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Mondesi: Previewing the Top 5 Games This Weekend

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Last week’s picks in one word: HORRIBLE. I was 1-4. You were 2-3. We have virtually nowhere to go but up. Here is our salvation: Browns-Steelers, Pitt-Syracuse, Ohio State-Wisconsin, Cowboys-Vikings, and Ravens-Pats. I know you have it in you. I’m kinda skeptical about my ability to bounce back. But enough chit-chat…let’s get to the games:

1. Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, 1 PM

Line: Steelers (-13)

The Skinny: Cleveland is “definitely” starting rookie Colt McCoy at QB, and if the Steelers’ defense isn’t downright giddy with excitement after that announcement, someone should check each and every one of their pulses.

In addition to the mismatch of a rookie quarterback in a weak offense getting his first start on the road against the league’s best defense, we have one other storyline that might get mentioned a time or 50,000: the first regular-season game Ben Roethlisberger’s played in since January, 2010.

Yes, emotions will be running high, the Steelers will be rested and ready to go after a bye week, and Cleveland by all means should be walking directly into a firestorm. This is a Pittsburgh team whose opponents have the highest winning percentage in the NFL (the Falcons, Ravens, Bucs, and Titans are a combined 14-5), and they essentially could have been 4-0 in lieu of a two-time Super Bowl winning signal caller. Getting Roethlisberger back is such a boost to the offense that some have wondered if they might run the table and finish 15-1 this season.

You can’t go 15-1 without beating Cleveland twice, and that starts on Sunday. Don’t forget, the Browns, as a 1-11 team, beat the Steelers last December, so it’s not totally impossible. It’s important for the players not to be too overconfident, but let’s just say that I really like the Steelers’ odds in light of McCoy getting the start.

My Pick: Steelers 31, Browns 6

Your Pick:

2. Pitt Panthers at Syracuse Orange, Saturday, 12 PM

Line: Pick ‘Em

The Skinny: It sounds ridiculous to say out loud (or write), but this is a must-win for Pitt. With all that’s gone on this year, from the injuries to the arrests to the big losses to the disappointing seasons of big-name players, a loss to Syracuse could be a tipping point of bad momentum for Dave Wannstedt’s fragile team. And it could absolutely happen.

Pitt’s handled Syracuse of late, winning five in a row. But despite a lousy out-of-conference schedule, the Orange come into this game 4-1, including a win in their Big East opener against South Florida. They have a decent RB in Delone Carter (104.8 YPG) and for a change, they’re brimming with confidence. This used to be a powerful program that produced NFL stars (Donovan McNabb, Marvin Harrison, etc) before they became a doormat. I’m hoping they don’t use the Pitt game as a springboard back to some level of respectability.

Meanwhile, the Panthers come into this game with a 2-3 record, losing every game they’ve played against quality opponents in 2010. Although they did drop the winnable Notre Dame contest, there were some minor signs of progress made, including a defense that limited the Irish to six second-half points and signs of life from the passing game, specifically Tino Sunseri (272 yards, 1 TD/1 INT) and Jon Baldwin (9-111-1).

Rather than dwell on the many negatives of last week (digging a 17-3 halftime hole, lousy special teams, shaky pass defense, etc), I’m hopeful the Panthers can build on those few aforementioned positives. But just be warned that this has “Trap Game” written all over it. Think about it: Pitt and Syracuse is a pick-‘em game, according to Vegas. There’s a sentence I never envisioned writing in 2010. But that should give you an idea of how perceptions have changed with these programs.

Nonetheless, the Panthers will have to have their heads screwed on straight on Saturday unless they want their season to careen even more out of control than it already has. I think they pull it out, but honestly, I’m not 100% on that.

My Pick: Pitt 20, Syracuse 16

Your Pick:

3. Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots, Sunday, 1 PM

Line: New England (-3)

The Skinny: The Patriots will be playing their first game sans Randy Moss in 2010, although you can make the argument that that’s already happened with his less-than-inspired play in the early part of the season. In addition to making a statement that they don’t need Moss to be successful, the Pats have the added motivation of avenging a savage playoff beatdown at the hands of the Ravens last season in which they fell into a 24-0 first quarter hole. I’m willing to bet that Mr. Belichick and several of his players haven’t forgotten that embarrassment.

In addition, the Patriots have had an extra week to prepare, they’ve got the home-field advantage, and the Ravens might be without Haloti Ngata and/or Ray Rice, both downgraded to questionable on Thursday. So even if they do play, it doesn’t sound like they’ll be 100%.

The Ravens have been impressive thus far in 2010, but Joe Flacco still has more interceptions than touchdowns, a trend that will have to reverse itself sooner rather than later if this team wants to contend.

I don’t see that trend starting on Sunday, as Brady bests the former Pitt QB while posting the best numbers yet in 2010 against a Ravens pass defense that was lit up for 304 yards and 2 TDs by Kyle Orton last week. And for Brady (and Belichick), doing it without Moss will make the feat all the more enjoyable.

My Pick: New England 24, Baltimore 20

Your Pick:

4. Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, 4:15 PM

Line: Vikings (-1.5)

The Skinny: Believe it or not, one of these teams’ seasons will probably be over after this one is decided. Both franchises are struggling at 1-3, and a 1-4 start might as well bury either one of them.

Storylines are a-plenty in this one, with Brett Favre/Jenn Sterger and Brett Favre/Brett Favre’s Elbow dominating the headlines. Add in the wild card that is Randy Moss, an undisciplined Dallas team with sky-high expectations, and a rematch of the playoff game won 34-3 by the Vikings, and you’ve got yourself a downright intriguing matchup of 1-3 teams, if that’s possible.

The Vikings have struggled early in the 2010 campaign, but they were moving the ball with ease in the second half against the Jets on Monday night. That’s not exactly an easy thing to pull off, especially on the road with a new wide receiver and rainy conditions. Given another week to prepare, I fully expect the Moss-Favre investment to pay some dividends for Brad Childress’ squad. And if not, depending on how injured he really is, a 1-4 start coupled with the Sterger scandal could be enough to convince Favre to pack it in for good. How about that for a storyline?

Unfortunately, Favre haters will have Brett to kick around for at least another week, because I see the Cowboys of being more than capable of melting down first on Sunday. I’m still amazed at how Wade Phillips still has a job, but hey, that’s Jerry Jones’ problem, not ours. Although a loss in this game might mean Wade’s time in Dallas is closer to the end than the beginning.

My Pick: Vikings 27, Cowboys 20

Your Pick:

5. Ohio State Buckeyes at Wisconsin Badgers, Saturday, 7 PM

Line: OSU (-6.5)

The Skinny: Is Ohio State deserving of the nation’s #1 ranking? They’ll get their first chance to make their case in a Big 10 clash at Wisconsin on Saturday night, where the Badgers are 40-4 since 2004 and 25-3 in their last 28 night games.

Wisconsin will lean on Senior QB Scott Tolzien and the two-headed rushing attack of John Clay (692 yards, 9 TD) and James White (485 yards, 8 TD) to hold their own against Terrelle Pryor and the Buckeye offense, the sixth-highest scoring unit in the country. And while we’re talking rankings, the Buckeye D hasn’t been shabby either, also coming in sixth in the nation – in points against.

Outside of the Miami Hurricanes, OSU’s six wins this season include a lot of Marshalls, Eastern Michigans, and Ohios. Beating Wisconsin will make a statement not only in the hierarchy of the Big 10, but also to the doubters skeptical that this team can win out and hold onto their top ranking. Because of their early-season sked, the Buckeyes are ranked 5th in early BCS projections, but a win in these circumstances should go a long way in fixing that problem.

I think despite the unfriendly confines of Camp Randall stadium, the Buckeyes will pull out a close victory via the arm (and legs) of Pryor. For the Badgers, there’s no shame in that – they certainly wouldn’t be the first team victimized by the Jeannette product – but there would be a lot of disappointment, as a loss would probably ruin any hopes they had of winning the conference in 2010.

My Pick: Ohio State 27, Wisconsin 24

Your Pick:

My picks: 1-4 last week, 14-11 season (.560)

Your picks (via polls): 2-3  last week, 16-9 season (.640)

Don Spagnolo is the founder of the Pittsburgh sports and entertainment blog Mondesi’s House.

He can be reached via email at Don.Spagnolo@cbsradio.com and on Twitter @mondesishouse

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