NFL WEEK 11: As the playoffs draw closer, each game becomes more critical for those teams still harboring postseason hopes. Russell Wilson delivered a serious blow to Green Bay’s chances when he led the Seahawks to a come-from-behind win on Thursday night, as the Pack are now guaranteed to remain at least two games back in the NFC North and have temporarily fallen behind teams like Atlanta, Dallas, Philadelphia, and, yes, Seattle in the Wild Card pecking order.
This Week 11 slate is full of games that have similar playoff implications– you can almost smell the desperation in places like Atlanta, Baltimore, and Jacksonville, while other teams are just a win or two away from talking about clinching divisions and first-round byes.
And though it’s not included among the games below, mostly because I don’t have the slightest clue which team will come out on top (enter joke about our poor two-week run here), we’d be remiss not to mention this week’s best game, the Monday night showdown between the Chiefs and Rams, the two teams who have been considered the best in the league for most of the season (I hear you, Saints fans). It should be quite a shootout– the total is 63.5 (!!), the highest we’ve seen in the NFL since at least 1986. But something tells me it will come down to the defenses– who can pressure the opposing quarterback, force turnovers, and limit explosive plays as much as possible. I think this is why most people seem to be leaning in the L.A. direction– the Rams are a little bit better on defense, though I must say the secondary has been quite shaky in recent weeks and I’m sure Pat Mahomes is salivating after watching some of the film (of course his enthusiasm was surely dampened by the sight of Aaron Donald terrorizing opposing quarterbacks).
It will be appointment television, that’s for sure, even for those many NFL fans who will be watching it in the wee hours. But we’ve got a Sunday loaded with opportunity before settling in for that one, and there’s only a few of these Sundays left this year, so we best take advantage. With that in mind, here’s what I’m thinking this week:
Dallas Cowboys @ Atlanta Falcons (Atl -3, 49.5)
Recommendation: Atlanta -3 at 1.86
The Falcons laid an egg in Cleveland last week, coughing up two turnovers and surrendering 427 total yards in a 28-16 loss. But I’d be careful about putting too much stock in that performance— if you zoom out a bit and look at the last few weeks, you see an Atlanta team that turned its season around by diversifying an already lethal passing attack and shoring things up a bit in the defensive front seven. Now, don’t get me wrong— this Falcons defense will never be mistaken for the ’85 Bears, and indeed it’s still rightfully considered a weakness. But their numbers, especially against the run, improved dramatically during the 3-game win streak that was halted last week, and if it wasn’t for a couple of egregious missed tackles that led to a 90+ yard touchdown run by Cleveland’s Nick Chubb, the Falcons would’ve extended their streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher to four games.
That run defense will surely be put to the test by a Cowboys offense that loves to pound it with Ezekiel Elliott, but despite the presence of their Pro Bowl tailback, the Dallas offense has toggled between “uninspired” and “flat-out awful” for most of the season, ranking 27th in the NFL in yards per game and producing 20 points or fewer in 6 of their 9 contests. So the question is: can they keep pace with a Falcons offense that averages over 27 points per game and ranks 2nd in the league in passing yards? Based on the fact that their defense has allowed opposing QBs to post a rating of 101.3 this season, I think the answer to that question is “no”.
Tennessee Titans @ Indianapolis Colts (Ind -2, 49.6)
Recommendation: Indianapolis -2 at 1.96
Fresh off their biggest win of the season, a 34-10 pummeling of the New England Patriots, the Titans are a team with new life in the AFC playoff race. But they’re not the only team that’s starting to figure things out— the Colts have now won three straight to get within a game of evening their record, as Andrew Luck appears healthy and confident again after a slow start to the season. Over the past six weeks the Indianapolis offense has been elite, producing 24 points or more in six straight games and averaging 33.3 ppg in that span. And if you thought the offensive explosion was merely the product of a weak schedule— Jets, Raiders, Bills, etc.— you were probably surprised when Luck shredded the league’s best defense last week, going 21/29 for 285 yards and 3 TDs in a 29-26 win over Jacksonville.
We just haven’t seen the same consistency out of the Tennessee offense— well, correction: we have seen plenty of consistency, it’s just not the type of consistency you want. Even after last week’s fireworks, the Titans offense is statistically one of the very worst in the NFL, producing just 18.7 points per game and averaging fewer yards per game than every team with the exception of the lowly Bills and Cardinals. I just feel like this is a good spot for the Colts— they’re playing at home, they have the better quarterback, the better offense, and they’re simply a better team than most realize, as I feel many put them in the “bad team” bin after their 1-5 start and still largely view them that way. If they don’t have your attention by now, maybe they will after Sunday.
Denver Broncos @ Los Angeles Chargers (LA -7, 45.5)
Recommendation: L.A. -7 at 1.9
By now, the secret is out: the Chargers are one of the very best teams in the NFL. After six straight wins they now sit just a game behind Kansas City in the AFC West, and unlike the Chiefs, the Chargers have a quality defense and a quarterback with loads of experience in pressure-packed situations. This week they host division rival Denver, a team that has lost 5 of 6 and has been really poor offensively, particularly in the passing game, where quarterback Case Keenum has looked more like the journeyman backup that he once was than the quality starter who nearly guided Minnesota to a Super Bowl last season. And Keenum will now be without one of his top weapons after wideout Demaryius Thomas was traded to Houston two weeks ago, so it’s tough to envision a whole lot of improvement out of the Denver passing attack.
The Broncos will no doubt try to pound the ball against an L.A. defense that is better in the secondary than it is against the run, but is giving it to Phillip Lindsay/Royce Freeman 25-30 times really a recipe for success against a Chargers team that puts up points in bunches? L.A.’s only two losses have come against the Chiefs and Rams, two teams that can light up the scoreboard and produced 73 combined points in their wins over the Bolts. The Denver offense is simply incapable of that kind of output, so it’ll be up to a defense that ranks in the bottom-half of the league in both yards allowed and points allowed to keep this one competitive. As you can probably tell, I’m not too optimistic about their chances. And yes, I realize the Broncos are coming off a bye and a 7-point number is pretty big in a divisional matchup… but did I mention that all but two of L.A.’s wins this season have come by 8 or more? The Chargers are the type of team that can cover big numbers, and I fully expect them to notch another double-digit win on Sunday. Sometimes it’s just not that complicated: back the better team.
Minnesota Vikings @ Chicago Bears (Chi -2.5, 44.5)
Recommendation: Minnesota +2.5 at 2.0
These are heady times for the Bears, as a franchise that has been lost in the wilderness for most of the past decade now sits atop the NFC North after stringing together three consecutive wins to improve to 6-3 on the season. Their defense ranks 4th in the NFL in both yards allowed and points allowed, and their +94 point differential is third-best in the NFC, behind only the Saints and Rams. But if we’re being honest… who have they really beaten? Is their current success largely the product of a friendly schedule? Consider their wins: Detroit, Buffalo, NY Jets, Tampa Bay, Arizona, and Seattle. All six of those teams entered Week 11 with losing records, and the Bears caught the best of the bunch— Seattle— back in Week 2, when the Seahawks had yet to re-focus their offensive identity and weren’t playing their best football.
This week the Vikings come to town, a team that has won 4 of 5— with the only loss in that stretch coming against the Saints— and now sits just a half-game back of Chicago in the North. The Vikes have an extremely potent offense that should only improve now that tailback Dalvin Cook is healthy and back in the fold, and the defense has been playing much better lately after some uncharacteristic struggles early in the season, holding 4 of their past 5 opponents to 21 points or fewer (again, the lone exception being the Saints) and ranking 5th in the NFL in total yards allowed. Plus, they’re coming off a bye, so they should be rested and ready to reclaim their spot atop the division. Look for the Minnesota defense to make life difficult for Bears QB Mitch Trubisky, who hasn’t yet proven he can win games from the pocket, and for the Vikes to pull off the minor upset.