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9/25/2013
THE FIFTH QUARTER: Seattle is NFC's best through first 3 games

By A.J. JANKOWSKI

Daily News Sports Editor



Not like a win over the NFL’s minor league team (the Jacksonville Jaguars) proves much, but the Seattle Seahawks are the best team in the NFC?through three weeks.

Seattle leads the league in point differential (+59) thanks to a defense that’s every bit as good as it was last year, and a second-year quarterback who appears to have avoided the sophomore slump.

After finishing fourth in quarterback rating as a rookie at an even 100.0, Russell Wilson’s rating sits at 109.6 — third in the league — after three games.

The defense is allowing a paltry 241.7 yards per game — tops in the league — to go along with a total (total!) of 27 points allowed. Seventeen of those 27 points came in the second half last week against Jacksonville after Seattle already had built a 31-0 lead.

Chicago and New Orleans are the other two NFC teams still undefeated, but both come with more question marks than the Seahawks.

Will the Bears offensive line keep Jay Cutler upright and healthy for an entire season? Can the defense continue to cause enough turnovers to conceal the fact it ranks 25th in yards allowed?

The Saints passing game always will be potent, but can an average of 85.7 rushing yards per game be enough to keep opponents guessing? Through Week 3, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees has been sacked more times than in any three-game stretch since he’s arrived on the bayou.

All three are talented teams, and there are still plenty of other contenders in the NFC lurking — including 1-2 teams such as San Francisco, Atlanta and Green Bay.

But these other teams better be able to keep pace with the Seahawks throughout the season for their own sakes, because if Seattle wins home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, it’s game over.

Last week: 7-9

Overall record: 27-21

49ERS (1-2) AT RAMS (1-2)

It’s too early to completely write off the 49ers as title contenders, but there’s no denying that San Fran — always the bully on the block since Jim Harbaugh took over as coach — has been pushed around these past two weeks. First in Seattle, then at home by Indianapolis, the 49ers are a team with injuries at crucial positions and a mobile quarterback that’s being forced to win games from within the pocket.

As hard as it is to imagine San Francisco falling into a 1-3 hole, this is another tough matchup — on the road on a short week against a veteran head coach, Jeff Fisher, who will have his team prepared for Colin Kaepernick’s running ability.

I’m banking on the San Francisco defense to make a play and give the 49ers the win in a very close, very low scoring game.

Prediction: San Francisco 13, St. Louis 6

RAVENS (2-1) AT BILLS (1-2)

The Ravens got back to looking like the team that won Super Bowl XLVII, utilizing opportunistic defense and special teams while quarterback Joe Flacco took care of the football in a win last week over Houston. Now they travel to Orchard Park, N.Y., to face Buffalo and its rookie quarterback EJ Manuel — who played like a rookie in a road loss to the Jets.

While Manuel is going to continue to ebb and flow this year — like rookie QBs tend to do — the Bills need more stability in the running game, especially from CJ Spiller. Spiller is a Pro Bowler who was billed as a potential breakout superstar over the offseason. Last week, he carried the ball 10 times for a grand total of nine yards.

Prediction: Baltimore 25,

Buffalo 13

CARDINALS (1-2) AT

BUCCANEERS (0-3)

It’s do or die time for Tampa Bay and second year head coach Greg Schiano. The team hasn’t won a game, and multiple reports say there’s plenty of turmoil in the locker room.

A strong performance —hey, maybe even a win! — could at least give fans some hope, and might delay the inevitable divorce between Schiano and starting quarterback Josh Freeman.

Prediction: Tampa Bay 17, Arizona 13

STEELERS (0-3) AT VIKINGS (0-3)

Pittsburgh turned the ball over five times in a 40-23 drubbing at the hands of the Bears on national television. Minnesota couldn’t beat Cleveland — at home, nonetheless — even after the Browns traded their best player (Trent Richardson) to the Colts mid-week.

Now these two hapless teams fly to London to play at Wembley Stadium in what likely will amount to a dreadful game. The final might even look like a soccer score.

My apologies to England. First, we rebel and overthrow your government. Now, we force you to watch two of the worst teams the NFL has to offer this year.

But thanks for Daniel Day-Lewis and Mumford and Sons!

Prediction: Pittsburgh 20, Minnesota 12

GIANTS (0-3) AT CHIEFS (3-0)

Surprisingly, the Giants haven’t won a game this year. Even more surprising, the Chiefs have yet to lose.

While Eli Manning continues to struggle — and his offensive line continues to struggle to protect him — Alex Smith has been the epitome of calm, cool and collected for KC.

Smith is 24th in the league in passing yards, but is completing 61 percent of his passes and has not thrown an interception.

Did San Francisco make the right call trading him away in favor of the suddenly vulnerable Kaepernick?

By the way, good luck predicting who wins the NFC East, because not one team has risen to the challenge. Seattle’s 7-9 division-winning season in 2010 doesn’t look so terrible anymore, does it?

Prediction: Kansas City 27, New York 17

COLTS (2-1) AT JAGUARS (0-3)

Yes, the Colts have to go from playing on the West Coast (San Francisco) to the southeastern corner of the country (Jacksonville). Luckily, they’ll have a team from the Arena Football League — both in appearance and ability — lining up against them.

The Seahawks were beating the Jaguars so badly last week, they inserted Mr. Mediocre, Tavaris Jackson, in at quarterback.

He promptly went 7-of-8 passing for 129 yards, a passing touchdown, a rushing touchdown and a perfect passer rating of 158.3.

Prediction: Indianapolis 38, Jacksonville 21

SEAHAWKS (3-0) AT TEXANS (2-1)

The first of back-to-back AFC South road tests comes this week for Seattle, when they head south to Houston to face the Texans. Houston is coming off its first loss of the year, having been humbled and held without a touchdown in Baltimore.

Matt Schaub and Arian Foster both struggled to get going against a depleted Ravens defense. Hard to think they’ll fare much better against a Seahawks team primed to take an early two-game lead in the NFC West.

Prediction: Seattle 24, Houston 10

BENGALS (2-1) AT BROWNS (1-2)

Both teams enter the Battle of Ohio coming off emotionally charged victories. The Bengals — always good within their own division — made a statement by knocking off NFC power Green Bay with a late defensive touchdown.

Cleveland fans thought the Browns were throwing in the towel already when they traded Trent Richardson to the Colts. But the Browns won them back by giving a spirited effort in a 31-27 win over the Vikings.

Unfortunately, it’s back to reality for the Browns and their fans.

Prediction: Cincinnati 30, Cleveland 17

BEARS (3-0) AT LIONS (2-1)

I’ve learned my lesson against picking against Chicago and its opportunistic defense. The Bears forced five turnovers — two of which they returned for touchdowns — in a blowout win over Pittsburgh.

Time and time again this defense converts takeaways into immediate points at an alarming rate. They led the NFL in takeaways last year with 44, and already have forced a league-high 11 turnovers.

Detroit has the talent to hand Chicago its first loss, but the Lions are prone to turnovers, and the Bears will gobble them right up.

Prediction: Chicago 35, Detroit 27

JETS (2-1) AT TITANS (2-1)

Two of the more surprising 2-1 teams in the league, the Jets and Titans have both gotten off to fast starts when compared to expectations, but don’t go betting on these teams just yet. The four teams they’ve beaten have a combined record of 2-10.

In this matchup, I like the Titans, who have yet to turn the football over this season while the Jets have given it away eight times.

Prediction: Tennessee 23, New York 17

WASHINGTON (0-3) AT RAIDERS (1-2)

The Washington defense can’t stop a nose bleed, and Oakland has found itself a budding playmaker in quarterback Terrelle Pryor.

Pryor is questionable for the game with a concussion, but running back Darren McFadden is primed to have a big game against a defense that ranks dead last in yards allowed, and has given up an average of 32.7 points per game.

Prediction: Oakland 31, Washington 28

EAGLES (1-2) AT BRONCOS (3-0)

Philadelphia has the explosive offense necessary to put up points on Denver, but the Eagles give up 438 yards per game — which doesn’t bode well when facing the best quarterback in the league.

Peyton Manning is on pace to shatter every significant single-season passing record, and while the Law of Averages says he’ll cool off, the over-abundance of talent surrounding him is a strong counterargument.

Prediction: Denver 38, Philadelphia 28

COWBOYS (2-1) AT CHARGERS (1-2)

Dallas is the lone team in the NFC East with a winning record, but you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who can say with any certainty that the Cowboys are the real deal.

Dallas looked great at home last week against St. Louis, but a road game on the West Coast is a different task — although San Diego is one of the more hospitable places for traveling teams to play.

This game comes down to whichever quarterback, Tony Romo or Phillip Rivers, limits the bone-headed mistakes that have plagued both their careers.

Prediction: San Diego 30, Dallas 27

PATRIOTS (3-0) AT FALCONS (1-2)

Let’s be honest: New England most definitely should be 3-0 right now. The Patriots have had one of the easier schedules out of the gate, facing Buffalo, the Jets and Tampa Bay — all played in the Northeast.

Now, New England heads to Atlanta to face the Falcons — a team many expected to contend for NFC supremacy, but has stumbled in losses to New Orleans and Miami.

I think the Falcons get back on track at home against a Patriots team that isn’t what it used to be.

As long as we’re being honest: Sunday night is all about the Breaking Bad series finale, not football. (But I’ll tread lightly and keep those predictions to myself.)

Prediction: Atlanta 24, New England 20

DOLPHINS (3-0) AT SAINTS (3-0)

Both teams are well on their way to proving the haters wrong. Few thought Miami could back up its expensive free agent class, yet sophomore quarterback Ryan Tannehill has been stupendous and the new pieces are fitting in. The Saints had to play last season without their head coach after the NFL suspended him, and are exacting revenge on the rest of the league.

New Orleans always comes alive when hosting night games, and Monday night should not be any different.

Prediction: New Orleans 28, Miami 14