What else would you rather do on a Friday than watch a poor man swing away at his weekly NFL Picks and Power Rankings? We’ll even throw in some extra purple with Three Reasons for Optimism and Three Reasons to Go `Uh-Oh.'
1, Texans (4-0)
Last week: No. 1.
Comment: Opponents have converted a league-low 25 percent of their third downs (12 of 48) against Wade Phillips’ bunch. That’s probably why they’re only scoring 14 a game against Bum’s boy.
2. Falcons (4-0)
Last week: No. 2.
Comment: Sometimes, it looks like Tony Gonzalez could play forever. The future Hall of Fame tight end continues to help Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ ball-control, quick-strike offense convert third downs at a 46.9 percent clip. Only Pittsburgh (56.3) has been more efficient on third downs.
3. Chargers (3-1)
Last week: No. 4.
Comment: Strange to see the Chargers rank higher in scoring defense (sixth) than scoring offense (14th). It’s good to have better balance, but it’s also still a concern that Philip Rivers put up only three points against the Falcons in Week 3.
30. Chiefs (1-3)
Last week: No. 25.
Comment: 0-2 at home and hosting the Ravens this week. Baltimore is fifth in scoring. The Chiefs are 31st in scoring defense and last in turnover margin (minus-13).
31. Saints (0-4)
Last week: No. 31.
Comment: At least the Saints are consistent. Who knows, if the fiasco continues, they might even be able to overtake the Browns’ stranglehold on No. 32. The defense doesn’t seem willing to stand in the way. It’s 31st in the NFL in first downs allowed (102). Only Tennessee (104) is worse.
32. Browns (0-4)
Last week: No. 32.
Comment: So what’s worse than starting 0-4 with a one-point loss to the Eagles, two tough division losses and a beatdown by Buffalo? A Week 5 road trip to play a Giants team coming off a loss.
8. Vikings (3-1).
Last week: No. 11.
Comment: @StribDW believes this lofty ranking is somehow connected to the gas fumes that pour into the Sid Hartman Media Center on daily basis at Winter Park. Perhaps. Or it could be the fact the Vikings have just dominated the line of scrimmage in back-to-back upsets that included a game in which they beat up a 49ers team that beat up the Packers in Lambeau.
11. Packers (2-2)
Last week: No. 14.
Comment: The replacement officials weren’t the only ones from the NFL to hose the Packers. The schedule-maker got his licks in, too. A Thursday night game in Week 2. A Monday nighter at Seattle in Week 3. And now a three-game road trip. Houston is the only other team that has three consecutive road games on its schedule.
12. Bears (3-1)
Last week: No. 16.
Comment: Jay Cutler and Mike Tice can’t get along during a 16-point prime-time victory at Dallas? Heaven help the Bears if this thing starts to unravel. Cutler did, however, have perhaps the best game of his career. So Tice is doing something right.
29. Lions (1-3)
Last week: No. 22.
Comment: The Lions are who we used to think they were. Did someone say 6-10? Or 5-11?
4. Cardinals (4-1); 5. Eagles (3-1); 6. Ravens (3-1); 7. Bengals (3-1); 9. 49ers (3-1); 10. Broncos (2-2); 13. Rams (2-2); 14. Patriots (2-2); 15. Seahawks (2-2); 16. Cowboys (2-2); 17. Giants (2-2); 18. Redskins (2-2); 19. Jets (2-2); 20. Bills (2-2); 21. Buccaneers (1-3); 22. Jaguars (1-3); 23. Titans (1-3); 24. Steelers (1-2); 25. Colts (1-2); 26. Panthers (1-3); 27. Dolphins (1-3); 28, Raiders (1-3).
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
1, Ponder’s 4 for 4: Like we said last week, we’ll keep this No. 1 until quarterback Christian Ponder puts up a clunker. Part of his impressive development in Year 2 is his full understanding of his team’s power-running identity. Power-running teams don’t sling the ball with hopes that the reward will miraculously outweigh the risk. Ponder’s understanding of that was on display during a win at Detroit in which he threw for only 111 yards and a 71.2 passer rating. To me, those lousy numbers are overshadowed by the fact he’s the only starting QB in the league without an interception. His streak of passes without a pick is 124, including 123 this year.
2, Those eight plays in the second half: The Lions trailed 20-6 and knew the Vikings were going to run the ball late in the third quarter and into the fourth quarter. They put eight and nine men in the box. Yet the Vikings still ran the ball eight consecutive times for 38 yards and three first downs. As Ponder likes to say, “That’s huge!” If the Lions could do that, they’d win a Super Bowl with their passing attack. It would have been the perfect pound-it-out-with-a-lead drive had Blair Walsh not missed the 46-yard field goal attempt at the end of it.
3, Depth: We all thought the secondary was doomed when Jamarca Sanford had to start at strong safety for the injured Mistral Raymond last week. We all thought the nickel defense was doomed when Jasper Brinkley had to take over for the injured Erin Henderson the past two weeks. We all thought Marvin Mitchell couldn’t start for Henderson in back-to-back games in the base defense. Well, we were wrong. Sanford teamed with Harrison Smith last week to showcase the best safety play the Vikings have had in years. If Sanford keeps it up, Raymond is out of a starting job. As for Brinkley, he played so well that, for now, Henderson has lost his job in the nickel.
THREE REASONS TO GO `UH-OH’
1, Favored by 5 1/2: A team’s expectations can’t change any more dramatically in four weeks than they have for the Vikings since the start of the season. Four weeks ago, they were a rebuilding team looking to 2013 while the bullies of the NFC North fought amongst themselves. Today, with three of their next four games at home, the Vikings are expected to head into November still atop the division. But what happens when a team that’s grabbed the league’s attention with consecutive upsets is the favored one.
2, Bracketing Percy: Until last week, it seemed as though Percy Harvin essentially was unstoppable. Even if the Vikings had to throw the ball to him five yards behind the line of scrimmage, Harvin was going to get his yards after the catch and move the chains. But the Lions slapped a bracket on him that took him out of the offense. Even the linemen were looking for those quick passes down the line of scrimmage. As teams look to duplicate the Lions’ approach, the pressure will mount on Ponder and Jerome Simpson to connect deep down the field. And that will open the Vikings up to more turnovers.
3, Inconsistent tight end production: This is a tight end-friendly offense with one of the best young tight ends in Kyle Rudolph and the team’s prized free-agent acquisition in John Carlson. One week, Rudolph looks like the league’s breakout player of the year. The next week, like last week, he goes long stretches without being targeted and ends up with two catches for 8 yards. Carlson, meanwhile, has been a huge disappointment. He’s been targeted three times and has one catch for minus-1 yard. If teams are able to take Harvin out of the game, the Vikings need consistent production and first downs out of their tight ends.
Vikings 24, Titans 17: The Vikings have shown the past two weeks that they can run the ball when two of the league’s better defensive fronts know they’re going to run the ball. Tennessee doesn’t have near the strength up front, ranking 27th against the run. This is a game the Vikings should control. Then again, this spot is on a three-game losing streak when it comes to predicting what the Purple will do. The Vikings are favored by 5 ½.
PHI plus-3 ½ at PIT: Steelers by 7.
GB minus-7 at IND: Packers by 10.
CLE plus-9 at NYG: Giants by 3.
MIA plus-3 ½ at CIN: Bengals by 10.
BAL minus-6 at KC: Ravens by 3.
SEA plus-3 at CAR: Panthers by 7.
CHI minus-4 ½ at JAC: Jaguars by 6.
DEN plus-6 ½ at NE: Patriots by 7.
BUF plus-9 ½ at SF: 49ers by 10.
SD plus-3 ½ at NO: Saints by 3 (Hey, they gotta win sometime, right?).
HOU minus-8 at NYJ: Texans by 10.
Record Last Week: 9-4. Vs. Spread: 5-8.
Record Season: 22-19. Vs. Spread: 16-21-2.
ATL minus-3 at WAS:
Redskins 30, Falcons 28: RGIII goes Matty Ice with a last-minute drive as the NFC loses its last undefeated team. If that and everything else above happens (which, of course, it won’t), the Vikings, Falcons, Cardinals and 49ers would be tied atop the conference with 4-1 records. Just like we all figured after five weeks, eh?
Last week: NO plus-7 at GB. Prediction: Saints 31, Packers 28. Actual: Packers 28, Saints 27.
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