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Week 9 Sunday Picks: Elite teams, starting with Falcons, looking to set themselves apart

Doug Farrar
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The Falcons and Broncos, who battled in September, are two of the NFL's best teams. (Getty Images)

Denver Broncos at Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals selected Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick with the 17th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, only to watch and wait as the talented defender spent the first half of the season recovering from a knee injury. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer says that Kirkpatrick is a cinch to make his NFL debut against the Broncos, and Zimmer could certainly use him -- and anyone else who can cover. The Bengals currently rank 29th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics against the pass, and their task this Sunday looks just about impossible -- shutting down Peyton Manning, who has been as effective in the last few weeks as he's been at any time in his great career.  Meanwhile, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, who looked great in his rookie season of 2011, is trying to avoid becoming the first signal-caller in team history to throw an interception in each of his first eight games of a season. This would be a perversely impressive accomplishment for a franchise that has counted Akili Smith and David Klingler among its passers. Denver's defense is gaining confidence at the wrong time for Dalton.

Pick: Broncos 35, Bengals 14

Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns

The Ravens had a bye last week, all the better to figure out their issues. Several injuries have left this formerly great defense floundering, but the real story is Baltimore's offensive identity crisis. Against the Houston Texans two weeks ago, three different receivers had more playing time than did fullback Vonta Leach, which indicates a serious change in the way the Ravens have done business. Baltimore's offense used to revolve around multiple blocking concepts and getting the ball to running back Ray Rice. But with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron opening things up in the passing game, Rice is often tasked with pass-blocking, which takes Joe Flacco's most consistent weapon away from him. Rice ranks 20th in carries in the NFL this year, a stat that needs to change if the Ravens have any hope of going deep in the playoffs. As for the Browns, they'll try to use top draft pick Trent Richardson to exploit a Ravens run defense that has been unusually vulnerable of late. This could be a close one, and upset alerts abound.

Pick: Ravens 17, Browns 14

Arizona Cardinals at Green Bay Packers

Last Monday against the San Francisco 49ers, the Arizona Cardinals seemed to want to prove Steve Spurrier's theory that Alabama could hang with the worst NFL teams. Jim Harbaugh's power running game made the Cards look silly, Alex Smith came one pass completion away from setting the NFL record for completion percentage in a single game, and the Arizona "offense" managed just seven yards rushing. If Alex Smith could put a near-all-time beating on this defense, what do you think Aaron Rodgers is going to do to it? Sometimes, this stuff is too easy.

Pick: Packers 37. Cardinals 10

Chicago Bears at Tennessee Titans

If the Titans had the Bears' pass defense, they might be scary. As it is, Tennessee is still on track to become the fourth team in NFL history to give up 500 or more points in a single season, and the problems compound when facing a high-octane offense like Chicago's. The Titans are unable to generate a consistent pass rush (29th in FO's Adjusted Sack Rate metric), which leads to situations in which a vulnerable secondary had to cover opposing receivers far too long. Only the Cardinals' offensive line is worse than Chicago's when it comes to pass protection, and the key to a Titans upset is exploiting that weakness. Offensive tackle Michael Roos is expected to play after an appendectomy stopped his consecutive games streak at 119 last week. Good news for quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, but probably not good enough. Receiver Kenny Britt is unhappy about his targets, tight end Jared Cook expressed interest in a trade before last week's deadline, and you don't want to be in turmoil when facing Chicago's defense.

Pick:  Bears 29, Titans 14

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Joe Philbin has done quite a job in Miami. (Getty Images)

Miami Dolphins at Indianapolis Colts

There's an interesting battle of potential Coach of the Year candidates when these 4-3 teams face off. Miami's Joe Philbin looked overmatched when the Dolphins were featured in "Hard Knocks, but he's got an excellent defense and a surprising rookie quarterback in Ryan Tannehill. Even when Tannehill could not finish last week's game against the New York Jets, backup quarterback Matt Moore came in and helped to engineer a 30-9 beatdown. Meanwhile, Colts interim head coach Bruce Arians has not only installed a very different offense in Indy with a new quarterback; he also took the reins with great sensitivity and authority after Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia. it's kind of a shame that either team has to lose, but we'll take the Dolphins to roll on the road here.

UPDATE: Wait -- Pagano's going to be at Lucas Oil Stadium, per multiple reports. We're not generally into those "Win one for the Gipper" things, but this is a different story.

Pick: Dolphins 17, Colts 13
Pick: Colts 17, Dolphins 13

Carolina Panthers at Washington Redskins

The lead story is the first matchup between Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III, though RG3 would rather be compared to Aaron Rodgers, and Newton would like to be compared to the Newton that shocked the NFL in 2011. Griffin may play as well as Rodgers does someday, but there's only two ways that's going to happen in the near future -- his receivers actually have to catch the damned ball, and he'd have to face his own defense, which is one of the NFL's worst against the pass. The Panthers seemed to rediscover their run game last Sunday, and that should be enough of a difference to give the Panthers the edge. Mitt Romney fans, feel free to rejoice. Steve Smith fantasy players should also feel free to rejoice -- the 'Skins have allowed 114 yards per game to #1 receivers this year.

Pick: Panthers 23, Redskins 21

Detroit Lions at Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars did a pretty impressive job of hanging around with the Green Bay Packers last Sunday, and they now face another NFC North quarterback who has finally found his groove after a rocky start. Matthew Stafford picked apart Seattle's defense with short and intermediate passes as the Seahawks backed off and waited for the big play all day, but if Calvin Johnson is limited due to a knee injury, and Jags quarterback Blaine Gabbert continues his under-the-radar development, we could be looking at this week's upset special.

Pick: Jaguars 27, Lions 20

Buffalo Bills at Houston Texans

Bills defensive end Mario Williams says that he's excited to return to Houston and face his old team; he'll be lucky if anyone on the Texans' staff even remembers him. Williams has pulled quite the disappearing at in Buffalo, while a new Texans like put together by Wade Phillips has been just about unstoppable this season, and second-year tackle J.J. Watt has been playing like a man unhinged. The Bills' defense has been unhinged in a general sense -- they're allowing 177 yards per game on the ground, which should have Arian Foster looking very much forward to gameday. This game should be a rout, and if it's in the Texans' favor as we imagine it will be, the shocking difference in defensive coordinators will be the narrative. While Bills DB Greg Wannstedt struggles to do anything with a line that has as much raw talent as any in the NFL, Phillips has done a masterful job of developing young players and filling injury holes with his schematic brilliance. Look for the Texans to play outside linebacker Brooks Reed inside again, as they did when they waxed the Baltimore Ravens two weeks ago, as a creative replacement for Brian Cushing.

Pick: Texans 41, Bills 21

Minnesota Vikings at Seattle Seahawks

These two teams are built very similarly, with potentially dominant defenses and dynamite run games holding talented but inconsistent young quarterbacks together. Seattle's defense is trying to rebound after the Lions took them to school, and the Vikings' speed-rush front is still trying to figure out what Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin did to it two Thursdays ago. The difference in this game could be the progression of one young quarterback -- Seattle's Russell Wilson -- and the regression of another -- Minnesota's Christian Ponder. While Wilson finally broke out in an offense that had held him back in last week's loss to Detroit, Ponder has thrown for only 309 yards and completed just 52 percent of his passes in the last two weeks. Add in Seattle's home-field advantage, which really helps their inconsistent pass rush, and the injury to underrated Vikings cornerback Chris Cook, and Seattle appears to have the edge here.

Pick: Seahawks 23. Vikings 13

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Oakland Raiders

The Raiders' offense has been stuck in neutral at best all season, but if there's one game in which Carson Palmer should be able to get some sort of passing game going, it would be this one. The Bucs traded suspended cornerback Aqib Talib to the Patriots this week, and bookend Eric Wright -- who's facing his own possible suspension for Adderall use -- has been struggling with an Achilles injury. Doug Martin, who blew up the Vikings' defense in Tampa Bay's October 25 win, will find tougher going without the efforts of left guard Carl Nicks, out for the year with a toe injury. Oakland's receivers have been struggling to stay consistent, but the Raiders' pass defense is coming around a bit after a very rough start. We like the Bucs here, but not by the margin it would have been a month ago.

Pick: Buccaneers 19, Raiders 15

Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants

The three-safety defensive look the Giants used to roll to the Super Bowl in 2011 has disappeared in recent weeks, just as the Giants' defense did for about half the game last Sunday night against the Dallas Cowboys. But with safety Kenny Phillips returning from n MCL injury, expect to see more of the big nickel package defensive coordinator Perry Fewell loves to run. In the meantime, cornerback Stevie Brown, the reigning NFC Defensive Player of the Week, has used his new opportunities to make a major impact. Cut by three different teams before the Giants took him on, Brown now leads the league in takeaways with seven, and the Giants just happen to be 4-0 in the games he's started. The Steelers won't leave for MetLife Stadium until Sunday morning due to logistical issues caused by Hurricane Sandy, but the primarily football-related issue for Ben Roethlisberger will be a Giants secondary that has seen some surprising improvements in recent weeks.

Pick: Giants 29, Steelers 24

Dallas Cowboys at Atlanta Falcons

If the Cowboys had a lick of consistency, they'd be the Falcons. They have the talent, to be sure, but things aren't manifesting themselves on the field. It's Atlanta's Roddy White and Julio Jones, not Dallas' Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, who are proving to be impossible to cover on a consistent basis. It's Matt Ryan of the Falcons, not Dallas' Tony Romo, who is guiding an offense that frustrated opponents with ruthless efficiency. The Falcons play football in ways that seem to escape the notice of those who would prefer to rubberneck around franchise car wrecks, but for those who love it when a plan comes together, this is the team to study. This game will actually rest in the hands of Atlanta's defense, especially its underrated safety corps. Mike Nolan has thrown some very interesting looks at opposing offenses, and fooled quarterbacks who have it a lot more together than Romo does at this point in time.

Pick: Falcons 34, Cowboys 17

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