Saturday, November 12, 2011

NFL Week 10 Games to Watch; Mid-Season Report

Welcome to Week 10 in the NFL!  You get a two-for-one special today:  the Games to Watch (GTWs) for Week 10, and my thoughts on the 2011 season, now half over.

Week 10 Games to Watch

New Orleans Saints (6-3) @ Atlanta Falcons (5-3) (Sunday, 1:00 PM ET, FOX):  After a shaky start to the season, the offensive line for the Atlanta Falcons is much improved, allowing Matt Ryan to remind Falcons fans why they fell in love with him as a rookie.  In the first five games of the season, of which the Falcons won only two, Ryan threw for 7 touchdowns and 6 interceptions, and was sacked an alarming 14 times.  The team is now on a three-game winning streak, with Ryan throwing for 5 touchdowns, 3 interceptions and only 5 sacks.  Though the Falcons’ O-line has let Ryan be hit 47 times this season (sixth in the league), sacks have gone way down in the last few games.  The New Orleans Saints defense ranks 12th in the league in sacks, at 20 for the season, tied with five other teams.  Atlanta ranks at a meager 25th in sacks, so look for both QBs to have time to look down the field.

Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2) @ Cincinnati Bengals (6-2) (Sunday, 1:00 PM ET, CBS):  As you will see below, the story of the Bengals’ season has been one of the more overlooked this season.  Their rise to the top of the AFC North division has been sneaky and quiet, though rookie QB Andy Dalton has gotten his share of attention in the media.  However, Sunday is the day the Bengals need to prove that they are worthy of their 6-2 record.  The only division opponent they have faced this season is the lowly Cleveland Browns team, who have only won three games this year.  For their part, the Steelers are coming off a stinging loss to the Baltimore Ravens last week and will be looking to bounce—no, clobber—back against the Bengals.  Though the stout Steelers defense is always a threat for QBs, the young Dalton will have a bit of break as Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley is out with a hamstring injury; linebacker James Harrison is listed as “probable” to play, but has a toe injury that may keep him out of some plays.

New York Giants (6-2) @ San Francisco 49ers (7-1) (Sunday, 4:15 PM ET, FOX):  Even though this isn’t a intra-division game, it is still critical for the standings in the NFC.  Both teams are in commanding lead in their divisions: the Giants have a two-game lead over the second-place Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East, and the 49ers are running away with the NFC West, with a 5-game lead over the Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals.  The Niners are my other favorite story of the season (see below).  Quarterback Alex Smith has thrived under the coaching of Jim Harbaugh, having the best season of his six-year career, despite having no offseason to become familiar with the rookie head coach’s game plan.  Meanwhile, Giants QB Eli Manning has been pulling off incredible fourth-quarter performances to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in each game this season.  The question is whether it will come down to the last fifteen minutes of the game once again or if the Giants defense can let Manning and the offense maintain a lead, if they get it.  The Giants defense is ranked 19th in the league overall but a below-average 24th against the run, which has been the 49ers’ bread and butter so far this season—the Niners are 6th in rushing offense.

New England Patriots (5-3) @ New York Jets (5-3) (Sunday, 8:20 PM ET, NBC):  OK, this is the fifth time each of these teams has appeared in the NH Games-to-Watch series (see the full break-down, below), including the game between these two in Week 5, which the Pats won.  I will probably always list them among the week’s best, because the pure hatred that exists between the two squads will always provide good entertainment.  The only thing I’ll add this week is that the Jets are on an upswing in a 3-0 run and the Pats have lost two in a row.  Look to see if Tom Brady manages to find Chad Ochocino down the field after the receiver came up empty last week.

GTW Break-Down

In the interest of full disclosure, I thought I’d give you a list of all the teams with the number of times that each has been profiled in the GTW series (in case you weren’t already counting).  Here they are, in the order of frequency:

5 Mentions:

New England Patriots
New York Jets

4 Mentions:

Atlanta Falcons
Chicago Bears
Dallas Cowboys
Detroit Lions
New York Giants
Philadelphia Eagles

3 Mentions:

New Orleans Saints
San Diego Chargers
Washington Redskins

2 Mentions:

Arizona Cardinals
Baltimore Ravens
Buffalo Bills
Carolina Panthers
Cincinnati Bengals
Denver Broncos
Green Bay Packers
Kansas City Chiefs
Minnesota Vikings
Pittsburgh Steelers
Oakland Raiders
San Francisco 49ers
St. Louis Rams
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

1 Mention:

Houston Texans
Indianapolis Colts
Miami Dolphins
Tennessee Titans

[gasp] No Mentions:

Cleveland Browns
Jacksonville Jaguars
Seattle Seahawks

Just so you know, I base my GTW choices on the matchups that I think will be most compelling.  Therefore, I won’t pick a game where you can expect one team to blow the other out.  I also won’t write about a game with two terrible teams; I’m not going to suggest that you invest 3 hours in a game of field goals.

Mid-Season Report

We are now halfway through the season, with each team having played at least eight games.  In case you’re interested, here is a link to the standings by division.

Now for a couple of comments.  The big stories of the season, chronicled here on Naptime Huddle and elsewhere, have been the early collapse of the Philadelphia “Dream Team” Eagles, the impressive performances of rookie QB Cam Newton, whose Carolina Panthers have only won two games, the resurgent Detroit Lions, and the Age of Tebow that has begun in Denver.  There are also cases of collective depression developing in Indianapolis and Minnesota, brought on by the exposure of their teams’ weaknesses without effective quarterbacks.

But for me, two stories stand out for their interest, and the virtual lack of attention from the national media.  The first is the remarkable turnaround in San Francisco, where the 49ers, who finished with 6 wins and 10 losses in 2010 are already on the verge of locking up the NFC West championship.  With no significant changes to its roster from last year, the success of the 49ers can be attributed to NFL rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh, who ruffled feathers a few weeks ago with his borderline-inappropriate post-game handshake with Lions head coach Jim Schwartz.  I found an interesting article (click here) on the results of Harbaugh’s coaching in an article on Sports Illustrated’s website.  In the article, Kerry Byrne analyzes the 49ers efficiency on offense and defense based on a formula that calculates a team’s Scoreability (offensive efficiency) and Bendability (defensive efficiency).  I highly recommend reading it.  In summary, compared to the rest of the league, the 49ers require the fewest yards gained per point scored and they force their opponents to gain the most yards for each point they earn.

The other story that hasn’t gotten much attention is how the Cincinnati Bengals have quietly worked their way to a 6-2 record, which puts them in a tie for first in the AFC North.  Now, the Bengals have only faced one division opponent, the Cleveland Browns, so they still need to prove that they can win games in their always tough division.  But, last year the Bengals finished with 4 wins and 12 losses, at the very bottom of their division.  The difference?  One major difference is rookie QB Andy Dalton, who replaced disgruntled veteran QB Carson Palmer (who is currently fumbling—or, rather, intercepting—his way in the role of duct tape-QB for the Oakland Raiders).  The other difference is that Dalton and his teammates have managed to avoid injury, unlike last year when a team with Super Bowl dreams found itself literally limping through the season.  The second half of the 2011 season will be the true test of their heart and ability, with five of their last eight games against their division rivals.

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