Eagles at Packers: OK, Mark Sanchez, you cheesesteak-eating redemption story, you. It’s time to get serious because the Green Bay Packers are not the Carolina Panthers. They’re much better on both sides of the ball. The Packers’ defense has been getting after the quarterback with Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews (8 1/2 sacks combined) and ranks second in the NFC with 18 takeaways. Plus, the Packers showed in their 55-14 rout of the Chicago Bears they can score practically at will.
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All of that means Sanchez and the Eagles’ offense will be pressed to not only score on a defense that has been playing well, particularly at home of late, but also to keep up with an offense that can strike quickly. Sanchez was sharp against Carolina but had a few sloppy throws the Panthers didn’t convert into turnovers. Sanchez might not be as lucky against Green Bay.
Patriots at Colts: To borrow a phrase from my friend and legendary WWE announcer Jim Ross, Andrew Luck’s first two career games against the Patriots were bowling-shoe ugly. He tossed three interceptions against New England as a rookie in 2012 and four more in last year’s second-round playoff defeat. With the combined score of those losses at 102-46, the Indianapolis defense was just as culpable. While they have held each of their past three home opponents (Cincinnati, Baltimore and Tennessee) to under 200 net yards passing, the Colts don’t appear to have an obvious matchup answer for Rob Gronkowski.
The star tight end has become the frontrunner for NFL Comeback Player of the Year with 36 catches for 516 yards and five touchdowns during New England’s five-game winning streak. Expect the Tom Brady-led Patriots to get their points. It’s more a matter of how much progress Luck has made in reading defenses — and avoiding the coverage traps laid out by New England head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia — that will determine whether Indianapolis can keep pace on the scoreboard and win what could prove a huge game in determining home-field advantage in the AFC playoff race.
Texans at Browns: The last time the Browns led their division this late in an NFL season was 1994. Their coach was Bill Belichick, their quarterback was Vinny Testaverde, and the Houston Oilers were still members of the four-team AFC Central. "Full House" was on the air and Bill Clinton was still in his first term as President. So, yeah, it’s been a while.
And with this one, there’s added intrigue with the quarterbacks. Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett — two notable former Tom Brady backups — will square off for the first time in their NFL careers. Both players are also free agents at the end of this season, making this one big for both of them as individuals, as well. Looking through the Belichick-Brady history, there have been several backups, but only a handful have gone on to make much of an impact elsewhere. Matt Cassel is the most notable, but names like Matt Gutierrez, Kevin O’Connell, Damon Huard and Rohan Davey never had the NFL careers many expected they might after playing Brady’s understudy.
Bill O’Brien, Hoyer’s old offensive coordinator and assistant coach, and Romeo Crennel, a longtime defensive coach with New England, will be up scheming against Hoyer in this one, too. They’ve had a bye week to prepare.
If anyone thinks this will be an easy Browns win, think again.