The Pittsburgh love fest is in full swing. If this game were on Monday night, I’d set the over/under on the use of the phrase “smashmouth football” at 5,000. Everyone will talk about the defenses in this game but the integral aspect to either team’s success lies with the quarterbacks.
The Steelers destroyed a 2-0 Tampa team last week. Charlie Batch was fantastic. Why was the battle for the opening day QB between Dennis Dixon and Byron Leftwich? Rashard Mendenhall is a beast. Willie Parker did not suit this team. The Steelers need a powerful workhorse back for their style of play. Mendenhall fits that bill perfectly. The emergence of Mike Wallace as a deep threat compliment to the always-reliable Hines Ward gives Pittsburgh a well-rounded offense that keeps the defense fresh. The key to this game is Charlie Batch. If he can deliver the deep ball accurately, the Ravens spotty secondary will flounder. Mendenhall met Ray Lewis in the 2 gap his rookie year. The meeting Mendenhall with a shattered collar bone. I see a yeoman’s effort from Mendenhall. He will get the carries and may rack up a TD, but the yards will not pile up. The Ravens will have to respect the run, and that’s the point.
We all know about Ray Lewis and company. The defense will do its part, it always does in spite of a lackluster secondary. The defense won the opener over the Jets thanks in large part due to their ability to force Sanchez into poor decisions. They will attempt to do the same against Charlie Batch. The real question for this Ravens team: Who is Joe Flacco? Is he the guy who threw for 3 TD’s with a 128 QB rating in week 3 or is he the guy who threw for 150 yards, 4 picks, with a 23.8 rating in week 2? The physical tools are obviously there, the Ravens have put solid weapons around him and the star of the movie “The Blind Side” protects his blind side. Flacco lies somewhere in between the two extremes. The defense is not good enough to win games as they did a decade ago. Flacco has to be more than a Trent Dilfer. However, in three games thus far his numbers were great against a bad Cleveland defense, atrocious against a good Cincinnati D, and uninspiring versus an excellent Jets squad. The Steelers D is either on the same level or better than the Jets.
According to my Baltimore source, the Ravens have lost 10 of their last 14 games at Heinz Field, including the last 4. The Ravens last won in Pittsburgh with the late Steve McNair at the helm. Taking Troy Polamalu and the terrible towels over the Ravens looks like the smart bet. I’m not a smart man. The Ravens pull off the upset thanks in large part to consistent pressure on Charlie Batch and just enough offense to squeak out a W.
PICK: Ravens 17 - Steelers 16
Chicago Bears @ New York Giants (-3.5)
Last week in my Dallas/Texans pick I made two fatal flaws. 1.) I went against my team, the Cowboys, in an emotional fit thinking they may never win again and 2.) I discounted the fact the Texans were coming off two emotional wins while the Cowboys were playing a back-against-the-wall-nobody-believes-in-us game. The Giants fall directly in the latter category. The Giants have outgained their opponents so far this year but turnovers and mental mistakes have plagued the team. Eli is not Peyton but when he’s on, he’s very good. The Bears have struggled to cover and the Giants have a nice set of receivers in Nicks, Smith and Manningham. Eli will be able to move the ball through the air, but must protect the ball. Manning has 6 interceptions thus far (only had 14 in 2009). The Giants running game was known as Earth, Wind, and Fire a couple of years ago. However, Wind (Derrick Ward) committed grand larceny in Tampa Bay and Earth(Brandon Jacobs) became Mars (lifeless). Fire (Amahad Bradshaw) remains frisky but will surely struggle against the stout front seven of the Bears. However, Bradshaw will do just enough to keep the offense balanced and force the Bears to back off the blitz.
The Cutler and Martz combination has been a success so far despite struggling with protection at times. Martz successfully adjusts the drops and routes to counter the defense, which opens up the deep game. Matt Forte, a poor man’s Marshall Faulk, is the key to this offense. He plays a vital role in establishing the run game but his importance to the team is in his versatility as a receiver. Look for Martz to use Forte to counter the pass rush of Mathias Kiwanunka (4 sack in ’10) and Justin Tuck.
The Jay Cutler roller-coaster is riding high right now but what goes up must come down. Cutler's number will reflect a better game than he actually has. Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin win this back-against-the-wall-nobody-believes-in-us game.PICK: New York Giants 27 - Chicago Bears 20