Schrager's Week 8 Cheat Sheet: Colts take five-game win streak to Pittsburgh
Andrew Luck's putting up career numbers, T.Y. Hilton looks like one of the game's best wide receivers, and Trent Richardson is starting to look like the guy Indianapolis traded a first-round pick to acquire. The Colts offense — Pep Hamilton's brainchild — leads the league in total yards, passing yards and points. The offense is getting the national media attention it rightly deserves.
But that Colts defense might be more impressive.
You lose 2013 sack leader Robert Mathis for the season, you lose big free-agent pickup Arthur Jones in Week 3, safety Laron Landry is suspended, and you give up 61 points in the season's first two games. But the defense — injuries, early struggles, warts, bumps, bruises and all — has emerged as an immovable object.
After seven games in 2014, the Colts defense ranks in the top five in points allowed, sacks, takeaways and third-down conversions. Last week, the Colts beat the Bengals 27-0. At halftime, Cincinnati had 27 total yards and just two first downs. The Colts only gave up 135 yards in the game.
Greg Manusky's defense is getting big contributions from guys who haven't really done it before. Bjoern Werner's becoming a force, having the best stretch of his career, Ricky Jean-Francois has been a beast and veteran Cory Redding is having a career second wind. Two free-agent signings — Erik Walden (from 2013) and D'Qwell Jackson (from 2014) — are handling their business. Up and down the depth chart, it's guys like Zach Kerr and Sergio Brown stepping up and holding their ground.
Dwight Freeney and Bob Sanders aren't stepping on the field anytime soon. Nor is Robert Mathis. But that's OK.
The defense no one is talking about is getting the job done.
Now, on to the games.
Week 8 NFL Cheat Sheet Trivia Question of the Week:
Aaron Rodgers is one of just two players in NFL history with three passing touchdowns and zero interceptions in four consecutive games in a single season. Who is the other?
THROWBACK JERSEY OF THE WEEK
Each week, we'll direct you to a throwback jersey worth purchasing. In honor of his first game as an NFL on FOX analyst this weekend (Chiefs-Rams), here's a blue and gold Eagles 75th anniversary Donovan McNabb throwback jersey.
Now, on to the picks.
Week 7 Record: 10-5
Overall Record: 68-37-1
San Diego at Denver: Could this be a trap game for the Broncos? Perhaps. Denver's coming off the emotional high of Peyton Manning breaking the career touchdown record, the Patriots are up ahead next weekend and San Diego's foaming at the mouth after two bad performances vs. the Raiders and Chiefs. San Diego's without Brandon Flowers (concussion) and their early season numbers could have a little "lipstick on a pig" quality to it. The quarterbacks the Chargers have faced? Besides Carson Palmer, Alex Smith and Russell Wilson, it's been Geno Smith, Blake Bortles, E.J. Manuel and Derek Carr. None of those guys are Peyton Manning.
The Pick: Broncos 34, Chargers 20
Final: Broncos 35, Chargers 21
Detroit at Atlanta (in London): Are you waking up at the crack of dawn to watch football? Of course you are. Wake up even earlier to watch the NFL on FOX pregame show. I assume Terry, Howie, and the others' alarm clocks are set for 2:30 a.m. PST. That sounds fun. Speaking of fun — football! The Lions defense is walking, talking and producing with such swagger that I'm not sure I can pick against them vs. anyone, anywhere right now. Got a game in London? Fine. "We're not afraid to go anywhere, anyplace and go out there and play and execute what we need to get done," Lions Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said this week. The Lions D is surrendering an NFL-low 290.3 yards per game and ranks second in points allowed with 15.0. The Falcons need to get home — in the Georgia Dome — and soon.
The Pick: Lions 27, Falcons 16
St. Louis at Kansas City: The Chiefs may have three losses, but they really have played poorly in just one game — their season opener against the Titans. Since losing their first two, Kansas City has averaged 28.8 points per game and has not allowed more than 22 points in any of those four contests. Kansas City's all sorts of jacked up with the World Series going on right now. If it gets somewhat close down the stretch, the crowd will ensure a victory over the Rams on Sunday.
The Pick: Chiefs 24, Rams 20
Houston at Tennessee: Jadeveon Clowney is expected to return to the lineup on Sunday and the Texans sure could use him. Though J.J. Watt has continued to put up MVP numbers and compile a package of highlights second to none, the Houston defense has been shaky the past few weeks. The Texans defense — despite all the star power — is ranked 26th in the NFL and the passing defense is giving up 268.7 yards per game through the air. Fortunately, the Titans offense isn't going to beat you through the air. Rookie Zach Mettenberger has a bright future, but I'm not sure I see him lighting it up in his first career start. Not with J.J. Watt breathing down his neck.
The Pick: Texans 24, Titans 16
Minnesota at Tampa Bay: Following the Week 6 loss to the Lions, Mike Zimmer was at a loss. He woke up Monday morning and called one of his mentors in the coaching community to pick his brain. That man? Bill Parcells. Parcells gave him a pep talk and offered a few words of advice. Zimmer, who coached with kidney stones last week in Western New York, couldn't have slept too easy this past Sunday, either. Up the entire game, leading by six in the final minutes against a Bills offense that hadn't done much of anything all afternoon — Zimmer watched as Kyle Orton marched down the field for a game-winning drive. Tampa's coming off a bye, has had a week to prepare, and is going up against a Vikings offensive line that lost two more players to injury last week.
The Pick: Buccaneers 20, Vikings 16
Seattle at Carolina: Both the Seahawks and Panthers haven't won in two straight games and neither team has lost three straight games over the past three years. Seattle played terribly in St. Louis and almost came away with a win anyway. Russell Wilson and Cam Newton had a good battle last season in Carolina and the former got a big road win. I see it happening again. Seattle's not going anywhere. This is a statement win from the defending champions.
The Pick: Seahawks 31, Panthers 17
Baltimore at Cincinnati: Cincinnati outscored opponents 80-33 in its 3-0 start, but has been outscored 107-54 and hasn't won a game since. The last time the Ravens traveled to Cincinnati, it was Week 17 last year, and they were eliminated from postseason contention with a heartbreaking loss. This isn't the same Ravens team that lost to Cincinnati in Week 1, either. The Ravens' pass rush didn't record a single sack in that game. Since that one, they've come alive. The Ravens had five sacks and 15 quarterback hits in Tampa Bay two weeks ago and five sacks and nine quarterback hits against Atlanta in Week 7.
The Pick: Ravens 28, Bengals 19
Miami at Jacksonville: I've watched the tape, and I'm going to put this out there: Ryan Tannehill's played as well as any quarterback in the league over the past three games. That includes Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers. The third-year man has completed 72.3 percent of his passes for 799 yards with six touchdowns the past three weeks and almost stunned the Packers in his only loss in the stretch. The defense is playing as well as it ever has since Tannehill arrived and it's all clicking with an actual NFL offensive line protecting him. You'll read and hear a lot about all of the other quarterbacks in the 2012 Draft class, but Tannehill's having himself quite a third season. He'll keep it up on Sunday.
The Pick: Dolphins 31, Jaguars 17
Chicago at New England: With no Jerod Mayo, Stevan Ridley or Chandler Jones — and oh yeah, the Broncos up ahead next week — this one could be more difficult than expected for New England. The Patriots defense gave up 218 yards on the ground against the Jets and there are a lot of new pieces in there. If this was in Chicago, I'd take the Bears. It's not. Give me New England.
The Pick: Patriots 30, Bears 24
Buffalo at New York Jets: If last week wasn't the official Sammy Watkins coming-out party, this one will be. I'm not sure the Jets have the defensive backfield to put the clamps on Watkins and Chris Hogan. Chris who? Chris Hogan. When I spoke with Buffalo quarterback Kyle Orton last week, he said Hogan is "quarterback friendly" and explained that he's usually in the right place at the right time and is sure-handed. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said there's rarely a time when Hogan doesn't do exactly what's expected of him. Watkins gets all the love, but watch Hogan — a Jersey native who grew up a few minutes from MetLife Stadium — have a day in front of his hometown friends and family. Give me the Bills on the road. And watch Hogan's stat line.
The Pick: Bills 27, Jets 20
Philadelphia at Arizona: If you thought the Arizona Cardinals players were getting big heads or were too proud of themselves, think again. "We know we're not special. The one thing we've talked about all week was, you never underestimate your opponent and you sure don't overestimate yourself," head coach Bruce Arians told the Cardinals' website. "We haven't done anything yet except get to 5-1. There's a lot of football left." Philadelphia's coming off a bye and got some much-needed rest last week, but the desert is a hard place to win since Arians arrived last year. The Cardinals have the top run defense in the NFL, allowing 72.5 yards per game after limiting Oakland to just 56 yards on the ground a week ago. I'm taking the Cardinals.
The Pick: Cardinals 23, Eagles 20 (OT)
Oakland at Cleveland: The Browns were riding high before getting their butts whipped in Jacksonville a week ago. All eyes are on Brian Hoyer, but I'd be concerned about the running game. In the team's first game since losing Alex Mack for the remainder of the 2014 season, Cleveland posted a season-low 69 rushing yards on 30 attempts a week ago. Fortunately, they play the Raiders this week.
The Pick: Browns 23, Raiders 17
Indianapolis at Pittsburgh: The Colts' five-game win streak is their longest since winning an NFL-record 23 straight in the regular season between Nov. 2, 2008 and Dec. 17, 2009. Going into Pittsburgh, with a national audience tuning in and the Pittsburgh cold setting in, won't be easy. But if this Colts defense plays like it has the past several weeks, they'll be able to hang in even the harshest of environments. It's rare that I'll pick against the Steelers in Pittsburgh, but this Colts team is playing some special football right now. Andrew Luck — one of Bruce Arians’ old protégés — gets the best of Ben Roethlisberger — another one of Arians’ old protégés.
The Pick: Colts 27, Steelers 23
Green Bay at New Orleans: The Saints were up 13 points with less than four minutes to go in Detroit last week — and lost. Unacceptable. Fortunately for the Saints, they play in the NFC South — where eight wins could be enough to win the division this season. As red hot as the Packers are and as porous as the Saints look of late, I just can't pick against New Orleans in a Sunday night game. I've been in that building on Sunday nights and it's the most hostile environment in the league. Drew Brees will find a way, the defense will force a few turnovers, and the Saints will keep this season alive.
The Pick: Saints 34, Packers 24
Washington at Dallas: If Colt McCoy goes on Monday, I wouldn't expect him to falter. Asked why he's a different player than he was when he started in Cleveland a few years back, the former Texas star said, "I would say I'm older, maybe a little bit stronger. I think I've learned from my past experiences and watched a lot of good quarterbacks play and hopefully by doing that you naturally gain a little bit of confidence even though you're standing on the sidelines." McCoy will keep his team in this one, but I fear the defense can't stop that Dallas run game. Will DeMarco Murray be upright come December? I don't know. But in late October, he's looking unstoppable.
The Pick: Cowboys 34, Redskins 23
Reader Email of the Week:
What's the deal with Anthony Dixon becoming "Boobie"? When did that happen?
Good question Jay. The way Anthony "Boobie" Dixon explains it, he got the nickname back during his freshman year of college at Mississippi State. The Billy Bob Thorton/Tim McGraw "Friday Night Lights" movie was coming out and the star player on that Permian High team was running back James "Boobie" Miles. The Mississippi State head coach at the time, Sylvester Croom, started calling Dixon "Boobie" and the name stuck. Once he got to Buffalo, the coaches and media department didn't even bother with Anthony. He was "Boobie". Now and forever.
Cheat Sheet Trivia Answer of the Week: Tom Brady in 2007.