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There’s a great slate this weekend in the NFL, but three that I’m paying attention to most are the Falcons-Saints, Rams-49ers (the game I’m broadcasting for Westwood One Sports) and the Sunday night clash of the Texans and the Bears.
Let’s start with the Falcons and Saints. Bitter rivals for many years, these two teams have had very different seasons so far. Atlanta, of course, is the NFL’s lone unbeaten team, while the Saints have struggled all year, but may have figured things out having gone 3-1 since that surprising 0-4 start to the season. Anytime you have Drew Brees and the offensive firepower of the Saints, you’re going to be a threat.
The Falcons haven’t gotten the level of praise you’d expect to see in a team that has reached the halfway mark with a perfect record. The reason? People don’t believe in the 8-0 mark. The opponents that the Falcons have faced this year have a combined record of well under .500, and the road from here isn’t dotted with too many winning teams. But you can only play the teams on the schedule, and Atlanta has beaten them all, and enjoys the largest division lead in the NFL, with a four-game bulge over Tampa Bay, and five games over the Saints.
If New Orleans harbors ANY hopes of recovering from that rough start, this game is a must win. They can do it if the run game can perform like it did last week against the Eagles. Chris Ivory seemed to provide a spark in his first action of the season, and they’ll need him, along with Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas to try and fill the void left by Darren Sproles, who’s out with the broken hand.
Defensively, the edge has to go to the Falcons. The Saints haven’t stopped anyone all year, and are the worst defensive team in the league. Matt Ryan must be licking his chops, although he’s lost his last three meetings against the Saints. If he can conquer the Saints in the Superdome, the Falcons can continue their pursuit of history, with a very favorable schedule the rest of the way to help them on their quest.
I’ll be in San Francisco on Sunday for the Rams and 49ers, so let me write a bit about this matchup. Speaking of division rivals, these two franchises have matched up for some great clashes over the years. This will be the 125th meeting between the two teams, and the series is dead even. 61 wins and 61 losses for each team, with two ties. Now that’s a series. But of late, it’s been the 49ers’ series. The Niners have won 7 of the last 8 meetings, blanking the Rams last year in San Francisco 26-0.
The Rams come in having lost three straight games, and have lost the art of the turnover. St. Louis is minus-four in the turnover margin during this losing skid, and haven’t forced a turnover in any of the last three games. The run game? Hard to find as well. Steven Jackson has rushed for just 132 yards over the past three games, and is on pace to fall short of 1,000 yards this year for the first time in eight seasons. Unfortunately for St. Louis, they face a 49ers team that doesn’t exactly give anemic offenses a chance to get well.
The Niners boast the league’s best scoring defense, and haven’t given up a touchdown in their last four wins this year. One surprise defensively has been Justin Smith. He’s still a force as a tackler, but through eight games, Smith is still looking for his first sack.
Another Niner Smith, QB Alex, is continuing his solid play for a second consecutive season. He’s fourth in the NFL in passer rating, and the Niner formula from last year continues to work in 2012. Run the football, don’t make mistakes, play good defense and win games. They lead the league in rushing, have only turned it over nine times this year and lead the division with a 6-2 record. It could be a rough trip west for Sam Bradford and the Rams in St. Louis’ first game back since the trip to London two weeks ago.
Finally, Sunday Night Football. It might be the marquee matchup of the season so far on Sunday night. Dave Sims, James Lofton and Hub Arkush have the call on Westwood One in Chicago on Sunday and this figures to be a great clash. Chicago enters the game on a six-game winning streak, with their only loss to the Packers. Similarly, the Texans only loss is to the Green Bay Packers. The Texans have a balanced offense and a stout defense, while the Bears have been riding great defensive play to their 7-1 start.
Questions exist about just how good this Bears team is, having only beaten one team with a winning record this year. But like I mentioned about the Falcons, you can only play the teams on your schedule. The Bears are beating almost everybody they face, and they’re doing it with defense. Turnovers are the biggest key. When you force 28 turnovers through eight games, there’s an excellent chance you’ll have a winning record, and the Bears certainly do. Peanut Tillman, who’s expected to play this week as his wife is expected to deliver their baby on Monday, forced four fumbles last week in the 51-20 win over Tennessee.
It’s not likely to be as easy this week against Houston. The Texans have only turned it over six times this year, and are as balanced as any team in the league. Arian Foster is fifth in the league in rushing, and the solid Matt Schaub has the Texans good in the air too. And defensively? They can get it done on that side of the ball as well, led by bonafide star J.J. Watt, who has 10.5 sacks this year, and has to be excited to face a Bears team that has allowed 28 sacks on the season.
Great, great day on Sunday for the NFL and Buffalo Wild Wings. Plan to stay all day, and enjoy your wings, beer and sports…at Buffalo Wild Wings!
– Kevin Kugler
Westwood One NFL play-by-play announcer Kevin Kugler tackles subjects that are interesting to him each week in his blog. The Football Insider Report is brought to you by Buffalo Wild Wings. Protect the Football. This weekend, Kevin will be in San Francisco, where the 49ers host the St. Louis Rams. Coverage begins at 3:45 PM Eastern Sunday on Westwood One Sports.