In-form Romilly Evans casts his eye over Sunday's TV triple-header of live games where he expects Denver to claim poll position in the AFC West...
"Denver’s offense will seldom have a better chance to turn the tables and flip the switch on a supposed lights-out D"
New Orleans Saints @ Pittsburgh Steelers
Start-time: Sunday, 18:00
TV: Live on SS2
The New Orleans Saints remain a very talented team on offense. Indeed, despite a heedless start to the current campaign, Drew Brees' posse still chart inside the top three offenses in the league. So while the music may have stopped in the jazz capital, there's still time to strike up the band for a winning postseason overture.
Especially since the Saints hail from that lame duck of a division more commonly referred to as the NFC South, where a paltry 4-7 currently affords you top spot. Simply win their remaining home games against their divisional rivals, and a home tie in wildcard weekend will be New Orleans' reward.
However, that's a concern for another day. The clear and present danger is invariably coming from outside their division and the creature comforts of the Superdome. Take this weekend's match-up with the Pittsburgh Steelers as an eloquent case in point.
Like the Saints, the Steelers also rank inside the NFL's most potent trio of offenses. Unlike the Saints, the Steelers have more balance on offense and a D that can keep opponents off the park. When that park is intimidating Heinz Field (so threatening that Batman's Bane chose it for his coming-out parade in The Dark Knight Rises), matters improve still further.
Back on the other side of the ball, Ben Roethlisberger continues to lead to line with poise and precision. True, he still spends a little too much time in the pocket to ever make for effortless viewing, but Big Ben wears his nickname with good reason. Even tough defenses struggle to bring this giant bear down and the risks he takes are typically outweighed by the reward.
His dazzling new alliance with wideout Antonio Brown, receiver of the year so far for my money, gives Pittsburgh breakout potential downfield, while the versatile Le'Veon Bell fuses effective, patient running with versatility as an additional passing outlet.
In short, then, Pittsburgh can move the chains and compete with the Saints even when they're on a going day. Brees to Marques Colston will always be a dangerous combo. Yet with fellow wide man Brandin Cooks out for the season, Brees' options are more limited. Big Ben's got all the guns this time round.
Back Pittsburgh Steelers (-4.5) to win on the Match Points Spread @ 1.991/1 or better
Back Pittsburgh Steelers to win on the Match Moneyline @ 1.51/2 or better
Back Over 29.5 Pittsburgh Steelers Total Points @ 1.9420/21 or better
New England Patriots @ Green Bay Packers
Start-time: Sunday, 21:25
TV: Live on SS2
Somewhat bizarrely, this is the first time that Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have met. Professionally at least. And while we're talking odd firsts, this game also provides another opportunity for Brady to claim his first win on the famous frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.
More predictably, as two of the greatest players to ever start under center, Rodgers and Brady line up for this mouthwatering match at the controls of the two highest scoring sides in the NFL. And while the New England Patriots have edged matters so far, this one should go the way of the Green Bay Packers who have looked awesome in recent weeks. The Pats, however, may be being overrated.
Don't just take my word for it. Wiser to defer to the statistical counsel that is footballoutsiders.com, the revered website for running the numbers on football teams across every component of the game. Agreed, American football and probability theory may never perfectly align. Indeed, the Pats and Brady have been busting FO's foreboding predictions for seven straight weeks!
However, the stats persist that the law of averages alone is about to catch up with Brady's bunch. Unspectacular receivers (Rob Gronkowski a notable exception, but he's a tight end), limited rushers and a permeable secondary are about to be exposed by the best home outfit in the league (five victories this term, including a few landslides).
Rodgers is the triggerman for two rampant receivers Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson (19 TDs combined this season), while last year's rookie of the year Eddie Lacy is warming up nicely after a slow start to the current campaign. A twin threat, both with his dependable backfield gains and progressive adaptability as a back-up receiver, Lacy provides the meat-and-drink to Rodgers' champagne moments.
Brady's roster can't square up man-for-man. And while The Gronk is a man mountain who takes double coverage with him everywhere he roams, Brady will need to be at his precise best to keep pace with Rodgers. Any delays and Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers (The Pack's sack commander) will be all over him amid the cacophony of Lambeau Field. The Patriots' streak ends here.
Back Green Bay Packers (-3) to win on the Match Points Spread @ 1.9520/21 or better
Back Green Bay Packers (-1.5) to win on First Half Points Spread @ 1.664/6 or better
Back Over 30.5 Green Bay Packers Total Points @ 1.9420/21 or better
Back E. Lacy to be First / Anytime Touchdown Scorer 9.08/1 or better
Denver Broncos @ Kansas City Chiefs
Start-time: Monday, 01:30
TV: Live on C4
This isn't an AFC West showdown, but it sure feels like it. The Chargers of San Diego (with games on 14th versus the Broncos, and on 28th against the Chiefs) still have a dog in the play-off fight, although it's looking increasing tame while Philip Rivers hobbles around with sore knees and ribs.
Still, maybe Rivers and his Bolts should take heart. Four-stage neck surgery hasn't seen off Peyton Manning and after a few syntax errors his mind was also back in good working order last week in a comeback blow victory over the useful Miami Dolphins.
Manning may need a little more time on the ball these days, but at 38 there remains a scarcity of evidence that the end is nigh for the legendary quarterback. He holds the career and single-season touchdown records and looked as productive as ever in reeling in the 'Fins with the help of his main man Demaryius Thomas.
While Thomas is definitely Denver's star turn this year on offense, he will be neatly complimented on defense this Sunday night by the return to full health of Brandon Marshall who is "sharp and raring to rejoin" Manning's crack crew.
The Broncos have even discovered a running game with CJ Anderson, restoring equilibrium and order to the play-sheet of co-ordinator Adam Gase. Manning wouldn't normally need listen to his manager, so it is eye-catching (both in terms of respect for Gase and belief in Anderson's ability) that Manning persevered in palming it off to CJ as the clock wound down at Mile High.
Denver now have the ability to control the clock, something the Kansas City Chiefs have also been doing successfully this season via iconic running man Jamaal Charles. This 27-year-old goes from strength to strength but a one-man band quickly gets silenced in this league. And Charles' expected big day out against the previously winless Oakland Raiders ended in complete shutdown and disappointing defeat.
Considering the Broncos' front four are looking increasingly steadfast in their resolve, I doubt whether Kansas can set the edge for Charles to make the mad dashes they need - even at Arrowhead. Across the scrimmage line, the Chiefs' pass rush have also taken some plaudits, but they could be in for a rude awakening now Manning's mob are back at top tempo and properly aligned.
Only Julius Thomas (the NFL's number two tight end behind Gronkowski) is listed as questionable for taking the field with that nagging ankle injury, so Denver's offense will seldom have a better chance to turn the tables and flip the switch on a supposed lights-out D. Back them to set one hand on the divisional title.
Back Denver Broncos (-2.5) to win on the Match Points Spread @ 2.111/10 or better
Back Denver Broncos to win on the Match Moneyline @ 1.9310/11 or better
Back Over 25.5 Denver Broncos Total Points @ 1.9420/21 or better
Back Denver Broncos Touchdown to be First Scoring Play 5.04/1 or better