While Sunday once again leaves NFL fans with a dearth of games between two quality teams, at least there are several competitive matchups involving a pair of clubs fighting for a playoff berth. Leading up to Sunday night’s highly anticipated game between the Patriots and Broncos, the only afternoon game between a pair of teams with winning records is Minnesota at Atlanta. However, with the exception of ESPN’s odious foistering of Baltimore at Cleveland Monday night, almost all of the of the other games should be competitive and entertaining; the Steelers-Seahawks, Bills-Chiefs and Bucs-Colts are among those that could be compelling games well worth watching.
4-6 New Orleans Saints at 5-5 Houston Texans, early game on FOX; Joe Davis, David Diehl
Broadcast in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and southeastern Texas
Texans -3 (opened at -3) . . . . over/under 47½ . . . . Hou -155, NO +135
The reeling Saints make a short trip to Houston to face the resurgent Texans in an early inter-conference game Sunday. New Orleans has been on a roller coaster this season, winning three straight to climb back into playoff contention after a 1-4 start – and then allowing an abominable 81 points in back-to-back losses to lowly Tennessee and Washington. Meanwhile the Texans have regrouped after a 44-26 loss at Miami, winning three in a row while holding those opponents to a mere 29 points during the current streak.
I wouldn’t expect the defensive coordinator change from Rob Ryan to Dennis Allen to make a bit of a difference. The Saints don’t have the personnel to create pressure on the opposing quarterback, and bringing extra pass rushers could lead to a big game for WR DeAndre Hopkins. New Orleans will use CB Delvin Breaux on Hopkins, but this is a huge mismatch. Breaux didn’t fare well against Odell Beckham (8 catches, 130 yards, 3 TD) or T.Y. Hilton (4/150/2), and Hopkins burnt Darrelle Revis last week to the tune of five receptions for 118 yards and two touchdowns; in his last eight games Hopkins has 62 catches for 894 yards and seven touchdowns. The New Orleans defense ranks dead last with 31.5 points allowed per game; CB Brandon Browner has blown coverage multiple times, slot corner Kyle Wilson is still the same draft bust he was with the Jets, and the tackling by defenders like Jairus Byrd has been sub-par. In the last three games the Saints have turned the ball over six times while forcing just two turnovers; meanwhile the Houston defense has seven takeaways in their last three games and 11 in the last five.
Prediction: Texans 30, Saints 21
Pick: Texans -3 (one unit) . . . . over 47½ . . . . Texans -155
7-3 Minnesota Vikings at 6-4 Atlanta Falcons, early game on FOX; Kevin Burkhardt, John Lynch
Broadcast in Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, northern and eastern Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, Chicago IL and Knoxville TN
Falcons -2 (opened at -3) . . . . over/under 45½ . . . . Atl -120, Min +100
After winning five in a row the Vikings were brought back to earth last week, losing 30-13 to Green Bay; Minnesota looks to rebound and take advantage of the Packers loss to the Bears Thursday when they travel to Atlanta to face the slumping Falcons. Atlanta won their first five games of the year but has lost four of the last five – none against a team with a winning record – losing close games that they were winning in September.
Devonta Freeman has been ruled out, which means Tevin Coleman will likely start at running back for Atlanta. Coleman disappointed last week, losing a fumble and averaging a mere 2.8 yards per carry against a below-average Colt run defense. Expect Falcon WR Julio Jones (NFL-best 8.9 catches and 118.9 receiving yards per game) to test CB Xavier Rhodes, who has been a disappointment this year. This game will hinge on how well Adrian Peterson (league-best 101 yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry) fares against an Atlanta run defense that ranks third in the NFL, allowing just 3.55 yards per carry.
Prediction: Vikings 24, Falcons 21
Pick: Vikings +2 (one unit) . . . . under 45½ . . . . Vikings +100
4-6 St. Louis Rams at 8-2 Cincinnati Bengals, early game on FOX; Thom Brennaman, Charles Davis
Broadcast in Colorado, Illinois (except Chicago), Kentucky, Missouri (except Kansas City), Ohio, West Virginia, Wyoming, Boston MA, Pittsburgh PA and Providence RI
Bengals -9 (opened at -7) . . . . over/under 42 . . . . Cin -450, StL +350
St. Louis has been schizophrenic this year, beating Arizona and Seattle but losing to three teams with losing records – including last week’s loss to injury-depleted Baltimore. The Bengals were the team du jour when they won their first eight games, but lost a WTF game to Houston before dropping a three-point thriller at Arizona last week. The dysfunctional St. Louis offense returns to Nick Foles at quarterback by default, as Case Keenum has not passed concussion protocol – something noticed by everyone watching the game last week except Jeff Fisher and the NFL officials.
St. Louis will pound the rock with rookie RB phenom Todd Gurley (5.0 yards per carry, 96.9 yards rushing per game, 113 yards from scrimmage per game), but Cincinnati has vastly improved their run defense since LB Vontaze Burfict was activated from PUP four games ago. The Bengal defense is allowing opponents to rush for just 3.18 yards per carry over the last three games and have not allowed a rushing touchdown since October 18. Giovanni Bernard (146 yards from scrimmage on 14 touches last week) has flourished since replacing Jeremy Hill as the starting running back, and TE Tyler Eifert (43 receptions, 11 TD) takes pressure off WR AJ Green (84.8 yards receiving per game) in the passing game for Cincy. The Rams drop to 1-5 on the road and their playoff hopes dim.
Prediction: Bengals 24, Rams 16
Pick: Rams +9 . . . . under 42 (one unit) . . . . Rams +350
5-5 Tampa Bay Bucs at 5-5 Indianapolis Colts, early game on FOX; Dick Stockton, Matt Millen
Broadcast in Indiana and Florida (except Jacksonville, Miami and West Palm Beach)
Colts -3 (opened at -3½) . . . . over/under 46½ . . . . Ind -150, TB +130
The Bucs and Colts are both gunning for their third straight win to put them over.500 – though in Tampa Bay’s case they are doing much better than expected, while the Colts are one of the NFL’s biggest underachievers in 2015. Last week Doug Martin ran for 235 yards and Jameis Winston threw five touchdowns as Tampa Bay crushed the Eagles in Philly, while the Colts outscored the Falcons 24-7 over the final 32 minutes to come from behind and win at Atlanta.
In the last three games the Buc defense has allowed only four passing touchdowns while picking off six passes, allowing opponents to average just 6.0 yards per pass. Matt Hasselbeck is 3-0 as a starter this year, but LT Anthony Castonzo is out and RB Frank Gore (knee) is not 100%. Tampa Bay has had a big boost with the return of Vincent Jackson to the lineup; couple that with Colt injuries to safety Mike Adams (ankle, doubtful) and corner Greg Toler (questionable, groin), and there is an opportunity for Tampa Bay’s offense to have a big game. I just don’t know if this Bucs team can handle success, and it is extremely difficult for average teams to win consecutive road games.
Prediction: Bucs 24, Colts 20
Pick: Bucs +3 (one unit) . . . . under 46½ . . . . Bucs +130
5-5 New York Giants at 4-6 Washington Redskins, early game on FOX; Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston
Broadcast in New England (except Boston and Providence), DC, Maryland, New Mexico, New York (except Buffalo), North Carolina (except Charlotte), Oklahoma, Pennsylvania (except Pittsburgh), northern and western Texas, Virginia, Los Angeles CA, West Palm Beach FL, Las Vegas NV and Memphis TN
Giants -2½ (opened as pick’em) . . . . over/under 47½ . . . . NYG -145, Was +125
Does anybody want to win the NFC East? The Giants have had the division handed to them on a platter, but have not won consecutive games since week five; Washington has yet to win back-to-back games this year. Neither team has a good defense (the two are tied for 24th, allowing 25.3 points per game), but at least the G-Men can pass the ball. New York’s defense is improving somewhat, with DE Jason Pierre-Paul back for his third game of the year, CB Prince Amukamara (pectoral) returning for his first game since October 11, and DE Robert Ayers and LB Devon Kennard healthy after having a bye week to heal hamstring injuries.
Washington CB Chris Culliver is out for the season and beyond with a torn ACL and MCL suffered in practice this week, meaning an over the hill DeAngelo Hall will have to start on the outside at corner. Odell Beckham and Reuben Randle should have no problem taking advantage of matchups against Hall and CB Bashaud Breeland, who is questionable after dealing with the flu.
Prediction: Giants 35, Skins 27
Pick: Giants -2½ (two units) . . . . over 47½ (two units) . . . . Giants -145
4-6 Oakland Raiders at 2-8 Tennessee Titans, early game on CBS; Greg Gumbel, Trent Green
Broadcast in Alaska, northern California, Hawaii, Idaho, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, Washington, Tucson AZ, Tupelo MS and Reno NV
Raiders -1 (opened at -1½) . . . . over/under 44½ . . . . Oak -120, Ten +100
Four weeks ago Oakland beat the Jets by 14 points to improve to 4-3, and folks started using the words ‘Raiders’ and ‘playoffs’ in the same sentence. Since then the Silver and Black have lost three straight and now find themselves tenth overall in the AFC, tied with the Jaguars and Dolphins at 4-6. Oakland has struggled all year on defense, and allowed Detroit to move the ball 80 yards in nine plays for the go-ahead score last week. The run defense in particular has been atrocious; in their last three games Oakland’s opponents have rushed for 567 yards, averaging 6.0 yards per carry. The losses of DE Justin Tuck (pectoral), LB Neiron Ball (knee) and LB Aldon Smith have made an already mediocre defensive unit a complete sieve.
Tennessee may be figuring that if they could beat the defensively-challenged Saints, then they could repeat that result against the Raiders. The Titan defense hasn’t been bad – they have held opponents to 20 or fewer points five times this year – but their offense is just plain sad. Interim head coach Mike Mularkey has shuffled the offensive line in an attempt to give QB Marcus Mariota better protection, but the four sacks allowed last week upped Tennessee’s total to 33 on the season, fourth worst in the NFL.
Prediction: Raiders 27, Titans 24
Pick: Raiders -1 . . . . over 44½ . . . . Raiders -120
5-5 Buffalo Bills at 5-5 Kansas City Chiefs, early game on CBS; Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon
Broadcast in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, western New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wyoming, Grand Rapids MI, Las Vegas NV, Richmond VA
Chiefs -5½ (opened at -3½) . . . . over/under 41½ . . . . KC -260, Buf +220
The Chiefs have rebounded from a brutal early schedule that resulted in a 1-5 start, winning four straight to even their record at 5-5. KC currently owns the final seed in the AFC playoff picture thanks to a tenacious defense and an offense that has been relatively effective despite the loss of RB Jamaal Charles. During their winning streak the Chiefs have not turned the ball over once while the defense has forced 12 takeaways, and over the last six games they have a plus-14 turnover differential (15:1).
The Buffalo defense suffered a setback as DT Kyle Williams is out for the season with a knee injury and DE Mario Williams will miss the game with a foot injury; no word yet on whether or not unbiased ESPN analyst Ray Lewis will deliver another motivational speech to the Bills. Meanwhile the NFL has wielded its heavy hand and ordered a Buffalo-area drive-in to stop showing Bills games for free. This was based on a rule that games cannot be shown on ‘television screens which are not commonly used at home‘ (though it is okay for the Bills’ owners to show games on a 38-foot screen at a bar they own), and because it could deprive the local affiliate of viewers (even though the drive-in was televising the local broadcast, with all their commercials). QB Tyrod Taylor has not been productive since returning from his early season knee injury but will play despite last week’s shoulder injury.
Prediction: Chiefs 27, Bills 17
Pick: Chiefs -5½ . . . . over 41½ . . . . Bills +220
4-6 Miami Dolphins at 5-5 New York Jets, early game on CBS; Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts
Broadcast in New England, Alabama, Florida (except Jacksonville), Georgia (except Atlanta and Savannah), Illinois, Indiana (except Indianapolis), Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan (except Grand Rapids), Minnesota, Mississippi (except Tupelo), North Carolina, Ohio (except Tennessee), Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas (except Houston), Virginia (except Richmond), West Virginia, Wisconsin, Albany NY and New York City
Jets -3½ (opened at -4½) . . . . over/under 42½ . . . . NYJ -190, Mia +170
The last time these two teams met it resulted in Miami head coach Joe Philbin being fired. Since then the Dolphins are 3-3 but have lost three of their last four; injuries have decimated the Jets and they are 2-4 since that game, losing four of their last five. Considering the slump, this sure seems like an odd time for the Fins to raise ticket prices and demand that their fans plunk down a financial commitment to the 2016 season, a week before Christmas.
RB Chris Ivory has not put up the numbers he did early in the season ever since the Patriots stuffed him in week seven, but he has been more productive of late. In the last two games Ivory has averaged 4.50 and 5.50 yards per carry, and the return of Bilal Powell as the third down back from an ankle injury should bolster the Jet offense. While New York’s 6’5″ WR Brandon Marshall should have a decided advantage over 5’9″ CB Brent Grimes, Miami QB Ryan Tannehill will not have to contend with Jet CB Darrelle Revis, who is out due to a concussion. The Jets will honor RB Emerson Boozer by finally inducting him to their Ring of Honor – though teammate Matt Snell will still have nothing to do with the Jets.
Prediction: Jets 27, Dolphins 20
Pick: Jets -3½ (one unit) . . . . over 42½ . . . . Jets -190
2-8 San Diego at 4-6 Jacksonville Jaguars, early game on CBS; Spero Dedes, Solomon Wilcots
Broadcast in southern California, Savannah GA and Jacksonville FL
Jaguars -4½ (opened at -1½) . . . . over/under 46½ . . . . Jax -220, SD +180
Since suffering a pair of terrible early season losses – a 34-point blowout to the Patriots in week three, followed by a 3-point overtime loss at Indy thanks to two missed field goals – the Jaguars surprisingly have not thrown in the towel. Jacksonville has since then shown a trait of a good team, winning close games: the three wins in their last four games have been by 3, 2 and 6 points. RB T.J. Yeldon is averaging 4.0 yards per carry and 82 yards from scrimmage per game; he could be in for his third 100-yard rushing game of his rookie season. San Diego ranks 31st against the run, allowing 4.9 yards per carry, and NT Sean Lissemore is questionable.
Charger players have suffered an NFL-high twelve concussions this season, including ones by Lissemore, RG D.J. Fluker (his second this year) and safety Jahleel Addae last week. DT Corey Liuget is questionable (foot) and FS Eric Weddle is dealing with a groin injury; the San Diego defense is now giving the offensive line a run for their money with injuries. The Charger OL has dealt with injuries all year, and LT King Dunlap is expected to miss another game with an ankle injury. It’s amazing that QB Philip Rivers has been able to battle through all the hits he takes due to lack of protection, and still be highly productive. However, I’ll take the team on the rise playing at home over the team in decline traveling from the west coast to play an early game.
Prediction: Jaguars 28, Chargers 21
Pick: Jaguars -4½ . . . . over 46½ . . . . Chargers +180
8-2 Arizona Cardinals at 3-7 San Francisco 49ers, late game on FOX; Chris Myers, Ronde Barber
Broadcast in Arizona, California (except Los Angeles), Hawaii, Jacksonville FL, Miami FL, Kansas City MO, Reno NV, Buffalo NY and Nashville TN
Cardinals -10 (opened at -8) . . . . over/under 44½ . . . . Ari -550, SF +425
Division rivalry games are usually close, but in week three Arizona crushed the Niners 47-7, limiting San Fran to ten first downs and 156 total yards of offense while forcing four turnovers.
San Francisco ranks 32nd in the NFL with 13.9 points scored per game; Arizona is first with 33.6. Even though there may be a letdown after beating the Bengals and having to play on the road for the third time in their last four games, the Cardinals are not going to blow an easy opportunity to stay ahead of the Vikings for a bye in the NFC – though they may coast on auto-pilot in the second half.
Prediction: Cardinals 28, Niners 13
Pick: Cardinals -10 (two units) . . . . under 44½ . . . . 49ers +425
6-4 Pittsburgh Steelers at 5-5 Seattle Seahawks, late game on CBS; Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
Broadcast in all markets except SF/Oakland
Seahawks -3½ (opened at -3½) . . . . over/under 45½ . . . . Sea -185, Pit +165
If not for the Patriots playing Denver, this would appear to be the best game of the week. Seattle is one game behind Atlanta for the final wild card spot in the NFC, while Pittsburgh is clinging on to a one-game lead over four teams for the top wild card slot in the AFC.
This game should hinge on Seattle’s power rushing game versus Pittsburgh’s stout run defense, but there is a change in the name of the lead role. Marshawn Lynch is out after undergoing sports hernia surgery and may have played his last game as a Seahawk; undrafted rookie free agent Thomas Rawls has taken over and outperformed Beast Mode. The Central Michigan product is averaging 6.0 yards per carry and has rushed for over 100 yards three times this year, including 209 yards last week against the Niners.
Seattle’s run defense is still very good (3.7 ypc, 96 ypg), but their pass rush has regressed considerably. Even if Richard Sherman neutralizes Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger still has plenty of weapons to spread the ball around: WR Martavis Bryant, TE Heath Miller, RB DeAngelo Williams, WR Markus Wheaton and WR Darrius Heyward-Bey. Sherman is still very good, but he can’t be everywhere.
Prediction: Steelers 24. Seahawks 20
Pick: Steelers +3½ . . . . under 45½ . . . . Steelers +165
10-0 New England Patriots at 8-2 Denver Broncos, Sunday night on NBC; Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth
Broadcast in all markets
Patriots -2½ (opened at -5½) . . . . over/under 43½ . . . . NE -145, Den +125
Denver will start Brock Osweiler, which is actually a positive for the Broncos based on how bad Peyton Manning has been this year. The New England rush defense has come around after a slow start, and Denver has been ineffective all year running the ball. The Patriots are counting on putting Osweiler in difficult down and distance situations, which could lead to three-and-outs and turnovers.
On offense the Pats are in a very tough position, playing one of the NFL’s best defenses on the road without three of their top playmakers: Dion Lewis, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. It is very difficult to run on the Broncos (3.5 yards per carry), and Denver will surely double or even triple up on Rob Gronkowski. The Pats will need for wide receivers Brandon Lafell, Keshawn Martin and Chris Harper to step up to have a chance – and for the defense to come up with key stops and some takeaways.
Prediction: Patriots 20, Broncos 19
Pick: Broncos +2½ . . . . under 43½ . . . . Patriots -145
2-8 Baltimore Ravens at 3-7 Cleveland Browns, Monday night on ESPN; Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden
Broadcast in all markets
Browns -3 (opened as pick’em) . . . . over/under 41½ . . . . Cle -160, Bal +140
The Ravens are without so many starters on offense it is easier to list who is still available rather than count how many are out. Johnny Manziel has drank and lied away his job as starting quarterback for Cleveland, so Josh McCown once again gets the start for the Browns. Cleveland’s defense is pretty bad (27.7 points per game, 407 yards per game, 4.6 yards per rush), but I don’t see anybody available on Baltimore’s roster that can exploit that deficiency.
Prediction: Browns 13, Ravens 9
Pick: Browns -3 . . . . under 41½ (three units) . . . . Ravens +140
As always, here is a comparison of the odds for the week 12 NFL games from back in April when the league’s schedule was released. Note the swing in the Packers-Cowboys, Chargers-Jaguars, Bucs-Colts and Dolphins-Jets games.
Panthers at Cowboys (-4½)
Eagles at Lions (-2)
Bears at Packers (-7½)
Vikings at Falcons (-1½)
Cardinals at 49ers (-2)
Steelers at Seahawks (-5½)
Saints at Texans (-2)
Buccaneers at Colts (-9½)
Chargers (-4½) at Jaguars
Raiders at Titans (-2)
Patriots at Broncos (-2½)
Bills at Chiefs (-2½)
Dolphins (-1½) at Jets
Rams at Bengals (-2½)
Giants (-1) at Redskins
Ravens (-3) at Browns