NFL Week 7: Baltimore-Houston Battle For Top Of AFC

One year ago, Baltimore and Houston met in a second-round AFC playoff game. This year, both teams are atop their divisions and co-leaders of the overall conference race at 5-1. Now they go head-to-head in Reliant Stadium on Sunday in what will be the biggest game of NFL Week 7, as the winner takes the inside track to the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs.

Whatever the standings say, Baltimore has got bigger issues to worry about, with the season-ending injuries to linebacker Ray Lewis and corner Lardarius Webb. It’s tough to survive the loss of your defense’s emotional leader and your lockdown corner, but if there’s a perverse positive in all this for Baltimore it’s that their defense wasn’t playing that well to begin with.

The Ravens can run the ball, at least when they don’t lose their play-calling focus and if they’re going to have a chance to win on the road, it’s imperative they attack the interior of the Houston defense—softened up their own season-ending injury to an inside linebacker, in Brian Cushing. If Baltimore gets Ray Rice 20-25 carries, they can control the tempo and from there Joe Flacco can have a big game throwing the ball.

Houston is licking its wounds after looking terrible against Green Bay, but I think that was a case of a letdown from an undefeated team going against a talented opponent that was desperate. And Baltimore doesn’t have the capacity to disrupt Houston’s offensive rhythm in the way the Packers did.

There was every reason to expect a solid game from Matt Schaub throwing the ball before the injury to Webb. Now, without Lewis, the Texans shouldn’t have any problem getting Arian Foster running between the tackles.

One big X-factor in this game is the possible return of Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs. He was supposed to be out until late November because of a torn Achilles, but there are noises in the air that Suggs will play on Sunday. I find it hard to believe he can be productive that quickly, but this is the man who was Defensive Player of the Year in 2011, and his return can give his team an emotional lift after a week of bad news.

Ultimately though, Houston is a better team, they’re playing at home and all the circumstances of the schedule and injuries work in their favor. There’s a good reason the Texans are a comfortable 6.5 point favorite.

TheSportsNotebook previewed the undercard games of Week 7 in Thursday’s feature. Four other games will be shown to all or most of the country over Sunday and Monday…

Washington-NY Giants: It’s not just a big game in the NFC East, with New York leading  crowded field with a record of 4-2. It’s also a battle between sports fan bases who want a lift after their baseball team got bounced from the MLB playoffs.

I’m a Redskins fan, and I feel good about our chances of putting a lot of points up on the board. New York’s known to have their focus in and out during the regular season, and they’re certainly due for an “out” kind of game after their impressive win in San Francisco last week. And the Redskins actually beat the Giants twice last year without RG3.

What the ‘Skins are unlikely to do is stop Eli Manning and the Giants’ offense, which is mostly healthy now—banged up to be sure, but the key players, from Hakeem Nicks to Ahmad Bradshaw are in the lineup. Washington hasn’t found any way to make up for the pass-rush ability they lost when Brian Orakpo was lost for the year at the outside linebacker spot. Ryan Kerrigan is a quality pass rusher on the other side, but teams can roll the pocket away from him with no consequence now that the pressure doesn’t come on both sides. And the secondary is awful.

I’m not making a pick on this game, but I did notice that this is the only game where Las Vegas has set the Over/Under higher than 50, coming in at 50.5. Apparently I’m not the only one looking for the points to flow freely in the Meadowlands.

NY Jets-New England: The standings say the AFC East is a logjam, with all four teams at 3-3, and with the track records of these two teams making it a battle for front-runner status. The standings are lying. New England is the vastly better team right now, with an improved run game, better defense and their losses by a combined four points to teams with a  combined record of 13-5, and two of those games on the road.

The one thing the Patriots don’t do well right now is pass coverage, particularly in late-game situations. The problem is that the Jets got their season back on track last week in Indianapolis by running the ball with Shonn Greene. If they play to their strength, they go straight into the strength of the New England defense. If they attack the Pats’ weakness, they do it in a way that compromises their own efficiency.

Finally, the Jets don’t have the defensive playmakers to slow down the New England offense. Rex Ryan’s reputation aside, this is not a team with pass rushers like they have in Arizona or Seattle, the two defenses that have given Tom Brady and the Patriots problems.

So the standings might say this is a big-time game—and I suppose in a way it is, since if by some miracle the Jets win on the road, it completely revamps the AFC East landscape. But the bookmakers have a saner grasp on reality, having made the Patriots a 10.5 point favorite.

I don’t like to lay those kinds of points in the NFL, particularly given New England’s propensity for giving up late scores, but the number certainly sounds reasonable.

Cincinnati-Pittsburgh: This is the Sunday night game on NBC, so both teams will know if AFC North leader Baltimore lost and created a chance for the winner of this game to get back in the division race. The Bengals are 3-3, while the Steelers are a half-game back at 2-3.

I’ve knocked Pittsburgh a lot since the start of the season, but they have manned up defensively and played pretty decent in spite of injuries. They just haven’t been able to overcome the appalling lack of a running game and the injuries on defense (James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons and Troy Polamulu at different points of the season) have denied them the playmaker who can change a game on a dime.

Thus, I like the Steelers’ chances here. This is a proud team playing a must-win spot at home in prime-time against a division rival. Cincinnati’s running game has been a disappointment and if they can’t exploit this edge, then Andy Dalton has shown himself capable of making a lot of mistakes. Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to scramble can negate the pass-rush ability of the Bengal front four on defense.

The Steelers are a 1.5 point favorite, a clear sign that even Vegas thinks they’re not quite as good as the Bengals, but deferring to homefield. That’s where I’m at, along with the belief that we’re going to get Pittsburgh’s best punch of the season. And if they don’t win this game, we’ll know it’s really over in the Steel City. (Editor’s Note: My apologies for the error on homefield advantage. This game will be at Cincinnati. So I guess Las Vegas thinks the Steelers are quite a bit better. Without the benefit of homefield, I’m leaning to the Bengals, in spite of the other intangible factors favoring Pittsburgh).

Detroit-Chicago: If anyone in Motown can take the time to dry the champagne out of their eyes after the American League pennant for the Tigers, they can focus on a huge football game for the Lions on Monday night. Detroit is 2-3, while Chicago is 4-1. And since the World Series doesn’t start until Wednesday, the city’s fans can be all-in on the gridiron.

The one thing I’d expect to see for sure in this game is a lot of sacks and quarterback hits. Both teams have talented defensive front fours that can collapse the pocket from any angle. The Lions don’t have the running game to slow the rush, and while the Bear ground game is a little better, but the Detroit D has done a good job containing the run without losing the pass rush.

So if we’re looking for an edge beyond the default given to Chicago for being at home, it’s looking at who can create breakdowns. The Lions have the playmakers on the outside who can get open deep if Matthew Stafford can either get time or break out of the pocket.

The flip side is that the Bears can just let the Lions shoot themselves in the foot with penalties. I’d take my chances on the latter, although the 6.5 point price is a little stiff.