San Diego at Tennessee
After a dreadful 1-3 start, San Diego has won 6 of their last 8 and has taken control of the AFC West. The defense has really stiffened against the pass. Despite their two games Division lead, they need to keep winning if they are to return to the Playoffs. The Chargers can clinch the AFC West title if they beat the Titans on Sunday and Denver loses later that afternoon to Kansas City at Invesco Field at Mile High. Playing their best football of the season, the Chargers match up well against Tennessee. San Diego blew Tennessee out last year 40-7.
Tennessee broke their three games losing streak last week against Houston but are stepping up in class here. The Titans' defense held their first eight foes to under 100 yards rushing but each of their last four opponents have gained at least 119 yards on the ground. The difference in those defensive performances can be attributed to the health of DT Albert Haynesworth. When he’s on the field, there are few better run-stoppers in the league. When he’s on the sidelines due to injury or suspension there is a gaping hole in the middle of the Titans run defense. Haynesworth (hamstring) was held out of practice Thursday to give him time to recover from his first game in a month. He’s questionable to play Sunday. That goes right to the strength of San Diego's offense.
If Haynesworth can’t play effectively, Chargers RB Tomlinson is going to kill them. Tomlinson is fresh having far fewer carries than last year. If the Titans can’t stop him, it will be a long Sunday afternoon. San Diego wins 28- 20.
Minnesota at San Francisco
I’m going to ride the Minnesota bus once again. The Vikings are off back to back 40+ point efforts and they've scored at least 29 points in three of their last four games, using both their strong rushing offense and an aggressive defense as sources for those points. Minnesota has the league's top rushing offense and the top rushing defense and QB Jackson continues to develop, albeit slowly. The Vikings defense does rank last against the pass but that's because teams can't run on them.
Meanwhile, the 49ers continue to struggle and last week's loss in Carolina clinched another losing season for a team considered by many to be a Playoff contender in preseason. And yes, I got that game wrong last week. The offense has struggled since the opening week, only once scoring more than 20 points in a game. It's hard to see the 49ers having much success as they've scored the fewest points in the NFL. They've had quarterback problems with Smith out for the season and veteran Dilfer now in charge. With Minny playing lights-out run defense, the Niners will have to move the ball through the air…and that doesn’t look very likely.
49ers fans have been encouraged to wear red this week. The “Red Fog” is intended to motivate fans and players. Nice try, but it won’t work. San Francisco is done for the year. Minnesota wins 31-10.
Tampa Bay at Houston
Tampa Bay is leading the NFC South and at 8-4 are flying under the radar as the nation is fixated on Dallas and Green Bay in the NFC. The Buc’s have won four straight and one more victory or a loss by Carolina means Tampa Bay will clinch its second NFC South title in three years.
Despite losing several running backs to injury this season, the Buc’s are averaging 140 rushing yards per game in their last 6 games with their lowest output in this stretch the 99 yards they gained against Washington. Tampa has the NFL’s fourth best defense, allowing under 300 yards per game. By running the ball and playing great defense, Tampa Bay was able to overcome the loss of QB Garcia last week. Garcia missed the contest with a lower back injury sustained in the Washington game. He’s available this week, but not expected to start. QB Luke McCown passed for 313 yards and two touchdowns against the Saints. Even if Tampa Bay rests Garcia another week, I still think they have enough to win this game.
Houston has lost two straight and five of the last seven as a lack of depth has taken a toll. Although their passing offense has put up solid numbers, the running game has been weak and the defense has suffered as a result. Late in the season defense is even more of a factor in determining wins and losses. For the season the Buc’s are allowing almost nine fewer points per game than are the Texans.
Tampa Bay gets the win, 20-13.