NFL Predictions | Week 3: NFL Football Picks and NFL Football Predictions, with Massimo

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Massimo’s NFL Blog
NFL Predictions | Week 3: NFL Football Picks, NFL Football Predictions
By Massimo Russo: Co-Editor Silver and Blue Report & Hook’em Report

NFL, Dallas Cowboys, Cowboys, Massimo Russo This week’s headlines … This weeks headlines in the NFL … Seattle’s top-rated defense embarrassed Peyton Manning and the Broncos for the Lombardi Trophy back in February at MetLife Stadium. This week, the world champs host the 2-0 Broncos at CenturyLink Field in a rematch of Super Bowl XLVIII. Plus, Washington, Philadelphia, Green Bay, Detroit, San Francisco and Arizona square off in divisional showdowns.

Week 3
Thursday Night Football, September 18 8:25 PM ET – TV: CBS/NFL Network
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 0-2 @ Atlanta Falcons 1-1

Things have started rocky for the Lovie Smith coached Bucs, with losses to Carolina and St. Louis, who both strolled into Tampa Bay with backup quarterbacks. This week, Smith’s defense will face a top quality quarterback (Matt Ryan), who’s looking to bounce back after a three interception performance on the road in Cincinnati, a game the Falcons lost 24-10.

Tampa Bay has been hit with the injury-bug. Two time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (hand) and middle linebacker Mason Foster (shoulder) are likely out. Running back Doug Martin (knee) was inactive against St. Louis but has returned to practice this week and may return to the starting lineup. Tampa Bay’s positives have been on the ground. With Martin out, Bobby Rainey ran for 144 yards on 22 carries in Tampa Bay’s loss to St. Louis, and if Martin returns to the lineup, the Bucs would sure like to grind things out against Atlanta’s lack-luster defense that’s been having deficiencies upfront.

Atlanta’s defense needs to get after the quarterback. Their defense has yet to register a sack, a highlighted factor of their defense allowing more yards than any team in the league. This could be the week Tampa Bay gets the passing game rolling. The tall order of pass-catchers Tampa Bay features, with Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans on the outside hasn’t done anything to wow spectators, but they have some favorable matchups against Atlanta’s secondary.

Atlanta’s undersized Robert Alford will be an area Bucs quarterback Josh McCown will attack on passing downs, with the 6’5” 230 pound Evans likely matched up with. If the Falcons want to generate some discomfort towards McCown and not give him time to target his favorably matched up receivers, they need their two beefy D-lineman Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai to up their game. Atlanta’s running game has been like a car without enough fuel to get over a steep hill. Steven Jackson has been dealing with hamstring issues, and the aging back needs to formulate a consistent level of productivity for Atlanta’s offense to get out of their one-dimensional funk. That all depends if Jackson can return to perfect game shape and I’m expecting Atlanta to go back to what they used in their opener and run by committee against Tampa Bay.

I like Tampa Bay’s chances on offense to put up their best performance in the early stages of the season, but with Jake Matthews (ankle) looking to return at left tackle for Atlanta, look for Matt Ryan’s pocket to be much cleaner than it was against the Bengals’ talented front last week. Tampa Bay’s outside corners Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks will man Atlanta’s Julio Jones and Roddy White (may not play due to hamstring issues) on the outside, but it’s the slot that I like Ryan to dissect in this matchup. Harry Douglas has chewed the Bucs up recently, and with nickel corner Leonard Johnson’s duties looking to favor Douglas, Matt Ryan should find holes in the middle of Tampa’s Cover 2 scheme.
Pick: Falcons 34, Buccaneers 24
Final Score: Falcons (2-1) 56, Buccaneers (0-3) 14

Sunday, September 21
1:00 PM ET
San Diego Chargers 1-1 @ Buffalo Bills 2-0 – TV: CBS

San Diego’s offense has multiple weapons at Philip Rivers’ disposal to attack defenses with. And their no-huddle attack proved to be the answer in their win over world champion Seattle last Sunday. Controlling the tempo has been a viable aspect for San Diego since Mike McCoy has been at the helm. The advantage is a prime example of playing keep away by throwing short passes and using power runs to wear down opposing defenses. Their approach kept Seattle from using their sub-packaging and rotating D-lineman. The spread alignments they use keeps defenses guessing by using creative pre-snap formations.

Offensive coordinator Frank Reich uses Rivers’ ammo to his advantage that helps him recognize when a defense is in man or zone coverage, and this week, Reich’s unit faces another talented defensive front. Buffalo’s bulldogs (Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams) upfront create lots of havoc on the interior. Both Williams and Dareus dominated Miami last week. Double-teaming Dareus has left Williams singled up and he’s making big plays in just about every defensive series — and the Chargers’ inside blockers Chad Rinehart, Rich Ohrnberger and Johnnie Troutman will have their hands full on trying to negate Buffalo’s dynamic duo. The Chargers will be without running back Ryan Mathews (sprained MCL) that will likely keep him out a month. Donald Brown will take over the early down rushing attempts, while Danny Woodhead remains the blocking back and receiving option on passing downs. Brown can also be effective in the passing game taking over for Mathews. They’ll also use him between the tackles, trying to negate Buffalo’s talented front to keep Rivers in high-percentage passing downs.

Defensively, San Diego’s defensive coordinator John Pagano will key on Buffalo’s talented backfield. C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson can attack defenses various ways and it’ll be a determining factor if Pagano’s unit can limit them from getting into open space. His pass rushers have been solid thus far, with Dwight Freeney, Melvin Ingram and Corey Liuget. Liuget has been Pagano’s best force, and keeping Buffalo’s E.J. Manuel in the pocket, not allowing him to improvise will also be an important factor on passing downs. Pressuring Rivers and shutting down San Diego’s ground attack is imperative, but running the ball effectively and controlling clock will be vital for Buffalo to keep the red hot Rivers on the bench. E.J. Manuel is finding comfort with Sammy Watkins — getting the talented rookie the football in space, but I like San Diego to be the more efficient offense on passing downs. These spread formations San Diego’s using is helping tight end Antonio Gates get favorable matchups downfield.
Pick: Chargers 24, Bills 20

Dallas Cowboys 1-1 @ St. Louis Rams 1-1 – TV: FOX
See what a running game can do for you? Other than Tony Romo’s blunders in Week 1 against the 49ers, Dallas’ running game has been the focal part of the offense. DeMarco Murray currently leads the league in rushing and is coming off a “Bell Cow” performance of 29 carries (career high) for 167 yards and a score against Tennessee, helping the Cowboys to their first victory.

Murray has had his way with St. Louis’ defense since he’s been in the league, rushing for over 450 yards in both of his meetings against them, and the game plan should be no different for Dallas’ offensive coordinator Scott Linehan to attack a Rams defense that hasn’t fared well on the ground in their first two games. St. Louis’ defense got buried on gadget-plays against Minnesota’s Cordarrelle Patterson in Week 1 and got gashed by Tampa Bay’s backup running back Bobby Rainey last week.

Rams head coach Jeff Fisher and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams must find a way to slow down Murray and place Tony Romo in long distance passing downs. Two back surgeries have played part of Romo not being able to extend plays from the pocket as good as he used to – a big reason why he’s been brought to the ground seven times already. If the Rams can’t contain Murray from the early going, Williams may be forced to use some extra’s upfront, and that can be a variation of some blitz packages and overloaded fronts to rattle Romo. However, that could be costly with Dez Bryant drawing double teams that could leave Romo’s other options (Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Devin Street and his bread and butter reliable target Jason Witten singled up). Plus, both of Dallas’ backs Murray and Lance Dunbar are options in the screen game – Dunbar’s the more speedy and shifty back that’s more of a threat in this area of Dallas’ offense.

Whoever the Rams roll with Shaun Hill (quad) or third stringer Austin Davis — they’ll likely pound the football with Zac Stacy to try to setup the play-action pass. Dallas’ defense hasn’t looked anything as nightmarish as it did in 2013, but it’s still extremely suspect and they dodged a few miss-fires from Tennessee’s Jake Locker last Sunday. The Rams have some talented tight ends (Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks) that can stretch defenses, and Dallas’ defense got torched by San Francisco’s Vernon Davis in Week 1 and Tennessee’s Delanie Walker the following week. Both running games should be effective, but the upper hand goes to Dallas between these two clubs. Dallas’ offensive line now has the blockers to create running lanes, and watching second-year center Travis Frederick and rookie guard Zack Martin go to work, barring injuries — the foundation and foreseeable future has become the “Murray Plan” for the Cowboys.
Pick: Cowboys 23, Rams 17

Washington Redskins 1-1 @ Philadelphia Eagles 2-0 – TV: FOX
With Kirk Cousins replacing the injured RGIII under center for the Washington Redskins, head coach Jay Gruden can lean on the ground game to help Washington pull out the win on the road. Gruden’s zone scheme of using power-based running plays behind the legs of Alfred Morris are the basic tweaks he used when coordinating the Bengals’ offense.

Alfred Morris and Roy Helu Jr. should see a heavy dose of work running behind extra blockers. Philadelphia’s defensive coordinator Bill Davis likes to rush six and bring his safety Malcolm Jenkins down in the box to help stuff the run off the edges – the same plan he used against Indianapolis. Gruden has been known to attack overloading fronts with extra blockers on the outside, using his tight ends to help cut off the edges and create running lanes. And setting the tone on the ground should help Cousins setup the play-action pass and recognize the soft spots of Philadelphia’s susceptible to the pass defense.

Washington’s receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson have yet to get open over the top, but this week can be the perfect opportunity for them to get some volume going, vertically. Jackson has been out of practice this week dealing with a shoulder injury but isn’t expected to miss any action. Although a key piece (tight end Jordan Reed) to Washington’s offense has been missing due to a hamstring injury, Niles Paul has done everything expected from Reed. Paul is in line to start again this week and he should see a decent amount of targets with Garcon and Jackson getting most of the attention from Philadelphia’s secondary. Philadelphia’s offense has averaged an NFL best of 33.0 points and 437.y yards per game since last November. And during that span, the Eagles are 9-1 in regular-season- games – 5-0 at home, and will try to extend that 5 game home-winning streak against the Redskins that have lost seven straight games away from home.

Washington’s defense may have gone bananas on getting after the quarterback with an outstanding effort in their win over Jacksonville, bringing Chad Henne to the ground 10 times, but this week will be a much taller mountain to climb for pass rushers Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo trying to slow down the Eagles off the edges running the zone-read. The addition of Darren Sproles makes the principles of Chip Kelly’s system more of a headache for opposing defenses to deal with — too much LeaSean McCoy, Darren Sproles and tight end Zach Ertz for Washington on their hands in this matchup. Plus, trying to sack Nick Foles is like swinging at butterflies.
Pick: Eagles 33, Redskins 21

Houston Texans 2-0 @ N.Y. Giants 0-2 – TV: CBS
Arian Foster looks back to his Pro Bowl form for Houston’s running game. The running back is currently second in the league in rushing (241 yards) behind Dallas’ DeMarco Murray (285). Foster being the prime asset for Houston’s offense has put Ryan Fitzpatrick at ease. Fitzpatrick has only attempted 41 passes through his first two outings at quarterback with 3 touchdown passes and 0 interceptions. The offense operating on leaning with Foster has made Fitzpatrick a game manager, not placing him in situations where he has to take chances and thread the needle.

And because of Houston’s offense functioning so smoothly on the ground, Fitzpatrick has yet to get sacked. Houston’s offensive line along with Cincinnati’s are the only two teams after the first two weeks of football that hasn’t allowed a QB-sack. And New York’s D-line hasn’t been the unit of yesteryear of making quarterbacks lives miserable. Jason Pierre-Paul, the leader of the Giants’ front has only registered 1.5 sacks, second to Robert Ayers that leads team with 2.

Everything Houston is doing offensively is negating the oppositions pass rush, and on running downs, the Giants may be without run-stopper Jon Beason. Beason’s status is doubtful as the linebacker re-injured his foot that kept him out for 12 weeks this past summer. If Beason doesn’t suite up, look for New York’s defensive coordinator Perry Fewell to employ three-safety looks to help stuff the run.

When the Giants have the ball on offense, they’ll need to keep Houston’s J.J. Watt from getting past their blockers, disrupting the running game on the interior and on the edges on passing downs. Eli Manning continued his turning over the football ways last week, but I saw some rhythm kicking in on his foot work and connecting with his targets downfield. Eli has found holes in the seam of this system with tight end Larry Donnell, but he needs more threats on the outside to draw some attention away from his dangerous slot receiver Victor Cruz. Manning’s longest completion on the season has been for only 23 yards, and that’s just not Eli, a quarterback that is more of a downfield thrower.

His rookie target Odell Beckham Jr. (hamstring) is still out. Beckham’s athleticism an ability to get separation is minimizing Manning’s options to stretch defenses, and in this matchup, his offensive line doesn’t look equipped to slow down Houston’s pass rush or to create enough running lanes for Rashad Jennings. And I’m going with the offense that’s been more disciplined and defense that is aligned to win in the trenches, the Texans.
Pick: Texans 20, N.Y. Giants 16

Minnesota Vikings 1-1 @ New Orleans Saints 0-2 – TV: FOX
New Orleans’ struggling defense hopes to turn things around against the Adrian Petersonless Vikings. Peterson has been placed on the exempt-commissioner’s permission list, not allowing him on the roster while he deals with his legal affairs. The Vikings will certainly miss the explosiveness Peterson brings to the table and will continue to work with his replacement Matt Asiata, who averaged only 2.8 yards per carry last week against New England.

The loss of Peterson not only hurts Minnesota’s offense on the ground, but in the passing game as well. Setting up the play-action pass for quarterback Matt Cassel is what works best for offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s group. And going inside the numbers, statistics prove the case. In Cassel’s 61 pass-attempts this season, the Vikings have ran 12 play-action passes with Cassel completing 66.7 percent of his passes in differential to the 49 non-play-action passes that Cassel has completed passes at a percentage of 57.1. If Asiata, a non-explosive runner doesn’t help Cassel on play-selection, the Vikings may need to search for better answers at running back.

The Saints will be without running back Mark Ingram (hand) for at least a month. That leaves duties to Khiry Robinson to be the lead runner for head coach Sean Payton’s offense. Khiry’s skill-set is in the avenue of elusiveness and power and he showed that late last season and during the playoffs. Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer will have to find ways at getting after Drew Brees to disrupt the timing of New Orleans’ excellence of execution.

The Vikings like to blitz and Brees and the Saints offense are one of the best at recognizing blitzes, pre-snap-wise. The Saints should be able to get running backs Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas in open spaces in the screen-game, and Brees should be able find tight end Jimmy Graham and receiver Marques Colston, pinpointing mismatches downfield for big plays. The Saints just don’t lose at home and I’m stacking all my chips on them to take care of business in a must win game for them.
Pick: Saints 34, Vikings 16

Tennessee Titans 1-1 @ Cincinnati Bengals 2-0 -TV: CBS
Tennessee’s defensive front was man-handled at the line of scrimmage last Sunday against Dallas, and they’ll face another solid offensive line this weekend against Cincinnati that gets pushes off the ball — winning most of their battles at the point of attack.

A.J. Green (foot) left last week’s game early against Atlanta, but Cincinnati still managed to defeat the Falcons 24-10 to move to 2-0 on the season without their star receiver. Green missed practice Wednesday but returned Thursday on a limited basis. He’s listed as questionable but looks like he’s more likely to play than not. Green is looked upon as Cincinnati’s only deep-threat for quarterback Andy Dalton to hit defensive backs over the top, but the reality of the deal is…he has more than just Green than can stretch defenses. Third-year receiver Mohamed Sanu is averaging 17.1 yards per catch, second behind Green (21.8). Sanu is a physical target with the ability to get open deep and also be used on gadget plays (like he did last week completing a 50 yard pass to receiver Brandon Tate).

What sets the deep ball up for Cincinnati’s offense is the multiple ways running back Giovanni Bernard attracts the backend of defenses. And this year, Bernard has Jeremy Hill spelling him that’s averaging near 5 yards per carry. The Titans may use some extra defenders down in the box to try to get Cincinnati’s physical O-line out-numbered, but with Dalton having a back like Bernard that can burn defenses in the screen-game, Tennessee’s defensive coordinator Ray Horton needs to have more respect for Dalton’s ability to get rid of the football quickly and recognize favorable one-on-one matchups at the line of scrimmage.

Tennessee’s offense hasn’t got any top production from their receivers. Tight end Delanie Walker has been Jake Locker’s prime target, but if Locker and the Titans are to pull off the upset on the road, they’ll need their power back (Shonn Green), who by the way is averaging 5.6 yards per carry – to be a big part of Tennessee’s plan. Problem is – I don’t see them doing that very well against the Bengals’ defense that I see generating turnovers for their offense to capitalize on.
Pick: Bengals 24, Titans 13

Baltimore Ravens 1-1 @ Cleveland Browns 1-1 – TV: CBS
Veteran receiver Steve Smith has given Joe Flacco a reliable target on the opposite side of deep-ball threat Torrey Smith. So far, Smith has been targeted 25 times and has caught 13 of them for 189 yards and one long score through his first two games as a Raven. Smith is a well-known prominent name across the league but tight end Owen Daniels isn’t in the same discussion. Daniels is one of the more sleeper additions to an offense the Ravens added during the offseason.

The ninth-year tight end has been a valuable target for Flacco in the redzone that has scored twice this season, catching 9 of his 10 targets. Dennis Pitta is the teams number one option at tight end that’s more of an athletic target that can stretch defenses, while Daniels works on the underneath routes. Both tight ends give Baltimore’s offense a well-rounded group of pass-catchers that work the seams and the outside with giftedly talented receivers.

The Browns need to put Baltimore’s running game to sleep in this matchup. With the terminated Ray Rice out of the picture, Bernard Pierce and Justin Forsett have combined for 239 yards in just two games. Cleveland’s defense has had trouble stopping the run and if they have troubles against Baltimore — it’ll set up the play-action pass for Flacco to showcase his strong arm that can strike defenses over the top to Torrey Smith, Steve Smith or blazing speedster Jacoby Jones.

The Browns are one of the five teams that haven’t turned the ball over and they’ll need to keep that level of mistake-free football going against the Ravens. Terrance West has filled the void for the injured Ben Tate nicely and is fourth in the league in rushing. West and Isaiah Crowell carrying the pigskin has given Brian Hoyer the luxury of using the play-action pass and has kept him out of long distance passing downs. Cleveland’s win over New Orleans was impressive, but this week their offense faces a Baltimore defense that’s much better than Pittsburgh’s and New Orleans’ that I favor to stop the run in a smash-mouth AFC North ball game.
Pick: Ravens 20, Browns 13

Green Bay Packers 1-1 @ Detroit Lions 1-1 – TV: FOX
Unlike Detroit’s performance Week 1 against the Giants, the Lions offense went missing against a tough Carolina defense in Week 2. Looking back at Detroit’s struggles of getting Calvin Johnson to take over a game out in Carolina, I noticed the Panthers playing man coverage with two deep safeties. Green Bay’s defensive coordinator Dom Capers should use the same approach to try to take away Johnson’s vertical game that stifles defenses on a regular basis.

Capers may elect to use Morgan Burnett, rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Micah Hyde on bracketing Johnson when Detroit’s quarterback Matthew Stafford looks for the homerun ball. Detroit’s rushing attack has been dreadful, but Capers’ defense has been porous against the run – and even though Reggie Bush and Joique Bell aren’t helping the Lions create balance on offense, Capers knows keying on the dangerous Bush and hard-nosed style of running from Bell is still a priority for his unit.

Detroit’s only getting 3 yards per carry between Reggie Bush and Joique Bell and that needs to change in order to sustain drives to keep Aaron Rodgers and company on the sidelines. Where I like Detroit to able to attack Green Bay’s defense is on the on the interior between the tackles on running downs. Both Seattle and New York’s offensive lines were able to win battles at the line of scrimmage by using extra blockers to spread the Packer’s front out to create open lanes for the running game. And as Seattle and New York used the running game to set up the play-action pass – expect to see the same from Detroit.

Green Bay’s receiving corps has a major advantage if Detroit’s beefy D-line doesn’t keep Rodgers under constant duress. With Jordy Nelson on the outside and Randall Cobb, Jarrett Boykin and rookie Davante Adams working in the slot, the Packers can dismantle a lions secondary that hasn’t fully grasped the new scheme of Teryl Austin. Mainly, Jordy Nelson matched up on the outside against Detroit’s Darius Slay is where Rodgers can exploit. If Detroit decides to double up on Nelson, that will leave his slot options to get better chances of finding open space against Detroit’s vulnerable secondary. Eddie Lacy has been silent and will have another difficult task on finding holes against a beefy D-line, but I don’t think he needs to do anything exotic but just gain positive yards on first down to soften up Detroit’s front. Detroit needs to take away the football from Green Bay, and that doesn’t happen each week from an Aaron Rodgers ran offense.
Pick: Packers 34, Lions 27

Indianapolis Colts 0-2 @ Jacksonville Jaguars 0-2 – TV: CBS
Washington loaded up the box on Jacksonville last week, evaporating the Jaguars’ running game, putting immense pressure on Chad Henne. The mess Jacksonville has going on upfront has head coach Gus Bradley in line to possibly throw in rookie first round pick Blake Bortles at quarterback. For the moment, Henne looks like the starter, but Bradley has hinted this week that looking at film will be the ultimate decision-processes on making a change.

If Jacksonville is going to develop any continuity on offense, they’ll need to make some corrections on their blocking schemes to help Toby Gerhart gain some positive yardage on first and second downs. To make matters worse for Jacksonville’s struggles, they have injuries across the board at receiver. Cecil Shorts (hamstring) is still very questionable and hasn’t had any action this season – rookie Marqise Lee re-aggravated his hamstring during practice — and un-drafted free agent Allen Hurns (hamstring) has also missed practice. If none of the three are on the field this Sunday, Allen Robinson and Mike Brown will be Jacksonville’s starting receivers.

The messy side of things for Indianapolis has been on defense. Without a pass rush, the Colts defense looks far worse than it did in 2013, and with the bad news of losing their best defensive player (Robert Mathis), who tore his Achilles while working out in Atlanta, not much is expected for a glimmer shed of hope for the defense to improve. The good news is – the offense has a healthy Ahmad Bradshaw that’s out-playing Trent Richardson in the backfield. Bradshaw brings toughness to Indianapolis’ offense with his ability to break tackles, fighting his way for extra yardage and as a receiving option. Jacksonville’s defense is vulnerable against the run and the Colts should be able gash Jacksonville’s defense on the ground, while Andrew Luck stands upright from the pocket, dissecting a putrid Jacksonville pass defense.
Pick: Colts 31, Jaguars 17

Oakland Raiders 0-2 @ New England Patriots 1-1 – TV: CBS
With a rookie quarterback (Derek Carr) pulling the trigger for Oakland’s offense, you’d expect New England to attack him with pressure packed fronts, but that might not be the case. The Raiders’ offense has struggled to put points on the board but have used creative plays that can catch defenses out of place. They’ll need to take chances against the Patriots that have been the most dominate team at home during the Belichick and Brady era.

The Raiders are likely to get back Maurice Jones-Drew (hand). Jones will share the football with Darren McFadden and Latavius Murray as part of a three-back run-committee. The three backs need to able get past New England’s front and into the clear in order for the zone-reads and everything from screen-passes and trick-plays to work positively on the road. Look for the Patriots to keep Carr in the pocket, not allowing him to make big plays off the option when he keeps the ball.

Stevan Ridley reached the century mark against the Vikings last Sunday and will look to do the same against Oakland’s defense that’s had fits against the run. The Raiders will have to defend cut back lanes better than they did against Houston. The Patriots can mix things up between Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden to change the pace. Vereen is always a threat when lined up in the backfield or in the slot as a receiver, drawing attention from linebackers or nickel corners, creating matchup issues. Coach Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will always utilize Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski as Brady’s prime targets in their weekly game-plans, but establishing a consistent level of balance is what’s been expressed this week.

The Patriots should get Ridley going fast out of the gates that’ll set the tone for Brady to strike Oakland’s defense with passes to Julian Edelman and Shane Vereen on the intermediate-routes — while Rob Gronkowski works the seams and on play-action in the redzone. Only way the Raiders have a chance is forcing Brady and the Pats into mistakes and that’s unlikely to happen. Patriots roll at home.
Pick: Patriots 38, Raiders 17

4:05 PM ET
San Francisco 49ers 1-1 @ Arizona Cardinals 2-0 – TV: FOX

Not to put the entire blame on San Francisco’s receivers (Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin) not getting separation against Chicago’s secondary, but Colin Kaepernick’s four interception performance has part to do with just that. And with tight Vernon Davis (ankle) on the 50/50 side of the fence of playing out in the desert, Kaepernick needs his go-to-targets to play much better route-running-wise against Arizona’s quality pass defense.

Arizona’s defense has been stout against the run, allowing only 2.6 yards per carry, and they’ve been doing this without their star defenders Daryl Washington (suspension) and Darnell Docket (injury) that won’t see any action in 2014. If San Francisco is going to move the ball efficiently against Arizona’s defense, they’ll need better play from their offensive line – particularly to avoid mental mistakes like they had against Chicago with penalties and Jonathan Martin’s porous play in place of the injured Anthony Davis at right guard. The offensive line had a rough outing facing pressure fronts against Chicago and Kaepernick may see the same fronts against Arizona.

Without Carson Palmer (shoulder), Arizona’s receivers found it hard getting the football last week at New York. Michael Floyd only caught one ball from backup Drew Stanton. Stanton was ineffective but got a big boost from his defense and special teams that proved to be the deciding factor in Arizona’s win over the Giants. Palmer has been limited in practice and is listed as questionable. Arizona’s offense behind the arm of Palmer is more equipped to take shots downfield and if he’s missing in action again this week, head coach Bruce Arians may call upon running back Andre Ellington for a larger amount of work for Arizona’s offensive approach.

The 49ers need to get back to the norm of what makes them a top-contender. Frank Gore hasn’t had more than 16 carries in a game. Attacking Arizona’s defensive front between the tackles with a mixture of Gore and rookie Carlos Hyde should be the ideal plan for 49ers’ offensive coordinator Greg Roman. If San Francisco can formulate and establish this part of their brand of football by pounding it up the gut, this should help Kaepernick and the offense open up the pass with some play-action, screens and intermediate routes to keep Arizona’s defense honest.

The 49ers can’t afford to lose back-to-back games and start the season 1-2, looking up at a 3-0 Arizona team, and of course, rival Seattle in the AFC West. It’s time for coach Harbaugh’s team to play smart and execute properly and be the more disciplined squad — and I’m rolling the dice on them to respond against Arizona that might be without their starting quarterback again. Drew Stanton can’t bank on his defense and special teams to guide him in consecutive weeks.
Pick: 49ers 24, Cardinals 17

4:25 PM ET
Denver Broncos 2-0 @ Seattle Seahawks 1-1 – TV: CBS

A drift seven months ago from their blowout loss to Seattle, Peyton Manning and the Broncos will try to get their revenge against the world champs in the most hostile environment. San Diego used the no-huddle offense, keeping Seattle’s defense from making their rotations and subs – while dominating in time of possession – holding the football for 40 plus minutes last Sunday.

Did the Chargers lay out a blue print for success to dethrone Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” defense? One can wonder if Denver’s head coach John Fox and Peyton Manning have taken a look at San Diego’s execution against Seattle, stealing a page from their playbook. However, communication – dealing with the loudest place on the gridiron will make it much more difficult than it was for Philip Rivers doing all the pre-snap changes without huddling at the line of scrimmage — keeping Seattle’s defense guessing. The Broncos will use spread formations and bunch their receivers up to try to formulate open targets and they’ll have their main slot receiver Wes Welker back in the starting lineup after serving a suspension for illegal substance use.

Don’t let one bad performance from Seattle’s defense fool you. Even the best have off days and they should be prepared and fired up against Denver’s prolific offense. Manning isn’t a mobile quarterback, so the best way for him to move in the pocket is off the play-action pass. Good luck with that because Seattle’s defense smothers opposing running backs at home. The Broncos will need Montee Ball to run the football with authority, shouldering lots of touches, while C.J. Anderson spells him. If Ball and the Broncos can’t do anything to negate Seattle’s pass rush, the Seahawks are likely to do what they do best behind their screaming fans and get after Manning on third and longs.

When Seattle has the ball, the Broncos must contain Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch. And they MUST NOT get fooled by crashing down off the edges on Russell Wilson’s play-fakes. Wilson can fake the handoff to Lynch — while opposing rushers rush on the outside towards Lynch before Wilson can toss it out to Percy Harvin on a sweep in fast motion — giving Harvin a parted sea and green light into the open field. The Broncos added some well-known playmakers (DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward) to their defense during the offseason for these particular battles. This is where they need to put their money where their mouth is and win a game for Denver that won’t win it because of Peyton Manning tossing touchdown passes all over a defense. And for the life of me, how can I take them to make more plays than Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman? Sherman-Thomas-Chancellor > Ware-Talib-Ward…and that’s all folks.
Pick: Seahawks 27, Broncos 17

Kansas City Chiefs 0-2 @ Miami Dolphins 1-1 – TV: CBS
It’s simple to me when looking at Kansas City’s woes. You can factor in a few things but when Jamaal Charles (ankle) isn’t doing his usual effectiveness stuff of dictating the passing game, the Chiefs are a different team – a non-threat to the rest of its AFC foes. Charles has been limited in practice this week despite being seen moving well during team drills. He’s listed as questionable and if he gears up to play against a feisty Miami defense, his touches will likely be limited.

Backup Knile Davis rushed for 79 yards and 2 touchdowns in a hard fought loss to the Broncos. Davis sports the physical attributes to take on a load of carries, but the big-play ability is what’s lacking in the Chiefs backfield without Charles, a back that can take it to the house once he gets his hands on the ball, carrying or as a pass-catcher in the screen-game. Miami is also dealing with injuries in their backfield. Knowshon Moreno (elbow) will miss significant time that leaves Miami scrambling to get their change-of-pace rushing attack going. Lamar Miller, who won the starting role in the preseason tweaked his ankle last Sunday at Buffalo but hasn’t been limited much in practice and should get the start against Kansas City. For insurance, the Dolphins re-signed Daniel Thomas after releasing him in August, and should Miller have any setbacks, the only other options for the Dolphins are rookies Damien Williams and Orleans Darkva.

Here’s what this game comes down to: Miami’s defensive line has matchup advantages against Kansas City’s offensive line. Led by Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon pressuring quarterbacks on the edges and being good run stoppers, it’ll be difficult for Kansas City to develop a decent amount of production running the football against Miami’s talented front. The Dolphins’ misfits last week at Buffalo — was mainly due to bad offensive line play against the Bills’ talented D-line. Without Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey, Miami’s interior O-line is vulnerable.

The good news is, Pouncey has returned to practice this week after undergoing hip surgery in July. His status is unclear on if he’ll play or not this weekend, but even without Pouncey, Miami’s line should perform much more fundamentally sound against Kansas City’s defense. Ultimately, Kansas City hasn’t shown enough evidence of being able to move the sticks through the air. No Jamaal Charles, no setting up the aerial attack for Alex Smith.
Pick: Dolphins 23, Chiefs 13

Sunday Night Football in America 8:30 PM ET – TV: NBC
Pittsburgh Steelers 1-1 @ Carolina Panthers 2-0

If the Steelers are going to win in the south at Bank of America Stadium, they’ll need to play disciplined ball and not give the Panthers defense the opportunity to take away the football. Pittsburgh has been able to move the football, averaging over 400 yards per game, but with muff, miffs and miscues, their long drives aren’t putting points on the board. Their first half performance against the Browns in Week 1 was their most productive showing of putting points on the board, scoring 27 points – a game the Steelers offense went silent in the second half but held on to a 30-27 win. Last week against Baltimore, turnovers and some porous play on the offensive line was the main reason for scoring only 6 points in a 26-6 loss to the rival Ravens.

Carolina will be without Greg Hardy, another player that’s been removed form an active roster due to a violent matter. But, Pittsburgh will still have a tough matchup against Carolina’s physical defense. Pittsburgh’s right tackle Marcus Gilbert has been the weak-link of Pittsburgh’s blockers upfront. Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked five times, four of them coming from Gilbert’s side, and he’s going up against Carolina’s Charles Johnson, who should win in the trenches against the overmatched Gilbert. So…expect Pittsburgh to use some extra blockers on Gilbert’s side with a tight end or a back to help him on the right side of the line.

Carolina’s defense makes opponents work for everything thing they get on the ground and through the air. They’ve forced a league-high six turnovers – much to do with stuffing the run and making offenses one-dimensional. Pittsburgh’s running back Le’Veon Bell is a versatile style of runner that can create space with his own ability and he’ll need to use that attribute because finding holes against Carolina’s run-stuffing defense will be at a minimum. The Steelers like to use him on delayed handoffs with Ben Roethlisberger lined up in shotgun. Trying to run up the gut or use them halfback shovel passes to Bell won’t work much with Carolina’s amazing linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei keying on Bell and getting pushes up the middle.

Bottom line; the Steelers need to be creative using quick screens to their speedy receivers or anything that can take the Panthers’ defensive line out of their game. I’m thinking they go that route, but won’t get very far. What concerns me most with Pittsburgh trying to erase last weeks terrible performance is their defense. The Panthers’ offense isn’t anything that will light up the scoreboard, but moving the ball methodically and Cam Newton not forcing the issue at quarterback – the end results come out with positive plays to keep drives going, eating up clock. Dick LeBeau’s D-unit just isn’t doing anything to create turnovers and stop the run on defense for Pittsburgh. Unless LeBeau’s defense can keep Newton in the pocket and not let him improvise, Carolina should come out on top.
Pick: Panthers 20, Steelers 13

Monday Night Football, September 22 8:30 PM ET – TV: ESPN
Chicago Bears 1-1 @ N.Y. Jets 1-1

New York’s defensive approach is clogging running lanes and keeping the oppositions quarterback under pressure. Sheldon Richardson, Damon Harris and Muhammad Wilkerson are the viable factors going up against the Bears offensive line – trying to contain Matt Forte and keep him from doing what he does best outside the tackles.

The Jets are best on not allowing rushers to get past their interior line, but in this matchup, Chicago head coach Marc Trestman may utilize his versatile back on some sweeps, screens and counters to force New York’s monsters to move away from the middle and out to the edges. If the Jets contain Forte from getting past their front, it’ll give Rex Ryan the green light on pressuring Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler with some stunts and blitzes. They’ll need to in order to limit Cutler from connecting big with his tremendously skilled receivers (Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery).

The Bears have a plus going up against New York’s suspect banged up secondary that’s getting burned on the outside. How Ryan employs his coverage will also be crucial. Dee Milliner is still recovering from an ankle sprain and has been on and off the field. Milliner got destroyed in coverage last week at Green Bay against Jordy Nelson that beat him for an 80 yard score. And with Milliner not at 100 percent, Ryan should likely roll his coverage by keeping his safeties over the top on Marshall and Jeffery, forcing them to stay on the underneath routes.

Chicago’s defense made some key deciding plays in their come from behind win over San Francisco. Having said that, they’re still a non-trust worthy defense, and New York’s offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has Geno Smith taking chances downfield in his second season. Much in part to adding some talent at his disposal with Eric Decker (might not play due to a hamstring) drawing attention is giving Smith’s second and third options more singled up chances, most notably in the direction of speedster Jeremy Kerley.

Still, the running game is the number one element of New York’s ways of attacking defenses with Chris Johnson and Chris Ivory. That won’t change on Monday night and Smith hasn’t fully had the training wheels taken off of him. Both defenses will commit to the run and apply pressure packages on passing downs, not giving much time for both Smith and Cutler to attack vertically. So it comes down to which team has more playmakers in gaining yards after catching the football, and that team is Chicago.
Pick: Bears 26, N.Y. Jets 19

You can follow Massimo Russo on Twitter @NFLMassimo and @SilverBlueRpt

Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos, NFL, NFL Picks, Dallas Cowboys

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