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NFL : Patriots And Broncos Square Off

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We are over the halfway point in the NFL regular season now, and time is running out for teams in the race for the playoffs. Things are starting to really heat up, and the fixtures are just getting bigger and bigger. This weekend will see clashes between old divisional rivals, the hot new contenders and, of course, we’ll have the bout of the NFL’s best two quarterbacks of the last fifteen years. It’s all set for a tremendous weekend’s action, so let’s take a look at what’s coming up.

Denver Broncos at New England Patriots

The New England Patriots play host to the favourites for the Super Bowl this weekend, which will provide a very telling assessment of where Bill Belichick’s team are. The Pats sit atop the AFC East with a 6-2 record, and a mix of some terrific performances (such as the Cincinnati Bengals) with a few sloppy outings (like the Oakland Raiders). Tom Brady’s performances have been first-rate, despite some criticism early on. Yet injuries have affected them, with Steven Ridley, Jerod Mayo and possibly Chandler Jones out for the year. The Patriots and Belichick game plan like no other, and those missing players will increase the need for Belichick’s genius, with the running threat in particular diminished. Rob Gronkowski’s performances are key to New England’s progress, and that might go double for this weekend.

The Denver Broncos come into this game on the crest of a wave, with Demaryius Thomas in particular playing out of his skin. He has overcome his slow start to the season, likely due to lining out in the slot in Wes Welker’s absence, to reclaim the title of the NFL’s most explosive receiver. Peyton Manning keeps tossing him bombs, and Thomas continues to reel them in. Ronnie Hillman has been running pretty well, but that may well be as much down to the threatening wide options that the Broncos can avail of. Their defense has improved hugely this year, as has the offensive line. The Broncos have the right mix to go all the way, assuming no major injuries.

Verdict: Denver

Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers come into this huge traditional divisional clash on the back of a big win over the Indianapolis Colts. Ben Roethlisberger had one of the great NFL performances in that game, passing for over five hundred yards, falling just thirty short of the all-time record. Antonio Brown has been very dynamic on the outside, ranking second in yardage in the NFL. But the Steelers are held up by a lack of alternate options, with the loss of Emmanuel Sanders and the middling performances of Markus Wheaton severely limiting Roethlisberger’s options. Le’Veon Bell has run pretty well, but the defense has been hugely inconsistent. If they can get better play from Dick le Beau’s unit, then the Steelers will be a tough proposition.

Big loss for the Baltimore Ravens last weekend, falling three points short in a top-of-the-division encounter with the Cincinnati Bengals. To follow that up with another huge divisional clash is unfavourable, but Baltimore just cannot afford to lose two big games of this stature in a row. Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliafero have been doing well under Gary Kubiak’s scheme, but Steve Smith and Torrey Smith both got closed down by the Bengals. If they don’t get going this weekend, the Ravens will be in danger of falling way behind in the AFC North. The Ravens defense is propping up this team, with a ferocious pass rush and pressure a major factor in their five wins so far.

Verdict: Baltimore

Arizona Cardinals at Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys ground attack has been a major factor in their stunning 6-2 start to the season, but this weekend they face arguably the best NFL run defense. Whoever wins the battle up front will be a long way towards winning this one, because as we have seen all too often in the past, the Cowboys aren’t great when Tony Romo throws more than fifty times. Romo’s appearance is far from guaranteed, having suffered a back injury in their Monday Night Football loss to Washington. The Cowboys struggled badly in losing to the NFC East bottom dwellers, and the lingering impact of that defeat won’t be great for morale. This is a pretty big game for Dallas, taking on one of the NFC’s leading lights in a tumultuous situation.

The Arizona Cardinals have been outstanding up to this point, leading the NFC West with a 6-1 record, despite having fielded three different quarterbacks already. Sinc e starter Carson Palmer returned, the team has hit new heights again. His game-winning connection with John Brown on a third and five that ended up as a seventy-five yard touchdown pass last weekend against the Philadelphia Eagles was unbelievable. With Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd as additional threats, the Cardinals are loaded at wide receiver. Andre Ellington has run the ball well, and Arizona now boasts one of the most balanced rosters in the NFL. Can they go to Dallas and win? Shut down the run game, as they are capable of doing, and they should go a long way. That being said, the Cardinals surprisingly have the worst passing defense in the league. Fascinating tussle here.

Verdict: Arizona

San Diego Chargers at Miami Dolphins

The Miami Dolphins have been on a roll since their win in London over the Oakland Raiders, winning two of the next three, only succumbing to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers very late. While Mike Wallace continues to bemoan the lack of a real deep ball being thrown, Ryan Tannehill has improved during their winning run. Completing 62% of passes and minimizing his turnovers, Tannehill is giving the Dolphins the chance to win. The ground game is doing surprisingly well under Lamar Miller, whos is averaging just under five yards per attempt. The Dolphins are winning the turnover battle while splitting time of possession, and getting great pressure on quarterbacks, with 21 sacks recorded so far. Miami has come from nowhere and thrust itself into playoff contention.

Some of the gloss has peeled off the San Diego Chargers in recent weeks, with two divisional losses to the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs, while only narrowly overcoming the Oakland Raiders. Philip Rivers is still playing pretty well, and that offense is loaded with weapons. The defense is struggling with injuries though, and they have impacted on their performances. They rank in the top ten in both pass and rush defense though, so if they can get key bodies back on the field, things will start looking up again for San Diego. They have one of the worst run games in the NFL, though.

Verdict: San Diego

Philadelphia Eagles at Houston Texans

This is a strange rebuilding season for the Houston Texans. They sit at 4-4, right in the mix for a wild card spot. Yet their quarterback is very much one who doesn’t lose them games, rather than goes out and wins them. Ryan Fitzpatrick has never been a convincing starting quarterback, and that trend has continued this year. He has been put in charge of an offense featuring Arian Foster, Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins, but his offensive line is quite porous and he hasn’t been able to make miracles happen. Yet he plays tough, taking sixteen sacks, but getting up and going again. It’s a big step up on 2013 in Houston, and the perennial MVP candidate JJ Watt and his defensive comrades have been a big positive point. It will be interesting to see if they can kick on down the stretch and claim a playoff spot.

The Philadelphia Eagles went down to the Arizona Cardinals last weekend, and another tough road game would not have been their tonic of choice. Nick Foles has, naturally, failed to match last season’s hot streak, but he is not the only Eagle you could say that about. DeSean Jackson has been very capably replaced by Jeremy Maclin, who put on an outrageous performance out in the desert, finishing with 187 yards and two touchdowns. With a little help, maybe Philly would be 6-1 rather than 5-2. Considering the trouble the Eagles have had on both sides of the ball, they should be happy with that record. A win in Houston would get them right back on track.

Verdict: Houston

Image courtesy of gannett-cdn.com/

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