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Week 9 Cheat Sheet: Carolina cruisin'
I got in a heated argument with a friend this week — about the Carolina Panthers.
This friend is not a fan of any NFC South team, isn’t passionate about the league’s scheduling intricacies and isn’t someone who criticized Cam Newton for having a “fake smile” before the 2011 NFL Draft. He’s got no real dog in the fight.
But he said something that really bothered me this week. He said the same thing I’m hearing a lot of places that just drives me up a wall.
“The Panthers haven’t beaten anyone.”
Oh, I hate that. HATE. I don’t hate many things. Seriously. I don’t hate traffic. I don’t hate rainy days without the umbrella. And I don’t hate when my friends talk about “Game of Thrones” — a show I’ve never seen — all the freaking time. But I hate the “Panthers haven’t played anybody” thing.
Why? Because winning in the NFL is hard. Really hard. And when you actually go out and win games — that’s enough. The wins count the same, whether you beat the ’85 Bears or the ’08 Lions, public opinion be damned.
You’ve heard the saying “Any Given Sunday?” Forget that. It’s “Every Given Sunday.” Upsets happen, home losses happen, injuries happen. Teams get hot. Teams get cold. Quarterbacks go down. Rookies are relied upon. Winning in the NFL isn’t something to take lightly and it’s certainly not something to take for granted. Ask a Falcons fan. Ask a Texans fan. Those are the two teams I had going to the Super Bowl back in August. Yeah, I know. That looks dumb now. But I promise you, I wasn’t alone.
The Panthers have now beaten four different teams. And they’ve beaten those four teams rather handily. Carolina has outscored its opponents 134-38 in those four wins. As for its three losses, only one of them, a 22-6 disaster in Arizona, was a blowout. The Panthers led the Seahawks the entire game in Week 1 and lost 12-7.
They lost on the final drive, on a questionable call, in Week 2 in Buffalo. If a few balls and a few calls go a few different way, the Panthers would be 6-1 and the toast of the league.
They haven’t played anyone? It’s not easy winning one game in the NFL, let alone four. This Panthers team has a promising young defense, led by what I view as the best front seven in all of football, and an emerging young offense.
Newton, historically terrific in the second half of the season, appears to be just getting started. If he has a second half even close to the ones he did in Years 1 and 2, we could be looking at an MVP candidate come January.
But they haven’t played anyone.
I’m looking at the NFC and I see one wild-card spot locked up by whichever NFC West power — San Francisco or Seattle — doesn’t win the division. That other wild-card spot? Why not Carolina?
OK, deep breath.
It’s only football.
Cheat Sheet Trivia Question of the Week: Tyrann Mathieu won the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Month Award for October. Name the only two other Arizona Cardinals to win the award.
Now, on to the picks.
Last Week: 11-2
Cincinnati (6-2) at Miami (3-4): When the Bengals started out 3-2, I wrote that they were winning “despite” quarterback Andy Dalton. That wasn’t fair. It wasn’t very cool, either. After his two incredible performances in wins over the Lions and Jets, I’m going to apologize to the Red Rifle. He’s thrown 11 touchdowns over the past three games. No Bengals quarterback has ever done that. With the Dolphins reeling, this one has Bengals road win written all over it. These Thursday night ones have been brutal. I expect another clunker.
The Pick: Bengals 27, Dolphins 10
MetLife Update: The Dolphins won 22-20.
Kansas City (8-0) at Buffalo (3-5): Upset special! Kansas City’s favored on the road and is No. 1 on the all-important “POWER RANKINGS” across the Internet, but I’ve got Buffalo here. The Bills are as tough as nails at home. Kansas City’s been a nice first-half story and Andy Reid’s your Coach of the Year thus far. But I’m looking at the schedule, and I’m a little nervous about trips to Buffalo and Denver, home games against San Diego and Denver and then a game at Washington. Let’s check in on Dec. 9. The Chiefs very well could be 9-4 or 8-5.
The Pick: Bills 23, Chiefs 17
Minnesota (1-6) at Dallas (4-4): The Cowboys gave up an eye-popping 623 yards of offense in Detroit last week — the 11th most in league history — and have lost three games in which they’ve had leads in the fourth quarter. And yet they’re on Cloud Nine compared to the Vikings. Minnesota gave up 182 yards rushing last week and the Packers scored on all but one of their drives. The Cowboys are desperate for an easy opponent after that heartbreaking Lions loss. The scheduling gods did them a favor here.
The Pick: Cowboys 34, Vikings 17
Tennessee (3-4) at St. Louis (3-5): Whatever happened to Chris Johnson? After averaging 85.3 rushing yards in Tennessee’s first three games, the high-priced running back has run for just 27.5 per game in his past four. Though the offense is an eyesore, the Rams defense has been playing well. I like St. Louis to defend its home turf in the Jeff Fisher Bowl.
The Pick: Rams 17, Titans 13
New Orleans (6-1) at New York Jets (4-4): Forget the Jeff Fisher Bowl. We’ve got another Ryan Brother Bowl in New Jersey. Rex is 2-0 vs. his brother, getting the best of him when Rob was the defensive coordinator in Cleveland in 2010 and Dallas in 2011. There’s been less hijinks this time around than in years past, but Rex did have one zinger during his press conference on Wednesday. Asked which twin wishes he could look as good as the other, Rex said, “Oh please, it’s pretty obvious. The lap band worked for me. I’m just going to say that. Put it out there.” It’s out there, Rex!
The Pick: Saints 23, Jets 20
San Diego (4-3) at Washington (2-5): If I had to fill out an MVP ballot this week, I’d have Philip Rivers in my top five. He’s back among the top-tier quarterbacks in 2013, leading the NFL in completion percentage and ranking second in the NFL with a 111.1 rating. Can he keep it up in Washington? You better believe it. The way the Redskins defense has played this season, Billy Volek, Stan Humphries, Bob Gagliano, Mark Vlasic, John Friesz and Moses Moreno could get the job done in Washington. Ah, our first Moses Moreno reference of the season. Who had Week 9 in the office pool?
The Pick: Chargers 33, Redskins 23
Atlanta (2-5) at Carolina (4-3): All eyes seem to be on the Falcons offense and its lagging run game this week, but where’s the defense been? The Falcons D hasn’t given up fewer than 23 points in any game and has forced a conference-low six turnovers. They gave up 201 yards on the ground to the Cardinals. Expect lots of Cam, lots of Deangelo Williams and lots of “Yeah, but's…” after the Panthers beat the banged-up Falcons.
The Pick: Panthers 30, Falcons 20
Philadelphia (3-5) at Oakland (3-4): Don’t look now, but the fourth team in the AFC West — a team no one’s talking about in that division — has a bit of a nice stretch of schedule coming up. At 3-4 and very much in the AFC wild-card hunt, the Raiders have the Eagles (3-5), New York Giants (2-6), Houston Texans (2-5), Tennessee Titans (3-4), Dallas Cowboys (4-4) and New York Jets (4-4) in consecutive weeks. I’m not saying they’re about to go on a 2012 Redskins-esque run to the playoffs, but I’m also not NOT saying that.
The Pick: Raiders 27, Eagles 23
Tampa Bay (0-7) at Seattle (7-1): I was talking to the dashing Alex Marvez this week about the Defensive Player of the Year over the first half of the season. It’s easy to like Richard Sherman, the boisterous and downright awesome cornerback in Seattle, but his “Legion of Boom” teammate Earl Thomas might just be the guy. I sat with Thomas after the Seahawks’ dominant Thursday night win over Arizona a few weeks back. The former Texas safety, a guy a lot of people thought was too small to be a star in this league, is the best safety in the NFL.
The Pick: Seahawks 31, Buccaneers 16
Baltimore (3-4) at Cleveland (3-5): The Ravens have their worst record under John Harbaugh since 2008. "We have to get better. We have a lot to improve on," Harbaugh said this week. "We have to find a way to get better. That's the business we're in." If we’ve learned anything from this unit over the past five years, do not count them out. They’re at their best when everyone else already has counted them out.
The Pick: Ravens 24, Browns 20
Pittsburgh (2-5) at New England (6-2): It’s tough to win games without an offensive line. Ben Roethlisberger lost three more offensive linemen in last week’s loss to the Raiders and there doesn’t seem to be any immediate help on the way. Good luck, sir. As for the Patriots, I just wish Bill Belichick would scrap the hoodie and go with the Captain Jack Sparrow look full-time.
The Pick: Patriots 24, Steelers 16
Indianapolis (5-2) at Houston (2-5): I went back and watched the Chiefs-Texans tape, too. Lots of film work this week! What do you say about that, Jaworski? Anyway, the Chiefs D started figuring out Case Keenum in the second half of Kansas City’s 17-16 win in Week 7. The Colts have had a full week off to study and prepare for the kid. I think it’s a game, but I’m going with Andrew Luck over Keenum in a battle of two one-time Houston scholastic superstars.
The Pick: Colts 27, Texans 23
The Pick: Packers 34, Bears 23
Cheat Sheet Trivia Answer of the Week: Simeon Rice and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie were the only other Arizona Cardinals to win the Defensive Rookie of the Month award.