Weekend Notes: Key NFC battles

It is at the point in the ’09 season where postseason discussion becomes more than side show talk, and there are three key games in the NFC on Sunday that will go a long way in determining who will end up grabbing the two wild-card spots—and playing some January football. Carolina’s loss on Thursday night to the Dolphins has almost eliminated them, leaving six teams fighting for two spots.

For players, the week leading up to Thanksgiving signals the beginning of any serious playoff push, and against NFC opponents (which have monumental meaning when wild-card spots are handed out), these games become more than must wins—they become survival games. Because in these three matchups the winners can gain an edge in the head-to-head competition and start to pull away as we head into December.

Let’s look at the three games and focus on one key matchup that could be the determining factor in the outcomes tomorrow.

San Francisco (4-5) at Green Bay (5-4)

1:00 EST (FOX)

In terms of game planning these teams have become similar in their approach, because when we really start to analyze both teams—especially after their performances last week—they both have to rely on their defense to prevent scoring opportunities. Green Bay struggles to protect QB Aaron Rodgers, and the San Fran defense has to provide Alex Smith with a short field to work with. Despite the weapons that Rodgers has at his disposal, last week’s win over Dallas was a clear example of where this team is at this point of the season and a perfect example of how they will win heading into December—a defense that forces turnovers and keeps the Packers in the game until the fourth quarter, where one big play can usually make the difference.

Sure, we would all like to see Rodgers fill up the box score, but as an offense, it is a struggle for the Packers to put together long, consistent drives because of the negative plays that are a direct reflection of their offensive line. But, that doesn’t signal a loss when you start on the plus-50 and are given chances to put points on the board by your defense. And, let’s be honest, San Fran isn’t an offense that should scare defensive coordinators. Yes, Michael Crabtree is making plays and Vernon Davis is a threat, but against the Packers secondary, I don’t like Alex Smith tomorrow.

In saying that, here is the key matchup in my mind for tomorrow’s game at Lambeau…

Key Matchup: Frank Gore vs. the Packers front seven

We have to believe that the Niners are going to be a heavy run team tomorrow on the road. Gore has the ability to reach the 25-carry mark, and in a game where I still see points as a premium, don’t be surprised to see the Niners throw the ball in the short-to-medium game to set up manageable third downs where they can align in Tank (2 TE, 2 RB, 1 WR) and use Gore to move the chains—methodically. If I am Dom Capers, the defensive coordinator in Green Bay, I have no issues moving the SS into the box and playing man coverage on the outside with a free safety in the middle of the field, and stunting up front. Shoot linebackers through the gaps and use multiple pre-snap looks to cause confusion in the blocking schemes of the Niners. Al Harris and Charles Woodson can handle themselves on the outside, because this game will be won up front for Green Bay.

Atlanta (5-4) at NY Giants (5-4)

1:00 EST (FOX)

I am interested to watch the Giants tomorrow to see where they are after the bye week and if they have made the necessary corrections. I am shocked at how mistake-prone Tom Coughlin’s team has become and how it has resulted in their current four-game winning streak. Not something you usually see from a Giants ball club. The penalties in crucial situations, the turnovers and the lack of pressure by this defense has totally flipped the script of how good this team was in September and early October. WR Steve Smith has not been able to separate down the field, and Eli Manning is in one of the worst slumps of his career. And their secondary, well, it has been exposed during the losing streak. But, they still have one of the best offensive lines in the game and a running attack of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw that is tough to prepare for as a defense—and something that can wear down defenses if they are able to build and protect a second-half lead.

In Atlanta, the loss of RB Michael Turner worries me, because as much as I believe in the talents and the ability of QB Matt Ryan, Turner was playing his best football of the season. He was able to hit the edge of the defense and that lack of explosion I saw earlier in the season through the hole looked to be back, as he was getting to the second level of the defense. But, how do you replace that, and how do you game plan knowing that your best offensive weapon—and the player you rely on to set up Ryan in the passing game—is out? Work the outside and work the middle of the field with TE Tony Gonzalez, especially with Giants LB Antonio Pierce out of the lineup who, even though he’s having an average season, was still the QB of that defense.

Key Matchup: Ryan vs. the Giants secondary

Yes, the Falcons will still be able to use their running game even with the loss of Turner, but for Atlanta to get out of the Meadowlands with a win, Ryan will have to take some chances down the field and exploit this New York secondary that has been lacking a playmaker since it lost safety Kenny Phillips earlier in the season. If the Giants can get a pass rush from their front four—or out of their pressure packages—they will be able to make some plays down the field. But even then, this is a chance for Ryan to put up some big numbers on the road. If the Giants play 2-Man coverage, look for Gonzalez to have a big day down the middle of the field. Tough matchup to call, but I like Atlanta in this aspect of the game. The Giants must build a lead and go into the fourth quarter with control of this game.

Philadelphia (5-4) at Chicago (4-5)

8:20 EST (NBC)

Everyone is going to want to see what Jay Cutler does in his return to the field after his five-pick performance last Thursday night in the Bears loss to the Niners. He leads the league with 17 picks, and for Chicago to have any chance of making a late-season run, Cutler will have to play smarter and take his chances only when the opportunity presents itself. But, how do you do that when your running game is basically non-existent? The Bears can win with the majority of the game plan in the hands of Cutler if offensive coordinator Ron Turner gives him a script that plays better to his abilities. Use passing schemes that challenge the defense because of Cutler’s arm strength. Throw the deep comebacks, the fades, the 7-route (flag route) and basically anything that happens outside of the numbers—and let Jay challenge defensive backs in man coverage. Forte will get his carries, but looking at the Bears upfront, this game might once again hinge on Cutler ’s game—and how he protects and moves the football.

We all know the Philly struggles. Donovan McNabb can move the ball, the offense has plenty of dynamic, big-play weapons and they can score points. But, when it comes to the basics of professional football—such as converting third-and-short situations or scoring in the red zone—this team shuts down. RB Brian Westbrook is out, and rookie Shady McCoy, though dynamic himself, struggles in pass protection and isn’t the same threat out of the backfield when compared to Westbrook. I like the Philly defense and its ability to bring pressure off the edge against Cutler, but I still believe that we will once again see the Eagles in a crucial situation tomorrow night that will define the outcome of this game. Do they finally convert these opportunities or do we see the same results once again?

Key Matchup: McNabb vs. the Bears red-zone defense

I chose this matchup because I know Lovie Smith’s defense in Chicago. Lovie will show a decent amount of pressure against the Eagles tomorrow night, but when the ball gets inside the 20-yard line, I expect him to play his Tampa 2 scheme, which is called Red 2 inside the 20. What that entails is a defense that looks like Cover 2 at the snap, but basically turns into a Cover 4 (or quarters) look at the top of the route. The corners will sink to protect the safety and trail any outside vertical. With the Mike backer dropping, the Bears will essentially have five deep defenders, shutting off the end zone and forcing McNabb to run or check the ball down. It is a common way to play red-zone defense in this league, and against a team like Philly—who struggles when the field shrinks—it is the best way to close off an offense. Expect McNabb to put up huge numbers between the 20’s, but in the red zone, this defense can force the Eagles to kick field goals once again—leading me to believe that Philly will need explosive plays to score touchdowns. And that doesn’t last.

Enjoy the games this weekend. I will be at Soldier Field tomorrow night to see McNabb take on Cutler with the NFP’s Joe Fortenbaugh.

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Upcoming Games

Aug 5th, 8:00 PM

Dallas +1 -110

Pittsburgh -1 -110


Aug 12th, 7:30 PM

Washington -2 -110

New England +2 -110


Aug 12th, 7:30 PM

Pittsburgh +1 -110

Philadelphia -1 -110