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NFL: Do Or Die Time

football

We are headed into week eight of the NFL regular season, with the exact halfway mark, due to the seventeen week slate, coming at half time during Sunday’s bouts. So we have a good portion of the season behind us and, although things are only really beginning to shape up, we probably have a good idea who a lot of the teams in the playoff shake-up will be, and who the teams battling for the no.1 overall draft pick in 2015 will be. It is still up for grabs though, so let’s look ahead to week eight’s action.

Philadelphia Eagles at Arizona Cardinals

The Arizona Cardinals have been building a strong team under Bruce Arians’ stewardship, but there can’t have been many people who thought they would be the clear leader of the NFC West at the half way mark. That was even before you consider the injuries they have, forcing the team into sending out a rolling conveyor belt of quarterbacks, as well as adapting to losing several key defensive players. Yet they do top their division, with a clear two game advantage over the San Francisco Forty-Niners, courtesy of their tie-breaking win. Arizona has been a tough place to go lately, and with Carson Palmer back healthy under center, they are very formidable. Their depth at the wide receiver position is as good as any other NFL teams.

These are two great examples of how quickly an organisation can turn around under a new head coach in the NFL. These teams were both treading water, before appointing new coaches in 2013. The Philadelphia Eagles come into this one on the back of a badly needed bye week. Although they sit at 5-1, the Eagles are really banged up, particularly on the offensive line. How many first-string bodies they will get back is unclear, but they won’t be facing a ferocious pass rush no matter what. The run game may be a bigger issue, with the Cardinals pretty good at stopping that, and LeSean McCoy struggling so far, although there were promising signs in their last win against the New York Giants.

Verdict: Arizona

Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals

This is a must win game for the Cincinnati Bengals. Having been the last undefeated team in the NFL, they are now on a three game winless streak. It’s not so much that they will fall that far behind, but another loss this weekend will make it even harder to emerge from this unforeseen slump. With limited run after the catch potential due to injuries at the danger positions, the Bengals look like a very average team all of a sudden. The Indianapolis Colts actually shut out the Bengals last weekend, a stunning turn of events. If the Bengals defense can’t come up with some stops, they may well start sliding further and further down the AFC North table.

It’s all been rosy thus far for the Baltimore Ravens. It’s rather remarkable really, given the high profile ignominy of Ray Rice’s departure at the start of the season. The run game has functioned at a much higher level without Rice, with long time underachieving veteran Justin Forsett thriving in Gary Kubiak’s stretch run game, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Joe Flacco has come to form at a good time, igniting the team’s winning streak. While Torrey Smith’s numbers are down, Steve Smith’s are more than good enough to compensate. The defense is playing Ravens-esque football, with a very solid pass rush ratcheting up the pressure week in and week out, and they are in a really strong position. Win this weekend and they are staring down the barrel of a divisional title.

Verdict: Baltimore

Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers

It really is hard to gauge exactly where the Pittsburgh Steelers are this year. Are they an ageing team scrapping against the flickering light on the horizon that is retirement? Are they being outfought on the sidelines? Or are their players just flaky and inconsistent? Expensive starters are being benched, and Mike Tomlin is trying to get his house in order. The Steelers were dominant against a Houston Texans team that has had some success this year, yet were bullied and beaten down for a game and a half against the Cleveland Browns, who just gave the Jacksonville Jaguars their first win of the year. What we do know is the AFC north is very tight, and as such the Steelers need to win big games. A home game against a hot team is the perfect scenario for a statement win.

The Indianapolis Colts are arguably the hottest team in the NFL right now. Shutting out the Cincinnati Bengals last week, they confirmed that their defense has actually taken great strides forward. With an offense as good as theirs, even a slightly better than average defense will shoot this team into Super Bowl contention. Andrew Luck has been surrounded by tremendous weapons, but the final cog in the piece is the run game. Trent Richardson has got to turn it around.

Verdict: Indianapolis

Green Bay Packers at New Orleans Saints

It has been a very tough season for the New Orleans Saints, who now appear to have inadvertently entered a transition season. The late loss to the Detroit Lions was crushing, but they are still in with a shout in the surprisingly lacklustre NFC South. Drew Brees is not playing like the Drew Brees of old, and it feels as if he is missing a really dependable check down option who can make things happen and exploit mismatches. They got a fifth round pick for Darren Sproles, and maybe they needed the cap room. But maybe, if they had their time over, they would have held on to just that one extra playmaker? A penny for Sean Payton’s thoughts. All that being said, Rob Ryan’s defense needs to kick it up a gear too.

The Green Bay Packers are on a fiery hot streak right now. They only sit behind the Detroit Lions on a tie breaker, and since that loss Aaron Rodgers has taken this team to a new level. He is almost unplayable with time and space (which is the thing the Lions denied him), and Randall Cobb and, in particular, Jordy Nelson have been the biggest beneficiaries of this. It’s hard to see the Saints generating enough consistent pressure on Rodgers to knock him off stride.

Verdict: Green Bay

Seattle Seahawks at Carolina Panthers

What a difference a season makes for these two teams. Last year, the Carolina Panthers steamrolled their way to a divisional title on the back of a domineering power-run game with plenty of options and variations, and a defense that meant business. It has had none of that so far this year, but the runners are finally returning to the field. The Panthers have inexplicably held on to their divisional lead, despite sitting at .500. That won’t continue indefinitely, and they need a big win to ignite their campaign. Cam Newton looks healthier each week, Greg Olsen is proving to be a tremendous no.1 target and Kelvin Benjamin is a huge red zone threat. If they could just get that defense playing again…

The Seattle Seahawks are sitting in a very precarious position. 3-3, third in the NFC West and looking short of ideas and identity, the Seahawks season could well depend on how they respond in the next couple of weeks. The Percy Harvin trade happened, for good or ill, and now the Seahawks can tailor their game plan to the way they want to play football. Against this Panthers defense, which has been continually gashed by the running game, you would have to expect some favourable match ups for Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson. This team needs a win as badly as anyone in the NFL right now.

Verdict: Seattle

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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