NFL WEEK 12: All that’s left of the Thanksgiving turkey now are a few cold sandwiches, but a Week 12 Sunday featuring several intriguing matchups is as good a way as any to wrap up a long holiday weekend here in the States.
Thursday’s three games provided some clarity in the NFC playoff race: the Bears solidified their position atop the NFC North and all but eliminated Detroit from the Wild Card race with their 23-16 win; Dallas beat Washington, plunging the NFC East into chaos (the Cowboys and Redskins are both 6-5, while the Eagles are just a game back in the loss column and the Giants, incredibly, are still alive at 3-7); and the Saints continued their march to a division title and a first-round postseason bye with their 31-17 win over Atlanta, an outcome that put the Falcons playoff hopes on life support.
In the AFC, the race for the final Wild Card spot is wide open– five teams are tied at 5-5 and the Browns and Broncos are still alive with 6 losses… and only one of those seven teams will get in, assuming no dramatic meltdowns from the Chargers, Chiefs, Steelers, Texans, or Patriots. Two of those 5-5 teams– the Colts and Dolphins– will meet on Sunday, while the Browns/Bengals and Steelers/Broncos games are also critical for both teams involved.
Here are a few picks for what promises to be another wild NFL Sunday:
Cleveland Browns @ Cincinnati Bengals (Cin -2.5, 46.5)
Recommendation: Cleveland +2.5 at 1.92
Backing the Browns has not been a profitable venture over the past few seasons, and when the plug was pulled on the Hue Jackson era three weeks ago, there was a pronounced “here we go again” feeling amongst… well, pretty much anybody who follows the NFL, I would think. But defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has taken over and steadied the ship, and after a double-digit win over Atlanta in their last game followed by a bye, the Browns feel like a team that’s trending in the right direction.
New offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens has simplified things for rookie QB Baker Mayfield, scaling back some complexities in the passing attack and relying more on the 1/2-read, quick passing game mostly consisting of slants and quick outs. The results have been promising: against Atlanta, Mayfield completed 17 of his 20 passes for 216 yards and a career-high 3 touchdowns. He’s been helped immensely by fellow rookie Nick Chubb, who exploded for 176 yards on 20 carries against the Falcons and is now averaging an eye-popping 6.2 yards per carry on the season. This week Chubb will face a Bengals defense that ranks last in the NFL against the run, surrendering 153.6 yards per game (!!) and 5.0 yards per carry, so he’s a good bet to run wild once again. The Bengals are crumbling: they’ve lost 4 of 5, their offense has produced 21 points or fewer in each of their losses, and the defense is absolutely dreadful, ranking next-to-last in the NFL in yards allowed and surrendering 36.4 ppg over the team’s past five contests. Cleveland is the right side here.
Seattle Seahawks @ Carolina Panthers (Car -3.5, 47)
Recommendation: Seattle +3.5 at 1.86
This is the type of late-season game we all want to see: two teams in the thick of the playoff race who badly need a victory, led by Pro Bowl quarterbacks and tough, physical defenses. The Panthers should be especially desperate after dropping back-to-back games to put their season in jeopardy, but this is a tough matchup for them– Pete Carroll’s Seahawks have always had great success against Ron Rivera’s Panthers, going 5-2 over the last seven meetings, and the reason, I believe, is that the Seahawks are able to beat the Panthers at their own game. Both teams have had quality defenses and run-first offenses led by mobile quarterbacks ever since the two coaches in question took charge, but Seattle has generally been a slightly better version of Carolina.
After a couple of early-season losses Carroll doubled-down on his team’s identity, re-committing to the running game and tightening things up on defense, especially in the secondary. The ‘Hawks are 5-3 in their past 8 games, with the only losses coming to the Rams (twice) and Chargers, two of the NFL’s best teams, and they lead the NFL in rushing by a wide margin, averaging over 154 yards per game on the ground and nearly 5 yards per carry. The Carolina defense, meanwhile, has been more vulnerable than usual against the run this season, surrendering 4.3 yards per carry and really struggling against teams that have been committed to running the ball. Those teams are few and far between in today’s NFL, but Seattle is the archetype, so this will be a real challenge for the Carolina D. If the Seahawks are able to have success on the ground, which I think is likely, they should be able to control time of possession, shorten the game, and grind it into the 4th quarter. It’s worth remembering that the ‘Hawks play lots of close game– they’ve already been involved in four games this season that have been decided by 3 points or fewer– so the 3.5-point number is significant here. Gimme those points and I feel very comfortable with the visitors.
Miami Dolphins @ Indianapolis Colts (Ind -8.5, 51.5)
Recommendation: Miami +8.5 at 1.88
After being left for dead six weeks into the season, the Colts have come roaring back to life, winning four straight games to vault into the thick of the AFC playoff race. Andrew Luck is looking healthy and confident again, the defense has improved, and first-year coach Frank Reich is quietly building a reputation as one of the NFL’s sharpest offensive minds. But as public confidence in Indianapolis builds and the lines climb higher and higher– this being the first week all season that the Colts have been favored by more than 7– it’s worth examining the recent hot streak and considering whether it’s sustainable.
Undeniably, the schedule has been friendly over the past month– none of Indianapolis’s four recent wins have come against teams that currently have a winning record, and if you remove last week’s victory over the Titans, the other three have come against teams with a combined record of 8-22. The Dolphins, for all their faults, are much better than the likes of Oakland and Buffalo, and this week they get starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill back after a 5-game injury-related absence. Adam Gase’s offense has been much more effective with Tannehill at the helm, and the Colts have been shaky in the secondary all season, ranking near the bottom of the league in both total pass yards allowed and yards per attempt. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Miami put up 27-30 points here, and if that happens it’s going to be difficult for the Colts to cover an 8.5-point number. Plus, the Dolphins are coming off a bye, and this game has a “circle the wagons” feel to it for them– they’ve dropped 3 of 4 but are still in the thick of things at 5-5, their starting quarterback is returning, and they’re as rested and heathy as they’re going to be for the rest of the season. I think they have a legitimate shot at pulling off the upset, and I feel very good about backing them as an 8.5-point ‘dog.
Arizona Cardinals @ Los Angeles Chargers (LA -12.5, 44)
Recommendation: Los Angeles -12.5 at 1.89
The Chargers burned me last week, failing to cover as a 7-point home favorite against Denver despite holding a 19-7 lead midway through the third quarter. They actually ended up losing the game 23-22, and the players were rightfully disgusted afterwards, with star receiver Keenan Allen pointing out that L.A. had “dominated the game” and saying of the Broncos, “they suck”. Well, if that’s the way Allen feels about Denver, I wonder what he thinks about this week’s opponent, the Arizona Cardinals, who have a pretty sound claim as the worst team in the entire NFL after losing to Oakland last week to fall to 2-8 on the season.
I mean… where do you even begin with this Arizona team? They start a rookie quarterback and they rank last in the NFL in total offense, producing just 240 yards and 14.5 points per game; their defense has allowed more rushing yards (141.5 ypg) than all but three teams leaguewide and has surrendered 105 combined points in the team’s four road games, and first-year coach Steve Wilks has shown so signs of being able to right the ship. Five of Arizona’s eight losses have come by double-digits, and they’ve lost to the two AFC West opponents that they’ve faced this season by 47 combined points. Now they get a shot at another AFC West team, and there’s no reason to believe that the outcome here will be any different. Prior to last week the Chargers had won six straight games, and they should be plenty motivated to get things right after inexcusably letting a double-digit second-half lead slip away against Denver. If you’re worried about the big number here, you should keep in mind that the Chargers have already notched four double-digit wins this season, while Arizona has absorbed five double-digit losses. This will be a “name the score” type of game for the Bolts.