A 4-7 team going on the road to play a 7-4 team shouldn't be a "showdown" game. But it is when both teams are just a game out of first place. If nothing else, the weakness of the NFC West has manufactured key games out of mismatches. Even with last week's loss to Atlanta, the Packers are playing well. The pass protection for Aaron Rodgers is getting better as the season goes on. The 49ers are going to have to try and blitz him, because Rodgers doesn't make mistakes unless you can force them. Even this is a faint hope though, because the Packer offense is well-diversified. The best the Niners can do is for corner Nate Clement to remove Greg Jennings from the offense and hope for the best. Rodgers moves the ball around well though, and I just don't see any way San Francisco can stop him. They'll have to score 28-31 points to win. San Fran quarterback Troy Smith will present a challenge for the Packer defense that relies on bringing Clay Matthews in pressure. Smith is mobile enough to escape and make things happen out of chaos. The flip side is he can also make mistakes in chaos. We also haven't discussed the intangible factors of San Francisco being on a short week, making their second straight road trip, coming off a big divisional win and having an early start with their body clocks still on West Coast time. I see a rout in the offing and this one's going to be over by halftime.
Dallas-Indianapolis was a possible Super Bowl preview when the schedule was released. Now it's one team looking for redemption with another hoping to avoid a complete collapse. The Colts have to run the ball. To call this running game mediocre would be a true insult to mediocrity everywhere--it's just bad. The Cowboys have the personnel to do to Peyton Manning what San Diego did last Sunday night and that's bring a lot of pressure off the edge and force mistakes. The only difference is that it will be Demarcus Ware wreaking the havoc rather than Antwan Barnes or Shaun Phillips. Without a running game, Indy can't keep Ware honest. The Dallas passing game is doing well with Jon Kitna, who's always been an underrated, efficient passer. The Cowboys can run the ball on Indy, and as long as they don't let Manning get off to a good start and force the game into a passing battle, Dallas is the better team right now and they get a road win, 27-17 in front of a Fox national audience, along with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman.
Atlanta's visit to Tampa was flexed into the late time slot even though it's also on Fox and won't have the #1 broadcast team. I'm guessing the reason for the schedule change is that the network had to hedge its bets once Dallas-Indy lost its steam. Tampa played Atlanta tough in the Georgia Dome and they played Baltimore tough on the road last week. Now we'll find out if homefield advantage is what they need to get over the top and get a win. The Bucs are going to use their bend-but-don't-break defensive style, but the Falcons do match up with this. Matt Ryan is a patient quarterback and Michael Turner can really pound between the tackles. If Atlanta gets a lead, it may force Tampa to crowd the box and prevent Turner from grinding up the clock. A huge matchup will be on the outside between Falcon receiver Roddy White and Buccaneer corner Aqib Talib, who has the size and speed to stop the man who's been the league's best wideout this year. If that happens, Tampa can be more comfortable bringing an extra man up to help with the run and against the short passing game targeted to tight end Tony Gonzalez. And if that happens, it turns the game into the kind of battle Tampa thrives on. In the bigger picture, Atlanta's the better team and is going to win this division. But today, Tampa finally gets a big win and keeps themselves alive, 20-14.
As I was picking up some milk at the grocery store on Saturday afternoon here outside Baltimore, the store made a brief announcement about a sale and then concluded with "Go Ravens, beat the Steelers." It's fair to say the atmosphere here is electric right now, as this blood rivalry steps on to NBC's Sunday Night stage. Prior to living in Baltimore, I also lived in Pittsburgh and I can safely attest that these two fan bases truly loathe each other. The fact their teams are each 8-3, playing for the inside track to the AFC North title and a first-round playoff bye isn't going to encourage goodwill anytime soon. And the game will live up to the hype. Both defenses love to blitz and both offenses have ways of beating it. Baltimore's Joe Flacco is very efficient at picking up his backs and tight end in the passing game, and they can run inside with Ray Rice. Pittsburgh is built to run inside and keep defenses honest, and they can also try and isolate speedy Mike Wallace on Baltimore's vulnerable corners. The key difference between the two teams is this--Pittsburgh can't protect Ben Roethlisberger, meaning they won't get the time to consistently exploit the Ravens' secondary vulnerability. Plus, Baltimore has homefield advantage. They'll win it 23-17.
Image from fanway.com
Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in college football ,game analysis in the NFL. and coverage of college basketball. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.