draft choices has been the problem and only two other teams have given up more than the 401 yards per game the Vikings are averaging.

This is an interesting game, the two key players the Bears are still missing have got to be a major factor but they are still a better team than the Vikings on the whole. We see this game coming down to one simple matchup- Adrian Peterson versus a defense which was savaged by the run last week. If the Bears can at least get a few stops and make Christian Ponder complete some passes they have a shot because they will score points against a terrible defense but if Peterson runs wild anything could happen. In a game we are struggling to call we think the Bears superior all round talent can prevail.

ATPF PredictionChicago edges to a crucial victory by just a field goal.

St. Louis Rams @ San Francisco 49ers

San Francisco’s win over Washington on Monday kept them in position for a wildcard into the playoffs whilst the Rams are playing pretty well for backup quarterback Kellen Clemens. They have won back to back games by margins of 30 and 21 against teams in playoff contention so this is a potential banana skin for San Francisco.

The 49ers defense is generally a pretty strangling unit, when teams have been able to unlock it the 49ers offense which is predicated on a ground and pound, clock control style has been found out. Last week they were able to completely overwhelm the Redskins by taking away their first option, running back Alfred Morris. The 49ers rank fifth defensively and given some of the teams they’ve faced it’s reasonable to say they are probably a bit better than that. They are 4th in the league in rushing behind Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and quarterback Colin Kaepernick. As dynamic as Kaepernick is with his legs he still needs to complete more passes but he will finally have his favourite target Michael Crabtree back for his first start of the season here. Crabtree was pivotal in the 49ers run to the Superbowl last year and should help the league’s worst passing offense.

The Rams defense was supposed to be a strong unit itself this year but proved disappointing early on. Things are back on track now and they are playing like a top ten unit, not nineteenth as they are ranked overall. Robert Quinn especially has been outstanding and is one of the premiere pass rushers in football. First round draft choice Tavon Austin, a passenger for nine games has been electrifying in those last two contests and is one of the most exciting players in football. Running back Zac Stacy has finally given them a consistent runner after early problems dealing without Steven Jackson around and Clemens is playing ok despite his obvious limitations.

The Rams are probably one of the best teams with a losing record but this is an all round bad matchup for them. Austin is unlikely to get any big plays against such an outstanding defense and if the 49ers can shut down Alfred Morris they should have little problem with Zac Stacy. That makes this down to Kellen Clemens and it’s hard to like that matchup if you’re a Rams fan. Crabtree’s performance will be very interesting; the 49ers need him somewhere near 100% if they are going to be serious players in January.

ATPF PredictionSan Francisco are much too strong, win this by twenty.

Atlanta Falcons @ Buffalo Bills

The Falcons are still bang in contention to be picking first next April after losing their fifth straight against the Saints. Buffalo are technically still in wildcard contention but they are much more likely to have their usual top ten draft pick.

The Falcons woes have been put down to injuries but there has been more to it than just that. Nevertheless they played one of their better games against the Saints last Thursday and with ten days to prepare they should fancy giving another decent account of themselves against a team a long way off the Saints in ability.

Buffalo are all about their running game and when both Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller are fit there are few better combinations in the game. Both have had injuries yet the Bills are still fifth in rushing and that could be bettered with some favourable matchups remaining for the pair. The Bills have also had injuries at quarterback but rookie starter E.J. Manuel returned in week eleven and had a really nice game against a stout Jets defense. The bye week should have helped Manuel who is certainly an intriguing prospect for the future, the long suffering Bills fans deserve a quarterback to hang their hats on.

Atlanta have been good at home for a long time and of course enjoy a healthy dislike for the Saints so there improved effort against that rival in the Georgia Dome ten days ago can be taken with a pinch of salt. The Bills are as healthy as they’ve been for a long time and should be well prepared after their bye. In the cold, windy expanses of upstate New York we do not see some of the Falcons fancying this too much.

ATPF Prediction The Bills gain momentum by winning this one by ten.

Cincinnati Bengals @ San Diego Chargers

The Chargers got a massive win against the Chiefs last week and having been struggling a little a few weeks ago they could be reinvigorated by such a huge win. The Bengals are a game and a half ahead in the AFC North and should have used their late bye to prepare for one last big push towards a third straight playoff season and a first AFC North title since 2005.

The Bengals are clearly the best team in the AFC North and one of the most talented in all of football. Losing Geno Atkins, arguably the best defensive tackle in the game for the season hasn’t stopped their outstanding defense which ranks seventh overall and has one of the most dominating front fours around, even without Atkins. Their offense is full of playmakers but quarterback Andy Dalton is capable of throwing in a really bad game at any point which does make the Bengals a little unpredictable. Dalton has 21 touchdowns but 15 interceptions, if he could cut down on the latter from now into January the Bengals could be genuine contenders.

San Diego are still four games back such is the strength of the AFC West so must hope that they can join the Broncos and Chiefs to give the division three playoff teams. Quarterback Phil Rivers has been nothing short of brilliant this season and his flawless near 400 yards and three touchdown day against the Chiefs top defense just highlighted how strongly he has come back to his best after a couple of difficult years under Norv Turner. Running back Ryan Mathews is questionable for this game after injury last week so it will likely be on Rivers to again unravel a fine defense. The Chargers defense has not been good, they are the fourth worst in the NFL and although they have a few pretty good players in safety Eric Weddle and defensive ends Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes there are too many substandard players starting for this unit.

The Chargers offense will have their hands full against this defense especially with Antonio Gates doubtful. The Bengals are excellent at getting pressure with a four man rush and the Chargers offensive line looks overmatched on paper. The Bengals playmakers, particularly A.J. Green and Gio Bernard both look to have favourable matchups so as long as Dalton isn’t in kamikaze mode the Bengals will be too strong.

ATPF PredictionBig win for the Bengals who win this by ten.

Denver Broncos @ Kansas City Chiefs

The Broncos victory against the Chiefs a couple of weeks saw most anoint them the league’s best team. When Kansas followed up with defeat against the Chargers it looked like the Broncos were about to seize control of the AFC South but they allowed a 24 point lead to slip away and lost to the Patriots in overtime.

The Chiefs lost both Tamba Hali and Justin Houston against the Chargers and they couldn’t get any pressure on Philip Rivers. Rivers found their defense considerably easier to pick apart with the duo injured but Houston may be able to play here at least, Hali will be out for a while. The Chiefs lack of a top passing attack was blamed for their defeat in Denver but they scored 38 points last week, that should be enough. Jamaal Charles has been the best running back in the NFL this year, he had another big game last week but the Broncos did a nice job of limiting his effectiveness in the first meeting.

Denver got some big plays from their defense and a big day from Knowshon Moreno last week so it was pretty astounding considering their passing attack that they lost. I suspect that Peyton Manning’s bad ankles are bothering him a little more than some realise. He has carried the injury for a while now and has barely practiced in the last month; the Broncos could do with resting him for the last week but need to shake the Chiefs off to consider that. Knowshon Moreno left the game injured in overtime last week so he has to be a doubt and Julius Thomas who missed that game is another who Manning could be without. The Broncos defense got a huge play early on from Von Miller last week and he has certainly helped this defense with his extreme athleticism yet they are still a pretty average unit overall.

We really fancied the Broncos the first time the teams met but last week’s performance, particularly by Manning tempers such enthusiasm here. The Chiefs defense however can no longer be relied upon so freely after giving up 41 last week in this stadium and key injuries are a factor. We are willing to trust that Manning simply had a bad day and that he can still push off his battered ankles, he may have a bit more time to pass than most of the Chiefs opponents have this season too.

ATPF PredictionBroncos prevail by a touchdown.

New York Giants @ Washington Redskins

The defending NFC East champions Washington and pre season NFC East favourites New York clash here but both look out of the race. New York’s revival was halted by a game winning field goal by the Cowboys last week. Washington are a game further back and having lost three straight are just a game from the NFC basement.

The Redskins are really in turmoil, Robert Griffin III has criticised the coaches, players are saying Griffin shouldn’t be playing and Griffin himself was dreadful last week. Mike Shanahan has a great resume but even he will be tested trying to pull his divided players together for these last five matches. Only four teams in the league are worse defensively than the Redskins although two of them play in the NFC East but their offense is usually pretty good. Against San Francisco however it was not. They managed just two field goals and under 200 yards in the game and as good as the 49ers are it was a dismal day all round.

The Giants game with the Cowboys mirrored their season. They got themselves into a huge hole only to fight back and get right into contention only for their old problems to return and see the comeback come up just short. Andre Brown in particular had a big day as the Giants ran the ball with terrific results but the passing attack wasn’t able to make plays when asked as the offensive line struggled with an inspired Jason Hatcher. The Giants defense couldn’t make a stand on the Cowboys game winning drive and their edge rushers Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul were basically non factors in the game.

The Giants morale must have been damaged with such a huge loss at home but they are in far better form than their rivals here and simply have to win to have any chance of winning the NFC East. Washington are coming off a short week and likely a pretty uncomfortable one. You sense that another defeat could see them implode and you just couldn’t fancy them after their latest effort.

ATPF PredictionGiants end the Redskins season with a ten point win.

New Orleans Saints @ Seattle Seahawks

The most eagerly awaited clash of the week sees the Seahawks twelfth man inspired defense ready to do battle with Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles et al. At 10-1 the Seahawks lead the NFC and if they can secure homefield advantage it will take something special to beat them given their record in this stadium. The Saints are just a game back and are just as tough to beat in the Superdome so this game has huge ramifications as far as the NFC favourites come January.

Seattle have won games ugly and they’ve won them impressively but one blip aside they have just kept on winning. Their defense ranks second in the league and has given up a league low 180 yards passing per game but starting corner Brandon Browner has just been hit with a one year suspension for a second substance abuse offense and nickel corner Walter Thurmond is halfway through a four game ban. The timing couldn’t be much worse with one of the most feared offenses in football rolling into town. Seattle’s 12th ranked offense will have to be effective and it can’t just be Marshawn Lynch contributing. Russell Wilson has often been just a game manager for the league’s 24th ranked passing attack with the strengths of the team elsewhere but here he may have to take some risks. Percy Harvin was acquired to be the difference in games like this and he will be expected to make big plays also.

The Saints have the fifth best defense in the league themselves, an astounding feat given they were within touching distance of giving up the most yards in a season in NFL history last year. Rob Ryan’s huge playbook full of different looks, schemes and all sorts of exotic blitzes has wreaked havoc at times but against a quarterback like Wilson they must stay in their lanes or risk him having a big day on the ground. Offensively the Saints are third best in the NFL which is about as low as they ever rank with Sean Payton and Drew Brees calling the shots. With Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and now Mark Ingram all contributing on the ground their offense has at times looked irresistible. If they can have success on the ground they can get Jimmy Graham matched up one on one and as good as safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas are Graham is simply unstoppable one on one.

We would have probably gone for the Seahawks but for their two suspensions but their brilliant secondary will never miss Browner and Thurmond more than they will here. Sean Payton is a genius at devising offensive schemes and with eleven days to prepare here he will have all kinds of weird and wonderful things in store for the Seahawks. The Saints will have their hands full with Marshawn Lynch but Seattle will likely need more than usual from Russell Wilson here and he hasn’t proved his ability to compete with the elites of the game yet.

ATPF PredictionA massive win for New Orleans who are a touchdown better here.

 

 


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ATPF Preview Week 12

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A big weekend for some of the top teams in week eleven saw the Broncos, Panthers, Seahawks and Saints all enhance their claims while the Chiefs tasted defeat for the first time and powerhouses New England and San Francisco were also beaten.

We went 10-5 on the week moving our record to 90-55 on the season. We were spot on when predicting the Colts would win by three and with the Broncos to win by ten. We had the Eagles winning by seven (won by eight), Seahawks by 20 (won by 21), Cardinals by 14 (won by 13) and Panthers by three (won by four) as well so it was a pretty good week for us.

Week 12 sees a lot of apparent mismatches but complacency is dangerous in the NFL, especially at this time of the season. There will be upsets of course and there are several teams who are on the verge of elimination from playoff contention also so it is an important week nonetheless.

 

New Orleans Saints @ Atlanta Falcons

The Saints upset the Falcons in week one, hard to believe it was considered an upset now considering the Saints are 8-2 and Atlanta at the other end of the scale are 2-8.

The Saints weren’t at their best and gifted the 49ers a short field touchdown last week yet still got the win. Although the margin was just three the Saints very much looked the superior team. The Panthers are going from strength to strength but the Saints still lead the NFC South and must keep winning to preserve the advantage. Behind Rob Ryan’s vastly improved fourth ranked defense the Saints look Superbowl contenders again with Drew Brees and Sean Payton always able to conjure up yards and points aplenty.

Atlanta came so close to going to the Superbowl a year ago and having been so strong in the last five years there were many who believed they could go one better this year but from their inability to punch in a game winning score against the Saints way back in September little has gone right. Injuries have decimated their skill players and have constantly nagged their defense also but that unit simply hasn’t been good enough. The best teams are able to win when one unit is struggling for form or due to injuries but when the Falcons needed their defense they didn’t step up.

On the face of it this should be a formality but the Falcons just give that sense that somewhere they will find a bit of form and give a playoff team a real game. Beating their bitter rivals would give the Falcons fans something to shout about at last. This game could go one of two ways, either the Saints control it, force turnovers and stroll it or Atlanta get a good start, build some confidence and make a real game of it, we have a feeling it will be the latter.

ATPF PredictionSaints outlast a resurgent Falcons team to win by seven.

Pittsburgh Steelers @ Cleveland Browns

The final wild card spot in the AFC is very much up for grabs and both of these 4-6 teams know that a win here will put them right in the mix.

Pittsburgh have been pretty good since their bye, the Patriots exposed them but otherwise they’ve been pretty good and beat a very good Detroit Lions team latest. A more balanced offense coupled with a defense which is finally creating turnovers has many believing they can string together wins and have a real go at this final wildcard spot. Ben Roethlisberger is still one of the better quarterbacks in the league and had his best game of 2013 last Sunday so things are certainly looking up in Pittsburgh.

Cleveland have been on the edge of the wildcard race all year but a thumping in Cincinnati last week could dent their confidence ahead of what is an absolutely huge game for them here. The Browns fifth ranked defense can make life hard for anyone but when the offense commits four turnovers as last week they are rendered useless. Cleveland have a couple of talented up and coming receivers in Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron but with no running game of note and pedestrian quarterbacks they are substandard offensively.

Can the Steelers unlock the Browns defense which has inspired all of their four wins? The Browns must look after the ball and let their defense operate against the Steelers substandard offensive line. Josh Gordon will trouble the Steelers secondary but can the Browns have success elsewhere? In a game where points and yards may be hard to come by we see Ben Roethlisberger’s experience in such games being the deciding factor.

ATPF PredictionIn a low scoring game the Steelers win by three.

San Diego Chargers @ Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs lost their unbeaten record in Denver but not much else. They are still virtually assured of a playoff spot and could easily reverse things at home against the Broncos in a few weeks time. The best teams don’t get too down on themselves after defeats and the Chiefs mustn’t either, they need to avoid a slip up which would really give the Broncos the initiative. San Diego are 0-3 since their bye and a promising bounce back year is in danger of falling apart.

The Chiefs lost by ten in Denver but could have gone much closer. A turnover in Bronco territory was particularly costly. The Chiefs offense remains hugely reliant on running back Jamaal Charles who will likely be an all-pro this year but with so many dynamic passers in the league there remain doubts as to whether Alex Smith and the Chiefs conservative passing attack has what it takes to go take them deep into the playoffs. Their defense is as good as any in the league and with two dominant pass rushers and playmakers scattered throughout the unit they can wreak havoc on all but the best offenses.

San Diego seem to have gotten over conservative offensively all of a sudden and they managed just one touchdown in Miami, they were too cautious the week before when hosting the Broncos too. Caution against this Chiefs defense isn’t necessarily a bad thing but while the Chargers defense has improved as the year has gone on they aren’t a unit who can win you a game. Mike McCoy and his staff need to let Phil Rivers turn it loose occasionally, he has proven his ability to make big plays this year.

Defeat last week has seen a few questions asked in Kansas City but they are exceptional at home and their dominant defense will hope to force Phil Rivers into taking some chances. Jamaal Charles’ speed is always a factor and this could be a game for him to cause havoc.

ATPF PredictionKansas City get back to winning ways, earn a ten point victory.

Carolina Panthers @ Miami Dolphins

Few teams are hotter right now than Ron Rivera’s Panthers; they have won their last six and beaten supposed Superbowl contenders in their last two, the Panthers now into fit that category themselves. Miami are a streaky team, in their last three they have beaten Cincinnati and San Diego but sandwiched between was a loss to Tampa Bay. At 5-5 they are still in with a chance in the wide open second wildcard race in the AFC.

The Dolphins inconsistency is largely blamed on Ryan Tannehill. The sophomore quarterback has supreme talent but is still raw and inexperienced so he does make mistakes and is slow to go through his progressions. In Tannehill’s defence his offensive line has been pretty poor, big name recruit Mike Wallace has done little and the Dolphins lack a consistent running game. Defensively the Dolphins were expected to be a useful unit but again have been inconsistent. Cameron Wake is an outstanding player but he is the only reliable pass rusher on the roster and when he is doubled team’s are often afforded the time to target a suspect secondary.

Carolina have become one of the best defenses in football this year. They have tremendous depth and talent upfront and have one of the league’s best young defenders in linebacker Luke Kuechly. No team has scored three touchdowns against them this year and in their six game win streak only New England this past Monday Night have even managed two in a game. They are effective rather than spectacular offensively, the scheme is usually based around a large dose of their running game but against the Patriots the mercurial Cam Newton did the damage. Newton is playing smart football and can do things others simply can’t with his extraordinary sixe and athletic ability. He could be more accurate on short passing but that will come and he could break out next year, if he does, watch out.

With Ryan Tannehill’s penchant for holding onto the ball a bit too long the Panthers aggressive front will hope to rack up the sacks here. This is not a good matchup at all for the Dolphins 31st ranked offense and Newton shouldn’t need to perform any heroics to keep the Panthers bandwagon rolling.

ATPF PredictionCarolina take their streak to seven with a two touchdown win.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Detroit Lions

There is no stopping Tampa Bay now, they have won their last two games. Detroit suffered a disappointing loss in Pittsburgh to let Chicago take the lead in the topsy-turvy battle for the NFC North.

The Buccaneers defense was in Matt Ryan’s face all day long on Sunday, they forced three turnovers and also sacked Ryan three times. With second season runner Bobby Rainey having a huge day rookie quarterback Matt Glennon wasn’t under pressure and had a terrific day completing 20 of 23 passes. It was easily the best performance by a Tampa Bay quarterback this year and Glennon is really doing his best to prove he is worthy of the long term starting gig.

The Lions defense always gives opponents a chance and at Heinz field Ben Roethlisberger threw four touchdown passes and no interceptions. The Lions rank 25th in total defense so it’s just as well they have one of the most dynamic offenses in football. That offense of course centres around three superstars, quarterback Matthew Stafford, receiver Calvin Johnson and running back Reggie Bush. Few teams can hold that trio and they are even more effective in conditioned domes such as their home Ford Field where Bush’s quick cut ability causes teams fits.

The Buccaneers are not the pushovers they seemed a few weeks ago but if they can’t contain the Lions high octane offense Mike Glennon will have to try and compete and that is a tall order even for seasoned veterans. We see Tampa scoring points but ultimately not enough.

ATPF PredictionLions win by around ten.

Minnesota Vikings @ Green Bay Packers

The Packers have been hamstrung by Aaron Rodgers injury. In the two and three quarter games he’s missed they have gone 0-3 and are now going to need to be virtually perfect if they are to make the playoffs. Rodgers is either unsure himself or being coy about his own status but realistically it’s hard to see him playing here. The Vikings are 2-8 and suffered another heavy defeat in Seattle last week.

Few teams rely on their quarterback more than Green Bay and of course Aaron Rodgers is amongst the league’s best. Scott Tolzien actually wasn’t that bad against the Giants but he is filling giant size shoes. The Packers defense must take some responsibility, they have given up coincidentally 27 points in all three Rodgers-less games but it’s their inability to force turnovers that is most notable. Tolzien could sure benefit from a few short fields or better still the defense could find the end zone once in a while, you have to go back nine weeks to game three against the Bengals to find the last time the Packers forced more than one turnover in a game.

Minnesota have been even worse than their rivals defensively, they rank 30th in the league averaging nearly 400 yards a game conceded and have given up 38 touchdowns. A pedestrian pass rush and porous secondary has seen teams march straight through them routinely. Offensively of course their world revolves around Adrian Peterson but with poor quarterback play and no playmaker like Percy Harvin teams are routinely run blitzing and keeping their strong safety in the box. Quarterback Christian Ponder, the incumbent starter makes poor decisions and is always capable of a big mistake at the most inopportune time.

This game is a hard one to call now. Two modest, mistake prone quarterbacks facing defenses which could just be the antidote to their problems. Adrian Peterson could be the difference and the Packers have to stop him taking over the game if they are going to win. We believe Green Bay at home, as the better coached, smarter team can find a way to get a win which they are so desperate for.

ATPF PredictionPackers edge to a win by just a field goal.

Chicago Bears @ St. Louis Rams

Plenty of teams around the league have been without starting quarterbacks of late and these two are no different. The Rams lost Sam Bradford for the season with a torn ACL, they have gone 1-2 under backup Kellen Clemens, with their season merely an obituary yet to be written they annihilated the high flying Colts prior to their bye last week. The Bears looked third favourites in the wide open NFC North when Jay Cutler went down but they have won both games Josh McCown has started. They are now back infront and will get Cutler back soon so winning here would make them undisputed favourites.

McCown has benefited from a strong supporting cast in Cutler’s absence, running back Matt Forte is severely underrated, his consistency and versatility makes him a top 5 back in our book. Giant receivers Brandon Marshall and the emerging Alshon Jeffery are one of the league’s best starting duos and if talented tight end Martellus Bennett can produce like he did in their overtime win last week they will be even better going forward. This isn’t a great Bears defense and injuries have been a factor but they all know what the ball looks like and make more than their fair share of big plays.

The Rams incomprehendable demolition job on the Colts aside things have been tough for Jeff Fisher’s team. The pressure they put on themselves to compete with the mighty Seahawks and 49ers did not help. Realistically they are a long way short of their chief NFC West rivals and have even fell behind the supposedly rebuilding Cardinals. First round rookie receiver Tavon Austin, a Percy Harvin kind of playmaker was hearing the word bust whispered until he electrified his team in that win over the Colts. Running back Zac Stacy is another emerging talent as the Rams look to next year with their largely young roster. Their defense has underperformed on the whole but has been better of late and was too much for the Colts.

There are no easy games when you’re without your starting quarterback and this is a potential banana skin for the Bears. St.Louis’s 19th ranked defense has way more talent than that ranking suggests and while the Bears came through an emotional and mentally draining war against the Ravens the Rams were resting up and no doubt feeling pretty good about things after their week 10 win. If Kellen Clemens can look after the ball against this turnover hungry Bears defense the Rams will score points and Tavon Austin will hope to build on his breakout game. This game is setup for the upset and it could be huge for the Bears.

ATPF PredictionThe Rams score the upset, outlast the tired Bears by a field goal.

New York Jets @ Baltimore Ravens

The Jekyll and Hyde Jets were dismal in a spanking against the Bills last week. The Ravens meanwhile saw their slim hopes of making the playoffs all but extinguished in a weather delayed mud bath in Chicago.

The Ravens were expected to struggle after seeing their Superbowl roster torn apart by injuries, departures and retirements but things have been even worse than most predicted. At 4-6 they will have to be near perfect to make the playoffs now but they offer no encouragement that they could go on a winning streak. A minus five turnover ratio and thirtieth ranked offense have both been tough to overcome for their sound if not elitely talented defense. Running back Ray Rice is finally becoming a factor but Joe Flacco only has one legitimate receiver to throw too and that will surely be addressed sooner rather than later in the 2014 draft.

The Jets have had to ride bumps in the road with rookie quarterback Geno Smith under center. Rex Ryan’s teams have always been built to lead; control and force errors so when they get behind things get tough. Against the Bills Smith imploded into an avalanche of errors as he attempted to carry the team, he is simply not able to do so at this early stage of his career. The Jets defense is ranked eighth in the NFL but struggled with a heavy dose of deep passes from E.J. Manuel in Buffalo.

It’s hard to look beyond turnovers as the key here with two teams who both have had a major problem with them. Both teams are better defensively than offensively and neither has a great deal of receiving talent to target but we prefer Joe Flacco to Geno Smith if the game is close late on so we favour the Ravens in a game they simply have to win.

ATPF PredictionBaltimore prevail by a touchdown.

Jacksonville Jaguars @ Houston Texans

Two of the worst teams in the league battle it out here. The 1-9 Jaguars saw usual service resumed after their week ten win when soundly beaten by the Cardinals last week. Houston continued their streak of losing when we pick them to win by failing to punch it in as time expired against the lowly Raiders.

Things seem to get worse by the week for Houston, each week they seem to play a worse team and each time they narrowly fail. The good or bad news for them is they have the league’s worst team at home here. Their offense is a mess, running back Arian Foster is on IR, quarterback Matt Schaub was benched but returned in the fourth quarter last week only to fail with a game deciding throw in the red zone and end up arguing with star receiver Andre Johnson on the sidelines. Schaub’s career in Houston is surely coming to an end. The Texans defense astoundingly still ranks as the league’s best but that has been Fools Gold, an inability to create turnovers or make red zone stands has made their ranking unimportant.

The Jags are the worst and least talented team in the league. A law of averages kind of win in week ten at least saved them from the indignity of a winless season but it’s hard to see where another win will come from. Their league worst offense has managed just thirteen touchdowns through ten games and has lost its best player to an indefinite suspension, just their luck. Only three teams have given up more yards so things are no better on the other side of the ball in Jacksonville. This roster needs decimating and needs heavy investment in free agency and a good draft starting with finding a true franchise quarterback in the offseason.

The records of these teams suggest this one will be close while the stats suggest a complete hammering for Jacksonville. We expect something in between with the league’s best (at least statistically speaking) defense facing the league’s worst (in every manner)  offense.

ATPF Prediction Texans win this game by two touchdowns.

Indianapolis Colts @ Arizona Cardinals

The Colts have been poor three times straight but have won two of those three and comebacks are their signature, the AFC South is all but safe but they will be looking to improve ahead of the playoffs. The Cardinals have overachieved to still be in the playoff hunt in late November. They will probably have to win four of their last six to manage the unlikely feat so a home game here is one they know they have to win.

Luckily for the Cards they are far better at home so it is entirely possible, a 4-1 home record and three game winning streak give them plenty to be optimistic about. Quarterback Carson Palmer has cut down on his turnovers of late and in running back Andre Ellington and receiver Michael Floyd they have found a couple of emerging stars to take the burden off Larry Fitzgerald to be the offense. Defensively they are excellent and have climbed into the top ten overall now. In linebacker Daryl Washington and shutdown corner Pat Peterson they have two of the league’s best defenders and both are still in the early stages of what could be glittering careers. Peterson has a bit of the Deion Sanders about him and we think he could be a top ten wide receiver if he moved over to the offense.

The Colts are the only team to beat the Colts and also beat San Francisco yet lost by thirty to St.Louis a fortnight ago and have needed two big comebacks either side of that game to beat moderate teams. Second year quarterback Andrew Luck has been cautious rather than spectacular but that has kept turnovers to a minimum (he has just six interceptions). Luck himself is an underrated runner and is a particular threat in the redzone and the Colts really value establishing the run yet Trent Richardson who they gave up a first round pick for has barely been a factor. Indianapolis defense gives up yards but lives for big plays and they have fifteen turnovers so far. It is clear that the value of turnovers is huge to this team.

The Colts are seen as the better team by many here due to their high profile wins and much vaunted young quarterback but the Cards are considerably better than the Colts defensively and at home on a hot streak we expect them to have too much for Indianapolis.

ATPF PredictionFew win in Arizona; the Cards beat the Colts by a touchdown.

Tennessee Titans @ Oakland Raiders

The second wildcard spot is open to a lot of average teams in the AFC. Both of these teams are mathematically still in the race although neither look anywhere near good enough to make the playoffs. The Raiders got a crucial win over the lowly Texans last week but the Titans slide continued, they have won just one of their last six games.

Of course the loss of starting quarterback Jake Locker has hurt the Titans but he was no Peyton Manning so the problems in Tennessee are much deeper than just that. Running back Chris Johnson has good games and he has bad games but considerably more of the latter. He looked really good in the first half against Indianapolis but got just three carries in the second half as the Colts came back to win so play calling can also be questioned. The Titans defense has generally been quite stout after being absolutely awful in 2012 but they are not stifling enough to cope when the offense starts turning the ball over, something the Titans didn’t do early in the season but have done of late.

The Raiders gave undrafted rookie Matt McGloin the start in Houston having seen enough or Terrelle Pryor’s passing in recent games. McGloin was outstanding, throwing three touchdowns and no interceptions. He showed poise in the pocket and put some real nice touch on a couple of difficult throws, it will be interesting to see him again. The Raiders are still missing talented but perennially injured runner Darren McFadden but Rashad Jennings had a long touchdown from a direct snap and was generally good against Houston. The Raiders defense had been pretty good until getting blown out against the Eagles three weeks ago. They lack any blue chip players but at least have found blue collar guys after a decade of half heartedness.

The Titans are a team really struggling right now. They had a chance last week but blew it and the week before lost to the 1-9 Jaguars so confidence must be at rock bottom. The coliseum is a difficult place to go, it will be loud, it will be chaotic and it looks just the kind of place the Titans won’t fancy going right now. If Matt McGloin can perform similarly to last week the Raiders are favourites here and we see them adding to Tennessee’s misery.

ATPF PredictionRaiders win by ten.

Dallas Cowboys @ New York Giants

As the Cowboys have faltered and stuttered to 5-5 the Giants have come from nowhere to win four straight and claw their way back into the NFC East race.

Key to the Giants turnaround has been there defense stepping up to the standards we have come to expect. Perry Fewell’s scheme revolves around getting pressure on the quarterback with his front four and letting the others sit in coverage. Jason-Pierre Paul and Justin Tuck are both warming up after slow starts and Cullen Jenkins, a flop in Philadelphia is recapturing his form inside so the line are again becoming highly disruptive. Jon Beason has hugely improved this defense with his ability to cover, tackle and cover ground in the centre of the field also. Offensively Eli Manning’s down season has improved slightly but he still has five picks more than touchdown passes. Bruising runners Brandon Jacobs and Peyton Hillis can wear down a defense and will fancy this matchup against a battered defense.

Dallas’ defense is without their leader Sean Lee but DeMarcus Ware, J.J. Wilcox and defensive MVP candidate Jason Hatcher will all be back. The Cowboys defense is the league’s worst, averaging 430 yards per game conceded. They forced five turnovers from the Giants in week one but when the turnovers haven’t come they have been torched. The Broncos, Saints and Lions in particular have made hay against them. Offensively the usually gung ho Cowboys have been strangely cautious. It has meant less turnovers but also less big plays and the absence of a run game has seen Dallas’ usually explosive offense look pretty middle of the road. If the Cowboys let Tony Romo turn it loose Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley and Jason Witten are a quintet that could cause the Giants a lot of problems but so far he hasn’t been given such orders.

The Cowboys won the first meeting but the Giants have improved dramatically since and the Cowboys defense has fallen apart. Eli Manning has traditionally had a field day against the Cowboys and will be keen to put that week one game behind him. The Giants pass rush can get in Romo’s face and force sacks and incompletions so all bodes well for New York here.

ATPF PredictionThe Giants win a fifth straight, beat Dallas by a touchdown.

Denver Broncos @ New England Patriots

The Broncos are now atop the AFC after their defeat of Kansas City last week while the Patriots lost a close one and a controversial one in Carolina; they will win the AFC East again but don’t look as strong as teams of their recent past.

New England’s defense kept them afloat when their offense was bogged down by injuries but has struggled in recent weeks. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork’s injury has hit particularly hard with the Patriots now struggling against the run and to collapse the pocket on passing plays. Their offense however sparked into life when scoring 55 against the Steelers two games back. In Carolina, against arguably the best defense around on current form the Patriots managed an impressive 396 yards of offense but ultimately it wasn’t enough. Rob Gronkowski is looking back to full strength at last and he is one of the most dangerous weapons in football as he again showed when carrying three Panthers into the end zone last week.

The Broncos won reasonably comfortably in the end against the Chiefs. They will be without Wes Welker against their old team here and Julius Thomas is questionable also. In fact Peyton Manning is also listed as questionable but his bad ankles have been a problem for weeks, the Broncos will strap them several times over and Manning will be good to go. Denver’s offense is the best in the league by some way and even without Welker they still have plenty of weapons and a reliable pair of running backs in Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball. The Broncos defense was toiling heading into their bye week but after a week to regroup and with star pass rusher Von Miller back they are now looking a little stronger, they need only make a few stands to do enough for their near unstoppable offense.

Tom Brady Peyton Manning battles have always been games to saviour and we should be treated to another cracker here. We prefer the Broncos who have more secure running backs if not more talented ones and have more playmakers in the passing game than New England. The Patriots lost to Carolina and Cincinnati and should have been finished off by the Saints so the jury is still out on their ability to beat top teams.

ATPF PredictionA great game to watch but the Broncos outlast the Patriots, win by a touchdown.

San Francisco 49ers @ Washington Redskins

Back to back defeats have seen the 49ers chance of retaining the NFC West virtually disappear while the Redskins chance of defending their NFC East title also look to have slipped away. The 49ers are still in a good position to get a wildcard berth but need to get back to winning ways pretty soon, the Redskins playoff hopes are over.

Narrow defeats to Carolina and New Orleans give an indication as to where San Francisco stand. They are a very good team, a team who will compete against anyone but who are vulnerable against elite teams. Their offense got a huge shot in the arm late last year when Colin Kaepernick took over at quarterback and tore teams apart with his dynamic running but this year teams have been wiser to it and are willing to take their chances against his arm. Frank Gore and co are still a very tough rushing attack but there is nobody on this team creating big, game changing plays when they really need them. Defensively of course they still rate near the top and nobody has scored thirty against them through ten games.

Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III implied blame on his head coach Mike Shanahan last week which has only fanned the flames for the media searching for blame. Truly the blame should be pointed at a few different doors. The Redskins defense has been a bigger problem than the offense, seven of their ten opponents have scored thirty or more and they lost two of the three where opponents didn’t manage thirty. They rank first in the league in rushing behind the irrepressible Alfred Morris and occasional takeoffs from RG3 but whether due to a lack of targets or lack of faith in RG3 they do at times seem too keen to keep pounding the run rather than letting Griffin turn it loose.

The 49ers lost little in their two recent defeats, both were close. The key stat here is that they haven’t given up thirty once while Washington have done seven times, that doesn’t bode well for the home team.

ATPF PredictionSan Francisco get back on track, prevail by just a field goal.