NFL WEEK 12: With only five weeks remaining in the regular season, it’s time to get serious about playoff races. The AFC looks fairly straightforward, with New England and Baltimore in great position to win their respective divisions and Kansas City still the odds-on favorite to win the West. The South is a bit of a mess, but none of the four teams look like true Super Bowl contenders, and the collection of Wild Card hopefuls– Buffalo (7-3), Pittsburgh (5-5), Oakland (6-4), Cleveland (4-6), and all four teams in the South– are likewise uninspiring. Though I certainly wouldn’t sleep on Patrick Mahomes, a Patriots/Ravens AFC title game seems to be where all this is headed.
The NFC, meanwhile, is wide open and highly competitive. San Francisco has the best record in the conference at 9-1, but do they have a Super Bowl-caliber offense? Would you have much confidence in Jimmy Garoppolo in a winner-take-all game against, say, Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers? Wilson is probably the frontrunner for league MVP and his Seahawks sit just a game back of the Niners in the West, with the L.A. Rams also lurking at 6-4. Green Bay (8-2) and Minnesota (8-3) are battling it out in the North, with both looking like legitimate contenders, Dallas (6-4) holds a one-game lead over Philly (5-5) in the East, and the Saints, sitting atop the South at 8-2, might be better than them all. Wild Card berths are going to be hotly contested in the NFC, and at least one good team– a team like the Vikings, Rams, or Seahawks– is going to be left out in the cold.
As the season is heating up, we’ve been cooling off, unfortunately, and last week was especially bad, as we won just one of our four bets, and lost a couple by a wide margin (still wincing at that Hou/Bal game…). But there’s plenty of time left to turn things around and start stacking up the cash, and for what it’s worth I have a good feeling about this week’s slate. Here’s what I’m thinking:
Seattle Seahawks @ Philadelphia Eagles (PHI -1, 48)
Recommendation: Philadelphia moneyline at 1.93
The Seahawks have been a popular bet at sportsbooks around the world this week, with nearly 80% of public money being wagered on their side according to places that report such things. This is certainly understandable when you consider the big picture– Seattle is 8-2 and has the MVP frontrunner under center, while the Eagles are 5-5 and struggling to keep their head above water as they deal with some key injuries on offense. Quietly, though, Philly seems to have found something, particularly on defense, as they’ve held three consecutive opponents to 17 points or fewer. The d-line has been dominant and should enjoy a clear advantage in this game against a Seattle o-line that can be exploited, particularly on the interior. Fletcher Cox is going to be a problem for the ‘Hawks.
On the other side of the ball, the Seahawks have serious issues, though they’ve been mostly glossed over due to Russell Wilson dragging the team to win after win. But the Legion of Boom is long gone, and this Seattle defense is one of the most generous in the league, allowing opponents to move up and down the field on a weekly basis. They’re especially bad in the secondary, surrendering more passing yards than all but three teams leaguewide, so this is a great “get right” opportunity for Carson Wentz after back-to-back tough matchups with Chicago and New England. The return of Alshon Jeffery, who is officially listed as questionable for this game, would certainly help, but even if he can’t return and Zach Ertz remains the top option in the passing game, I expect the Eagles to have considerable success through the air in this one. And that’s not a real bold statement considering nearly everyone has great success agains the Seattle secondary. Betting against Wilson is never fun, as he’s a tremendous competitor, but Philly has the superior defense, home field advantage (an early 1pm start for a West Coast team), and a very capable quarterback of their own. The Eagles feel like the right side here.
Miami Dolphins @ Cleveland Browns (CLE -11, 45.5)
Recommendation: Cleveland -11 at 2.0
Let me say this: I’ve had more faith in Miami this season than most. A team that was accused of “tanking” before the season even started and appeared to be historically bad after getting blown out in their first three games, the Dolphins have steadily improved over the past couple of months, which is a credit to coach Brian Flores. I think I’ve backed them four times this season, which assuredly is more than most, and they treated me okay before failing to cover against Buffalo last week. Also, I’ve long been a Ryan Fitzpatrick believer, and I think DeVante Parker is one of the league’s more underrated receivers. The point I’m trying to make is this: I respect the Dolphins and have monitored them fairly closely all year.
All that being said, this game should be an absolute blowout. The Cleveland offense has had trouble finding its rhythm all season, mostly due the the shortcomings of the o-line, but after facing a succession of good defenses (NE, Den, Buf, Pit), Baker Mayfield & Co. finally get a chance to pad the stats against one of the league’s worst stop units. The Dolphins are thoroughly inept on the defensive side of the ball, ranking 29th in total yards allowed, 31st (next to last) in rushing yards allowed, and 31st in points allowed, surrendering 30.5 ppg. The secondary “only” ranks 20th in pass yards allowed, but that’s mostly because teams have had big leads against Miami and haven’t needed to pass a whole lot. The Fins are allowing 8.1 yards per pass attempt, placing them among the worst in the league in that category, as well. The only hope here for Miami is that Fitzpatrick is able to sling it around, make some things happen, and keep pace with Mayfield and the Browns. But the Cleveland secondary is a team strength, surrendering just 216.8 pass yards per game (6th in NFL), so this is a tough matchup for Fitz and the Miami offense. There simply isn’t much to like about the Dolphins in this spot– this game will not be close.
Denver Broncos @ Buffalo Bills (BUF -4, 37.5)
Recommendation: Buffalo -4 at 2.02
Though a quality defense has kept them in a lot of games, the inability to get anything going on offense has doomed Denver’s season, and things won’t get any easier this week on the road against the stingy Buffalo defense. In many ways, these teams are mirror images of each other, with the primary difference being that the Bills have a playmaking young quarterback who they believe in, while Denver’s Brandon Allen is effectively a placeholder after the Joe Flacco experiment flamed out and rookie Drew Lock was deemed unready. Allen has been okay these past few weeks– he’s playing at least as well as Flacco was, anyway– but he simply doesn’t have the ability to carry an offense with his arm, and productivity continues to be elusive for an offense that, incredibly, has yet to top 24 points all season.
The Bills, for their part, would never be mistaken for an offensive juggernaut, and a total like 37.5 tells you a lot about how ugly the oddsmakers expect this game to be. But Josh Allen has become a genuine threat in his second year, making clear strides as a passer, and his running ability just might be Buffalo’s most potent offensive threat. Rookie running back Devin Singletary and veteran wideout John Brown have added an element of explosiveness to the offense, and the Bills are averaging 30.6 ppg over their last three victories. But, despite improvement out of the offense, this Buffalo team is 7-3 due to the stellar play of the defense, a unit that ranks third in the NFL in both yards allowed and points allowed, surrendering just 17 points per game. As a matter of fact, these Bills have allowed more than 21 points just once all season, and as mentioned the Denver offense has yet to score more than 24 points in any game, so…. you get the idea. The Broncos will struggle for first downs, much less touchdowns, and even if their defense is able to keep the Buffalo offense in check, it’s difficult to envision Brandon Allen leading them to victory in this situation. Look for the Bills to pull away in the second half of what should be an ugly, low-scoring game.
New York Giants @ Chicago Bears (CHI -6, 40.5)
Recommendation: New York +6 at 1.9
Let’s start by stating the obvious: the Chicago offense is awful. I can only imagine the frustration that Bears fans must feel watching this ineptitude game after game. It’s clear that Mitchell Trubisky isn’t the long-term (or short term, or any term) answer at quarterback– as a matter of fact, I’m not sure you could find a quarterback who has performed as poorly as Trubisky has performed this season and has come back to have a successful career. And yet, Matt Nagy has announced that Trubisky will start again this week, which probably tells you all you need to know about Nagy’s faith in veteran backup Chase Daniel.
The Giants have struggled on defense this season, ranking 25th in yards allowed and 29th in points allowed, but it’s been awhile since they’ve faced an offense as bad as what they’ll see on Sunday– you probably have to go all the way back to their Week 4 game against Washington, when they held the Redskins to 3 points in an easy victory. There have been some positive signs of late from the New York offense– they’ve scored 26 points or more in two of their past three games, and rookie quarterback Daniel Jones is coming off a 308-yard, 4 TD outing against the crosstown rival Jets. Saquon Barkley is healthy, and he was quoted in the New York papers this week predicting a breakout game. It will be tough sledding against the excellent Bears defense, but the with a confident Jones, a hungry Barkley, and a healthy and effective Golden Tate at receiver, the New York offense is as good as it’s been all season. Given the futility that we’ve seen from the Chicago offense– 262 yards (30th in NFL) and 16.9 points (28th) per game– a close, low-scoring contest seems likely. Six points feels like too many.