I'm psyched about the two big games this weekend. New Orleans hosts the Falcons in a game both teams desperately want: the Saints, to keep their faint playoff hopes alive; Atlanta to avenge last year's playoff loss and prove to the entire league that the Falcons' 8-0 lead, against mostly mediocre competition, has not been a fluke.
Meanwhile, Houston and Chicago clash in a classic Sunday night tilt, both teams putting their 7-1 records on the line in a game that will come down to which offense can actually move the ball at all.
So I'm prepared to devote this week's Friday Football Questions post entirely to these two big games.
1. Is the Texans offense the real deal?
Houston is ranked number 2 in the league offensively by Sports Illustrated. They've ripped some pretty good defenses (Miami for 30, Denver for 31, the Jets for 23 and the Ravens for 43) this season but, at the same time, they struggled to score against Buffalo last week (winning 21 -9).
The Bears' defense is currently number 2 in the NFL. They're giving up just 15 points per game, relying on turnovers (28 generated so far) and a takeaway-giveaway number of plus 16 to do most of the work. The Bears' defense has outscored some teams' offenses this season with Charles Tillman and Co putting up pick-sixes on a regular basis.
The Texans have a balanced offense, with Matt Schaub throwing to a mostly under-rated group of receivers, led by Andre Johnson, and Arian Foster averaging four yards per carry behind a big, powerful offensive line.
In my opinion, the key for the Houston offense will be the run game. If they can establish Foster early, it'll slow down the Bears defensive front and bring the turn-over hungry Chicago secondary up close to the line. That will open up the deep passing game later in the match.
The second key is ball security. Foster hasn't fumbled yet in 192 carries this season and he's got to stay clean in that area. Schaub has also been good with the ball, throwing only four interceptions in 249 attempts.
If Houston can run the ball early (giving Foster at least six carries in the first quarter) and limit their turnovers (max 2, preferably 1 or 0), they stand a good chance of making a dent in that Chicago defense. And, just as importantly, ensuring that the Chicago defense doesn't score any points of its own.
2. Can the Bears offensive line handle J.J. Watt and that tough Houston front seven?
Houston is averaging more than three sacks per game, with Watt contributing a whopping 10.5 of the team's 25 total. The Texans' linebackers are fast and smart and their backfield has done a decent job covering people.
But the Bears' O-line is struggling in the pass-protection game. Quarterback Jay Cutler has been sacked 28 times so far this season, for an average of three and a half sacks per game. That's not good.
If the Texans get the chance to tee off on Cutler, Chicago is in trouble. Once again, the key offensively will be the team's ability to run the ball, to slow down the rush and give their quarterback more time in the pocket in passing situations.
Fortunately, Chicago's line has managed to open holes for Matt Forte in impressive fashion, helping him average 5 yards per carry in the seven games he's played. If the Bears can get Forte and Michael Bush going early and get the Texans defense focusing on stopping the run, Cutler may just find the passing game start to open up.
If not, expect to see Cutler pretty banged up by the second half and probably jawing at his teammates as the Texans tear the Chicago offense apart.
3. What can Houston do to stop Brandon Marshall?
It's amazing. Marshall has caught 59 balls for 797 yards and seven TDs in the first half of the season, putting him more than five-hundred yards and five TDs ahead of the Bears' next leading receivier (Alshon Jeffery). Houston's defensive strategy should be to blanket Marshall and then focus on stopping the run.
I don't know the Texans' backfield well enough to know who they'll put on Marshall but I don't see anybody there who can cover him one on one all night. That means double teams, probably on every play. Houston's D is good enough to handle that, though.
Frankly, I'll be surprised if Marshall gets even close to his season per-game average of 7 catches for 100 yards. Cutler will try, of course, especially if the run game is not working. But I think the Texans will be ready for it.
4. Will the Falcons finally falter?
I think they will. I think they've build their gaudy 8-0 record against some pretty weak opposition and don't have the horses (birds?) to handle a hepped up, desperate New Orleans team.
Atlanta has one quailty win this season, in week 2 against Denver, but even that comes with an asterisk. Denver was just starting to work the kinks out of their retooled offense at the point in the season; I doubt Atlanta could hold Peyton Manning and Co to just 21 points today.
And, even against weaker opposition, Atlanta has struggled to win. They snuck by the Panthers by just two points, the Redskins by a touchdown and the Raiders by three. I was temporarily impressed with their 30-17 win over the Eagles but it has become apparent since then that Philly is struggling mightly on both sides of the ball.
Atlanta is currently ranked 5th defensively by SI but they're giving up more than 350 yards per game against mediocre opposition, putting them at 19th in the league in that category. They've been saving themselves by counting on the other team to make mistakes in the red zone, something they won't be able to count on against Drew Brees and that New Orleans offense.
On the other hand... Wow, have the Saints ever performed poorly on defense. They're giving up 471 yards per game (last in the league) and more than 28 points per contest. That's woeful. And life doesn't get any easier against Matt Ryan (103 qb rating), a running game that features Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers, and a receiving corps that can throw Roddy White and Julio Jones (who combined have 87 receptions and a yard-per-catch average of over 15 yards), Tony Gonzalez (who's caught 50 balls this season) and the aforementioned Rodgers (24 grabs out of the backfield) at you.
This is going to be one heck of an offensive ball game, with the last team holding the ball winning the game. But the Falcons haven't faced an offense like New Orleans this season, an offense that is psyched and in season-saving mode.
I'm thinking we'll get a final score in the 42-38 range with Brees spreading the ball around to seven or eight receivers for more than 400 yards and at least four TDs in the win to keep the Saints' season alive.