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Sunday, November 06, 2005 

Quick Slants - Week 9

If you live in the Northeast, this is the peak of leaf-raking season. The NFL seems to have taken this into account, as this afternoon's slate of games is the weakest so far this season. But the prime time games should be worth the wait.

Sunday
Carolina (5-2) at Tampa Bay (5-2)

This is the only game of the weekend featuring two teams with above .500 records, and it should be great. With Atlanta playing at Miami, the loser of this game will likely fall into third place in the surprising competitive NFC South. Tampa has the edge on defense, where they've given up just 87 points this season, third best in the NFL behind Indy (77) and Chicago (81). But keep this in mind - Tampa Bay has played the easiest schedule so far this season, and Indy and Chicago are not far behind (more on that later).

Last week, lowly San Francisco shut down the Bucs running game, holding Cadillac Williams to 20 yards on 13 carries, which allowed them to focus on pressuring QB Chris Simms (5 sacks, 2 INTs). Tampa Bay needs a strong running game or they cannot win a big game.

Meanwhile, the Panthers have been on fire. Last week's 38-13 win over Minnesota is a little misleading since Duante Culpepper missed most of the game after his injury, but Carolina has won four in a row after a tough 1-2 start. Tampa Bay will bounce back a bit today, but they'll have to hope for a Carolina letdown to get a win.

Pittsburgh (5-2) at Green Bay (1-6)

Bet the folks at CBS are really happy with this national TV game. Talk about a game that looked a lot better during those scheduling meetings over the summer. Not only is Green Bay pathetic, but Ben Roethlisberger is out after a knee scope, so Charlie Batch starts at QB for Pittsburgh. I was surprised to see that the Packers have actually outscored their opposition this season, 158-139. While that includes a 52-3 win over New Orleans, taking that away leaves a margin of 106-136, or an average of 5 points per loss. That's a lot of close games, and last week's loss to Cincinnati was caused more by Favre's 5 interceptions than bad defense, as the Packers outgained the Bengals and were basically even in time of possession. Favre is going to be very motivated today to overcome that miserable performance.

Pittsburgh nearly blew a 17-10 lead in the fourth quarter against Baltimore last Monday night before wining 20-19, so they should be motivated coming into this game. While I'd love to see Favre upset the Steelers, it's the Packers defense I'm worried about. If this is Favre's last season, today could be one of his last hurrahs.

Sunday Night
Philadelphia (4-3) at Washington (4-3)

Terrell Owens is suspended again. What a surprise. I'm not sure what's worse, the fact that he proclaimed that the Eagles would be undefeated if they had Brett Favre at QB (I guess T.O. missed those 5 picks on SportsCenter), or that he complained that the Eagles didn't "celebrate" his 100th career touchdown. Owens should be glad the Eagles are playing him at all.

Turning to the game, they don't get much bigger than this in November. Unless the Giants stumble in San Francisco, the loser of this game will fall into last place, two games behind New York. Washington was flat-out embarrassed last week in New York. In this blog last Sunday, I gave the Redskins an edge partially because they had "played a tougher schedule". While I quoted the strength-of-schedule marks for both teams, I overlooked one important fact - playing a really good team improves your SOS - even if you lose. For instance, here are the SOS numbers for the four NFC East teams:

WSH: 31 20 0 .607
PHI: 29 23 0 .557
NYG: 28 26 0 .518
DAL: 29 28 0 .508

But if you factor out the teams that they lost to, and instead look at their "SOSw" (or strength-of-schedule for just the teams they defeated) you get a slightly different story:

WSH: 16 13 0 .551
NYG: 19 19 0 .500
DAL: 17 19 0 .472
PHI: 13 16 0 .448

The gap between Washington and New York gets a lot smaller, but it really turns the spotlight on Philadelphia, who's had trouble against quality opponents and was embarrassed by Denver last Sunday. Take away Owens, and Washington looks to have an edge.

Monday Night
Indianapolis (7-0) at New England (4-3)

This week's "game of the year" might just live up the hype. The Patriots offense has been sputtering, the Colts defense is running on all cylinders, and Peyton Manning is facing a much more porous New England secondary this time around. It could spell a lot of trouble for the Patriots on Monday night. The Patriots will probably bottle up Manning most of the time, like they normally do (I'm sure they studied a lot of Cleveland Browns tape to see how they shut him down). But Manning is going to have opportunities to hit some big plays in this game. If he consistently comes through, the Colts could win big, 35-17 or more. The Patriots offense is going to have to help out. While the Colts defense is statisically impressive, they've played the second-weakest schedule in the league, and the only quality offense they've faced was the Rams - who sprinted to a 17-0 lead before Marc Bulger got hurt. If the weather cooperates, it could be a trackmeet in Foxboro.

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