NFL WEEK 11: Ten weeks of the 2017 NFL season are now in the books, and while order has seemingly been restored in several divisions after a crazier-than-usual autumn, we can still expect plenty of surprises as we head into winter.
History tells us that at least one team that looks like a surefire bet to make the playoffs will totally collapse in the coming weeks, while a couple of teams that are .500 or worse will get hot and make a postseason run. Can a team like Oakland, Baltimore, or Washington come back from the dead and validate the early-season hype? Will the upstarts in Jacksonville, Los Angeles, and New Orleans still look like serious contenders by the time January rolls around? These are among the questions that will be answered over the next seven weeks.
This week the action gets started on Thursday night in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers will host the Tennessee Titans in a battle of division leaders. The Steelers have won four straight to improve to 7-2 on the season, but they’ve been a strange team, alternating quality performances with head-scratching duds, like last week’s come-from-behind 20-17 win over the hapless Indianapolis Colts. The Titans are also riding a 4-game winning streak, but they’ve been far from dominant, as each of their past three wins have come by 4 points or fewer despite their opponents in those games having a combined record of 7-20. Still, this is one of the better Thursday night matchups we’ve seen this season.
The rest of the slate is a little less inspiring, as there are only three other games that feature two teams with winning records. Here are a few of my thoughts on how Week 11 might play out:
LOS ANGELES RAMS @ MINNESOTA VIKINGS (Min -2.5, 45.5)
Recommendation: Minnesota -2.5 at 1.88
Both of these teams are playing great football at the moment, as the Rams have won four straight and currently sit at 7-2, while the Vikings, who are also 7-2, have won five in a row. The Rams have been especially dominant, with their past three wins coming by 103 combined points. But the opposition has been soft— Arizona, Houston, and the New York Giants— and they haven’t really faced a quality team since Weeks 5 and 6, when they lost to Seattle and beat Jacksonville. It will be interesting to see how the young Los Angeles offense handles a road game against one of the NFL’s very best defenses.
And make no mistake— this Vikings D is one of the league’s best, by any measure. They rank 5th in both yards allowed and points allowed (18.3 ppg), and only two teams are currently allowing fewer yards per play. Everybody knows that the Vikings are a team that hangs their hat on defense, but the offense has been opening some eyes lately as well, producing 95 combined points in the team’s past three games. Case Keenum has been efficient and effective, and the running back tandem of Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon has filled in surprisingly well for the injured Dalvin Cook. Murray and McKinnon should find room to operate against a Rams defense that ranks an uninspiring 24th in rushing yards allowed, surrendering 118 per game.
But this game really comes down to the Rams offense vs. the Vikings defense— can Jared Goff, Todd Gurley and Co. continue to pile up the points when faced with a defense as good as Minnesota’s? Frankly, I’m not sure they can— in their aforementioned games against Seattle and Jacksonville, the last good teams they’ve faced, the Rams scored just 10 points one week (vs. Seattle) and amassed a mere 249 total yards of offense the next (vs. Jacksonville). I expect the Minnesota defense to harass Goff and take control of this game. Gimme the home team.
ARIZONA CARDINALS @ HOUSTON TEXANS (pk, 38.5)
Recommendation: Houston moneyline at 1.81
These teams are similar in that they were both viewed as playoff contenders prior to the season, but injuries have decimated both rosters and left postseason hopes in tatters. Tom Savage has played terribly since taking over for the injured Deshaun Watson, and the Cardinals are likewise in bad shape at the quarterback position, as they’re likely turning to third-stringer Blaine Gabbert this week after backup Drew Stanton sprained his knee in last Thursday’s loss to Seattle. Stanton may still be able to play– Arizona coach Bruce Arians has set Friday as the deadline to make a decision– but the choice between Gabbert and Stanton is truly a “bad vs. worse” situation, and frankly I’m not sure which is which.
The Houston offense should be in better shape– I say should be, because obviously they can’t have Savage self-destruct like he did last Sunday, when he turned the ball over four times in a blowout loss to the Rams. But Savage might still be able to turn things around. He was decent in three appearances last season, completing 63% of his passes and only turning the ball over once, and if you recall he was named the starter out of training camp this year, so Bill O’Brien has obviously seen something that he likes. Savage knows the offense well, he’s surrounded by solid skill position talent, and the Lamar Miller-led rushing attack has been effective enough to keep defenses honest. Plus, he’ll be facing a tremendously disappointing Arizona defense that was once regarded as one of the league’s best but has surrendered 28 points or more five times this season.
The Cardinals looked absolutely awful to me last Thursday night, and that performance is definitely influencing my judgement here, but right now I have zero faith in their ability to go on the road and pick up a win against a team that’s still fighting, like Houston. This is a circle-the-wagons moment for the Texans, and if they can’t win a home game against the Blaine Gabbert-led Cardinals, they might not win another game this season. But I think they’ll be able to pull it out.
CINCINNATI BENGALS @ DENVER BRONCOS (Den -2.5, 39.5)
Recommendation: Cincinnati +2.5 at 2.0
Both of these teams are bad, but they’re different flavors of bad: the Bengals are 3-3 in their last six games, and their losses have all been on the road against winning teams (Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Tennessee). Denver, meanwhile, has now lost five straight, and it’s fair to wonder whether first-year coach Vance Joseph is in over his head. The Broncos seem totally lost on offense, as they’ve averaged just 14.2 points per game since exploding for 42 on Dallas back in Week 2. They’ve now turned the keys over to Brock Osweiler, who has been just about as bad as expected over the past three games, completing a mere 52% of his passes, throwing five interceptions, and posting a QB rating of 62.5. Osweiler will be facing a Cincinnati defense that ranks 4th in the league against the pass, allowing just 197 ypg through the air.
The Denver defense, once regarded as elite, has regressed badly over the course of the season and lately has been part of the problem, surrendering 121 combined points over the team’s past three games. You get the feeling that the continuing ineptitude of the offense has taken its toll on the veteran Denver defenders, and it won’t be long now until Aqib Talib and Co. are spending film sessions planning their offseason trips to Vegas and the Caribbean. Again, this all comes back to the head coach, and I’m just not sure Joseph has control of the team and is moving them in a winning direction right now.
Even an unmotivated Denver defense should still be able to shut down the moribund Cincinnati rushing attack, but Andy Dalton has shown signs of life in recent weeks, with four quality performances in his last six outings, and he’s got the surrounding weaponry to beat the Denver secondary, or at least hit them with a couple big plays. The way the Broncos have been playing on offense, that may be enough. I’ll take the Bengals here and I’ll nab those 2.5 points, as they might come in handy.
ATLANTA FALCONS @ SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (Sea -3, 44.5)
Recommendation: Atlanta +3 at 1.89, Atlanta moneyline at 2.22
For a team that has won 5 of 6 games and sits at 6-3 overall, the Seahawks have sure been shaky lately. In their last three games they beat Houston 41-38, lost to Washington 17-14, and pulled out an ugly 22-16 win over the struggling Arizona Cardinals. To make matters worse, star cornerback Richard Sherman was lost for the season after rupturing his Achilles in the win over the Cardinals, so a defense that has underperformed for most of the year will now be without one of its best players. That’s bad news when you’re about to face Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and the explosive Atlanta offense.
And yes, I still regard the Falcons offense as elite. I know much of the talk this season has focused on the fact that the offense isn’t matching last year’s production, and that’s true, but it’s still a top-10 unit that features top-flight talent at the skill positions and a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback who is still in the midst of his prime. The Falcons are coming off a dominating 27-7 win over Dallas, and Jones has returned to being the focal point of the passing attack over these past few weeks after being underused early in the season. The offense has started to gain momentum, and there’s no reason to think they won’t keep it going against a Seattle D that is more bark than bite at this point.
But the real reason Atlanta fans should be hopeful is the play of the defense, a unit that has undeniably been the team’s weakness over the past few years. Dan Quinn finally seems to have things moving in the right direction on that side of the ball, as the Falcons rank 7th in yards allowed and 10th in points allowed and have held 8 of 9 opponents this season to 23 points or fewer. This week they face a Seattle offense that has suddenly become one-dimensional, as the ‘Hawks simply haven’t been able to run the ball behind their abysmal o-line. Russell Wilson is a great player and he’s mostly been able to hold things together, but the Seahawks are ill-equipped to beat a team that can put up points in bunches— a team like Atlanta, in other words. I’m expecting the Falcons to pull off the minor upset here.