The homestretch of the regular season is upon us.
Thanksgiving signals the start to the real season in the NFL. By now every team’s identity is what it is. There are few surprises after 12 weeks so picking games should be slightly easier. Picking early in the season is always tough because you never know how a team will perform. For example the Panthers were bonafide locks more times than not last year. Using that thinking a lot of people probably trusted them early in the season when they should have bet against them. Conversely the Titans were not a hot team to pick coming off an abysmal 2015 season, but have been one of the more consistent teams this season in terms of covering the spread.
For these final five weeks don’t overthink these picks. Don’t even worry about home and away if you know one team is good and the other has been wishy washy. By now you should know to stay away from games featuring two bad teams (i.e. 49ers vs. Bears) and should double down on teams fighting for a playoff spot versus teams that look like they packed it in for the year (i.e. Redskins vs. Cardinals). With that in mind let’s take a look at what Week 13 has in store for us. Home teams are in CAPS.
Cowboys (-3.5) over VIKINGS
It’s crazy how important timing is. Had this game come up a month ago it’d be a Vikings lock. Sam Bradford was playing well and no one was touching the defense. The defense is still solid, but the offense and the special teams fell off a cliff at some point and it might be too late to recover. Bradford threw the game and first place away on Thanksgiving with one of the more puzzling interceptions of the season. Why didn’t he just sit on the ball and play for overtime? Why were the Vikings even tied with the inferior Lions? These are the questions that have kept Mike Zimmer up at night. Looking ahead to the rookie phenoms Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott won’t help cure Zimmer’s sleep problems.
The Cowboys also played on Thanksgiving, but they actually won their game. Facing the rival Redskins the Cowboys secured win number ten in a row, a franchise record, and did it with dominant offense. Prescott and Zeke have had an effect on the veterans particularly Dez Bryant. After Josh Norman had his way with Dez last season it was time for payback. The stat sheet might not say it, but Dez served Norman a big plate of humble pie that included a game-sealing catch near the goal line that set up a score. This week Dez will draw the top corner in the league this season Xavier Rhodes. Even if Dez is taken out of the equation the Vikings offense can’t stay on the field and if time of possession favors the Cowboys expect a heavy dose of Zeke with some Dak sprinkled in.
Prediction: Cowboys 21, Vikings 13
Chiefs (+4) over FALCONS
Are the Falcons pretenders or contenders? Judging from last week it looks like the dirty birds are back in the title picture. They are currently first in the NFC South with only the Buccaneers on their tail and have an easy schedule after this tilt with the Chiefs. Matt Ryan has continued his resurgent season, leading the offense to a 38-point outburst that put the Cardinals out of their misery. What made the win so impressive was that no one on the Falcons had a particularly remarkable day. Julio Jones had 4 receptions for 35 yards. They will need Julio to play big in this one because the Chiefs cannot afford to lose.
Last week’s game in Denver was one of the best of the year. The Chiefs stormed back late thanks to Tyreek Hill’s coming out party. Hill scored three touchdowns in three different ways (punt return, rushing, and receiving) including the game-tying touchdown with seconds left in regulation. With no Jamaal Charles and Spencer Ware coming back to earth Hill could be the Swiss army knife De’Anthony Thomas never materialized into. On defense is where the Chiefs will win this game. Justin Houston is back and coming off a three sack performance. The Falcons have kept Ryan upright this season, but this week they face their toughest test with a healthy Houston and Tamba Hali screaming off the edges. How this game turns out is still up in the air, but it should go down to the wire.
Prediction: Chiefs 27, Falcons 24
Lions (+6) over SAINTS
Who saw the Lions in first place heading into the home stretch of the season? They are officially a Ewing Theory team and Matthew Stafford is a surefire MVP candidate. He has replaced the legend Calvin Johnson with a cast of characters headlined by Theo Riddick, Eric Ebron, and Anquan Boldin (steal of the offseason?). They’re 7-4 and in complete control of their destiny. Stafford has the skill and weapons to keep up with Drew Brees and his aerial assault, but the Lions defense may not be up for the task. The Lions are 2-3 on the road this season and will be in one of the more hostile stadiums in the league.
The Rams left the Superdome feeling dazed and confused after a 49-21 thrashing. Brees and the Saints were down 14-7 to Jared Goff before they went on a tear that is usually reserved for Madden. When Brees wasn’t playing 7-on-7 with the Rams secondary Mark Ingram was gashing the front seven. Brees finished with 310 yards and four touchdowns, Willie Snead even threw a touchdown, and Ingram ran for 146 yards plus a score. Chasing the Falcons and Buccaneers should be motivation enough for another big Saints explosion. This will come down to the Lions keeping up with the Saints not the other way around.
Prediction: Lions 31, Saints 34
PATRIOTS (-13) over Rams
How did the Patriots not cover against the tanking Jets is anyone’s guess, but they return to the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium and get an easy opponent. The Rams have not proven they can score more than 14 points consistently even with a real quarterback. Jared Goff is certainly better than Case Keenum so it is better to lose and develop him rather than lose with him holding a clipboard. Goff will likely come out on the losing end again this week, but will get the opportunity to watch the best quarterback of all time up close and study how he carries himself on the field.
Tom Brady has ascended to the level of greatness where even his rivals admire how good he is. Last week’s game never felt in jeopardy of being lost because everyone knew when the Patriots needed that game-winning drive Brady will somehow deliver. The Jets hung tough with their rival, but Brady was able to prevail even without Rob Gronkowski on the field. The Rams are good up front, but nothing compared to what the Jets trotted out last week. There is usually one home game a year the Patriots come out flat and that happened in Week 4 against the Bills. This would be the game to sleep through if you are a Rams fan in LA.
Prediction: Rams 14, Patriots 31
Broncos (-5) over JAGUARS
Maybe the Jaguars are destined to lose forever. They played well last week yet gave up the big play (LeSean McCoy 75 yard touchdown run) that ended up being the deciding factor. Blake Bortles did not cost the Jaguars the game (or turn the ball over) for once and Marquise Lee has started to look like the receiver many thought he’d be coming out of USC. The problem with the Jaguars is that they never gel at once. Either the offense is in sync while the defense sputters or the defense is shutting the opponent down while the offense trips over each other. It’s another lost year in Jacksonville, but like the past two seasons next season looks more promising.
While the Jaguars are looking to next year the Broncos are looking to the playoffs. They can kiss the AFC West goodbye after losing to everyone in the division at least once. Luckily they are right in the thick of the Wild Card. Trevor Siemian came alive against the Chiefs throwing for 368 yards and three touchdowns. The running game is still unreliable, but all the offense needs to do is hit the 20-point mark Von Miller and the defense can handle the rest. Miller had three sacks last week and will keep momentum on his side as he looks to wreak havoc in the Jags backfield. The Broncos need this win more than the Jaguars do so look for a lot of Bortles turnovers and a lot of Vonn Miller dances Sunday.
Prediction: Broncos 17, Jaguars 10
Texans (+6.5) over PACKERS
Brock Osweiler has officially pushed the Texans into the corner no team wants to be in after paying big money for a free agent quarterback. Osweiler has lacked confidence the whole season, has refused to throw a deep ball to DeAndre Hopkins, and has been the person holding the Texans back from winning the AFC South. If given redo the Texans would never even call Osweiler’s agent. What’s done is done so the best the team can do is navigate this disaster until the end of the season. If Osweiler is not benched in favor of Tom Savage he should use this game as his last stand to be a starter. The Packers defense is an inviting matchup if the opposing quarterback looks to pass downfield, the question is whether Osweiler will attempt to throw a ball over 20 yards.
Aaron Rodgers is not afraid to let it fly. He used Monday night as yet another reminder that he is still an elite quarterback and the Packers are not dead yet. He tossed up 313 yards and a pair of touchdowns to emerging star Davante Adams to put the Eagles away early. At 5-6 they need to start winning in bunches, but it remains to be seen if they have enough bodies. Rodgers will have slightly more trouble scoring against a solid Texans defense, but the lack of run game will keep this close throughout.
Prediction: Texans 16, Packers 20
BENGALS (+1) over Eagles
Have the Bengals lost the will to win? Once A.J. Green went down any hopes of the playoffs went down with it. They were scrappy last week in Baltimore and the week before that against Buffalo. While winning should not be the plan moving forward for the Bengals it’s not as easy to turn the competitive switch off especially for a team that has made the playoffs a majority of the Marvin Lewis era. Andy Dalton has tried everything to replace Green, hitting three different receivers for five receptions a piece. The problem is not Dalton and the passing game, but the running game. Gio Bernard is done for season with a torn ACL giving Jeremy Hill sole possession of the carries. Hill was unable to find running room last week against the best run defense in the league, but should have an easier time against the Eagles who ranked 17th.
The Eagles should want to hit tank button, but they gave their first round pick to the Browns in exchange for Carson Wentz. The trade has still worked out in their favor as Wentz looks to be the next Eagles quarterback while the Browns still trot out their band of losers. The biggest problem with the Eagles is not Wentz, the running game, or the defense. It’s their receivers who look like they dip their gloves in baby oil before the games. Whether it’s Nelson Agholor, Jordan Matthews, or whoever, someone always seems to be dropping a catchable pass. The Bengals defense isn’t what it was in years past, but they will still capitalize on mistakes.
Prediction: Eagles 17, Bengals 20
Dolphins (+4) over RAVENS
Who thought this game would mean anything at the start of the season? If you had the Dolphins and the Ravens in the playoff hunt in September or even October you’re a liar. At the beginning of the season things looked bleak for the Dolphins. Half their offensive line was out with injury, making their run game nonexistent. Ryan Tannehill continued to look like the trainwreck he has been most of his career and another disappointing season seemed inevitable. Then the offensive line got healthy, Jay Ajayi started running threw people and Devante Parker morphed into one of the league’s more exciting young receivers. They held off the 49ers late last week for their sixth straight win. It would have been an easier victory if the offensive line didn’t get banged up again, but they enter this game as the final seed in the AFC.
The Ravens are also in the playoffs right now thanks to owning a tiebreaker over the Steelers. That doesn’t mean they are out of the woods yet. They are still being carried by their defense who ranks number one against the run. Joe Flacco will have to put up some points this week after Justin Tucker’s foot won them the game last week. Flacco’s unit has been one of the worst in the league this season and the reason for that is lack of weapons. There is no one on the Ravens offense that particularly scares opposing defenses starting from the quarterback all the way down to the backup running back. Mike Wallace could be looking to get some revenge on his former team, but then again it should be the Dolphins who want revenge on Wallace for wasting their time and money.
Prediction: Dolphins 23, Ravens 26
BEARS (EVEN) over 49ers
This is another matchup of choosing between a pile of shit and a bucket of shit. This week the Bears are the bucket of shit so we’ll roll with them. Despite being plagued with injuries the Bears still manage to stay in games. Last week the Titans looked like they would blow the doors off, but the Bears never let it get too crazy. They still have Jordan Howard in the backfield and their defense never seems to give up too many points. Marcus Mariota came into last Sunday red hot and was able to toss up 27 points. Colin Kaepernick will come into this one lukewarm for his standards, but unlike Mariota will have little to no weapons.
How the 49ers almost came back against the Dolphins still makes my head hurt, but in the end they lost their tenth straight game. Kaepernick was able to find plenty of running room last week, leading the team in rushing with 110 yards. He was the sole reason they didn’t get blown, but the real question is whether he can keep it up. Carlos Hyde has fallen off a cliff and their best receiver is Torrey Smith who belongs with a quarterback that can air it out now run around and throw darts into the ground. This is sure to be the worst of the early games and automatic pass on NFL RedZone.
Prediction: 49ers 20, Bears 24
RAIDERS (-3) over Bills
Derek Carr gave Raider Nation a minor heart attack last week. Everything was going as planned for the Raiders. They were up 24-7 against the Panthers, well on their way to an AFC-best 9-2 record. Then Carr dislocated his finger in two places and had to leave the game. The Panthers came back to take a 32-24 leave before Carr returned to lead a 35-32 Raiders comeback win. Carr’s finger is clearly good enough to play, but he was unable to take snaps under center and was unable to grip the football like he usually does. If the Raiders have to stay in shotgun most the game it will affect the running game which is the best way to attack the Bills defense.
If Carr can go under center and Latavius Murray is able to set the tone early the Raiders should win this game with relative ease. The Bills offense starts and ends with LeSean McCoy. Sammy Watkins is finally back from injury and Tyrod Taylor has been great all season, but McCoy is the backbone of the team. When he plays well the Bills typically win like they did last week when Shady had 103 yards rushing yards with a pair of touchdowns. He will have to be strong again versus a Raiders defense that has been prone to giving up big plays all season. If the Bills can get McCoy going and set up the play action with Tyrod Taylor the Bills could finally stop the Raiders winning streak at five games. They will certainly have their work cut out for them facing the seemingly unlimited clip of weapons on the Raiders sideline.
Prediction: Bills 27, Raiders 31
STEELERS (-6.5) over Giants
If there was ever a team that was ripe for the picking this week it is the Giants. They have overachieved thus far amassing an 8-3 record despite being outscored on the season. Tom Coughlin may be gone, but his spirit still lies in Jersey. What has helped them get to this point? Good defense–specifically second-year safety Landon Collins who has five interceptions in his last four games–and opportunistic offense. Eli Manning has been up and down all season, but more often than not he has made the right decision. Oh and having Odell Beckham helps. After facing a ton of scrutiny to start the season ODB has returned to form late this season and remains one of the three best receivers in the game.
The best receiver in the game will be across the field from Odell Sunday. Antonio Brown is a one man wrecking crew by himself. Last week he sautéed the Colts for three touchdowns in a Thanksgiving laugher. If stopping Brown wasn’t already a tall task then Le’Veon Bell will guarantee a long afternoon for the Giants defense. Bell can line up anywhere on the field and have a mismatch. He always seems to get three more yards than he should and has been the steady force of the Steelers offense. That’s two massive problems for the Giants defense and I didn’t even mention Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers need to keep pace with the Ravens so the Giants defense should be prepared for haymakers from one of the elite offenses in the league.
Prediction: Giants 21, Steelers 35
Redskins (+2.5) over CARDINALS
By far one of the biggest disappoints this season are the Cardinals. Carson Palmer’s 2016 season will now be used as the perfect example of hanging around too long. If Palmer had retired after last season’s MVP campaign his legacy would be considerably better than it will be now. His production dip has had a snowball effect on the Cardinals offense, now effecting David Johnson’s production because teams are honing in on him and forcing Palmer to throw over the top. So far anything that involves Palmer throwing has resulted in bad results for the Cardinals who has thrown five interceptions in his last three games.
Kirk Cousins and the Redskins are on the flip side of things. After some early season struggles Cousins has his offense firing on all cylinders as they make their Wild Card push. Jordan Reed was a man amongst boys (no pun intended) on Thanksgiving, dominating Cowboys defenders despite playing with a separated shoulder. Jamison Crowder and Robert “Fat Rob” Kelley have also been vital in the boom of offensive production. Look for that rejuvenated Redskins offense to pick up where the Falcons left off last week and put the Cardinals out of their misery.
Prediction: Redskins 27, Cardinals 20
Buccaneers (+4) over CHARGERS
Marcus Mariota isn’t the only young quarterback making waves late in the season. The man taken in front of him in last year’s draft, Jameis Winston, has been tearing it up too. Winston has been the unquestioned leader of the Buccaneers from the minute he stepped in the building, but now his play is backing it up. His squad currently sits in perfect striking distance of the NFC South crown at 6-5. Mike Evans is finally being recognized as a star receiver and Doug Martin’s return has helped take pressure off the passing game and allow Winston to hit his star receiver. Their past two wins were grind out games against perennial playoff teams may be the blueprint for how they play the rest of the season.
If this game turns into a grinder don’t expect Philip Rivers and the Chargers to shy away. They too are still alive in the playoff hunt, but need to practically win out to have a chance. If they did not blow so many games early in the season the Chargers could easily be 7-4 or even 8-3. Melvin Gordon’s arrival has done wonders for the offense as has the play of rookie receiver Tyrell Williams. Sunday will be another back and forth game that will likely come down to who takes better care of the football or who has the football last.
Prediction: Buccaneers 24, Chargers 27
SEAHAWKS (-6.5) over Panthers
It’s never boring when these two meet up and Sunday night should be no different. Both are coming off losses only the Panthers cannot afford any more losses. After losing three division games already it will be hard for them to make the playoffs by winning the division and they are on the outside looking in at the Wild Card. The Seahawks on the other hand have the division wrapped up thanks to the ineptitude of their peers. Cam Newton has not been the same monster he was last season which makes no sense since he has Kelvin Benjamin back. The up and down season from the offense is not the reason the reigning NFC champs are 4-7. It’s their secondary that has cost them.
Russell Wilson will have to capitalize on that bad Panthers secondary if he wants to bounce back from last week’s clunker in Tampa Bay. C.J. Prosise looks to be more vital to the offense than expected as things did not look the same with Thomas Rawls manning the backfield. Prosise’s versatility as a runner and receiver made the Seahawks more unpredictable and helped set up big plays to Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham. Rawls will have to pick it up this week as it would be wise for the Seahawks to take the Panthers out now instead of letting them live another day. The bright lights typically bode well for Pete Carroll’s team so look for a return to form from one of the league’s best.
Prediction: Panthers 17, Seahawks 27
Colts (-1.5) over JETS
When asked whether Bryce Petty will start over Ryan Fitzpatrick this week Jets head coach Todd Bowles said when the team gets to that point in the season Petty will get his chance. What point is that you ask? The point where winning games is meaningless which the Jets are already at, but let’s give Bowles credit for refusing to throw in the white flag. Fitzpatrick will likely start the rest of the season and if he plays like he did last week against the Patriots it’s not a bad thing. Fitz looked like the Fitz that helped lead the Jets to a 10-6 record last season and not the typical Ryan Fitzpatrick we have seen over the years.
The Colts come into this game badly needing to win. Andrew Luck will return from a concussion which means the offense can get back to scoring points. The Jets will likely shut Frank Gore and the running game down, but that’s not where the Colts want to attack anyway. The best way to attack the Jets ironically enough is Darrelle Revis. Sadly Revis Island has turned into a resort for receivers, particularly receivers who can run fast. T.Y. Hilton fits the bill and will give Revis trouble all night. If by some divine miracle Revis and the rest of the secondary can play well the Jets can easily win this game. Too bad miracles and the Jets are rarely in the same sentence.
Prediction: Colts 23, Jets 20
Last Week: 10-6