We are down to four weeks left in the NFL season.
As teams gear up for the playoffs the rest of the field wonder what is next for them. For fans and talking heads the message is easy–tank. But that is something easier said than done. Professional athletes are programmed to win at all costs when they step on the field. They do not think about drafting the Heisman trophy winner on 3rd and Goal with a chance to win a meaningless game in December. Head coaches are also programmed this way mostly because their job security is nonexistent. We have seen coaches get fired while they’re winning (i.e. Marty Schottenheimer, Andy Reid, Lovie Smith) so you can’t fault them for saying ‘f--k off’ when asked to tank.
These are the questions guys like Todd Bowles, Marvin Lewis, Ron Rivera must ask themselves this week. The playoffs are gone for all three of their squads, but not because the roster sucks. In the case of Bowles’ Jets and Lewis’ Bengals injuries accentuated their depth issues and sent them into a tailspin despite having a playoff-caliber roster opening day. Rivera’s Panthers returned a majority of the guys who played in the Super Bowl this past February, but have been shells of themselves this season. A major reason for their fall from grace was not replenishing the secondary. You can’t fault them for letting Josh Norman walk, but you can fault them for not aggressively finding quality replacements.
The plan for three is simple–play the young guys, see what you have moving forward and don’t be afraid to lose. They all seem to be safe from the firing line (for this year at least) so take a page out of Jason Garrett’s book. Whether Garrett meant to or not his Cowboys tanked last season due to a plague of injuries. The Cowboys had a solid roster that did not need much fixing, but landing a top five pick they were able to add a luxury pick which ended up being Ezekiel Elliott. Fast forward to today and they are the best team in the league. Barring an idiotic win streak the Jets, Bengals, and Panthers will own a top ten pick. They can use this pick to bolster a major weakness and hop right back into the playoff mix next season. The choice is ultimately up to them and I think we will get a feel for what their course of action will be this week.
Home teams are in CAPS.
Raiders (+4) over CHIEFS
At 10-2 it’s hard to believe the Raiders have to keep their foot on the gas, but when the Chiefs are in your division that’s the way life is. This is arguably the last “must win” for the Raiders to seal up the division. Last time these two met in Oakland things got ugly quick. Jamaal Charles made his true season debut (and finale), Spencer Ware ran amuck, and the Chiefs disarmed the deadly Raiders offense for an easy 26-10 win. Fast forward two months later and these two will meet on a short week for the division.
The Chiefs are coming in hot again, winning back to back road games against playoff caliber teams. Last week’s win was just as gritty as their classic comeback in Denver the week before. Ware paced the team on offense scoring two touchdowns, but the star of the game was Eric Berry. Not many people have been talking about the safety, but Berry has been on a ballhawking tear. He notched his second pick six of the season and won the game by picking Matt Ryan off again on a two-point attempt and returning it to give the Chiefs the 29-28 win.
Derek Carr should be on high alert Thursday and not try to force any passes because Berry and the Chiefs are experts at ballhawking. The Raiders should seem confident as well, they too have a defensive nightmare waiting to be released. Khalil Mack single handedly secured the comeback win against the Bills last week. Carr has every right to mentioned in the MVP discussion, but Mack’s name should be brought up too. He terrorized the Bills and jump started the Raiders comeback with a forced fumble, tipped pass leading to an interception, and a sack. The defense has been the weak spot for this team, but Mack has carried the load thus far and has shown no signs of slowing down.
Prediction: Raiders 27, Chiefs 24
Jets (+1) over 49ERS
Tank-A-Palooza 2K17 is underway and this matchup features two top contenders. The Browns ran away with the first pick already, but the 49ers can win a couple games and torture their fan base some more. The Jets came into this season with playoffs on their mind, but injuries, lack of depth, and Darrelle Revis’ decline have snowballed into a 3-9 record. They got lambasted at home by the Colts on Monday Night Football 41-10 putting the final nail in their coffin. Todd Bowles may want to win all he wants, but the wise move for Gang Green is resting the vets, playing the rookies, and tanking for Jabrill Peppers.
The 49ers fulfilled their tanking goal. Chip Kelly has effectively bottomed out and will now get the chance to put his imprint on this team. At 1-11 it would seem unlikely that they lose the second overall pick. With that in mind they have little reason to want to win this game. They’ve already lost eleven straight with little to no weapons on either side of the ball. The Jets are by far the superior team from top to bottom. The only chance the 49ers have of accidently winning is if Bowles hands the keys to Bryce Petty or (gulp) Christian Hackenberg. For the safety of your eyes please don’t watch this game.
Prediction: Jets 24, 49ers 13
Steelers (-1.5) over BILLS
This is a must win game for both teams. The Bills are 6-6 and cannot afford to lose pace in a Wild Card race that looks like 10-6 will be the bare minimum to win. The Steelers are positioned well at 7-5, but would rather win the division which means keeping pace with the Ravens. Last week they were able to do that, stifling the Giants at home thanks to Eli Manning shitting the bed. Ben Roethlisberger made his draft classmate pay for his mistakes finding Antonio Brown whenever he pleased and handing it off to Le’Veon Bell when Brown wasn’t open. Assuming those three stay healthy as well as the offensive line there is little to worry about in Pittsburgh. Even if the opposing defense slows down Bell or Brown another role player is usually wide open. Last week that lucky guy was tight end Ladarius Green.
The Bills offense is not as lucky. They have one guy they rely on, LeSean McCoy. It’s difficult to see this offense without McCoy mainly because there is no offense without him. Pivoting to run-heavy saved their season, but the passing game and defense have been so erratic that it might not even matter. Last week’s game in Oakland seemed to be over at 24-9 in the third quarter. All Tyrod Taylor had to do was take care of the football and the Bills would be 7-5. Instead Khalil Mack took over and the Bills defense sputtered leading to a crushing 38-24 loss. The sad thing about this game is that even if the Bills play a good game on offense I’m not sure their defense has a reasonable answer for Brown or Bell.
Prediction: Steelers 27, Bills 20
Broncos (+1) over TITANS
Even without Trevor Siemian last week the Broncos were able to handle the Jaguars. How you ask? First, Blake Bortles was lined up across from them and second, their defense is their true strength. No disrespect to Siemian, but there is not much of a difference between him and Paxton Lynch. Siemian did have his best game of the season before missing last week so maybe there was a dip in the passing game, but at the core the Broncos were the same. They want to run the football and play defense. The Jags stifled the run last week and if it weren’t for Bortles gift wrapping turnovers the Broncos may have been in trouble. This week Siemian could be back and if he is not a go it will still be business as usual.
The reason the Titans won’t win this game is because of their passing game. Marcus Mariota has been sensational lately, making Simply Lemonade from some serious lemons. Rishard Matthews, Tajae Sharpe, Delanie Walker and Kendall Wright are not exactly a quarterback’s dream receiving core, yet Mariota has made them look better than they are. DeMarco Murray has been a major reason for that as he has had a great comeback season. Unfortunately for him the Broncos defense is relatively healthy again which means if you are going to beat them it is through the air. This game will be closer than many think, but with the Broncos having to keep pace in the Wild Card expect Von Miller and the defense to have another stellar game.
Prediction: Broncos 20, Titans 16
Redskins (EVEN) over EAGLES
What is left for the Eagles to play for? The Eagles have gone 2-7 since jumping out to a surprising 3-0 start. The Wentz Wagon has all but emptied. Eagles receivers still cannot catch a pass. The defense is starting to develop a Swiss cheese reputation which puts an end to their season. Last week a defeated Bengals team with no A.J. Green routed the Eagles 32-14. Wentz threw three interceptions as he had to make up for the lack of running game due to injuries to Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles. The inefficient offense translated to the defense giving up 32 points to the likes of Andy Dalton, Jeremy Hill, and Brandon LaFell who forgot how to catch the football last year. Up next they get a desperate division foe, the Redskins.
Facing the Cardinals was never going to be an easy task, but last week should’ve gone better. The playoffs were no longer a possibility for the Cards yet they came out like they were the ones playing for their postseason lives. David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald were their usual selves, but allowing Carson Palmer to have a good game is baffling. If the Redskins miss the playoffs it will be because their defense sucks. Kirk Cousins and the offense were not their usual selves, but 23 points is still good enough to win games. The good news for the defense is that the Eagles running game is bad at the moment without Mathews and Wentz’s receivers can’t catch the ball consistently. They were able to beat the Eagles 27-20 when the Eagles were at full strength so beating a slightly defeated team this time around should yield a similar result.
Prediction: Redskins 28, Eagles 17
DOLPHINS (-1) over Cardinals
Fun fact about the Cardinals this season–they are 0-3 on the East Coast (0-4 if you want to count Minnesota) and have lost all those games by double digits. Why are they so bad in the east? Maybe Carson Palmer’s body can’t handle the early games anymore. For teams based in the west the early games on the opposite coast feel like 11am games to their bodies. Whatever the case may be the Cardinals just don’t perform well in 1pm games. With no shot at the playoffs the only source of motivation is to spoil it for the other teams. David Johnson has been a thorn at the side of defense’s all season and should continue that trend against a Dolphins team ranked 30th against the run.
So why pick the Dolphins? Because they are desperate. Sometimes the better teams don’t win, the hungrier teams do. Last week’s performance against the Ravens was embarrassing. The Dolphins were outplayed in every way against an offense that usually struggles to put up 20 points. To avoid disaster again the Dolphins will need to control this game early. In order to do that they will need to revisit the formula that got them into playoff position in the first place–running the football. The Cardinals rank near the top against the run so Jay Ajayi will not rip off 200 yards, but establishing the run is doable. Ryan Tannehill is decent enough to make a few throws and pick on the corner not named Patrick Peterson or Marcus Cooper and find Devante Parker or Jarvis Landry open more times than not.
Prediction: Cardinals 24, Dolphins 26
Chargers (+1) over PANTHERS
Things are not exactly stable in Carolina. Head coach Ron Rivera picked the worst possible time to morph into a Roger Goodell minion, suspending Cam Newton for the first drive of last week’s game for not wearing a turtleneck to the game. I wish I was joking. Derek Anderson got the start and on his only drive he threw an interception and the Seahawks went on to pummel the Panthers to mince meat. Injured linebacker and team leader Luke Kuechly summarized the collective feeling in Carolina with this outburst after watching Tyler Lockett carve up 75 of the 240 rushing yards allowed by the Panthers defense.
As for the Chargers, life is not much better. They followed up a nice road win in Houston with a loss to the suddenly red hot Buccaneers, essentially ending their season. At 5-7 there is not much to do, but don’t think for a second Philip Rivers is laying down. Rivers has a reputation of being a pain in the ass if you bet against him. He never seems to quit and the Chargers are notorious for hanging in ball games regardless of the opponent. Facing a bad Panthers secondary Rivers should have a field day and keep the playoff pipe dream alive another week.
Prediction: Chargers 28, Panthers 27
Bengals (-6) over BROWNS
Can the Browns win a football game in 2016? The last time the Browns won Johnny Manziel was their quarterback. To put that into context Manziel had a mental breakdown, got kicked out of the league and has not been mentioned until just now. That is how bad the Browns are. On a slightly encouraging note Robert Griffin III might be back in the lineup after being out since Week 1. Chances are RG3 is not the answer, but at least it is someone who can throw the football to Terrelle Pryor. The quarterback turned receiver is quickly becoming the team leader, even going as far to say he will be back next year because he wants to help lead the turnaround. That’s a great grab for the Browns, but it might not make a difference this season.
The Bengals like the Browns are out of the playoffs. That ship sailed when A.J. Green left in a cart a few weeks back. To the Bengals’ credit they have not let that affect how the play. Andy Dalton is still running the offense like nothing is wrong, relying on Tyler Eifert, Brandon LaFell, and rookie Tyler Boyd to fill the massive void. That recipe worked to perfection against the Eagles who are considerably better than the Browns. Expect an extra dose of Jeremy Hill with some Eifert and LaFell sprinkled in as the Bengals best their state rival.
Prediction: Bengals 27, Browns 17
LIONS (-7) over Bears
The Detroit Lions are not going anywhere. For weeks everyone has been waiting for the second shoe to drop in Detroit, but it hasn’t happened. The Lions are 8-4 and three wins away from securing one of the most improbable division titles in recent memory. Matthew Stafford has been the driving force of this Lions season, putting up quite the MVP resume. But what has catapulted the Lions from good bad team into a good team is the defense. Last week was their shining moment, stifling the deadly Saints offense at their house. Instead it was the Lions offense that looked like the best show on turf with Stafford doing what he pleased. Facing a Bears team that beat them the first time the Lions should be looking for revenge.
Unlike the first meeting the Bears will be without Alshon Jeffery (suspended), Jay Cutler (injured/morally broken), and 25 other guys injured throughout the season. The scouting report for the Bears starts and ends with Jordan Howard. The rookie running back looks to be the future in Chicago. Outside of Howard there is nothing to see. Last week they won on Howard’s three touchdowns. This week they will not be as lucky as they face a real football team that is operating at peak levels.
Prediction: Bears 17, Lions 31
COLTS (-6) over Texans
Following their second straight 21-13 defeat Texans “quarterback” Brock Osweiler said the offense is close to exploding. What Osweiler fails to realize is that he is the problem not anyone else on the team. His feeble play has the Texans fighting for the division instead of coasting to the playoffs. Does this mean that this is the week he grows a pair and launches a 60-yard bomb to DeAndre Hopkins or Will Fuller? Unlikely. Osweiler has been exposed for what he is and his head coach Bill O’Brien is not much better. Time and time again the Texans have proven unworthy of our trust.
The Colts on the other hand have been reliable when trusted in the right situations. For instance last week they should have been a lock to kill the Jets and they did just that. Andrew Luck is everything Osweiler isn’t. He’s fearless, smart, and a winner. It is because of him that the Colts are still alive. The last time the Colts faced the Texans they were up in the fourth before the defense folded and let the anemic Osweiler have his lone moment of triumph. This time around they are in Indy and the Colts always seem to play better at home.
Prediction: Texans 23, Colts 31
JAGUARS (+3.5) over Vikings
Welcome to the Vegas zone. This is where the linemakers are unsure of how this game will go so they put the spread in that 4 to 5 point gray area. This line is essentially a four point line favoring the Vikings. Of all the games on the 1pm slate this is the hardest to predict. It features two teams that have fatal flaws on offense, but talent on defense. The Jaguars defense has been the quiet giant of the season. They are ranked right behind the Vikings at fourth overall in total defense. If only the offense would figure it out the Jaguars would put together a season where they win more than five games.
The Vikings defense started out as the clear cream of the crop, but have fallen slightly to third overall. The reason for the dip? Their offense. Unlike the Jaguars the problem isn’t the quarterback, but the offensive line. Sam Bradford almost got split in half last Thursday as the Cowboys treated the Vikings’ tackles like human turnstiles. If Bradford is ever given time to throw the Vikings resemble a good team. The problem is the line is only good at run blocking which would be fine if Adrian Peterson was not injured. The Vikings can certainly win this game, but it won’t be by much.
Prediction: Vikings 17, Jaguars 16
BUCCANEERS (-2.5) over Saints
Don’t look now but the Buccaneers are in the playoffs. How the hell did a team that looked so lackluster at 3-5 rattle off four wins in a row and counting? For starters Doug Martin returned to give the Bucs a running game. When Martin was out Jameis Winston was given undivided attention and the result was a lot of turnovers and overall bad offense. Since Martin has been back the offense has been good. Winston and Mike Evans have been great lately and look like the devastating combo many believed they would become when Winston was drafted. To make things even sunnier down in Tampa Bay the defense has played well and rookie kicker Roberto Aguayo has turned his season around drastically after teetering at the edge of unemployment.
The Saints have been more of a rollercoaster ride. They sucked early, got really hot, but are now ice cold again. Drew Brees put up a clunker at home against the Lions last week in a must win game. At 5-7 they are still technically alive in the division, but two more losses knocks them out. With that in mind to think Brees and company will roll over is foolish. The Saints will come out firing and look to jump out early. They’ve already proven they can beat bad teams, but have yet to prove they can take down teams on their level or teams riding a wave of momentum. The Buccaneers fit the profile of both which should result in a well-earned fifth straight win for Jameis and the Bucs.
Prediction: Saints 31, Bucs 34
Falcons (-6) over RAMS
What is it about Jeff Fisher that the Rams love so much? Is he a great person to have a beer with? Does he have a good weed connect? Whatever it is it sure as hell has nothing to do with football. Last week Fisher highlighted the Patriots’ Danny Woodhead ahead of his team’s tilt in New England. That’d be a solid assessment if Woodhead was not on injured reserve and not a San Diego Charger. To compound his stupidity during the game against the Patriots Fisher lost his challenge flag. Can you guess what Rams brass thought about all these embarrassing blunders? They loved it! In fact they loved it so much Fisher got a two-year extension and defended it by saying he should be judged beyond wins and losses. That’s all you need to know about LA Rams this week.
Now to the Falcons. It looks like Matt Ryan is having a brief relapse to the bummy Matt Ryan we saw stink it up the previous two seasons. Last week Ryan made the same exact mistake that resulted in Eric Berry interceptions that cost the Falcons the game. Berry won’t be across from Ryan this week so that’s a good start. Julio Jones having turf toe brings the good mood down a little. Even without a fully healthy Jones the Falcons offense can crank 28 points out in their sleep. The Rams have yet to prove they can keep up in a shootout so there only chance of winning games are against opponents with little to no offensive punch (i.e. Jets). The Falcons do not fit that profile which is not good for the Rams.
Prediction: Falcons 31, Rams 17
Seahawks (-3) over PACKERS
That was quite a beatdown the Seahawks gave the Panthers last week. They displayed the killer instinct that separates good teams from champions relentlessly laying it on the defending NFC champs. Up next they face a familiar foe in Aaron Rodgers. The two are no strangers, but this time around the Seahawks are probably excited to head to Lambeau. Sure they lost Earl Thomas for the season (and maybe his career), but they still have Russell Wilson. In case you have not noticed the Packers’ defense is pathetic this year specifically in the secondary. If the Seahawks plan to make a serious Super Bowl run they will have to pivot to an offensive machine.
This presents the perfect opportunity for Wilson and the offense to try and become that offensive juggernaut. Aaron Rodgers knows what it takes to be an offensive juggernaut and he is desperately trying to will his team to the finish line. The Packers have suffered countless injuries, but A-Rod’s play has kept them in the hunt. They are still chasing the Lions and one or two more losses might end their pursuit before they get to Detroit in Week 17. That should give you a feel for how important this game is for both teams. Rodgers has proved he can beat the Seattle defense before and without Thomas he can certainly do it again. The real question is whether the Packer defense can stop Wilson.
Prediction: Seahawks 24, Packers 20
Cowboys (-3) over GIANTS
If it weren’t for the Giants the Cowboys would be 12-0. Dak Prescott was leading a game-winning drive in Week 1, but fell short because Terrance Williams foolishly forgot to get out of bounds. That shortcoming would be the last of the Cowboys’ season. Since then Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and Dez Bryant have been having fun tearing up the league. The rookie duo has reinvigorated Dez and the Cowboys team as a whole. The offensive line deserves MVP consideration if that were possible as they have been the driving force in Zeke’s historical rookie campaign. Facing the only opponent to defeat them this season the Cowboys will look to ace on final test before resting up for the Super Bowl run.
Things are not as peachy for the Giants. One would think all is well with a team that is 8-4, but the Giants seem to be the exception. They have all the ingredients of a playoff team–solid defense and an offensive superstar–but are weak in two crucial areas, quarterback and the offensive line. Just ask the Cowboys how essential those two positions are to the success of a team. Eli Manning has either deteriorated or misses having his older brother Peyton in the league because something is seriously off. Last week Manning’s offense got to the Steelers’ 9-yard line and 3-yard line and both trips ended in zero points. Manning will have to shake that off and get it together if his team wants to win this week and beyond.
Prediction: Cowboys 28, Giants 24
PATRIOTS (-7) over Ravens
Week 14 caps off with a meeting of two teams that are no strangers to each other. The Ravens and Patriots have had their fair share of memorable wars in the playoffs. This Ravens team might still have Joe Flacco and a good defense led by Terrell Suggs, but make no mistake, these are not the Ravens from a couple years ago. The main difference being on offense where Flacco does not have Ray Rice to rely on. Mike Wallace has filled the speed demon role perfectly and Steve Smith is still as tough as they come, but what made the Ravens dangerous was Anquan Boldin dominating corners on jump balls. These Ravens don’t have a Boldin on their roster and it is part of the reason their kicker Justin Tucker is the team’s MVP.
The Patriots’ MVP is the same guy it has been the past decade, Tom Brady. In his first week without Rob Gronkowski (placed on IR after back surgery) Brady spread the wealth and made light work of the Rams. The Ravens are considerably better on defense so Brady will have to elevate his game which happens to be his specialty. The one advantage of no Gronk is unpredictability. Pats OC Josh McDaniels can do a plethora of things with the offense including playing scat backs James White and Dion Lewis at the same time, a miniature version of what they used to do with Gronk and Aaron Hernandez. Whatever plan of attack the Patriots decided doesn’t really matter. As long as they have Brady they have a chance.
Prediction: Ravens 16, Patriots 27
Last Week: 11-4