NFL Cream Keeps Rising

JIM HURLEY'S HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK
 
TOP CONTENDERS KEEP WINNING AND BAD TEAMS LOSING INTEREST

After a first half of an NFL season that had everyone talking about parity, we now reach the three-quarter pole with clear delineations developing between the have's and have not's.

New England looks to be flying to the head of the class in the AFC thanks to a 10-2 record and a 45-3 demolition of the respected NY Jets. Atlanta is now 10-2 after surviving a tough divisional road game, and a game ahead of surging Philadelphia and Green Bay in the race for top seed in the NFC.

At the bottom of the spectrum, Carolina, Detroit, and Arizona keep finding new ways to lose. Denver was playing so badly they fired their coach.

Let's crunch the numbers from this past week of NFL action, emphasizing our key indicator stats of Rushing Yardage, Drive Points (those scored and allowed on drives of 60 yards or more), and Third Down Conversions.  Games are presented in rotation order, starting with last Thursday's contest, and ending with the Monday Night mauling in Foxboro.
 
PHILADELPHIA 34, HOUSTON 24
Rushing Yardage: Houston 108, Philadelphia 115
Drive Points (60+ Yds): Houston 21, Philadelphia 28
Third Down Percentage: Houston 60%, Philadelphia 50%
Notebook: The Eagles didn't really look like champions on defense, allowing 21 points on long drives and a high conversion rate. Michael Vick is playing like he has something to prove though, which will keep them in any game. Wouldn't it be something if Philadelphia at Atlanta ends up being the NFC title tilt, with Vick having to return to his old stomping grounds?

MINNESOTA 38, BUFFALO 14
Rushing Yardage: Buffalo 84, Minnesota 210
Drive Points (60+ Yds): Buffalo 0, Minnesota 17
Third Down Percentage: Buffalo 25%, Minnesota 33%
Notebook: Hey, look at that! Take Brett Favre off the field and Minnesota goes back to doing things the right way immediately. Another win for the new coach. Even though Tony Dungy warned everyone on NBC that midseason coaching changes never work, Dallas and Minnesota keep winning after cutting the dead weight and invigorating their players. At 5-7, the Vikings can still rally for a .500 finish or even a 9-7 mark. Amazing considering how badly things went in the first half of the season under Favre. They'd better hope he stays hurt.

CLEVELAND 13, MIAMI 10
Rushing Yardage: Cleveland 52, Miami 114
Drive Points (60+ Yds): Cleveland 7, Miami 7
Third Down Percentage: Cleveland 14%, Miami 28%
Notebook: A true defensive struggle, with neither offense knowing what to do vs. a decent defense. It took a Miami turnover to set up the game winning points for the Browns. Jake Delhomme's doing what he can to make sure nobody else gives him a try at quarterback. Chad Henne's days may be numbered in Miami too.

JACKSONVILLE 17, TENNESSEE 6
Rushing Yardage: Jacksonville 258, Tennessee 57
Drive Points (60+ Yds): Jacksonville 7, Tennessee 3
Third Down Percentage: Jacksonville 40%, Tennessee 18%
Notebook: Disastrous offensive numbers for the Titans, who were actually favored in this game. The offense looks like they don't care any more, or at least aren't drinking the kool-aid. Jacksonville has surged into first place in the AFC South with a 7-5 record, and really are playing better than everyone else right now even if they don't have the full season statistical pedigree of a contender. The collapse of this division is a shocking development.

KANSAS CITY 10, DENVER 6
Rushing Yardage: Denver 161, Kansas City 185
Drive Points (60+ Yds): Denver 3, Kansas City 7
Third Down Percentage: Denver 25%, Kansas City 42%
Notebook: Weather was a strong influence here, as both offenses had to deal with cold temperatures and a strong win. Neither really ever figured out how to deal with it based on the final score. Kansas City won, but you should score a lot more than 10 points on this horrible Denver defense. Chiefs now lead the AFC West by two games, and will at least give a good battle to whoever they host in the first round (Jets and Ravens currently the favorites for the two Wildcard spots).

NY GIANTS 31, WASHINGTON 7
Rushing Yardage: Washington 74, NY Giants 197
Drive Points (60+ Yds): Washington 7, NY Giants 0
Third Down Percentage: Washington 41%, NY Giants 20%
Notebook: The Giants had a couple of 59-yard scoring drives, so our stat box is misleading here. They were as dominant as the rushing differential makes it seem. And, many of their biggest plays didn't come on third down. Often we tell you to trust the stats rather than the final score. Here, the score really is accurate. Washington was supposed to be much better than this at this stage of the Shanahan/McNabb Experience. To this point, you can see why the former employers of BOTH made changes.

CHICAGO 24, DETROIT 20
Rushing Yardage: Chicago 114, Detroit 134
Drive Points (60+ Yds): Chicago 21, Detroit 7
Third Down Percentage: Chicago 56%, Detroit 42%
Notebook: The Bears won the right numbers, but had to sweat the ending anyway. This was a tough sandwich spot between the Eagles and the Patriots for Jay Cutler and company. The defense in particular seemed to lack focus much of the afternoon. They'd better get focused for Tom Brady!

GREEN BAY 34, SAN FRANCISCO 16
Rushing Yardage: San Francisco 97, Green Bay 136
Drive Points (60+ Yds): San Francisco 10, Green Bay 17
Third Down Percentage: San Francisco 25%, Green Bay 60%
Notebook: Very strong numbers for the Packers considering it was a cold day and they were playing a good defense. The differences between top quality quarterbacks and young apprentices really shows up when the games matter most, and conditions are the toughest. Good sign for the Packers that they could break 100 yards on the ground. They'll need BALANCE to win in January.

NEW ORLEANS 34, CINCINNATI 30
Rushing Yardage: New Orleans 146, Cincinnati 96
Drive Points (60+ Yds): New Orleans 34, Cincinnati 7
Third Down Percentage: New Orleans 12%, Cincinnati 35%
Notebook: Another wild New Orleans game, which means the defense once again isn't living up to last year's standards. Cincinnati is another offense that scored on drives that just missed our indicator threshold. This was closer than 34-7 makes it sound obviously. Note that Drew Brees was 24-29-290, yet the team could only convert 1 of 8 third down tries. There's still time to find playoff form. Right now, the Saints have a playoff record, but would clearly be outmatched by other NFC favorites. You shouldn't be losing at Arizona and sweating Cincinnati if you're thinking about a return trip to the Super Bowl.

ATLANTA 28, TAMPA BAY 24
Rushing Yardage: Atlanta 85, Tampa Bay 151
Drive Points (60+ Yds): Atlanta 14, Tampa Bay 7
Third Down Percentage: Atlanta 54%, Tampa Bay 33%
Notebook: Atlanta was helped by a kickoff return here. That plus maturity on third downs helped them overcome a rushing game deficit. We love what we're seeing with Tampa Bay this year. Too bad they'll miss the playoffs in a division that has both Atlanta and New Orleans. Atlanta needs home field in the playoffs because they're not getting much distance from anybody away from home.

OAKLAND 28, SAN DIEGO 13
Rushing Yardage: Oakland 251, San Diego 21
Drive Points (60+ Yds): Oakland 14, San Diego 10
Third Down Percentage: Oakland 53%, San Diego 30%
Notebook: Huge performance from the Raiders, who just took this game by the throat and wouldn't let go. Too bad they failed to do that against Miami at home the prior week. Maybe they're just going to prioritize the divisional games this year. So much for the Chargers surging into the playoffs and scaring everyone in the AFC. San Diego must beat Kansas City this week AND get some help to finish on top in the West. Note that Oakland swept San Diego this year if that comes up in the tie-breaker. Both are currently 6-6, two games behind the 8-4 Chiefs.

SEATTLE 31, CAROLINA 14
Rushing Yardage: Carolina 131, Seattle 161
Drive Points (60+ Yds): Carolina 14, Seattle 17
Third Down Percentage: Carolina 33%, Seattle 50%
Notebook: We don't know what to make of this one. Carolina had a strong first half. Seattle won the second half 28-0. Are the Panthers making sure they finish with the worst record and get a #1 pick? We're hoping Seattle makes the playoffs just so we can go against them with a Game of the Year in the first round.

DALLAS 38, INDIANAPOLIS 35
Rushing Yardage: Dallas 217, Indianapolis 40
Drive Points (60+ Yds): Dallas 18, Indianapolis 28
Third Down Percentage: Dallas 53%, Indianapolis 54%
Notebook: Fun game to watch. Indianapolis has no running game, but managed 28 Drive Points anyway thanks to Peyton Manning. Of course, Manning threw two touchdown passes to the Cowboys too, which ended up being the difference-maker. After years of everyone thinking the Colts were overrated while they covered about 60% of their spreads, they finally have been overrated in recent weeks. Oddsmakers have been slow to adjust to all the injuries.

ST. LOUIS 19, ARIZONA 6
Rushing Yardage: St. Louis 119, Arizona 105
Drive Points (60+ Yds): St. Louis 10, Arizona 3
Third Down Percentage: St. Louis 35%, Arizona 9%
Notebook: Not much of a bounceback for Arizona off the Monday Night debacle. The defense played better at least. St. Louis needs to do better than this is they want to outlast Seattle in the NFC West race.

PITTSBURGH 13, BALTIMORE 10
Rushing Yardage: Pittsburgh 54, Baltimore 43
Drive Points (60+ Yds): Pittsburgh 3, Baltimore 10
Third Down Percentage: Pittsburgh 28%, Baltimore 30%
Notebook: Brutal game. Very cold. Strong defenses. Quarterbacks who don't mind throwing incomplete passes way downfield all night because there's a chance something might connect eventually (32 incomplete passes on the night between Roethlisberger and Flacco). Pittsburgh was lucky to win thanks to a late turnover. Both showed they were playoff caliber. But, both QB's showed they don't measure up to Tom Brady right now. Don't forget that New England beat Pittsburgh pretty bad a few weeks ago.

NEW ENGLAND 45, NY JETS 3
Rushing Yardage: NY Jets 152, New England 101
Drive Points (60+ Yds): NY Jets 0, New England 21
Third Down Percentage: NY Jets 25%, New England 40%
Notebook: Passing was everything here...because New England's passing game is like a running game when everything is clicking. Brady was 21-29-0-304, throwing short angle passes all night that kept breaking into bigger plays. He's a quick thinker, and he's got several smart receivers with good hands. The Jets couldn't find an antidote, as Pittsburgh couldn't in their game with the Pats. This is going to be a big deal if Brady doesn't get injured (which derailed them in 2007). The weather was awful Monday night, and Brady was throwing like it was a summer day in San Diego. Clearly a statement win for the Pats. And, a statement loss for the Jets, who haven't looked good in two months outside of Cincy's Thanksgiving Night tank job.

That wraps up our weekly summaries. Back Thursday with our stat previews to get you ready for Indianapolis/Tennessee on the NFL Network.

Wednesday on the sports schedule means a huge night in college basketball. One of our biggest releases so far this season goes TONIGHT! You can purchase it a few hours before the early games tip off. Or, sign up for a seasonal package and pay for that with your first big winner! Call 1-800-323-4453 for more information on basketball or football packages from JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK.

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