At the midway point of the season, a 4-4 record typically means the same thing for any team with such a fate — up and down play, plenty of football left to go, and a wild card spot in the sights.
But the Saints and 49ers, each with 4-4 records, couldn’t be going in more opposite directions. On one of those stock market visualizations, you’d have one gold and black arrow skyrocketing up; a red and gold arrow plummeting down.
After starting the season 0-2, New Orleans has won its last two games — over 2013 playoff teams — in impressive fashion, its defense has played a strong six quarters in a row, and key playmakers on both sides of the ball seem to be finally getting back to health. New Orleans has won 11 straight home games and plays in what appears to be the weakest division in all of football.
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The Saints are 4-4, but a healthy 4-4. The kind of 4-4 where you feel good about things and have no problem what the consequences are if you a) blow off the studio show set of NFL Network for a postgame interview after a win (check), b) shoot down a reporter questioning play-calling after a loss in Detroit (check), or c) critique the almighty infallible NFL scheduling gods for planning a Thursday night game immediately following a Sunday night affair (check). Check. Check. Check. The Saints are 4-4 and sitting pretty right now.
The 49ers? Not quite.
San Francisco is 4-4 and coming off a bad loss to the struggling Rams at home and a nationally televised blowout loss to the Broncos two weeks earlier. Frank Gore, the team’s longtime workhorse, was MIA from the offensive game plan and red zone attack in the fourth quarter on Sunday and there’s a new rumor about dissention within the organization every other week.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has been facing the ire of sports radio callers in the Bay Area the past few weeks. "We’ve got to make our mind up, do what we feel we’re good at and just go do it," Gore said, via CSN, following Sunday’s loss to the Rams. "I still think we have a great coordinator. I still believe in our coordinator. He’s been successful since he got here."
But this one might not just be on the coordinator. The 49ers offensive line isn’t what it used to be. With injuries across the board, Colin Kaepernick doesn’t seem to have either the time or the running lanes he once did. The Rams had six sacks all season heading into Sunday’s game. They had eight on Sunday. The 49ers offensive line has given up 12 sacks in its last six quarters. On the year, they’ve surrendered the third-most sacks in the NFL this season. Rookie center Marcus Martin, 20, was responsible for two sacks in the Rams loss, has taken a lot of the heat, but the entire unit is struggling.
The Superdome’s going to be loud, the crowd is going to be fired up, and the suddenly rejuvenated Saints pass rush will be coming at Kaepernick from all angles. The Saints will have had 10 days to prepare for the 49ers when they take the field on Sunday; rested and ready. San Francisco appears to be in a tailspin.
They’re both 4-4, but the 49ers and Saints could not be in two more polar places right now.
Then again, the 49ers have never lost three consecutive games under Jim Harbaugh.
The NFL … there’s nothing like it.
WEEK 10 NFL CHEAT SHEET TRIVIA QUESTION OF THE WEEK
Rob Gronkowski’s touchdown Sunday vs. the Broncos marked the 50th of his career. Doing so in just 59 games, he’s tied with Randy Moss for the second fastest to 50 receiving touchdowns in NFL history. Which player owns the record with 50 touchdowns in just 54 games?
THROWBACK JERSEY OF THE WEEK
Each week, we direct you to a throwback jersey worth purchasing. In honor of his number being retired by the Steelers last Sunday, here’s a signed Joe Greene jersey from his days at … North Texas:
Now, on to the picks.
Week 9 Record: 10-3
Overall 2014 Record: 90-43-1
Cleveland at Cincinnati: Back in August, when Josh Gordon’s NFL career appeared in jeopardy, and Johnny Manziel was giving the backwards middle finger to the Redskins’ bench on national television, and Brian Hoyer couldn’t seem to be able to hit a moving target in any of the team’s preseason games — would you have believed that the Browns would be playing for first place in the AFC North in Week 10? Shows how much we know in the summertime. And it shows how far the Browns have come. Consider that they’re getting big production from a host of journeymen veteran as well as unheralded rookies like Taylor Gabriel, Joel Bitonio, and Terrance West, and not first-round picks Justin Gilbert and Manziel, and it’s all the more impressive. Hoyer joked earlier this week that he hasn’t had much luck in Thursday night games (he tore his ACL in last year’s Thursday night win over the Bills), but he’s playing as well as anyone (besides him) could have possibly imagined. The Bengals are playing their third straight home game, but I feel an upset in the making. I’m taking the Browns on a last-second field goal. The first-place Browns. Go crazy, Cleveland.
The Pick: Browns 23, Bengals 20
Kansas City at Buffalo: This one is sneakily the best game in the AFC on Sunday. Two teams, both surging, going at it with matching 5-3 records in an old-fashioned November game that matters in Western New York. Buffalo’s got a huge Thursday night affair with the Dolphins next week, but has to find a way to focus on what’s become a very good Chiefs team. Kansas City is playing as well as any team in the league over the past month, and really has only played one bad game this season — a Week 1 head-scratching loss to the Titans at home. This will be a real test for the Bills — arguably their biggest test outside of New England thus far — but I like them at home. Sammy Watkins is healthy (reports are his injured groin suffered in Wednesday’s practice is nothing serious), Kyle Orton looks comfortable, and that defensive line is finally living up to its full potential.
Miami at Detroit: Is there a quarterback not named Peyton or Tom playing better than Ryan Tannehill right now? Consider Tannehill’s work of late. He’s had a passer rating of 100.0 or better in three of his past five starts, and Miami’s won four of its last five games. Tannehill — who can’t go through a broadcast without the audience being reminded that he played wide receiver in college (DID YOU KNOW THAT?! HE DID! HE DID! IT’S TRUE!) — has at least one run of 20 yards or more in four straight games, as well. Traveling to Detroit is a real test, but this is a game that’ll make others take note. Part of a QB draft class that includes Luck, Griffin, Wilson, Cousins, and Foles — Tannehill’s holding up just fine.
The Pick: Dolphins 27, Lions 17
Dallas at Jacksonville (London): The Cowboys led 10-0 early on and were in control of last Sunday’s game vs. Arizona until turnovers and abandoning the running game did them in. Jacksonville’s a better squad than its record reflects, but Dallas could just be too big up front for the Jags to compete with at the line of scrimmage. DeMarco Murray was held to under 80 yards on Sunday and the offense strayed from him late. Another London game? Yes, get used to them. This is one of the NFL’s big initiatives and they’re not going away anytime soon. The best are the random jerseys all the fans wear in the stands. For Detroit-Atlanta, I spotted a Corey Dillon Patriots jersey, an Onterrio Smith (Vikings), and my favorite — a Ron Dayne (Giants). Keep an eye out for the random ones you see this weekend.
The Pick: Cowboys 31, Jaguars 19
San Francisco at New Orleans: Kaepernick got his second career start in New Orleans a few years back and the 49ers won the game. Brees got the best of him last year. I don’t want to play doctor and diagnose what’s wrong, but the transformation from a team that runs the ball down your throat and utilizes the play-action into a pure passing offense hasn’t been a good one for San Francisco. As I noted above, the 49ers have never lost three straight games under Jim Harbaugh. I think it happens in spectacular fashion on Sunday. I’m going Saints big.
The Pick: Saints 37, 49ers 20
Tennessee at Baltimore: The Ravens couldn’t be facing the Titans at a better time. Losers of two straight, now at the bottom of the AFC North standings, and battling injuries at every position — this is the perfect cure for their ills. It won’t be easy, but they’re not losing at home to Tennessee. Speaking of the Titans, my favorite sports-themed Halloween costume last week? FOX 17 reporter Paul Jones going as Charlie Whitehurst.
The Pick: Ravens 23, Titans 20
Pittsburgh at New York Jets: There’s a great little story of perseverance in Steelers rookie Martavis Bryant’s midseason emergence. Never the go-to guy on a Clemson offense that featured Sammy Watkins, Andre Ellington, and DeAndre Hopkins, Bryant slipped to the fourth round of May’s draft. A healthy scratch for the team’s first six games, Bryant’s scored touchdowns in the team’s last three contests, and has quickly emerged as Ben Roethlisberger’s big red zone target. The lesson? Just keep playing and your time will come. With the Jets’ defensive backfield all sorts of depleted (remember the days of Revis and Cromartie?), look for Roethlisberger — and Bryant — to keep their hot streaks going on Sunday. The storyline I’ll be keeping an eye on: Will the MetLife crowd consist of 50 percent Steelers fans or even more? I know how these things tend to go, and I would bet on the latter.
The Pick: Steelers 30, Jets 20
Atlanta at Tampa Bay: Third downs have been a trouble spot for Tampa and the Bucs are 0 for 16 on third downs in the second halves over their last four games. Bobby Rainey’s done a serviceable job at running back, but the team is ready for rookie Charles Sims to start taking some snaps. Tampa Bay’s playing teams tough and losing in the final minutes. They haven’t forgotten what the Falcons did to them on national television earlier this season.
Denver at Oakland: The Raiders keep playing tough, but can’t get a win. Looking at the schedule, I’m not sure where they do. It isn’t coming this weekend, and their remaining games are the following: vs. Denver, at San Diego, vs. Kansas City, at St. Louis, vs. San Francisco, at Kansas City, vs. Buffalo, at Denver. Where’s the win there? I’m not sure I see it.
The Pick: Denver 34, Oakland 17
St. Louis at Arizona: The Cardinals own the best record in football and a nice two-game cushion in the NFC West standings. But the scheduling gods were not kind to them in the season’s second half, as they’ve still got five games within the division and three tough out-of-division games left. If you’re the best team in the NFC, you hold your home turf and win games you should. I know he did it against the 49ers in San Francisco last week, but I just don’t see Austin Davis getting the best of the Cardinals D on the road.
The Pick: Arizona 24, St. Louis 17
New York Giants at Seattle: The Seahawks could be getting a host of players back for this one and just in time for a second-half run to defend their Super Bowl title. A winner of two straight, Seattle could see Max Unger, Jeremy Lane, Russell Okung, and Kam Chancellor all back in the lineup on Sunday. Eli Manning’s won two playoff games in Green Bay, has gone to San Francisco and won a January postseason contest in Candlestick, and has beaten Tom Brady on multiple occasions both at neutral sites (winning two Super Bowls) and in Brady’s building. But I just don’t see any road magic from Eli in this one.
The Pick: Seahawks 27, Giants 23
Chicago at Green Bay: The Packers had the bye week at the perfect time, and though it’s a team on the mend, Green Bay should have Aaron Rodgers, Sam Shields, and Morgan Burnett all in the lineup Sunday night vs. the Bears. I believe Jay Cutler can do a lot of things; unlike just about the rest of the football viewing public, I have faith that he can be a winner. Sunday night in Green Bay? Well, no, not then.
The Pick: Packers 32, Bears 24
Carolina at Philadelphia: Is it the system or the player? It’s been a long-looming question in NFL circles around Chip Kelly’s offense. When DeSean Jackson was let go, there were eyebrows raised. The offense didn’t miss a beat. When the offensive line was all banged up, the replacements held their own. Now, Nick Foles goes down. Can Mark Sanchez just keep the offense rolling? This isn’t quite "Moneyball", but if the Eagles’ offense can put up similar production with backups as it does with the starters, it’s a testament to Kelly’s system.
The Pick: Eagles 30, Panthers 19
Reader Email of the Week:
Here’s a fun one. If the Giants and the Jets were to combine their rosters into one team, called, oh, I don’t know, "THE BIG PLANES", would they beat the Broncos on a neutral field?
New York, New York
Great question and I absolutely love the suggested team name. Other than THE BIG PLANES (in caps, only), I can’t imagine a better moniker. The Large Aircrafts just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Do they wear green or blue? Or are they wearing teal? Let’s play this one out, with THE BIG PLANES in nifty teal uniforms. If you combined the Jets and Giants rosters, as they are right now, you would have Eli Manning at quarterback, the Jets offensive line, Percy Harvin, Eric Decker, and Odell Beckham, Jr. at wide receiver, Larry (Where have you been the past few weeks?) Donnell at tight end, and the combination of two depleted defensive backfields playing behind the Jets front seven. Do you go Coughlin or Rex as head coach? Either way, I think the Broncos win that game. It’s close, but the Broncos beat THE BIG PLANES.
WEEK 10 NFL CHEAT SHEET TRIVIA ANSWER OF THE WEEK
Chargers legend Lance Alworth caught 50 touchdowns in his first 54 games. "Bambi" was the first player in NFL history who came from the AFL to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (1978).