NFL WEEK 11: Though the world seems to be locking down again, the NFL rolls on, and so far the league has negotiated the potential minefield of positive tests and cancellations remarkably well. All teams have played either 9 or 10 games, bye weeks are on schedule, and everything seems to be on course for a relatively normal playoff race. *knocks on wood furiously*
Week 11 kicked off with a good one in Seattle, as Russell Wilson outdueled Kyler Murray in a game that featured more defense than expected and came in well below the posted total of 56.5. With the victory the Seahawks pulled a game in front of the Cardinals in the NFC West, though the 6-3 Rams are a factor in the division as well. And with the newly expanded postseason field, there’s a very real chance that all three teams could make the playoffs, which would be a first for the West since leaguewide divisional realignment in 2002.
Elsewhere around the league this week, Tennessee visits Baltimore in a rematch of last season’s Divisional Round playoff game memorably won by the Titans; Indianapolis hosts Green Bay in a battle of division leaders; and the Taysom Hill Experience will be in full effect in New Orleans, as Hill has been named the full-time starter in the wake of Drew Brees’s injury, a somewhat surprising move given the fact that Hill has attempted only 18 passes in his 4-year NFL career and the Saints signed longtime Tampa Bay starter Jameis Winston this past offseason to presumably serve as Brees’s backup. Hill is a much-derided figure in certain corners of the internet due to the way Sean Payton uses him– as a battering ram that doesn’t fool the defense and sometimes seems to take the prolific Saints offense out of its rhythm– but he was a terrific quarterback while at BYU, a dual-threat dynamo derailed only by injuries, and something tells me that Payton wouldn’t be making this move unless he had something up his sleeve. The Saints offense may not look like it normally does, but I have a hunch it’ll still be effective.
There’s plenty more meat on this Week 11 bone, of course, including Kansas City’s shot at redemption against division-rival Las Vegas and a showdown of NFC playoff hopefuls in Tampa, where old man Brady will look to avoid Aaron Donald and guide his Bucs past the Rams. Here are my four favorites:
Philadelphia Eagles @ Cleveland Browns (CLE -2.5, 47.5)
Recommendation: Philadelphia +2.5 at 2.02
For my money, the Browns may be the foremost “paper tiger” in the league right now– they sit at 6-3 and have been favored in 6 of their 9 games this season, including 4 of the past 5. But is this a good team? The offense has flatlined since losing Odell Beckham a month ago, producing 10 points or fewer in 3 of the team’s past 4 games, and the defense, which is surrendering 27.1 points per game, will be without All-Pro end Myles Garrett this week, the unit’s clear leader and best player. That’s good news for a Philly offense that has struggled mightily but, perhaps coincidentally, has fared pretty well against the AFC North, logging 3 of their 4 highest-scoring games of the season against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore. And we should expect improvement from Philadelphia now that Carson Wentz is finally getting some weapons back– Miles Sanders returned to the lineup last week, Jalen Reagor and Dallas Goedert are back in the fold, and even Alshon Jeffrey made an appearance and drew a target last week. It’s been ugly for the Eagles this season, but they still sit in first place in the putrid NFC East, and I like their chances of stealing a win this week against the wounded, overvalued Browns.
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Jacksonville Jaguars (PIT -10.5, 46)
Recommendation: Pittsburgh -10.5 at 2.0
The sad-sack Jags have actually covered in each of their past two games, losing 27-25 to Houston in Week 9 after scoring a late TD, and then playing much better than expected in Green Bay last week, where Aaron Rodgers had to lead a 4th quarter touchdown drive to preserve the Pack’s 24-20 win (the line was GB -13.5). But before you get too excited about Jacksonville as a double-digit ‘dog this week, a reality check is in order: yes, the team exceeded expectations in Green Bay, but they still managed only 260 yards of total offense, and their defense continues to be sieve-like in allowing 415.6 yards and 30.1 points per game, ranking last in the AFC in both categories. Rookie QB Jake Luton is slated to make his third career start this week against a Pittsburgh defense that leads the AFC in yards allowed and ranks 2nd in points allowed, and also happens to lead the NFL in sacks with 36. So… yeah. This could get ugly for Luton. And considering that the Steelers offense has scored 24 points or more in every game this season, I’m having a really difficult time envisioning a scenario where this isn’t a one-sided drubbing. Lay the points with confidence.
Green Bay Packers @ Indianapolis Colts (IND -1.5, 51.5)
Recommendation: Indianapolis -1.5 at 1.96
Green Bay has been rolling behind a rejuvenated Aaron Rodgers, but this week Rodgers faces what could be his toughest test of the season– a swarming Indianapolis defense that allows just 290.4 yards per game, best in the NFL, and has been particularly good against the pass, ranking second in the league in pass yards allowed. It doesn’t end there, either: opposing quarterbacks have posted a dismal rating of 78.9 against the Colts– that’s the best mark in the league, or the worst, depending on your perspective– and the Indy D is the only unit in the NFL that has just as many interceptions as they have TD passes allowed. In other words, the Colts have the league’s best defense by almost any measure, and the only other time that Green Bay faced a top-5 defense this season it didn’t exactly go well, as Tampa Bay totally throttled the Pack back in Week 6 to the tune of 10 points and 201 total yards allowed. I’m not saying things will be quite that rough for Rodgers & Co. this time around, but putting points on the board is going to be a real challenge, and on the other side of the ball Philip Rivers appears to have found his sea legs, averaging 290 pass yards per game with a 7/2 TD-to-INT ratio over the Colts’ last four contests (Indy is 3-1 in that span). Rivers will be facing a middling Packers defense that has dealt with injury issues in the secondary, so he should have a much easier go of it than Rodgers, and I like Indy’s chances in one of Week 11’s premier games.
New York Jets @ Los Angeles Chargers (LA -10, 46.5)
Recommendation: Los Angeles -10 at 1.95
The Jets are coming off their best performance of the season, a 30-27 Monday night loss to New England, but they got tough news after the game, as cornerback Brian Poole, far and away their best player in the secondary this year, sustained a shoulder injury and has been placed on IR. With the high-flying Chargers offense next on the schedule, the injury could not have come at a worse time, and Justin Herbert, Keenan Allen, and Mike Williams have to be absolutely juiced for this matchup, as even with Poole in the lineup the Jets have been terrible against the pass, allowing more passing yards and registering fewer sacks than every AFC team but Jacksonville. And the offense, believe it or not, has been even worse– the Jets rank dead-last in the NFL in both yards per game and points scored. This profiles as a prime “get well” spot for an L.A. team that ranks 3rd in the league in total offense and will finally have its best defensive players– pass-rushing beasts Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa– healthy and on the field together again. It’s been a frustrating season for the Chargers, one filled with close losses, and now they have an opportunity to take out some frustration on a helpless opponent. They will cover with ease.