NFL WEEK 10: With an arctic blast set to hit much of the U.S. over the next few days, we’re sure to get some good old-fashioned football weather this week and next, which times nicely with this critical stretch of the season, when playoff races begin to crystallize and the pressure is ratcheted up for certain teams, coaches, and players.
One of those teams, the Los Angeles Chargers, kicked off this week by blowing a 4th quarter lead in a 2-point loss to division rival Oakland on Thursday night. The Chargers, who were expected to be one of the AFC’s better teams this season, are now 4-6, with all six of their losses coming by 7 points or fewer. They can be grouped with other underachieving teams like Cleveland and Chicago, and for teams like that– teams with high expectations that haven’t been met– these next few games could be franchise-altering. Coaches, young players, star quarterbacks– everyone’s job, and future with the team, is on the line.
As bettors, it’s an important time of year for us, too, as we’re right in that sweet spot where we have lots of information on every team, but it’s still early enough that teams haven’t started shutting players down, resting guys for the postseason, firing coaching staffs (apologies to Jay Gruden), and all the other stuff that creates unpredictability. I was a missed Adam Vinatieri field goal away from happiness last week (time to retire, bub), and I’ve got a good feeling about this week’s slate, so let’s see if we can take advantage of a Week 10 full of opportunity:
Arizona Cardinals @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (TB -4.5, 52)
Recommendation: Tampa Bay -4.5 at 1.98
The Bucs stumble into this game having lost 4 straight, and they’re still looking for their first home win this season, so this is a desperation spot for them. Nobody expected them to be a contender in Bruce Arians’ first year as coach, but a dose of positivity is badly needed, and for the first time in six weeks they’ll be facing a team with a losing record. As a matter of fact, the Bucs have only faced one sub-.500 team this season– the New York Giants back in Week 3– and four of their losses have come by 7 points or fewer, so you could make a logical case that they’re not quite as bad as the 2-6 record would indicate.
One thing is indisputable: the Bucs can score. They’ve put up 23 points or more in six consecutive games and scored 34 against Seattle last week, with Jameis Winston throwing for 335 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Though Winston has continued to battle turnover issues, you can see him becoming more comfortable in Arians’ scheme, and in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin he has two wideouts that present major problems for opposing defenses. Arizona has struggled mightily against the pass this season, surrendering more yards through the air than any team in the NFC and allowing a staggering 8.3 yards per attempt. I could go on– the Cards have allowed opposing QBs to post a passer rating of 118.5, making them worst in the NFL in that particular category, and have only intercepted two passes all season, which is tied for fewest in the league. Arizona is Bruce Arians’ old team, of course, and Arians is an aggressive play-caller, so you can be sure that he’ll be testing that secondary early and often and would love nothing more than to hang 50 on them. The Bucs have defensive issues of their own, but they’re excellent against the run, so Arizona will need rookie QB Kyler Murray to make things happen through the air and keep pace with Winston. This feels like a great spot for Tampa.
Buffalo Bills @ Cleveland Browns (Cle -2.5, 40.5)
Recommendation: Cleveland -2.5 at 1.89
Let me say this: unlike many, I’m largely a believer in the Bills. I think they have a better defense than some of the “advanced stats” (i.e. DVOA) would indicate, I like Josh Allen’s competitiveness and how he can make things happen with his legs, and I like some of the new additions that have added some speed and explosiveness to the offense. But let’s face it– the Bills have been feasting on the dregs of the league. Their six wins have come against teams with a combined record of 9-42, and in their only two games against teams that were .500 or better, they lost by a combined score of 47-23.
Of course, they face another losing team this week, but the Browns have dealt with the 4th-toughest schedule in the league, and they should have some matchup advantages in this one. For one, they can run the ball with Nick Chubb, who has a reputation as a power back but has actually been one of the most electric runners in the league this season, ranking third in the NFL with 20 “explosive” runs (defined as a run of 10+ yards). The Buffalo defense, meanwhile, has given up more explosive run plays this season than all but three teams leaguewide, and allowed Adrian Peterson, who is anything but explosive at this stage, to break off four runs of 17 yards or more last week. So I fully expect the Browns to have great success running the ball in this one, which should open things up for Baker Mayfield and a passing attack that has fallen far short of expectations. On the other side of the ball, the Bills simply don’t have much ammo– they average 206.6 pass yard per game, ranking 26th in that category, and though rookie tailback Devin Singletary has started to come on, they lack an elite talent in the backfield. These teams have been going down opposite paths this season, but for one Sunday at least, I think the Browns are going to be the team left smiling.
Carolina Panthers @ Green Bay Packers (GB -5, 46.5)
Recommendation: Carolina +5 at 1.9
Carolina has been the NFL’s best bet since Kyle Allen took over for Cam Newton at quarterback in Week 3, going 5-1 against the number in Allen’s six starts. And just when folks were starting to catch on, the Panthers absorbed a one-sided beatdown at the hands of San Francisco in Week 8, which I believe had the effect of restoring value to a team that has gloriously flown under the radar for most of the season. The reason for the better-than-expected results can be directly traced back to the quarterback position– Newton has been viewed as the heartbeat of this Carolina team for so many years, and Allen was a total unknown, so obviously most people expected some sort of drop-off once Newton hit the bench (he has now been placed on IR, effectively ending his season).
Truth be told, many are still squinting to see the drop-off, and have not yet accepted the obvious fact that the offense is simply better with Allen under center. Newton may be an elite player when he’s fully healthy, but he’s never been an elite passer, and now he’s not healthy. This situation has turned into a blessing in disguise for these Panthers, as Allen has been more than adequate in adding a vertical element to the offense. Of course, none of it would be possible without the transcendent brilliance of Christian McCaffery, the NFL’s best running back and a player that is sure to pose major problems for a Green Bay defense that ranks 24th against the run and allows 4.7 yards per carry. I expect the Panthers to be able to consistently move the ball in this one, and their defense, which leads the NFL in sacks and is 4th-best in the league in opponent’s passer rating allowed (77.5), should make life tough for Aaron Rodgers, who is coming off his worst performance of the season. This should be a very competitive game, one that Carolina could easily win. Five points just feels like too many.
Minnesota Vikings @ Dallas Cowboys (Dal -3, 48)
Recommendation: Minnesota +3 at 2.04
In the latest chapter of “it’s always darkest before the dawn”, Minnesota version, these Vikings were left for dead and their big-money QB Kirk Cousins was widely derided after an uneven start to the season. But over the past five weeks there have been few teams better, and Cousins has righted the ship in a major way, completing at least 80% of his passes or throwing 3 touchdowns in five consecutive games. He’ll be without top wideout Adam Thielen this week, which isn’t ideal, but after Thielen went down in Kansas City last week Cousins didn’t miss a beat, completing a pass to eight different receivers and throwing cold water on the notion that the passing attack would revolve around Stefon Diggs, Minnesota’s other Pro Bowl wideout, with Thielen sidelined.
Of course, the passing game is only a side item on Minnesota’s offensive menu– the main course is a rushing attack powered by an excellent offensive line and Dalvin Cook, the NFL’s leading rusher. The Vikes have forced teams to respect and defend the run, which has unlocked the devastating play-action passes that Cousins is so fond of. I expect Minnesota’s offensive renaissance to continue against a Dallas defense that has mostly feasted on terrible offenses. I mean, just look at the Cowboys schedule– six of their eight games have come against the Giants (twice), Redskins, Dolphins, Jets, and Saints (without Brees). I’m actually counting Philadelphia as one of two “good” offenses they’ve faced, even though the Philly offense has been an absolute mess. Point is, the Cowboys haven’t seen many offenses like Minnesota’s, and the last time they did, they gave up 34 points in a double-digit loss to Green Bay. And the Vikings are solid on defense, too, particularly up front, where they allow just 95.2 rushing yards per game, the 8th-best mark in the league. The fact that this game is in Dallas isn’t enough to push me away from the Minnesota side– the better team is getting points here.